The Sermon on the Mount

I recently started reading the New Testament again and am thoroughly enjoying Christ in the Gospel of Matthew. However, right off the bat Matthew starts telling us a lot of what Jesus was teaching and a lot of it sounds pretty much impossible. What are we to make of this?

Matthew chapters 5–7, commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, have attracted a diversity of interpretations over the centuries. In On Being a Christian, Hans Küng lists five historic views.[1] I summarize them below:

  • A two-class ethic: this interpretation holds that the Sermon on the Mount is binding only for a special category of Christians, namely the clergy. In other words, if you’re just a regular Christian, don’t worry about it! This view was held by Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Church before Vatican II.
  • A penitential ethic: this view holds that the requirements of these chapters are impossible to fulfill and that obedience isn’t the aim of this legislation. Rather, these impossible demands are designed to expose our impotence and lack—an unflattering mirror in which we see ourselves in a harsh light—causing us to repent and place our trust in Christ. In other words, read it and weep. This view was held by Martin Luther.
  • A pure dispositional ethic: this view holds that what matters most is not the concrete fulfillment in deed of these demands, but the proper attitude of our heart. In other words, “want” is good enough. This view was held by Immanuel Kant, philosophical idealism, and liberal theology.
  • A social ethic: this view takes the Sermon on the Mount very stringently as the basic law and social program of a new society which will render political power and the legal system redundant. In other words, toe the party line! This view was held by Leo Tolstoy and many religious socialists.
  • An interim ethic: this view holds that Jesus’ radical teachings here were only spoken in light of the imminent advent of the kingdom of God, as they could only be maintained for a short time, only “in the light of the apocalyptic glow of the approaching end.” Now that the eschatological horizon has receded they too have depreciated. In other words, forget about it! This view was held by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer.

None of these views are quite adequate. Luther’s view probably comes closest to the Lord’s intention but misses the real thrust of these chapters—that they are to be lived. This is not merely a sermon with rhetorical force; it’s a decree from the new King of the kingdom’s constitution.[2] Good deeds are to be seen (5:16), righteousness is to be done (6:1), the commandments are to be practiced (5:19). The whole tenor of the discourse is one of expectation—Jesus clearly expects this to happen. Without that basic assumption, the entire passage—the longest recorded teaching of Jesus in the gospels—loses its force.

So then, how is it to be understood? How is it to be practiced? The secret lies in the divine life, indicated by the repetition of the words, “your Father”, which occur 16 times in these three chapters. The highest demand of the kingdom of the heavens can only be met by the highest supply of the heavenly Father’s life. This life not only saves us but enables us to reign in life—a reigning that issues from our experience of God’s life. Paul explains that reigning in life is a result of our receiving God’s measureless grace, not our striving (Rom. 5:17).

The effectiveness and the unspeakable generosity of the divine grace are such that it will not merely bring about the replacement of the reign of death by the reign of life, but it will actually make those who receive its riches to become kings themselves, that is, to live ‘the truly kingly life’ purposed by God for man.[3]

Later in Romans, Paul says that the divine life operates as a scientific law—the law of the Spirit of life—and will fulfill every requirement of God’s law as long as we give it a chance to work. Here, a preposition is a source of great insight and encouragement—”in”. The righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled IN us, not BY us (Rom. 8:4).

With all this in view, Watchman Nee claims that Matthew 5–7, far from being a source of discouragement, is actually a source of comfort:

After men sought for centuries to attain the first standard [of the law] and failed, how could the Lord dare to raise the standard higher? He could raise it because He believed in His own life. He was not afraid of placing tremendous demands upon Himself. We should find comfort in reading the laws of the kingdom in Matthew 5–7 because they show the utter confidence that the Lord has in His own life. These three chapters set forth the divine taxation of the divine life. The greatness of the demands He makes upon us reveals the greatness of His confidence in the life that He has put within us.[4]

I love this. What a game changer!

My friend David at agreed to write a post on the same chapters in Matthew. You should check it out—The Highest Mountain.

1.Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, pp. 244-246
2.Witness Lee, Life-study of Matthew, pp. 161-162
3.C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans 1-8, ICC, p. 288
4.Watchman Nee, CWWN 46:1163

9 thoughts on “The Sermon on the Mount

  1. Hallo everybody,
    here i like to present some excerpts for further discussion on the topic:
    1.”The Sermon on the Mount and the book of James run parallel. Both are focused on the kingdom life.
    (Remeber that James was the Lord´s flesh brother) – What James says is identical to what the Lord says in Matthew 5-7.
    2.”The main point: – The Sermon on the Mount is a description of the life of Jesus who fulfilled all the law! The inner nature of the Sermon on the Mount is Christ Himself in a detailed way.
    3. Jesus is the King, and the King lives in us. And the King living in us creates the kingdom of God.
    James 2:5 “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” – Inheriting the kingdom is conditional.In the book of James, the thought of the kingdom is presented again and again.
    “Don´t just be hearers of the word, but doers of the word (James 1:22) – “whoever hears these words of Mine, and does them” (Matth.7:24) – So the thought of hearing and doing is in James, and it is also directly from the Lord´s mouth in Matthew.
    Understanding James as a book about entering into the kingdom will open this book in a fresh and new way.
    Just as every word that Jesus spoke was an extension of Himself, and He had to speak this way because that is the nature of His life, so also every word in the book of James is fulfilled by the Lord Jesus Himself. He is the life and the nature that carries everything out.
    4. The book of James is like the Sermon on the Mount in that it is spoken to believers concerning living a kingdom life and being ready for the Lord´s coming and the judgement seat.
    5. We see in James is the kingdom life experienced. We see “heirs of the kingdom,” the crown of life,” and “approvedness.” All these verses reveal a kingdom disposition, a disposition full of Christ.”
    The book of Jamess is like the Sermon on the Mount in that it is spoken to believers concerning living a kingdom life and being ready for the Lord´s coming and the judgement seat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Harald,
      You make some really good points. I have never thought of comparing James to Matthew 5-7. It certainly yields some interesting parallels! The question I have with regard to James though is how he understands the MEANS of this practical perfection and where he stands in relation to the Mosaic law. In Acts he certainly champions the practice of the Mosaic law and boasts in the thousands who are zealous for it. This colors his epistle in my mind, which has an OT feel. I certainly agree with what he teaches overall, but how he intends believers to apply and carry out what he teaches is unclear to me. Especially compared to the other writings in the NT, he pales in richness of revelation. For instance, he never mentions the application of the cross; he only makes two passing references to Christ without saying anything significant about the experience of Christ; he only mentions the Spirit once and as a supporting point in a subordinate clause; he doesn’t stress the experience of the divine life at all; he doesn’t mention anything significant about the church in relation to the goal of God’s economy. All that to say that I think James does teach many valuable practical things but to understand HOW these are carried out we must lean almost entirely on the teaching of the other writers of the NT.


      • The book of James is much disputed in the history of the church. James is a unique book in how it has been misunderstood. But by getting into the book of James in the light of the kingdom, something fresh will open up to us that perhaps we have never seen before and will help us to grasp the significance of this book. Here I recommend the writings of Robert Govett and B. W. Newton as well as C. H. Mackintosh.
        -Romans speaks about dead works – James about dead faith. James is addressed to believers, so there is no contradiction. What James say about works is identical to what the Lord said in Matthew 5-7 and to what Paul says in his writings. So it is a part of the New Testament, the Apostle´s teaching. It is by no means “a letter of straw.” – “to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which He promised to those who love Him.” (2:5) spoken to believers. James is in perfect harmony with the Lord´s teaching. He is addressing born-again believers (1:18) in order that they might participate in a greater grace (4:6) to become firstfruits (1:18) and receive the crown of life (1:12) for the Lord´s coming and kingdom (5:7-8). We notice in verse 2:5, that inheriting the kingdom is mentioned in relating to those who are rich in faith and who love God. This confirms the fact that James is not speaking to unbelievers, but to believers.
        1:12 ” The crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” The crown of life as a reward is not given at the new birth, but at the judgment seat of Christ. The crown of life is given based on the condition of loving Him. Both James and Paul were obviously under the same revelation concerning reward for believers at he Lord´s appearing and kingdom (2 Tim. 4:1) It is with this background of the kingdom that we must understand the book of James. Otherwise, we will not be able to reconcile his speaking about works with other passages in the New Testament (Rom. 3:27-28; 4:4-6; Gal. 2:16).
        James is a book emphasizing the testing and approving of the genuineness of the faith that is in us.
        And this is James´burden – that the saints would become “precious fruit” and “firstfruits” to God for the reality of the kingdom.


  2. Love that last Watchman Nee quote, what a supply to have the heavenly view! Recently one of my co-workers, a new believer reading Matthew for the first time, told me they were so discouraged after reading Matthew 5-7 because they knew they could never fulfill it. I didn’t have this quote, but I did have the opportunity to share, along the same lines, that these chapters are a revelation of the capacity of the divine life, not a to do list. Game changing, christian life revolutionizing, indeed! Thanks for the quote.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad to hear. I think a key point of application is in Matt 7:7-8. Right in the middle of all the strict requirements is the promise of God’s grace to those who, ask, seek, and knock. I know how easy it is to just see the standard and my own inability, but I’m learning to ask the Lord to do it in me.


  3. Interesting who’s the first person to respond. A leper worships Jesus and calls Him Lord. Then he says cleanse me! After touching and cleansing him, Jesus then proceeds to heal the sick and cast out demons. The goal of the sermon is to expose our weakness and more importantly to bring us to Christ, to call Him Lord and to touch Him and worship Him!


  4. As a supplement two more excerpts,
    first one by C. H Mackintosh:
    “P.S. – It is very interesting and instructive to compare the teachings of Paul and James – two divinely inspired apostles – on the subject of “works.” Paul utterly repudiates law-works. James jealously insists upon life-works. If this fact be seized, all difficulty vanishes; and the divine harmony is clearly seen. Many have failed to do this, and hence have been much perplexed by the seeming difference between Romans 4:5, and James 2:24. We need not say there is the most perfect and beautiful harmony. Paul refers to law-works, and James refers to life-works.
    This is abundantly confirmed by the two cases adducted by James in proof of this thesis, Abraham offering up his son and Rahab conceiling the spies. If you abstract faith from these cases, they were bad works. Look at them as the fruit of faith, and they were life-works.” (from: “Life -Works”, by C. H. M.)
    “How marked is the far-seeing wisdom of the Holy Spirit in all this.” – CHM
    2. By D. M. Panton:
    “There is no section of the New Testament more intensely characteristic of Christ – and therefore of God – than the Beatitudes (Matthew 5). Nothing conceivable is more “Christian,”

    Liked by 1 person

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