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Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

“The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed. It is the nearest thing to a manifesto that he ever uttered, for it is his own description of what he wanted his followers to be and to do” (John Stott).

Introductory comments:

Whereas Stott’s words are in large measure true, I’m not sure about the Sermon being the “best-known” part of the teaching of Jesus. Not long ago I read a Gallup poll which indicates that less than half of the people in America know that it was Jesus who preached it. Even more startling was the revelation that some actually think the Sermon on the Mount was a message preached by a man on horseback!

There is also a sense in which the title “Sermon on the Mount” is a misnomer, for this is hardly what we would normally think of as a full-fledged “sermon”. These three chapters in Matthew’s gospel take only about 10 minutes to read, and it is highly unlikely that Jesus withdrew into the hills, attracted a crowd, and then spoke for only 10 minutes! Thus, what we have here is most likely a condensed report of what must have been a long session of instruction.

The various interpretative approaches to the Sermon on the Mount include the following:

(1)            Theological Liberalism

According to the liberal, the Sermon is a blueprint for the reorganization of society, a code of ethics in conformity with which both individuals and nations must live if they hope to bring in the kingdom of God on earth. Thus the Sermon, addressed to the world at large, is a clarion call for human goodness, self-sacrifice, and the humane treatment of each man by all other men. But, as D. A. Carson has noted,

“liberalism overlooked the fact that human nature requires forgiveness and help. Fed by an optimistic faith in the inevitability of evolutionary development, liberalism actually displaced the real gospel with a secular philosophy of progress. Quite unaware of the subjectivity of its choices, it selected those parts of biblical revelation conducive to its spirit and theory and rejected the rest. The result provided man with no Savior, no Redeemer, no divine grace, no empowering Spirit; but only a lovely pattern which men subsequently learned they were not able to copy on their own strength” (153).

(2)       Roman Catholicism

According to Rome, the Sermon is likewise a blueprint, but for individual salvation, not society. It sets before us the conditions of eternal life, the stipulations for justification. The obedience called for in the Sermon, therefore, is to be understood as that which God requires if we are to merit the grace of salvation. To be sure, conduct is declared necessary for entrance into the Kingdom (cf. 5:20; 7:13-14,21-23,24-27), but “the conduct demanded represents the ‘good fruit’ of discipleship, not the basis for or the means to achieving discipleship. . . . Therefore, a life devoid of the conduct demanded reveals a life devoid of any evidence of the new age, the presence of the Kingdom, and such a life results in exclusion from the future Kingdom regardless of one’s claims and actions (7:21-23)” (Guelich, 31).

(3)            Lutheranism

At the opposite end of the theological spectrum and interpretation of the Sermon is the view of many Lutherans. According to them, “the Sermon is an impossibly high ideal designed to make men aware of their sin and turn to Christ for forgiveness. The sermon, then, is essentially a preparation [emphasis mine] for the gospel” (Carson, 153). Thus, on this view, we are to be concerned with the grace of God to which the Sermon drives us as we despair of ever fulfilling its demands. That is to say, the Sermon is an exposition of law designed to drive us to cry for grace. In response, I agree with Carson who says that “the Sermon on the Mount does indeed drive men and women to a sober recognition of their sin and a realistic understanding of their need for grace. But the Sermon does more than that. It portrays the pattern of conduct under kingdom authority, a pattern that demands conformity now, even if perfection will not be achieved until the kingdom’s consummation” (154).

(4)            Anabaptist

According to this view, whereas the Sermon is not a means to salvation, it is to be rigidly and literally obeyed. Anabaptists have traditionally demanded a life of absolute pacifism, both personally and on a national scale, the refusal to take any oath (whether in court or the pledge of allegiance to a national flag), the strict separation of church and state, etc. What Jesus says about judging others in 7:1ff. was taken by the Anabaptists as precluding all believers from serving in a court or holding public office.

Martin Luther wrote scornfully about one alleged Anabaptist application of the Sermon. He referred to a Christian man who let lice nibble on him because he would not kill the vermin and thus risk disobeying the command “Resist not evil”!

(5)            Interim Ethic

This view was popularized by Albert Schweitzer. He contended that the Sermon is, in a manner of speaking, martial law. Jesus gave these radical stipulations because he believed the consummation of the age was at hand. The Sermon was to be followed by his disciples during the short period preceding the end of the world (i.e., during the interim). The total commitment and seemingly superhuman righteousness called for in the Sermon are due to the urgency of the approaching apocalypse. But since, according to Schweitzer (and others), Jesus was obviously “mistaken” about the end of the age, these extreme measures are inapplicable to subsequent generations. Our conduct is not controlled by the urgency of the imminency of the end of history and therefore we cannot be expected to lead that particular form of extreme existence called for in the Sermon.

(6)            Dispensationalism

There are a variety of perspectives in Dispensationalism, depending on the form of the latter which one embraces.

(a) The more radical view comes from classical dispensationalism, in which it is argued that the Sermon is not gospel but pertains to life in the millennial kingdom subsequent to the second coming of Christ. As one dispensationalist put it, “this Sermon cannot be taken in its plain import and be applied to Christians universally. . . . It has been tried in spots, but . . . it has always been like planting a beautiful flower in stony ground or in a dry and withering atmosphere” (I. M. Haldeman, The Kingdom of God, p. 149). In the Old Scofield Bible we read: “The Sermon on the Mount in its primary application gives neither the privilege nor the duty of the Church.” Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder and first president of Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote: “The Bible provides three complete and wholly independent rules for human conduct – one for the past age (there was no need of recording such rules as held good for people who lived before the Bible was written) which is known as the Mosaic Law and is crystallized in the Decalogue; one for the future age of the kingdom which is crystallized in the Sermon on the Mount; and one for the present age which appears in the Gospel of John, the Acts, and the Epistles of the New Testament” (Systematic Theology, 5:98; emphasis mine).

(b) There is a more moderate view. Says Ryrie: “The dispensationalist does recognize the relevance and application of the teachings of the Sermon to believers today regardless of how much non-dispensationalists want to make him say otherwise. The dispensationalist, however, views the primary fulfillment of the Sermon and the full following of its laws as applicable to the Messianic kingdom” (Dispensationalism Today, 107-08).

(c) Another variation within dispensationalism is similar to the Lutheran view above. J. Dwight Pentecost, for example, argues that the purpose of the Sermon is similar to the purpose of the OT law, namely, to lead people to repentance through recognition of their inability to fulfill it. The purpose of the Sermon, therefore, was to awaken in people a realization that some source other than their ability to obey God’s law perfectly was necessary if they are to be saved.

All of these views are based on the dispensationalist theory of the postponed kingdom: i.e., Jesus offered to Israel the consummate fulfillment of all OT theocratic promises, which she rejected. The coming of the kingdom of God, therefore, has been postponed until after the second coming of Christ. Its fullness will be seen only in the millennial age (Christ’s earthly 1,000 year reign). However, be it noted that the Sermon presupposes a world in which insults, persecution, anger, personal litigation, adultery, lying, vengeful attitudes, malice, worry (by God’s children, no less), judgmental spirit, and false prophets, among other things, flourish! As Carl Henry has said, “An era requiring special principles to govern face-slapping and turning the other cheek (5:39) is hardly one to which the term ‘millennium’ is aptly applied.” The good news is that more recently those who call themselves Progressive Dispensationalists contend that the Sermon is wholly applicable to the church in this present age.

(7)            Kingdom Living: Here and Now

The standard evangelical approach is to recognize that the kingdom of God has come in the person and work of Jesus. It is fulfilled in him, but will not be consummated until his second advent. The stipulations, standards, exhortations, warnings, and promises of the Sermon (properly interpreted, of course) are a model for how the citizens of God’s kingdom are to live here and now. Stott writes:

“For the standards of the Sermon are neither readily attainable by every man, nor totally unattainable by any man. To put them beyond anybody’s reach is to ignore the purpose of Christ’s Sermon; to put them within everybody’s is to ignore the reality of man’s sin. They are attainable all right, but only by those who have experienced the new birth which Jesus told Nicodemus was the indispensable condition of seeing and entering God’s kingdom” (29).

This view does not in any way minimize the radical nature of Jesus’ words or overlook the need for a careful interpretation of the Sermon in its original setting. Equally demanding on this view is the need to apply the principles of the Sermon in a way that is both consistent with our Lord’s authorial intent and relevant to the cultural and spiritual context of our own day.

Our study of the Sermon will be restricted to Matthew’s version (cf. Luke 6:20-49) and will proceed according to the following outline:

The Beatitudes (1) – 5:1-7

The Beatitudes (2) – 5:8-12

The Christian and the World – 5:13-16

Jesus and the Old Testament – 5:17-20

Dealing with Anger – 5:21-26

Dealing with Lust – 5:27-30

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage – 5:31-32 (19:3-12)

Telling the Truth – 5:33-37

Loving our Enemies – 5:38-48

Giving – 6:1-4

Praying – 6:5-15

Fasting – 6:16-18

The Threat of Materialism – 6:19-24

The Threat of Worry – 6:25-34

Judging Others – 7:1-6

Perseverance in Prayer – 7:7-11

The Golden Rule and the Golden Gate – 7:12-14

Hypocrisy and False Prophets – 7:15-23

Jesus on Jesus – 7:24-27

The People on Jesus – 7:28-29