The Sermon on the Mount
For many believers the Lord’s teaching recorded in Matthew chapters 5–7, universally known as The Sermon on the Mount, embraces the very essence of Christianity. The edicts issued on that occasion are considered the kernel of what Peter calls “the present truth” (2 Pet. 1: 12) or what most people would call Christianity. Parts of The Sermon are recorded by Mark and Luke but it is only Matthew that presents the Lord’s teaching as one discourse (though some sayings are repeated elsewhere in his Gospel).
To be fair, while there are no direct quotations from The Sermon in the Epistles (which, unlike the Gospels, are not historical in character but doctrinal), there are some clear parallels. Thus the Lord’s injunctions not to be careful about matters of this life in Matt. 6: 25–34 find their echo in “Be careful about nothing” (Phil. 4: 6). Again, the command “Judge not…” (Matt. 7: 1) regarding trivial weaknesses and shortcomings in others, has a correspondence in the teaching of Paul in Rom. 14: 1–18. That these similarities exist is not unexpected, for there are governmental principles that always belong to the pathway of faith irrespective of the age—but similarities are not identities! The teachings in The Sermon belong to an earthly people, not a heavenly one, they belong to a people awaiting the imminent setting up of the Kingdom in power on earth, not to the Church waiting for the Lord from heaven, they belong to the period of law and not to grace.
Matthew presents the Lord as Israel’s Messiah and King and gives us the preaching of the impending Kingdom, firstly by the Baptist, then by the Lord Himself, and lastly by the Twelve (Matt. 3: 1–4; 4: 23–25; 10: 5–15). The Lord even uses a distinctive expression for the Kingdom, speaking of it as “the kingdom of the heavens” (Matt. 3: 2). The Sermon gives the principles of that Kingdom and the character of those who would enter it. The expressions employed in The Sermon belong to Judaism and are foreign to the present time. Today, Gentile and Jew “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3: 28) but then those addressed were addressed as Jews contrasted with Gentiles and nations (see Matt. 5: 47; 6: 7, 32). What have we Gentiles to do with “the sanhedrim”, “the altar”, or “synagogues” (Matt. 5: 22, 24; 6: 2)? Again, the expressions “heavenly Father” (Matt. 5: 48 etc.) and “Father who is in the heavens” (Matt. 5: 16 etc.) are never once used in the Epistles, for they belong to an earthly people, not a heavenly one. As to terms, believers are called saints in the epistles but never disciples. As to teaching, the Lord put no limit whatever on the giving and borrowing of Matt. 5: 42. Do those who teach Christianity from The Sermon obey this command of His in practice without any reservation? At the heart of The Sermon is what is known as The Lord’s Prayer whose contrastive background is “vain repetitions” (Matt. 6: 7)—and yet millions chant this prayer week after week! Christian prayer is to the same Father but only through the authority of Christ’s name (see John 16: 23–26) as He is now Head as man in heaven (see 1 Cor. 11: 3–5). The Lord’s name is not mentioned in The Lord’s Prayer! Again, those who pray this prayer ask for forgiveness on the basis and measure of their forgiveness of others (see Matt. 6: 12–15), that is on the principle of law, whereas Christian forgiveness is founded on God’s forgiveness of us in Christ (see Eph. 4: 32; Col. 3: 14), that is on the principle of grace.
Subsequent to the giving of The Sermon, the Lord invested the Twelve with the powers of the Kingdom and sent them out to preach its imminence to the sons of Israel alone, governed by what He had taught them (see Matt. 10: 5–10). They were to take no provisions with them (see Matt. 10: 9, 10; Mark 6: 8, 9; Luke 9: 3). The same instructions were given to the seventy sent out later (see Luke 10: 4). However, when the King and the offered Kingdom had been rejected by Israel, the Lord asked the Twelve “When I sent you without purse and scrip and sandals, did ye lack anything? And they said, Nothing. He said therefore to them, But now he that has a purse let him take [it], in like manner also a scrip …” (Luke 22: 35, 36 my emphasis). These words “But now” clearly show that there was to be a radical change from what had pertained previously. What had applied then, no longer applied now. Before, the principles of the Kingdom were in force and the Father in heaven would meet their daily needs in His service; now, they were to make provision for future service themselves. Previously God’s testimony was restricted to Israel (see Matt. 10: 6), now it was to be universal (see Luke 24: 47). There is one final detailed fact that I must present to you in order that you may realise without a shadow of doubt that The Sermon has no direct link to the present time.
In the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke the Greek word euaggelion (glad tidings, gospel, good news) occurs several times. Understandably, Mark begins his Gospel with “Beginning of the glad tidings of Jesus Christ, Son of God (Mark 1: 1) for any good news must centre on Christ. But thereafter these glad tidings, when identified, are always called the ‘glad tidings of the kingdom’ or ‘the glad tidings of the kingdom of God’ by each of these three evangelists. They describe no other gospel. Unsurprisingly, the corresponding words preach and proclaim in their various verb forms are also used by these three writers. However, when we come to John’s Gospel, the word euaggelion does not occur once! A Gospel with no gospel!? Likewise the verbs preach and proclaim are absent in John. This must strike even a casual reader as odd. To the Bible student it is a fact that demands investigation.
Now scholars generally acknowledge that John wrote late, probably towards the end of the first century, and certainly after Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus in AD70 and Israel had ceased to exist as a nation. By then, any thought of the Kingdom being established in power on earth subsequent to that nation’s repentance had obviously long since evaporated. However, although we take account of secular history, we do not need it to interpret Scripture.
The synoptic Gospels, particularly Matthew, record the presentation of the King and His Kingdom to Israel and the subsequent rejection of both historically. By contrast, John begins his Gospel with the Lord already rejected, saying Christ “came to his own, and his own received him not” (John 1: 11). Hence there is no gospel of the kingdom in John’s Gospel. But here is the crucial point. Of the 111 verses of The Sermon in Matthew, John records not a single one. This fact alone should convince the reader that The Sermon belongs to the time when the Kingdom was offered to Israel and not to the present day when that Kingdom is in abeyance. What John records in his Gospel are truths that anticipated the present period, omitting those that belonged to the establishment of the Kingdom on earth. Hence He records nothing of the Baptist calling Israel to repentance but He does record him testifying of “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1: 29)—a testimony the other evangelists omit. He records the ministry given by the Lord regarding the coming of the Holy Spirit (see John 14: 15–16: 15), a hallmark of the present time, of which the other evangelists chronicle virtually nothing. The whole tenor of John’s Gospel is seen from the Lord’s word “But [the] hour is coming and now is…” (John 4: 23; see also John 5: 25). These words show that conditions that historically belonged to the future were nonetheless morally then present. The absence of any reference to The Sermon in John is the singular proof that it has no direct bearing to the present time. It was applicable before the Lord was rejected by Israel and it will have its application again, after the Church has been raptured and a remnant in Israel once more preaches the gospel of the Kingdom (see Matt. 24: 14) before the Lord’s return in glory.
The Sermon itself may be viewed as having seven sections:
- Matt. 5: 1, 2: Introduction
- Matt. 5: 3–10: True blessedness
- Matt. 5: 11–16: True disciples
- Matt. 5: 17–7: 14: Principles of the Kingdom
- Matt. 7: 15–23: False disciples
- Matt. 7: 24–27: True wisdom
- Matt. 7: 28, 29: Conclusion
In the section immediately after the introduction, we have eight abstract characteristics preceded by the word blessed, of which the first and last identify those who would enter the Kingdom. Before the conclusion, we have a corresponding section in which the Lord gives two similes to illustrate the wisdom that would mark those who not only heard His words regarding the Kingdom but put them into effect.
The third section begins with the ninth blessed and refers particularly to true disciples who are both the salt of the earth (or land) and the light of the world, figures indicative of the testimonial responsibility that rests on them. Salt can only preserve what already exists, suggesting the maintenance what was of God within the limits of the land of Israel. The light of the world infers a far wider testimonial sphere that will yet be occupied by such disciples (see Matt. 24: 14). This section is contrasted with the fifth section, which gives warnings as to false disciples who claim the King’s authority and may even exercise the powers of the Kingdom but who are workers of lawlessness, not doing the Father’s will (see Matt. 7: 21–23).
This brings us to the main central section of The Sermon. Now the Lord Jesus said that the “law and the prophets [were] until John: from that time the glad tidings of the kingdom of God are announced …” (Luke 16: 16; see also Matt: 11: 13). The advent of the Baptist thus marked a defining moment, a radical change in the ways of God with Israel. That change was not from Judaism to Christianity, nor from law to grace, but from the period of the law and the prophets to the period of the Kingdom’s presentation. However, this did not mean that the law itself was to be discarded for the opening words of this central section of The Sermon are “Think not that I am come to make void the law or the prophets; I am not come to make void, but to fulfil” (Matt. 5: 17). Far from setting aside the precepts of the law, the Lord intensifies their meaning by condemning the hate that gives rise to murder (v 21, 22) and the lust that gives rise to adultery (see v 27–29) etc. Again, almost the last words of the section are “Therefore all things whatever ye desire that men should do to you, thus do ye also to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7: 12). This is followed by a warning of the narrowness of Kingdom’s entrance (see v 13, 14) and the effort involved to enter (see Luke (13: 24–30), clearly indicating that the precepts of The Sermon are enshrined in law and not grace.
The Jewish mind would rightly identify “the kingdom of the heavens” with the words of Daniel’s prophecy when he declared that “the God of the heavens” (Dan. 2: 44) would set up a Kingdom that would be universal and with Israel having a dominant role in the exercise of its rule (see Dan. 7: 22, 27). Sadly, Israel, epitomised by the scribes and Pharisees, thought that their title by birth was all that was required to enter the Kingdom (see Matt. 3: 9; Luke 3: 7, 8). Thus though the Jews were “the sons of the kingdom” (Matt. 8: 12; 13: 38) the Lord warned them of the danger of losing the Kingdom if they lacked the fruits of righteousness (see Matt. 21: 43)—for the identifying feature of the Kingdom is righteousness (see Ps. 45: 6; Is. 32: 1 etc.). Hence the Lord’s demand for righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees in The Sermon (see Matt. 5: 20) in order to enter the Kingdom. Well might the Lord conclude the main central section by pointing out the narrowness of the gate and the straightness of the way that leads to life (see Matt. 7: 13, 14)! Much more could be said but, with one final consideration, this must suffice.
The real mischief in identifying The Sermon with Christianity lies in the fact that not only does it muddle up law and grace, but it sets one Scripture against another. The Lord clearly stated that one who practised and taught the least of the commandments “shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens” (Matt. 5: 19). By contrast, Paul condemns those who “have turned aside to vain discourse, desiring to be law–teachers, not understanding either what they say or concerning what they [so] strenuously affirm” (1 Tim. 1: 7). Yet those who are greatest in the Kingdom are law–teachers! This fact alone should tell us that Christianity is not the subject of The Sermon. The whole background to The Sermon is law and not grace. If The Sermon gives the essential principles of Christianity, then we set the teaching of the Lord Jesus against that of the apostle Paul by putting Christians under law. The relation of the Christian to the law is that he is dead to it: “So that, my brethren, ye also have been made dead to the law by the body of the Christ…” (Rom. 7: 4). Beyond dispute, a dead man can neither obey or disobey laws. Whether I understand it or not, this is the position in which the death of Christ has placed me. Again, we read “For Christ is [the] end of law for righteousness to every one that believes” (Rom. 10: 4). Notice the word is righteousness, not justification. Many believers would rightly insist on justification by faith quoting such Scriptures as Acts 13: 39: “from all things from which ye could not be justified in the law of Moses, in him every one that believes is justified”. However, what Christ’s death has effected for us in making us dead to the law, also has an experimental outcome, Paul says “For I, through law, have died to law, that I may live to God” (Gal. 2: 19). Death to law is essential so that God Himself may be the object before the soul, rather than a set of rules. Paul concludes by saying “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness [is] by law, then Christ has died for nothing” (v 21). Note again, the word is righteousness, not justification. It is not just the act of being declared right through faith in the gospel, (that is, justification), but the continuing concept of righteousness for the rest of the believer’s time here (that is, how I live). Ponder well the extreme, (and, some would say), the excessive language of the apostle here: if the law is my rule for life, “then Christ has died for nothing”—in other words, His death was a complete waste!
In summary: the teaching of The Sermon was not given by the Lord for the present time and does not contain the essence of Christian teaching which is to be found in the Epistles.