The Sermon on the Mount is arguably the most well-known of Jesus' teachings, yet its meaning is often misunderstood by casual readers. This episode introduces the Sermon by looking at its context within the story of the Gospels, when and where Jesus spoke it, as well as developing some of the major themes found in it.
This video is part of the Opening Up the Gospels
Hey everyone, I’m Josh Hawkins, this is episode 62 of Opening up the Gospels. In Episode 61, I walked through a brief introduction to the period of Jesus’ ministry I am calling the Middle Galilean period, which spans a few months in the Spring of 28AD. I talked about how the magnitude of Jesus’ miracles and the quantity of His teaching increases during this period, and the stage is being set for even more abrasive confrontation with the Jewish authorities. I also talked about how this Middle Galilean period begins with a very divisive event - the sermon on the Mount. That’s what I want to focus on today as well as in the next several episodes. I’m not going to break down the meaning of every single verse in Matthew or Luke’s account, but I will develop some of the major themes and tie what Jesus is saying in the Sermon to the broader story of the Gospels. Let’s read a few verses from Luke’s account of the sermon in Luke 6: "And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all. And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets." (Luke 6:17–26 ESV) So here we are probably sometime early in the Spring of 28, and Luke says that Jesus came down from the mountain where He had called His disciples and stood in a level place. Jesus is with a crowd of His disciples as well as a multitude of people from all over the place. Here’s where what we looked at back in Episode 60 should make a little more sense - there was the Twelve, then a crowd of His disciples, and then the multitudes who came to hear Him and be healed of their diseases. Luke says that Jesus healed them ALL with His power. Just imagine what this was like - it’s not like there was only a handful of people there. How long did Jesus spend healing people? What were these times like? Don’t move past scenes like this too quickly - take some time to ponder what it would have been like for Jesus to heal maybe hundreds and hundreds of people. And like many other times throughout Jesus’ ministry, after he gets finished healing people, he begins teaching. So here we are, perhaps close to a year since Jesus came out of obscurity and was baptized by John that He heals crowds and He began to speak what we today often call “the beatitudes”. Before I start to talk about the content of the sermon, I want to develop a couple of points that are often misunderstood or confusing, and the first one is the timing of the sermon. I’ve talked about this a few times before, but I think it’s important to mention again here. Because Matthew puts the Sermon on the Mount very early on in his gospel, it gives us the impression that Jesus spoke this famous sermon at the beginning of his ministry, and makes some consider the fact that Jesus might have spoken it twice, once on a mountain and another time on a level place. But we have to remember that Matthew did not structure his gospel to be chronological. I talked about this back in episode 7, so go back and watch that episode for more. It really changes the way we form a general chronology of the Gospels when we see that Matthew’s gospel was arranged differently than the others. Seeing Matthew’s structure is the reason why I don’t believe this specific sermon was given twice in Jesus’ ministry. But undoubtedly Jesus must have taught so many of the same things that He said in the Sermon on the Mount throughout his entire ministry, so it’s not like the content of the sermon is unique to this one specific moment on the mountain or on the plains. The other confusing point is the geographical location of where this sermon was given. Luke 6:17 specifically said that Jesus was standing in a level place and healed everyone before he began speaking, but Matthew 5:1 said Jesus went up on a mountain. So if Luke 6 and Matthew 5 are likely talking about the same event, which is it? Did Jesus give this sermon on a mountain or on a plain? Well, I think this is easily reconciled. He began on the plain, and then as the multitudes gathered and after he had healed them, he moved up higher to address them and teach them. The traditional site of the Sermon is somewhere north of the Sea of Galilee. Let’s look at our map for a second. Capernaum and Bethsaida were on a somewhat flat area by the shores, but if you go a littler farther north there’s more hills and more variation in the topography. We can’t be completely sure, but the traditional site for where this took place is somewhere up here, in this hilly region north of Capernaum and Bethsaida. Alright, so I want to develop some of the purpose of the sermon on the mount for a little bit. As I’ve already mentioned, the sermon on the mount was radically divisive. Remember, division of Israel is one of the main purposes for which Jesus came the first time. Look at what Jesus does here - He starts the whole thing by saying that certain ones are “blessed”, and there are also others who are receiving a “woe”. Who is Jesus talking to here? It’s so important that we see this. Jesus was talking to a Jewish crowd. Just as John the Baptist said Jesus would do, He is dividing between the wheat and the chaff. I talked about this at length back in episodes 36, 37, and 38. Those who would be blessed, they were the wheat, they would be the ones who would be baptized with the Spirit. And then there were those who received “woes”, the ones who were “cursed” - not in a way like a spell was put on them or something, but that they were the ones who would be judged and baptized with the fire of judgment. Do you see what’s happening here? The sermon on the Mount is being spoken to Jewish people, the ethnic descendants of Abraham. Jesus is dividing Israel and seeking the true seed of Abraham, the ones who would bear the fruits of repentance and inherit the kingdom in the age to come. This is why we see words like “now” and “shall be” - there is a contrast between the present and the future. And just as John the Baptist said, the consequences of the peoples’ decisions for repentance or not wouldn't be seen until the time of the harvest, on the day of the LORD. Do you see what’s going on here and do you see how it fits right in line with the story of the Gospels we’ve looked at so far? I hope this makes some sense to you. Another thing I want you to see here in the Sermon on the Mount is the contrast between the internal and the external. I’ve talked in past episodes about the Pharisees and scribes and the Jewish authorities basing their teaching on oral traditions and focusing so much on the external things - like ritual hand washings and rules about work and Sabbath observance. But Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the mount was all about internal issues and matters of the heart. This is why the crowds were so astonished at the end of it - because Jesus sounded nothing like the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Now, of course there are many things that have been written about this Sermon throughout church history, and I think there are volumes of application for us even today as we seek to walk out Biblical Christianity - simply because the words in the Sermon on the Mount are the words of Jesus, the words of our God made flesh. Yet in context to the story of the Gospels we have been looking at, I believe the primary purpose and fullest meaning of the Sermon on the Mount was to call Israel into authentic relationship with God and to be the nation He chose through which all the other nations would be blessed. The way they would do that, according to Jesus, would be to bear the fruits of repentance from the heart, not embrace mere external tradition and lean into their ethnic descent from Abraham. Let me say this a little differently - there are often two extremes in interpreting the Sermon on the Mount. First, some say that the Jewish audience was irrelevant and that the sermon was merely written for Christians and the church. And second, others say the opposite - that it has no bearing on Christians because it was spoken to Jews in a Jewish context. Of course, both of these are not totally correct. We must remember the scene as it happened. Jesus has a multitude of Jewish people right in front of him, and yet he wouldn’t die and rise again and establish the church for quite a while. So I don’t think that the best way to understand the Sermon on the Mount is for Jesus to be completely speaking over their heads saying “you’re not going to understand this right now because it has no bearing on you, but I need to get it written down for the inspiration of scripture… so just bear with me, I’m giving my message to the church.” Yet because of the Person speaking, of course His words have impact on our lives right now. They express what is near and dear to His heart, and so that’s what makes it profoundly relevant to us. We are to embrace the values found in it, but we must see that everything Jesus is saying makes so much more sense if we realize His audience was Jewish and His purpose was to separate the wheat from the chaff as John had said. Well, there’s so much more that can be said, and so I’ll take the next few episodes to continue talking about the Sermon on the Mount. I would highly encourage you to go back again and watch Episodes 36, 37, and 38 to review the message of John the Baptist. It’s so important for us to keep his words in mind as we continue to look at the life of Jesus. You can find those episodes plus all of the others in this series on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. Well, God bless, and I’ll see you then.