The Significance of the Sermon on the Mount
Paul E. Kretzmann
The position of the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament and especially in the teaching of Jesus has engaged the attention not only of commentators and theologians in general, but recently also of social workers of every kind. And a new impetus has been given to the various investigations by the wave of chiliastic literature that has been flooding the country. Some writers have stated, rather mildly, that the Sermon on the Mount exhibits the doctrine of Christ in the first stage of its development, as afterwards it is expounded in a somewhat analogous manner in the Epistle of James. Others, of a bolder turn of mind, have called it the creed of Christianity, the Gospel of the Kingdom, the grand charter of the commonwealth of heaven. One writer has soberly declared: “His primary aim was to deliver men from the effects of wrong beliefs, motives, and habits of living, and to restore them to complete physical, mental, moral, and spiritual health. He endeavored to unite them in the universal fraternity, which He described as the kingdom or reign of God, and thus to develop a perfect social order.” [Kent, Life and Teachings of Christ, 127. 128]. Another says: “Tomorrow educators will reread the Sermon on the Mount and seek to make rich the teachings of the Christian religion. … To-day all political economy is being rewritten in the length of the Sermon on the Mount. … A most impressive political document.” [Hillis, Influence of Christ, 10. 47. 48. 75]. Another declares: “When the will of God is done on earth as in heaven, the kingdom of God and of heaven shall have fitly come. Every social problem shall be solved, and all social unrest shall be stilled.” [Clow, W. M., Christ in the Social Order, 82]. Still more elaborately: “In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives us a perfectly clear and adequate picture of His conception of an ideal world, … a higher conception of the new social order.” [Strong, J., The New World Religion, 98. See also Rauschenbusch, W., Christianity and the Social Crisis, 56. 57]
The number of such passages from recent books could be multiplied indefinitely. They are all imbued with the millenarian idea, that somehow, some time, probably in connection with the establishment of the much-heralded Millennium on earth, the perfect social order will come into being, sin will be altogether unknown, all men will live in peace and harmony, and Jew and Gentile alike will bow before the throne of Jesus. And all this is supposed to be contained in the Sermon on the Mount.
The Gospel proper
All this would be perfectly lovely if Jesus had not expressly declared: “My kingdom is not of this world,” John 18:36, if He had not told the Pharisees: “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation,” Luke 17:20, if He had not gently, but firmly rebuked His disciples with their dream of an earthly reign, Acts 1:6-8. Jesus has briefly, but comprehensively stated the purpose of His coming: “The Son of Man is come to save that which was lost,” Matthew 18:11. And again: “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” John 3:16. St. Paul emphasizes the fact that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” 1 Timothy 1:15. St. John writes: “The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin,” 1 John 1:7. These passages represent the distinctive, characteristic, fundamental, essential doctrine of Christianity, without which the Christian religion would sink to the level of paganism. The free salvation of all men through the atoning power of Christ’s blood is the one wonderful ray of light in the Bible, which distinguishes this sacred Book of the East from all other religious writings, in which a religion of works and a final half-spiritual, half-temporal kingdom is set before men as the goal of their earthly ambition.
The Sermon on the Mount is an example of the teaching of Christ as distinguished from His preaching. He had two purposes in mind. In the first place, as His sharp comparisons show, He wanted to arouse His hearers, and especially those to whom the epithet “hypocrite” would apply, out of the lethargy of their slovenly righteousness. He wanted to point out to them the utter inadequacy of a literal understanding and of a literal keeping of the externals of the Law. He wanted to show all men, in fact, how far even their best efforts are from a proper and adequate fulfilment of the will of God. An attempt to live up to the injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount will speedily convince even the most optimistic of the inability of man to live up to the spiritual interpretation of the Law. And the second purpose of Christ was to give a lesson in true sanctification to those that have, by His grace, entered into the Kingdom and are desirous of living in accordance with the highest understanding of the will of God. Using the Sermon on the Mount in accordance with these evident purposes will redound to the blessed and lasting benefit of all such as are actually concerned about living as children of the heavenly Father.