Conduct Becoming

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

Matthew 5—7 was designated the Sermon on the Mount as early as the late 4th century AD, by Augustine in his commentary (De Sermone Domini in Monte). Jesus taught His sermon from some hill, most likely in the Galilean country, known for its elevated plateaus. Archaeological evidence of an ancient Byzantine church, dating from the late 4th century, exists on a hill in northern Israel. 

The site known as the Mount of Beatitudes is located on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, between Capernaum (significant because Jesus was based there) and the archaeological site of Gennesaret on the southern side of the Korazim Plateau. “Horns of Hattin” in lower Galilee is another suggested location for Jesus’ sermon, according to a 13th century tradition. What is noteworthy is that “Jesus saw the crowds,” for that is when He departed from them and “went up on the mountain” (Matt 5:1). He likely taught His disciples from the bottom of the hill, resulting in a natural amphitheater effect.

The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five extended discourses that Matthew included in his Gospel. The evangelist’s purpose was to portray Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah-King. Matthew 5—7 reveal the moral qualities characterizing those who belong to the kingdom of God, in addition to their rewards in that kingdom. Jesus’ instruction was intended for His disciples (vv. 1-2; cf. 7:28). He is likened to Moses, insofar as He taught the definitive explanation of the Law.

John the Baptist and Jesus proclaimed a message of repentance, because the prophesied kingdom of the Old Testament was “at hand” (Matt 3:2; 4:17). The kingdom is described as being near (in the sense of its presence throughout the earthly ministry of Jesus), yet there is nothing to communicate the arrival of it. Jesus genuinely proffered the kingdom to the nation of Israel; however, the rejection of the Messiah resulted in its postponement. The kingdom was no longer proclaimed as “at hand,” subsequent to the unpardonable sin.

With emphasis upon the kingdom, it was only natural for Matthew to include the Sermon on the Mount as the first discourse, because it was Jesus’ manifesto: His ethical instructions for disciples, which are applicable from the time of the sermon until the beginning of the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount is one of Jesus’ most popular teachings, which is evident in the fact that the Lord repeated many of the truths within it. The message is primarily addressed to disciples, in order to encourage them to live righteously in view of the coming kingdom. There is also warning of judgment for those living hypocritically or in unbelief. True disciples are exhorted to “enter through the narrow gate,” by walking the narrow way “that leads to life” (Matt 7:13-14). One of the more popular exhortations to arise from Jesus’ sermon, is for His disciples to be the “salt of the earth.”

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless … It is no longer good for anything” (Matt 5:13). Salt was important in the Ancient East because it had many uses, such as flavoring and preserving food. Through their lives and witness, God’s people can help those around them to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps 34:8a). This means to know the goodness of the Lord from personal experience and even trial. Believers help others around them to taste (experience) life fully as God intended.

Fish and meat would spoil quickly without the ability to inhibit decay. In a similar manner, those who are trusting in God restrain the decay of society by upholding the moral standards of Scripture. Jesus used the salt metaphor to imply that His disciples should positively impact the world. Through their lives and witness, God’s people can be a blessing to others and inhibit the natural decay that sin produces. Salt was also used in small doses to fertilize land. Until the mid-1900s, English farmers used salt for a greater harvest since it helped crops to grow. In a like manner to salt being cast upon a field, believers can encourage growth of what is good and produce fruit unto God.

Jesus warned against salt becoming tasteless. Sodium chloride, commonly known as salt, is a stable compound and thus cannot lose its taste. In ancient Israel, however, farmers would dig salt from marshes or a place similar, as opposed to evaporation of salt water; the result was that it was mixed with other substances. Farmers would use this more soluble compound as “salt” and pile it on their crops. Yet when rain came, it would become a residue so dilute that it was of little worth.

When those who profess to be followers of Christ are not any different from society as a whole, they cease to be useful as moral disinfectants in a decaying world. Jesus emphasized that the ability to preserve the world depends upon His followers being “salty,” resulting in a thirst for the “living water” that only He can provide. Conduct must be true to one’s calling, or one’s testimony will avail very little. Biblical proclamation is futile without the virtue arising from divine grace and self-discipline.

Into the darkness of death, ignorance, and sin came Jesus as the Light of the world. He brought the light of truth and salvation through His preaching (Matt 4:16). Jesus’ message was identical to that of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 17), which is truly the priority for everything He taught (4:17—16:20). The long-promised kingdom was legitimately proffered; however, with the rejection of the King, the teaching of Jesus would mainly prepare His disciples for His coming death, resurrection, and ascension (16:21ff.).

The Beatitudes are an exordium [introduction] to the Discourse, as they reveal the character of those who will be blessed in the kingdom. The rewards are described from eight perspectives (5:3-10). The first and last beatitudes form an inclusio and state the reason for blessedness: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus clarified the nature of the calling and ministry of His disciples, to encourage them to remain faithful to God’s purposes in difficult times. True disciples counteract worldly corruption as they reflect Jesus. God’s people not only preserve the world but also shine in it (vv. 11-16).

It was necessary to clarify the importance of true righteousness, because religious people frequently misinterpret good works and righteousness. Jesus debunked popular misconceptions of select Old Testament texts explaining righteous conduct (vv. 17-48). Matthew always used the term “righteousness” in the sense of conformity to the will of God (sanctification), and never with the meaning of imputed righteousness (justification).

Jesus explained that He did not intend to abolish the teachings of the Old Testament; rather, He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. He obeyed the Law perfectly and is the fulfillment of all the Prophets said concerning the Messiah. He also gave His authoritative approval to the Old Testament (vv. 17-20) and clarified the precise requirements of the Law (vv. 21-48). Jesus expounded the meaning of the biblical text as God intended, by comparing external righteousness with what is internal.

The righteousness of the religious leaders was ceremonial and outward, while that of God’s kingdom is more profound. Every aspect of a true believer’s life is to be characterized by righteousness that is more than mere appearance. Jesus contrasted six aspects of pharisaical righteousness (vv. 21-48) with what is surpassing and true, as opposed to mere religiosity (cf. v. 20).

The summary of Jesus’ true interpretation of the Law is “be perfect” (v. 48). “Perfect” (Gk. teleios) means what is complete or mature, and refers to conformity to God’s will (cf. 1 Pet 1:13-16). Emphasis is given to the motivation of a kingdom citizen. His or her life should be distinguished by a desire to emulate the character of the heavenly Father. Of course, no sinful person can attain perfect righteousness, yet that is the intended goal (cf. Phil 3:14).

The primary idea to gain from Jesus’ teaching is that righteousness is not merely external; rather, it arises from inner moral love and purity, which is a reflection of the heavenly Father’s perfection. Jesus also proved that everyone needs righteousness “apart from the law” (Rom 3:21-22), for it is impossible to make oneself righteous by doing good works. Never evaluate life in comparison to someone else; rather, look to the exacting standards of the Lord Jesus Christ. The life of authentic faith involves “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2a). Jesus’ followers are called to an exceedingly great standard; yet He is also the One who develops internal character, so that His followers will be salt and light to the world. Ask for diving grace and help in your life, as the “poor in spirit” are certain to receive it.

Midnight Call - 02/2023

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