The Sermon On The Mount
Mining The Scriptures (Practical Expositions)
by Paul Earnhart
George Bernard Shaw once described the Sermon on the Mount as “an impractical outburst of anarchism and sentimentality.” The German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche treated it even less kindly when he wrote that “Christian morality is the most malignant form of all falsehood” (Ecce Homo). In 1929 humanist John Herman Randall was willing to acknowledge that Jesus was ”a truly great moral genius” but then wondered how a Galilean carpenter could have uttered the final word on human ethics (Religion in the Modern World). But many more people have held this sermon in great reverence even when they did not know or understand it very well. It is safe to say that the Sermon on the Mount is the best known, least understood, and least practiced of all the teachings of Jesus.
The modern mind, religious as well as irreligious has treated this sermon in a variety of ways. As earlier noted, some have rejected it as wholly impractical or positively evil. Others have received it, but with significant reservations. Humanism, at its kindest, has viewed it as a remarkable but tentative moral code wholly separated from the cross or a divine Christ. Religious liberalism sees it largely as a blueprint for social reconstruction rather than individual conversion. Albert Schweitzer explained it as a special ethic for a special time based on Jesus’ mistaken belief that the end of all time was about to occur.
Among conservative religionists many dispensational premillennialists see it as another “law” inconsistent with an age of grace and impossible of application in a sinful world. They await its fulfillment in a “millennial kingdom.” The large part of evangelical Protestantism has separated life into two arenas, one personal, the other social. For them the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount are intended to govern personal relationships only. They deem it impossible to apply its precepts to either business or government.
All of this is to say that we have worked a wonder in our times by taking the most revolutionary document in history and turning it into something tame and inconsequential. The word of God has been severely blunted The gospel has been trimmed to fit the life style of undisciplined and indulgent men.
There is a real sense in which we have come full circle. The Sermon on the Mount was first addressed to a world in which the Pharisees had succeeded in draining the life and meaning from the law of Moses. We live in a world that has transformed the gospel into little more than twentieth century civility. For this reason it is the more urgent that we look often and carefully at the one sermon of God’s Son which perhaps more than any other defines the very essence of the kingdom of heaven. Here, if we listen humbly, our lives can be transformed, our spirits refreshed, our souls saved.
“The Gospel of the Kingdom”
The New Testament view of the sermon is best seen in Matthews introduction to it. It is “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). This should serve to make two things clear. First, that it is not merely Jesus’ exposition of the law and, secondly, that its blessings and ethical principles are not attainable by the unconverted. This is a sermon for kingdom citizens. Salvation, not social reconstruction, is its aim and worldly—wise men are destined never to understand it.
Luke’s account (Luke 6:12~49) places the sermon in the second year of the Lord’s public preaching at the height of His popularity—a popularity He never trusted (John 2:23-25) and which proved to be short-lived (John 6:66). The times seem to have been characterized by a great religious enthusiasm which was both misguided and superficial.
The Sermon on the Mount stands as an explanation of the true nature of the kingdom of God. lt is a sermon delivered in history and serves to answer the questions which would have naturally been raised by the announcement in Israel of the kingdoms imminent appearance (Matthew 3:1; 4:17). In addition, the wholly unexpected character of the preacher and the sharp conflict between ]esus and the Pharisees was bound to stir even more concern among those who first heard the cry-“The kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Jesus’ discourse upon a Galilean mountainside is in reality no mere sermon. It more approximates a manifesto of the kingdom of God, There is more to Jesus’ teaching than this but here we feel the very heartbeat of kingdom truth, and we will neglect it at our peril. Because it deals with attitudes, the sermon stands at the entrance of God’s kingdom as much as on its more exalted planes. It is not just meat for the mature but a challenge to the one who makes his first approach to heaven’s rule and righteousness. (To be continued.)
CHRISTIANITY MAGAZINE JANUARY, 1984