The Most Famous Sermon Ever Given
THE scene is one of the most memorable in Bible history: Jesus seated on a mountainside, delivering his famous Sermon on the Mount. The site is near the Sea of Galilee, probably close to Capernaum. After spending the whole night in prayer, Jesus has just chosen 12 of his disciples to be apostles. Then, along with all of them, he comes down to this level place on the mountain.
By now, you would think, Jesus would be very tired and would want some sleep. But great crowds have come, some all the way from Judea and Jerusalem, 60 to 70 miles away. Others have come from the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon located to the north. They have come to hear Jesus and to be healed of their sicknesses. There are even persons who are troubled by the demons, the wicked angels of Satan.
As Jesus comes down, sick people draw close to touch him, and he heals all of them. Afterward, Jesus apparently climbs to a higher place on the mountain. There he sits down and begins teaching the crowds spread out on the level place before him. And think of it! Now there is not even one person in the entire audience who is suffering from a serious infirmity!
The people are eager to hear the teacher who is able to perform these amazing miracles. Jesus, however, delivers his sermon mainly for the benefit of his disciples, who are probably gathered around closest to him. But so that we can benefit too, both Matthew and Luke have recorded it.
Matthew’s account of the sermon is about four times as long as Luke’s. Moreover, portions of what Matthew records, Luke presents as being said by Jesus at another time during his ministry, as can be noted by comparing Matthew 6:9-13 with Luke 11:1-4, and Matthew 6:25-34 with Luke 12:22-31. Yet this should not be surprising. Jesus obviously taught the same things more than once, and Luke chose to record some of these teachings in a different setting.
What makes Jesus’ sermon so valuable is not only the depth of its spiritual contents but the simplicity and clarity with which he presents these truths. He draws on ordinary experiences and uses things familiar to people, thus making his ideas easily understood by all who are seeking a better life in God’s way.
Who Are Truly Happy?
Everyone wants to be happy. Realizing this, Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount by describing those who are truly happy. As we can imagine, this immediately captures the attention of his vast audience. And yet his opening words must seem contradictory to many.
Directing his comments to his disciples, Jesus begins: “Happy are you poor, because yours is the kingdom of God. Happy are you who hunger now, because you will be filled. Happy are you who weep now, because you will laugh. Happy are you whenever men hate you . . . Rejoice in that day and leap, for, look! your reward is great in heaven.”
This is Luke’s account of the introduction of Jesus’ sermon. But according to Matthew’s record, Jesus also says that the mild-tempered, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peaceable are happy. These are happy, Jesus notes, because they will inherit the earth, they will be shown mercy, they will see God, and they will be called sons of God.
What Jesus means by being happy, however, is not simply being jovial or mirthful, as when one is having fun. True happiness is deeper, carrying the thought of contentment, a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in life.
So those who are truly happy, Jesus shows, are people who recognize their spiritual need, are saddened by their sinful condition, and come to know and serve God. Then, even if they are hated or persecuted for doing God’s will, they are happy because they know they are pleasing God and will receive his reward of everlasting life.
However, many of Jesus’ listeners, just like some people today, believe that being prosperous and enjoying pleasures is what makes a person happy. Jesus knows otherwise. Drawing a contrast that must surprise many of his listeners, he says:
“Woe to you rich persons, because you are having your consolation in full. Woe to you who are filled up now, because you will go hungry. Woe, you who are laughing now, because you will mourn and weep. Woe, whenever all men speak well of you, for things like these are what their forefathers did to the false prophets.”
What does Jesus mean? Why do having riches, laughingly pursuing pleasures, and enjoying the plaudits of men bring woe? It is because when a person has and cherishes these things, then service to God, which alone brings true happiness, is excluded from his life. At the same time, Jesus did not mean that simply being poor, hungry, and mournful makes a person happy. Often, however, such disadvantaged persons may respond to Jesus’ teachings, and they thereby are blessed with true happiness.
Next, addressing his disciples, Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth.” He does not mean, of course, that they literally are salt. Rather, salt is a preservative. A large heap of it lay near the altar at Jehovah’s temple, and priests officiating there used it to salt the offerings.
The disciples of Jesus are “the salt of the earth” in that they have a preserving influence on people. Indeed, the message they bear will preserve the lives of all who respond to it! It will bring into the lives of such persons the qualities of permanence, loyalty, and faithfulness, preventing any spiritual and moral decay in them.
“You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells his disciples. A lamp is not put under a basket but is set on a lampstand, so Jesus says: “Likewise let your light shine before men.” Jesus’ disciples do this by their public witnessing, as well as by serving as shining examples of conduct that accords with Bible principles.
A High Standard for His Followers
The religious leaders consider Jesus a transgressor of God’s Law and recently have even conspired to kill him. So as Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount, he explains: “Do not think I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I came, not to destroy, but to fulfill.”
Jesus has the highest regard for God’s Law and encourages others to have such also. In fact, he says: “Whoever, therefore, breaks one of these least commandments and teaches mankind to that effect, he will be called ‘least’ in relation to the kingdom of the heavens,” meaning that such a person would not get into the Kingdom at all.
Far from disregarding God’s Law, Jesus condemns even the attitudes that contribute to a person’s breaking it. After noting that the Law says, “You must not murder,” Jesus adds: “However, I say to you that everyone who continues wrathful with his brother will be accountable to the court of justice.”
Since continuing wrathful with an associate is so serious, perhaps even leading to murder, Jesus illustrates the extent to which one should go to achieve peace. He instructs: “If, then, you are bringing your [sacrificial] gift to the altar and you there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, and go away; first make your peace with your brother, and then, when you have come back, offer up your gift.”
Turning attention to the seventh of the Ten Commandments, Jesus continues: “You heard that it was said, ‘You must not commit adultery.’” However, Jesus condemns even the steady attitude toward adultery. “I say to you that everyone that keeps on looking at a woman so as to have a passion for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Jesus is not here speaking merely about a passing immoral thought but about ‘keeping on looking.’ Such continued looking arouses passionate desire, which, if opportunity affords, can culminate in adultery. How can a person prevent this from happening? Jesus illustrates how extreme measures may be necessary, saying: “If, now, that right eye of yours is making you stumble, tear it out and throw it away from you. . . . Also, if your right hand is making you stumble, cut it off and throw it away from you.”
People are often willing to sacrifice a literal limb that is diseased in order to save their lives. But according to Jesus, it is even more vital to ‘throw away’ anything, even something as precious as an eye or a hand, to avoid immoral thinking and actions. Otherwise, Jesus explains, such persons will be thrown into Gehenna (a burning rubbish heap near Jerusalem), which symbolizes eternal destruction.
Jesus also discusses how to deal with people who cause injury and offense. “Do not resist him that is wicked,” is his counsel. “But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other also to him.” Jesus does not mean that a person should not defend himself or his family if attacked. A slap is not delivered to hurt another physically but, rather, to insult. So, what Jesus is saying is that if anyone tries to provoke a fight or an argument, either by literally slapping with an open hand or by stinging with insulting words, it would be wrong to retaliate.
After drawing attention to God’s law to love one’s neighbor, Jesus states: “However, I say to you: Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you.” Providing a powerful reason for doing so, he adds: “[Thus] you may prove yourselves sons of your Father who is in the heavens, since he makes his sun rise upon wicked people and good.”
Jesus concludes this portion of his sermon by admonishing: “You must accordingly be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus does not mean that people can be perfect in the absolute sense. Rather, they can, by imitating God, expand their love to embrace even their enemies. Luke’s parallel account records Jesus’ words: “Continue becoming merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Prayer, and Trust in God
As Jesus proceeds with his sermon, he condemns the hypocrisy of people who make a show of their supposed godliness. “When you go making gifts,” he says, “do not blow a trumpet ahead of you, just as the hypocrites do.”
“Also,” Jesus continues, “when you pray, you must not be as the hypocrites; because they like to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the broad ways to be visible to men.” Rather, he instructs: “When you pray, go into your private room and, after shutting your door, pray to your Father who is in secret.” Jesus himself said public prayers, so he is not condemning these. What he is denouncing are prayers that are said to impress listeners and draw their admiring compliments.
Jesus further counsels: “When praying, do not say the same things over and over again, just as the people of the nations do.” Jesus does not mean that repetition in itself is wrong. Once, he himself repeatedly used “the same word” when praying. But what he disapproves of is the saying of memorized phrases “over and over again,” the way those do who finger beads as they repeat their prayers by rote.
To help his listeners pray, Jesus provides a model prayer that includes seven petitions. The first three rightly give recognition to God’s sovereignty and his purposes. They are requests for God’s name to be sanctified, his Kingdom to come, and his will to be done. The remaining four are personal requests, namely, for daily food, for forgiveness of sins, not to be tempted beyond one’s endurance, and to be delivered from the wicked one.
Going on, Jesus addresses the snare of putting undue emphasis on material possessions. He urges: “Stop storing up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal.” Not only are such treasures perishable but they build up no merit with God.
Hence, Jesus says: “Rather, store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” This is done by putting God’s service first in your life. Nobody can take away the merit thus accumulated with God or its grand reward. Then Jesus adds: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Further addressing the snare of materialism, Jesus gives the illustration: “The lamp of the body is the eye. If, then, your eye is simple, your whole body will be bright; but if your eye is wicked, your whole body will be dark.” The eye that functions properly is to the body like a lighted lamp in a dark place. But to see correctly, the eye must be simple, that is, it must focus on one thing. An out-of-focus eye leads to a mistaken estimate of things, to putting material pursuits ahead of service to God, with the result that the “whole body” becomes dark.
Jesus climaxes this matter with the powerful illustration: “No one can slave for two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will stick to the one and despise the other. You cannot slave for God and for Riches.”
After giving this counsel, Jesus assures his listeners that they need not be anxious about their material needs if they put God’s service first. “Observe intently the birds of heaven,” he says, “because they do not sow seed or reap or gather into storehouses; still your heavenly Father feeds them.” Then he asks: “Are you not worth more than they are?”
Next, Jesus points to the lilies of the field and notes that “not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these. If, now,” he continues, “God thus clothes the vegetation of the field, . . . will he not much rather clothe you, you with little faith?” Therefore Jesus concludes: “Never be anxious and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or, ‘What are we to drink?’ or, ‘What are we to put on?’ . . . For your heavenly Father knows you need all these things. Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you.”
The Way to Life
The way to life is that of abiding by Jesus’ teachings. But this is not easy to do. The Pharisees, for example, tend to judge others harshly, and likely many imitate them. So as Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount, he gives this admonition: “Stop judging that you may not be judged; for with what judgment you are judging, you will be judged.”
It is dangerous to follow the lead of the overly critical Pharisees. According to Luke’s account, Jesus illustrates this danger by saying: “A blind man cannot guide a blind man, can he? Both will tumble into a pit, will they not?”
Being too critical of others, magnifying their faults and picking on them, is a serious offense. So Jesus asks: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Allow me to extract the straw from your eye’; when, look! a rafter is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First extract the rafter from your own eye, and then you will see clearly how to extract the straw from your brother’s eye.”
This does not mean that Jesus’ disciples are to use no discernment in connection with other people, for he says: “Do not give what is holy to dogs, neither throw your pearls before swine.” The truths from God’s Word are holy. They are like figurative pearls. But if some individuals, who are like dogs or swine, show no appreciation for these precious truths, Jesus’ disciples should leave those people and seek out those who are more receptive.
Although Jesus has discussed prayer earlier in his Sermon on the Mount, he now stresses the need to persist in it. “Keep on asking,” he urges, “and it will be given you.” To illustrate God’s readiness to answer prayers, Jesus asks: “Who is the man among you whom his son asks for bread—he will not hand him a stone, will he? . . . Therefore, if you, although being wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more so will your Father who is in the heavens give good things to those asking him?”
Next Jesus provides what has become a famous rule of conduct, commonly called the Golden Rule. He says: “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.” Living by this rule involves positive action in doing good to others, treating them as you want to be treated.
That the way to life is not easy is revealed by Jesus’ instruction: “Go in through the narrow gate; because broad and spacious is the road leading off into destruction, and many are the ones going in through it; whereas narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are the ones finding it.”
The danger of being misled is great, so Jesus warns: “Be on the watch for the false prophets that come to you in sheep’s covering, but inside they are ravenous wolves.” Even as good trees and bad trees can be recognized by their fruits, Jesus notes, false prophets can be recognized by their conduct and teachings.
Going on, Jesus explains that it is not simply what a person says that makes him His disciple but what he does. Some people claim that Jesus is their Lord, but if they are not doing the will of his Father, he says: “I will confess to them: I never knew you! Get away from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
Finally, Jesus gives the memorable conclusion to his sermon. He says: “Everyone that hears these sayings of mine and does them will be likened to a discreet man, who built his house upon the rock-mass. And the rain poured down and the floods came and the winds blew and lashed against that house, but it did not cave in, for it had been founded upon the rock-mass.”
On the other hand, Jesus declares: “Everyone hearing these sayings of mine and not doing them will be likened to a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. And the rain poured down and the floods came and the winds blew and struck against that house and it caved in, and its collapse was great.”
When Jesus finishes his sermon, the crowds are astounded at his way of teaching, for he teaches them as a person having authority and not as their religious leaders. Luke 6:12-23; Matthew 5:1-12; Luke 6:24-26; Matthew 5:13-48; 6:1-34; 26:36-45; 7:1-29; Luke 6:27-49.
▪ Where is Jesus when he gives his most memorable sermon, who are present, and what has occurred just prior to his giving it?
▪ Why is it not surprising that Luke records some teachings of the sermon in another setting?
▪ What makes Jesus’ sermon so valuable?
▪ Who are truly happy, and why?
▪ Who receive woe, and why?
▪ How are Jesus’ disciples “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”?
▪ How does Jesus show high regard for God’s Law?
▪ What instruction does Jesus provide to root out causes of murder and adultery?
▪ What does Jesus mean when he speaks about turning the other cheek?
▪ How can we be perfect as God is perfect?
▪ What instructions on prayer does Jesus provide?
▪ Why are heavenly treasures superior, and how are they obtained?
▪ What illustrations are given to help one avoid materialism?
▪ Why does Jesus say that there is no need to be anxious?
▪ What does Jesus say about judging others; yet how does he show that his disciples need to use discernment regarding people?
▪ What does Jesus further say regarding prayer, and what rule of conduct does he provide?
▪ How does Jesus show that the way to life would not be easy and that there is a danger of being misled?
▪ How does Jesus conclude his sermon, and what effect does it have?