Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them… – Matthew 5:1 ESV
It was Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, who first referred to this text as the Sermon on the Mount. But that title is somewhat of a misnomer, in that the content and the context appear to make it much more of a teaching than what we would know as a sermon. Obviously, the setting is outdoors, on a hillside located at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. It is early on in Jesus’ ministry, and yet, we know from chapter four, that Jesus has already begun attracting vast crowds.
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. – Matthew 4:23-25 ESV
Those who made up the audience sitting on the hillside that day to listen to Jesus speak were made up of all kinds of people from all over the area. And within the crowd would have been disciples or followers of Jesus. This term was not exclusively used of the 12 but was commonly used to refer to any and all who followed Jesus and were attracted to His message and miracles. As John will make clear in his gospel, many of these individuals would later choose to abandon Jesus when His message became increasingly more convicting and the price of discipleship, more costly (John 6:66).
Also in the crowd that day were the men whom Jesus called to be His official students. Chapter four reveals how Jesus had called two brothers: Simon (Peter) and Andrew, as well as another two siblings: James and John. All four of them were common fishermen. But when Jesus extended the invitation to join His ranks as His disciples, they all willingly followed. These four were accompanied by Nathanael and Philip, who had also responded affirmatively to Jesus’ invitation, “Follow me.”
Another group that listened to Jesus teach that day were the merely curious. They probably made up the largest contingent within the crowd. These were people who were enamored with Jesus’ miracles and intrigued by what He taught, but, for the most part, were attracted by the novelty of it all. So, as Jesus sat down to teach, He found an audience made up of the called, the semi-committed and the curious. And it is essential to keep these three groups in mind as we listen to Jesus’s words because each of them will have a slightly different take on what He has to say.
The danger we face in reading a passage like this one is to do so from our modern vantage point and with our unique perspective as modern believers who know how the story ends. In other words, we have insights the people in Jesus’ audience would not have had. We know about His death, burial and resurrection. We are well aware of the Holy Spirit and the role He plays in helping us live out the Christian life. We know that our salvation is based on faith alone in Christ alone, and not on words or human effort. We also know that our ongoing sanctification is based on faith, as well. We can’t make ourselves more holy. We must depend upon the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the Word of God.
So, when we read the Sermon on the Mount, we hear it with redeemed ears. We are privy to insider information that the original hearers would not have had. They were not yet sure who Jesus really was. Some would have thought Him to be the Messiah, but they would have been few in number. Even the men whom Jesus called likely had some doubts and reservations about Jesus’ identity. Yes, when Philip had told Nathanael about his encounter with Jesus, he had seemed fairly convinced of who He was.
“We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” – John 1:45 ESV
And it was Nathanael who, upon meeting Jesus for the first time, responded, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49 ESV). But at this point in their relationship with Jesus, these men were still wrestling with what they believed about the Messiah and what they saw in Jesus. There were points of disconnection and discontinuity. Not all they saw about Jesus was matching up with their expectations concerning the coming Messiah.
It would be sometime later that Jesus would ask them who the people believed Him to be. And they would respond, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say you are one of the other ancient prophets risen from the dead” (Luke 9:19 NLT). So, at this point, early on in His ministry, there would have been much confusion and speculation about His true identity. And that point will make what He has to say in this sermon that much more critical.
How would they have heard His message? What kind of impact would His words have made on them? The challenge we face when reading this all-too-familiar passage is to not allow our status as modern, 21st-Century Christians to taint or influence the message. Because we know how the story ends, we can have the unfortunate tendency to remove from Jesus’ words all their power and revolutionary nature. What Jesus had to say that day in that bucolic setting was radical and unheard of. His teachings would have grated on the ears of his listeners, kike fingers on a blackboard, causing them great confusion and raising all kinds of questions in their minds.
For too many of us, because of over-familiarity, His words have long ago lost their power. The radical, counter-cultural calling found in the words of Jesus no longer has the same impact as it did the day He spoke it. It is almost as if we know too much. Our privileged insights into the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, His death, and resurrection, have robbed what He had to say that day of its intended impact and shocking significance.
The challenge is to read the Sermon on the Mount with fresh eyes. To the best of your ability, get into the mindset of someone hearing His words for the very first time. In fact, try to hear them like a 1st-Century Jew. It is important to remember that even the disciples of Jesus were not yet technically believers. They had not heard all of His teachings. They knew nothing about His impending death. They were unaware of His eventual resurrection. He had not yet told them about the future coming of the Holy Spirit. No one in the audience would have known what we know. So, listen to His words from their perspective. Hear what they would have heard. Allow yourself to be shocked by the radical nature of what He said and how it would have dramatically altered your concepts of life, religion, relationships, and God.
Everything these people knew to be true was about to be turned on its head. All they had been taught and had learned to lean on as reliable, right, and non-negotiable, was about to get rocked. There would be no mind-blowing miracles performed, no demons cast out, or lame people healed. That hillside was not going to be some carnival sideshow, but a classroom. And the subject was going to be the kingdom of heaven. For the very first time, Jesus was going to expand on what He and John the Baptist had been preaching. Both of them had been declaring, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). Now, Jesus was going to begin explaining what life in the kingdom was to be like. And it was going to be more mind-blowing then any miracle He could have performed. This was going to be radical stuff.
Jesus is going to teach that persecution and poverty bring blessing, that lust carries the same penalty as adultery, anger is equivalent to murder, enemies are to be loved, and reconciliation trumps revenge or retaliation. He is going to demand a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. And any righteous acts done in order to get noticed don’t count. He’s going to outlaw worrying and judging. He’s going to require that his audience put the needs of others ahead of their own, including their enemies. And to top it all off, Jesus is going to demand fruitfulness. Oh, and as if that were not enough, He throws in a life of perfection for good measure.
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:48 ESV
It all sounds impossible. And it is. It all sounds so radical. And it was. So much so, that over the years, there have been many who have decided that Jesus’ words were never intended to be followed. They have concluded that this message was speaking of some future time when sin would be eliminated, and men enjoyed a perfection made possible by God. In other words, they believe Jesus’ words that day were a prophetic message concerning His future Millennial Kingdom.
But while there is some truth to this notion, I don’t believe Jesus would have said all that He did if there were not some expectation on His part that obedience to these commands was not only possible but non-negotiable. The key to understanding what Jesus was teaching is to realize the impossible nature of it all. Like the Law of Moses, Jesus’ words were exposing the inability of men to live up to the holy standards of God’s Kingdom. Jesus was not teaching a new set of rules or requirements in order for men to be made right with God. He was teaching a new way of life that was possible only by the power of God. The righteousness Jesus was demanding was not to be self-made but Spirit-produced. The behavior that He was expecting would not be the result of human effort, but divine power.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus had told the people the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Now Jesus is going to explain what life in that kingdom was to look like.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.