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… – Matthew 5:1 ESV
It was Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, who first referred to this text as the Sermon on the Mount. But that title is somewhat of a misnomer, in that the content and the context appears to make it much more of a teaching, than what we would know as a sermon. Obviously, the setting is outdoors, on a hillside in Galilee, at the northern end of the Sea of Galilee. It is early on in Jesus’ ministry and yet, we know from chapter four, that Jesus has already begun attracting huge crowds.
And he 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, those having seizures, 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. – Matthew 4:23-25 ESV
Those who made up the audience sitting on the hillside that day to listen to Jesus speak, were made up of all kinds of people from all over the area. And within the crowd would have been disciples or followers of Jesus. This term was not exclusively used of the 12, but was commonly used to refer to any and all who followed Jesus and were attracted to His message and miracles. As John will make clear in his gospel, many of these individuals would later choose to abandon Jesus when His message became increasingly more convicting and the price of discipleship, more costly (John 6:66). Also in the crowd that day were the first four men whom Jesus called to be His official students. Chapter four also tells us how Jesus had called two brothers: Simon (Peter) and Andrew, as well as another two siblings: James and John. All four of them were common fishermen. But when Jesus extended the invitation to join His ranks as His disciples, they all willingly followed. The final group that listened to Jesus teach that day were the merely curious. They probably made up the largest contingent within the crowd. These were the people who were enamored with Jesus’ miracles and intrigued by what He taught, but were attracted by the novelty of it all. So, as Jesus sat down to teach, He found an audience made up of the called, the semi-committed and the curious. And it is important to keep these three groups in mind as we listen to Jesus’s words, because each of them will have a slightly different take on what He has to say.
The danger we face in reading a passage like this one is to do so from our modern point of view and with our unique perspective as modern believers who know how the story ends. In other words, we have insights the people in Jesus’ audience would not have had. We know about His death, burial and resurrection. We are well aware of the Holy Spirit and the role He plays in helping us live out the Christian life. We know that our salvation is based on faith alone in Christ alone, and not on words or human effort. We also know that our ongoing sanctification is based on faith as well. We can’t make ourselves more holy. We must depend upon the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit and the Word of God. So, when we read the Sermon on the Mount, we hear it with redeemed ears. We are privy to insider information that the original hearers would not have had. They were not yet sure who Jesus really was. Some would have thought Him to be the Messiah, but they would have been few in number. Even the four men whom Jesus called, probably only saw Him as a rabbi or teacher at this point in their relationship with Him. It would be some time later, after He had called all 12 of His disciples, that Jesus would ask them who the people believed Him to be. And they would respond, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say you are one of the other ancient prophets risen from the dead” (Luke 9:19 NLT). So, at this point, early on in His ministry, there would have been much debate about just who Jesus was. And that point will make what He has to say that much more important. How would they have heard His message? What kind of impact would His words have had on them? The challenge we face when reading this all-too-familiar passage, is to not allow our status as modern, 21st-Century Christians to taint or influence the message. Because we know how the story ends, we can have the unfortunate tendency to remove from Jesus’ words all their power and revolutionary nature. What Jesus had to say that day in that bucolic setting was radical and unheard of. Like fingers on a blackboard, His teachings would have grated on the ears of his listeners, causing them great confusion and raising all kinds of questions in their minds. For too many of us, because of over-familiarity, His words have long ago lost their power. The radical, counter-cultural calling found in the words of Jesus no longer have the same impact as they did the day He spoke them. It is almost as if we know too much. Our privileged insights into the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, His death and resurrection, have robbed what He had to say that day of their intended impact and shocking significance.
My challenge to you is to read the Sermon on the Mount with fresh eyes. To the best of your ability, get into the mindset of someone hearing His words for the very first time. In fact, try to hear them like a 1st-Century Jew. It is important to remember that even the four disciples of Jesus: Simon, Andrew, James and John, were not yet technically believers. They had not heard all of His teachings. They knew nothing about His impending death. They had heard nothing about His coming resurrection. He had not yet told them about the future coming of the Holy Spirit. No one in the audience would have known what we know. So, listen to His words from their perspective. Hear what they would have heard. Allow yourself to be shocked by the radical nature of what He was saying and how it would have dramatically altered your concepts of life, religion, relationships, and God. Everything you knew to be true was about to be turned on its head. All you had been taught and had learned to lean on as reliable, right and non-negotiable, was about to get rocked.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.