Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

Lesson 1: Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount is recorded in Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6. It is one of the most beloved, well known, and frequently quoted portions of the Bible. It’s also the longest single unit of Jesus’ personal teaching recorded in Scripture, “the most concentrated yet comprehensive portion of His ethical teaching.”1 Some think of it as “the most profound section of the entire New Testament and the whole Bible, … the most penetrating section of God’s Word.”2 Unfortunately, it’s also a very misunderstood passage. Thus, it is beneficial for believers to carefully and thoughtfully study the Sermon. Our goal should be not only to learn what Jesus said and meant, but also to apply the lessons from the Sermon on the Mount to our own lives personally.

We’ll be studying the Sermon from Matthew’s account (mostly). Before launching out into a detailed study of the Sermon itself, it may be beneficial to consider some introductory matters.

  1. Definition: What is the Sermon on the Mount? The Sermon as recorded likely does not contain everything that Jesus said on that occasion. It’s probably a condensation or summary of a teaching session that perhaps lasted an hour or longer (as recorded in the NT, the Sermon takes only a few minutes to read). It was common at that point in history for a teacher (rabbi) to sit in a prominent place, gather his disciples around him, and teach. This is the setting of the Sermon.

  2. Literary style: The Sermon on the Mount has much in common with OT wisdom literature, reading much like the Book of Proverbs especially. This is important in that, like OT wisdom literature, the Sermon on the Mount contains poetic material that must be carefully and thoughtfully interpreted. If we seek to apply a strictly literal interpretive approach, we’ll end up cutting off our hands, plucking out our eyes, and giving away all our possessions, among other things. The Sermon contains poetic imagery that the Jews of the time were familiar with, and modern interpreters should keep this in mind as they seek to interpret Jesus’ words.

  3. Theme: The unifying theme of the Sermon is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew places the sermon immediately after two verses insisting that the primary content of Jesus’ preaching was the gospel of the kingdom (4:17, 23). This theme brackets the Beatitudes (5:3, 10) and appears in 5:17-20, which details the relation between the OT and the kingdom. It returns at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer (6:10), climaxes the section on kingdom perspectives (6:33).3 While some of his listeners recognized Jesus as the King, others must be exhorted to enter the kingdom (7:13-14) and to evaluate whether they are genuine citizens of Jesus’ kingdom (7:21-29). As a summary, we can suggest that the Sermon describes the character, requirements, and conditions of entering and living in the kingdom.

  4. The Audience: Whom did Jesus intend as the audience of the Sermon?

    1. The disciples. This would include the twelve as well as a good number of others.

Mt 5:1 And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him.

    1. The multitude. Jesus often taught his disciples while others listened (Luk 20:45). Perhaps only a small group of disciples gathered to listen when Jesus began speaking, but by the time He finished, many people had joined them.

Mt 7:28 And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine:

    1. Thus we find some of the material directly applicable only to believers and some directed to unbelievers.

  1. Interpretation: One can find at least a dozen different schemes various groups have used throughout the history of the church to interpret and apply the Sermon on the Mount. This reveals that it is not an easy passage to understand. Jesus’ words may seem straight-forward and clear, but thoughtful consideration of the Sermon will reveal the depths of its teaching and the difficulty of understanding some of the statements.

    1. Some have taken the Sermon in a woodenly literal way without allowing for metaphorical expression or poetic imagery. If you eye causes you to lust, you really should pluck it out. Pacifists (e.g., Amish) take Jesus’ command to “resist not evil” to prohibit any form of self-defense and/or military engagement.

    2. Roman Catholics have historically applied the Sermon as standards for the clergy (not the laity). This set up a double-standard.

    3. Lutherans have suggested that the Sermon is Jesus’ exposition of the OT law, and His intent was to drive men to repent of sin and cry for grace.4 While the Sermon certainly may have this impact, the overall theme of the Sermon goes beyond this.

    4. Some have argued that the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount is a sort of moral road map toward social progress. This is the view of classic liberalism. But the Sermon is far more than a list of rules and regulations. And we cannot apply Jesus’ teaching to society without the citizens of society being members of Jesus’ kingdom.

    5. Some see the Sermon as a description of how to enter the kingdom. They suggest that those who obey Jesus’ teaching will be saved. Such an approach amounts to salvation by works, which obviously contradicts the rest of the NT. “It is evident from the clear teaching of the rest of the New Testament that the Lord’s purpose was not to address the unbelieving world in this discourse to show them the way of life, either individual or social.”5

    6. Some see the Sermon as a description of how church life ought to be. However, the church is never mentioned here—no clear gospel presentation, no baptism, no indwelling or baptism of the Holy Spirit, no prayer in Christ’s name—no mention of the church at all. Further, Jesus taught these principles well before the church existed. No one in the original audience would have been thinking about life in the church while they listened to Jesus’ address.

    7. Similarly, a common approach is to think of the Sermon as a description of essential Christian discipleship. One could look at it as “the outward manifestations of character and conduct of the true believer and genuine disciple,….the greatest statement of true Christian living”6 St. Augustine, for example, described it as “a perfect standard of the Christian life.”7 This comes close, but seems to neglect the kingdom implications of the Sermon. Further, if the Sermon is meant to describe the normal Christian life, most Christians come far short.

    8. Dispensationalists have held various positions on the Sermon.

      1. Some dispensationalists hold that the Sermon applied specifically only to the original audience when Jesus was offering the kingdom to Israel.8

      2. Some hold that the Sermon applies until the beginning of the millennial kingdom, during the interim period between the first and second advents.9

      3. Some hold that the standards of the Sermon applied only to the future millennial reign of Christ, not to the church age. Many dispensationalists today would affirm that the Sermon’s primary application awaits the millennial reign of Christ, but they would also assert that the Sermon applies to believers today.10

It seems obvious that some aspects of the Sermon do not fit a millennial kingdom context. Pentecost notes that “the presence of evil and evil men, the existence of poverty, famine, hunger, and need, are all contrary to the predictions made in the Old Testament concerning the character of the kingdom. … We thus conclude that the Sermon on the Mount cannot be made to apply to conditions on the earth after the establishment of the [millennial] kingdom.”11

    1. Perhaps the best way to approach the Sermon is to see it as Jesus’ description of life in the kingdom (see definition of this concept below). It’s not a description of how to enter into Christ’s kingdom, but an invitation for unbelievers to enter (cf. Mt 7:13-14) and a guide for those who are already a part of His kingdom. Further, as noted above, the Sermon contains poetic material that must be carefully and thoughtfully interpreted. It seems unlikely that a strictly literal application of the Sermon is what Jesus had in mind. The Sermon has more in common with OT wisdom literature than with a modern newspaper report.

If we view Matthew 4:17 as an introduction to the Sermon, then perhaps the message of the Sermon on the Mount can be captured by the phrase, “What it means to repent and belong to the kingdom of heaven.”12

Mt 4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Note several reasons the Sermon applies to believers today:13

  1. Jesus expected his listeners to obey what He’s teaching (see 7:24-28).

  2. Nothing in the passage or anywhere else suggests that what Jesus said was not applicable to the original audience or to succeeding generations.

  3. Jesus commissioned his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel and to teach converts to observe whatever Jesus had commanded (Mt 28:18-20). Part of what Jesus commanded is found in the Sermon.

  4. The rest of the NT repeats many of the themes from the Sermon, which suggests that the material applies to church-age believers.

  1. The Kingdom: In order to make sense of the Sermon, we must determine what Jesus meant by “the kingdom.”

    1. As noted above, references to the kingdom abound in the Sermon: Matt 5:3, 10, 19, 20, 6:10, 13, 33, 7:21. Thus, we must seek to understand what Jesus had in mind. What is Christ’s “kingdom”?

      1. God is a universal king over all creation (Acts 17:24). This is not the kingdom Christ has in mind here.

      2. The kingdom Jesus has in mind is the earthly, physical, literal kingdom of God mediated by the Messiah—the Messianic kingdom, the rule of Christ on the throne of David. This is the kingdom the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting. This is the kingdom Jesus announced was “at hand” (Mt 3:2, 4:17). Jesus Himself is the king in God’s kingdom, and where He reigns, there the kingdom of God is already present. So it seems that the first coming of Christ initiated the kingdom.

      3. The earthly, millennial kingdom is obviously not currently in operation, or at least not fully operational. Jesus is not reigning over the earth from the throne of David in Jerusalem. The promises from the OT have not yet been fulfilled. The Jews rejected Jesus as their king and Messiah. The kingdom, in its fullest sense, has not come yet. This facet of the kingdom is still future.

      4. While the full expression of the kingdom awaits Jesus’ return, the kingdom has been initiated or inaugurated by Jesus. There seems to be more than one phase or expression of Christ’s kingdom. Between the first and second comings of Christ, the “mystery” form of the kingdom prevails (see Mt 13). This phase of the kingdom may be thought of as Jesus’ spiritual reign over His people. Today, one enters the kingdom by being born again (John 3:3-7; Col 1:13). Believers are citizens of Christ’s kingdom, but not in a physical, earthly sense, but in the sense of Christ’s spiritual reign or rule over his people. Christ is king, and believers enter his kingdom when they get saved.14

Note on the kingdom: It’s important for us to recognize that certain elements of kingdom life await the millennial reign of Christ. The physical aspects of kingdom life—reigning with power, overthrowing enemies, ruling over a land and a people, etc.—awaits a future time. Some Christians seek to apply the promises from the earthly, physical, Messianic kingdom (the millennium) to the church age. This is a mistake. The mystery form of the kingdom overlaps with the church age, but the church and the kingdom are not identical.

    1. Thus, the Sermon pertains to Christ’s kingdom, whether the present mystery form of it or the future millennial form. Certain elements of the Sermon seem to apply more directly to the present and other parts to the future. In any case, Christians of any age should thoughtfully seek to apply the principles from the Sermon.

Note the Quote: [T]he Sermon on the Mount … is intended for the guidance of regenerate persons in an unregenerate world. And because the gifts and empowerment of the Gospel are his who trusts and serves His Lord, these words of Christ stand. Their revelation has never been withdrawn: they set forth the true standard of Christian morality. They describe the conduct produced by the life of Christ in His believing people: they abide in full moral applicability to us: they are [timeless] and reveal the moral laws upon which the judgments of the Day of Christ are founded. Thus they should be studied and taken to heart by the follower of Christ who would learn of Him who is meek and lowly in heart.15

  1. Overview of the Sermon on the Mount — see the title page16

Conclusion: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount calls all His followers to a very high level of discipleship. Anyone claiming to be a follower of Christ must seriously consider how well he is obeying Jesus’ words here. Living the Sermon on the Mount means, fundamentally, submitting to the authority of Jesus. It means coming to Him, taking His yoke, and learning from Him (Mt 11:28-30).17

The Sermon on the Mount is a profound and rich passage, the “greatest of all sermons having to do with human conduct.”18 In the following weeks, we’ll be looking in depth at this Sermon and seeking to understand what Jesus said, what He meant, and how we should respond. Every student would benefit from reading through the Sermon (Matthew 5-7) as we progress.

1Harry A. Sturz, “The Sermon on the Mount and Its Application to the Present Age,” Grace Journal Volume 4 (Grace Seminary, 1963; 2002), 4:3.

2R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2001), 16.

3 Expositor’s Bible Commentary.

4 MacArthur asserts that the Sermon is “a masterful exposition of the law and a potent assault on Pharisaic legalism.” The MacArthur Study Bible (Dallas: Word Publishing), 1997.

5J. Dwight Pentecost, “The Purpose of the Sermon on the Mount,” Dallas Theological Seminary, Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 115 (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1958; 2002), 115:130.

6 Liberty University Bible Commentary

7 Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount, 15. Augustine likely coined the title “Sermon on the Mount” for this passage.

8 J. Dwight Pentecost reflects this position. “[T]he Sermon on the Mount is to be connected with the offer of the kingdom to Israel at the first advent of Christ, so that its primary application is to that day and time, and must be so interpreted.” Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 115 (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1958; 2002), 115:212.

9 Tom Constable, Expository Notes on the Bible, reflects this position.

10 Ryrie asserts that the “primary fulfillment of the Sermon and the full following of its laws” relates to “either the offering or the establishment of the Millennial kingdom.” Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 100. He affirms that the Sermon is applicable and profitable for believers of this age.

11Sturz , Grace Journal Volume 4 (Grace Seminary, 1963; 2002), quoting Dwight Pentecost, “The Purpose of the Sermon on the Mount,” Bibliotheca Sacra (April, 1958), p. 135. Sturz gives a long list of conditions mentioned in the Sermon that do not seem to fit with a millennial context. Both Sturz and Pentecost are dispensationalists.

12 Following Deffinbaugh/Ellis.

13 From Sturz, Grace Journal 4:3.

14 The spiritual kingdom “refers to the kingdom into which all believers have been placed (Col. 1:13), and it is entered by the new birth. The Ruler is Christ; in this concept of the kingdom He rules over believers only; and the relationship exists now.” Ryrie, Basic Theology, 398.

15 C. F. Hogg and J. B. Watson, On the Sermon on the Mount (London: Pickering & Inglis Ltd., 3rd printing, 1947), pp. 18,19. Quoted in Struz.

16 This scheme follows the breakdown from the NIV Study Bible notes with the main sections coming from Deffinbaugh/Ellis. Some modifications by the author.

17 Deffinbaugh/Ellis.

18 H. A. Ironside, Expository Notes on the Gospel of Matthew (New York: Loizeaux Bros., Inc., Bible Truth Depot, 1943), p. 44. Quoted in Sturz, Grace Journal 4:3.

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