Martin Luther is well known for understanding the ethics and commands of the Sermon on the Mount (SM) as a sort of impossible ideal, a standard that no one can truly live up to. And for Luther, that was the point. Jesus was setting the bar extremely high in the SM so that we would see the necessity of grace. We all fail miserably to live by the righteous standard given in Matthew 5-7, and as a result we are driven to see our desperate need for God’s grace granted to us through the cross of Christ.
But, while it’s true that none of us will be able to live out the ideals of the SM perfectly in this life, I don’t think understanding the SM as an impossible ideal is what Jesus had in mind. So how is the Christian, who is redeemed but is still a work in progress, supposed to understand the high standard of righteousness given in the SM? How can we claim to be true disciples of Jesus (which is what the SM is describing), when we all know good and well that we fail to live up to what Jesus teaches here.
This is where understanding the SM in light of the inaugurated kingdom of Christ can help. In the SM, Jesus is giving us the ethics of his kingdom. That kingdom was inaugurated at Christ’s first coming, but it will only be consummated and completed at his second coming. And what is true for the kingdom in general is true for the kingdom ethic in particular. Between the first and second comings of Christ, when his kingdom is already present but not yet complete, we can expect our living out of Christ’s kingdom ethic to be a present but not yet complete reality as well. However hard we might strive for complete obedience to the teachings of Jesus in this life (and we should strive for that!), it will not be until Christ comes again, and his kingdom is consummated, and his people are glorified, that we will fully live according to the ethics of the kingdom. It’s not that the SM presents an impossible ideal. It really will be lived out perfectly in the new creation; and our desire should be to live now in a way that is consistent with how we will live then, knowing that our attempts to do so will be imperfect.
There are a couple of textual hints both right before the SM and within it that clue us in on the need to read the SM in light of the inaugurated kingdom of Christ.
The Kingdom Context of the Sermon
The first thing that ought to clue us in on the fact that the SM comes to us with the inaugurated kingdom of Christ in the background is found in Matthew 4:17-25, the text that comes right before the giving of the SM. This passage tells us that the main thrust of Jesus’ preaching had to do with the fact that in his person and through his ministry the long awaited restoration of the kingdom of God was beginning. The first words of Jesus’ public ministry were, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). And then, in the description of Jesus’ ministry that follows, we are told that Jesus was going about “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” (4:23). In other words, he was proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God had arrived. This is the point of the healing ministry described in vv. 23-24 as well. Jesus was not only preaching the good the news of the kingdom, he was also demonstrating the presence of the kingdom. The healings were a way of saying, “In God’s kingdom, everything and everyone will be made whole like these people I have just healed.” What’s important to see here is that it’s right after all this talk and demonstration of the kingdom’s inauguration in Christ that the SM is given. So the pattern is: Jesus tells us the kingdom is here (Matthew 4:17, 23), Jesus demonstrates that the kingdom is here (Matthew 4:23-24), and then Jesus elaborates on what life in the kingdom looks like (Matthew chs. 5-7).
The Kingdom Content of the Sermon
This emphasis on the kingdom doesn’t stop with Matthew 4:17-25. The kingdom theme continues right on into the SM itself and becomes an integral part of the content of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5-7. God’s kingdom is mentioned seven times in the SM (5:3, 10, 19, 20; 6:10, 33; 7:21). Sometimes the kingdom is spoken of as a future reality: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (7:21). Other times, the kingdom is a present reality, something you can seek now: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (6:33). Then there is the prayer given in 6:10, where we are to pray for God’s kingdom to come more and more “on earth as it in heaven,” which implies that though it may already be here to a degree, our hope is that it would come more fully.
It’s this understanding of the kingdom of God as already here but not yet complete that is the key to understanding the kingdom ethic given in the SM. If the kingdom of Christ is not fully here now, and won’t be until his second coming, then we should not be surprised when the kingdom ethic of Christ is not kept fully now, and won’t be until his second coming. We long to live perfectly by the kingdom ethic of Jesus in the same way that we long to experience fully the kingly reign of Jesus. The kingdom of Christ and the kingdom ethic of Christ are both to be understood as already present but not yet fulfilled.