Many times people have a tendency to treat the scriptures as though it were a book of sayings rather than as a compilation of historical records or a collection of sermons. Far too often people tend to quote verses of scripture such as "God is a Spirit," (John 3:24) "By grace are we saved," (Ephesians 2:8) "ye must be born again," (John 3:5) or "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead if the dead rise not at all" (1 Cor. 15:29) without properly understanding its intended meaning. But anytime something is taken out of the context in which it was made it becomes very easy to make it say something different than what its author meant. This is known as twisting the scriptures and is one of the major reasons why there are tens of thousands of different Christian denominations in the world today.
However, having said that, there are exceptions to every rule and that applies to this rule as well. One such exception is that there are some scriptural verses that don't need to be put in context in order to understand their intended meaning, such as "God is love (1 John 4:8),"Recompense to no man evil for evil" (Romans 12:17), "Children obey your parents" (Ephesians 6:1) and "Jesus is the Christ" (John 20:31). These are what can truly be called "sayings." However, of the 7,959 verses found in the Bible, very few of them fit into this category and, in many cases, reading even these in context will help give us a deeper understanding of their meaning.
The second exception to this rule is that there are times when a different meaning to a scripture other than the one intended is still just as appropriate. For example, when Paul says that we are "saved by grace," he is specifically referring to us being saved from the punishment of our sins. However, it is just as true that we are also saved from all sorts of earthly problems and difficulties because of God's grace. Even though that is not the point Paul was making with this statement, we can nonetheless use it to draw a parallel or make a comparison between our eternal salvation and our earthly salvation. But when doing this we have to be careful because it is all too easy to make an inaccurate comparison, which, unfortunately, happens much of the time.
The safest way to properly understand the doctrines of eternal life is to "search the scriptures." Rather than focusing all of our attention on just a particular verse we need to understand the context in which that verse is being used. To do this we need to ask ourselves WHY is the writer making this statement? What is the point he is trying to make? What is it that prompted him to make the statement we're reading? But, instead of searching for the meaning of the scriptures, unfortunately, there are too many instances where people don't even quote the entire sentence. An example of this is when people say, "God is a Spirit." That is only one half of a sentence. To leave off the second half distorts its meaning even more.
To illustrate the problem this creates, suppose someone said, "I hate eating food that has gone bad." If someone only quotes the first half of that sentence without ever mentioning the second half, then it appears as though this person is saying they hate to eat any kind of food. While we all understand this principle, yet this is what many people do when quoting the scriptures. When we focus on just a particular verse or part of a verse without searching the scriptures to determine why the author made that specific comment we can't help but come to a wrong conclusion of what the scriptures teach. (For more illustrations of this principle read, "Filthy Rags," , "The Romans," , and "An Angel of Light"
Perhaps one of the most frequent instances of taking things out of context is when people quote sayings from Christ's sermon on the mount. And the reason for this is because they don't have a clear knowledge of who Jesus is talking to and therefore don't have a proper understanding of the point He was trying to impress upon them. But without this understanding it becomes all too easy to misinterpret His message and teach incorrect doctrine.
With this sermon in particular, part of our misunderstanding comes from the fact that we have two slightly different versions of it - one in the gospel of Matthew and the other in the gospel of Luke. Therefore, it might be helpful to first reconcile these two accounts.
In both accounts we read how Jesus went into the wilderness after His baptism and was subsequently tempted by the devil (Matthew 3:13-4:11; Luke 4:1-13). Both accounts also say that after His forty-day fast, Jesus went to Galilee. Matthew's account simply says "And leaving Nazareth (which is in Galilee) he came and dwelt in Capernacum" (which is another town in Galilee, northeast of Nazareth, situated on the coast of the Sea of Galilee) (4:13) however Luke's account gives us an expanded version of events of why He left Nazareth.. He tells us that while Jesus was in Nazareth on the Sabbath, He went into the synagogue and read a prophesy from Isaiah, then told the people that this had been fulfilled in their ears. The people became incensed by his remarks and tried to kill him. Therefore, he left Nazareth and went to live in Capernacum (4:16-32).
Matthew simply tells us "From that time Jesus began to preach and say Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (4:17). However, Luke's account again gives us a much more detailed account of what Jesus said and did in Capernacum including how he cast a devil out of someone and healed others (4:31-41). It was because of these miracles that His fame spread throughout the region and people came from as far north as Syria and as far south as Jerusalem to see and hear Him as well as to be healed by Him. (Matthew 4:24; Luke 4:37).
Luke tells us that when Jesus started to leave the town of Capernacum the people wanted Him to stay but he told them "I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities… in the synagogues of Galilee" (4:42-44). He then went south along the Sea of Galilee and came to a place called Gennesaret, which is part of the Sea of Galilee. However, a multitude of people had followed Him and when He saw Simon Peter's boat, He got in, had him cast off just a little, and then preached to the multitudes from the boat. (5:1-3).
After that He had Simon go out into the lake and cast his net which filled with so many fish that the net broke. Simon then called his two fishing partners, John and James and had them help him with the fish. When they got back to shore, Luke tells us that these three men - Peter, John, and James - "forsook all and follow him (Jesus)." (5:4-11).
Matthew's account tells a slightly different version of this event. He states that after Jesus left Capernacum, as He was walking along the Sea of Galilee He saw Simon Peter and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea and told them to come follow him, which they straightway did. Then, walking a little further He saw John and James in a ship with their father, casting their nets and told them to come follow him, which they immediately did (4:18-22).
From there, Matthew's account simply states that "Jesus went about all Galilee teaching in their synagogues," (4:23) while Luke's account gives us considerable detail of what Jesus said and did during that time (5:12-6:11). Then Luke makes a short but very significant remark that is not found in Matthew's account. He wrote, "And it came to pass in those days that he (Jesus) went out into a mountain to pray and continued all night in prayer to God. And when it was day he called unto him his disciples and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles" (6:12-13).
By this time many people had come to believe in Jesus and followed Him as He went from town to town preaching the gospel. These believers were, what is referred to in the scriptures as, "disciples." Luke tells us that one particular day Jesus went up into a nearby mountain and spent all night in prayer. When it was morning, He called all of His disciples together (how many of them there were we aren't told) and from among them He chose twelve specific men to be called apostles. The fact that He did this immediately after spending all night in prayer strongly suggests that during the night He had been instructed by God, His Father, to take this next step in the organization of the church. Thus, the apostles were not called to this position by Jesus, but by the Father Himself. Jesus was merely the messenger who relayed to His disciples what God had told Him.
Then we see another discrepancy between Matthew's account and Luke's. Matthew states that when Jesus saw the multitude of people, He went up into a mountain and called His disciples unto Him and presented to them the sermon which He gave on the mount (5:1-2). However, Luke states that after Jesus had called the twelve, He came down from the mountain onto the plains in the company of His disciples. There he saw a multitude of people who wanted to be healed and did heal many of them (6:17-19). But then Luke wrote, "And he (Jesus) lifted up his eyes on his disciples and said…" (6:20, emphasis added.) and then gave them the same sermon we find recorded in Matthew. Interestingly, Matthew gives us much more of what Jesus said in this sermon (Matthew 5:3-7:29) than Luke does (Luke 6:21-49).
Whether Jesus gave this sermon on the mountain away from the multitudes or down on the plain where the multitudes were, both versions of this account clearly state that what Jesus had to say was meant for His disciples, not the multitude of ordinary people. That is critical to know if we are to have a proper understanding of what Jesus taught that day.
The reason why Jesus called twelve men to be apostles was because He was about to start a new phase of missionary work. Up until then He had been the only one preaching the gospel but now He was about to prepare others to go out and spread the message.
Galilee was not a wealthy, prosperous region of Israel. In fact, the people who lived there were poor, meek, simple farmers and fishermen. However they were devotedly religious and had a yearning for the word of God, which is why so many of them followed Christ and eagerly accepted His message. Many of them had been followers (disciples) of John the Baptist and, because of their belief in his words, were prepared to receive what Jesus had to teach.
But now they were about to go from being the student to the teacher. Since these weren't highly educated people of the world they must have wondered how they could ever be able to teach the good news and have others believe and accept their message. The sermon Jesus gave them that day was meant to instruct them on their new responsibilities. We refer to this sermon as the "beatitudes" which means "beautiful attitude" and that was one of the things Jesus tried to teach them - how to have a different, more beautiful attitude. That was essential for them to learn if they were going to be successful in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus told them that they shouldn't be concerned that they were poor because they would inherit the riches of the kingdom of heaven. Because of their poverty their life was often one of suffering and mourning but Jesus told them that they would be comforted. Jesus told them that if they continued to hunger and thirst for the things of righteousness they would become filled with the knowledge of God.
Among the devote Jews, many of them had a hatred for Rome and its pagan ways and sought to rid their country of this heathen idolatry. There was one group in particular known as the Zealots who were, what we would call today, guerrilla fighters, insurrectionists, or insurgents. Jesus told His followers not to be like that. He said they would be blessed if they were peacemakers because that's the way the children of God are to behave.
Since He was about to send them out to teach the gospel, He warned them that they would be persecuted, reviled and have all manner of evil and false things said about them but they shouldn't be bothered by that. He explained that since this is what had happened to all the prophets then they should expect to suffer the same fate. But He counseled them to rejoice because their reward in heaven would be great.
He reminded them that they were the salt of the earth, therefore they should not be ashamed to spread the good news to others. Jesus was the light of the world and He instructed them that they should not hide their testimony of that light but instead let their light or knowledge of the gospel so shine that others would be drawn to God and glorify Him.
Then He explained that His message was not meant to do away with the Law of Moses or to replace it but rather to establish it and have it fulfilled. In fact, he said that whoever taught someone to break even the least of these commandments would end up being the least or have the lowest rank of authority in the kingdom of God. He went on to explain that what makes someone great in the eyes of God is teaching people to keep the law.
However, He said that they were not to keep the law the way the Pharisees did. Those teachers went around acting self-righteous but didn't follow the law themselves. This was not the attitude Jesus wanted His disciples to have. That's why He told them that unless their righteousness was greater than that of the Pharisees they could not hope to enter into the kingdom of heaven and then He went on to explain what He meant by this.
He said, in effect, "I know that the law of Moses declares that thou shalt not kill and there are teachers of the law who say that if you do kill then on judgment day you will be in danger of being cast into hell but there's more to living righteously than following the letter of the law. I tell you that whoever is even angry with his brother without a cause shall also be in danger on judgment day. More than that, if you have contempt for your brother or should call him insulting names you will still be in danger of going into hell's fire.
"For this reason, if you are on your way to the temple to offer up your gifts to God and remember that your brother is angry at you, leave your gift and go make up with him while you still can so the adversary will not have the power to deliver your soul to prison because if that happens you will not come out until you have paid the full penalty of your sins.
"The law of Moses says that you should not commit adultery but I expect my followers to live by a higher standard. If you even look upon a woman and lust after her then you have committed adultery in your heart. Do whatever it takes to keep this from happening because it is better to enter into heaven crippled than going into hell whole.
"The law of Moses says that whoever wants to divorce their wife must first put it in writing, but I expect better behavior from my disciples. Anyone who divorces their wife, except if she has committed adultery, is actually causing her to go out and commit adultery, especially if she remarries.
"You have heard the teachers of the law say that you should not swear an oath except it be upon God but what they teach is not correct. You shouldn't swear an oath upon anything that is holy, not on heaven because it is God's throne nor upon the earth because it is his footstool.
"The law of Moses says that you are allowed to take an eye for an eye but my disciples should show forth a different attitude. Rather than extracting vengeance, you should show patience and forgiveness. Whoever hits you on the left cheek, don't retaliate but let him hit you on the right cheek if he so desires. If someone takes you to court and sues you for you coat, don't seek revenge even if he seeks to take away your cloak as well. Whoever asks to borrow something from you, don't refuse his request and if someone forces you to go one mile with him, be willing to go two miles. This is the way children of God should behave.
"The Pharisees teach that you should love your neighbor but hate your enemy. That's not the way followers of Christ should behave. You should love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who are spiteful and persecute you. This is how you become children of God. And the reason why you should behave this way is because God loves everyone, as evidenced by the fact that he causes the sun to shine on both the wicked as well as the righteous. If you love only those who love you what good does that do you? Don't even the wicked behave that way? If you are to be different from them then you should behave yourselves as your Father in heaven does.
"When you give an offering to God don't be like the Pharisees who make a great show of it in front of everyone. Rather, do it secretly. God will see your offering and will openly reward you for it. And the same applies to praying. Don't make a big show of it, standing out on the street corner where everyone will see you like the Pharisees do, but rather, when you pray, do it in secret. And when you pray, don't use vain words and repetitive phrases. The Pharisees teach that God is pleased with this kind of prayer but I tell you He is not.
"Instead, when you pray, address it to your Father in heaven and reverence His holy name. Ask that His will be done on earth just as it is done in heaven. Ask Him to provide you with what you need for food and ask Him to forgive those who have wronged you, just as you want God to forgive you of your sins because if you forgive others of their sins, then God will forgive you of yours.
"And what I told you about giving offerings and praying also applies to fasting. Don't make a big show of it. Instead, when you fast wash your face and go around smiling so no one but your Father in heaven knows you are fasting. This is the way a disciple of Christ should behave.
"I am going to send you out to preach my gospel but don't concern yourself about how you are going to provide for yourself and for your family while you do this. Instead of being interested in storing up earthly treasures be more concerned about doing those things that will store up treasures for you in heaven where it will not rust or decay nor where anyone can steal it from you. Remember, you can't serve two masters so you must decide whether you will serve God and seek to do His will or whether you will seek for the things of this world and serve your own desires.
"Therefore, as you go out to proclaim the gospel, don't worry about what you shall eat or drink, or wear. There's more to life than these things. Look at the birds. Do you see them storing up grain into barns? Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more precious in His sight than they are? Look at the flowers in the field. You don't see them working hard, toiling by the sweat of their brow, and yet look how magnificently God has clothed them. Not even Solomon in all of his riches was dressed more beautifully. And if God would do this for something that tomorrow will become food for animals, how much more do you think He will clothe you?
"So, when you go out doing your missionary labors, don't worry about what you are going to eat, drink, or wear. This is the way those of little faith behave. Have faith in your Father in heaven. He knows what you need and will provide all these things for you. (Note: Later, when Jesus finally did send His disciples out to preach the gospel, He again gave them this same instruction - see Luke 9:1-6) But you must first seek to establish His righteousness and then He will provide all that you need."
"And how do you establish His righteousness? For one, don't go around judging and condemning people. This is what the Pharisees do. When you judge others God will judge you according to the same standard you used. So beware because what you do to others will come back and be done to you likewise. And what right do you have for condemning someone else? Are you perfect? When you point out someone else's faults, beware because you may have even greater sins. Don't be a hypocrite. Worry about getting rid of your own faults and then you will be able to more righteously judge the faults of others.
"When you go out to preach my gospel, be careful what you share with others. Don't give that which is holy to those who are wicked. They will not value or appreciate what you tell them but, instead, they will only make fun of it. As you go forth, ask God, your Father, for what you need and He will supply it because everyone who asks shall receive. If you don't believe me, then look at the way fathers here on earth behave. What father who has a son who asks for bread would give him a stone or if he asks for a fish would give him a snake? If earthly fathers, who are imperfect, know how to give good things to their children, then how much more will a perfect heavenly Father give good things to His children?
"As you go forth, don't exhibit the kind of attitude that the Pharisees have. Treat people the way you would want to be treated. This is what the law and the prophets have taught. Strictly keep the commandments because this is the path that leads to eternal life. It may seem narrow and restrictive and there are many people who have chosen to take a broader view of the law so they can justify doing things that the law doesn't permit but they are on the speedy path to destruction. Even though they say they want to enter into the kingdom of God, they will not find it by taking such a path.
"In your travels you will come across those who claim to be a prophet of God but beware because some will be false teachers. (Jesus wasn't the only person during that time who claimed his message was from God. There were many such people.) The way you will be able to tell if they are truly from God is by their fruits. Do you find thorns among grapes or do you find thistles among figs? Of course not, and so it is with those who say they speak for God. A godly man can only produce godly fruit. A corrupt man cannot do this. Just because someone claims to believe in me or prophesies in my name or even casts out devils and does many wonderful things in my name doesn't mean they will enter into the kingdom of heaven. In fact I will have nothing to do with them. Then who can enter the kingdom of heaven? Only those do the will of my Father.
"I have now told you what you must do to become children of God and the attitude you must have to receive eternal life. If you do what I have said you will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock that withstood the rains, floods, and strong winds that beat upon it. But if you do not follow my words then you will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand. And when the rains, floods, and strong winds come you will not be able to withstand them and great will be your fall."
When Jesus had finished telling His disciples these things they were astonished by His doctrine because He taught them with great authority.
There are many quotable quotes in these 111 verses of scriptures that people have used to justify various doctrines of belief. Some of their interpretations are valid and some of them are not but it isn't until we put them in the context of their historical background that we get a proper understanding of what Christ was actually trying to tell us when He gave His sermon on the mount.