The Sermon on the Mount

Jesus came as a teacher. He was known as a teacher. He devoted himself to teaching the truth of the word of God. It was of central importance to him. His teaching amazed the people of his day and had a profound impact on their lives. It has had the same impact on people down through the centuries. While the teaching of Jesus is a big focus in all four Gospels, it is especially so in Matthew. In the book of Matthew we find five teaching units. The first teaching unit is almost universally known as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters5-7). It is famously known, but infamously unknown. We might say that this teaching is Jesus’ kingdom manifesto. Jesus came teaching that the kingdom of God had arrived in his person and work. The sermon explains Jesus’ kingdom vision and mission. Parts of the sermon are well known by many people even if they don’t know where they come from. Most people know of the iconic passages like the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer and the Golden Rule, but perhaps many do not realize that they are all part of the SOM. The sermon is filled with passages that inspire, inform and convict.

Interpretations of the Sermon are legion. Several things are important to keep in mind. First, Jesus was speaking to the people living at that time and place. He was calling the people of Israel to himself as Messiah, inaugurating the promised and long awaited kingdom of God. It is important to remember that Scripture was not written to us but for us. In every passage there is the descriptive and the prescriptive. Each passage describes what God was doing in a certain time and place in the flow of redemptive history. Each passage also prescribes what we should do in light of what God has done. Understanding these two polarities is key to understanding any text.

Second, Jesus was speaking to his disciples. He was speaking to all his disciples, but especially to the twelve. He had not yet chosen and appointed the twelve as apostles, nonetheless, he was speaking to them as those in training for the leadership for which they would soon be responsible. After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus the apostles will carry the mission of the kingdom forward. The SOM is important for that mission.

Finally, Jesus was casting a vision for a kingdom lifestyle. What does it mean to be in the kingdom? What are the values of the kingdom? Jesus called people to follow him. What did that look like? Life in a broken, fallen and sinful world is complex. How does one navigate the complexities of the world in a Christ honoring way?

A key theme in the Sermon on the Mount is righteousness. Be righteous and live righteously. The way of righteousness that Jesus calls for is very different from what most people assume. It is a humble hunger for God. It is the recognition that one is not righteous apart from God’s grace. It is following the narrow way of Jesus. The sermon is necessary for the growth of any follower of Jesus. One can learn profound truths for living from these words of Jesus.

After a brief introduction of the setting of the SOM (5:1-2), the sermon begins with the Beatitudes (5:3-12). These are eight short statements of the blessedness of those in the kingdom of heaven. Each beatitude has the same form. They begin with a pronouncement of blessing (“Blessed”) followed by those to whom the blessing is given (for example, “poor in spirit”) and ending with the results of this state of blessedness (for example, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”). The eight beatitudes express the dependence and devotion of Jesus’ disciples to him. The first four (poor in spirit, mourners, meek and hunger & thirst for righteousness) show the disciples’ dependence on Jesus, while the last four (merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers and persecuted) show the disciples’ devotion to Jesus. The beatitudes end with an expansion of the last beatitude to the persecuted (5:11-12). This reveals what it means to be persecuted and the joy a follower of Jesus should experience in persecution.

Jesus then teaches his disciples the ramifications of their life in the kingdom as followers of Jesus (5:13-16). They are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Their lives have impact in the world as they live out the practical implication of following Jesus.

Jesus now gets into the body of his message by explaining why he has come and calling for a greater righteousness (5:17-20). Jesus wants no confusion as to why he has come into the world. He has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets (the Old Testament), but to fulfill it. There is close continuity between the mission of Jesus and the message of the Old Testament. The Old Testament promises the Messiah and the Kingdom of God he brings, while Jesus fulfills these promises. In fact, those who say and teach otherwise are the least in the kingdom of heaven. This leads to Jesus’ call for greater righteousness. One’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees to even enter the kingdom of heaven. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was and external self-righteousness. The greater righteousness Jesus calls for is an internal, transformational, God-centered, humble righteousness.

The call for greater righteousness leads to the next section of the SOM (5:21-48). This is often called the six antitheses. They contrast six popular, but false, understandings of Old Testament teachings promoted by the Pharisees, with Jesus’ kingdom teaching. The six are: anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation and love. Jesus’ demands are high, but love for him leads to obedience. The way of God is the way of holiness and happiness. These must not be misconstrued as the way to earn salvation, but the way of life that flows out of the grace of salvation.

Next we see Jesus’ warning on practicing righteousness from an improper motive (6:1-18). Jesus demonstrates how the three main forms of piety in his day can be done in hypocritical ways to be noticed by others. A fundamental human desire is to seek praise from others. He talks about giving alms for the needy, prayer and fasting. One must be careful to do these things out of love for God and neighbor and not for personal praise. These are important practices, but must be done for the right reasons. In the section on prayer (6:5-15) we find Jesus’ model prayer (The Lord’s Prayer, 5:9-13). This is a profound prayer and must be meditated on and practiced.

This is followed by Jesus’ teaching on work and worry (6:19-34). A key question in life is, “Where is your treasure? What is most important to you?” Jesus says, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” A person cannot serve things and money and God at the same time. They both demand to be master. An inordinate focus on things and money can lead to anxious worry. We are distracted from the really important things of life. Jesus says the antidote to this is to seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness as the first and highest priority.

Jesus rounds out his message on greater righteousness with a call not to be judgmental but discerning (7:1-6), an intense God-centered prayer life (7:7-11) and the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have then do unto you.”

Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount with the teaching on the two ways (7:13-27). This is a warning to hear and heed the teaching of Jesus. Nothing could be more important than following Jesus. One’s eternal destiny hangs in the balance. One way leads to destruction, the other way leads to life. Living by the SOM is not a works salvation, but the outflow of a life following Jesus. No one lives the demands of Jesus perfectly, but those who claim to follow Jesus but disregard his teaching show that they are not true disciples of Jesus.

The Sermon on the Mount is a very important teaching of Jesus. It must not be overlooked or treated lightly. It puts am emphasis on both grace and truth. We are saved by grace and truth and we live the Christian life by grace and truth. It provides for the believer in Jesus Christ a way of life that can have impact on others and bring glory to God.

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