I realize now how lazy I've been in my understanding of this verse. In the past I've assumed that the amazement the crowds felt at Jesus' teaching had to do with his bold and authoritative delivery when he preached this sermon. But that can't be right. Jesus has never depended upon an impressive show or a commanding tone to convince people of the truth. Isaiah 53:2 even prophesied of his humble demeanor, that he would have "no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to him." His outward appearance was lowly though inwardly he was the very glory of God, like a clay vessel concealing within it an unspeakably bright light. In that same vein the apostle Paul views impressive oration with contempt when he says, "I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God" (1 Corinthians 2:1). If Paul did not dare to wow the crowds with great oratory skills when preaching the gospel, Jesus couldn't have subscribed to such an approach either.
What amazed the crowds about Jesus' teaching, I believe, was his unapologetic reference to himself as the supreme authority over the things of God. He did not appeal to tradition like the scribes to prop up his words. He appealed to himself. "Do not think I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill." When you think about it, who in their right mind would say such a thing? The Law and the Prophets are the Holy Scriptures delivered to the Jews from on high. Who dares to speak of their right to abolish them, and then reassure us that he will not abolish but instead fulfill them?
"You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . . " Again, who has the audacity to quote Scripture and then add to it by his own authority? Along comes this guy who says, "I know the Scripture says, 'Don't commit murder' but by my authority I tell you don't even be angry with your brother. I know the Scripture says, 'Don't commit adultery' but I tell you by my authority not to even look upon a woman with lust." Imagine your pastor getting up on Sunday and speaking about the Scriptures like that. It's unthinkable.
But Jesus doesn't stop there. As he winds up his sermon he raises the stakes higher than ever. He says about the Day of Judgment, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven . . . I will declare to them, 'I never knew you. Depart from me you who practice lawlessness.'" Notice that Jesus does not ask the crowds to consider how God the Father will judge them on that day. Jesus says that he himself will sit in judgment upon them. Yes, it is true that he is sitting here on the mountaintop appearing to be merely a man, teaching them while they all sit on the grass at his feet. But when the sum of all life and all creation and all time is gathered up to its final end, when everyone who has ever lived and all that they've ever done comes before the divine throne in judgment, it is this same Jesus whom they will face. Each person will be judged solely on whether he or she had a personal relationship with him.
Anyone who dares to say such things is either God come down from heaven or the most egotistical person who has ever lived. His words either stab you straight to the heart or fill you with rage at his blasphemy. Such a person deserves to be either worshipped or killed.
That pretty much explains Jesus' whole life, doesn't it?
Yet these crowds, who might have picked up stones to stone him, knew from listening to him that his authority was true, so frighteningly true their minds were blown. And so Jesus has not shrunk from drawing a line in the sand. It is a defining moment for the rest of his ministry.