Ask Pastor Matt: “How Should a Christian Understand the Sermon on the Mount?”

Every week I receive great questions via email or Facebook or Twitter and I pick one to answer here.  I’ve let a bunch stack up as many have required a lot of research and my schedule has been jammed lately.  I apologize to those of you who have submitted questions and waited patiently for answers.   Here is one I received from a good friend several weeks ago: “How should a Christian understand the Sermon on the Mount? Literally as the Christian version of the Ten Commandments or allegorically?”  

This is a great but tough question.  The folks at Bible.org (who I respect) list two different Christian understandings of the Sermon on the Mount with 10 permeations of the second view.  I will try to briefly run down each one before setting forth an opinion.

A.  The absolutist position is taken by anabaptists.  This view takes the sermon literally.  Thus, many in this camp believe a Christian may not even protect himself or herself from a violent attack.

B. The modification view holds that one simply should not take the sermon literally for it could not have been meant as such in the light of the rest of Scripture.  Here are the ten different permeations of this position.

1. The hyperbole view contends Jesus purposefully overstated in order to make a point just as he did in Luke 14:26 (compare to Matthew 10:37).  Most modern evangelical scholars agree that Jesus used at least a degree of hyperbole when he preached the sermon.

2. The general principles view argues that while Jesus used specific examples it was only to illustrate general approaches to ethical situations.  We will return to to this view later.

3. The attitudes-not-acts view is similar to the above but focuses more on heart change than just general guidelines, which can be perverted into legalism.

4. The double standard view maintains that Jesus was speaking advice to leaders for their sanctification not to the laity.  While Christian teachers are held to a higher standard regarding what they preach and how they instruct and were not to be installed unless they had a good reputation in the community, there is no evidence they are (or were ever) held to a higher ethical expectations on a day-to-day basis than any other believer.

5. The two realms view is a Lutheran interpretation, which asserts the sermon on the mount is spiritual in nature and is only applied within the church to fellow believers but we are to follow the law of the land per Romans 13:1.  I think this is a confusing stand that produces two different moralities.

6. The analogy of Scripture view balances the Sermon in light of the rest of the teaching of the Bible.  I think this is a necessary way of approaching the text although we must be careful to place the rest of God’s word properly in the context of salvation history.

7. The interim ethic view teaches the sermon was only authoritative between the exile of Israel and Pentecost when believers are to be led by the Spirit.  It is a historically conditioned view warning the Israelites of the danger of desiring revolution and confirmed by the destruction of the Temple and the quashing of the Jewish rebellion between 66-72 A.D.  I think there is some truth here but believe the view overstates its historical particularity especially given that it was so often quoted by the early church fathers.

8. The modern dispensationalist view pushes the ethical demands of the sermon to the thousand year reign of Christ before the defeat of Satan.  I am not a dispensationalist for many reasons (not the least of which is its modern origin), but one may be a historic premillennialist and also hold this view.  However, I don’t see anything in the text (or historical context) for limiting its application to after the return of Christ.

9. The repentance view holds that the teaching of the sermon leads the unconverted to Christ but once they become believers they are led by the Spirit.  I see no grounds for such  view.

10. Finally, the unconditional divine will view holds that the sermon is to be taken literally, however, with grace and an eye to historical application.

I do believe that the sermon was warning the Israelites to turn from their destructive path for God’s command to seek “the peace and prosperity of the city” was still in effect (Jeremiah 29:7) but that it has great value beyond the first century and God’s ultimate judgment upon Rome.  I do think anabaptists take the sermon too literally and I say that as a great admirer of the anabaptist tradition even given my stark disagreements with a number of their theological positions.  I admire their honest attempt to be biblical.

I do believe we have to balance the sermon against the rest of Scripture.  For example, when it comes to “turning the other cheek” it is important to remember that Jesus never commanded Roman soldiers to walk away from their posts and embrace pacifism even though he was not shy about calling followers to leave everything for the Kingdom.  It is true that early Christians refused to serve in the Roman army but it should be noted that this was only AFTER Rome had begun to persecute the church.

Moreover, God often commanded His people to take up arms and God does not change and cannot sin.  Thus, it is hard to believe God suddenly matured, chilled out and became a hippy.  It was not an evil thing to take arms to stop Hitler or to send special forces troops in to stop Joseph Kony.

Augustine may have been the most brilliant man to have cast a shadow in the church between the time of the Apostle Paul and Thomas Aquinas.  He argued that the sermon applied to individual Christians in their daily walk but did not apply to nations as a whole. This is a balanced view that weighs threats to ourselves and our ability to witness to those around us with our responsibility to love our neighbors even if that calls for stopping those who seek to do violence to others.  Thus, I carry a gun but if someone demanded money of me I would offer to buy them food without incident or pressing charges but if I saw someone beating another person I would do what I could to stop them even if it led to a physical altercation.

In the end, the sermon applies to all followers of Christ then, now and in the future but it must be weighed exegetically with the rest of Scripture.  It should be taken seriously but with grace.  I hope this answers the question.