In the transfiguration on the mount (Matthew 17:5), we read of Jesus being paid a visit by Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the law and Elijah represents the prophets, the two major divisions of the Old Testament. We are not told the content of their conversation. Perhaps part of it included their names, because the disciples knew who they were. The grouping connects the three, but only Jesus remains indicating his superiority. The words of God confirm this. In a red letter Bible, we should also pick a color for the words of God. The present imperative active voice of the original Greek is: y’all keep on listening to Jesus. Bible reading is important but faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17) and hearing what Jesus taught comes by being at a church where Jesus is preached each week.
The word translated as “transfigured” (μετεμορφώθη, metemorphōthē) in Matthew 17:2 is also used in the letter to the Romans about us being “transformed” by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). It is the root of the word metamorphosis and means to change form in keeping with inner reality. We also are being “transformed” into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). So the transformation that took place on the mountain top is also occurring in each one of us gradually. As Peter, James and John saw the transfiguration a transformation was occurring in their lives. As Moses’ face shone like the sun after being close to God, so too did Jesus’ and so too will ours. A life that is close to God is a shining light in a dark world and will soon shine forever.
Jesus had thousands of listeners, over a hundred disciples, the twelve and inside the twelve, three were chosen for special training. The three were Peter, James and John (Matthew 17:1). Is this time with three key leaders a model of how pastors ought to operate? Is a pastor’s job to spend equal time with everybody or special time with key leaders? Is the whole church the pastor’s flock or a special group of disciples? Is it then up to that special group to provide for the rest of the flock? Why were the three chosen? Were they the right choice? They were as awkward as any group of ordinary people. Jesus’ little church contained twelve men and several women. It was as small as many country churches today, yet even there, he spend extra time with an inner core.
In Matthew 17:3 is a vision of Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah. The week before this, Jesus had predicted that some of his disciples would not die before having see him coming in his heavenly glory. Jesus was clearly superior to both Moses and Elijah. Both Moses and Elijah prophesied the coming of the Messiah, yet they disappeared and only Jesus was left "to carry out the final act of deliverance". The three disciples heard God's own voice telling them to listen to Jesus. The disciples had seen Jesus in his true glory, shining like the sun, a vision that would remind them of glory beyond suffering. Previously the disciples had been shocked and disappointed to find out that their Messiah must suffer and die. Just like the disciples, we too can so easily overlook Jesus' present majesty.
Some of us don’t like movies like Titanic or Romeo and Juliet. We already know the end is bad and prefer a happy ending. How many of us are similarly tempted to inquire whether a book ends well or in tragedy? Somebody once said the same thing about the Bible. They had read the end of the book and it was good. In Matthew 17:2-3 Jesus showed a few of his disciples a preview of the end of the book. He revealed the happy ending for two of history’s greatest prophets, Moses and Elijah. We may wonder about things like heaven and the afterlife. This life is not forever. Anti-aging creams only disguise the inevitable for a short while. Nothing can really return us to our youth except the resurrection. The happy ending is that glory awaits the faithful.
In Matthew 5:38 Jesus addressed a law that many have applied in retaliation, an eye for an eye. Legally, this is sometimes called the lex talionis. A vindictive understanding of that law is to trade bomb for bomb and life for life. This kind of tit for tat only escalates hostilities and hinders peace. A more amicable course is monetary compensation equal to an eye. It is certainly a less inflammatory approach to social justice than revenge. However, Jesus indicated an even better application of the the eye for an eye principle. As with all of Jesus’ teachings, this too is very hard to do. Jesus suggested that if we have been responsible for injury to another, go above and beyond in compensation. Jesus wants us to go further than mere justice. He wants us to create good will.
A slap on the cheek is a serious affront. A slap on the right cheek as Jesus suggested in Matthew 5:39 could refer to a backhanded slap from a right-handed person, an even more serious indignity. Rather than retaliating for insults, Jesus strangely asked his disciples to humiliate themselves by allowing further slaps. Even the business world understands that if we have a customer with a complaint, the best thing to do is to allow them to vent without interruption, to get it off their chest. In so doing, they have time to calm down, and having gotten a hearing, often become a more satisfied customer. If even the carnal world understands how to win people, by respectfully giving them opportunity to fully complain, then how much more should we take insults in order to win peace for Christ.
So you lost in court and now they’re going to take the shirt off your back. How can you possibly win? Paul’s commentary on this kind of thing was that perhaps we lost before we even got to court. Did we let things go too far (1 Corinthians 6:7)? Did we fail to create peace, or were we actually at fault? It does not really matter. Jesus told his disciples how to really win in heaven’s eyes — give more than was asked for — go way above the settlement price (Matthew 5:40). If someone sues us for the shirt off our backs, we are encouraged to gift wrap our coat as well and give it away to the plaintiff. Does Jesus want us to be suckers who are taken advantage of, or does living generously really work?
In some countries if a uniformed soldier is hitch-hiking on the side of the road, it is illegal to just keep going. A driver must stop and give him a ride. What if that soldier was from enemy occupation forces? Would we take offense at the imposition? Probably! In Roman occupied Palestine of Jesus’ day, there was a similar law. If a Roman soldier asked any Jew for help, they were required to come to their aid. Jesus alluded to just such a scenario in Matthew 5:41 where it was common for an enemy soldier to ask a Jew to carry arms for a distance. Jesus suggested helping out to double the amount asked. Jesus challenges us by teaching what is the exact opposite of our natural inclination. God is impartial and treats all people equally. Do we?
We have all lent something which has not been returned, whether it be a book, lawnmower or money. It makes us reluctant to lend again. Jesus encouraged his disciples to lend to the borrower (Matthew 5:42) and not turn him away. Does this mean that we are to lend until we have no money? That is a natural conclusion, which leads some to criticize Jesus. He spoke of starting with one borrower, not an unlimited number. Our natural inclination is the opposite extreme, not to lend at all or with very few exceptions for family or close friends. It is that extreme that Jesus challenged his disciples to reconsider. He challenges us also to consider lending without discrimination. Naturally, there are boundaries and limitations, but perhaps we could think about starting with at least one, like Jesus spoke about.
One of the central tenets of the Bible is love your neighbor. In Matthew 5:44 Jesus expanded the traditional understanding of neighbor to include everyone. We normally love our friends but discriminate against our foes. Jesus wants us to love even our enemies. How is that possible? How can that make any sense in a world where every generation has gone to war against one form of enemy or another? We all have personal, criminal, political and foreign enemies. Are we to love them all? We tend to follow the example of those decent folks around us who treat their friends with respect and dignity, but Jesus challenged us to live above the standard of our neighbors. We are to live by heavenly standards. Those standards are not defined by address, flag or national border, but by God alone.
Some Christians are nit-pickers. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus taught the disciples to become perfect and many understand that to be even fussier than the tradition-burdened Pharisees. Yet being overly concerned with non-essential details is not what Jesus meant at all. The word often rendered as perfect is better understood to mean mature or complete. It has nothing to do with nit-picky Christianity at all. Being obsessed with non-essentials is a mark of spiritual immaturity. Mature Christians are salty. They taste good. Mature Christians are a bright shining light. They are liberated from picky legalism. Mature Christians reconcile rather than harbor grudges. They preserve the sanctity of marriage. They are not pretentious, create good will and take insults without retribution. They are a very generous people rather than quibbling and would treat an enemy the same as a friend.
Must we honor even bad parents? No parent is perfect, but some are really bad. Some verbally or physically abuse their children to such an extent that deep scars remain. What does Jesus require? In John 15:9-17 he taught the general idea that we are to love each other. And for enemies he taught that we should love them too (Matthew 5:44). Some of our worst enemies can be family members. Jesus reminded us to pray that God will forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, and that if we forgive others their trespasses, our heavenly Father will also forgive us (Matthew 6:9-15). As hard as that may be, one way of honoring our parents is to forgive them. Forgiveness also releases us from an emotional prison. Honoring even bad parents is for our good.
Matthew 5:48 is a puzzle for many of us because when we think of the word perfect in English, we think of sinless perfection. However, that is impossible. On the one hand, the Greek word actually means mature or complete. In context Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, so that we may be the children of our Father in heaven. On the other hand, the context is complete love like our Father’s, in loving our enemies. Luke 6:35-36 explains the same teaching in different words, that we are to love our enemies and be merciful, just as our Father is merciful. Perfect love is what Jesus demands. A Christian cannot be contented with love only towards a friend, but strive towards a higher, more perfect love like that of God.
Calling someone a nobody is an insult from a world that does not value all human beings alike. It excuses treating people differently based upon prejudice, like paying inferior wages to those who may be hard working but nobodies, and giving preferential treatment to those deemed to be somebodies whether or not they have worked hard. Jesus condemned this way of dealing with fellow human beings (Matthew 5:21-22). He considered it to be such a serious offense that it should be charged in court. Verbally abusive intellectual insults are similar whereby some are called stupid morons or the like. In fact Jesus was so serious about this that he said that those who use such terms are in danger of hell. Jesus calls Christians to live the opposite of this kind of verbal abuse, to value all human life.
Paul described the law as wonderful but weakened by human failures (Romans 8:2-4). Jesus gave several examples of that (Matthew 5:21-37). His first illustration was of the law against murder. Jesus showed that although most of us may have never actually committed murder in the letter, we are all guilty of breaking a deeper meaning of that law. The law could not change our human hearts from unjust anger and character assassination. A negative approach of more rigid laws against murder does not solve the real problem. A neutral position of avoiding anger or name-calling is not the answer. He taught a positive approach by actually going in the opposite direction of murder. A couple of examples that Jesus gave were: seeking reconciliation between estranged parties and where reconciliation is not possible a speedy settlement of disagreements.
In Matthew 5:21-26 Jesus discussed the law “thou shalt not murder.” The letter of the law gives us license to miss its purpose, love. We can look down on murderers on death row and justify ourselves simply because we have never acted on the anger in our own hearts. We can call others empty-headed fools or worthless fools and believe that we are not criminals. Yet, Jesus pointed out that such thoughts move us in the same direction as murder. So, he encouraged us to move in the opposite direction. Our first duty in worshiping God is to reconcile with those with whom we have conflicts. With those who hate us and refuse to reconcile, we ought to hasten at least to come to some kind of agreement, lest the whole matter go to court and we lose everything.
In Matthew 5:27-30 Jesus discussed the law “thou shalt not commit adultery.” The problem with the letter of any law is that it gives excuse to use loopholes as long as the specific forbidden act is not done. Jesus addressed that problem in principle by the example of looking on a woman lustfully. As with anger possibly leading to the act of murder, so too can lust lead to the act of adultery. Both begin as a wrong thought in our hearts. In fact, Jesus challenged us to see the premeditated thought as essentially the same as the act. As with murder there is a positive alternative. However, this time Jesus shocked everyone by suggesting self-mutilation. He was not encouraging the wrongful practice of self-harm but exaggerating to make the point of taking drastic steps to avoid tempting situations.
Why did Jesus often speak in exaggerations? Hyperbolic language is a melodramatic way of teaching that emphasizes the lesson. Just as sensationalism sells news stories, so too does embellishment make illustrating principles more memorable. In Matthew 5:27-30 Jesus dramatized the efforts one ought to take to avoid adultery. Cutting off a body part to avoid stumbling into lust emphasized the amount of effort needed. The opposite would be a careless approach. Such foolhardiness might include spending too much time with or being alone with a member of the opposite sex who is married to someone else. Because we are all weak, we cannot be so naive as to think that we are immune to lust. Stay as far away from temptation as possible by taking diligent steps to avoid being in a situation where we cannot control our lusts.
The industrial revolution took fathers away from their families. The educational revolution took children away from parents. Then the gender revolution took mothers from their husbands and children. We have the highest divorce rates in history. We now spend more time with other people than our own families. The temptation for adultery and thus family ruin has dramatically increased. We allow ourselves to be treated like slaves for the sake of industrial efficiency at great personal and marital costs. In Matthew 5:27-30 Jesus dramatized the efforts needed to avoid adultery, by illustrating that we need to begin by striving to cut off temptation. With men and women from different marriages spending more time with each other than their own spouses, have we sown the seeds for the destruction of the most basic building block of our society, the family?
In Matthew 5:31-32 Jesus spoke of conditions where divorce and remarriage are not sin. He called porneia the exception. The Louw-Nida Lexicon defines that as sexual immorality of any kind. The Friberg Lexicon defines it as every kind of extramarital, unlawful, or unnatural sexual intercourse. Jesus’ position is stricter than the world’s, but it does provide freedom for the sexually-wronged marriage partner. His description was broad enough that the sin could be something either during or even before a marriage took place. Paul expanded upon this concept in 1 Corinthians 7:14-15, explaining that even if an unbelieving spouse walks out on the other, the believing spouse is free from the marriage. There are unanswered questions in Jesus’ brief comment such as: what about spousal abuse? However, the general principle is clear: easy divorce is not the godly ideal.
In Matthew 5:33-37 Jesus referred to a series of laws in the Old Testament relating to the theme of not swearing falsely. Making an oath and not fulfilling it is wrong. Jesus encouraged his disciples not to swear oaths invoking things in heaven or earth, but to just say yes or no. Swearing by external things does not guarantee fulfillment of an obligation. Such oaths are a form of leverage supposedly making that person more believable. In actuality, they underline the fact that we humans are too often unreliable and untruthful. By invoking heaven or earth, we are in effect deluded that a veneer of honesty can change liars into truth-tellers and covenant breakers into contract keepers. We Christians do not need to engage in such useless swearing. We simply need to be truthful as best as we can.
In Matthew 5:33-37 Jesus taught not to swear any oaths. Did that include pledges, or covenants, wedding vows or oaths in court? God swore an oath (Hebrews 6:16-18), Jesus answered under oath (Matthew 26:63-64), and Paul wrote oaths in his letters (2 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 1:20). What did Jesus not say? He did not say “swear not at all” period, but immediately included a list of qualifiers under which swearing an oath had led to vows being taken too lightly. Oaths were allowed in the Old Testament, but when anything less than God was sworn by, people were no longer taking their vows seriously. Jesus did not condemn the swearing of sincere oaths, but frivolous and deceptive ones. Christians ought not make oaths that cover up perjury or insincerity but simply answer yes or no.
Some Christians think of themselves as superior to others because of a legalistic attempt to keep certain rules or laws. In Matthew 5:21-37 Jesus showed how all such efforts fail, because the letter of the law ignores the more important dimension of the heart. If we claim not to have murdered but were angry or insulted anyone, we have failed. If we claim to be faithful spouses, but have lusted at any time, we have failed. If we claim to tell the truth, but have ever broken a promise, we have failed. The Sermon on the Mount should teach us one valuable lesson: we have all failed. So, should we give up because we cannot measure up? The closer we come to perfect obedience, the happier we are, but only Jesus was faultless. That’s why we need a Savior.
It is as important to notice what Jesus did not say as much as what he did say. Many people assume that he came to do away with the Old Testament, but the phrase the law or the prophets refers to the entire Old Testament, and Jesus did not come to abolish them but to fill them to the full (Matthew 5:13-20). What did he not say? He did not address the Ten Commandments as some assume but commandments. In the law and the prophets, the Old Testament, there are 613 commandments. He commended those who practice and teach them in a manner surpassing the righteousness of the Pharisees, explaining that anger and verbal abuse are murder, lustful looks and divorce are adultery, not to seek an eye for an eye justice and that we should love our enemies.
How liberal or literal was Jesus’ approach to the Old Testament law? We might think that he was rather persnickety in Matthew 5:13-20, insisting that not one smallest pen-stroke of the law would disappear as long as heaven and earth exist. Is the Old Testament law now even more binding? He said that our righteousness must surpass that of Jewish religious leaders. How? Did he break the law against collecting food on the Sabbath or was he obedient to a higher principle (Matthew 12:1-13)? He often showed how the spirit surpasses the letter of the law. The rest of the New Testament carries that discussion further and perhaps the most poignant example is the law of circumcision, whereby a literal interpretation is no longer relevant for the Christian, but a more liberal interpretation, a circumcision of the heart.
Bible critics often claim that the Holy Scriptures say something they do not. Any of us can be guilty of inserting our culture into the Bible. For instance, when Jesus said "if the salt has lost its flavor..." (Matthew 5:13-20), it is wrong to mistake that as sodium chloride. That's our language. What Jesus meant by salt was not sodium chloride, but a substance that usually came from the Dead Sea that contained some of what we call salt but also contained white gypsum. That "salt" could lose its saltiness, because the gypsum content became too high as the other leached out. Our "salt" does not normally lose its saltiness. Salt has a different meaning today. We cannot retrofit today’s meaning as some have done trying to claim that Jesus didn't know what he was talking about.
In Matthew 5:13-20 is a description of salt losing its saltiness. In our world that doesn’t happen without a chemical reaction of some kind. Our science of chemistry defines a salt as a compound that results when an acid reacts with a base. The most common salt is table salt or sodium chloride. Another common salt is a road salt, calcium chloride. However, what Jesus meant by salt cannot be defined by modern language. It was probably a mixture of calcium sulfate and our table salt. Calcium sulfate is gypsum and used to make plaster of Paris. This mixture could lose the salt component and thus its saltiness. All this proves a very important step in studying the Bible: get our definitions right. Careful research rather than jumping to hasty conclusions helps us understand the Bible so much better.
In Matthew 5:13-20 Jesus told his disciples that they are the salt of the earth and are the light of the world. This was no encouragement to become something that they were not yet, but to be what they already were. The same applies to us today. We are the salt that gives the world a good taste and the light that brightens this dark planet. When we are not ourselves, what we have been called to be, our communities suffer. Salt preserves. When we fail to live up to our calling, our nations rotten from the inside out and are not preserved. Light helps us see. When we fail to rise up and be the light of the world, others cannot see God in us. Let’s wake up and be who God says we are. Let’s be ourselves.
In the beatitudes Jesus taught his disciples some of the most important fundamentals of Christianity: recognizing their spiritual poverty, mourning world ills and their own sins, humility, craving to do the right thing, showing leniency to the undeserving, filling their hearts with clean things, willingness to take a loss for the sake peace and being harassed or criticized for doing what's right. Then, in Matthew 5:13-20 he said that they were the salt of the earth and light of the world. How does that work in real life? Jesus encouraged those disciples to go and do something about the wonderfully deep blessings associated with being a follower of Christ, good deeds. Christianity is not just about sitting in a church building, worshiping, singing, and being taught the saving words of Jesus. It is also about doing good things.
Have you ever heard of secret Christians? Few people know that they are Christians and if asked they may hide their faith. Membership in some Christian societies is also exclusive and people must be invited. Even some churches are like that and it contradicts what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:13-20. He told his disciples that they were a city on a hill that cannot be hid. The followers of Jesus Christ are a light that is meant to be seen, not hidden away in secret. What exactly about the church is to be seen? Is it our fancy buildings, our church music, our TV shows, our political commentaries or something else? Jesus specifically mentioned that we are to let our good deeds be seen, not to show off, as he later explained, but so that others may glorify God.
Inactive Christianity is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Inactive Christianity is incomplete, weak Christianity. Thinking that we can “just believe” is not enough. Wanting to “just worship him” is only a start. Jesus encouraged his disciples to also do. In Matthew 5:13-20, he gave his disciples exactly that encouragement, to do good works. But what are good works? Is that obedience to the law or is that helping our neighbor? In this passage, that description is not limited to either of these conditions. It simply says that we ought to do good works, unspecified. That can mean being honest in our business dealings, using appropriate and inoffensive language, being commendable in our charity, honorable in the way we speak of others and praiseworthy in our community life. Sometimes the most effective form of evangelism is doing good works.
The Old Testament law is variously understood by Christians. Jesus gave his interpretation in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:13-20 he began to touch on that topic. Jesus did not say that obedience to the law is no longer required because of faith. He did later explain how some of those laws should be applied. Yet, almost no Christian sacrifices animals or mandates circumcision. Should we? Did Jesus divide his commentary into defunct ceremonial versus still binding moral laws? No. He spoke of the law as a unit, and that he did not come to abolish but to fulfill. Until heaven and earth disappear, the law applies. How can our righteousness be greater than that of devout Jews? In the Church, we obey the law on a higher plane in a temple not made with human hands.