The best book I’ve ever read on the Sermon on the Mount (as the passage from 5:1-7:29 is usually called) is a small book of the same name by D A Carson in the Jesus Library series and published by Paternoster Press. Don’t let the cheap price tag deceive you as they’ve put out a series of books with similar bindings and have brought down the retail price to something very affordable.
Though there are many other books on the subject at much higher prices, I can’t believe that they could be any better than this one, though I haven’t actually read very many books which bear directly on this passage and, besides, there are so many on the shelves of Christian Bookshops that I wouldn’t know where to begin!
I had a few other works by Carson when I first saw the paperback and so wanted to see what he had to say on the matter and, if I must be honest, it was only £0.99 (about $1.50 - I think it now retails for £1.99) and I didn’t think I’d be wasting too much money if it was rubbish! But it was excellent and I must highly recommend it to you.
However, I have chosen not to refer to the book at all in compiling theses notes simply because I want Carson’s work to stand on its own and I don’t want to cover any ground that he may have dealt with (or probably have dealt with better than I could have done!). So, while I would urge readers to compare his notes and comments alongside my own, I shan’t use his exposition of these chapters as part of my resources.
When we come to the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, it’s too easy for us to glance over the introductory verses which Matthew records for us in 5:1-2 and think them mere window dressing for the main body of teaching which follows. To do such a thing would be to miss out on certain subjects which need understanding if we are to set Jesus’ words in the context in which they were first spoken.
As you will see below, we need to carefully consider just who it was that Jesus was primarily addressing (for, if these words were largely given to the ‘unsaved’ for their encouragement to become followers of Jesus, we can largely ignore them or will need to adapt them for our own use) and we need also to think about whether we should accept Luke 6:17-49 as being the same discourse recorded differently or a completely separate one spoken at another time.
That might not sound too important but, if they can be shown to be separate incidents, the same words will possibly mean slightly different things in both Sermons as the content becomes tailor made to the specific hearers who were present at each. If the two passages are different versions of the same speech, we will only be able to gain a fuller understanding of what Jesus meant by certain phrases when we compare like with like.
So, before we begin a discussion of Jesus’ words on the following web page here, we need to satisfy ourselves that we understand the reason for His message.
Commentators make much of the parallel passage recorded in Luke 6:17-49 and many understand the interrelation between this passage and Matthew’s record as being one and the same incident. Therefore, Lukegeld (my italics) prefixes a harmony of both passages with the words
‘If we assume, together with the majority of expositors, that [Luke 6:17-49] reproduces the same sermon (though greatly abbreviated) as Matthew 5, 6 and 7...’
even titling his chapter ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ just in case there could be any misunderstanding of what he is asserting. Mathen believes there are enough similarities (and good enough explanations of the dissimilarities) to simply say that
‘It is clear that the sermon recorded by Matthew and the one reported by Luke are one and the same’
Certainly, both discourses begin with beatitudes and end with the parable of the wise and foolish man who built their house on different foundations - but this latter parable is a good conclusion to any discourse, seeing as it exhorts the hearers to endeavour to live out what Jesus is here teaching them. We would hardly say that an appeal for people in a congregation to come forward to give their lives to Christ (which, incidentally, is unscriptural!) means that the sermon delivered previously must be the same but that it serves as a fitting conclusion to the content of the message just shared.
So, too, Jesus choice of the parable fits well as an exhortation not to forget His words but to do them.
There may be similarities, therefore, but the passages need to be proven to be the same incident recorded before we can look at both and take them, side by side, as referring to one and the same ‘sermon’ (for want of a better word - after all, our present day ‘sermons’ are little or nothing like these records in the Gospels - we don’t even deliver them out doors!).
The similarities at the end of the discourse would certainly indicate that both Luke and Matthew may be recording the same incident for both Mtw 8:5 and Luke 7:1 record for us that, shortly after finishing, he entered the city of Capernaum and then transpires the incident of the healing of the centurion’s servant.
This may be conclusive enough for many but, although Mtw 8:1-4 is directly related to the previous discourse covering three chapters, 8:5 simply states that the following incident began ‘As He entered Capernaum...’, a prefix which does not have to be taken in time order, following on from the previous healing of the leper.
Bedsides, Matthew chapters 8 and 9 seem to be a collection of the greatest miracles (or most remembered ones?) from Jesus’ Galilean ministry and Matthew seems to lump them together systematically for the reader.
When we come to the records which precede each of the discourses, though, there are marked dissimilarities.
Mtw 5:1 states that, when Jesus witnessed the crowds, He withdrew up onto the mountain and spoke to the disciples who came to Him (that is, all His disciples present and not just the select ‘twelve’ as we would normally understand the occurrence of that phrase).
Luke 6:12 and 6:17, however, give us a different picture. Jesus is spoken of here as going up onto the mountain to pray all night and that, when daybreak came, He called His disciples to Him and picked from them twelve ‘whom He named apostles’.
Then, going down from the mountain with His disciples, He healed those present and began to speak to them (Luke speaks about the teaching taking place on a ‘level place’ but this need not exclude Matthew’s comment about it occurring on the mountain). These don’t appear to be the same incidents, therefore, this further being strengthened by the statement of Matthew that Jesus ‘sat down’ and Luke that He ‘stood’.
The selecting of the twelve disciples (named ‘apostles’) also suggests to us that the two discourses are different. First, Mtw 10:1-4 is often taken to be the parallel to Luke 6:12-16 where the twelve are selected after the night of prayer on the mountain, but nowhere in Matthew’s passage do we read of this and the former incident is simply telling us that the twelve were called together to be given authority over everything that stood opposed to the expression of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, this presupposing their existence and selection.
However, the call of Matthew the tax collector in Mtw 9:9 must take place before the selecting of the special twelve disciples just as it does in Luke (Cp Luke 5:27-28 with Luke 6:12-16) and Luke places the call and the selection before the discourse that he records. However, Matthew records Matthew’s call after chapters 5-7 and, if these events are to be taken in chronological order, Matthew’s chronology is inaccurate to the point of being confusing.
I have above suggested that Matthew chapters 8 and 9 are a collection of Jesus’ ‘Greatest Hits’ in His Galilean ministry so the call of the tax collector may not be in the right place chronologically but, even so, the dissimilarities between the preambles of both Gospels seems to be sufficient to assert that it seems best to take the two discourses not as Matthew and Luke’s arrangement of material from one specific speech of Jesus during the period of His Galilean ministry, but as two distinct events in which He chose to speak to the people.
But what of the similarities between the two passages? If these are two different incidents, how is it that there are so many similarities between them (for instance, the record of the beatitudes)?
As speakers will know, preaching the same sermon does not mean using the same words (unless, of course, you read everything from written notes and choose not to stray from it for even so much as the mention of one illustration which comes to mind - I pity your congregations if you do this!!).
As Lukmor comments
‘Preachers usually make use of the same or similar matter in different sermons, especially if they speak without a written script. This habit of preachers seems a better explanation of the combination of resemblances than extensive editorial activity [in Matthew and Luke]’
Besides, having content does not mean that it must be delivered the same to different sets of people but it needs adaptation to reach the hearing group to which the message is now being brought. Jesus can be seen here, then, to be adapting His message to His hearers, not relying upon verbal formulae but upon conveying Truth to those present.
What the NT believer must remember is that the message which is relevant to a community of people in one place will necessarily need adapting before it can be redelivered to another congregation in another place. Jesus doesn’t appear to have spoken from notes so this last point is largely unbased in the life of Christ, but by seeing both Luke and Matthew’s record as separate occasions on which He spoke, we can at least realise that it is the life and power of words that are important and not strict verbal pronouncements which are repeated parrot fashion in the hope that there is something mystical and moving in the words themselves.
Jesus was no automaton - and the Gospel is not spread by repetitive phrases designed to evoke a similar response wherever and whenever they’re spoken.
Though we have above noted that there are enough dissimilarities between Matthew and Luke so as to make us consider them to be records of different events, we should note that in both places (Mtw 5:1 and Luke 6:20), it’s made clear to the reader that the discourses (in Matthew, this means the entire Sermon on the Mount running to the end of chapter 7) were directed at ‘believers’ - if we use that word in the same sense that we normally use it in.
Even though the words of Jesus here expressed have been used evangelistically (similar to the way Rev 3:20 has been to the detriment of the Church), nevertheless the immediate relevance is to Jesus’ ‘learners’ or ‘pupils’ (the meaning of the Greek word translated ‘disciple’ here).
Primarily, therefore, the reason for Jesus’ message is to train and to build up those who were following Him and who regarded themselves as His disciples, a large band of people who were not clearly defined in terms of the twelve whom Jesus selected and set apart at a later date.
Jesus had begun the ministry in Galilee with the proclamation (Mtw 4:17)
‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’
in similar vein to John the Baptist (Mtw 3:2) but, throughout this passage, we find no exhortation to repent - This further indicates that believers and disciples are being mentioned here for they may already have responded to the former proclamation and are listening intently to Jesus’ instruction to understand what their repentance will mean for them.
However, it could be reasoned that what Jesus is doing here is putting flesh on the bare bones of that first proclamation for His exposition is such that what He is instructing His disciples to do will radically challenge the way they are living and, as such, will demand repentance from them.
If that is the case, repentance is being presented not as a harsh and heavy obligation but in matter of fact statements which are logical and simple. Jesus probably didn’t even let His voice quaver with imagined anger as a lot of preachers do (purely subjective consideration, I know) but spoke, as always, with love and compassion in His heart for His hearers.
Finally, we need to note that the reason for Jesus’ movement into the mountains appears to have been to get away from the crowds which were flocking to Him. He decided to withdraw to a quieter place alone but even here His disciples followed (5:1) and eventually the crowds (7:28). What started out as being a private speech being directed at His followers ended up as being quite some gathering of men and women who were anxious to hear Him (Mtw 7:28-29).
This may account for the change of direction from 7:13 onwards (see below) but His words do equally apply to His followers as to those who were just coming to some understanding of whether they should commit their own lives to follow after Him and His teaching.
There seems to be three main sections in the discourse which need noting here.
The first section (5:3-16) deals with the characteristics of the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven while the second (5:17-7:12) moves on to look at the righteousness of the Kingdom (that is, what these believers will do and not given to His hearers as legalistic observances. In everything, the work of Christ is pre-eminent) before concluding with a section (7:13-7:27) which serves, firstly, as an exhortation to His disciples to be faithful in the way He’s describing to them but also as an appeal to the great crowds which had been assembling themselves while He was speaking (7:28-29) that they might enter the Kingdom as others had already done.
There are, of course, sections within sections so that the ‘Beatitudes’ (5:3-12) stand apart and distinct from the salt and light words (5:13-16) and the fulfilment or correct interpretation of the Law (5:17-48) can also stand alone as a section within the main thrust of Jesus’ message.
But, in so restricting passages into compartmentalised pigeon holes, we do stand the danger of failing to see how each section not only continues the themes of the previous one but how it sets the foundation for what will follow.
Even if I do tend to draw too bold a line around each division, the reader should pay attention to the context in which the passage sits.
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