It is one of the hardest–and yet most necessary–tasks of the exegete to deal carefully with a particular text in the Bible while not forgetting it’s redemptive-historical context. Forgetting this all-important principle will inevitably lead a man to misinterpret the text, and so to potentially do much harm to his hearers. One of the areas in which this principle must be rigorously applied is with regard to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). It is not uncommon to hear a minister preach a series of sermons out of this portion of Scripture without helping his hearers see their need for Jesus as Savior. “It’s Jesus as Lord that we must emphasize here,” they will emphatically respond. Such an approach divides the Person of Christ from the work of Christ. He is, to His people, both Lord and Savior–at ever point in His ministry. The salvation He alone accomplished must ever be the undergirding foundation upon which His Lordship finds significance in the lives of His people. To say that Jesus did not intend the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to drive men to Him for salvation is to rip the Savior out of the redemptive-historical context in which He lived and breathed. He was always moving toward something. He was heading to the mount–not the mount upon which He taught the loftiest ethic any man has heard, but to the mount upon which He would die for His people’s violations of those ethical teachings. In his sermon “Hungering and Thirsting after Righteousness,” Geerhardus Vos masterfully explained this dynamic when he wrote:
It is not so much what people find in the Sermon on the Mount, it is what they congratulate themselves for not finding there, that renders them thus enamored of its excellence. It is because they dislike the story of the helplessness of man, of man’s utter condemnation in the sight of God, and the insistence upon the necessity of the cross…All such forget that both Jesus and the Evangelists 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 Gospels such disciples and Jesus such a Lord and Savior as this and other records of His teaching imply. It is therefore folly to suggest that no specific doctrine of salvation is here. It is present as a living doctrine in the Person of Jesus. We are apt to forget that in the days of our Lord’s flesh there was no need for the 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 in 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 sinner needing salvation, and that their whole life in continuance is lived on the basis of grace.1
Even a consideration of the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount will lend itself to such an interpretation. Notice that at least three of the beatitudes reveal a consciousness of personal helplessness, and an acknowledgement of spiritual inability. Believers are poor in spirit because they acknowledge that “nothing good dwells in them.” They mourn because they know the sinfulness of their hearts. They hunger and thirst after righteousness because they know that the do not have “a righteousness of their own.” With the fourth beatitude, our Lord clearly articulates this sense of spiritual poverty and the need for them to be filled with a righteousness outside of ourselves–a righteousness that He alone can provide. Vos went on to explain the relationship between the “hungering and thirsting” and the “being filled with righteousness” when he wrote:
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. 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 in 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 fulness 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.” For we shall behold God’s face in righteousness and be satisfied, when we awake, with his image.2
J. Gresham Machen also observed:
Without the cross the Sermon on the Mount would be an intolerable burden; with the cross it becomes the guide to a way of life. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus held up an unattainable ideal, he has revealed the depths of human guilt, he has made demands far too lofty for human strength. But thank God, he has revealed guilt only to wash it away, and with his demands he has given strength to fulfill them. It is a sadly superficial view of the sermon on the mount which substitutes it for the story of the cross. A deeper understanding of it leads straight to Calvary.3
Finally, Machen summed up everything said above when he wrote, “The Sermon on the Mount, like all the rest of the New Testament, really leads a man straight to the foot of the cross.”4
1. Gerrhardus Vos, Grace and Glory pp. 39-40
2. Ibid., pp. 54-57
3. J. Gresham Machen The New Testament: An Introduction to its Literature and History (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust) pp. 196-974.
4. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity And Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 38