hat is the Sermon on the Mount? Why is it so popular? Which part of the Sermon speaks personally to you?
The Sermon on the Mount (also known as the Great Sermon) is undoubtedly Matthew’s greatest composition. The Sermon is a harmonious masterpiece of ethical and religious teaching, containing such well-known items as the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12), the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13), and the golden rule (7:12).
The Sermon has had an enormous impact on Western civilization. Politicians often quote the Beatitudes as a kind of platform. Many expressions have entered our language at a popular level, such that even non-Christians have heard about “the salt of the earth” (5:13),* “turning the other cheek” (see 5:39), and “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (see 7:15). The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who repudiated vast elements of the Christian faith, nevertheless identified the Sermon on the Mount, along with the Ten Commandments, as expressive of the moral principles on which the United States should be founded.
In this article I focus on the Beatitudes as found in Matthew’s Gospel. Traditionally, the Beatitudes refer to a collection of eight sayings in Matthew 5:3-10. (Luke’s Sermon on the Plain has four beatitudes [Luke 6:20-23], while John’s Gospel has only one [John 20:29]. Seven beatitudes appear in the book of Revelation, in the form of isolated sayings [Rev. 1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7; 22:14]). The term “beatitude” is derived from the Latin beati (meaning “blessed” or “happy”). Technically known as macarisms, the term comes from the Greek word makarios (similarly meaning “blessed” or “happy”).
More than any other instructor on morality, Jesus teaches with divine power and authority (exousia), and by this empowerment makes possible a new existence. The setting is in Galilee on an unidentified mountain, where Jesus gathered His disciples around Him.
In Matthew, incidentally, several significant events occurred in mountain settings: the temptations (4:8), the Transfiguration (17:1), and the farewell to the disciples (28:16). Unmistakable parallels exist between the setting in Matthew 5:1 and the story of Moses and the children of Israel at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19). It was on a mountain that the Old Testament conveyer of divine revelation encountered God and was given the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20). According to Matthew, Jesus Christ, the New Testament revealer, speaks to His
disciples on a mountain (Matt. 5:1, 2).
For Christians, next to the Ten Commandments as an expression of God’s will, the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 have been revered for expressing succinctly the values on which Jesus placed priority. Throughout the Beatitudes, Jesus spoke consolation to the disciples who had gathered around Him and to future followers.
The Sermon contains nine beatitudes: (1) “Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” (2) “Blessed are the sorrowful; they shall find consolation.” (3) “Blessed are the gentle; they shall have the earth for their possession.” (4) “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail; they shall be satisfied.” (5) “Blessed are those who show mercy; mercy shall be shown to them.” (6) “Blessed are those whose hearts are pure; they shall see God.” (7) “Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called God’s children.” (8) “Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of right; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” (9) “Blessed are you, when you suffer insults and persecution and calumnies of every kind for my sake. Exult and be glad, for you have a rich reward in heaven” (5:3-12, REB).†
The first two beatitudes exhibit a number of parallels with Isaiah 61. The prophet Isaiah spoke of future blessings that the Lord’s anointed would bestow on the marginalized in society.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (Isa. 61:1, 2).
The New Testament applied the prophecy of Isaiah 61 to messianic or eschatological (end-time) events. Jesus quoted Isaiah’s prophecy in order to bless the poor and promise them participation in God’s coming kingdom. And as He spoke to the disciples, Jesus was conscious of being the one anointed by God and given the Spirit to bring about the promised blessings (Luke 4:16-21; Matt. 11:5). While the final salvation of God is still a future event, in Jesus the process of salvation has been inaugurated. In Jesus the poor in spirit (i.e., those who humbly recognize their need of a Savior) will enter the kingdom of God (“kingdom of heaven” was a typical Matthean expression for God’s sovereignty).
God has never been impressed with human strength or self-sufficiency. Rather, He is drawn to people who are weak and admit it. According to Jesus, this is the number one attitude that God blesses. Being poor in spirit is a tacit recognition of our need to depend on God; it humbles us and prevents arrogance. The first beatitude is encouraging news for all of us, since none of us is self-sufficient.
The second beatitude is a variation on the first. “Those who are sorrowful” is another description of those in need of God’s help. According to John the revelator, God himself “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). However, Jesus has already brought good tidings to the poor and consolation to the sorrowful in His ministry.
The third beatitude, influenced by Psalm 37:11 and Isaiah 60:21; 61:7, extols the virtue of humility. The conquest of the Promised Land, which was often spoken of as “inheriting the land” (see Deut. 4:1), stressed the idea that it was not so much the result of human conquest as the gift of God. Jesus Himself was gentle, humble, and meek, and He called on His followers to imitate Him as they prepare to inherit the kingdom (Matt. 11:28-30; 25:34).
Behind the fourth beatitude stands the idea of God’s faithfulness to the covenant relationship with His people. A person is said to be righteous or to have righteousness if that individual is “right with God”; that is, if that person lives out the covenant relationship with God and neighbor. Righteousness is a gift of God (Isa. 61:3), and it is consistently used in Matthew with reference to obeying and doing God’s will (3:15; 5:20; 6:1, 33; 21:32). God blesses those who receive His gift of a right relationship with Him and do His will.
The fifth beatitude describes a quality of God. The biblical concept of (mainly divine) mercy has two main components: pardon granted to the guilty (e.g., Ex. 34:6, 7) and help for those in need (Ex. 22:27). In the fifth beatitude Matthew emphasizes forgiveness as the primary ingredient (see Matt. 6:14, 15; 18:23-35). The more we express mercy to others, the more we become complete in God as we receive His mercy (5:48; Luke 6:36).
In the background of the sixth beatitude is Psalm 24:3-6. The beatitude links purity of heart with the prospect of access to God. The contrast between ritual purity and purity of heart that focuses on just and merciful behavior is a strong theme in the sayings of Jesus and a special interest for Matthew (5:21-48; 9:13; 12:7). Jesus summons us to action rooted in pure motives, such as reconciliation, gentleness, and mercy. Disciples of Jesus imitate their Master in expressing actions of love that know no bounds.
The seventh beatitude refers to the establishment of peace and concord between human beings. Some have identified the Matthean mountain of beatitudes with end-time Mount Zion, pointing to Isaiah 2:1-4 as the background for the seventh beatitude. Peace is a gift of God, and the Old Testament presents God as the prime peacemaker. In the New Testament, Jesus, the anointed one of God, is presented as our peace, uniting Jews and Gentiles by His death (Eph. 2:14). This beatitude promises that peacemakers somehow participate in Jesus’ obedient sonship (Matt. 3:17; 4:3, 6), and become part of the new community of God.
The eighth beatitude is a reminder, as if we needed one, that the essence of Christianity is countercultural. Christ’s followers, consistent with the experience of faith’s heroes throughout sacred history (Heb. 11), will be called to endure physical, emotional, and spiritual distress in their quest to honor God and His kingdom.
The ninth and final beatitude, the only one expressed in the second-person plural (“blessed are you”), makes explicit the theme of discipleship, which lies at the heart of the entire Sermon. The beatitude juxtaposes a warning about the imminent rejection of Jesus’ followers and the promise of a rich reward in the coming kingdom. Those who are persecuted on account of their relationship to Jesus are truly blessed.
With a New Urgency
The Beatitudes distill the message of the kingdom of God, which Jesus, the “new Moses,” presents to the people of God. While the ethical thrust of the Beatitudes cannot be denied, they also function as consolation and promise for those who will remain true to their discipleship and the cause of the kingdom of God. There is almost nothing that God won’t do for the man or woman who is committed to the service of the kingdom of God: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).
The Beatitudes are simply the law of the old covenant, with a new dimension: the long-expected reign of God is dawning with the presence of Jesus, our mediator and Redeemer. The covenant now has a new urgency. In the Beatitudes we are confronted with the demand of God in its starkest form and bidden to obey.
Merciful Father, thank You for the beauty of Your Word. Thank You for the challenge, consolation, and promise that the Beatitudes present to us. Incline our hearts to You, O God, and give us grace and faith to do Your will. Amen.
*Unless otherwise indicated, Bible texts in this article are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
†Texts credited to REB are from The Revised English Bible. Copyright © Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, 1989. Reprinted by permission.
Daniel S. Dapaah is an associate professor of divinity at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, Virginia. He lives in Virginia with his wife Linda, an attorney; a daughter, Chloe; and a son, Daniel.