1 “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying”
How shall I begin to lead us through the Sermon on the Mount (SM hereafter)? You will never know how that question has weighed on me since I announced we would be taking this journey. That question, “How shall I begin to lead us through the SM,” is roughly analogous to the question, “How shall I reconstruct the great pyramids?” or, “How shall I redirect the Nile River?”
It is a monumental task, and one that has been undertaken by the best minds and hearts of the Christian church throughout two millennia of history. That is what makes this so daunting: the fact that so many great men of God have turned their attention to this sermon, and have done so with such startling insight and eloquence, but have all likewise done so with a certain sense of frustration. For try as we might this sermon recorded in Matthew 5-7 is rightly recognized as the pinnacle of all Christian instruction, the apex of the Christ’s revelation of what life in the Kingdom of God is like.
But that is not the main reason why approaching this sermon is so daunting. I suppose what makes it so very intimidating and so very frightening, is the fact that every time I begin to read this sermon I find that I am not reading it so much as it is reading me. This sermon is a painful sermon. R. Kent Hughes said that this sermon was “violent.” I tend to agree. It hits us, time and again, with the glory of Christ and, simultaneously, with the inglorious nature of man. It shows us our distance from almighty God. It paints a picture of life in the Kingdom that is positively otherworldly…and yet necessarily this worldly in its intent. And there is the rub: the sermon leaves us no room to resign it to the theoretical. I have long since rejected the notion that Jesus gave us this sermon to create a sense of despair, to show us an utterly unattainable ideal just to crush us so we would crawl to Him in desperation. Do not misunderstand me: the result of the sermon, if read rightly, is always that we will crawl to him in desperation. But the truly frightening thing about this sermon is (a) that Jesus seemed to really mean it and (b) that Jesus seemed to be really calling us to the life outlined therein.
Yes, there is a violence to this sermon in terms of how it wounds us in our shallow faith, our plastic confessions, our superficial Christianity. But then I remember that figure who stands behind the sermon: Jesus. Sometimes His words do feel violent, but never cruelly so, never sadistically so, never violent for the sake of violent. The person of our loving Lord brings to the table another intriguing thought: what if Jesus did not preach this sermon to crush us but to heal us? What if the pain we experience in reading this sermon is not the desired end, but rather the necessary means to the end that is Christ itself?
When I announced that I would be preaching through the SM and that I had encouraged and challenged us all to memorize the sermon, I received an email from a dear friend of mine in another state. What his email said surprised me, though I knew and know deep down that what it says is true. Let me share a few parts with you:
I would like to be the last man on earth to discourage you or your church from memorizing the sermon on the mount. I would be the first in line to say I need this medicine in the worst way and often. I would like to say a few simple things you already know just so I get to “hear it” again so to speak.
1. Those who need a “radical recommitment” to Jesus were not likely to have been committed to begin with. By that I simply mean that what we call “radical commitment” may go away at the first winds of adversity and stay gone for a while. Those who start out “radically committed” do fail and perhaps often but then the get up and start afresh and anew after each failure. Radical commitment I am inclined to believe means daily repentance much like some of the medieval monks and the like. (more pain) Much of the “modern” American church is just not that interested in committing to Jesus and living what He taught. Too painful and hard?
2. Memorizing the sermon on the mount will naturally lead to some great internalized conflicts in many that will either resolve in abandonment of the truth or the forsaking of lesser things in repentance and commitment to Jesus. Not much room in the sermon for “gray” or mild fixes.
3. You as the leader in the effort will quiet likely face some deep-seated and long-held views that very well may have to die or go away to follow fully. The numbers who take it to heart and do this may be small indeed by the time you get to the end or in other words the “committed” flock may be very small indeed. Those who can’t, won’t or are unable to follow may begin to view those who do as “weird”, strange and even resent the contrast. Strife may ensue…
…The glory of Christ and the wonders of His Kingdom as presented in the sermon on the mount is absolutely devastating to the flesh and the “comfortable” thing we call Christianity in America. It has broken me down to tears and repentance many times mostly due to sinful inclinations that will not give up to do what He teaches us in that simple Kingdom message. So, my dear friend, I hope and will pray that you find God’s very best but I just had to sound the alarm that the most shocking thing you will find is heart knowledge still ruling that has
no business in there …and a glory of Christ so breathtakingly splendid and exalted as to leave self in a heap of broken shards on the ground. Our little concept of Christ in the modern western church is so weak and pathetic in so many ways. Self revelation can be and often is terribly painful, ugly and just down right unbearable at times. I will pray that Roni can hang while you have your theological construct shattered into a pile of near useless rubble as Christ is lifted up high and glorious in your own “heart’s eyes” as we have made for ourselves a god far too small and of ourselves persons far too big…
…May you find the grace and love to accept the unlovely and the unlovable because the sermon on the mount is going to “produce” a lot of both or at least that has been my experience with it. It is lovely and it is compelling but it is just as equally costly and hard to do when it involves two or more people.
Do you find that too dramatic? Soon, you will not. This sermon searches us and leans against us in ways that make the reading painful. In his wonderful book, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones speaks of the beginning of the SM in this way:
These beatitudes crush me to the ground. They show me my utter helplessness. Were it not for the new birth, I am undone. Read and study it, face yourself fin the light of it. It will drive you to see your ultimate need of the rebirth and the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing that so leads to the gospel and its grace as the Sermon on the Mount.
Brothers and sisters, let us pray that God wounds us where we need to be wounded so that He might heal us where we need to be healed. This sermon is a hard tonic, but it is sweet if received with an open heart. This sermon is violent, but it is the violence of a loving friend who loves us enough to wound us with truths we do not want to hear. This sermon does wound us…but faithful are the wounds of a friend. The first time you read this sermon, it may feel like a cross has been dropped across your shoulders…but it is merely the cross that Jesus has called us to carry. This sermon drives us to our knees…but it is on our knees that we are most able to receive the mercy of our tender Lord.
As we begin journeying through the SM, let me offer an analogy that might help us understand our approach. Hans Dieter Betz likened journeying the SM to touring a great cathedral.
The experience can thus be compared with visiting famous old castles or cathedrals. Tourists may put in thirty minutes to walk through, just to get an impression, and that is what they get. But if one begins to study such building with the help of a good guidebook, visions of whole worlds open up. Whether it is the architecture, the symbols and images, the statues and paintings, or the history that took place in and around the buildings, under closer examination things are bound to become more and more complicated, diverse, and intriguing, with no end in sight.
My intent is not to have us run through the cathedral for thirty minutes. Instead, let us take our time, walking carefully, slowly, observing as we go the varied and multifaceted layers of this staggering and stupefying sermon. Let us not miss what is happening in our rush to get through.
How shall we begin, then? Simply like this: by defining the what, the where, and the why. We will approach these questions with a consideration of the first two verses of Matthew 5.
1 “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying”
What is this sermon we begin considering today? The most simple answer is found in verse 2: “And he opened his mouth and taught them…” So Matthew 5-7 is a series of teachings from the mouth of Jesus. They are teachings directed primarily at the disciples, as we learn in verse one: “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.” But do note that while they are initially directed toward His disciples, the crowd is nearby. Furthermore, chapter seven will tell us that “the crowd was astonished.”
Jesus goes onto the mountain and sits, in the traditional manner of a teaching rabbi. When He sits, His disciples move toward Him from the crowd. Yet the instructions are loud enough to be heard by the crowd, who, apparently, move closer to hear the shocking words of the sermon. The SM, then, is a series of verbal teachings from Jesus, seemingly initially directed toward His followers, but not kept from the crowd at large.
While it is not an insignificant point that these teachings can only be grasped by His disciples, it is furthermore significant that the wider crowd heard them. There is therefore a sense in which the sermon is offered to the world. This is likely what was behind John Wesley’s adamant insistence that the SM was not merely for disciples but rather for “all the children of men; the whole race of mankind; the children that were yet unborn; all the generations to come, even to the end of the world, who should ever hear the words of this life.” In a sense, yes, but it is also true that conversion is necessary for the SM to be understood, grasped, and lived. In other words, the SM is for disciples and for the whole world, but in different kinds of ways. For disciples, it is light on the path to which they have already committed themselves. For the world, it is an invitation and a challenge to enter this new way of living.
As we progress, considering the what, the where, and the why, let us construct a definition, building on it as we go. What is the SM? The SM is a message delivered by Jesus specifically to His followers but also, beyond them, to everybody who will come to Him.
But it is not just a sermon is it? It is the sermon on the mount. Perhaps no sermon has been so geographically defined as this one. You may be interested to know that the phrase, “the sermon on the mount,” comes from St. Augustine’s 4/5th century commentary that he entitled, Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.
Is there any significance in the fact that the sermon is preached on a mountain? Christians throughout history have tended to believe there is, with some of the theories as to the significance of the location being fanciful and some of them less so.
The author of the anonymous fifth century commentary on Matthew, the Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum, suggested three reasons why Jesus went up onto the mountain to deliver his sermon: (1) in order to fulfill Isaiah 40:9 (“Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”), (2) to show us the high and exalted nature of the things of God, and (3) because the mountain is a symbol of the church, where men and women go today to receive the words of God in Christ. That last reason seems to me to be reading a bit too much into the location of the SM, though, of course, it is right in asserting that it is in the church that we heard the Word of God today. Jerome saw a metaphorical significance to the mountain, saying that Jesus went up the mountain “that he might bring the crowds with him to higher things.” Augustine suggested that the mountain was the chosen place for the sermon in order to show the superiority of the gospel (“the gospel’s higher righteousness”) to the earlier teachings the Lord gave the Hebrews. The early Christian Chromatius, writing in the 5th century, said that Jesus was trying to draw a contrast to Mt. Sinai, where the law was earlier given to the Jews: Sinai being a mount of judgment and fear, this mountain being a mountain of blessing and of grace.
Most Christians have tended to agree with Chromatius’ general point. I certainly do. It is almost a certainty that Jesus’ going up onto the mountain was intended to evoke an image in the minds of the Jews who witnessed it. There was a kind of prophetic provocativeness about it. In truth, it was likely intended to stir a memory. That image and that memory comes from Exodus 19. In this chapter, Israel has encamped around Mt. Sinai and God speaks to Moses:
9 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” When Moses told the words of the people to the Lord, 10 the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments 11 and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. 13 No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” 14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. 15 And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.” 16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
Immediately following this, in Exodus 20, Moses receives the ten commandments from the hand of the Lord. The wording on Exodus 19:20 is key, and it shares the same language as Matthew 5:1.
Exodus 19:20 – “And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.”
Matthew 5:1a – “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain…”
This, again, is provocative and important. The two mountains are being linked as are, no doubt, the two who went up the mountains, Moses and Jesus. In the broadest possible terms, what this means is that the SM is doing something to explain more deeply the Law that was given to Moses on the mountain. The second mountain defines the first.
Specifically, however, I am struck by the contrast in mood and tone imagery surrounding the two mountains. The mountain Moses ascended, Mt. Sinai, is clothed in awesome power. The imagery is turbulent and cataclysmic: fire and smoke and thunder and power surround Mt. Sinai. Furthermore, fear is on this mountain, for the people are instructed not to touch it lest they die. This is the mountain of the Law, the mountain of Almighty God.
Sinai is the mountain of God’s pure righteousness unmasked and undiluted. Upon it, Moses is given the commandments, the great standards that speak of God’s righteousness and of our great distance from it. Sinai trembles and quakes with divine justice and divine holiness. It is a mountain of power and of trembling, and well it should be, for Sinai is our rightful judgment and doom, for who can keep this Law? The Law given thereon is good and right and pure, but, for us, it is unattainable, a sign of our distance from God, a reminder of the wrath to come. Who can help but tremble before Sinai, the awesome and terrible mountain of a mighty God?
But then I look past Mt. Sinai and past Moses. I look past them and see another mountain and another who goes upon it. He does not come to obliterate Sinai. In fact, He defends the law as good. Sinai was not a mistake. It was utterly necessary. The Law was necessary and good and the Law will stand forever as the standard of a holy God’s righteousness. No, this second Moses who is greater than Moses did not come to obliterate the law or do away with it. He came to fulfill it, to accomplish what nobody had ever been able to accomplish.
I am struck by the lack of fear surrounding this second mountain and this second Moses, Jesus. I am struck by the lack of warnings against drawing near this mountain of the Lord. Nobody will die for coming to this mountain. Nobody will be stoned. Nobody will be executed. In fact, the crowds come to this mountain, uncertain at first, but then in stark amazement at what they are hearing. This is the mountain of the Law’s fulfillment, not in any act of man, but in a great, coming act of God in and through Jesus, the Son.
At Mt. Sinai, we tremble. At this mountain, we rejoice. At Sinai, we shrink in fear. At this mountain, we come to the welcome arms of Jesus. At Sinai, we see our doom. At this mountain we see our salvation.
All of Scripture is a story of two mountains, one bringing death and judgment, the other revealing life and salvation. This mountain is saying something very important about the first mountain, Mt. Sinai, and about Moses, the Law, and what it means to stand rightly before God.
Let us therefore continue building our definition. The SM is a message delivered by Jesus specifically to His followers but also, beyond them, to everybody who will come to Him. It is the ultimate explanation of God’s righteousness, which is expected of God’s people, and which has been and is fulfilled in Jesus, who calls His followers into this righteous life by calling them into His own life.
But why did Jesus preach this provocative sermon? Was His intent simply to add three more chapters of content to Matthew’s gospel? Was He simply trying to be dramatic or poignantly ironic? Or was there a very concrete reason why He preached this sermon.
To find the answer to the question of why, we must move to the end of the sermon, Matthew 7.
24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
The SM, then, is the path to wisdom. We do not mean by “wisdom” mere knowledge or mere ethics. We mean, rather, the path to life in God. To reject this life-altering wisdom is to expose ourselves to collapse: “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” Great is the fall of “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them.”
The SM is life, for is the heartbeat of Jesus. It is a portrait of Kingdom living, painted in vivid and troubling colors for all who will come and set their feet on the path of the cross. The SM is what life in Jesus looks like. It is a snapshot of what it looks like when the kingdom of God invades the kingdom of the world in and through the followers of Jesus.
To complete our definition, we can put it like this: The SM is a message delivered by Jesus specifically to His followers but also, beyond them, to everybody who will come to Him. It is the ultimate explanation of God’s righteousness, which is expected of God’s people, and which has been and is fulfilled in Jesus, who calls His followers into this righteous life by calling them into His own life. It is the path of wisdom and of life. It is the definitive picture of what life in the Kingdom of God looks like and must be.
Jesus invites us to come up on the mountain with Him, to sit and to learn. More than that, He invites us to come up on the mountain with him and live.
 R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), p.16.
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1959-1960), p.13
 Hans Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount. Hermeneia. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1995), p.1
 John Wesley, Sermons. Vol.1-2. The Works of John Wesley. Vol.5-6, Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), p.249.
 Augustine, Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. First Series, Vol.6. Philip Schaff, ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), p.3.
 Thomas C. Oden, ed., James . Kellerman, trans., Incomplete Commentary on Matthew (Opus imperfectum). vol.1. Ancient Christian Texts. Thomas C. Oden and Gerald L. Bray, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), p.83-84.
 Manlio Simonetti, ed. Matthew 1-13. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.Ia. Thomas C. Oden, ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p.71-78.
 The Kingdom implications are discussed more fully in the next sermon on Matthew 5:3.