The Sermon on the Mount begins with Matthew 5. That tells us we have a lot of ground to cover, and one post may not be enough for it. For that matter, I have a couple of complete books on the shelf about the Sermon on the Mount. There is so much here that is worth considering, and we’re going to hit it in one blog post. In doing so, let us look at the Sermon on the Mount as just that: a sermon. What are some keys to understanding a sermon?
First, consider the audience. The audience, according to verse 1, are those who are disciples of Jesus. In this case, we are likely looking at a larger group than the Twelve Apostles. That opening verse gives us enough of a context for the audience: they are people from the area that have been in the “crowd” which watched and listened to Jesus, and they wanted to know more. They wanted to know more enough to separate from the crowd and go up on the mountain to hear from Jesus.
Second, consider the preacher. In this case, the Preacher is Jesus Himself. We see the Lord of the Universe, the Author of all Scripture, teaching the principles of living in His Kingdom. This is not like listening to me preach, where mistakes are possible (or even likely). There will be no errors in this sermon. There will be no suppositions or estimations, no doubts about authorial intent. It will be preached right. It may not be listened to right, but it will be preached right.
Third, consider the text. This is where the Author of Scripture gets to do what you should never allow any other preacher to do. He does not have one particular Biblical text to preach from. Although He does end up using some Old Testament quotations (like Matthew 5:21 quotes Exodus 20:13,) overall it is new material. Jesus gets a pass on this—and on quoting Himself—because HE’S JESUS.
Fourth, consider the theme. The theme of the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 5 through Matthew 7, is living in the Kingdom of God. Take it apart however you would like to, and you will find the Kingdom of God underneath it all. Who is blessed in the Kingdom? What does it take to enter the Kingdom? How do subjects of the Kingdom relate to the world around them? How do they relate to each other?
Fifth, consider the application. For this, we will put the first imperative into focus. As you read the rest of the sermon, see what Jesus is commanding, and see what Jesus is stating as factual. For example, the Beatitudes are not commands to be anything, but statements of fact about those who face those challenges or embrace those character traits. We can see that as a gentle way of commanding, but there is a difference between that and the clear command to “Let your light shine” in Matthew 5:16.
In focus, I want to look at the command in Matthew 5:12. Jesus commands His disciples to “Rejoice and be glad” when they are persecuted. After all, if you are persecuted for righteousness, your reward in heaven is great. And the prophets were treated that way, so it is a long-standing reality. The world, even the religious world, does not have much patience with those who live out righteousness and proclaim it plainly.
Note, especially, that Jesus connects the persecution of His disciples to the history of persecution suffered by the prophets. If we had the Old Testament only, we might think that the prophets had a pretty good life, except for Jeremiah and Elijah. (Jonah’s problems are his own fault!) Yet when we reach into the wider book of history, we find that the prophets did not fare so well with the people at large. The details take on legendary status, but it is enough to note that Jesus validates the historical reality that the prophets faced oppression.
Then, He points out to us that oppression and persecution should be no surprise to His followers. After all, history reveals not only the work of God but the patterns of human behavior. And human behavior is not friendly to those who speak unpopular truths. The reality is that the church should be so different from the world that the world sees us as intruders, invaders, or threats. The only positive way this does not happen is if we win the world to Christ. Which we have not done.
Unfortunately, we have fallen into the negative side: we are too mushy to be a threat. We are not intruders or invaders, but consumers and cohabitators. Rather than embracing truth and then rejoicing in rejection, we embrace the world and then wonder why we have no joy.
History, though, is a beast of a thing. It will repeat itself, not because we did not learn from it but because human nature does not change. We, as God’s people, are heirs to the legacy of the prophets. We are heirs to the truth-telling, weird-living responsibility of proclaiming the Living God. And we are heirs to the trouble that came upon them.
In this, we should rejoice. Because our reward is greater than anything this world can hold.
I’ll be a brief nerd. 1: Luke 6 contains a parallel passage called the Sermon on the Plain. I think it’s a different event. Others, including many good scholars, hold otherwise.
2: Be aware of the intensity of using contrast in teaching. Every one of the “you have heard it said…but I say…”, Jesus is not just building on to the expectations of the Kingdom. He’s correcting the teachers of the time who always anchored their teaching in what others had said. Further, we see that the heart of the person is more relevant than the actions. That does not justify bad actions—a lust-free affair is still adultery; anger-less murder is still murder. It does show what is key to growing in Christ. The inside of us, our thoughts and motivations, matters because that drives our actions.