N. B. (1) Introductory note on the Gospel according to St. Matthew and St. Luke respectively.
(2) The student is advised to get a copy of Dr. Gore's "The Sermon on the Mount."
ST. MATTHEW: COLLECTION OF DISCOURSES
ST. LUKE: CHRONOLOGICAL DIVISIONS
In order to understand the Sermon on the Mount, it is necessary to know the mind of the Preacher, and this knowledge can be gained by anyone who will receive the Holy Spirit. (Luke 11:13; John 20:22; Acts 19:2.)
Beware of placing our Lord Jesus as a teacher first instead of a Savior. We must first know Him as a Savior, before His teachings have any meaning for us, or before they have any other meaning than that of an ideal which leads to despair. There are some people who take up this attitude: "I do not believe there is any necessity to preach an atonement through Jesus Christ, I do not believe it is necessary to say He died for our sins, I believe that Jesus is a teacher only." That attitude is very prevalent today, but it is a very absurd as well as dangerous one, for if He was only a teacher, His teaching would produce despair. Fancy coming to men and women with defective lives and defiled hearts and wrong mainsprings and telling them to be pure in heart! What would be the good of His giving us an ideal that we could not possibly come near? we are happier without knowing it. If Jesus is only a teacher, then all He can do is to tantalise us, to erect a standard we cannot attain to; but if we know Him first as Savior, if we are born again of the Spirit of God, we know that He did not come to teach us only, but that He came to make us what He teaches we should be.
The Gospel according to St. Matthew, in its original state in the early Church, was in two sections. One section was composed of five great discourses of our Lord's with no historical narrative at all. This was transcribed by Matthew himself. The second section has the five discourses fitted into the historical narratives of our Lord's life. The latter was compiled by a student-evangelist of Matthew's, and it is this latter Gospel that we know.
Matthew wrote his Gospel according to topics; Luke, a cultured physician, an evangelist and disciple of Paul's, wrote his Gospel in the perfect manner of the Greek historians, so that the student who wants to know where the various teachings of Jesus are to be placed in our Lord's life, must turn to Luke's Gospel.
"The Sermon on the Mount" is the title given by Matthew to a collection of discourses by our Lord, only one of which was literally preached on the mountain, the others were preached in the mountainous district. The evangelists Matthew, Peter, Paul and John took incidents out of the life of our Lord on which they based their doctrines, and the four Gospels are simply the records of their preaching under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It sounds very precarious to us to say that it was all trusted to memory and oral transmission, but when we remember there was a kind of curse given by the rabbis to anyone who put anything in writing, and if a student in a rabbinical school made a slip in memory he was supposed to be worthy of death, it alters our too hasty first conclusions about the matter. These early disciples were brought up in that school, and when Paul talks about the "deposit" that Timothy had, this is what he is alluding to. They were all trained to retain accurate details and descriptions of our Lord's life; and in the year 62 or 65 Matthew wrote his Gospel.
The four Gospels are four contrasted views of our Lord's life, not contradictory views. The astute mind behind the Gospels is not a human mind at all, but the Holy Ghost. "Holy men wrote as they were moved by the Spirit of God." A "harmony of the Gospels" is a rather mistaken idea; harmony must imply discord as well as accord. The very same principle holds in understanding the unity of the Gospels as in understanding our Lord's teachings, viz., a personal knowledge of the mind of the Lord, which can he obtained by receiving the Holy Spirit Peter says that holy men wrote as they were moved, he did not say holy machines. You will find that God the Holy Ghost instead of effacing the individuality of these men did exactly the opposite, He lifted their personality to a point of "white heat," so to speak, and used it as the means of presenting the Gospel of God. The more you brood over that line of things the more you will be able to discard the cheap and hasty criticism which is honeycombing so much of the teaching nowadays. You will find as many points in the Gospel that won't fit into another as you find points that will. The word we need is not harmony in the Gospels, but unity, and the unity is by the Holy Ghost.
When our Lord ordained twelve men out of the multitude that followed Him He preached to them what we have in Matthew 5 and 7, and He began by saying, "Blessed are," and then He must have staggered them by what followed. They were to be blessed in every particular which they had been taught from their earliest childhood was a curse. The statements of Jesus seem so wonderfully simple, but in reality they are like spiritual torpedoes, they explode and burst in the unconscious mind, and they come up to our conscious mind and we say, "What a startling statement that is!" Our Lord was talking to Jews, and the Jews believed, down to their joints and marrow, that the sign of the blessing of God was material prosperity in every shape and form, and Jesus says, "Blessed are ye" for exactly the opposite.
We must remember that Jesus wrote nothing, He spoke everything, and to look upon His teachings as a written act of Parliament is absurd, and to look upon His statements as isolated texts to be mechanically followed is equally misleading. Our Lord expects that these statements of His will be carried out in the lives of these men in the power of the Spirit He is to give them. There are two ways of looking at the Sermon on the Mount: a number of teachers today say that it was a forecast of what is going to be during the Millennium and it has no application whatever to us now. There are others who say that it has only an application to us now and has no reference to any other time. Now both those views are right, but either alone is wrong. In this present dispensation, Jesus says the kingdom of God is inside men, and men are called upon to live out His Spirit and His teaching in an age that will not recognize Him. That spells limitation and very often disaster. In the next dispensation the kingdom of God will be established outside as well as inside men. These two points of view are always put together in the New Testament.
Our Lord begins His teaching about prayer with a little playful irony in which He tells them to watch their motives (Matt. 6:5), "Why do you want to pray? Do you want to be known as a praying man? Well, verily that is your reward, you will be known as a praying man, but there is no more to it, there is no answer to your prayer." The next thing He told them was to keep a secret relationship between themselves and God (Matt. 6:6), and in verse 7 He told them not to rely on their own earnestness when praying. These three statements of Jesus, which are so familiar to us, are revolutionary. Call a halt one moment and ask yourself, "Why do I want to pray, what is my motive? Have I a personal, secret relationship to God that nobody knows but myself? And what is my method when I pray, am I really relying on God or on my own earnestness?" These sayings of Jesus go to the very root of all praying. The majority of us make the blunder of depending on our own earnestness and not on God at all. It is confidence in Him. (1 John 5:14, 15.) All our fuss, all our earnestness, all our "gifts of prayer" are not the slightest atom of use to Jesus Christ, He pays no attention to them. Our Lord gave His disciples the pattern prayer and supplied in that prayer their want of ideas and words and faith. Then He taught them the prayer of patience. Our Lord's instruction about patience in prayer conveys this lesson: "If you are right with God, and God delays the manifested answer to your prayer, don't misjudge Him, don't think of Him as an unkind friend, or an unnatural father, or an unjust judge, but keep at it. Your prayer will certainly be answered," says Jesus, "for everyone that asks receives," and "men ought always to pray and not faint." Your Heavenly Father will explain it all one day, He cannot just now because He is developing your character.
Our Lord in His answers very rarely, if ever, appears to deal with the questions asked. In Luke 13 a very devout, pious individual asks Him if there be many saved or few, and Jesus gave him a reply in an Oriental proverb, the effect of which is, "See that your own feet are on the right path." At another time the disciples said, in a really earnest mood, "Lord, increase our faith," and Jesus quoted them an Oriental proverb about a grain of mustard seed and a mountain, which if you watch the setting, undoubtedly conveys this: "Get personally related to me, and lack of faith will never bother you." Whenever we lack faith, it is simply that we do not trust Him; faith must be the result of a personal understanding. Our Lord's answers seem at first to evade the point, but instead of evading it, He goes underneath the questions and puts something in that will solve every question. He never answers our shallow questions, but He deals with the great, unconscious need that made them arise. One class of questions our Lord never answered, those that come from the head, the reason being that no question from the head is ever original..
Our Lord in this discourse and in many others, was strong on the necessity of a line of demarcation between worldly-mindedness and spirit-mindedness while we are in the world. We are most of us certain that we can serve two masters with a little skill and tact, but we sooner or later come to the conclusion that Jesus knows best. (There is all the difference between Heaven and Hell in that simple phrase, "Jesus knows best." Think what it means in your personal life, in your business life. Some of us are uncommonly like the disciples when Jesus was with them in the fishing boat, they thought in effect, "He is a carpenter, and doesn't know anything about fishing; He can go to sleep, He does not know anything about managing boats;" but when the storm comes on, Jesus is the only one who can manage the boat, the fishermen are terrified out of their wits. It is a great moment in a man's life when he realizes that Jesus knows more about his business than he does himself.)
Take our attitude to our Lord's statement that everyone that asks receives, the majority of us think we believe it, but our attitude really is, "I'll ask, but it may not be His will to answer," meaning that I have no confidence in Jesus further than my common sense allows me to go. We call ourselves Christians, but where do we place Jesus? We limit Him on the right hand and on the left, by trusting to ourselves. The man or woman who trusts Jesus in a definite, practical way ought to be freer than anyone else to do his or her business; free from fret and worry, they can go with absolute certainty into the daily life, Jesus also taught that if men were to be spiritual, they must sacrifice the natural, that the only ground of the spiritual is on the basis of the sacrifice of the natural. One of the greatest principles—which we do not seem to grasp, but which was very evident in our Lord's life—is that the natural life is neither moral nor immoral. I make it moral or immoral. Jesus says the natural life is meant for sacrifice, we can give it as a gift to God, that is the way to become spiritual. Jesus says if we do not do that, we must barter the spiritual. That is where Adam failed, he refused to sacrifice the natural life and make it spiritual by obeying God's voice in it, consequently he sinned, the sin of his right to himself. If we say, "I like this natural life, I do not want to be a saint, I do not want to sacrifice the natural life for the spiritual," then Jesus says you must barter the spiritual. It is not a punishment, it is an eternal principle. If you are going to be spiritual, you must barter the natural, sacrifice it. Spirituality is not a sweet tendency towards piety in people who have not enough life in them to be bad; spirituality is the possession of the Holy Spirit of God which is, as it were, masculine in its strength, and that will make the most corrupt twisted, sin-stained life spiritual if He be obeyed.
Jesus distinctly says here that He is the meaning and the fulfillment of all the old commandments, and if any man says it does not matter whether you heed those commandments or not Jesus says that He condemns him. If the old commandments were difficult, our Lord's principles are fathoms deeper and more difficult. He actually says that unless the men who were His disciples exceeded all the good doings of the good people who are not His disciples, they will in no case enter the kingdom of Heaven. Think of the best men and women you know who have never received the Spirit of God and who make no profession—they are upright, sterling, noble and Jesus says in effect, "If you have received my Spirit and are my disciples, you have to exceed everything they do and are, or you will never see the kingdom of Heaven." Instead of the criticism of Christians being wrong, it is absolutely right; we have to produce our goods up to and have the life in us that Jesus said we would sample. If we are born again of the Holy Ghost, have by means of His cross, we have to show it by the way we talk, the way we act and transact our business, The teaching in the Sermon on the Mount produces despair in the natural man, the one thing Jesus wants it to do, because immediately we get to despair we come to Jesus Christ like paupers, and are willing to receive from Him. "Blessed are the paupers in spirit"—that is the very first principle of the kingdom. As long as we have some conceited, self-righteous notion of our own—"Oh, yes, I can do this"—God has to allow us to go on until we break our ignorance over some obstacle, then we realize that, after all, Jesus knew best—"Blessed are the poor in spirit." It is receiving all the way along.
Jesus spoke these things openly to all men, not to a special clique, and if they are binding on any man they are binding on all equally.
This is a brief introduction to our more detailed study of the Sermon on the Mount. Pray that God's Spirit will illuminate these studies to you.