February 18, 2019

Understanding the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the most significant discourse ever given. It was and still is revolutionary in its teachings and message. Perhaps no other sermon of Jesus can compare in helping us to better understand the attributes and characteristics of the Savior.

The gospel of Matthew records that after Jesus’ baptism and fasting for forty days, he went about Galilee healing the sick and the afflicted. As Jesus’ fame spread around the countryside, throngs of people began following Him, desiring to learn more about this miracle worker. As Jesus saw the multitudes following, he went up into a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee. With this backdrop, the Savior began to teach.

The scriptures often associate mountains with places for worship and receiving revelation from God. The Lord commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac atop Mount Moriah, and here Abraham was taught of the interceding power of the Messiah. On Mount Sinai, Moses received the Ten Commandments and instructions and ordinances relating to the Tabernacle. While on Mount Carmel, Elijah showed forth the power of God by calling down fire from heaven. Each of these mountains acted as a bridge, so to speak, bringing the heavens closer to earth. Here on this mount overlooking the beautiful Sea of Galilee, the Savior once again would bring heaven down to earth.

Jesus’ sermon began with what is now known as the Beatitudes. The word beatitude means to be blessed, prosperous or abundant. [1] In giving this list of eight beatitudes, Jesus differs significantly from the Ten Commandments. Instead of giving a list of “thou shalt nots,” he instead gives a list of things that we are to become. He uses phrases like, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:7-9). Notice that each of these speak to who the person is, and not just an easy list of dos and don’ts. For example, how does one become merciful? Is this a one-time event that you can check off once completed? The answer is no, and that is perhaps one reason why the teachings of Jesus within the Sermon on the Mount are so revolutionary.

Jesus, in essence, breaks every perceived concept of what it means to be truly blessed or prosperous. He teaches that it is not through obtaining wealth or power, as most Romans would have seen. It is not even through strict obedience to the Law, as the Scribes and Pharisees would have seen. It is through becoming meek, lowly, hungering after righteousness, being merciful, and a peacemaker. In short, the state of being blessed is about who we really are, not just what we do. [2]

The Savior next instructs that as we work towards becoming blessed, we then are commissioned to bless the lives of others. He shows this by giving two parable-type teachings of salt and light. Salt in ancient times was extremely significant. Salt was not only used to bring out other flavors and spices, but even more importantly, was also used as a preservative. In a world without modern refrigeration, meats could only be preserved for later seasons by salting them. Additionally, salt was a part of every sacrifice offered at the altar of sacrifice, symbolizing the lasting nature of the covenant.

Jesus next teaches that we are to be a light unto the world. He instructs “Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house” (Matthew 5:15). The original word for candle in Greek actually means an oil lamp, and the word for bushel “designates a vessel that could be used to extinguish an oil lamp.” [3] Thus, not only are we to bring light into the lives of others, but also, we should not smother or put out our own light for any reason. Both of these parables show us how true disciples can and should have a great impact on the lives of others bringing savor and preservation and giving light to those who are lost in darkness.

Jesus then teaches “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets … but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). The word fulfill does not mean to do away with, but instead means to complete or bring to fulness. Jesus fulfills the law, at least in part, by showing through his teachings and his own example the true purpose behind the law. In essence, he helps his listeners to understand that obedience is not the ultimate purpose; it is in becoming like God. Jesus demonstrates this by giving five examples from the law each beginning with “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old…” (see Matthew 5:21 for example) and then quoting portions of the law to which Jesus gives them new meaning. For example, when teaching about killing and committing adultery, Jesus does not say that these laws have been done away with, but instead He intensifies them. He teaches that even to think evil thoughts is the same as actually committing the acts. Why is this the case? Well, again the ultimate purpose is not just obedience, but in becoming like our Heavenly Father.

Another law Jesus quotes is about requiring “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Matthew 5:38). In our modern world we assume this to be interpreted literally, meaning that you would actually cut someone’s eye out if they had blinded you, but in ancient times it was interpreted far differently. In fact, several ancient Jewish sources discuss this as being a form of recompense, not vengeance. For example, if out of rage you injured a carpenter, causing him to lose his eyesight, you would be required to help support his family because of the lost revenue in his trade. This “eye for an eye” actually was far more just and merciful then even our own justice system today. Jesus next teaches that instead of seeking recompense of an eye for an eye, we instead are to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Roman soldiers were allowed to force a Jew to carry their equipment for a mile. Thus, Jesus teaches that even when our enemies compel us to do something against our will, we are to show true service by giving them more than they even asked.

The Savior concludes the five statements with perhaps the most significant teaching, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you” (Matthew 5:43-44). Perhaps no other statement more fully demonstrates the true character of Christ. When betrayed by Judas and arrested by the temple priests in Gethsemane, Jesus turns and heals the very soldier who came to arrest him. When on the cross, suffering beyond comprehension, the Savior forgives those who caused him so much pain. And perhaps most significant of all, as we each constantly sin and fall away from the perfection that Jesus directed, He quickly forgives, embracing us and helping us to once again begin our path of discipleship.

The journey towards perfection, as Jesus commands in Matthew chapter 5, can seem impossible to achieve. We must remember though, that the word perfection in the last verse (see Matthew 5:48) actually means to become complete or whole. This perfection is more of a final destination, not a representation of our current state. It is the movement in the right direction that is most important.

As Jesus taught from this mount by the Sea of Galilee, he truly bridged heaven and earth, giving us a glimpse into the eternities. Through his message, he taught that we should not become distracted with just mere obedience, but instead focus on becoming by lifting, serving, and being a light to those around us. As we rely on the Savior, repent of our sins, and trust in the grace of Christ, it is His perfection that will ultimately make us complete and whole.

[1] The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ, Andrew C. Skinner, Volume 1, page 336
[2] Part One: Blessedness and Happiness, Michael Austin
[3] The New Testament, A Translation for Latter-day Saints, Thomas A. Wayment, page 12, footnote 5:15