Jesus’ most famous sermon is found in Matthew 5-7 called the Sermon on the Mount. It is easy to begin a study of the Sermon on the Mount by opening to chapter 5 and beginning the study there. However, to appropriately understand this sermon, we must plunge ourselves into Matthew’s world and read his gospel as his original readers would have understood it. We must further remember that these chapter numbers in our Bibles can be arbitrary. No doubt this is the case regarding the Sermon on the Mount because Matthew 5:1 begins, “Seeing the crowds…” What crowds is Matthew talking about? Clearly we are connected to the events in Matthew 4, yet that connection is often lost because of the chapter break.
Before we can grasp what Matthew is doing in his gospel, we need to refresh our memory concerning Israel’s history. The book of Genesis ends with Jacob, one of the patriarchs, bringing his sons and their families to Egypt because Joseph, his son, has become prime minister over Egypt and has land to give them so that can survive famine that is affecting the land. However, the book of Exodus opens that after about 200 years a new pharaoh arises who does not know about Joseph and his family. Because the Hebrews are growing in population, the pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews, putting them to hard labor. Not only this, in order to cap the population growth, the pharaoh orders all the baby boys born were to be killed. Under this circumstance Moses is born, leaves the land, and returns to be the deliverer of the people as designated by God. Moses performs miracles, sets the Hebrews free, crosses the Red Sea, and brings the great crowd to Mount Sinai. At Mount Sinai Moses goes up on the mountain, receives the law, and delivers it to the people.
Now look at Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is born and Herod begins to kill all the boys two years old and under. Jesus must leave the land but returns to the land as the deliverer of the people as designated by God. Matthew records that Jesus came performing miracles, healing those who were oppressed (Matthew 4:24). Jesus passes through the waters of baptism and goes into the wilderness (Matthew 3). Rather than failing in the wilderness as Israel did, Jesus succeeds in the temptations of Satan. Now listen to the words of Matthew. After passing through the waters, performing miracles, and coming in the wilderness with great crowds following, Jesus went up on the mountain (Matthew 5:1). What has Matthew just set up for us? What happened when Moses went up on the mountain, he received the law and delivered it to the people. Jesus, after performing the same works as Moses, Israel’s great deliverer, goes up on the mountain and taught them. Matthew is showing Jesus to be the prophet that Moses spoke of when Moses said:
15 “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— 16 just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ 17 And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. (Deuteronomy 18:15–19 ESV)
By Jesus going up on the mountain, he is not simply going up the mountain so the people can hear him. He is going up the mountain because he is about to deliver the law as Moses delivered the law. To miss this context of the Sermon on the Mount will cause one to miss everything about the message Jesus is delivering. Jesus is going to deliver the laws of the kingdom. To say this another way, Jesus is going to describe in this sermon those who belong to the kingdom of heaven. This is the gospel of the kingdom and an explanation of the nature of his kingdom.
We see this kingdom concept validated by the context Matthew gives to this sermon. In Matthew 4:17 we are told that Jesus began to preach and he was saying, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In Matthew 4:23 we read that Jesus is “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.” We should expect the Sermon on the Mount to be the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom and as such the necessity of the people to repent. We must expect these two aspects in the sermon Jesus preaches: the gospel of the kingdom and the need for repentance. This is the context and foundation Matthew gives for this sermon.
Accomplishing the Mission
As we take a bird’s eye view of the Sermon on the Mount we can see how Jesus accomplishes the goals of proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom (good news) while at the same time proclaiming the necessity of repentance. To move the people to repentance they need to see that they have fallen woefully short of God’s righteous demands. A large section of Matthew 5 is spent by Jesus saying, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” The people thought they were keeping the Law of Moses because they had lessened the regulations. Jesus is revealing what the Law of Moses truly taught so the people would realize that they were not doing what the Law required. We see these kinds of strong declarations about God’s law:
If you are angry with your brother you have sinned (Matthew 5:22). If you lust in your heart you have sinned (5:28). If you do not do what you said you would do you have sinned (5:37). If you do not turn the other cheek you are not in God’s kingdom (5:39). You must love your enemies or you have sinned (5:44). You must pray for those who persecute you (5:44). Then the hammer blow of the law falls in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
The people had softened the regulations of the kingdom so that they thought they were in the kingdom and were God’s people. Jesus preaches the need for repentance by revealing that Moses taught these principles which shows you that you have fallen woefully short. No one was to listen to this sermon and walking away saying, “Check! Yeah, I’ve done it all!” The message was to hit the hearts of the people to bring about repentance. This happens immediately in the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes, as they are called which are from Matthew 5:2-12 are meant to jar you from your complacency and lead you to question whether you have entered the kingdom of heaven. If the things that Jesus describes do not describe your life, then you are not a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. Is this not the purpose and nature of repentance? When Jesus tells us to repent it tells us that we are not fit for the kingdom the way we are. There are some things wrong with us and that we are going the wrong direction. Hence, the truncated definition of repentance has been that our lives turn around in direction, a 180 degree turn. So we need to get hit in the face when we read the Sermon on the Mount, see our shortcomings, and feel the need for repentance.
The Blessed Life
But we cannot ignore the other part of what Jesus was preaching. Matthew says that Jesus was proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of heaven. The gospel is the good news. The good news cannot be that we have all fallen short of the righteous demands of God’s law. That is not good news at all. This is one of the reasons we try to lessen God’s regulations. We want to feel like we are doing the law, accomplishing what God has asked us to do. But we will only feel that way by lowering God’s standards. We are inadequate for the kingdom. We are inadequate for his righteous demands. The apostle Paul had to write a number of letters found in the New Testament to help people remain grounded and realize they cannot stand before God on their own acts of righteousness.
Yet, notice how the Sermon on the Mount begins. The first word from Jesus’ mouth is the word, “blessed.” Nine times Jesus begins his sentence with the word “blessed.” What does this word mean? It is frustrating to see some translations try to simplify the word “blessed” to simply mean “happy.” But this is really not the picture at all, which should be evident from verse 10. You are not going to be happy when you are persecuted. “Blessed” is the word we need to keep here because it causes us to dig into the rich meaning of this word. When we read about someone being blessed in the Old Testament we are seeing that God’s favor is upon them. God created Adam and Eve and blessed them (Genesis 1:22,28). God’s favor was on them both. God blessed Abraham according to the scriptures. God blessed Isaac according to the scriptures. God also blessed Jacob in Genesis. What did this mean? It meant that these people were the privileged recipients of God’s favor. To be blessed is to be in the best state of all. You have divine favor and delight. You have received the applause of heaven. You are enjoying the favor of God.
The Sermon on the Mount opens with descriptions of the people who have the favor of God. In the first 11 verses we read about who have God’s favor and the blessing that God gives that person. You will notice that the condition of being blessed is in the present (5:3,10) and also in the future (5:4-9). The favor of God, while its focus and fulfillment is in the future, begins now in Christ. This is the good news of the kingdom. Sinful people can receive God’s favor. Sinful people can be blessed by God and enjoy the benefits of the kingdom of heaven. To put all of this together, a blessed person is someone who, because of God’s love and grace, enjoys presently and is promised in the future God’s favor regardless of one’s personal status or earthly condition.
So the new Moses has arrived who will be the long awaited deliverer of the world. Jesus is chosen by God as the Savior, performs miracles, passes through the water, goes into the wilderness, and then goes up the mountain and declares the covenant of the kingdom of heaven. When you read the words of this sermon, be moved by the fact that God’s favor and grace is available to those who will repent and follow Jesus. In Exodus 34:29 Moses came down from the mountain and his face shown because he had been talking to God. Moses comes down and leads his people to the promised land. In Matthew 8:1 we read that Jesus came down from the mountain and John records, “We have seen his glory, glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:1-3) who leads his people to the kingdom of heaven. So listen with hope, awe, and amazement as we hear that we can have God’s favor and enter the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:3–12 ESV)