The things the Jews were used to hearing from the Pharisees and scribes were totally unlike what Jesus was teaching at this point in his ministry. The disciples may have been surprised to hear Jesus say that their righteousness needed to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (see Matthew 5:20), who prided themselves on how well they kept the law of Moses.
“An eye for an eye,” was a far cry from the higher law that Christ introduced. Matthew 5 describes Jesus ascending a mountain where he delivered the discourse known as the Sermon on the Mount. This brings to mind another mountain, centuries before, where he delivered the law unto Moses as Jehovah.
The contrast between the old law and the new law is important to keep in mind to fully understand the Sermon on the Mount. While Jews were looking forward to a Messiah who would deliver them from the oppressive yoke of Rome, Jesus instead is about to remove the heavy yoke of the law of Moses, with its 613 commandments, burdensome rituals and restrictions, and scrupulosities of performance.
Jesus’s central audience was not a general Jewish group. Jesus specifically addressed “his disciples” (Matthew 5:1) even though there were “multitudes” (Matthew 4:25). Two scriptures indicate that the “disciples” were baptized believers. John 4:1-2 records, “When therefore the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John… he left Judea, and departed again into Galilee.” This is after Jesus taught baptism to Nicodemus (John 3:5) and tarried and “baptized” in Judea (John 3:22).
After the resurrection Jesus commanded his apostles: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). The first “teach” (matheusate) is the Greek word, “make a disciple of.” The second teaching command comes after baptism is the regular verb “to teach” (didaskontes). Thus Jesus taught faith and repentance, followed by the commitment of baptism, but the greater learning of how to obey all the commandments came after membership in Christ’s Church.
The Come Follow Me lesson for this week emphasizes the fact that everyone wants to be happy, but not everyone looks for happiness in the same places. Some seek worldly power or popularity in hopes that it will bring them happiness. Jesus came to teach what it truly means to be blessed. In Greek, (makarios) means “privileged to receive divine favor.” In Latin, beatus or beatitudo denotes blessedness, and this is the source of the title “Beatitudes” for these teachings. It could be translated “Oh, the happiness of.” It is the word Mary used when she said, “All generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).
The Beatitudes lift us attitudinally. We can force ourselves to obey laws with our will, but it is difficult to have our attitude change. It is difficult to force forgiveness into our souls.
The new law makes the gate narrower.
Those who do not keep the law are Telestial. (repent eventually)
Those who keep the law are Terrestrial. (honorable)
Those who keep the law with the right attitude are Celestial. (valiant)
Doctrine and Covenants 88 teaches that a celestial law develops a celestial spirit. A body will be resurrected with a body that corresponds to the spirit he has developed. The first three beatitudes invite the “poor in spirit,” the “meek,” and those who “mourn” to come to the Savior and obtain the kingdom of heaven. These are the same people that are mentioned in
Isaiah 61:1-2, the meek, the brokenhearted, those who mourn. By his allusion to this Messianic text, which would have been well known from its frequent reading in the synagogues, Jesus is proclaiming that he himself had the power and authority to bring this state to all who were ready to receive it. Jesus is announcing himself as the Messiah! It is nothing short of blasphemy for a mortal to speak in such a manner! But he is Jehovah, and if Jehovah edits Jehovah, so be it.
“Blessed are they which hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled “with the Holy Ghost.”(JST Mathew 5:6) A good illustration of this is in Luke 10:38 where Mary drops everything to listen to the Savior.
At this point because of the longing for righteousness, and the presence of the Holy Ghost, there is a transition, and positive characteristics are now listed. The principle of restoration is exemplified in these beatitudes, both in the here and the hereafter. The merciful shall obtain mercy, the pure in heart shall see God, the peacemakers shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:7-9). Alma 41:14-15 teaches that the good one does is restored unto him through the creation of peace and confidence inside himself.
Why is persecution described as a state of blessedness? (Matthew 5:10) This is the state shared by the prophets and other holy ones. Adversity provides the greatest opportunity to triumph over hate and fear and to love one’s enemies (the last point the Lord made before his injunction to be perfect.) It is the final spiritual frontier.
Joseph Smith said that he was a “rough stone rolling,” getting corners knocked off here and there, and that his trials would enable him to become “a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 304) What a wonderful attitude! God is trying to get us to have a Godlike attitude. He knows the best things that mold and shape character. Godlike qualities are best formed in the furnace of affliction.
Salt and Light
“Ye are the salt of the earth.” (Matthew 5:13) Salt has long been used to preserve, flavor, and purify. Salt is a preservative, and it brings out the best in food. You must be the preserver of the earth, and bring the best out of it. Don’t become polluted with the world, how else will you save it? As a preservative, salt represented the covenant with God and Israel. (Leviticus 2:13, Numbers 18:19) Both salt and fire were used in offering of sacrifices in the temple. Salt, like fire, is also a purifier. With the illustrations of salt and light, ideas that may at first seem random, the Lord turned to the theme of men making themselves sacrifices to God.
This image of being salt that has lost its savor is interesting. You can trace the history of the world through the need to acquire salt. Roman soldiers were often paid in salt instead of money—thus the word salary comes into our language from salt. Not only does salt improve the flavor of food, but foremost, it is a preservative. It is used to preserve meat, fish and vegetables. When you are called to be the salt of the earth, you are called both to have a positive influence in the life of others, but, more importantly, you are called to preserve a world. That need for preservation is even greater when a world is in decline.
How does salt “lose its savor?” Salt doesn’t lose its savor by becoming old. It does not go stale or mold or rot. Salt loses its savor when it becomes corrupted with something else, another element. If salt is not pure, it loses its savor. That’s quite a metaphor for what the Lord expects. If ye are the salt of the earth, ye are the preservers of the earth, and the Lord will sanctify you, even with hardship, to make you pure. It is his gift to you.
When Christ declares that “Ye are the light of the world,” (Matt 5:14) he is indicating that personal sanctification cannot exist in a vacuum, it includes extending the kingdom of God to others. It is not just for me to be saved, but the whole world. Our light draws others to the light of the Savior. If I fail in my stewardship, who will take the gospel to the world?
Sacrifice and the Law of Moses
The sacrifices included in the law of Moses were given expressly to point individuals to Jesus Christ. Every element in the offering of sacrifices is reflected the eternal ministry of Christ.
The law of sacrifice is eternal, but now Christ changes the FORM. He has not come to destroy the law of Moses, but to fulfill it. (Matthew 5:17) The Jews must have been amazed to hear these words! For them, the law that should have been a means to an end had become an end in itself. They had come to believe the law as the source of salvation. Jesus’s message was that HE, not the law, was the source of salvation. Since the old law was fulfilled, a new covenant with Israel became necessary. The Sermon on the Mount is a statement of that new covenant. The major difference from the old law of Moses lies between the OUTWARD ACT and the INWARD STATE OF THE HEART.
However, “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”
(Matthew 5:18) “One jot” stands for “yod”, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet (‘). A tittle (little horn) is a minute projection that by which otherwise similar Hebrew letters are distinguished. In other words, the entire old law was in force until the time that it was fulfilled in Christ.
How was the new law to be lived? According to 3 Nephi 9:19-20, “your sacrifices and burnt offerings shall be done away” . . and ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Contrite in Latin means “to grind down to powder.” A broken-up and ground-down heart was required. This idea is expressed in the first three beatitudes. Someone poor in spirit realizes how desperately he or she needs help. Such a person “mourns” for the wrong choices they have made. They “meekly” come before the Lord, ready to humbly accept his will.
A celestial attitude is reflected in the willingness to accept new revelation. “If something new is revealed, I will accept it.” The law of the gospel was a big step up from the law of Moses. Rather than requiring temple sacrifices, the individual had to make sacrifices in the way they behaved and thought.
Years ago, in a New Testament class, Michael Wilcox introduced a new way of interpreting this new law which I thought was very eye-opening. These ideas are from my class notes.
Old law New law The Sacrifice Required?
Don’t kill Don’t get angry Anger and contempt
Matthew 5:22 needs some terms defined in order to be understood. “But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause (“without a cause” is omitted in the JST and the Revised Version. Probably this is an interpolation by a scribe who thought the counsel was too difficult to live.) shall be in danger (“subject to condemnation” in Greek) of the judgment: (“The judgment” is the local tribunal of seven men appointed in every village. (Deuteronomy 16:18) and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca (Raca is Aramaic for “empty head,” basically, “brainless” or “stupid.” Thus, Jesus warns against anger, labeling, and insults.) shall be in danger of the council: (The council is the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of 71 members at Jerusalem having jurisdiction over the most serious offenses.) but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” Psalm 14:1 defines a fool as “a wicked and Godless man.” “Hell fire” is not hades, but the borrowed word, “gehenna of fire,” which was associated with the evil fire of burnt offerings to Baal in Jeremiah 19:1-6.
The idea is that God will exact full penalty for offenses against the law of love. Unresolved anger is declared a crime in itself. The mildest expression is to be considered a capital offense. A more abusive expression is worthy of hell fire. The language is, of course, rhetorical. Its intention is to mark the immense gulf that separates the morality of the Law and the morality of the Gospel.
Old Law New Law Sacrifice
No adultery Don’t lust Lust
All the talk about plucking out eyes, and cutting off hands is, of course, symbolic. (Matt 5:29-30 CR JST Mark 9:40-48) (especially 40) If the person you are with are leading you into transgression, cut them off.
Old Law New Law Sacrifice
Legal divorce Marriage is of God Desire for a new wife
Telestial attitude: I commit adultery.
Terrestrial attitude: I’m tired of my wife, I’ll divorce her legally and marry another.
Celestial attitude: Marriage is of God and should be preserved.
Old Law New Law Sacrifice
Not keeping oaths No oaths Oaths
Celestial attitude: My word is good and I don’t need to sign contracts.
Terrestrial attitude: I’ll sign and pay but look for a loophole.
Telestial attitude: I’ll sign but I have no intention of paying the contract.
Old Law New Law Sacrifice
Retaliation No resistance Retaliation/vengeance
Telestial attitude: I’ll start whatever I want.
Terrestrial attitude: I won’t start it, but I’ll finish it.
Celestial attitude: I’ll give you whatever you want. I’ll even give you my cloak. I don’t want to have my time taken up with legal entanglements.
Matthew 5:39 “Don’t resist evil” means don’t REACT to evil people. (The literal translation is, “Do not contend against the evildoer.”) Although the Lord definitely opposes evil, he stresses longsuffering with a person in error. Dallin H. Oaks writes:
Why should Saints seek to avoid litigation by prior settlement or even by suffering injury without recompense? Speaking of the Savior’s teaching on this subject, Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained: ‘Contention leads to bitterness and smallness of soul; persons who contend with each other shrivel up spiritually and are in danger of losing their salvation. So important is it to avoid this evil that Jesus expects his Saints to suffer oppression and wrong rather than lose their inner peace and serenity through contention. (The Lord’s Way, 175)
Matthew 5:41 The JST changes “whosoever compels thee to go with him a mile, go with him twain” to “whosoever compels thee to go a mile; and whosoever shall compel thee to go with him twain, thou shall go with him twain.”
In his Commentary on the Bible, John R. Dummelow writes: “When Roman troops passed through a district, the inhabitants were required to carry their baggage. This compulsory transport was recognized as a form of taxation, and is probably what is alluded to here. Translated into modern language, this saying means that Christians ought to pay their taxes and undertake other public burdens cheerfully and willingly.” This idea is reaffirmed in our 12th Article of Faith.
Matthew 5:44 What does “Love your enemies” mean? Could it mean, “Treat everyone the same? Don’t have one set of actions for friends and one for your enemies?” The word for “love” is carefully chosen. It is not demanded that we love our enemies with a natural and spontaneous affection (philios), but with the supernatural Christian love that comes by grace (agape). Have “agape” for all people. Want the very best for them. Pray that they will repent and change.
I love this quote by CS Lewis about what loving your enemies means. “…to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: In fact wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him [your enemy]: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.” (Mere Christianity, 108)
Be Ye there Perfect
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
President Russell M. Nelson taught:
“The term perfect was translated from the Greek teleios, which means ‘complete.’ … The infinitive form of the verb is teleiono, which means ‘to reach a distant end, to be fully developed, to consummate, or to finish.’ Please note that the word does not imply ‘freedom from error’; it implies ‘achieving a distant objective.’ …
“… The Lord taught, ‘Ye are not able to abide the presence of God now … ; wherefore, continue in patience until ye are perfected’ [Doctrine and Covenants 67:13].
“We need not be dismayed if our earnest efforts toward perfection now seem so arduous and endless. Perfection is pending. It can come in full only after the Resurrection and only through the Lord. It awaits all who love him and keep his commandments” (“Perfection Pending,” Ensign, November 1995, 86, 88).
In an Education Week class I attended, John Welch explained this verse using the original Greek words. The scripture is translated in the imperative sense, “Be ye therefore perfect,” but it is actually in the future tense. The meaning is, “If we follow all these Beatitudes, the end result will be that we are complete.” (Greek teleios).
In attempting to explain the Greek word teleios, meaning “whole, complete, the end product of a process, (telos in Greek means end) to students, I used an analogy. We had a peach tree in the back yard when my children were young. For many years it did not bear fruit. Finally, it had one peach on it. We watched anxiously for the single “giant peach” in our back yard to ripen. One morning we went out to see it and after testing it for ripeness, I exclaimed, “It’s perfect!”
At baptism, you are born again. You are a baby! You need to grow up to be like God. It takes a while. At first you need training wheels. You ride for a while, then you crash. It is frustrating and makes you upset if you can’t do it at first. Trying to be like God is harder than riding a bike. Don’t be frustrated with yourself. Get back on the bike and keep trying! Don’t give up.
Mistakes may be divided into two categories, errors of judgment, and errors of intent.
People may make errors in judgment, but if their intent is pure and they repent, the Lord will judge them guiltless, of being in a state of repentance and pure intent.
As we try our best to “let our light shine” on others, we have much to ponder as we consider what we have been asked to sacrifice as we live the higher law of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have great need of the enabling power of the Savior as we attempt to overcome feelings of judgment of others, and other emotions of the “natural man” and woman within. We need to refine our motives, and not just obey, but obey because our motives are pure.
I love Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount:
The scriptures were written to bless and encourage us, and surely they do that. But have you noticed that every now and then a passage will appear that reminds us we are falling a little short? For example, the Sermon on the Mount begins with soothing, gentle beatitudes, but in the verses that follow, we are told—among other things—not only not to kill but also not even to be angry. We are told not only not to commit adultery but also not even to have impure thoughts. To those who ask for it, we are to give our coat and then give our cloak also. We are to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and do good to them who hate us.
If that is your morning scripture study, and after reading just that far you are pretty certain you are not going to get good marks on your gospel report card, then the final commandment in the chain is sure to finish the job: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father … in heaven is perfect.” With that concluding imperative, we want to go back to bed and pull the covers over our head. Such celestial goals seem beyond our reach. Yet surely the Lord would never give us a commandment He knew we could not keep. Let’s see where this quandary takes us. . .
To put this issue in context, may I remind all of us that we live in a fallen world and for now we are a fallen people. We are in the telestial kingdom; that is spelled with a t, not a c. As President Russell M. Nelson has taught, here in mortality perfection is still “pending.”
“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him … ,” Moroni pleads. “Love God with all your might, mind and strength, then … by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ.” Our only hope for true perfection is in receiving it as a gift from heaven—we can’t “earn” it. Thus, the grace of Christ offers us not only salvation from sorrow and sin and death but also salvation from our own persistent self-criticism.
Brothers and sisters, every one of us aspires to a more Christlike life than we often succeed in living. If we admit that honestly and are trying to improve, we are not hypocrites; we are human. If we persevere, then somewhere in eternity our refinement will be finished and complete—which is the New Testament meaning of perfection.
(Jeffrey R. Holland, “Be Ye Therefore Perfect—Eventually,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2017, 40–42.)