Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (19:34)

Gustave Doré (1832-1883), detail from "The Sermon on the Mount" (1866). Full image.
Jesus comes preaching, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand" (Matthew 4:17), that is, "Turn from your shallowness and sins. Change your hearts and your ways, and turn to God. For God's Kingdom is near, it is now, it breaking in upon you even as I speak."

What Is Righteousness?

Change? Change to what? What does a truly righteous person look like?

Not like the Pharisees of Jesus' day who claimed righteous conformance to Moses' law. Like Christian legalists of our own time, they went far beyond the Bible to a series of precautionary rules that put a hedge or fence around the law, lest they break it. Oh, these ancient and modern-day legalists are zealous, all right. But their hearts are essentially selfish, absorbed in their own righteous doing.

So what does Jesus have in mind when he calls for repentance and change? Something radically different than the religions of his age or ours. What he begins to teach his followers is not a formalized religion, really. Jesus teaches a new heart attitude towards God and people. An attitude that runs counter to human nature.

An Unattainable Ideal?

If you've read the Sermon on the Mount with any degree of self-examination, you come to realize that the quality of righteousness Jesus is talking about is far beyond yours and mine. It isn't about rules or a kind of wishy-washy love for mankind. It is about an attitude of heart that eludes us.

"Be perfect," Jesus taught, "as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Perfect? we ask. How can anyone be perfect?

And so we relegate the Sermon on the Mount to a great ideal to which we aspire on a good day. We make it a kind of hypothetical standard that none can attain but all acknowledge as a model.

Radical Alternative to Modern Values

But not all would agree with this standard. Not the cynical, secular world. Poor in spirit? Bah, humbug! Meek? No, a ruthless climbing-the-ladder-of-success-no-matter-what-the-cost is the religion of many. Pure in heart? Thirsting for righteousness? Our generation is embarrassed by such naiveté.

Our world tells us to invest for the future, to command the highest salary we can, and to accumulate wealth. Jesus tells us not to store up treasures on earth lest we make money our God. He tells us not to obsess over making a living, but to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.

We build great institutions by naming buildings after the big donors, and putting little donors' names on pretentious plaques. Jesus says that when we give we are to do it secretly, anonymously.

Modern-day tolerance tells us all will find their way into God's presence some day, that many roads and religions lead to the Creator. But this radical Teacher from Galilee says that the gate to his kingdom is a small one, and the alternative road is broad and well-traveled and leads to destruction. Talk about narrow, exclusive thinking!

Christian Counter-Culture

You see, what Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount isn't warmed over religion. It is a call to a radical change. A change in attitude and heart. A change in values and lifestyle.

Preacher-scholar John Stott writes that the Sermon on the Mount:

"... Is the nearest thing to a manifesto that [Jesus] ever uttered, for it is his own description of what he wanted his followers to be and to do. To my mind, no two words sum up its intention better, or indicate more clearly its challenge to the modern world, than the expression 'Christian counter-culture.'"

Pipe-Dream or Possibility?

When we consider the practicality of the Sermon on the Mount, commentators are divided. There are several views:

  1. Unattainable and unpractical, though noble. The unpragmatic idealism of a visionary, a dream without fulfillment. (Many commentators)
  2. An eschatological ethic, capable of fulfillment only in the Age to Come (Dibelius). "Eschatological" means "concerning the Last Days" or "end times."
  3. An interim ethic by a deluded prophet designed to prepare his followers for the end of history, a kind of martial law, not an ethic for every day. (Schweitzer, et al.)
  4. The constitution of the future millennial kingdom in which Jews will live, the law of Moses raised to the nth power. It is not a law in effect now, and is not binding on Christians. (Classic Dispensationalism)
  5. Self-evidently true, common to all religions and easy to follow. (A superficial view of those who haven't read it carefully)
  6. A way of life made possible only by a new heart, brought about by a spiritual birth.

It is this last view which we hold. Jesus was teaching his followers a new way of life, a kingdom way of life that is only possible by the Spirit, with which he himself would baptize the Church.

Form and Structure of the Sermon on the Mount

A great deal of energy has been expended in the last 150 years to figure out the origins of the Gospels, and the Sermon on the Mount in particular. Are these the actual words Jesus spoke in a single sermon on a single occasion? Or are they a compilation and condensation of his teaching? Or are these Jesus' words at all? Are they perhaps merely words his disciples put in his mouth decades after his death?

We're not going to spend much time exploring these kinds of questions. First of all, they are highly speculative. Many scholars have become so distracted in dissecting the form and discerning the origins of Jesus' words, that they have neglected to teach them with conviction and passion. We cannot afford such a tragic mistake.

But I think it will be useful to frame some answers to the most common questions that a study of the Sermon on the Mount may raise:

  1. Why are these teachings found in different contexts in other gospels? What is their original form?
  2. Are these Jesus' actual words?

Let's look briefly at these questions.

The Synoptic Problem

Even a casual reader will notice that the first three gospels -- Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- have many verbal similarities, while the fourth gospel seems quite different. Because they have so much common material, the first three gospels are termed the Synoptic Gospels. The word "synoptic" comes from two Greek words syn-, "together" and opsesthai, "to see". It means "presenting or taking the same or common view."

Scholars have hypothesized, rightly, I believe, that the writers of the Synoptic Gospels must have had some common source document available to them that contained the stories and teachings of Jesus, some kind of proto-gospel. Scholars have a name for this hypothetical source; they call it Q, which stands for the German word Quelle, meaning "source."

The gospel writers, I assume, probably drew on Q and wove it together with their own eyewitness and other traditions to fashion an account of Jesus' life and teachings for their particular audience. Mark's gospel is commonly agreed to be the earliest gospel. Matthew's gospel seems to be written especially with Palestinian Jews in mind, and takes special care to point out Jesus' words and actions as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Luke's gospel seems to speak to a Hellenistic audience. The Gospel of John, on the other hand, didn't seem to use this Q source at all. As an eyewitness, John wrote from his own mature perspective of what Jesus said and did and intended. This is how I understand the relationship between the gospels.

Differences in Words and Setting

But what do we make of instances where one gospel says something in one way and another says it in altogether different way? Did Jesus really say both things? Or did the gospel writers take liberties with what he said and alter it to suit their own points of view, as some allege?

Let's consider Jesus' mission, for a moment. He was an itinerant teacher, traveling up and down the land of Palestine, teaching in scores of towns and villages over a period of perhaps three years.

If you've ever been on a speaking tour, you soon learn to refine and hone your main speech or series of speeches to a fine point. You learn what works and gets an audience response, and are sure to include those elements at the next stop on your tour. But you also find, if you speak without a manuscript (as Jesus surely did), that your core message gets expressed in various ways. Yes, you use many of the same illustrations, but with a particular audience you may emphasize a point that you don't develop with another audience. Your presentation may be similar, but never the same. And you continually find fresh ways to express your thoughts as your speak them.

Now, I don't mean to make Jesus out to be a speaker who played to the crowds or improved his message as he went along. His thoughts were unique and distinctive, and his words came from the Father for whom he spoke. But that doesn't mean that he spoke exactly the same words by rote in each town and hamlet. His expression varied.

Thus in Matthew, for example, the Beatitudes take the form of a series of single blessings:

"Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted." (Matthew 5:4)

While in Luke, we see a contrast of blessings with woes:

"Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh...." (Luke 6:21b)

"Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep." (Luke 6:25b)

Which is the original? Which best represents Jesus' actual words? Why, both, of course. If we limit Jesus' true expression to a single Q source, we don't allow for the full expression of a Teacher who taught on perhaps a thousand occasions in his ministry.

I've doubtless oversimplified the Synoptic Problem. There are many unanswered questions. But my interest is in the words of Jesus that have come down to us in the New Testament canon, not trying to reconstruct some Q document that is not, and may never have been, in existence. I want to concentrate on Jesus' words that we have before us, and seek to understand them as they are written in one of the gospels -- in the case of the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew's Gospel.

The Jesus Seminar

Since 1985 we have been treated to the Jesus Seminar. It has been made up of a group of liberal scholars who voted on each passage in the gospels concerning the relative probability that a particular passage was Jesus' own words, or the words of a later disciple or editor. They voted with one of four colored beads. A red bead indicated that "Jesus surely said this." Pink meant, "He probably said that." Gray: "He probably didn't say this." Black: "It is very unlikely that he said anything like that."

How did they determine authenticity? The criterion of dissimilarity from his Jewish historical situation and from the early church, was one. But that is a judge of distinctiveness, not of authenticity. Next, they assumed that Jesus' sayings must be regarded as inauthentic unless they can be proved authentic. A strange assumption, it seems: guilty until proven innocent. They also apparently used the hypothetical Q source (which we don't have) and the supposedly-early Gospel of Thomas (which shows strong Gnostic influences and is probably second century) as the standard by which a saying was considered authentic. In the end, the Jesus Seminar concluded that as much as 82% of the gospels were invented by the early church, and weren't Jesus' words at all. Only a very few sayings and parables met the "red bead" standard.

I've read enough of this sort of pseudo-scientific speculation to reject it as the refuse of unbelief.

But Are These Jesus' Actual Words?

If you were to read the Sermon on the Mount out loud it might take you all of fifteen minutes. I find it hard to believe that Jesus uttered just these words for a fifteen minute sermon, had the choir sing a hymn, gave a benediction, and then sent people home.

I think what we have in the Sermon on the Mount is some kind of synopsis of Jesus' teaching on a particular occasion, or perhaps of his core teaching. I believe that when these words were spoken, they were amplified with stories and parables suited to the audience.

Were these Jesus' actual words? Yes, I believe so. They weren't all that he said on this occasion, but I believe that he did say these things.

Of course, Jesus taught in Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew. The words as we have them are Greek, and finally we read them in an English translation of the Greek. While we may lose something in the translation, I believe that the text that we have is trustworthy and powerful -- even in English!

Yes, Jesus actually said these things, and says them afresh to us today!

Is the Sermon on the Mount a Single Unit?

The text of Matthew 5-7 seems to be a single literary unit, intended for us to understand as a teaching that begins with Jesus sitting down before the crowds on the mountainside in 5:1-2, and ending with Jesus finishing, leaving the listeners amazed at the boldness and authority of his words in 7:28-29.

But did Jesus actually speak all of these things at a single sitting? There's so much there, so much that is deep and pithy.

Yes, I believe it is quite possible. Jesus was not bound by the American church 20-minute sermon rule. He probably taught the assembled crowds for hours at a time, and they followed his words with rapt attention. What he was saying was not like any other rabbi or teacher. He spoke with a singular authority they found fascinating and wonderfully attractive.


In outlining the Sermon on the Mount, I found that it falls easily into several themes:

  1. The character of Kingdom citizens (5:1-16)
  2. The true spirit and intent of the law (5:17-48)
  3. The nature of true piety (6:1-18)
  4. The dangers of materialism (6:19-34)
  5. True discernment (7:1-29)

For the most part, these themes seem to flow from one to another. The themes of the following section often grow out of seeds found in the previous section. Only the last section, which I have termed "True Discernment" seems a stretch; the other themes hold together very well and seem to have an inner unity, as well as a unity with each other.


Sermon on the Mount: The Jesus Manifesto, by Ralph F. Wilson
Sermon on the Mount: The Jesus Manifesto
is available in paperback and ebook formats

I don't find it at all difficult to believe that Jesus delivered this teaching on a single occasion on a mountainside in Galilee. Why not?

Did he say more on that occasion? I have no doubt. Perhaps we have the "Cliff Notes" version of Jesus' extended discourse. Did he express these truths in somewhat different ways on other occasions throughout his ministry? Certainly. But I believe that what we have is accurate and authoritative on its own.

I invite you to read and study Jesus' words, not as a form-critical scholar but as a listener, a learner, a disciple, a would-be follower. Don't suspend your critical faculties, but use your energy to understand Jesus' meaning and how to apply its truths to your own life. Jesus surely spoke these powerful words, not to titillate modern scholars and provide grist for academic careers and learned books, but to lay out the radical shape of his Kingdom and to invite men and women to follow him. To that end I invite you, too, to join him -- and me -- in this awesome journey.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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