Understanding the Hard Sayings of Jesus

Thomas D. Lea  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 35 - Fall 1992


Although Christians have never fully agreed on the meaning and application of Jesus’ sayings in the Sermon on the Mount, few have applied them as drastically as Origen applied Jesus’ saying in Matt. 19:12. The church historian Eusebius describes Origen’s act of self-castration in the following words:

Whilst at this time Origen was performing the office of an elementary instructor at Alexandria, he also carried a deed into effect, which would seem, indeed, rather to proceed from a youthful understanding not yet matured; at the same time, however, exhibiting the strongest proof of his faith and continence. For understanding this expression, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves such (who have acted the eunuch) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” in too literal and puerile a sense, …he was led on to fulfill the words of our Savior by his deeds, expecting that it would not be known to the most of his friends.

The fact that well-intentioned Christians can use more zeal than knowledge in applying Scripture makes the interpretation of the sermon an important task. This article will dis­ cuss the sermon from four standpoints in order to provide guidelines for a wiser interpretation and application of its content. The topics to be considered include the literary features, theological content, homiletical distinctives, and spiritual application of Jesus’ words in the sermon.


Literary Features of the
Sermon on the Mount

When we look at the sermon purely from the standpoint of its literary content, what features appear? Among the several possibilities, three distinctives provide important insights into the meaning of Jesus’ words. First, it is helpful to observe the varieties of sayings in the sermon. Second, it is important to note the Jewishness of the entire sermon. Third, it is important to recognize the presence of figures of speech as they appear in the sermon.

Varieties of Sayings in the Sermon

Joachim Jeremias has provided a handy analysis of the variety of sayings in the sermon by dividing them into four categories.[1]Joachim Jeremias, The Sermon on the Mount (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, Facet Books, 1963), 24-25. His categories reflect a wise and proper use of form criticism. First, he observes those statements in which Jesus speaks concerning himself. An example of this type of statement appears in Matt. 5:17 where Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”[2]All quotations of Scripture are taken from Holy Bible, New International Version, copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society.

Second, he discovers a category which he calls “crisis-sayings.” This category refers to impending judgment. Matt. 5:25 speaks of impending human judgment when it says, “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court.” Matt. 7:21 refers to divine judgment when it says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

A third category of sayings includes “mission-sayings.” Jeremias views some of these sayings as providing instructions for traveling missionaries who needed to learn complete dependence upon God. He includes Matt. 6:25-34 in this category.

A final category contains instructions about the lifestyle of disciples. Jesus used this type of saying in the six antitheses of 5:21-48. In this collection of sayings Jesus spoke of anger, discipline, honesty, vindictiveness, and love.

Using these categories, students of the Sermon on the Mount can analyze the content and emphasis of other sayings in the sermon. The sayings of the sermon will frequently emphasize a truth about Jesus, Christian mission, or discipleship.

The Jewishness of the Sermon

The Jewishness of the Sermon on the Mount appears in several different features of the address. First, the setting which provides the background for many of Jesus’ sermon statements is Jewish. In Matthew 5:20 Jesus warns that the righteousness of his hearers must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. When we contrast Matthew’s statements with a parallel passage from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, we see that Luke has chosen to emphasize those words of Jesus which underscore the importance of love (Luke 6:27-36). Erdman comments that Jews could more easily understand and accept the emphasis of Matthew than that of Luke.[3]Charles R. Erdman, The Gospel of Luke (Philadelphia: West­ minster Press, 1979), 71. For the same emphasis, see Huber L. Drumwright, “Problem Passages in Luke: A Hermeneutical Ap­proach,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 10 (Fall 1967), 53-54.

Knowing that Matthew likely intended his gospel to appeal to a Jewish audience prepares us to expect that Matthew’s emphasis will focus more on Jewish interests.

Further evidence of this Jewish background appears in the setting of temple worship which is found in Matt. 5:23-24. Not only does the reference to “offering your gift at the altar” imply a Jewish setting, but it also suggests a pre-A.D. 70 time of writing.[4]D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 8: 149-50. In the parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders (Matt. 7:24-27) Jesus commends the wisdom of the builder who located his house well. The commendation of wisdom is a typically Jewish emphasis. Added to this Jewish emphasis is the fact that the flood of 7:27 sounds like the typical Palestinian deluge which could feed swollen streams, wash away all types of soil, and finally destroy a house built on an inadequate foundation. Luke’s parallel in Luke 6:47-49 commends the moral earnestness of the builder, but does not call attention to his wisdom. Both of these features make a reader aware that Matthew has brought out those emphases in Jesus’ words which demonstrate a Jewish setting.

A second feature which points to the Jewishness of the sermon is the frequent appearance of Hebrew poetic parallelism. The distinctive feature of Hebrew poetry is not the repetition of sounds but the repetition of ideas. Hebrew poetry will amplify an idea or thought by repeating it in a second line or strophe. Sometimes the feature in the Hebrew will repeat the same idea in a second line of the poem. This poetic style is known as synonymous parallelism. At other times the second line of   the structure will repeat the opposite truth. This style of poetry is called antithetic. Both styles occur in the Sermon on the Mount.[5]A M. Hunter, A Pattern for Life, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 15-17. For a more complete discussion of Jesus’ use of poetry, see C. F. Burney, The Poetry of our Lord (Oxford: University Press, 1925). Jesus used synonymous parallelism in Matthew 7:6 when he said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to the pigs.” Other examples of synonymous parallelism occur in Matt. 5:44, 45; 6:25. He used antithetic parallelism in 7:17 when he spoke, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” Other examples of antithetic parallelism occur in Matt. 6:14-15, 22-23; 7:13-14. Synonymous parallelism can involve more than a series of couplets. The emphasis can appear in strophes of several lines as we can observe in Jesus’ words of Matt. 7:7: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

The important benefit from recognizing the presence of Hebrew poetry is that we will not attempt to find an artificial distinction between the three terms, “Ask, seek, and knock.” Recognizing the triad as Hebrew poetry allows us to see that Jesus is stating the same idea in three related ways. He is not attempting to present us with three different methods of approaching God by prayer.

A third feature which points to the Jewish­ness of the sermon is the presence of the argument known by its Latin phrase, a minore ad majus. The phrase means literally “from the less to the greater.” The argument represents a Jewish form of logic which assumes that what is true in a less important case will also apply in a more important case. Burney calls this structure a special form of antithetic parallelism, but we will treat it separately.[6]Burney, 82.

This type of reasoning appears in Matt. 7:11 when the Lord says, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to   your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Jesus’ logic is that if human beings with a nature of sin can nevertheless respond to the requests of their children with loving gifts, how much more can we expect such responses from a perfect heavenly Father!

In the above instance, the reasoning from the less to the greater is rather explicit. In some passages the reasoning is implied but not clearly stated. Hans Dieter Betz points out the appearance of this argument in Matt. 5:18.[7]Hans Deiter Betz, “The Hermeneutical Principles of the Ser­mon on the Mount,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 42 (March 1983), 22.

Here Jesus implies that what is true of the smallest letter or the least stroke of a pen will also hold to be true of the law in its entirety. Another implied example of reasoning from the less to the greater appears in Matt. 7:3-5.

The important feature to be noticed here is that Jesus was using an acceptable Jewish method of thinking. We should bear in mind this Jewish background as we interpret the sermon.

Figures of Speech in the Sermon on the Mount

Figures of speech abound in the Sermon on the Mount. Their presence adds beauty, vivid­ness, and interest to Jesus’ words. Jesus used the figure of speech known as a metaphor in 5:13-14 when he described believers as “the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” Metaphors are comparisons of two different objects by the use of direct assertion.

A second figure of speech in the sermon is the hyperbole. This figure of speech uses intentional exaggeration for effect. We use hyperbole in English when we glance at a torrential downpour and say, “It is raining cats and dogs.” No one seriously expects to stare at felines and canines falling from the sky, but we regard the statement as acceptable exaggeration which emphasizes the inundating characteristic of the deluge.

Jesus used hyperbole in Matt. 5:29-30 when he spoke about gouging out the “right eye” which caused sin and about cutting off the “right hand” which led to sin. Jesus never thought that his disciples would lose an eye or a portion of a limb, but “cutting off or gouging out the offending part is a way of saying that Jesus’ disciples must deal radically with sin.”[8]Carson, 151. Other examples of hyperbole in the Sermon on the Mount appear in 5:39-41 and in 6:3. Hyperbole has a measure of falsehood in its content, but it is valuable because it issues an imperative without diluting its content with irrelevant equivocations. Both modem English and ancient Hebrew make frequent use of hyperbole.


Theological Content of the
Sermon on the Mount

As we read and study the sermon, we should bear in mind that Jesus assumed certain theological truths in his utterances. Knowing what these assumptions are can guide us to be more accurate in our interpretation and application. Among theological features expressed in the sermon are: a messianic outlook, the reality of grace, the promise of re­ ward, the anticipation of the kingdom of heaven, the permanence of the law, and the authority of Jesus. In interpreting isolated statements of Jesus in the sermon, we should practice the theological principle of integrating the totality of Jesus’ statements and avoid merely taking a single statement at face value. For example, we should not regard Jesus’ statements in 5:28, 32, 34, 36, and 44 as setting aside the Law but as reflecting Jesus’ authority by giving a proper interpretation of the Law.

The Messianic Outlook of the Sermon

The Sermon on the Mount is messianic in that Jesus saw the ultimate fulfillment of its meaning in himself. This is nowhere stated more clearly than in the Beatitudes.[9]Hunter, 30-31, 33, 35. Jesus never referred to himself as the Messiah in the sermon, but he made veiled references to this truth. When Jesus promised the kingdom of heaven to the poor or comfort for those who mourn, the implication is that these promises find their fulfillment in himself (see Luke 4:16- 21, which states this truth more explicitly).

Sometimes the messianic nature of the sermon suggests that the promise will be fulfilled in an eschatological setting. Jesus’ promise that the “meek will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5) refers primarily to an experience which will become a reality in the messianic kingdom, concluding the age. The promise that the “pure in heart” shall see God also promises an eschatological realization (Matt. 5:8).

The significant feature to be observed here is that messianism is assumed but not always explicitly stated. As we read and study the sermon, we must keep this assumption in mind.

The Reality of Grace

The demands of the Sermon on the Mount are not so much the demands of abject obedience as they are the expectations of enabling grace. Jesus is not saying, “Do these things, and you will receive divine approval.” The blessings mentioned in the Beatitudes and the commands given throughout the remainder of the sermon presuppose that God provides the enablement to obey the demands. They foster an attitude in which humble recipients can “claim no merit for themselves but, knowing their own heart’s need, are content to rest wholly on the mercy of God.”[10]Ibid., 31. John Stott describes the gracious influence of God in another way when he says, that the sermon “describes what human life and human community look like when they come under the gracious rule of God.”[11]John R. W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 18.

The Promise of Reward

The statements of the Beatitudes (5:3-12) and indeed many sections of the sermon (6:33; 7:7-11) appear to promise a reward for the one who obeys God’s injunctions. As Christians we shun the mercenary idea which implies that God provides a bribe or payoff as an incentive to promote obedience. This attitude resembles a quid pro quo morality which obligates God to pay obedient believers back for the good things which they have done.

Despite the distasteful ideas inherent in re­ ward, we should not entirely reject the concept. “Indeed, in a universe directed to moral ends good action and character must issue in some kind of satisfaction; and in the highest ethical systems it is arguable that there must be satisfactions.”[12]Hunter, 38.

If an employee courts the favor of the boss for the sake of a promotion, we regard that behavior as mercenary and deceitful. If a man marries a woman for the sake of her money, we regard that action as reprehensible. However, marriage is the proper reward for a committed lover, and we do not regard a person as mercenary for desiring marriage. Similarly, we do not view a promotion for a job well done as a demeaning reward. “The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.”[13]C. S. Lewis, Transposition and Other Addresses (London: Geoffrey Bies, 1949), 22. The Christian understanding of reward follows this pattern.

God provides rewards to believers as the inexorable outcome of obedient behavior in a world presided over by a good God. These re­ wards which God gives have no linkage with a mercenary spirit. Jesus’ statements in the Beatitudes do not promise, “Do this in order to merit a reward,” but they state that the proper attitude will bring joy and happiness in this life and hereafter. Also, Jesus denies that human beings have a claim to reward as a right. The Bible always presents reward as a monument to God’s grace (Matt. 20:1-16). “Jesus’ attitude is indeed paradoxical; he promises reward to those who are obedient without thought of reward.”[14]Rudolph Bultmann, Jesus and the Word (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934), 79.

The Anticipation of the Kingdom of  Heaven

The Bible constantly reminds Christians that their ultimate citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). Ultimately this world is not the home of the believer (Heb. 11:13-16). This fact, however, does not lead us to live apart from the world as hermits. We must not separate ourselves from worldly contamination as if we were the inhabitants of a Christian ghetto. To prevent this mentality, Jesus calls on Chris­tians to live as salt and light in this present age (Matt. 5:13-16).

Jesus emphasized that in his ministry the kingdom of God had drawn near (Matt. 12:28). Matthew used the terms “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of heaven” interchangeably (Matt. 19:23-24; see also Matt. 5:3 and Luke 6:20). The kingdom represents the rule or reign of God. To belong to God’s kingdom is to belong to those people among whom God’s reign has already begun. “In the light of the presence of the King himself, a new lifestyle altogether was called for.”[15]Sinclair Ferguson, Kingdom Life in a Fallen World (Colorado Springs, CO: NAY Press, 1986), 17.

The Sermon on the Mount provides the guidelines for living in the kingdom of God. The kingdom has already begun, and believers must live differently because of its presence. However, the kingdom will reach its consummation only when Christ returns to put every­ thing under his own authority (1 Cor. 15:24- 28). The Sermon on the Mount provides guidance for the style of life which Christians are now to exhibit.

These statements represent an effort to take seriously the style of living which the sermon demands. Some of the more extreme hard sayings in the sermon must be seen as figures of speech (e.g. 5:29-30), but the statements nevertheless call for a quality of life which provides a challenge to each believer.

The Permanence of the Law

Jesus’ statements in the antitheses (Matt. 5:21-48) are sometimes interpreted as a denial or contradiction of some Old Testament pas­ sages with a new interpretation added by Jesus.[16]For discussion of this issue see Roger D. Congdon, “Did Jesus Sustain the Law in Matthew 5?” Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (April-June 1978), 117-25. However, Jesus’ statement in 5:17 makes it clear “that the purpose of Jesus’ interpretation was by no means the abolition of the Torah, but its fulfillment.”[17]Betz, 21. Jesus fulfills the Old Testament in that the Old Testament points forward to him. His person and teaching satisfy its prophecies, typological figures, and eschatological hope.

In the antitheses Jesus was not attempting to annul or even intensify the Old Testament law, but he showed the direction in which it pointed. In this section he brought out the underlying moral implications of the Law.

Further, in 5:17-20 he presented himself as the eschatological goal of the Old Testament. This fact made him the only authoritative interpreter of the Law. In Jesus’ teaching and action the Old Testament found its importance and its relevant application.[18]For further discussion, see Carson, 141-45.

The important result from this observation is that the Law and the Prophets are not cast aside and denigrated. The function of the Law was to point forward to Christ. He clearly showed this by explaining its moral relevance for today.

The Authority of Jesus

Many people, including those who are followers of other religions, accept the Sermon on the Mount as self-evident moral truth. They call the moral insights of the sermon “profound,” but they feel that Jesus’ followers have dulled the impact of his priceless ethical in­ sights with accretions of dogma.

However, those who heard the Sermon on the Mount did not attempt to find a contrast between the Jesus whom they found in the Sermon and the Jesus who met them elsewhere in the New Testament. In the remainder of the gospels Jesus spoke with authority (Mark 1:27) and taught openly and by implication that he was Lord (John 8:58; Matt. 11:28-30). We find this same view of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

In the sermon Jesus did not communicate with a hesitancy or indecisiveness, but with obvious assurance he “laid down the law for the citizens of God’s kingdom.”[19]Stott, 213. Those who heard Jesus were astonished at the authority with which he taught (7:28-29). He spoke with full self-confidence to declare who would inherit the earth, who would experience answers to prayer, and who would enter into the kingdom of heaven. Unlike the scribes who tried to be faithful in passing on the tradition which they received, Jesus brushed aside scribal tradition and replaced it with his own insights. Unlike the prophets who identified the source of their words with “Thus saith the Lord,” Jesus frequently stated, “I tell you.” He concluded the sermon by reminding his hearers that their eternal destiny depended on their response to his words. His authority as a teacher shines clearly through such statements.

Jesus’ authority is also evident in his reference to those who called him “Lord, Lord” (Matt. 7:22). His words were not a complaint that they were wrong in choosing this title. He accepted its propriety in reference to him, but he suggested that his hearers had used it too flippantly. He suggested that he was not merely someone to be addressed as “Sir,” but he was the Lord to be obeyed. He demanded that his hearers devote themselves to him person­ ally. As John Stott has said, “The claims of Jesus were indeed put forward so naturally, modestly and indirectly that many people never even noticed them. But they are there; we cannot ignore them and still retain our integrity.”[20]Ibid., 222.

The Need to Integrate Jesus’ Statements

Jesus’ statements in the sermon often are uttered in so broad and sweeping a manner that we may fail to notice how his actions amplify our understanding of his message. In many instances we must integrate his statements with his deeds.

For example, we observe with approval Jesus’ denunciation of anger (Matt. 5:21-22) but may fail to appreciate the description of Jesus as angry (Mark 3:1-5). Jesus warned against anger to those who felt that the sixth commandment forbade only murder. He called attention to the anger which lay beneath murderous human rage. Most human anger derives from personal pique, either real or imagined.

Jesus’ anger described in Mark 3:5 is not personal pique. Mark himself describes it as originating from a deep distress at the stubborn hearts of the Pharisees and Herodians (Mark 3:5-6). Similarly his display of divine displeasure at the commercialization of the temple in Matt. 21:12-17 is not mere resentment at infringement on his rights but a righteous indignation at human greed in the presence of divine holiness. His description of the Pharisees as “hypocrites, blind fools, snakes, and a brood of vipers” (Matt. 12:15, 17, 33) is not mere unrestrained verbal abuse but a proper description of human intransigence from one with omniscient insight into human nature. Jesus’ anger is his divine holiness responding to human sin. It is not merely a loss of temper.

A right interpretation of Jesus’ broad statements in the Sermon on the Mount, must constantly be compared with his actions in order to arrive at a correct understanding and application of the Scripture.


The Homiletical Distinctives of
the Sermon on the Mount

Among homiletical features of the sermon which we will investigate are its unity, the identity of its audience, and the theological structure of its content. A deeper understanding of each of these features will broaden our grasp of the meaning and application of the Sermon.

The Audience for the Sermon

Matthew records that when Jesus had taken his seat on a mountainside, his disciples came to him (5:1). Luke adds that in addition to his disciples, a large number of people from Judea, Jerusalem, and the territories of Tyre and Sidon heard him (Luke 6:17). Both Gospel writers suggest that Jesus’ disciples were present for the sermon.

The content of the sermon provides additional evidence that its thrust is for disciples and not merely for all human beings. Its primary intent is to describe the response of individuals in obedience and devotion to God. The sermon promises persecution (5:11-12) while it demands perfection (5:48). Jesus presents to his hearers his deeper interpretation of God’s laws (5:17-48), and he states that the eternal destiny of his hearers depends on a personal relationship to him (7:21-23). “The Sermon is thus far from being just a collection of moral precepts. It presents the radical demand of Jesus the Messiah on all who respond to his preaching of God’s kingdom.”[21]R T. France, “Matthew,” Tyndale New Testament Commen­taries, ed. Leon Morris (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1985), 106-7.

The Unity of the Sermon

Is the Sermon on the Mount a message given by Jesus on a single occasion, or is it, “merely a collection of unrelated sayings of di­verse origins, a patchwork,”[22]W. D. Davies, The Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge: Univer­sity Press, 1966), 1. pieced together by Matthew? Some who would not want to view the Sermon as a patchwork would nevertheless see its present form as the work of the early church after the resurrection[23]Robert A. Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount (Waco, TX: Word, Inc., 1982), 35. or of the editorial activity of Matthew himself.[24]France, 106.

Such questions as above are tied up in an individual’s presuppositions about God, the nature of revelation through Christ and in Scripture, and the definition of truth. This writer finds it difficult to warm up to any view of the sermon which links its contents largely to the church or to Matthew himself rather than to Jesus. Matthew may have selected among the statements of Jesus, but he did not create them. The wording of the sermon is basically derived from Jesus. However, we should not view them as verbatim reports but as accurate summaries.

Matthew appears to intend that we under­ stand this message as a word from Christ. He gives it a precise geographical location on a mountainside, and he records the amazement of the crowds when Jesus has finished (7:28- 29). He describes Jesus’ entry into Capernaum after the completion of the sermon (8:5).

Matthew’s concluding comments in 7:28-29 and at the beginning of the sermon lack the appearance of an editorial device which points to some arrangement by the writer of disparate words of Jesus. Carson writes, “That the introductory and concluding formulas were not recognizable as artistic devices is con­ firmed by the fact that for the first millennium and half or so of its existence, the church recognized them as concrete sayings.”[25]Carson, 124-25.

It is true that Jesus repeated some of the words of the Sermon on the Mount on other occasions. Jesus’ words in Matt. 5:29-30 resemble his expression in Matt. 18:8-9. His statement in Matt. 6:1 are similar to his words in Matt. 23:5.  The pithy, memorable words of Jesus capture truth in such a vivid manner that they deserve repetition.

Matthew does not give us the very words which Jesus spoke on this occasion. What we have in Matthew are selections and inclusions by him which represent an accurate summary of what Jesus said. The summary is Matthew’s own, and we could suggest that the Holy Spirit directed Matthew in his choices and arrangement. The actual sermon appearing in Matthew would require no longer than ten minutes to read or perhaps twenty minutes to speak. Likely the utterance of Jesus’ words on this occasion took much longer than this length of time. Carson well expresses a sensible view of its content when he says that the sermon is not a collection of “verbatim ac­ counts or unedited reports of Jesus’ teaching, it rather assumes that they are condensed notes, largely in Matthew’s idiom, selected and presented in accord with his own concerns. But behind them stand the voice and authority of Jesus.”[26]Ibid., 125.

The Relation to the Sermon on the Plain

Luke 6:17-49 contains much of the same material included in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Luke, however, suggests that the sermon is delivered in “a level place,” (Luke 6:17), and his presentation follows the choosing of the Twelve Apostles (Luke 6:12-16), which in Matthew takes place in 10:1-4. The content of Luke’s message is much briefer, and much of the extra material in Matthew appears elsewhere in Luke (see Matt. 5:32 and Luke 16:18; Matt. 6:25-34 and Luke 12:22-31).

Matthew’s gospel appears to be written with a Jewish audience in mind. Luke appears to aim his words at a more cosmopolitan audience. The material from Matt. 5:17-37 and 6:1-18, omitted in Luke, represents insights of interest to Jewish readers but not necessarily to Gentile readers.

It is also possible to harmonize the statements from both Matthew and Luke concerning the geography of the presentation. Matthew’s “mountainside” may refer to a location in the hills, and Luke’s “level place” may refer to a plateau somewhere in those hills.[ref[Ibid.[/ref] It is possible to view Matthew’s location of the sermon as topical and not purely chronological. Probably the sermon was preached during the circuit mentioned in 4:23-25. The selection of the Twelve Apostles in 10:1-4 may be a topical, not a chronological reference. Carson’s words are appropriate: “It seems best …to take Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6:20-49 as separate reports of the same occasion, each dependent on some shared tradition…, but not exclusively so.”[27]Ibid., 126.

Spiritual Application of the Sermon

Is the Sermon on the Mount relevant to the life of Christians today? Many have observed its difficult demands and have pronounced its lifestyle unattainable. Who can avoid lustful looks and thoughts? Who can banish the hateful thought? Who can lay aside worry about the future? How can we turn our cheeks to a menacing assailant? Some view the appeals of the sermon as the impractical ideals of a visionary. Others have felt that Jesus was making demands for an emergency situation which was to last until the end of history. The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy believed that the commands of Jesus should be practiced, and he urged them as the basis for a new social order. Some modern dispensationalists have viewed the Sermon on the Mount as law for the millennial kingdom, but other dispensationalists have modified their approach. How can the Sermon be applied?[28]For histories of the ethical application of the Sermon, see Stott, 26-29; Carson, 126-28; and Harvey K. McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount (New York: Harper & Bros., 1960), 105-48. Four insights may prove helpful in guiding to a wise application.

First, the Sermon on the Mount is a lifestyle for committed disciples. “It was given as a way of life for the men of the Kingdom, not for mankind at large.”[29]Hunter, 109. The opening verses of Matthew 5 indicate that Jesus was speaking to his disciples. The Beatitudes clearly aim their message toward people of commitment. The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for disciples. Such statements as “Seek first his kingdom” (Matt. 6:33) refer these demands to disciples. This is a style of living intended for those who would be devoted followers of Jesus Christ.

Second, the aim of the Sermon on the Mount is inward. The best religious insights of the Old Testament emphasize that righteousness is essentially inward (See Ps. 51:1-12), but Judaism in Jesus’ time had grown stale. The scribes and Pharisees attacked the problem of right and wrong conduct from the outside and outlined rules and regulations. Legalistic interpreters emphasized that the law merely condemned murder, but Jesus insisted that hatred in the heart was condemned by God. Legalistic interpreters knew also that the law op­ posed adultery, but Jesus insisted that the law also banned human passion. The law clearly limited the extent of revenge, but Jesus pointed out that a vindictive attitude was unacceptable. Jesus compared human conduct to the fruit of a tree (Matt. 7:17-18). In order to make the fruit good, you must make the tree good. Jesus focused on the need for changing the human heart.

Third, the content of the sermon does not provide a road map, but it points in the right direction. It is not a legislative code but a guideline. A. M. Hunter reaches this conclusion by comparing Jesus’ insights into behavior with that of the scribes and Pharisees.[30]Ibid., 111-12. The scribes and Pharisees thought that character was determined by conduct, and they tried to build this type of character by framing moral codes to describe how people should act. Jesus did not concern himself merely with acts. He focused on individuals and principles. He dis­ covered the secret of righteous living “in the spontaneous activity of a transformed character.”[31]Ibid., 112. We should not view Jesus’ words in the sermon as a new presentation of rules but rather as a collection of guidelines which believers can approach by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, we must see that the demands of the sermon are unattainable in merely human strength. No individual can control thought, aim, and motive by the mere exercise of will power. In fact, the height of the demands of the sermon should make us aware that a strength beyond our own must be available to reach the divine intent of behavior. The ethical demands of the sermon should lead us to a deeper dependence on the magnificent power provided by the Holy Spirit. After Paul viewed the high demands of God’s law and his own inability to each of those demands, he exclaimed with great passion, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). He recognized that the righteous demands of the law would be produced only in those who live according to the power of the Spirit. May the reading and application of this sermon inspire a similar recognition in our own hearts.

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