Making Sense of the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount is undoubtedly the most famous sermon ever preached. Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5–7 has some of the most familiar phrases and lines and sections in the whole Bible: blessed are the poor in spirit, salt and light, go the extra mile, love your enemies, the Lord’s Prayer, treasures in heaven, seek first the kingdom, judge not, the Golden Rule, the narrow gate, build your house on the rock, and on and on. Even many non-Christians have heard of the Sermon on the Mount, or at least they know the familiar phrases (even if they don’t know where they came from). If we want to know what it looks like to follow Jesus, surely these three chapters in Matthew give us as clear a picture as any other section in the Gospels.  

As famous as this sermon is, you would think there would be more agreement about what it says. One scholar I read cited a recent survey with thirty-six different interpretations. Another commentator mentioned eight wrong approaches before he got to the right approach. Even when Christians agree on what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, they disagree on how (or whether) we are meant to apply Jesus’s instructions. In particular, Christians often approach these three chapters like they are stepping into the ring for a game of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! We read each successive verse as if Jesus meant to trap us in a corner, pummel us into submission, and knock us to the ground. Don’t be angry in your heart—smack! Don’t look at someone lustfully—bam! Don’t store up treasures on earth—kapow! The Sermon on the Mount, it seems, is designed to convince every follower of Jesus that they are terrible followers of Jesus. 

Making Sense of the Mountain Message 

But is that really the best way to understand the Sermon on the Mount? Was the overarching point of Jesus’s teaching to convince his disciples that he was calling them to a life of unremitting failure? Let’s step back and try to understand the Sermon on the Mount in its context and on its own terms.  

First, we should note that the Sermon on the Mount is part of a larger pattern in Matthew’s Gospel. The Sermon on the Mount is special because it is such a large chunk of uninterrupted teaching from Jesus. It’s also special because of the attention Christians have given it throughout the years. But in another sense, it’s one of many distinct teaching sections in Matthew’s Gospel. After an opening prologue about Jesus’s origin and birth (Matt. 1:1–2:23), Matthew organizes his material into five sections, each having the same pattern: a narrative about the kingdom, then a discourse about the kingdom, then a transition statement into the next section. 

  • Section 1: The introduction of the kingdom (narrative 2:1–4:25; discourse 5:1–7:29; transition 7:28–29) 
  • Section 2: The in-breaking of the kingdom (narrative 8:1–10:4; discourse 10:5–11:1; transition 11:1) 
  • Section 3: Opposition to the kingdom (narrative 11:2–12:50; discourse 13:1–53; transition 13:53) 
  • Section 4: Division on account of the kingdom (narrative 13:54–17:27; discourse 18:1–19:2; transition 19:1–2) 
  • Section 5: Seeming defeat and the ultimate triumph of the kingdom (narrative 19:3–23:39; discourse 24:1–25:46; transition 26:1–5) 

After these five sections, we have a conclusion focusing on Jesus’s death and resurrection to mirror the prologue, which focused on Jesus’s origin and birth. The book ends with a summons to take the commands of Jesus and go make disciples of all nations. 

Interesting, you say, but what does this have to do with how we interpret the Sermon on the Mount? Well, if the Sermon on the Mount is part of the larger structure and progression in Matthew’s Gospel, then we can’t make the sermon about something other than what the rest of the book is about. Matthew is clearly not about a legalistic summons to earn your way into heaven. After all, we read from the beginning that Jesus came to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). But neither is Matthew about Jesus’s plan to teach about a kingdom no one can enter, lay out a course of discipleship that no one can pass, and make commands that no one can really follow. When the book ends with Jesus telling the eleven disciples to teach all that he has commanded, there is no asterisk that says, “Ha, ha, but obviously no one can really obey any of my commandments.” 

This leads to the second principle we must keep in mind as we approach and apply the Sermon on the Mount: the sermon is about the kingdom. We see this in the opening and closing of these chapters (Matt. 5:3; 7:21–23) and all throughout the sermon (5:10, 17–20; 6:10, 33). The Sermon on the Mount is the explication of what it means to repent and receive the gospel of the kingdom (4:17, 23). Jesus’s message is not about building the kingdom, creating the kingdom, or expanding the kingdom. It’s about his people living like God’s reign and rule have come into their lives. 

Third, the Sermon on the Mount is also about discipleship. While the crowds had once again gathered to hear Jesus by the end of Matthew 7, the sermon explicitly began as an opportunity to teach Jesus’s disciples (5:1). We import later theological content into the term disciple and assume that these are regenerate, justified believers. By disciple, at this point in Jesus’s ministry, he simply means those who are following Jesus from place to place and are eager to hear what he has to say. The Sermon on the Mount answers the question, “What does this kingdom stuff involve? What is it like to be a follower of Jesus?” 

Fourth, the Sermon on the Mount is a reapplication of God’s law. The first several chapters of Matthew draw a number of parallels between Jesus and Moses. There is the death threat by a jealous king, the coming out of Egypt, the crossing of the Jordan River (like the Red Sea), the wilderness temptations for forty days (like Israel endured for forty years), and the going up on a mountain to receive instructions from God’s lawgiver. Jesus is the new Moses deepening the force of the Ten Commandments and explaining what it looks like to live as a kingdom of priests. To be sure, the Sermon on the Mount, like the Ten Commandments, reveals our need for a Savior, but it does more than that. It also shows us how we should live as God’s people. 

Excerpted from Impossible Christianity by Kevin DeYoung, ©2023. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

Kevin DeYoung
Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He serves as a council member at The Gospel Coalition and blogs on TGC’s DeYoung, Restless and Reformed. Kevin is also assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.