"And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at His doctrine For He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." Matthew 7:28, 29
Once more we have been permitted and enabled to complete a lengthy though pleasant task, for after writing sixty-three chapters on Matthew 5-7 our present business is to pen the closing one. Those three chapters record what is commonly designated our Lord's Sermon on the Mount. Really, it is far more than a sermon, being what might well be termed the Messiah's manifesto, the magna charta (or "constitution") of His kingdom, for therein He unfolded the laws and conditions under which alone we can enter His kingdom. In our second chapter we pointed out that, in keeping with its character and design, this address had twelve divisions—the governmental number. They may be expressed thus:
1. The character of those on whom the Divine blessing rests (5:3-11).
2. The ministerial office (5:12-16).
3. The spirituality and authority of the Moral Law (5:17-48).
4. Practical righteousness or good works (6:1-19).
5. Warning against covetousness (6:20-34).
6. Unlawful judgment (7:1-5).
7. Unlawful liberality (7:6).
8. Seeking grace (7:7-11).
9. The golden rule (7:12).
10. The way of salvation (7:13, 14).
11. False prophets (7:15-19).
12. Profession tested (7:20-27).
In the verses which are to be before us we are informed of the effect which our Lord's sermon had upon the large concourse that heard it. This writer often closes his eyes and seeks to visualize the various scenes presented in Holy Writ. On this occasion the incarnate Son of God, but known only as "Jesus of Nazareth" to the Jews at that time, sat down upon the mountain side—perhaps on some slight eminence, that all might see and hear Him the better. Follow Him then throughout the whole of Matthew 5-7 and attempt to enter into the feelings of His audience. Remember there was no halo of glory about His head, that to their eyes He appeared simply as a Galilean peasant. Yet again and again He sets over against "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time" His imperative and imperial "But I say unto you." He denounced the Pharisees as "hypocrites." He declared that in the Day to come He would say unto the empty professors, "I never knew you: depart from Me, ye that work iniquity." He closed by insisting that men's eternal destiny would be regulated by how they complied with "these sayings of Mine."
"And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at His doctrine: For He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (7:28 and 29). Here is made known to us the impression which our Lord's discourse produced upon its auditors. They were amazed, and well they might be. The Speaker had not graduated from the rabbinical schools, nor had He been granted a "preaching license" by the Sanhedrin; yet He declared, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." Then He added, "For I say unto you, That except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." He went on to declare that causeless anger was incipient murder and that those who indulged in lustful glances were guilty of adultery. He bade them, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you." He made it evident that it was not merely good advice or salutary counsel He was offering them, but rather was issuing peremptory demands. It was as the King of righteousness He spoke.
The crowd was astonished both at the matter and manner of His preaching, for He spoke with weight, a majesty, an earnestness which carried conviction. They were filled with a temporary wonderment: yet it is not said that they repented or believed on Him or became His disciples. We too admire the matchless wisdom of His discourse, maintaining as it did throughout a perfect balance of Truth. We are made to marvel at its scope: that He covered so much ground in so brief a space, containing that which was suited to all classes and conditions of men, be they lost or saved, babes or fathers in Christ. We are made to tremble at the fearful solemnity of its utterances: the repeated reference to "hell" and "hell fire." We are solemnized as we learn from its final section that in the Great Assize the Preacher of this sermon will personally officiate as the Judge of men, pronouncing sentence of doom upon those who conform not to the Divine will. No wonder that, on another occasion, the officers sent by the Pharisees to arrest Christ returned without Him, saying "Never man spake like this man" (John 7:46).
"The people were astonished at His doctrine." Have we not good reason to be astonished that they were not much more than "astonished"? Ought they not to have been brought to His feet in worship, perceiving it was more than man who addressed them? Ought they not to have been convicted and converted by His teaching: made deeply sensible of bow far, far short they fell of such a standard of holiness, turning to Him in contrition and crying Out for mercy? Alas, what is man, even when he hears the Truth from the lips of Truth incarnate! Capable of being impressed by a Divine message when it falls on his ears from without, but incapable of perceiving his own inward depravity and wretchedness in the light of that message. How true it is that "except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3), no, not even when it is brought nigh to him by the King Himself. Then let us not be surprised when only temporary effects are produced under the most faithful and earnest preaching; rather let us be deeply thankful if the message has found an abiding home in our heart.
It may be asked, Why did not Christ put forth His Divine power and turn the hearts of His hearers unto Himself? If three thousand were converted under the Pentecostal sermon of Peter (Acts 2:41), why were not a similar number at least brought from death unto life by this address of the Saviour's? Most certainly He could, had He so pleased, have imparted to the whole of that multitude a saving knowledge of the Truth. Then why was He not pleased to do so? Why should the apostles perform "greater works" (John 14:12) than He wrought? Because He had taken upon Him the "form of a servant" (Phil. 2:7), and therefore did He aver, "I came down from heaven not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me" (John 6:38). The exercise of His Divine attributes was entirely subordinated unto the will of the Father. Not only did He refuse to work miracles on His own behalf (Matthew 4:3, 4), but He only put forth His power for the good of others as He had orders to do so from above. This lovely perfection of Christ's, which is the glory of His mediatorial holiness, has not received anything like the attention which it justly calls for.
The obedience of Christ was the absolute conformity of His entire spirit and soul to the mind and will of the Father, His ready and cheerful performance of every duty and every thing which God commanded Him. As He Himself declared, "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me" (John 4:34). Familiar as are these words to the saints, how few have perceived the fullness of Christ's obedience or recognized that His every act during the thirty-three years He tabernacled among men was distinctly and designedly an act of submission to God. But this will be the more plainly seen if the reader traces through the four Gospels that oft-repeated expression, "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by— the prophet," and then ponders the import of those words. The whole of Christ's course had been marked out for Him. Thus it was that "He came and dwelt in Capernaum" (Matthew 12:12-14). It was not the force of circumstances which drove the Lord Jesus to select that place as His ministerial headquarters, nor was it out of personal inclination: that town had been selected by God for Him long before He came to earth, and it was in subjection to the Divine will that He went there. Christ made obedience to the Father the one great business of His life.
His miracles of mercy were wrought in obedience to the Father's revealed will. "When the even was come they brought unto Him many that were possessed with devils: and He cast out the spirits with His word: and healed all that were sick: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet" (Matthew 8:16). How striking is the particular aspect of Truth here made known to us! Christ was tender, sympathetic, full of compassion, yet the first and deepest motive which moved Him to heal the sick was that the will of God might be done. In the volume of the Book it was written of Him, and therefore did He say, "I delight to do Thy will, O my God" (Ps. 40:7, 8). A striking and beautiful illustration of this is found in John 11. Lazarus was taken seriously ill, and his sisters sent the Saviour an urgent message, saying: "Lord, behold, he whom Thou lovest is sick" (v. 3). Then we read, "Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus," yet the very next thing recorded is "when He had heard therefore that Lazarus was sick, He abode two days still in the same place where He was." Mysterious delay! But the mystery was solved by His own declaration, "this sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God" (v. 4). Not even His affection for those sorely tried souls would move Him to respond to their appeal until the Father's hour had arrived.
In like manner, Christ's saving of sinners was in order to the rendering of obedience to God. "All that the Father giveth Me shall come to Me and him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me" (John 6:37, 38). What a view does this present to us of the redemptive work of Christ! How it magnifies His blessed submission unto the One who had commissioned Him! Here then is the explanation why He put not forth His own Divine power to convert the whole of His hearers by this Sermon on the Mount: because He had no word from the Father so to do. Admire then and adore the Lord of glory as He so perfectly discharged His office as Servant. What an example of entire submission to God has He left us. Does the reader desire that we press the question a stage farther back and ask, Why was it the Father's pleasure that His incarnate Son should so often suspend the exercise of His Divine attributes and restrain from putting forth His own power? Surely if no other answer was available than what has been pointed our above, it would be sufficient: to display the perfect oneness between the Son and the Father, to evidence that the Former would not act independently of the Other, to manifest His moral perfections and thereby leave His people an example.
But there were other reasons why it was fitting that a veil should be cast over the Divine glory of the incarnate Son. This was the season of His humiliation, when He came not to rule over the earth as King of kings and Lord of lords, but to have "not where to lay His head." He had entered the place of subserviency, of obedience, yea, He had become "obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:8). And in order thereto it was necessary that He should come unto His own and that His own receive Him not (John 1:11), yea, that He should be "despised and rejected of men." He had descended from heaven to earth in order that He should be "taken, and by wicked hands crucified and slain" (Acts 2:23), yet at the same time offer Himself as a sacrifice to God, as a sin-offering on behalf of His people. It was not then the season for Him to convert men en masse, to overthrow Satan's kingdom and deliver his captives. The corn of wheat must fall into the ground and die before the fruit thereof is brought forth (John 12:24). In due time God would exalt Him "with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to [the spiritual] Israel, and forgiveness of sins" (Acts 5:31), for then would "the rod of His strength" go out of Zion and His people be made willing "in the day of His power" (Ps. 110:2, 3).
Again, by cloaking His Divine power, yet at the same time acting as a Minister of the circumcision for the Truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy (Rom. 15:8, 9) an admirable test was made of men. Though He stopped short of renewing their hearts, yet by acting as the final Spokesman of God (Heb. 1:1, 2), by speaking to men as they had never been spoken to before, Christ addressed Himself to the responsibility of His hearers. The Light shone in midday splendor, but the darkness comprehended it not. And why? Because men loved darkness rather than light. Thereby their real character was unmistakably revealed: as incorrigibly and inveterately opposed to God, steeled against Him even when speaking to them through His own Son. Nor could they plead lack of clear evidence that Christ was the Messiah Himself, for the miracles He wrought unequivocally established His credentials. Thus, in their not being converted by such a Sermon as this, they were left "without excuse." Christ, then, put not forth His power to regenerate them, first, because He had no commission from the Father so to do; second, because it was not the time for Him to exercise His royal prerogative; third, because by leaving His auditors to the exercise of their own wills, their accountability was put to the proof and their utter depravity demonstrated.
But further: the Father was pleased that His Son should restrain the power of His Godhead even from His public ministry that it might be more clearly evidenced when His term of obedience had expired, that He was vested with all-sufficient unction and invincible might. After His resurrection Christ affirmed "all power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth" (Matthew 28:18), and on the day of Pentecost after the public descent of the Holy Spirit Peter announced, "Let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36), where "made" has not the force of "constituted" but signifies made manifest, for it was from Christ that the Spirit had been given (v. 33). God would have it made known unto His people that the Mediator, being ascended, was not only "set down on the right hand of the Majesty on high," where He is "upholding all things by the word of His power" (Heb. 1:3), ruling as King in His royal office, but also that He governs His Church by His Word and Spirit (Rev. 3:1). it was for this reason, when promising the apostles that they should do "greater works" than He had wrought, that He added by way of proof "because I go unto My Father" (John 14:12)—there to rule His people and remain until His enemies are made His footstool.
Finally, there appears to us to be yet another and more solemn reason why (so far as the inspired narrative informs us) not one soul was born again through the instrumentality of this Sermon. We cannot shake off the conviction that here in Matthew 5-7 we have, as it were, a miniature tableau, a typical representation and anticipation of the Great Assize. Christ seated on the mount was a figure of His taking His place on the throne of judgment. Encircled by His disciples and the "multitudes" before Him gives a picture of the dread Day to come. The contents of this Sermon reveal both the order of procedure which will then be followed and the grounds on which the verdicts will be passed: "His own" vindicated by the benediction (the "Blessed are ye" pronounced upon them) and all the others weighed and found wanting in the balance of the very laws which He here enunciated. The effect upon the people will be the same. For though the visible appearance of Christ in that day will be very different, though He will be seen with "His eyes as a flame of fire" and wearing "many crowns" (Rev. 19:12), yet none shall he brought to repentance and faith by such a sight "Astonished" they may well be as they learn who it is they despised and rejected, overwhelmed with horror they will be as they hear His "Depart from Me ye cursed into everlasting fire," but saved by such a spectacle and sentence none will be.
"For He taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes." Apparently no deeper impression was made on the people than a sense of wonderment, which caused them to draw an invidious distinction between Christ and the scribes, who dwelt mainly on "the traditions of men" and such matters as tithing mint and cummin and the ceremonial washings of pots and pans. That Christ should teach with authority was intimated in prophecy, when it was announced that Jehovah would put His own words in His mouth and that He should speak unto Israel all that had been commanded Him (Deut. 18:18). It is remarkable that even His enemies bore witness, "Master, we know that Thou art true, and teachest the way of . . . Truth, neither carest Thou for any man" (Matthew 22:16). "Though Christ were here in a mean and base state, yet He would not suffer His calling to be condemned, but gets grace thereto" (W. Perkins, 1590, to whom we have been indebted in the course of these expositions). Herein Christ has left His servants an example, for the minister of the Gospel is bidden to "exhort and rebuke with all authority" (Titus 2:15), which he can do only as he cleaves closely to the Word and exhorts in the name of Christ.
Let our closing reflection be this: the words of "authority" in Matthew 5-7 are addressed as directly to us as to those who first heard them! By its precepts and rules our conduct must be directed: by its promises and encouragements our souls are to be sustained, for in these very scales shall we be weighed in the Day of testing and adjudication. To us this Sermon comes with even greater authority than to those who heard it preached in Palestine, for in moving His apostle by the Spirit to register the same as a permanent record of His will He speaks to us from heaven. Hence the force of that exhortation, "See that ye refuse not Him that [not "hath spoken" but] speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused Him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from Him that speaketh from heaven" (Heb. 12:25). Then let us earnestly seek grace to be something more than "astonished" with this Sermon, namely receive it into our hearts and minds and incorporate it into our daily walk.