The Sermon on the Mount has been called history's greatest sermon. Even people who are unfamiliar with Christianity are familiar with many of the teachings that come from Jesus's most famous sermon. They're familiar with His teachings to love one's enemies, not judge others, and even the Lord's Prayer—even if they've only learned these things through osmosis.
You can find the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5–7 of Matthew's Gospel. While portions of Jesus's sermon can be found in other places (Luke 6:17–49, 11:33, and 14:34–35), quite a bit of it is unique to Matthew.
Let's take an in-depth look at this essential discourse.
The sermon's context
It's completely natural when reading the Sermon on the Mount to think about how Jesus's words apply to us. There's a lot in this message that cuts all of us to the quick. It's no wonder that the writer of Hebrews says that God's words are "Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even dividing the soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).
But when we approach Scripture through a personal lens, we can miss out on some of the critical context and drama.
The teaching that makes up these two chapters would have been the disciples' (and the crowd's) first exposure to Jesus’s teaching. Throughout this sermon, Jesus confronts the legalism that had come to define Pharisaical Judaism. Everyone listening would have been completely surprised at the ways Jesus contradicts much of the teaching they'd been raised hearing.
It's no wonder that the sermon ends this way: "When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law" (Matthew 7:28–29).
So as you read through the Sermon on the Mount, it's helpful to think about how it would have sounded to people who were raised within a very legalistic religious tradition. Even more vital is to consider how His words would have sounded to people who were expecting their Messiah to be both a religious leader and conquering hero.
As startling as it is to hear that God expects you to turn the other cheek, imagine how it would sound to a nation full of people who expected their Messiah to overthrow their enemies. Most of us in the West are familiar with and used to hearing Jesus's words, but His first listeners would have been challenged and scandalized in ways we can scarcely comprehend.
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3–12)
Jesus kicks off the sermon with a section that has come to be known as the Beatitudes. The term "Beatitude" comes from the Vulgate, a fourth-century Latin translation of the Scriptures.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us what it means to be blessed—and it's nothing like the original listeners (or us for that matter) would have expected.
The things Jesus tells his audience to associate with being blessed are the kinds of circumstances they wanted to be delivered from. The nation of Israel has had its fill of mourning. Imagine hearing Jesus say that they're blessed for grieving, or that they're blessed for making peace with their Roman oppressors.
This teaching would have definitely caught the crowd's attention.
Salt and Light (Matthew 5:13–16)
Jesus then transitions into the kind of metaphor-rich teaching He's known for. He compares His listeners to both salt and light.
His listeners would have associated salt with flavor and preservation. The kingdom of God should enhance and sustain the best things in the world by communicating God's beauty. On top of that, their faithfulness should be evident to all. It shouldn't be a lamp that's hidden from view, but it should give light to everyone around, drawing them to God's kingdom.
Typically, when we read Jesus’s words about being salt and light, we read them from our perspective as modern Jesus followers. But He was also speaking a clear message to Israel. His nation had neglected to be salt and light.
When Jesus says, "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot" (Matthew 5:13), He's speaking of Israel's coming judgment, a judgment that He'll elaborate on toward the end of His ministry:
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. "Do you see all these things?" he asked. "Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down" (Matthew 24:1–2).
This prophecy came to fruition in 70 AD when the Roman army captured Jerusalem, destroying both the city and its temple.
The fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17–42)
It would be easy to assume that fulfillment of the Law was invalidating the Law, but He assures His audience that's not what's happening. He hasn't come to put an end to the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). He's not throwing out the Law. Instead, His death and resurrection will satisfy it.
In this section of His address, Jesus makes a statement that would have startled His listeners. He tells them, "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). This would have made them feel hopeless. If the Pharisees weren't good enough for God's kingdom, how could anyone be?
Jesus then begins to show them that God's expectations were even higher than the Law. He touches on several specific issues:
- Murder (Matthew 5:21–26)
- Adultery (Matthew 5:27–30)
- Divorce (Matthew 5:31–32)
- Oaths (Matthew 5:33–37)
- Retribution (Matthew 5:38–42)
In each case, He demonstrates that God is looking at something far more profound and complex than our outward behavior. For instance, they may never have technically killed someone, but merely treating others with contempt puts us in danger of God's judgment. The same is true of committing adultery. The fact that someone hasn't physically been unfaithful doesn't mean that they haven't fantasized about it, and God cares about that, too.
Jesus wants His listeners to know that the Law still matters, and that it requires more from them than they ever imagined. But they didn't yet understand that His death and resurrection would fulfill the Law's requirements. He wasn't going to abolish their debt; He was going to pay it.
Loving our enemies (Matthew 5:43–48)
Many of us today don't really have "enemies." We have people we don't like and we have people who annoy us, but we don't have enemies in the sense that Jesus's listeners would have understood. Israel had always been surrounded by nations that wanted to destroy them. And they were currently under the rule of a nation they were praying God would overthrow.
The difference in how we understand the concept of an enemy as opposed to how His original listeners would have colors our understanding of Jesus's point. We struggle to love people who simply do not agree with us, but Jesus was calling people to love both those they wish they could overthrow as well as those who desired their destruction.
Right motivations (Matthew 6:1–18)
After talking about loving our enemies, Jesus goes into a section where He covers the following topics:
- Taking care of the needy (Matthew 6:1–4)
- Prayer (Matthew 6:5–15)
- Fasting (Matthew 6:16–15)
There is a critical theme that runs through this section, and it's about paying attention to our driving motivations. In each instance, Jesus warns against the temptation to partake of spiritual practices in an effort to draw attention to oneself.
With every topic, Jesus talks about the issue of reward. We can give to the needy, pray, and fast, and God will reward us for our faithfulness. But when we do these things so that others will notice how pious and righteous we are, their attention becomes our reward (Matthew 6:1, 6:5, 6:16).
It's important to note that Jesus is encouraging faithfulness with an expectation of a reward. But like everything about our faith, we have to be willing to look past the potential short-term rewards (having others think well of us) in order to receive God's rewards. We can rest assured that God's rewards will outshine anything we'd be willing to settle for today.
Treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19–24)
Jesus turns the crowd's attention toward the treasures they value. The transition from talking about the motivations associated with acts of faithfulness to handling personal wealth is seamless—because it calls for the same kind of faith.
The Lord warns against stockpiling personal wealth. The kinds of treasure His original hearers would have understood would have been things with a shelf life like food and clothing. As Jesus points out, rats and moths can devour that stuff, and then you've lost it. Instead, Jesus suggests that people should be more concerned about storing up treasure in heaven. What He means is behaving in ways that God will ultimately reward.
If you think about it, He's making the same argument He made about praying, fasting, and practicing generosity. Quietly serving without drawing attention to ourselves and choosing to invest in eternal pursuits instead of temporal ones requires true faith. It's a faith that the writer of Hebrews describes as believing that God exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6).
Our faith is demonstrated by the things that we do.
Warnings against worry (Matthew 6:25–34)
Again, these passages speak to modern people a lot differently than they would speak the first-century Israelite. It makes sense for the Lord to challenge us about stockpiling wealth. His original audience didn't have a whole lot of possessions to begin with. Every day was a struggle to simply survive.
There was a pretty big barrier that stopped them from being focused on eternal concerns—their constant worry about tomorrow. Jesus encourages them to have faith that God is caring for their daily needs, and He uses birds as an example:
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life (Matthew 6:26–27)?
The Lord encourages them with what is the theme for this entire discourse: "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33).
Judging others (Matthew 7:1–6)
If you ask people who don't know much about the Bible to quote something Jesus said, one of the things they'll probably say is, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." This comes from this section of the Sermon on the Mount.
Holding others to a standard we can't meet is a problem for all people. And Jesus addresses this tendency. He warns the crowd that they will be measured by the same measurement they use on others. This section focuses pretty extensively on being self-reflective enough to realize our own unworthiness before we draw conclusions about others.
Asking, seeking, and knocking (Matthew 7:7–12)
When Jesus brought up prayer earlier, it was to encourage people not to use it to draw attention to themselves and to give them instructions on how to pray instead (Matthew 6:5–15). He brings it up again, encouraging His listeners to keep praying.
He illustrates this by pointing out that all fathers want to give their children what they desire. If all parents want to give good gifts, how much more does our heavenly Father?
The narrow and wide gates (Matthew 7:13–23)
Jesus warns the gathered audience that the path to eternal life is narrow, and few find it. They'll need to be vigilant and pay close attention. To clarify this point, He warns them to watch out for false prophets. They'll come with every appearance of a God follower, but they're not. And the way you discern false prophets from real ones is by watching their fruit.
To further illustrate the danger of choosing the wide path over the narrow one, He raises the concern of false disciples. Many who follow false prophets might end up doing things in Jesus's name that aren't necessarily for Jesus (Matthew 7:21–23).
The wise and foolish builders (Matthew 7:24–27)
To close out this sermon, Jesus encourages the crowds to act on His words. He shares a parable about two builders. One builder built his home upon a rock, and that home withstood the storms of life. This man, Jesus told them, was like someone who heard His words and put them into practice. But then He warns of a foolish builder who builds his home on the sand—this home was not able to withstand life’s storms.
There would be plenty of people who would follow Jesus from town to town curious about His miracles and interested in His teachings, but they would never put them into practice. We all need to be very careful about believing that knowing the truth is the same thing as acting on it. As the Book of James tells us, "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says" (James 1:22).
Nearly everything in the Sermon on the Mount is an encouragement to start or stop certain behaviors. Merely agreeing with Jesus's words would have done no good for those listening —and the same is true for us.
Set apart from the world
One of the most significant things about the Sermon on the Mount is that it reveals just how different the kingdom of God is from the kingdoms of the world. American theologian Stanley Hauerwas points this out very succinctly, "Whenever a people are bound together in loyalty to a story that includes something as strange as the Sermon on the Mount, we are put at odds with the world."
Throughout this vital sermon, Jesus demonstrates a way of living that sets His followers apart. And when His people put these teachings into practice, they become a shining city on the hill. Go to this article to learn more about Christ's teachings during the Sermon on the Mount.