What does Matthew chapter 5 mean?Matthew 5 begins what is known as Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. The size of the crowds following Jesus by this point in His ministry have become massive. People come from great distances in every direction to see His miracles of healing and hear His compelling teaching.
The words people use to describe nature vary drastically from place to place. A person raised in the Midwestern U.S. might call a body of water a "pond" while someone from central Africa might think of it as a "lake." Likewise, what someone raised in ancient Israel called a "mountain," someone from Nepal might call a "hill." Jesus' sermon was not given in a location resembling Mount Everest or the Rocky Mountains. Jesus likely delivered this sermon in the hills near His home in Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. One traditional site of the sermon provides an elevated spot with ample seating, allowed a great mass of people to hear Jesus speak. Jesus sits down to teach, the position assumed by most religious teachers of the day. This elevated sitting position would have been seen as a position of authority (Matthew 5:1).
The crowd includes Jesus' chosen disciples, His committed followers, and likely some who were simply curious. The sermon itself may have been much longer than what Matthew includes in chapters 5—7. Matthew's call by Christ is explicitly described in Matthew 9:9, but ancient writing was not concerned with keeping events in strict order of time. Matthew's call might have happened during Jesus' ministry just prior to this speech (Matthew 4:23–25). This means Matthew may have been present for this message. As a tax collector, he would have been fluent in reading, writing, and keeping records. That opens the possibility that this is a word-for-word transcription of Jesus' sermon. Even if Matthew compiled this from Jesus' later repetitions, the words are still surprising, even confusing, and challenging (Matthew 5:2).
Matthew's reporting of the sermon begins with a list of sentences called the Beatitudes. That name comes from the Latin word beatus, which means "blessed" or "happy." Each sentence begins with the words "blessed are." Blessed, as Jesus uses it here, means something like "having a good result or outcome." It does not refer to feelings of happiness—in fact, some of these statements involve pain and suffering. Reading from a merely human perspective, it is surprising to hear the kind of people He mentions are "blessed." Human nature doesn't associate humility and mourning with good outcomes. Jesus' entire sermon, though, is designed to show those who listen that our "normal" perspectives are upside down. What matters most is humility and the kingdom of God. These attitudes are reflections of those who understand God's will and His perspective (Matthew 5:3–12).
Next, Jesus emphasizes to His disciples that their lives are enormously valuable. They are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That's why it is so important they do the good works God gives them to do. It is how those in the darkness of the world will see God. Like lamps give light to a dark room, or salt prevents decay in food, Christian influence is meant to counter evil and despair (Matthew 5:13–16).
Jesus then makes it clear He has not come to do away with "the Law or the Prophets." This phrase is a reference to the Scriptures we now call the Old Testament. They are not being dismissed, but Jesus has come to satisfy them. His mission is not to discard those commandments, but to bring them to their full and complete purpose. In order to do that, Jesus explains the deeper meaning of those commands. This begins with a remark about exceeding the righteousness of the infamously strict scribes and Pharisees. His point is twofold: their righteousness is superficial, and no person can be good enough to earn heaven on their own (Matthew 5:17–20).
What does it mean to have a righteousness that surpasses that of Israel's religious leaders? Jesus explains this with a series of examples using a pattern of "you have heard…but I say." The point is not necessarily to dismiss the words being taught. Rather, Jesus' point is to explain that there is something more to God's commandments than bare legalism. In each case, Jesus explains that merely avoiding physical sin is not "good enough." God intends His Words to affect our hearts—our thoughts and attitudes can be sins, just as much as our behavior and speech.
Avoiding murder follows the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13). Yet truly following that commandment, as God intended, also means not harboring unrighteous anger. Anger is not exactly identical to murder, but anger is a sin just as much as murder is a sin. Christians ought to seek reconciliation, both with God and with others, rather than face judgment (Matthew 5:21–26).
The seventh commandment forbids adultery (Exodus 20:14), but God means something more than merely avoiding physical acts. The phrasing Jesus uses here implies active thinking: the choice to dwell, fantasize, or "ogle" someone. It can also mean making efforts to tempt another person into sin. Lustful thoughts are not exactly the same as physical adultery—but they are every bit as sinful. With that in mind, Jesus makes deliberately exaggerated statements about the danger of our urges. It's better to be maimed or blinded, rather than to let our natural instincts drag us into hell (Matthew 5:27–30).
Divorce, in Jesus' era, was given very loose restrictions. In practice, men could dismiss their wives for virtually any reason. God's command about divorce was not a sign of His approval (Deuteronomy 24:1–4), it was meant to protect women from unfair treatment. Jesus shreds selfish attitudes towards marriage by saying no divorce is valid except in cases such as sexually immorality. Marriage is not something we are meant to put on and take off like a coat. It has sacred implications and should be treated accordingly (Matthew 5:31–32).
Jesus also dismissed the use of casual oaths. This does not mean wedding vows, courtroom oaths, or contracts. Jesus is speaking of sealing promises with some kind of "I swear by…" statement. While the Old Testament allowed for oaths in the name of God (Leviticus 19:12), people of Jesus' era would swear on lesser things, often to excuse later violations. People even today will add "I cross my heart…" or "I swear…" to suggest a promise is sincere. Since this implies the person's word is not always trustworthy, Jesus says such oaths are evil (Matthew 5:33–37).
Christ also refers to the Old Testament's law of retaliation (Deuteronomy 19:21). This was meant to prevent conflicts from spiraling out of control, by keeping punishments equal to the offense. In personal matters, though, Jesus commands believers to seek peace over "getting even." Insults and abuses should be ignored—or returned with more love and service than the aggressor expects. This even extends to demonstrating love and praying for those who hate and persecute us (Matthew 5:38–47).
Jesus' final demand of those who would be righteous before God is the most difficult of all: You must be perfect as God is perfect. This not only explains the depth of God's commandments, it sets the stage for Jesus' preaching of the gospel, as salvation by grace through faith (Matthew 5:48).