The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 5-7, and it is the best-known and most extensively studied discourse in the world. It has been the subject of thousands of books and articles.
Matthew’s account is a shortened report of many things Jesus must have been teaching in these days. It can be read in ten minutes, and we cannot suppose that the crowds Matthew mentions walked to some remote area to hear Jesus and then He merely talked to them for ten minutes. Quite the contrary. On one occasion a teaching session like this turned into a three-day conference, and we may suppose that something similar happened here. The teaching may have been spread over days. Matthew offers the sermon as an actual teaching session on an actual occasion, as does Luke in his parallel version. But it is also a sample of the kind of teaching Jesus was presenting throughout Galilee at this stage of His ministry. There are six similar collections of teaching in the Gospel.
Is the Sermon for Today? The theme of the Sermon on the Mount is the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven and the kind of life required of those who desire to become a part of it. This is clear from the repetition of the words “kingdom of heaven” and from the way they are used. Reference to the kingdom is found in the first of the beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” v.3); it closes the beatitudes (“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” v.10); it is given as the reason for the place of the Old Testament law in the kingdom (“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” v.20); it appears at the start of the Lord’s Prayer (“Your kingdom come,” 6.10); and it is at the sermon’s climax (“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” v.21). The Sermon on the Mount also follows Matthew’s statement about Jesus preaching the “good news of the kingdom” throughout Galilee, which clearly means He was teaching about the nature of that kingdom.
But here is a problem. The standards Jesus erects in this sermon are so high, the morality so difficult, that numerous attempts have been made to explain why it is not to be taken seriously as a way of living demanded of God’s people by Jesus.
According to Dispensationalism, the Sermon on the Mount is a statement of the principles on which the coming messianic kingdom would be founded. If Israel had repented of its sin and welcomed Christ, Jesus would have established this kind of righteousness on earth. But Jesus was rejected, and as a result, the kingdom of heaven was postponed. I. M. Haldeman wrote, “This sermon … cannot be taken in its plain import and be applied to Christians universally. … It has been tried in spots … but it has always been like planting a beautiful flower in stony ground or in a dry and withering atmosphere.” Along the same lines, the earliest edition of the Scofield Reference Bible says, “The Sermon on the Mount in its primary application gives neither the privilege nor the duty of the Church.”
But it does, of course! In fact, it is precisely a world such as ours with its manifold evil and injustice that the sermon has in mind, not a millennial kingdom in which only righteousness will exist. This is so obvious that some later dispensationalists have modified their earlier teaching by speaking of the sermon’s timeless ethics, while nevertheless continuing to drive a wedge between it and authentic Christianity.
Lutherans take the Sermon on the Mount seriously, as they do the whole of Scripture. But in line with their characteristic emphasis on law and Gospel, they view it as an exposition of the Old Testament law designed to drive men and women to grace. There is something to this, of course. Law must drive us to grace, because none of us can please God by achieving the law’s standards. But this is not all the Sermon on the Mount is about. The sermon does point us to God’s grace, but it also tells how we are to live as God’s people. Lutherans think of the righteousness referred to in the sermon as Christ’s imputed righteousness, but it is an actual righteousness that must characterize the lives of all who are truly a part of God’s kingdom.
At the other extreme from these two inadequate approaches to the Sermon on the Mount is its use by the Social Gospel movement, which flourished at the beginning of the twentieth century. In those years, social reformers offered the sermon as a sort of road map to social progress, believing that the kingdom of God could be actualized if people would only take Christ’s ethical teaching seriously. This should be commended for its sensitivity for an improved society, but the vision was destroyed by two world wars, repeated recessions, mass genocides, and many types of social and economic oppression. The problem with the Social Gospel movement is that it tried to urge Jesus’ ethics on those who did not possess Jesus’ life, and they could not do it.
Which points us to the right way to view Christ’s sermon! The nature of the kingdom (1) drives us to despair of ourselves and our morality in order that (2) we might turn in faith to Jesus Christ and that, as a result of finding new life in Him, we might (3) live as Jesus Himself lived when He was in this world. In other words, the sermon is about how we are to become and also live as God’s new humanity.