FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) — Whether young or old, conservative or liberal, inside or outside the church, everybody loves the Sermon on the Mount, New Testament professor Terry Wilder said at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s annual Advanced Expository Preaching Workshop.
No section of Scripture has been cited more than the Sermon on the Mount, Wilder said.
“Conservative scholars love this passage of Scripture. Liberal scholars love this passage of Scripture,” the Southwestern prof said of the Matthew 5-7 passage in the New Testament. “… It has received high praise as a model for the Christian life, the essence of true religion and the epitome of all that Jesus taught.”
Various passages from the Sermon on the Mount have become part of secular culture but are often misunderstood or misinterpreted, Wilder said, citing such examples as the Golden Rule, turning the other cheek, the Lord’s Prayer and “Judge not, that you be not judged.”
“The biggest issue in the Sermon on the Mount is how to interpret the Sermon on the Mount,” Wilder said, citing one scholar who had counted 63 different approaches to its interpretation.
Some have taken a strict, literal interpretation of Jesus’ words in the passage, but they run into difficulty when He speaks of plucking out one’s eye or being perfect, Wilder said. Others have noted the broad use of illustrations, metaphors and hyperbole, concluding that they can generalize and modify its demands. Some have seen the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ indictment of the Jews. Whereas some say it cannot be lived out, others argue that it represents the Christian ethic and can be followed entirely.
“It doesn’t take much of a reading of the Sermon on the Mount to discover that it is a pretty demanding body of teaching,” Wilder said, “and it places demands on you and me as Christians — uncompromising demands.”
There is some truth in each of the various approaches, Wilder said, believing that it is best to take the Sermon on the Mount at face value, taking into account its metaphors and hyperbole and striving to live according to its teachings. When Christians fail, they rely on God’s grace and forgiveness, and then they press on. Tracing interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount through church history, Wilder noted this approach has been predominant.
Citing Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:20 of not coming to abolish but to fulfill the law, Wilder said this verse represents the thesis statement for the entire sermon. Noting the relationship between the Old Testament and the Sermon on the Mount as well as the relationship between law and Gospel, Wilder said, “Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill the law by teaching its correct meaning, by obeying the law perfectly and by providing a way of salvation that meets all the demands of the law.
“I don’t think you can keep perfectly the Sermon on the Mount, but Jesus can. And yet, it is something I must strive for in this life,” Wilder said.
David Allen, Southwestern’s dean of theology, addressed the Oct. 8 workshop participants in a session on preaching the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12.
“The Beatitudes serve as the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount,” Allen said. “They’re something like the vestibule through which you walk before you enter into the cathedral that is the Sermon on the Mount. … Everything that follows in the Sermon on the Mount is something of an explanation, illustration or application of the theological truths and concepts that are presented in the Beatitudes.”
Allen reviewed the structure of the passage, pointing to stylistic elements of parallelism and groupings throughout. He noted that verses 3-6 emphasize the Christian’s relationship with God while verses 7-10 emphasize the Christian’s relationship with people. Additionally, Jesus makes allusions back to Isaiah 61 throughout the Beatitudes.
Allen said the first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” represents those who are “keenly aware of being spiritually destitute and totally dependent on God. … We are spiritual paupers who recognize our own spiritual bankruptcy.”
This first Beatitude sets the course for all that follows, Allen said. Working through each of the Beatitudes, he offered explanation and application of their meaning, noting that there is benefit for pastors to preach them individually or as a whole.
Structure of the sermon
While some may see the Sermon on the Mount as simply a collection of independent proverbial sayings, Steven Smith, dean of the College at Southwestern and professor of communication, pointed to a consistent structure with a main point, two sections and a conclusion.
The main point of the Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 5:17-20 — Jesus’ fulfillment of Scripture, Smith said. This theme builds from the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel in chapters 1-4 and distinguishes the kind of kingdom that Jesus brought.
“Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, which answers this question, ‘How do we get into the kingdom?'” Smith said, noting that Jesus contradicted the Jews’ expectations of the Messiah.
“There is a kingdom coming, but it’s not a visible kingdom yet,” Smith said. “It’s an invisible kingdom, and blessed are the ones who see that this invisible kingdom comes to those who are so broken over their sin, so greatly that they mourn, that they crawl out of the foxholes of their ambitions to keep the law and waive the white flag of surrender, realizing their artillery is nothing against fighting the King of Kings, and they switch enemies. Instead of fighting God, they fight for Him — these are the ones who are blessed.
“This was so radically different than what they had thought that when they actually began to live like this, it was a stark contrast against the world.”
Smith explained that in the first section of the sermon, Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus says His followers’ faith must be above average. In the second section, Matthew 6:1 – 7:12, their faith must be below the surface — deep and genuine. Jesus concludes the sermon in Matthew 7:13-29 with four warning couplets: two roads, two trees, two confessions and two foundations.
For pastors, heeding the warning in Matthew 5:19 against relaxing the commandments will protect their congregations from making the mistakes found in the four warnings of 7:13-29, Smith said.
The Lord’s Prayer
Preaching professor Matthew McKellar concluded the preaching workshop with a session on the Lord’s Prayer found in Matthew 6.
“If you’re going to preach to your people about prayer, you better be praying yourself,” McKellar said. Outlining Jesus’ instructions on prayer leading up to the Lord’s Prayer, McKellar said the idea of a prayerless disciple was unfathomable to Jesus.
The Lord’s Prayer can be divided into two sets of three petitions each — the first three focus on the disciple’s dependence on God’s character and the last three focus on dependence on God’s care, McKellar said.
“One of the most accurate pictures of your dependence on the Lord your God,” McKellar noted, “is what’s going on in your prayer life.”
Keith Collier is director of news and information at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (www.swbts.edu/campusnews). For audio for the preaching workshop on the Sermon on the Mount, go to