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The Sermon on the Mount
Try to name the most popular passage in the Bible. Surely not more than 2 or 3 will be candidates, but I will wager a guess that one of your choices is the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is definitely one of our favorite passages in the Bible. Why are people so attracted to it? What message does it hold out that is so sought after? One answer is that it seems to be a passage of great comfort and hope; ”Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
But is the Sermon on the Mount what most people take it to be? Is it really the foremost passage on what the blessings of God are and how to obtain them today in the dispensation of the grace of God? Can we say that these instructions are really fitted to and directed to us as members of the Church, the Body of Christ? Let us seek, with God’s help, to find out.
The blessings of God today are many indeed but to know them and especially to know how to come into the good of them requires further reading in the Word of God, starting with the letters of Paul. What then is the importance of the Sermon on the Mount? Well, first of all it is part of the teaching of Christ which makes it significant. But its greatest importance is what it teaches in its immediate context concerning God's program for the nation Israel.
There is an irony here. It is that such an important and wonderful body of teaching is being applied to us before it is correctly interpreted, and therefore, the help we so desperately need on the subject of God's blessings is not presented—not understood. However, with help from the Word of God we will seek to understand both what the Sermon on the Mount is really saying and also how to know the blessings of God for today.
If we approach the Bible as a dispensational book we are off to a good start in understanding it. If we recognize the distinctive ministry of the Apostle Paul and have learned to interpret all of the Word of God in the light of Paul’s epistles then we are in an even better position to understand the things of Scripture. Without being arrogant, I believe that there is no group on earth that is in a better position to help people understand the things of God than those who recognize the present dispensation of the grace of God as revealed in the Pauline writings.
This is not to say that God does not use others who do not know the grace message. God is pleased to use any of those who are yielded to Him and even indirectly uses those who are not yielded to Him. God does however, what to use us who know the grace message to be on the front line of reaching people for Christ and teaching the saved about God, His purpose, and plans. If, however, we refuse to be used, if we will not speak up and be willing to suffer for His name’s sake, then He will use others to spread the gospel of salvation and proclaim His Word.
People need teachers who can sort out and properly apply the teachings of Scripture, especially the dispensational teachings of Scripture. If we fail to speak it leaves people without a clear understanding or even a ready way to gain a clear understanding of many of the passages of Scripture. That is why I say that there is no one on earth in a better position to help people than the true grace believer.
With this in mind I would like to embark on an examination of the Sermon on the Mount, and as I have already stated, it will be a somewhat different approach—one based entirely on the context.
One very important principle here will be to try to understand exactly what the Lord is saying to this audience. What did they understand His words to mean and what did they anticipate as they listened to His teachings? It is not that we can never go beyond this—the immediate and obvious context—but before (or even lest) we read later revelation into these teachings we should first understand what they meant then.
We must begin with a passage in chapter 4 if we want the stage set for this great sermon.
And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people (Matthew 4:23).
This is the context of this whole issue, and really, the whole Gospel of Matthew! All we need to do now is define some key terms in this verse and we will be ready to begin chapter 5. Let us start with the phrase Gospel of the Kingdom. Many of us already know that the term Gospel means good news.
So what is the good news of the kingdom? Before we can even discuss that question we must look at what the kingdom is. This is none other than the prophetic kingdom that God the Father promised in the Old Testament and began to reveal in a definable way to Abram. There is a great need here for caution because many have made this kingdom to be the general overall kingdom that encompasses all of God’s rule and reign.
Paul speaks of this overall kingdom in such verses as Acts 28:31, but the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 3:2) of which the Gospel of the Kingdom refers is a specific definable entity—which is part of the overall kingdom of God to be sure—but this kingdom is the specific hope that God promised from the beginning of Israel’s formation. It is the land (that God spoke of so often in the Old Testament) that was promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; which land was given the identity of the kingdom over which God would rule in the person of the Messiah (Jeremiah 23:5,6 cf. Luke 1:32,33).
This is the great hope of the nation Israel; to come into their land—their kingdom, and to be ruled over by Christ, their Messiah. This kingdom will indeed progress into the eternal kingdom (which is also called the New Heaven and the New Earth), but the former kingdom is often viewed as a separate part. The book of Revelation refers to it as a time when those of the first resurrection, “…lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Revelation 20:4b). Here the kingdom is called the thousand year reign and we often refer to this as the Millennial Kingdom
Therefore, the gospel of the kingdom is the good news that the Messiah—the King—is here (and He has the miracles to prove it) and the long prophesied kingdom is at hand—it is actually in view (Matthew 3:2)! This is the proclamation that God is ready to bring the kingdom into being as soon as a few more prophetic events (like Calvary) take place.
This is what the gospel of the kingdom actually states: “…Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 cf. Luke 1:32,33). The Jews were required to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was their Messiah (Christ or King) and the Son of God. Believing this they were then required to be water baptized as a ceremonial cleansing. They were, of course, saved by believing the message and not by the baptism but they would have been baptized as a matter of course because it was preached as a necessity.
This is not, however, the gospel we preach today! All of God’s good news is centered in Christ and I want to make it clear that we preach Jesus Christ but we preach Him according to the revelation He gave us from glory (Romans 16:25 cf. Galatians 1:11,12).
The gospel we preach today is called “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), and it is fitted to the dispensation of grace in which we live (Ephesians 3:2). Today we preach: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, was buried, and rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3,4). At the time that Matthew 4:23 speaks of Christ died for our sins was not even known let alone preached. Even after the cross Peter’s message in Acts chapter two was still “…God has made this same Jesus whom ye have crucified both Lord and Christ.’
Today we neither preach the kingdom gospel nor water baptize because God has changed both the dispensation and the message.
We can now understand the context of the Sermon on the Mount. The millennial kingdom is in view and their king is speaking directly about it. If we miss this we have missed the most important part of interpreting this sermon. Any application we make must be based upon a firm interpretation or it will be wrong.
We are now ready to study Matthew chapter 5 verse by verse.
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him.
And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying… (verse 2).
This scene opens with the Lord taking His disciples aside and giving them somewhat of a private lesson. The multitudes were following Him because of the miracles He did and this is always the case; the working of miracles followed the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom (Matthew 4:23, 24; 9:35).
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).
The word blessed is the word happy or fortunate. Numerous blessings are offered to those displaying the characteristics listed here but for the most part what is being said here is quite different than how the passage is usually understood. Before discussing this, however, there is another passage in the Old Testament that lists a group of blessings that were held out the Nation Israel.
The portion I am referring to is in Deuteronomy chapters 27 and 28. In chapter 27 Moses instructs the people of Israel concerning something they are to do after they cross over the Jordan and come in to their land. Representatives from the 12 tribes are to divide up and part are to stand on mount Gerizim to bless the people and part are to stand upon mount Ebal to curse the people. Chapter 28 then compares the blessings and cursings in order. The blessings were based upon their ability to keep the law of Moses and if they did not the cursings will follow.
The Sermon on the Mount has blessings and cursings too, and the Sermon on the Mount also has something to do with the law of Moses. The blessings are found in verses 1–12, and the cursings are found in verses 17 through 48. We will discuss what I mean by cursings in more detail later.
The meaning of the phrase “blessed are the poor in spirit” will give us the key we need to unlock the whole sermon. I have heard several explanations of what this might mean; usually it has to do with some sort of humility, some emptiness of self, and while those things are good it is not what the Lord means here. The phrase poor in spirit means depressed! That is right, depressed. This is someone who is sad, who has a fallen countenance because of something. Without getting ahead of myself I think it is fitting to say that the first four blessings (verses 3–6) all have to do with the same thing; they are all saying the same thing in different terms.
Verse six is going to be the clearest in showing us what the Lord means:
Blessed are they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled (Matthew 5:6).
The Lord is speaking about a broken hearted Jew—one who is broken hearted because of the current condition of the nation Israel. As they looked around it was easy to see that the nation was a mess. They were controlled politically by Rome, and they were far wayward from their covenant of the law. The latter was the main reason for all of their other ills. They were a disobedient people before their God. Many times in their troublesome history they had rebelled against God and broken His law but this time was even worse.
There had been over 400 years of silence form God and now with the spiritual state of the nation in shambles their Messiah had come. But His cry was repent! Why? Because they were wayward and disobedient to the covenant of law that they were bound under. Yet their worst breech of the law was yet to come. Nevertheless, the thinking Jew—the Jew that had a heart for the things of Jehovah and was of a contrite spirit—knew exactly what the situation was. As far as what was happening around them things were bleak and it was because of the unrighteousness of the nation, which is why God called upon them to repent (Matthew 3:2).
One of God’s great promises in the Old Testament is that He will bring true righteousness to the nation Israel and the earth.
And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and
thy counsellors as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called, The
city of righteousness, the faithful city
“But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked (Isaiah 11:4).To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified” (61:3)
For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations (61:11)
For Zion's sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth. And the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the LORD shall name (62:2,3).
As far as the Jews could see in what was going on around them there was little hope of deliverance here. The political system left them in bondage under the Gentiles an the religious system was corrupt. Each individual Jew had come under the national judgment of the nation as a whole. This should have left the thoughtful Jew somewhat sick, depressed, and morning the plight of Israel, and hungering for deliverance. Thus the Lord’s words in verses 3–6.
We are now ready to examine the meaning to the phrase “blessed are the poor in spirit.” We might paraphrase this, “happy or fortunate are those who are depressed about the current condition of Israel.” It is still, however, a little obscure that the Lord would commend someone for being sad about Israel’s mess. However, the last part of this verse gives us the scope of what is meant. “…For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
What this means is that those who are clearly seeing the present dilapidated condition of Israel and are duly saddened thereby, they will look to me and in my kingdom they will find the glory and joy they seek and that will be a happy (blessed) state.
This is the meaning that we can put on all of these verses; “blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted.” When? In the kingdom! Let us find an Old Testament passage that echoes this concept to see that the Lord is really offering this kind of comfort. Isaiah 61:3 is a good example.
To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.
The spirit of heaviness here is the poor spirit that the Lord spoke of in Matthew 5:3.
Mathew 5:4 has the same meaning:
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
We quote this passage from Isaiah 61:2:
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
Continuing with Matthew chapter 5 look at verse 5:
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
The broken hearted will rejoice; those that mourn will be will be comforted; those that are meek will inherit the earth, but when? In the kingdom!
The whole prospective of this sermon—of all these blessings—is the Millennial kingdom! This is the kingdom that was being offered “at hand” in Matthew 3:2 and the one that was being preached as “good news” in chapter 4:23! The Lord Jesus is making a crystal clear point: Happy are ye that see the sin around you and will turn to me for I will bring the Millennial Kingdom and give you the righteousness and peace you desire!
Once this issue is seen then the rest of the sermon falls into place much easier. We are also several steps closer to knowing how to properly apply these verses to ourselves today.
But let us get back to verse 5:
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
One of the best places to go to see what this means exactly is Psalm 37:1–11.
Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity.
For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb.
Trust in the LORD, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.
Delight thyself also in the LORD; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.
Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.
And he shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday.
Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for him: fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass.
Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil.
For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the LORD, they shall inherit the earth.
For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and it shall not be.
But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.
We should be able to easily see that what the Lord is talking about here is Israel meekly waiting upon the Lord to straighten out all the oppression and evil around them and in due time He will bring them into their land—into the Kingdom! This is none other than the land that was promised to Abraham and his seed back in Genesis 15:18–21.
What was the temptation that would have required the Lord to warn them to be meek? Wouldn’t it be to rebel in an ungodly way and fight in their own strength, or to give up and loose all hope?
But God wanted them to wait upon Him. They were to trust in Him and His way and His purpose and turn to Him for their deliverance.
This gives us an excellent opportunity to see what the Bible definition of meekness is. Meekness is the characteristic of submitting ones self to God’s will and His ways instead of doing something our way, especially when it involves our using force. However, meekness is not doormatism as some have supposed. The Lord was meek and mild and yet He drove the money changers out of the temple (Matthew 11:29 cf. Matthew 21:12)! So it is not wrong to stand up for the truth and even have righteous indignation for the truth; it is when we take matters into our own hands that we are failing to be meek and give God the glory by doing things His way.
We now find ourselves ready for verse 6 of Matthew chapter 5 but let me make it crystal clear that what we are discussing here is not us inheriting the earth through displaying the characteristic of meekness; this is talking about Jews under the kingdom program who put their faith in the Messiah—the Lord Jesus—receiving the reward of their faith which is to inherit the earth—to enter the blessed Millennium!
Verse 6 has already been discussed and so we will make just a brief comment at this time.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
As I have stated several times now, the issue here is when will they be filled? When will those who seek true righteousness and godliness and peace be filled to the full? For the nation Israel under their kingdom program there is only one correct answer—in the kingdom!
Are we seeing the point here? As we continue we can anticipate the same blessed prospective as the Lord comforted and taught these who had chosen to believe on Him.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy (Matthew 5:7).
The true meaning of showing mercy here is to shun the religious bigotry of rules and regulations that put burdens on men that they could not bear. Faith in Jehovah was never meant to be a cruel religious system but one that forgave and showed mercy to those truly seeking God’s help. (Ref)
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8).
The pure in heart here are those who accept God’s Word by yielding to Him and believing that Jesus is their Christ and submitting to Him as Lord. Those not pure in heart will, of course, justify themselves and cling to their own religious works.
Verse 9 deserves some special treatment:
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
What do you suppose a peacemaker is? In our everyday understanding we would simply say that it is someone who is peaceable—who calms things down and makes peace. But in the context of Matthew it is somewhat different. A peacemaker here is someone who brings the gospel of peace—the gospel of the king and His kingdom.
These twelve Jesus sent forth…
And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand…
And when ye come into an house, salute it.
And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you.
And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.
Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city (Matthew 5–15).
This is a lengthy passage but it shows that the peacemaker is the one who brings the gospel of the kingdom (verse 7) to a household in the nation Israel. If they refuse it then the peace returns to the messenger and he shakes the dust off his feet and leaves, brining a potential judgment upon that household. Not very peaceful then is it? So the Lord brought a message of peace centered in Himself and His kingdom and that is what Israel had to accept to be saved.
Verses 10–12 are largely talking about the same thing so I will quote them together:
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
As it was then so it is today; those who stand for the truth of God are ill treated by the religious crowd; persecuted by the unbelieving self righteous multitude. For those who stood for the things of Christ by walking with Him—their wonderful Messiah—there was persecution from the religious leaders and unbelieving Jews. But once again the Lord says ‘yours is the kingdom of heaven…happy are you!’ In that coming day when He would bring true peace and righteousness and salvation to Israel those who had stood up for Him and suffered for so doing would be blessed indeed!
We know that today we must also be willing to honor Him by living for Him and testifying of Him to those around us. It will usually cost us at least some small thing; but often it costs us a great deal, nevertheless, what joy we will have when we are with Him and He rewards our service. Our reward, however, will not be in “the kingdom” as taught in Matthew but will be with the members of the Body of Christ in glory (Colossians 3:1–4)!
Verses 13–16 offer an interim between two notable portions in this chapter. The disciples are here being encouraged to consider who they are as members of the kingdom church and also to consider what their reason for being here is. Salt and light; that is what they were! They were the seasoning of the truth of God in a crocked generation and they were the light of God’s Word in a dark world of deception and unbelief. As the leaders in Israel and the majority of others rejected Christ and His offer of the kingdom the believers were to boldly live for Him and testify of their faith in Him.
The Lord and His followers offended the Pharisees and other leaders because the spotlight was taken off the Pharisees and scribes and put upon the Savior. Man in His self-righteousness is the same today; we are offended when our sins are exposed and our self-righteousness is condemned.
Verses 17 through 20 prepare us to go into what I called earlier “the cursings” of this sermon. We have come through the blessings and have seen the Lord point them to the coming kingdom for the things they longed for and needed so badly. But the real teaching of this first part of the sermon was to turn them away form their religious dilemma and point them to Him self. As the Lord declared this to them He was saying in effect that all they had here in their current system was hopeless.
That is the real lesson of all God’s dealings with Israel; to show them how hopeless their religious system and self righteous works were. Though the types of that religion pointed to Christ and His work on the cross, that system itself could not save anybody but instead actually condemned them. Part of what the Lord was doing in His earthly ministry was driving that point home to Israel; your law and religion are no good to you, you cannot keep my law and are actually condemned by it.
This is the reasoning behind the Lord’s next words:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill (Matthew 5:17).
Before we go on to talk about the next portion of the Sermon on the Mount it is time to look at where we fit in and how we should try to apply this to ourselves. I hope it is plain that we do not directly fit in to this passage at all! We will be able to make an application to ourselves but it will be different than what you might expect. This is because, as I have stated above, the Lord is not just describing characteristics in the above portion, He is describing a people who need to see themselves and their circumstance as horrible, and find their hope in Him—their Christ—and His coming kingdom.
The best way to make application to ourselves is to consider how we might morn and be depressed for the condition of America. Though we do not have a direct hope of Christ bringing the millennial kingdom to solve our ills, we can see how our right attitude toward the dilapidated moral state of the nation would help us to reach out more sincerely and with a greater sense of determination. Do you grieve because of the sins of our land? Does it make you loose heart in what this world has to offer? Do you want to live for the Lord and tell others of His salvation while there is yet time? I hope that your answer is “yes” to all of these questions.
If we are apathetic and insensitive to what is going on around us or, even worse, if we join in with the sinful practices of our nation we will find out all to soon that we will be most unblessed (unhappy) in our lives here. Blessedness comes by honoring the Lord and living in such a way that others can see His light in the darkness around them. The gospel of the grace of God is the only thing that will deliver a man form the perils of this age—from sins penalty and power. We are to adorn that gospel and bring the good news of the finished work of Christ to a lost world (Titus 2:10–13).
I fear, however, that we are too busy enjoying the “good” life and we have become tolerant of sinful practices. We have joined the world in many forms of pleasure that rob us of our ability to be salt and light. May the Lord help us to be poor in spirit for the condition of those around us so that our testimony to them might be of Him. Can you explain the gospel of grace? Can you define it? This is an obvious necessity if you are going to trust Him yourself and then lead others to Him.
Paul states the gospel of the grace of God very plainly in 1 Corinthians 15:3,4:
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
The gospel the Lord proclaimed in Matthew was the “Gospel of the Kingdom.” The one in 1 Corinthians 15 is called “the Gospel of the Grace of God” (Acts 20:24). This is because we are living in the dispensation of the grace of God (Ephesians 3:2) and not under the prophetic kingdom program. Today we can walk up to anyone on earth and tell them that though they are dead in trespasses and sins and can not do anything to help themselves Christ died for their sins—He paid for all their sins—and arose the third day. If they will believe this good news—believe that He died for their sins—and call out to Him and trust Him and Him alone as their risen savior He will save them for time and eternity by His grace. We have no good works to bring neither can we trust in any of our own efforts:
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8,9)
I also quote Romans 6:23 and Acts 16:32:
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
…Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.
Bring a man this truth and you bring him to the opportunity to trust Christ as his savior. Faith alone in Christ alone is all that God requires—all that God will accept!
This is the message that brings hope to a cursed race—a depraved society. This is where a man finds the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This is where happiness begins!
One other application that we might make is with the word “blessed.” I said at the beginning that this word really means happy. If we look for the corresponding Greek word we find it in Romans 4:6–8:
“Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.”
Happy is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin! This is the fortunate position of all who have come and believed the gospel of grace—who have trusted Christ as Savior. How happy are we above all men! This is the description of a man who’s sins are forgiven, who’s life is “…hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Is this you, my friend? I hope it is.
This, then, is how we come into the real blessings of God today; not by obeying the Sermon on the Mount—though those characteristics are always precious in God’s eyes—but by coming to Christ and trusting Him as Savior. Furthermore, we learn that in Him we are “…blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). We can only learn of these blessings by reading and understanding the revelation of God’s present economy of grace found only in the Pauline epistles.
It is the epistles of Paul alone that unfold “the revelation of the mystery” (Romans 16:25), and it is understanding this truth that sheds light on how to interpret and apply all the rest of the Word of God. Paul’s letters are the key that unlocks the rest of the Bible to our complete understanding. All of the issues that are progressively revealed in the Scriptures are concluded as a part and parcel of the revelations given to Paul. The place of the law; justification by faith; the basis of Israel’s salvation and kingdom; the place of sign gifts; all are answered by the truth God gave through Paul.
Have you seen the revelation of the mystery, my friend? Are you aware that God is not presently dealing with the sign nation—the nation Israel, and that He has set them aside temporarily as a nation and is dealing with the world as individual sinners in a dispensation of grace? How happy—blessed are those who will accept this truth from the Word of God!
Why is this so important? Because this is the truth about what God is doing today! How many are confused about what God is actually doing. Is He still administering the sign gifts? Is He still proclaiming the kingdom is at hand? Is He still water baptizing? Are we expecting to go through the time of Jacob’s trouble? The answer to these questions is “no,” but how do we know? There is a way to know exactly what God is doing today in this day and age and there is a way to know how to be a part of it. It is by recognizing the revelation of the mystery—the present dispensation of the grace of God—given to us through Paul.
I trust that you can say “amen” to this and that you are willing to obey God in this truth and also to begin to weep for the lost and weep for our sinful nation of which we—except by God’s wonderful grace—would be a part! May this be the day our hearts become solemn in this resolve.
But now let us go on to the Lord’s statements about the law:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the
prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill
Most people have the thought that the Lord fulfilled the law and, therefore, because we are in Him we have fulfilled the law. This is both wrong thinking and not what this verse is saying at all. Wrong thinking because what the Lord fulfilled about the law was all the necessary steps needed to be the perfect sacrifice; like being circumcised on the eighth day. He did not have to demonstrate in any other way that he could keep the law; He is the perfect Son of God and that did not change with his incarnation.
We, who have trusted Him as Savior, have the righteousness of Christ—we have His righteousness—not that of the law! We died the death that the law demanded as payment for sin and that is how we were freed from its claims upon us. We died this death when we were placed in to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3–6 Romans 7:4; Colossians 2:11–13; 3:1–4)! He is now our life and we simply wait his appearing (Colossians 3:1–4).
What Matthew 5:17 is saying. The Lord did not come to destroy the law or the prophets but to fulfill them—or really—to fill them full! The word fulfill is the word pleroo and this word means to complete or to fill. The word can and often does also have the meaning of to fill up or to fill-full. That is what the Lord means here in verse 17; He came to fill the law full. How? By making its message crystal clear to His audience.
The law was given for one and only one reason; to show man his sin and point him to Christ. It is commonly held that the Lord was showing them a new way here; that He was saying that all God really wants is for you to do right in your heart. That is partially true. But what the Lord is showing here is that in spite of how well we might be doing outwardly, if we look at the real issue—what is going on inside our heart—we are condemned in an instant! What this section and the subsequent verses down through verse 48 are teaching is that the curse of the law is upon us even if we think that outwardly—religiously—we have done it. Israel had not done it at all as we shall see.
Recall that at the beginning of this booklet I mentioned that there were both blessings and cursings in the Sermon on the Mount? Well, here is where we start the cursings. This is the section that is similar to Deuteronomy chapter 28.
The Lord states plainly in verse 18 that not one little mark will pass form the law until it is filled full! Until it has done its job it will remain firmly in place; that is what the Lord is saying. Verses 19 and 20 should have frightened the socks off the Lord’s audience.
“Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19,20).
My first question is: “Who is able to keep from breaking one of the least of the commandments; who?” The answer is “no one,” and that is just what the Lord is getting ready to show them! My second question is: “How can their righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees?” Because if their rightouesness does not exceed that of the Pharisees’ they will not enter into the kingdom!
The truth is that verses 19 and 20 are really saying the same thing, and what they say is a lesson concerning the law that the Lord was about to give them. It will be good here to talk a bit about the issue of the law and Israel. To do this we are going to look at several passages of Scripture starting with Romans 3:18:
Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
It is evident here that the Law of Moses was given to Israel for a particular reason and that reason was to stop the mouths of that nation and put them in the same class as the Gentiles. Once Israel’s mouth was stopped then God would have the whole world (Jew and Gentile) concluded under sin; the Gentile without the law and the Jew under the law. By the time we get to Romans 3 Israel’s mouth had been stopped, but in Matthew this was not so yet. Compare this statement in Romans 3:19 & 20 with another statement in the gospel of Matthew:
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good
Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
And he said unto him, Why callest
thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt
enter into life, keep the commandments
It looks as though the Lord is actually offering life to this man by his keeping of the law, and many still come here to try to teach that this is a part of salvation. But the simple answer is that at this point in Israel’s history the lesson was not over yet; God was still proving to Israel that they could not keep the law. The law—Romans said—was given to stop the mouths of the Jew and that is what the Lord was helping to do with the rich young ruler. The young man should have said something like: “I have tried and tried and I just can’t do it.” Instead, he did as most of the nation also did; they stumbled at that stumbling stone. They assumed that because they had kept it outwardly they had done it all.
To prove that this is what the Lord was actually doing in Matthew 19 (and in chapter 5) Let us look at Galatians 3:19:
Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made;
In Galatians chapter 3 Paul is arguing that the blessings of God come by faith. He shows in verse 16 that God made a promise to Abraham based upon Abraham’s faith and that promise looked to Christ who would provide the means to accomplish the blessings. Paul then says that the law which came 430 years after the promise can not take the promise away or fulfill the promise some other way. That is when Paul asks the question in verse 19, “What is the law for, then” [i.e., if it was not given to bring about the promised blessing, what is its purpose]?
The question is answered in accordance with what Paul said in Romans 3:19, and 20 (which we quoted above); “the law was given because of transgression (sin) until the seed should come to whom the promise was made.” In other words, the law was not to save people (bring the promise) but to do something in relation to sin until Christ should come. Romans said the law was given to “stop the mouths of Israel and make them guilty (3:19). So the law was given to make sure they were aware of how sinful they were until Christ came who would pay for their sins and offer them salvation in himself.
Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to
bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
This verse confirms that the law was given to teach Israel something—to school them—to show them that they were condemned in their sin, and point them to Christ. All the while that God had Israel under the law it was to show them the utter hopelessness of being blessed by it. Their whole religion actually pointed to Christ all the while showing them their unrighteousness and sin. But God never made salvation dependant on the law or any part of keeping it. He was always actually looking at their faith, and starting with Able on to Abraham God established that blessing came by faith alone.
Israel was under the law, to be sure, and they had to try and keep it to have a covenant relationship with God. But salvation was always an individual matter based upon faith. The law had to do with God’s outward favor upon the nation. If they kept it they had victory over their enemies and rain in due season and freedom from disease. But if they failed to keep it then the judgment of God fell upon the nation. A Jew who truly accepted the promises made to the fathers (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), and trusted the God of those promises, was a saved Jew no matter how well he kept the law. Paul was one of the best law-keepers of all and yet he was unsaved.
Further, someone who sinned and was stoned under the law would not loose his salvation but only his life. The law had to do with outward blessings, but the lesson it was teaching is clear; “the soul that sinneth it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). No wonder 2 Corinthians 3:7 calls the law a “ministration [ministry] of death,” and verse 2 Corinthians 3:6 says, “the letter [law] killeth!”
This brings us back to Matthew chapter 5. Now the Lord is going to get down to the business of showing them how unfriendly the law really is. Just as the first part of the Sermon on the Mount was to emphasize the sad state of the nation Israel and point them to the kingdom which He would bring, so now He is going to help them to see their sad state under the law and ultimately point them to Himself (cf. 6:33).
There is a unique duality of meaning here also. At the same time the Lord was condemning the people under the law He was also giving His followers principles that would hold true for those seeking to walk by faith.
The Jews were notorious for their outward ceremony and religion. They felt that their system had them all set to impress and honor God. The trouble is that they had mistaken the real lessons the law was teaching and instead thought that because they had kept the law outwardly they were righteous. This, however, was really self-righteousness and is condemned in such places as Romans 10:3:
For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.
So now in Matthew the Lord was going to make it crystal clear what their actual hope of keeping the law was.
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment (Matthew 5:21,22).
The Lord goes back to the law of Moses and lifts out the commandment that says, “Thou shall not kill.” But notice what he does next. He adds “But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of judgment.” The law said that if you did the outward deed you were guilty but the Lord looks inside of us and says that if we think angrily about a brother without a cause we are guilty. Now, which is harder; to not kill someone or not to even think evil against him? Obviously, it is much harder not to think evil than to actually not do evil.
So, did the Lord make the law easier or harder? He made it harder! He did what He said he was going to do in Matthew 5:17; He filled the law full! He showed what it is really saying and how it condemns a man whether he does the sinful deed outwardly or inwardly! How this should have made them squirm. The Lord took the outward skeleton of the law and put meat on the bones! He told them it condemned them if they even thought sinful things. This was the next step in showing Israel their sin; to strengthen the law so there would be no mistake. This is the way that this whole next portion of Matthew 5 goes, all the way down to verse 48.
As I said earlier, there is a duality of teaching here. There is much here about righteous actions that a true believer could learn from such as in verses 23–26, but the overall object is to condemn the self righteous. And even while the Lord strengthened and imposed the law upon them He still held out the answer—the real deliverance they needed:
Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28–30).
Let us continue on in Matthew 5 and we will see several other verses with the same meaning as verses 21 and 22.
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart (Matthew 5:27,28).
To the self-righteous man who would say “I have never committed fornication or adultery,” the Lord says: “but have you ever lusted in your heart—ever?” Of course the honest answer is “yes” but what is the Lord’s point? He is showing them that they had broken the law and were sinners in need of a redeemer. The Lord was not nit picking here and He is not interested in keeping score of how many times we have done what; it is the big picture He is interested in here, it is showing men that they are guilty, sinful, and lost. Once a man admits to this he is ready for God’s help which has always been there to be taken by faith.
I am not saying that God has always preached the gospel of grace to men for He has not. At the time of the Sermon on the Mount the gospel of the kingdom was the message being preached. Prior to the Lord’s eathly ministry Israel was required to embrace the promises of God to the fathers and accept Him as their hope. The good news preached to Abram was:
And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:5,6).
This is not the gospel of grace but it was God’s good news to Abram and he believed it. This is but another example of the truth that God established from the beginning—first with Abel and next with Abram that salvation and blessings come by faith alone. All the rest of the Old Testament was set in motion to prove this is true and that there is no other way for men to please God. But we learn later, from Paul, that there is a sequence to how God proved all men in sin.
First, God showed the nations at large (the Gentiles), who were not under law or ritual, their sinfulness and judged them by alienating them from himself. He then did the same to the nation Israel—the nation He created and placed under the law and ritual; He showed them to be no different! Someone said that God made a difference between the Jew and the Greek to show that essentially there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek! How true this is.
I think that we have seen enough examples of what the law is really saying in Matthew chapter 5 to both the saved and Lost (self righteous) to get the point. Now I want to go on to the question of when did God finally prove Israel in unbelief under their law? First, I would like to go back to the issue raised in verses 17 and 18:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Let me reiterate what the Lord means in these verses. He came to Israel at this time to strengthen the lesson of the law; to make its message of condemnation clearer than ever. He continued to do this until a certain time in Israel’s history, and that is precisely what we want to understand—the time when the law’s job was done; when its purpose had been filled-full. This did not happen within the book of Matthew but well into the book of Acts.
We want to turn now to a verse that I will refer to more than once but it will serve as an excellent starting point to show when God finished with His purpose for the law.
Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound (Romans 5:20).
In Romans 5:12–19 Paul is discussing sin and its condemnation even without the law being a factor. In verse 19 he concludes by saying that saying that just as by Adam’s sin many were made sinners so by the obedience of Chris many shall be made righteous. Then comes the verse that brings the law into the picture to show its real reason for coming at all. “Moreover the law entered [so] that the offence might abound.”
This verse is very close to what Galatians 3:19, 20 say: “the law was added because of transgression until the seed should come to whom the promise was made…Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster until Christ…” This matches what Romans 3:19 stated: “Now we know that whatever things the law says it says to those who are under the law [so] that every mouth might be stopped…”
So, in Romans 5:20 the law entered to teach Israel about the exceeding sinfulness of sin, that even they, with all God’s attention, were just sinners too. Romans 5:20 is talking about the dispensation of the law; the dispensation of law entered to show man his exceeding sin before God even though He was a Father to them.
But Paul takes another giant step and says: “…but where sin abounded grace did much more abound.” Let us take this statement part by part. “Moreover the law entered,” is the entrance of the dispensation of law. “But where sin abounded…,” and this has got to be where sin abounded under the dispensation of the law, “grace did super abound!” The question is: When did grace super abound? When did grace super abound over man’s abounding sin under the law?
Keep in mind it is talking about dispensations here. The exact event referred to here is when the dispensation of law ended and the dispensation of grace began! But when was that? It was with the salvation of the chief of sinners—Paul! Let me demonstrate this—as clear as it is here—by another important passage; 1 Timothy 1:14–16:
And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry;
Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.
And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.
Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.
Was Paul the first sinner ever saved? Was he the first to receive longsuffering? The answer is “No” to both questions. Paul is the pattern of something new—something that began with his salvation. To make this clear we need to find out what Paul means when he calls himself the chief of sinners.
The word chief means foremost or highest ranking. Paul was a leader in Israel and had great authority vested in him by the chief priests. He was one of the best—if not the best keeper of the law alive (Galatians 1:13,14 cf. Philippians 3:5,6). He was a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee but most importantly, he was also the leader of Israel’s rebellion against God. Paul represented something that no one else could have; he represented Israel under the dispensation of law in the third and last state of rebellion against God.
The first stage of Israel’s rebellion was in the Old Testament when they rejected God the Father by killing the prophets (Matthew 23:31; Acts 7:52). The second stage of their rebellion is when they rejected God the Son by crucifying Him, and the third stage of their rebellion is when they rejected God’s offer of the times of refreshing through the Holy Spirit led ministry of the 12 Apostles. Israel did all of this under their dispensation of the law! Is this not astounding? These were the people who had the law of God and were His covenant people and this is how they honored Him!
So, they rejected the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all under their law. How do we know that their rejection of the Holy Spirit-filled offer of the return of Christ was the last straw? Because it is then when God stepped in and saved Saul after a dramatic event in Acts chapter 7—the stoning of Stephen! Look at the last thing Stephen said to the throng; a statement that caused their rage:
[You] Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it (Acts 7:53).
Here is the crowning blow to Israel: You who have received the law from the hands of angles [at Sinai—from God to angles to Moses to Israel] and have not kept it! They had rejected all three persons of the Godhead while His covenant people; they had fully proven their unbelief, guilt, and sin under the law and it was over. God had fully proved what He set out to. He had filled the law full (Matthew 5:17 and 18). Now it should be clearer what Paul meant when he called himself the chief of sinners. He represented Israel under the law in their final rebellion against God.
Romans 5:20 comes into focus also now. “Moreover the [dispensation of] law entered that the offence might abound, but where sin abounded [under the law] grace did super abound [through the beginning of the dispensation of grace with the salvation of Paul].
Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1:14 and 15 are now clear also. He was a blasphemer and persecutor, but the grace of the Lord was exceedingly abundant. This is the super abounding grace of God in Romans 5:20. This chief of sinners became the pattern of the super abounding grace of God over the abounding sin of man under the law! Paul’s salvation itself represented what God would do for all who would follow him in this dispensation. God will save any man by faith alone in Christ alone, and God will do this by His super abounding grace alone!
This is why Paul was saved; to usher in a new unprophesied dispensation of grace. [the due time?]. Paul was the first one saved in this dispensation and he was the first member of the Church, the Body of Christ. There is no need to make an issue, however, over when the Body of Christ began; all we need do is demonstrate when the dispensation of grace began and the other follows suit. Thus, it is Paul’s salvation that marks the monumental change in God’s program for Israel. The setting aside of Israel for a season began with the introduction of this present dispensation, and that began with Paul.
It was at the stoning of Stephen that God had systematically proven Israel in unbelief along with the Gentiles. This is the principle of universal alienation that is brought out so well in Ephesians 2:16:
Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the
law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of two
one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in
one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby
Here, in Ephesians 2:15 is a definition of the Church, the Body of Christ. Do you see it? “For to make in himself of two one new man.” Who are the two here? They are two sinful, alienated groups. And which two groups are they? They are the Gentiles who were alienated in Genesis 12 and the nation Israel which was alienated in Acts 7:52–60! God is telling us in Ephesians that before the Body of Christ could even begin to be formed both Israel and the Gentiles had to be alienated—proven in sin. This could not have been the case in Acts 2 because God had not fully proven Israel to be sinful under their law. At that time, Israel still had one more round to go.
But once the law had fully done its job and Israel had fully been committed in unbelief, then God had both groups where He wanted them and then He opened the floodgates of Grace and began a wonderful new day. Ephesians 2:15 and 16 are often overlooked as a definition of the makeup of the Body of Christ and its beginning but that is what it is. God began a dispensation in which he takes out of two alienated unsaved groups and makes one new man—the Body of Christ. This church is new because it is made up of those who believe the Gospel of Grace and are saved into this church out of the two alienated unsaved groups.
“That God might reconcile both…” Both who? Both sinful, alienated groups…..
No one who was already saved in Israel qualified to come into this church. That does not fit God’s definition for the Body of Christ here. You had to be saved into it from one of these two unsaved groups! Since part of this needed alienation had not taken place prior to Acts 8 it is clear that the Body of Christ began when the dispensation of Grace began—with Paul! Those who were already saved in Israel prior to Paul were in the kingdom church and could not get re-saved into the Body. Mark well, one had to be saved into this church from one of the two unsaved alienated groups! That is what the Body of Christ stands for and is.
Again, why is all this so important? Because this is what God is doing today! He is saving folks from two unsaved sinful groups into one new man and we must be in tune with this if we want to serve God properly! We can not help people get saved and walk to please God if we do not give them the right gospel and teach them the right economy in which to walk. We are not doing the Lord of the sinner any favors to compromise this.
I mentioned at the beginning that there is no one in a better position to help people spiritually than the godly grace believer and now I think you can see why; are you willing?
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