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SM #1: Going Up The Mountain

Updated: Feb 18



The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is said by many to be the bullseye of the Bible and the Constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. There is no better place for spiritually curious people to begin investigating Jesus, and for committed believers to return regularly to refresh their faith.


When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he opened his mouth and began teaching them with these words. ~ The Apostle Matthew (Matthew 5:1-2)



CORE (The heart of the message):


Two kinds of people hear this sermon: the crowd and the committed. The masses are mulling it over, but the disciples – the committed apprentices of Jesus – are ready to learn and live out these truths together. We are meant to honestly assess which group we belong to.



CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage):


To fully benefit from the feast that lies ahead, it is worth taking time to properly set the table.


So far in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has been called the Messiah (Deliverer), Emmanuel (God with us) and the Light of the Nations. Matthew makes us ready to hear what this guy has to say!


Moses prophesied that one day “a prophet like me” would come (Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Acts 3:22-23). Moses began to lead at a time when Israel was oppressed and enslaved by Egypt and God used Moses to perform miracles, liberate God’s people, bring God’s teaching (Torah), found a nation, and establish a covenant (a way of being in relationship) between God and his people. In Jesus’ day, since Israel was under oppressive Roman occupation, many Israelites wondered when this promised miracle-working, freedom-bringing, wisdom-teaching, kingdom-establishing, covenant-creating, Moses-like, Moses-prophesied prophet would arrive.


By the time we arrive at the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has already drawn us into the parallels between Jesus and Moses.

  • Born under a cruel ruler

  • Escape as infants

  • Work miracles

  • Leave Egypt

  • Pass through water

  • Go into the wilderness

  • Ascend the mountain

  • Delivers God's will and God's word


Also notice that Jesus doesn't begin his public ministry until he hears that John the Baptist has been imprisoned and his ministry is over (Matthew 4:12, 17). John represented the best and brightest of the Old Covenant (Matthew 11:13-14). But now a New Covenant is dawning and the Old is over (Hebrews 8:13).


At the close of the previous chapter, just before starting his Sermon, we read that Jesus is attracting large crowds through his powerful healing ministry. Some skeptical scholars have raised the question – why does Jesus pause his healing care of hurting people for a time of extended teaching? Why transition from what seems powerfully practical into what can appear purely intellectual?


The answer may be that both his supernatural miracles and his supernatural teaching are a form of healing. To really hear Jesus is to be healed by Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate health care professional – he wants to practice public health and preventative medicine, not just emergency surgery. And he apparently believes that when fully trained and empowered, his disciples can act like antibodies and antidotes (preventative and curative agents) in our sin-sick world.


Jesus is providing the soul care we all need.


While stories about the miracles of Jesus can encourage us, we are still bystanders to the divine power behind those miracles. We read about the miracles, but we don’t directly experience them. By contrast, in the teaching of Jesus, we have the opportunity to directly experience God’s miraculous power right where we are. The teachings of Jesus bear the marks of the miraculous in the way that they supernaturally address the needs of our hearts and our world. In one sense, Jesus’ teaching is his greatest miracle, and we can encounter the full force of it now.


Matthew records that up to this point Jesus has been preaching one central message called the Gospel (or Great News). This Great News is about the kingdom of heaven (or literally, the heavens) being here and now. Jesus says: “Rethink everything you know, leave your old ways behind, and be ready to choose a new path (the meaning behind the word “repent”), for the Kingdom of the heavens is here!” (Matthew 4:17; also see 4:23; 9:35; Mark 1:15). The kingdom of the heavens is here?! Isn’t heaven out there, up there, somewhere? Isn’t it the place we go to after we die?


Jesus is using both spatial and temporal language to talk about the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven on earth. The way of life in heaven “up there” is available down here, and the experience of heaven in our future is available in our present. Through Jesus, the there-and-then-ness of heaven becomes here-and-now-ness.


The Sermon on the Mount only makes sense within this context: Jesus is the king of heaven establishing some form of heaven on earth and we are invited to enter this new realm of relationship (see 5:3, 10, 19-20; 6:10, 33; 7:21). So Jesus takes this time to give his disciples more detailed teaching about what it means to live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. (More about this in our next post.)


Similar teaching from Jesus in Matthew 5-7 can be found in Luke 6:17-49. Luke says the sermon he is recording happens on a level plain, which may be a plateau in the mountains, or Luke’s and Matthew’s sermons may be two separate occasions. (After all, Jesus was an itinerant preacher who would have taught similar things repeatedly in different circumstances.) Either way, Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” can be a helpful companion to Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount”.


Both Matthew and Luke summarize what may have been multiple days worth of teaching, happening all at once or on different occasions and edited together by the authors. (See the prolegomena post previous to this one for more on this.)


Luke's version records Jews and Gentiles traveling great distances to hear and be healed by Jesus (Luke 6:17-19). Ultimately, the Good News message of Jesus is the best medicine for us all. As we study his teaching, let's open our hearts to the healing power of God's grace.



CONSIDER (Observations about the passage):


Crowds. Because of the freedom Jesus was bringing people through his message and miracles, large crowds, sometimes in the thousands, began to follow him around. They are curious, but not yet committed. Although Jesus directs his teaching to his disciples, he does so in a way that allows the crowds to eavesdrop, and their response at the end of the sermon is important (see 7:28-29). Jesus isn’t trying to persuade skeptics, but he is always open to spiritual seekers and regular sinners who want to know more. By letting the crowds listen in while he teaches his disciples, Jesus is allowing them to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to follow him too.


The mountain. Matthew mentions the mountain (the definite pronoun is in the Greek text) for theological reasons, not just reasons that are topographical, geological, or pedagogical (that is, so his voice can be heard further). Our author is drawing our attention to what he must believe is an important detail. Everyone knew that Moses was used by God to lead his people out of slavery and into freedom, culminating in the giving of the Old Covenant Law on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20). Now Jesus is leading God’s people into a new freedom and bringing the New Covenant teaching on a mountain (also see Isaiah 2:3). Matthew highlights a number of special events in the life of Jesus happening on mountains – the mountain of temptation (4:8), the Sermon on the Mount (5:1), the mountain of prayer (14:23), the feeding of the five thousand on a mountain (15:29), the mountain of transfiguration (17:1), the Mount of Olives discourse (24:3), and the mountain of the Great Commission (28:16). In fact, when the risen Jesus directs his disciples to meet him back on “the” mountain in Galilee where he will give them the Great Commission (Matthew 28:10, 16), he is likely sending them back to this mountain of revelatory teaching (both mountain experiences are said to reveal Jesus’ “authority”), allowing the mountain imagery to come full circle in Mathew’s Gospel. Matthew’s words of Jesus going up the Mountain here are verbatim of Exodus 19:3; 24:18; 34:4, all referring to Moses ascending Mount Sinai, and his words for Jesus coming down from the Mountain after teaching in 8:1 parallel Exodus 24:29. The symbolism is significant, and in case we’re missing it, Jesus himself will say he has come to fulfill the Law of Moses (5:17). Jesus is the Mosaic Messiah delivering his new Messianic Torah. In fact, the Gospel of Matthew has been drawing these parallels between Jesus and Moses in many ways leading up to this sermon. Like Moses, Jesus escapes death as an infant, grows up in Egypt, goes through the water, enters the wilderness, and now ascends a mountain, all within the context of multiple divine miracles. A powerful statement is being made: a new Deliverer has come, freedom from slavery is being offered, a new way of living is taking shape, and a new community of faith, hope, and love is being assembled. We may feel like we’re wandering in the wilderness for a while, but God will meet us and take care of us there and then lead us into the Promised Land.


Sat down. In Jesus’ day, Rabbis would stand to read the Scriptures and then sit to teach (as Jesus does when visiting a synagogue in Luke 4). Here Jesus skips any reading and moves straight into his teaching, a signal of his own inherent authority (see 7:28-29; also 13:2; 15:29; 24:3; 26:55). Sitting was also the common posture of a judge or ruler in the seat of power and authority (19:28; 20:21-23; 22:44; 25:31; 26:64). Moses himself sat down when taking on his role as judge (Exodus 18:13). Through his posture, Jesus is saying a lot before saying a word. Always pay attention to what Jesus does, not just what he says. Jesus is not just preaching the Word of God – Jesus IS the Word of God lived out (John 1:1). Jesus is God’s show and tell. Notice that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus goes beyond speaking on behalf of God, to actually speaking as though he is God. He doesn’t say “Thus saith the Lord” like a typical prophet, but “Thus saith me!” He does not refer to God as the ultimate judge, but to himself as the ultimate judge! He does not tell people to follow God, but to follow him! Jesus represents something new in the history of Israel and in the history of all world religion. Jesus is symbolically sitting in the seat of Moses (as an authoritative prophet) and also sitting on the divine throne (as the one-of-a-kind Son of God).


Disciples. The word “disciples” (Greek, mathetai; Hebrew talmidim), means learners or apprentices or trainees who are being mentored by one Master; these are students who are so eager to absorb the wisdom of their teacher that they will leave everything else behind in order to receive “on the job” training. Are you a disciple? In one sense, we are all disciples of something or someone, usually unintentionally and unconsciously. Being an intentional, wide-awake, active disciple of Jesus is the best counter-cultural decision we could ever make. In the words of philosopher Dallas Willard, "There is no problem in human life that apprenticeship to Jesus cannot solve." Although Jesus would eventually choose a core of twelve specific disciples to mentor more intentionally, all his followers were and are called to be disciples – lifelong lifestyle students in the school of Jesus. So the Sermon on the Mount is directed to Jesus’ disciples (also Luke 6:20), even though others are welcome to listen in. These teachings are for the committed and, take note, are not meant to be forced on the crowds or legislated for society at large, though anyone may benefit by listening to, learning, and applying his message. Jesus is less interested in reforming any earthly nation as he is in beginning a new society: the Jesus Nation. This new society has the potential to influence the wider culture by example rather than by legislation (the emphasis of his salt and light teaching later in this sermon). So the Sermon on the Mount is a Master Class for all apprentices of Jesus in how to live together as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Also notice that Jesus teaches his disciples up on the Mountain, which contrasts with Moses who meets God on the mountain but brings the law down to the people who never do go up the mountain to meet with God directly. Jesus is teaching his followers on higher ground, reminding us of the superior nature and greater intimacy of the New Covenant.



Opened his mouth. This apparently redundant phrase (which some English translations do not even bother to include) is an ancient way of identifying that something important is about to be spoken. It is used various places in Scripture to create a dramatic pause signifying the significance and solemnity of what follows (e.g., Daniel 10:16; Acts 8:35; 10:34). We can picture Jesus taking time to look around, make eye contact with a smile (I think it's good to imagine Jesus smiling), gather his thoughts, and draw a big breath before speaking. Linguistically, this phrase ties this passage to Psalm 78:2. Asaph writes the same phrase before giving a history of God working through Moses to rescue Israel out of slavery and establish them as a nation, eventually under the leadership of King David (Matthew begins his gospel by calling Jesus “the son of David” and goes on to record others using that title multiple times). And in Matthew 13:34-35, Matthew specifically says that Jesus fulfills Psalm 78:2 when he teaches the crowds with parables. With one apparently unnecessary phrase, Matthew is helping his readers tie Jesus to Moses and David. He is also helping us contrast the clear, direct, disciple-focussed teaching of the Sermon on the Mount with the more obtuse, hidden, parabolic teaching directed to the crowds from a floating pulpit in Matthew 13. Jesus is always testing crowds while training disciples, concealing and revealing as he goes. Jesus, through Matthew, has already said a mouthful before saying a thing.

Teaching. In the New Testament text, the word for “teaching” (Greek, didasko) nearly always refers to teaching the Scriptures, but here Jesus is teaching directly from his heart and from his Father’s heart (John 12:49). Jesus is not just teaching Scripture; his teaching is becoming Scripture. In fact, Matthew organizes Jesus’ teaching into five main discourses (Matthew 5-7; 10; 13; 18; and 23-25), paralleling the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible said to be written by Moses. What Matthew is doing is called “narrative theology” – that is, doing rich philosophical thinking about God via storytelling, both through the words he chooses and the way he organizes his content. Matthew is recording history, yes, but he structures his record in a way that emphasizes what he is convinced of – Jesus is pushing the reset button on the history of Israel, religion, ethics, and everything else. Jesus is not just a prophet receiving tablets of stone on the mountain; he is the finger of God itself writing new words on human hearts (see 2 Corinthians 3).


With these words. Matthew is recording “the very voice” (Latin, ipissima vox) of Jesus, not “the very words” (Latin, ipissima verba) of Jesus. That is, Matthew is concerned about capturing the heartbeat of Jesus’ teaching, and less so the specific words. For one thing, Jesus likely taught in Aramaic (and sometimes Hebrew), whereas Matthew writes his gospel in Greek. So even before they get translated into English for our benefit, the original texts of the Gospels are already a translation of the words of Jesus. Obviously, God doesn’t care that we have the precise words of Jesus as much as we absorb the core message of Jesus. The Holy Spirit came upon Mary so she conceived the Word of God, then the Holy Spirit anointed Jesus to preach the Word of God, then the Holy Spirit guided Matthew to recall and translate and record the Word of God (John 14:26; 16:13-14), and now that same Holy Spirit is with us to help us listen to and understand and reconstitute and re-embody the Word of God in our lives together. (For more on this, see the previous post – The Sermon on the Mount: An Invitation.)



CONFESSION (Personal reflection):


Matthew is blowing my mind. Jesus has already won my heart and now Matthew is showing me how profound the ministry, mission, and message of Jesus is beyond anything I’ve been able to appreciate before.


Sometimes skeptics talk about ancient writers as though they were more gullible, easily fooled, less intelligent, and certainly less informed than we are today. Yes, our science is better, but our thinking about life is impaired. The internet gives us all access to encyclopedic knowledge, but it also damages our ability to focus. I’m grateful for our online access to information and entertainment – hurray for everything from Wikipedia to YouTube to Netflix. But wow, Matthew is humbling me and inspiring me to really take time to think again.


I don’t picture Matthew sitting down and figuring out how to craft a profound document (though that would be cool too). I picture Matthew brimming with joy, almost laughing, as the Holy Spirit helps him see the connections and express it in writing. I want to join in that joy.



COMMENTARY (Thoughts about meaning and application):


Christian theologians have debated over Jesus’ intention in this sermon. Was Jesus preaching an unattainable standard that functions like “law” that we can never live so that we will be more eager for God’s grace? Was this an interim ethic meant for his disciples to follow until his death and resurrection, after which the apostles would preach grace? Is the Sermon on the Mount meant for only a special elite class of Christian, like monks and nuns, while regular Christians can “move along, there is nothing to see here”? Is this teaching meant for our private lives, but when we enter the public arena of business and politics we can put these principles aside?


These theories tend to overlook God’s grace inherent in the sermon and they fail to account for the fact that the resurrected Jesus told his disciples to help ALL of his future followers live out ALL of his teaching ALL the time (Matthew 28:20), which must include training disciples today how to obey and embody the Sermon on the Mount.


The Sermon on the Mount is for us, together. Jesus is painting a picture of what the kingdom of heaven on earth can look like, even when surrounded by other “kingdoms” that invade and oppress or merely distract. Jesus is teaching us a new way of living in relationship to God and to one another (a New Covenant). We are not meant to figure it out by ourselves and live it out as separate and struggling individuals.


IF YOU ARE A FOLLOWER OF JESUS… don’t try to apply this teaching apart from the ongoing sustenance and support of a strong Christ-following community. Most of the pronouns in this sermon are plural, even if that doesn’t always translate in English. For instance, Jesus says “You (plural) are the light (singular) of the world” (5:14). We teach our children to sing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” But really Jesus would have us sing, “This little light of ours, we’re going to let it shine.” (It doesn’t rhyme as well, but it is more true.) No single individual can live out the ideals of this sermon alone, and we weren’t meant to. (Whew!) It is together that we form God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:5), and together we are Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:27), and together we form the new society known as the Kingdom of the Heavens here and now. After all, a kingdom is made up of individual citizens, but it is never a solitary experience. Citizenship is always personal, but it is never private.


IF YOU ARE NOT A FOLLOWER OF JESUS… the best way to read the Sermon on the Mount is not by trying to find tidbits of generic wisdom for your individual life, but to use this teaching to help you picture yourself as a fully committed disciple of Jesus embedded in a small community of spiritually like-minded relationships. What would your life look like if you lived out this teaching with the support of a loving community? Let the Sermon on the Mount fuel your imagination, then you can decide if that is an appealing vision for your life. You can count the cost before deciding if you want to follow Jesus as your Lord, Leader, Mentor, and Master.


Bottom line: The teaching of Jesus is never meant to be applied without the presence and power of Jesus (Matthew 28:20; Acts 1:8), and we experience the presence of Jesus best when fully immersed in intimate, honest, authentic Christ-following community (Matthew 18:20).


We. Need. Each. Other.


(For more on Christ’s vision for the church, see our post entitled “Mercy-Full Church”.)


The sermon is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. ~ Stanley Hauerwas (Matthew)



CONTEMPLATE (Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic):


Ecclesiastes 4:8-12; Isaiah 2:1-5; Micah 4:1-4; Matthew 4-7; Luke 6:17-49; 14:25-35; Acts 3:22-23; 2 Corinthians 3; Hebrews 8:13; 10:24-25



CONVERSATION (Talk together, learn together, grow together):

  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this teaching?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this teaching?

  3. Brainstorm: What do you think are some good ways the Church today can, like Jesus, teach the committed core while also making room for the curious crowds to listen in so they can make a decision too? [For inspiration about evangelism to the crowds, see "SM #9: Peacemaking & the Ministry of Mending".]

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?



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7 Comments


I have struggled for months now, trying to read through the Old Testament for the first time. After getting very frustrated, I decided to start with the New Testament once again. The invite to this community could not have come at a better time. The Sermon On The Mount is exactly where I am presently in the Bible.

I am too old to believe in coincidences, this was meant to be.


I struggle at times. I try desperately to put myself in the midst of Jesus 2000 years ago on that mountain. I can't help but wonder how I would have reacted to Jesus' radical ways....... and it scares me.

I can't help but wonder if I would have…


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This is so challenging and teaching me to read beyond the words, to almost imagine being there to hearing Him teach, to seeing the crowds, to seeing the committed. Where do I sit? You bring to life truth and such questions. I am drawn to reread , take notes, dive deeper. Thank you Boo.

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I am awed by your insight! I can read the same passages and never make the correlations that you draw! God very definitely gave you a tremendous talent, and we are fortunate that you are sharing it with us! I do have one question. Regarding: "IF YOU ARE A FOLLOWER OF JESUS… don’t try to apply this teaching apart from the ongoing sustenance and support of a strong Christ-following community." In the area in which I live, I know of no Christian community that is amenable to the beliefs of my immediate family. (i.e., We do not believe in a "weaponized" religion over which a wrathful God reigns.) We, therefore, attend "computer church," and attempt to live according …

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Thank you! Sounds like a plan, Boo! 😎

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Amir Naqvi
Amir Naqvi
Jan 29, 2023

Amazing Read...so much to take in...and great questions. Maybe we can have an area to share our answers?

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BOO
BOO
Jan 31, 2023
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Cool idea Amir. I will have to learn how to set something like that up, but in the meantime, how about for now we share thoughts here in the comments? We can all contribute. Let the discussion begin!

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