The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1– 7:29) is probably the best known part of Jesus’ teaching. But it is also the least understood.
Many people consider the Sermon to be a high level moral code for individuals and for society. Others think of it as a code of religious practice, or rules for Christians to follow. They treat it as Jesus’ New Law to replace the Law of Moses. Still others approach the Sermon as the Way of Salvation –how to get saved, how be sure you are saved, or how to stay saved and make sure you don’t lose your Salvation. None of these views is correct and they all obscure both Jesus’ teaching and the reason he gave it in the first place. In order to understand what Jesus is actually saying and to apply the Sermon to your life you must reject all these approaches. Otherwise, you will not grasp what Jesus is teaching and you will miss the point of it all.
A moral code?
Those who respect Jesus as a great religious or moral teacher may value the high morality contained in the Sermon. This is all very well, but it doesn’t go far enough. Jesus is far more than a moral teacher. He is the Son of God and the Sermon calls for a personal relationship with Christ, the Son of God. Jesus addresses those who had recognised Jesus as the Christ and, bringer of the Kingdom of God. It is totally inconsistent to say you believe Jesus to be the great teacher of morality, and not also accept the other things that he said and did which reveal who he really is. The Sermon is for those who have accepted the call of the kingdom to believe in Jesus and to be born again. It is for those who have acknowledged his divine authority and have surrendered to his personal rule over their lives.
A religious code?
Those who are religiously-minded tend to see the Sermon as a prescription for the religious life. However, we follow a Person not a religious code of practice. Jesus’ Sermon was originally addressed to Jews who were familiar with the religious structures of the day. Religious Rulers presided over a complex and far-reaching religious system. It had rules for everything and legally-defined codes of conduct that carried punishments and penalties for any breach of the religious law. It was roughly-based on the Law of Moses, but also incorporated many additional laws, prescriptions and legal definitions, which actually obscured the true teaching of Moses. In many cases it completely undermined the Law of Moses. Also, the emphasis was more on external performance rather than the attitudes of the heart. The Sermon confronts the shallow hypocrisy of the religious system of that day as well as every other religious system that exists or ever has existed. Jesus rejects all works-based religion and we must make sure that our response to Jesus’ teaching is never merely a religious one. Jesus is not presenting a new Christian Law to replace the Law of Moses. He calls us to relationship, not religion.
The way of Salvation?
Perhaps the biggest mistake Christians make when approaching the Sermon on the Mount, is to believe it has something to do with our salvation. We are saved by grace through faith for good works. We are not saved by good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). Heaven is a free gift received by faith alone and not by faith plus works. This is the heart of the gospel that Jesus and his apostles preached.
The Sermon is addressed to disciples, followers of Christ, and it shows the qualities, attitudes and behaviours that God expects of believers. Jesus shows us the standard of righteousness that we are to live now that we are saved. Obeying the Sermon on the Mount is not how we get saved, prove that we are saved, keep ourselves saved or assure ourselves that we have been saved. All these matters were settled at the cross. We are saved by trusting Christ and Christ alone, not by attaining to any standards of holiness. We live a godly life, not in order to be saved, but because we have been saved. The teaching of the Sermon is impossible for us until we have been born again and have received the new nature God gives us when we become children of God.
If our salvation depended in any way on our obedience to the Sermon on the Mount, we would have little hope of ever being saved. The standard is perfection (Matthew 5:48). We aspire to that, and hopefully make some progress towards it. But who actually attains it? No Christian has ever fully obeyed the Sermon, especially if you take into account the deeply internal nature of the righteousness Jesus calls for. We fall short deeply, especially in our inner thoughts, attitudes, intentions and desires. Often we are not even aware of what is going on deep beneath the surface of our lives. On one occasion Paul said, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent” (1 Corinthians 4:4). If the Sermon was God’s way for us to be saved or maintain our salvation, I am not sure that any of us could be saved. But, the good news is that we are saved entirely by the grace of God – from start to finish.
What the Sermon is
The central theme of the Sermon is God’s personal rule over the lives of those who have submitted to the claims of Christ. Jesus’ teaching is for those who are already his disciples (Matthew 5:1). It is for those who have heard the call of the kingdom and forsaken all to follow him. The Sermon is a radical description of God’s radical alternative lifestyle for those who have obeyed his ‘follow me’ and have begun to live under God’s personal rule. This lifestyle glorifies God, challenges the world and brings rewards. It has nothing to do with establishing your status before God as a Son or Daughter of the Kingdom. But it has everything to do with your intimacy with your heavenly Father, and the quality of life you will enjoy with him in the kingdom, both now and in the life to come.