What is the Sermon on the Mount about? And more basically, what is the Sermon on the Mount? Is it a newer, more stringent law for Christ’s disciples? Is it an ideal which drives disciples to seek mercy? How should we understand it?
Many answers have been given, but I believe the best understanding of Jesus’s Sermon in Matthew 5–7 is that it is an exposition of the new covenant. Rather than a new law that exceeds that of the old covenant, I would propose that it is the eschatological word of Christ which fulfills the Law and the Prophets. And in what follows I want to outline seven reasons for that view.
Seven Evidences the Sermon on the Mount is an Exposition of the New Covenant
For sake of space, I am not going to expound every point with exhaustive detail. Rather, I will trust that the points are somewhat familiar and that stringing them together has the cumulative effect of proving the Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount is an exposition of the way Jesus expects his kingdom disciples to walk according to the new covenant he is bringing.
1. Matthew’s Whole Gospel
From beginning to end, Matthew’s Gospel is focused on the new covenant. The first place we see this explicitly is in Matthew 2:17, where Matthew quotes from Jeremiah 31, the chapter where the “new covenant” is explicitly mentioned. Then, on the other end of the Gospel, Matthew again highlights the new covenant when Jesus transforms the old covenant Passover into his own Supper (see Matthew 26:26–29).
On the new covenant focus in Matthew’s Gospel, Charles Quarles writes in his Sermon on the Mount,
The allusion to the promise of the new covenant at both the beginning and end of Jesus’ life signals that He will bring about fulfillment of the new covenant. The Sermon on the Mount describes the law written on the believers’ heart in fulfillment of the new covenant. The Sermon on the Mount describes the righteousness that will naturally and spontaneously characterize the lives of His followers. (32–33)
From this framework, we have reason to see Jesus’s words reflect new covenant priorities and explanations.
2. Jesus as a New Moses
With allusions to Exodus 19:3 and Deuteronomy 9:9 and 33:29, Matthew 5:1–3 presents Jesus as a New Moses. And just like Moses led the nation of Israel out of Egypt and into a covenant with Yahweh, so Jesus comes leading a New Exodus. In Luke’s Gospel this is made explicit (Luke 9:31). In Matthew’s Gospel this is also forefronted, only the focus takes on a more instructive tone.
First, Matthew sets up the book according to five discourses of Jesus (chs. 5–7, 10, 13, 18, 23–25). In these five speeches, Jesus speaks with heavenly authority (7:28–29), just as Moses did. And in the Sermon on the Mount, the first discourse, he lays out a program for the way he fulfills the old covenant (5:17–20). Indeed, by interpreting the law covenant with the Prophets (see vv. 17–18) Jesus proves himself a true prophet, who has come not to destroy the law but to fulfill it and filter it through his own work.
3. Eight Beatitudes
In Scripture, eight is the number of circumcision, eternal rest, and new creation ( A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation, 29). And this may or may not have anything to do with the number of Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3–10. But if it does, it is very conceivable that the tightly structured list of Beatitudes is meant to communicate the blessedness of the new creation. (Although I haven’t seen this argued anywhere, Bruce Forsee suggested it to me).
Indeed, Matthew begins his book with a genealogy that harkens back to Genesis—“In the book of the generations . . . (1:1). Then, Jesus is presented bringing good news of the kingdom, which also has new creation implications (4:17, 23–25). Later, he will announce the arrival of the “regeneration” in Matthew 19:28, and thus as Jesus fishes for his covenant disciples (4:18–23), it makes sense that the number of Beatitudes is intentional. He is restoring the kingdom of God by bringing a new creation. And if this is so, it adds weight to seeing the Sermon as an exposition of the new creation, which is associated with the new covenant (cf. Jer 31:31–34 and 31:35–37).
4. Salt and Light
As William Dumbrell (“The Logic of the Role of the Law in Matthew V 1–20″) and Don Garlington (“‘The Salt of the Earth’ in Covenantal Perspective”) have argued persuasively, “salt” is as reference to the covenant (cf. Lev 2:13; Num 18:19; cf. Neh 4:14 NASB). For instance, this is how Garlington concludes his thorough research:
This study has argued that the “the salt of the earth,” as predicated of Jesus’ disciples, should be understood within a covenantal framework. Like any word of theological significance, salt is a covenant term, meaning that its covenantal association is not merely a nuance; it is the determining component of interpretation. In advancing the argument, the underlying assumptions were threefold: the unity of Scripture, the validity of biblical theology, and the factor of intertextuality. After an exegesis of the relevant OT texts, conclusions were drawn respecting their bearing on Matt 5:13 and parallels. These boiled down to four.
- As “salt,” the disciples exhibit covenant fidelity and so preserve the continuance of the covenant. This category includes the probability that Jesus’ followers are conceived of as sacrifices in their own persons.
- By virtue of their identification as salt, the disciples share in covenant fellowship, including that of the table, and thus form a society in communion with the covenant Lord.
- The disciples impart purity to the creation, thereby causing it to be better than before—a new creation.
- There is the punitive function of salt. If the world rejects the message of the disciples, their witness to the blessings of salvation turns into a condemnation of it.
Apart from these four basic applications of salt to the passages in question, in Matt 5:13 and Col 4:6 salt takes on hues of wisdom, due to contextual considerations. When Scripture itself is allowed to be the determining hermeneutical factor, a consistent picture emerges: Jesus’ genuine followers are covenant keepers; it is they who extend the bond with their Lord beyond themselves to the world. It is in so being and doing that they are the instruments of the lifting of the curse on the world and of its eschatological redemption and perfection. Their presence in the age to come will ensure the everlasting purity of the earth and the entire cosmos. Yet there is an ominous word of warning directed at would-be disciples: if they prove false, they will incur the curse of the salt that is thrown out and trampled underfoot. (748, emphasis and enumeration mine)
Therefore, when Jesus says that his disciples are the “salt of the earth,” he stresses the covenantal nature of his relationship with his people. And he also stresses the wider scope of his new covenant—his new covenant disciples will arise from Israel and all the nations (cf. Matthew 28:18–20).
At the same time, light is also a covenantal concept. This fact is best seen in a passage like Isaiah 42:6 and 49:5–8.
I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations,
And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” Thus says the Lord: “In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages.
From Jesus words about salt and light at the opening of his Sermon, he is helping us to see what he is about to say.
5. Law or the Prophets
Next, the covenantal nature of Jesus Sermon is seen in the explicit way he treats the Law and the Prophets. First, in speaking about them, he differentiates the Law and Prophets with the word “or”: I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them . . . (v. 17).
In this verse, he does not use speak of the Law and the Prophets as shorthand for the whole Old Testament (cf. Matt 7:12). Rather, as William Dumbrell observes, “It seems therefore best to take the particular ή [or] of v. 17 as disjunctive and to assume that in the phrase ‘law or prophets’ Jesus is referring to law interpreted on its widest levels, i.e. his ministry will sustain the law not only as it was given in its essence but as it was prophetically interpreted” (17). In other words, Jesus as the true prophet, interprets the Law in keeping with the Prophets.
At the same time, when Jesus speaks of the law again in verse 18 and not the prophets, its clear he is describing the law-covenant. Therefore, we can read that Jesus, just as the prophets foretold, was going to fulfill all that was in the Law of Moses.
And what was in the Law of Moses? Many things, but one thing in particular is the promise of a new covenant. In Deuteronomy 30, as Moses closed his prophetic ministry, he foretold the coming of a time when God would circumcise the heart. In other words, Deuteronomy 30:6 identifies the forthcoming new covenant. Thus, the new covenant is not a creation of the Prophets; it was a promise that goes back to Moses.
Jesus, therefore, in reading the Law with or through the Prophets, explains how his teaching is fulfilling the words of Moses. He has not come to teach a new law, but to write the law on the hearts of his disciples. Hence, all that he says is in keeping with Moses words, only now it comes with the power that Jesus brings in his new covenant.
6. Greater Righteousness
Jesus’s greater covenant is also seen in his words in Matthew 5:20: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In this programmatic statement, Jesus describes a kind of righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the law-keepers. And what kind of righteousness is this?
Clearly, it is not a righteousness that comes by the Law. Rather, it is the righteousness that will come with the new covenant. As Jesus writes the law on the hearts of his people, he will produce in them a love for the law that the nation of Israel never experienced corporately.
By analogy, we might say that Matthew 5:20 runs parallel to Jesus statement to Nicodemus in John 3. Just as no man will see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (John 3:8), so no one will enter the kingdom unless they possess the righteousness granted in the new covenant. But thankfully, this is what Jesus has come to bring in the new covenant he would inaugurate with his own blood (cf. Matt 26:26–29).
7. Ancients vs. You
Finally, we see an eschatological distinction between the old covenant and the new in Jesus exposition of the Law in Matthew 5:21–48. In six expositions of the Law, Jesus sets up a repeated pattern: “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you.”
However, in the first and fourth exposition (vv. 21, 33), he says something unique.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’
In both verses, he distinguishes his disciples with “those of old.” Who are these people? Charles Quarles helpfully explains.
Another contrast is equally important for understanding the antitheses. Jesus contrasted the recipients of the law, “It was said to our ancestors,” with His disciples, “I tell you.” The Greek word translated “ancestors” (archaios) literally means “people of ancient times.” The contrast between “people of ancient times” and Jesus’ disciples emphasizes that they belong to two different eras. The contrast is reminiscent of the promise of the new covenant in Jer 31:31–34. The translation “ancestors” in the HCSB insightfully highlights the connection between the two texts: “‘Look, the days are coming’-—this is the Lord’s declaration—‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors” (vv. 31-32). (Sermon on the Mount, 107)
From this description, we see just how eschatological Jesus Sermon on the Mount is. He’s not just teaching an unchanging moral standard; he’s fulfilling all that the Law and the Prophets foretold. He’s ushering in a new era, with a new covenant, that will be the foundation of his new kingdom. And in the Sermon on the Mount, he is giving an exposition of what righteousness in his kingdom will look like.
Jesus is a New Covenant Teacher
From these seven observations, I believe the best way to see Jesus’s Sermon is that of an exposition of the new covenant he is bringing. In his life, he is neither abolishing the Law. But neither is simply returning to the ways of Moses. Rather, he is bringing something new. In his life, death, and resurrection, he will bring some parts of the law to an end—e.g., the system of sacrifices centered on Jerusalem’s temple. In other ways, he will continue to teach what Moses did, only now to disciples who love the law from the heart.
Yet, to fully appreciate all that Jesus said and did, we must rightly understand what he was saying and how he was saying it. And in the Sermon on the Mount, he gives us a clear exposition of his understanding of the law, which is now fulfilled and filtered through the new covenant he would soon be establishing.
Today, we can easily bifurcate Jesus forgiving work from his teaching work, yet that is to misunderstand all that the new covenant brings. Therefore, it is helpful to go back and see how his Sermon fits with the larger ends of his new covenant ministry, and how law and grace are perfectly conjoined in the new covenant. From there, we can rightly understand Jesus exacting words in Matthew 5–7 and apply them to our lives in Christ.
To that end, let us listen to Christ and his new covenant message of grace which empowers good works.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds