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Sermon on the Mount: 5 Keys That Unlock Understanding

Graphic with the words sermon on the mount emphasized.

The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7) contains some of the most memorable sayings of Jesus: Love your enemies. Seek first the kingdom of God. The Lord’s Prayer. Do not judge. Figures like Mahatma Ghandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were heavily influenced by the content of the sermon.

But how do we teach and preach these words in our ministries? Who is the intended audience of this sermon? How relevant are Jesus’s words to his followers today?

Let us consider five keys to understanding the Sermon on the Mount.

1. Read the Sermon on the Mount backwards

Since Matthew records this teaching discourse as a whole sermon (see 5:1–2; 7:28), let’s approach its interpretation by considering how Jesus ends the discourse. His final words contain the parable of the wise man and the foolish man (7:24–27). The two men erect their buildings, which are tested by the winds and floods. One might be tempted to think that the storms refer to common earthly worries (i.e., “the storms of life”), and that the foolish man has to rebuild his house over again. But it is important to note that houses are meant to be occupied, and floods and fierce winds echo Old Testament images of God’s wrath (see, for example, Gen 6–7; Jer 23:19; Ezek 13:10–16). Thus, the foolish man in Jesus’s parable is likely inside his home as it collapses. Because he had the wrong foundation, the house is destroyed and the foolish man perishes. He will not get another chance. Jesus thus ends the sermon with a grave warning that those who do not take his words and practice them will experience eschatological destruction.

What do we gather from how Jesus ends the sermon? First, the audience of Jesus’s sermon goes beyond the immediate hearers. While his disciples and the crowds of Jewish folks were gathering and listening (5:1–2), Jesus’s words apply to anyone expressing allegiance to Jesus. These teachings show the way to security when the eschatological tests are upon us. This audience, then, includes modern churchgoers. Second, Jesus’s words in the sermon are not merely good advice for (this) life. With his conclusion, he makes it clear that practicing them—or not—will have eternal consequences.

Related article: Sermon on the Mount: Did the Writers Make a Mistake?

2. The past: fulfillment of the Old Testament

The Sermon on the Mount, like the rest of Matthew, is full of Old Testament quotations and allusions, especially references to the law. These references to the Jewish Scriptures are epitomized by the formula that begins, “You have heard that it was said …” By espousing the law to his hearers, Jesus is the new Moses, going to a high place (5:1) and providing ethical teaching for the people. However, unlike Moses, the teaching is not from another source, but are his own words; hence the rest of the formula “… but I tell you … ”

Jesus’s listeners were amazed that he taught from his own authority (7:29). While Moses was the celebrated lawgiver, Jesus is a greater Moses, the actual source of the law.

With his teaching grounded in the Old Testament, Jesus demonstrates that he is not starting a new religion. He preaches a strong continuity with what the Jewish people had already observed. He declares that he is not abolishing the law or the prophets, and that every part of the law is to be kept (5:17–19). At the same time, Jesus is taking the Scripture that the people know from the past—the law and the Prophets—and fulfilling them. As the originator of the Hebrew Scriptures, he explains their true intent. As we repeatedly see throughout Matthew, Jesus’s life and teachings fulfilled the Scriptures. By trusting Jesus and holding to his teaching, we can understand God’s will.

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3. The present: reflecting the kingdom now

In his instruction, Jesus gives ethical teaching that applies to the present age. He teaches his hearers to have joy in persecution (5:12), to be the light to a dark world (5:14), to engage in good deeds as a testimony to others (5:16), to act righteously in regard to marriage (5:31–32), to love our enemies (5:44), and not to be anxious about needs (6:25). These acts, attitudes, and postures characterize those who are part of the kingdom in the present. While some might view the Sermon on the Mount as a description of the future kingdom, Jesus clearly expects obedience from his hearers in the present (see 28:20), before the kingdom fully arrives.

As he commands his followers about living in the present life, Jesus asserts his role as the king. In Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions, the king was the ideal and virtuous sage, the one who embodied the law. With this tradition in view, Jesus’s sermon is the authoritative kingdom teaching of the Messiah. Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus declares that the kingdom of God has arrived with his presence (see 11:4–5; 12:28). In the sermon, he directs his hearers to put the kingdom first (6:33). In the Beatitudes (5:3–10), Jesus calls his followers to have his character, taking on the values of the kingdom rather than that of the world. His teachings in this sermon apply to the present age—not just the time of his earthly ministry, but to our modern church age as well.

4. The future: living in light of eschatological judgment

Jesus’s sermon is full of eschatological content. Rather than having our hope in the present life, Jesus urges his hearers to be motivated by eternity. The Beatitudes find their basis in eschatological hope, in inheriting the earth (5:5), seeing God (5:8), and having heavenly reward (5:12). Jesus speaks about the fire of hell (5:22), treasures in heaven (6:20), and the road to life (7:14). In fact, the ending of his sermon contains repeated eschatological warnings: the wide and narrow gates (7:13–14), the false prophets who will be thrown into the fire (7:15–20), a warning about false followers (7:21–22), and the image of the foolish man’s house collapsing in the end (7:24–27). The cumulative message is a warning to choose the better of two options, much like the Deuteronomic warnings to choose life over death (Deut 30:15). Adhering to Jesus’s words leads to eternal life, and not adhering to them leads to eternal destruction.

While Jesus comes and declares that the kingdom has arrived in the present, he also talks about the kingdom being in the future. He teaches about a future entrance into the kingdom (5:20; 7:21), and he instructs his hearers to pray that the kingdom will come (6:10). By using language about both the present and future aspects of the kingdom, Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God does not merely exist at a single point in time (see the parables about the kingdom in 13:1–50). This already-but-not-yet aspect of the kingdom points to what many call inaugurated eschatology. Jesus has brought the kingdom, but it will reach its full realization in the future.

With the discussion of what will happen in the end times, Jesus asserts his role as the Judge. He teaches his hearers of the eternal consequences of uncontrolled anger (5:21–26), lust and adultery (5:27–30), private almsgiving (6:1–4), storing up heavenly treasure (6:19–20), judging others (7:1–2), and false teaching (7:15–19). He is the one who will decide if people enter the kingdom of heaven, and he warns that some will be surprised that they will not (7:21–23). The Judge’s instructions are not to be taken lightly.

Related article: The Twist in the Sermon on the Mount That You Probably Missed

5. Jesus the good teacher

As the lawgiver, king, and judge, Jesus is the true teacher. During the Sermon on the Mount, he declares his uniqueness. He warns his hearers about false prophets in their midst (7:15), and he models a kind of prayer that is different from what they were accustomed to seeing (6:5–13). He declares that the righteousness taught and practiced by the Pharisees and scribes is not enough to enter the kingdom (5:20). In his explanation of the law, he taught a different kind of righteousness, one that goes beyond outward appearances. The righteousness of the kingdom includes inner change as well (see, for example, 5:22 and 5:28)—the whole person is transformed. Ultimately, the standard is that Jesus’s followers should be perfect just as the heavenly Father is perfect (5:48).

Some might lament that Jesus’s raising of the bar makes it impossible to meet his moral standards, and that this unattainable goal only reveals our need for a Savior (see Rom 3:20). In other words, the interpretation is that the purpose of the impossibly high ethical standard is to have people reflect on the hopelessness of our sin, and to rely on Christ’s imputed righteousness. While that sentiment is true, it does not cancel the divine judge’s clear standard: entering the kingdom requires a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees and scribes (5:20), and Jesus expects adherence and obedience (see 7:21, 24). Later in Matthew, the disciples indeed lament that it seems impossible to be saved (19:25).

But Jesus answers the lament by stating, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Jesus promises his disciples that he will be with them always (28:20). Jesus does not leave his followers alone; he sends the Holy Spirit (see John 14). The Spirit makes a Christ-follower born again (John 3:6–8), dwells in the believer (Rom 8:9), and is the deposit assuring our salvation (Eph 1:13–14). It is the Holy Spirit who empowers continual repentance, obedience, and perfection (Gal 2:20, 3:3; Phil 2:13; 1 John 4:6–8). While we are unable to meet the standard of kingdom entry on our own, followers of Christ are enabled to do so by the Spirit. Our entrance into the kingdom, then, is not based on some kind of works-righteousness, but a divinely enabled participation.

Just like the kingdom is only partially realized, the commands of the Sermon on the Mount are also only partially realizable in this present life. During this time, the sermon offers a model of the life of discipleship. The radical teaching of the sermon characterizes the radical kingdom of God. Those who call on Jesus as Lord (7:22)—the counterpart of which, our role, is “servant”—are called to a high standard of obedience (7:21).

As we look forward to the full realization of the kingdom, we submit to our king. For disciples of Christ, we look forward to the end, when our house will stand, when we are characterized by the Father’s perfection, and when we will receive our reward.

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Written by
Daniel K. Eng

Daniel K. Eng is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Western Seminary. He is a husband and dad to three precious daughters. They live in Portland, Oregon.

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Written by Daniel K. Eng