The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most beloved—and often misunderstood—passages of the whole Bible. Some come to Jesus’ famous speech as if it were a blueprint for the gradual improvement of the human race through love rather than law. At the other extreme are those who say that it has no place in the church today, but is entirely relegated to a future “kingdom age.” In between there are various interpretations that we’ll encounter along the way.
The first thing to do is set up the context. Who is Jesus addressing? According to Matthew’s Gospel, “Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain.” This was not in order to broadcast his voice to the thousands, but rather to escape the crowds: see also Mark 1:32-37, John 6:1-3; 6:15, for similar actions. Proof of this is the fact that he sits down and looks up at his disciples. In other words, the sermon is given to a more intimate crowd of his followers (i.e., those who followed him up the mountain).
Looking at the structure of the synoptic gospels, this address could be seen as an ordination sermon given to his disciples at the time of the selection of the twelve apostles (Matt 5:1-2, Lk 6:13, Mk 3:13).
Matt 4:1-11 – Temptation of Jesus
Matt 4:12-17 – Ministry in Galilee
Matt 4:18-22 – Calling of individual disciples
Matt 4:23-25 – Teaching / Healing ministry in Galilee, resulting in great crowds
Matt 5:1 – Jesus ascends a mountain and sits down. Many of his disciples come to him
Matt 5:1-2 – Sermon given to his disciples: “when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them…” He is not standing on top of a mountain addressing the crowds below.
Luke 4:1-13 – Temptation of Jesus
Luke 4:14-43 – Ministry in Galilee
Luke 5:1-39 – Calling of individual disciples
Luke 5:23-25 – Teaching / Healing ministry in Galilee, resulting in great crowds
Luke 6:12-16 – Jesus ascends a mountain, and appoints apostles from a large group of disciples
Luke 6:20 – Sermon given to his disciples: And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples (looking up assumes a sitting position).
Mark 1:13 – Temptation of Jesus
Mark 1:14-15 – Ministry in Galilee
Mark 1:16-20 – Calling of individual disciples
Mark 1:21 – 3:12 – Teaching / Healing ministry in Galilee, resulting in great crowds
Mark 3:13-19 – Jesus ascends a mountain, and appoints apostles from a large group of disciples. The exact same structure is present here, but Mark does not include the sermon…
Where is this Sermon in the history of God’s unfolding drama? Its focus is the kingdom of God, also called the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus is bringing into the world. This kingdom is not something that human beings are building, but a gift that God is giving. That’s why it’s called “the good news of the kingdom,” not “the good program of the kingdom.”
God commissioned Adam and Eve to rule and subdue, to be fruitful and multiply, and to fill the earth. From its capitol in Eden, God’s reign was to be spread to the ends of the earth. Israel, too, was called to guard and keep God’s sanctuary, driving the serpent from his garden, living in love and peace together, spreading the kingdom from its capitol in Jerusalem. As we read in Hosea 6:7, “Like Adam, Israel broke my covenant.” And, like Adam, Israel was sent into exile “east of Eden.”
Yet through the prophets God directed Israel’s hopes to the coming Messiah and a deliverance that was based solely on his mercy. It was based on the Abrahamic promise rather than the Mosaic law; the oath that God swore to Abraham, not the oath that Israel swore at Mount Sinai.
The promise God made to Abraham was of a temporal land, the land of Canaan, that would be typological of a greater promise—namely, the whole world, everlasting life in God’s holy presence. He also promised him a seed—numerous physical descendants, but that was typological of something even greater: a redeemer-seed in whom all the families of the earth will be blessed.
So it’s this Abrahamic promise that the prophets appeal to as Israel lies in exile, poor in spirit, persecuted, meek, and hopeless. The prophets proclaim a coming day when God’s glorious presence will overflow the Jerusalem sanctuary. It will cover the whole land of Israel (Ezek 37:25-28) and then the whole earth (Isa 54:2-3; Dan 2:34-45). The nations will come to Zion (Amos 9:11-12; Is 2:3-4; 11:10—12). Isa 26:16-19: “You have increased the nation, O LORD, you have increased the nation, your are glorified; you have extended all the borders of the land.” God tantalizes his people with the vision of a highway running between Israel and its erstwhile enemies, including Egypt and Assyria, as together they are all called the people of God and worship as one body. Is 26:18-19 prophesies “deliverance for the earth” and “the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.” In chapter 27, it’s like a new Garden of Eden and Israel will at last “fill the earth.” All of this is rooted in the promise to Abraham: “In you and your seed all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3).
So clearly already in that promise to Abraham, the expanding of Israel, both geographically and numerically, is not limited to ethnic Jews. The Messiah, David’s own Lord as well as descendant, will “rule from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth” (Ps 72:8). In Ps 2 Yahweh promises the Messiah, his Son, “I will give the nations as your inheritance and the ends of the earth as your possession” (Ps 2:8). Ps 37:11 promises, “But the humble will inherit the land” (the phrase “inherit the land” is repeated in vv 3, 9, 18, 22, 29, 34). Furthermore, this is no longer in the conditional form: they will inherit it “forever” (v 29) and the wicked will but cut off forever, without inheritance (vv 9-11, 28). The earth (v. 5) is the kingdom of heaven (v 3). This is the “age to come,” referred to in inter-testamental Jewish sources, with roots in the prophets (Is 60:21: “Then all your people will be righteous; they will possess the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified”).
This is the stock of prophetic hope from which the New Testament draws when it speaks of Christ as Abraham’s promised seed and the kingdom that he brings as a gift of grace. As Paul tells us in Romans 4:13, “For the promise to Abraham and to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.” In fact, the word for “world” here is not just the earth (ge), but the whole cosmos. Romans 8 teaches that the whole creation is longing to join in the cosmic liberation that will arrive when the saints are raised in everlasting glory. Hebrews 11 teaches that Abraham was justified through faith, longing for a greater (heavenly) land. And in Revelation 21 and 22 we finally see the new heavens and earth, risen afresh in a glory never seen before, cleansed of all unrighteousness, violence, suffering, and death.
This kingdom is a gift, an inheritance. Like the inheritances we are familiar with, it’s not something we attain, build, or earn. It’s something we hear about. We are made beneficiaries of it. But how? And what kind of new family, what kind of new society, does this inheritance create? All of these questions are addressed in Jesus’ famous sermon.
It is significant that Jesus does not begin with commands, but with blessing. In the old covenant, national blessing was held out as the condition for national obedience: “If you do this, you will live long in the land that I am giving you; if you don’t, you’ll be cut off and exiled from the land.” Yet Jesus, the Mediator of the New Covenant, reverses the order here. The blessing is greater than that of the old covenant, just as the reality is greater than its shadows. And the blessing is surer than that of Sinai, because it is grounded in God’s promise to give an everlasting inheritance gratis, as a free gift. The law still has its place. It still commands good works, but these are not conditions for remaining tenants in God’s land, but an inheritance for children whom he adopts in the Son of his love. Because our elder brother has fulfilled the whole law, the commands are not conditions for us to fulfill, but the appropriate response of thanksgiving in view of the mercies of God.