The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most important passages in Scripture, especially since it is a profound and unique body of teaching from the Messiah himself. Yet throughout church history, believers have found it difficult to agree on what this sermon means and how it is to be applied. In this introduction, I’ll contrast the different approaches to the Sermon on the Mount and explain which approach I take.
Matthew 1-4 contain introductory material to Matthew’s gospel.
- In Matthew 1, Matthew gave us the genealogy of Jesus, explaining that Jesus is a son of Abraham and a son of David.
- In Matthew 1-2, Matthew told us the story of Jesus’ birth and upbringing from Joseph’s perspective.
- In Matthew 3, Matthew told us the of the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus.
- In Matthew 4, Matthew told us about the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.
- Matthew gives us a narrative introduction (Mt 4:12-22) and a summary statement (Mt 4:23-25) before the sermon on the mount.
- Matthew repeats this pattern in his gospel (e.g. he gives us another narrative section in chapters 8-9, followed by another discourse in chapters 10-11).
Throughout church history, believers have found it difficult to agree on what the Sermon on the Mount means and how it is to be applied to our lives.
- The Sermon on the Mount doesn’t appear to contain much gospel. It doesn’t mention the cross, the resurrection or justification by faith.
- Instead the Sermon appears to spell out rather unattainable laws (e.g. Matt 5:13; Matt 5:20; Matt 5:28-28; Matt 5:48; Matt 6:15; Matt 7:1; Matt 7:14; Matt 7:21-23).
- Some see the Sermon on the Mount as teaching a new social ethic.
- Some see the Sermon on the Mount as a correction to the Old Testament law.
- Classic dispensationalism believes that God divided history into distinct periods (dispensations). They believe the Sermon on the Mount is pure law and was not intended for those in the age of grace following the ascension. It was intended for Jews in a different dispensation.
- Martin Luther agrees that the Sermon on the Mount is pure law, but he argues it is meant to drive us to despair. When we read it, we realize we can never be the kind of people Jesus describes which drives us on to seek the grace and mercy of God. This is a very popular perspective.
My perspective is:
- The Sermon on the Mount is intended for everyone.
- The Sermon on the Mount is not an impossible set of laws we must keep.
- The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is not to drive us to despair.
- The Sermon on the Mount is perfectly consistent with the Old Testament and the gospel.
- Jesus is speaking to 1st Century Jews whose theology has been shaped by the teaching of the Pharisees.
- Jesus is correcting the Pharisaical understanding of what godliness looks like.
- The Sermon on the Mount deals with a central issue of theology: Who will inherit eternal life and what characterizes the heart of the child of God?
23And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. 5:1Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: – Matthew 4:23-5:2
- Jesus has been in public ministry long enough that his reputation is spreading throughout the region.
- Large crowds are coming to hear him and be healed.
- In addition to the crowds, Jesus is speaking to his disciples: those who follow him with the intent of learning from him.
- Jesus sits down on a high place to give a large body of teaching. His disciples (students) gather around him and outside the circle of his students is a large crowd.
Relationship to Luke 6
Is the Sermon on the Mount the same as the Sermon on the plain in Luke 6?
- Compare Sermon on the Mount to the Sermon on the Plain.
- Matthew and Luke could be reporting the same event. Or they could be reporting different events where Jesus gave the same sermon, the way a politician repeats a campaign speech in different cities.
- I think Matthew & Luke are recording the same body of teaching.
- This body of teaching is representative of the kind of teaching Jesus did in his early ministry.
- Luke’s sermon is described as being on the “plain”. That could mean: 1) a long flat stretch of land; 2) level ground as opposed to difficult terrain. Jesus could be on the level ground (plain) at the top of a hill (mount). Or Jesus could be at the top of a hill (mount) overlooking a flat field (plain). The geographical detail alone is not enough to decide these are separate events.
- Both Matthew & Luke introduce the sermon by talking of the large crowds gathering for healing. Both mention the disciples as distinct from the crowds.
- Both start with the beatitudes.
- Both end with the saying that those who heed his words are like those who build on the rock.
- In between Luke and Matthew have the same 3 sections in the same order.
- Luke has a lot less detail than Matthew.
- I think we can use Luke’s sermon to help us understand Matthew and vice versa.
As a bible student, I’ve reached 2 conclusions about how to approach the teaching of Jesus. I offer them as a lesson in how to study the Bible, but also so you know how I’m going to approach the Sermon on the Mount.
- Jesus often speaks cryptically on purpose. Jesus intends us to stop and think: what exactly does that mean?
- Jesus makes categorical, “black & white” statements that are intended to stand for the bigger process of growth and maturity in the faith.
For example, Jesus said, he would deny anyone who denies him (Matthew 10:32-33). The Apostle Peter denied Christ (Mark 14:66-72). Yet Jesus did not deny Peter. Peter’s denial was just one step on the journey of faith. Ultimately we know Peter did confess Jesus and was willing to be martyred rather than betray him.
It is NOT the case the believers will consistently keep the commandments of Jesus perfectly and courageously. But if we love him, we will ultimately choose to follow him and our lives will show it.