Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount is the
discourse of Jesus in Matt. 5-7, containing the epitome of his
ethical teaching. The shorter but parallel sermon in Luke 6:20-49 is
usually known as the Sermon on the Plain, because of a different
description of the setting. No other block of Jesus' teaching has
enjoyed such wide influence and intense examination. Its uniqueness
derives not only from its impact as a whole, but also from the fact
that some of its parts have attained classical status on their own.
The sermon has been called anything from essential Christianity to
Jesus' manifesto, but it is best seen as the height of Jesus' ethical
demands on his disciples occasioned by the nearness of the kingdom.
Since Matt. portrays Jesus as seated in rabbinic posture teaching his
disciples, the term "sermon" is an unfortunate, though now unavoidable,
Contexts of the Sermon
(1) Structure. The body of Matt. is
organized around five discourses of Jesus, each ending with a
transitional formula beginning, "When Jesus finished...." The sermon is
the first of these discourses, and, coupled with the narrative section
which follows in chs. 8-9, forms a characterization of Jesus' early
Galilean ministry. Some of the Beautitudes have corresponding woes in
ch. 23, whereas in Luke these appear in the sermon itself.
(2) Theology. The sermon meshes well with the theology of Matt. in
several respects, especially in parallels with the Pentateuch and
emphasis on the kingdom. The initial verse calls to mind early
statements in Gen., and as he presents Jesus' preadult life, certain
similarities with Moses are quite striking. The sermon is set on a
mountain, and Jesus comes to fulfill the law (5:17) and sets himself up
as the authoritative interpreter of its true meaning in the antitheses
of ch. 5. The kingdom theme combines with that of righteousness in 5:20
and 6:33, but its importance is seen above all in the Beatitudes, which
begin and end with a promise of the kingdom, thus indicating that this
is their overriding focus.
Various attempts to place the sermon precisely in
Jesus' ministry have proven problematic, but it certainly belongs
early. That it bears some relationship to Luke's Sermon on the Plain is
evident, especially from the overall agreement in the ordering of
parallel material. The greatest difference is the absence in Luke of
the Palestinian Jewish or OT background to the sayings and of the whole
block of material where Jesus' teaching is set over against some of
contemporary Judaism (5:17-6:18). Of the various explanations of the
relationship between the two sermons, the most satisfactory one is that
they represent two separate teaching occassions reflecting different
versions of a discourse Jesus gave on several occasions, but adapted to
each situation. This allows for the redactional activity in Matt., but
ascribes the basic sermon as it stands to Jesus himself.
NT as a Whole
The position of the sermon on the continuum of NT
theology may be seen in light of the commonly perceived extremes, James
and Paul. There are more close parallels between the sermon and James
than with any other NT writing, and both of them belong in the Wisdom
tradition. Because of the widespread belief that Paul and Jesus, in the
sermon, taught faith-righteousness versus works-righteousness, the two
are often seen as poles apart theologically.
Three parts of the sermon
have wielded considerable influence in their own right on Christian
consciousness and liturgy. The Beatitudes have the kingdom as their
primary theme, but they also introduce other of the sermon's emphases.
In contrast to their consoling nature in Luke, in Matt. they assume the
character of ethical demands, and the focus of the blessings themselves
is eschatological. The Matthean version of the Lord's Prayer is poetic
with beautiful symmetry and has heavily influenced Christian liturgy.
Jesus uses it as an illustration of the need for simplicity in prayer,
and some of its words suggest his follow-up principle of reciprocal
forgiveness. The Golden Rule (7:12) brings to their apex the sermon's
earlier teachings on interpersonal relations. Its interpreters have
often stressed Jesus' positive mode of formulating this principle in
contrast to the negative way by other great religious teachers. In the
context of Jesus' thought as a whole, the Golden Rule is his way of
expressing Lev. 19:18b, which he elsewhere calls the second great
commandment (Matt. 22:39), for he sees both as the epitome of the law
and the prophets.
Several of Jesus' precepts are presented in such
an absolute form that many interpreters have questioned the sermon's
applicability to the average Christian. Tolstoi, on the other hand,
while failing to recognize Jesus' use of such techniques as hyperbole,
found here maxims the serious person must literally observe. Certainly
the person who literally destroys an eye or a hand (5:29-30) has not
solved his problem, because he still has another left. Hyperbole here
serves to underscore the urgency of radical action to remove the source
of a temptation. Jesus' forbidding of judging (7:1) has led some to
conclude that a Christian cannot be a judge or serve on a jury;
however, he is not giving the word a legal meaning, but is talking
about being judgmental in interpersonal relations. The prohibition
against swearing (5:34) has led some to refuse to swear, even in court,
but Jesus' words are best seen against the background of the elaborate
rabbinic system of loopholes that precluded simple honesty in personal
dealings. Jesus himself took an oath (Mark 8:12). Finally, Jesus'
principle of nonresistance (Matt. 5:39) has been applied even to
military and police force, whereas, again, Jesus relates it to
Influence and Interpretation
Since the second century no
block of Scripture of comparable size has exerted as great an influence
as the sermon. In the pre-Nicene period, passages from this discourse
were quoted or alluded to more than from any other part of the Bible.
To the present day these words still profoundly challenge Christians
and non-Christians alike. They caused Tolstoi to change completely his
social theory and influenced the development of Gandhi's use of
nonviolence as a political force. Even Nietzche, who objected to the
teachings of the sermon, did not ignore them.
History of Interpretation
The arresting nature of the sermon has
produced numerous diverging efforts to explain, or even explain away,
Jesus' words. Many have resisted efforts to limit the sermon's
applicability. One approach sees Jesus teaching an
obedience-righteousness that cannot be reconciled with Paul.
Anabaptists did not go so far, but insisted that Jesus' words are so
absolute that their obedience precludes Christian participation in
certain social and political institutionss. Bonhoeffer reacted against
those who would analyze and interpret but fail to do the sermon. It
must be done, but the power to do it comes only from the cross. Luther
attempted to avoid what he regarded as the extremes of both the Roman
and Anabaptist interpretations and stressed the obligation to keep the
sermon's commandments. Liberal Protestantism has seen the sermon as the
heart of the gospel and as Jesus' program for reforming society.
Others have attempted to limit the sermon's applicability. The
predominant Lutheran view, though not of Luther himself, is that the
sermon presents an impossible ideal which cannot be realized, so its
function is to show man his inadequacy so he will be prepared for the
gospel. What is sometimes called the existential position sees Jesus as
attempting to change attitudes, not actions. The medieval Catholic
interpretation called these precepts "evangelical counsels" for the few
who would seek perfection, rather than commandments for every
Christian. Two approaches limit the full applicability of the sermon to
the breaking in of the kingdom, but with different results: Schweitzer
saw Jesus primarily as an eschatological figure, so he coined the term
"interim ethics" to emphasize that the stringent requirements of the
sermon could apply only to the stress-packed times immediately before
God introduced his kingdom, an event which never occurred, so the
sermon does not apply to our modern situation. Dispensationalists also
limit the sermon's focus to the kingdom, so for them Jesus' teachings
will fully apply only at its future coming.
Meaning of the Sermon
Jesus concludes the sermon by setting up
certain requirements that relate directly to one's being saved or lost.
He divides mankind into three classes: those who (1) follow him
(7:13-14, 17, 21, 24-25), (2) do not follow him (vss. 13-44, 26-27),
and (3) pretend to follow him (vss. 15-20, 21-23). To be saved one must
actually follow the teachings of the sermon, but Jesus does not say
they must be performed perfectly. The saved are those who accept and
actually attempt to direct their lives by the sermon; the lost are
those who pretend to follow or who reject these teachings. Is this any
different from Paul's man of faith? Was Paul not scandalized by the
notion that a person may live the way he wants? The person who rests
his faith in Jesus determines to follow him. This is Jesus and Paul.
Mere profession of belief, without the following, will secure Jesus'
condemnation, "I never knew you. You evildoers, depart from me" (vs.
23). An unfortunate feature of much post-Reformation Christianity has
been the interpretation of Jesus in light of Paul rather than the
converse. One of the contributions of Bonhoeffer's treatment of this
sermon is his insistence on reading Paul in light of Jesus and, hence,
his stressing the necessity of doing the sermon. Perfection is not
demanded and aid is provided, but still the true disciple is "the who
does the will of the Father" (vs. 21).
G T Burke
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
Augustine, Our Lord's Sermon on the Mount; M. Luther,
The Sermon on the Mount; H. K. McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on
the Mount; W. S. Kissinger, The Sermon on the Mount; A Dictionary of
the Bible, extra vol., 1-45; K. Grayston, IDB, IV, 279-89; G.
Friedlander, The Jewish Sources of the Sermon on the Mount; C. G.
Montefiore, Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teachings; D. Bonhoeffer,
The Cost of Discipleship; A. N. Wilder, IB, VII, 155-64; J. Jeremias,
The Sermon on the Mount; W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the
Mount and The Sermon on the Mount; R. M. Grant, "The Sermon on the
Mount in Early Christianity," Sem 12:215-31; R. Guelich, The Sermon on
the Mount; J. R. W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture.
Sermon on the Mount
After spending a night in solemn meditation and prayer in the lonely
mountain-range to the west of the Lake of Galilee (Luke 6:12), on the
following morning our Lord called to him his disciples, and from among
them chose twelve, who were to be henceforth trained to be his apostles
(Mark 3:14, 15). After this solemn consecration of the twelve, he
descended from the mountain-peak to a more level spot (Luke 6:17), and
there he sat down and delivered the "sermon on the mount" (Matt. 5-7;
Luke 6:20-49) to the assembled multitude. The mountain here spoken of
was probably that known by the name of the "Horns of Hattin" (Kurun
Hattin), a ridge running east and west, not far from Capernaum. It was
afterwards called the "Mount of Beatitudes."
(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)
The individual articles presented here were generally first published
in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed
on the Internet in December 1997.
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