Seeing the Mountain-Like Structure of the Sermon on the Mount

jeremy-bishop-248837-unsplash.jpgEarlier this week, we considered the way Matthew organized his Gospel with careful literary structures. Today, we look more closely at one part of his work, the Sermon on the Mount. And in that section of Scripture (4:23–8:1), we learn a number of things about how Matthew organized Jesus’ sermon in order to direct our attention to the main point of the sermon—namely, communion with the Father in the Lord’s Prayer.

Returning to the helpful work of Jonathan Pennington, we see in his The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, that he organizes Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount into a chiastic structure that looks something like this—this arrangement here abbreviates his original outline (see pp. 132–33).

Fig. 1

A Frame and Context: The Gospel of the Kingdom (4:23–25)

B Ascending and Sitting (5:1–2)

C The Call to God’s People (5:3–16)

D GR* in Relation to God’s Law (5:17–48)

E GR in Relation to Piety toward God (6:1–21)

D’ GR in Relation to the World (6:19–7:12)

C’ Warnings (7:13–27)

B’ Descending and Action (7:28–8:1)

A’ Frame and Context: The Gospel of the Kingdom (8:2–9:38)

* GR = Greater Righteousness

Graphically arranged, Pennington creates a pyramid or mountain with the center of his chiasm forming the apex of the pyramid, the place where Jesus gives the Lord’s Prayer.


The value of seeing this chiasm turned up as pyramid or a mountain is that it puts into formation the focal point of the Sermon. As Pennington notes,

Due to the educational habits in the Western tradition, we tend to think of literary structure as a two-dimensional outline with Roman numerals [see Fig. 1 above]. This is one helpful approach. However, we cannot assume this was in Matthew’s mind of that this is the only beneficial way to represent the Sermon’s structure. For example, Luz offers a pictorial diagram, which visualizes the centrality of the Lord’s Prayer. Allison’s presentation of the structure is also more visually complex than a mere outline of the argument. I think it is beneficial to consider other alternative ways of representing the Sermon’s structure. I offer here a visual representation of the Sermon as the ascent and descent of a mountain. (133)

This topographical approach to the sermon is most insightful, because in the Law and the Prophets the mountain top is often the place where God communed with this people, where Moses went into the presence of the Lord, and where prayer was made. Indeed, in the tabernacle, which took its tripartite formation from Mount Sinai, the holy of holies is, in a manner of speaking, the top of the mountain. Thus, it was to the top of the mountain that the high priest entered once a year.

Now, in Jesus’ Sermon he centers his message on the prayer that his disciples are able to offer to their Father in heaven. And as the prayer itself is organized around six imperatives, it places “on earth as it is in heaven” in the very middle of the petitions—3 heavenly petitions, then 3 earthly petitions, with heaven touching earth in the middle.

In the tabernacle, the mercy seat was the place where heaven touched earth, where the Lord of heaven put his feet on earth. But now, with the Son heralding the good news of the Father’s kingdom, he is teaching how a way has been made for Christ’s disciples to come and pray at the mountaintop to God their Father. Clearly then, seeing the structure of the Sermon is important, because it helps us to understand the central point of the message—something we will come back to as we study the Sermon on the Mount over the next few months.

Getting the Structure of the Sermon on the Mount

From Pennington’s observations, from my own study, as well as consulting Dale Allison’s book The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring Moral Imaginations, I’ve put together a structure in Matthew’s first discourse-narrative block, which conjoins Jesus’s words (ch. 5–7) and deeds (ch. 8–9), and which conceives of the structure as two peaks in Matthew. While still presented in two-dimensional fashion, I do believe we can and should read each of these sections with awareness of the topographical locations of Jesus.

Screenshot 2018-05-31 16.23.15Screenshot 2018-05-31 16.26.36Whereas Pennington’s arrangement skips over Jesus’ healing work and rolls the actions of Jesus in chapters 8–9 into the “Frame and Context: The Gospel of the Kingdom,” a more detailed outline identifies how Jesus’s sermon prepares (ch. 5–7) for his healing actions (ch. 8–9). Just the same, his powerful healings validate the authority of his preaching. Both of these passages also relate to the disciples he is calling to himself, and remind us why they should be read together, just as Matthew 4:23–25 and 9:35–38 lead us to do.

All in all, Matthew shows himself again to possess great literary skill as he organizes Jesus’ sermon in a very intentional way. More thought must be given to the contents of the Sermon on the Mount. But for now these outlines above lead us in the right direction as we seek to understand Jesus’ words.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash