THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT AND
WE are now in the midst of our discussion of the great theme, the deity of Jesus Christ. Was Jesus a mere man, a leader into a higher and better type of religious experience, or was He the eternal Son of God become man to save us from the guilt and power of sin?
We have already begun to point Out what the Bible says about this question. In particular, we have pointed out that all four of the Gospels, and even the sources supposed, rightly or wrongly, to underlie the Gospels, represent Jesus not merely as an example of faith but as the object of faith—that is, they represent Jesus not as saying merely, “Have faith in God like the faith which I have in God,” but as saying, “Have faith in me.” But that means that the four Gospels teach the deity of Christ and represent Jesus Himself as teaching it. The object of a truly religious faith is none other than God.
I want now to show you how extraordinarily pervasive in the Gospels is the lofty view of Jesus Christ which necessarily goes with His offer of Himself as the object of faith. People try to escape from that lofty view of Christ. They like to regard Jesus just as a teacher and example; they say that this whole notion about His deity is an unfortunate metaphysical notion that has nothing to do with vital religion. Let us get away from metaphysics and theology, they say, and, instead, just get up and obey Jesus’ commands; if we obey His commands we are honoring Him more than we could honor Him by any amount of intellectual convictions regarding His deity.
Well, my friend, I will say to a man of this way of thinking, where will you turn in the Gospels to get away from a lofty view of the person of Christ; where will you turn to find a Jesus who simply gave men directions for the ordering of their lives and did not demand that they should have any particular view about Him? Here is a New Testament, my friend; will you just open it anywhere you like in order to prove your point.
I suppose that if I should say that to one of the advocates of this non-doctrinal Christianity, he would be most apt to turn, among all the passages in the New Testament, to the Sermon on the Mount.1 In the Sermon on the Mount, it is often said, we have a program for Christian living that is quite independent of the niceties .of orthodox theology, and if we should just be willing to live that kind of life it would be a great deal better than disputing about theological questions or even being too anxious to get a completely orthodox notion about Jesus Himself.
Well, my friend, you have turned to the Sermon on the Mount. I did not choose it. You chose it. It is your favorite passage. You cannot object therefore if we examine it a little for ourselves to see whether it really teaches that kind of non-doctrinal religion that so enthusiastically advocate. In particular, you cannot object if we examine it to see whether it is really silent about those stupendous claims of Jesus which so trouble you in other parts of the New Testament.
All right, then; we are going to put preconceived opinions aside and examine the Sermon on the Mount for ourselves.
What happens to us when we do that? I will tell you very plainly. We find that the Sermon on the Mount teaches and presupposes that same stupendous view of Jesus Christ which underlies all the rest of the Gospels.
The Sermon on the Mount might seem to begin in a way unfavorable to that view and favorable to the advocate of a non-doctrinal Christianity who is not interested in the question what sort of person Jesus is. It begins with the Beatitudes, and the Beatitudes might seem at first sight to be independent of any particular view regarding the one who spoke them. “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”—does not that remain true whatever we think of the person who uttered it?
Well, I am not sure even about that. I am not sure but that in all of the Beatitudes we detect a strange note of authority which would be overwrought and pathological in any other person than the Jesus of the Bible. Who is this who tells with such extraordinary assurance what sort of persons will be in the kingdom of God? Who is this that announces to men rewards that only God can give?
But let that pass for the moment. The thing that is clear is that Jesus does not finish the Beatitudes before He comes to speak in the most stupendous way about Himself. What is the last of the Beatitudes? Is it merely a blessing pronounced upon people who possess a certain quality of soul? Not at all! It is a blessing pronounced upon people who stand in a certain relation to Jesus Himself. Here is what it is: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” Notice those words “for my sake.” They contain a tremendous claim on the part of Jesus. Men are to be willing to bear His name, and if they are not ashamed to bear His name they are to stand in the final judgment. Imagine any mere man saying that! Imagine anyone other than Jesus saying: "Blessed are ye if ye suffer on account of me.” We have here the words of the same Jesus as was the One who said: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple,” (Lk. 14:26) the same Jesus as the One who said: “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in. this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mk. 8:38). Who can claim such an exclusive devotion as that—a devotion which shall take precedence of even the holiest of earthly ties, a devotion upon which a man’s eternal destiny depends? God can, but can any mere man?
Then comes that great section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus declares Himself to have come not to destroy the law or the prophets but to fulfil. “Ye have heard that it was said to the men of old time,” He says, and then makes several quotations. Those quotations contain in part sentences found in the Old Testament. Over against those quotations, Jesus in every case puts something of His own: “Ye have heard that it was said . . . but I say unto you.” No doubt it may be held that Jesus in none of these instances is setting what He says over against what the Old Testament says, but in every instance is merely setting what He says over against what the Jewish teachers had wrongly held that the Old Testament said. But even then the fact remains that what He sets forth against the wrong interpretation of the Old Testament passages is not just a right interpretation but something wonderfully fresh and new. Plainly Jesus puts His own sayings here on a level with the Old Testament pronouncements which He certainly regarded as the very Word of God.
I ask you to consider for a moment that authority, with which Jesus speaks, that authority which causes Him to put His own pronouncements fully on a level with the Old Testament pronouncements. What is the nature of that authority which Jesus here claims?
Well, prophets claimed authority. They asked that people should receive what they said as a message from God. Was then the authority which Jesus is here claiming merely the authority of a prophet? No, most emphatically it was not merely that. The prophets spoke with a divine authority. But it was a delegated authority, and it was delegated to them in a temporary way. There were times when the prophets became spokesmen of God, but they were spokesmen of God merely because they became for the moment channels for the Holy Spirit. They were not in general infallible. They had no authority which was granted them as a permanent possession to be used as they saw fit. When they came forward as prophets they were careful to give all honor to God.
Thus the characteristic way in which the prophets introduced their utterances was with the words, “Thus saith the Lord,” By that they meant to say: “I am not saying this as my own word, but it is God who is saying it; I am merely the mouthpiece of God.”
Now unquestionably Jesus was a prophet. Undoubtedly the catechism that I learned in childhood was right when it told me that He was a prophet as well as a priest and a king.
But although Jesus was a prophet, He was also vastly more than a prophet. So He does not introduce these utterances of His in the Sermon on the Mount in the way in which the utterances of a prophet are introduced, He does not say, “Thus saith the Lord.” No, He says, “I say.” He comes forward with His own authority, and that authority He places fully on a level with the authority of God as it was found expressed in the Old Testament.
I am not forgetting the places in the Gospels where the dependence of the man Jesus upon God is set forth. Those passages ate found particularly just in the Gospel according to John—just in that Gospel where the deity of Christ is set forth, I will not say more clearly (since it is set forth with the utmost clearness in all the Gospels), but more expressly and fully, than in the other Gospels. Jesus according to the Gospel of John did what He saw God doing, and He said what God told Him to say. All the same, despite this subordination of the man Jesus to God, His authority went far beyond the authority of a prophet. It was an authority which was His own personal right, as belonging to the one who was not merely man but God. You can search all through the words of the prophets and not find anything in the remotest degree resembling that stupendous “I say unto you” of the Sermon on the Mount.
Then I bid you read on to the end of that Sermon on the Mount. “Not every one,” says Jesus, “that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21) That is one of the favorite texts of unbelievers. If the whole Sermon on the Mount is their favorite passage, this perhaps, within the Sermon on the Mount, may be regarded as their favorite text.
It is a favorite text with unbelievers not because of its real meaning, but because of the meaning which they wrongly attribute to it. They take it as meaning that if a man is what the world calls a good moral man then he will enter into the Kingdom of God no matter what His attitude toward Jesus may be. But of course that is not what the text says. The text does not say that if a man does the will of God he will enter into the kingdom of God whether He says “Lord, Lord” to Jesus or not. It does not say that any man who does not say, “Lord, Lord” to Jesus will enter into the kingdom. But what it does say is that even among those who do say, “Lord, Lord” to Jesus there are some who will not enter in. Those are the ones who say “Lord, Lord” only with their lips and not with their hearts, and who show that they have not said it with their hearts because they do not say it with their lives.
However, though for bad reasons, it is a popular text among unbelievers. They ought then to be willing to examine carefully what it says, and we all ought to examine it with them.
When we do examine it, we discover that it involves the most stupendous claim on the part of Jesus. For one thing, it provides an instance of the strange way in which Jesus speaks of God as being His own Father. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven,” He says, “but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” “My Father,” says Jesus, not “our Father” or “the Father.” We spoke of that in the talk just preceding this one. We noticed how it appeared in the answer of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple, and how it runs all through the Gospels. Well, here it is, in the Sermon on the Mount. You cannot get away from it. We do not particularly notice it as we read this verse, because we have become so used to it. But that does not destroy its tremendous significance. Indeed, it vastly increases it. Everywhere Jesus thinks of Himself as being Son of God in some entirely unique sense.
But now let us look at what this verse itself says. We must take it in connection with the following two verses. Those verses also are favorites with the unbelievers of our day. They read as follows:
Unbelievers, I suppose, interpret those words as disparaging miracles, and as disparaging the active profession of religion. They interpret them as teaching that if a man leads what the world calls a moral life he does not need to accept any creed or make any definite profession of faith.
That interpretation is of course quite wrong, in the same way as that in which the corresponding interpretation of the preceding verse is wrong. These verses do not say that miracles were unimportant in the apostolic age (when miracles still happened) or that orthodoxy was unimportant then or is unimportant now. They only say that nothing else matters unless a man’s heart is changed and unless that change of his heart is shown in a good life. They do not say that orthodoxy is unnecessary or that mighty works in the external world are unimportant, but they only say that orthodoxy without right living is a sham, and that real orthodoxy results in obedience to the commands of God.
But the fact remains that these verses are favorites with unbelievers; they are favorites with those who think that it does not make any difference what a man thinks about God or about Christ and that all that is needed according to Jesus is to live what is ordinarily called a moral life.
All right. Let us just look at these verses so popular among unbelievers. Do they really teach that it does not make any difference what a man thinks about Jesus Christ? I tell you, my friends, the exact reverse is the case. These verses, like all the rest of the New Testament, present a stupendous view of Jesus Christ, and like other sayings of Jesus they present a stupendous claim made by Jesus Himself.
What is the scene to which we are transplanted in these verses? Is it some scene in the course of ordinary history or some scene of merely local or temporary significance? No, it is nothing of the kind. It is the tremendous scene of the last judgment, the court from which there is no appeal, the final decision that determines the eternal destinies of men.
In other words, it is the judgment-seat of God. Well, who is it that is represented here as sitting on the judgment-seat of God; who is it that is represented here in this supposedly pleasant, purely ethical, practical, ultra-modern, non-theological Sermon on the Mount, and by this supposedly simple teacher of righteousness who kept His own person out of His message and was careful not to advance any lofty claims—who is it that is represented here in this supposedly purely ethical discourse and by this humble Jesus as sitting one day upon the judgment-seat of God and as determining the eternal destinies of all the world? There can be no doubt whatever about the answer to that question. The one represented here as sitting on the judgment-seat of God is Jesus Himself.
We may not like the answer to that question, but the answer is as plain as plain can be. “Many will say to me,” Jesus says, “in that day, Lord, Lord . . . and then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” Who is that “I,” and who is that “me”? Is it God the Father? No, it is Jesus; it is the one who speaks these words. Upon Jesus’ decision depends the fate of all men. And what is that fate? What is the meaning of that “Depart” which is Jesus’ sentence upon those who work iniquity? About this question also there can be no doubt. The Sermon on the Mount itself gives the answer: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” (Matt. 5:29). The answer is given also in the whole teaching of Jesus, and it is implied even in the verses with which we now have to do. No, there can be no doubt whatever about what Jesus meant by that word “Depart”; He meant that those upon whom He would pronounce that sentence to depart would be cast into hell.
The thought of hell as well as the thought of heaven runs all through the teaching of Jesus; it gives to His ethical teaching that stupendous earnestness which is its marked characteristic. But how is hell here designated? It is described elsewhere in the Gospels; and never let us forget, whether we call the language “figurative” or not, that it means an eternal and terrible punishment, a punishment of which there is no end. But how is hell designated in this particular passage? The answer may be surprising to some people, but it is perfectly plain. Hell is designated in our passage as being banishment from Jesus.
I do just beg you to think of that for a moment, my friends. Jesus of Nazareth certainly did believe—no good historian can deny it—that He would sit upon the judgment-seat of God at the terrible last judgment day, that His word would be final, and that life in His presence would be heaven and departure from Him would be hell.
What has become of the weak, sentimental, purely human, purely ethical Jesus of modern reconstruction; what has become of your Jesus who was a simple teacher of righteousness and advanced no claim to be God? Have you found your purely human Jesus, and have you escaped from the divine Christ of the creeds, by appealing from the Gospel according to John to the Sermon on the Mount? No, indeed, my friend! The Jesus of the Bible is everywhere exactly the same.
What will you do with that Jesus? Will you treat Him with a mild approval? Ah, people are so patronizing in the presence of Jesus today. They say such kind, polite things about Him. They are good enough to say that His ethics will solve the problems of society; they are good enough to say that He enunciated some maxims that are better than Jefferson’s ten rules and go far beyond Socrates and Confucius and Buddha. They are perfectly ready to let Him influence some departments of their life. They will not receive Him as their Saviour; they are not interested in His atoning blood: but they are so complacent in His presence.
God grant that it may not be so with you, my friends! God grant that you may never treat Jesus with this polite, patronizing approval! God grant that you may not treat Him as a religious genius or as the founder of one of the world’s religions! God grant that, instead, you may say to Jesus, with doubting Thomas: “My Lord and my God.”
John Gresham Machen (1881-1937), was an American Presbyterian scholar and apologist. Born in Baltimore, he was educated at Johns Hopkins, Princeton University and Theological Seminary, Marburg, and Gottingen. He was ordained in 1914. He taught NT at Princeton Seminary from 1906 to 1929, apart from a brief period of YMCA service in France. As a defender of the classic Reformed position, he was influenced by his teacher B.B. Warfield. When Warfield died in 1921, the mantle of leadership for the “Princeton Theology” fell upon Machen. He resigned in 1929 due to the Liberal realignment of the seminary. Machen was a principal founder of Westminster Theological Seminary (1929) and what is now the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1936). He served as president and professor of NT at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA from 1929 to 1937.
In 1935 he was tried and found guilty of insubordination by a presbytery convened at Trenton, New Jersey, on charges brought by the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. It condemned him for activities in connection with an independent mission board. He was forbidden to defend himself and was suspended from the Presbyterian (PCUSA) ministry. Machen is regarded by friend and foe as a leading conservative apologist in the modernist-fundamentalist era. Among his most significant publications are The Origin of Paul's Religion (1927); Christianity and Liberalism (1923): most definitive of his thought; New Testament for Beginners (1923); and The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930).