“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying:”
These two verses act as an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, which contains the longest continuous section of Jesus’ teachings found anywhere in the New Testament. Understanding these verses is essential for understanding Jesus’ teachings and life. Thus, three launchpads for meditation.
The first launchpad for meditation considers the ‘Jesus greater than’ theme in the New Testament- that Jesus is greater than, or Jesus is the fulfillment of, the people and prophets of old. For example, Jesus is the ‘New Adam’. Both Jesus and Adam are representatives of humanity, but where Adam failed Jesus succeeded. While Adam was defeated by sin, shame, and death, Jesus overcame sin, shame, and death, opening up a new way to be human.
Jesus is also the ‘New David’. Both Jesus and David are depicted as kings, but while David’s kingdom was fleeting, Jesus’ kingdom is eternal. Jesus is not only the ‘New Human’ and the ‘New King’, but also the ‘New Prophet’. In the book of Matthew, the ‘Jesus greater than’ theme centers around Jesus as the ‘New Moses’.
Both Moses and Jesus had rulers who tried to kill them at birth. Both were called out of Egypt. Both performed amazing miracles. Both introduced a new covenant. While Moses wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. While Moses delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, Jesus delivers God’s people from slavery to sin.
And importantly, while Moses receives law from a mountain, Jesus gives law from a mountain. In Matthew 5:1, the Greek words translated as ‘he went up on a mountainside’ are used only three times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. All three usages are connected with Moses’ ascent of Mt. Sinai to receive the law.
So, with Matthew’s consistent ‘Jesus as the New Moses’ theme, the detail of Jesus teaching on a mountainside is important. It alerts the audience, to hear Jesus’ teachings as the ‘New Torah’, as the new laws for living in the kingdom community of God’s people. But what are these laws like?
The second launchpad for meditation explores how Jesus’ teachings operate as the fulfillment of the Torah. While the Torah, or teachings of Moses, were written on stone tablets, Jesus’ teachings are to be written on the minds and hearts of his disciples. While the Torah of Moses established the terms of the covenant between God and the Israelites, the Torah of Jesus defines the terms of the new covenant between Jesus and his disciples. While the Torah of Moses established the ethical model for citizens of ancient Israel, the Torah of Jesus establishes the ethical model for citizens of Jesus’ new kingdom community.
And this is no ordinary community. It is an upside-down kingdom. In Jesus’ kingdom, to become a leader is to be a servant. To find true life is to die to self. To become rich is to generously give your money away. So, in summary, to become first is to be last.
With upside-down ethics comes an upside-down idea of blessedness. As Jesus explains with the Beatitudes in verses 3-12, it is the poor in spirit who are blessed, it’s the meek who will inherit the earth, and it’s the persecuted who should rejoice. So, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus is teaching his disciples what life in his kingdom is all about. But, as described in Matthew 5:1-2, the disciples are not the only ones listening to Jesus’ teachings. While Jesus is teaching his disciples, he is also opening up his kingdom to the crowds. But will they follow Jesus? Will they see the reality of the kingdom, not only in Jesus’ teachings but also in his life?
The third launchpad for meditation explores how Jesus’ teachings are not divorced from his life. Jesus’ teachings about how to live do not contradict how he lives. His upside-down teachings are consistent with his upside-down life.
From birth to death, Jesus embodied his upside-down kingdom. Being in very nature God, he humbles himself. He takes the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. The King of the universe is born to the no-name Mary, placed in an animal feeding trough, and visited by lowly, unclean shepherds.
As with his birth, Jesus’ death is also upside-down. His crucifixion is depicted as his enthronement as king. He is given a crown, but one of thorns rather than gold. And he is exalted up, but onto a cross rather than a throne. And through his death, he gives us life.
With his birth, death, and everything in between Jesus embodied the upside-down kingdom.
So, it is not surprising that directly after the sermon on the mount, Matthew includes several stories about how Jesus lives out the kingdom in his interactions with others. For example, immediately after coming down from the mountain, Matthew chapter 8 describes Jesus’ interaction with a leper. By being in the crowd, the leper is violating Old Testament laws on skin diseases. But rather than shaming the leper, Jesus touches him. And the leper’s life is turned upside-down, from unclean to clean and from shame to honor.
So, the sermon on the mount is not comprised of empty teachings, but invitations to join Jesus as he lives out the new, upside-down kingdom of heaven. Will you join him?