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In the Gospel of St. Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount is a compilation of Jesus' sayings, epitomizing his moral teaching. According to chapters , Jesus of Nazareth gave this sermon (estimated around AD 30) on a mountainside to his disciples and a large crowd. Matthew groups Jesus' teachings into five discourses, of which the Sermon on the Mount is the first. The others concern instructions for the disciples, parables of the Kingdom, instructions for the church, and a harsh denunciation of scribes and pharisees.

The best-known written portions of the open-air sermon comprise the Beatitudes, found at the beginning of the section. The sermon also contains the Lord's Prayer and the injunctions to "resist not evil" ( ) and "turn the other cheek", as well as a version of the Golden Rule. Other lines often quoted are the references to "salt of the earth", "light of the world" and "judge not, lest ye be judged."

Many Christians believe that the Sermon on the Mount is a form of commentary on the Ten Commandments. It portrays Christ as the true interpreter of the Mosaic Law. To many, the Sermon on the Mount contains the central tenets of Christian discipleship, and is considered as such by many religious and moral thinkers, such as Tolstoy, Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It has been one of the main sources of Christian pacifism.


There are no actual mountains in this part of Galilee, but there are several large hills in the region to the west of the Sea of Galileemarker, and so some scholars do not feel "the mountain" is the most accurate understanding of the Greek word used in Matthew 5:1. Gundry feels it could mean "mountainous region," while France feels it should be read as "the hills." Less clinical academic analysis amongst some modern Christians has suggested the location as a hill on the north end of the Sea of Galileemarker, near Capernaummarker. The area believed to be where the Sermon on the Mount took place is unique in that it is a natural amphitheater. From the top of the north-facing hillside, any voice spoken at regular level is amplified with enough volume for people within 200 yards to hear as though the speaker were standing beside them.

One possible location of the sermon is on a hill that rises near Capernaum. Known in ancient times as Mt. Eremos and Karn Hattin, this hill is now the site of a twentieth-century Roman Catholic chapel called the Church of the Beatitudes.

The reference to going up a mountain prior to preaching is considered by many to be a deliberate reference to Moses on Mount Sinaimarker, and though Hill disagrees, arguing that the links would have been made far clearer, Lapide feels that the clumsy phrasing implies that this verse is an exact transliteration from the Hebrew passage describing Moses. Augustine of Hippo in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount supported the Moses parallel, arguing that this symbolism showed Jesus as supplementing the precepts of Moses, although in Augustine's later writings, such as the Reply to Faustus, he carefully backs away from this view.

Comparisons with the Sermon on the Plain

While Matthew groups Jesus' teachings into sets of similar material, the same material is scattered when found in Luke. The Sermon on the Mount may be compared with the similar but more succinct Sermon on the Plain as recounted by the Gospel of Luke (6:17–49), which occurs at the same moment in Luke's narrative, and also features Jesus heading up a mountain. Some scholars believe that they are the same sermon, while others hold that Jesus frequently preached similar themes in different places. However, a number of scholars believe that at least one sermon never took place but was a conflation created by the author to frame the primary teachings of Jesus recorded in the Q document.

The sermon's audience

That Matthew has Jesus sit down might indicate this is not meant to be a public address, and Jewish leaders in schools and synagogues would always sit when delivering a lesson. Matthew also appears to indicate that the disciples were intended to be the principle recipients of the address, and so the traditional view, as depicted in art, is that the disciples sat near Jesus, with the crowd beyond but still able to hear, while Lapide feels that Jesus' sermon is directed at three circles of listeners, his disciples, the crowd, and the world in general. John Chrysostom was of the opinion that the sermon itself was delivered to the disciples, but that it was intended for wider distribution, which is why it was written down.


The sermon comprises the following components:

Introductory narrative (Matthew 5:1-2)

A large crowd assembles due to Jesus healing the sick, so he climbs a mountain and speaks.

Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12)

They describe the character of the people of the kingdom. These are Christ's promises of coming blessings. In Matthew, there are eight (or nine) blessings, while in Luke there are four, followed by four woes. In Matthew, more than in Luke, the Beatitudes refer to moral or spiritual qualities of Christian discipleship.

Metaphors of Salt and Light (Matthew 5:13-16)

This concludes the picture of God's people drawn in the beatitudes, as well as an introduction to the following section.

Expounding of the Law (Matthew 5:17-48)

Jesus fulfills and reinterprets Mosaic Law and in particular the Ten Commandments, contrasting with what "you have heard" from others, also known as the Antitheses.

Discourse on ostentation (Matthew 6)

Jesus condemns the "good works" of fasting, alms, and prayer, when they are only done for show, and not from the heart. The discourse goes on to condemn the superficiality of materialism and call the disciples not to worry about material needs, but to "seek" God's kingdom first.

Lord's Prayer

Within the discourse on ostentation, Matthew presents as an example of correct prayer. Luke places in a different context. The Lord's prayer contains parallels to .

Discourse on judgmentalism (Matthew 7:1-6)

Jesus condemns those who judge others before first judging themselves.

Discourse on holiness (Matthew 7:7-29)

Jesus concludes the sermon by warning against false prophets, and emphasizing that humans are unable to do right ("bear fruit") apart from God. The Foundation must be on the Rock.


One of the most important debates over the sermon is how directly it should be applied to everyday life. Almost all Christian groups have developed nonliteral ways to interpret and apply the sermon. McArthur lists twelve basic schools of thought on these issues:
  1. The Absolutist View rejects all compromise and believes that, if obeying the scripture costs the welfare of the believer, then that is a reasonable sacrifice for salvation. All the precepts in the sermon must be taken literally and applied universally. Proponents of this view include St. Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and in later life Leo Tolstoy. The Oriental Orthodox Churches fully adopt this position; among heterodox groups, the early Anabaptists came close, and modern Anabaptist groups such as the Mennonites and Hutterites come closest. More recently, this view is supported by Franz Alt and James W. Douglass.
  2. One method that is common, but not endorsed by any denomination, is to simply modify the text of the sermon. In ancient times this took the form of actually altering the text of the sermon to make it more palatable. Thus some early copyists changed Matthew 5:22 from "whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment" to the watered-down "whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment." "Love your enemies" was changed to "Pray for your enemies" in pOxy 1224 6:1a; Did. 1:3; Pol. Phil. 12:3. tells the disciples to "Love one another". The exception for divorce in the case of porneia may be a Matthean addition; it is not present in Luke 16:18, Mark 10:11, or 1 Cor 7:10–11; and in 1 Cor 7:12–16, Paul gives his own exceptions to Jesus' teaching. Additions were made to the Lord's Prayer to support other doctrines, and other prayers were developed as substitute. More common in recent centuries is to paraphrase the Sermon and in so doing make it far less radical. A search through the writings of almost every major Christian writer finds them at some point to have made this modification.
  3. One of the most common views is the Hyperbole View, which argues that portions of what Jesus states in the Sermon are hyperbole, and that if one is to apply the teaching to the real world, they need to be "toned down." Most interpreters agree that there is some hyperbole in the sermon, with being the most prominent example, but there is disagreement over exactly which sections should not be taken literally.
  4. Closely related is the general principles view that argues that Jesus was not giving specific instructions, but general principles of how one should behave. The specific instances cited in the sermon are simply examples of these general principles.
  5. The double standard view is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church. It divides the teachings of the sermon into general precepts and specific counsels. Obedience to the general precepts is essential for salvation, but obedience to the counsels is only necessary for perfection. The great mass of the population need only concern themselves with the precepts; the counsels must be followed by only a pious few such as the clergy and monks. This theory was initiated by St. Augustine and later fully developed by St. Thomas Aquinas, though an early version of it is cited in Did. 6:2, "For if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able" (Roberts-Donaldson), and reflected in the Apostolic Decree of the Council of Jerusalem ( ). Geoffrey Chaucer also did much to popularize this view among speakers of English with his Canterbury Tales (Wife of Bath's Prologue, v. 117-118)
  6. Martin Luther rejected the Roman Catholic approach and developed a different two-level system McArthur refers to as the two realms view. Luther divided the world into the religious and secular realms and argued that the Sermon only applied to the spiritual. In the temporal world, obligations to family, employers, and country force believers to compromise. Thus a judge should follow his secular obligations to sentence a criminal, but inwardly, he should mourn for the fate of the criminal.
  7. At the same time as the Protestant Reformation was underway, a new era of biblical criticism began leading to the Analogy of Scripture View. Close reading of the Bible found that several of the most rigid precepts in the sermon were moderated by other parts of the New Testament. For instance, while Jesus seems to forbid all oaths, Paul is shown using them at least twice; thus the prohibition in the Sermon may seem to have some exceptions; though in fairness to Paul, it should be pointed out that he was not present at the Sermon on the Mount and may not have been aware of all of its teachings. See also Pauline Christianity.
  8. In the nineteenth century, several more interpretations developed. Wilhelm Herrmann embraced the notion of attitudes not acts, which can be traced back to St. Augustine. This view states that Jesus in the Sermon is not saying how a good Christian should behave, only what his attitude is. The spirit lying behind the act is more important than the act itself.
  9. Albert Schweitzer popularized the interim ethic view. This view sees Jesus as being convinced that the world was going to end in the very near future. As such, survival in the world did not matter as in the end times material well-being would be irrelevant.
  10. In the twentieth century another major German thinker, Martin Dibelius, presented another view also based on eschatology. His unconditional Divine will view is that the ethics behind the sermon are absolute and unbending, but the current fallen state of the world makes it impossible to live up to them. Humans are bound to attempt to live up to them, but failure is inevitable. This will change when the Kingdom of Heaven is proclaimed and all will be able to live in a godly manner. A similar view is also described in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, written in the late nineteenth century.
  11. Closely linked to this is the repentance view, which is that Jesus intended for the precepts in his Sermon to be unattainable, and through our certain failure to live up to them, we will learn to repent or that we will be driven to faith in the Gospel.
  12. Another eschatological view is that of modern dispensationalism. Dispensationalism, first developed by the Plymouth Brethren, divides human history into a series of ages or dispensations. Today we live in the period of grace where living up to the teachings of the sermon is impossible, but in the future, the Millennium will see a period where it is possible to live up to the teachings of the sermon, and where following them will be a prerequisite to salvation.

E. Earle Ellis (Professor of Theology at SWBTS) says that this sermon is an eschatological invitation in which Jesus is inviting believers to live according to an ethic that will be standard in the future kingdom of God . As Ellis says, we are to speak Jesus' words, think his thoughts, and do his deeds. Since this will be the ethic of the future kingdom of God, believers should go ahead and adjust their lives to this ethic in this age.

Jewish background

The way the Sermon on the Mount addresses Jewish beliefs (that are considered incorrect by Christians) and practices of that time was to go beyond “the letter of the law” and into “the spirit of the living God” [2Cor 3]. This was a restoration of the morality inherent in the Mosaic Law, requiring a discipline and behavior of faith by the believer that went beyond a mere external practice of Jewish faith and into the hidden nature of the human heart [Mat 6.1-18]. The established Jewish system had created a strict legalism that had crept into the Law, something Jesus spiritualized in his Sermon. By doing this he claims to be morally superior to Moses, as his personal sacrifice on the cross proved more valuable than the thousands of sacrifices which the Law had previously required. This was a view that the Jewish religious teachers of the Second Temple period would time and time again object to, see Rejection of Jesus.

The sermon begins with Jesus blessing the downtrodden, the meek [humble] and the “poor in spirit” [Mat 5.3-12]. This section introduces us to the Jewish theme of righteousness not just applicable to our outward person but within “the hidden person of the heart” [1Pe 3.4]. This theme would take centre stage in Jesus’ later debates with the Jewish leaders [Mat 15.1-20; Mar 7. 1-23; Lu 11.37-54]. Jesus then introduces “the central section of the sermon which runs from Matthew 5:17 to 7:12”, where Jesus identifies himself as the fulfiller of the requirements of the Law [Mat 5.17]. This is the catalyst to the rest of the sermon, revealing Jesus not only as the unique representative of the Law [cp. Rom 10.4], but as its one and only executor. Jesus was the prophet whom Moses predicted and admonished Israel to listen to, since he would fulfill not only God’s Law but also that of the prophets [Deut. 18.15-19].

In Mat 5.17-18, Jesus rejects the Jewish accusation that he was doing away with the law. For him, the law served only a temporary purpose [cp. Gal 3.19; Eph 2.15], something not to be eternally observed [Mat 5.18; cp. Rom 3.31; 8.4]. As a covenantal system of the Palestinian pact with Israel [De 29:1-29; 30:1-10], the Law ended with Jesus’ death on the cross [symbolized by the tearing of the temple curtain] thus, establishing a new priesthood [believers replacing the Levitical Jewish system].

The Greek word translated “fulfill” [pleroo] points to the understanding that “in Christ” is the limit at which the Law ceases to be [as opposed to teleo, an end], for the Law leads up to Christ who is the fulfillment of its types, and “in Christ” the purpose which it was designed to accomplish is fulfilled. That is, the purpose of the Law is fulfilled in Christ [cp. Rom 10.4, Amplified Bible Version].

The Jews had ignored the justice of God, as dictated in His law, because they failed to understand the true function and purpose for which God had made it. The law came in order to teach people what sin was and to point towards the coming Messiah who would fulfill it [as opposed to those who could only try to keep it, cp. Rom 7]. So in Mat 5.17, Jesus marks himself out as the Anointed One of God, the promised Messiah who has freed all believers from everything from which they could not be freed by the Law of Moses, a law based on “works” [cp. Acts 13.39; Rom 3.20; Gal 2.16].

In this introduction “Jesus is not laying down a new code of legal regulations” but stating great ethical principles inherent in God’s initial commandments. Even so, the question of how exactly Jesus fulfills the law, whilst not abrogating it, remains a tenuous one. The answer lies in the structural sequence that follows the Matthean account of the Sermon where Jesus uses the saying: “You have heard it said…But I tell you that…” [Mat 5.21-48] in reference to specific Mosaic commandments. The appearance of each is followed by what can only be described as a spiritualizing of the Law in regard to murder, adultery, marriage and religious practices. In doing this, Jesus corrects the faulty beliefs and practices of these commandments, which the Jews had obscured with their own set of rules and traditions [making “void the word of God” [Mat 15.1-20; cp. Mal 1.6; Gal 3.17; Rom 3.23].

In turn, the Jews criticized Jesus because his redefinition of the law instigated the people to start questioning and oppose long held traditions and beliefs instituted by their greedy, hierarchical legal system. But in reality, Jesus warned the people to avoid the hypocrisy read into the law by the Jews and not to do away with its inherent “glory and splendor” [cp. 2Cor. 3.7, 9]. The sermon, then, uncovers this ‘cutting of ethical corners’ by the Jewish leadership in order for them to manipulate the people to their evil plans [cf. Mat 15.3-6].

In Mat 5.17-20 Jesus turns this false interpretation of the law upside down by appealing to the very same law and using it as his moral compass, explaining the original purpose and meaning God had intended for it. Jesus, as the promised prophet [Deut 18.15-19] and Messiah, who has been sent to “explain everything” [John 4.25], is the only one able to address this faulty belief system.

For the early followers of Christ this showed that, even though God no longer required the type of strict adherence and observance to specific regulations of the law instituted by the Jews, He nonetheless expected His people to “observe and practice” all that it teaches [Mat 23.2-3; cp. Deut 17.10-11]. For example, in Deut 17.14-20, the king the Lord God will give to His people is instructed not to lift his heart “above that of his brothers”, due to his keeping a copy of the book of “all the words of this law and these statutes” [v.19-20]. The Jews of Jesus’ time had been guilty of this very act which the Jewish king is warned against.

“…through six concrete examples, (i) what sort of attitude and behavior Jesus requires and (ii) how his demands surpass those of the Torah without contradicting the Torah. … The letter of the law does not give life. All things lawful may not be helpful. One may refrain from murder and still hate, refrain from committing adultery and still lust in the heart, and it is possible to follow the OT’s provisions with regard to divorce and oaths and yet be found in sin. … Purely legal norms, such as those cited in Mt. 5.21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43, can never convey how life is to be lived by those who are genuinely poor in spirit, pure in heart, and full of mercy (5. 3, 7, 8).”

In the first of these examples [Mat 5.21-23] Jesus tackles the faulty Jewish teaching of how to deal with murder: cultivating love from a pure heart in order to abstain from murderous acts. Jesus makes it a crime to desire such things in the heart as it is to commit the act itself. This meant that whoever gets angry with someone will be judged and whoever insults another will suffer condemnation [the second death]. The one who does not repent of these “crimes of the heart” is called a murderer by Jesus. Clearly the morality which Jesus exhibits here is far higher than that of the Law of Moses [cp. Ex 20.13], since it does not tolerate hypocrisy. This is a fulfillment of the prophecy of the “new covenant” where God would write His laws “in our hearts” [Jer. 31.33; Heb 8.10]. This contrasts the giving of the law by Moses on Mount Sinai [Ex 20] with Jesus on the Mount of Olives.

The same technique is applied to the wrongly held belief of adultery in Mat 5.27-28, where Jesus once again lifts a Mosaic commandment [Ex 20.14] to where God expects it. The one who commits adultery is not only the one who acts upon it, but anyone else who harbors such desires in their heart. We see, therefore, that Jesus, far from abrogating the law, is making it more stringent and pure. This is symbolic of the fact that the Law of the Spirit is “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” [2Cor 3.3-11; cp. Rom 2.29; 7.6; 8.2]. This will become a necessary requirement for citizenship into the Kingdom.

God has begun to enact His plan of creating a “nation of kings, priests and saints…a true people of God” [Ex 19.6; Due 7.6; 1Pe 2.9] to be [in the future earth] citizens of the heavenly City of God that everyone who died in faith looked forward to [Heb 11.16]. This is a “new law” as far as the world is concerned but one that has been “hidden in Christ before the ages began” and until now revealed by God to His chosen people [cf. Eph 3.9; 1Cor 2.7; Rom 16.25-26; Col 1.26; 2Tim 1.9].

In the parallel passage of Luke 16.16-18, Jesus reiterates the importance of the law by stating that it will never be abrogated. And later on he uses the word “law” in reference to the commandments of God. This is verified by the fact that anyone who divorces commits adultery, yet under the Mosaic Law this was allowed. Later in Matthew Jesus explains why this was so [Mat 19.8] using Gen 2.24 to further establish a link between the current Jewish belief and practice of man leaving his parents for a wife “so they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let not man separate” [Mat 19.3-9]. This passage showcases the way the Jews had wrongly introduced divorce and by doing so, broke one of the central tenets of God’s law.

“On this basis it was plausible to think that in his exposition of the law…Jesus reestablished the pure teaching of the logos. The other regulations of the law that later came to be distinguished as ceremonial and judicial were viewed as added precepts that came after the worship of the golden calf. The ‘new testament of freedom’ abrogated them while extending and sharpening the ‘free and universal commands of nature’…The ‘new law’ is thus represented as a restoration and consummation of [Mosaic Law]”.

This “teaching of the logos” is furthered reinforced in Mat 5.38-42, where Jesus once again exerts a rigorous demand on the “eye for an eye” commandment [cp. Ex 21.24; Lev 24.20; Due 19.21]. From now on people are called to be peacemakers [Mat 5.39-40] and “give to anyone who asks” [5.41-42], a reference to what true acts of justice require. He explains that the Law dealing with public reprisals has been wrongly used to justify personal vengeance over and against the only judge and jury, the Lord God. The erroneous rabbinical application of the Law led to people ‘taking the law into their own hands’. Once again, the morality Jesus exemplifies in this passage seeks to do away with this faulty belief and practice.

Yet, at the same time, some circumstances did require people to resist and defend themselves [cp. Ex 22.2; Mat 24.43]. But the manner in which it was applied was all wrong. Jesus corrects this teaching in the episode where the soldier slaps him [John 18.22-23]. But note that Jesus did not hit him back, something maybe expected within the old interpretation of the Law [cp. Ex 21.12-14; cf. Gen 9.6]. The lesson here is against the use of violence since “those who use the sword will die by the sword” [Mat 26.52], particularly when it comes to personal vendettas. This is further exemplified by what Jesus suffers at the hands of the Jewish judicial system. Jesus knew that resistance could have resulted in further injury or death and revenge in bloodshed. So while introducing a new statute Jesus upholds a central OT tenet where revenge belonged only to God [Due 32.35; Rom 12.19-21], the only one who can personally intervene or use “agents of wrath to bring punishment to wrongdoers” [Rom 13.4].

Throughout Mat 5.17-48 Jesus himself uses strong language such as hyperbole and sharp contrasts in order to give an added emphasis to his teaching. The key points being made here include: doing good instead of evil; love not hate; forgiveness not vengeance. This typifies Jesus’ moral standing in relation to the Jews.

Yet ultimately, the sermon message is about the Kingdom of God, a kingdom whose origins come “from above and not below”, governed by a spiritual Law that in essence fulfills the earthly Law [cp. John 18.36; 8.23]. This was hard for the Jews to understand since it spoke about more than just the rudiments and legality they had introduced into it. The essence being both ethical and moral, following a style of life that is in accordance with those people who intended to enter into the future Kingdom of God. As in the “beatitudes” [Mat 5.3-12], true happiness comes from seeing life from the perspective of God, a view that is always at odds with humanity. The morality of the kingdom law [Mat 5.17-48] is directed to those Jewish leaders who held onto faulty traditions and customs, written down as code over the centuries by further legitimization.

Jesus ends his sermon with a challenge to reject the ways of unrighteousness brought on by the replacement laws of the Jewish institution. The alternative is clear: to live a style of life that is in tune with the coming kingdom, one of peace and joy; or to ignore the Torah of Messiah Jesus, resulting in disaster and eternal death [Mat 7.24-27].

See also



  • Betz, Hans Dieter. Essays on the Sermon on the Mount. translations by Laurence Welborn. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
  • Kissinger, Warren S. The Sermon on the Mount: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1975.
  • Kodjak, Andrej. A Structural Analysis of the Sermon on the Mount. New York: M. de Gruyter, 1986.
  • Lapide, Pinchas. The Sermon on the Mount, Utopia or Program for Action? translated from the German by Arlene Swidler. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1986.
  • McArthur, Harvey King. Understanding the Sermon on the Mount. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1978.
  • Prabhavananda, Swami Sermon on the Mount According to Vedanta 1991 ISBN 0-87481-050-7
  • Knight, Christopher The Hiram Key Century Books, Random House, 1996

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