Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

43. The Sermon on the Mount

More time and energy than has been warranted have gone into the questions whether the Sermon was one complete continuous discourse or is to be regarded as an assemblage of separate pieces of the Lord’s teaching spoken at different times in his ministry: and whether the words were spoken in a mountain or on a plain (Lk. 6:17): and whether they were spoken in Greek or Aramaic.

Notwithstanding Matthew’s undeniable system of bringing together similar material without regard to chronological sequence, it is evident from the beginning and end of this section (ch.5-7) that here is a complete discourse: “When he was set ... his disciples came unto him, and he opened his mouth, and taught them...” (Mt 5:1, 2) “And it came to pass, when Jesus ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine” (7:28).

Yet it is not inconceivable that there were in fact two separate discourses which Matthew, for convenience and in accordance with his customary practice just mentioned, has brought together in Matthew 5, 6, 7.

Since the challenge of the religious authorities was now building up strongly, it is tempting to see Mt. 5:17 - 6:18 as a complete and detached discourse spoken to the disciples in answer to that challenge: “Ye have heard that it hath been said... But I say unto you...” And, remarkably enough, most of the rest of the Sermon bears in one way or another on the disciples’ reaction to the temptations of materialism. So perhaps there was a Sermon on the Mount and also a Sermon on the Plain, which Matthew has put together without distinction because the distinction is not important.

The distribution of material in the two versions (Mt. Lk.) is widely different: 107 verses in Matthew, and only 29 in Luke; but there are also another 36 verses dotted about in different parts of Luke which show a fairly close correspondence with sections of Mt. 5, 6, 7. There is no difficulty about this, for there are plenty of signs that our Lord not infrequently found it desirable to repeat parts of his teaching, and not necessarily in exactly the same phrasing. All busy preachers of the gospel who are not tied to a manuscript will readily understand this.

There is clear indication that the teaching was addressed to his disciples, but in the hearing of a larger crowd, many of whom doubtless were made into disciples by the prospect of this idealistic new world which Jesus opened up to them.

The question of geographical location has been unnecessarily complicated by failure to let the gospel writers use words in their own way. In these records “the mountain” (5:1 RV) does not mean one specific point of elevation but was probably local idiom for “the hills”. The same phrase: “the mountain” is used of a very different locality (e.g.Mk. 6:46; Jn. 6:3, 15).

Matthew mentions that Jesus sat to teach his disciples. This was normal Jewish procedure. In the Talmud, to sit is-to teach. It was a method well designed to put the emphasis on the substance of what was taught, rather than on the mode of its delivery. The teacher who depends on histrionics to get his point over is cut down to size by this unspectacular mode of instruction.

Another important reason for mentioning this detail is to emphasize the contrast between Moses and Christ. Deuteronomy 5:31 tells of another Sermon in the Mount. On that occasion Moses stood as Israel’s representative, to receive instruction. Yet the ultimate aim and intention was the same: “Ye shall observe to do therefore as the Lord your God hath commanded you: ye shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (v. 32).

Although the teaching was intended primarily for his close disciples, it is evident that a considerable number of others were also present: “And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the multitudes were astonished at his doctrine” (7:28). Thus, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is pointedly addressed to disciples: “Ye poor” etc., whereas in Matthew the more general: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” allows of a wider audience.

Over against this early discourse to the disciples in public there is the long private talk of Jesus with them at the end of his ministry-Jn.13-16. And the eight introductory Beatitudes, which set in so winsome a fashion the tone of all that is to follow, have also a very grim counterpart in the eight Woes which Jesus finally pronounced on “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (Mt. 23:13-29). The opposition of these evil men was already evident, so that it became necessary for Jesus to include in his teaching explicit warnings against their philosophy and practices. So from the very commencement the matchless positive principles of Christ are shown to be unique. There is sustained contrast with the reprehensible practices so highly esteemed among his contemporaries.

It is perhaps not inappropriate to add here a few more general observations on the Beatitudes, now to be considered individually.

That they are eight, and not seven or nine, in number seems to be indicated by the inclusion of the eighth in Luke’s version, even though he has i four in his list, with four matching “woes”. ,

There seems to be no logical order, apart from the fact that the first and the eighth both insist on a present blessing. The eighth -- persecution -- comes more naturally at the end, for whereas the first seven describe “differing elements of excellence”, i.e. what the true disciple is, the last is about what men do to him.

There is no conscious blessedness in these various respects. A man may know himself to be merciful or a peacemaker without being aware of any special blessing resting on him because of that. The blessing lies essentially in God’s estimate of him because he is seen by Heaven to have these characteristics.

And of course there is, or should be, room in one personality for several or all of these spiritual traits.

There is no lack of other Beatitudes in the teaching of Jesus, so the list in Matthew 5, must be taken as a collection of examples.

“Blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear (13:16) “Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me” (11:6). “Blessed is that (faithful and wise) servant whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing (giving them food in due season)” (24:46). “Blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it” (Lk. 11:28). See also Jn. 20:29; Rev. 1:3; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14; 1 Pet. 3:14; 4:14; Jas. 1:12, 25; 2:5, 7 (which alludes to the Beatitudes in the gospels).

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