Who was Jesus Teaching?
We have to judge the meaning of what is being said in the light of who the audience is.
For example the prophet Malachi curses some people for not tithing (Malachi 3:8-11). If we look closely at who Malachi was addressing we realise he was speaking to unfaithful priests. This curse is not placed globally on people who do not tithe but the corrupt priesthood. Recognising the audience alters the meaning we take from what is said.
The Audience and the Message on the Mount
Jesus spoke to His disciples but also to the crowds who were also listening (Matthew 5:1-2)1 1 Seeing the multitudes, he went up onto the mountain. When he had sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 He opened his mouth and taught them, saying,, (Matthew 7:28)2 28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the multitudes were astonished at his teaching,.
The crowds would have had many Jewish people amongst them. It seems likely that there would have also been many non-Jewish people, Gentiles. The Jewish people had suffered exile some hundreds of years before and had returned seventy years after. Many groups had moved into their lands. Subsequent invasions by several Empires had brought about a great mix of peoples.
The majority of the Jewish people no longer spoke or read the Hebrew language, and they could not directly read the Hebrew scriptures for themselves even if they were literate. The Greeks had increasingly influenced the land of Israel, especially the more educated and cosmopolitan areas. Greek thought and practices mixed with Jewish culture, and the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek. This translation was known as the Septuagint. Greek-speaking readers could, therefore, access the Old Testament for themselves.
Within the Jewish people were some very godly seekers after the Lord. Simeon took Jesus in his arms in the Temple when at His presentation to the Lord. The Lord revealed by the Holy Spirit that Simeon would see Christ (Luke 2:25-32). Anna, the prophetess, was also present at Jesus’s presentation (Luke 2:36-38). Mary and Joseph were also examples of godly Jewish people seeking to follow the Lord (Luke 2:41).
The bulk of Jewish people were not in the right place spiritually. Their knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures came through a group of teachers, the Scribes who read the Hebrew scriptures. People were ignorant that the teachings of various religious groups had distorted the scriptures. The traditions of these teaching groups had taken the place of Biblical knowledge.
Religion was external, and the general belief was that if the outward actions were OK, then that was all that was needed. The Jewish people thought they were the favoured ones of God, and it was sufficient to be Jewish to receive the blessings of God. The Gentiles, non-Jewish people, were considered spiritually inferior and there was little hope for these. There was much spiritual pride, and people viewed as unclean for all sorts of reasons.
There were four major religious groupings amongst the Jewish people. These groups were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. The Pharisees were scrupulous in an outward observance of a series of traditions and laws taught by rabbis over hundreds of years. These teachings often distorted the teachings of the Old Testament. The Sadducees discounted most of the supernatural teachings of the Old Testament. They were the upper ruling class, and the chief priests were part of this ruling group. The Essenes attempted to follow God by separating themselves from everybody else. The led austere lives on remote areas. The Zealots mixed religion with politics and aimed to overthrow the Roman occupation of their lands.
The message that Jesus taught on the mountain completely cut across the thoughts and beliefs of the crowds. Although Jesus used Jewish words and Jewish thinking expressed in a culturally familiar way, what He taught was genuinely astonishing to the hearers. He showed that outward works were not enough to please God, but inner motives and inner thoughts were also essential. Jesus warned the Jewish people that few would find the path to life, and it would need to be in a narrow way. He insisted that their righteousness had to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees and that they had to be perfect as God is perfect.
Much of what Jesus taught corrected the false teachings the religious leaders had given to the people. He had to reassure the people He was not throwing out the Law and the Prophets when He was correcting the false teachings they had received. From their point of view, they were hard-pressed to separate the genuine Old Testament Law from the traditions of the elders.
Jesus taught on the mount not just for the immediate hearers but for all sincere seekers after God. Jesus was addressing the multitude and the disciples, not just talking about some age to come. Everything taught in the message on the mount is taught in other parts of the Bible and apply to different groupings of people living in different times.
Two distinct groups of disciples existed. Some followed after Jesus for a time but then abandoned him, for example (John 6:66) tells us that many of Jesus’s disciples went back and walked no more with him. The other group continued to follow Jesus through all that occurred (Acts 1:21, 22). Jesus is, therefore, warning many professing disciples in His message on the mount not to abandon the narrow way for the more natural path.
Jesus taught with authority and was not quoting rabbinic authorities in the way of other teachers. His word was all the authority He needed. He sat down to teach. Rabbinic teachers sat down when teaching about essential matters. Culturally when Jesus sat down, He was demonstrating that He was serious in what He was saying. In the opening verse of the message on the mount, Jesus, ‘opened His mouth and taught.’ In the Common Greek language, this was a way of conveying that the teaching was especially important.
We need to learn several valuable lessons from the background to the message on the mount:
- We must read the Bible for ourselves. We cannot just rely on others teaching us. We have to weigh what others say about the Bible, and we can only do this by being familiar ourselves with the Scriptures.
- Our outward actions are not enough to please God. We have to be perfect as God is perfect, and this is impossible for us to do. The good news is that Jesus lived a perfect life of following God. Because He has fulfilled the righteous demands of the Law, we can have His perfection accounted to us in the sight of God if we truly believe and follow Him.
- It is not enough to begin to follow Jesus; we must continue to do so. Perseverance demonstrates we truly have believed. Our continuing to seek to do the will of God no matter what shows our love which can only come about when a real work of God is in our hearts.
- When there has been a genuine work of God, this can lead to groups who follow certain practices and see certain truths. Historically over some years, a form of spiritual entropy can take place. Dead religion replaces the life of God. We need to be on our guard and keep seeking to walk with God as an antidote to legalism and pseudo-spiritual pride.