v. 2 Matthew writes literally, “He opened his mouth and taught them, saying…” It is, of course, unnecessary to say that the Lord opened his mouth. Of course he did if he began to speak. But it makes for a solemn beginning to the discourse; it makes us think that important things are about to be said.
We begin this morning our consideration of the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most memorable, remarkable, and important of all the Lord’s discourses recorded for us in the Gospel. It was the great Augustine, by the way, who was the first to call it “The Sermon on the Mount.” Many people who never go to church know phrases or sentences from this Sermon, so influential has it been on the thinking of the world. Christians refer to its teaching as often as they refer to any other section of the Bible. It is fair to say it is the best known part of Jesus’ teaching. “It is the nearest thing to a manifesto he ever uttered, for it is his own description of what he wanted his followers to be and to do.” [Stott, Christian Counter-Culture, 15] It is, therefore, a text of immense importance. But it is also a text that poses some great difficulties. This morning I want to consider the Sermon in an introductory way. The sermon means different things to different people and its interpretation is determined by the perspective one brings to it. Therefore it is important at the outset to set the Sermon in its proper place in the teaching of the Bible and of the Lord Jesus in particular.
Perhaps the first thing I should say is that it is doubtful that Matthew means us to understand that the material in chapters 5, 6, and 7, what we call the “Sermon on the Mount,” was all delivered at one sitting. Almost certainly we are to understand this as a summary of the Lord’s teaching, teaching that was given in various times and places, and, almost certainly, teaching that was repeated a number of times. Material in Matthew 5-7 is found scattered in various places in Luke and we know that Matthew has, to some extent, organized his material more thematically than chronologically. There is nothing unusual, of course, in great preachers repeating themselves or, even, in delivering the same sermon on several occasions. Whitefield and Wesley often repeated their sermons. They would preach the same sermon in different places to different congregation. Benjamin Franklin said that he could tell whether a sermon Whitefield was preaching was being delivered for the first time or had been preached before. Martin Lloyd Jones, one of the 20th century’s greatest preachers, preached his sermon on Aeneas, the paralyzed man whom Peter healed, more than 40 times!
The fact that Luke has a similar sermon, though much shorter, including some of the same material in the same order, may suggest that Matthew’s material is structured around a familiar sermon outline, perhaps an outline that the Lord filled in this way or that and made longer or shorter depending upon the circumstances.
- Now, the first thing to notice about this sermon is that it is teaching delivered to the Lord’s disciples. It is, that is, teaching for Christians.
That point is made explicitly at the outset. “His disciples came to him and he began to teach them, saying…” The entire sermon that follows is addressed to the Lord’s followers. There is in it no call to repent, to believe in Jesus Christ. It is assumed throughout that those who heard this sermon had already done that. This is not an account of how someone becomes a Christian. It is rather an account of the life that someone is to live once he or she has become a Christian. If, when he began to preach, the Lord’s message had been, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near,” as we read in 4:17, then this is his teaching for those who had responded to that message, believed it and embraced it. The life described in the Sermon on the Mount is the life of those who repent and follow Jesus Christ as Lord.
We said that the kingdom of God in the Gospels is a dynamic concept. It is the reign of God as much as it is the realm. It is God’s rule being manifest in the world. Well, the Sermon on the Mount describes human life under God’s reign and rule. It teaches us what human life looks like, what shape it takes, when it comes under the gracious rule of God.
This sermon is not, therefore, the Gospel in the strict sense of the term. It is not a description of the way of salvation, if we mean by that how a person comes to receive the forgiveness of his or her sins. This is teaching for those who are already Christians, already forgiven, already united to Jesus Christ.
Now, that should not surprise us. Most of the Bible is written to believers. Think about it. Most of the Bible is written to people who confess God as Lord and Savior. The New Testament is written to believers from beginning to end. Even the Gospels themselves that tell the story of Christ and how he brought salvation to the world were written originally for Christians. They were, of course, and rightly so, put to use in evangelism. Mark, indeed, is apparently a specimen of Peter’s preaching to the unsaved. But, still, the Gospels as the rest of the New Testament, were written for and to the church. This is certainly the case with the letters of the Apostle Paul, written in every case either to Christian churches or to Christian individuals. People may come to faith by reading the Bible – many have – but in reading it they were, as it were, listening in to a conversation the Lord was having with his people.
The Bible is written either to the church, sometimes the disobedient and faithless church – as in the case of the OT prophets or some of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 – or for the sake of the faithful people of God. There is very little in the Bible that is addressed directly to the world. We have accounts of sermons that were preached to unsaved audiences by Peter or Paul, we have an account of Paul’s argument for Christianity delivered to the philosophers in Athens. There is, of course, from the beginning of the Bible to its end large amounts of material that ought to be proclaimed to the world. But the Bible itself is composed of material that was originally written for and addressed to the church almost entirely. Even the accounts of sermons delivered to unbelieving audiences are found in books written for Christians. So there is nothing unusual or surprising to find that the Sermon on the Mount is a sermon addressed to believers. Most of the Bible is addressed to believers.
In the case of this sermon it is particularly obvious that this sermon is for Christians only. In the introduction of the sermon, 5:3-16, it is clear that Jesus is talking to people who are already identified by their relationship to him. These are people who will be persecuted on account of their relationship to Christ, as we read in v. 11. These are people who are a city set on a hill and who are salt and light to the world. These are people, we read in the conclusion of the sermon, in 7:21ff. who have called Jesus Christ “Lord”.
So what we have in this sermon is teaching on the Christian life.
- The second thing to notice about the sermon is that it is primarily law and commandment.
Some have wondered, indeed, if the reference to Jesus going up on a mountain to teach, was not intended by Matthew to evoke the image of Moses going up on the mountain to receive the law from God and then to bring it down to God’s people, Israel. Here, then, would be Jesus reintroducing the law, bringing it up to date, republishing it to his people. Whether or not that is Matthew’s intention, there can be no doubt that what we have in this sermon is the law of Jesus Christ and that this law is, in fact, by the Lord’s explicit teaching, a reconfirmation and republication and fresh elaboration of the law of Moses. As he says in 5:17, he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill that teaching and again in 7:12, one who keeps the commandments of this sermon will find that he has kept the law and the prophets. Indeed, he says that he has given us here a summary of the law of God.
And law it is. Luther called the Sermon on the Mount “Mosissimus Moses,” that is Moses to the highest degree. Law raised to its utmost height. A modern commentator refers to the Sermon as “Moses quadrupled.” [Jeremias, The Sermon on the Mount, 12] Alexander Whyte has a sermon in which he entitles the Sermon on the Mount, “Moses’ Last Sermon.” In these various ways, these commentators are indicating that the nature of this sermon is law and command. Christ is commanding us to live in a certain way. He is laying down his law for our lives and it is summed up in 5:48: “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” Which is very like the refrain of the law of Moses: “Be Holy,” God says to his people, “for I am holy.”
It is not simply a repetition of Moses. It is certainly not, as we will see, as has sometimes been argued, a replacement of Moses. Jesus seems to say explicitly that he is not doing that. He is not changing the law. But he is restating it to make its inner demand more clear, to help us understand how the commandments of God’s law reach into every corner of our lives. Jesus imposes his own originality upon the Law of God in this sermon. And when he is finished with God’s law we understand it better than we ever did before.
Now, this fact, that it is law through and through, that it is a sermon on what the Christian life requires of the followers of Christ, has been controversial and is so again in our day. Many authors have thought the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount simply unrealistic. No one can live this way, they said. And so they worked out ways to soften the Lord’s commandments. Others have found the Sermon so much law that they have concluded that there is no saving it.
One German Lutheran scholar wrote a famous book on the Sermon on the Mount in which he concluded: “From the standpoint of Paul, Luther and Calvin, the soteriology of the Sermon on the Mount is irredeemably heretical.” It other words, the Sermon is a preaching of the law not the Gospel and offers righteousness by works and not by faith.” So, he concluded, there is a “gulf here between Jesus and Paul that no art of theological exegesis can bridge.” [In Stott, 35]
Now, you know we aren’t going to accept that! But it helps to hear someone say it because it reminds us how much the Sermon is a preaching of law, how much it is commandment from start to finish and how thoroughly it lays every follower of Christ under obligation to keep these commandments, to live by this law.
When the Lord says in 5:20, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of God,” he is not talking about the imputed righteous of Christ which we receive by faith in him, the perfect righteousness in which we stand before God’s judgment. He is not talking about our justification. He is talking about our sanctification as the entire context of the sermon makes clear. He is talking about our way of life, our daily conduct. That must be better, that must surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees. We must live better than they!
That is why the Sermon on the Mount so regularly sends shivers up and down the spine of serious, faithful Christians who are all too aware of the sinfulness of their lives and their many and profound shortcomings, their constant failure to live up to the standard Christ has set for his followers here.
- The third thing to notice about this sermon is that it is the law of God in its “third use.” It is not only law, it is law for Christian living.
If you remember, Christian theology, following especially the teaching of the Apostle Paul, speaks of three distinct uses or functions of the law of God. It is the same law in every case, but it has three distinct purposes and three distinct effects.
The first use of the law is to restrain the sinfulness of mankind. The law, both written upon the human heart and published in the Bible, and then again, in a less pure and consistent form in the law codes of the nations of the earth, restrains human sinfulness and makes life bearable in the world. It is one of the means by which God suppresses the rebellion of the human heart and keeps it in bounds. In this use the law of God is for everyone and bears down on everyone.
The second use of the law is to convince sinners of their need for a Savior, to show the standard of God’s righteousness and prove to men and women that they not only have not met that standard but cannot meet it. This is what Paul means when, in Romans 3:21, he says that “through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” This is what Paul says the law did for him. “Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came – that is when the law in its demands came home to my conscience – sin revived and I died.” That is, the law taught me the hopelessness of my situation. I knew I could not stand before God’s judgment in my own righteousness, because the law of God had proved to me the extent of my sin. It was the law of God that drove him to Christ. In this use the law is for the elect and serves to bring them to Christ.
The third use of the law, and the controversial one in Christian theology, is the law as a guide to Christian living. As Ralph Erskine has it in one of the verses of his Gospel Sonnets,
When once the fiery law of God
Has chas’d us to the Gospel road,
Then back unto the holy law,
Most kindly Gospel grace will draw.
Once the law has driven us to Christ for our righteousness before God, it directs our steps in the way God would have us live. It shows us how to express our gratitude to God and demonstrate our love for him. In the Heidelberg Catechism the law of God and the Ten Commandments are treated in the long section on our “gratitude” to God for his saving love – how we show our thanks to God for his salvation. The law is love’s eyes, as one old writer put it. Many Christians have denied that the law has such a use. They have taught instead that the law is finished with us when it hands us to Christ; it has done its work and has nothing more to do. But that is not the Bible’s view and not the Lord’s teaching. The law has still another work to do after a person has become a Christian. It directs his steps in holy living. It teaches him what is the will of God for the life of his children. If the law proved his sin in the first place, it did so by showing him what God wanted him to do and what he was not doing. But, now that God is at work in his life, a Christian needs to know again what God’s will is, for now he has the power to keep God’s commandments.
When the Bible speaks about God’s law most of the time it is law in its third use; law for the direction of the lives of God’s people. The Mosaic law was this primarily and this is the use of the law that is found in the Sermon on the Mount.
But many have taken the law of the Sermon on the Mount to be only the law in its second use. What we have in the Sermon on the Mount, they have said, is an impossible ideal. What it teaches us is not how to live our lives in this world, for no one could live up to a standard so impossibly high. Rather the sermon teaches us precisely that: how impossible it is for us to meet the demands of God’s righteous judgment. It teaches us to look for our righteousness outside of ourselves, in Christ.
This is often called the “Lutheran” view of the Sermon on the Mount because Lutheran theology makes little or nothing of the third use of the law. Lutheranism has tended to speak only of the law’s second use, its demonstrating to the conscience that only Christ can make us right with God. It is not entirely fair to call this interpretation of the Sermon the “Lutheran” view, for Martin Luther himself taught that the sermon was all about the works and the fruits of the Christian life.
Now, the Sermon on the Mount is the law of God. So it can function in its second use as well. I’m sure there have been many people through the centuries who have become Christians reading the Sermon on the Mount. They have realized that if this is God’s will they are failures and need God’s forgiveness and a righteousness that is beyond their means. No one knows how bad he is until he tries very hard to be good and this sermon will tell us what it means to be good, how much is required. Anyone who thinks he can please God in his own strength would do well to read what God expects.
But that is not the original or primary purpose of this sermon. Very clearly, in this sermon Jesus is not simply laying out an impossible ideal. He is not intending to prove to people that they need his righteousness in order to obtain eternal life. He never says anything about that, even in the conclusion of the sermon. He is speaking to people who already have his righteousness because they trust in him. He is speaking to people whose sins are already forgiven. He is telling those people, those Christians, how he wants them to live and, indeed, how they must live if they are his true followers. There are many Christians who find the notion of an obligation to live by God’s law, even Christ’s law, distasteful.
- Ours is a rebel society and the spirit of just rebellion against God has leaked in the church. What is more,
- There are many in the church who are discouraged with life and being reminded of their obligations discourages them even more.
But such a view of God’s law – as a burden, as bondage – is utterly wrong-headed. The law of God is a burden as wings are a burden to a bird. God’s law is his perfect will. It is what he desires of our lives and that, knowing him, will always be best, be happiest for us. Would we rather work in the dark unsure of where to put out next step? The law is God’s gift to us. It is the bright light by which we find the flagstones on which to set our feet as we make out way through a dark and uncertain world.
The fourth thing to notice about the sermon is that the obedience it demands is Christian obedience.
If the commandments of this great sermon are commandments for Christians, it is also true that the obedience called for here is a distinctly Christian obedience. It is true that the sermon asks for more than we are capable of in this world. “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” Jesus will tell his disciples. Well that is right. We should aspire to perfection. But perfection is the goal, it is not the achievement of this life. Every Christian knows that. He desires to please God with his life, to love Jesus Christ with his life. He offers his obedience for love’s sake. But he fails in much and over and over again. But Jesus recognizes that in this sermon. It is a real righteousness to which he calls his disciples it is not less real if it is not a perfect righteousness. He tells us that in the very first sentence of the sermon itself. “Blessed are the poor in spirit and blessed are those who mourn.” That is, this sermon is for folk who are conscious of their failings and grieve over them. He goes on. The sermon is for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness precisely because they have not attained to that righteousness they know Jesus deserves from them.
What is more, they know very well that they cannot live this life to any degree without the help of the Lord himself. When later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us to ask so that it will be given to us, seek so that we will find, and knock so that the door will be opened to us, we tend to think first of our earthly desires we want the Lord to fulfill. But in the context of the sermon, he is talking about moral virtues he wants us to display. We need to ask him for those graces; we need his help and power to live the life he has described in this sermon. The entire sermon presupposes an acceptance of the gospel, the experience of conversion and the new birth, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In this sense the Sermon on the Mount is the gospel, for it is the new life that proceeds from faith in Christ and his work of grace in our lives. It is not an impossible ideal that is set before us in the sermon if we mean by that that Christians cannot live the life that Jesus is describing here. They can and they do. Not perfectly, but really. Those who have been born again, those who are walking with Jesus Christ can and do live by this impossibly high ethic. They aspire to it, they attain it in many ways at certain times, and they condemn themselves when they fail to practice the life Christ has taught us here and they try again.
In this sense the Sermon on the Mount is just like the second section of Paul’s letters, where he describes the life God wants us to live, after he has first described the salvation God has given us in Christ. The one leads to the other and makes the other possible. Christ saved us to renew and remake our lives. The sermon is about those new lives that are ours now to live by the grace of God.
From the very beginning God has called his people to be holy, to be different from the world around them. He summoned Israel to that distinctive living that reflected his holiness and love. The story of the OT is the story of Israel forgetting that she had to live an utterly distinctive life in response to God’s grace to her. The story of church history since Pentecost has often been the story of the church forgetting the same thing. She has often failed to embrace her high calling and instead conformed to the living of the people around her. Here Christ is calling his followers to an utterly distinctive life. “Do not be like them…” he says in 6:8 and that might well be taken for a title of the sermon. Don’t be like the pagans in this way and that, he will say in the sermon. But don’t be like the religious folk either, whose religion has become a matter of rules taught by men. Christians, changed down to the bottom by the grace of God, are to reflect that fundamental, radical change in their living every day. John Stott entitled his study of the Sermon on the Mount, Christian Counter-Culture. That is right. We are not to live like the world. We are not to live like the unbelieving church. We are to live a radically different life, shaped by our trust in and our loyalty to Jesus Christ, driven by our love for him, and directed by his commandments, the very commandments which we find in the Sermon on the Mount.
Human beings were made for this high, noble, other-centered, pure, devout, life of love. The Father’s goal is to restore them to it. The essential theme of the Bible from beginning to end is that God’s purpose in human history is to call out a people for himself who will be holy as he is holy, who will serve him, and enjoy the blessing of his love and favor while they live lives that adorn his gospel before the world and prove its truth and power to those who observe them.