The Authoritative Jesus
Many people, religious and irreligious alike, agree with Jesus’ down-to-earth, plain ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. They claim that the Sermon contains truths that are self-evident. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” Yes, that’s how the world works. To love one’s enemies is the noblest endeavor. “Judge not that you not be judged.” Easier said than done, perhaps, but a virtuous maxim nonetheless. And, of course, we all learned to live by the Golden Rule in kindergarten: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”
This, they say, is Jesus at his finest, a merely human ethical teacher of righteousness without all that supernatural mumbo jumbo in the rest of the New Testament. We’ll take the practical ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and leave the dogma, thank you very much. We’ll take Jesus the human teacher but leave all that Christ-Son-of-God-resurrected-Savior nonsense. But a closer reading of the Sermon on the Mount will not allow this view of either Jesus or his teaching.
A Teacher with Authority. When Jesus was finished speaking, the crowds were astonished, even “dumbfounded” (for the Greek word is a strong one), because “He was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” The crowd was amazed not only at the substance and depth of the teaching but in his delivery as well. He spoke as someone who not only knew what He was talking about but as one with total self-confidence. He declared with absolute certainty who would be blessed, who would obtain mercy, who would see God and be fit to enter the kingdom.
Jesus, the humble carpenter from Galilee, spoke with authority. He did not speak as a timid, apologetic wimp nor as a bombastic, tyrannical despot. Instead, he laid down the law of the kingdom with the quiet unassuming assurance of one who knows how powerful he is. He spoke as a sovereign law-giver. He was not a teacher but the Teacher.
Not as the Scribes. The scribes, on the other hand, taught by appealing to the authority of others. They quoted influential rabbis, parroted the accepted tradition of the elders and searched commentaries and history for precedents. Jesus, who never received a scribal education, scandalized the establishment by sweeping away the traditions of the elders and correcting erroneous rabbinical
interpretations of the Law. He disregarded social conventions and had no particular reverence for the status-quo. He spoke with a freshness that captivated some and enraged others.
Jesus did not teach as the scribes nor did he teach as the prophets. The prophets spoke with authority in the name of the Lord but always prefaced their teaching with, “Thus says the Lord.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the formulas, “Truly, truly, I say to you” and “I tell you” (Matt. 5:18; Matt. 6:2, 5, 16, 25, 29). His purpose in coming into the world was not to be a great prophet among many but the fulfillment of all their prophecy (Matt. 5:17). All the lines of the Old Testament witness converge on him.
The Long-Awaited Messiah. Jesus knew who he was: the Messianic King who had come to inaugurate the long-awaited kingdom. He is great David’s greater “Lord” who sits at God’s right hand (Mark 12:21-23). He is the “Son of Man” from Daniel’s vision who receives universal dominion (Matt. 24:39; cf. Dan. 7:14). More than a Teacher, Jesus is a Master to be obeyed (Matt. 7:2-23; Luke 6:46; John 13:13). More than a Master, he is the Judge who will hear the evidence and pass the sentence (Matt. 7:21-23). The accused will address their case before him and he will decide their destiny. And the nature of judgment will be banishment from his blessed, royal presence (Matt. 7:23). This Jesus, from despised Nazareth, untrained by the scribes in Jerusalem, makes himself the central figure of the Judgment Day (Matt. 25:31ff) and will judge all people based upon their response to his words (Matt. 7:24-27).
Jesus’ Divine Authority. When we read the Sermon on the Mount carefully, the seemingly innocuous claims that we can simply receive Jesus’ teaching and reject Jesus is seen for what it is - treason of the highest order. Jesus is not a harmless, merely human, ethical teacher. He teaches with the authority of universal sovereignty. He lays down the law and those who build their lives on his teaching are wise and will be safe from judgment. His teaching is not a take-it-or-leave-it thing. Our response to his words will have eternal consequences.
In short, Jesus is God. Although he does not explicitly claim divinity in the Sermon on the Mount, we can safely infer that he puts his teaching on level with God. Here are three examples:
1. The first eight Beatitudes (Matt. 5:2-10) are generalizations voiced in the third person but the ninth beatitude speaks of those who are persecuted on account of their faithfulness to him (Matt. 5:11). Jesus likens them to the Old Testament prophets who were persecuted for their faithfulness to God (Matt. 5:12). If he likens his disciples to the Old Testament prophets then he is likening himself to God.
2. Jesus expects obedience and submission as “Lord” (Matt. 7:21-23). When people plead their case before him in judgment, he will say to them, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Compare that with his parallel statement in Luke 6:46, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” The Father’s will (Matt. 7:21) and Jesus’ teaching (Luke 6:46) are on the same level, both holding the same authority.
3. Also in this passage (Matt. 7:21-23), Jesus casts himself in the role of Judge. Everyone knew, including Jesus, that God was always pictured as Judge in the Old Testament. And yet, when we all “appear before the Judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10) we will be appearing before Jesus on his throne (Matt. 25:31ff).
“The claims of Jesus were indeed put forward so naturally, modestly and indirectly that many people never even notice them. But they are there; we cannot ignore them and still retain our integrity.” (Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 222). Jesus is more than an ethical teacher of righteousness. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the Judge and King of the universe. The world may be content to ape the ethical teaching of the Sermon on the Mount but until they come under the authority of the King they will be cut off from the eternal blessings of the kingdom.
— Jerome Sasanecki
I am reminded by this article, from our brother Sasanecki, of the words of C.S. Lewis regarding how we are to view Jesus:
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.” [C.S. Lewis]
It is easier to ‘accept Jesus’ as a good man, a great moral teacher, or even to claim Him as our Savior, but all is for naught if we do not see and acknowledge Him as the final authority. — Steven Harper