Matthew Week 3

The Sermon on Discipleship: Matthew 4:18–7:29

By David Nienhuis

Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament Studies

Read this week’s Scripture: Matthew 4:18–7:29


Week 3
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This week we consider one of the most well-known portions of Scripture: the Sermon on the Mount. The influence of this masterpiece, Jesus’ first and longest sermon in Matthew’s gospel, is impossible to overstate; its powerful message has inspired and challenged Christian and non-Christian interpreters alike over the centuries.

We have a lot to cover, so hang on tight! Let’s begin our study by widening the view to catch a “big picture” glimpse of the placement of this sermon within Matthew’s gospel.

We note that there are two nearly identical statements that seem to “frame” the chapters in between (4:23; 9:35). Apparently Jesus has given himself over to a public ministry that involves teaching about the kingdom and doing miracles to provide evidence of its arrival.

When we consider the subject matter of the chapters between these two “framing” statements, we find Jesus’ sermon on discipleship (5:1–7:29, teaching), and a collection of nine miracle stories (8:1–9:34, doing). In Matthew’s gospel, teaching and doing necessarily go together. Indeed, Jesus’ primary criticism of the Jewish leadership focuses on the fact that they separate the two (23:2–3). Disciples, by contrast, are to be characterized by personal and spiritual wholeness: belief must accord with action; creed must align with deed.

Narrowing our focus, we find that the sermon itself can be divided into the following units (and note that the sermon appears to be structured in multiples of three):

  • Opening, 5:3–16, nine beatitudes plus three images of disciples (salt, light, city)
  • Part One, 5:17–48, on the Law: the “higher righteousness” followed by six examples
  • Part Two, 6:1–18, on right religious practice (three examples: alms, prayer, fasting)
  • Part Three, 6:19–7:12, on right action (three examples: money, anxiety, relationships)
  • Closing, 7:13–27, focused on warnings (three examples: two ways, two trees, two disciples)

Finally, let’s consider the sermon “set up” in 4:18–5:2. After announcing the nearness of the kingdom (4:17), Jesus calls his first followers away from being fishermen in order to become collaborators “catching” people for the kingdom (4:18–22). Great crowds come to follow him (4:23–25); he sees the crowds, heads up a mountain, and teaches them (5:1–2).

Given the many Exodus echoes present in the first four chapters of this gospel and the interpretation of the law we’re about to receive, we ought to understand Jesus’ mountaintop location accordingly: Moses went up a mountain to receive instruction from God; now Jesus, “God with us,” is going up another mountain to dispense God’s instruction once again.

The Opening of the Sermon: 5:3–16

Note the care with which the opening of the sermon is constructed. The nine beatitudes are presented in three groups. The first four (5:3–6) include precisely 36 words in the Greek (3 x 12, the number for Israel), with each beatitude describing someone suffering in some way. The second four (5:7–10) also include exactly 36 words and describe attitudes and behaviors that might lead to the aforementioned struggles. Significantly, the final beatitude in each of these two sets of four ends with the word “righteousness” (5:6; 10), as though righteousness is the end to which all these point.

The final summary beatitude (5:11–12) addresses the hearer directly (“blessed are you”), underscores the reality of suffering in the life of the disciple, and introduces the notion of “heavenly reward,” which will orient the entire sermon. Taken as a whole, the structure communicates that righteousness involves seeking future heavenly reward, not immediate worldly reward.

This shift — from present to future — accounts for why Jesus begins with beatitudes. Beatitudes were common in the ancient Greco-Roman world as a kind of congratulations for persons of excellent behavior or good fortune. Ancient Jews also offered beatitudes to people, but for them the “blessed” were those whose righteousness demonstrated their devotion to God (e.g., Psalm 1).

After the exile, when God’s people lost their nation and lived under occupation by foreign cultures, the focus of beatitudes shifted from present realities to future hopes. In this period, some betrayed their faith by collaborating with the unrighteous culture in order to be “blessed” with external rewards. Those who did not accommodate had no option but to look to God for their well-being. The beatitudes from this period reflect this shift: rather than focus on those whose external circumstances of life made them appear “blessed,” these beatitudes celebrate the kind of life one ought to live now in order to receive congratulations from God in heaven.

Likewise, Jesus’ beatitudes proclaim congratulations on those who orient their lives now according to the norms of God’s coming kingdom. In a world of cruelty, corruption, and war, they live by mercy, purity, and peacemaking (5:7–9). As citizens of God’s new covenant community, they reject worldly life strategies that produce immediate “blessings,” so they end up poor in spirit, meek, and mournful. Such people are blessed, Jesus says, because they will receive something better in the future.

More than that, they are blessed because they function as this-world signposts directing others to the kingdom: they are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city built on a hill for everyone to see (5:13–15). Jesus insists that outsiders who witness the distinctive life of this kingdom-community will give glory to God (5:16). This, apparently, is one of the ways Jesus intends to catch human fish for the kingdom.

The First Part of the Sermon — The Law: 5:17–48

From here the sermon breaks down into three major sections, all of which seek to describe the habits of God’s future-oriented kingdom community. Part One is focused on clarifying the relationship between Jesus’ teaching and that which had been heard previously by God’s people.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” Jesus says; “I have not come to abolish but to fulfill” (5:17). What does Jesus mean by “fulfill”? Given what follows in verses 18–20 (compare 19:16–19 and 23:2–3), it cannot mean that he has come to “complete” the law so that his followers won’t have to. No, Jesus intends to “make full” God’s word to Israel. As Israel’s Messiah, Jesus is the fulfillment of the hope of salvation to which the Old Testament points.

This fulfillment of history in Jesus does not invalidate what God spoke before. Jesus wants his disciples to know that their understanding of what God previously said takes on new light when heard in relation to what God is saying now through him. Jesus is Moses’ superior and must be received as such, but he is not opposed to Moses; likewise the gospel is not opposed to the Law, and the New Testament is not opposed to the Old. The whole Scripture must be understood as a developing story that reaches a climax in the life and work of Jesus.

The “higher righteousness” that Jesus teaches, illustrated in the examples of 5:21–48, calls his followers to practice a life of godliness that reaches far deeper than what is taught by the Jewish leadership (5:20). They apparently focused on external compliance to the law (e.g., do not murder), but Jesus insists that the heart of the ethical matter be addressed as well.

Again, Jesus’ disciples are to be characterized by wholeness: not only will they not murder, but they will also reject hate. This teaching “makes full” what God had said previously to Israel, that they must worship God with their whole heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:4–6), circumcising not just the body but also the heart (Deuteronomy 10:12–22). Here’s the key: Jesus is teaching the internal basis on which the outward practice of law-observance rests.

Though the last two examples have been controversial, their meaning is straightforward. Where the law promoted justice by restraining vengeance (e.g., Exodus 21:23–25; Leviticus 24:17–22), Jesus goes to the heart and insists that his followers reject retaliation altogether. Where the law called God’s people to practice generous love toward their neighbors (Leviticus 19:13–18) and even strangers (Leviticus 19:33–34), Jesus drives the law to its full implication by demanding love be extended to everyone, including even enemies. We are to “destroy” our enemies not by killing them, but by turning them into friends.

Again, Jesus’ disciples are to be signposts of God’s kingdom, living lives that embody God’s reconciling will for the world. What good is a signpost to heaven that simply points back to the world? The world demands retaliatory justice and hates enemies; the world thinks and acts in terms of its immediate perception of reality and not on the revelation of God’s future hope. Jesus’ followers must act differently. In fact, they must be “perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The use of this term should not cause us to fret: the Greek word means “whole” or “complete.” Unlike the Pharisees, disciples must be wholly holy, both inwardly and outwardly. Unlike the world, disciples must seek a more complete view of history, thinking and acting now according to the knowledge of what God intends for the future.

The Second Part of the Sermon — Right Religious Practice: 6:1–18

The “wholeness” logic continues in Chapter 6 to address right worship of God. The opening verse establishes the foundation: showy religious practice focused on a “this world” reward of respect from others will not result in future reward from God (6:1). Believers must practice generosity without thought of personal gain (6:2–4). They must pray without seeking to impress others with their catchy phrasing (6:5–8). They must fast without making themselves look like spiritual superheroes (6:16–18). They do all this because they know that God sees what is inside, what is “in secret” (6:4, 6, 18).

This is not a call to avoid being Christian in public: the term “hypocrite” is instructive, meaning “actor” in Greek. Jesus is drawing attention to the tendency among religious folks to act godly in a way that masks the sin within them. Instead, disciples must be “perfect” in their wholeness, worshipping God outwardly in a manner that reflects the truth of the inward self.

In the midst of this teaching we receive Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer [see Author’s Note 1]. As usual, much can be said, but I’ll keep myself to two points. First, this model prayer is provided in contrast to the “empty phrases” and “many words” that a worldly mindset encourages, thinking that the right prayer technique will persuade God. No, God knows who we are and what we need (6:8), so prayer should reflect this by being honest, unadorned, and of few words.

Second, note how the prayer drives the gospel themes forward. In it we pray that God’s will, which is fully accomplished in the kingdom, will be fulfilled now in our daily lives (6:10). God provides for our needs, including our need for forgiveness (6:11–12), but believers focused on perfection know that it would be incomplete to seek forgiveness for ourselves while denying forgiveness to others (6:12, 14–15). Clearly, kingdom religiousness is far more radical than the conventional Christianity that has recited this prayer through the centuries.

The Third Part of the Sermon — Right Action: 6:19–7:12

The third section focuses on right action, using money (6:19–24), worry (6:25–34), and relationships (7:1–12) as examples. The point is the same across the three: loyalty to God’s kingdom requires disciples to leave worldly concerns behind.

Money deserves first mention, as it stands at the forefront of such worries. First, Jesus insists we avoid amassing money on earth at all, for doing so results in a heart focused on the wrong treasure (6:19–21). To avoid this, the second point calls us to give money away to those who need it (5:42 and 19:16–22).

Appealing to the ancient notion of eyes as a window into the heart, Jesus says, “If your eye is haplous, your whole body will be full of light.” Haplous means “simple” and is often translated “generous” (e.g., Romans 12:8; 2 Corinthians 8:2; James 1:5). The contrast is an eye that is “evil,” a euphemism for “stingy” (e.g., Deuteronomy 15:7–9; Proverbs 28:22). The point is this: if you aren’t generous, your heart-treasure is revealed to be money; such disciples are like slaves trying to serve masters with different agendas (Matthew 6:24). God and money demand opposing things, and Jesus’ call demands we choose our taskmaster.

This direct challenge to our financial security is followed up by comforting words for the disciple who struggles to trust God instead of money (6:24–34). Worry certainly can’t provide for our needs (6:27)! Worse, such concern will keep the disciple from fulfilling the call to live as a signpost of heaven. Jesus’ advice is for the disciple to stay on task (6:33) and trust in God’s providential care.

The final section (7:1–12) brings together a group of sayings focused on discernment in relationships. What we heard about forgiveness is underscored in 7:1–2: one cannot expect mercy from God while denying mercy to others (this is Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees in 9:10–13 and 12:1–8).

But that doesn’t mean disciples should avoid correcting each other, as 7:3–5 makes clear: the first task is self-discipline; only then will the disciple be able to offer help to comrades. The verse that follows (7:6) is found only in Matthew, and its meaning appears unclear at first. If we read it in conjunction with what has just been said, it seems to limit the circle of those with whom disciples are to engage in mutual correction. “Pigs” and “dogs” were abusive terms for non-Jews, so perhaps Jesus wants us to avoid offering Christian correction to those who aren’t followers. Such advice will be ignored (“trampled under foot”) and may result in hostility (“turn and maul you”).

The next section (7:7–11) applies the topic of discernment in our relationship with God. Since God’s providential care covers all things, the disciple can be assured that God will answer prayer and provide what is truly needed. Finally, the major sections of the sermon are drawn to a close at 7:12, a saying intended to function as a reliable summary of all the directions given to the disciple in this sermon (compare Galatians 5:14).

The Closing of the Sermon — The Two Ways: 7:13–27

The challenge of the sermon is intensified in its conclusion, which presses the claim that there are ultimately only two choices in life: seek God’s kingdom, or live as a citizen of the world. Indeed, the whole sermon trades in a “two ways” approach familiar to readers of the Old Testament (e.g., Deuteronomy 30:19–20; Jeremiah 21:8). We have heard about two types of righteousness (Matthew 5:17–48), two types of religiousness (6:1–18), and two masters (6:19–34); now the conclusion characterizes the whole sermon as a contrast between the easy road of this world that leads to destruction and the difficult road that leads to God’s kingdom (7:13–14).

The summary statement of 7:12 uses the word “do” twice: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” These concluding verses repeat that Greek verb (poieō, “do” or “make”) nine times in order to make absolutely clear the point that was raised at the beginning of this week’s study: words must agree with actions; creed must align with deed. The tree that makes good fruit is contrasted with the tree that makes bad fruit (7:15–20). Disciples who do not do the will of God may claim to know the Lord, but on judgment day that Lord will confess that he does not know them because they were evildoers (7:21–23). Those who hear Jesus’ words and fail to do them will build a dwelling place that isn’t able to withstand the storms of life that demolish discipleship (7:24–27).

What Now?

No wonder Jesus’ first hearers were “astounded” (7:28)! Clearly, the sermon on discipleship sets an incredibly high standard for followers. How should it be received? When I read it, I am struck by two things. First, the bar is set far higher than I am able to jump. Who among us can claim to meet the standard just described?

But, second, I can’t escape the clear sense that Jesus expects me to jump anyway. There is no escape route in the content of this sermon that will allow me to argue that Jesus doesn’t intend followers to actually follow his teaching. These two facts can be interpreted in different ways depending on one’s view of God.

If I view God as a stern sovereign who demands flawless obedience, I will probably conclude either that God is an unjust tyrant for demanding performance of something of which I am incapable, or that the sermon’s intention is not to teach me how to obey, but to teach, ironically, that obedience is impossible, that I can never meet God’s standard and must therefore avoid trying to be righteous at all. This approach has more than a few advocates, and who can blame them? Life in this world is certainly easier if we argue that holiness is impossible.

If, however, I view God as a father who knows me and my needs better than I do (6:1–8), a God who does not want me to worry (6:25–34), a God whose eye is on the mournful, the meek, the poor, and the persecuted (5:3–12), a God who wants to provide good things generously (7:7–11), a God who surrounds me with comrades on the journey (4:18–22), a God who wants my whole life to be ruled by love (5:43–47) — if God really is all these things, then I have to hear this call to radical obedience as the call of a gracious, merciful parent seeking to train me in the way that leads to life and salvation.

As a baby I could not walk, but with my parent’s helping hands I learned to stumble along, and then to walk, and eventually to run. So also, it seems to me that this sermon must be received as a gift of grace, a helping hand to direct and sustain faltering children who want to grow up in faith and follow Jesus on the narrow road that leads to life. “So do not worry,” Jesus says to us: repent, follow me — and get ready to jump. God will take care of the rest.

Questions for Further Reflection:

  1. Describe your prior attitudes and assumptions, if any, about the Sermon on the Mount. Have these attitudes and assumptions been challenged through your present reading? If so, how? What “new knowledge” have you received about Christian discipleship?
  2. How do you respond to the rigor of this sermon? How would you compare or contrast your own pursuit of God’s kingdom to this text? What emotional response does Jesus’ teaching evoke within you?
  3. What “rewards” orient your life? What commitments inform your decision-making and shape your values?
  4. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus insists that we strive to be whole, with creed, deed, and heart fully aligned. Knowing this, in what ways might your life need to be realigned?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Some of you will note that the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew does not correspond exactly with the prayer Christians typically recite today. Luke’s version (11:2–4) is even more brief. In fact this prayer appears to have gone through several stages of development. Some scholars believe Luke’s version represents the earliest form, with Matthew’s reflecting later liturgical expansion. An even later version is found in an early second-century book called The Didache, an early church “teaching” manual that is in some respects closely related to Matthew’s gospel. Its version (found in chapter 8, paragraph 2) is even closer to the one we pray today.


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