[K:NWTS 6/3 (Dec 1991) 3-18]
The Sermon on the Mount is rightly accorded a chief place in the teaching of our Lord. It carries a weight of authority, sets an ethical standard, and reveals heights and depths of the religious life nowhere surpassed in the gospels. The evangelists in recording it seem to have been aware of this. Matthew does not, as on other occasions, introduce the discourse with the conventional phrase "Jesus said," but with the quite solemn statement "And he opened his mouth"—thus giving us to understand that the utterance of these words was to Jesus' own mind an act to which he deliberately proceeded. And Luke conveys somewhat of the same impression by the introductory statement, "And he lifted up his eyes on the disciples and said." Jesus never spoke without a clear sense of the consequences with which his words were fraught. And blessed is the preacher of whom it can be truly said that ministering the Word of God is to him an holy task. But, while the sense of this was always present with our Lord, it was heightened on this occasion. This was the first time that he set himself to teach his disciples. Here he assumes that peculiar ministry of breaking the bread of life for his own, which he has ever since unceasingly performed through the ages, and even now performs for us, as in these moments we gather round his feet to receive his teaching. In fact it is here for the first time that the term "disciples" occurs in Matthew's gospel. Hence also the statement that our Lord "sat down," and, having made the disciples draw near, so taught them. The sitting posture, with the hearers standing around, was characteristic of the relation between teacher and pupils, in distinction from the standing position, marking the prophet or gospel-herald.
The Epitome of Christianity?
To note these details of description is not of merely historical interest, but also of practical religious importance, because it may warn us at the outset against a view all too commonly prevailing concerning the purpose of this "Sermon on the Mount." The sermon is often represented as a succinct summary of Jesus' message. It passes for an epitome of Christianity, the teststone of what is essential to our religion. All that is not here, we are told, can without detriment be neglected. Every later type of Christian life and teaching is to be judged, not by the standard of Scripture as a whole, nor even by the authority of the words of Christ as a whole, but by the content of this one discourse. This deplorable error is due to more than one cause. The beauty and glory of truth concentrated here may easily beget a feeling that all else in the New Testament is in comparison of minor value.
A second motive coming into play is that many people in the matter of religious belief wholly abandon themselves to their ungoverned tastes and feelings. They scorn every hard and fast rule of faith and practice. Even submission to the indiscriminate teaching of Jesus they find distasteful. At the same time, unwilling to appear entirely emancipated from all historical bonds of faith, they fall back upon some choice portion of the gospel, preferably the Sermon on the Mount, and cling to it as to the last remaining shreds of the garment of creed, barely sufficient to cover the nakedness of their subjectivity. It is thus that the Sermon on the Mount has become the creed of the creedless.
The Natural Man Flattered
But by far the most influential force driving people to such a view comes from the flattery it supplies to the natural man. It flatters him by taking for granted that he needs no more than the presentation of this high ideal, and that Jesus does him the honor of thinking him capable of realizing it by his own natural goodness. And, last of all, it is not so much what people find in the Sermon on the Mount, it is what they congratulate themselves upon not finding there that renders them thus enamored of its excellence. It is because they dislike the story of the helplessness of sin, of man's utter condemnation in the sight of God, and the insistence upon the necessity of the cross—it is because of all this that they evince such eagerness to adopt as their exclusive creed a portion of the gospel from which in their opinion these offensive things are absent.
Salvation Before Discipleship
Now all such forget that both Jesus and the evangelist expressly relate the Sermon on the Mount to the disciples, and consequently place back of what is described in it the process of becoming a disciple, the whole rich relationship of saving approach and responsive faith, of calling and repentance and pardon and acceptance and the following of Jesus—all that makes the men and women of the gospel such disciples and Jesus such a Lord and Savior as this and other records of his teaching imply. It is therefore folly to insist that no specific doctrine of salvation is here. It is present as a living doctrine incarnate in the person of Jesus.
We are apt to forget that in the days of our Lord's flesh there was no need for that explicit teaching about the Christ found in the epistles of the New Testament. At that time he, the real Christ, walked among men and exhibited in his intercourse with sinners more impressively than any abstract doctrine could have done the principles and the process of salvation. If we have but eyes to see, we shall find our Savior in the out-door scenes of the gospels no less than within the walls of the school of the epistle to the Romans. And we shall find him too in the Sermon on the Mount. For this discourse throughout presupposes that the disciples here instructed became associated with Jesus as sinners needing salvation, and that their whole life in continuance is lived on the basis of grace. At the beginning stand the beatitudes, engraven in golden script upon its portal, reminding us that we are not received by Jesus into a school of ethics but into a kingdom of redemption. It is blessedness that is promised here, and the word does not so much signify a state of mind, as that great realm of consummation and satisfaction which renders man's existence, once he has entered into it, serene and secure for evermore.
Dependence on Grace
And again, foremost among the beatitudes stand those that emphasize the emptiness, the absolute dependence of man upon divine grace. As at the dawn of the gospel, Mary sang: "He has put down princes from their thrones, and has exalted them of low degree; the hungry he has filled with good things and the rich he has sent empty away" (Lk. 1:52, 53), so here those pronounced blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, and they that hunger and thirst after righteousness. It is in no wise to the self-satisfied mind that the Lord addresses himself. His call is not a call to exertion, not even to exertion in holiness. It were too little to say that it is an invitation to receive; it goes farther than that. It amounts to the declaration that the consciousness of having nothing, absolutely nothing, is the certain pledge of untold enrichment.
So much is salvation a matter of giving on God's part that its best subjects are those in whom his grace of giving can have this perfect work. The poor in spirit, those that mourn, the meek and the hungry, these are made to pass before our eyes as so many typical forms of its embodiment. And because this is so, they are here also introduced as having the promise of the infinite. To be a child of God and a disciple of Jesus means to hold in one's hand the treasures of eternity. Look for a moment at the second clauses of these beatitudes. Some of the things spoken of may, in a relative sense, be obtained in the present life. Comfort and mercy and the vision of God and sonship are bestowed during our pilgrimage on earth. As a matter of fact, however, these things are here held in prospect not in relative but in absolute measure. In the consummate life only can it become true that the meek inherit the earth, that the eyes of the pure behold the beatific vision of God, that the hungry and thirsty are satisfied with righteousness. This absolute character of the promise writes the principle of redemption large on the face of the Sermon on the Mount. To join together after this manner creature-emptiness and the riches of divine benediction is the prerogative of God the Savior. So long as this voice of the beatitudes is distinctly heard, it will not be possible to find any other religion here than that religion of salvation through the grace of God in Christ.
A Stress on Morals?
But is it not true, you are perhaps inclined to ask, that at least from the words of our text the opposite view receives a measure of support? "Righteousness"—in this word certainly the stress seems to be laid on ethical conduct without any particular admixture of the redemptive element. Men are willing to admit that, so far as the specifically religious qualities are concerned, our attitude must be a receptive one, leaving all the energizing to God. When, however, the sphere of the moral life is reached, the principle seems no longer to apply, this being the field of cooperation between the divine and the human. That people are rash to draw such a conclusion is partly due to the modish social coloring which the term "righteousness" receives at the present day. But we may not determine its meaning for our text in the light of this modern association. The important question to answer is what meaning the word carried to the mind of Jesus. As soon as this is done, we shall soon discover that no greater mistake could be made from Jesus' point of view than to assume that in the matter of righteousness the divine is less and the human more than in other relations.
Jesus and Paul
It would be crude, to be sure, straightway to inject into our text the doctrine of Paul according to which righteousness is something wrought out in Christ and transferred to us by imputation. And yet, it would be a far more serious mistake to suppose that our Lord's idea of righteousness and that of Paul differed in principle and did not grow from the same root. There need be no difficulty in showing that Jesus, and in fact all preceding revelation, carefully laid the basis for this crowning structure of apostolic revelation.
Righteousness in Scripture
In order to do this let us note in the first place that righteousness is in Scripture an idea saturated with the thought of God. Throughout the Old Testament this is so. It is a commonplace of its teaching, especially in the prophets, that there can be no true obedience of heart and life without the constant presence to the mind of man of the thought of Jehovah. Not only is ethics without religion a fragmentary thing; even more important is the principle that in such a case it lacks the true quality of right, the inner essence of what renders it conformable to its very idea. Righteousness is the opposite of sin, and as the reference to God is inseparable from the conception of sin, so the reference to God is in precisely the same manner inherent in the idea of righteousness. To put it very plainly: If there were no God to see and judge and punish, one might perhaps still continue to speak of good and evil, meaning thereby what is beneficial or injurious, subject to the approval or disapproval of men, but it would be meaningless to speak of sin on such a supposition. And so, by equal reasoning, while what is commonly called good might without the existence of God be conceivable in the world, yet it could not properly bear the name of righteousness for the simple reason that, in order to deserve this name, according to the Biblical way of thinking, it needs first to be placed in the light of the divine nature, the divine will, the divine judgment.
At the very birth of the people of God this principle was embedded deep in their life, when God said to Abraham: "I am El-Shaddai, walk thou before me, then shalt thou be blameless" (Gen. 17:1). To walk before God means so to walk as to have the thought of God's presence and supervision constantly in mind, and to shape one's conduct accordingly. Our Lord's whole teaching on the subject of righteousness is but one emphatic reaffirmation and further development of the same principle. Although the religious atmosphere in his day was surcharged with the notions of law-keeping and merit and retribution, there was lacking the vivid consciousness of God as a perpetual witness and interested participant in every moral transaction. The automaton of the law had taken the place of the living God. Well might our Lord quote the words of the prophet Isaiah: "This people honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" (Mt. 15:8; Is. 29:13).
Alas, this fault with which Jesus had to contend is not so exclusively peculiar to the spirit of that age as we might perhaps be inclined to assume. A Jew lives in you and me and in every human heart by nature. If we ever were tempted to think ourselves able to fulfill the law of God, was it not perhaps for this reason—that the sense of God's absolute claim upon us and knowledge of us had become dim to our conscience? Since, then, this fault reappears in every sinner, the Preacher of the Mount repeats his sermon in the ears of each generation. He stands to plead the right of God, no matter what substitutes for him we may have put up in our lives, nay not even though it were, as in the case of Judaism, a counterfeit of God's own law. And, great physician that he is, he directs his probe straight to the root of the disease. Christ drives us back into the inner chambers of our consciousness, where God and we are alone, and good and evil assume a proportion and significance never dreamt of before. The law in the hands of Jesus becomes alive with God's own personality. Majestic and authoritative, he is present in every commandment, so absolute in his demands, so observant of our conduct, so intent upon the outcome, that the thought of giving him less than heart and soul and mind and strength in the product of our moral life ceases to be tolerable to ourselves.
Law and the Sermon on the Mount
Much has been preached and written about the internal character of the law-observance which the Sermon on the Mount requires. Truly, it does teach with powerful emphasis that the righteousness is in the intent and disposition, not first in the outward act, just as the sin is not committed first when the hand reaches out to strike, but when anger surges up in the heart. But we do not, I am afraid, realize with sufficient clearness what is the ultimate reason for this internalizing emphasis. Why are evil and good with such insistency pushed back into the region of the heart? The reason is none other than that in the heart man confronts God. In the recesses of the inner man, where deep calls unto deep, where the Lawgiver and the creature are face to face, there and there alone the issue of righteousness and of sin can be decided. Nor does this merely mean that the conscience is brought under the direct gaze and control of the will of God. It is the divine nature lying back of the divine will in the light of which the creature is led to place itself. The inner man enters, if we may so speak, into the inner forum of the Most High. There God, besides requiring obedience to his will, is heard to ask conformity to his moral nature. The law is perceived to coincide with what he is. The majesty, the inevitableness, the self-evidencing and self-enforcing power of the eternal are put into it. To fulfill the law becomes but an other form of the imperative—to be like unto God. It is God's inalienable right as God to impress his character upon us, to make and keep us reflectors of his infinite glory. But in a state of sin this can only intensify a thousand times the consciousness of man's utter inability even to begin to realize what nevertheless is the very core of his end in life, the sole ultimate reason for his existence.
Thus apprehend, the range and scope of the moral circle drawn around our being become enormous, so much so indeed that they would almost seem to exceed the possibilities of frail human nature. So long as man's moral life is not illumined by this central glory of the nature of God, it may remain possible for the illusion to spring up that the sinner can at least aspire towards fulfillment of the law. He then imagines that the command is relaxed and lowered to the limitations of his abnormal state. The limitless perspective, all that makes for the eternal seriousness and solemnity of the values of righteousness and sin, are forgotten. "To be righteous" acquires the restricted meaning of being law-like, instead of God-like. Sin also loses its absolute character of disharmony with the divine nature. It appears a mere shortness in one's account, easily rectifiable by future extra-payments. To all this delusion Jesus puts an end by the simple word: "Ye shall be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Mt. 5:48) and: "Thus shall ye pray: Thy will be done, as in heaven so on earth" (Mt. 6:9,10).
And, still further, the purpose of this demand of God-likeness is not to be primarily sought in the desirability for man of patterning himself after the highest example; it has its deeper ground in the right of God to possess and use us as instruments for the revelation of his supreme glory. If God desires to mirror himself in us, can it behoove man to offer him less than a perfect reflection? Shall we say that he must overlook the little blemishes, the minor sins, the mixed aspirations, the half-hearted efforts, must take the will for the deed, and an imperfect will at that? Or shall we confess with the speaker in Job that the heavens are not clean in his sight (Job 15:15)? Once this point of view is adopted, our whole estimate of sin and righteousness undergoes a radical change. We then begin to measure and appraise them in their bearing on God and their value for him. Obedience becomes sacrifice; the light that is in us no longer shines for our own delectation, but in order that through the perception of our good works by men, glory may come to our Father in heaven. Here lies also the reason why, notwithstanding all the emphasis placed on the secretness and inwardness of righteousness, our Lord nonetheless insists upon the necessity of works as essential to the issue of the moral process. Because it does not exist for itself, therefore the right must leap to the light of day. Jesus, no more than Paul, would have assented to the view that in sanctification the good will or intention is the sole thing required. The tree of righteousness is planted in us by God for his own sake, and consequently he delights in its blossoms and desires to eat of its fruit.
The Desire for Righteousness
We have now explored a little of the length and breadth and height and depth of what the Sermon on the Mount proclaims as the whole duty of man. The task of fulfilling this is so stupendous that a sinless being might almost contemplate it with misgiving. Where, then, shall the ungodly and sinner appear? Can our Lord have meant that it is even remotely possible for the disciple by his own strength to attain unto this? Our text implies the very opposite. No, not the possession of such a righteousness is characteristic of the members of the kingdom, but that they hunger and thirst after it. Notice sharply the implications of the striking figure employed. It implies, of course, in the first place that the disciple has not in himself, and is conscious of not having, the thing described. That, however, is only the negative side; to the absence there corresponds the desire for its presence. And a very specific kind of desire is referred to. Its strength is emphasized, and that not merely in general, but in the very particular sense of its being an elemental desire, a life-craving in which the deepest instincts of the disciple assert themselves. To hunger and thirst after a thing means the recognition that without that thing there can be no life. It involves that in this one desire and its satisfaction the whole meaning of life is centered, that the whole energy of life is directed towards it, that the goal of life is identified with it. To the sense of this fundamental spiritual craving all other things are obliterated. As to the hungry and thirsty, gold and silver become worthless, so to the disciple in whom this desire has awakened, the wealth of the universe, were he offered it, would have no attraction.
And let us remember that this intensified desire has for its object the righteousness of God as previously described. What renders this thing desirable is the vision of it as associated with God. In its ultimate analysis, it is the passion for God himself. Here is the cry of the Psalmist: "Whom have I in heaven but thee, and there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee" (Ps. 73:25), translated into terms of ethics. Still further, the form of hunger and thirst which the desire assumes presupposes the clearest conceivable perception of the nature of its object. As there is no more vivid picture of the nourishing and refreshing power of food and drink than that which stands before the imagination of a hungry and thirsty person, so there is no truer, no more adequate reproduction of God's own idea of righteousness than that which exists in the mind that hungers and thirsts after the manner here portrayed. Herein lies one of the chief glories of the work of redemption—that it produces in the heart and mind of the sinner such a profound, ineffaceable impression of the realities in God. Nothing will lay so bare the foundations of our relationship to him as the experience of salvation.
The thing spoken of in the text appears nowhere else in such an intense form as it does through its connection with sin. The beginning of hungering and thirsting after righteousness lies in the birth of conviction of sin. In fact the presence of this element in it is what distinguishes true, deep repentance from every kind of superficial regret for the secondary consequences of sin. True repentance strips sin of all that is accidental. It resembles an inner chamber where no one and nothing else is admitted except God and the sinner and his sin. Into that chamber all the great penitents like David and Paul and Augustine and Luther have entered, and each one in the bitter anguish of his soul has borrowed the words of the Psalmist: "Against thee, thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight, that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest" (Ps. 51:4).
A repentant sinner acquits God and condemns himself. And for the very reason that his consciousness of sin is God-centered, he is also alive to its inward seriousness. He learns to trace it in the recesses and abysses of his inmost life, where even the eye of self-scrutiny would otherwise scarcely penetrate, but in which the eyes of God are at home, where all our iniquities stand naked before him and our secret sins in the light of his countenance. If it is characteristic of sin to excuse itself, it is no less characteristic of repentance to scorn all subterfuge and to judge of itself, as it were, with the very veracity of God. Herein indeed is shown the first grace of God to an awakened sinner that he lets in upon the soul this cleansing flood of moral truth. It is a painful experience, but even through the pain the penitent feels that his relation towards God has been in principle rectified, that the sorrow of repentance is a sorrow after God himself. Without that much of faith there is no repentance, by that much of faith gracious repentance differs from the remorse of the hopelessly lost. And from such saving penitence there is but one more step to the recognition that the claims of the divine righteousness in their widest extent must be satisfied. To a mind thus disposed the thought of atonement is no longer an offense or foolishness, but something commending itself by its inherent justice. The doctrine of satisfaction ages before it was elaborated by religious thinkers had vindicated itself, as it still continues to do, to thousands of hearts in the bitter theology of repentance. The fact of sin, while as such irrevocably accomplished, yet so far as the guilt is concerned must be undone, if God is to remain the God of sinners. Here the truth taught by Jesus leads directly to Paul's doctrine of atonement and justification. To the heart that has had the Sermon on the Mount interpreted to itself by the Holy Spirit, there is no other solution and refuge than the cross underneath which Paul found shelter. To such as hunger and thirst after righteousness the flesh of the Son of Man is meat and his blood is drink, indeed.
The Desire for a Sanctified Life
But the principle expressed in our text reaches still farther out. The hungering and thirsting most assuredly also include a desire to exhibit the righteousness of discipleship in a sanctified life. And this Christian pursuit of holiness likewise is centered in God. It is not as if in justification the divine grace, and in sanctification human endeavor, were the sole factor to be reckoned with. Much rather in sanctification itself the old alternative again presents itself, whether in all its parts, in the acting upon by God and in the being moved to responsive action of the believer, the divine glory or human merit shall be the principal concern. There is a striving after moral excellence in which the selfish sinful nature most vigorously reasserts itself, involving merely a transition from the gross and carnal to the more refined and elusive type of sin. The true disciple does not seek to be made better for his own glory, but in the interest and for the glory of God. He feels with Paul that he must apprehend because he was apprehended for that very purpose. The image of God restored in the soul cannot help turning back towards its original. The new man is created after God in righteousness and holiness of truth. The believer, therefore, sanctifies himself, that God's purpose may not be frustrated in him, but find glorious fruition. Only he does so in constant reliance on divine grace. It were a mistake to confine the province of faith to justification. All progress in holiness depends on it. It is the element, the atmosphere in which the Christian lives, that which imparts to his works their sacrificial character and makes them pleasing to God. And, because, thanks to God, it is deeper in him than his deepest sin, even when he fails and falls, he does not despair, nor is utterly forsaken. God's witness remains in him; he can say with Peter: "Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee" (Jn. 21:17)!
Assurance of Satisfaction
Finally, the Lord here assures the hungry and thirsty ones that they shall be satisfied. Every instinctive desire, when normal, carries in itself the knowledge that there is that which can satisfy it. The great gifts of God and the great desires of life have been created for each other and call for each other. If this be true in the natural world, it is equally true in the spiritual world, in the sphere of redemption. The craving described in our text is a prophecy. It tells of a law in the kingdom of God, a sure creative appointment, out of which, twin-children of the divine grace, the hunger after righteousness and the righteousness itself are born. It is God, and God alone, who can produce in the deepest heart of man a thing so instinctive as what is here spoken of. No sinner can give this to himself. If we feel it at all, to however slight a degree, it is from no other cause than that the love of God has found us, and the breath of the Spirit Creator has blown upon us, quickening us into newness of life. If this were a desire artificially awakened or stimulated by man, there could be no assurance of either the existence or the satisfying character of its object.
Even in the case of our noblest and most elevating desires after the creature, we too often make sad experience of the failure of our ideals to meet the expectation. The reason is that in our dreams we ourselves are the creators of the excellence we crave, and because we cannot also create the satisfaction, we hunger in vain. But it is different here. He that gave the thirst likewise provides the water, and the one exactly meets the other. It is not the will of our heavenly Father that any longing in our hearts, prompted by himself, and therefore sincerely seeking him, shall perish unsatisfied. A satisfying righteousness therefore must be provided for the people of God. And it must be provided outside of us. To eat means to be nourished from without. Since the sinner is devoid of all righteousness, it is self-evident that the source of his supply must be sought beyond the confines of his own evil and empty nature. For it to be otherwise would mean that hunger could be stilled with hunger.
The Coming Kingdom
Our Lord's meaning obviously is that the coming order of things, the new kingdom of God, brings with itself, chief of all blessings, a perfect righteousness, as truly and absolutely the gift of God to man as is the entire kingdom. What is true of the kingdom—that no human merit can deserve, no human effort call it into being—applies with equal force to the righteousness that forms its center. It is God's creation, not man's. The prophet recognized it as such when, despairing of sinful Israel, he promised that in the future, in the new covenant, God would remember the sin no more, and would write his law upon the tablets of the heart. Our Lord here simply declares that what prophets and psalmists saw from afar is on the point of becoming real. The acceptable year of Jehovah is about to begin. His beatitudes are the evangel, giving answer across the ages to the prophesies of old. It means that with comfort and riches and mercy and sonship and the vision of God, righteousness will be given in abundance to a destitute people. True, Jesus does not enter here upon any description of the method by which this is to be accomplished. As little as he specifies what will bring comfort in the place of mourning, does he tell how righteousness will banish sin. But does not the very fact of his foregoing to tell this afford a presumption that he is conscious of carrying the source and substance of all these things in his own person? The same Jesus who immediately afterwards in interpreting the law puts side by side with the commandment of God his sovereign, "I say unto you," the same Jesus here takes into his hands all the riches of prophecy, as only the God of prophecy can take them and disposes of them as his own sovereign gift: "Theirs is the kingdom," and "They shall be filled."
What gives him the right to speak thus, not merely in the sphere of power, but also in the sphere of righteousness? As God he could change sickness into health and mourning into joy, but even as God he cannot change sin and guilt into righteousness by a mere fiat of his will. When, nevertheless, he here declares that this will be done, the reason is that in his own life, his life of a servant, this greatest of all tasks is being accomplished. In one sense the Sermon on the Mount was a sermon preached out of his own personal experience. The righteousness he described was not a distant ideal, it was an incarnate reality himself. He alone of all mankind fulfilled the law in its deepest purport and widest extent. His keeping of it proceeded from that sanctuary of his inner life where he and the Father always beheld each other's face. He made it his meat and drink to do the will of God. His human nature was an altar from which the incense of perfect consecration rose ceaselessly day and night. He submitted to the cross and endured the shame, not merely on our behalf, but first of all in order that not one jot or one tittle of the divine justice should fall to the ground. He not only hungered and thirsted but was satisfied with the travail of his soul. And now you and I can come and take of the bread and water of life freely. Through justification we are even in this life filled with the fullness of his merit, and appear to God as spotless and blameless as though sin had never touched us. Through sanctification his holy character is impressed upon our souls, so that, notwithstanding our imperfections, God takes a true delight in us, seeing that the inner man is changed from day to day after the likeness of Christ. And the full meaning of our Lord's promise we shall know in the last day, when he shall satisfy himself in us by presenting us to God perfect in body, soul and Spirit. Then shall come to pass the word that is written: "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more" (Rev. 7:16). For we shall behold God's face in righteousness and be satisfied, when we awake with his image.
Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, New Jersey