Millions of sermons have been preached since the days of Jesus, but only one of them could be known as “The Sermon.” Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) is probably the most well-known of all the teachings of Jesus. The Sermon isn’t just counter-culture—sadly, in some ways, it’s counter-Christian culture. And that’s putting it mildly. In this initial post on the Sermon (7 are planned overall), we present the scenic vista—an overview of its context and content, along with a sketch of important ways it has been understood through the centuries.
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Go here for a teaching video that accompanies the content of this post. I admire youtube channels that present well edited and produced videos on various topics. Please realize that my video is just an unedited study group session. You’ll get the meat and potatoes without gourmet sauces and an elegant table setting.
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How does the Sermon fit into Matthew?
The Sermon is the first of five major teachings or discourses of Jesus featured in Matthew. Matthew presents his narrative of Jesus by alternating between what Jesus did and what Jesus taught (cf. Acts 1:1). Much of this teaching is found only in Matthew. It seems clear that Matthew features these teachings to prepare the church to carry out Jesus’ commission to teach the nations to obey everything He has taught (Matt 28:20).
- The Values of the Kingdom (Matt 5:1-7:28)
- The Mission of the Kingdom (Matt 10:1-42)
- The Response to the Kingdom (Matt 13:1-52)
- The Community of the Kingdom (Matt 18:1-35)
- The Future of the Kingdom (Matt 24:1-25:46
As shown above, Matthew 4:23-25 and 9:35-36 provide bookends for Jesus’ early ministry in Galilee. These nearly identical summaries frame Jesus’ teaching (Matt 5-7) and Jesus’ actions (Matt 8-9) in his Galilean ministry. Jesus’ teaching and his actions alike both demonstrate Jesus’ authority as God’s son, the agent of God’s kingdom.
How Does the Sermon Fit Together?
As shown above, the Sermon begins with the Beatitudes, a series of blessings on those who have turned to Jesus as their King (5:3-16). Such Jewish followers would need to understand how Jesus and his rule relate to Israel’s law-giver Moses and the instruction God gave Israel through Moses. Accordingly, two references to the Law and Prophets provide bookends for the main body of the Sermon (5:17-7:12). Jesus has come to fulfill Moses’ instructions, as six examples demonstrate (5:17-48). Fulfilling the Law means performing one’s religious duties, especially prayer, with one’s mind set on God’s approval, not on the crowd’s applause (6:1-18). Commitment to Jesus as Lord is incompatible with greed and anxiety over one’s possessions (6:19-34). Spiritual wisdom is also necessary—Jesus followers must not be the judgmental or gullible (7:1-6). A brief postscript on prayer concludes the main body of the Sermon (7:7-11; cf. 6:5-15), followed by the “Golden Rule” as the heart of the whole teaching of Moses (7:12). The Sermon concludes with three stark warnings that challenge Jesus’ hearers to obedience. His followers must take the narrow path, pick the good fruit, and build on bedrock.
How Should we Understand the Sermon?
The Sermon has been understood in different ways during church history, but the Anabaptists have taken it most seriously as the center of their faith. “Anabaptists” were people who were “baptized again” during the reformation era as they turned from established state-sponsored churches and joined separatist believers’-church communities. Menno Simons (1496-1561) was the most important early teacher of such communities. Their earliest formal doctrinal statement was the Dordrecht Confession of 1632. The many branches of the Mennonite church today all look to Simons as their seminal teacher, as do other “peace church” denominations that practice pacifism or non-resistance. Such believers view their participation in God’s kingdom as separate from their participation in human government and civic affairs. Accordingly, they typically decline to serve in the military and to take an oath in court proceedings. Their concern for violating Christ’s laws leads them in some cases to refrain from voting, holding public office, or even pledging allegiance to the flag. Yet they are loyal to civil authorities as long as such loyalty does not violate their view of loyalty to Christ.
Others have interpreted the Sermon in ways far different from the Mennonite view that places it at the center of the Christian life. Lutherans historically have taken the Sermon in terms of a theological contrast between Law and Gospel. In this view the Sermon commands an ethic impossible to attain (Law) in order to draw people in repentance to the cross (Gospel). Calvin’s “third and principle use of the law” (Institutes, 2.7.12) as a guide to believers diverged from Luther’s strictly negative view of biblical law. In the Lutheran view the Sermon is rough patch of road one must travel on their trip to the the Gospel of John and the Pauline letters to find grace.
Another very different approach to the Sermon takes it as an ethic only for a very specific time, not one for today. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) famously took the Sermon as an Interimsethik to guide Jesus’ early followers during the short time before the world would end. Surprisingly similar is the view of classical Dispensationalism which viewed the Sermon as akin to Old Testament law that is meant for the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, or the future time of tribulation, or for the millennium, but not for followers of Jesus today.
Martin Luther, Albert Schweitzer, and dispensationalists—strange bedfellows indeed! In contrast to these misunderstandings, the most common view of the Sermon is quite similar to the Mennonite view: the Sermon presents the way of life Jesus intended for his disciples, then, now, and until he returns. In taking the sermon as a personal ethic, this view differs from the more socially- and civically-focused approach of the Mennonites. For example, in this view Christ’s instruction to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39) is viewed as forbidding a Christian to respond violently to a personal attack, not as forbidding military service. Similarly, the instruction about oaths (5:33-37) is taken as enjoining verbal integrity in daily life, not necessarily as forbidding an oath in a legal proceeding. Underlying such differences is a differing view of the role of Christ’s kingdom in the world. It is not understood as separate from the governments of this world but as engaged in transforming them.
The Sermon on the Mount is one of those passages of Scripture that bothers us more because we do understand it than because we don’t. There are important historic differences in how it has been understood, but its counter-cultural message is clear to all of us. And the message isn’t just counter-culture—sadly, in some ways, it’s counter-Christian culture. If this introduction to the Sermon raises questions in your mind, please leave a comment or a question below.
In this series we plan seven posts that will engage the Sermon section by section, starting next time with the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-10). In the meantime, we recommend you read the Sermon through at one sitting as many times as possible. Using the notes and helps found in a standard study Bible (e.g. ESV, NIV, NLT) is very helpful. Years ago John Stott wrote a very practical and pastorally helpful book on the Sermon called Christian Counter-Culture. Now it’s available under the title The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. If you’d like a deeper dive, try the recent study by Jonathan Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing.
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God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.
You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless.
You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. (Matt 5:11-16 NLT)