When Jesus introduced the kingdom of heaven no one knew what he was talking about. But they assumed it would be something visible, especially something that would put Israel on the map. They could only think in terms of what was political. They had the same problem with their concept of Messiah; they only thought of a great charismatic, political and military leader who, like David of old, would overthrow Rome and restore Israel to its former greatness. In other words, they lived for the “good old days” and dreamed of seeing the back of all those Roman soldiers that had occupied their beloved land.
But Jesus’ language did not ring a bell with them. He spoke with “authority” in the Sermon on the Mount, yes (Matt.7:29). They hung on to his every word. But they did not “twig”, that is, they didn’t “get it”. The proof of this is when – after Jesus death and resurrection – they asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). Despite Jesus’ having said that the kingdom of God does not come by “observation” but was “within” them (Luke 17:20-21), they could never think outside the political or physical box. Therefore when Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount with the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.5:3), this was a new language for them, a new way of thinking. They did not adjust to it quickly. Not until after Pentecost – when they were filled with the indirect and immediately Holy Spirit – did Jesus’ teaching begin to make sense.
The Sermon on the Mount, then, was an entirely new way of thinking for them. It elevated them to a level of having to understand for which they had not been prepared. Jesus’ teaching was therefore an essential part of redemption. He could have died on the cross as a man years before he did; but had he done so there would have been no understanding of his fulfilling the Law for us, much less a teaching that told us what the kingdom was truly predestined to be or how his followers would be saved and then be challenged to inherit that kingdom.
The question is, how many truly understand the Sermon on the Mount today? So many of us have our own theology that we take with us to Jesus’ teaching and never grasp what he was getting at. We have our own “box” out of which we cannot think. To get back to Jesus’ actual teaching is not easy for us to do when we have centuries of tradition that shape our thinking – not unlike the position in which the ancient Pharisees found themselves.
Let us ask the Holy Spirit to enable us to read and understand Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount – without our prejudices and need to “prove” what we want to believe.
Read more on in depth analysis in RT’s book.