The Sermon on the Mount is the sum and substance of the Jesus way. The Sermon lays out what it means to take up the easy yoke and learn from him (Matt 11:29). It is the definition of the great commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:37). It is the content of the great commission, “to teach all that I have commanded” (Matt 28:19-20). The Sermon incarnates the vision of the abundant life (John 10:10). It embodies the essence of the renewed mind (Rom 12:1-2) and the new creation (2 Cor 5:17). It envisions what it means to fix our eyes on Jesus (Heb 12:1) and demonstrates the reality of the new self (Eph 4:20-24). Jesus gave the sermon with Jeremiah’s prophecy in mind: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33). To obey the words of Jesus is to bind ourselves to the Lord in an “everlasting covenant” (Jer 50:5).
The followers of Jesus Christ turn to the Sermon on the Mount to understand what it means to be in Christ regardless of their cultural background. In three concise, compact chapters Matthew captures Jesus’ Kingdom ethic, along with his gospel’s revelatory authority (epistemology), covenant community (ecclesiology) and historical destiny (eschatology). The Sermon conveys in practical, down-to-earth, terms what it means to live into the gospel of grace for the people of God whether they are from Nigeria or Brazil. Believers from all over the world meet at the Sermon on the Mount for what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Matthew 5-7 has been my go-to-text for discipleship training in Ulan Batar, Mongolia, Bloomington, Indiana, Denver, Colorado, San Diego, California, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Toronto, Canada, New York, New York, and Birmingham, Alabama. The Sermon is Jesus’ cross-cultural manifesto that relates his gospel to all ethnicities, races, genders, locations, denominations, and social classes. The Sermon on the Mount is a gift that does justice to both internal character and external action, to the mission of the church and the need for missions, to the individual person and to the body-and-soul-in-community and to the present as well as the future.
The Sermon on the Mount is necessary for all believers, because it brings clarity and understanding. Too many sincere, well-intentioned believers have been frustrated, manipulated and led astray by forms of Christianity that ignore the clear teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. In the effort to make Christianity more appealing and easier to accept, we have inadvertently made it more difficult. People wonderfully saved by the grace of Christ are swept up into religious practices and ethical positions that rob them of the joy of following the Lord Jesus. Their identity and priorities are confused. Their understanding of the nature of righteousness is skewed and their life-goals have more to do with personal ambition than a passion for Christ. They are tired of predictable formulas for spiritual success that are no match for the harsh realities of living for Christ in their culture.
Jesus describes beatitude-based believers who have salt and light impact in a world that needs preservation and illumination. They demonstrate a righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the religious. In Christ, their real-world, life-related social righteousness fulfills the law as God intended. Their good works shine before others in all the practical areas of life, love, marriage, truth, justice and reconciliation. Their witness brings glory to the Father in heaven.
Their hidden, personal righteousness – their giving, praying and fasting, is not to impress others but to be in communion with the heavenly Father. Jesus’ five “do nots” free disciples from bondage to materialism, competing loyalties, idolatry, self-righteousness and false guilt. Believers depend upon their Father in heaven in order to treat others the way they would like to be treated. Mutual benefit designed by the will of God sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Jesus weaves his conclusion with three either/or decisions. Disciples choose the narrow gate over the broad way. They identify false prophets as wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing. They are bad fruit from bad trees. Impressive outward acts of piety do not fool the Lord and they must not fool his disciples. Jesus closes with a vivid image. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who build his house on the rock.” A home, no matter how beautiful, built on sand cannot stand in a storm.
To read a version of this lecture, click here. Watch the lecture from the 2018 Beeson Divinity School faculty retreat below: