God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden, a special place without death or suffering. And yet they sinned, leading to the Curse on all Creation in Genesis 3 and to their being expelled from the Garden.
One aspect of the Curse was the beginning of strife in marriage (Gen 3:16). Of course, the strife between husband and wife proved also to be strife among all people. Not only was our relationship with God corrupted (leading to the Flood and Babel), so were our relationships with each other.
God set about to make things right once again. Indeed, God began his work to make things even better at the End.
God’s plan includes many things, but one of the key elements is his covenant with Abraham to credit him with righteousness because of his faith, to make a great nation out of his descendants, and to bless all nations through him. And this is for the purpose of undoing the Curse.
Through Abraham, God raised up a people called the Israelites. And through them, God claimed Palestine as the Promised Land and built a covenant community committed to his word and worship. And just as he walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, he dwelled with his people in Jerusalem in the temple.
But, once again, God’s chosen people sinned — this time through idolatry — and God sent them into Babylonian exile. But God promsed through his prophets that when they returned from exile, he would give them peace, wealth, and the Land — and he would once again live among them.
In one sense, many Jews returned to the Land under Ezra and Nehemiah, but God did not return to his temple and the promised blessings did not come. Moreover, while some Jews returned, many did not. Thus, by the time of Jesus, the Jews were still anticipating the fulfillment of the promised return from exile.
The coming of the promised Messiah would surely come with the dawn of the promised Kingdom of God, and the good news that God’s Son sits upon the throne of David would be proclaimed.
At this time,
(Isa 2:4) He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
(Isa 11:1-12) A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him– the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD– 3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. 7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious. 11 In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea. 12 He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.
But it didn’t happen. For 450 years after the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Messiah did not arrive and wars continued just as before.
Finally, Jesus of Nazareth appeared in Galilee, announcing the good news of the kingdom of God — the new age was dawning when God’s promises would come true!
But — and this is a big “but” — but the coming of the kingdom would take some time, because there had to be a period of mission activity to call the nations into the kingdom. And missionary activity would inevitably be challenged with persecution.
Nonetheless, God’s kingdom would be planted on the earth and God would begin the work of undoing the Curse — though the Messiah and through the body of his Messiah, the church — the new temple where God would live through his Spirit.
And, therefore, we see Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, teaching his people how to live so as to undo the pain caused by the Curse. The Curse would not be totally gone until Jesus returns, but until then, Jesus wants his people to live in a way that begins to reverse the Curse.
This means restoring relationships with God and among God’s people and even with the enemies of God’s people. And so it’s not surprising that the Sermon on the Mount is all about how to live in the Kingdom. Jesus doesn’t announce a new order of worship or form of church organization or church name. No, he talks about how to get along. We are surprised that Jesus aims so low, and Jesus is surprised that we consider getting along unimportant — so unimportant that we aren’t very good at it.
We often see the Sermon on the Mount as imposing this impossibly high ethic, an ethic designed to show how impossible it is to earn our salvation. But that’s not Jesus’ point. Rather, he’s giving us an instruction manual on how to live in Eden — how to walk side by side with one another and with God in our midst. And he actually means for us to do it. Church — the assembled citizens of the Kingdom of God — isn’t about going to heaven. It’s about returning to Eden — where we will live forever with our fellow Christians.
And if we don’t enjoy being with each other today, why do we think we’ll enjoy life together eternally?
Now, the Sermon is also about getting along with those outside the church. Why? Well, you see, there’s this long period of missionary activity that precedes Eden in its fullness. We only get a taste of it now. The fullness comes later. And if we are unloving to those outside the church, we’re not going to be very effective missionaries and we aren’t going to be much like God.
Thus, we are on a mission, sent by God not only to extend the borders of the Kingdom, but to make the Kingdom a place that’s so attractive extending the borders is easy.
(If this concept of returning to Eden is foreign to you, you might take a look at the Surprised by Hope series.)