How to interpret the sermon on the mount has given rise to much disagreement among bible teachers. Some regard it as a summary of Matthew’s gospel, others as basically moralistic dissertation. Those of the Lutheran tradition have seen it as an interpretation of the law designed to drive men and women to grace. Others take it to be a statement of morality prompting men and women towards social progress. Many have believed it to be an ethical standard for all generations.
With all these conflicting voices, then, this first great discourse of our Lord must be approached with humility and prayer for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, John 16. 13.
The Sermon is consistent with the essential message of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus the King, because it is a clear outline of the principles applying to His kingdom. True, that kingdom was to be rejected soon after this message was proclaimed. But the principles laid down will be put in place when our Lord returns to reign over Israel and the nations during His millennial reign.
As they listened, the disciples must have been impressed by the contrast in the standards set out by our Lord and those they knew and saw around them. This must also have been true of all generations since that time, including our own. It will continue to be so until our Lord returns to reign. In a world of power politics, force and intrigue it makes strange reading to contemplate an order of things built upon meekness, holiness and obedience to the divine will!
Many have regarded this Sermon as a collection made by Matthew of our Lord’s teachings on different occasions. But this is unlikely, indeed unhelpful, because it conflicts with the design of our Lord early in His ministry to set out the principles of His coming kingdom. There is a clear pattern to the teaching; it does not read like an anthology.
There has also been much speculation over the relationship between Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, Luke 6. 17-49. Some Reformation teachers, including Calvin, saw the two as being the same discourse. Earlier bible scholars upheld the view that the two were separate sermons. In more recent times there has been a return to the original view. This has been strengthened by a clearer understanding of bible prophecy for which we are indebted to brethren before us.
We needn’t be perplexed by the fact that our Lord repeated Himself on different occasions. As the Master-Teacher He knew the need for repetition for emphasis. In any case it was inevitable that He would go over old ground as He encountered different groups. In the two cases mentioned there are contrasting locations, the mount and the plain. Furthermore the audiences were different, in Matthew the disciples, 5. 1 - later joined by a wider group, 7. 28 - and in Luke the multitude, 6. 19.
The implied reproofs of the Sermon on the Mount were not lost on the Jews. It is significant that their attitude immediately hardened and during chapters 8 to 12 we read of increasing hostility towards the Lord and His ministry. This in turn gave rise to the two further major discourses recorded by Matthew, chapter 13 on the mysteries of the kingdom and chapters 24-25 on the events leading up to the kingdom, both of which assume the Jews’ rejection.
To understand the Sermon on the Mount we must look carefully at the context. Jesus had begun His ministry after calling the twelve to follow Him. In the last three verses of chapter 4 we have a concise statement about Jesus beginning to teach in the synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom to come, healing the sick as an evidence of His Messiahship, cf. 11. 2-6. His fame spread throughout Syria and crowds came from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judaea and beyond Jordan. Now, by this sermon He lays the groundwork for the kingdom. In so doing the stage is set for His rejection by the Jews.
It is important to notice that what our Lord taught was in contrast to the political ideas prevalent at the time in Israel. His subjects were to be motivated by a moral and spiritual code, in contrast to an order of things which subjugated everything and everyone to external human authority. The Pharisees and scribes were looking for deliverance from Roman domination, not their own sinful desires.
Our Lord told them that in His kingdom the lowly were to be exalted, the sorrowing comforted, the meek invested with authority and, indeed, would inherit the earth. His subjects were to be a giving, praying and spiritual people. The basic ethic was to be the golden rule, 7. 12.
Such teaching put the Jewish authorities on the defensive and spawned their hatred for the Teacher.
Because they felt threatened the Jewish leaders regarded the Sermon on the Mount as an ultimatum from Christ that He would overthrow them and what they stood for.
Indeed the Sermon on the Mount was a formal proclamation by the King of His coming kingdom, not merely a dissertation on spiritual principles as many believe. It was much more than a conglomeration of ethical and spiritual teachings.
It led from the Old Testament law to a rebuttal of the traditions and practices which had become accepted by the Jews. Here He was detailing the order of things to prevail in His kingdom to come. As such, we cannot brush it aside as being irrelevant to our day.
These are principles which express God’s character and a declaration of what He requires of His people. They therefore warrant careful consideration by all generations, including our own.
Yet living as we do in this dispensation of the grace of God, not being part of historic Israel and not looking for a kingdom on earth, it is important for us to be careful in our interpretation of this sermon.
William Kelly gives a helpful suggestion: ‘The Sermon on the Mount treats not of salvation, but of the character and conduct of those that belong to Christ—the true, yet rejected king’. While we cannot hope to justify ourselves by our actions - only God’s grace through faith can achieve that -the standards which God has set for His kingdom people must surely be relevant to our own. The qualities and precepts which express the character of God in this sermon must surely characterize all who are led by the Spirit of God in any age.
While it is true that to Israel ‘pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises’, Rom. 9. 4, to us it is given to serve and represent Him in this day of the grace of God.
To know how to apply the Sermon on the Mount we must have a clear understanding of God’s unfolding purposes as these were declared in His promises to the covenant people. Those without that understanding are in despair in trying to interpret the message. Typical is the comment by Henry H. Halley: ‘We have never seen any analysis of the Sermon on the Mount that is satisfactory. It seems to require considerable straining to make it fit in any outline devised by those who take it as a whole to be a logical development of some particular thesis, as many commentators do’.
This confusion comes from a lack of understanding of God’s Old Testament covenant promises to Israel. To perceive only of an application to this present age must lead to very figurative, and indeed unsatisfactory, interpretations.
It is important that we understand how its full fulfilment will take place during the kingdom age when godly Israel inherits the promised kingdom of God on earth. That kingdom was offered - and rejected - at our Lord’s first advent; it will be realized at His return to reign.
The rejection by Israel was the ground on which God in His grace called the Gentiles: ‘Through their (Israel’s) fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy’, Rom. 11. 11. That ‘provocation’ is designed to reach out to ‘a disobedient and gainsaying people’, Rom. 10. 21, cf. Isa. 65. 2 (Sept.) The ultimate establishment of the kingdom will bring unequalled blessing to the nations as well, Rom. 11. 12.
With this background the sermon can readily be understood. We shall look briefly at the morality of the kingdom, chapter 5, faith of the kingdom, chapter 6, and contrasts of the kingdom, chapter 7. While the principles of the kingdom will only be fully realized in the millennium, we shall see that they are of more than academic interest to us in the days in which we live.
Your Basket Is Empty