Sermon on the Mount

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The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch. Christians believe that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant (see Hebrews 8:6). His famous Sermon on the Mount representing Mount Zion is considered by many Christian scholars to be the antitype  of the proclamation of the Old Covenant by Moses from Mount Sinai.
The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch. Christians believe that Jesus is the mediator of the New Covenant (see Hebrews 8:6). His famous Sermon on the Mount representing Mount Zion is considered by many Christian scholars to be the antitype of the proclamation of the Old Covenant by Moses from Mount Sinai.
Major events in Jesus's life in the Gospels
  • Nativity
  • Baptism
  • Temptation
  • Commission of Disciples and Apostles
  • Sermon on the Mount
  • Miracles
  • Entering Jerusalem
  • Temple incident
  • Great Commandment
  • Anointing
  • Last Supper
  • Promise of the Paraclete
  • Arrest
  • Before the High Priest
  • Before Pilate
  • Death & Resurrection
  • Harrowing
  • Appearances
  • Great Commission
  • Ascension
  • Second Coming Prophecy

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The Sermon on the Mount was, according to the Gospel of Matthew 5-7, a particular sermon given by Jesus of Nazareth (estimated around AD 30) on a mountainside to his disciples and a large crowd.

The best-known portions of the Sermon comprise the Beatitudes, found at the beginning of the section. The Sermon also contains the Lord's Prayer and the injunctions to " resist not evil" and " turn the other cheek", as well as Jesus' version of the Golden Rule. Other lines often quoted are the references to " salt of the Earth," "light of the world," and "judge not, lest ye be judged."

Many Christians believe that the Sermon on the Mount is a form of commentary on the Ten Commandments. To many, the Sermon on the Mount contains the central tenets of Christian discipleship, and is considered as such by many religious and moral thinkers, such as Tolstoy and Gandhi.


The source of the Sermon is uncertain. It contains only a handful of parallels with Mark, but does have a number of loose parallels with Luke's Sermon on the Plain. The parallels indicate to those who believe in the two source hypothesis that much of this text likely came from Q, and some of the sayings can be found in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. However, McArthur argues that the parallels in Luke tend to be very loose, and that there are a considerable number of verses having no parallel, thus theorising that there was an extra step between the sources Matthew and Luke used.


There are no actual mountains in this part of Galilee, but there are several large hills in the region to the west of the Sea of Galilee, and so a number of scholars do not feel "the mountain" is the most accurate understanding of the phrase. Gundry feels it could mean "mountainous region," while France feels it should be read as "went up into the hills". Less clinical academic analysis amongst some modern Christians has suggested the location as a mountain on the north end of the Sea of Galilee, near Capernaum.

The Church of the Beatitudes on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee.
The Church of the Beatitudes on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee.

One possible location of the sermon is on a hill that rises near Capernaum. Known in ancient times as Mt. Eremos and Karn Hattin, this hill is now the site of a twentieth century Catholic chapel called the Church of the Beatitudes, see also .

The reference to going up a mountain prior to preaching is considered by many to be deliberate reference to Moses on Mount Sinai, and though Hill disagrees, arguing that the links would have been made far clearer, Lapide feels that the clumsy phrasing implies that this verse is an exact transliteration from the Hebrew passage describing Moses. Augustine of Hippo in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount supported the Moses parallel, arguing that this symbolism showed Jesus is supplementing the precepts of Moses, although in his later writings, such as the Reply to Faustus, he backs away from this view.

Comparisons with the Sermon on the Plain

The Sermon on the Mount may be compared with the similar but more succinct Sermon on the Plain as recounted by the Gospel of Luke (6:17–49), which occurs at the same moment in Luke's narrative, and also features Jesus heading up a mountain. Some scholars believe that they are the same sermon, others that Jesus frequently preached similar themes in different places. However, a number of scholars believe that at least one sermon never took place but was a conflation created by the author to frame the primary teachings of Jesus recorded in the Q document.

That Matthew has Jesus sit down might indicate this is not meant to be a public address, and Jewish leaders in schools and synagogues would always sit when delivering a lesson. Matthew also appears to indicate that the disciples were intended to be the main recipients of the address, and so the traditional view, as depicted in art, is that the disciples sat near Jesus, with the crowd beyond but still able to hear, while Lapide feels that Jesus' sermon is directed at three circles of listeners, his disciples, the crowd, and the world in general. John Chrysostom was of the opinion that the sermon itself was delivered to the disciples, but that it was intended for wider distribution, which is why it was written down.

Structure of the sermon

The sermon comprises the following components:

  • Introductory narrative (Matthew 5:1-2) - a large crowd assembles due to Jesus healing the sick, so he climbs a mountain and speaks;
  • The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), which describe the character of the people of the kingdom;
  • The metaphors of Salt and Light (Matthew 5:13-16), which forms a conclusion to the picture of God's people drawn in the beatitudes, as well as an introduction to the following section;
  • The Expounding of the Law (Matthew 5:17-48), a fulfillment and reinterpretation of Mosaic Law and in particular the Ten Commandments, contrasting with what "you have heard" from others, also known as the Antitheses;
  • The Discourse on ostentation (Matthew 6), condemning the "good works" of fasting, alms, and prayer, when they are only done for show, and not from the heart. The discourse goes on to condemn the superficiality of materialism and call the disciples not to worry about material needs, but to "seek" God's kingdom first;
    • Within the discourse is the Lord's Prayer, which Matthew presents as an example of correct prayer, but Luke places in a different context;
  • The Discourse on judgementalism (Matthew 7:1-6), condemning those who judge others before first judging themselves;
  • The Discourse on holiness (Matthew 7:7-29), which forms the summary conclusion of the sermon, warning against False prophets, and giving emphasis to the difficulty of doing what is right.


One of the most important debates over the sermon is how directly it should be applied to everyday life. Almost all Christian groups have developed nonliteral ways to interpret and apply the sermon. McArthur lists twelve basic schools of thought on these issues:

  1. The Absolutist View rejects all compromise and believes that, if obeying the scripture costs the welfare of the believer, then that is a reasonable sacrifice for salvation. All the precepts in the Sermon must be taken literally and applied universally. Proponents of this view include St. Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and in later life Leo Tolstoy. The Oriental Orthodox Churches fully adopt this position; among heterodox groups, the early Anabaptists came close, and modern Anabaptist groups such as the Mennonites and Hutterites come closest.
  2. One method that is common, but not endorsed by any denomination, is to simply Modify the Text of the sermon. In ancient times this took the form of actually altering the text of the Sermon to make it more palatable. Thus some early copyists changed Matthew 5:22 from "whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment" to the watered-down "whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment." "Love your enemies" was changed to "Pray for your enemies" in pOxy 1224 6:1a; Did. 1:3; Pol. Phil. 12:3. John 13:34-35 tells the disciples to "Love one another". The exception for divorce in the case of porneia may be a Matthean addition; it is not present in Luke 16:18, Mark 10:11, or 1 Cor 7:10–11; and in 1 Cor 7:12–16, Paul gives his own exceptions to Jesus' teaching. Additions were made to the Lord's Prayer to support other doctrines, and other prayers were developed as substitute. More common in recent centuries is to paraphrase the Sermon and in so doing make it far less radical. A search through the writings of almost every major Christian writer finds them at some point to have made this modification.
  3. One of the most common views is the Hyperbole View, which argues that portions of what Jesus states in the Sermon are hyperbole, and that if one is to apply the teaching to the real world, they need to be "toned down." Most interpreters agree that there is some hyperbole in the sermon, with Matt 5:29 being the most prominent example, but there is disagreement over exactly which sections should not be taken literally.
  4. Closely related is the General Principles View that argues that Jesus was not giving specific instructions, but general principles of how one should behave. The specific instances cited in the Sermon are simply examples of these general principles.
  5. The Double Standard View is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church. It divides the teachings of the Sermon into general precepts and specific counsels. Obedience to the general precepts is essential for salvation, but obedience to the counsels is only necessary for perfection. The great mass of the population need only concern themselves with the precepts; the counsels must be followed by only a pious few such as the clergy and monks. This theory was initiated by St. Augustine and later fully developed by St. Thomas Aquinas, though an early version of it is cited in Did. 6:2, "For if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able" (Roberts-Donaldson), and reflected in the Apostolic Decree of the Council of Jerusalem ( Acts 15:19-21). Geoffrey Chaucer also did much to popularize this view among speakers of English with his Canterbury Tales (Wife of Bath's Prologue, v. 117-118)
  6. Martin Luther rejected the Catholic approach and developed a different two-level system McArthur refers to as the Two Realms View. Luther divided the world into the religious and secular realms and argued that the Sermon only applied to the spiritual. In the temporal world, obligations to family, employers, and country force believers to compromise. Thus a judge should follow his secular obligations to sentence a criminal, but inwardly, he should mourn for the fate of the criminal.
  7. At the same time as the Protestant Reformation was underway, a new era of Biblical criticism began leading to the Analogy of Scripture View. Close reading of the Bible found that several of the most rigid precepts in the sermon were moderated by other parts of the New Testament. For instance, while Jesus seems to forbid all oaths, Paul is shown using them at least twice; thus the prohibition in the Sermon may seem to have some exceptions; though in fairness to Paul, it should be pointed out that he was not present at the Sermon on the Mount and may not have been aware of all of its teachings. See also Pauline Christianity.
  8. In the nineteenth century, several more interpretations developed. Wilhelm Hermann embraced the notion of Attitudes not Acts, which can be traced back to St. Augustine. This view states that Jesus in the Sermon is not saying how a good Christian should behave, only what his attitude is. The spirit lying behind the act is more important than the act itself.
  9. Albert Schweitzer popularized the Interim Ethic View. This view sees Jesus as being convinced that the world was going to end in the very near future. As such, survival in the world did not matter as in the end times material well-being would be irrelevant.
  10. In the twentieth century another major German thinker, Martin Dibelius, presented another view also based on eschatology. His Unconditional Divine Will View is that the ethics behind the Sermon are absolute and unbending, but the current fallen state of the world makes it impossible to live up to them. Humans are bound to attempt to live up to them, but failure is inevitable. This will change when the Kingdom of Heaven is proclaimed and all will be able to live in a Godly manner. A similar view is also described in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, written in the late nineteenth century.
  11. Closely linked to this is the Repentance View, which is that Jesus intended for the precepts in his Sermon to be unattainable, and through our certain failure to live up to them, we will learn to repent or that we will be driven to faith in the Gospel.
  12. Another Eschatological View is that of modern dispensationalism. Dispensationalism, first developed by the Plymouth Brethren, divides human history into a series of ages or dispensations. Today we live in the period of grace where living up to the teachings of the sermon is impossible, but in the future, the Millennium will see a period where it is possible to live up to the teachings of the Sermon, and where following them will be a prerequisite to salvation.

The author Christopher Knight asserts in his book Hiram Key, that the 'Sermon on the Mount' did not happen. He theorizes that Matthew's ability to create a story of teachings had run dry, and that he simply 'stuck all kinds of passages together as though they were spoken one after another to a crowd on a mountain top.' Knight believes that 'the teachings were drafted into this one 'occasion' to avoid interrupting the flow of the overall story.' The Hiram Key was a joint adventure between Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas.

E. Earle Ellis (Professor of Theology at SWBTS) says that this sermon is an Eschatological Invitation in which Jesus is inviting believers to live according to an ethic that will be standard in the future kingdom of God. As Ellis says, we are to speak Jesus' words, think his thoughts, and do his deeds. Since this will be the ethic of the future kingdom of God, believers should go ahead and adjust their lives to this ethic in this age.

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