Preaching Through the Sermon on the Mount

Jim Wicker  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 46 - Summer 2004

A preacher’s dream text, the Sermon on the Mount, practically preaches itself. This sublime sermon bursts with object lessons,[1]Standing on the hills just northeast of the Sea of Galilee-the traditional location of the Sermon on the Mount-it is easy to imagine Jesus pointing out the many objects he mentions in this sermon. A city set on a hill, eyes, hair, tunics, cloaks, the sun, birds, lilies, grass, stones, trees, rocks, and sand-all were visible, well­ known items that the crowd saw and Jesus effectively used. humor, hyperbole, proverbs, paradox, symbolism, and high prose. It plumbs the depths of ethics, philosophy, and theology, yet with much practical application. A delight to read, it reflects ethos and pathos, covering a wide range of passions and emotions, but it is also both convicting and challenging. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount stirs the spirit and can shake the reader into obedience to God-or else the heart is truly hard. Certainly a sermon series on this wonderful text can bear much fruit for God’s kingdom.

 

BALANCE THE REFERENCE WORKS

Who has not written about the Sermon on the Mount? Having examined both present and historical writings on this sermon, Hans Dieter Betz notes that almost every writer in religion and philosophy has something to say about it-precluding an exhaustive bibliography or history of interpretation of the text.[2]Hans Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount: A Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, including the Sermon on the Plain (Matthew 5:3-7:27 and Luke 6:20-49), Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, Adelo Yarbro Collins (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 3. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the mountain of materials available, one ought to consult the best writings from a variety of disciplines: theology, ethics, philosophy, and preaching.[3]Here are some excellent choices from these fields. For theological commentary: Betz, Sermon; Robert Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Under­standing (Waco: Word, 1982); Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999); Craig Blomberg, Matthew, New Amer­ican Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman, 1992). For devotional commentary: Stuart K. Weber, Matthew, Holman New Testament Commentary, ed. Max Anders (Nashville: Holman, 2000); John MacArthur, Jr., Matthew 1 -7, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1985). For ethics: Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003). For philosophy: Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperSan­Francisco, 1997). For preaching: R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom, Preaching the Word Commentary, ed. Kent R. Hughes (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001); John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1978).

When using commentaries, the exegete ought to use a balance of critical and exegetical commentaries from various theological viewpoints as well as devotional commentaries for both proper examination and application of the biblical text. Correct interpretation which lacks application becomes futile; good application of misinterpretation causes damage.

 

ASCERTAIN THE AUDIENCE AND PURPOSE

The original listeners, setting, and purpose of the sermon should determine the type of sermons to which this text lends itself.[4]Examining the authorship and unity of the sermon is not within the scope of this article, but these are important issues. Contrary to many modern scholars, this writer believes Jesus taught the sermon as a unity, Matthew accurately recorded it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and it was a separate sermon from the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49). Parallels in the Sermon on the Plain as well as in other Gospel passages are simply evidence that Jesus, as an itinerant teacher, used similar material on numerous occasions, making appropriate adaptations for audience needs. See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 92. Did Jesus teach only people already committed to him in this sermon as the mention of “disciples” in Matt. 5:1 and the applications of 5: 11 -16, 38-48, and 6: 1-7: 12 appear to indicate? Or was there an evangelistic emphasis in the sermon as “crowds” in 5: 1 and the applications of 5:20, 22, 28; 7: 13-14 and 21-23 seem to show? Perhaps there were elements of both, and “disciples” has a wide meaning such as in 8:21.

There are some three dozen different approaches to interpreting the sermon.[5]Blomberg boils these interpretations down to: (1) traditional Catholic, reflecting the higher level (for clergy and monastic orders) of two levels of ethics in the NT; (2) Lutheran, according to which the sermon gives God’s perfect standards which highlight sin and lead to repentance; (3) Anabaptist, with its exact, literal ethical application, leading to extreme pacifism; (4) old liberal and postmillennial, which sees a social gospel by which the church ushers in the kingdom of God; (5) existentialist, which sees the sermon as philosophical guidelines for personal decision making, devoid of moral absolutes; (6) interim ethic, presenting an interim ethic for the disciples who allegedly mistakenly thought Jesus was returning in their lifetime (i.e., Al bert Schweitzer); (7) classic dispensationalist, according to which this ethic is only for the future millennial kingdom; and (8) kingdom theology, according to which the sermon’s ethical standards are the present challenge and ideal, though they will not be fully realized until Christ returns and consummates the kingdom. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997), 245-47. An interpretation which does not limit the application to a certain Christian group or a certain time period is more likely correct since Jesus’ immediate audience was probably diverse. Since the various approaches to the sermon are not all mutually exclusive, this writer opts for a combination according to which the sermon acts as the law to convict unbelievers of sin as well as a description of kingdom theology: a present challenge for believers and an ideal to be fully realized in the future. So the modern-day herald can preach the sermon as Jesus likely originally presented it: to convict unbelievers of their need for a savior and challenge believes to live more godly lives.

Consider one’s present-day audience to determine what types of sermons need to be preached. What are the demographics of the listeners? What are their psychographics (spiritual condition, interest level, and attitude level)? Focus the sermon accordingly. Should the purpose be evangelism or discipleship? Is the desired outcome equipping for ministry or edifying for maturity? Is the specific objective consecration, indoctrination, comfort and strengthening, or conviction?[6]For an elaboration of each of these focal aspects, see Stephen Nelson Rummage, Planning Your Preaching: A Step-by-Step Guide for Developing a One-Year Preaching Calendar (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 35-48.

 

OUTLINE THE TEXT

A good outline of the text helps the minister determine the direction of the preaching series as well as the amount of text to cover in each sermon. One’s literary approach to the sermon greatly affects the outline. Is it a unified discourse?[7]For a compelling argument for the importance of viewing the discourse unity and sequential order of the sermon, see Willard, 132-39. Is it an eclectic, hodge-podge composition by Matthew, an unknown redactor, or a Matthean community?[8]Donald A Hagner, Matthew 1-13, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A Hubbard and Glenn Barker (Dallas: Word, 1993), 83-84. Most modern commentaries take similar positions. Betz asserts several “presynoptic authors or redactors” (44) composed what he believes is a clearly composite work. Dallas Willard warns that the eclectic view-although popular today-opens the door to treating each statement in the sermon as a separate, detached pearl of wisdom, leading to unusual and erroneous interpretations. The sermon thus becomes merely a series of disconnected laws.[9]Willard, 132-33.

However, considering the sermon as a unified, purposeful discourse by Jesus, with each section building upon the previous sections, leads to a cohesive understanding and proclamation of the text. Willard effectively keeps the unifying theme of God’s inaugurated kingdom in his outline:

(1) Background assumption: life in the kingdom through reliance upon Jesus (4: 17-25 . . .). (2) It is ordinary people who are the light and salt of the world as they live the blessed life in the kingdom (5:1-20 . . . ). (3) The kingdom heart of goodness concretely portrayed as the kind of love that is in God (5:21 -48 . . . ). (4) Warning: against false securities-reputation and wealth (6 . . . ). (5) Warning: against ‘condemnation engineering’ as a plan for helping people. A call to the community of prayerful love (7:1 -12 . . . ). (6) Warnings: about how we may fail actually to do what the Discourse requires, and the effects thereof (7: 13-27 . . . ).[10]Ibid., 138. D. A Carson also effectively incorporates the kingdom theme in his outline: ‘The Norms of the Kingdom” (5:3-12); “The Witness of the Kingdom” (5: 13-16); “Jesus and the Kingdom as Fulfillment of the OT” (5:17-20); “Application:Antitheses” (5:21 48); “Religious Hypocrisy: Its Description and Overthrow” (6:1-18); “Kingdom Perspectives” (6:19-34); “Balance and Perfection” (7:1-12); and “Conclusion: Call to Decision and Commitment” (7:13-27). He divides the last section into “Two Ways” (7:13-14); “Two Trees” (7:15-20); “Two Claims” (7:21-23); and “Two Builders” (7:24-27). D. A Carson, “Matthew,” in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), vol. 8, Matthew, Mark, Luke, 51 -52.

 

PLAN THE PREACHING PROGRAM

One can cover the main sections of the sermon in broad strokes in a nine- or ten-week series: “Kingdom Blessings” (5:1-12); “Give a Positive Witness for Christ” (5:13-16); “Transform to Righteousness” (5:17-32); “Watch Your Words” (5:33-48); “Get Personal With God” (6: 1-8, 14-24); “Practice Focused Prayer” (6:9-13;7:6-11); “Seek God First” (6:25-33); “Mind Your Own Business!” (7:1-6); and “Follow Truth” (7:12-29). However, Jesus’ longest sermon in Matthew has more meat than such a short sermon series will allow. Another approach assigns major sections of the sermon to separate series: a nine-week series which includes an introduction and a separate sermon on each Beatitude (5:1-12), four sermons on loving and forgiving others (5:21 -26, 38-48), six weeks devoted to the Model Prayer (6:9-13), and four sermons on making right choices (7:1-29).[11]Rummage, Planning Your Preaching, 92, suggests limiting an expository sermon series to a maximum of twenty-four sermons, taking about six months to preach. Otherwise, the series may be hard to coordinate in a balanced program of preaching. He suggests a good plan for finding the sermon text is to divide the biblical text into paragraphs. Each paragraph can become a separate sermon text, and this works well with the sermon (88-89). Craig Blomberg divides the sermon into groups of three or four clusters of triads, and this pattern lends itself to such a sermon series.[12]Blomberg, Jesus, 247. Alternately, a fruitful, more in-depth, exegetical sermon series can easily and effectively last nine months or more, communicating the full impact of this prince of Bible passages.

Now with the groundwork established it is helpful to examine the sermon’s major sections. This article will recommend method of interpretation and sermonic approaches to each major division, explain some difficult passages, and give sermon outline suggestions for selected pericopes.

 

WHO IS IN GOD’S KINGDOM (MATTHEW 5:1-12)

One of the most well known and loved passages of scripture, along with the twenty-third Psalm and the Model Prayer, the Beatitudes are beautiful prose. People quote them, inscribe them on building walls, and hang framed calligraphic copies of them in their homes. Yet, they are often both misunderstood and ignored.[13]Stassen and Gushee wrote their book to address the problem of the modern church ignoring Jesus’ ethical teachings (xi-xii). They see part of the problem as a misun­derstanding of the purpose of the Beatitudes, which leads to frustration and aban­donment of them (33-34). See also Willard, 55-59.

Whom did Jesus pronounce “blessed”, “happy”, or “fortunate” (μακαριος)? Many interpreters say Jesus described how his followers were to be, giving set of prescriptive goals. In a sort of New Mosaic law, he gave new instructions for behavior here and in the rest of the sermon.[14]Haddon W. Robinson, The Christian Salt & Light Company (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 1988), 18-19. He says the sermon-especially the Beatitudes-gives an ethic to follow until Christ’s return. Hughes says the Beatitudes depict aspects of Christian character which believers should strive to develop ( 1 5-75). Interestingly, he notes a progression i n the eight Beatitudes in which each one leads to the next (16, 67-68). However, this approach can lead to frustration. David Scaer offers a better approach, seeing the Beatitudes as descriptive: both Christological and ecclesiological. Here Jesus described both what he did in his incarnation and ministry as well as what God’s kingdom people are like.[15]David P. Scaer, The Sermon on the Mount: The Church’s First Statement of the Gospel (St. Louis: Concordia, 2000), 75, 79-80. See W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, J r., The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. I, Introduction and Commentary on Matthew I-VII, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), 466. They note Jesus’ clear claim to messiahship in the Beatitudes. Willard also notes that the Beatitudes describe both who is in God’s kingdom and how it is available to people. They are not directions on how to become blessed; they do not describe a salvation by works or attitude. Rather, they describe those in God’s kingdom (97-106). “They are explanations and illustrations, drown from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus” (106, emphasis in original). Thus, rather than giving ideals or goals, Jesus described God’s present action in the lives of kingdom participants. Similarly, Robert Guelich describes a grace-based and prophetic application of the Beatitudes. They are grace-based because they describe God’s gracious favor on his followers rather than how one may earn God’s favor. They are prophetic in depicting how God rescues his people from despair into joy.[16]Guelich, 62-111. He bases this understanding on the premise that Jesus used Isaiah 61 as he did in Nazareth (Luke 4:18). See also Davies and Allison, 1:436-39, 66-67. Thus, Jesus did not say that his followers should strive to be poor and imprisoned. He described how God rescues and helps those who are. See Stassen and Gushee, 32-37.

Therefore, each sermon on a Beatitude can reflect the two-fold emphasis on Christ and the church. “Peacemakers for God” (5:9) reflects these themes.

  1. The Directions of Peacemaking
    1. It begins between God and the individual.
    2. It continues from human to human.
  2. The Designer of Peacemaking (Christology)
    1. Jesus is the Prince of Peace.
    2. He brought peace by entering conflict.
  3. The Duty of Peacemakers (Ecclesiology)
    1. There is a difference between a peacemaker and a trouble avoider.
    2. Peacemakers often get hit from both directions.
    3. But the results are worth it!
  4. The Designation of Peacemakers
    1. We are “sons of God” because we are acting like him.
    2. We are doing God’s business.

Avoid using the same type of outline for each Beatitude sermon in order to prevent pulpit monotony! Let the scripture passage dictate the outline. “Followers of the Lamb” gives a variation of the above outline for 5:5:

  1. The Jews Expected a Lion King (to overthrow Rome and establish an earthly kingdom)
  2. The Lion Entered as a Lamb
    1. Jesus showed meekness: strength in subjection.
    2. The Jews did not expect this kind of Messiah.
    3. Jesus thus fulfilled his mission.
  3. The World Expects Strength
    1. Rome admired and rewarded power and strength.
    2. The world today acts in the same way.
  4. The Lamb-Like Followers Will Inherit the Earth
    1. In this manner we follow Christ’s example.
    2. We will reign with Christ now and in the future.

 

TRANSFORMING INITIATIVES IN GOD’S KINGDOM (MATTHEW 5:13-48)

How did Jesus intend his followers to obey these teachings? Is there a consistent ethical system in which they fit? Certainly it is helpful to fit sermons in this section into a coherent, cohesive plan. Stassen and Gushee describe a helpful hierarchical system of four levels of moral norms which people use to make ethical decisions. First, the lowest level consists of making particular judgments, such as: “This is right or wrong.” Ethical decisions made only at this level are situation-driven. Second are rules on a higher plane, such as Jesus’ command to carry a soldier’s backpack an extra mile (5:41). Yet an ethical system based only on rules can easily become legalistic. Third are principles which serve as general guidelines, such as “love your enemies” (5:44a).[17]All scripture quotations are from the New International Version, unless otherwise noted. Christ did give some rules, so a system built singly on principles is inadequate. The fourth-and highest-level is that of basic conviction, such as one’s belief in the personhood and actions of God. Basing ethical decisions here-on a proper theological basis-insures the consistency of the various principles, rules, and particular judgments that result.[18]Stassen and Gushee, 101 -18. Noting that there are different ways to approach theology, they propose a Jesus-and-kingdom-centered ethic (121). It is imperative to use proper biblical hermeneutics in this process. Yet, even when doing so there are certain ethical issues over which even fairly like-minded Christians disagree. For instance, this writer disagrees with Stassen and Gushee on divorce (284-89) and gender roles (322-24). Thus, when preaching on a particular judgment or rule, it is beneficial to explain the principle and basic theological conviction behind it. Arming God’s people with orthodoxy leads them to orthopraxy and orthopathy.

 

JESUS AND THE LAW (MATTHEW 5:17-20)

In this introduction to the body of the sermon Jesus disarmed critics who might complain that he came to abolish the OT. The changes he mentions after this pericope might appear to nullify the law. Instead, he asserts that he is fulfilling the law. It was his fulfillment it that forever changed how his followers would observe the law. For instance, his sacrifice ended the need for the sacrificial system of the law and the Temple. His message of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles broke down such specific Jewish distinctives as the dietary laws (Mark 7: 15-9; Acts 9:9-23).[19]Blomberg notes that Jesus’ followers must filter OT commandments through a “grid of fulfillment in Christ” in order to understand how to apply and obey them. He cautions against the two extremes of either following only OT practices specifically reaffirmed in the NT or following all OT practices not specifically rescinded (Jesus, 249). Noting these dangers, this interpretive grid is helpful. However, adding two more factors strengthens the understanding: (1) illuminative guidance by the Holy Spirit (always in accordance with scripture), and (2) still using principles taken from laws no longer in force. For instance, although Jewish dietary laws are not in effect (bring on the lobsters and shrimp!), the principle of healthy eating ought still be followed. Compare Stassen and Gushee’s proposal of a prophetic interpretive grid, which starts with how Jesus fulfilled scripture and then examines how he interpreted the law by using the prophets, and finally uses the help of Jesus today through the Holy Spirit (97). “Jesus, Us, and the Law” covers important areas of theology and application:

  1. Jesus Fulfilled the Law (Matt. 5:17)
    1. He fulfilled prophecies as the Suffering Servant.
    2. He will come again and fulfill prophecies as the King of Kings.
    3. He fulfilled our need for a sin sacrifice.
  2. Jesus Kept the Law (5:18)
    1. The law will not change one iota until heaven and earth pass away.
    2. Jesus broke the teachings of the elders-human inventions-not the OT.
  3. III. We Must Keep the Law (5:19)
    1. OT spiritual examples, ethical teachings, and doctrinal truths are still true today.
    2. In keeping the law we will be great in the kingdom of heaven (5:19).
  4. We Must Have a Surpassing Righteousness (5:20)
    1. The scribes and Pharisees had an outward obedience but inward deadness.
    2. We must have an inward righteousness that results in outward obedience.
    3. Jesus gave strict requirements of the law (in the following verses).
    4. He gives his followers the ability to live out these high expectations.

 

TOUGH ETHICAL DEMANDS

Why do most current textbooks in Christian ethics avoid the sermon?[20]Stassen and Gushee, xii. Stassen and Gushee claim most Christians do not follow the ethical teachings in the sermon because they consider the demands too difficult to follow. So, they relegate the teachings as inward, idealistic attitudes with little or no outward, practical application. However, there must be a way to attempt realistically to follow what Jesus said here. Stassen and Gushee have found such a key to understanding and application. Examining where Jesus used the imperative mood in the sermon, they claim Matthew preserved fourteen triads of transforming initiatives based on the grace of God.[21]See the complete list in ibid., 142. Matthew contains another three-times-fourteen list: Jesus’ genealogy, 143. In each triad Jesus first gave the traditional understanding of righteousness by quoting scripture or giving a current Jewish application. Then he noted a vicious cycle – sin that all people find themselves repeating – such as anger, lust, or retaliation. Finally, he gave the solution to deliverance out of the cycle – a transforming initiative: changing the person or action to that which is pleasing to God. Thus, Jesus’ focus was not just on prohibiting sin; rather, it was on transformation of the sinner into a citizen of God’s kingdom.[22]For instance, “You shall not commit murder” was traditional righteousness (Matt. 5:21). Being angry or calling someone a fool was the vicious cycle (5:22). The transformi ng righteousness was to go to the other person and be reconciled (5:23-26) (ibid., 131-45).

“Leaving Lust Behind” (5:27-30) reflects this transforming initiative:

  1. Adultery Scars the Home
    1. It is always wrong.
    2. It damages individuals, families, churches, and societies.
  2. Lust Stabs the Heart
    1. The battle is waged in the will.
    2. Lust plays havoc with our emotions.
    3. This insidious cycle of sin is rampant, rugged, and rapacious.
  3. Radical Surgery Salvages the Soul.
    1. Radically remove temptations (2 Tim. 2:22).
    2. Replace lustful thoughts with pure ones (Phil. 4:8).
    3. Allow Christ to renew your mind (Rom. 12: 1-2).

 

DEALING WITH DIVORCE (MATTHEW 5:31-32)

Divorce is rampant in North America today, and there is much disagreement in churches as to what-if any-allowances the Bible gives/makes for divorce. However, a plain reading of Matt. 5:31-32, 19:5-10, and I Cor. 7: 15-16 finds two allowances for divorce. Jesus cited the case of adultery (the traditional interpretation of πορνεια), in which the innocent party had the choice of divorce (although reconciliation is the preferred alternative even in this case).[23]This exception clause is the cause of many debates. Scholars often either ignore it by claiming it is a false Matthean addition (Hagner, 123; Scaer, 120) or say it represents one of several reasons why divorce might be allowed (Dillard, 169-70). Some say it simply referred to a false, incestuous marriage that should be disbanded, such as David S. Dockery and David E. Garland, Seeking the Kingdom: The Sermon on the Mount Mode Practical for Today (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1992), 58. However, the traditional translation and sole application of “adultery” seems best. See Hughes, I 1 This writer feels strongly compelled to preach both biblical messages of law and grace in regard to divorce. First, God hates divorce. It is sin. Do everything to avoid it, and if it happens, be reconciled. Yet, there are two biblical circumstances in which divorce is allowed. Second, God forgives the repentant sinner, and the church must reflect that attitude as well. It is wrong to treat a repentant divorced person as a second-class citizen in God’s kingdom. Paul states that, if an unbeliever “separates” (χωριζεται) from a believer, the believer is “no longer bound” (ου δεδουλωται), which many scholars interpret to mean that divorce is allowed in such a case.[24]Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Com­mentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 302. See Hughes, 113-21, who elaborates on the two biblical allowances as this writer believes. “The Difficulty of Divorce” (Matt. 5:31 -32) takes into account these exceptions and deals with the transforming initiative emphasis.

  1. God Hates Divorce (Mal. 2:16)
    1. It misses God’s original plan of covenant marriage.
    2. It hurts everyone involved.
    3. It damages the cause of Christ.
  2. God Rarely Allows Divorce (Matt. 5:32; I Cor: 7:15)
    1. Moses’ allowance was to curb divorce (Deut. 24: I).
    2. Sadly, divorce is common today, as it was in Jesus’ day.
    3. There are two biblical allowances for divorce.
  3. God’s Better Way is Reconciliation
    1. Christ is our model for reconciliation.
    2. No problem marriage is beyond God’s help.

The transforming initiatives in Matt. 5:13-48 lend themselves to a narrative plot form which Eugene Lowry calls “itch to scratch.” The sequence unfolds as: (1) conflict (oops!); (2) complication (ugh!); (3) sudden shift (aha!); and (4) unfolding (yeah!). The presentation of the gospel occurs at about (3), the text determining the exact location.[25]Eugene Lowry, The Sermon: Dancing the Edge of Mystery (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 81. Lowry challenges and inspires the preacher in his suggestions for preparing the sermon. One must “look for trouble” (94) in the text as well as find a way to be surprised at what happens (95). “Replace Anger With Love” (5:21-26) follows this flow.

  1. A Dead Obedience (5:21)
    1. Keeping the seventh commandment does not guarantee righteousness.
    2. Religious leaders were outwardly obedient but inwardly dead.
  2. A More Difficult Expectation (5:22)
    1. Even anger and hatred is wrong. Jesus turned the requirement inward.
    2. Righteous anger is allowed, but we rarely experience this.
    3. How can we expect to meet Jesus’ high standards?
  3. A Life-Changing Discipleship
    1. Start a relationship with Christ.
    2. Be a disciple of Christ.
  4. A Transforming Solution (5:23-26)
    1. Replace anger with love.
    2. Be reconciled with your opponents (5:23-26).

 

DO NOT RESIST EVIL (MATTHEW 5:38-42)

Did Jesus intend his followers to obey these teachings literally? He expected total obedience; however, it is imperative to understand exactly what Jesus meant and to know when he used hyperbole. Otherwise, most Christians would be eyeless and handless (5:29-30), such as the Kentucky man who used pocket knives to severe his right hand and leg and to gouge out his right eye![26]”If Hand, Foot, Eye Offend Thee, Cut Them Off,” Word and Way July 20, 1978), n.p. If every offending body part were cut off there would be nothing left except the appendix (which appears to do nothing)!

Turning the other cheek (5:39) probably meant not to resist an insult or an insulting slap. A blow from the right hand to the right cheek would be either from an incredibly inept fighter or else a backhanded slap of insult. Certainly Jesus was addressing insults here and not the subject of war or fighting.[27]Of course, Jesus did say to love one’s enemies (Matt. 5:44), but was not advocating total pacifism here. There are certainly times for personal pacifism and nonresistance. Yet, there are other times when protection of self, family, and country are warranted. See Willard, 178-81, for the fallacy of an ironclad “law of required vulnerability” (179). Giving up one’s cloak in addition to one’s tunic would likely leave a poor Palestinian Jew nearly naked. But Jesus was not promoting public nakedness; rather, he used hyperbole here to give a principle rather than a law. Let the opponent have what is appropriate, being more concerned about another person’s needs than one’s own.

Because of the tendency of some Christians to reduce every biblical teaching to mindless, legalistic practice, it can be helpful in sermons to: (1) note how a passage might be wrongly taken out of context, and (2) point out exceptions to the rule when appropriate. Although these points are not the focus of the sermon, they can help avoid misunderstanding and misapplication. For instance, one could easily take “do not resist an evil person” (5:39) out of context. It does not mean to let false teachers teach in the church (cf. 7:15-16), nor does it mean to allow believers to practice blatant sin without church discipline (cf. 18:15-17). It certainly does not mean to allow an armed mugger to murder oneself or one’s family (5:21). An exception to giving away more than what one is sued for (5:40) would include preventing a family from coming into financial ruin. Yet, one runs the risk of blunting the prophetic edge of Jesus’ teaching by over-qualifying it. These exceptions are not the norm. The Holy Spirit can guide each believer in how properly to understand a given teaching and whether exceptions can be made.[28]This application can be tricky. Most of Jesus’ teachings do not allow any exceptions. There is only one way of salvation: through Christ (Matt. 7:21-27). Murder, adultery, and lust are always wrong (5:21-30). Hypocrisy is always wrong (6:1-18); forgiveness is always right (6:12, 14-15). Exceptions made to other teachings must be Holy Spirit-led and Bible-based: implicit in the present text and explicit in other texts.

 

AVOIDING PITFALLS IN GOD’S KINGDOM (MATTHEW 6:1-7:6)

In this long section Jesus gave kingdom followers a list of prohibitions followed by the better way of kingdom living. In 6:1-18 there is a triad of warnings against parading one’s righteousness before others, specifically addressing almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. The next set of warnings (6:19-7:6) may be a careful elaboration of the Model Prayer: 6:19-24 relating to 6:9-10, 6:25-34 elaborating 6:11 , 7:1-5 complementing 6:12, 7:6 fitting with 6: 13, and 7:7-11 relating to the introductory verse 6:8.[29]Guelich, 324-25, makes application of Gunther Bornkamm’s proposal. Although presented as a redaction of Q material, these teachings could be Jesus’ purposeful elaborations.

 

THE MODEL PRAYER (MATTHEW 6:9-13)

Within Jesus’ teachings on how to pray and not to pray is the Model Prayer, better known as the Lord’s Prayer-one of the best-loved and most-used NT passages. Luke records a similar prayer (Luke 11:2-4) in a different setting and for a different purpose (teaching disciples to pray) from the version in the sermon (teaching what to say in prayer). Certainly Jesus could have used similar material on different occasions for similar or different purposes. A good story, teaching, or sermon bears repeating!

Just as the early church used the sermon for teaching new converts, it reserved the Model Prayer as one of the climactic teachings.[30]Scaer, 155-58; Betz, 2, 87. In the ensuing years many Christians have memorized and often prayed the Model Prayer. Did Jesus intend it to be repeated or to be used as an example of what to say in prayer? Probably both uses have legitimate purposes, and in both uses there must be a proper understanding of each part of this prayer.[31]”There is, of course, much more to prayer than the Lord’s Prayer. It is a prayer that teaches us to pray. It is a foundation of the praying life: its introduction and its continuing basis. It is an enduring framework for all praying. You only move beyond it provided you stay within it. It is the necessary bass i n the great symphony of prayer. It is a powerful lens through which one constantly sees the world as God himself sees it” (Willard, 269).

The two sections of the Model Prayer naturally divide into two sermon texts, the first focused on God and his kingdom and the second concerning individual believers. Yet, one could easily preach a sermon on each of the six petitions, using the descriptive comments in the following outlines.[32]See Hughes, 53-198, for homiletic material for each of these six points. Notice his sermon on the doxology (6:13). Although probably not in the original text, this verse seems to be a condensed version of 1 Chron. 29: 10-11 , and it likely had wide use in the early church. “The Upward and Outward Look of Prayer (Matt. 6:9-10)” covers the first three requests.

  1. Let your name be sanctified (6:9).
    1. This prayer is plural (“our”) and personal (“father”).
    2. God is transcendent and imminent (“who dwells in the heavens”).[33]
    3. Betz, 387; Willard, 256-57. Although usually translated as singular, the word here is plural: “heavens.” The scriptures speak of three distinct heavens: the earth’s atmosphere, the universe, and the dwelling place of God. God dwells in all three, so he is not only far away in the third heaven but also close at hand in the first
    4. God must be honored and sanctified (“hallowed be your name”).
  2. Let your kingdom be completed (6: 10).
    1. Jesus Christ commenced the kingdom.
    2. We continue the kingdom.
    3. God will consummate the kingdom.
  3. Let your will be done (6:10).
    1. The world scorns God’s will.
    2. Christians often struggle with God’s will.
    3. But heaven starts God’s will (“on earth as it is in heaven”).

“The Inward Petitions of Prayer (6: 11-13)” covers the remaining three petitions.

  1. Give us our daily needs (6:11).
    1. God is the ultimate provider.
    2. Needs are different from wants.
    3. “Daily” keeps us dependent upon him.
  2. Forgive us (6:12).
    1. The beginning: confession and repentance.
    2. The result: God’s forgiveness-restoration of fellowship for the Christian.
    3. Our response: forgiving others.
  3. Keep us from irresistible evil (6: 13).
    1. No one is spared all temptations- including Jesus during his earthly ministry.
    2. Pray that God will not allow Satan to tempt us where we will surely fall.
    3. Pray for special protection from the devil.

 

GOD, MAMMON, AND WORRY (MATTHEW 6:24-33)

The verse on serving either God or mammon (6:24) deserves a sermon by itself. Mark Twain used it as a proof text against polygamy (“no man can serve two masters,” KJV), but that is another story altogether!

Since 6:25 begins with “therefore” (or; “for this reason,” NASB), Jesus continued the emphasis on the need to single-mindedly serve God in this next section. Here is what David Scaer calls “the little sermon within a sermon” because of its homiletical tone and practical application.[34]Scaer, 217. Concerns of food and clothing in first-century Palestine were much different from twenty-first-century North America. Many of Jesus’ listeners were poor, owning only one or two tunics and one cloak. Having clothes was a matter of survival. North Americans with closets filled with clothes are more concerned with fashion and image. For first­ century Palestinian women, food preparation and cooking consumed a large part of the day; today’s North Americans have made fast food a fine art. Yet, food remains the essential fuel for life. Jesus’ point was that God takes care of these basic physical needs in the lowliest of plants and birds, so certainly he will do so for humanity. Do not worry about them. Instead, be fully focused on serving God in his kingdom and living out hi righteousness (6:33). Don’t Worry, Be Happy! Emphasizes the two-fold contrast.

  1. Don’t Worry (6:25-32).
    1. Humans are God’s crowning creation (6:26, 30).
    2. God feeds and clothes all of his creation (6:26, 28, 30).
    3. God will do the same for us (6:26, 30).
    4. Worry is futile and faithless (6:25, 27, 30-32).
  2. Be Happy (6:33).
    1. Enter God’s kingdom.
    2. Joyfully serve God in his kingdom; grow in righteousness.

THE PERIL OF JUDGMENTALISM (MATTHEW 7:1-6)

Jesus turns from a negative attitude toward oneself (worry) to a negative attitude toward others Judgmentalism).[35]Morris, 164. Judging others involves hypocrisy and blind spots. As Jesus addressed this subject, his hyperbole may have caused his listeners to laugh.[36]Keener, 239. Appreciating Jesus’ humor helps one understand his teaching methods. Humor can be an effective tool in preaching and teaching. A huge beam bulging out of an eye vividly illustrates Jesus’ point against being judgmental toward others while ignoring one’s own sin (Matt. 7:1-5). A person often finds fault in others with the same faults present in his own life. Yet, it is futile to push truth on people against their will (7:6). Unclean pigs stomping on pearls are like the fools in Prov. 23:9. This message does not oppose sharing the gospel with Gentiles-a common referent of the term ‘dogs’-because Jesus as well as the disciples shared with them. It is simply a warning against continually forcing the message upon obstinately unwilling recipients.[37]In ancient Palestine stray dogs would growl just as viciously at a person feeding them as they would at anyone else (ibid., 243). See Blomberg, Matthew, 129.

 

MAKING WISE CHOICES (MATTHEW 7:7-29)

Jesus ended the sermon with a short series of challenges to making wise choices. First, choose to ask God’s help through prayer (Matt. 7:7- 11). Second, treat others as you would have them treat you (7:12). Third, decide to do God’s will by entering the narrow gate and walking on the narrow path (7:13-4). Fourth, follow true rather than false prophets (7:15-23). Fifth, be a wise builder by heeding Jesus’ teaching (7:24-29).

 

AsK, SEEK, AND KNOCK (MATTHEW 7:7-11)

I s th is section on prayer (7:7- 1 I ) out of place? Does it belong with the Model Prayer (6:8- 1 I )? No, it has a pu rpose here. On the one hand these verses look forward to verse 1 2 by showing how God treats people-so Jesus’ fol lowers should do the same. Yet, the verses also look backward i n explai n i ng how God wi l l   hel p the d isci ple do al l   that Jesus com mands i n

the sermon.
They may also refer to prayi ng about the people a   person

shou ld not judge (7: 1 -5). The th ree-fold i m peratives do not appear to be mere parallelism. ‘Ask’ seems to be a general term for prayer for all man­ner of good things, whereas ‘seek’ indicates more fervency involved than in the previous word. ‘Knock’ connotes the pictu re of a closed door that needs to be opened. Prayer is the divinely appointed means of God’s provisions. “God’s Phenomenal Provision of Prayer” involves:

  1. God’s Means: We Ask, Seek, and Knock (7:7-8).
    1. A Have an expectant attitude.
    2. Make consistent requests.
    3. Prayer is God’s chosen way.
  2. God’s Mandate: Ask in God’s Will (6:7-8).
  3. God’s Manner is to Give, Send, and Open (7:7-8).
  4. God’s Measure: He Far Exceeds Our Human Parents (7:9-11).
    1. A loving parent would not deliberately act meanly.
    2. Human parents sometimes err; God never does.

A purposeful sermon calls the listener to make a clear response. In his last three teachings of this section-and of the sermon-Jesus issues a triad of two-way choices, a common Jewish literary device. The options involve: (1) the narrow vs. the wide gates and roads (7:13-4); (2) the good vs. the bad tree (producing good or bad fruit respectively) (7:15-23), and (3) the house built upon sand (ignoring Jesus’ teaching) vs. solid rock (obeying Jesus’ teaching) (7:24-29).[38]Blomberg, Matthew, 131.

 

AVOID FALSE PROPHETS AND FRUITLESS TREES
(MATTHEW 7:15-23)

Jesus now warns against the harm of false teachers. They shamefully lead people on the wide path to destruction that he just mentioned. “The Scourge of False Prophets” (7:5b-19) warns God’s family:

 

  1. False Prophets Are Deceitful (7:15b).
    1. They come in sheep’s clothing.
    2. They dishonestly claim to speak for God.
  2. False Prophets Are Destructive (7:15b).
    1. These ferocious wolves harm Kingdom people.
    2. These ferocious wolves give a hurtful witness to outsiders.
  3. False Prophets Display Bad Works (7:16-18).
    1. God’s People Must Discern Who are False Prophets.
    2. Identify them.
    3. Avoid them.
    4. False Prophets Will Meet Their Demise (7: 19).

A different sermon can indicate the apt object lesson of the fruit tree in depicting who is and is not a part of God’s Kingdom. “Your Fruit Tells All” (7:16-23) captures this idea.

  1. Your Fruit Reflects Your Standing with God (7: 16-18).
    1. Salvation comes by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8-9).
    2. A regenerate life always results in good works (James 2: 17-26).
  2. We Must Be Fruit Inspectors of Kingdom Leadership (7: 15, 20).
    1. There is a difference between being judgmental and judging (7:1).
    2. Beware of false prophets and bogus signs.
  3. Fruitless Trees are Burned and Banished (7:19, 20-23).
    1. God judges them for their sin.
    2. They never were believers (“I never knew you,” 7:23).
    3. This incident refers to repeated sin and not single lapses.

 

JESUS’ CALL TO DECISION (MATTHEW 7:24-27)

Hearing Jesus’ sermon without obedience profits nothing. As he did throughout this sermon with object lessons, Jesus shared a parable here that spoke of everyday, common matters. His listeners knew the folly of building on sand. The history of the Jews was primarily in settlements on the rocky Western Highlands rather than the shifting sands of the Coastal Plain along the Mediterranean shore or the flood-prone Jordan River Valley. A solid foundation ensures stability and longevity for one’s domicile even when the harshest enemies assault: heavy rain, torrential floods, and damaging winds. Thus, whoever hears and obeys Jesus’ words will stand firm; whoever hears and does nothing will fall.

 

EPILOGUE (MATTHEW 7:28-29)

Why were the people astonished at Jesus’ teaching in the sermon (7:28)? As the next verse explains, he spoke with authority! The Jews were used to rabbis quoting rabbis who quoted other rabbis, which is the essence of their oral commentary on the Law, later written down and called the Talmud.[39]Rabbis in Jesus’ day did not prize originality since they thought the golden age of Jewish thought had already passed (Morris, 184), and with the major exception of Jesus they were correct! Rigorously memorized in Jesus’ day, the oral law was later written down twice: the Jerusalem Talmud (fourth century AD.) and the Babylonian Talmud (fifth century AD.). “The law of the elders” was a typical name of these teachings in Jesus’ day, and they had many instances of expectations far beyond God’s standards in the OT. Jesus had no problem with breaking the law of the elders, since they were mere human contrivances.

Jesus did not defer to other teachers, cover himself by quoting the “experts,” or hide behind the teachings of the elders. He was refreshing. He was convicting. He spoke God’s words. Today’s preacher proclaiming the Word of God must do no less.

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