The structure of the Sermon on the Mount is relatively clear in Matthew 5 and 6. It becomes more difficult to identify the sections that Matthew thought fit together in the material of chapter 7. The Golden Rule, found in verse 12 could serve as a summary to the material found in Matthew 7:1-6 or it could introduce what follows.
The Importance of Obedience - Matthew 7:13-27
The final sections of the Sermon on the Mount illustrate a common theme with a variety of word pictures. Verses 13-14 contrast the two ways. Verses 15-23 warn against false prophets. Jesus presents the parable of the wise and foolish builder in verses 24-27. The common theme in these passages is the importance of obedience. Obedience to Christ, both in the sense of heeding his words and in the sense of following his example, is not optional for entry into the Kingdom.
Verses 13-14 contrast the narrow and the wide gates. Even within these two verses the metaphors are somewhat mixed. The wide and narrow gates draw from the image of the gates of a city. One might suppose that the wide gate signifying accessibility would be favored. Rather, the point here is security and the narrow gate is superior because it limits those who enter. Only those who genuinely belong in the kingdom by virtue of obedience will be able to enter. The illustration then slides into the Jewish concept of the two ways, the way of life and the way of death. Arising out of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament Judaism, the phrase, "the way of life" could refer to all of the Old Testament teaching on obedience to God, moral and ethical living, and right relationships with other people. Similarly, the way of death described the whole complex of teaching about the dangers of disobedience and immoral and unethical living. For Jesus the way of the kingdom of God was "the way of life."
Even in the Old Testament the two ways were represented in part by the teaching of the prophets. True prophets taught the way of life; false prophets taught the way of death. One could evaluate the validity of prophets’ messages by comparing their teaching to what was known about the two ways. Verses 15-23 reveal a similar perspective in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, looking forward to the time of Matthew’s (and our) church, warns of the beguiling influence of false prophets. The reference to sheep’s clothing shows that they will appear to be part of the flock of God. Their external appearance would convince us of their genuineness. It is only inwardly that we discover they are out to destroy God’s people.
Therein lay the plight of Matthew’s (and our) church. It was (and is) very easy to be impressed by talented and persuasive glib talkers. They say the right words and call on the faithful to sacrifice for God. Whether it is the image of success or of legalistic piety, they appear impressive. The church has always found it difficult to figure out what was on the inside of people, especially people who exaggerate the outward signs we value.
However, Jesus warns that the fruit of their lives will eventually betray them (vv. 16 f). From sheep and flock, Jesus shifts to the metaphor of plant or tree and the resulting fruit. He contrasts good or gentle trees and fruit with evil or rotten trees and fruit. The point is clear. When a prophet is true (genuine) on the inside the fruit of her or his life will be good and gentle results in people’s lives. When a prophet is false, that false inside will eventually produce evil and rotten results in people’s lives.
The difficulty for the church that the fruit metaphor accurately reveals is that it takes time, sometimes a lot of time, before the fruit of person’s character is clear. When we are deceived by the outward marks of religious success considerable damage can be done before the fruit is clearly evident as rotten. Perhaps we should learn to place less confidence in human leaders and to rely more directly upon Christ ourselves.
The danger of being deceived by false prophets appears in verses 21-23. It is clear that neither religious words (Lord, Lord) nor impressive religious marks of success (prophesying, casting out demons, and working miracles) guarantee the genuineness of a person. Regardless of what the [false] prophet may say or do, she or he and we are judged on our conformity to the will of God.
There are two important truths that we need to grasp from these verses. First, when Jesus rejected religious words and miracles as signs of authenticity before God he included himself. In some circles, there is a tendency to see the teachings of Jesus and his miracles as evidence of Christ’s deity. Such circles have resisted evidence that other religious leaders have had teachings similar to Jesus and done miracles like his. For Jesus the evidence of his deity was that he did the will of his Father in heaven. The teachings and miracles provided evidence, but they were second level evidence that had no meaning unless he did the Father’s will.
A second important truth is the meaning of God’s will. Some modern evangelical Christians see God’s will as a blueprint for all the decisions of their lives. Whom to marry, whether to take the train or an airplane, what color of clothes to wear are all matters of the will of God. While these issues may be generally a matter of God’s will, they were not the kind of things Jesus was talking about when he spoke of doing the will of his heavenly Father. For Jesus, the will of God dealt with righteousness and holiness. In fact, the material in Matthew 5-6 summarizes very well the major aspects of the will of God for followers of Jesus. A pure heart, loving those who persecute us, speaking with complete integrity, valuing other people above ourselves, seeking the kingdom above any of our personal concerns, and a life of quiet, secret devotedness to God is what Jesus meant by doing the will of God. Unless the fruit of our lives looks like these aspects of the Sermon, Christ will finally confess that he does not know us.
Verses 24-27 present the parable of the wise and foolish builder. The bubbly enthusiasm of the children’s song about the wise man and the foolish man may distract us from the clear literary definition of wisdom and foolishness. The wise (the Greek could be better translated, "insightful") man is the person who hears and does the teachings of Jesus contained in the Sermon (verse 24). The foolish one is the person who hears but does not put into practice the teachings of the Sermon (verse 26). Security is the result of obedience. Ruin is the product of disregard for Jesus’ teachings.
Matthew’s Conclusion - Matthew 7:28-29
The parable of the wise man and the foolish man form the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew provides his own concluding editorial comments in verses 28-29. He notes that the crowds were astonished by Jesus’ teachings because he taught as one having authority and not like their scribes. It appears that by the time of Jesus the Jewish scribes always buttressed their teaching by appealing to earlier authorities. When the oral tradition was finally written into the Mishnah around A.D. 200 the pattern of dependence is clear. Virtually every paragraph quotes one or more rabbis earlier than the rabbi who was speaking. How different are the Great Antitheses where Jesus contrasts the traditional interpretations of the Old Testament with his own teachings.
For us the authority of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is not simply a matter of form. In the Sermon, we discover God speaking to us, judging our thoughts and discerning the intentions of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12). We find ourselves constantly confronted with the deception of our religious games. The Sermon has more than just "the ring of truth;" it penetrates with conviction into our own hearts and calls us to new levels of commitment to Christ. We cannot truly hear the Sermon and live as we did before.
Jesus: Giver of Life - Matthew 8:1-9:38
The Sermon on the Mount was the first large block of Jesus’ teachings that Matthew collected. The next teaching block will appear in chapter 10. Matthew 8 and 9 contain accounts of ten miracles from the ministry of Jesus. Matthew appears to have arranged these miracle stories around four themes. The material in Matthew 8:1-17 speaks to the identity of Jesus or the subject of Christology. Verses 18-34 address the question of discipleship. Matthew 9:1-17 responds to questions about the relationship of Jesus and his followers with Israel. Finally, 9:18-34 speak of faith. This arrangement of miracle stories allows Matthew to accomplish two goals. First, he is able to show that Jesus was different from other "miracle workers" that plied their trade in first century Palestine. Beyond impressing people, Jesus’ miracles reveal theological truth. This is an important follow-up to Matthew 7:21-23. Secondly, the particular collection of miracles in chapters 8 and 9 will serve as evidence for Jesus’ teaching about the mission of the church in Matthew 10.
Miracles Revealing Jesus’ Identity - Matthew 8:1-17
The first seventeen verses contain two miracle stories, the cleansing of a leper (verses 1-4) and the healing of the centurion’s servant (verses 5-13), and a summary statement about Jesus’ healing ministry (verses 14-17).
The narrative of the cleansing of a leper is also found in Mark 1:40-45 and Luke 5:12-16. Most New Testament scholars believe that Mark’s gospel was written before Matthew and that Matthew had access to Mark as a source of material (see The Synoptic Problem). The changes - large and small - that Matthew made from Mark reveal to us insights into the unique truths Matthew wanted to communicate to his audience. Matthew’s edition of the cleansing of a leper is shorter than Mark’s and it reveals small changes that we will eventually discover to be characteristic of Matthew. However, it is not just the changes that reveal Matthew’s purpose. What is common to both gospels also tells us what Matthew considered important about the cleansing of the leper.
There is some confusion about the exact nature of the disease described in the Bible as leprosy. The Old Testament instructions regarding leprosy and the examples from both testaments suggest that the biblical term included a wide variety of skin disorders. The modern medical term leprosy describes a devastating disease that attacks the nerves and muscle tissue of the extremities. Paralysis and significant disfiguring can result. Most of the symptoms and examples of leprosy in the Bible are not nearly so severe. However, because of the fear of the spread of the disease, Leviticus 13-14 prescribes strict isolation of lepers. Further, the Old Testament regarded leprosy as ceremonial uncleanness. This may have been due to the fact that many skin disorders have no other symptoms of illness. Thus, the New Testament never speaks of lepers being "healed." Rather, they are "cleansed." Because of their outcast state and their danger to both health and the religious state of cleanness, the Jews of Jesus’ time feared lepers and avoided them at all costs.
We can see these assumptions in verses 2-4. The leper’s opening words, "If you want to you are able to cleanse me," shows his awareness of being outcast. If Jesus wanted, he could have refused even to talk to the leper. The language of cleansing rather than healing appears twice in verse 3. That Jesus would say, "I want to," and then reach out a hand and actually touch the leper is an amazing demonstration of his compassion. It also shows his authority over both disease and religious uncleanness. In contrast to the Old Testament assumption of gradual improvement, the leprosy was cleansed immediately. In verse 4, Jesus commands the leper to go to the priest and provide the offering required by Leviticus 14:10ff. This is consistent with Matthew’s understanding that Jesus fulfilled the Law rather than destroying it (Matthew 5:17).
These elements of the story of the cleansing of the leper that are common to Matthew and Mark show Jesus’ compassion and his authority over disease. There are two changes that Matthew made in Mark’s wording that also provide important clues to Christ’s identity. Mark 1:40 describes the leper as coming to Jesus beseeching him and falling on his knees. Matthew drops the phrase, "beseeching and falling on his knees," and replaces it with the word "worshipped." English translations often use "bowed down" or "fell on his knees" to translate the word. However, the Greek term clearly means "worshipped." It is the word used for the Magi’s worship of Jesus. Matthew regularly changes other words of approach in Mark to use this word "worship." This tells us in a subtle but powerful way that Matthew wants us to remember that Jesus is the Son of God as he performs this miracle.
The other change is similar. The leper addresses Jesus with the title, "Lord," in verse 2. Mark had no words of address. Matthew frequently adds the title "Lord" or changes the Markan word "teacher" to "Lord." This pattern reveals Matthew’s strong interest in our understanding correctly Jesus’ identity as Lord.
The second miracle in chapter 8 is the healing of the centurion’s servant. Within Jewish traditions, the leper was excluded from the people of God because of his disease. The centurion was excluded because of his nationality as a gentile. Coming to Jesus he reported that his servant was tormented by paralysis. Jesus’ response in verse 7 is translated as a statement in almost all the English versions, "I will come and heal him." However, it is possible and fits the context better to understand his response as a question, "Am I to come and heal him?" The question is not indignant nor a rebuff of this gentile soldier. Rather, Jesus asks him to be clear about what he wants. It forces the centurion to express his faith more precisely.
The centurion appears to recognize that the implication of his request for help would be asking Jesus to come to his house to heal the servant. To do would render Jesus ceremonially unclean according to the Jewish law. It is clear that Jesus was not afraid of such "contamination" because he touched the leper, which would make him ceremonially unclean. The centurion, however, recognizes the dilemma and offers another alternative, suggesting that Jesus simply give the word and heal his servant at a distance. From Matthew’s perspective, the centurion’s explanation is most important. As military officer he understands authority. He can speak a command and expect that it be carried out. The implication is that Jesus is also a man of authority. If he really is divine, a word will be as effective as a visit in healing the servant. At the heart of this miracle is the acknowledgment of Jesus’ identity.
Jesus’ response is astonishment. The gentile soldier had demonstrated more faith than anyone of Jewish descent. Faith is understood here as confidence in who Jesus is. Verses 11-12 indicate that many gentiles will enter the kingdom while Jews will miss out because of their lack of faith. We miss the application of this story if we limit it to a historical statement about Jews and gentiles in the time of Jesus. In our time it may be that many people from the third world will enter the kingdom while many from the missionary sending countries of Europe and North America will be left out because we have not had enough faith to trust Jesus completely with all our needs.
The final paragraph in the opening section of Matthew 8 is a summary statement of Jesus’ healing ministry. Verses 14-15 briefly mention the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. Verse 16 describes an evening of many healings. Matthew then comments that this ministry of healing fulfilled Isaiah 53:4, "He took our weaknesses and he bore our diseases." This quotation connects the healing ministry of Jesus to his identity as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.
Miracles Teaching Discipleship - Matthew 8:18-34
Though it may appear that there are three sections in Matthew 8:18-34 in reality there are only two. Verses 19-22 contain Jesus’ dialogue with two would-be disciples. Verses 23-27 contain the stilling of the storm. However, verse 18 makes it clear that these two sections belong together in the mind of Matthew. Verses 28-34 narrate the healing of the Gadarene demoniacs.
Verse 18 contains a command of Jesus that he and the disciples go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The follow up statement about getting into the boat does not appear until verse 23. Thus, verses 19-22 are inserted into the narrative about crossing the sea.
Within these verses, two would-be disciples make promises to follow Jesus. In both instances, Jesus appears to rebuff them with a harsh reply. Verse 19 introduces a scribe who promised, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you may go." Jesus’ reply points out that foxes have lairs and birds of the air have nests, but there is no promise of a place to stay if we follow Christ. If the scribe answered, Scripture does not record his reply.
Matthew then immediately mentions another would-be disciple who asks permission to bury his father before pursuing the life of discipleship. To most modern readers this request seems most reasonable and Jesus’ harsh reply, "Let the dead bury their own dead," is hard to understand. It is most likely that the man’s father was not yet dead. In Palestinian culture at that time, the final obligation of a son to his father was to bury him. However, at that time in Palestine there was no embalming. Burial occurred within a few hours of death. Had the father actually been dead it seems unlikely that the son would have been out conversing with Jesus about discipleship. He would have been busily arranging for the burial. Thus, the request of verse 21 is a request to postpone the decision about discipleship until all future family obligations were completed. To that request Jesus responds abruptly that the demands of discipleship take precedence over some custom to be fulfilled in the indefinite future.
The key word in verses 19-22 was "follow." Matthew’s editorial transition in verse 23 states that the disciples followed Jesus into the boat. This is the first hint that the miracle of calming the storm will have theological instruction about discipleship. A second hint comes in verse 25 when the disciples cry out, "Lord, deliver us, we are perishing." The corresponding appeal in Mark 4:38 is, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" Matthew’s word, "Deliver us," could also be translated, "Save us." Thus, Matthew envisioned the stilling of the storm as teaching about discipleship. The storm of persecution or affliction cannot be taken as a reason to abandon following Jesus. Their fear in the storm after Jesus had already commanded them to go to the other side shows the disciples to be much like the would-be disciples who let difficult circumstances deter them from total obedience.
The final paragraph in this section tells of the healing of the Gadarene demoniacs. The most noticeable fact is that this story speaks oftwo demon-possessed individuals. The parallel accounts in Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39 refer to only one demoniac. Though this also appears to be a pattern with Matthew, scholars have no satisfactory explanation for it.
The key to this passage appears in verse 29 when the demoniacs ask if Jesus had come to torment thembefore the time. Judaism taught that demons were free to work until the coming of Messiah and the end of this present evil age. The assumption of the demoniacs is that they can continue unmolested until the end of time. However, Jesus is Messiah and his coming brought the messianic age. Jesus must prepare the demons for an all out assault on their power. Disciples must be prepared for the all out obedience required by the Kingdom’s arrival in Jesus.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.
First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 7:13-8:34. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Is there a spiritual truth in this passage that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you identify the areas of your life that need to change for you to whole-heartedly follow Jesus as his obedient and committed disciple.
Second Day: Read Matthew 9:1-26. Now focus on Matthew 9:1-8.
1. Verse 2 acknowledges the faith of the people who brought the paralytic to Jesus. How did they demonstrate faith to Jesus? What would be a corresponding demonstration of faith in your life?
2. What is the answer to Jesus’ question, "Which is easier, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?" Which is easier to do? How does Jesus’ question answer the accusation of blasphemy?
3. What does verse 8 tell us about the conclusion Matthew would like for us to draw from this miracle? What does it mean to "glorify" God when a miracle has taken place?
Third Day: Read Matthew 9:1-26. Focus in on Matthew 9:9-17.
1. If the Matthew of verse 9 is the author of this gospel and attended the dinner described in verses 10-13 how would the message of Jesus at the dinner be reflected in this gospel?
2. To whom does Jesus compare himself in verse 15? In this comparison, who is the bride? What does Jesus’ use of this comparison say about the way we should live our lives?
3. If Jesus’ teaching is the new wine and Judaism represents the old wineskins, what was Jesus saying about his teaching and the kingdom of God in verses 16-17? What application does that truth have to us today?
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 9:9-38. Focus your attention on Matthew 9:18-26.
1. What new demand is placed on Jesus in verse 18? If Jesus could answer this request what would it tell you about him?
2. What two encouraging statements does Jesus make to the woman who has suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years? How does faith make a person well? Can faith make a person healthy?
3. What does Jesus mean when he stated that the daughter of the synagogue leader was sleeping rather than being dead? What conclusions about Jesus do you draw from these focus verses?
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 9:1-38. Now focus in on Matthew 9:27-38.
1. How does faith enter into the healing of the two blind men? How does the faith involved in this healing differ from that in a previous miracle in Matthew 9?
2. What two responses to the miraculous appear in verses 32-34? What are some "unhealthy" responses to the miraculous today? Why are they "unhealthy?"
3. What motivated Jesus’ compassion according to verses 35-38? What is Jesus’ response? In what ways is the need of Christ today like that of these verses? How can you be part of Christ’s response?
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 9:27-10:15. Now focus on Matthew 10:1-15.
1. What "authority" does Jesus give his disciples in these focus verses? How does that authority relate to the commission he gave them?
2. Compare the list of things Jesus commands his disciples to do in verse 8 with Jesus’ ministry in Matthew 8 and 9. What does the comparison tell us about Jesus’ expectations for his followers? How are you fulfilling those expectations?
3. What does Jesus say about money in these verses? In what ways does the church today follow this teaching about money? Are these ways we should operate differently because of this teaching of Jesus? How?