The Sermon on the Mount

Thomas Jefferson described Jesus’ teachings as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Those teachings are summed up in the Sermon on the Mount, referred to by William Safire as “the single most important discourse on Christian law and living.” Is the Bible a credible source for moral instruction in these complicated times? Is it even possible to live that kind of moral life?

From Thomas Jefferson to Mahatma Gandhi, from Harry Truman to Martin Luther King, many leaders have looked to the Sermon on the Mount as the basis for morally motivated behavior. Despite this, many today feel that the Bible is out of date and has no relationship to how we should live. Has this timeless message run out of time?

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus pointed out that one of His core concepts and teachings was to uphold and magnify the law of God. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17, English Standard Version).

The phrase “the Law and the Prophets” in one sense comprises all of the Hebrew Scriptures—what’s commonly referred to as the Old Testament. That’s an unfortunate term—Old Testament—because it privileges the New Testament in a way that can debase the value of the Scriptures Jesus used to great effect in His teaching.

While referencing the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus said, “My doctrine [or teaching] is not Mine, but His who sent Me” (John 7:16). He also said, “I do not speak on my own authority. . . . The word which you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me” (John 14:10, 24).

Jesus was indicating that the essence of His moral teaching was what He had received from His Father. In other words, these principles are not humanly discerned; they are spiritual values as given by the Father.

An important precursor to the sermon, one which underscores this point, was the encounter between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness. After going without food and water for 40 days, Jesus was met by Satan himself. Matthew records the devil’s line of attack: “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread” (Matthew 4:3, paraphrased). The craving for food was no doubt intense, and Jesus knew of His own miraculous powers. Jesus’ unequivocal response was, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”—a clear reference to the Father (verse 4).

What Jesus went on to teach in the Sermon on the Mount were the principles He had received from the Father, which formed the basis for how His followers were to live their lives. Morality is not some abstract or philosophical notion, but something to be demonstrated in everyday life.

The Sermon on the Mount begins with a set of foundational statements, commonly known as the Beatitudes, or blessings. Each begins with the same phrase: “Blessed are they. . . .” The word translated “blessed” could also be translated “happy.”

These principles provide a roadmap to the right way of thinking and living. The Beatitudes begin with this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). “Poor in spirit” refers to an attitude of humility, of not thinking too highly of oneself. Someone with this approach will treat his neighbor as himself. It provides a building block for cooperation in our relationships.

The next is “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (verse 4). Those who sorrow over their human failings will receive God’s comfort. Recognizing where we stand in respect of God’s values can be liberating, but also discouraging. Human nature isn’t godly, but knowing the problem is the beginning of the solution. We can be free to live God’s way with His help and encouragement—something He promises.

Next comes “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (verse 5). Meekness doesn’t equate with weakness; it means willingness to be taught. Being teachable is an essential for a right relationship with God.

The fourth principle is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (verse 6, ESV). Righteousness is a religious-sounding word, but what it really means is right thinking, followed up by right action. To be deeply desirous of spiritual food and drink means putting a priority on spiritual values. It’s an important ingredient in finding true happiness.

Next comes “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (verse 7, ESV). We all want others to be merciful toward us when we have our difficulties or troubles. How might it affect our relationships if we extend what we desire for ourselves to others? Showing mercy and forgiveness to others is the best way to ensure mercy for ourselves.

The sixth principle is this: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (verse 8). Being pure in heart is all about sincerity and integrity; it’s the opposite of hypocrisy. Inner integrity, uprightness and honesty, qualities of the pure in spirit, bring access and closeness to God.

The seventh beatitude is “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (verse 9). A peacemaker is one who is willing to absorb the pain or pressure, even when they’re right, for the purpose of making peace. The peacemaker steps in and takes the lead in saying, “I’m sorry.” Being a peacemaker can spare us of many distasteful experiences and even improve our physical health by allowing us to avoid unnecessary stress and difficulty.

Next we have “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (verse 10). Being able to stand firm, press on and do the right thing, even while being confronted with persecution, demonstrates a belief and trust in the source of this instruction. As such, God promises that making right and godly decisions will always be the right way forward.

Those who choose to follow the instruction of Jesus and truly live by it day by day are likely to be at odds with the world around them. It takes courage and faith to live according to these principles. But Jesus said the rewards would be great.

Jefferson, Gandhi, Truman, King—all saw something profoundly important in the Sermon on the Mount. It was the best code, the answer to international and political problems. It was the way to deal with enemies by doing nothing to hurt them. Imagine if the nations were to practice these deceptively simple yet profound principles in how they interact with each other. If they were humble, apologetic and teachable, peacemakers; if they put the needs of others on the same level as their own, then we’d have a very different world.

What about us? How would our relationships be affected if we all practiced these simple rules? How would our neighborhoods change, our business environments, our families? All of these characteristics are related to a godly perspective and the assurance of a right and beneficial relationship with the Father.

This was just the beginning of Jesus’ discourse.