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Its Dispensational Setting

It was Miles Coverdale who offered this quaint but valuable advice for the clearer understanding of God's word:

It shall greatly help thee to understand Scripture if thou mark not only what is spoken or written: but of whom: and to whom: with what words: at what time: where: with what intent: with what circumstances: considering what goeth before and what followeth after.

Certainly the wonderful discourse of the Lord Jesus recorded in Mat. 5 to 7 calls for this approach. Few parts of the Bible have attracted greater admiration, even from people who have little understanding of the Scriptures as a whole. Many who have never experienced the new birth will lift out parts of the Lord's teaching from these chapters as a good rule of life. Notably they like to quote what they regard as a golden rule: "In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you" (7:12 NIV). This casual use of a fragment here and there does scant justice to the tremendous message of the discourse from the lips of our incomparable Teacher, who spoke with divine authority and wisdom.

Its Relationship to the Age of Law

The age or dispensation of the law ran from Moses until Christ. The Lord Jesus was "born under the law" (Gal. 4:4). He acknowledged its continuing authority "till all things be accomplished" (Mat. 5:18). He Himself magnified the law and made it honourable in His own perfect accomplishment of all it required (Is. 42:21). He redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). So when He had died and risen again the age of the law drew to a close, to be followed by the present glorious age of grace, ushered in by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. From that day forward the word was true: "you are not under law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14


It was, then, in the closing years of the age of law that the Lord Jesus gave "the sermon on the mount." He was speaking to those under the law, to a Jewish audience in the Palestine of His day. They recognized the Old Testament as God's "living oracles" (Acts 7:38). These the Lord firmly upheld as of divine origin and authority (Mat. 5:17, 18). So much so that to break "one of these least commandments" would result in being called least in the kingdom of heaven; to do and teach them would bring corresponding honour. Moreover those who claimed to be the custodians and ideal exponents of that law, the scribes and Pharisees, were said to have fallen short of its requirements (5:20).

The whole presentation of the Lord's message on this occasion had regard to Jewish background and spiritual thought. We find glimpses of features so familiar in their experience the gift brought to the altar (5:23); the city of the great King (5:35); publicly announced giving to the poor (6:2); and hypocrites praying in the streets (6:5).

References to the Kingdom of Heaven

These references should also be understood in relation to the outlook of the people to whom the Lord Jesus was speaking. For at that time the people of Israel where obsessed with expectation of deliverance from Rome's political yoke through the setting up of Messiah's kingdom. Had not Isaiah foretold that "of the increase of His government and of peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon His kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with judgement and with righteousness... for ever"? (Is. 9:7). Had not Daniel in vision seen the glory of the nation's promise Messiah? "and there was given Him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom . . . which shall not pass away (Dan. 7:14). So Jewish hopes for future glory lay in that promised messianic kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, the rule of heaven through Messiah in this world. The same outlook is seen in Luke 19:11, when the Lord added the parable of the ten servants and their pounds "because they supposed that the kingdom of God was immediately to appear." While even after the Lord's resurrection the disciples seemed to be cherishing this hope when they asked Him, "Dost Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6).

A reference to the kingdom of heaven in Mat. 7:21 seems to demand this identification with the future kingdom of Messiah. For the following verses refer to a day of accountability and judgement; in that day some will enter the kingdom of heaven and others will be excluded. This agrees with what the Lord said in Mat. 8:11, 12. Many Gentiles will share the blessings of the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the "sons of the kingdom", those who by natural birth should have had a place there, will be cast out. To what could this apply if not to the future earthly kingdom of Messiah? It's significant that in the parallel verses in Luke's gospel (13:28, 29) this is referred to as the kingdom of God. So the millennial kingdom of Christ is described in certain contexts both as the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven.

Looking at the references to the kingdom of heaven in the sermon on the mount, we suggest that each of them refers to that future kingdom the time of

compensation and reward for the poor in spirit and persecuted (5:3, 10); a sphere of blessing from which the self-righteous and hypocritical will be shut out (5:20; 7:21). It would seem that the Lord's hearers would understand His reference to the kingdom of heaven in this sense.

References to Gehenna

Gehenna was the place outside Jerusalem in the Valley of Hinnom where the city's refuse was burned with continuous fire. Figuratively it represented to the Jewish mind the place of future judgement after this life. This is clear from Mark 9:47 where the entrance for the righteous into the kingdom of God (in this context the future kingdom of Messiah), is contrasted with being cast into hell for judgement. The word gehenna is again translated "hell" in Luke 12:4, 5, confirming that to be cast into gehenna means divine punishment after death. The three references in Mat. 5:22, 29, 30 are all in a similar sense, pointing to the judgement of God in hell. The Lord was warning that whereas such acts as murder or adultery were acknowledged to merit such judgement, even angry words or impure thoughts springing from the evil motivations of the heart were seriously sinful. These too could make a person liable to divine judgement.

Links with the Dispensation of Grace

In some respects the Lord's teaching in the sermon on the mount anticipated the fuller revelation and higher standards of this present age of grace. Paul wrote in Romans 8:3, 4: "What the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." The Lord was pointing the way in this direction. He showed that more was needed than mere outward compliance with the letter of law. He dealt also with inward motivation. For instance the commandment not to commit adultery applied not only to the physical act. Adultery may be committed in the heart by looking lustfully at a woman (Mat. 5:28). So He demonstrated that men did not fully keep God's law. Pharisee and scribe might claim to do so, but theirs was a superficial self-righteousness. The Lord's teaching began to impress on Jewish hearts what became so clear in the new dispensation that "the law hath been our tutor to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith" (Gal. 3:24). It shows our failure and essential unrighteousness, and so prepares us to trust alone in Him "who was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption" (I Cor. 1:30). Having appreciated this, we may then as Spirit indwelt believers in Jesus fulfil the requirement of the law, walking "not after the flesh, but after the Spirit."

Besides such preparatory teaching towards great foundation principles of the dispensation of grace, the Lord's ministry in Mat. 5 touches several matters in which higher standards where then to be introduced. His teaching as to marriage (5:31, 32), the taking of oaths (5:33-37), and love for those who ill-treat us (5:43-48) were all later confirmed by the Epistles as guidance for His disciples in the present age.

Spanning all Dispensations!

Much of the matchless teaching in this great discourse by the Lord Jesus is fundamental to a right attitude before God throughout all ages of His ways with men. "He hath shewed thee, 0 man, what is good;" wrote the prophet Micah," and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" In the setting of the Israel of His day, the Lord Jesus presented teaching which simply but brilliantly expressed these beauties of spiritual character; truths which are timeless. For has not God always honoured such attitudes of heart as described in the beatitudes (5:1-1 2), and the sincerity of secret prayer or secret giving to others (6:1-18), and dependence in faith on Him for daily provision (6:19-34), and obedience in faith to His word (7:24-27)?

Truth for our Time

As further articles in this series deal in greater detail with these three chapters of Matthew's gospel, may our hearts be open to accept the full impact of the Lord's powerful message! For here is truth so largely applicable to you and me today. We shall be so much the poorer if it is lost in our own spiritual experience. Although cast in a Jewish mould suited to the occasion when first it was spoken, the whole discourse forms a pattern of healthful teaching to which we also should give earnest heed.