The Sermon on the Mount

SERMON ON THE MOUNT, THE. A term applied by Augustine (c. a.d. 400) to Matthew 5-7 in his Lat. commentary and established in Eng. usage by a notation in the Coverdale Bible (a.d. 1535).

Unity of the Sermon

Even though it is a moot question as to whether this Sermon was ever preached as a sermon or not, many have found a lack of unity and a discontinuity in Matthew’s account and they point to a collection of disjointed sayings rather than to a homiletical development. Others have found a unifying theme and the development of thought toward a climax.

Arguments against unity.

There are three basic arguments advanced against the unity of the Sermon. These would tend to support the view that it was not delivered as a sermon, or that it is not an historical account of the single sermon in the setting ascribed to it (Matt 5:1).

Nature of the material.

Much of the material seems to be the epitome of what Jesus taught. A vast range of teaching is condensed and summarized in pithy statements that need to be reflected upon at length. These pointed gnomic sentences were characteristic of Jewish religious teaching, which sought to compress and distill important truths into easily remembered, graphic statements.

Disconnection of parts.

Various parts of the Sermon (i.e., Matt 5:31, 32 and 7:7-11) seem to have little, if any, connection with what goes before or follows in each instance. Some sections seem to be self-contained sermonettes (i.e., 6:1-6, 16-18). The Sermon has been believed to contain a mosaic of some of the more striking fragments of as many as twenty of Jesus’ discourses.

Parallels in Luke.

The account in Luke 6:17-49, commonly called the Sermon on the Plain, has been used against the unity and historicity of the Sermon on the Mount. Luke omits large portions of Matthew, having only 30 vv. to the latter’s 107 vv. All but six of Luke’s vv. have more or less close parallels with vv. in Matthew’s account of the Sermon. Forty-seven of Matthew’s vv., however, have no parallel at all in Luke. Thirty-four additional vv. in Matthew that have parallels in Luke are found in many different settings, related elsewhere in the gospel narratives. Because of these differences, from Augustine to the Reformation it was generally believed that Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount was a different discourse from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.

Modern scholarship, however, has concluded that the differences between Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6:17-49 are indications that Matthew received his material from two sayings-sources. The overlapping material between Matthew and Luke is assigned to a source they supposedly had in common, usually designated “Q.” The material in Matthew that fails to overlap Luke is usually assigned to a second source called “M.” There are also some minor differences in language in some of the parallel vv. that are best explained by a multiple source theory.

Arguments for unity.

Many able expositors have found a logical sequence in the Sermon and a thematic development that they believe point to the essential unity of Matthew 5-7 as a literary unit, although not necessarily to its exact historic setting. Basically, the arguments for unity are three: (1) the character of the audience, (2) thematic development, (3) editorial possibilities.

Character of the audience.

It is pointed out that the Sermon was not delivered to a general audience nor to novices, but to selected disciples who had been for some time in association with Jesus. The reason given for Jesus’ going up the mountain was to escape the crowds (Matt 5:1). The Sermon was thus addressed to the disciples and not the crowds, though the latter may have been sitting on the fringe of the disciple group. Matthew omits all indications of date, and it is incorrect to assume that it was at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry because the crowds came later. Jesus here is a teacher, not an evangelist.

Thematic development.

Because of a central idea that is developed throughout the Sermon progressing to a climax, many have held to the essential unity of Matthew 5-7. The theme, however, has been variously stated: “Christ’s Idea of Righteousness,” “The Goal of Life,” “The Ideal Christian Life,” etc. Perhaps it is best to designate the theme as “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt 4:23). The phrase “the kingdom of heaven” was Matthew’s usual way of expressing the equivalent of “the kingdom of God,” which is found in parallel passages in Luke. As would be immediately apparent, the understanding of what was meant by “kingdom” becomes determinative in the application. For a literal kingdom it becomes the constitution, and has been regarded as an explanation of the word “righteousness” in the prophets (Isa 11:4; 32:1; Dan 9:24). Those who emphasize the kingdom as a present reality have found here those principles that are fundamental to the sovereignty of God in the life of a disciple.

Editorial possibilities.

It has been asserted that it is of no great importance to determine whether Matthew and Luke give divergent reports of the same sermon or of two similar but distinctive sermons. It is a false assumption that the writer of each gospel told all that he knew and that what he did not tell was unknown to him. It is also false to assume that Jesus never repeated His teachings so that different reports of His words must be related to the same situation. It seems obvious also that Luke has edited out of his account the material that would have a special Palestinian-Jewish coloring. Matthew’s account is characterized by such detail. If two sources lie behind Matthew 5-7, it is not impossible that Jesus Himself combined the materials from two sermons that He had preached, and they came to Matthew in the form in which He presented them.


The manner, form, or style of the Sermon reveals the literary characteristics of Sem. languages to a remarkable degree.


Semitic poetry is characterized chiefly by a literary device called “parallelism,” which is a balancing of successive thoughts, phrases, or words. Synonymous parallelism finds the thought of the first literary member restated in different words in the second member (see Matt 7:6 and 7). Antithetical parallelism finds the first literary member contrasted and opposed by an opposite (see 7:17). Synthetic parallelism has the second member completing the thought of the first (see 5:3).

Rhythm, which is another main feature of Sem. poetry, is also found in the Sermon. Rhythm does not in Sem. poetry refer to some regular system of meter but to a system of rhythmical beats of varying number (four, three, two) separated by pauses. Matthew 6:9b-13 has been marked thus:

Our Father in heaven hallowed be thy name\nThy Kingdom come Thy will be done;\nAs in the heavens so on earth.\nOur daily bread give us today;\nAnd forgive us our as we forgive our debts, debtors;\nAnd lead us not into but deliver us from temptation, evil.


An abundance of illustration is taken from common life and nature. Solomon in all his glory, an enforced carrying of a Rom. official’s baggage for one mile, a burglar breaking in to steal, a builder of a house, trees in an orchard, gates to the road, pearls and hogs, salt and the sun, the hair of a man’s head, anointing and fasting, birds and barns, logs and dogs, a serpent and bread, wolves and sheep—these do not exhaust the illustrative material of the Sermon.


Proverbs have been defined as principles stated in pithy and ingenious words, often dealing with sharply phrased paradoxes. Such were used to penetrate the understanding and make the hearer aware. Crude literalism has always been a danger in the interpretation of the proverbial. It is the principle underlying the proverb that is important and not the literal meaning (Matt 5:29, 30).

Contents of the Sermon

Beatitudes and supporting metaphors.

The Beatitudes were named from the word tr. “blessed” in its Lat. root. The Gr. word tr. “blessed” is as old as Homer and Pindar, and was used of Gr. gods as well as of men; it referred primarily to outward prosperity. Aristotle used this Gr. word to mean “divine” blessedness in contrast to human happiness. It included the idea of not being subject to fate. Jesus apparently pointed with this word to the intention of God for human life, and thus a man in the condition of being truly well-off. This divine intention for life was a portrait of Jesus Himself in a sense. Jesus was the very embodiment of the Sermon on the Mount.

There is no unanimous agreement as to the exact number of beatitudes. They have been counted as seven, or eight, or nine, or even ten. In this discussion they are numbered as seven. See Beatitudes.

The first beatitude affirmed the blessedness of the “poor in spirit.” Among the Hebrews, because the rich were often corrupt and the oppressors of the poor, the “poor” became by attraction of meaning the pious, religious people who were oppressed by the ungodly. Matthew apparently added “in spirit” so that “poor” would not be misunderstood by Gr. readers who were unacquainted with the Heb. idiom. Isaiah 61:1 (RSVmg.) notes the interest of the coming Messiah in the poor (see Matt 11:5f.; Luke 4:17, 18). The poor were the dependent, godly people, oppressed by the world, who had cast themselves upon God. To such men “the kingdom of heaven” belongs; or better, it is of such men that the kingdom of heaven consists.

The second beatitude spoke of the blessedness of those who mourn, but just as “poor” did not refer to actual poverty so “those who mourn” did not refer to those who were sad. The strongest word for mourning in the Gr. language is used. In the LXX, it describes mourning for the dead and also the mourning for sins. Such men are desperately sorry and truly penitent for their sins. Their sorrow for sin may reach out to embrace the needy world. The passive voice of “comforted” suggested that God acted in their behalf to share with such men His own strength. God’s comfort can come only when and where there has been repentance; this is the meaning of the future tense “shall be.”

The third beatitude announced the blessedness of the meek. The Gr. term tr. “meek” is prob. derived from the LXX, Psalm 37:11 (in the LXX 36:11). That Psalm spoke of a man who in spite of adversity clung to His faith in the goodness of God and His care for the righteous. Such men shall inherit the earth. This was a metaphorical statement, which meant that as Israel had followed God to the land of promise, so pilgrims in life who were “meek” would find the fullness of God’s blessings at the end of the way.

The fourth beatitude spoke of “hungering and thirsting after righteousness.” Righteousness prob. did not in this instance mean goodness as much as it meant right standing with God. In Isaiah, “righteousness” was used by the prophet to define “salvation.” Such men are characterized by the most intense craving for the gift of God’s grace. “Shall be filled” was the terminology used of feeding and fattening cattle. These men are blessed because God “fattens out” the seeking soul in the fullness of salvation.

The fifth beatitude (even as the sixth and seventh) concerned man in relation to his fellow man, whereas the first four looked toward God. The fifth beatitude noted the blessedness of the merciful. “Mercy” dealt with what was to be experienced of pain, misery, and distress. Mercy as active pity was revealed as an element in true righteousness (Mic 6:8), an element lacking in Pharisaic righteousness (Matt 23:23). The cry of distress, “Lord, have mercy upon me,” often found in Matthew addressed to Jesus, illustrates the meaning of this beatitude. God’s mercy is both the cause and the effect for such action in the lives of His people. Because God has been merciful to him, the righteous man knows the meaning of mercy and is motivated to extend mercy to others; and because he has shown mercy, he is increasingly the object of God’s mercy.

The sixth beatitude identified the “pure in heart” as those who would see God. “Pure” meant singleness of heart, an honest heart free from any hidden motive of self-interest. It was part of Jesus’ “good news for the poor,” that even if they could not attain to the ritual purity of the Pharisees, they could see God. Jesus taught that the only defilement that really bars a man from God’s presence comes from within. The man whose heart is truly fixed on God will not lack God’s presence.

The “peacemakers” of the seventh beatitude were those who were true subjects of the Prince of Peace who came to found a kingdom of peace. Such men exercised themselves in the extension of His sovereignty, the only source of peace in a world of alienation, strife, and passion. The passive voice “shall be called” [by God] implies that He only can bestow the title “sons.”

The last beatitude witnessed to the blessedness of those who suffered because of their loyalty to God. They have suffered because of their godly characters. It was not suggested by these words that the ideal Christian character could not be formed apart from persecution; rather it meant that where Christian character provoked persecution there would also be afforded an additional opportunity to prove one’s relationship to God and to demonstrate the reality of citizenship in the heavenly kingdom.

The two metaphors that follow the Beatitudes were intended to show the effect of such ideal character in a world that needed such living. Salt was used in the Jewish sacrificial system (Lev 2:13; Ezek 43:24) and was also symbolical in establishing of covenants (Num 18:19; 2 Chron 13:5). Among the Jews, the Torah was compared with salt, and it was often stated that the world could not exist either without salt or without the Torah (Ecclus 39:26). In practical experience, salt prevented putrefaction and insipidity. This, too, may have been in the mind of Jesus. Salt, however, must make contact with other substances to be able to work. It was a commodity of considerable value in Jesus’ time and, whatever the particular application, the tremendous work of discipleship to a waiting world was underscored.

Whereas the action of salt is silent and unseen, the action of light is obvious and discernible. The term “light” or “lamp of the world,” was not infrequent in the rabbinic writings. It was applied to Israel as God’s lamp. Biblical material likewise made use of this symbol. It was God who lit Israel’s lamp (Ps 18:28). The nations would come to Israel’s light (Isa 60:3). The probable intent of Jesus’ illustration was that through character as described in the Beatitudes, men may see God and glory in Him.

Christian life and Jewish ideal contrasted.

Jesus was not at war with the religion of the OT, and He was not the opponent of Mosaic law. He was, however, in strong opposition to the externalism of Pharisaism. He regarded the OT as having permanent validity (Matt 5:17-19), but He attacked the interpretation and application of Scripture by the Pharisees, who were the popular religious authorities of that day. The examples chosen by Jesus against which to measure Pharisaic religion were not in contradiction to the law of Moses but, rather, intensified the meaning of the law. Jesus denounced the legalistic interpretation of the law, which militated against a realization of the spiritual significance of the law.


In the first example Jesus interpreted the commandment against murder to prohibit also anger and hatred. The degrees of punishment suggested for those who violated this commandment, in terms of the “judgment” for the man who has been angry with a brother, the “council” for the man who has insulted his brother and “hell of fire” for the man who has said “you fool,” has puzzled interpreters. Some feel that Jesus argued as a skilled rabbi, and this type of argument looked for gradation of punishment. Others think that these references were meant as irony, holding up to ridicule such rabbinic distinctions. The central teaching is quite clear, however, in the concluding statement, which reveals that no act of worship is acceptable to God when the worshiper is wrongly related to his fellow men. Hostility toward others may not eventuate in the act of murder, but it is nonetheless a barrier to worship. A quarrel is never to be nurtured, but quickly resolved.


The prohibition against adultery was carried even further by Jesus to forbid also the desire to commit adultery. The literal meaning of the Gr. suggests that such a man has looked upon a woman with the deliberate intention of lusting after her. Beyond question, the teaching about the removal of the offending eye and the offending hand is fig. The removal of offending organs could not actually remove sin from a man’s heart. These were strong words that indicated the seriousness of the problem and the necessity of a remedy, whatever the cost.


Next, in connection with the law against divorce, Jesus stated the divine ideal of marriage as an indissoluble union—one man for one woman for life. He identified the law of Moses that authorized limited divorce as a concession to the hardheartedness of human beings. The so-called “exceptive clause” that recognized divorce on the ground of unchastity seems out of harmony with Mark and Luke who exclude it. It seems best to emphasize that in the teaching of Jesus, marriage was a God-given institution, and divorce a violation of the divine will.


The Jews were fond of oaths. The Pharisees considered themselves bound by an oath if it was stated in certain words. If it was not, the slightest verbal change relieved these formalists from all moral obligation. Intricate and complicated were the rules and regulations by which such a system operated. In the Mishna and Talmud are two books that deal extensively with oaths and vows. Jesus again expressed His interest in the attitudes and inner motivation of men; He earnestly desired His followers to live and speak the truth because truth alone is right.


The rabbis misinterpreted the law at the point of retaliation. It was their contention that it commanded retaliation. Jesus said that the OT teaching was never intended to occasion violence; it was given to put a limit on such violence. Jesus taught a “Christian retaliation,” by which actual good was given in return for evil.

Love to others.

“Love your neighbor” in the OT was understood to mean a fellow Israelite (Lev 19:18). “Hate your enemy” does not occur explicitly in the OT (though the concept of hatred for the enemy is frequently found in substance in the OT, i.e., Deut. 23:6 and Ps 139:21f). Because Christians are God’s children and God so acted, they are to show love even to their enemies and to pray for those who were unkind.


Finally, Jesus called supremely for a likeness to God in the lives of His people. This was not a command to sinlessness as such but was rather related esp. to the love of God. Christians were to exercise complete love as did God, who sent His sun and rain upon both the just and the unjust.

Christian worship.

The Jews asserted three principal expressions of the religious life. They were the three great pillars on which the good life was based: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matt 6:1-18). In obvious ways, however, wrong motivation could rob those acts of their spiritual significance. In connection with those areas, Jesus underscored the necessity for right motivation in acts of worship. His disciples were to avoid religious parade when they gave alms (vv. 2-4), when they prayed (vv. 5-11), and when they fasted (vv. 16-18).


To the Jews, almsgiving was of great importance, and they counted it as a part of worship (Ps 41:1). Even the rabbis taught that it should be done in secrecy, but there were many hypocrites who liked to publicize their charity to gain human credit. Jesus said that this was all such people would get. The only charity that could be a real act of worship was charity that sought to please God and avoided the attention of men for self-glory.


The disciples were warned about the wrong motivation in prayer; they were to pray to God and not to men. There was also a warning against vain repetitions. Moffatt tr. it in this way: “Do not pray by idle rote like pagans, for they suppose they will be heard the more they say” (Matt 6:7). An additional warning was given in connection with praying with the idea that the individual must inform God. Real prayer must never be just for appearance. Jesus commended the place free from distractions as the place of prayer and secrecy, which afforded opportunity for fellowship with the infinite God. The prayer given to the disciples as the example to guide them revealed these characteristics of real prayer: confidence (“our Father”), reverence (“hallowed be thy name”), submission (“thy will be done”), dependence (“give us this day”), forgiveness (“forgive us as we forgive”), and humility (“lead us not into temptation”).


This was counted by the Jews as a sign of special piety. The Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays in commemoration of Moses’ ascending the mountain to receive the law and descending with the law. Some of the devout apparently smeared ashes on their faces as a token of their fast, and thus gained the commendation of men for their piety. Jesus did not condemn fasting as such; once again, it was the wrong motivation that deserved the scathing denunciation.


Jesus taught the meaning of genuine worship to be an exclusive devotion to God in this life. A man served God by living. His God-consciousness was determinative in everything. This was the meaning of a heart that was “in heaven.” Some men lived with this world dominating their lives—not so the Christian. The worldly wealth of the 1st cent. was frequently counted in garments and grain rather than coin of the realm, in the same way the cattle and land once reflected a man’s wealth in this country; but it was foolish for a man to let his life be governed by avarice rather than by God. What a man garnered to himself in the way of material substance could not by its very nature be permanent. His possession of it was uncertain, and it passed away quickly. Preoccupation with the goods of this world could draw, like a magnet, his heart away from God.

The metaphor of the eye in a moral sense was quite common among the Jews. A good eye signified a generous soul, and an evil eye a grasping and grudging one (Deut 15:9; Prov 23:6; 28:22). Even as men today speak of spiritual insight, so Jesus was insisting that a man could lose his sense of true values in life and become possessed by his possessions. The word “mammon” was Aram. and signified wealth and riches. In this passage it was personified, becoming the avaricious man’s master. It is important to note that this did not apply to rich men only, for the greater temptation comes many times to the man who has not, but desires to have. Jesus made this truth apply to all when He said, “No one can serve two masters.”

Greed and anxiety about life were next presented. Nothing was intended in these vv. to forbid foresight, careful planning, or prudence; but these remarks were directed against a care for this life that dishonors God because it fails to find its stability, confidence, and security in relationship to Him. The heavenly Father has always been interested in and ready to meet the needs of human life at every level and in all experiences. God’s kingdom must be placed first in life, and then there could be a foundation upon which to rest in confidence with reference to the material and temporal.

The Christian’s sympathy.

The connection of this passage (Matt 7) has been much disputed. It has been frequently suggested that more than the rest of the Sermon, it reveals lack of continuity. It seems, however, that these vv. are bound together by a consideration of the sympathetic spirit.

Avoid criticism.

Jesus admonished His disciples not to be disparaging in their criticism (Matt 7:1-5). He singled out and condemned the vice of lifting up oneself by pointing out the weaknesses and faults of others. The Christian was not to be unconcerned about a brother’s fault, but it was impossible to help him when the helper’s vision was poor.

Helping wisely.

The disciples were warned against being overzealous in trying to help another (7:6). Perhaps the “holy” thing referred to the use of the showbread among the Jews. If it were not consumed, it must not be cast out to be eaten by the scavengers of the streets, the dogs. In the Talmud “pearls” were used to refer to the choice thoughts, sentiments, or tenderest experiences of a man. The “swine” were the unclean, those of vicious nature who did not have the character to appreciate such thoughts and sentiments. This passage calls for wisdom in dealing with the people of the world.

Praying earnestly.

It was revealed that prayer was the best way to help; it was in prayer that the solution was to be found to the problems of life (7:7-12). Two illustrations were given of the efficacy of genuine prayer. The first illustration underscored the truth that a father did not mock his child in the answer given to an earnest request. In the second illustration Jesus underscored the truth that a father does not give his child what would harm him, neither does God. The grand climax in the statement of the sympathetic approach to life is the “Golden Rule.”

Metaphorical conclusion.

Jesus used three metaphors to urge men on to realize the intention of God for their lives: “the two ways,” the “two kinds of fruit,” and the “two builders.”

The two roads.

The first taught that following Jesus was difficult—involving struggle, self-discipline, and effort.

The two fruits.

The second warned against false guides whose real purpose was selfish and destructive. Guides in life must be tested.

The two builders.

The third emphasized the importance of the right foundation for life, which is the teaching of Jesus. Only those who obey Him will be safe in the experience of testing.


E. S. Jones, The Christ of the Mount (1931); Wm. Hendriksen, The Sermon on the Mount (1934); E. T. Thompson, The Sermon on the Mount and Its Meaning for Today (1936); E. Fox, The Sermon on the Mount (1938); A. T. Ohrn, The Gospel and the Sermon on the Mount (1948); R. W. Sockman, The Higher Happiness (1950); A. M. Hunter, Design for Life (1953); J. W. Bowman and R. W. Tapp, The Gospel from the Mount (1957); D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, vols. I and II (1959); H. K. McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount (1960); W. K. Pendleton, The Pursuit of Happiness (1963).