What is the Sermon on the Mount about?
That question has puzzled pastors, theologians, and Bible scholars for centuries. While large volumes have been written on the subject, sometimes a slimmer response is helpful. On that note, one finds great help from the late Dutch New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos.
Writing a chapter on the Sermon on the Mount (“The Significance of the Sermon on the Mount,” in When the Time Had Fully Come: Studies in New Testament Theology, 26–43), Ridderbos explains the eschatological nature of Christ’s kingdom and how the arrival of Christ’s kingdom as a fulfillment of the Law and Prophets helps us understand and apply Jesus’ famous words.
10 Reflections from Herman Ridderbos
What follows is a summary of his insightful article, a few observations on the Sermon itself (1–4) and what it means for us today (5–10). Of utmost importance, the idea of “fulfillment” is a key to understanding the sermon.
1. There are two places in Scripture where we find the Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew 5–7 and Luke 6:20–49 both refer to the Sermon on the Mount. On the differences, Ridderbos observes,
The Matthean version is a more detailed and architectural construction than that of Luke. The distinction is especially noticeable in the great passage Matthew 9:17–48, where Jesus elucidates the law and presents His interpretation thereof in contrast with that of the scribes and Pharisees. Another point of difference is the proverbial sayings and expression in the Sermon on the Mount, while in Luke these are scattered and used on different occasions. (26)
2. To understand Matthew’s version, we must read it in the context of Matthew 5–9.
As Matthew 4:23–25 and 9:35–38 indicate Jesus is focusing on three things—“teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (4:23). These two passsages book end four chapters that contain teaching and healing, or as Ridderbos notes,
Chapters 5 through 7 record an extensive illustration of Christ’s preaching of the gospel of the Kingdom, while Chapters 8 and 9 contain a summary of a number of Christ’s miracles, which Mark records in a different way and order. This justifies the conclusion that Matthew construed these chapters in accordance with a literary principle; and it may give a partial explanation of the phenomenon, that the scattered presentation of words and sayings in Luke forms an impressive whole in Matthew. (27)
3. The Sermon on the Mount models the way Jesus taught.
Often called “Rabbi,” Jesus displays manners of speech that reflect the rabbinical practices of his day. For instance, “parables, proverbs, unexpected and pointed sayings enjoyed special preference, as reference to rabbinical literature will show” (27). Indeed, “His teaching of the Kingdom of God . . . belongs to the most beautiful of His teaching. In [the Sermon on the Mount] we come to learn the typical form of teaching which Jesus employed.”
4. Jesus’ teaching reveal that he is more than a teacher.
There are many ways in which the Gospels reveal Jesus as God Incarnate (e.g., his miraculous conception, his miracles, his authority to forgive, and his resurrection). However, Jesus’ teaching also reveals that he is more than a mere teacher. As Matthew 7:28 records, the overwhelming impact of his teaching was that he did not teach like the other scribes, for he taught as one with authority.
Even in this response of His listeners it appears that a higher reality, co-existent with the Person of Jesus, became apparent in His teaching. . . . Jesus spoke from inherent power and authority. . . . [And] it is clear from this that the Sermon on the Mount is only to be understood when there is a full recognition of the frame in which it appears, namely, the gospel of the Kingdom of God and of His mighty deeds in His Son Jesus Christ. (28)
In other words, any interpretation of the Sermon that truncates or fails to emphasize the power and divine nature of Christ will go astray.
5. “Fulfillment” is the key to understanding and applying the Sermon on the Mount today.
Ridderbos warns of two errors:
To my mind there are not sufficient grounds to defend the thesis the exhortations of the Sermon have only such a negative tendency, namely, to make it clear that nobody is able to meet the demands of God and to bar the road of self-righteousness for a sinner. . . .
[Likewise], it is not possible to appeal to this [demand for perfect love, Matt 5:45] to contend the positive tenor of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. . . . There is no question of straining the moral demands ad absurdium. (30–31)
We must avoid both the absolutely negative approach the Sermon and any unqualified positive approach. The former, tends towards antinomianism or cheap grace; the latter towards legalism or works righteousness. In other words, the Sermon is neither to merely show us our sin and need for a Savior, nor is it list of rules to obey in Christ’s kingdom. Rather, it is message that proclaims the fulfillment of the law found in Christ.
As Ridderbos explains,
Herein is revealed the ordo salutis of the Kingdom of Heaven. The scheme of Jewish soteriology is hereby dissolved. No longer is salvation only in heaven and in the future, nor can this future salvation only be earned by moral exertion. No, the Son of Man has come for the redemption of sins on earth. He introduces the future salvation to the present. Accordingly the beatification valid here and now: Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. That is the light which came to shine on earth, and that is the light in which the disciples may rejoice. For that reason they are called the light of the world, not primarily because of what they do, but what they receive. But that light must beam forth, for men do not light a lamp and put it a bushel. What Jesus thus requires is that men reflect the light which they received from Him. The endowment of the accomplishes good works in its recipients, and thus the kingdom finds embodiment in the lives of the faithful. (31)
These reflections get at the heart of Ridderbos’ reading of Matthew 5–7 and the idea that Christ has come to “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets. Such an eschatological reading protects us from both extremes of antinomianism and legalism. Moreover, it fits with Matthew’s focus on “fulfillment,” and it explains how the radical commands of Christ are worked out in the believers life—they are not legal demands given without grace; they are also gifts given to those who are in Christ’s kingdom.
6. The Sermon on the Mount must be read eschatologically.
With this fulfillment lens, we can see how the kingdom of God has come in the person, work, and teaching of Christ. Accordingly, obedience to the Sermon on the Mount does not merit entrance into the kingdom; it evidences one’s entrance into the kingdom. Speaking of the way a proper understanding of eschatology helps answers questions about the conditional statements in the Sermon, Ridderbos states,
It is the great reality of the future which in Jesus Christ has come to earth which also touches those belong to Him. That is the order of the beatitudes and commandments. In this way the commandmants can also be a conditional expression of admittance to the Kingdom. Whosoever fails to radiate the love of the Christ thereby proves that he has no part in Christ and is not included in the Kingdom of God. (32)
At the same time, “This order also accounts for the radicalism of the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount.” (32). Indeed, because the radical commands of Sermon are given to the disciples of Christ who are communion with the King, he can give the most difficult commands because he has also given (or will soon give) the power and life associated with his kingdom.
7. The Sermon on the Mount calls the disciple to live according to the future kingdom in the present world.
It would be tempting to read this eschatological Sermon as one that calls the disciple of the kingdom to forsake the world entirely, yet that is exactly what the Sermon does not teach. Instead, it calls kingdom disciples to live for Christ’s kingdom even as they go through every sphere of life. “Jesus was neither an ascetic nor a social or political revolutionist” (34). Hence, every reading of the Sermon which leads followers to abandon the world misses the point. As Ridderbos puts it,
[Jesus] saw the beauty and goodness of life and praised it, in the Sermon on the Mount as well as elsewhere (Matt. 6:29; cf. 11:19). He did not urge sexual abstinence or poverty. He refrainedd from a deprecatory judgment of government and courts of law, and accepted them as indispensable (Matt. 22:21; 5:22). Even as with John the Baptist, no soldier was required by Jesus to leave his service (Matt. 8:5; Luke 3:14). Publicans were left at their posts (Luke 19:2). It is clear that His teaching abounds in illustrations derived from the social and economic life of His day.
In short, though He acclaimed the Kingdom of God above all and every relationship, even above the most intimate . . ., yet it does not follow that He abandoned or condemned worldly goods, natural relationships, and social and political institutions. To regard the radical character of the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount as ascetic or revolutionary brings one in various ways into sharp contradiction with the gospel story of Jesus’ life and that of His closet disciples. (34)
8. The Sermon on the Mount is for all disciples.
Issuing from the “secular” nature of the Sermon’s commands, Jesus’ message is not for a special class of disciples (35). Rather, Jesus’ instructions are for all disciples, to be carried forth in every area of life. “We are not, to begin with, allowed to confine the radicalism of Jesus’ commandments to one particular sphere of life only,” but neither can we “reject the radical-social view of the Sermon on the Mount” (37). Instead, the call of Jesus’ Sermon is to live out the realities of the coming kingdom in the present.
9. The Sermon on the Mount is for all nations, not just Israel.
Affirming the universal nature of the Sermon’s teaching, Ridderbos also identifies the challenge of showing how the Christ’s multi-national kingdom fulfills (and supersedes) the parochial Law of Moses. He writes,
There is no antithesis, either, between the principles of the Law of Moses and of the Sermon on the Mount. The latter does not abolish the former, but confirms it. No doubt, the dispensation of the New Testament confronts us with questions quite different from those of the Old Testament. The Kingdom of God cannot be any more identified with God’s special care and legislation for only one nation, as in the Old Testament theocracy. Jesus therefore imposed no civil or political law, as Moses did. This, however, by no means suggests that the religious and ethical teaching of Jesus has nothing to do with the life of His disciples amidst the different connections and relationships in the world. (42)
Acknowledging the newness of Christ’s kingdom, what Christ ushers in is not simply a spiritual realm, nor a kingdom restricted to Israel. Rather, he is bringing his rule and reign to all nations, where”social life, political order, international justice as such belong just as well to the righteousness of the Kingdom of God and the Sermon on the Mount as simple neighborly love” (42).
10. The radical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount is for those who live in light of Christ’s Lordship.
Indeed, if we can accurately summarize the Sermon on the Mount as a command to self-sacrificing neighbor love, we can get a grasp on his Christ’s otherworldly message in the Sermon on the Mount has practical and tangible effects. In other, the eschatological arrival of the kingdom does not simply proclaim a futuristic message; it instead declares that the future has entered the present. And thus, those who are disciples of the king will now live on earth like those in heaven.
Indeed, this is how Jesus teaches his disciples to pray and, just the same, this is the content of his Sermon. Or as Ridderbos concludes, “The Kingdom of God is the restoration of life and it is the Sermon on the Mount which indicates the road towards this restoration” (43). In truth, the Sermon does not deny one’s life or tell us that life only comes at some point in the future. Rather, eternal life has come in the person of Jesus Christ and the kingdom he brings. Thus, the Sermon teaches us about the kingdom and the way Christ’s people will live under his Lordship.
To that end, let us receive his kingdom by faith and let us live according to its message of love.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds