The Sermon on the Mount is the largest recorded teaching of Jesus found anywhere in the Bible (as anyone who has thoroughly scoured through the old and new testaments can attest). Jesus was the ultimate teacher/preacher par excellence and laid everything out perfectly. In other words, He told his listeners what they needed to hear without compromise and in a way that would keep those who didn’t want the truth from inflicting severe harm on Him and His ministry (the parables are a prime example of this Matthew 13:34- also to confirm Israel’s unbelief). But to His disciples (those who really wanted the truth and not just the miracles) He would explain things more clearly and in-depth (we will discuss this specific point under “Audience” further below). Jesus said in Luke 10:8 “The knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of God has been given to you (i.e., the disciples=believers), but to the rest it comes by means of parables, so that they may look but not see, and listen but not understand.”
The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most famous passages of Scripture known and beloved by many believers. However, many of its teachings are commonly misunderstood and misapplied. There tend to be two extremes when dealing with this critical portion of the Bible. The first is that since this message was spoken to Israel, much of its content no longer applies to the modern church in principle. The second is that certain rituals and practices now obsolete are still for today (which amounts to legalism). Both approaches are incorrect. Although the principles throughout the sermon still apply to believers today, some of the practices and rituals mentioned therein were only for the nation of Israel, who falsely expected a liberating king who would free them from the oppression of the Roman Empire. We will flesh all these details out as we go through this study. Suffice it to say here there is no need to examine any of the specifics in the introduction. We will deal with that issue as we work through each section of this passage.
As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” But what makes the Sermon on the Mount (specifically in the context of Matthew chapters five to seven) unique is the sheer amount of topics covered within only three chapters (this was one of the reasons I chose to write on it). Subjects include but are not limited to the Law and its relationship to the New Covenant, murder, adultery, oaths, divorce, love, revenge, giving, prayer, fasting, worry and anxiety, judging others, the way of salvation, etc. As said above, we will cover each of these individually section by section based on the context of Matthew chapters five to seven in the NIV version (translation).
Many pastors, scholars, and theologians have rightly seen a parallel between Moses’s time on Mt Sinai and our Lord’s on this hilly mountain (located somewhere in Galilee), where He spoke primarily to His disciples. Moses received the Law on a mountain that came with the inception of the old covenant, while our Lord gave the message under discussion to the nation to help usher in the new covenant. Christ came to fulfill that begun in Moses’s day. There are many other similarities (as well as differences) between them that we will not discuss here. Nevertheless, Jesus was the greater prophet to come (Deuteronomy 18:15-18).
Background and setting
The Sermon on the Mount took place in Northern Israel somewhere in Galilee (possibly next to the Sea) because Matthew 4:12-13 indicates that Jesus returned there and lived in Capernaum (although the precise location of the mountain may be unknown). Verses eighteen to twenty-two then record the calling of the first four disciples and Christ’s continuing ministry throughout Galilee (Matthew 4:23). The mountain was more like a very large hill that formed into a plateau at the top that allowed the people to sit down comfortably and listen to the message.
Matthew (inspired by the Holy Spirit) is the writer of these three chapters and the author of the entire book itself. Christ’s time on earth during His first advent occurred during the Roman occupation of Israel, including Syria in the north and Judea in the south. Many within the Jewish nation were already supposed to be believers (though the majority weren’t) and were to prepare themselves for Christ’s revealing and coming on the scene through the ritual of water baptism initiated by John the Baptist (the whole point of water baptism was to reveal the Messiah to Israel John 1:31). The spiritual state of the Jewish people was deplorable at this time and had suffered tremendous apostasy and compromise during (and long before) the Maccabean and Hasmonean periods (the time between the testaments before Christ’s birth). It was during that time (before our Lord’s first advent) that the elite religious classes of the Pharisees and Essenes first emerged and (along with the Scribes and teachers of the law) began to twist the true meaning of the Mosaic Law through many of the false rituals and applications they propagated. Jesus gave His sermon sometime earlier in His ministry, in 30 AD and would respond to correct many of these false teachings through this same sermon. The religious leaders adhered to a system of works by relying on the Law to earn them salvation. The Law’s purpose was to lead people to Christ and had no saving power in and of itself since that is only possible by faith through grace alone. Jesus affirmed this truth by showing the people through some of the teachings we will examine that all are lost without the sacrifice of Christ. It didn’t (and still doesn’t) matter how “righteous” a person tried to be through keeping the Law; only the righteousness of Christ imparted to the believer at salvation will suffice.
Audience, theme, and purpose
Jesus addressed His words in Matthew chapters five to seven primarily to His disciples (all the believers present) and the unbelievers among the crowds that were listening. Most in Israel were supposed to be believers but were not in fact so that our Lord’s words fell on deaf ears for those uninterested in accepting their Messiah (most in Israel missed the time of their visitation).
The sermon’s primary theme and purpose was our Lord offering the kingdom to His fellow countrymen by showing them their need for a Savior so that they would stop trusting in themselves. Christ’s words were a call to repentance and concentrate on how the Jewish nation of Israel was to live like members of God’s kingdom to prepare them for the new covenant way of life (the transition from the old to the new). That doesn’t mean all the rituals mentioned therein were to continue after His death on the cross but that the principles were for everyone (including us today). The sermon on the mount is a call of repentance to righteous living for believers and a call to repentance for salvation for unbelievers.
Regarding the “sermons” theme and purpose, Dr. Luginbill of Ichthys.com says (private email between him and myself)…
There are a great many things in the beatitudes, the “sermon on the mount”, which can be “vexing” unless on has the proper dispensational perspective, not to toss out what the Lord says (as hyper-dispensationalism often wants to do), but to understand the context. Our Lord was speaking to a Jewish audience under the Law to whom the Messiah, their King, had now come. Under His administration, everything would be perfect and His subjects were expected to comport themselves accordingly. Part of the approach also is that since this is the Law perspective – rightly understood and not as the Pharisees and later legalists preached it – the true purpose of the Law has to be taken into account: it is meant to lead us to Christ by convicting us all of sin (Rom.3:23; Gal.3:24; etc.).