“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying…” (Matthew 5:1–2).
In Exodus, Moses went up on Mount Sinai and received the Law then taught the Law to God’s people. Like Moses, Jesus is presented as a second Moses who teaches the Law on the Mountain. Matthew intentionally draws a parallel between Moses as the original leader of God’s people and Jesus, the ultimate “lawgiver” and interpreter of God’s Law.
In fact, there are a number things in the Gospel of Matthew which indicate the author wanted to intentionally present Jesus as a “new Moses.” Dale Allison pointed this out in his 1993 monograph, The New Moses: A Matthean Typology and it is now quite commonplace to find this commentaries on Matthew. In fact, drawing parallels between Jesus as Moses goes back at least to the fourth century writer Eusebius in this in his Demonstration of the Gospel. McKnight has a lengthy quote from Eusebius (p. 23), but as he observes, Eusebius’s point is “the noxious fumes of supersecessionism,” the belief the Church has replaced Israel as God’s people.
Just a few examples should be sufficient here. First, when King Herod ordered the execution of children in Bethlehem Jesus and his family escape to Egypt (Matt 2:13-18), just as Moses escaped Pharaoh’s order and was adopted by the Egyptian princess. Second, Jesus passes through the water in his baptism (3:13-17) and goes into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by the devil (4:1-11). Israel passed through the waters at the Red Sea and went into the wilderness and were eventually tested for forty years. It is also significant Jesus answered the devil’s temptations with quotations Moses’s words drawn from the book of Deuteronomy. Third, in Matthew 5 Jesus “went up a mountainside” (ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος) to teach his disciples. The content of this teaching is in many ways an interpretation of the Law of Moses. In Exodus 19:3, Moses “went up to the mountain of God” (ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος τοῦ θεοῦ). Moses “goes up to the mountain” in Exodus 24:18 (when he entered into the glory of God) and 34:4 (when he received the two stone tablets from God). Finally, Scot McKnight points out Jesus’s posture is important: he is sitting down to teach the Law, just as those who teach with legal authority “sit in the seat of Moses” (Matt 23:2).
Why would Matthew use Moses as a model for Jesus in his Gospel? Most commentators want to avoid any hint of supersecessionism and anti-Semitic overtones and (correctly) observe Jesus does not replace Moses (nor does the church replace Israel), but rather Jesus fulfills the Law of Moses (McKnight 24). As we will see as we work our way through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a new way of reading the old commands, “do not kill” or “do not commit adultery.” This “new way” is really the original way, to seek the heart of God in his commands and find ways to live out God’s heart in the real world.
I would suggest Jesus is a new Moses in that he demonstrates how the disciple in the new age should understand how to apply God’s word in the new age of the Kingdom. Under the Law, it was entirely possible to do many functions of the Law perfectly, yet still miss the heart of the Law. This is what the prophets constantly condemned Israel for doing. Amos, one of the earliest writing prophets, declared that God hated Israel’s worship, the sacrifices and music was offensive to him because Israel did not practice the justice at the heart of the Law. Amos 5:11 decries abuse of the poor through taxation and 5:15 demands justice prevail in the courts.
Jesus therefore says it does no good to “not murder” if you are going to hate people in your hearts. It does no good to follow the commands on oath making if you are going to find all sorts of ways to bend the rules. As the New Moses, Jesus demands his disciples look deep beneath the surface of religious practice for the heart of God.
If this first sermon in Matthew’s Gospel is intended to recall the original covenant God made with his people, how does that change the way we read the Sermon on the Mount? Is this a “strict moral code” for following Jesus? Or is Jesus offering a pattern for thinking through how the heart of God can be applied to new and different cultural situations as his disciples move out into the world with the message of the Gospel?