What is the Sermon on the Mount?
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus Christ’s most famous discourse. Many Christians and non-Christians have been deeply impressed and motivated by its teachings. Some people refer to it as the revelation of the higher law at a time when God’s people were still under the obligation of the lower one. On a superficial level, the Sermon on the Mount and its counterpart in Luke-the Sermon on the Plain-are a commentary on the ethics of the Law of Moses. Some elements they retain-as evidenced through silence on many important subjects-while other elements they specifically reform or transform.
Three main points of the Sermon on the Mount stand out as representative of the meaning and focus of the sermon as a whole: the Beatitudes, the six antitheses of Matthew 5, and the directions given to the disciples about how they should care for the flock. The Beatitudes, a later term that comes from the Latin “Blessed,” although simple in language and straightforward in presentation, offer one of the sermon’s most profound teachings. The Beatitudes form a cohesive unit, and when read as a sequence, they detail the process from conversion to salvation. The first beatitude promises the poor a place in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:2), a process that fits well with those who hear the gospel and prepare themselves for baptism. The second beatitude promises those who “mourn” that they “shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:3), a sentiment that describes all those who are entering the kingdom and undergoing the often-painful process of repentance.
Each of the Beatitudes builds upon this foundation in sequential order. However, the eighth beatitude follows all those who live a Christlike life, reminding us that the devil will not permit us to progress to salvation without opposition (“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake”). The sequential order of the Beatitudes also seems to have a direct correspondence to the ordinances of the gospel in order. The Beatitudes represent the essence of what is required of those who wish to enter the kingdom of heaven.
A second main focal point is the five laws that are transformed in Matthew 5. In order, they are “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou salt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not forswear thyself,” “An eye for an eye,” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43). Surprisingly, not all of these passages are direct quotations from the Old Testament; some, for example, refer specifically to a scripture (Exodus 20), and some appear to summarize an interpretation of the law: “thou shalt not forswear thyself.” Of these five important laws or concepts that were changed, several glaring gaps are noticeable. For example, the law of sacrifice and the law of tithes and offerings are nowhere altered.
The five laws of Matthew 5 are not comprehensive in content but instead consistently teach a method-the method of internalizing an external commandment. In essence, the issue is whether an external commandment or an internal principle is greater. If we obey the external commandment, will we always be obedient to the principle? Or if we obey the principle, will we always be obedient to the commandment? One of the core features of the Sermon on the Mount is its teachings on how to internalize an external commandment and therefore achieve a greater level of obedience.
The final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount does not teach the disciples new doctrine but instead trains them in the future affairs and government of the church. For example, it teaches how to differentiate between those who look like sheep but are not and to distinguish between those who call on the Lord in righteousness and those who know his name and pretend to do his works but inside are full of iniquity. The issue is not encroachment from the outside but corruption from the center. The purity of the kingdom is of first concern, and the disciples of the Lord were taught how to maintain that purity. In almost all aspects, the Sermon on the Mount teaches how to be Christian from the inside working out, a transformation that will later shape environment. Changes in behavior have a greater influence on environment than changes to environment have on behavior.