Matthew records that the early ministry of the Savior consisted of going about “all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people which believed on his name” (Matt. 4:23). As He did so, “his fame went throughout all” the land and “there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan” (Matt. 4:24-25).
The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount
“And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him” (Matt. 5:1). The Savior then delivered a masterful discourse that has become known as the Sermon on the Mount.
The setting for the sermon is of interest for a several reasons. The following are important to this writing:
• Catherine Thomas has noted: “The Greek text of Matthew describes Jesus ascending the mountain, where he delivered the Sermon on the Mount. This mountain evokes another ancient mountain from the Old Testament: Mount Sinai, where Jehovah delivered the great law of Moses. The allusion is no accident. Jehovah had again ascended a mount from which he would deliver another law. Allusions from the Old Testament permeate his address and illuminate his message.”[i]
• Seeing a diverse multitude following him, the Savior left the crowds and ascended the mountain, leaving the ease of the valley travel behind. This forced only the true disciples to follow him. There is a message of “cost of discipleship” in this. By following the Savior, the disciples would be required to leave the world behind and live at a higher level. Only by living at a higher level, would the disciples learn things that could not be learned in any other setting.
• The Sermon of the Mount evokes temple imagery. Most ancient Near Eastern societies viewed their gods as living in mountains: Olympus for the Greeks; Cassius for the Phoenicians; Saphon, Hermon, Tabor, and Carmel for the Canaanites; and Sinai for the Israelites. These were all mountains upon which the respective societies considered their god(s) as living. When temples were built to house deity, the temples were often considered “mountains.” If possible they were built on mountains or high places. If not, the structure of the building was designed to represent a mountain (such as the Mesopotamian ziggurat).[ii] When the Savior ascended the mountain to deliver this most significant sermon, there can be not question that His intended subject was of a higher nature–the temple. Indeed, it is significant that when the Savior delivered a similar sermon to the Nephites, it was in the temple at Bountiful (3 Ne. 11:1).
A Temple Text
When the sermon on the mount is viewed within the light of temple worship, what appears as a disjointed discourse is unified. John Welch has observed that both the Savior’s Sermon on the Mount and in the temple at Bountiful are temple texts. “The temple context is what gives the Sermon its unity and, therefore, an exceptionally rich background against which it can be understood and appreciated”[iii]
The message delivered by the Savior on this occasion was not meant merely to produce a greater ethical living in his disciples. “Salvation comes by living the doctrines proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount!” exclaimed Elder Bruce R. McConkie. “That sermon–properly understood–is far more than a recitation of ethical principles; rather, it summarizes the Christian way of life, and it charts the course true saints must pursue to become even as He is.”[iv] “This sermon is a recapitulation, a summary, and a digest of what men must do to gain salvation; and the eternal concepts in it are so stated that hearers (and readers) will get out of it as much as their personal spiritual capacity permits. To some it will point the way to further investigation; to others it will confirm and reconfirm eternal truths already learned from the scriptures and from the preachers of righteousness of their day; and to those few whose souls burn with the fires of testimony, devotion, and valiance, it will be as the rending of the heavens: light and knowledge beyond carnal comprehension will flow into their souls in quantities that cannot be measured.”
Elder McConkie explained that the sermon has not been recorded in its entirety. “The Sermon on the Mount has never been recorded in its entirety as far as we know; at least no such scriptural account is available to us. What has come to us is a digest; the words in each account that are attributed to Jesus are, in fact, verbatim recordings of what he said, but they are not all that he said by any means.” Further, he noted: “The Sermon on the Mount is not an assemblage of disjointed sayings, spoken on diverse occasions, that have been combined in one place for convenience in presentation, as some uninspired commentators have speculated.”[v]
The Sermon on the Mount begins with an overview of man’s progress to exaltation given through what has become known as the beatitudes (5:3-12). Each beatitude confirms a condition of gospel living that man must achieve and maintain in order to receive celestial glory. Note the first four conditions and their relationship to each other:
• The first condition: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). The Book of Mormon augments this verse in this way: “Yea, blessed are the poor in spirit who come unto me (3 Ne. 12:3; emphasis added) The poor in spirit are those who recognize their spiritual need, and, as the Book of Mormon adds, demonstrate their faith by coming unto Christ.
• The second condition: “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (5:4). They that mourn are the poor in spirit who mourn their spiritual poorness and repent of their sins. The promise of comfort is the promise of forgiveness.
• The third condition: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (5:5). The meek are those who submit to the higher power of God “as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19). Formal submission to the Lord is actualized through the covenant made at baptism (see 2 Ne. 31:7; D&C 20:37). The blessing granted the meek consists of “inherit[ing] the earth” – a blessing not realized until the earth becomes the celestial kingdom (see D&C 88:17-26).[vi]
• The fourth condition: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness (5:6) for they shall be filled with the Holy Ghost”(3 Ne. 12:6). Regarding this verse, Stephen Robinson asked: “When are you hungry? When are you thirsty? When you don’t have the object of your desire. It is those who don’t have the righteousness that God has—but who hunger and thirst after it—who are blessed, for if that is the desire of their hearts, the Lord will help them achieve it.”[vii] Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness desire to learn and live of the things of God and eternal life. When one has such hunger, he has achieved the requisite worthiness to have the gift of the Holy Ghost.
As can be seen, the first four beatitudes reflect the first four principles and ordinances of the gospel. These principles and ordinances are part of the preparatory gospel (D&C 84:26-27) and serve to initiate one onto the “strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life” (2 Nephi 31:16-17). The first principles and ordinances of the gospel bring one into a proper relationship with God. They put the first commandment first in our lives. The first two great commandments are: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 22:37-39).
We speak much in the Church about serving our fellowmen. But often we forget that it is the second commandment. But, as President Ezra Taft Benson has stated: “We bless our fellowmen the most when we put the first commandment first.” Developing this thought, President Benson said: “To love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is all-consuming and all‑encompassing. It is no lukewarm endeavor. It is total commitment of our very being—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—to a love of the Lord.” He then said: “When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. Our love of the Lord will govern the claims for our affection, the demands on our time, the interests we pursue, and the order of our priorities. We should put God ahead of everyone else in our lives.”[viii]
With the first commandment first in our lives, we are bettered prepared to live the second commandment: to love our fellow men. Neal A. Maxwell stated: “Believing in a loving God who is perfect helps us to love our imperfect neighbors. I see now that the first commandment must be first and, therefore, the second commandment must be second, for without a knowledge of love of God and his help, our concerns for our neighbors would diminish.”[ix]
The next four beatitudes deal with the second commandment:
• The fifth condition: “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (5:7). This beatitutde can be viewed both in simple way as well as a higher way. At an elementary level, the meaning is simple: those who help others will receive help from the Lord.
At a more complex level, the meaning deals with temple issues. The merciful are those who have already received the Lord’s mercy of forgiveness through baptism. Yet the baptismal requires them to serve others (see Mosiah 18:8-10) in order to receive further mercy of the Lord. What mercy? The power to achieve our divine potential! Let me explain. Receiving God’s mercy or grace is essential in order to advance in righteousness in the kingdom of God, eventually becoming as God is. Grace has been defined as an “enabling power.”[x] God’s saving grace that enables man to save their souls in the celestial kingdom and achieve exaltation within that kingdom is granted to those who do the will of the Father.[xi]Further, the initiation of his saving grace is granted only after one enters into the saving ordinances of the gospel wherein sacred covenants between God and man are made. Harold B. Lee taught, “The saving ‘grace’ of the Lord’s atoning power” is extended “to those who would receive the saving ordinances of the gospel.”[xii] Through the ordinance of baptism, we receive the divine grace of forgiveness that qualifies us to receive spiritual rebirth through the gift of the Holy Ghost. Now spiritually reborn, we must then grow up to godhood. This will require further enabling power through divine grace or mercy. This grace comes through the higher ordinances of the temple. Each ordinance and covenant made in the temple helps us to receive more grace that enables us to become like God. Yet each covenant is a further covenant regarding service in the kingdom. As we serve others, we are granted greater grace or mercy. Therefore, the fifth beatitude states that our receiving divine grace and mercy is dependant upon are extending grace and mercy to others. Hence, we are told in D&C 93 that we receive “grace for grace” (vss. 12-20). As we grow in grace we empowered to become more pure in heart.
• The sixth condition: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (5:8). They shall see him because of honoring their temple covenants. The Lord has said: “And inasmuch as my people build a house unto me in the name of the Lord, and do not suffer any unclean thing to come into it, that it be not defiled, my glory shall rest upon it; Yea, and my presence shall be there, for I will come into it, and all the pure in heart that shall come into it shall see God” (D&C 97:15-16). Temple ordinances are orienting in nature. Through temple ordinances we center God and His work and glory at the center of our lives by covenant. In a modern revelation, the Lord promised that to those who single their lives to the glory and work of God “the days will come that [they] shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto [them], and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will” (D&C 88:67-68).
• The seventh condition: “Blessed are the peacemakers”–those who like Melchizedek, the Prince of Peace, help others to “enter into the rest of God” through temple ordinances (JST Genesis 14:25-40 and Alma 13:13-19)–“shall be called the children of God” (5:9). The children of God are those who are rightful heirs of all that God has (Romans 8:14-18; Galatians 4:1-8).
• The eighth condition: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (5:10-12). Those who have achieved the first seven conditions have become different than those who live the ways of the world. The world does not like those who are different and often persecutes them. Those who are persecuted have, like those in Lehi’s dream, arrived at the tree of life and are persecuted by those in the “great and spacious building” (1 Nephi 8:27). They have “escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Peter 1:4). They are in the world but are “not of the world” (John 17:14-16). Such persecution is a good sign!
The Salt of the Earth
Upon the conclusion of the beatitudes, the Savior declared “Ye are the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13). In the Book of Mormon version, He said: “I give unto you to be the salt of the earth” (3 Nephi 12:13). This implies a challenge or an invitation. But what is the invitation? An Old Testament understanding of how salt was ritually used will aid our understanding of the invitation. Salt was used in a variety of sacrifices of the Mosaic Law as a symbol of indestructibility (e.g. Lev. 2:13). On one occasion, the Lord referred to a series of obligations as a “covenant of salt” to demonstrate the eternal nature of the covenant that had just been made between He and Israel (Numbers 18:19; see also 2 Chron.13:5).[xiii]
With this understanding in mind, the invitation to become the salt of the earth was a challenge to enter into the higher law of the gospel with an everlasting covenant. This is stated clearly in modern revelation: “When men are called unto mine everlasting gospel, and covenant with an everlasting covenant, they are accounted as the salt of the earth and the savor of men” (D&C 101:39).
Of this statement, Elder Delbert L. Stapley, a former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, taught: “When an individual truly repents and is baptized by an authorized servant of God into the true Church of Christ and receives the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands by those possessing the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood, he has entered into the everlasting gospel and becomes a member of God’s Church and kingdom. By accepting the covenant of baptism, each convert obligates himself or herself to serve the Lord, to do his will, and to keep his commandments. This is the first qualifying step for the application of ‘the salt of the earth’ status.”
But repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost are not enough. Elder Stapley taught: “The second step is to ‘. . . covenant with an everlasting covenant . . .’ (D&C 101:39.).” He explained: “As we gain knowledge of the revelations, we learn that the gospel contains many covenants vital to the eternal welfare of man.”
These covenants, he taught, include the temple ordinances. “Every worthy church member privileged to enter the temples of the Lord for his or her endowment blessings accepts covenants and obligations of the most sacred nature, revealed of God for the glory of his children.
“Every couple kneeling across the altar from each other in the temples of God for holy marriage enters into a covenant of the highest order, which is God’s order, and which sealing and covenant is for time and for all eternity.
“There are other covenants and obligations growing out of the endowment as well as the marriage contract which are binding upon the individuals concerned, and their obedience thereto assures the sanctifying influence and power of the Spirit and the spiritual renewing of their bodies in preparation for the blessings and glories which are to come.”[xiv]
By living up to their covenants, the Savior taught his disciples that they would be “the light of the world.” Further, they were encouraged to share that light with others (Matt. 5:14-16).
Commanded to Live at a Higher Level
Following the invitation to come to the higher laws and covenants of the gospel, the Savior stated: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matt. 5:17). To understand this statement, four things must be understood:
• The phrase “the law, or the prophets” means the Old Testament.[xv]
• The Greek word translated “fulfill” means to bring to a completion.[xvi]
• The law of Moses was given with the intent of bringing Israel to Christ and the higher law, a law that they were not ready to understand at the time of Moses (see 2 Nephi 11:4; Jacob 4:5; Mosiah 3:14-15; Mosiah 16:14; Alma 25:15-16; Ether 12:11).
• The prophets of the Old Testament prophesied of the coming of Jesus Christ.
• Therefore, Christ had come to fulfil the intent of the law of Moses and the prophecies of the prophets.
With this in mind, the Savior taught that the disciples’ righteousness must “exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matt. 5:20). The Greek word translated “righteousness,” is a legal term meaning ‘observance of the law’ or ‘right conduct.’ The Savior would have used the term differently than the scribes and Pharisees. They would have used the term to mean strict legal correctness or “the letter of the law.” What motivated them to observe a strict observance of the law is hard to. But an examination of the four gospels would suggest that their motivation was not their love of fellowman.[xvii]
But “righteousness” as employed by the Savior meant to honor the intent and goal of the law. Paul tells us that the goal of keeping every commandment should be love (see 1 Tim. 1:5). Therefore, the motivation for keeping every commandment should be love–love of God and fellowman, the first two great commandments. In so doing, by keeping the commandments, one is developing “the pure love of Christ”and therefore becoming even as God is (see Moroni 7:47-48). Important, then, to the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount is that our observance of the commandments of God should focus on the intent of the law not strictly the do’s and don’ts. In fact, towards the end of the Sermon, the Savior declared that God’s judgment will not rest simply on the works of the law–the do’s and don’ts–but rather on what we have become by our works. “Verily I say unto you,” the Lord said, “It is not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, that shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. For the day soon cometh, that men shall come before me to judgment, to be judged according to their works. And many will say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name; and in thy name cast out devils; and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I say, Ye never knew me; depart from me ye that work iniquity” (JST Matt. 7:30-33; emphasis added). Doing the works of the Lord without real intent–love of God and fellowman–is insufficient for entrance into the celestial kingdom of God. If we are not coming to know the Lord through our works, then they are just works.
This was taught by King Benjamin, who said, “For how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?” (Mosiah 5:13; emphasis added) In line with this, Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught “that the Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts–what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts–what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.”[xviii]
The Savior demonstrated how to apply this teaching through six antitheses, each beginning with the statement, “Ye have heard it said.” Each antithesis reflects various codes of conduct found in the Law of Moses or practiced by the Jews in Christ’s day which the Lord intended His listener to apply at a higher level.
The first antithesis. “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matt. 5:21); i.e., those guilty of murder would face the punishment imposed by the local courts and eventually the punishment of God. The disciples of the Lord are asked to apply this law at a higher level. Such discipleship requires controlling the inner man. The Savior taught that when we exercise love towards others–therefore our first concern is for the welfare of others–we would not lose control of our anger[xix] towards another[xx] nor ever use language that would denigrate another in any way (vs. 22).[xxi] Yet, even this is not enough. If others harbor ill-feelings toward us, we ought to rectify the relationship as soon as possible (vss. 23-26).
The disciples whom the Savior was addressing would be leaders with priesthood authority in the new church.[xxii] They must exercise the priesthood they will be given with love and not with unrighteous dominion. H. Burke Peterson stated: “Exercising unrighteous dominion can follow many patterns. It may be relatively mild when expressed as criticism, anger, or feelings of severe frustration. In more extreme cases, however, unrighteous dominion may emerge as verbal, physical, or emotional abuse.”[xxiii]
Unrighteous dominion is unacceptable in the kingdom of God. It is born of selfishness. It must be combated by love of God and fellowman. Joseph Smith declared: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long‑suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile. Reproving betimes[xxiv]with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death” (D&C 121:41-44).
H. Burke Peterson explained that reproving with sharpness does not mean with uncontrolled anger: “Reproving with sharpness means reproving with clarity, with loving firmness, with serious intent. It does not mean reproving with sarcasm, or with bitterness, or with clenched teeth and raised voice. One who reproves as the Lord has directed deals in principles, not personalities. He does not attack character or demean an individual.”[xxv]
The second antithesis. “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Adultery is the illegitimate use of God’s power to procreate. It is an act born of selfishness and not through pure, eternal love. Sexual impurity begins in the inner man. To live the law at the higher level requires control of mind as well as actions. The Savior said: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28).
To help control our thoughts, we must do all we can to control the influences that surround us. The Savior urged his disciples: “If they right eye offend (Gr. “cause to stumble”) thee, pluck it out” (vs. 29). That is to say, if there is anything in our surroundings that cause us to have immoral thoughts, we must “pluck it out.”
Our surroundings can either influence us for good or evil. Lehi exhorted his sons to “not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate” (2 Ne. 2:29; emphasis added). This statement teaches that the temptation to sin is inherent in the natural man and that one of Satan’s major strategies is to create an environment that stimulates and entices the sinful nature of man. It is imperative that if we are to overcome the sinful nature of the natural man that we must control those influences of the world that would bring us into the captivity of sin.
Satan often used media–a major aspect of our environment–to bring man into the captivity of sin. We must control what we watch, listen to, and read. The standard for entertainment has been given us by the First Presidency: “Do not attend, view, or participate in entertainment that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way. Do not participate in entertainment that in any way presents immorality or violent behavior as acceptable.”[xxvi] If there is anything in our TV watching, videos, DVDs, music, or literature that does not met this standard in anyway, we must “pluck it out” and get rid of it.
The third antithesis. “It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement” (vs. 31). Since there is no command to divorce in the law of Moses, this passage presupposes that “the practice of divorce” became a given among the Jews. In fact, the practice of divorce had become widespread among the Jews. Yet, divorce is unacceptable in the eyes of the Lord. But as the Savior later taught, “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:3-8).[xxvii]
The Savior confronted this abuse of the marriage covenant by laying down higher principles to guide His disciples. He warned: “Verily, verily, I say unto you that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery; and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, committeth adultery” (JST Matt. 5:32). The interpretation of this saying is not easy to discover. However, Mark’s record of a similar discussion is helpful: “And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery” (Mark 10:10-12). What is clear is the Savior was opposed to divorce with the possible exception for adutery.
Divorce is born of selfishness. President Spencer W. Kimball declared: “Every divorce is the result of selfishness on the part of one or the other or both parties to a marriage contract.”[xxviii] In view of this, President Hinckley once said: “The most burdensome responsibility I have is to make judgments on applications for cancellation of temple sealings following civil divorce. Each case is considered on its individual merits. I pray for wisdom, for the direction of the Lord in dealing with sacred covenants made in the most hallowed surroundings and of an eternal nature. The circumstances behind the divorce and behind the request for cancellation of a temple sealing contain a litany of selfishness, of greed, of behavior at times even sadistic in its nature, of abuse and heartache and tragedy.”[xxix] A successful marriage requires unselfishness. This is accomplished when both marriage partners keep the first and second great commandments as priorities in their lives.
The fourth antithesis. “Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths” (vs. 33). This saying summarizes several related passages in the Law of Moses (Ex. 20:7; Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21-23). Oaths were given to insure the truthfulness and sincerity of one’s word. They were an important aspect of vows practiced in the Law of Moses.
Yet oaths are generally used by people of lesser integrity. They imply that one’s word cannot always be trusted unless “accompanied by some sort of verbal guarantee.”[xxx] Therefore, such a person’s reliability must always be suspect. But true discipleship of the Lord Jesus Christ requires greater integrity than this. Therefore, the Savior declared: “But I say unto you, Swear not at all.” Rather, “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (5:34, 37). Likewise, James said: “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation ” (James 5:12).
If one’s word cannot always be trusted then he is often given to lying or deceit. Lying is born of selfishness. Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught: “A prominent feature of the natural man is selfishness ‑‑ the inordinate and excessive concern with self. . . . Selfishness is much more than an ordinary problem, because it activates all the cardinal sins. It is the detonator in the breaking of the Ten Commandments. By focusing on himself a person finds it naturally easier to bear false witness if it serves his purpose.”[xxxi]
But when one is governed by the first and second great commandments, he finds lying and dishonesty repugnant since it serves only self-interest and not others. When the love of God and others comes first, honesty overrides selfishness. Then what we say we will do or not do is perfectly reflected by our actions. President John Taylor taught: “We should be strictly honest, one with another, and with all men; let our word always be as good as our bond.”[xxxii]
The fifth antithesis. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (5:38). Equal retaliation[xxxiii] is one of the oldest known recorded laws in the ancient world. It was instituted to restrict unlimited revenge. In this sense it is a higher law than that which governs the natural man, and, consequently, in earlier times was a social advance of great magnitude. It was always to be administered by the courts and never meant for individual retaliation. Thus it became part of the civil code of the Law of Moses (see Ex. 21:22; Lev. 24:19ff; Deut. 19:16-21).
But the Savior demands that His disciples practice an even higher private discipline regarding personal injury caused by others. He said: “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (5:39). In other words, do not seek revenge against one who has injured you. The phrase, “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek,” refers to a backhanded slap on the right cheek with the intent of drawing another into a fight. To “turn to him the other also” means to walk away from the insulting confrontation.
Sometimes such backhanded slaps are not intentional. In fact, we often are given a backhanded slap by a situation not intended to injure us. But it does! We should let the hurt go! If we give in to our natural desires, then we want the situation made right with vengeance exacted. But good never comes from such desires or actions.
Elder Boyd K. Packer recalled a man, John by name, who found himself in just such a situation. It was in an earlier time. The man lived in a small community with his young sweetheart. Their future looked bright as he had a good job and she was pregnant with their first child. As the time of birth grew near, there were complications. The only doctor was in the country attending others. As his wife’s conditioned worsened, the doctor was found and he immediately came and attended her. The baby was born and things seemed alright. But a few days later, the young mother died “from the very infection that the doctor had been treating at another home that night.
“John’s world was shattered. Everything was not right now; everything was all wrong. He had lost his wife. He had no way to tend both the baby and his work. As the weeks wore on, his grief festered.” Revenge, sometimes miscalled justice, is what he wanted. “Today, no doubt, he would have been pressed by many others to file a malpractice suit. And there are lawyers who would see in his pitiable condition only one ingredient–money!”
But one day, John’s stake president asked John to come and visit with him. “The counsel from that wise servant was simply, ‘John, leave it alone. Nothing you do about it will bring her back. Anything you do will make it worse. John, leave it alone.’”
But “how could he leave it alone? Right was right! A terrible wrong had been committed and somebody must pay for it. It was a clear case. But he struggled in agony to get hold of himself. And finally, he determined that whatever else the issues were, he should be obedient.” He told Elder Packer, “‘I was an old man before I understood! It was not until I was an old man that I could finally see a poor country doctor—overworked, underpaid, run ragged from patient to patient, with little medicine, no hospital, few instruments, struggling to save lives, and succeeding for the most part. He had come in a moment of crisis, when two lives hung in the balance, and had acted without delay.’ ‘I was an old man,’ he repeated, ‘before I finally understood! I would have ruined my life,’ he said, ‘and the lives of others.’”[xxxiv]
Revenge is born of selfishness. It can only be truly overcome through love of God and fellowman.
The sixth antithesis. Related to the fifth antithesis is the sixth: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy” (5:43). The command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is found in Leviticus 19:18. But no command to “hate thine enemy” is ever given in the Law of Moses. “Indeed, [the law of Moses] teaching about enemies is complex. There are certainly passages that inculcate a stern attitude to one’s foes (Exod. 34:12; Deut. 7:2; 23:6), and the Psalmist speaks of hating those who hate God (Ps. 139:21-22). But other Old Testament passages extend love at least to the resident alien (Lev. 19:34) and call for an attitude of helpfulness that extends even to the ‘enemy’ (Exod. 23:4-5; Prov. 25:21-22).”[xxxv] It appears, then, that at the time of Christ there were many who oversimplified these legislations to mean “love your neighbor but hate your enemies”–an inaccurate teaching! This is probably why this antithesis does not read, “Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old” but rather, “Ye have heard that it hath been said.”
To his disciples, the Savior said: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (5:44). Hating our enemies is easy. Indeed, the natural man enjoys such enmity. But such hatred distracts us from our goal attaining our divine potential. “We are a warlike people,” President Spencer W. Kimball declared, “easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel–ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become anti‑enemy instead of pro‑kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:44‑45.)”[xxxvi]
President Kimball asked, “Why does the Lord ask you to love your enemies and to return good for evil? That you might have the benefit of it. It does not injure him so much when you hate a person, especially if he is far removed and does not come in contact with you, but the hate and the bitterness canker your unforgiving heart.”[xxxvii]
Hate is born of selfishness. The Savior would have love govern the emotions of our heart. When it does, we are more concerned with the welfare of our enemy than our own. Brigham Young said, “Do I say, Love your enemies? Yes, upon certain principles. But you are not required to love their wickedness; you are only required to love them so far as concerns a desire and effort to turn them from their evil ways, that they may be saved through obedience to the Gospel.”[xxxviii]
The Savior concluded this teaching by saying, “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?” Hate is easy. Love requires work.
Be Ye Therefore Perfect
The six antitheses are demanding doctrines. To live up to them requires tremendous growth on our part. They give us guidance and direction on how to live all the Lord’s commandments at a higher level. Further, they show us our possibilities. The growth demanded by the Lord must be achieved if we are to reach the perfection of our divine potential. Therefore, the Savior commanded his disciples, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (5:48).
“Keeping this commandment,” Elder Russell M. Nelson taught, “can be a concern because each of us is far from perfect, both spiritually and temporally. . .When comparing one’s personal performance with the supreme standard of the Lord’s expectation, the reality of imperfection can at times be depressing.” But he added, “The moment [the Savior] uttered the words ‘even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,’ he raised our sights beyond the bounds of mortality. Our Heavenly Father has eternal perfection. This very fact merits a much broader perspective.”[xxxix]
This is implied in the Greek word teleios, translated perfect in Matthew 5:48. Teleios means ‘complete,’ ‘brought to an end,’ ‘finished,’ ‘full grown,’ or ‘mature.’ The Savior’s command to become perfect means that each commandment or law should be brought to full maturity in ourselves.
But such maturing will not be fully achieved in mortality. Joseph Smith declared: “When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the Gospel ‑‑ you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.”[xl]
So how is perfection achieved? Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained: “We do not work out our salvation in a moment; it doesn’t come to us in an instant, suddenly. Gaining salvation is a process.” Indeed, he said, “We have to become perfect to be saved in the celestial kingdom. But nobody becomes perfect in this life. Only the Lord Jesus attained that state, and he had an advantage that none of us has. He was the Son of God, and he came into this life with a spiritual capacity and a talent and an inheritance that exceeded beyond all comprehension what any of the rest of us was born with.”
But “We start out in the direction of eternal life when we join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We enter in at a gate, and the name of the gate is repentance and baptism. We thereby get on a path, and the name of the path is the straight and narrow path. And then if we endure to the end, meaning if we keep the commandments of God after baptism, we go up that straight and narrow path, and at its end is a reward that is named eternal life. All of this is available because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ.”
Perfection is attained, he added, by keeping “the commandments today, and we keep more of them tomorrow, and we go from grace to grace, up the steps of the ladder, and we thus improve and perfect our souls. We can become perfect in some minor things. We can be perfect in the payment of tithing. If we pay one-tenth of our interest annually into the tithing funds of the Church, if we do it year in and year out, and desire to do it, and have no intent to withhold, and if we would do it regardless of what arose in our lives, then in that thing we are perfect. And in that thing and to that extent we are living the law as well as Moroni or the angels from heaven could live it. And so, degree by degree and step by step we start out in the course to perfection with the objective of becoming perfect as God our Heavenly Father is perfect, in which eventuality we become inheritors of eternal life in his kingdom.”
He then promised, “As members of the Church, if we chart a course leading to eternal life; if we begin the process of spiritual rebirth, and are going in the right direction; if we chart a course of sanctifying our souls, and degree by degree are going in that direction; and if we chart a course of becoming perfect, and, step by step and phase by phase, are perfecting our souls by overcoming the world, then it is absolutely guaranteed–there is no question whatever about it–we shall gain eternal life. Even though we have spiritual rebirth ahead of us, perfection ahead of us, the full degree of sanctification ahead of us, if we chart a course and follow it to the best of our ability in this life, then when we go out of this life we’ll continue in exactly that same course. We will no longer be subject to the passions and the appetites of the flesh. We will have passed successfully the tests of this mortal probation and in due course we’ll get the fulness of our Father’s kingdom–and that means eternal life in his everlasting presence.”[xli]
[i] Catherine Thomas, “The Sermon on the Mount: The Sacrifice of the Human Heart,” in Studies in Scripture: Volume Five: The Gospels (Kent Jackson, ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1986), p. 236.
[ii]. For excellent discussions concerning mountains and temples in the ancient Near East, see Othmar Keel, “Temple and Mountains,” in The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of the Psalms(Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997), pp. 113-120; John Lundquist, “Temple Symbolism in Isaiah,” Isaiah and the Prophets, ed. Monte S. Nyman (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 1984), 37-38; and John Lundquist, “What is Reality,”Temples of the Ancient World, ed. Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1994), 625-627.
[iii] John W. Welch, The Sermon at the Temple and The Sermon on the Mount (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990), p.14.
[iv] Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, (The Messiah Series, vols. 2‑5. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979‑1982), 4:308.
[v] McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, 2:116-118.
[vi] Joseph Fielding Smith explained: “The earth will be cleansed again. It was once baptized in water. When Christ comes, it will be baptized with fire and the power of the Holy Ghost. At the end of the world the earth will die; it will be dissolved, pass away, and then it will be renewed, or raised with a resurrection. It will receive its resurrection to become a celestial body, so that they of the celestial order may possess it forever and ever. Then it will shine forth as the sun and take its place among the worlds that are redeemed. When this time comes the terrestrial inhabitants will also be taken away and be consigned to another sphere suited to their condition. Then the words of the Savior will be fulfilled, for the meek shall inherit the earth.” (Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, 3 vols. [Edited by Bruce R. McConkie. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954‑1956], 1:87‑88)
[vii] Stephen E. Robinson, “Believing Christ,” Ensign, Apr. 1992, p. 7.
[viii] Ezra Taft Benson, “The Great Commandment—Love the Lord,” Ensign, May 1988, p. 4.
[ix] Neal A. Maxwell, Of One Heart (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975), pp. 22-23.
[x] LDS Bible Dictionary, p. 697.
[xi] See, Joseph Fielding Smith Jr., Doctrines of Salvation, 1:155; Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball (Compiled by Edward L. Kimball. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), p.71; James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ(15th ed., rev. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‑day Saints, 1977), pp. 245‑246; James E. Talmage, The Vitality of Mormonism (Boston: The Gorham Press, 1919 ), p.257.
[xii] Harold B. Lee, Conference Report, April 1961, p. 34‑35.
[xiii] See Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), p. 154.
[xiv] Delbert L. Stapley, Conference Report, Oct. 1964, pp. 61-65.
[xv] “Law” has reference to the five books of Moses or the Torah (Heb. for ‘law’), while “prophets” refers to the writings of Joshua through 2 Kings and the prophets from Isaiah to Malachi. The combination of “the law, and the prophets” is a way of referring to the whole of the Old Testament.
[xvi] See, “plaroma” in Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd Ed. Revised and edited by Frederick William Danker, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957, 1979, 2000), p. 829.
[xvii] This can be seen from the following examples: Matt. 9:10-13; 12:1-9, 10-14; 19:16-22; Luke 10:25-37; John 5:1- 18; 9:1-41.
[xviii] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Challenge to Become,” Ensign, Nov. 2000, p. 32.
[xix] The Greek word translated angry is orgay. In the New Testament, there are two Greek words generally translated angry: orgay (as used in this verse) and thymos. They are often used synonymously. However, there are slight differences in the true meanings of the words. Orgay suggests anger that is deliberate and thought out or is a brooding inward anger. Thymos often depicts a sudden outburst or anger that flares up due to the moment. Either way, both are considered undesirable.
[xx] The phrase, “without a cause,” appearing in the King James Version of Matthew 5:22 is not in the Greek text nor in the Joseph Smith Translation. It is also not found in the Book of Mormon version of the Sermon on the Mount. It was added by the King James translators. Therefore, it should be omitted from the text as it does not accurately reflect the Savior’s teaching.
[xxi] Matthew 5:22 states that those who get angry, or call others derisive names should be in danger of “the judgment” or “the council.” This has reference to the Jewish Sanhedrin or ruling court, the rules over cases of murder. The Savior is equating anger and verbal abuse to murder and therefore should be judged equally as harsh.
[xxii] Often when the four gospels are harmonized, the occasion prompting the Sermon on the Mount is the calling of the twelve apostles. However, Matthew records the sermon in chapters 5-7 while the apostles are called in chapter 10. He also records a different sermon given to the twelve upon their call (see Matthew 10).
[xxiii] H. Burke Peterson, “Unrighteous Dominion,” Ensign, July 1989, p. 7.
[xxiv] “Betimes” does not mean from time to time, but rather, it means “early on.”
[xxv] H. Burke Peterson, “Unrighteous Dominion,” Ensign, July 1989, p.10. Likewise, President Gordon B. Hinckley, said: “‘Reproving betimes with sharpness, [When? While angry or in a fit of temper? No.] when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; [Does the Holy Ghost attend contentious reprovings? No.] and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death’ (D&C 121:43–44).” (“Feed the Spirit, Nourish the Soul,” Ensign, Oct. 1998, p.5).
[xxvi] For the Strength of Youth, p. 17.
[xxvii] Bruce R. McConkie wrote: “ In the gospel view all marriages should be eternal, and divorce should never enter the picture. But since all men–as a result of apostasy and iniquity–are not living (and in their present states cannot live) the full and perfect gospel law, the Lord permits divorce and allows the dissolution of the marriage union. Under the law of Moses, divorce was permitted because the people were not able to live the high gospel standard which would abolish it. (Lev. 21:7, 14; Deut. 24:1‑4.) . . . . Even in the Church today the saints do not abide by the full and perfect law. It is somewhat as it was in the days of Moses; divorce is permitted because of the hardness of the hearts of the people, and the Lord permits his agents to exercise the power to loose as well as the power to bind. Under our circumstances divorced persons who remarry are not always guilty of the crimes they would be if the highest gospel standards were in force. (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine [2nd ed., rev. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966], p.203)
[xxviii] Spencer W. Kimball, Marriage & Divorce (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), p. 19.
[xxix] Gordon B. Hinckley, “A Conversation with Single Adults,” Ensign, Mar. 1997, p. 58
[xxx] Robert H. Mounce, Matthew (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson), p. 48.
[xxxi] Neal A. Maxwell, Men and Women of Christ (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991.), p.9.
[xxxii] John Taylor, The Gospel Kingdom (Edited by G. Homer Durham. 3rd ed. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1944), p.343; Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: John Taylor (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2001) p. 61.
[xxxiii] See Francis W. Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA: Henrickson, 1981), pp.157-158; Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Dover Grove, IL: InterVaristy Press, 1993), pp. 60-61 ;Robert H. Mounce, Matthew, pp. 48-49.
[xxxiv] Boyd K. Packer, “Balm of Gilead,” Ensign, Nov. 1987, pp. 17-18.
[xxxv] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), pp. 129-130.
[xxxvi] Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball (Compiled by Edward L. Kimball. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), p.417.
[xxxvii] Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.103.
[xxxviii] Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young (Compiled by John A. Widtsoe. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), p.272.
[xxxix] Russell M. Nelson, “Perfection Pending,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, p. 86.
[xl] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Ed. by Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Press, 1938), p.348.
[xli] Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1998), pp. 51-54; emphasis added.