The Upside Down Kingdom, Part 1: Jesus, the New Moses
Passage: Matthew 5:1–5:2
Introduction: Open your Bibles to Matthew chapter 5. Today, we will eb starting the sermon on the mount, and I can very excited to do so.
As we read this for the first time, I need to set up a foundation for us that we must have in order to understand what is going on in these chapters. This sermon comes early in the Gospel of Matthew, and can’t be read in isolation from the earlier portions of the book, but also can’t be read in isolation from the bigger context of the biblical story.
There are many ways to sum up the Scriptures. The story is long, complex, and beautifully describes the human condition and its remedies. It’s proved to be transcultural, transgenerational - it finds relevance on all seven continents for thousands of years. And when Jesus shows up, sits down on this mountain, as Matthew recalls it, and begins teaching - we need to ask the question, how did the story get here? There is a lot of your Bible before this. And Matthew is writing in such a way that is an effort to bring your entire Old Testament into sort of a conclusion.
We need to first consider that human beings were never intended to be completely and utterly free. Our modern times values freedom so much that freedom has become an end to itself. Freedom of choice, freedom of belief, freedom of lifestyle, and on and on. Freedom has become a virtue in and of itself.
To some degree, God did create us to be free. But it’s limited. We were never created as completely free beings. From day one, our freedom as humans was limited. Limits to remind us that God himself is truly sovereign, truly God, and is truly King. He offers us Life, as was shown through the availability of the Tree of Life, yet restricted some of reality from us, and created us in such a manner where we are dependent on God through faith. This was shown in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
God created us with the experience of freedom, yet in our human nature, he created us to be dependent on him as we exercise our free will. He told Adam and Eve, “go and eat freely of the Garden. The tree of Life. It’s all yours. Yet… there is something that is not yours. You are free, but not completely free.”
God is the most free being in the world. God can truly do as he pleases, without restrictions. This is because he is Holy, Pure, Good, Righteous, and True. It is impossible for God to do evil. Therefore, he can freely do as he pleases without the need for any limits.
But he didn’t create human beings the same way. But… we sure wish he did. We wanted to share in God’s freedom, without restrictions, without limits. We wanted to cast off the shackles of his Kingship, take on his duties (deciding what is true and Good for ourselves, making our own rules for living), and take that impossible responsibility on ourselves.
One major aspect of how we define the Christian idea of sin is this: sin is the exercising of complete freedom of will as if you are God yourself, and do not need any limits with your freedom. Doing what you please, and whatever makes you happy, will eventually lead to you wrecking your life. It will lead to the unraveling of social order. It will lead to sexual chaos without restrictions. Among other things.
That is because you and I need a King. We need a leader. We need limits. We need boundaries. But after Adam and Eve usurped these boundaries and sinned against God, their heart and our heart have now been by nature bent towards the inclination of wanting to be our own King and our own leader, and, in essence, our own God.
The story of Israel in the Old Testament is really a story that you and I can relate to in every way. It’s the story of humans who keep wanting to do what they want to do and to have complete freedom to rule themselves, and realizing that they can’t, but they still try anyway.
When we introduced the effort of humans living in complete freedom in the world - that humans can be free from God to live as they please, the curse of death was introduced. Violence entered into our story, and life was taken away. Self-preservation was introduced at whatever cost was necessary - even at the murdering of our own brother. It has marred our story ever since.
But God promised that a person would one day come through Eve’s line that would bring justice to the serpent who tempted Eve, justice to the serpent’s family and his offspring. “I will put enmity between you and the woman,” said God speaking to the serpent, “and between your offspring and her offspring. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15) That became the hope of humans from day one - the hope of the coming of this person to reverse things and make wrongs right through justice against the one who tempted us.
In the Old Testament, the cycles of sin in our exercising of complete freedom continually led to our destruction. Israel was always looking for this person promised by God to help repair our sorry condition. Then Moses came along. Moses led Israel out of slavey in Egypt. God worked miracles and amazing feats through him. He gave Moses a new Law, calling him to ascend a Mountain named Sinai, metaphorically going “up to God” to receive a divinely given Law, as told in Exodus 19 (KEEP THE MOUNTAIN IN MIND). He gave Moses directions for the building of the tabernacle to help bring us closer to God. Maybe, just maybe, this was the prophesied person that would come and bring a swift end to sin and bring justice to the serpent’s family, and evil could be eradicated.
When the Law was given in the Old Testament, often it has been quickly summarized as a Law that was only dealing with externals, with your actions and what you should do or what you should not do. But no - the Law began the journey of God identifying where the major problem lies for us human beings - “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great mighty, and the awesome God,…” says Moses in Deuteronomy 10:16. The Law pointed out something very crucial - the problem of Israel was internal, and not external. And Moses shared in these problems, exercising his freedom to do as he pleased numerous times in his life. Moses was a murderer. He was also a usurper of God himself numerous times in the wilderness.
The fact that Moses proved not to be the final One who would bring justice and lead God’s people to salvation was also shown in the same book of Deuteronomy, in just a few chapters later, when in chapter 18 another prophet was prophesied to come. Another prophet, like Moses, who will speak God’s words, in whom Israel was to listen and take heed of.
Sure enough, Moses died, and Israel’s story continued on as a chosen people, but still a broken people. Within a few centuries of Israel dwelling in the promised land, we have the awful string of stories in the book of Judges where moral and spiritual chaos marked the nation, because as the repeated phrase said, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
THE COMING KING
There’s the freedom piece again. They needed a King. They were too free. We were created to live in God’s Kingdom in Eden with him as our King, and we will not flourish, you and I and every human being in this world, until we are back beneath his Kingship. But there is an obstacle, as said by Moses in Deuteronomy, as shown in the book of Judges - there is an internal problem in human beings. We have this proclivity to sin from day one, this natural desire of rebellion against God, and to live as if we are God.
Nevertheless, as the story in the Old Testament continues, God as the tutor for humankind gives Israel a King. His name is David, and he is the one after God’s own heart. God even made a covenant with David, saying that his house and his kingdom shall be made sure forever before God, and that his throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7).
Finally! Maybe he’s finally come. Or maybe it’s rather David and his children, hopefully. But sure enough, David proved to be an imperfect person, murdering and sleeping with other men’s wives after getting them pregnant. HIs children proved to be great material for Jerry Springer, raping and murdering one another. David’s children who took up the kingship went through the same cycles of some loving God and leading beneath his Kingship, but most acting as King over Israel according to their own desires and freedom.
Eventually, the Kingdom of Israel was split in to, and after centuries, these Kingdoms kept shrinking and diminishing in their prosperity, and even were exiled out of the land.
Yet the promises remained. Where is the prophet like Moses? Where is David’s forever king who will forever sit on the throne? In despair should they have embraced God as a liar? Their situations seemed beyond repair, and the human condition was still irrecoverably bent towards sin.
In the later half of this period, we had a very important figure arise on the scene. His name was Isaiah. He wrote one of the most beautiful books ever written in history, containing some of the most beautiful poetry and most memorable words ever written among humankind. Among the many things he said, he had this to say to a corrupt kingdom of Israelites, languishing beneath their sin, and still sitting on the foundation of God’s promises to one day bring a leader who can reverse all our ills once and for all, and restore God’s Kingdom as it was seen in Eden between himself and his creation. Isaiah, with great hope, and with great longing, pens these familiar words:
Isaiah 9:1–7  But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. ….  For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (ESV)
Not long after these words were written, when all hope seemed to finally be coming to fruition, if Isaiah was right in his words - Judah was invaded, the Temple was destroyed, and the Kingdom was brought to and end through exile - just like we were exiled from God’s presence in Eden. Where is this Davidic King Isaiah spoke of? Where is his forever Kingdom? Where is this child?
RETURN FROM EXILE
70 years passed while God’s people lived in Persia, many miles away from the promised land. Seventy long years of an empty throne in Israel, an empty land, no son of David ruling. Eventually God had stirred up in the ruler of Persia to send God’s people back to Israel to rebuild and to re-inhabit the land. Yet few returned, and even when they did, they were surrounded by enemies, and barely scrapped by as they rebuilt Jerusalem. Then, even when they were done, and even when the Temple was rebuilt, they were not an independent Kingdom. David’s throne was not restored. They were just a province within Persia, far away from their King who reigned there, yet still were to be his subjects. Isaiah’s words yet seemed distant. But hope lingered on as they looked and yearned for salvation, and for a son of David to rule them and lead them and save them.
BETWEEN THE TESTAMENTS
Centuries went by. The world rapidly changed. A young pupil of Aristotle named Alexander, who was later to be known as Alexander the Great, took a sword and while in his twenties, took the Greek army and conquered the world, laying waste to everything in his path. He quickly rose and then died. Eventually the Romans rose up to take over all these lands, plus more, becoming the mighty Roman Empire. And in the midst of this massive world changes, a little piece of land no larger than the size of New Jersey, Israel, lie on the outskirts of it all, being pushed back and forth like a pawn between these great world powers. A little nation seemingly officially outside of history, no longer relevant to anything important. Perhaps the prophets were wrong after all, for no tiny nation like Israel could ever be as mighty and influential as the Roman Empire.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
Then suddenly something happened in this tiny province, some 400 years since the last prophet uttered a word in Israel. A child was born in a tiny city of Bethlehem. A young woman became pregnant, a woman who had not been with a man, a woman who was not married. And her fiancee wanted to divorce her, as was just to do, until an angel revealed to him the Good News: “Jospeh, son of David, take her as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Foreigners arrived from distant lands bearing gifts, looking for this new King of the Jews. This was to be a remarkable child.
Mary and Joseph’s son, Jesus, came to John many decades later, was baptized, and then sent into the wilderness to experience something that was all too familiar in Israel’s story throughout the Old Testament - a direct confrontation with Satan and his temptations. Adam and Eve had failed when this serpent approached them. Israel, after they were exiled in Egypt, spent 40 long years in the wilderness because of their continual failures of temptations from Satan. And here is Jesus, 40 days in the desert, confronted by Satan with a series of temptations - yet he prevails in victory.
JESUS BEGINS MINISTRY
Now, the stage seems to be set. A Son of David has been born. It’s time for the throne to be set back up, for this forever Kingdom of David that the angels said would follow Jesus be set up. He just survived temptations from Satan himself - something Israel was never able to do.
But he begins to do something very unexpected. He doesn’t go to Jerusalem. No - he goes to the northern portion of Israel, where the sea of Galilee was. There, lots of Jews and non-Jews lived. It was an insignificant place on the outskirts. The boondocks, in other words. Why? According to Matthew chapter 4 (please turn there as we follow the story), “so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Napthali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles - the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”
Sound familiar? It was from that time on that Jesus began preaching a very distinct message: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
He calls his first disciples. They hear him, drop everything, drop the family business, leave their very families, and become Jesus’ disciples.
Then it’s time to get to Jerusalem! This Son of David is gathering his disciples, he’s announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven is here, and it’s time to pick up swords and seize the throne. Get out of those cities in the north, go to Jerusalem where all the action is, Jesus.
But… he does something else very unexpected. He starts traveling all around Galilee, proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom. And people from Galilee, Syria and various Roman cities right outside of Jerusalem begin flocking to him because he is healing people with diseases, paralytics, people possessed by demons, epileptics, people with various pains and aches - all of them are getting healed.
This soon to be King of the Jews, the Son of David, is healing people now. And not just the Jews from Israel. But foreigners from other lands - even the Roman enemies. And he gathers this now large crowd for something special. Now, imagine this: if you were among this crowd in that day, diseased, paralyzed, and etc., you didn’t have hope for any sort of regular life. There were no hospitals, no medicare or welfare systems to help you, no federal structures to ensure that you could survive and be fed and have shelter. No, these people would have been literally scrapping by on whatever pennies their family may had had to care for them, which probably wasn’t much, and also on whatever pennies generous strangers tossed their way.
So this Son of David manages to gather his first crowd - a crowd full of sickly hopeless people of no importance or influence in the land. It’d be like one of the hospitals down the street emptying out and all their patients showing up for our church service. That was the people Jesus sought to gather to himself first - the have nots.
SERMON ON THE MOUNT
And now we arrive to our text today. Matthew, as he tells this story, is doing some very intentional with his words and with this story telling. After doing so much research on this text, all scholars seemed almost unanimous that Matthew is trying to harken us in memory to see what Jesus does next, and to think back to ancient times in Israel’s story.
All Matthew is doing throughout these yearly chapters in his account of the Gospel is making us think back to the Old Testament story. He has already quoted from it many times, and he seems to be placing Jesus as someone who is to be the embodiment not just of random prophecies of Isaiah, no, he’s going to be something much bigger than that. He seems to be completing Israel’s story in himself. Matthew is going to try to have us see how all of Israel’s story and all of their longings, from Genesis to the end of the Old Testament, is wrapped up in fulfillment not in a group of people, or in one generation of very holy Israelites. Rather, it will be wrapped up in a person, that child who was born, that son of Mary whose Kingdom will have no end, that Son of Mary who also dwelt in Egypt while he was on the run from Herod, who also came back to the land of Israel, this Son of Mary who also spent 40 days (not years) in the wilderness like Israel but who didn’t succumb to the serpent’s temptations, and who now is preaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand. This Old Testament story is finding its fulfillment in Jesus!
MATTHEW 5:1-2 - Our Text for Today
And we’ve finally arrived in our text for today. Now, let’s read this slowly and carefully, and here what Matthew is saying:
“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.”
I’ve been to the Sea of Galilee. And I can tell you that there are little hills and cliffs and whatnot around the sea, but there are no mountains as you and I would think of mountains.
Matthew says that Jesus, looking at these crowds, these poor, beat up people who received all the bad hands in life of disease, sickness and physical infirmities, he “went up the mountain.”
Most scholars agree - Matthew is trying to make us think back to a very specific time in Israel’s story. This isn’t the first time someone climbed a mountain in the Bible to receive God’s words, but this time there is a major difference. Jesus himself climbs the “mountain,” the crowds follow him, and what does he do? He sits down.
Sitting down in those days before a great crowd was something that only those in great authority did. It almost speaks of a sort of finished work, or an assumed authority that no one can challenge. To sit down before a large crowd is to be vulnerable - it is to assume that this crowd has accepted you as one in authority and that they are not going to attack you. Kings sit down before crowds like this.
And Matthew says he “opened his mouth and taught them.” God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai his words, his Law. And as Israel was waiting for another prophet like Moses to ascend the mountain and teach God’s Law again, here Jesus is, ascending the mountain, but instead of going to God to hear his words, the crowd comes to Jesus to hear his words - a stunning claim of who this Jesus really is.
Why did I bother telling this long story? I want you to know who Jesus is. I want you to know who exactly Matthew is trying to present to us before we get into the Sermon on the Mount.
And as we read such a sermon, I want you to learn to identify with the crowd sitting before Jesus. I want you to realize that this crowd were people who were acutely aware of their need for help. Those are the people Jesus gathered to himself. He didn’t go and knock on the mayor’s door of Nazareth and say “hey you know if you became one of my disciples, it’d really help my cause and give some validity to this new Kingdom I’m trying to get set up, it’d look really good.”
Rather, he gathers the people that no one else wanted to gather. He gathers the people who are primed to hear his message of the Kingdom. These are people who apparently were considered his disciples, and it is these people who were to hear the new ways of this new Kingdom coming.
What we are to expect in this sermon on the Mount will be things completely and totally unexpected. Jesus came to a broken world, a world full of sin and of the curse, a world full of human beings who keep trying to live as if they are their own gods apart from God himself. He came into such a world full of people whose hearts are full of the natural bent towards sin and rebellion and self-glorification. And if you know the story, he was coming to take it all on himself to begin the choking of that engine in order to bring it to a stop - the engine of sin and death.
In the meantime, as his disciples, there are two very important things we must know as a church that will help prime us to really hear his words that will come out of his mouth in this Sermon on the Mount:
- You will only be able to hear this words with a certain disposition from within. This certain disposition is one in which you know you do not belong to yourself. This is a certain disposition where you know you are not your own god, and that you are in need. This disposition is really only available to us by the help of the Holy Spirit. Do you live your life like this? This is the hardest thing for us in our prosperous country to embrace. In a nation that prides itself on independence and self-reliance, are you willing to admit that indeed you cannot be self-reliant? Are you willing to admit your need to say that you need help, you need saving, you need a King, someone to lead you, guide you, and help you continually, day to day, hour to hour? If you think you only need this Messiah, this King, in some parts of your life, but in the other parts you have it under control - the words that follow in this sermon on the mount will simply not make sense to you, and may even cause an offense in you.
- The Sermon on the Mount is peculiar in the sense that it is a Sermon that has a double-edged message: it is a vision, a vision of a heavenly life to be lived in a broken world, a life that will seem to be nearly impossible, and in some ways is. Yet, it is a life that Jesus asks his disciples to actually “do” as the very final paragraph in the sermon shows, as we are asked as his disciples to build our home not on the sand of our own way of life, but on the rock of his word. This vision of the heavenly life on earth, encircled around his famous Lord’s Prayer, is completely upside down to how you may think of it, to how you could ever imagine what life is supposed to be like.
Knowing that Jesus’ world was massively influenced by Greek culture, Jesus picks up on certain traditions of sharing wisdom of living that leads to human flourishing, and kind of mimics the form of their writing, especially in the Beatitudes. He is trying to thus join in on the proverbial wisdom-giving of that day by giving us heavenly wisdom on a life well lived - in his Kingdom. But this is so much more than just a “life well lived.” It’s the very characteristics of a restored, saved people, living as pilgrims in a world, with a new orientation towards a new King. And its radical.
Like Jesus, we can expect something to happen with this new reorientation as we flourish in his new Kingdom - that the world is not going to appreciate it. And you may even find yourself rubbing up against all the worlds values. You may even find swimming upstream, being radically misunderstood by all. Yet, fueled with love, we are being asked by Christ to do so, even at the expense of ourselves, all for the glory of God - so that they may know the hope of Christ.
As we close, I have a few things to ask you:
- The message of Salvation through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus for our sins brings about this needed reorientation we are speaking of. Upon the gift of faith we are rescued and restored to a new identity beneath a new Lord, that of being in Christ Jesus, that of being justified and brought into the right before God. And we are called to rely on this God-given acceptance through Christ for all our hope, for all of our day to day existence, and for all our motivations for living. What does life look like when you completely rely on this? That’s the vision of the Sermon on the Mount. What keeps you from relying on this reality after faith? That’s the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount.
- Are you willing to live your life in Christ at the expense of yourself? Are you willing to embrace that your life is not yours? Are you willing to embrace that Jesus has complete and utter authority in your life and in this world to take whatever he may, to give whatever he may, to ask you to place yourself even in harms way for the sake of his Great Name being glorified in this world, for the cause of his Good News to be proclaimed? Everything in his Kingdom is upside down, to climb the ladder in his Kingdom is to essentially climb down a ladder, rather than up a ladder.
He sat down on this mountain to preach this amazing sermon, but in the very final paragraph of Matthew, knowing Matthew’s very intelligent and intentional structure of his book, says that once more Jesus climbed the mountain in Galilee, the same place he gave this sermon on the mount, and once more his disciples came to him. He also spoke another sermon, but it was a fast and quick one. The King, in his glorified and resurrected state, having accomplished all that was to be accomplished, said these eternal words:
“ALL AUTHORITY IN HEAVEN AND ON EARTH HAS BEEN GIVEN TO ME.” How many times have you read or heard those words, but not listened to them? ALL AUTHORITY is his! “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
That is why we are studying the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew is trying to connect these dots. The disciples of the resurrected Lord are to carry out this Great Commission by the way of life of the Sermon on the Mount. I pray that by the Spirit, your heart can be soft to these words, that you will be willing to give up your so-called freedom in life to live in faith beneath Jesus’ Kingship, so that you may experience the TRUE FREEDOM of life beneath God himself, just like he created us to live, all the way back to Genesis 1 - all made possible by Jesus’ Life, death and resurrection. Let’s pray.
More in The Upside Down Kingdom
September 29, 2019The Upside Down Kingdom, Part 2: For the Joy Set Before Us