Most of us have heard numerous messages on The Sermon on the Mount. Emphasis tends to be placed on the beatitudes (“Blessed are…”) and debates arise about whether it’s “blessed are the poor” or “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Jesus’ words have been picked apart, analyzed, and a number of complicated interpretations have been given. But one important factor that is often overlooked is Jesus’ audience. Who is He speaking to?
Jesus is speaking to His own disciples. And not just the chosen Twelve, but others who were following Jesus at this point in His ministry. So why is understanding the audience important? I think it’s important for three reasons. First, Jesus’ words are instructions for how His disciples should be living. They are to be the lights of the world, and their righteousness needs to be different than that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. In essence, they need to be different from the world. Second, these instructions are important for teaching the future church. These teachings carry on long after Jesus’ death and resurrection as is evident in many of the letters to the churches. Third, because these are instructions for all of Jesus’ disciples, they also apply to Christians today. With the audience established, let’s take a look at the content.
Some people want to argue that Jesus is changing the Law with His message. I disagree. I think we forget that Jesus is God. He understands the contents and purpose of the Law better than anyone. The Law is not just about rules and regulations. It’s about motive. Why was King Saul’s kingdom taken away because he offered sacrifices (1 Sam. 13)? Sacrifices were required of the Lord according to the Law, but Saul was instructed to wait for Samuel. Samuel was supposed to offer the sacrifices, but Saul was impatient. First Samuel 15 demonstrates further that the Lord delights more in obedience than sacrifice (v. 22). Saul’s motives were wrong in both 1 Sam. 13 and 15, and he paid heavy consequences for his sin. Jesus is teaching the same thing.
For example, in Matt. 5:21-24 Jesus talks about how being angry with one’s brother is the same as committing murder. One who stays angry is guilty of sin. Jesus instructs that a person who has such anger in his or her heart should not give an offering to the Lord until he or she is first reconciled to the other person. The act of giving an offering to the Lord is a good thing, but the Lord does not desire an offering given with sin in our lives. We must make things right.
Think about this for a moment. Do we consider where we are spiritually when we give an offering to God? Are we harboring anger, bitterness, malice, etc. towards another person as we drop the envelope in the offering plate? If so, are we willing to wait to give our offering until we make things right? Just think about how much more united the church would be if we actually worked out our issues with one another.
The same thing goes for the adultery teaching (Matt. 5:27-28). It’s not just the act of adultery that is sinful, but lusting after another person. In this way, the argument of “I never touched her” or “I never touched him” doesn’t carry any weight. Sin is sin. But thank the Lord for His mercy and forgiveness. As disciples there is much to live by, but we also have access to the only One who can wash away our sins.
Another important message for Jesus’ disciples is to interact with people who are of the world (Matt. 5:43-48). Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Talk to non-Christians. Jesus called out the Pharisees and teachers of the Law because they studied the Law, had access to the truth, were taught by Jesus Himself, and still rejected Him. They followed their own devices and interpretations instead of God. Some people in the world do the same thing even when the truth is presented to them, but I believe that most of the world does not know or understand the truth. That’s why we are the light. I love what Jesus prays to the Father in John 17:14-21 (NASB):
“I have given them (the disciples) Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (Bold print for emphasis)
We are supposed to be in the world. That is why we are to be salt and light. That is why we’re supposed to be different. We need to be more than separate buildings lined up on the same block, yet all too often the church looks like the world with a veneer of light.
We must shine for God’s glory! It is becoming increasingly evident that the world needs Christ. Everything that is happening in the world is like a powder keg ready to blow. It is more important than ever to ask ourselves the following: Who will we be? What will we teach? How will we live? Who will we follow? How bright is our light?
The path of a disciple is not easy, but it is always worth it for the sake of Christ.