Hello Sunday school teachers, preachers, and students! Welcome to SundaySchoolPreacher.com. This week I take a look at the second lesson of the Beatitudes. In this week’s lesson Jesus continues to outline what righteousness looks like and the rules and regulations of his Kingdom. Matthew gives us an honest account of the tension between what I keep calling the “old school” Jewish hierarchy and these new upstarts that are telling people about a man named Jesus who can save the world. “Old school” Judaism and these new Jewish Christians don’t agree and they don’t get along. Matthew is writing to these new Jewish Christians to point them in the right direction concerning this New Covenant and how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. Some of the ideas surrounding this week’s text include the terms:
Scribes and Pharisees
The overall focus for the summer quarter is a heartfelt covenant. Heartfelt is an adjective. It is a describing word. It adds context to or describes a noun which in this case is covenant. So, we’re talking about a heartfelt covenant. Heartfelt is defined as “a feeling or its expression that is sincere; deeply and strongly felt”. When something is heartfelt it is genuine, it’s authentic. In our lessons this summer we are studying different aspects of this heartfelt, this genuine, authentic, and sincere covenant established by Jesus Christ. But what I really want to highlight is that WE are the ones who experience this covenant in a heartfelt way.
With that in mind, I’ll provide some background on the origin of the book of Matthew, a bit of background on the people this Gospel was written to, and then I’ll narrow the focus to this week’s study which is the 5th chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew.
Matthew is also known as Levi the son of Alphaeus (Mark 2:14). Matthew is a tax collector when Jesus finds him sitting at a tax booth. Jesus simply says “follow me” and Matthew got up and followed him. As a tax collector, Matthew was likely despised by other Jews because he would have been seen as a collaborator with the Roman Empire. Also, tax collectors were called unclean and often defrauded and cheated people by charging excessive taxes. So Jews did not associate with tax collectors.
Additionally, keep in mind this text is likely written after 70 A.D. The Jewish temple has been destroyed and Matthew is writing to Jewish Christians. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible explains that “although the name Matthew is linked with this Gospel about 100 years after it was written, it is not known who the real author is, when the text was originally written, or why this work is named Matthew”. An illustrated biographical dictionary explains that “although Mark is the shortest Gospel, Matthew and Luke substantially use the same text as Mark but supplement it with additional writings”.
The fifth chapter of Matthew begins Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The sermon covers chapters 5 through 7. Chapter 5 begins with “blessings and sayings (5:3-16) the middle section of the sermon has six interpretations of scripture (5:17-48), instructions on three distinctive discipleship practices (6:1-18), and teaching on social and economic practices (6:19-7:12)” (NISB). Over the next four weeks I will cover all of chapter five and close the last lesson with chapter 7. Some important words to consider from this text include:
Scribes and Pharisees
Review of Last Week and How it Connects to This Week:
Last week was the first of five lessons from the Gospel According to Matthew. The text was Matthew 5:1-12 which is the beginning portion of the Beatitudes. I began with a description of verse one and two observing how Jesus took notice of the crowds, and then how he withdrew to an unnamed mountain to address his disciples. I also noted that “So far there are only four disciples (4:18-22; 10:1-4), but they represent all disciples” (NISB). I also noted that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness is important language for a people who are oppressed, persecuted, and subjugated by the Imperial Roman government and their fellow Jewish nationals. I provided a definition of the poor as “those who are economically or spiritually without sufficient resources and noted that God has a special concern for the poor. Contemporary liberation theology emphasizes reading Scripture from the perspective of the poor. I also quoted the NISB noting that “The second half of each blessing promises God’s future reversal of imperial situations” (NISB).
I also mentioned mercy from verse seven. Mercy is an important descriptor of God. Our homes are better when mercy is present. Our communities are better when mercy is present, and our governmental policies make society better when they deal with poverty as a priority.
I also admitted my inability to explain what a pure heart is. At least in terms of righteousness, I’m certain the only way my heart can be declared pure is through the shed blood of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross.
I also talked about the difference between peacemakers and peacekeepers. Peace makers do the work of justice and righteousness. A peace keeper may or may not do this work.
Verses eleven and twelve closed the lesson proclaiming that we should rejoice and be glad because we will receive a great reward in heaven when we are persecuted falsely on the account of Jesus. It’s important to stress that this applies to those who are falsely persecuted, not justifiably persecuted.
Now, As we focus on the idea of a heartfelt covenant this week’s lesson deals with how Jesus fulfils the Law. This is the second lesson from the beatitudes and the second of five from the Gospel According to Matthew. In this second lesson we hear directly from Jesus as he outlines some of the rules of his kingdom. The beatitudes are a guide for our everyday living that should be heartfelt by all Christians. Townsend and Boyd’s Commentary title the lesson Jesus Teaches About Fulfilling the Law. Standard Lesson Commentary titles it Fulfilling the Law. The scripture text comes from Matthew 5:13-20.
What Takes Place in This Passage:
In verses thirteen and fourteen Jesus describes his disciples and by extension all of us who follow him as salt and then light. These two metaphors are descriptors that should help us understand how we should be and how we should be seen in the world. Salt is a seasoning and a preserver. It seasons our food and makes it taste better. Likewise we should strive to make life “taste” better for those around us. Instead of creating problems we can help solve problems. Instead of simply criticizing others we can offer constructive criticism that makes others better. Salt also preserves. We ought to preserve the good in our lives and encourage others to do the same. In preserving what is good we can become lights in a dark world. When people see your good works you become a light for them to emulate, a beacon of what can and should be instead of what is. We should not underestimate the power of a good example. Because sometimes the only sermon someone may hear is the one they see in how you live. Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with saying “preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words”. That’s a great explanation of what it means to be salt and light in this world.
Verses 15 and 16 encourage us to put our light on a candlestick so others may see our good works. In other words, our lights should shine bright. Don’t dim your bright light because others are intimidated, jealous, envious, or any other reason. Your good works, your example, your ministry, your life’s example should be to God’s glory. And as long as you’re walking with God, let your light shine.
Verse 17 deals with the title of this week’s lesson. Here, Jesus tells the disciples that he has not come to destroy the law or the prophets but to fulfil. Jesus does not do away with the old, he makes it better. In next week’s lesson we see some of the ways Jesus makes the Old Testament better.
Verse 18 tells us that nothing will be taken away from the Old Testament; not one word, not one letter, not even a stroke of one letter will be taken away until all has been fulfilled. Keep in mind that this is the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He has just called his first disciples in Galilee and they don’t yet know that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. Standard Lesson Commentary notes that “God did not give the law intending that it would last forever. Ultimately it points to Christ, who makes perfect what the law could not perfect (Rom 3:20-31; Hebrews 7:16-19). In other words, the Old Testament points to Jesus as its own fulfillment.
In verse 19 Jesus declares that those who break one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. It’s been said many times that no one can keep all of the commandments of the Old Testament. Again, Jesus offers a better testament, a better covenant. Here, in the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry neither his disciples nor the gathered crowd know how Jesus will fulfill the Old and make it better. The writer of Matthew is recalling events that happened about 27 AD. So when the final version of this text is complete at least forty years have passed. The disciples may not have known at this point so early in Jesus’ ministry but eventually they would come to understand exactly who Jesus is and how he fulfills the Law and the prophets.
Verse 20 tells us that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees or we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. The Gospel According to Matthew is not kind to the scribes and Pharisees. There is tension between these Jewish Christians who are teaching a new way, a new covenant based in Jesus Christ and the “old school” Jewish hierarchy. Matthew is writing to a community who “with much bitterness and conflict have withdrawn from the synagogue. It assists a now separate community in defining its identity and shaping its faithful way of life within the diversity of late 1st-century Judaism” (NISB). The point for us today is to recognize and acknowledge Jesus as our Savior. And he is our Savior by grace.
One of the things I love about Scripture is how is shows both the good and the not so good. We see the faults and human frailty of the patriarchs through the Old Testament and they serve as an example of both what to do and what not to do. It’s an honest account of the good and the not so good. The Gospel according to Matthew is situated in that same vein. It’s an honest account of the tension between what I keep calling the “old school” Jewish hierarchy and these new upstarts that are telling people about a man named Jesus who can save the world. “Old school” Judaism and these new Jewish Christians don’t agree and they don’t get along. When Matthew tells us that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees it’s just one more instance of this tension laid bare for all to see. What we should be mindful of is that Jesus didn’t do away with the old rules, he made them better. Jesus offers a new agreement, a new covenant, a new testament that is a better covenant for everyone today.
Key Characters in the text:
Jesus Christ – Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and according to the Christian church the incarnate second Person of the Trinity. He was crucified on a cross and was raised from the dead by the power of God.
Matthew – Each of the four Gospels lists Matthew as one of the twelve Apostles. Most scholars believe Matthew and Levi is the same person. As a tax collector Matthew would have been associated with the Roman government. This would have also made him despised by his Jewish countrymen and women.
Pharisees – A Jewish party during Jesus’ time that obeyed the Law of Moses and its unwritten interpretations, known as the tradition of the elders (Mark 7:3). They focused on holiness (Lev. 19:2). Some were hostile (John 7:32) others were helpful to Jesus (Luke 13:31).
Key Words (not necessarily in the text, but good for discussion):
Beatitudes – Teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount regarding the lives and dispositions of his followers.
Disciples – One who follows and learns from another as a pupil. Old Testament prophets had disciples, as did John the Baptist and the Pharisees. It is used specifically for those who follow Jesus Christ.
Kingdom of Heaven – An equivalent term for “Kingdom of God” found in Matthew’s Gospel.
Themes, Topics, Discussion, or Sermon Preparation Ideas:
1. Old school versus new school.
2. Salt is a seasoning, are you making anyone’s life “taste” better?
1. Matthew is writing to a people who are trying to figure out if they will be “old school” Jewish or this new style Jewish Christian, or something entirely different. When is it best to go with the new school approach?
2. Is Jesus the spiritual fulfillment of the Old Testament Law?
Matthew writes to a marginalized people, a people who are oppressed by the government and even their own brothers and sisters in the faith and reassures them of God’s plan and points them toward a mission to save the world. This fifth chapter of Matthew shows some of how that mission began. It also points us toward a coming Savior that in this chapter begins to outline what righteousness looks like. It’s not the righteousness of a legal system that requires the sacrifice of animals and keeping certain legal requirements. It is a righteousness based in love and faith in Jesus Christ. That’s our task; to love others and to love God.
Preview of Next Week’s Lesson:
Anger, adultery, and divorce are a part of next week’s lesson as I will continue where we left off this week. Matthew 5:21-32 is the text next week and in these verses Jesus teaches us to love one another. As we keep in mind the idea of a heartfelt covenant I will outline some of what that love looks like.