The Sermon on the Mount

The Sea of Galilee from the Mount of Beatitudes, the location where Jesus may have given the Sermon on the Mount
This view of the Sea of Galilee (also called Lake Tiberias) is from the mountain on which many scholars believe Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. Photo: Olevy, CC BY-SA

[This article was revised in January 2019: Further information.] [Edits for clarity, structure, and adding a picture were made in 2024]

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the subject of many volumes. It has been called the epitome of Jesus’ ethical teaching, His manifesto, and the key of the whole Bible. To understand the Sermon on the Mount and its relevance for you, you need to know who was Jesus’ intended audience. You also need to know whether Jesus was correcting the misunderstandings of the scribes and Pharisees, whether He was fulfilling the role of the new Lawgiver by giving a new law, or whether He had an entirely different aim. In this relatively brief article, I want to show you that Jesus revealed His purpose early on in the sermon and that it was foundational for the rest of His ministry.

We find the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. In this article, I’m going to stick mostly to Matthew 5 because that is where Jesus lays the groundwork for what He builds in chapters 6 and 7. Once we understand the principles that Jesus gives in Matthew 5, we can then apply them to understand the rest of the sermon. Maybe I’ll eventually address Matthew 6 and 7 in other articles, but, for now, let’s work on discerning the foundation Jesus sets in Matthew 5.

Jesus’ Audience in the Sermon on the Mount

So, who was Jesus’ intended audience for the Sermon on the Mount? In Matthew 5, verses one and two, we read, “And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them.” Jesus’ immediate audience was His disciples. By the end of the sermon, the multitudes had apparently also gathered, for Matthew 7:28 says, “And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine.” Notice that throughout the sermon, Jesus uses the second person; that is, He uses “you,” and the “you” is frequently plural (i.e. “you all”). For example, in the verses where He says, “But I say unto you,” the “you” is plural.

In light of this, it is amazing to me that so many Bible commentators say that Jesus intended His teachings in the Sermon on the Mount for people living in a future kingdom age that we have not yet entered. Where is the evidence for this position? It is apparently in the minds of those who teach it. It is certainly not in the words of Jesus. The word “kingdom” is mentioned nine times in the sermon. Yes, the Sermon on the Mount is intended for those living in the kingdom of God, but it is the kingdom of God that, as Jesus said in Luke 17, is among us—on the earth right now. It cannot refer to some future idyllic world, because it speaks of the unjust, those who try to sue others, the giving of alms (which implies that there will be poor people), not worrying about the physical things of this life (which implies a less than ideal life that might cause us to worry), being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and so on. The Sermon on the Mount was for the potential Christians of that age, and for the potential and converted Christians of the centuries that followed right to our time today. He was speaking to you.

Jesus spoke directly to His disciples and all who joined them to hear Him. It is also important to see that Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by giving eight characteristics of the people God will bless. These characteristics are found in what are often called the Beatitudes. I am going to show you that the Beatitudes describe sinners who have been saved and are living in this world. They cannot refer to anyone else, because these traits can only be attained by grace. These are the citizens of the kingdom. In 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul admonishes us to, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” By studying these descriptions of these citizens, you will be able to determine whether you are among them. You will see that they are not perfect in themselves, but that their righteousness comes from Jesus Christ.

The Sermon on the Mount’s Beatitudes

1) “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”

The poor in spirit refers to those who know they are spiritually poor. They know that there is nothing they can do—no good works, no good words, no good thoughts—to earn any merit with God. They are spiritually bankrupt, and they know it. No one in the world can merit anything with God. But the difference between the average person of the world and the regenerated saint of God is that the saint knows that his account is in the red and he has no way in himself to repay it. But the person of the world is in ignorance of his balance and is writing checks that will bounce.

In John 9:41, Jesus said to the self-righteous Pharisees, “If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.” In other words, if the Pharisees knew that they were spiritually blind, poor, and naked, they would seek God and be forgiven their sins. But since they proudly denied their spiritual blindness, their sin remained. Only by God’s freely given grace can a sinner know he is poor in spirit.

Do you know that you are spiritually poor? Do you know of your need for God’s grace? Do you know that Jesus Christ alone has cancelled your debt? If so, then yours is the kingdom of heaven.

2) “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted”

This is not, as some have misunderstood it, merely saying that Jesus will comfort those who mourn over the loss of their loved ones. Jesus is here describing those who mourn over sin. Those who are spiritually poor see their wretched, sinful state before God and mourn over it. With David, they say, “I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.” Like the publican in Jesus’ parable, they know that they are unworthy to even lift their eyes to heaven. They cry out, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” And God is merciful.

Jesus says they will be comforted. But what comforts them? A resolution to do better? A reading of the Ten Commandments? Only one thing comforts them: Jesus Christ and Him crucified for their sins. Only the Gospel knowledge that Jesus Christ alone is their Savior will comfort them. Their comfort is in Jesus’ substitutionary, effectual atonement on the Cross, totally paying the penalty for their sins; His resurrection from the dead, showing that the Father had accepted His sacrifice and that their sins—past, present, and future—are gone; and the righteousness of His sinless life imputed to them, put on them as a robe making them to the Father as righteous as Jesus. They are comforted now, they will be comforted tomorrow, they will be comforted in the judgment and for eternity. Do you mourn over your wretched sinfulness? If so, then be comforted by the Gospel.

3) “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth”

The meekness Jesus means here is not weakness or timidity. Numbers 12:3 tells us that “Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” Yet he struck and killed an Egyptian, confronted Pharaoh, and led the children of Israel through the wilderness for forty years. He was meek before God, submissive to God’s will. He was God’s servant. Such submission can come only by God’s grace. To try to make ourselves meek would be self-defeating, for it would make us proud instead of meek.

Jesus Himself was meek and told us to learn from Him: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls,” He said.

In the parable of the talents, we read that those who are faithful servants concerning the little things in this life are commended: “Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” Likewise, Christ says the meek shall inherit the earth. They are “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.”

4) “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled”

Are you hungering and thirsting after righteousness? I hope so, but I equally hope that it is not your own righteousness you want.

Notice that if you are poor in spirit, knowing your sinfulness, you will mourn. You will then lose all pride and be meek, and then you will hunger and thirst for righteousness. But you will know that you can have none of your own. An outward show of human morality will not do. The people Jesus describes are hungering and thirsting after the righteousness that can come only from Jesus Christ, “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). God “made him to be sin for us…that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Those who ate the manna were filled; those who ate the loaves and fish were filled. Jesus told the woman at the well, “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). And He said, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).

The prophet Jeremiah, in Jeremiah 23:6, tells us, “In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.” David writes, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:1-2a). Is the Lord your righteousness? Is He your only righteousness? Do you hunger and thirst after Him? Then you will be filled, freely and completely. Isaiah 55:1 says, “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Jesus says, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink” (John 7:37b).

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