Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount
Topic: Expository Passage: Matthew 5:1-2
This morning, we are going to begin a new study through what is surely the most famous and influential sermon ever preached. I’m talking about the Sermon on the Mount, as we call it, which is recorded for us in Matthew 5–7.
It’s not hard to see why it has grabbed so much attention. The Sermon is packed with powerful, famous sayings. The Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Golden Rule all originate in this sermon. Jesus uses some powerful illustrations such as “salt and light,” and the wise man who built his house on the rock.
And the Sermon is packed with wisdom and foundational ethics. Jesus makes some very convicting corrections to hypocritical religion. He gives important warnings about chasing wealth and being overcome by worry. He challenges us about wrongful judging, and spiritual deception. It’s all really good and so well said.
There’s a reason why Christians continually come back to the Sermon as foundational, biblical teaching. In fact, the Sermon has even attracted plenty of attention outside Christianity. Gandhi and many others with no loyalty to Christianity have revered the Sermon and leaned on its wisdom.
I’m excited to see how God will use the Sermon to impact our church. I hope you will read it on your own and engage your heart in what Jesus is saying. But anytime you are dealing with such a foundational text, there are bound to be controversies. And the Sermon is not without difficulty or debate. So, today, I want to address some of these controversies and give you a broad overview of the Sermon. So, this will be more of nerdy sermon than usual, but we’ll end by reflecting on the central message of the Sermon and what Jesus wants you to learn from it. Let’s begin by answering the question…
I. What is the context?
To answer this question, let’s read 4:23–5:2. I see 4 important answers.
Early in Jesus’ Ministry: Matthew 4 describes some of the earliest events in Jesus’ ministry including his confrontation with Satan in the wilderness and the beginning of his public ministry. Verses 18–22 describe the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Matthew skips some other important events, so, Jesus had been ministering for a while, but this is still pretty early.
Time of Great Popularity: 4:23 says that Jesus was traveling throughout Galilee preaching and healing, and v. 24 says that he was having such an effect that “His fame went throughout all Syria.” Verse 25 says, “Great multitudes followed Him.” And it wasn’t just the locals. People from all over Israel were traveling to Galilee to experience the ministry of Jesus.
We’ve all seen how a popular figure can burst on the scene. There is a massive swell of interest, and at least initially, this personality hasn’t been caught up in any controversy. That’s how it was at this point for Jesus. People were amazed at the miracles and the teaching, and everyone wanted to be a part of the excitement. We know that controversy is coming, but not yet. Jesus was extremely popular.
On a Mountainside in Galilee: 5:1 states that Jesus responded to the massive crowds by climbing a mountainside to teach. That’s why we call this the Sermon on the Mount. We shouldn’t picture him as if he climbed Mt. Whitney and demanded that everyone who heard him had to make the same exhausting climb. No, this was probably a simple climb up a gentle slope. He did this to provide a good setting to communicate to lots of people.
Addressed to the Disciples, though Multitudes Were Present: 5:1 states that Jesus sat down to teach, as was the custom of Jewish rabbis. When, “His disciples came to Him,” he began to teach. At this point, Matthew is not talking about the 12, because Jesus hadn’t chosen them yet. Rather, he is speaking of a loose group of followers, who had attached themselves to Jesus as something of a teacher/mentor.
The fact that Jesus is addressing disciples is important, because it means that the Sermon is primarily geared toward people who have already committed themselves to Jesus. This is not an evangelistic sermon.
But even though Jesus is primarily addressing disciples, the multitudes were present (7:28–29). The Greek word translated people is better translated crowds, so probably from the beginning, but at least by the end of the Sermon, we should picture Jesus as surrounded by a large multitude.
So, Jesus is sitting on a hillside at the height of his popularity surrounded by a large audience, when he begins to speak. But Jesus doesn’t deliver a feel-good political rally speech. 7:28–29 say that the crowd will be stunned by the authority and depth of the Sermon. A 2nd question we must answer is…
II. Did Jesus truly preach this sermon?
You all can probably guess that I’m going answer yes. But I’d like to spend a little time on this question, because if you read anything about the Sermon that strays very far from evangelicalism, you won’t get a firm yes.
Specifically, liberal scholars will remind us that no one had a tape recorder when Jesus was speaking. If the Gospel of Matthew wasn’t completed for at least a couple decades after the fact, how could Matthew possibly have preserved an accurate record of what Jesus said?
Instead, they argue that the author pieced together a hodgepodge of Jesus’ sayings along with a few other things Jesus’ disciples invented. And they base this claim on the fact that many parts of the Sermon are repeated in various other places throughout the Gospels. They claim this proves the Sermon is just a hodgepodge of miscellaneous sayings. But I believe that…
Matthew 5–7 is an abridged version of a single, authentic sermon by Jesus. The main reason we must view this as an authentic record of Jesus’ sermon is because Matthew clearly presents it as such. 5:1–2 introduce a sermon, and 7:28–29 clearly describe the conclusion of a sermon.
If Matthew knowingly compiled sayings from various occasions, the introduction and conclusion are at best misleading, if not deceitful. So, the liberal view essentially makes Matthew, or whoever they say is the author, out to be a liar. That’s a problem, and the evidence doesn’t match the claim.
Specifically, the fact that Jesus repeats himself in other places is not a problem, because all preachers and teachers repeat themselves. I’m sure there are things I say over and over that you are tired of hearing.
And itinerant preachers definitely repeat themselves. If you are constantly speaking to new audiences, you are going to say the same things over and over. It’s just silly to assume that every repetition of the same statement or illustration must point back to a single event.
But how confident should we be that Matthew preserved an accurate record of what Jesus said? First, it’s a known fact that ancient peoples, who couldn’t rely on voice recordings, were much more skilled than we are at preserving oral traditions. Just because we don’t have that skill doesn’t mean they didn’t.
As well, it’s very possible that Matthew used written records to write his Gospel. And most importantly, he didn’t write his Gospel on his own. The Holy Spirit directed everything that he wrote. Therefore, we should be confident that Matthew 5–7 is an accurate record of what Jesus said.
Now, I do also believe that it’s likely that he said more. Afterall, it only takes about 13 minutes to read Matthew 5–7 out loud. That’s a pretty short sermon (And you can keep your snide remarks to yourself). So, I imagine that Jesus probably expanded on some of these things, and Matthew probably has given us an abridged version of the sermon. But it is still an accurate record.
III. How do I apply the sermon?
You may think this is another duh question. “Just do what Jesus said.” But we’ll see that some of the applications are not that simple. As a result, there are several influential views on how to apply the sermon. They’re worth discussing, because they raise some important issues. The 1st view…
Social Gospel: Roadmap to Salvation and World Transformation: Several years ago, I remember watching some kind of national ceremony, and a liberal pastor read a portion of the Sermon. Then he looked at the audience and said, “This is the gospel of our Lord” even though his text said nothing about the death of Christ and that never comes up in the Sermon.
They base this off 4:23, which says that Jesus was preaching “the gospel of the kingdom,” and they claim that the Sermon is that gospel. And they claim that if everyone would live by the Sermon, we could transform the world into a better place. We could maybe even bring in God’s kingdom.
Now, it’s true that the world would be a better place if everyone obeyed the Sermon. But Jesus didn’t set out to provide a roadmap for broad social reform. Chapter 7 is very clear that Jesus expected most people to reject what he said. He’s not focused on fixing society but on teaching his disciples how to live in a hostile world. Yes, we should be salt and light in society, but we can’t bring in the kingdom. Jesus will do that.
Anabaptist/Mennonite: Pacifist Manifesto: This view is similar to the previous one, but it especially highlights things like the Golden Rule and Jesus’ statement about turning the other cheek. From there they argue that Jesus is condemning military service or self-defense. We should just lay down our arms and watch God bring everyone together.
I doubt this view would be very popular in our crowd, but it is out there. And we will need to give serious thought to what “turning the other cheek” really means. But the biggest problem with this view is the simple fact that the Sermon is about a lot more than turning the other cheek.
Lutheran: Impossible Standard Intended to Point us to Christ: This view raises a couple of very important and practical issues. First, Jesus does not articulate the true gospel in the Sermon. There’s no discussion of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection or of the divine grace that is necessary to walk in holiness.
Rather, the Sermon is almost exclusively law/ethical standards to live by. And the standard is very high (5:20, 48). Just this week, someone asked me how in the world God could command sinners to “Be perfect…”?
Therefore, Lutherans have argued that the Sermon is Law, but not a law that we are expected to obey. No, the basic purpose of the Sermon is to point out how far we fall short of God’s holiness so that we run to Christ for salvation.
There is an element of truth in this. I can’t “be perfect” and earn a place in the kingdom. I need salvation. And it’s also true that I cannot possibly live up to God’s standard apart from grace. I need the new birth.
But the NT consistently teaches that by God’s grace I can make progress in obedience. Therefore, it everywhere assumes that I will strive by God’s grace to live up to the ethical standards of Scripture. It never views God’s commands as solely a reminder of my need of grace.
Also, Jesus doesn’t give any indication in the sermon that he doesn’t expect us to obey it. And Matthew 28:20 commands us to teach disciples “to observe all things I have commanded you.” And with this verse we come to a 4th
Covenant Theology: Directly Applicable to the Church: This is a pretty simple view to understand. Most people who hold to covenant theology (As well as many dispensationalists), argue that Jesus is simply providing an updated ethic for his disciples extending into the church age.
I’m sympathetic, but I also think it’s an oversimplification. For example, the Beatitudes promise several physical blessings that we will not necessarily receive in this age. As well, so much of the Sermon is shaped by the experience of Jews living under the Law and all the Jewish traditions surrounding the Law. We live in a very different world, so some of our applications will be different. But I’m not comfortable moving to a 5th view…
Classical Dispensationalism: Law for the Millennial Kingdom: I don’t know of anyone who holds this narrow of a view today. But C. I. Scofield and other early dispensationalists believed that the Sermon is not directly applicable to the church. Instead, Jesus was articulating the law for the MK.
But neither Matthew nor Jesus says this is what he is doing, and the last verse of Matthew records Jesus commanding us “to observe all things I have commanded you.” So, we can’t just push the Sermon to the MK. So, here are my thoughts regarding interpreting and applying the Sermon.
Always read Scripture in its historical context. Context always affects meaning, and the Sermon is no exception. Therefore, we must recognize…
The Sermon on the Mount was addressed to Jews living under the Mosaic Law (5:17, 23–24, 31, 38). And I would add the Jewish traditions surrounding the Law. He constantly references Jewish laws and traditions. If Jesus were addressing the Roman church, the Sermon would be different.
So, we need to be mindful of the fact that Jesus and John the Baptist are preaching the “Gospel of the Kingdom.” They are calling Israel to repent and pursue genuine godliness in keeping with the true heart of the Mosaic Law. This heart is mostly the same for us, but there are differences.
And Jesus especially wanted his Jewish audience that was consumed with overthrowing the Romans to understand that his kingdom is not primarily political. It will have a huge political component, but the Jews need to be more worried about getting right with God than about overthrowing the Roman occupation. That’s important context.
Jesus was also preparing for the church age, and he understood that the Law was almost obsolete. It’s pretty clear when you read through the Sermon and other parts of the Gospels that Jesus wasn’t just telling Israel how to obey the Law. He was preparing for a new age. He talks about the church in Matthew 16, 18. And in 17:24–28, Jesus tells Peter that they are not obligated to pay the temple tax, because they are members of a new kingdom. So, Jesus knew he was living and teaching in a time of transition.
Conclusion: Most of the Sermon on the Mount is directly applicable to us. Again, I want to emphasize that we need to always read Scripture in context. Don’t lose of sight of Jesus’ audience and his broader mission, because it affects his meaning.
And I’d also add that we must always compare Scripture with Scripture. We should compare the Sermon both with what Moses said in the Law and what Paul said in his epistles. We need all of it to form a complete biblical ethic.
But then, for the most part, we should simply view the Sermon as an expression of genuine godliness, and we should obey what Jesus said. This brings us to our final question…
IV. What is God saying to us?
Here’s my basic summary of Jesus’ main point. True religion transforms us from the inside out. Again, Jesus is preaching to a crowd of Jews who lived in a pressure cooker of external conformity. Their religion was largely about trying to keep up with all sorts of extra rules and impressing each other with your godliness. And since the “pride of life” is alive and well in all of us, that pressure will always be there.
So, Jesus emphasizes that true religion does not begin with what I do but who I am. What matters most is my heart before the Lord and my sincere desire to please him. Now, Jesus also teaches that it can’t stay there. The Sermon has plenty to say about what I do. Sincere godliness must also transform the outside by making it into the shape of Christ.
But the order is important. What I do on the outside must flow from sincere godliness. And Jesus especially emphasizes 5 aspects of this sincere godliness.
Humility before God: The Pharisees were known for being confident in their righteousness. But Jesus prioritizes repentance that stems from a clear understanding that God is holy, and I am anything but holy. So, rather than strutting around with nose pointed up, the Beatitudes teach that God looks with favor on the poor in spirit, meek, merciful, peacemaker, and persecuted. Do you want to please the Lord and enjoy his favor? Walk humbly before him.
Repentance for Sin: Jesus is clear that humility before God must lead to repentance. While Jesus never articulates the gospel, chapter 7 emphasizes the need to repent and trust in the Lord, if you have any hope of entering the Kingdom (7:21–23). Jesus reminds us that I don’t work my way into eternal life through good works. No, salvation is rooted in acknowledging my sin and my desperate need of grace.
If you have never repented before God, I pray that you will stop trying to earn your way to God and instead humbly admit your sin and rebellion. There is grace in the cross, and we’d love to show you how you can know that Christ will welcome you into heaven someday.
If you are saved, don’t forget that repentance should be a daily part of your life. The Lord’s Prayer teaches that asking the Lord for forgiveness should be a regular discipline of life that flows from a deep awareness of my sin and brokenness over it.
Sincere Commitment to Godliness: The most convicting aspect of the Sermon is how Jesus repeatedly probes our hearts. It’s not enough to pray and fast or be faithful to your wife. No, by God’s grace, we must pursue a sincere heart for the Lord that leads to a pure heart and pure motives. Jesus is going to cut us in this Sermon. It’s not always going to be pleasant, but it’s for our good.
Love for Others: The Bible consistently teaches that loving God always leads to loving my neighbor, and Jesus will say the same thing. I can’t love God and be a selfish jerk. No I must serve others and live at peace with them.
Wise Living: When you read through the Sermon, it’s amazing how it oozes with wisdom. The longer I pastor, and the longer I watch people make wise choices and really foolish ones, the more I appreciate the practical wisdom of Scripture. Jesus offers so much help, if we will simply listen to what he says and apply it to life.
So, I’m excited to see what the Lord does through this study. I fully expect that some weeks, God is going to do some painful surgery on my heart, but the Sermon is so full of love that I know that whatever the Spirit wants to do will be for my good. I hope that’s your heart too. Ask the Lord to “search you and know you.” And anticipate the joy and blessing on the other side of his convicting work.