The Time Jesus Launched a New Morality
Yes, I’m referring to the Sermon on the Mount, the overly polite title given to Jesus’ discourse in Matthew, Chapters 5 to 7 … a label that simply does it no justice.
Jesus’ download from heaven was more like a rocket launch, a blast off that shattered self-serving religion and inaugurated Jesus’ vision of a new kind of believer and a new way of living based on a new morality.
The biggest challenge in grasping Matthew 5 to 7 lies in our tendency to read it in tiny chunks (by chapter and verse), lifting portions out of context. For example, we might quote the Beatitudes and then spiritualise them out of their true meaning. Or we might quote the verses about the “narrow gate” and think it speaks about salvation. Or we quote the passage about false prophets and incorrectly label people with doctrinal interpretations different to ours, “wolves”.
Matthew 5 to 7 is a discourse—and while it’s Jesus’ longest recorded message, it’s best absorbed as a whole. Reading it from start to finish several times allows us to get a feel for the flow of thought that gives each important section context.
In this article, I’m going to offer a summary of Jesus’ discourse in the hopes of capturing both the flow of thought and the context of its crucial ideas. (This is not intended as a replacement for reading it through several times, but once you’ve done the reading, this may help in comparing it against your own thoughts.)
Three Broad Themes
Before I do so, it’s helpful to point out three broad themes that give the discourse weight.
As discussed in God’s Character, Jesus came to re-reveal God’s Father-heart to a people whose religion had obscured God’s nature. Throughout this discourse, Jesus constantly refers to God as “Father” instead of “Lord” (Adonai), a revolutionary idea for His Jewish audience.
You could think of Jesus’ discourse (Matthew 5-7) in three sections, and the chapter divisions do fit well with these sections.
- In the first section, Jesus envisions a new kind of believer, explains how the new believer is different from religion’s version and concludes by hinting at a new definition of morality (Matthew 5).
- In the second section, Jesus discusses how the spiritual practices of this new kind of believer differ from religion and concludes with a compassionate word of encouragement (Matthew 6).
- In the third section, Jesus unpacks His new definition of morality and concludes with a compelling appeal (Matthew 7).
Jesus starts by envisioning eight characteristics of a new kind of believer (5:3-12), one who—like salt and light (5:13, 14)—demonstrates their faith through good works that glorify the Father (5:16), specifically including deeds that relieve injustice and advocate for the oppressed. This is the renewed kind of righteousness that the Father desires: purity of heart motivation and active service of others, especially the oppressed.
Then comes the hinge idea: Jesus explains that He is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets (5:17-19).
The Law and Prophets is a reference to the Old Testament Scriptures (and the morality code derived from them). However, in Jesus, the Law and Prophets are complete: the Old Testament Scriptures point to Jesus and are fulfilled in Him and His revelation. This serves as the first hint of Jesus’ new morality.
Jesus then calls out the shallowness of religion’s righteousness (5:20) before giving examples of how religion misinterpreted the Old Testament Scriptures, explaining what God really intended. The examples He picks are anger (5:21-26), lust (5:27-32), vows (5:33-37) and vengeance (5:38-42).
Jesus then concludes this first section in the most powerful way: hinting further at this new, expansive morality, He smashed all narrow, conditional views of love (5:43-48).
The Jewish people understood family and tribal love well, but they turned it inwards. Jesus smashed through all their barriers, calling them to an unbounded, unconditional, unprejudiced love that opens the heart to one’s neighbour, the stranger and even those deemed as enemies.
This is the only time Jesus called us to be perfect (5:48); that is, in demonstrating God’s self-giving love. And it’s a rather apt call given the comparison: religion’s shallow self-absorbed morality required perfect adherence to hundreds of rules while Jesus’ new morality was captured in one word: love.
Jesus continues by explaining how this new kind of believer gives (6:1-4), prays (6:5-15) and fasts (6:16-18), prizing relationship with God over seeking to impress others with shallow displays of religious piety.
He further explains that this new kind of believer invests in what truly counts, motivated by their love for God and their partnership with Him, while diligently avoiding the deceptive lure of money (6:19-24).
Off the back of mentioning money, Jesus compassionately addresses the stress and anxiety of life while keeping His audience tethered to the pursuit of the Kingdom (6:25-34).
Jesus then unpacks His new definition of morality in a whirlwind final section that includes several memorable word pictures.
- He starts by exhorting us not to judge one another prejudicially, introducing the plank and speck imagery (7:1-6) while reminding us of the Father’s good and kind nature, using His bread or stone, fish or snake metaphors (7:7-11).
- He then revised the Golden Rule (7:12), powerfully turning a negative reciprocal morality—‘Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you’—into a proactive, front-footed, love-defined morality: “Do unto others…”
- Jesus then introduces the “narrow gate” metaphor (7:13, 14) to explain that putting other people first, demonstrating Jesus’ self-giving love, is a difficult, narrow path that few people grasp.
- He then warns of “false prophets”: “ravenous wolves” (7:15-20) that are loveless—unable to bear good fruit in this new love-defined morality.
- The “I never knew you” passage (7:21-23) follows next, as Jesus provokes those fruitless in love—“you who practice lawlessness”—to rethink their lives. [Jesus invoked Psalm 6:8, “Leave me, all you who practice injustice”. Thus, in context, “lawless” means “loveless”: those who fail to practice Jesus’ love-defined morality.]
- And Jesus concludes the section (and the whole message) with the “build on the rock” passage (7:24-27), comparing those who build their faith on the solid rock of His love-defined morality with those whose loveless faith is built on sand.
Sadly, the “narrow gate”, “false prophets”, “I never knew you” and “build on the rock” passages are often incorrectly used to preach the need for ‘right theology’ when they, in fact, call us to Jesus’ love-defined morality. This is not to say that theology is unimportant. It certainly is. However, good theology is guided and governed by Jesus’ love-defined morality.
To sum up, Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 5 to 7 is framed by God’s Father-heart, the Gospel of the Kingdom and a renewed understanding of righteousness.
Within this frame, Jesus then paints the picture of a new kind of believer, one who lives by a new love-defined morality, demonstrating this self-giving love through good works that glorify the Father. He envisions a religion-free faith based on a proactive, front-footed morality that’s void of hypocrisy, prejudice and judgementalism, a lifestyle that flows from a love relationship with the Father, one that shuns religious pretence and posturing. In Jesus, self-serving religion is trumped by self-giving love.
Religion’s righteousness is performance based, narrowing everything down to two lists, a to-do-list and a do-not-list, and only perfect adherence to these lists is acceptable.
In contrast, Jesus’ righteousness is people focused, lifting everyone up through two actions: love God and love people (Matthew 22:37-40).
[For more on this theme, see The Time Jesus Made it All About Himself.]
Revealing God’s nature was central to the Message of Jesus. He restored humanity to God’s loving fatherhood, restoring our identity as children of God and our destiny as custodians of all creation.
Restoring humanity to the Father, the Message of Jesus heals our broken identity, restoring us as children of God. Loved by the Father, we are both secure and significant.
Restored to the Father as His children, the Message of Jesus restores humanity’s destiny as custodians of creation. We’re commissioned to partner with Jesus in His restoration plan for the earth.