The Sermon on the Mount
Its Purpose & General Content
The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is one of the most well known of our Lord’s discourses. The Beatitudes which begin it are familiar to Christians and non-Christians alike, as is the so-called ‘Lord’s Prayer’ in the midst of it. Near the end of the Sermon is found what is often referred to as the Golden Rule, along with the familiar injunctions to “ask,” “seek,” and “knock.” Because these portions of the discourse, along with others, are so well known and liked, the Sermon on the Mount is often cited by people as their favorite Bible passage. The special favoritism given to this discourse is all the more increased when among Christians it is taught that the Sermon on the Mount is the water-shed of Christian doctrine and practice. Christians are taught to look at the Lord’s sayings as the ‘code of Christian conduct,’ or the ‘Christian creed.’ The Sermon, it is often said, embodies all the essentials of our faith and we possess in it the ‘handbook for the Christian life.’
Though our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount enjoys such popularity among Christians, unfortunately it does so because of the mistaken notion many possess that the Lord is speaking to us today in that message and in His earthly ministry on the whole. But the testimony of the Scriptures is that this is not so. Our Lord’s earthly ministry was to the nation of Israel and pertained to God’s special program and dealings with them. It wasn’t until after the Lord had gone back to heaven and then unexpectedly returned to raise up Paul as a brand new apostle, (as historically recorded in Acts 9), that this present dispensation of Gentile grace began to be administered by God. Until the apostle Paul was raised up God’s program and dealings were with Israel in accordance with His promises and covenants with them. The “mystery” revelation about this dispensation of Gentile grace in which we live today was still “hid in God” until God revealed it to His new apostle Paul. [Note: See the author’s previous articles in this series for a full examination of this matter.]
Therefore, our Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount pertains to God’s program and dealings with His nation Israel, and not to Christians today. It is not ‘the code of Christian conduct,’ nor the ‘handbook for the Christian life.’ But it is something special in Israel’s program, as we will now see.
THE PURPOSE OF THE SERMON
Even a cursory reading of the Lord’s discourse shows that the majority of the doctrine is corrective, involving straightening out erroneous teaching and exposing religious hypocrisy. For example, over half of Matthew 5 is composed of corrective doctrine in which the Lord repeatedly says, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, this: but I say unto you, this.” By speaking to Israel in this way the Lord was telling them that they have not had the Law’s commandments and statutes properly taught to them. Instead they have been hearing erroneous teachings from their rulers and religious leaders. But not only that, as the Lord exposes in chapter 6, the people have also been observing and following a performance of complete religious hypocrisy on the part of their leaders. The leaders were nothing but hypocrites in public when it came to such things as giving alms, praying, fasting, and their overall life-style. But not only were they hypocrites, they were also ignorant of the program of God and manifested this by their disorderly conduct. However, the Lord’s teachings in the Sermon unmask all of this hypocrisy and religious chicanery. He exposes all the mistreatment God’s word has suffered at the hands of Israel’s hypocritical leaders, and He liberates the Law from the erroneous teachings they have given to it.
Therefore, the main purpose of the Sermon was to provide corrective doctrine in Israel, in view of the apostate and vain religious system which gripped the nation.
THE NEED FOR THE SERMON
The vain and apostate religious system which the Lord confronted in Israel had its roots in the nation’s past. In truth, the seeds for it were sown in Moses’ day, but its full growth and development took place in the days of the prophets. Through the prophets God repeatedly rebuked Israel’s rulers and indicted them for their apostasy. For example…
“How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers.
Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water:
Thy princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves: every one loveth gifts, and followeth after rewards: they judge not the fatherless, neither doth the cause of the widow come unto them.” (Isa.1:21-23)
God also declared that they had established nothing but a vain religious system which was full of hypocrisy and formalism.
“Wherefore the LORD said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:…” (Isa.29:13)
In view of this, the Lord declared how that He would judge His nation and would destroy from among it the rebellious apostate element, along with their apostate system.
“Therefore as the fire devoureth the stubble, and the flame consumeth the chaff, so their root shall be as rottenness, and their blossom shall go up as dust: because they have cast away the law of the LORD of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.” (Isa. 5:24)
This destruction would be brought to pass in the Lord’s day of wrath which would take place just before the establishment of His kingdom in Israel.
But not only did the Lord promise to destroy Israel’s apostate religious system, He also promised that in that day He would make the law honorable again, and that He would seal it among His disciples.
“The LORD is well pleased for his righteousness’ sake; he will magnify the law and make it honorable.” (Isa. 42:21)
“Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples.” (Isa. 8:16)
This is what the Sermon on the Mount is all about. In the midst of Israel’s vain religious system that “cast away the law of the LORD of hosts,” taught the “precept of men,” and ‘rejected the commandment of God that they may keep their own tradition,’ the Lord ‘magnified the law and made it honorable.’ He stripped the Law of all the layers of religious traditions and erroneous doctrines that had cloaked it, contaminated it, and made it of none effect in Israel. Also, along with this, the Lord ‘sealed the law among His disciples,’ (for that is who the Sermon was spoken to), and provided for them to be able to completely disassociate themselves from apostate Israel by following His corrective doctrine. This the disciples needed to do if they were to be rewarded by the Lord in His kingdom.
THE PROVISION IN THE SERMON
If the Lord did not “magnify the law and make it honorable” the believing remnant in Israel would have no capacity to separate themselves from apostate Israel and to be ‘doers of the law in truth.’ If the disciples did not see how that the leaders of the nation were “blind leaders of the blind,” then they would not “let them alone” and function separate from them. But the Lord’s corrective Sermon provided for the disciples to be able to do this, and by so doing to be rewarded with greatness in the kingdom of heaven when the Lord established it.
In accordance with this, the prophets also set forth how that the issues of reward, honor, and privileged position of rulership with Christ in the kingdom of heaven were contingent upon the disciples being separate from Israel’s apostasy, and instead being ‘doers of the law in truth.’
“The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?
He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil;
He shall dwell on high: his place of defence shall be the munitions of rocks: bread shall be given him; his waters shall be sure.
Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off.” (Isa. 33:14-17)
While the “sinners in Zion” and the “hypocrites” would be seized with fear in the Lord’s day of wrath and then destroyed out of the land, the believing and faithful remnant would not only be provided for, but they also would be gloriously rewarded in the Lord’s kingdom. As ones who “walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly” in contradistinction to the apostate ones in Israel, the faithful disciples would be provided for when the Lord brought the “devouring fire,” and they would be rewarded with the privilege of seeing “the king in his beauty” in Zion.
For this reason in the Sermon on the Mount the Lord taught His disciples about being “called great in the kingdom of heaven” and the reward that would be theirs when they were “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” and for His sake. Likewise also He taught them about the physical provisions that would be made for them in the midst of the evil of the day that was coming when the “devouring fire” would purge the nation. In view of the provisions promised them they would not need to take any thought saying, “What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” As ‘doers of the law in truth’ the disciples would be wonderfully provided for while apostate Israel would be destroyed, and then they would be gloriously rewarded in the kingdom.
The Sermon on the Mount is indeed a very important part of the teachings of our Lord in His earthly ministry. In it the Lord provided corrective doctrine to the believing remnant of Israel which exposed the corruptions and hypocrisies of Israel’s apostate and vain religious system, and which provided them with the capacity to be ‘doers of the law in truth.’ The Sermon fulfilled what God had said in the prophets when He told Israel that He would “magnify the law and make it honorable” and that He would “seal the law among my disciples.” God’s program and dealings with Israel called for just such a message as that Sermon to be preached in Israel, and so it was.
In this dispensation of Gentile grace which God is now administering, the Lord has temporarily suspended His program and dealings with Israel. The Sermon on the Mount, therefore, does not set before us things which pertain to God’s program and dealings with us today. Rather, it is in the epistles of the apostle Paul that God has recorded that portion of His word that is expressly TO us and particularly ABOUT us today. – K.R. Blades