Last year, Russell Moore—a former leader in the Southern Baptist Convention—wrote a book called Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America. The reason for the book, he told NPR, was the result of having multiple pastors tell them that they had preached on the Sermon on the Mount and then had someone say “Where did you get those liberal talking points?” And Moore says “What was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would not be, ‘I apologize.’ The response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.’ And when we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us, then we’re in a crisis.”[i]
This is the beginning of a one-year, fifty-two session study on the Sermon on the Mount. Together, we’re going to spend an entire year on the mountaintop with Jesus. It’s a long journey, but we’ll take it step by step. There’s so much in this sermon to unpack, to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider. And if we take it seriously, it’ll change our faith. So come join me on the mountaintop as we sit at the feet of the Master and learn from him what it looks like to live as a participant in the community of God.
The Sermon on the Mount is the central thesis of the faith of Jesus. It is the longest recorded sermon by Jesus, the most comprehensive explanation of what it looks like to live as a follower of God. The ancient theologian St. Augustine called it “a perfect standard of the Christian life.”[ii] Oswald Chambers, of a few hundred years ago, said “a statement of the life we will live when the Holy Spirit is having His way with us”[iii] And Modern scholar NT Wright says that this passage “calls and challenges us to a life of radical discipleship.”[iv] The Sermon the Mount encapsulates what it means to live in the upside-down kin-dom of God. It is the constitution of God’s community.
We begin in Matthew chapter 5.
When he saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. – Matthew 5:1
We read that, and we’re like, cool. Mountain. Jesus is teaching from a hillside. Maybe the acoustics were better. Maybe it was cooler than down in the valley. Maybe Jesus yodeled the sermon. But Jesus taught all the time is this is the only case we have of him teaching from a mountain.
Symbolically, when Jesus goes up the mountain to preach this new covenant ethic, he is setting himself up in comparison and contrast to Moses. When Moses receives the Old Covenant law, he does so on a mountain.
Moses went up the mountain to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain: – Exodus 19:3
The people had received their old covenant from Moses on a mountaintop; they would receive this new covenant from Jesus the same way. Matthew 5:1 is a record of Jesus’s teaching from the new law, as the new Moses, to the new people of God. Jesus does not replace Moses, but he fulfills Moses’s purpose. Rather than establish a limited physical kingdom called Israel, Jesus comes to establish an expansive spiritual kingdom called the Kingdom of God.
This is radical theology. Here is a man, at very nearly the beginning of his ministry, claiming to be a man like Moses. Claiming that his words are a new covenant. Claiming to the be the Messiah, the Savior of Israel, and God.
The Sermon on the Mount is the Ten Commandments of the New Testament. It relates to us the core ethical behaviors and actions of the New Covenant. It lays out for us precisely the kind of religious rituals and ethical codes we are to fulfill.
And yet, it seems, we don’t want to move on. I’m not saying we get rid of the Ten Commandments. I am saying that we have to interpret and apply them in light of the Sermon on the Mount. The law finds its fulfillment in Jesus, who calls us to a kingdom ethic that stretches the Law of Moses to a point where we can understand the law of God.
Kurt Vonnegut, the American author, and by no means a Christian, nonetheless offers this insightful comment on our application of the Sermon on the Mount:
“For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course, that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. “Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break!” [v]
There’s a radical change from the old covenant to the new, from the Law to Grace, from Moses to Jesus. And Vonnegut’s right. We often miss it. The Old Covenant is easier. More rigid. The New Covenant is messy and complex and—some might say—an unrealistic ideal. But this was the message that consumed the ministry of Jesus.
When you look at the structure of the Gospel of Matthew, it becomes clear that Matthew offers this sermon of Jesus as the prototypical sermon of Jesus’s ministry. The end of Matthew chapter 4 offers a summary statement of who Jesus is and what he did:
Now Jesus began to go all over Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. – Matthew 4:23
The chapter ends with Matthew saying that this ministry drew crowds from all over the nation, making Jesus a very popular healer and teacher. One way to restate that verse would be to say that Jesus made it his ministry to preach the coming of the kingdom, teach the way of the kingdom, and demonstrate the purpose and power of the kingdom by healing the sick. Preaching, caring for the soul. Teaching, caring for the mind. And healing, caring for the body.
The end of Matthew 9 gives us very nearly the same exact statement:
Jesus continued going around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness – Matthew 9:35
In ancient times, these sorts of summary statements were intended to mark chapters and move the narrative along. That’s exactly what it does here. Matthew 5-9 is meant to give us an example of the preaching, teaching, healing ministry of Jesus. This is what Jesus did for three years. And that means the Sermon on the Mount is exceptional, because it was written down and handed down to us—but this isn’t a one-time teaching by Jesus. This is the type of teaching that consumed the ministry of Jesus.
Matthew is offering up this sermon here as an example of what Jesus taught always and what he did always. Chapters 5-7 show us his typical teaching. 8-9 show us his typical healing. So, what it appears we have is a five-chapter unit designed by Matthew to present us first with some typical teaching of the Lord concerning the way of the kingdom, and second with some typical healings and miracles to demonstrate the power of the kingdom. And then Matthew 10 is the record of his commissioning the disciples to do the exact things he’s been doing. Matthew 10 begins by saying “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority” to all the things that Jesus had been doing.
The Sermon on the Mount is an active call to do and obey. It is not a system of beliefs, it is a system of actions. James would write that faith without works is dead. He gets this from Jesus, who, in his greatest sermon, does not outline for us a theology but a mission.
Based on this sermon, the early church went out and changed the world. Jesus finishes his message in Matthew 7. It’s followed by two chapters of his healing ministry in Matthew 8 and 9. Then Matthew 10. In Matthew 10, Jesus commissions his disciples. It’s one of things we often overlook. These disciples were to have their own ministries, not just after the time of Jesus but during.
Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you received, freely give. – Matthew 10:7-10
In other words, do the Sermon on the Mount. Put it into action. Proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven. Prove it with the power of the Spirit I am giving you. Robin Meyers says:
“Consider this: there is not a single word in [the Sermon on the Mount] about what to believe, only words about what to do. It is a behavioral manifesto, not a propositional one.” [vi]
The Sermon is a mandate to go. It teaches us to create the kingdom of God in the middle of this empire of men. When Jesus said these things, he was creating a Kingdom ethic that was to be the center of life for all believers. And that life is going to look countercultural. Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way:
“The basis for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount is not what works but rather the way God is.”[vii]
We need to pause and reflect on that for a moment. The basis for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount is not what works but rather the way God is. From a secular standpoint, the morals of the Mount are nonsensical. From an evolutionary view, they are disadvantageous. The Sermon on the Mount is not a new system of rules to follow, it’s a new way of life in the Spirit.
If God’s Spirit indwells you, you must live like it. If God directs your actions, he must direct your actions.
Cheek-turning is not advocated as what works (it usually does not), but advocated because this is the way God is – God is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. This is not a stratagem for getting what we want but the only manner of life available, now that, in Jesus, we have seen what God wants. We seek reconciliation with the neighbor, not because we feel so much better afterward, but because reconciliation is what God is doing in the world through Christ.” ~ Stanley Hauerwas
The upside-down kingdom of God tells us explicitly to do things that will very likely not gain us earthly victory. They tell us to live the life of Jesus—and his earthly life ended on a cross. We do not follow these moral teachings because they are easy, or because they are even beneficial, but because they are right.
And, as we’ll see, these actions turn our lives into peaceful, nonviolent protests against the systems, the principalities, the powers of this world. The reconciliation of God to the world continues through the Holy Spirit and thus, through you and me. So as we spend this year on the mountaintop, let’s remember that it’s not just about sitting at the feet of Jesus. It’s about being the hands and feet of Jesus and living as part of this kingdom community.
[ii] Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Augustine
[iii] Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Oswald Chambers
[v] Kurt Vonnegut, Man Without a Country
[vi] Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church
[vii] Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens