There are countless interpretations of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
One wonders, was Matthew being a legalist with regards to these teachings? Commonly, it is suggested that Matthew is warding off legalism with respects to the dominant Pharisaic presence, while at the same time, warning against an antinomianism common to those who “live by faith” (but not by works).
This seems to be a common struggle for many Christians, particularly Evangelicals. That is, the struggle of “faith” vs “religion/works,” as it is commonly referred to. Most often, Christians agree that it begins with faith and the works will follow. This is good, but not enough.
The beatitudes, (i.e “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” etc etc) don’t seem to fit in very cleanly with the above mentioned perspective. There is something missing. What is important to note about these sayings of Jesus, is that they are not describing the “way things are now” but rather
“they are annoucing a new state of affairs, a new reality which is in the process of bursting into the world. They are declaring that something that wasnt’ previously the case is now going to be; that the life of heaven, which had seemed so distant and unreal, is in the process of coming true on earth” (NT Wright, After You Believe, 105).
Now that Jesus is here, God’s kingdom of blessing is coming, a kingdom of renewal of creation, mercy, justice, peace, and love. And as the Kingdom arrives, the qualities of humility, meekness, purity and so on will shine through most powerfully.
So, his teaching is not a “rewards based” retribution theology, (ie behave this way and you will be rewarded), nor is it a “now that you believe in me, this is how you must behave.” Rather, Jesus is saying that God’s new world, God’s plan to bring restoration to the world – a plan beautifully exposed in Isaiah 11 – is coming to birth in Jesus.
These qualities become a reality as we anticipate the coming Kingdom – the New Creation.
Anticipation is a funny thing. When playing soccer, if I anticipate the ball coming towards me, the power of that anticipation will result in bodily movement; I will run towards the ball. Similarly, anticipation of the New Creation will result in new behaviour; transformation of Character. That happens as we follow Jesus.
There’s this interesting Greek word, telos. It connotes a sense of completion, goal, and fulfilment. A full word study may not be appurtenant here, but often, the word is mentioned in the context of the biblical vision for the New Creation, and to top that off, it is in view and anticipation of the telos that a Christ-like character is being formed. 1 Corinthians 15 is a great example of this, as well as the entire book of Revelation. Also, 1 Peter 4:7, which says:
7The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.
There are many more directives throughout the New Testament that we can look at.
One author summarizes the big idea beautifully:
“When [the New Testament writers] present us with a vision for the future, they refuse to move from the present to the future. They move from the future to the present. They are captivated above all by a conviction about what God will finally do – the panorama unveiled in Revelation 21 and 22 – a future when God will dwell with his people in the new Jerusalem, a future promised by and guaranteed in the raising of Jesus from the dead. And in the light of this ultimate hope, they dare to claim that this future can start now. They tell us that their lives are being breathed into by the breath of God, being reenergized by God’s Spirit, that they are already enjoying the life of the future.” (David Taylor, editor of “For the Beauty of the Church”).
Jesus tells his hearers, “Be perfect (teleios) because your heavenly father is perfect (teleios)” (Mt. 5:48). Teleios, is usually translated as “whole, complete, perfect.” Essentially, he’s saying, that you are people of the goal – people of genuine humanness.
The Blessing of the Kingdom is in light of the New Creation – And that is happening here and now because of Jesus. We are living in the “already and not yet” – we live in view of the “not yet” and we live it out “already.”