Although the name David never appears in the sermon, and only once does the proper noun “king” occur (Matthew 5:35), it would be a mistake to overlook Jesus as king here. At least three reasons present themselves for viewing the sermon through the lens of royalty.
First, the very occurrence of the term “kingdom,” both throughout the sermon and in the narrative leading up to the sermon, give warrant for viewing each discourse as a kingship discourse. As just noted, Matthew speaks of Jesus
“proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom” in two summary statements (Matthew 4:23, 9:35), which is meant to act like an abbreviated canopy thrown over the entire narrative. The beatitudes are framed with “Kingdom of heaven” statements (Matthew 5:3, 10), and the term “kingdom” occurs eight times in the discourse. The Sermon on the Mount is thus the speech of the King.
Second, it would be odd for Matthew to begin with the Davidic theme so clearly in the genealogy and birth narrative then drop it once Jesus enters his ministry. Matthew begins his Gospel by identifying Jesus as the Son of David, and in the birth narrative, he says he is born in Bethlehem, the city of David (Matthew 2:1), he is the king of the Jews (Matthew 2:2), and that a new ruler would come from Judah who will shepherd Israel (Matthew 2:6). It would be odd if Matthew began by comparing Jesus to David and then suddenly stopped. The sermon isn’t hermetically sealed off from the rest of the narrative but part and parcel of it.
Third, kings in ancient times were to give the law and “embody the law internally and produce good legislation that transforms the people and leads them in obedience to the law” (Joshua W. Jipp). Evidence exists both in the Ancient Near Eastern culture and the Biblical text that kings were to be living embodiments of the law who instructed through both teaching and example what it meant to follow the law. As the king goes, the nation goes. Jesus is the Davidic King who becomes the living law.
Jesus, the One Who Embodies the Law
If we look at the sermon through the lens of David, a few passages that might seem confusing at first come into more clarity. In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus’ statement about fulfilling the law has been the subject of much debate. In what way does he fulfill the law? By extending it? By showing its true intention? By bringing it to its end?
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. –– Matthew 5:17–18
Clarity emerges here if we see Jesus not just as the prophet but as the King who fulfills the law by “living it” as the ideal king. As the king, he embodies the law, he meets its demands and thereby fulfills it. While Leon Morris is right that “we must bear in mind that ‘fulfil’ does not mean the same as ‘keep’; Jesus is speaking of more than obedience to regulations,” it is also true that it does not mean “less.” To understand what “fulfill the law” means from a monarchial perspective, one must put themselves into the first century context and the common notion about kings.
Both Hellenistic and Old Testament kingship discourse assert virtuous kings submit to the law and thereby internalize them. In the Neo-Pythagorean essays “On Kingship,” the Archytas presents the good king as the animate law.
Law are of two kinds, the animate law, which is the king, and the inanimate, the written law. So law is primary; for with reference to it the king is lawful, the rulership is fitting, the ruled are free, the whole community happy . . . . So it is proper for the better to rule, for the worse to be ruled . . . . The best ruler would be the one who is closest to the law.
According to this text, the wise king is the one who embodies the law, who rules in accordance with the law. He is the animate law to be imitated by his subjects. In a similar way, Plutarch says the king shapes his character by the laws so that his subjects fit his pattern. The just king obeys the law and becomes a wise copy of these things the law commands. While the Old Testament does not use the language of “living law” to describe Israel’s ideal king, it does speak of the task of Israel’s ruler; he is to write out, read, and obey the Torah.
And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.” –– Deuteronomy 17:18–20
Jesus is thus not only the new Moses going up on the mountain to give the law; he is the new King fulfilling the demands of the law by instructing the people how to imitate him in living in harmony to the law.
The Sermon on the Mount is part of the King’s message about the Kingdom of heaven.
Living the Law in the Rest of the Gospel
The rest of the Gospel supports the idea that Christ fulfills the law by embodying it. Matthew goes to great lengths to show that Jesus not only teaches on the law but internalizes it. A few examples are given here, but many more could be added.
Jesus teaches his disciples to be meek (Matthew 5:5), and Matthew describes him as meek and lowly of heart (Matthew 11:29, 21:5).
Jesus calls them to be merciful (Matthew 5:7), to not neglect justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 9:13, 12:7), and he goes about as king and willingly touches a leper, a hemorrhaging woman, and a girl believed to be dead in the house of a gentile (Matthew 8–9).
Jesus blesses those who are persecuted for the sake of the Kingdom (Matthew 5:10), and he himself suffers while Pilate declares, “What evil has he done?” (Matthew 27:23).
Jesus tells his disciples to turn the other cheek when someone strikes them (Matthew 5:39), and in the trials Jesus allows others to spit in his face and strike him (Matthew 26:67, 27:30).
Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that God’s will be done (Matthew 6:10). In the garden, when Jesus faces the prospect of death, he uses the same words three times (Matthew 26:37–44).
Jesus instructs his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him (Matthew 16:24) and he also carries his cross (Matthew 27:46).
Jesus blesses his people who mourn (Matthew 5:4), so too he mourns and grieves (Matthew 23:37).
Jesus teaches his disciples that self-sacrifice will lead to honor and glory (Matthew 16:24–27, 19:27–30), and he denies himself (Matthew 4:8) and lays down his life thereby receiving all authority (Matthew 25:31–32, 28:18).
List borrowed from Jason Hood, W.D. Davies and Dale Allison.
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Jesus did not come to set aside or nullify the law; rather, he affirmed it, accomplished it, and brought it to reality. Jesus embodies and lives the law he delivers in the sermon and in the rest of the Gospel. The standard responsibility of ancient kings was the task of enacting justice for his people. Matthew’s dramatization of the law throughout his Gospel cannot be separated from Jesus’ kingship because Matthew’s programmatic statement about Jesus’ ministry is: he “went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matthew 4:23).
The Sermon on the Mount is part of the King’s message about the Kingdom of heaven. He teaches on the Kingdom (Matthew 5–7), and then he heals every disease in anticipation of the Kingdom (Matthew 8–9) and enacts the double love command.
Adapted from Matthew: Disciple and Scribe by Patrick Schreiner, (to be published in 2019). Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
Patrick Schreiner is Assistant Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.