Sermon on the Mount
I. PARALLEL ACCOUNTS
II. HISTORICITY OF THE DISCOURSE
III. TIME AND OCCASION
V. THE HEARERS
VI. THE MESSAGE: SUMMARY
2. Argument: The Kingdom of God (Heaven)
(1) Characteristics of the Subjects (Matthew 5:3-12)
(2) Vocation of the Subjects (Matthew 5:13-16)
(3) Relation of New Righteousness to Mosaic Law (Matthew 5:17-48)
(a) The Relation Defined (Matthew 5:17-20)
(b) The Relation Illustrated (Matthew 5:21-48)
(4) Motives and Principles of Conduct (Matthew 6:1 through 7:12)
(a) In Worship (Matthew 6:1-18)
(b) In Life's Purpose (Matthew 6:19-34)
(c) In Social Relations (Matthew 7:1-12)
(5) Hortatory Conclusion (Matthew 7:13-27)
(a) The Narrow Way (Matthew 7:13-14)
(b) The Tests of Character (Matthew 7:15-27)
The Sermon on the Mount is the title commonly given to the collection of sayings recorded in Mt 5:1-48 through 7 and in Lu 6:20-49. The latter is sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain from the fact that it is said to have been delivered on a level space somewhere on the descent of the mountain. The Sermon appears to be an epitome of the teachings of Jesus concerning the kingdom of heaven, its subjects and their life. For this reason it has always held the first place of attention and esteem among the sayings of Jesus.
See SERMON ON THE PLAIN.
I. Parallel Accounts.
As indicated above, the Sermon is reported by both Matthew and Luke. A comparison of the two accounts reveals certain striking differences. A total of 47 verses of the account in Matthew have no parallel in Luke, while but 4 1/2 verses of the latter are wanting in the former. On the other hand, many of the sayings in Matthew that are lacking in the Sermon of Luke, amounting in all to 34 verses, appear elsewhere distributed throughout the Lukan narrative and in some instances connected with different incidents and circumstances.
These facts give rise to some interesting literary and historical questions: Do the two accounts represent two distinct discourses dealing with the same general theme but spoken on different occasions, or are they simply different reports of the same discourse? If it be held that the Sermon was delivered but once, which of the accounts represents more closely the original address? Is the discourse in Matthew homogeneous or does it include sayings originally spoken on other occasions and early incorporated in the Sermon in the gospel tradition?
II. Historicity of the Discourse.
There have been and are today scholars who regard the sermons recorded in Matthew and Luke as collections of sayings spoken on different occasions, and maintain that they do not represent any connected discourse ever delivered by Jesus. In their view the Sermon is either a free compilation by the evangelists or a product of apostolic teaching and oral tradition.
The prevailing opinion among New Testament scholars is, however, that the gospel accounts represent a genuine historical discourse. The Sermon as recorded in Matthew bears such marks of inner unity of theme and exposition as to give the appearance of genuineness. That Jesus should deliver a discourse of this kind accords with all the circumstances and with the purpose of His ministry. Besides, we know that in His teaching He was accustomed to speak to the multitudes at length, and we should expect Him to give early in His ministry some formal exposition of the kingdom, the burden of His first preaching. That such a summary of one of His most important discourses should have been preserved is altogether probable.
On the other hand, it may be conceded that the accounts need not necessarily be regarded as full or exact reports of the discourse but possibly and probably rather summaries of its theme and substance. our Lord was accustomed to teach at length, but this discourse could easily be delivered in a few minutes. Again, while His popular teaching was marked by a unique wealth of illustration the Sermon is largely gnomic in form. This gnomic style and the paucity of the usual concrete and illustrative elements suggest the probability of condensation in transmission. Moreover, it is hardly probable that such an address of Jesus would be recorded at the time of its delivery or would be remembered in detail.
There is evidence that the account in Mt 5:1-48 through 7 contains some sayings not included in the original discourse. This view is confirmed by the fact that a number of the sayings are given in Luke's Gospel in settings that appear more original. It is easy to believe that related sayings spoken on other occasions may have become associated with the Sermon in apostolic teaching and thus handed down with it, but if the discourse were well known in a specific form, such as that recorded in Matthew, it is hardly conceivable that Luke or anyone else would break it up and distribute the fragments or associate them with other incidents, as some of the sayings recorded in both Gospels are found associated in Luke.
III. Time and Occasion.
Both Matthew and Luke agree in assigning the delivery of the Sermon to the first half of the Galilean ministry. The former apparently places it a little earlier than the latter, in whose account it follows immediately after the appointment of the twelve apostles. While the time cannot be accurately determined, the position assigned by the Gospels is approximately correct and is supported by the internal evidence. Portions of the Sermon imply that the opposition of the religious teachers was already in evidence, but it clearly belongs to the first year of our Lord's ministry before that opposition had become serious. On the other hand, the occasion was sufficiently late for the popularity of the new Teacher to have reached its climax. In the early Galilean ministry Jesus confined His teaching to the synagogues, but later, when the great crowds pressed about Him, He resorted to open-air preaching after the manner of the Sermon. Along with the growth in His popularity there is observed a change in the character of His teaching. His earlier message may be summed up in the formula, "Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt 4:17). Later, both in His public discourses and in His more intimate conferences with His disciples, He was occupied with the principles of the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount belongs to this later type of teaching and fits naturally into the circumstances to which it has been assigned. Luke probably gives the true historical occasion, i.e. the appointment of the Twelve.
According to the evangelists, the scene of the delivery of the Sermon was one of the mountains or foothills surrounding the Galilean plain. Probably one of the hills lying Northwest of Capernaum is meant, for shortly after the Sermon we find Jesus and His disciples entering that city. There are no data justifying a closer identification of the place. There is a tradition dating from the time of the Crusades that identifies the mount of the Sermon with Karn Chattin], a two-peaked hill on the road from Tiberias to Nazareth, but there are no means of confirming this late tradition and the identification is rather improbable.
V. The Hearers.
The Sermon was evidently addressed, primarily, to the disciples of Jesus. This is the apparent meaning of the account of both evangelists. According to Matthew, Jesus, "seeing the multitudes, .... went up into the mountain: and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth and taught them." The separation from the multitudes and the direction of His words to the disciples seem clear, and the distinction appears intentional on the part of the writer. However, it must be observed that in the closing comments on the Sermon the presence of the multitudes is implied. In Luke's account the distinction is less marked. Here the order of events is: the night of prayer in the mountain, the choice of the twelve apostles, the descent with them into the presence of the multitude of His disciples and a great number of people from Judea, Jerusalem and the coast country, the healing of great numbers, and, finally, the address. While the continued presence of the multitudes is implied, the plain meaning of the words, "And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said," is that his address was intended especially for the latter. This view is borne out by the address itself as recorded in both accounts. Observe the use of the second person in the reference to suffering, poverty and persecution for the sake of the Son of Man. Further the sayings concerning the "salt of the earth" and "the light of the world" could hardly have been addressed to any but His disciples. The term disciple, however, was doubtless employed in the broader sense by both evangelists. This is clearly the case in Matthew's account, according to which the Twelve had not yet been appointed.
VI. The Message: Summary.
It is hardly proper to speak of the Sermon on the Mount as a digest of the teaching of Jesus, for it does not include any reference to some very important subjects discussed by our Lord on other occasions in the course of His ministry. It is, however, the most comprehensive and important collection or summary of His sayings that is preserved to us in the gospel record. For this reason the Sermon properly holds in Christian thought the first place of esteem among all the New Testament messages. As an exposition of the ideal life and the program of the new society which Jesus proposed to create, its interpretation is of the deepest interest and the profoundest concern.
It may assist the student of the Sermon in arriving at a clear appreciation of the argument and the salient features of the discourse if the whole is first viewed in outline. There is some difference of opinion among scholars as to certain features of the analysis, and consequently various outlines have been presented by different writers. Those of C. W. Votaw in HDB, Canon Gore in The Sermon on the Mount, and H. C. King in The Ethics of Jesus are worthy of special mention. The following analysis of the Sermon as recorded by Matthew is given as the basis of the present discussion.
It is not implied that there was any such formal plan before the mind of Jesus as He spoke, but it is believed that the outline presents a faithful syllabus of the argument of the Sermon as preserved to us.
THEME: THE KINGDOM OF GOD (HEAVEN), ITS SUBJECTS AND ITS RIGHTEOUSNESS (MATTHEW 5:3 through 7:27)
I. The subjects of the kingdom (Mt 5:3-16).
1. The qualities of character essential to happiness and influence (Mt 5:3-12).
2. The vocation of the subjects (Mt 5:13-16).
II. The relation of the new righteousness to the Mosaic Law (Mt 5:17-48).
1. The relation defined as that of continuance in a higher fulfillment (Mt 5:17-20).
2. The higher fulfillment of the new righteousness illustrated by a comparison of its principles with the Mosaic Law as currently taught and practiced (Mat 5:21-48)
(1) The higher law of brotherhood judges ill-will as murder (Mt 5:21-26).
(2) The higher law of purity condemns lust as adultery (Mt 5:27-32).
(3) The higher law of truth forbids oaths as unnecessary and evil (Mt 5:33-37).
(4) The higher law of rights substitutes self-restraint and generosity for retaliation and resistance (Mt 5:38-42).
(5) The higher law of love demands universal good will of a supernatural quality like that of the Father (Mt 5:43-48).
III. The new righteousness. Its motives as applied to religious, practical and social duties, or the principles of conduct (Mt 6:1 through Mt 7:12).
1. Reverence toward the Father essential in all acts of worship (Mt 6:1-18).
(1) In all duties (Mt 6:1).
(2) In almsgiving (Mt 6:2-4).
(3) In prayer (Mt 6:5-15).
(4) In fasting (Mt 6:16-18).
2. Loyalty toward the Father fundamental in all activities (Mt 6:19-34).
(1) In treasure-seeking (Mt 6:19-24).
(2) In trustful devotion to the kingdom and the Father's righteousness (Mt 6:25-34).
3. Love toward the Father dynamic in all social relations (Mt 7:1-12).
(1) Critical estimate of self instead of censorious judgment of others (Mt 7:1-5).
(2) Discrimination in the communication of spiritual values (Mt 7:6).
(3) Kindness toward others in all things like the Father's kindness toward all His children (Mt 7:7-12).
IV. Hortatory conclusion (Mt 7:13-27).
1. The two gates and the two ways (Mt 7:13-14).
2. The tests of character (Mt 7:15-27).
2. Argument: The Kingdom of God (Heaven):
(1) Characteristics of the Subjects (Mt 5:3-12).
The Sermon opens with the familiar Beatitudes. Unlike many reformers, Jesus begins the exposition of His program with a promise of happiness, with a blessing rather than a curse. He thus connects His program directly with the hopes of His hearers, for the central features in the current Messianic conception were deliverance and happiness. But the conditions of happiness proposed were in strong contrast with those in the popular thought. Happiness does not consist, says Jesus, in what one possesses, in lands and houses, in social position, in intellectual attainments, but in the wealth of the inner life, in moral strength, in self-control, in spiritual insight, in the character one is able to form within himself and in the service he is able to render to his fellowmen. Happiness, then, like character, is a by-product of right living. It is presented as the fruit, not as the object of endeavor.
It is interesting to note that character is the secret of happiness both for the individual and for society. There are two groups of Beatitudes. The first four deal with personal qualities: humility, penitence, self-control, desire for righteousness. These are the sources of inner peace. The second group deals with social qualities; mercifulness toward others, purity of heart or reverence for personality, peacemaking or solicitude for others, self-sacrificing loyalty to righteousness. These are the sources of social rest. The blessings of the kingdom are social as well as individual.
(2) Vocation of the Subjects (Matthew 5:13-16).
Men of the qualities described in the Beatitudes are called "the salt of the earth," "the light of the world." Their happiness is not, then, in themselves or for themselves alone. Their mission is the hope of the kingdom. Salt is a preservative element; light is a life-giving one; but the world is not eager to be preserved or willing to receive life. Therefore such men must expect opposition and persecution, but they are not on that account to withdraw from the world. On the contrary, by the leaven of character and the light of example they are to help others in the appreciation and the attainment of the ideal life. By their character and deeds they are to make their influence a force for good in the lives of men. In this sense the men of the kingdom are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.
(3) Relation of the New Righteousness to Mosaic Law (Mt 5:17-48).
(a) The Relation Defined (Matthew 5:17-20):
The qualities of character thus set before the citizens of the kingdom were so surprising and revolutionary as to suggest the inquiry: What is the relation of the new teaching to the Mosaic Law? This Jesus defines as continuance and fulfillment. His hearers are not to think that He has come to destroy the law. On the contrary, He has come to conserve and fulfil. The old law is imperfect, but God does not despair of what is imperfect. Men and institutions are judged, not by the level of present attainment, but by character and direction. The law moves in the right direction and is so valuable that those who violate even its least precepts have a very low place in the kingdom.
The new righteousness then does not set aside the law or offer an easier religion, but one that is more exacting. The kingdom is concerned, not so much with ceremonies and external rules, as with motives and with social virtues, with self-control, purity, honesty and generosity. So much higher are the new standards of righteousness that Jesus is constrained to warn His hearers that to secure even a place in the kingdom, their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
(b) The Relation Illustrated (Matthew 5:21-48):
In illustration of the deeper meaning of the new righteousness and its relation to the Mosaic Law, Jesus proceeds to deal in detail with the precepts of the old moral law, deepening it as He proceeds into the higher law of the kingdom. In each instance the standard of judgment is raised and the individual precepts are deepened into spiritual principles that call for perfect fulfillment. In considering specific precepts no account is taken of overt acts, for in the new righteousness they are impossible. All acts are treated as expressions of the inner life. The law is carried back to the impulse and the will to sin, and these are judged as in the old law the completed acts were judged. Therefore, all anger and lust in the heart are strictly enjoined. Likewise every word is raised to a sacredness equal with that of the most solemn religious vow or oath. Finally, the instinct to avenge is entirely forbidden, and universal love like that of the Father is made the fundamental law of the new social life. Thus Jesus does not abrogate any law but interprets its precepts in terms that call for a deeper and more perfect fulfillment.
(4) Motives and Principles of Conduct (Mt 6:1 through Mt 7:12).
The relation of His teaching to the law defined, Jesus proceeds to explain the motives and principles of conduct as applied to religious and social duties.
(a) In Worship (Matthew 6:1-18):
In the section Mt 6:1 through Mt 7:12 there is one central thought. All righteousness looks toward God. He is at once the source and the aim of life. Therefore worship aims alone at divine praise. If acts of worship are performed before men to be seen of them there is no reward for them before the Father. In this Jesus is passing no slight on public worship. He Himself instituted the Lord's Supper and authorized the continuance of the rite of baptism. Such acts have their proper value. His censure is aimed at the love of ostentation so often associated with them. The root of ostentation is selfishness, and selfishness has no part in the new righteousness. Any selfish desire for the approval of men thwarts the purpose of all worship. The object of almsgiving, of prayer or of fasting is the expression of brotherly love, communion with God or spiritual enrichment. The possibility of any of these is excluded by the presence of the desire for the approval of men. It is not merely a divine fiat but one of the deeper laws of life which decrees that the only possible reward for acts of worship performed from such false motives is the cheap approval of men as well as the impoverishment of the inner life.
(b) In Life's Purpose (Matthew 6:19-34):
The same principle holds, says Jesus, in the matter of life's purpose. There is only one treasure worthy of man's search only one object worthy of his highest endeavor, and that is the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Besides, there can be no division of aim. God will be first and only. Material blessings must not be set before duty to Him or to men. With any lower aim the new righteousness would be no better than that of the Gentiles. And such a demand is reasonable, for God's gracious providence is ample guaranty that He will supply all things needful for the accomplishment of the purposes He has planned for our lives. So in our vocations as in our worship, God is the supreme and effectual motive.
(c) In Social Relations (Matthew 7:1-12):
Then again because God is our Father and the supreme object of desire for all men, great reverence is due toward others. Considerate helpfulness must replace the censorious spirit. For the same reason men will have too great reverence for spiritual values to cast them carelessly before the unworthy. Moreover, because God is so gracious and ready to bestow the best gifts freely upon His children, the men of the kingdom are under profound obligation to observe the higher law of brotherhood expressed in the Golden Rule: "All things .... whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them." Thus in the perfect law of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men the new righteousness makes perfect the Law and the Prophets.
(5) Hortatory Conclusion (Matthew 7:13-27).
(a) The Narrow Way (Matthew 7:13-14):
In the hortatory conclusion (Mt 7:13-27), Jesus first of all warns His hearers that the way into the kingdom is a narrow one. It might seem that it ought to be different; that the way to destruction should be narrow and difficult, and the way to life broad and easy, but it is not so. The way to all worthy achievement is the narrow way of self-control, self-sacrifice and infinite pains. Such is the way to the righteousness of the kingdom, the supreme object of human endeavor. "Narrow is the gate, and straitened the way, that leadeth unto life."
(b) The Tests of Character (Matthew 7:15-27):
The test of the higher fulfillment is fruit. By their fruits alone the subjects of the kingdom will be known. In the presence of the Father there is no room for those who bring nothing but the leaves of empty professions. The kingdom is for those alone who do His will. The test of righteousness is illustrated in conclusion by the beautiful parable of the Two Builders. The difference between the two is essentially one of character. It is largely a question of fundamental honesty. The one is superficial and thinks only of that which is visible to the eye and builds only for himself and for the present. The other is honest enough to build well where only God can see, to build for others and for all time. Thus he builds also for himself. The character of the builder is revealed by the building.
The Sermon on the Mount is neither an impractical ideal nor a set of fixed legal regulations. It is, instead, a statement of the principles of life essential in a normal society. Such a society is possible in so far as men attain the character and live the life expressed in these principles. Their correct interpretation is therefore important.
Many of the sayings of the Sermon are metaphorical or proverbial statements, and are not to be understood in a literal or legal sense. In them Jesus was illustrating principles in concrete terms. Their interpretation literally as legal enactments is contrary to the intention and spirit of Jesus. So interpreted, the Sermon becomes in part a visionary and impractical ideal. But rather the principles behind the concrete instances are to be sought and applied anew to the life of the present as Jesus applied them to the life of His own time.
The following are some of the leading ideas and principles underlying and expressed in the Sermon:
(1) Character Is the Secret of Happiness and Strength.
Men of the qualities described in the Beatitudes are called "blessed." Happiness consists, not in external blessings, but in the inner poise of a normal life. The virtues of the Beatitudes are also the elements of strength. Humility, self-control, purity and loyalty are the genuine qualities of real strength. Men of such qualities are to inherit the earth because they are the only ones strong enough to possess and use it.
(2) Righteousness Is Grounded in the Inner Life.
Character is not something imposed from without but a life that unfolds from within. The hope of a perfect morality and a genuine fulfillment of the law lies in the creation of a sound inner life. Therefore, the worth of all religious acts and all personal and social conduct is judged by the quality of the inner motives.
(3) The Inner Life Is a Unity.
The spiritual nature is all of a piece, so that a moral slump at one point imperils the whole life. Consequently, a rigid and exacting spiritual asceticism, even to the extent of extreme major surgery, is sometimes expedient and necessary. "If thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body be cast into Gehenna" (Mt 5:29 margin).
(4) Universal Love Is the Fundamental Social Law.
It is the dynamic principle of true character and right conduct. In this respect, at least, the perfection of the Father is set as the standard for men. Kindliness in disposition, in word and in act is an obligation binding on all. We may not feel alike toward all, but our wills must be set to do good even to our enemies. In this the supernatural quality of the Christian life may be known.
(5) The Sermon Sets the Fact of God the Father at the Center of Life.
Character and life exist in and for fellowship with the Father. All worship and conduct look toward God. His service is the supreme duty, His perfection the standard of character, His goodness the ground of universal love. Given this fact, all the essentials of religion and life follow as a matter of course. God is Father, all men are brothers. God is Father, all duties are sacred. God is Father, infinite love is at the heart of the world and life is of infinite worth.
(6) Fulfillment Is the Final Test of Life.
The blossoms of promises must ripen into the fruit of abiding character. The leaves of empty professions have no value in the eyes of the Father. Deeds and character are the only things that abide, and endurance is the final test. The life of perfect fulfillment is the life anchored on the rock of ages.
See further ETHICS; ETHICS OF JESUS; KINGDOM OF GOD.
The standard commentaries and Lives of Christ. Among the most important encyclopaedic articles are those of C. W. Votaw in HDB, James Moffatt in Encyclopedia Biblica and W. F. Adeney in DCG. The following are a few of the most helpful separate volumes on the subject: A. Tholuck, Exposition of Christ's Sermon on the Mount; Canon Gore, The Sermon on the Mount; B. W. Bacon, The Sermon on the Mount; W. B. Carpenter, The Great Charter of Christ; Hubert Foston, The Beatitudes and the Contrasts; compare H. C. King, The Ethics of Jesus, and Stalker, The Ethic of Jesus. The following periodical articles are worthy of notice: Franklin Johnson, "The Plan of the Sermon on the Mount," Homiletic Review, XXIV, 360; A. H. Hall, "The Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount," Biblical Sac., XLVIII, 322; The Bishop of Peterborough (W. C. Magee), "The State and the Sermon on the Mount," Fortnightly Review, LIII, 32; J. G. Pyle, "The Sermon on the Mount," Putnam's Magazine, VII, 285.
Russell Benjamin Miller