Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount

August 30, 2016

by Peter Amsterdam

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

Treasure--Here or There?

The first half of Matthew chapter 6 covered having the right motivation in giving to the needy, praying, and fasting. It also included a lesson on how to pray, with the prayer Jesus taught His disciples. The latter half of the chapter focuses on our relationship to material things and possessions, as well as having the right understanding of our relationship with the Father regarding His care for us.

First, Jesus teaches the right priorities and attitudes about material possessions:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!1

In Palestine in Jesus’ time, people generally kept their valuables (goods or hard currency) in a storage place or a strongbox in their home2 or buried either beneath their floor or elsewhere.3 The wealthy also had fine clothing, which was a form of wealth. Precious metals could corrode or be stolen, moths could damage fine garments, and grain stored in barns could be eaten by rodents. With these examples, Jesus demonstrated how temporary and fleeting earthly possessions truly are; they don’t last or follow us into the life beyond.

This point was also made in the Old Testament:

Do not toil to acquire wealth; be discerning enough to desist. When your eyes light on it, it is gone, for suddenly it sprouts wings, flying like an eagle toward heaven.4 Riches do not last forever; and does a crown endure to all generations?5 There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand.6

Jesus directs us to focus on treasure which is imperishable and eternal, rather than that which has no value to its owners once their earthly lives are finished. I’m reminded of the joke about the rich man who asked God to allow him to bring his wealth to heaven when he died. God agreed, so the man brought a trunk full of gold. When he arrived at the pearly gates, St. Peter asked to look inside the trunk, and seeing the contents, said, “You brought pavement?”7

It’s important to understand what Jesus is censuring when He tells us not to lay up treasure on earth. Let’s start by looking at what He’s not disapproving of. He is not speaking against having possessions. There is no prohibition in Scripture against private ownership. Setting aside savings for “a rainy day” is commended. Scripture praises the ants for setting aside food for the winter,8 and chastises those who don’t provide for their family.9 We’re also told to enjoy the things God has created.10 So having possessions, making provision for the future, and enjoying the gifts God has given us are not what Jesus is speaking against.11

Since we know Jesus is not saying we should not have possessions, what is He taking aim at here? Author John Stott expresses it this way:

What Jesus forbids His followers is the selfish accumulation of goods. (Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth); extravagant and luxurious living; the hardheartedness which does not feel the colossal need of the world’s under-privileged people; the foolish fantasy that a person’s life consists in the abundance of his possessions; and the materialism which tethers our hearts to the earth…In a word, to ‘lay up treasures on earth’ does not mean being provident (making sensible provision for the future), but being covetous (like misers who hoard and materialists who always want more). This is the real snare of which Jesus warns here.12

Jesus is not speaking against material possessions, but the love of possessions, and making the accumulation of them your focus or the source of your joy. Money is not evil, but the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.13 The book of James speaks of wealth in a similar manner:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the work men who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence.14

We are not to make things our treasure, treating them as if they have ultimate importance. Temporal and transient worldly treasure is worth nothing in the life to come. Jesus said to lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. This is a call to develop right priorities. The inference is that we lay up treasure in heaven by living in a manner that is pleasing to God, in alignment with and in obedience to Scripture, glorifying the Father; in short, by belonging to the kingdom of God and living by its priorities. While Jesus didn't specify what heavenly treasure is, we can trust it will surpass any treasure of our earthly life.

Jesus’ statement, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, causes soul searching. What do we truly value? What are our goals, and why do we want to achieve them? There are many things which are perfectly fine to pursue, but if pursued for the wrong reason, are out of alignment with Jesus’ teachings. If they draw us away from the values of the kingdom of God, then they are the wrong treasures. Whatever we truly value in our heart will guide us in the direction of that thing. We will be drawn toward it, consciously and subconsciously. That’s why it’s important that our treasure is heavenly, and that we diligently align our hearts and minds with God’s values. As George Müller once said, “Laying up treasures in heaven will draw the heart heavenward.”

The apostle Paul wrote along similar lines:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.15 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.16

The next section of the sermon is somewhat complex.

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!17

Various Bible commentators give different interpretations of the meaning of these verses, but two have stood out to me, and I'll briefly cover those here. The first has to do with how people at the time understood the function of the eyes. In the ancient world, there were two widespread theories about how humans could see: “intromission” and “extramission.” Intromission taught that the eye allowed light to enter the body, while extramission taught that light was sent out from inside the body. In both views, the eye was considered to be a window through which light either entered the body or was sent out from the body.

In these verses, Jesus was speaking in terms of anatomy as it was understood by the people of His time, and He used the extramission view, of the eye being like a lamp that allows internal light to exit the body, to provide an illustration of how to see the condition of one’s heart. So it can be understood as: the eye is [a window for] the lamp [inside] the body.18 The second sentence compares the eye which is single (KJV), also understood as clear (NAU), good (NIV, NKJV), or healthy (ESV). The Greek word haplous means simple, single, whole, good, fulfilling its purpose.

This first interpretation makes the point that a sound or healthy eye is one from which light emanates; thus there is light within the person, meaning that they have some moral purity. However, if someone is evil, with no moral purity, then they have no light within; they are full of darkness. Scot McKnight explains:

Jesus’ focus is on the inner person: Is it full of light or full of darkness? The use of light versus darkness is a rhetorical way for Jesus to contrast two options in life: a good source (light) versus a bad source (darkness), and the good life of deeds (healthy eye) versus the immoral life of no deeds (unhealthy eye)—in other words, the way of God and the way of evil.19

The second interpretation has nothing to do with light entering or exiting the eye. It is based on a different understanding of a healthy (single) eye and an eye which is bad or evil. In Greek there are cognates of the word haplous, such as haplotēs, which are translated as generous or generously.20 Since there is a comparison made between a healthy (single) eye and an eye which is evil, it’s helpful to understand that an “evil eye” throughout Scripture means someone who is stingy, greedy, envious.21 Contrasting a healthy eye with an evil eye can be understood to be comparing someone who is unselfish with one who is greedy. This second interpretation fits well with the point Jesus was making about our possessions and what we treasure in our hearts.

R. T. France comments:

This rather obscure little saying seems to be using a wordplay22 which the English translator cannot reproduce without extensive paraphrase in order to commend either single-mindedness (in pursuing the values of the kingdom of heaven) or generosity, or more likely both, as a key to the effective life of a disciple.23

Jesus then moved on to speak about not serving two masters.

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.24

In using this illustration, Jesus is echoing the first commandment, which reads You shall have no other gods before me.25 Those who are members of God’s kingdom are called to have right priorities, right spiritual values, to avoid divided loyalties. If we try to divide our loyalties and “serve two masters,” we will hate the one and love the other or will be devoted to the one and despise the other.

In Semitic speech, to “love A and hate B” meant to “prefer A over B.” To hate one of the two alternatives and to love the other simply means that one is strongly preferred over the other, especially if there is any contest between the two. We see this same type of construction when Jesus said:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.26 

Elsewhere, Jesus states that people should honor their parents,27 so clearly He is not advocating hatred of one’s parents; rather He is saying that we are to love our parents, children, siblings, and relatives, but that the love we have for Jesus our Savior should be greater than the love we have for our relatives and even our own lives. The people Jesus was originally speaking to understood this particular word structure to express the need to have one’s priorities straight.28

The Greek word translated as mammon is mamōnas, which means treasure or riches. In various Bibles it’s translated as mammon, money, or wealth. Jesus states that believers cannot serve God and mammon. In saying this, He is making the point that our love, loyalty, and devotion needs to be toward God above our material things. He personifies mammon in this instance and depicts it as a god, and challenges believers to choose between God and mammon. We are to have no other gods before our Creator. We are to put our trust in God; not in our finances, possessions, or anything material.

This doesn’t necessarily mean we renounce all material things or personal possessions, for God has provided for us those things we need. The message Jesus expresses is one of not making the accumulation of money, material things, and wealth our focus; as God is to be our focus, and nothing should compete with our loyalty to Him. There’s nothing wrong with money itself, but it’s wrong to put ourselves under its power and to serve it.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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1 Matthew 6:19–23.

2 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52 NIV).

3 The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up (Matthew 13:44).

I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground (Matthew 25:25).

4 Proverbs 23:4–5.

5 Proverbs 27:24.

6 Ecclesiastes 5:13–14.

7 Revelation 21:21.

8 Proverbs 6:6–8.

9 1 Timothy 5:8.

10 Ecclesiastes 3:13; 1 Timothy 4:4.

11 Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 154–55.

12 Ibid., 155.

13 1 Timothy 6:10 NIV.

14 James 5:1–5 NIV.

15 Colossians 3:1–2.

16 1 Timothy 6:17–19.

17 Matthew 6:22–23.

18 McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 208.

19 Ibid.

20 Romans 12:8; 2 Corinthians 8:2, 9:11; James 1:5.

21 Proverbs 23:6; Proverbs 28:22; Deuteronomy 15:9. In KJV, the words evil eye are used in these verses; in ESV and other translations, the words are translated as stingy, greedy, envious.

22 A cleverly constructed use of words which can be read on two different levels.

23 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 262.

24 Matthew 6:24.

25 Exodus 20:3.

26 Luke 14:26.

27 Mark 7:10.

28 Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World, 86.