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The Sermon on the Mount in Context

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Tonight I’m starting a new Bible study with my youth group on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (hereafter SM) in Matthew 5–7. My lessons with the youth will closely (but not exactly) follow Dale C. Allison, Jr.’s outline for the SM.1 Following Allison’s outline of the SM, tonight’s lesson focuses on the context of the SM in Matthew 4:23–5:2, where we read:

And he [Jesus] went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: (ESV)

In Matthew 4:23–5:2, we see Jesus ministering in Galilee (4:23), famous in Syria (4:24–25), and seated on the mountain to teach (5:1–2).

According to Matthew 4:23, Jesus’ ministry in Galilee consisted of teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every affliction. Luke 4:16–21 fills out the content of Jesus’ teaching in synagogues: Jesus taught that he is the Servant of the Lord prophesied about in Isaiah 61:1–2.2 That Jesus taught in synagogues also reinforces that in his humanity, Jesus was a first–century itinerant Jewish rabbi.3 Furthermore, while Jesus taught in the synagogues, he was simultaneously preaching the gospel of the kingdom, which demands repentance in response (Matt. 4:17). Finally, to teaching and preaching Jesus added miraculous healing, which “pointed to the validity of his message.”4

Jesus’ miracles earned him a wide following early in his public ministry, as we read in Matthew 4:24–25. Jesus’ followers, broadly speaking, included both Jews and Gentiles: Jews from Galilee, Jerusalem, and Judea; and Gentiles from Syria and the Decapolis. Melvin Tinker rightly notes that the presence of Gentiles in the crowds following Jesus points to the fact that Jesus is a light for salvation not only to Jews but also to Gentiles.5

Jesus “went up on the mountain” because he saw these large crowds following him, and he took this opportunity to teach them what has come to be called the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1–2). Matthew 5:1–2 tells us three important things about Jesus:

  1. Jesus is a new Moses.
  2. Jesus is his disciples’ authoritative rabbi.
  3. Jesus speaks with the authority of God himself.6

First, Jesus is a new Moses. Jesus “went up on the mountain” (Matt. 5:1). As Charles Quarles notes, this phrase from Matt. 5:1 is “an exact verbal parallel” to Moses’ ascension of Mt. Sinai as recorded in Exodus 19:3.7 Jesus is “a new Moses who leads a new exodus for a new Israel replete with a new Sinai, all pointing forward to the new covenant.”8

Simultaneously to being a new Moses, Jesus is his disciples’ authoritative rabbi. His seated position on the mountain was “customary” for Jewish rabbis at the time.9 Furthermore, Jesus refers to himself as a rabbi in Matthew 23:8, and he accepts this ascription both from Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene in John’s Gospel (3:1–2 and 20:16).

Of course, Jesus is more than a new Moses, more than a new rabbi, and this fact brings us to our final point: Jesus speaks with the authority of God himself. Following the SM, we read that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28–29). Jesus’ authority exceeded that of the highest human religious authority for first–century Jews. Whose authority is higher than the highest human authority but God’s? Unlike Quarles, I do believe that Matt. 5:2, with its emphasis on Jesus not only teaching and “saying” but also “open[ing] his mouth,” echoes Matt. 4:4 in which authoritative words are “from the mouth of God.”10 According to Matthew 5:2, when considered in its context within Matthew as a whole and indeed of the Bible as a whole, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—as are all Jesus’ teachings—is a sermon directly from God himself.

Matthew 4:23–5:2 thus sets the SM into its context, without which we cannot appreciate the SM in all its fulness. Matthew 4:23–5:2 presents Jesus as the herald of the gospel of the kingdom, which calls on everyone to repent in light of Jesus’ life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection. This text also presents Jesus as a new Moses with an authority greater than his fellow rabbis because Jesus is not only fully human but also fully God. As we begin to look at the Sermon on the Mount, before we even get to Jesus’ actual words there, may we submit ourselves to him as the rightful King of God’s kingdom, which covers the whole universe of his creation, through repentant faith that he died to save us from our sins, “to enable us to live the Sermon on the Mount,” to use the phrase of D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones.11

Notes

1 Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Structure of the Sermon on the Mount.” Journal of Biblical Literature 106.3 (1987): 423–445.

2 Melvin Tinker notes that Isaiah 61:1–2 also “lies behind the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry in Matthew as represented by the Sermon on the Mount” (“The Servant Solution: The Co-ordination of Evangelism and Social Action,” Themelios 32.2 [2007], 12).

3 At the conclusion of his article, Allison argues that the SM, particularly in Matthew 5:13–7:12, “addresses the three things upon which, according to Simeon the Just, the world stands [the Law—Matt. 5:21–48; Temple service—Matt. 6:1–18; and godly social behavior—Matt. 6:19–7:12], and it addresses them in precisely the same order” (“Structure,” 443).

4 Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary 33A (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 81.

5 “The Servant Solution,” 11.

6 These three observations were inspired by three observations Hagner makes about Matthew 5:1–2 (Matthew 1–13, 85). My three points, however, are more explicit than Hagner’s.

7 Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NACSBT 11 (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), 22.

8 James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 369.

9 Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 86.

10 Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, 38 n. 8, citing Robert Gundry for this position.

11 D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976 [1959–1960]), 12.

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