January 26, 2021

Difficult Scriptures: The Sermon On The Mount

illustrationwrestlingI saw it coming, just like you sometimes see a car wreck coming. The preacher used the verses in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ most well-known sermon dealing with divorce to talk about marriage. He talked about strengthening our marriages and how important marriage is to God. How the family is the first institute ordained by God and how wrong divorce is. All from two verses in Matthew 5. Quite impressive.

But is that what Jesus was trying to get across? Is the Sermon on the Mount Jesus’ life principles for how we are to live in order to please God? If so, they are some very serious life principles to try to live up to. No looking at pretty women. No getting mad at a jerk. Injustice? If you get sued and they take you coat, give them your shirt, too. Enemies? Go over and above to serve them, and don’t forget to include them in your prayers. And then to top it all off, if you want to make it to heaven, your righteousness has to be greater than the most righteous people on earth. And once you’re done with that, there’s one more thing. Be perfect.

Is Jesus really telling us to roll up our spiritual sleeves and get with it? I don’t think so. Jesus is a shepherd, and he is herding his flock with his staff of words. And his words—be perfect, for example—are directing us to his destination: the narrow gate. He leads us to the point where we see we have nothing, absolutely nothing, with which to get us through a gate any larger than a cross will fit through.

So, what is the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount? Are we to take life lessons and apply them so we can try for the “better righteousness”? Or is Jesus setting impossible standards so we can see that we have to rely solely on his righteousness? Or is there something else I’m missing?

Ok iMonks, you know the drill. Wrestle this out. But no eye gouging, and no biting.


  1. I believe the purpose is to show us (describe to us) a picture of an authentic human being. The way we were intended to live.

    And that description was given by the only truly authentic, selfless, and free human being….Jesus himself.

    And in that picture, we don’t see any way that we can ever attain that authentic humanity.

  2. I’ll go with Dallas Willard on this one and say it’s a picture of what things are like in the Kingdom of God. It’s a description of the type of society Jesus is inaugurating. And the shadow of the Cross is all over it, meaning that he’s describing, in an oblique sort of way, the life he himself is living, and the work he will complete by dying on the cross and rising from the dead.

    I have to put myself in the place of his hearers though, at that very moment. What does it all mean? I mean, great in principle surely, but impossible in practice. A seemingly superhuman resolution to the path of suffering, and in that suffering, humility. There’s no way to simply say “oh yeah, sure” and then walk away and start doing it, but there is a way to watch Jesus do it, and that’s exactly what his disciples did.

    • There is a simple way to live that kind of life…and we could do it right now.

      It would just take faith. Trust in the Father and His will for ourselves and our fellow humans.

      But we just can’t seem to put ourselves on the back-burner like that.

      We just can’t get past our own way of living.

      • “But we just can’t seem to put ourselves on the back-burner like that.

        We just can’t get past our own way of living.”

        That is definetely hitting it on the head Steve. We can strive towards Jesus’ teachings in the SOM during our sanctification, but perfection this side of Glory is not achievable, unfortunately…because of the truth you state.

        good day

      • “But we just can’t seem to put ourselves on the back-burner like that.”

        Hence, ‘come and die’

        • ‘come and die’

          There it is.

          When we meet Jesus…either we will die…

          or He will die.

          • petrushka1611 says

            “I AM crucified with Christ…but Christ lives in me.” And the context is being dead to the law, yet living in Christ — and this is 100% grace. The verb is passive.

            I don’t even know if humans can put themselves on the back burner enough to “come and die.” We can’t even die well enough to receive life; it takes Christ’s death.

    • Pretty much this. We like to think that Jesus was giving some sort of abstract TED talk or something, but he was talking to real people. People who were poor, who had lost all hope, who hungered and thirsted for righteousness, etc. Jesus was announcing to them that there was hope. Hope not just for the ones who were winners, but hope for everyone.

      As far as the ethical considerations, I don’t believe Jesus was tightening the screws to show people that they had no hope for following these teaching. I believe He was describing what life in the Kingdom will be like. As with all the Kingdom pronouncements, there is a now/not yet quality inherent in it. But, really, I have never understood why Christians want to read the Sermon on the Mount and walk away from it saying, “Jesus couldn’t possibly mean all these things He just said…”.

      • I’ve sometimes thought of Christians living this way as “the camel going through the eye of the needle.” The camel being the people of God, on either side of Jesus in history, and the eye of the needle being Jesus. It’s impossible, but then Jesus did it on behalf of his people, and seeing him do it, they gradually find themselves resembling him in this manner, despite their flesh and all sensible ways of thinking.

      • +1

  3. Jesus does not come across as a very systematic thinker. If spouses are considered family, then there are verses urging us to abandon our families, while “give to all who ask” could be applied quite disastrously to (in)fidelity.

    • Jesus was incarnate as a 1st century easterner, not a 21st century westerner. You have to dig into His words in light of that context. He certainly didn’t parse his words trying to avoid every way they could be misunderstood. In fact many times he seems to deliberately say things in such a way that if you have a grudge against Him and want to misunderstand Him, you are welcome to.

      For another Biblical example of this sort of communication, take a look at 1st John. If you read it with a 21st century western eye, the author of the letter seems completely contradictory in what he writes about obedience. But if you dig in to understand it in its context, it contains a beautiful message about obedience, love, and the work of Christ in our lives.

  4. So much of the sermon seems to be straightforward instruction, though, not a sermon that sets up a bunch of impossible tasks and then comes to a conclusion that we can’t do this, and therefore must be saved by faith and need take no further lessons from it.

    I agree, it seems beyond us, but the sermon points to expansive love. It is not just enough to follow the rules, we need to operate based on the love that is the basis of the law. This could lead us to despair, but in the sermon we are both called to bear the light, to be salty, and to be the recipients of this great love. The sermon starts with the comforting words of the beatitudes, and goes on to tell us not to worry, for we are cared for and will be given what we ask.

    I think an important theme is that we should recognize our shortcomings and not judge others, as noted in the Lord’s Prayer and also discussed in Matthew 7:1-6. The need for mercy seems to be a strong theme, but is also tied to the theme of being merciful.

    Also, far from telling us that we will be saved if we call upon the Lord, the Sermon tells us that not everyone who calls ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.

  5. I think Jesus was telling us, particularly in Matt 5:23-30, that it’s not the “end of the world” when we sin, but for us to deal with our sin and move on, move forward. Repent, do what we need to do to change, and keep going! He came to deal with our sin and to show us how to be reconciled to the Father and to each other.

  6. I don’t see a reason to get so esoteric about it. It was a sermon delivered to real people, meant to be taken seriously, it’s an ideal, we can’t live it perfectly because perfection is not a human quaility (not even for Jesus), but that doesn’t mean we don’t know what direction we should be orienting our behavior.

  7. Richard Hershberger says

    My favorite part of the Sermon on the Mount is 5:27-28: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” By that standard, i commit adultery multiple times each day.

    I am with the camp that understands it that when Jesus (particularly in Matthew, and most particularly in Matthew 5) expands on the Law, setting up an impossible standard, the point is that even keeping the Law faithfully (like Saul did) isn’t enough to be truly righteous. Hence the need for grace.

    • cermak_rd says

      On the other hand, as a straight woman, I seem to have an immunity to “look ‘n lust” all I want as long as I’m lusting after men? Seems one sided.

      Seriously, though, I think here, the text is trying to get at the root of why sin happens, as a philosophical exercise. I think the religious notion of grace came along after this text existed as a way of dealing with it.

    • Josh in FW says


      • I think cermak’s right. The point seems to be that keeping the law in some outward sense doesn’t relieve us of the need for Christ. Just as elsewhere he says that what comes out of our mouths signifies our problem, not what we put into it. Thus, an outward righteousness, while commendable, and to be strived for, isn’t all there is. There were plenty of righteous Jews who encountered Christ: some fell at his feet to worship, others picked up stones to stone him. The point being, who do you say that he is? You can keep the law and still miss God altogether. But that’s not the law’s fault. It’s yours.

  8. Jesus was doing what He always did – lifting up the Law to show people the holiness of God. Showing that the standard is perfection, and you don’t cut it. You need a savior.

    • +1 I own a black & white picture that was done with a quill pen. It is the Sermon on the Mount written out and when you stand back it is a portrait of Christ.

      I agree with nedbrek. Jesus was speaking to a people who had been taught LAW. Now He was trying to show them that what they should have learned was that this goal was unattainable. So now He was offering Himself. But self-righteousness is a hard thing to give up. I think that is why Jesus often used children as an example and why He had a special affection for them. Their absolute honesty about themselves is our example.

    • If that’s the case, why didn’t he say that anywhere in the Sermon (other than a rather generic ‘forgive our sins’ in the Lord’s Prayer)? Instead he ends the Sermon with an illustration about judgement – the one who ‘hears these words of mine and does them’ is like a wise man . . . ‘ He ends the Sermon (as Matthew records it) not with a call to receive forgiveness or grace (typical Baptist invitation) but a call to do what he has just said to do!

  9. What surprises me about the Sermon on the Mount is that not only is Jesus demanding that we live up to an impossible standard, but that it should apparently be effortless for us. The behavior that He demands from us should just flow out of us like water flows out of an artesian well. The very fact that it doesn’t should rebuke us and drive us to our faces at His feet.

    Like Yoda said: “Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.”

  10. The way I see the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus painting a picture of himself that we should emulate. In other words Jesus is saying, “This is how I am, follow me.” Of course we cannot be perfect. But he makes us perfect. Only through Christ can we even begin to follow the edicts and wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount. This is what sanctification is all about – us participating with the Holy Spirit to transform ourselves into the image of Christ. In this I am reminded of a scripture that says, “Workout your own salvation…knowing it is God that works in you both to will and to work.” Jesus gives us the path to follow in the Sermon on the Mount and gives us the means through his sacrificial work on the cross.

  11. …here comes a book.

    Are we to take life lessons and apply them so we can try for the “better righteousness”? Or is Jesus setting impossible standards so we can see that we have to rely solely on his righteousness?

    Are those necessarily mutually exclusive? I agree that the standard being so ridiculously high should, and does, drive us to Jesus and His grace. We have sinful natures, and habits and passions which we have trained to disobedience, but we’re told to be perfect as the Father is perfect–what recourse do we have? At the same time, should we not strive to obey? Not to earn our own righteousness or impress God–that would be silly at best, and prideful and Pharisaical at worst. We should obey, because, well, we should obey. Surely the response to commands from God Incarnate is not simply, “Ahh, I see what you’re getting at, that’s a very insightful point about sinful human nature, God,” but an attempt to do what he says.

    Will we fail in our attempts? Yeah. I’m pretty sure I haven’t made it through typing this up without sinning. But His grace doesn’t run out. And surely, grace is not just forgiveness–it is grace to obey. It is Christ’s own Divine Love, placed in our hearts.

    And it’s everywhere! He delights in giving out more than we need. The word gratuitous, and the Latin for grace (gratia) have the same etymological roots. I receive grace through the Sacraments–forgiveness in His Body and Blood, and restoration in the confessional. I receive grace when I do things like Eucharistic Adoration. I receive grace when I pray–which I can do anywhere, anytime, unscheduled! And I can ask a bunch of famous dead Christians to pray for me too, when I’m not even thinking about grace! The very same Thomas Aquinas who wrote and forgot more about Christianity and philosophy than I will ever misunderstand, is pulling for me and is on my side! And if he is, how much moreso Jesus?(Catholicism is pretty sweet.)

    So, is Jesus giving us impossible commands? For sinners (AKA everyone reading this), yes. But we should still try to obey. We can’t obey perfectly. We can’t even really half-ass it. But look at all the grace!

    • The ‘life application’ sermons I have heard based on the Sermon on the Mount tend miss grace and love. The tendency has been to bring in other verses that ‘tell you how’ (Proverbs is the life manual, you know), a little bubble gum psychology and ‘accountability partners’. Each sermon involves the statements “I was a greater sinner than anyone else here” and “This is what has worked for me”.
      Oh yeah, Jesus can help you with that if you are trying really, really, really hard.

      I found it odd that we never got to the part about the greatest of these, I guess there are no life apps for that.

      • That’s funny because Jesus’ instructions mirror exactly what he is doing for Israel- going the extra mile, giving his tunic also, turning the other cheek, etc. There’s no way to explain how to do these things, at least not in some systematic, textbook way. There’s only the Spirit working the Word into the people of God.

        I do think Jesus is giving these instructions as if something real will begin to happen though. Maybe not as if people can simply get up and “follow orders,” but to sort of begin to redirect a river, in a way.

  12. I would say the point of the Sermon on the Mount is to show the difference in perspective of a minimalist view of God’s law versus an expansive view of God’s law.

    The Jews of the time, just as people today, were concerned about keeping the letter of the law. This boils down to the question, “What is the minimum I need to do/not do to be righteous?” This is how you get great questions like, “How many times do I have to forgive my brother?” in the Gospels and “How much money do I have to give to the poor?” in our time and place.

    The picture Jesus paints in the Sermon on the Mount is breathtakingly expansive. It goes commandment by commandment and doesn’t give us a minimum to try and check off as done, but rather shows us the deeper level that exists beyond all of them. Not physically cheating on your spouse is a good start to fidelity, but you can’t just claim you’re accomplished being faithful if you go girl watching on the street. Marital fidelity is an ever deeper well, not a checkbox on a morality form. And all of the rest of the examples are like that too.

    And love… it gives us a taste of just how infinitely deep a well that is. Love is most certainly not about minimum requirements, done and accounted for, or failed even. It is the opposite questions from the minimalist: “How can I forgive my brother more?” “How can I do more for the poor?” “How can I love my spouse more faithfully?” It isn’t motivated by fear, it is it’s own motivator.

    Ultimately, the end of the sermon of the mount is found in 2nd Peter 1, is it not?

    “4 For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. 5 Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, 6 and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, 7 and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    • I like this, too. I think we have to remember that Jesus rooted in the prophetic declarations concerning Israel’s future. Keeping the law is something that comes from a renewed heart. It’s not about simply living up to a checklist. It harkens back to Ezekiel 36:

      26I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.

  13. I don’t think Jesus is simply setting up impossible standards to show us we need grace. In fact, that thinking never appears in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus, and I think it is a Western/Lutheran/Reformed anachronistic reading. While the sermon was in a sense ‘evangelistic’ (calling people to follow him as disciples, particularly chapter 7), it is not to show how far Jews (or any of us) fall short. And when he talks about righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees he is not talking about ‘imputed righteousness’ – that is about as anachronistic as it gets, as none of Jesus’ hearers would have connected those dots! In Matthew ‘righteousness’ is about doing the will of God.

    What Jesus seems to be doing is describing ‘kingdom life’, but not the future ‘Millennial Kingdom’ (so we can dispense with it as impossible, as do some Dispensationalists). It is to be taken as a whole (including the Beatitudes) as Matthew has organized it (and there is probably a chiastic structure to it). The ‘hard sayings’ part comes from Jesus’ rhetorical style, which would have been familiar to his original audience but lost on most Westerners. He is ILLUSTRATING (important to note this) PRINCIPLES with familiar, but often hyperbolic EXAMPLES (e.g. does he really expect us to pluck out our eye or cut off ou hand, as though that would solve the problem). If we understand these things as examples illustrating principles (much like modern preachers illustrate their sermons to make a point) we can get beyond the ‘nobody can live up to this’ and see that Jesus is describing the attitudes and actions that will/should characterize the ‘Kingdom of God’ and those who are its ‘citizens’ (believers). (And I don’t believe he is simply expounding or explaining the intent of the Law; he is ‘raising the bar’ so to speak – the expectations in his Kingdom go beyond the outward act [which is where to OT Law violation occured – I wasn’t guilty of the thought but the act] to the motive and the heart. Jesus clearly goes beyond the requirements of the Law.)

    Jesus is (as mentioned above) talking about general principles rather than (to borrow a phrase from a commentator whose name I can’t recall) ‘casuitic law’. For example, when speaking about marriage, Jesus gives one basis where divorce/remarriage is allowed – sexual unfaithfulness. However, that is not the last word, for Paul later adds another – when an unbelieving spouse abandons a believing spouse divorce/remarriage is allowed. And we might take Jesus’ principle and add other bases – if the spouse is abused, if the children are in danger, etc.

    It is also interesting to note, especially in light of evangelical ideas of piety (with its emphasis on personal piety and morality) that almost everything in the sermon has to do with relationships with others – how we treat those who have wronged us, how we treat our spouses, how we parade our ‘righteousness’ (or shouldn’t). It is mostly about ‘communal piety’ rather than personal piety. And it is still difficult to put into practice, and none of us live up to it (even the principles, much less the specific examples).

    • So, would you say Jesus is telling us how to live a good life? (That is, how to be good enough to please God)

      • How bout he’s describing the new world, the Kingdom, that he’s leading people into? The true calling of Israel, what his disciples, as a society, will find themselves looking like as they continue to follow him?

      • Not at all. Jesus is laying out the ethics for his Kingdom. It is similar to what the Law was to Israel. The Law was not intended to show Israel their inability to live up to it (that would be rather self-defeating) – it was to teach them how God wanted them to live. ‘Torah’ is much closer to ‘instruction’ than ‘law’ as we think of it. Israel was called and redeemed from Egypt by God’s grace (not because they somehow earned it by keeping a yet non-revealed Law). As God’s redeemed people he gave them the Law so they would know what he was like and how he wanted them to live and relate to him (and one another).

        Likewise the Sermon is the ‘law’ (read INSTRUCTION, or if you prefer, ‘the law of Christ’ [1 Cor 9:21]) for how those who follow Jesus will live. Those who have been saved by grace are to live according to Jesus’ instructions, and much of that is revealed in the Sermon.

        • How do you reconcile that interpretation with Matt 13:34, which says that Jesus did not give direct instruction to the masses, but only spoke to them in parables?

          • I don’t think he means that he ONLY and ALWAYS spoke to the masses in parables. He was obviously speaking to the masses here (as well as disciples) and there are only a couple of parables (notably the one about building on the rock/sand). I also fail to see how that affects what I said about the Sermon. Jesus is speaking to a mixed crowd – both disciples and non-disciples. Matthew records the sermon for the benefit of his readers – Christians in the early church, who probably didn’t need to see their sinfulness so they could be saved; Matthew wants them to learn Jesus’ teaching, not so they can tell others that Law-keeping isn’t good enough, but so those Christians would follow Jesus’ teaching (e.g. ‘the one who hears my words and does them’).

      • I think he is. If anybody could follow those instructions to a “T,” well, he pretty much would have no need of a Savior.

        • I don’t think anywhere in the Sermon Jesus says ‘do this to a “T” and you’ll be saved (or won’t need a savior)’. It’s more like he says ‘this is how I expect saved people to live’ (to use our anachronistic language, Jesus probably would say something like ‘this is what my kingdom looks like and how people who are part of my kingdom are to live’). If he’s just saying all this to show us we can’t keep the Law and need a savior then apparently it doesn’t have much application to us after we ‘get the message’ and are saved by grace (or as the original Scofield Bible put it ‘the Sermon on the Mount in its primary application gives neither the privilege nor the duty of the Church. These are found in the Epistles.’).

          • Jesus obviously didn’t say that: I did. Answer me this: if you did follow all those instructions, why would you need somebody to die on the cross on your behalf for the sins you haven’t committed? If you say saved people are supposed to live like that, the problem is that we constantly have to evaluate our behavior in order to determine whether or not we are saved. That leads to futility and despair. I agree these things ought to be done, they’re ideal in nature. But part of being ideal means that they are never ultimately attainable. Worth striving for, guiding lights, but not ultimately a doable checklist. I would also argue that un-saved people are better off striving for these ideals as well.

    • Josh in FW says

      Thank you for these well articulated thoughts. What your saying here makes a lot of sense. I haven’t heard it described this well in my background.

  14. Chaplain Mike wrote about this(https://internetmonk.com/archive/the-beatitudes-virtues-or-proclamations) at some point and, with some influence from Dallas Willard, writes the following which I tend to agree with :

    I hold that the Beatitudes are pronouncements of grace. They announce that:

    – those who have little or no hope,
    – those who appear to have little to offer to the world,
    – those who are on the fringes of society (and religious society in particular),
    – those who live in ways that the world considers weak, unproductive, and unsuccessful,
    – those who are considered the “losers”

    …all are welcome to share in the Kingdom blessings that Jesus brings. There is no human situation that excludes one from being blessed in Jesus. The world and its evaluation of who wins and who loses will not have the final say. In Jesus, God has the last word.

    – Even if you are spiritually bankrupt (poor in spirit),
    – Even if you are overwhelmed by the sadness of life in this world (those who mourn),
    – Even if you are the kind of person who doesn’t stand up for yourself or assert your rights (meek),
    – Even if you are fed up with and broken by injustice (those who hunger and thirst for righteousness),
    – Even if your heart is soft, you are always giving to others, and easily taken advantage of by needy people (merciful),
    – Even if you are so concerned with having a clear conscience that others think you a prude (pure in heart),
    – Even if you are always trying to pacify others and care more about diffusing conflict than any other objective (peacemakers),
    – Even if your convictions and actions get you in constant trouble with those who set the rules (persecuted),

  15. Dear Jeff, Your heart is a blessing. I don’t write often. I listened to your struggle and caught your insight on “The Sermon”. I am a recovering person from the depths of depression and the lack of spiritual understanding. I hear your often reports of the deep thing that you finding courage to expose yourself of (y)our journey. The post of the perfection we have in Christ and our daily imperfections point to the righteousness of Jesus by grace through faith. We can make the people of the Bible bigger than we until we discover that they also had faith struggles as we do. It isn’t by our own “stuff” that we earn our way to God (idol worship?) but by faith in Jesus who accomplished by his blood spilled out on the Cross. So as a brother I pray that you, jeff and any will be encouraged on your earthly journey allowing Christ to complete his presence within.

  16. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    The Sermon on the Mount spans more than chapter 5. In fact, the sermon itself spans chapters 5 through 7. Its set-up happens in chapter 4, and its afterword happens in chapter 8 I wonder if the context can help us:

    In chapter 4, Jesus goes through his 40-Day Wilderness Experience that many of us commemorate in Lent and is clearly an allusion to Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness (as well as a likely allusion to Noah’s 40-day destructive/corrective rain storm). Then, he starts his ministry and calls the first disciples, teaching all along the way, which gathers the crowds that caused him to go up onto the Mount.

    In chapters 5-7, he’s teaching on the Mount. It starts with the Beatitudes, but mostly we have the “you have heard it said…., but I say to you….” kind of format where he starts from a letter-of-the-Law but expands it to a spirit-of-the-Law thing. In addition to giving spirit-of-the-Law teachings, he gives us the Lord’s prayer. At the end of chapter 7, Matthew tells us that the people were amazed because Jesus was teaching “as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.”

    In chapter 8, he comes down from the Mount with the crowds following, and secretly heals a leper who is told to “show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”

    Maybe this is leftovers from my days in the Messianic movement, but this really seems to be an intentional parallel to the Sinai and Deuteronomy events, showing Jesus to be the foretold “Prophet like Moses” who would be greater than Moses. As such, I think what we’re getting is an expansion of what Torah was about in the first place. That is, this is the way folks are supposed to live in the Kingdom. However, just like in Torah, many of the Sacrifices were there to deal with the inevitable failure of the people to live up to things, Jesus would ultimately be the better Sacrifice. I hasten to add that the sacrifices (and Sacrifice of Jesus) weren’t just the “just-in-case” safety net, but were also the means by which that relationship is ultimately maintained (i.e. they were Israel’s worship, not just sin-insurance).

    St. Paul tells us that the Torah was to be a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. I.e. it showed us the sinfulness of sin. But that’s not the whole story of the Law. It was also the way folks living in a truly “under God” nation were supposed to live. I think the Sermon on the Mount shows us that the New Covenant is similar. It does both. When preaching this passages, we ought to make sure we don’t blow off either aspect and present an incomplete picture. The fact that some misuse this passage’s “how we ought to live” aspect and pervert it into moralism doesn’t negate the truth of that aspect, though.

    BTW, if it is a Sinai parallel, that would make the Beatitudes analogous to the 10 Commandments, which has been something that Christian teachers have been pointing out since… well, forever.

  17. I think what Jesus is getting at here is that it’s your motivations and your thoughts and attitudes that matter just as much as what you actually do. Haven’t physically cheated on your significant other? Good for you. But considering it—breaking that promise to them even by only a thought—shows that there is something in you that is broken and considering only your own selfish pleasure rather than their feelings and trust. The root of the problem is not actually stealing or fighting or gossiping, but wanting to do it in the first place. And it is this desire that needs to be changed.
    Now the last time I checked, I was not terribly good at altering my reasons for doing something. I don’t necessarily do nice things for people completely free of self-interest, for example. After all, if I’m nice to someone, they’ll be nice to me and be more likely to do what I want them to do when I need something. And now that small scrap of selfishness at the heart of my decision to help someone has perverted my action into a clanging cymbal. I fully recognize that I’m being selfish and awful by even thinking about helping this person in such terms, but I can’t just will that teensy little bit of bad motivation out of existence. Believe me, I’ve tried. Where I think we need grace is these places of desire and motivation that we can’t fix on our own no matter how hard we try. The grace and unselfish love of God change us into people who can truly give unselfishly and act out of pure love, thereby fulfilling the greatest commandments.

  18. I’m bothered by any interpretation which posits, “Jesus didn’t really mean for us to obey the Sermon on the Mount. It’s all hyperbole; it’s all meant to give us an impossible ideal which we’ll never, ever meet.” It’s saying, in other words, Jesus wasn’t honest. He was manipulating us into another, secret, hidden direction… one which these wise Gnostics can explain for us. But most of those explanations lean in the direction of, “Don’t worry about righteousness. Sin boldly, and cling to cheap grace.”

    Clearly, I believe he meant what he said. Yeah, sometimes Jesus was being hyperbolic, but those passages are kinda obvious. (Cutting off body parts lest you sin, fr’instance.) Yet the point of the hyperbole was to make the point: Don’t sin. Any interpretation which permits sin, contrary to Jesus’s obvious intent, is an attempt to weasel out of Jesus’s teachings; to call yourself a “follower” of Jesus, yet not follow him at all, and hope you inherit the Kingdom anyway.

    Is following the Sermon hard? Of course it is. Righteousness is hard. That’s why people don’t bother to try; they’ve been lied to, and told the Kingdom is easy; that it’s a wide path instead of a narrow one; that God does all the work, so we need do nothing, because he expects nothing of us, and even mocks our endeavors. Yet when we stand before the King, and he asks why we didn’t do for the least of his brethren, “I thought you were speaking hyperbolically” isn’t gonna cut it.

    • But isn’t that the gospel of the world? “Do the best you can, God will make up the difference”?

      • What do you mean when you say the “gospel of the world”? Where are you getting that concept from?

        • I mean that there are two systems at play:
          1) the world – which can describe everything from Islam to Environmentalism
          2) the grace which comes through the Christian gospel

          • “Islam to Environmentalism” LOL. It’s so true! The difference? Islam is at least honest: They will openly proclaim that they are a religion of law.

    • Is following the Sermon hard? Of course it is. Righteousness is hard. That’s why people don’t bother to try;

      “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” G. K. Chesterton.

      I think you’re right. Jesus wanted us to do what he said, not ignore it because we can’t do it, and anyways we’re forgiven for not being able to do it, and don’t try it or you’re legalistic! Of course we’re going to screw up. That’s why that whole forgiveness thing happened to begin with!

    • As long as we remember that much of sermon (the Beatitudes, for instance) aren’t instructions to be obeyed at all. They illustrate the new order that Jesus is inaugurating, and who its beneficiaries are. This is good news. As a citizen of the kingdoms of this world, it really is futile to try and obey Jesus. But with this new citizenship given to us, things begin to change. To be seen in a different light…

      • That’s a problem I see far too often among Christians: We recognize the Kingdom of God is already here, and at the same time, not yet arrived. Yet rather than live in the tension between these two truths, we treat the Kingdom as if it’s entirely not-yet… and therefore we needn’t obey Jesus yet either.

        Things have already begun to change. Now let us change with them.

  19. Dana Ames says

    I agree with Nate, up near the top. Dallas Willard’s “Divine Conspiracy” *****changed my life.*****

    Not only because of his view of the SOM (which also could be congruent with what Greg, Asinus, Nate further down, Tokah and Isaac/Obed wrote) – but also because within the whole book Willard is describing an understanding of what the Kingdom of God actually IS – and he uses the SOM, all of it, to illustrate that. He also talks about what “heaven” means. He develops what it means to live life as a Christian, a disciple/apprentice of Jesus. At the end, he talks about what it looks like for that life to extend beyond our physical death.

    I mark my reading of this book, against the background of where I was at the time, as my first step toward becoming Orthodox, though I didn’t know it then (not sure DW would be entirely happy with that… but he’s a very kind and humble man whom I’ve been able to thank in person for writing DC). That journey began with a question I posed in about 1998: What does JESUS say is “the gosepel” – “the Good News”? As I read my bible, I saw that the Gospel writers always linked the word evvangelion, Good News, with the phrase basilea tou Theou, the Kingdom of God. It was just at the point I was grappling with my understanding of “the kingdom of God” that DC was published.

    “Divine Conspiracy” was the thing that broke the stranglehold that a certain kind of Protestant interpretation of scripture had on my thinking. And hermeneutics is everything, my friend.

    “If you get the message, you might refuse it; but if you get the meaning – hey, don’t ever lose it – if you get the meaning, oh, of it all…” Noel Paul Stookey


    • “As I read my bible, I saw that the Gospel writers always linked the word evvangelion, Good News, with the phrase basilea tou Theou, the Kingdom of God”

      Yep. The first words of the SOM point us in the general direction, and then Jesus spends the rest of the time expanding on that. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

      The principle, summing up prayer of the disciple is found in there also: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

      There is no way this is only about where we’re going when we die.

      • Yes. For example, the Beatitudes are not ‘entrance requirements’ but things that characterize those who have entered the Kingdom (the realm of salvation) – ‘this is what they look like’. This was scandalous to some of Jesus’ first-century Palestinian Jewish audience since these weren’t the kind of people they expected would be part of God’s Kingdom, and it’s not the kind of Kingdom they expected. A kingdom of poor, persecuted, forgiving when oppressed, loving their enemies people isn’t going to rid us of the Romans!

  20. “So, what is the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount?”

    To show what love looks like in a sinful world, I think. When we realize how bankrupt we are, then realize what God has done for is in Christ, we should naturally respond in gratitude by trying our best to pass on the Love we’ve received, as hard as that may be.

    “Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

  21. In sermon based on Matthew 5, Charles Spurgeon noted, “it is a dangerous state of things if doctrine is made to drive out precept,”

    When Paul wrote Romans (12), he certainly thought that Jesus meant for his words to be obeyed. Seems like Jesus thought that, too, e.g. John 14.

  22. “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

    (notice he didn’t say, ‘try to be’…or ‘someday’…)

    • The word “perfect” there is not referring to sinless purity. It’s really speaking more to wholeness or completeness. Taken in the context of the whole sermon, I believe Jesus is getting down to the motivations of our hearts and the completeness of our love.

      I don’t think Jesus is going through a list of things that people must do to enter the Kingdom. He’s laying what life in the Kingdom is like. Ultimately, yes, none of us can make ourselves whole or complete. But we can certainly choose to submit ourselves to God’s purifying process.

  23. Jeff, I wish I had something more specific to say about depression, which you’ve been so transparent about here on iMonk. While it must be painful to be around Christians who can’t really show you the proper care, you’re able to be open about it, and admit where you’re at. That’s encouraging. I spent a chunk of my life being depressed and not being able to let anyone know about it.

    It’s fortuitious that you bring up the Sermon on the Mount, because it’s speaks so well to the depressed. We’re depressed about so much in our society- Our marriages, the state of our finances, the way we’re treated at work, getting older, health problems, those distant memories of experiences that scarred us, the words and deeds of others or ourselves that we can’t take our minds off of….

    the first line of the Sermon on the Mount speaks directly to people like that. The poor in spirit. The broken by life, the victims of injustice. The frail ones that weren’t able to claw their way past everyone else to get their share.

    Instead of giving them more hoops to jump through, Jesus takes the prize off the high, holy mountain, from where it’s accessible to only a select few, and places it at the doorstep of those that society has forgotten, who languish in mediocrity, whose lives simply don’t look like what was promised to honor students and football stars and prom queens.

    That prize is society and fellowship with Jesus in a creation that is no longer ruled by death. In which sin is not only forgiven, but erased from the social paradigm, because no one needs to self-protect anymore. The reality of God’s New Creation, beginning with Jesus, the Risen one who walks among us, remaking us…

    My prayer for people like us is that this would be something that we readily abide in when we’re assaulted by the depressing anti-gospels around us.

    • Dana Ames says



    • Thank-You Nate.

      O, to be able to not self-protect anymore…

    • We self-defined “frail ones” need to be careful that our hoped for upside-down kingdom is actually not the realm of resentment about which Nietzsche prophetically wrote.

  24. The first part of the Sermon on the Mount (known to some as the Beatitudes) always make me feel happy to read. But other parts are tougher. Biblegateway has the Sermon on the Mount going through Matthew Chapters 5 through 7. Some of the toughest sections for me are:

    “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

    “And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

    “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

    And in the end, Jesus said, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

    So, I DO think Jesus wants us to do the things he is saying here. But I ask, “How can I be perfect?” I know I am so very far from perfect, so that drives me to prayer for help. And I expect that in this life, I will not make it to perfection (not having met any perfect people so far), so I look forward to the resurrected me who I trust will be able to do as Jesus is saying. But in the meantime, with God’s grace, prayer, help from the community I can begin walking the way of perfection. Jesus would expect nothing less. It’s not that he is a task-master, but that way is the only way we can live in peace with ourselves and our neighbors and know the peace of God.

    But I have to say…the part that says “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” makes me think…”Well, if I can’t get into the kingdom of heaven unless I am so righteous, how will I get there to become perfected?” I wish Jesus did not say such scary things! To make myself feel more hopeful, I guess I will choose to understand that Jesus did not find those Pharisees so righteous, so if I was just a little bit more righteous than they were, I am good to go. 🙂

    • But I have to say…the part that says “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” makes me think…”Well, if I can’t get into the kingdom of heaven unless I am so righteous, how will I get there to become perfected?” I wish Jesus did not say such scary things! To make myself feel more hopeful, I guess I will choose to understand that Jesus did not find those Pharisees so righteous, so if I was just a little bit more righteous than they were, I am good to go.

      Joanie, I think the last part is the key. Jesus did NOT find those Pharisees so righteous (read Matt. 23, for example, which is probably the contrast to the Beatitudes, as Matthew has arranged his book). Those who are truly righteous look more like the poor in spirit, who hunger for justice, who mourn, etc., the very people the self-righteous Pharisees (and many self-righteous religious people today) wrote off as ‘sinners’. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees was not that they failed to do what they knew they should do (what we usually think of as hypocrisy) but that they denied that they failed to do what they should do – they refused to acknowledge their failures and pretended they didn’t have any. That is what seemed to get Jesus a little irritated (again read Matt. 23).

    • Be at peace, Joanie. The righteousness of the pharisees was all about the outside – do the right looking things in front of people and make a big deal about it. Thus they washed only the outside of the cup, were white washed tombs, etc. To seek the kingdom of heaven is to seek an inward righteousness, and that striving produces outward righteousness as a natural side effect.

  25. Isn’t it funny that Jesus’ teachings in this sermon are so impossible yet instead of eliciting fear or shame it only makes one love Him more? It’s as if our hearts long for this purity and kindness, that this is what the perfect life would be. It speaks to our deepsest wants.

  26. Paul and James both demonstrate familiarity with material from the Sermon on the Mount in their moral exhortations. This is a strike against the hyper-Lutheran view (I know Luther didn’t actually teach this) that “Jesus is just hitting people really hard with Law to make room for Gospel.” Also, why isn’t this clearer from Matthew? Canonical/theological readings are fine, but the text needs to speak for itself too.

  27. Spurgeon on Mat. 5:

    I am sure that every renewed heart here will feel no opposition to the most holy precepts of our Lord. However severely pure that law may seem to be which we have read just now from this fifth chapter of Matthew, our hearts agree with it, and we ask that we may be so renewed that our lives may be conformed to it. The regenerate never rebel against any precept, saying, “This, is too pure;” on the contrary, our new-born nature is enamoured of its holiness, and we cry, “Thy word is very pure, therefore thy servant loveth it. O that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes.”

  28. Matt Purdum says

    Just observing from the sidelines on this one, except to say that this is just an awesome discussion and still by far the best place on the interwebs. Thank you so much Jeff & Chaplain Mike.

  29. That Spurgeon quote is great! I don’t want to set aside the Sermon on the Mount at all, or take a certain point from it, but to embrace it and read it over and over. I fail miserably, but still find it amazing and inspiring.

    Lots of other great comments, too.

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