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“Introducing the Sermon on the Mount”

After providing his readers with a summary of Jesus’ itinerant ministry as He traversed throughout the whole of Galilee, Matthew has clearly outlined the three-fold ministry of Jesus: (1) Teaching, (2) Preaching, and (3) Healing. Here we have an example of that teaching in what is normally referred to as the Sermon on the Mount (hereafter referred to as SM). This body of Scripture has attracted more attention throughout the ages than any other passage. There are more commentaries, bible studies, self-help books, and motivational posters written on or reflecting the SM than one could ever hope to shake a stick at. But this infatuation with Matthew 5-7 is not a modern phenomenon. In the first 300 years of the church’s existence, Christian writings refer to or quote Matthew chapter 5 more than any other single chapter in the Bible and refer to or quote the SM (Matt. 5-7) more than any other three chapters in the Bible.[1] It is therefore safe to say that this passage which we call the Sermon on the Mount has always attracted disciples of Jesus and is therefore worthy of our careful study.

The Sermon in Context

As already stated, the SM has received a vast amount of attention over the ages. As such, there have been many things stated about the sermon that vary in accuracy from not being particularly helpful to downright heretical. It is important to begin our study of the SM by rooting ourselves in the context.

In Relation to Matthew’s Gospel

Authorial intention is always the key to understanding. It is essential that we therefore retrace Matthew’s presentation of Jesus who is the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. The first notion of Jesus’ public appearance is foreshadowed in 4:15-16 (the notion that Jesus will be the light that those in darkened Galilee see) and specifically mentioned in 4:17 when Jesus begins at that time to preach the need to be repenting due to the proximity of the kingdom from heaven. Therefore, kingdom preaching is closely connected to Jesus’ teaching/preaching ministry. This understanding is made more firm by Matthew in 4:23-25 which sets up the SM by summarizing Jesus’ ministry throughout the whole of Galilee as teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing all their sick. We should expect (1) the SM to fit into at least one of these three categories (teaching, preaching, healing) and (2) the SM to fit into the context of the kingdom. Therefore, it is hardly surprising to find that the kingdom (βασιλεία) is a common theme that runs the course of the SM (5:3, 10, 19(2x), 20: 6:10, 33; 7:21).

To this we must add the purpose for which Matthew includes the SM. Of the four gospels, only Matthew includes this sermon (see below for a discussion on the relationship of the SM with the Sermon on the Plain (hereafter referred to as SP) in Lk. 6:17-49) by Jesus. Therefore, there must be something about this sermon that fits Matthew’s argument, otherwise he would not have selected this occasion to reproduce word perfect for future generations. The glue that holds the SM together and joins it to the rest of Matthew’s gospel is Jesus’ authority. His teaching here drips with authoritative assumptions and is concluded by stating that His audience recognized His authority (7:29). This authority is then the subject of investigation throughout chapters 8&9 as Matthew reveals Jesus exercising His authority over all aspects of creation and the curse. In short, the SM proclaims Jesus’ authority while the following chapters prove it. This understanding demands that these words are Jesus’ words rather than Matthew’s. While Matthew is credited with faithfully recording these words, their arrangement and composition began in the mind of Jesus. We cannot make this sermon Matthew’s sermon, for it belongs to Jesus.[2]

In Relation to Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain”

The fact that Luke 6:17-49 records a very similar discourse by Jesus has led many to wrongly consider that Luke’s SP is the same event as Matthew’s SM. This errant view was shared by the majority of the reformers to include John Calvin and continues to be the dominant view among scholars. There are at least four reasons why it is impossible to conclude that the SP in Luke and the SM in Matthew are the same even from two different perspectives and are therefore two different sermons preached on two different occasions with similar (sometimes identical) material. Before these reasons are produced, there is an overarching assumption that must be accounted for: authorial intention. The following argument assumes that each gospel writer has a specific objective to accomplish and is therefore not attempting to write a simple biography of Jesus’ ministry. The events chosen are selected with precision and ordered with care to advance an argument. This means that none of the gospel writers copied from each other or obtained source material from any of their fellow recorders. In other words, both Matthew and Luke record these events independently from each other.

Regarding the reasons to view the SM and the SP as two separate sermons preached on two different occasions, we will first present the two main reasons why those in error suppose these sermons to be the same in the light of logic and reason. There is first an argument of similar material. It is supposed that because the SM and the SP cover much of the same material that they therefore must refer to the same sermon and the same occasion. It is ironic how many supposed scholars first freely admit that Jesus was an itinerate preacher who reused many of His word-pictures, pithy statements, and thematic material as He went from village to village and town to town only to then state that the similar material between the SM and the SP “proves” them to be the same sermon.[3] Their intellect is truly dizzying. If the similarity between the SM and the SP is presented as evidence of one sermon preached on the same occasion from two different perspectives, then we are forced to find a single instance for every single similar statement in all four gospels. This manner of thinking is utterly ridiculous and should not be taken seriously as evidence either for or against the present discussion. Jesus was an itinerate preacher who reused material on numerous occasions. The similar material in the SM and the SP proves nothing.

Secondly, those who erroneously assume that the SP and the SM are the same sermon rely heavily on chronology for their argument. They suppose because both Matthew (Matt. 8:1ff.) and Luke (Lk. 7:1ff) record Jesus going into Capernaum after the sermon that these are two different perspectives of the same sermon. Not only does this view ignorantly assume that chronology is part of both Luke and Matthew’s intention, it also ignores a fast amount of discrepancies. The following is a list of events that Matthew records after the SM and Luke records before the SP: (1) Healing the leper (Matt. 8:2-4; Lk. 5:12-16), (2), Healing the paralytic (Matt. 9:1-8; Lk. 5:17-26), (3) The calling of Matthew/Levi (Matt. 9:9; Lk. 5:27), (4) Jesus presented as Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-8; Lk. 6:1-5), (5) Jesus healing the man with the withered hand in the synagogue (Matt. 12:9-14; Lk. 6:6-11); and (6) Jesus’ selection of the twelve (Matt. 10:1-4; Lk. 6:12-16). Unless one of the gospel writers is a phony, then it is clear that chronology does not drive either gospel writer’s intention. Therefore, chronology cannot be used in the discussion as “proof” for or against. The fact that both Matthew and Luke record Jesus entering Capernaum after preaching proves nothing. Rather than cobbling together what these events have in common, it is necessary to understand what sets them apart.

Our third reason why we believe the SM and the SP to be two separate sermons preached on two separate occasions is based on the differences in context. Matthew and Luke take two very different, even contradictory, approaches to setting up this sermon if in fact they are one and the same. Matthew emphatically presents Jesus as going up the mountain (5:1) while Luke has Jesus coming down a mountain (6:17). Matthew has Jesus teaching from the vantage point of the mountain (5:1) while Luke sets the teaching down the mountain on a level place (6:17). Matthew presents Jesus teaching from a sitting position (5:1) while Luke has Jesus standing (6:17). These differences extend past the scene to the very material contained within the sermon. For example, Matthew records 8 beatitudes while Luke includes only 4 (not all of which correspond with any of Matthew’s 8) beatitudes and 4 woes. The differences in setting and content strongly indicate two different sermons with similar material rather than two different perspectives.

The fourth and final reason covered here carefully considers the text of these two sermons. The level of detail and precision used for both the SM and the SP demand one of two explanations. Either (1) these are two different sermons or (2) Jesus never used the words contained in either the SM or the SP. The SM is one of the most carefully balanced discourses ever recorded. The following chart demonstrates the nearly perfect balancing of the SM’s 111 verses.

Not only is there obvious structure and completeness on the macro scale of the SM but on the micro scale as well. For example, the first four of Matthew’s eight beatitudes are alliterated (πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, πενθοῦντες, πραεῖς, and πεινῶντες) and thus linked together. This does not indicate a summarization of a sermon but a word-perfect reproduction. Likewise, the SP shows a tremendous amount of craftsmanship that reveals internal integrity while at the same time fails to adhere to Matthew’s SM. For example, four beatitudes in the SP do not correspond with Matthew’s but are paired with the four woes that follow. Rather than copying Matthew or offering a different perspective, Luke seems to be recording something different. Either Matthew and Luke are recording the very words of Jesus (ipsissima verba), or they are creating and crafting their own sermons and passing them off as Jesus’. We must either accept that Matthew and Luke record two different occasions in order to present their own agendas or we are forced to suspect both as forgeries. There is no middle ground on this issue.

The above discussion may be summarized as follows: (1) Both the SM and the SP consist of the verb words (ipsissima verba) of Jesus. (2) Similarities between the two sermons are explained by the fact that Jesus taught the same themes using many of the same analogies on a variety of occasions. (3) While both Matthew and Luke use chronology in their perspective gospels, neither writer are slaves to chronology. (4) The differences between the two sermons combined with the careful structure of each strongly suggest that these are two different sermons preached on two different occasions.

The Sermon as a Whole

With so many works, commentaries, sermons, lectures, etc. on the SM, there is no shortage of opinions regarding the sermon’s purpose and structure. Yet, the one thing that all various viewpoints have in common is a belief that the sermon has both structure and an overarching point.

The Sermon’s Structure

A careful reader will notice that the SM contains several inclusio statements to bracket off various sections. Two examples of these bookends are: (1) The beatitudes which are introduced (5:3) and concluded (5:10) by referencing individuals who are blessed because of their association with the kingdom of heaven, and (2) The sermon’s main body seems to be bracketed by references to the law and the prophets (5:17; 7:12). In addition to Jesus’ use of inclusio, He often makes use of repeating phrases and formats. For example, 5:21-48 contains six sections each of which begins more or less the same way: “You have heard it said…but I tell you” (5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44). Likewise, 6:1-18 contains three sections, each of which conclude with the statement: “they have their reward in full” (6:2, 5, 16). Finally, we should note Jesus’ repetitive use of coupling. Toward the end of the sermon (7:13-27), Jesus links no less than three couplets together to form contrasting ideas (two gates, two trees, two houses). These observations show not only that Jesus thought out a well-structured sermon, but also a cohesive sermon. The use of inclusio marks off major sections while the repetitions and pairings highlight the distinctive nature of individual sections. Based on these observations, the following outline is purposed:

As already mentioned, this outline is not simply thematically dependent but is also wonderfully balanced. The introduction (5:1-16) and conclusion (7:13-29) are nearly identical in length. Of the three main points of the sermon’s body, the first (5:17-48) and third (6:19-7:12) are significantly longer yet are nearly equal in length as well. The second major point (6:1-18) is the shortest and yet is the only main point to have three obvious subpoints (vv. 1-4, 5-15, 16-18). Of these three subpoints, the second is significantly longer than its counterparts. This marks 6:5-15 as the center of Jesus’ sermon, which is beginning to take on the form of a chiasm. At the center of this chiasm, we find none other than the Lord’s model prayer (6:9-13) and the sixth of eight references to the coming kingdom (v. 10).

The Sermon’s Point

To suggest that the kingdom (ἡ βασιλεία) is a major theme in the SM is like saying that the ocean is wet. But to truly understand the significance of the kingdom it is not enough to simply take note of the number of times the term is used.[4] What is even more significant is where these references to the kingdom are found within the sermon’s structure. Every major section of the SM – introduction (5:3, 10), body (5:19, 20; 6:10, 33), and conclusion (7:21) – contains references to the kingdom. Within the body, each major section – Point 1 (5:19, 20), Point 2 (6:10), Point 3 (6:33) – contain their own references to the kingdom. Within those main points, the center of the sermon (6:5-15) is the home of the sermon’s center. The bull’s eye of the dead center of the sermon is found in 6:10 in which urges Jesus’ followers to pray for God’s kingdom to come. The theme of the kingdom is literally shot through every layer of this sermon.

The reference to the kingdom in 6:10 is a prayer that understands the reality of the kingdom not having yet arrived, for it is preached with the understanding that it has come near (4:17). Yet the prayer longs for this kingdom to come and be established so that God’s will would be accomplished on earth to the extent that it is already accomplished and executed in heaven. Jesus addresses His followers as if they are citizens of this kingdom, yet freely acknowledges that the kingdom has not yet come. Jesus addresses aliens and sojourners who are waiting for the coming of the kingdom.

Over the last 2000 years there have been many different interpretations of the SM that range from the absurd (an understanding that because the kingdom is yet future, we must deny a direct application of any ethical demands within the SM on the present/non-kingdom readers[5]) to the radical (a fully realized eschatology that takes the ethical standards of the SM as a roadmap to advance society to prosperity; i.e., the social gospel).[6] What is generally understood among even the zaniest of interpreters is the eschatological emphasis within the SM. Yet from the church’s earliest days there has been an understanding that the ethical demands found within the SM are real. In other words, Jesus does not waste His time preaching and demanding what is impossible but expects His followers to adhere to and obey the commands He gives.[7] This understanding assumes that Jesus is addressing His disciples, those whom He changes and enables to do His will. This interpretation takes seriously the fact that the kingdom from heaven has not yet arrived while limiting this sermon to those who follow Jesus alone.

The sermon reveals how kingdom citizens live in a world that has not yet been conquered by the King while they wait for the kingdom. Plainly stated, the SM exhorts those who claim to follow Jesus to follow Him alone by revealing what following Jesus alone looks like (5:17-48), how following Jesus alone is accomplished on a practical level (6:1-18), and why it is necessary to trust and follow Jesus alone (6:19-7:12). The sermon begins by promising blessing for those who follow Jesus alone (5:3-13) and warns against the dangers of following anyone else (7:13-27). The application for the church today is obvious, simple, and necessary: Follow Jesus Alone!

[1] Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology 11 (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), p. 2. [2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 92-3. [3] John Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, An American Commentary on the New Testament (Forgotten Books, 2012), p. 83-4; Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, p. 12-13; Grant Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 161. [4] Matthew’s 8 uses of βασιλεία over the course of 111 verses has an average of once every 14 verses. Compare that with Luke’s SP which only contains one reference to the kingdom (6:20) over the course of 33 verses. The SM is more than three times as long as the SP and references the kingdom eight times more often with twice the frequency. [5] Though this interpretation was popular among classical dispensationalists in the late 19th and early 20th century, I am not aware of any advocates of this position within the last 50 years. Nonetheless, it gives opportunity for errant covenant theologians to light the dispensational strawman ablaze. [6] D. A. Carson, Walter Wessel, and Mark Strauss, Matthew & Mark, Revised, vol. 9, 13 vols., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 155-6. [7] Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, p. 4-5, 20.

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