An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount

by Kent Young

© 2017


MATTHEW 4:12 - 5:2

This present work was based on a collection of notes that I put together when I was teaching through the Sermon on the Mount. Prior to getting into the text of the sermon, however, a few lessons were given regarding the sermons immediate context. These contextual points were originally intended to be placed at the front of this work, but when combined with the introductory chapter regarding “the kingdom” there seemed to me to be far too many words for the reader to get through before even getting into the text of the Lord’s sermon. Therefore I decided to remove the section regarding the sermon’s context from the body of the work and add it on as an addendum in the back. I pray that the reader finds them helpful in gaining a full understanding of Jesus’ kingdom message as found in his most famous sermon.

Now, there are three aspects of the context of the Sermon on the Mount that will be addressed. Firstly, there is the historical/prophetic context: What has been spoken in Jewish history previously about the kingdom to which Jesus refers? Secondly, there is the present/local context: What was going on in the area around Jesus leading up to the giving of the Sermon on the Mount? Finally, we will notice the immediate context into which Jesus spoke by noticing who was his direct audience for the sermon.

Historical/Prophetic Context

It must be noted up-front that Jesus was not the first person to address this matter of “the kingdom.” For centuries, the prophets of Israel had told of a coming time when Israel would be restored to its position as the prominent nation on the earth, and that during that period the earth would be restored to a blissful condition of peace and righteousness (Isaiah 2:2-4). Most importantly, it was said that the Lord Jehovah himself would rule and reign from Zion in Jerusalem (Isaiah 24:23, Zechariah 14:8,9). Since the early days of God’s dealing with man, there have been prophecies about a promised deliverer, the Messiah, who was to come, not only as king of Israel (Zechariah 9:9), but as the redeemer of all of mankind (Genesis 3:15; 22:18; Job 19:25).

Something very important to understand regarding the context of his teaching is that Jesus was, in one sense, giving a clarification for what had been spoken before about the coming Messiah of Israel and the kingdom that he would bring.

While the Jews of Jesus’ day were eagerly expecting the appearance of the Christ (or Messiah), their understanding of just who this one would be seemed to be limited exclusively to his predicted role as liberator and ruler of Israel. The fact that this would indeed be the role of the coming Messiah is made clear by much of Old Testament prophecy. The Jews apparently wanted to emphasize this aspect of prophecy, as they were longing for their liberation from the Romans and for the establishment of their own kingdom.

Jesus, on the other hand, while certainly not denying this regal function of the coming Christ, needed first of all to explain the spiritual nature of his messianic kingdom and the spiritual condition of those who would possess it.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom.”

As demonstrated by its introductory sentence, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is explaining to his hearers the spiritual condition of those to whom his future kingdom will belong.

Present/Local Context

We will look next at what Matthew the evangelist describes as happening locally immediately preceding Jesus’ giving of the Sermon on the Mount. We will do so by noticing a few points made in earlier chapters in Matthew’s gospel.

Messianic Chatter

Prior to Jesus’ appearance on the scene, there had been much talk among the Jews about a glorious “age to come” for the nation of Israel, and especially about the Messiah who was to come and usher in this age. Luke 2:38 mentions that there were many around the time of Jesus’ birth who were waiting for “the redemption of Jerusalem.” Acts 5:35-37 describes two occasions around this time where men had risen up as revolutionaries and gathered large followings for themselves. Certainly these revolutionaries were making messianic claims about themselves, exploiting the eager expectation of the Jews for the promised messianic kingdom. The coming of the magi to Jerusalem described in Matthew 2:1-12 showed that even among the Gentiles there was an interest being generated about Israel and her messianic hope. All of this “messianic chatter” going on in Jerusalem helps to explain why so many were willing to venture out into the wilderness to hear an interesting character make proclamations about a kingdom drawing near (Matthew 3:1-6).

John the Baptist – Matthew 3:1-11

The word of God from the mouth of a prophet had not been heard by the nation of Israel for centuries. You can imagine, then, how much of a stir was caused when, all of a sudden, the rather eccentric John the Baptist came on the scene and began speaking like one of the prophets of old.

John’s message was unabashedly, and not surprisingly considering the content of our study, about the coming of a kingdom. John’s phraseology is important to notice. This imminent kingdom, according to John, was not going to consist of the invasion and overtaking of one earthly empire by another after the manner of the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, or the Romans. Rather, John, like the prophets before him, spoke of a kingdom that was to be “of the heavens” (Daniel 2:34,44,45; Matthew 3:2). Many from within Israel began going out to hear this new prophet of God. John was baptizing all who were willing to “repent” in light of the coming heavenly kingdom.

Most in Israel, including Herod the political ruler, and the Pharisees who were among the religious rulers, rejected John the Baptist and his call to repentance (Luke 3:19,20; 7:30). John was eventually arrested and put in prison. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was given within this immediate context of John’s ministry and Israel’s response to him.

Having learned of John the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus withdrew to Galilee (Matthew 4:12), and began to proclaim the same message as did John his forerunner, “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn nigh” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). The coming of “the kingdom of the heavens” was the primary message of John’s ministry, and was the first message heralded by the Lord Jesus.

Jesus’ Kingdom Proclamation – Matthew 4:12-17

Matthew describes both Jesus and John the Baptist as proclaiming to Israel the soon arrival of the heavenly kingdom (Matthew 3:2; 4:17). However, the prophecies quoted by Matthew show that there was a small but important difference between John’s and Jesus’ messages. While both John and Jesus spoke about the arrival of the kingdom and of the Messiah, Jesus in addition spoke of some important changes that would come as a result of his arrival as the Messiah.

While both John the Baptist and Jesus similarly gave a call to repentance, John’s call seems to have been given exclusively to the nation of Israel. Referring to John the Baptist, Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah saying, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” (Matthew 3:3; Isaiah 40:3) This prophecy in Isaiah was given specifically in regard to Israel as a nation. Looking at the broader context in Isaiah, the prophet says, “Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries in the wilderness...” (Isaiah 40:1-3) John the Baptist’s purpose was to call the nation of Israel to repent in preparation for the appearance of its Messiah.

In regard to Jesus, however, Matthew quotes a different prophecy from Isaiah. In this prophecy Isaiah was foretelling what would be a profound and unique purpose for the coming Messiah, a purpose that goes beyond Israel, reaching to the Gentile nations (Matthew 4:15-16).

Long ago God had promised Abraham that he would have a coming “seed” or offspring, which would be a blessing to all the nations (Genesis 12:3; 26:4). Despite this promise, from the time of Moses up through the time of John the Baptist there was, as the apostle Paul phrased it, a “wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) between the Jews and the other nations. This wall had much to do with the Mosaic Law itself. The Israelites, according to the Mosaic Law, were forbidden from intermarriage with the Gentile nations whom they had dispossessed in coming into the promised land (Deuteronomy 7:3). There were also very strict ceremonial laws given that would distinguish the Israelites from all the nations around them. God had made extreme restrictions so that the Israelites might be preserved from the corrupting influence of the idolatry of the surrounding nations (Deuteronomy 7:4).

Things change, however, with the coming of the Messiah (or “Christ”). The Messiah’s coming, as Isaiah had predicted, was to set Israel free to fulfill her God-given purpose of blessing the Gentiles. Additionally, in Ephesians 2:11-21, Paul shows that the nation of Israel will not always be so divided from the Gentiles. With the coming of “the Christ” the nation of Israel was given the opportunity to become, as she was called to be, a blessing to all the nations.

Isaiah chapter nine, the passage that Matthew the evangelist quotes in the section introducing Jesus’ ministry, says, “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles - the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:15,16; Isaiah 9:1,2). While John’s ministry appeared to be confined to Judea to the south in Israel, calling the nation to repentance, Jesus’ ministry took place to the north in “Galilee of the Gentiles.” This ministry of Jesus to the Gentiles (or “nations”), gives the first hint toward the later developed truth that Jesus was himself the promised seed of Abraham, who brings the good news to all the nations (Galatians 3:16).

This is an important point to notice about the context for the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew is saying that Jesus’ ministry is not limited to the Jews, but has also to do with the Gentiles. The importance of understanding Matthew’s emphasis on this particular aspect of Jesus’ role as the Christ will become increasingly apparent. The brief reference to God’s future dealings with the Gentiles will prove vital toward gaining a proper understanding of Jesus’ instruction and of his revelation concerning “the kingdom of the heavens.”

Jesus Immediate Audience – Matthew 4:18-25

Our last point: Who exactly is Jesus addressing here in Matthew 5-7? Matthew’s answer to this question, we will find, runs contrary to the claims of many modern commentators.

Matthew describes Jesus audience as being comprised of two groups: the disciples and the crowds.

Having just commenced his public ministry with the call to repentance, Jesus immediately set out to begin calling his disciples (Matthew 4:18-22). Jesus went first to Simon Peter and his brother Andrew and then to James and John. These men were fishermen, but Jesus tells them that he will make them “fishers of men.” He calls them to leave their earthly vocation for a new, heavenly one. They all left and followed Jesus immediately. To these men would be added a few more, and these would comprise the group who are referred to as Jesus’ “disciples.”

These disciples, those who committed themselves to leave all and follow Jesus were not, however, the only people within the sound of Jesus’ voice as he taught on the mountain.

Toward the end of chapter four, Matthew describes “the crowds.” While Matthew the evangelist describes John the Baptist’s hearers as having come from “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan” (Matthew 3:5; essentially Jewish areas), he says that Jesus’ fame spread “throughout all Syria” and that “great crowds followed him,” not only from the Jewish influenced areas of Jerusalem and Judea, but also from the Gentile influenced areas of Galilee and the Decapolis (Matthew 4:25). While John’s influence was to the south, only really throughout Jerusalem and Judea, Jesus’ became larger, spread further, and began to influence the Gentile areas. The miraculous healings that Jesus performed among the people greatly increased his fame, well beyond that of John the Baptist (see also John 4:1), to the point where great crowds began to follow him.

The beginning of chapter five of Matthew’s gospel divides Jesus’ followers into these two groups: the crowds and the disciples. While the Jew and Gentile distinction had been important for centuries, Matthew would have us notice this other distinction between the crowds and the disciples. The crowds were composed of both Jews and Gentiles (Matthew 4:25). Similarly, the disciples, though of Jewish descent, were from the region referred to as “Galilee of the Gentiles,” in the north of the land of Israel. Matthew is subtly indicating to us that the Jew/Gentile distinction is fading as the crowd/disciple distinction is becoming more important.

Jesus’ Target Audience

While it may seem a bit trivial, I point out this distinction between the crowds and the disciples in order to emphasize an important detail. Immediately before Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, though he takes notice of the crowds around him (5:1), it is the disciples that come to him and it is they whom he begins to teach (5:2). This will be a key point to bear in mind while studying and applying Jesus’ teaching: The principles of the kingdom are explained specifically for disciples. It is the disciples, at this point exclusively Jewish, but more importantly having already made the decision to leave all and follow Jesus, who are the target audience for the Sermon on the Mount. The crowds, composed of both Jews and Gentiles, and not necessarily having made any solemn commitment to follow Jesus, are not Jesus’ primary audience.

Though many commentators attempt to make it such,[1] the message that Jesus brings in this section is not a general call to discipleship. Jesus will give that general call to discipleship at a later time (Matthew 11:28-30, Mark 8:34-37). The Sermon on the Mount, however, is directed toward those who are already considered to be Jesus’ disciples, and it is a discourse that he intends for this immediate audience of committed followers to obey. Note that Jesus had previously given a general call to repentance, in anticipation of the coming kingdom. It is to those who had responded to that first call to repentance that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, now offers the opportunity to enter the kingdom. Again, Jesus had already called men to repentance and discipleship (Matthew 4:17,19); he now begins, in the Sermon on the Mount, to teach his disciples how they can receive the reward of his kingdom.

However, despite being given to the disciples, the Sermon on the Mount should not be seen as something secretive or mysterious that Jesus intends for only a few to understand. There were times when Jesus did want the meaning of his message to be concealed. After the kingdom message was largely rejected by the nation of Israel, Jesus used this “mystery” method of teaching, using what have been termed his “parables” (Matthew 13:2,10-13), to instruct his disciples while hiding his meaning from the surrounding crowds. The Sermon on the Mount, however, is not designed that way. It is not something secretive or mysterious. Though this instruction in the Sermon on the Mount was directed toward his disciples, Jesus clearly spoke so that the crowds around could hear and could understand. Jesus was well aware of the fact that the crowds would be affected by what he was saying to his disciples. As he finished the teaching on the mountain, it was the crowds who were astonished at the authority with which he spoke, and the crowds were the first to whom he began to minister once he came down from the mountain (Matthew 7:28-8:1). Jesus even discussed, in his message, the intended effect that his disciples are to have on the world around them (Matthew 5:13-16).

The first two verses of chapter five summarize well the target audience of Jesus’ teaching on the mount, “Seeing the crowds he went up...his disciples came to him...and he taught them, saying...” The sermon is a private conversation made public. The disciples are being taught, while the crowds are listening in.

The Importance of the Context

As with all exegesis, and the Sermon on the Mount is no exception, discerning correct interpretation requires a clear understanding of context. If the context is missed, it is likely that so also will be the proper interpretation.

What then are the implications surrounding the contextual points already mentioned? Well, first consider the point about Matthew being careful to point out Jesus’ messianic purpose regarding the nation of Israel, especially as it pertains to the Gentiles. This point is significant because there are those who note the Jewish elements within Jesus’ teaching, such as the teaching regarding the Law and Prophets (5:17, 7:12) and the reference to offering a gift at the altar (5:23,24), but then wrongly conclude that Jesus’ audience is exclusively the nation of Israel. Some even go so far as to call Jesus’ teaching “Old Covenant doctrine” that will not directly apply to believers who will comprise the Church. An understanding of Matthew’s concept of Jesus’ messianic purpose as it pertains to Israel and to the Gentiles will help preclude this error.

While it is true that all of Jesus’ original disciples were Jewish themselves, it is equally clear that his future disciples will be from among both the Jews and the Gentiles, and Jesus’ instructions, warnings, and commands will equally apply to both groups. Matthew hints at this by mentioning that the crowds who were being influenced by the teaching were from both Jewish and Gentile regions (4:25), and by noting that the Jewish disciples themselves were from “Galilee of the Gentiles” (4:15). The matter becomes undeniably clear when Jesus later charges these original Jewish disciples to “make disciples of all nations...teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19,20). So, all of Jesus disciples, both Jews and Gentiles, are obliged to take heed to Jesus’ teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.

Next, let’s look at the significance of recognizing the disciples as Jesus’ primary target audience. There are some who would attempt to make Jesus’ words out to be a general ethical standard by which society in this age is to be governed. Jesus’ warning not to “give your holy things unto dogs” (Matthew 7:6), mandates against this idea. As was shared earlier, the kingdom reward that Jesus speaks of throughout the sermon can only be set before those who have already been born again through their belief in Jesus. Thus, the instruction given by Jesus was actually intended solely for those who are consecrated to follow and obey him. The teaching is wholly inadequate for civil governance or any other form of an ethical standard for non-believers. Further explanation of this concept can be found elsewhere in this work (see chapter 7: Concerning Judgment as well as chapter 9: Conclusion).

In summary, Jesus did not intend his teaching to be given to evil men, or to mankind in general. The kingdom message delivered by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is only properly understood when seen as having been directly given to those who have committed themselves to follow Jesus, and who have been given his Spirit, that they may be willing and able to obey.

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] (MacArthur, 1985, p. 136) This mistake by John MacArthur sadly has a ripple effect through much of his understanding of Jesus’ teaching. His assumption that Jesus is calling rather than training disciples leads to his pervasive error of seeing both the temporal and millennial judgments warned about by Jesus and the apostles throughout the New Testament as being warnings about final judgment for false-professors or unbelievers who are supposedly deluded into thinking that they are genuine believers. More on this topic is discussed in chapter 9 of this work which expounds upon Jesus’ concluding statements for the Sermon on the Mount.