Sermon on the Mount (Pt. 1- Interpretation)

While in seminary, I attended a doctoral colloquium where Dr. Charles Quarles described the Sermon on the Mount as a kind of New Covenant Torah. By this, he meant that the Sermon on the Mount is the standard of life that will characterize the members of the New Covenant (Jesus’ followers). Ever since that talk, I have desired to take the time to study the most famous message ever preached.  As I study, I am going to write what I am learning on my blog. This will allow me an opportunity to synthesize what I am learning, and I hope that it will be beneficial to some of you as well![1]

The SM begins in Matthew 5, after Jesus ascends a mountain and begins to teach. He describes the nature of those who will be recipients of His blessings. He proclaims an upside-down kingdom in which the least are the greatest. And He presents a way of life rooted in a pure heart that loves God supremely and serves others sacrificially. His words have been regarded as the “manifesto” of the Christian faith and are well-respected by those inside and outside the church (see Mahatma Gandhi and the Sermon on the Mount, for example[2]).

In today’s post I want to consider the proper interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. As I began my study, I was surprised to see how many different ways that the SM is interpreted. For those outside the faith, the SM is primarily interpreted as a description of the Christian life. This is not entirely incorrect, but it is often viewed as the primary substance of Christ’s message, which it is not. One must also account for and synthesize many other truths that Jesus taught, such as Him being the Son of God who would save His people via His death and resurrection, to understand the true substance of Christianity.

Inside the faith, interpretations are primarily concerned with understanding the purpose of the SM. Is it meant to be a law that exposes sin and drives people to the grace of God in Christ? Is it a code of ethic that will only be realized in heaven? Is it a way of life for elite Christians only?[3] Or is it a description of the kind of life that God progressively creates in His people by His Spirit?

The SM is not primarily a law that drives one to Christ, a heaven-only ethic, or a way of life for elite Christians. Rather, the SM is a description of a Christ-like life that will be created by God in His people. Thus, it is applicable to all believers. Members of the early church such as Chrysostom and Augustine held this view, as well as reformers such as Calvin and Luther.[4] The SM describes the righteous life which the Christian should strive to live by. This life, however, cannot attained by self-effort. It is wrought by God Himself, through the power of the Spirit. It is an expression and a result of His saving power.[5]

Is this how you interpret the Sermon on the Mount? Can you see how one’s view of the SM shapes his/her application of Matthew 5-7? In my next post, I will consider Quarles’ compelling argument for why the SM should be viewed this way in light of three themes in Matthew’s gospel: new exodus, new creation, and new covenant. Until then, let’s strive in the power and grace of God to live up to the standards of the Sermon on the Mount!


[1] The talk can be found on the YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbOqvFgB8NE

[2] Dr. P.T. Subrahmanyan, “Mahatma Gandhi and the Sermon on the Mount,” https://www.mkgandhi.org/articles/mahatma-gandhi-and-sermon-on-the-mount.html.

[3] Some in the early church believed this to be the case, and as a result resorted to monasticism and aestheticism.

[4] Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, (Nasvhille: B&H Publishing Group), 4-10.

[5] Ibid., 20.

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