Jesus’ most famous sermon, recorded in Matthew chapters five through seven, is often quoted. However, there is much diversity among its various interpretations. The reasons for this variety are many and complex. Still, I believe that a better grasp of the historical background of the Sermon can help us to sift through the different approaches to its interpretation.
Historically considered, entrance into the kingdom was the key issue confronting the Jewish people during the time of Jesus’ ministry. They knew that righteousness was the primary requirement for coming into God’s presence (Psa. 24:3-6), and they were committed to the practice of righteousness (Matt. 6:1). A pressing question, however, was whether the righteousness that they had acquired by their Jewish traditions and practices was sufficient for entrance into God’s kingdom (Matt. 5:20).
Jesus answers this crucial question in his Sermon with a resounding, “No!” He then explains, “For I say to you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).
So where is true righteousness to be found, if not by observing the Jewish law and traditions? By way of answer, Jesus declares in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
Recognizing this historical background of the Sermon and its application to the Jewish listeners of the first century, we can then explore the relevance of the principles of the Sermon and their applicability to believers of every age. The Sermon reveals the holiness of God and may serve as a guide for Christian conduct in this present age.
With this in mind, following is a sampling of nine different ways to approach the Sermon on the Mount that have been set forth by theologians and expositors.
1. Pattern for Christian Life
Augustine (354-430) believed that the Sermon was “a perfect pattern (or standard) for the Christian life,” and that its teachings “perfectly guide . . . those who may be willing to live according to them.” This approach is generally in line with what is likely the most popular interpretation of the Sermon by evangelical Christians, wherein the Sermon contains principles for Christian living, guiding regenerate persons in an unregenerate world. Believers are urged to live out the principles of the Sermon with the help of the Holy Spirit and God’s grace.
2. Commands for All Christians
Martin Luther held that the commands of the Sermon were binding upon all Christians. He writes, “The injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount . . . are not counsels but precepts. They are not exhortations addressed to those who aspire perfection, but commands binding upon all Christians.”
3. Moral Code for Religious Orders
Thomas Aquinas understood the Sermon to be a moral code for a select few. He held that only the religious orders in the monastery and convent were expected to fully comply with the Sermon on the Mount.
4. Blueprint for a New Society
Tolstoy, the Russian novelist and social reformer, took an extremely literal and legalistic interpretation of the Sermon. He viewed it as a blueprint for a new society. For Tolstoy Jesus’ command to “swear not” requires an end to oaths in the law courts and the command to “resist not evil” requires the elimination of the police force.
5. Impossible Ideal
Gerhard Kittel believed that the precepts of the Sermon could not be fulfilled, and that Jesus recognized this fact. Like the law, it was designed “to bring His hearers to the consciousness that they cannot in their own strength fulfill the demands of God.”
6. Interim Ethic
According to Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer, the Sermon presents an ethic valid only for a time of crisis. Jesus’ interim ethic was “an emergency ethic for His disciples’ use during the brief interval between His preaching and the cataclysmic coming of the Kingdom of God.” Accordingly, Jesus’ message in the Sermon was eschatologically conditioned upon the nearness of salvation and the danger of forfeiting it. The imminence of the coming age forced Jesus to present exceptional regulations which could have validity only in periods of crisis. The words of Jesus are to be understood only in the context that the things of this world have lost all value since the present age is coming to an end. As such, the Sermon has no application to the 21st century.
7. Ethic of Intention
According to Johannes Muller, the Sermon gives “direction” rather than “directions.” It is not intended to be interpreted as a new yoke of law. Rather, Jesus was suggesting the attitudes and inward disposition that ought to characterize His followers.
8. Eschatological Ethic
Some dispensationalists believe that the Sermon cannot be fulfilled in this present age, but will be possible to live when God concludes history and ushers in His Millennial Kingdom. As such, the Sermon is not applicable to contemporary society.
9. Conditions for Entrance into the Kingdom
Dwight Pentecost argues that the Sermon is connected with the offer of the kingdom. Rather than describing the characteristics of the future Millennial Kingdom, the Sermon sets forth the high requirements which must be met in order to enter that kingdom (see Matt. 5:20; 7:13, 21).