There’s a little phrase at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that seems completely benign – hardly worth noticing. Matthew writes, “Jesus went up the mountainside and sat down.” OK, so what?! Let’s move onto the Sermon! But, to those with a keen sense of Jewish history, this would have been like a pulsating neon sign: The New Moses is here!!!
What’s the big deal about the arrival of the New Moses? Well, Moses was the most important figure in the Old Testament. Why? Because he was at the center of the two most important “events” in Israel’s history. First, he was the one who received the law on Mt. Sinai – and this is what we’re reminded of in the verbal clue Matthew gives at the beginning of chapter 5. The phrase found in Exodus 19 and in Matthew 5 is exactly the same: “Moses/Jesus went up on the mountainside.” So, Matthew is saying (and I believe Jesus would agree) that the New Moses is here and he is about to give the New Law.
The second big thing Moses was part of is the Exodus. Moses led the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea and into the promised land. The exodus was the defining moment in Jewish history. So, again, what Matthew practically screams is, “The New Moses is here and the New Exodus is about to happen!” It’s HUGE.
The phrase that opens the Sermon on the Mount is anything but benign. It is show-stopping, attention-grabbing, life-impacting news.
So, let’s think about the New Law and it’s relationship to Old Law. The new law is the teaching of Jesus – which he will lay out clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. One way of describing the relationship of the New Law to the Old Law is in this phrase that Jesus introduced, “You have heard it said ______, BUT I say to you ________.” Another way of describing the relationship is that the New Law is the fulfillment of the Old Law – it’s the thing the Old Law was pointing towards, moving towards, but never was. And it’s better.
One more quick story to illustrate the relationship of the Old and New law. When Jesus went up the mountain to be transfigured (another allusion to Moses), there were two other figures present with him – Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the Prophets. Peter, like a good Jew, says, “Let’s build three shelters – one for each of you.” In this sense, Peter seems to be putting Jesus on par with these two great figures in Israel’s history.
But, the voice of God intercedes, “This (Jesus) IS MY SON — listen TO HIM.” In my imagination, Peter looks at Moses and Elijah to see if he heard correctly and both Moses and Elijah are pointing to Jesus and mouthing silently, “Yep, listen to him — not us.” So, we prioritize the person and teaching of Jesus over everything else. The Bible is not at the center of our faith, Jesus is.
Now, some thoughts on the New Exodus. When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt they began to cry out to God for deliverance. God heard their prayers and rescued them. The Israelites were in roughly the same position when Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount as their ancestors were over a thousand years ago — under the thumb of an empire, heavily taxed, utterly non-self-governed (which was always particularly humiliating for the people of God). They were crying out for deliverance and they had the prophetic history which told them one even greater than Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-19) was going to come. This seemed like the perfect time for God to raise up the New Moses who would bring the New Exodus.
The New Moses did arrive . . . but he did not answer their prayers for deliverance. Jesus did not provide an exodus like that of Moses. The Romans weren’t displaced. So, what is the exodus Jesus provides? Well, it doesn’t seem to be primarily an exodus from others, but an exodus from the self. While our prayers are, “God, get me out of here!” and, “God, make them change!” (which are actually very good, reasonable prayers that God, in his love for us, does answer), the exodus Jesus brings in the Sermon on the Mount is in answer to a prayer I rarely have the courage to pray, “God, change me.”
Matthew writes, “His disciples came to him and he began to teach them.” Could we do this? Travel up the mountain with Jesus and a few others, let him give us the New Law and follow him as he take us through the New Exodus. That’s the invitation we are issued at the start of the Sermon on the Mount.