At least since the fourth century, people have recorded experiences in which they have felt as though they had lived through a particular moment before. In the 1800s, this was given the name déjà vu. Although research has found no clear cause of déjà vu, it is a widely reported phenomenon. Studies have found that 60 to 70 percent of healthy people experience it.
For those in Jesus’ day, as for today’s readers of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount may have occasioned déjà vu. A leader called out of Egypt (2:15) and destined to save his people (1:21) takes his place on a mountainside (5:1) and proclaims God’s will for how people of faith are to live. All this describes not only Jesus but also Moses, Israel’s most prominent teacher. Most memorably, Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, which he then proclaimed to God’s people (see Exodus 34).
Jesus takes up Moses’ mantle in Matthew’s Gospel, which features five extended teaching sections (chapters 5–7, 10, 13, 18, and 23–25), much as the Old Testament begins with five books attributed to Moses.
Yet not everything is exactly the same. Jesus quotes from the Law of Moses: the commandments that prohibit murder (v. 21) and adultery (v. 27), and direct us to love our neighbors (v. 43). But He intensifies the commandments. It is not enough to refrain from murder; we must stifle our anger (v. 22). Not only must we avoid adultery, we must restrain our lust (v. 28). We must love not only our neighbors but also our enemies (v. 44). Only by doing so can we “be perfect” as our “heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).
Jesus’ teachings in this section are exceptionally rigorous. Many Christians have wondered whether it would be possible for anyone to fulfill them completely. If you feel despair at your inability to measure up, remember that Jesus teaches not only that God calls us to a high standard of living but also forgives us when we fall short.