Salt and Light: The Sermon on the Mount

Lesson 3: Salt and Light (Mt 5:13-16)

The Sermon on the Mount

Part 1: The Subjects of the Kingdom (Mt 5:3-16)

The Distinctiveness of the Disciples:

Citizens of the Kingdom Have a Positive Influence

Jesus’ focus in the Beatitudes was primarily on interior, personal characteristics such as dependency, meekness, yearning for righteousness, mercifulness, authenticity, and purity. These personal traits are private, yet have public implications. Those displaying such characteristics will be noticeable. Thus, Jesus now shifts the emphasis to the external, public characteristics of citizens of His kingdom.

The poetic nature of Jesus’ sermon is clearly evident here. His statements “Ye are the salt of the earth” and “Ye are the light of the world” are obviously metaphorical expressions designed to highlight a comparison. Subjects of the kingdom are in some ways like salt and like light. Those who are not “salty” and those whose lights do not shine forth in the world are failing to live up to divine expectations. Thus, the passage serves as a warning to flavorless and unnoticeable believers.

  1. “Ye are the salt of the earth.”

    1. The significance of salt:

      1. Preservative—salt delays decay and retards deterioration; it’s an antiseptic. Without refrigeration, salting down food products was the best way to preserve them.1 The preservative quality of salt is likely Jesus’ primary idea here.

      2. Flavor enhancer—salt adds flavor.

      3. Other ideas associated with salt: the rabbis apparently used salt as a symbol of wisdom; whiteness; pungency; thirst-producing. OT meat offerings were always to be seasoned with the “salt of the covenant” (Lev 2:13).

    2. The comparison: citizens of the kingdom should have an influence in their world. They should suppress or halt moral decay and they should enhance the “flavor” of the culture. The presence of believers should restrain evil in the world.

“The world tends toward decomposition and is actually rotting away. When the world is left to itself, it festers and putrefies, for the germs of evil are everywhere present and active. … We live in a world that constantly tends toward decay. Some of the Christless structures of the world may look okay, but inside they are rotting away, and it is just a matter of time before they fall. … This suggests to us the function of the church: The church, as salt, functions as a retardant to decay and a preservative in a disintegrating world.”2

    1. A potential condition: the salt “have lost its savor.” The Greek word literally means “to become foolish,” but in this case means “to lose taste, to become inert.” I.e., the salt loses its capacity to do its job. Jesus seems to be talking about believers who lose their influence in the world. They become inert, “tasteless,” and inoffensive. Salt-less Christians are bland and tasteless, adding nothing to the community and doing nothing to stop moral decay. They may be practically indistinguishable from the surrounding culture. The secular world has a bigger affect on Christians than Christians have on the world. Examples: how are we different from the world when it comes to materialism? morality? honesty? compassion? entertainment?

    2. What kind of a world would we live in without Christian influence? Imagine how much worse condition the world would be in without the positive contributions and the restraining influence of Christianity.

    3. Salt has little or no effect if it is not applied to some other material. Salty believers must exert their influence throughout society in order for them to do any good. They must get “out of the salt shaker.” Christian isolationism is not biblical.

    4. A potential problem: Salt generally does not lose its saltiness; it does not become inert. Chemically speaking, salt is salt. It doesn’t break down unless it is impure or chemically changed.3 So it seems that Jesus is setting forth an impossible condition. Yet this sort of language is not foreign to Jesus’ teachings (e.g., a camel cannot go through the eye of a needle [Mt 19:24]). The statement is ironic or paradoxical—it doesn’t make sense on the face of it, which makes it memorable and causes the hearer or reader to pause and consider the statement more closely. “How absurd—salt losing its saltiness!” Thus, the hearers or readers should realize that, as salt, citizens of the kingdom should not lose their “savor,” that is, their influence in the world. Like salt, they cannot become un-salty. Such a notion is absurd.

    5. A potential result:

      1. Good for nothing—failing to fulfill their purpose, failing to live up to their responsibilities.

      2. To be cast out and trodden under foot—unwanted salt would commonly be thrown on to paths or roadways.

    6. The application:

      1. Beware lest you lose the distinctive Christian “flavor” and become just like the unsaved crowd. Christians who are the same as everyone else are in a sense “good for nothing” and worthy of chastisement. They are not distinctive and have little positive influence. They go along with the crowd and never restrain sin.

      2. Israel was the perfect example of salt that had lost its savor and was good for nothing, being cast out and trodden under foot (cf. Mt 8:12).

      3. The Christian church today, generally speaking, has lost much of its saltiness. Many segments of Christianity, especially in free and prosperous countries, believers are so worldly that they have few distinguishing marks separating them from non-Christians. The influence of the church on the western world is slowly fading. Thankfully, in many parts of the world, Christianity is having a remarkable impact.

Rev 3:16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

    1. Jesus is not implying that an un-salty believer may lose his salvation. This is a warning, not a threat. Further, remember that in wisdom literature you can’t press the literal meaning of the words too far. Focus on the main point of the comparison, not on every little detail and nuance.

    2. The main point of the comparison: retain your gospel witness and testimony in the world; be a good example to others; have an impact on society; be different (in a good sense); seek to retard moral decay; seek to be a positive influence.

  1. “Ye are the light of the world.”

    1. Significance of light: illumination, dispels the darkness, show the way, reveal the truth, etc. While salt has a negative function (preventing decay), light has a positive function (showing the way).

    2. God is light (1 Jn 1:5) and Jesus is “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”(John 1:9). Jesus called himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12, 9:5), so it’s remarkable that he says of his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” In contrast, the world is a dark place. The people of the world “sit in darkness” (Luke 1:79), and “men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19).

Light is a common symbol in the Bible. It represents purity, truth, knowledge, divine revelation, and God’s presence all in contrast to their opposites. The Israelites thought of themselves as lights in a dark world (Isa. 42:6; Rom. 2:19). However the Old Testament spoke of Messiah as the true light of the world (Isa. 42:6; 49:6). Jesus’ disciples are lights in the derived sense, as the moon is a light but only because it reflects the light of the sun.4

    1. Point of comparison: a light is visible, obvious, and noticeable; it shines forth. Citizens of the kingdom are “the light of the world.” They must be obvious, visible, and noticeable. There can be no such thing as a secret or invisible Christian.

    2. Positive examples

      1. A city situated on a hilltop cannot be hid; it is visible, obvious, clearly seen from a long distance, especially at night.

      1. A lamp5 on a lampstand gives light to all in the house.

    1. A negative example: a lamp put under a “bushel” (a clay container for dry foods, usually a bowl or vase, holding about two gallons). This is patently obvious—so absurd that it never happens. A lamp is to be displayed on a lampstand6 so that it may shine forth its light.

    2. The command: “let your light so shine before men.” Those who possess the light must transmit or shine the light. What a lamp is in a room, disciples of Christ are to be in the world. Followers of Christ are both visible and radiant.

[Believers] are the light lighted. He is the sun. They resemble the moon, reflecting the sun’s light. Apart from Christ they cannot shine. The electric bulb does not emit light all by itself. It imparts light only when connected and turned on, so that the electric current generated in the power-house is transmitted to it. So also as long as Christ’s followers remain in living contact with the original light they are a light to others (cf. John 15:4, 5).7

    1. The results:

      1. People see your good works.

        1. The assumption is that citizens of Jesus’ kingdom are doing good works. He doesn’t specify what kind of good works, other than the kind that others might observe.

        2. Jesus later tells us not do religious works (charity, prayer, fasting) before men, to be seen of them (see Mt 6:1, 5, 16). One should not do good works to gain personal prestige or status but to be a good testimony. So one’s Christian testimony should be plainly visible, but one’s private religious duties should be done very quietly.

      2. People glorify God. This is no guarantee that unbelievers will turn to God based on your good works, but it does suggest that the believer’s good works may be helpful in leading others to Christ. Read Ephesians 5:8-9 and Philippians 2:15.

Tertullian (c. a.d. 200) wrote: “But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘how they [the Christians] love one another,’ for they themselves [the non-Christians] are animated by mutual hatred; ‘see how they are ready even to die for one another’” (Apology XXXIX).8

“Brighten the corner where you are.”

Conclusion: Let’s commit ourselves to being salt and light in our community. As salt, we want to be a force against moral decay and a source of “flavor” to our world. As light, we must shine forth brightly in a dark world with the gospel message and with a positive Christian testimony.

1 Interesting note: the body of the great missionary David Livingstone was shipped from Africa back to England after his death packed in salt.

2R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount, 78.

3 Some have suggested that the salt of that time was often impure, and in certain conditions the salt itself would leach away, leaving a worthless residue. This may be true, but seems overly complicated for the analogy.

4Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003; 2003), Mt 5:14.

5 The word “candle” (KJV) refers to the small, portable lamp, a clay vessel burning olive oil, not a wax candle.

6 A lampstand might be a shelf extending from the pillar in the center of the room (the pillar that supported the large crossbeam of the flat roof), or a single stone projecting inward from the wall, or a piece of metal conspicuously placed and used similarly. Many houses of this time were usually rather simple, having only one or two rooms, so one lamp could illuminate the whole building. William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, vol. 9, New Testament Commentary.

7William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, vol. 9, New Testament Commentary.

8Quoted in William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, vol. 9, New Testament Commentary.

The Beatitudes: The Sermon on the Mount

Lesson 2: The Beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12)

The Sermon on the Mount

Part 1: The Subjects of the Kingdom (Mt 5:3-16)

The Character and Blessedness of Citizens of Christ’s Kingdom

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, statements Jesus made regarding the blessedness of the inhabitants of the kingdom.

  1. The Setting (Mt 5:1-2; Luke 6:17-19)

    1. The contents of Matthew’s record of the Sermon and Luke’s record of it are very similar.1 There is little doubt that the two writers are recording the same sermon. We can’t totally rule out the idea that Jesus preached the same sermon twice, but it seems unlikely.

    2. One problem in reconciling the two accounts is that Matthew says the Sermon occurred when Jesus went “up into a mountain” (5:1), while Luke says Jesus “came down with them, and stood in the plain” (6:17). Possible solutions:

      1. Jesus went into a mountain but found a level spot to speak from. The word “plain” literally means “level place,” which can be found even on mountains. And the mountains in that region are more like hills. However, this does not explain how Jesus “came down.”

      2. Perhaps Luke does not mention that Jesus went up into a mountain before giving the Sermon. Jesus “came down” (Luke) then “went up” (Mt) sometime later. The text doesn’t say that this occurred, but it could have.

  2. Theme and Background

    1. The Beatitudes are the collection of blessings Jesus spoke at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. There are other Beatitudes (“blessed be …”) but this is the most elaborate list in the Bible.

    2. These statements are called Beatitudes based on the Latin translation of the word “blessed” – be?tit?d?, meaning “perfect happiness.”2 However, the word “blessed” is not exactly synonymous with “happy.” Happiness is a feeling that comes and goes depending on one’s circumstances. The term “blessed” is a term of congratulation and recommendation. The blessing here is based on God’s approval, not on a temporary happy feeling. The word “refers overwhelmingly to the distinctive religious joy which accrues to man from his share in the salvation of the kingdom of God.”3 (Compare Ps 32:1.) MacArthur describes the blessed condition as “the divinely-bestowed well-being that belongs only to the faithful.”4

    3. These qualities are to be envied and emulated; they make up “the good life.” Each is followed by a reason, pointing out that no one will be the loser by following this way of life, however unpromising it may appear in the short term. The rewards are at the level of spiritual experience and relationship with God rather than of material recompense. The key phrase, which opens and concludes the series, is theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This refers to the people who acknowledge God as their King and who may, therefore, confidently look forward to the fulfillment of his purpose in their lives.5

    4. Note the paradoxical (seemingly illogical) nature of these statements, and how they contrast with the world’s view of happiness. In Jesus’ kingdom, it’s not the wealthy, powerful, and selfish who enjoy God’s approval, but the downcast, the meek, and the merciful. One’s inner attitude is much more important than his outer condition.

    5. The Beatitudes are more than just descriptive. They should motivate us to pursue the blessings associated with each statement. Also, the statements are more like exclamations than simple declarations of fact. “How blessed…!” is the idea.

    6. What kind of people enjoy God’s approval? What does God value in a person? What type of person pleases God? What characteristics describe those who inhabit Christ’s kingdom? What does God’s value in His people? The Beatitudes answer these questions.

  3. The Beatitudes—Characteristics and Blessedness of Citizens of Christ’s Kingdom (Mt 5:1-12)

Mt 5:1-2 Jesus sat down to teach. Rabbis in that age typically sat to teach while the audience stood to listen. There is no consensus regarding where this took place. It could be a mountain or just a small hill. There is a place on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee where tradition suggests the Sermon occurred, but this is uncertain.

The values reflected in the Beatitudes stand in stark contrast to those taught by the Jewish leaders of the day (scribes, Pharisees). They often focused on external standards and rule keeping, while Jesus here focuses on inner attitudes and commitments. The qualities that Jesus taught are not the product of external, formal religion, but of a genuine relationship with God.

    1. Blessed are the poor6 in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

      1. In the OT, the “poor” or “meek” are the oppressed people of God who, nonetheless, trust in him for deliverance.7 Thus, the poor in spirit are those who recognize that they have no innate ability to please God. The poor in spirit admit that they must depend fully on God, not on themselves. They see themselves as spiritually bankrupt, weak, and broken before God, having nothing to offer, claiming no merit.

      2. The poor in spirit have become convinced of their spiritual poverty. They have been made conscious of their misery and want. Their old pride has been broken. They have begun to cry out, “O God, be thou merciful to me, the sinner” (Luke 18:13). They are of a contrite spirit and tremble at God’s word (Isa. 66:2; cf. 57:15).?? They realize their own utter helplessness (Rom. 7:24), expect nothing from self, everything from God.8

      3. Those who fit this description have (present tense) a place the kingdom of heaven. In order to be saved, one must recognize his own spiritual bankruptcy and failure.

      4. This statement prohibits that kind of self-confident pride that is so common in our culture. It runs contrary to what people today value—self-esteem, assertive self-promotion, and positive self-image.

    2. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

      1. The context here suggests that the mourning occurs as one acknowledges his poorness of spirit, i.e., his spiritual poverty and utter dependence upon God. The mourner is broken, downcast, and burdened. Any distressing situation in life may cause mourning, but the poor in spirit recognize that sin is the cause of most grief.

      2. Although Jesus doesn’t specify who is doing the comforting, it seems reasonable that God is the one bringing comfort to the mourner. God draws nigh to those who seek Him in their times of grief (read Ps 34:18; James 4:8-10).

      3. Jesus is the great high priest who is able to sympathize with our weakness, having experienced human sorrow himself (Heb 4:14-16).

    3. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

      1. This is perhaps the most quoted of the Beatitudes. It’s also an ironic statement—it doesn’t seem reasonable, strikes us as odd. Jesus seems to delight in turning the tables and upsetting the conventional wisdom of the time. This is an approximate quotation of Psalm 37:11.

      2. Meekness is humility or gentleness, the opposite of self-reliant pride. It is nearly synonymous with being poor in spirit.

      3. Meekness doesn’t imply that one never stands up for himself or that one allows others to abuse him. Meekness is the result of placing one’s confidence in God rather than in oneself.

      4. Meekness is not spinelessness, the characteristics of the person who is ready to bow before every breeze. It is submissiveness under provocation, the willingness rather to suffer than to inflict injury. The meek person leaves everything in the hand of him who loves and cares.9

      5. Jesus described himself as “meek and lowly in heart” (Mt 11:29). Followers of Christ will also exhibit this characteristic.

      6. When will the meek inherit the earth? In a sense, they have it now (Mt 6:33; 1 Cor 3:21). But the full expression of this promise awaits the millennial reign of Christ and then the eternal state.

      7. Meekness is a very rare characteristic in our culture. We often value those who put themselves forward, who assert themselves. The world seems to belong to the proud, the ambitious. But in Christ’s kingdom, the meek inherit the earth.

    4. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

      1. God approves of those who have a deep spiritual appetite, who desire to live a righteous life. Life is full of injustice and unfairness, but God blesses those who have a strong personal desire for righteousness.

      2. The contrast with our world could hardly be more striking. Most people have little regard for personal righteousness, allowing themselves much moral flexibility. But God gives us an objective standard of righteousness—God himself and his word.

      3. Those who yearn for righteousness will be filled. That is, they will experience what they seek—true righteousness. This is the result of justification; God declares the guilty sinner to be righteous. Salvation yields full spiritual satisfaction.

      4. Righteous living is the natural and necessary result of a righteous standing before God. The two are inseparable.

    5. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

      1. Mercy is withholding deserved punishment (cf. Ps 103:10). Mercy is love for those in misery and a forgiving spirit toward the sinner. It embraces both the kindly feeling and the kindly act. We see it exemplified in the parable of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10), and especially in Christ, the merciful High priest (Heb. 2:17).10 Every person has experienced God’s mercy.

      2. Merciful people extend mercy to others (cf. Mt 18:23-35). Anyone who has experienced God’s mercy must be merciful. Merciful people sympathize with those who fail and fall.

      3. It’s interesting that Jesus places mercy next to righteousness. Those who demand adherence to a righteous standard may become hard-nosed, inflexible, and demanding. But our desire for righteousness must be combined with merciful love and understanding.

    6. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

      1. Read Psalm 24:3-4. Pure in heart suggests authenticity, not putting on a show, not living a lie, not hypocritical, but genuine and sincere. It also implies a single-minded devotion to God. One’s motives are pure and genuine, not put-on.

      2. Further, pure in heart suggests inward cleansing from sin through faith in God’s provision and a continual desire to keep one’s “account” clean.

      3. One’s heart must be clean in order to “see God.” Cleansing from sin comes only through the application of the blood of Christ. Only those who experience Christ’s cleansing power will be welcomed into God’s presence.

      4. Again we see the importance of a true, inner, personal relationship with God. We should regularly be asking God to search our hearts and cleanse us from sin (Ps 139:23-24; 1 John 1:9). Also, when the inside is clean, outer purity will not be far behind (Mt 23:26). It’s a mistake to expect external purity from those whose hearts have not been cleansed from sin.

    7. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

      1. Peacemakers attempt to bring calm and order to a chaotic situation. Peacemakers have an inner peace with God and desire to be instruments of God’s peace. Having experienced the peace of God through faith in Christ (Rom 5:1), peacemakers seek to help others know God’s peace.

      2. Such people reflect the characteristics of the Father. God made peace with us through Christ. God is the ultimate peace maker. In this way we resemble God, showing our relationship to him (Gal 3:26, 4:6-7).

      3. Some initiate trouble and conflict—we call them troublemakers. Peacemakers do just the opposite—they initiate peace and order.

      4. Jesus is not advocating a peace-at-any-price attitude. Jesus said that following him may result in conflict and persecution (Mt 10:34-36).

    8. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

      1. Jesus is the ultimate example of one who was persecuted for righteousness sake. Those who follow the core values that Jesus advocated can expect persecution.

      2. People displaying these qualities will naturally stand out in a wicked culture and would become the targets of criticism and abuse.

    9. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

      1. Note the change from “they” to “you.” This becomes more personal. One is persecuted “for righteousness sake” and “for my sake,” not for political or social reasons (Mt 10:22).

      2. It was a rather common idea among the Jews that all suffering, including persecution (see Luke 13:1–5), was an indication of God’s displeasure and of the special wickedness of the one thus afflicted. Christ here reverses this view, but only with respect to those who endured persecution for the sake of righteousness and for the cause of Christ.11

      3. The proper response to persecution—rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven. You’re in good company—that’s how they treated the prophets (e.g., Jeremiah, Daniel and friends, Amos, etc.). Read Acts 5:41.

      4. When you live the way Jesus describes here, the unsaved world will not appreciate it. But God does appreciate it, and those who suffer in this way can be confident of a great reward.

We must value what God values. If you want to enjoy God’s blessing, these attitudes and behaviors must exist in our lives. All citizens of Jesus’ kingdom should be striving to apply this teaching.

Note well Jesus’ emphasis on the inner qualities of the heart—dependency, meekness, yearning for righteousness, mercifulness, authenticity, and purity. These are not things that can be merely put-on. They are inner qualities, not external traditions. Jesus no doubt is taking aim at the externalism and ritualism so common among the Pharisees, which is also very common among religious people today.

1 Luke omits various matters of special interest to Matthew’s Jewish readers (e.g. Matt. 5:17-42), and other matters that he himself will give elsewhere (e.g. Luke 11:1-4; 12:22-31); while Luke has a few sentences (as ver. 24-26, 38-40), which are not given by Matthew. Robertson, Harmony of the Gospels.

2 Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006. Unabridged (v 1.1).

3Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vols. 5-9 edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 compiled by Ronald Pitkin.; ed. Gerhard Kittel et al.;, electronic ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-c1976), 4:367.

4John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), Mt 5:3.

5D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition (Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970, 4th ed.; Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), Mt 5:3.

6 The primary sense of the word “poor” (??????) implies one who is completely destitute, deprived of every means of self-support, one reduced to begging; helpless and powerless.

7D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary.

8William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, vol. 9, New Testament Commentary.

9William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, vol. 9, New Testament Commentary.

10William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, vol. 9, New Testament Commentary.

11William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, vol. 9, New Testament Commentary.

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.

The Sermon on the Mount: Introduction

The Sermon on the Mount

Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt 4:17)


  1. Introduction: Background and Interpretation

Part 1: The Subjects of the Kingdom (5:3-16)

  1. The Beatitudes (5:1-12)

  2. Salt and Light (5:13-16)

Part 2: The Precepts of the Kingdom (5:17–5:48)

  1. The Fulfillment of the Law (5:17-20)

  2. Murder (5:21-26)

  3. Adultery and Divorce (5:27-32)

  4. Oaths (5:33-36)

  5. Retribution (5:37-42)

  6. Love for Enemies (5:43-48)

Part 3: The Righteousness of the Kingdom (6:1-7:12)

  1. Giving to the Needy (6:1-4)

  2. Prayer and Fasting (6:5-18)

  3. Treasure in Heaven (6:19-24)

  4. Worry (6:25-34)

  5. Judging Others (7:1-6)

  6. Ask, Seek, Knock (7:7-12)

Part 4: The Tests of the Kingdom (7:13-29)

  1. Straight Gates and False Prophets (7:13-20)

  2. A Warning about False Profession, the Blessedness of Obedience, and Epilogue (7:21-29)


Robert Deffinbaugh, “The Sermon on the Mount,” Biblical Studies Press, 2006.

William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary, vol. 9. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973).

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

Jeff Miller, “The Sermon on the Mount” sermon series.

Others as noted

This material produced in 2008 by Brad Anderson, Liberty Baptist Church, Antigo, WI.

Matthew 23:24: "Straining at Gnats"

Matthew 23:24: “Straining at Gnats”

The KJV states “Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:24) What does this passage mean? One little preposition, “at,” causes some confusion and has led to some inaccurate interpretations.

Various Interpretations Based on “Strain At.”

The following interpretations are not comprehensive.

Interpretation 1: A common interpretation. Seeking to preserve the term “at,” those who interpret this add the phrase “the discovery of” to make sense of the translation. The Pharisees would “strain (the wine) at (the discovery of) a gnat.”

Interpretation 2:  Matthew Henry’s Commentary: Suggesting that the phrase means to look intensely at, says: “In their practice they strained at gnats, heaved at them, with a seeming dread, as if they had a great abhorrence of sin, and were afraid of it in the least instance…”

Interpretation 3: “Strain at a gnat” is the wrong reading. It should have been translated “strain out” to mean that the blind guides strain gnats out of their wine. They major on the minors by avoiding drinking something unclean, but at the same time, they drink down an unclean camel.

Meaning of “Straining”

The crux of the matter lies in what the verb means. Does the verb mean to “strain at” as if intently looking at something. Or, does it mean something entirely different?

Why the KJV translators translated the Greek Word, diulitzo, as “strain at” is not clear at all. This word has nothing to do with looking at a gnat. The Greek word means to “strain out, filter.” It is used in this passage as “straining out” or “filtering” gnats out of wine. This word never has the idea of “looking at” as the second interpretation suggests.

While one can make a case for the first interpretation, it is a forced interpretation that requires the addition of “the discovery of” to make sense of the passage. Readers of the KJV would not come to that conclusion unless this was explained to them. So, we prefer to let the Greek word to stand on its own. It is a more clear and precise translation to say: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (NIV)

The History of “Strain At.”

There is no explanation why the KJV translators chose “strain at” instead of the easier, normal reading “strain out.” Is this the way people spoke in 1611? Some suggest that is the case. However, no other contemporary English translation supports the 1611 KJV translation. Note the following:

1525-6 AD: Tyndale, “Ye blinde gydes which strayne out a gnat and swalowe a cammyll.”

1599 AD: Geneva, “Ye blind guides, which strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

Even the Oxford English Dictionary states that “strain at” was misunderstood by Shakespeare himself. It would certainly be a “violent effort” on the part of a blind man to look intensely at a gnat. However, the idea of “straining to see a gnat” is not involved at all. It simply means to strain gnats out of wine.

What then does the passage mean and how does it apply?

It is human nature to focus on the technical aspects of a verse and miss the overall point. We should not simply leave this passage with a discussion of “It doesn’t mean this, it means that.” There is a great truth here that must not be missed. Even though a clarification must be made, the ultimate importance is what does the passage mean and what significance is there for me?

In probably the harshest series of denouncements, Jesus “blasts” the Pharisees worship at the temple. From an Old Testament legal perspective, the Pharisees brought all of the right things and the right amount for their tithe. In all, their gifts were perfectly acceptable. Any grain, fruit, or vegetable was appropriate for temple tithes (Lev 27:30). The Pharisees, given to extremism, collected offerings of mint (leaves), dill and cummin (seeds). The more common grains, fruits and vegetables would have satisfied the tithe, but the Pharisees were given to the minutest detail. The problem is that while they were given to counting seeds and leaves, they lacked the most obvious–justice, mercy and faithfulness (v 23) What is easier? Is it easier to focus on details that require only accounting skills, or giving oneself to the more difficult, germane matters–extending justice, mercy and faithfulness? Clearly, satisfying the rituals of worship are easier dealing with issues of the heart. Jesus pronounces judgment on the Pharisees for counting seeds rather than dealing with matters of the heart.

Verse 24 introduces another parallel illustration. Using hyperbole, Jesus pronounces judgment on the Pharisees for their meticulous care with gnats when they were actually swallowing a camel. As mentioned above, the verb “strain out” indicates that the Pharisees were straining gnats out of wine. Wine was also an acceptable tithe (Numbers 15:5ff). Gnats were drawn to alcoholic beverages like wine. In those days, wine was strained through cloths to remove the gnats. Apart from being a  distasteful item, gnats were considered unclean (Lev 11:20; Dt 14:129). It was their practice to filter the unclean gnats out of the wine before presenting it as an offering.

Using a deliberate exaggeration, Jesus pronounces judgment on the Pharisees for taking care that they do not defile themselves by drinking down a very small insect while they were willing to “drink down” another unclean animal, the camel.

The point is, the Pharisees prided themselves on following the Law to its most minute details while overlooking the evil intentions of their heart. Jesus, exercised His omniscience and saw that their perfectly, painstaking details to present acceptable offerings did not match their hearts. These Pharisees were evil men content with external ritualism. As one commentator notes, this is a “man who has lost all sense of moral proportion.” (Arthur Robertson, Matthew)


We all know at least one person who “has lost all sense of moral proportion.” How many have we seen make a profession of Christ then leave over some minor issue. It is very possible that person’s profession was false. Did that person leave a church simply because the carpet was changed? Did that person abandon regular assembly with others simply because another version was being used? Did that person leave his brothers and sisters in Christ because he found a hypocrite? That person needs the application of this verse!

Another error that we should reject is the lack of diligent study of the Word of God. God’s Word is wholly and completely important, even down to the very prepositions. Some believers say “I have a simple faith. This kind of discussion is ‘straining at a gnat.'” As seen above, this is not what the verse means. To suggest that we ought not get the prepositions right, undermines the importance of studying God’s Word. Genuine Bible expositors are not interested in a Pharisaical approach to the Scriptures. They want people to understand exactly what God intended. Do not reject exegetical preaching/teaching as if it is some kind of Pharisaical approach.

Some simply point out errors in the King James Bible. However, for us to simply state that the preposition “at” is wrong and not explore the context of this passage is Pharisaical. This passage is a warning to us all. God knows our hearts. Our religious exercises, no matter how meticulously performed, are worthless if our motives, intents and actions are evil.