Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
August 4, 2015
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
The Sermon on the Mount is one of the best known of Jesus’ teachings. While it doesn’t cover the full spectrum of His message, it provides guidance on how to live as Christians within God’s kingdom. The importance of understanding these teachings and applying them in our lives is seen in the closing words of the Sermon:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.1
The Sermon addresses the character of believers, describing the kind of people we are meant to be, and the attitudes of heart and spirit we are to possess. Jesus’ words are the map that shows how those who live in the reign of God and are conscious of His presence in their lives are meant to journey through this life.
The Sermon (as well as the other teachings of Jesus) states that those who follow Jesus are to take on a new perspective, a different attitude and outlook, than the one they had before entering the kingdom of God. It teaches us to focus on the things which are important to God and to adjust our thinking, perspectives, goals, and worldview to be in alignment with Him and His will. This causes us to adjust our attitude toward money and possessions, worry, how we relate to and interact with others, and much more. As people who build our lives on the foundation of Jesus’ teachings, our center, our focus, the foundation of our lives, is God. And when it is, then He through His Spirit and Word changes us.
The Sermon on the Mount contains teachings that are meant to be guiding principles in our interaction with God and others. They are foundation stones to living Christlikeness. Understanding and living these principles provides us with a compass to navigate the challenges of this life, while keeping us heading true north.
The Sermon on the Mount has been interpreted and taught many different ways by teachers and writers over the centuries. Today there are a multitude of books and teachings on the subject of the Sermon, some covering overall interpretation, others focusing on certain aspects of the Sermon’s message, and others teaching specific doctrine based on historical interpretations. Teachers and scholars to this day have differing points of view regarding the Sermon.
In an upcoming set of articles within this series (Jesus—His Life and Message), I will address the Sermon on the Mount—focusing primarily on the meaning of Jesus’ teachings as related to living our faith, rather than on scholarly differences of interpretation. Meditating on and understanding the meaning and application of what Jesus taught in the Sermon can be deeply moving. It has been for me.
While I intend to focus on the meaning of the Sermon, I will include some explanation as to the different ways people understand or interpret key aspects of it. One such example is that some scholars consider that the Sermon is a collection of many separate sayings of Jesus compiled into one discourse or sermon, and that Jesus never taught these principles in one setting. Others disagree, and believe that Jesus did teach these things as a sermon or a talk to a specific gathering.
My viewpoint is that as an itinerant teacher, Jesus would have sometimes taught the Sermon as a whole, sometimes in sections, and sometimes as individual points. Itinerant preachers would typically preach and teach the same things many times over in different settings. They may not preach the exact same sermon over and over, but teach portions of it depending on the time, the place, the audience, etc. This is also true in general of teachers, politicians, preachers, comedians, and anyone who frequently speaks publicly to a variety of audiences.
We’re told that Jesus went to cities all throughout Galilee, as well as to some of the surrounding Gentile areas. His message about the arrival of the kingdom of God was His key theme, so undoubtedly He spoke of it time and again. It is likely that the points presented in the Sermon were also repeated many times over. This would make it fairly easy for His disciples to recall Jesus’ sayings later, if not word for word, at least in a manner that was conceptually accurate. So while the sayings contained in the Sermon were likely also said at other times, perhaps as individual points that stood on their own, I consider it a talk Jesus gave, or at least a condensed version of the talk.
Let’s take a look at some basic facts about the Sermon.
There are two versions of the Sermon: the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3–7:27) which contains 107 verses, and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20–49) which has 30 verses. The term “the Sermon on the Mount” is the title that Augustine gave to his commentary on Matthew 5–7, written somewhere between AD 392–396, though it wasn’t generally referred to as the Sermon on the Mount until the sixteenth century.2
The setting of the mountain is taken from the first verse of Matthew chapter 5, which says:
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them.3
The inference is that the Sermon was given only to His disciples. However, at the end of the Sermon, Matthew reports that when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.4 Most commentators explain that the crowds were people interested in Jesus’ teaching and His miracles, and that while Jesus was speaking to His disciples, the crowds were also present and heard what He said. The setting was most likely somewhere in the hill country of Galilee, and since just prior to the Sermon Jesus is recorded as healing the diseases of many, it’s probable that the “mountain” was more likely a hilly area, as the diseased and those in pain wouldn’t have been able to climb up a mountain to hear Him.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus went out to a mountain and spent the night in prayer. The following morning He called His disciples together and chose the twelve whom He named apostles. Afterwards He came down from the mountain to a level place, with a great crowd of His disciples, and spoke to a multitude of people who had come to hear Him and be healed. He then spoke to His disciples in the presence of the crowd.5 In more modern times this version has been called “the Sermon on the Plain,” since Jesus “stood on a level place.”6
Some commentators point out that since there are two accounts which both refer to Jesus specifically teaching similar things in the presence of crowds, this makes a case that the Sermon was a historical event. In any case, the fact that many of Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon are also articulated throughout other New Testament writings makes it clear that whether He taught them in a specific setting or preached them at different times, they are His teachings. That’s what matters.
It is most commonly believed that the Sermon as presented in Matthew is a summary of what Jesus taught on the occasion. It’s quite likely Jesus gave much more explanation on each of the points, and that only the main points or highlights are given in Matthew’s account. Luke’s version doesn’t include all of what is recorded in Matthew. However, much of what is in Matthew’s version is included within the Gospel of Luke, but in different places rather than in one sermon.
The Sermon is important for Christians because it speaks of the transformed behavior of those who have entered the kingdom and who follow Jesus. It speaks of what the Christian’s character and conduct should look like in relation to God and our fellow human beings; of the influence we are called to be on others for good; of the righteousness we are asked to embrace in relationship to God’s law; of the devotion we are meant to have for God; of our ambition and desire to glorify God; of our relationships with others in light of our relationship with God; and of our commitment to do what Jesus taught.7
The Sermon teaches the principles of how our lives can truly reflect God, how His image can be seen within and through us. It tells us the means by which we can begin to live now in the manner that we will live fully in eternity. It shows us how to develop inner spiritual habits which will align our beings with God’s kingdom. We begin to live them now, and will carry on living them in the final kingdom.
Author N. T. Wright explains:
What Jesus is saying is, “Now that I’m here, God’s new world is coming to birth; and, once you realize that, you’ll see that these are habits of heart which anticipate that new world here and now.” These qualities—purity of heart, mercy, and so on—are not, so to speak, “things you have to do” to earn a “reward,” a “payment.” Nor are they merely the “rules of conduct” laid down for new converts to follow. They are, in themselves, the signs of life, the language of life, the life of new creation, the life of new covenant, the life which Jesus came to bring.8
As we understand and apply the words of Jesus, the principles He lays out in the Sermon on the Mount (and elsewhere within the Gospels), our lives are progressively transformed. We become more Christlike, in closer alignment with God’s character, and a better reflection of His nature and attributes. In short, we live our Christianity.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 7:24–27.
2 G. N. Stanton (1992), Sermon on the Mount/Plain. In J. B. Green and S. McKnight (eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 736.
3 Matthew 5:1–2.
4 Matthew 7:28–29.
5 Luke 6:12–20.
6 Luke 6:17.
7 Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 24–25.
8 Wright, After You Believe, 106.