The Sermon on the Mount—Its Background and Setting
THE Sermon on the Mount is the most famous sermon ever preached. Phrases from it are in the hearts and on the lips of hundreds of millions of persons throughout the earth. Does this discourse of Jesus Christ, presented nearly 2,000 years ago, have a message for people today?
Well, are people still striving to find happiness? Are humans yet in need of right principles as a guide for their conduct toward one another? Are there persons today who wish to know what God requires in the way of acceptable worship?
Individuals desirous of truthful information on these matters are more numerous than ever before. Since these are the very things discussed in the Sermon on the Mount, it is as up-to-date in the twentieth century as on the day it was uttered. It will therefore be beneficial for us to examine what Jesus said in that famous sermon.
But before we do that, let us take a look at the background and setting of this great discourse.
TWO HARMONIOUS ACCOUNTS
The Sermon on the Mount appears apparently in two Gospel accounts. (Matthew, chapters 5-7; Luke 6:20-49) Matthew’s account of the sermon is about four times as long as Luke’s. There are only five and a half verses in Luke’s presentation that do not appear in that of Matthew. Where the two accounts run parallel they often differ considerably as to wording. Should this give rise to doubts as to the authenticity of the sermon as it appears in our Bibles?
Regarding an objection arising from the fact that Luke omits large portions of the sermon as it appears in Matthew, A. T. Robertson writes in A Harmony of the Gospels for Students of the Life of Christ: “This leaves out of consideration the several large portions of the same matter which Luke has placed elsewhere, or which Jesus repeated on other occasions ([compare] Matt. 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4; Matt. 6:25-34 and Luke 12:22-31). Jesus often repeated his sayings on other occasions as all teachers do and ought to do. . . . Nor need we be surprised that Luke, writing generally for all Christians, omits large portions towards the beginning of the sermon that were designed especially for Jews (see Matt. 5:17-27; 6:1-18).” Robertson then adds:
“Moreover, to offset these variations, which admit of explanation, it ought to be remembered that the two discourses begin alike and end alike, that they have a general similarity in the order of the different parts, and that they show a general likeness and often absolute identity of expression.”
WHEN AND AT WHAT LOCATION?
When during his earthly ministry did the Son of God present this sermon? The Scriptures report that Jesus interrupted his first tour of Galilee to observe “a festival of the Jews” (probably the Passover of 31 C.E.) at Jerusalem. (John 4:46–5:1) Luke relates that after arriving back in Galilee Jesus drew rebuke from the Pharisees for healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. (Luke 6:6-11) Shortly thereafter he “went out into the mountain to pray, and he continued the whole night in prayer to God. But when it became day he called his disciples to him and chose from among them twelve, whom he also named apostles.”—Luke 6:12, 13.
Following this, Jesus “came down with them and took his station on a level place, and there was a great crowd of his disciples, and a great multitude of people from all of Judea and Jerusalem and the maritime country of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and be healed of their sicknesses. Even those troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd were seeking to touch him, because power was going out of him and healing them all. And he lifted up his eyes upon his disciples” and spoke the Sermon on the Mount.—Luke 6:17-20.
Hence, the Sermon on the Mount was given shortly after Jesus had chosen his 12 apostles. This was evidently in 31 C.E., at about the halfway point of his three-and-a-half-year-long earthly ministry. Although “a great multitude of people” from all over Palestine heard the sermon, the Scriptural record indicates that Jesus spoke mainly for the benefit of his disciples.—Matt. 5:1, 2; Luke 6:17, 20.
What was the location of Jesus’ discourse? There have been many conjectures about this. Some have suggested a high mountain in Galilee, such as Mount Tabor. Others favor a location called “the horns of Hattin,” which is between Mount Tabor and Capernaum. The Scriptures, however, do not specify the exact location of the Sermon on the Mount. In this regard, A Dictionary of the Bible edited by James Hastings points out:
“The Sermon was spoken in Galilee, the scene of the main ministry of Jesus (cf. Mt 4:23-25, Lk 6:17). If there is an indication in Mt 8:5, Lk 7:1 that the place of the event was near Capernaum, the precise locality would not even then be defined. . . . The mountain referred to in Mt 5:1 Mt 8:1, Lk 6:12 is not named and cannot be identified. We may suppose, however, that the scene of the Sermon was in the region to the west of the lake, not far distant from the thickly-populated shore.”
JESUS’ METHOD OF TEACHING
Have you ever noticed how the method of teaching found in the Sermon on the Mount differs from the way worldly intellectuals give instruction? The same reference work by Hastings says of Jesus’ method of teaching:
“As He taught the multitudes, in their synagogues, upon the highways, along the seashore, and on the hillsides of Galilee, He put His religious truths and ethical principles into concrete popular sayings, contrasting His ideal of life in many simple ways with the conventional notions and practices, and illustrating His teaching from the ordinary avocations, experiences, and environment of His hearers. Entirely free from the scholasticism and intellectualism, . . . He did not teach these subjects in the manner of the ancient or modern schools. He put His ideas in such a way as to make His knowledge universal. He spoke with a simplicity, insight, and fervour which would appeal to all serious listeners.”
How familiar to you are the truths contained in the Sermon on the Mount? Probably you are acquainted with some of its maxims, such as the Model Prayer, or “Our Father,” and the statement that has come to be known as the “golden rule,” where Jesus said: “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them.” (Matt. 6:9-13; 7:12) But what about the rest of Jesus’ presentation? Would you enjoy considering it in greater detail?
Coming issues of The Watchtower will provide a series of articles covering the entire Sermon on the Mount. Why not prepare to benefit fully from this material by reading carefully the entire sermon right now or at your earliest convenience? Read it carefully. Meditate on what Jesus said. You will find doing so a delightsome experience.