Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

The Spirit of the Law

“Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:12‑13 ESV).

— Matt Kerry

Sermon on the Mount

God wanted Israel to love Him. He wanted them to understand His purposes, the reasons for His laws, and the effect that sacrifices were supposed to have on their hearts. Instead, they viewed God’s laws as a series of traditions, and many persisted in aiming to achieve worldly success.

In the world today, success is defined by certain accomplishments, social status, wealth, or possessions. Even for those who profess to study the Bible and serve the Lord, this can be a trap. In fact, Jesus warned of its danger. His Sermon on the Mount was a call for Israel to repent, have their hearts changed, and bring the laws of God to life. Jesus made it plain that God desired that they seek holiness, and realize that they were all equal in God’s eyes.

The Beatitudes

Starting with the “Beatitudes” of Matthew chapter 5, Jesus defines a “successful” child of God by showing that what pleases God is the opposite of what the world desires. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in the spirit.” Why would God bless someone poor in spirit? “Blessed are they that mourn.” Does God wish for everyone to be sad? Of course not. But in comparing Joel 2:12‑13 (quoted at the head of this article) with Matthew 5, the meaning becomes clear. Jesus is saying that those who humbly realize they cannot trust in their own wisdom, but trust in God, will be blessed.

Those who mourn because of their sin and truly want to do God’s will, will mourn over the spiritual gap between where they are and where they should be. The words of Jesus are like a gentle breeze to those who love God. They bring both peace and spiritual comfort into the hearts of those open to his teachings. His words still flow to us today. This is where he begins to paint the picture of what life will be like in the Kingdom of God.

Find the Root

“Do not murder.” This commandment is familiar and most reasonable. However, murder is not the root of the problem, but the culmination of other issues. The problem begins with an idea, a thought, or a provoked response in one’s mind and heart. Jesus’ admonition was, “Stop the problem at its root.” If one can utilize both love and self‑control, murder will never become an issue. “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the … Valley of Hinnom” (Matthew 5:22, ESV).

Rooting out sin before it comes to fruition can also be applied to divorce. In Jesus’ time there were several ways to divorce a wife. Though permitted by God, they were rarely pleasing to Him. “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28, ESV). The problem often begins with a desire to divorce. Jesus is saying to root out the desire to even look at others with lust and choose to love your spouse as yourself. Do not even entertain the idea of separation. Self‑control should be greater than lust, and happiness is found in appreciating what and whom you have in your life, not in the search for something more.

There are other issues that also contribute to divorce. The solution often requires difficult decisions and hard work on the part of each partner. Many are not willing to make the effort and find separation to be a simpler answer. In Jesus’ day, Israel was full of people who found a way to do what they wanted to do. They manipulated the law and bent it to their reasoning. As a result, most completely missed the spirit of God’s Law.

Intentions of the Heart

Jesus rebuked the intentions of the Pharisees and asked us to question our own intentions as well. Is the desire of our hearts for God’s promotion or for self‑promotion? The world is full of those who desire to bring glory to themselves. Whether it be for political advancement, spiritual superiority, or even to comfort an inner insecurity, the Pharisees had a tendency to bring glory to themselves. They used the service of God as a self‑promoting act, vs. an act to honor Him. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2, ESV).

Spiritual maturity only comes to those who develop true humility of heart. True devotion to God avoids self‑promotion and cultivates a root‑desire to please the Lord even in secret, when actions are hidden from others. “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:17‑18).

Jesus then addresses the danger of worldly ambition. Lucifer ’s ambition was the first sin ever committed. “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14).

Ambition is a sinful characteristic that exists in our hearts. We must keep a close eye on it. The scriptures are full of warnings to those with worldly ambitions. “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:13‑15 ESV). “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth‑eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days” (James 5:1‑3 ESV).

Even after these warnings, ambition still consumes the masses. Jesus says that if we wish to serve the Lord, we must change our ambitions to spiritual ones. The desire to please God must be above all else, and we must empty our hearts of the desire for worldly rewards. If we desire worldly possessions, then any desire for selfless service to God will be impeded. It is helpful to realize that our earthly possessions can be destroyed at any moment. Imagine a life’s work gone in the blink of an eye. A stock market crash may come, a beautiful home burned down, a war that destroys both our possessions as well as the local economy. All the ambitions of the world are temporary and fleeting. Nevertheless, they are presented by the adversary to the human race as roads to happiness. Serving God and serving “mammon” 1 are two completely different paths, each contrary to the other. We cannot successfully travel on both.

(1) A Semitic word for money or possessions

If one is an elder, does he take pride in his ability to quote Br. Russell (Matthew 24:45), explain the truth better than others or captivate an audience? If so, he should strive to remove the feelings of personal accomplishment, and never revel in his talent. Instead, he should give all the glory to God. The ability to serve the Almighty God and His children should be a humbling experience, and no one can successfully serve without leaning on God for His help and guidance.

If someone is on a committee or has other opportunities to serve, it is important to realize that with every service comes a temptation to praise our own efforts. Instead, let us thank God for any ability we may have and the privilege to put it to good use. Our hearts should overflow with gratitude. Our only desire should be that our service be a blessing, and that it is honoring to God. If we take pride in serving, then our service does not honor Him. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19, ESV).

A Soothing Balm

For the world and for those who served God for the wrong reasons, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount may have been a disheartening speech. But for the lowly of heart, who realize their own failures and shortcomings, the sermon was a soothing balm to cover their pain and longing for the Kingdom of God.

We have read these words and studied them many times, and yet they take on new meaning as the years go by. Our experiences, maturity, and growing relationship with God continues to give us greater wisdom and insight each time we examine the lessons Jesus taught. His words resonate more as we develop spiritually. If we do not experience this growth, we may be in danger of what the apostle described as “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). Deeper understanding comes not from greater intellectual capacity, but from a heart more and more influenced by the spirit of holiness. It affects our thoughts, choices, and actions, and results in greater sanctification.

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33 ESV).

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