The Majesty of the Teacher in the Sermon on the Mount

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One of the first books I read in seminary was The Riddle of the New Testament by Edwyn Hoskyns and Noel Davey. The riddle was this: How did Jesus himself relate to the teachings of the New Testament? Was his person essential, for example, to the ethics of Christianity?

It was bracing to discover again and again in the New Testament that, just when you thought Jesus was a revolutionary Jewish teacher of love, you were smacked with the reality of his outrageous claims about himself.

Words That Awaken

The old liberal view that Jesus taught the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the ethic of love, shattered over and over on the rocks of Jesus’s persistent self-exaltation.

This is what drove C. S. Lewis to say,

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. (Mere Christianity)

I was struck again recently how true this is in the Sermon on the Mount. This is the most famous collection of Jesus’s ethical teachings. Here is where the old liberals found the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the ethic of love.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9).

“Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12).

“Judge not, that you not be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

“Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

But just when you thought Jesus was a good Moses-like, Confucius-like, Mao-like, Mahatma-like teacher of the way, suddenly, right there in the Sermon on the Mount, the imperial “I” or “me” or “my” smacks you awake.

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:21–23)

Astonishing Claims

Three things are astonishing here.

  1. Jesus accepts the title “Lord, Lord,” even in his lifetime. The problem is not that people call him Lord, but that it doesn’t mean enough to change them.

  2. Even though “the will of the Father” will be the criterion of acceptance at the last judgment, Jesus himself will be standing there for people to see and appeal to: “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?”

  3. Not only will Jesus be there, he will be the one who renders all the judgments and makes all the decisions about who enters heaven. “I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

In other words, this teacher of the Sermon on the Mount is the Judge of the universe.

Or again in the first chapter of the Sermon (Matthew 5:17), Jesus shocks us with his claims. We think he is going to say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to confirm them.” That’s not what he says. He says, “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Jesus was not just another member in the long line of wise men and prophets. He was the end of the line. In his own person and work, the law and the prophets were fulfilled. Which is why, six times in Matthew 5, Jesus stunningly confronted Scripture and tradition with his supremely authoritative words, “But I say to you” (Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44).

The Inseparable Truth

Finally, just when the Beatitudes are sounding like the words of a lowly, wise spiritual guide, Jesus tells us that we are blessed for being reviled on his account. Not God’s. His. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

And what’s more, he says we can rejoice in that day, because we are in the same category with the prophets who were persecuted on God’s account.

The Riddle of the New Testament has an answer. How does the person of Jesus relate to the teachings of Jesus? The divine majesty of the person is woven inseparably into every layer of the story and the teaching. There is no portrait of Jesus as merely a human teacher of ethics in the New Testament. There is only the Lord of glory. The fulfiller of history. The Judge of the universe.