by Herman Ridderbos
ONE OF THE most important and impressive phases in the teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of Heaven is that which is known as the Sermon on the Mount, of which we have two different accounts, namely, Matthew 5–7 and Luke 6:20–49. The Matthean version is a more detailed and architectural construction than that of Luke. The distinction is especially noticeable in the great passage Matthew 5:17–48, where Jesus elucidates the law and presents His interpretation thereof in contrast with that of the scribes and Pharisees. Another point of difference is that Matthew gathers a lot of proverbial sayings and expressions in the Sermon on the Mount, while in Luke these are scattered and used on different occasions. The diverse accounts of the Sermon on the Mount present a problem, but I am not here concerned with the various details. It is, however, necessary to bear in mind the manner in which Matthew construes his Gospel. His manner is especially noticeable in the first half of the Gospel, where he arranges his material in accordance with a definite principle of composition. This can be seen, for instance, in his accumulation of identical material without a full recognition of chronology. In this way the beautiful composition was formed which we can admire in Chapters 4 through 9. Verses 12 through 25 of Chapter 4 reveal a general impression of the ministry of Jesus in Galilee. Matthew is describing Christ's journey through the country, His teaching in the synagogues and "preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people" (4:23). Chapters 5 through 7 record an extensive illustration of Christ's preaching of the gospel of the Kingdom, while Chapters 8 and 9 contain a summary of a number of Christ's miracles, which Mark records in a different way and order. This justifies the conclusion that Matthew construed these chapters in accordance with a literary principle; and it may give a partial explanation of the phenomenon, that the scattered presentation of words and sayings in Luke forms an impressive whole in Matthew.
We may say that what Jesus is told to have said on this special occasion on one of the Galilean hills in the presence of His disciples and a large crowd which followed Him, belongs, even from the viewpoint of literary composition, to the most beautiful and impressive part of His teaching of the Kingdom of God.
Indeed, it belongs to the most beautiful of His teaching. In this composition we come to learn the typical form of teaching which Jesus employed. It abounds in plastic splendor, it is sublime and yet in perfect harmony with ordinary and everyday existence. It is of such a nature that it contains those extraordinary, frequently paradoxical sayings, the so-called meschalim, intended to incite those listening to reflection and to which applies: "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." In using this form of teaching Jesus associates Himself with rabbinical usage of His day. Parables, proverbs, unexpected and pointed sayings enjoyed special preference, as reference to rabbinical literature will show. In the teaching of Jesus, however, and explicitly so in the Sermon on the Mount, this form reaches the very pinnacle of splendor and a power of expression which is unsurpassed in Jewish literature. It is therefore not to be marveled at that a large number of the Lord's sayings in the Sermon on the Mount became common property in literature, even far beyond the limits of Christianity.
It is, however, not the form as an expression of beauty which causes the deepest impression, but the content. In his conclusion to the Sermon Matthew describes the effect of these sayings of Jesus on the multitudes thus: "When Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were astonished at his teaching: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes" (7:28). Even in this response of His listeners it appears that a higher reality, co-existent with the Person of Jesus, became apparent in His teaching. Here was not only an appeal to foregoing authorities, as in the case of the scribes, nor only a claim to a divine mission, as in the case of the prophets. Jesus spoke from inherent power and authority. In contrast to the Jewish teachers of law He presented His "But verily, I tell you," and at the end of the Sermon He even identified Himself with the One who in the final world-judgment will demand an account of all that men have done in their life on earth: "Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name?.… And then I will profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity" (7:21–23). It is clear from this that the Sermon on the Mount is only to be understood when there is a full recognition of the frame in which it appears, namely, the gospel of the Kingdom of God and of His mighty deeds in His Son Jesus Christ.
The reality of the Kingdom of God in the Sermon manifests itself in another way, which is no less the cause of the impressiveness of the Sermon. What I mean is the special radicalism of its commandments, which lends this Sermon its own distinct character, and which consists in the unsurpassed manner in which Jesus gives expression to the command of love towards God and towards one's neighbor. It is this same awe-inspiring radicalism which, on another occasion, causes the disciples' amazement and calls forth the question: "Who then can be saved?" (Matt. 19:25). The many instances of this radicalism require no attestation. I need only mention the way in which Jesus speaks of marriage, of the non-resistance to evil, of love towards enemies in Matthew 5:21–48. Concerning love towards God, I would refer you to the absolute dilemma reflected in Matthew 6:24: "No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other." And the admonitions: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven … for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also," and, "Therefore I say unto you, Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink …" (6:19, 20, 25).
In these sayings the religious and ethical demands are worked out to a consequence and depth which not only explain the remarkable impression which the Sermon must directly have created on its first hearers, but which also explain why subsequent hearers speak of the problem of the Sermon on the Mount, the problem of its purpose and purport as an ethical commandment, and the problem of its practicability.
The first question that must be considered is that of the relationship and connection between these absolute commands and the Kingdom of Heaven. Is the Sermon on the Mount positive proof for the liberal view of the Kingdom of God, because in it neither the eschatological environment of the gospel nor the alteration of the aeons stands in the foreground, but conversion of life in a personal and social sense? Is therefore the Kingdom of God, according to the Sermon on the Mount, mainly or exclusively a new moral and religious standard? Or should these absolute commands be seen as having an entirely different purpose, namely, to display the terms under which alone it is possible to enter the eschatological Kingdom? Or is here still another possibility, namely, that these conditions, because of their radicalism, intend to make it known that the entrance to the Kingdom of God cannot be gained by personal righteousness? In other words, should the Sermon on the Mount be understood merely as a mirror of the moral misery and incapability of man, in the same way in which Paul explains the law in Romans 7? All these interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount are found in the history of exegesis.
To my mind there are not sufficient grounds to defend the thesis that the exhortations of the Sermon have only such a negative tendency, namely, to make it clear that nobody is able to meet the demands of God and to bar the road of self-righteousness for a sinner. In favor of this view commentators have appealed sometimes to Matthew 5:20, where Jesus says: "For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven"; or to Matthew 5:48: "Ye therefore shall [must] be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." The appeal to these texts, however, is inadmissible. When Jesus demanded from His disciples that their righteousness should exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, He did not confront them with this demand in such a way as to denote that the righteousness of the scribes is so very perfect that to excel it would be an impossibility. On the contrary, the entire teaching of Jesus is full of criticism of the emptiness and worthlessness of the righteousness of the scribes. And as for Matthew 5:48, Jesus does not, in any universal sense, demand of man moral equality with God. The word "perfect" as used here denotes quite a different meaning. It concerns the "perfectness," the consistency of love. Man is bound not only to love his neighbor but also his enemies. It is in this sense that the heavenly Father, too, is perfect. "For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust" (Matt. 5:45). There is no room in His love for half measures. Hence perfect love is also demanded from His children, not partial, not only towards friends, but enemies as well. Hence also Luke can add in the corresponding passage in his Gospel: "Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36). "Even as" means "equally perfect," "equally consistent." Therefore, it is not possible to appeal to this to contend the positive tenor of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. It belongs to the essential quality, I might well say to the logic of the Kingdom of the Heavens, that a disciple of Jesus does not content himself with love merely towards his fellows. There is no question of straining the moral demands ad absurdum.
More, however, must be mentioned. No doubt, Jesus makes obedience to His commands a condition for the entry into the Kingdom. It constitutes the narrow gate, the hard way that leads to life. Yet Jesus does not speak about this obedience to His commands and about the entry into the Kingdom in the form of a mere conditionalis. He asserts this obedience also in a positive sense, in the form of an indicative. The Sermon on the Mount opens with the beatitudes, the proclaiming of salvation to the poor in spirit, to the poor and destitute people of God who hopefully expect the revelation of the Kingdom. And to them Jesus proclaims clearly and distinctly, speaks in a positive and definitive manner: "You are the light of the world, you are the salt of the earth.… Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and give glory to your father who is in heaven."
Herein is revealed the ordo salutis of the Kingdom of Heaven. The scheme of Jewish soteriology is hereby dissolved. No longer is salvation only in heaven and in the future, nor can this future salvation only be earned by moral exertion. No, the Son of Man has come for the redemption of sins on earth. He introduces the future salvation to the present. Accordingly the beatification is valid here and now: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. That is the light which came to shine on earth, and that is the light in which the disciples may rejoice. For that reason they are called the light of the world, not primarily because of what they do, but what they receive. But that light must beam forth, for men do not light a lamp and put it under a bushel. What Jesus thus requires is that men reflect the light which they received from Him. The endowment of the Kingdom accomplishes good works in its recipients, and thus the Kingdom finds embodiment in the lives of the faithful.
It is the great reality of the future which in Jesus Christ has come to earth which also touches those belonging to Him. That is the order of the beatitudes and commandments. In this way the commandments can also be a conditional expression of admittance to the Kingdom. Whosoever fails to radiate the love of Christ thereby proves that he has no part in Christ and is not included in the Kingdom of God. He also has no part in the Kingdom to come. Yet this does not imply that God's bestowal is preceded by human effort. The order of things is quite the contrary. Jesus explains to us this order in the beautiful account of the woman who was a sinner (Luke 7:36–50). This woman displayed her love for Jesus excessively and the Pharisees were astonished and shook their heads. Jesus then narrated to them the story of the two debtors and asked which of the two debtors would love the creditor most. The answer must be: "He … whom he forgave the most." In conclusion Jesus replies to both the Pharisees and the woman: "Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much; but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little." Observe the order: Jesus does not say: because she loved much, I forgive her sins. On the contrary, He means to say: it is possible to conclude from the greatness of her love that her numerous sins have been forgiven, even as the slender love of the Pharisees discloses that little has been forgiven them. "To whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little." This is the application of the parable of the two debtors, and is the order of the Kingdom of Heaven.
This order also accounts for the radicalism of the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount. Here also the great love is required, not only the little one. For inasmuch as God abundantly reveals His love, the love of man also acquires greater possibilities. God's love releases man's love. The love which is from above shatters the callous hearts, frees the prisoners, breaks the ice, and sets love in motion. For it is the love of God's children which is demanded in the Sermon on the Mount. The greatness of this divine love is but partially revealed on this occasion when Jesus spoke to His disciples. The full revelation took place on the Cross. The commandments of the Sermon on the Mount should not therefore be separated from the Cross of Jesus. In their radicalism they are hidden signs of Jesus' own love. Love towards enemies, love towards the evil and the just, love to the one and only God, entering the narrow gate—all these can be called an easy yoke and a light burden (Matt. 11:30), only because Christ Himself first fully undertook the fulfillment of this love which He commands in the Sermon on the Mount. It is love which can say: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart" (Matt. 11:29). It is the essential love of God towards mankind. And it is this fundamentally devotional and sacrificial love which in the Sermon on the Mount calls forth sacrifice, not only as a gift which we on our part and in our own power may return; but as a capacity, a possibility which He Himself establishes in our lives through His love.
However important this insight into the relationship between the Kingdom of God and good works, and in connection with this into the radicalism of the Sermon on the Mount, may be, it does not mean that the problem of the radicalism of the commandments has been solved. In fact, that radicalism has not even been unfolded in all its sharpness. For we are still faced with the problem of the practicability of the concrete commandments of the Sermon on the Mount, or rather we are still faced with the question of the true application and execution of these commandments. It is in fact on this particular point that we meet the most divergent views of the Sermon on the Mount. And this is not surprising, because it is quite natural to ask, Did Jesus intend that His commandments should be executed literally and under all circumstances? and what implications are then involved for the life of the Christian on earth? If he is not allowed to resist evil, is he then permitted, for instance, to defend his fatherland in time of war? And if he is to love his enemies as prescribed by Jesus, is he not without defense against all manner of arbitrariness and injustice within the community? Is it then in fact possible to remain in human society?
As the reader is no doubt aware, this concept of the Sermon on the Mount as a program for social revolution has frequently been considered as the only possible and proper solution; so, for example, it was considered by Tolstoi in the beginning of this century. Later, however, we find it in modified form in various religious and social movements in Europe and in America. Yet it has never quite gained full admission, because it is not in accordance with the entire account of the life of Jesus and His disciples which the Gospels present. Jesus was neither an ascetic nor a social or political revolutionist. He saw the beauty and goodness of life and praised it, in the Sermon on the Mount as well as elsewhere (Matt. 6:29; cf. 11:19). He did not urge sexual abstinence or poverty. He refrained from a deprecatory judgment of government and courts of law, and accepted them as indispensable (Matt. 22:21; 5:22). Even as with John the Baptist, no soldier was required by Jesus to leave his service (Matt. 8:5; Luke 3:14). Publicans were left at their posts (Luke 19:2). It is clear that His teaching abounds in illustrations derived from the social and economic life of His day. In short, though He acclaimed the Kingdom of God above all and every relationship, even above the most intimate (for example, Matt. 10:37ff., 16:24ff.), yet it does not follow that He abandoned or condemned worldly goods, natural relationships, and social and political institutions. To regard the radical character of the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount as ascetic or revolutionary brings one in various ways into sharp contradiction with the gospel story of Jesus' life and that of His closest disciples.
Attempts have therefore been made in different ways to find the answer to this radicalism in the commandments of Jesus. It has been said that the territory in which the commandments of Jesus possess absolute authority is a restricted area. Even here different shades of meaning are discernible.
According to some, these radical commandments are applicable only to distinctly indicated persons. Thus these ordinances would only refer to the public offices (official life) of His apostles who should, as proclaimers of the Kingdom, display a radical individual style of living. Even the Roman Catholic distinction between universal commandments, applicable to all people (praecepta), and the so-called consilia evangelica, applicable only and particularly to the clergy, has been based on the Sermon on the Mount. In this way these radical commandments of the Sermon are limited to the lives of specially qualified persons.
A variant of this conception is encountered in the views of those who consider the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount only applicable to a limited part of a man's life. A distinction is thereby made, in conformity with Luther, between public office and private life. The radical commandments would then apply to private life, to social intercourse, but public and official life would lie beyond the realm in which the commandments of Jesus possess authority. This view is in accordance with the well-known exposition of Luther, who in regard to the underlying problem wrote: "A prince may well be a Christ, but he may not reign as a Christ, and in his reign he is not called a Christ but a prince. His person is in fact a Christ, but his office as a prince stands in no relation to his own Christianity." Thus the Sermon on the Mount and life in the world are severed, as is the Kingdom of God from natural life. As a matter of fact, it is the same separation that Roman Catholic theology makes between the natural and the supranatural, with this difference, that Luther changes this contrast from a physical to an ethical one.
In conclusion, it is necessary to mention in this connection yet another point of view, which has also found adherents in Reformed theology, namely, that the Sermon on the Mount is only destined for the communal life of the Christian Church. In this community one should not swear, nor resist evil, and one should lend without reclamation. But beyond these limits different and other rules are supposed to prevail. According to this view the Sermon on the Mount is regarded as the law of the Kingdom of God. But that does not imply its validity for secular life. What is suited to the Kingdom of God is not likewise suited to the empires of this world.
In my opinion all these endeavors to limit the extent of the validity of the Sermon on the Mount in order to solve the problem of our Lord's radical commandments are to be rejected, for we do not find any such indication anywhere in the Sermon on the Mount itself. It can never be said that the Sermon on the Mount was intended only for a specific group of Christ's disciples. Jesus Himself testifies to these commandments as the narrow gate and narrow path that leads to life, and says that "not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21). No one who wishes to enter the Kingdom of God escapes the requirements of these commandments. Neither is it possible to eliminate a particular section of life as not belonging to the sphere of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says in fact that even when we find ourselves in a court of justice we are none the less under obligation to His commandments: "Agree with thine adversary quickly while thou art with him in the way [to court]; lest haply the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison" (Matt. 5:25, RSV). Even as verse 40, Chapter 5 (RSV) states: "And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also." Even if these verses are concerned with the people before the judge and not the person of the judge himself, the attempt to separate the official from the personal in the Sermon on the Mount on these grounds must be quite out of the question. Where would the dividing line lie, and whence the leave to dismiss the commandments of Jesus as lying beyond this dividing line?
The same applies to the view that Jesus regulates especially the relationships within the Christian community. The Sermon on the Mount, so to speak, explicitly denies any such idea, because Jesus says: "For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same?" Hence it cannot be affirmed that the sphere of the validity of the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount can be limited to a particular group of people or to a particular sphere of life without violating the evident purport of the Sermon itself.
To all appearances this places us, however, before a clear contradiction. We are not, to begin with, allowed to confine the radicalism of Jesus' commandments to one particular sphere of life only. On the other hand, we are bound no less to reject the radical-social view of the Sermon on the Mount. What then is the solution to the problem, and what is the character of the validity of these radical commandments?
To come to a clear understanding, it is necessary to make a closer examination of the text of the Sermon on the Mount. What had Jesus in mind with these radical commandments, as they are called, in Matthew 5? Jesus Himself supplies the answer, in verse 17: "Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfil." Jesus came to fulfill the law. This matter of "fulfilling" refers to Jesus' teaching primarily, and not to His life. As Calvin remarks: De doctrina agitur, non de vita. No new law is given by Jesus, neither did He intend to abolish the law of Moses nor to replace it. His intention is in the fact to fulfill the law by His teaching, that is, to demonstrate the true content and purpose of the law.
With this end in view Jesus furnishes in Matthew 5 various applications and illustrations of what the law of God actually demands. This is done in repeated contrast to the Jewish interpreters of the law, who clouded the true and profound sense of the law by their decrees and their capricious interpretations of the law. Jesus claims that the law does not only refer to the external deed, but to the inner disposition as well, that it asks of us not only love towards neighbors but also love towards enemies; that appeal to civil law in order to escape the demands of love is not tolerated; and that one is not only bound to speak the truth under oath but in all circumstances. All this is explained by means of a number of concrete illustrations and clear-cut commandments, which again and again give a vertical cross-section of the law. These illustrations and commandments aim to show the qualitative significance of the law. He who endows the Kingdom also takes care that the full demand of the Kingdom is discerned. Any disciple who is a participant of the Kingdom is bound seriously to regard the will of the heavenly Father.
At the same time it is clear from the character of the Lord's commandments as illustrations and examples of compliance with the law, that the validity of these concrete and separate commandments can only be clearly and justifiably understood in relation to the entire revealed law of God. These radical commandments of Jesus represent the radicalism of the law, and by no means something which supersedes the law. The commandments of Jesus may therefore at no time be brought into conflict with the law, of which they form the illustration and explanation. It is very important to observe this, because the righteousness as propounded by the law and the prophets, which Jesus seeks to bring to full recognition, comprises a most compound and complex content. This righteousness does not require of everyone at every moment and in all circumstances identical responses. The commandment of love for instance calls for different applications; at times rigid restraint, then again conceding indulgence. A father who loves his child expresses his love in different ways, and to anyone paying attention only to external appearances it may seem as if this father's love is contradictory in that it concedes and allows, and then again demands and forbids. It is nevertheless love which impels him equally to the one as to the other. There are, moreover, different principles in the law and the prophets which are to be applied only in mutual relation. The same law commands love as well as justice. Occasionally all emphasis is placed on inner disposition, then again a correct and external display of obedience is required. This is quite clear to whoever is acquainted with the difficulties of various ethical decisions.
It is worth noting that Jesus did not for a moment exclude this many-sided character of the law nor did He make ethical decision redundant by His radical commandments. While all stress is laid upon the fact that evil should not be resisted and that enemies should be loved, this by no means excludes the possibility that the will and the law of God may in particular circumstances demand that evil should in fact be resisted. Jesus sets the example Himself. He did not, when going forth to be crucified, resist evil, but on other occasions He violently resisted it as embodied in the Pharisees and scribes. In His own act of obedience He appears as a lamb, but He appears also as a lion. This also holds good for the commandments which He gave; these commandments should never be separated from the root from which they spring: the law and the prophets.
We must not, therefore, limit the extent of the validity of the Sermon in any way. The significance of the Sermon lies in the fact that the will of God, as it is revealed in His law, strives to be fulfilled in the full rich sense which Jesus gave that word. On the other hand, we should not give a priori and unrestricted validity to all the concrete commandments of Jesus as if He meant to express the entire volume of the law in a few concise commandments. When Jesus says, "Do not swear at all," He is reacting against the practice of His day to distinguish between all sorts of oaths and to give them different values. He says, on the contrary, that whoever loves truth shall put an end to all such sanctimonious casuistry and not swear at all. But this does not mean that He also condemns the pious oath as we find it in the Old Testament; nor does it mean that an oath is permitted before a court of justice but not in the midst of the congregation. Such an inference would be in conflict with the particular character of our Lord's commandments. They are only to be understood truly and correctly in full accordance with the law and the prophets.
The curious literary form of Jesus' teaching, to which I referred in the beginning, is also of importance. His teaching is not systematic according to the occidental way of thinking; rather, it is of an intuitive and oriental character. His words have a peculiar paradoxical character; he who has ears, hears them. For this reason they often appear to contradict each other. Compare Christ's words in Matthew 5:16: "Let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works," with those of Matthew 6:1: "Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them." This is no contradiction. It is merely two sides of the same matter. Compare also Matthew 7:1: "Judge not, that ye be not judged," with the words of Matthew 7:6, which is also a part of the Sermon on the Mount: "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast your pearls before the swine." Taking these statements at their face value, one is compelled to say: Both cannot be true at the same time. If a man should regard his neighbor as a dog or swine and take measures accordingly, surely this means judging. And does not Matthew 7:2 apply here: "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged"? A man who reasons thus would not have ears with which to hear. He would not understand that the truth and demands of God do not always require similar application in our lives. To make the necessary distinction is what matters. Essentially it is a question of understanding and doing the law of God in all its depth, without the hypocrisy of those who are not inclined to self-denial. And it is towards this end that Jesus exhorts us in the Sermon on the Mount. His commandments indicate the only level on which the will of God in its concrete demands can be understood and can be fulfilled. This level is the level of the Kingdom of God, that is, the degree of love which comes from God and which in the communion with Jesus Christ returns to God.
It is therefore clear, in conclusion, that only such an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount can give us proper insight into the relationship of being a participant of the Kingdom of God and of having the task and the calling of a Christian in this world. Frequently it is maintained that we are dealing here with two different territories. God's Kingdom is thereby presented as spiritual, life on earth as physical. These territories are regarded as being in conflict with each other, as Jesus' commandments in the Sermon on the Mount then in fact prove. These commandments are regarded as forming, in one way or another, a dividing line between the higher and the lower, between grace and nature. Even today this typical contrast still governs the general view of the practical, social, and political life within Christianity. In fact, only one absolute standard is recognized and applied: the law of neighborly love as explained in the Sermon on the Mount. Thus life in its natural ordinations of state and community is actually regarded as belonging to a different order of life.
To my mind such a view of the relationship between God's Kingdom and the world, between the Sermon on the Mount and human society, is in contradiction with the true purpose and significance of the Sermon on the Mount. The maintaining of the natural ordinations together with those which exist because of sin, is not in conflict with the "characteristically Christian" righteousness of the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, it belongs to this same righteousness.
It is noteworthy that Calvin accepts this fact as obvious in his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. Quite justly it has been observed that Calvin regarded the problem of the Sermon on the Mount not as an ethical but an exegetical one. He gives no general reflections about the relation between the Sermon on the Mount and the life in the world, between the Kingdom of God and daily life, but simply points out in his exposition of Matthew 5 that the validity of Jesus' concrete commandments in the Sermon should be determined in accordance with the divine ordinations for natural life as revealed in the whole Scripture of the Old and the New Testament.
Only this approach, I am convinced, does full justice to the significance of the Sermon on the Mount. There is no contradiction, no difference of level, between Matthew 5 and Romans 13. Kingdom of God does not mean the abolition of God's previous ordinations for the natural and social life. Gratia non tollit naturam. There is no antithesis, either, between the principles of the Law of Moses and of the Sermon on the Mount. The latter does not abolish the former, but confirms it. No doubt, the dispensation of the New Testament confronts us with questions quite different from those of the Old Testament. The Kingdom of God cannot be any more identified with God's special care and legislation for only one nation, as in the Old Testament theocracy. Jesus therefore imposed no civil or political law, as Moses did. This, however, by no means suggests that the religious and ethical teaching of Jesus has nothing to do with the life of His disciples amidst the different connections and relationships in the world. On the contrary, social life, political order, international justice as such belong just as well to the righteousness of the Kingdom of God and of the Sermon on the Mount as simple neighborly love. That does not mean that all the concrete commandments of the Sermon are applicable in all circumstances. But it does mean that the children of the Kingdom ought to ask for the Kingdom and God's righteousness in all the sectors of life and that they have to do that in the light of the whole revelation of God to which the Sermon on the Mount refers. In this aspect Calvin shows greater discernment than Luther in his explanation of the gospel.
It cannot be denied, however—and this is my final remark—that the radicalism of the commandments of Jesus is far more directed at teaching us to forsake our temporal life and the properties of this life than to accept and to cherish them. Even to the most excellent and most beautiful which man may receive from God this word applies: "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.… He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (Matt. 10:37, 39). Undoubtedly we find the eschatological motive of the Kingdom reflected herein. The prospect of celestial wealth should impel one to forget the terrestrial, and to understand that one's rights and duties, one's bread and clothes, yes, each and everything connected with this life, are only of relative value. Of all this Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: "Is not the life more than the food, and the body more than the raiment?" (Matt. 6:25). This "more" so necessary for true living lies in the Kingdom of God; and for this reason the Sermon on the Mount is based, from beginning to end, on the concept that whoever has a share in the grace and wealth of the Kingdom must look upon this worldly life in a different and freer way. And the sacrifice which the commandment of God calls for should be brought without hesitation.
Fundamentally it is not an eschatological but a fully religious motive. The radicalism of Jesus' commands in the Sermon on the Mount is not in the first instance based on the concept that life is short, but on the knowledge that God is Lord of all life and that therefore a life not borne by His grace and not existing in surrender to God is a life lost. That is the fundamental meaning of the commandment: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength" (Mark 12:30). The phrase "with all thy heart" gives the radical commandments of Jesus their application, because God loved the world in Jesus Christ with all His heart. In this way the Kingdom of God is the restoration of life and it is the Sermon on the Mount which indicates the road towards this restoration. It is not opposed to life, to nature, and to the community, but in truth it is for and in support of life. It reveals that the real secret of life does not lie in the nature of things itself, but it lies only in God. Hence this one principle applies to all the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount: "Whosoever would save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Matt. 16:25). He shall save it in the Kingdom of Heaven, because of the great deeds of God in His Son Jesus Christ.
When the TIme Had Fully Come, by Herman Ridderbos