Sermon on the Mount

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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, one.

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Contexts of the Sermon

Matthew

(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.

Synoptic Gospels

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.

Theological Assessment

Famous Sections

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.

Troublesome Passages

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 interpersonal relationships.

Influence and Interpretation

Influence

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)

Bibliography
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

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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)


Also, see:
Beatitudes


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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