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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Sermon On the Mount

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The name given to the material found in Matthew 5-7 . The Sermon on the Mount represents Jesus' expectations for those who have followed Him as disciples, both ancient and modern. The sermon begins with the beatitudes, explains the place of the law and certain religious practices in the lives of Christians, and gives various other instructions. The theme of the sermon is found in Matthew 5:20 , “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” The Sermon on the Mount is thus a call for Jesus' disciples to observe a greater righteousness.

Approaches to Interpretation Before looking at the contentsof the sermon itself, it is helpful to briefly consider the ways in which the Sermon on the Mount has been interpreted. The Sermon on the Mount confronts the reader with uncompromising demands and a lofty ethic. Many throughout the history of the church have sensed a great gap between Jesus' expectations of His disciples and their abilities to live up to those expectations. Indeed, it shocks many to read that Jesus expects us to be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48 ). The goal of many interpretations is to alleviate the tension between Jesus' expectations and our abilities.

Some hold that the sermon should be interpreted literally. This is, by and large, the best approach (with some exceptions). Of course, a literal approach to the sermon emphasizes the gap between Jesus' expectations and our abilities more than any other approach.

One obvious question that arises for those holding to a literal interpretation is: What do you do about a passage like Matthew 5:29-30 which talks about plucking out the eye and cutting off the hand that is offensive? Some in the history of the church have interpreted this literally. Was Jesus teaching us that we should mutilate ourselves in this fashion? That hardly seems likely. Other figurative or poetic elements as well do not lend themselves to a literal interpretation (for example Matthew 5:13-16; Matthew 6:20; Matthew 7:6 ,Matthew 7:6,7:13-27 ). What about Matthew 5:48 ? Did Jesus literally mean that His disciples must be perfect as God is perfect?

The approach that attempts to interpret the entire sermon literally, then, is insufficient by itself. This conclusion raises two other questions. First, if a strictly literal interpretation is insufficient, what other methods are acceptable? Second, which passages should be interpreted literally and which should not? Attention will be focused here on the answers given to the first question.

Some interpreters of the Sermon on the Mount have emphasized the poetic and metaphoric nature of Jesus' language (for example, calling His disciples salt and light, Matthew 5:13-16 ) and His use of hyperbole or consciously exaggerated speech designed to make His point vivid and memorable (for example, plucking out the eye and cutting off the hand that offends, Matthew 5:29-30 ). These interpreters claim that Jesus never meant His sermon to be taken literally. Jesus, according to these interpreters, was stating general principles and using exaggerated illustrations to drive home His point.

Bible interpreters have also used a variety of other approaches. Some interpreters of the sermon attempt to temper Jesus' strict ethical demands by quoting other verses from other parts of Scripture that seem to them to be more capable of human fulfillment. During the Roman Catholic church's history in the Middle Ages, only those living within the monastery were held responsible for keeping the ethics of the sermon; everyone else was bound only to keep the Ten Commandments. Martin Luther proposed the doctrine of the two kingdoms: Christians in their private lives were bound to keep the ethical standards of the sermon, but in their public and professional lives were bound only to keep the standards of the Ten Commandments. C. I. Scofield held that the ethics of the sermon were fully valid only for the new dispensation after the return of Christ.

Some interpreters feel it is impossible for us to fulfill the standards of the Sermon on the Mount (especially Matthew 5:48 ). For them, the sermon shows how short of perfection we really are and shows us our need of repentance. In a similar manner, some interpreters believe Jesus fulfilled the demands of the sermon for humanity since humanity was incapable of living up to standards of the sermon.

There may be some truth in all these approaches to the Sermon on the Mount, but it appears that the best approach is to take the sermon at face value (with some obvious exceptions such as Matthew 5:29-30 ) and to do our best to live the life Jesus outlined for us. When we fail while trying our best, we need not despair; God is a God of grace and forgiveness for all who confess and repent of their sins.

God's willingness to forgive us removes the fear and anxiety caused by failure. This will in turn give us more confidence and assurance that we can live lives that today are more godly than they were yesterday.

We must realize also, however, that we cannot live up to the standards of the sermon (being perfect as God is perfect) by our own powers and abilities. Our lives can conform to the standards of the sermon only if we allow God through the power of the Holy Spirit to work in us. Viewed in this way, the sermon becomes a picture of what God desires to make of us if we will offer ourselves to Him as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2 ).

Contents of the Sermon on the Mount The Sermon on the Mount opens with the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12 ) and moves on to describe the function of Jesus' disciples (Matthew 5:13-16 ). From there Jesus explained His interpretation of the law (Matthew 5:17-48 ) and certain acts of righteousness (Matthew 6:1-18 ), described the attitudes required of His disciples (Matthew 6:19-7:12 ), and invited the listeners to become and continue as His disciples (Matthew 7:13-27 ).

Jesus spoke these words directly to His disciples (Matthew 5:1-2 ) within the hearing of the crowds who were amazed at both Jesus' teaching and the authority with which Jesus taught (Matthew 7:28-29 ). Jesus did not teach by quoting the traditions passed down from generation to generation as other rabbis did. Jesus spoke to His disciples as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ). Jesus showed His disciples what it meant to be a light that shines before people. The people “saw” Jesus' good works and gave glory to God (see Matthew 5:16 ). See Beatitudes; Ethics; Jesus, Life and Ministry.

Phil Logan

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Sermon On the Mount'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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