Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

Pastor Scott L. Harris
March 8, 1992

Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount
Matthew 5-7

At our current time such men as John MacArthur, Chuck Swindoll, James Boice, Charles Stanely and others receive great acclaim as excellent preachers, and such they are. Others would attribute men of the past such as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Charles Spurgeon, D.L. Moody or Billy Sunday as the best in what a preacher is to be. Others may even go back to Biblical men such as Moses, Isaiah or Jeremiah as the greatest proclaimers of God’s truth. Yet all of them pale in comparison with the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This morning we begin an examination of His greatest sermon on the condition of man and his need for God’s grace. The sermon is concise, yet it fully exposes the heart of man just as a small scalpel in the hands of a skilled surgeon. It covers a variety of topics, yet weaves them all intricately together as a weaver does in making a tapestry by blending multicolored threads together into one theme. It begins with promises of God’s blessing, then exposes all that is in man that keeps him from those blessings, and ends with a call to secure those blessings by following God.

Over the years the Sermon on the Mount has received much mistreatment ranging from making it the New Testament equivalent to the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments to completely ignoring it by saying it has no value for Christians in this age. To avoid such abuse and misuse we must ask ourselves to whom was this Sermon intended? To whom does it apply? What is its purpose? What is its relevance?

To answer those questions we must approach the Sermon on the Mount as we would any other passage of Scripture. We must have an open mind to let it speak for itself. We examine the text and the context. We inspect the grammar and the words themselves as well as looking into the historical setting, because we want to understand how those to whom it was originally written or spoken to would have understood it. Then questions concerning the passage are answered by examination of other Scriptures that speak on the same topic. Too often Scripture is misinterpreted and twisted simply because the reader comes to the text with pre-conceived ideas and theories. Such as been the case with the Sermon on the Mount.

Let me briefly go over four major views concerning this sermon and then explain the Sermon’s relevance to us – we who are living today.

1. The Social Gospel View. This was a popular view in the late 1800’s and the first part of this century. Two world wars removed most of the credibility of this theory, but it is still advocated by Post-millennialists and the new “Restoration or Dominion theology.” This view in essence believes that if the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount were followed, man could thereby produce the kingdom of God on earth. War will cease, and man will live in peace. In other words, man can and will usher in the Kingdom of God by his own efforts by living according to all the injunctions given in the sermon. The major Biblical criticism of this view, arising from within the text itself is that section we call “the Beatitudes, i.e. “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . blessed are they that mourn . . . etc.” They are largely ignored because to face the beatitudes, as I hope to show you in the coming weeks, is to come to grips with the reality that no one, unaided, can live the Sermon on the Mount in and of himself.”

2. The Mosaic Law View. This view holds that through the sermon Jesus corrects the misinterpretations of the Scribes and Pharisees, so in essence, Jesus is just giving the deeper and higher meanings of the Mosaic Law. Therefore, since it is an extension of the Mosaic Law and that those to whom this was given were under the old covenant of the Mosaic Law, it had direct application to them. This view can have two extreme applications. Those groups that stress the law (keeping Sabbath, dietary commands, etc.) apply the specific instructions in the Sermon as laws. Other groups go to the other extreme and say that since we are under the New Covenant and Grace the Sermon does not have direct application to us. The problem with this view is two fold, first, like the Social Gospel View, it does not adequately deal with the Beatitudes, and second, while Jesus did correct and clarify the Mosaic Law, He also went beyond it.

3. The Hyper-dispensational view. Let me define “dispensation” to start with. A dispensation refers to a distinguishable period of time in the revelation of God Himself and His program for man. For example, in the age of the Patriarchs (Abraham, etc) man approached God by faith (as is the case in every dispensation) by making sacrifices as best they knew how in anticipation of God’s redemption. In the dispensation of the Law, Moses spelled out in detail the manner by which the people were to come to God, though it was still by faith and in anticipation of God’s ultimate redemption. In the dispensation of Grace (current dispensation) we come to God by faith looking back on the sacrifice made by Christ.

The Hyper-dispensational view places a strict determination of the various dispensations and holds that the Sermon on the Mount is to be applied to those living in the Kingdom of heaven. Christ made a real offer of the kingdom, but since it was rejected, the Church age was ushered in instead. The principles of the sermon will be instituted during the Millennial Reign when the Kingdom is on earth which is a different dispensation than the current one. They say it has no direct application to us at this point. In keeping with their view, they also reject the other teachings of Christ as having application today and instead stress the epistles since they record what was specifically written to the church.

First, this distorts the purpose of the gospels. All of the gospels were written during the church age in order to 1) Teach those in the church the doctrine of Christ, and 2) Tell those outside the church about Jesus and what He had done that they might become part of the church.

Second, this view has a distorted understanding of what the “kingdom of heaven/God” is at the present time. They fail to take into account that while the full manifestation of the kingdom is to come, the kingdom is also currently present spiritually. In John 18:36 Jesus plainly says twice that His kingdom was not of this world. The kingdom was “in their midst” (Luke 17:21). The Apostle Paul said that the kingdom was “. . . righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). In Colossians 1:13 Paul says that Christ has “delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son.” Jesus reigns in our hearts as king, His kingdom is present.

In addition, the Great Commission given to us in Matthew 28:19,20 is for us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” The commandments and teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are certainly part of this. Would the Hyper-dispensationalist say that this commission was only to be carried out until Pentecost and then be null and void until Christ’s bodily return?

Finally, what do you do with those things in the sermon that will have no meaning if transferred for application in the dispensation of Christ’s earthly rule. The false prophets of 7:15-23 would be in the kingdom according to the hyper-dispensational view and verse 21 plainly says that they will not enter the kingdom. Chapter 5:10-12 speak of an on going persecution of the righteous, and that will not occur in the millennial reign!

4. The Correct View: Present Kingdom application. This view holds that the sermon is a literal offer of the kingdom to the people it was given too. Eventually, the people did reject the offer, and the fullness of the kingdom is yet to come, but the kingdom is present in part within the church. The kingdom at this time is spiritual (John 18:36, Rom 14:17), and we are in it (Colossians 1:13, 2 Peter 1:11, 1 Thessalonians 2:12). The Sermon had a definite application to those that first heard it, and it has a definite application to us as well. It is incumbent upon us to study what our Lord has said in this Sermon carefully, understand it, and apply it in our own lives.

A large part of the confusion over the sermon is the fact that so many rip out the teachings Christ makes from their context and try to make them into absolute rules of life. The focus becomes distorted because the study looks at the particulars while forgetting the general. In a sense, the forest is no longer seen because of all the trees. Such should not be the case. The context always governs the interpretation, the general always guides the understanding of the specifics. All of the sermon must be interpreted according to the context and the purpose of the sermon to those to whom it was originally given. So, lets examine the context and discover the Sermon’s purpose.

CONTEXT: Many important events had already occurred before the Sermon on the Mount was given. It is important to note these so that you will see the undercurrents within the sermon. After His baptism and testing in the wilderness in Judea (Matthew 3 & 4), Jesus performed His first miracle which was turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11). Jesus had already cleansed the Temple during Passover (John 2-13-22)

which greatly irritated the Scribes and Pharisees. He had also already had His conversation with Nicodemus (John 3). John the Baptist had been put into prison and Jesus had gone back up to Galilee (Matthew 4:12). While on the way to Galilee, Jesus had his conversation with the woman at the well in Sychar (John 4:5-26). He then went up to Nazareth where He was rejected (Luke 4:16-31, Matthew 4:13) and then settled in Capernum (Matthew 4:13). With Capernum as a home base He went about preaching His message of repentance (Matthew 4:17). During this time He chose His disciples and performed many miracles. Peter, Andrew, James and John were the first disciples called (Matthew 4:18-22). Jesus had authenticated His teaching in Capernum by healing a demoniac (Mark 1:21-28, Luke 4:31-37). He had healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-34; Luke 4:38-41; Matthew 8:14-17). He had cleaned a leper which was followed by much publicity (Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16; Matthew 8:2-4). He had demonstrated that He had the power to forgive when He healed the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26; Matthew 9:1-8). He had called Matthew followed by Matthew’s banquet, at which the Pharisees began to question Him (Mark 2:13-22; Luke 5:27-39; Matthew 9:9-17). Jesus had gone back up to Jerusalem where He healed a lame man on the Sabbath, after which the Jews sought to kill Him. Jesus gave His discourse about being equal with God the Father (John 5:1-47), and had further raised the anger of the Pharisees when His disciples were picking and eating grain on a Sabbath (Mark 2:23-48, Luke 6:1-5; Matthew 12:1-8), and by healing the man with the withered hand on a Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11; Matthew 12:9-14). Jesus then retreated to the Sea of Galilee and was followed by a great multitude. It was then that He appointed the twelve, and it was after all of this that Jesus gave the sermon on the mount.

The passage in Matthew (4:23-25) which leads up to the Sermon simply describes that Jesus has already had a far reaching ministry before the Sermon on the Mount is given. That ministry not only attracted large crowds to Him, but it had greatly angered the Scribes and the Pharisees. (See: A Light Shining in the Darkness). The question was already being wondered about, “Could this be the Messiah?” If it was, when would the kingdom begin?

It is to this crowd of questioning followers that Jesus presents His manifesto. He answers the questions of the multitudes. Who are you? I am Messiah. I speak on my own authority (Note 7:28,29). I have come to fulfill the Law (5:17). Who will be in your kingdom? Those that will be in My kingdom will have the characteristics listed in the beatitudes. They will have a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). But the Scribes teach us and the Pharisees demonstrate righteousness, how can we surpass that? The Scribes teach you false righteousness (5:21-48). The Pharisees demonstrate false righteousness (6:1-19). Do not be like them (6:19-7:5). How will we enter the kingdom? You are to seek, knock and ask and enter by the narrow gate (7:7-12). Beware of false prophets who sound good, but will lead you astray (7:15-23). Follow me and your foundation will be solid and you will not fall (7:24-27).

This sermon demonstrates the nature of the kingdom of the heavens. Jesus made a literal offer of the Kingdom, but the Kingdom described did not seem to match what the people were looking for. They were seeking a mechanical, military, materialistic kingdom. They wanted the yoke of Rome thrown off and Israel restored to world prominence. We find that Jesus continues to present the Kingdom program up to Matthew 12 where we find the utter rejection of it by the religious leaders. From that point on Jesus changes His teaching about the kingdom. In Chapter 13 we find parable after parable talking about the mysterious nature of the kingdom, and in chapter 16 we find that Jesus abandons the religious leaders (16:4) and starts presenting to His disciples the plan for the Church to come (16:18).

It is in this mystery of the kingdom, the church which is currently the kingdom of heaven spiritually, that we find the application of the sermon to us.

What is the theme? It is found in 5:17-20. Your righteousness must be beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees. True righteousness is a matter of the heart seeking after and following God, not following the minutia of a man made system of law keeping that promotes self-righteousness.

Look at verse 17. Jesus did not come to end or to abolish the law. In a real sense the Law does continue. We are under grace, but that grace has structure and precepts within it. We are not saved by the law, but by grace, but in being saved by grace we are still bound to keep New Testament law because of our love for Christ (John 14:23, see Romans 3:27-31 – we establish the law; the law of Christ – Galatians 6:2; still under the law of God – 1 Corinthians 9:21; see also Romans 2). Jesus came to fulfill the law, not just in the sense of Old Testament prophecies, as some have mentioned, but in bringing out its full meaning.

Those who would enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, must have righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees. Entering requires more than an outward bending to rules and regulations, it is a matter of a changed inner life. Even a cursory examination of the Sermon demonstrates that it can not be lived out on human abilities alone.

The Character qualities that are to be demonstrated are: poor in spirit; mourning; meekness; hungering and thirsting for righteousness; merciful; pure in heart; a peacemaker; and rejoicing in the midst of unjust persecution (5:3-12). This person is salt and light.

What a contrast those qualities are to those valued by the world: pride, partying, assertive, hungering and thirsting after mammon, vengeful, cunning, agitating, and persecuting.

The person who has a character of true righteousness will demonstrate these practices: refraining from verbal expressions of hatred, not just murder (5:21-26); refraining from lust, not just adultery (5:27-30); refraining from divorce itself, not just making sure the paper work was done properly (5:31-32); being true to one’s word and keeping every vow, not just certain ones (5:33-37); not seeking revenge at all, instead of seeking it only to the law’s limits (5:38-42); loving your enemy as well as your neighbor (5:43-48). doing all acts of righteousness to please God, not man (Alms – 6:1-4); prayer (6:5-15); fasting 6:16-18); laying up treasure in heaven, not on earth and having no worry because you trust God for the future (6:19-34); critical self-examination before criticizing another (7:1-6); treating that which is holy properly (7:6); seeking from God and treating others graciously (7:7-12); entering by the narrow gate and being so discerning that you can recognize the false prophet even when he sounds so good (7:13-23); and following the teachings of Christ (7:24-27).

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains well the application of the Sermon to us. It “is a description of character and not a code of ethics or of morals.” It is “something meant for all Christian people. It is a perfect picture of the life of the kingdom of God.” “. . . we are not told in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Live like this and you will become Christian’; rather we are told, ‘Because you are a Christian live like this.’ This is how Christians ought to live; this is how Christians are meant to live.”

John MacArthur sums up well the importance of this Sermon and why we need to study it:

1. It shows the absolute necessity of the new birth. It’s high standards go far beyond the Mosaic law. Man must not only do right, he must be right. No other scripture more clearly shows man’s desperate situation without God.

2. It intends to drive the listener to Jesus Christ as man’s only hope of meeting God’s standards. Man needs a supernatural power to enable him to live up to the divine standards, and that is only possible through Christ.

3. The sermon gives God’s pattern for happiness and for true success. It reveals what God has designed man to be. In it we find the way of joy, peace, and contentment.

4. A life obedient to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount is the church’s greatest tool for evangelism.

5. The life obedient to the maxims of this proclamation is the only life that is pleasing to God.

Those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven must have a righteousness that surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees for they only had the self-righteousness of legalism which says, “I am good because I do (or do not do) these things.” True righteousness is unconcerned with self proclaimed goodness for true righteousness comes from the heart and says, “I love you Lord, help me to do whatever pleases You.”

I pray that this morning and in the weeks to come each of us will ever more clearly turn from any self-righteousness we may have and seek after the true righteousness which only God can work in the heart.

Outline of The Sermon on the Mount (5-7)

The Beatitudes: The Character of a Kingdom Citizen 5:3-20

Jesus Corrects Six Moral Teachings,

Murder, Adultery, Divorce, Oaths, Revenge, Enemies 5:21 – 48

Jesus Corrects Three Religious Practices:

Alms, Prayer, Fasting 6:1-18

Jesus Gives Three Prohibitions Concerning:

Riches, Judging, Holy things 6:19-7:6

Prayer for strength 7:7-11

Entering the Kingdom 7:12-27

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