An Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

Early on in the gospel of Matthew is found a collection of Jesus’ teachings that has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. Some see this as Jesus’ teaching on a single occasion while others believe that it is a collection of teachings that Matthew collected together. I don’t know which is true, but I do believe that these teachings were more than likely taught numerous times over the three plus years of Jesus ministry period. Matthew records other collections of teachings throughout his gospel with many of them being parables. But here there are no parables. Instead what we find is a collection of short and to the point teachings. Many of them that challenge the thinking of the day.

My hope is to work through the Sermon on the Mount over the next few months, both for my own understanding as well as those who read this blog. This will not be an in-depth exposition of the individual passages. But I hope to be able to grasp what Jesus was saying to those who listened to him. And what that means to us today.

Some Background

I believe that Matthew 4:23-5:2 provide us with some important background information for understanding Jesus’ teachings here.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

Matthew 4:23-25 NIV

Matthew sets the scene here with Jesus traveling through Galilee. And as he does he teaches in their synagogues, he proclaims the kingdom of God, and he heals the sick. And, as you can imagine news about him spreads throughout the region. Here was someone who can heal the diseases that afflicted the people, and who was a teacher unlike what they were accustomed to (Matt. 7:28-29). So he had crowds that would gather wherever he went, and many who would follow him from place to place.

The Audience for the Sermon

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

Matthew 5:1-2 NIV

As Matthew sets the scene for the Sermon on the Mount, he mentions two groups. The first is the crowds. Everywhere Jesus went he attracted a crowd, as the end of chapter four makes clear. On this occasion the sight of the crowd resulted in his going to a hillside and sitting down. The word translated as mountainside here is literally mountain. But in Galilee it would really be referring to what many of us would call a hill. It would have provided an elevated location to speak from. And sitting down would be the common posture for a teacher. They did not stand in front of a lectern with the audience in rows before them. Rather they sat and those listening would gather around them.

But when Jesus begins to speak he seems not to be addressing the crowds, although they were listening and responded at the end. Instead, Matthew tells us that his disciples came to him and it was these disciples that he taught. Who were these disciples? Were they the two set of brothers he had called in Matthew 4:18-22, the larger group of twelve that he calls later, or an even larger group who were following him. A disciple is a follower or learner, and it could be applied to many who were attracted to him as a teacher and wanted to learn from him. I believe that it is this larger group that came to him there on the hillside. And that it was this group that his message is addressed to.

The Significance of the Sermon

Matthew is very intentional in demonstrating how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. But he also frequently alludes to parallels between Jesus life and the experience of Israel in the Old Testament. Israel came up out of the Red Sea after leaving Egypt and spent 40 years in the wilderness being tested. In a similar fashion, Matthew records Jesus coming out of the baptismal waters and going into the wilderness to be tested for 40 days. But while Israel failed their tests, Jesus passed his.

This setting seems to mirror Israel at Mt. Sinai. There, Moses went up onto the mountain and received the Torah which he then communicated to the people the expectations for living as a part of God’s covenant people. Here, Jesus goes up the mountain and teaches the people the ethical expectations of living in the new kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven.

During the course of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it clear that he is not replacing the Torah. But he does make clear that there is more to the law than just an outward obedience. Jesus emphasizes the spirit of the law and gives new life to it. Frequently in this sermon Jesus will correct the people’s understanding of that the law had to say to them.

Teaching With Authority

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

Matthew 7:28-29 NIV

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew tells us that the crowds were amazed at his teaching. Not because of his eloquence, although he may have been. Rather their amazement came because he taught as one who had authority, unlike the other teachers they were accustomed to.

Generally the rabbi’s, or teachers, of that day would quote what others had said. They did not claim any authority of their own, but referred to others as the authority. But Jesus did not do that. There are a number of times in chapter five where Jesus uses the formula, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you.” While other teachers would have used the first part of this, Jesus was unique in adding the second. He taught as one who had authority in himself. “I say to you, contrary to what others have told you, this is what you should do.”

Life in the Kingdom

Jesus message in these three chapters is not to the world in general. Instead it is to his followers. He is giving us, not a legalistic moral code to follow. But he is telling us how to live as faithful citizens of the kingdom of heaven, his kingdom. We should not try to impose these standards on the world around us. But, at the same time, as his followers, we should seek to live up to his teachings in our own lives.

As I expressed at the top, I hope to briefly examine the teachings in the sermon over the next few months, writing about one small piece each week.

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The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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