Sermon on the Plain: What It Is & How It Differs from the Sermon on the Mount

A graphic with two circles. Inside one circle represents a plain and inside the other circle is a mountain. This represents the distinctions and similarities between the sermon on the plain and sermon on the mount.

When we consider the ethical teaching of Jesus Christ, the gold standard tends to be the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7. John Stott, for example, rightly considers the Sermon on the Mount “the most complete delineation anywhere in the New Testament of the Christian counterculture.”1

Though the Sermon on the Mount gets most of the attention, the Gospel of Luke records another major teaching event regarding the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20–49), known as the Sermon on the Plain. Concerning that sermon, this article will take up the following matters:

What is the context for the Sermon on the Plain?

In the Gospel account that bears his name, Luke compiled an orderly account for a man named Theophilus,2 to provide evidence and assurance of the things he had heard about Christianity (Luke 1:1–4).

After a lengthy opening section illuminating Jesus’s credentials as the Savior of the world (Luke 1:5–4:13), the body of Luke’s Gospel begins with a collection of the Savior’s fundamentals: snapshots of his miracles, descriptions of his followers, and offers of salvation through faith (Luke 4:14–9:50).

But in addition, Luke opens a window on the Savior’s teachings. We get a summary of a synagogue sermon and its reception (Luke 4:16–30). And we’re invited to hear Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20–49).

After praying all night on a mountain and selecting his top twelve disciples (Luke 6:12–16), Jesus came back down to them and “stood on a level place” (Luke 6:17)—the “plain” in “Sermon on the Plain.” When a multitude “came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases” (Luke 6:18), Jesus preached this sermon.

Two contextual matters will help us to understand this sermon. 

The first is the relationship between this sermon and Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, which I will address by examining the similarities and differences between the two sermons.

The second contextual matter is that Jesus spoke this sermon with his “eyes fixed on his disciples” (Luke 6:20a). The fact that Jesus spoke this sermon to and for his disciples must govern how we interpret its main message.

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What are the similarities between the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain?

Two options appear and reappear throughout the commentary literature:

  1. Are these sermons actually the same sermon, filtered through the selective editing of different Gospel authors?
  2. Or are they different sermons preached on separate occasions? 

The reason these questions constantly pop up is the abundant similarity between the sermons. Notice the following fourteen parallels:

Table 1: Similarities between the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain

 

LUKE

TOPIC

MATTHEW

1

6:20–23

Blessings on the poor, hungry, and persecuted

5:3, 6, 4, 10–11

2

6:27–28

I say to you … love your enemies and pray for them

5:43–44

3

6:29–30

Turn the other cheek and give to those who beg

5:38–42

4

6:31

As you wish others to do to you, do so to them

7:12

5

6:32–34

No benefit to loving those who love you back

5:46–47

6

6:35

You will be sons of the Most High/sons of your Father in heaven

5:45

7

6:37

Judge not, and you won’t be judged

7:1

8

6:37

Forgive, and you will be forgiven

6:14–15

9

6:38

Give, and it will be given to you

6:3–4

10

6:38

The measure you use will be measured back to you

7:2

11

6:41–42

See speck in your brother’s eye but fail to notice the log in your own eye

7:3–5

12

6:43–44

Good and bad trees and their fruits

7:16–20

13

6:46

Call Jesus “Lord” but don’t do what he says

7:21

14

6:47–49

Two houses on two foundations

7:24–27

You’ll notice that both sermons begin with blessings and end with houses built on rocky or poor foundations. In between, there is much about loving enemies, giving generously, and judging righteously. The sermons share many metaphors and aphorisms.

In addition, the audience of both sermons is similar. Luke has Jesus fixing his eyes on his disciples, speaking the sermon to them (Luke 6:20a), while Matthew places Jesus’s eyes on the crowds with his disciples also coming to him (Matt 5:1–2). But the difference there does not appear to be significant. Both sermons portray Jesus aiming at his disciples, with the crowds listening along.

For these reasons, some have concluded, along with I. Howard Marshall, that: 

The Sermon on the Plain is a shorter version of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5–7). It is generally accepted that one basic piece of tradition underlies the two Sermons and that both Evangelists (and possibly their predecessors in the transmission of the material) have expanded it and modeled it in accord with their own purposes.3

However, that conclusion is far from certain, and a consensus is not in place. To show why, I turn now to an explanation of the differences between the sermons.

What are the differences between the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain?

Apart from the many variations in wording that are only to be expected from parallel accounts,4 we ought to consider significant differences in setting, content, and sequence.

Differences in setting

Regarding the setting, Luke has Jesus coming down from a mountain to a plain (Luke 6:12, 17), while Matthew has Jesus going up to a mountain to teach (Matt 5:1). Now it’s possible that Matthew simply omits the all-nighter prayer vigil in the “he went up,” so this difference doesn’t guarantee that the sermons represent different teaching events. But with additional differences (see below), it may provide a clue that the sermons represent different teaching events.

Differences in content

Regarding the content, a number of variations are worthy of comment:

  • Matthew’s sermon begins with eight blessings (Matt 5:3–12); Luke’s sermon begins with four blessings and four curses (Luke 6:20–26).
  • Matthew’s blessings are spiritual (“poor in spirit,” “hunger and thirst for righteousness”); Luke’s are tangible (“poor,” “hungry now,” “weep now”).
  • Matthew expects disciples to be perfect like God (Matt 5:48); Luke expects disciples to be merciful like God (Luke 6:36).

Luke’s sermon contains a few teachings not found in Matthew’s sermon, and Matthew even includes them in other places in his Gospel:

Table 2: Sayings from Luke’s Sermon included in other parts of Matthew’s Gospel

 

LUKE

TOPIC

MATTHEW

1

6:39

A blind man will lead a blind man into a pit

15:14

2

6:40

A disciples is not above his teacher but will be like him

10:24–25

3

6:45

The good/evil person out of the good/evil treasure produces good/evil

12:35

Matthew’s sermon contains many teachings not found in Luke’s sermon, and Luke even includes them in other passages in his Gospel:

Table 3: Sayings from Matthew’s Sermon included in other parts of Luke’s Gospel5

 

LUKE

TOPIC

MATTHEW

1

14:34–35

Salt losing its taste

5:13

2

11:33

Light can’t be hidden

5:14

3

16:17

Heaven and earth will pass away but Law will not

5:18

4

12:57–59

Reconcile with accuser on the way to the judge

5:25–26

5

16:18

Marrying a divorced woman is adultery

5:31–32

6

11:2–4

The Lord’s Prayer

6:9–13

7

12:33–34

Where your treasure is, your heart will also be

6:19–21

8

11:34–36

Your eye is the lamp of your body

6:21–23

9

16:13

You cannot serve God and money

6:24

10

12:22–32

Don’t be anxious about your life

6:25–34

11

11:9–13

Ask, seek, and knock

7:7–11

12

13:23–24

Enter through the narrow gate

7:13–14

13

13:25–27

Depart from me, you workers of evil

7:22–23

Differences in sequence

Regarding the sequence, look back at Table 1 above and scan the left- and right-hand columns to see that Luke’s order of sayings in this sermon is quite different from Matthew’s order. 

For example, they both begin with blessings and end with wise and foolish builders. But Luke’s four blessings, in order, are parallel to Matthew’s blessings numbers 1, 4, 2, and 8.

In addition, while discussing love for enemies (which Matthew includes in ch. 5), Luke sticks the Golden Rule (which Matthew reserves for later in the sermon) in the middle.

Considering that both sermons are, well, sermons, the sequence of ideas matters. Both Matthew and Luke present Jesus the Preacher making an argument. The differences in sermonic content and sequence reveal differences in the message Jesus seeks to communicate to his audience in each setting, despite the abundant similarities.

Because of the many differences in setting, content, and sequence, Leon Morris represents a school of thought among commentators which holds that

the differences between the two [sermons] are such that it is not easy to regard them as variant accounts of the same sermon. It is better to think that Jesus used similar material on more than one occasion.6

What is the main message of the Sermon on the Plain?

Regardless of whether you conclude that the Sermon on the Plain and the Sermon on the Mount represent one event or two in the ministry of Jesus, a far more important matter is the message of each sermon

Will we have ears to hear the Lord Jesus’s instructions for his disciples? To help us grasp the Sermon on the Plain’s message, we should revisit its audience and literary development. Then we’ll observe the structure of Jesus’s argument.

Audience

Luke tells us plainly that Jesus spoke the Sermon on the Plain with his eyes on his disciples (Luke 6:20). Though multitudes had come to hear him, this sermon was primarily for those who wished to follow him. That observation must guide us as we study the sermon.

Why does it matter?

To give one example: When Jesus blesses the poor, the hungry, and the mournful (Luke 6:20–21) at the very beginning, we might wonder if he’s speaking of the poor and hungry of the world generally. 

But remembering that he’s speaking to his disciples, we understand that he’s honoring those who had or would become poor and hungry on his account (as he says straight out in Luke 6:22). 

All who wish to be disciples of Jesus will have enemies who want them to suffer. This reality drives the model of ethics laid out in the entire sermon.

Literary development

I mentioned above that the Sermon on the Plain falls within the larger section of Luke’s Gospel that begins with Luke 4:14 and goes to Luke 9:50. In the chapters leading up to this sermon, Luke has highlighted a few themes.

One such theme is that of hearing Jesus. In his first sermon, Jesus fulfilled Scripture in the people’s hearing (Luke 4:20). They wanted to see what they had only heard about (Luke 4:23). But when they heard what he really had to say, they were furious (Luke 4:28).

Since that time in the synagogue of Nazareth, crowds have been gathering to hear him (Luke 5:1, 15). Hearing and healing were the twin motivations of those who gathered on the plain to hear the sermon (Luke 6:18).

Another related theme is that, of those who hear Jesus, some will actually listen and others will only get mad. The fury arises not only in Nazareth (Luke 4:28), but also in other Galilean synagogues (Luke 5:21; 6:11).

So in the sermon itself, Jesus aims unapologetically at those who will actually hear him (Luke 6:27). Which means, of course, more than physical hearing but also includes the obedience of doing (Luke 6:46–49).

Yet those who hear and obey will arouse the wrath of enemies, just as their Lord, the Son of Man, has (Luke 6:22–23, 26).

Immediately following the Sermon on the Plain, Luke tells a story about an outsider who hears about Jesus (Luke 7:3) and what Jesus had spoken in the hearing of the people (Luke 7:1). This man not only hears, but trusts, whatever the cost. Faith is Luke’s word for such hearing (Luke 7:9), and it becomes the focus of chapters 7 and 8.

From the literary context, therefore, we see that the Sermon on the Plain provides the needed instruction for disciples to not only hear but hear with faith despite attacks from enemies.

Structure

Though the sermon has many famous aphorisms and metaphors, we must resist getting lost in the details or isolating the sayings from one another. This is a sermon making an argument, so we’ll benefit from tracking how each part relates to the next.

Following the train of thought, we see that the Sermon on the Plain has two main sections.

The first section (Luke 6:20–36) explains the reward for faithful disciples. The second section (Luke 6:37–49) presents the ruin of faithless hypocrites.

In the first section, Jesus launches into the reward right out of the starting gate: “Blessed are you …” He does not dance around the fact that his disciples will have enemies. And those enemies will seek to harm Jesus’s disciples (Luke 6:20–26).

And when enemies seek to harm disciples, the disciples must not seek to harm them back. The mercy of God toward his enemies (who are now disciples) motivates those disciples to mercifully love their own enemies (Luke 6:27–36).

In other words, disciples of Jesus can endure the world’s rejection because they already have heaven’s acceptance.

In the sermon’s second section, Jesus warns against the temptations to judge, condemn, or fail to forgive enemies (Luke 6:37). Aspiring disciples who separate themselves and seek only to accuse (Luke 6:38–42) demonstrate what sort of treasure rules their hearts (Luke 6:43–45). If they will not receive—and pass along—the Lord’s mercy to their enemies, they run the risk of being ruined by his flood (Luke 6:46–49).

In short, the main message of the Sermon on the Plain is that Jesus’s disciples will mercifully love and not accuse or attack their enemies. They get the strength for such dramatic behavior not from a sense of self-esteem or personal worthiness, but from a deep trust in the Father’s merciful approval and blessing through the Lord Jesus Christ.

How do I study the Sermon on the Plain?

Let me close with a few suggestions to help you further your own study of the Sermon on the Plain.

1. Don’t be distracted by the Mount/Plain question

You could spend loads of time mapping out every difference in wording between Luke’s and Matthew’s sermons. There is a time and place for such scholarship, but in devotional study, such busyness rarely produces much light. Go ahead and draw an opinion on whether they were one event or two. I have my own opinion on the matter. But remember that it’s far more important to grasp Luke’s message and Matthew’s message.

2. Read the entire sermon as a sermon

When you listen to your pastor preach, I presume you don’t take each paragraph of the sermon and treat it as an isolated proverb. What came before and what comes after determines the persuasiveness of the argument. Luke researched and recorded for us the body of Jesus’s teachings, and he shaped these particular teachings into a single sermon presented on a particular occasion. We’re more likely to understand it properly when we recognize it as such.

3. Read the sermon in the context of Luke’s Gospel

To grasp the Sermon on the Plain, I went all the way back to the beginning of Luke’s Gospel and kept reading and re-reading. Once I could place the sermon within the section begun at Luke 4:14, I could make sense of how Luke was using the sermon to teach the world about the Savior.

4. Read, read, and read again.

Keep reviewing the entire sermon over and over. The more you read it as a whole, the more likely you are to grasp how the pieces fit together into two main sections. You’ll improve at grasping the train of thought and flow of the argument, which will enable you to make stronger and clearer applications to your own life.

One tool to help with this could be the ESV Panorama New Testament, which lays out large amounts of text on a single page. All of Luke 6 and 7, for example, are on a single two-page spread. By getting large amounts of text in your field of vision, you’ll be less likely to break the text into tiny pieces, as though they have nothing to do with one another.

Another great tool is the free Logos web app. With it, you can fill your screen with text, turn off section headings, and toggle verse and chapter numbers to give yourself the best possible focused reading experience. In addition, you can click a word to have repetitions of that word highlighted. Or you can right-click to search for further uses of that word.

The Passage Guide for Luke 6 and the Factbook entry for “Sermon on the Mount/Plain” provide additional resources to assist in answering your questions.

May the Lord bless your study of this important text, empowering you to show the same mercy toward your enemies that your heavenly Father has shown toward you.

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  1. John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 19.
  2. Judging by the honorific “most excellent” (Luke 1:3; see also Acts 23:26; 24:2; 26:25), Theophilus was likely a Roman official. Many have suggested he may have had a role in the Apostle Paul’s trial before Caesar. For example, see Daniel B. Wallace’s “Luke: Introduction, Argument, and Outline.”
  3. I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1978), 243.
  4. For example, compare Luke 6:1–5 with Matthew 12:1–8—which clearly describe the same event—to observe many differences in vocabulary and syntax.
  5. The data for the following was drawn from Jason C. Kuo, “Sermon on the Mount/Plain,” Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
  6. Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; InterVarsity Press, 1992), 93.
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Written by
Peter Krol

Peter Krol is president of DiscipleMakers campus ministry in Pennsylvania, and the author of Knowable Word: Helping Ordinary People Learn to Study the Bible and Sowable Word: Helping Ordinary People Learn to Lead Bible Studies.

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