First Discourse: Sermon on the Mount – Part I (Matthew 5:1-12)

First Discourse – Sermon on the Mount – (Matthew 5:1-12)

All expositors of Matthew’s Gospel note the discrete compilations of Jesus’ teaching that mark significant points in his narrative.[1] We call them discourses (5-7, 10, 13, 18, (23)24-25).[2] Matthew marks the conclusion of this series of discourses with these words:

26:1 Καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάντας τοὺς λόγους

“When Jesus had finished saying all these things…[3]

This stereotyped refrain seems to be a transition marker. However, at 26:1 Matthew writes “all these sayings,” which some have interpreted as indicating the conclusion to Jesus’ teaching. We find similar wording in the OT (Moses — Numbers 16:31 and Deut. 31:1). Of course, there are other clusters of Jesus’ teaching (i.e., Matthew 23), but Matthew does not mark the transitions from these materials to the next segment of narrative in this way.

The fact that Matthew marks this transition from discourse to other segments of narrative indicates he wants his readers to note their particularity. Conversely, we should observe that defining the beginning of these discourses is not always clear (for example the discourse on discipleship (Matthew 10) and the eschatological discourse (Matthew 24-25)). Further, Matthew incorporates considerable discourse material within the action sections and also includes some narrative in the discourse segments, so that he is minimizing to some degree the distinction between the discourses and other segments of his narrative. Many note that Matthew’s five discourses parallel the five books of the Torah or the five books of the Psalms and suggest that this may be one of the ways that Matthew indicates a Moses-Jesus or a David-Jesus parallelism. However, the discourse material in Matthew 23 seems to fall outside of this fivefold structure raising questions about the degree to which Matthew as author was tracking with a Pentateuchal pattern.

What does Matthew intend by this general rhythm of action and teaching in Jesus’ ministry? Given the summary in 4:23 that emphasizes Jesus’ “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom and healing every disease…,” I would presume that Matthew wants his readers to see these discourses as samples of the kind of teaching/proclaiming that Jesus provided to various groups – the crowds, the disciples, and perhaps his opponents (Matthew 23, while spoken to the crowds and his disciples in the temple precinct, seems to be expressed in the presence of the Pharisees (22:41)). They are not speeches as you normally find in Greco-Roman literature – tightly argued pieces that argue a case and move people persuasively to action. Rather, they parallel the prophetic homilies given by Amos, Jeremiah or Ezekiel. There is a theme, but it is developed through illustration, declarative statement, oracle, and instruction. Jesus teaches and proclaims simultaneously. It is a passage such as 4:23 and the following discourse that makes it problematic to differentiate between kerygma (proclamation, “preaching”) and teaching (didache) in the New Testament. The kerygma of Jesus is teaching and his teaching is kerygmatic. The same inter-relationship, I would suggest, occurs within other NT writings (consider 1 Peter).

Matthew sets the scene for this initial discourse on one of the mountains in Galilee. While he uses the article with the singular noun ‘mountain’, we cannot discern if he is referring to a specific mountain (i.e., the one onto which Satan took him 4:8) or to generic, mountainous terrain that occurs in the region in contrast to more flat terrain.[4] Moses went up onto Mt. Sinai to receive the law from God and some see Jesus’ action as parallel with Moses’ action. (Matthew makes no explicit connection.) However, Jesus is not receiving a revelation, he is giving it. Additionally, his retreat to “the mountain” seems to be driven by the large crowds that gathered to him because of his teaching and healings, not because of a required meeting with the transcendent Yahweh. Yet, as 7:28-29 reveals, the crowds followed and were part of the audience for this discourse. However, the wording of 5:1 indicates that Jesus’ disciples (“he was teaching them”) form the primary focus of his address. “They came to him.”[5]

Matthew uses the word “disciple” frequently.[6]  The cognate verb is found three times and only in Matthew,[7] apart from Acts 14:21. Occasionally he has the phrase “the twelve disciples” (10:1; 20:17; 26:20). This refers to the ‘apostles’ that Jesus sends out (10:2).[8] The usage of this terminology in 9:37 (“then he says to his disciples”), 10:1 (“calling his twelve disciples”), and 10:2 (“the names of the twelve apostles are these”) focuses on the apostles. Wilkens concludes that “Matthew generally identifies the disciples with the Twelve, but he does not exclude the existence of other disciples.”[9] Alternatively, the term disciple seems to have larger scope in contexts such as 8:21 (“another of his disciples said”) and 27:57 where Joseph of Arimathea is said to be a disciple (αὐτὸς ἐμαθητεύθη (verb emathēteuthē) τῷ Ἰησοῦ). And we cannot forget the women who followed him and who are described using discipleship terminology. Although this terminology occurs frequently in the Gospels/Acts, it is not found in the Epistles (cf. Eph. 4:20-21)

But what did discipleship mean in first century Judaism? In the literature of that era we discern philosophical disciples (Philo, Sacrifices 7.4; 64:10; 79:10); technical disciples (rabbinical scribes; Aboth 1.1; Shabbat 31a); sectarian disciples[10], i.e. members of a particular Jewish religious sect (Pharisees in Josephus, Antiquities 13.289; 15.3,370[11]), and revolutionary disciples,[12] adherents of a movement (zealot-like nationalists). The nature of discipleship is a function of the social/ideological reality of the particular group. In the Gospels we meet disciples of John and disciples of the Pharisees (Matthew 22:15-16[13]), as well as disciples of Jesus.[14] Discipleship was defined by the kind of leader or master the person followed.

Jesus used a common phenomenon – discipleship, and created a distinctive pattern. Jesus’ call to discipleship was “not for study, but for service – to help him carry out his mission.” As M. Hengel indicates, “the conscious goal after which the disciples who ‘followed’ Jesus strove was simply not, as with the rabbis, to carry on the tradition or to create a new tradition, but to prepare for the service of the approaching rule of God,[15] i.e., it was missional in focus. However, people could only prepare for this as they became “learners” or students of Jesus’ teaching (cf. Matthew 28:19-20). This is what was particular about Jesus’ concept of discipleship, that did not fit in with current concepts of discipleship.[16] His followers could only teach what previously they had learned (Matthew 28:19-20; cf. Matthew 13:52 – disciples as “scribes of the kingdom”). Jesus’ call to discipleship has genuine analogy only with the call of the OT prophets by God himself. This is an eschatological activity, linked to the dawning rule of God. While this is an important new element, it does not negate the importance of Jesus’ followers “learning the Messiah” as Paul articulates.

If Jesus has disciples, what category does this place Jesus in? The most common designation we find for Jesus in Matthew is ‘teacher’ (διδάσκολος, 12x). His action of teaching is also described frequently (10x). Gerhardsson says “It is an incontrovertible fact that the Gospel tradition, even in its ‘primitive’ form, represents Jesus as behaving in a manner remarkably similar to that of  a Jewish teacher….there are Jewish parallels for practically every style of teaching used by Jesus.”[17]

We should also consider this discourse in the light of Matthew’s reference to Isaiah 9:1-2 in 4:15-16. The light has dawned and the teaching of Jesus is this light (5:14-16), like a city set on a hill. This is the one who will bring peace and righteousness and establish the “throne of David.” Jesus tells his followers and the crowds who are listening the terms on which this new rule will be founded.

Although Jesus may be targeting his ‘disciples’ with his teaching in Matthew 5-7, the crowds certainly listened in. This declamation was not a private affair. Matthew says (7:28) that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching.” However, there seems to be an inner circle and an outer circle that are related to Jesus in different ways. If a significant number of these people came from the Decapolis (4:25) and the “Region East of Jordan,” what language would Jesus have to use in teaching to be understood by the majority? Was this sermon first delivered in Greek or in Aramaic? Does it make any difference? Some Aramaic expressions do occur (i.e. raca 5:22 and mammon 6:24), but these are transliterated forms in Matthew and could well have been transliterated Greek forms, part of the Greek idiolect used in Galilee in the first century, a kind of local idiom. There are places in which we find word-plays in Greek which cannot easily be replicated in Aramaic.

Within this discourse we must observe some structural elements:

  1. Although it begins with the third person section of Beatitudes (5:3-10), it shifts into and continues to the end in second person exhortation (5:11 – 7:27). If the Sermon on the Mount is intended to be commentary on Jesus’ initial statement: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near” (4:17), then 5:3-10 might be the definition of what this Kingdom reality promises and 5:11 – 7:27 describes how one responds to and lives within God’s Kingdom rule. Vv. 11-12 form a summary and transition between the Beatitudes and the rest of the discourse.
  2. If the Kingdom promises life as described in vv. 3-10, those who embrace it must also be willing to endure opposition from those who do not embrace it (vv. 11-12). We have a commission statement here that becomes explicit as to purpose in vv. 13-16.
  3. The remainder (5:17 – 7:12) forms the body of the discourse. Betz indicates it is formed as a ‘ring composition’ because it begins with reference to the Law and the Prophets (5:17) and ends with reference to them in 7:12. Several subsections can be identified within:
    1. Hermeneutical principles for understanding the Law and the Prophets are given in 5:17-20, and 7:12.
    2. We find a series of antitheses that examine and illustrate how the Torah is to be understood (5:21-48). These consider God, righteousness, Torah, Scripture, ethics and eschatology.
    3. Jesus defines his understanding of cultic rituals (almsgiving, prayer and fasting) in the context of Kingdom reality (6:1-18).
    4. He then deals with matters that pertain to daily life (6:19-7:12) – gathering treasures, vision, serving two masters, anxiety, judging, profaning the holy, giving and receiving, the Golden rule, all in the context of Kingdom reality.
  4. 7:13-23 contains three eschatological warnings. God’s justice requires the enforcement of his standards.
  5. 7:24-27 forms the conclusion and comes in the form of the parable of the two builders. It reiterates the crucial nature of hearing and doing, specifically in relation to Jesus’ teaching, placing these activities within the continuum of wisdom and foolishness.[18]

Interpretation of the SM Discourse

The major commentary by Han Betz on the Sermon on the Mount seeks to interpret it as a work that is independent of its Matthean context. I would suggest that this approach is problematic for several reasons. While this teaching is found here in Matthew and in various places within Luke, we only know it from these contexts. Whatever existence it may have had independent of these Gospel settings is a matter of conjecture and we cannot base interpretation on such a presumed, but unknown context. So we have to use the Matthean and Lukan settings as primary indicators of original context and therefore the author’s intended meaning. Since we are focused upon Matthew’s Gospel at this time, this will be our primary point of reference for interpretation.

Betz suggests that Luke’s ‘Sermon on the Plain’ represents how this teaching of Jesus was presented in non-Jewish Christianity. Some evidence for this exists, for example, in the way the final parable is expressed. However, all that this might demonstrate, in my view, is that Jesus’ teachings were known and used in all segments of early Christianity, hardly a surprising fact. However, before we accede to Betz’ hypothesis too quickly, we should consider the possibility, perhaps probability, that Jesus repeated his teachings in different contexts and that he shaped his teaching somewhat so that it was appropriate to each context. If he taught these ideas in the Decapolis or some other substantially Hellenistic situation (Tyre, Bethshe’an (Scythopolis), Caesarea Philippi), then he may himself have altered the expression and these adjustments have been preserved in these diverse traditions.

The Didache, a Christian writing generally dated to the end of the first century and often associated with Syrian Christianity, has material within it that is similar to the Sermon on the Mount (and/or Luke’s version).

But how are we to understand Jesus’ teaching within this discourse?

  1. Is the Sermon a kind of manifesto for humanity, that is, wise teaching for living as a good human being, a kind of utopian vision?
  2. Is it primarily Jewish theology, but adapted thinly into a Christian setting?
  3. Should we construe it as Christian living for the spiritual elite, but beyond the ability or expectation of the average Jesus’ follower?
  4. Or is this Jesus’ statement of an ‘interim ethic’, that is, a description of radical living that is required during the short period between his death and the very soon to be established Kingdom of God, that marks the end of the age?
  5. Or is it the new law for the Messianic community, replacing the Torah of Moses, a kind of “Moses on steroids”? Luther for example regarded the Sermon as “God’s impossible moral demands” designed to demonstrate our moral ineptitude and drive us to repentance.[19] Nietzsche calls the Sermon a “slave morality.”
  6. Some suggest that the teaching in this Sermon has nothing to do with contemporary Christianity. Rather it is the ethic that will pertain in the coming, millenial Kingdom.
  7. Or perhaps we should construe it as Martin Lloyd-Jones does, namely “a perfect picture of the life of the Kingdom of God….the great purpose of this Sermon is to give an exposition of the kingdom as something which is essentially spiritual….Because you are Christian live like this.”[20] Augustine calls it “the perfect measure of the Christian life.”[21] Anabaptists would tend to agree with Augustine. He viewed it as the way that every Christian should live.
  8. Others regard the Sermon as filled with ethical hyperbole, with much that cannot be taken literally.

Personally, I would agree with Blomberg’s description of “inaugurated eschatology” that “recognizes an ‘already/not yet’ tension in which the sermon’s ethic remains the ideal or goal for all Christians in every age but which will never be fully realized until the consummation of the kingdom at Christ’s return.”[22] We have to consider the implications of Jesus’ teaching here in the light of the full justification that Jesus provides for the believer in the Cross and the Spirit’s presence and enabling in the life of the believer, subsequent to the Cross. It is not the imposition of a new legalism, but it does present “the commands/instructions of the Messiah.”

I think Robert Guelich, in the introduction to his work The Sermon on the Mount. A Foundation for Understanding presents an excellent and defensible perspective that coheres with Matthew’s purpose.[23] He discerns the sense of the Sermon within the interplay of Christology, Ecclesiology and Eschatology.

  1. Christology: Matthew has introduced Jesus explicitly as the Messiah (1-4). God identifies him as his Son and witnesses in many ways to this reality. The Beatitudes define in different expression the key ideas found in Isaiah 61:1-3, designed to be fulfilled by the Messiah and expressed in the consequent Kingdom reality. Matthew 5:17-18 indicates that Jesus comes “to fulfill (bring to perfect expression) the Law and the Prophets” so that everything within them is demonstrated to be true. By his own authority he requires all human beings to follow him if they desire to participate in the kingdom. This “fulfillment Christology” conforms to what we discern elsewhere in Matthew.

In terms of the Law, Jesus fulfills it in that he lives out these principles sinlessly, demonstrating its full expression in his life. He both interprets God’s intent in the Law, Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, and he obeys it completely. Conversely, Jesus indicates that kingdom life surpasses the righteousness defined in the Law. Jesus introduces a new standard, intimated in the Law of Moses, but which surpasses it (cf. Moses’ warnings to Israel in Deuteronomy 31 about their ultimate failure to live obediently). The prophetic critique of Israel’s failure to live the Law achieves a new comprehensiveness in Jesus’ discourse. No relationship with God can be established on a human being’s attempt to obey Moses’ law. Another basis for righteousness must be introduced.

Jesus identifies God as ‘Father’ within this discourse. God is his father first, and then by dint of a relationship with Jesus, people, including Jews, gain the privilege of calling God Father. This has to be considered also in terms of OT categories. If Israel is described in the OT as God’s son, then God is Israel’s father. Now, however, Jesus is redefining the people who can rightfully and confidently claim God as their Father (cf. the emphasis in 1 Peter).

  1. Ecclesiology: Jesus intended to establish his Messianic, Kingdom community. Those who placed faith in him and followed him would form this new people of God. The Beatitudes define the formation of this community as based upon God’s grace. Only those who recognize their utter failure, their complete lack of rightness, and who seek God’s mercy and forgiveness as offered through Jesus, the Messiah, can be the “salt of the earth.” What God promised Israel is now promised to the Messiah’s community – to be a city set on a hill, i.e., the New Jerusalem.

Those who accept in faith God’s forgiveness also accept the obligation to do “the Father’s will.” The kingdom’s ethics become the pattern for Christian living. This is not a new legalism, but an empowered life filled with the Holy Spirit. Such discipleship will produce “good fruit,” as Jesus’ followers “hunger and thirst for righteousness” and “seek first the Kingdom of God.” This becomes the way of wisdom. God promises his blessing to those who seek him by following Jesus, the Messiah. A life built on the foundation of Jesus’ words will never be destroyed. All other worldviews end up being destructive for those who embrace them. We might say that Jesus here explains the terms of his new covenant.

So the demands or imperatives of the Sermon cause one to realize his or her spiritual bankruptcy, that his/her life is founded on sand. Conversely, the invitation of the Sermon is to seek God who will give in mercy all that a person needs for salvation that is now found in Jesus. However, accepting God’s gift requires that we honour him by obeying and adhering to Kingdom principles.

  1. Eschatology: the new relationship that Jesus promises in the Beatitudes for this present life, is also preparing a person to participate in the coming Kingdom reality. There is a future judgment in which God will evaluate the spiritual condition of every person. The future orientation of the Beatitudes casts our eyes forward to the promised inheritance. There is more to come and our present relationship with Jesus determines how that future will unfold. One has to enter the Kingdom now, in order to participate in the future blessings of the Kingdom. So there is a tension between the present and the future, the now and the not yet, this present evil age and the future blessing. The Lord’s Prayer expresses this tension quite eloquently.

In an appendix to his short commentary on the Sermon on the Mount Don Carson sketches in concise terms what he regards as “the most significant…theological interpretations.”[24] To summarize some of his conclusions:

  • The Sermon on the Mount (SM) does drive people to sober recognition of sin and their need for grace.
  • The SM demands conformity to kingdom conduct now – there is an ethical urgency.
  • The SM is for all believers and shows how Kingdom commitment invades and penetrates all of life. There is no sacred-secular divide in the life of the Kingdom person.
  • There are many aspects of the Kingdom that are yet to come.

As we have been noting all along, one can scarcely touch the content of the SM without coming to terms with Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom. So we need to take some time to reflect on what Jesus meant by this term. This phrase is not easy to define, even though Jesus used it repeatedly. It occurs only infrequently in Qumran writings. Other Jewish writings have it, but they are difficult to date relative to the time of Jesus’ ministry. Stanton concludes that “no other first century prophet or teacher spoke so frequently or in such diverse ways about God’s kingdom.”[25] It seems that in most of the passages where it occurs in Jesus’ teaching, he is referring to “God’s strength or power.”[26] Stanton suggests the following working definition:

The kingdom of God is God’s kingly rule, the time and place where God’s power and will hold sway.[27]

Perhaps what we need to discern from the phrase would be:

  1. Jesus emphasizes the reality of God. He is ruling and this rule is universal. Jesus himself will become the one through whom God’s rule is mediated (28:18-20), because he will have “all authority in heaven and on earth.” Consider Pennington’s conclusions regarding Matthew’s use of the language of heaven.[28]
  2. Jesus distinguished between the universal rule of God and a subset within it. Jesus calls upon people to “enter the kingdom,” language which indicates that the Kingdom of Heaven is not wholly contiguous with God’s universal rule. Carson states that “the Kingdom of Heaven in this narrower sense is that exercise of God’s sovereignty which bears directly on his saving purposes. All who are in the kingdom have life; all who are not in the kingdom do not have life.”[29] We term this the sphere of God’s redemptive rule. Perhaps Matthew 8:10-12, in which the Jewish people are characterized as the “subjects of the kingdom,” is an example where Kingdom is used in a more universal sense. These subjects are excluded from the blessings of God’s saving or redemptive rule, whereas others, namely Gentiles, are included.
  3. The kingdom as God’s saving power is both present and future, here and not yet. Because Jesus casts out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has come (12:28). The ones who inherit the kingdom already live in the context of God’s saving power, but the consummation of this reality will only occur as Jesus returns. The presence of Jesus marks the presence of the Kingdom and in our era the gift of the Spirit continues to mark the presence of the Kingdom. Connected with this is the sense that this Kingdom is God’s response to the covenant promises made to Abraham.
  4. Inclusion in the Kingdom of Heaven, i.e. the realm of God’s redemptive rule, requires submission to and full allegiance to the authority of Jesus. The warning of 7:21-23 becomes particularly pertinent here. Being in the kingdom always carries with it ethical implications (i.e. repentance) – Jesus gives commands that must be obeyed.
  5. We cannot separate the proclamation of the Kingdom from the reality of the Messiah who proclaims it. The purpose for which God exercises his saving power through the Messiah is the realization of a new community – perhaps a new Israel, operating under the Messianic King’s universal authority. Conversely, this Kingdom is set in opposition to Satan’s domain. The Messiah comes to “plunder the house of the strong man” and to assault and destroy the gates of Hades.
  6. As N.T. Wright and J. Bright before him emphasize, “Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom was…the articulation of a new variant upon Israel’s basic worldview.”[30]

He aimed to bring about a radical shift within, not an abandonment of, the worldview of his hearers. They thought of themselves as Israel, as expecting the fulfillment of YHWH’s promises, particularly concerning the great redemption, the restoration, the return from exile, the ‘forgiveness of sins.’ Jesus offered exactly that; but as his own stories made clear, what he offered did not look like what they had been expecting….He aimed, then, to reconstitute Israel around himself, as the true returned-from-exile people; to achieve the victory of Israel’s god over the evil that had enslaved his people; and somehow, to bring about the greatest hope of all, the victorious return of YHWH to Zion.[31]


  1. The Kingdom of God concept is also related directly to the work of the Holy Spirit expressed in divine power and wisdom (Beelzebul controversy – Matthew 12; John the Baptist’s prophecy).

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ call to his followers to embrace his subversive definition of God’s saving power directed towards the re-formation of His people.

Blomberg points out that what Matthew presents in chapters 5-7 could have been spoken in the space of perhaps 15 to 20 minutes. However, given the way that Matthew characterizes the setting of this discourse (5:1-2), it seems to have occurred over a lengthy period of time (several hours?). If this is a true assumption, then what Matthew has preserved would be an epitome of this longer discourse.

We do not have time to examine every detail of the Sermon. We will spend some time on the initial section, and the commission statement (5:13-16) and hermeneutical principles (5:17-20). We then make selective comments on the antitheses (5:21-48), comments on religious activity (6:1-18) and Kingdom ethics (6:19-7:12). We will pause a little longer over the conclusion (7:13-29).

The Beatitudes and Transition (5:3-12)

The rhythmic formalism of the Beatitudes along with their startling content captures our attention. Jesus immediately associates the Kingdom with the reality of God’s favour and approval, introducing into people’s lives grace, mercy and hope. Because God has acted in this way and these people are responding, they experience happiness – blessedness. In a sense this is the language of congratulation, proclaiming the good fortune of a specific group of people because of God’s provisions. It is also the language of covenant within which God expresses the basis of his relationship with people.

The beatitude ‘form’ occurs frequently in previous Jewish literature (cf. Psalm 1:1). However, it is much rarer to find an extended list of beatitudes. Examples can be found in Tobit 13:14 (3); 2 Enoch 42:7-14)(9); 4Q525 (5). Betz points out several examples of ‘beatitudes’ or statements of blessing in Greek literature. For example the Greek Philosopher Empedocles pronounces:

Blessed is he who has acquired a wealth of the divine wisdom, but miserable he in whom there rests a dim opinion concerning the gods.[32]

He also makes the observation that often beatitudes are used as introductory principles that form the foundation of a following discussion or exposition (cf. Psalm 1:1-2). He also notes the writing by Pseudo-Phocylides that introduces a set of Jewish ethical principles with a beatitude. He then concludes that “placing a beatitude at the head of a collection of ethical maxims was almost a literary convention.” In his opinion, this positions the Sermon on the Mount within the context of Jewish wisdom literature.[33] While we have one or two examples of this, Betz probably presses the evidence when he claims this is a “literary convention.”

Jesus proclaims eight beatitudes in the third person (vv. 3-10) and concludes with one in the second person (v. 11), that transitions into a command to rejoice (v.12). The beatitudes in vv. 3 and 10 are expressed in the present tense (“for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”), using the same formulation. The intervening beatitudes are cast as future experiences (“they shall be comforted, they shall inherit, they shall be satisfied, they shall experience mercy, they shall see God, they shall be called…”). We can discern in this concentric structure the present-future tension existent for those who are members of this Kingdom. When will these declarations become a reality? Perhaps Betz is correct that the beatitudes represent “anticipated eschatological verdicts.”[34] I think there is definitely an eschatological focus for these declarations, but I would also suggest that some aspects of the promises can already be experienced in this age (i.e., comfort, satisfaction, mercy, status as sons of God, and possession of the Kingdom). However, these experiences and blessings depend entirely upon a relationship with Jesus.

The structure of each beatitude is interesting. A proclamation is made in the form of a nominal sentence and then it is followed by a second clause explaining why the initial proclamation is true (“blessed is…because…). In other words, Jesus tells his audience why God’s approval belongs to people who experience the condition expressed in the beatitude. Promise is inherent in the blessing and gives the blessing an open-ended scope. However, Jesus is careful, I think, to avoid the suggestion that people in this situations have ‘earned’ the promise. As well, we should note the element of reversal that occurs between the condition and the promise. In some way God’s intervention to create this reversal generates and guarantees his commendation. Finally, in vv.4, 6, 7, 9 the verb in the causal clause is passive. We have to ask who is the agent presumed responsible for the stated action? I think it is God who comforts, satisfies, shows mercy, and declares our sonship. The inheritance promised in v. 5 presumes an owner who designates an heir and God, who created the earth, fills this role. And v. 8 indicates that the “pure in heart…shall see God.” Who can enable this to occur, if not God himself, for no one can see God and live, unless God makes special provision. I would suggest that a covenantal relationship is the foundation for each of these beatitudes.

While it may not be apparent in the English translations, the alliteration and rhyming elements in the beatitudes are noteworthy. There is a sonority within them that gives weight and dignity to their content. This is apparent within the Greek rendering. It is difficult to assess whether it would be present in the same way in a reconstructed Aramaic version.

In Luke’s account (6:20-26) there are only four beatitudes, followed by a summary and then four woes, absent from Matthew’s account. Blomberg suggests that Jesus’ original discourse contained all of this material which each Gospel writer, for various reasons, has used selectively. To try and determine whether Matthew or Luke is more original, i.e., representing what Jesus actually said and how he said it, is in my view incapable of demonstration and does not take into account other ways of explaining the diversity.[35] Perhaps in Matthew’s Gospel the Beatitudes in 5:1-12 are balanced by the woes in chapter 23 – sort of the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry.

The human categories in the beatitudes that Jesus describes seem to have both spiritual and ethical points of reference. He mentions purity, justness, mercy, and peace-making. If this is the dominant perspective, then perhaps the other terms, i.e., meekness, mourning, and poverty, should be understood also within this frame of reference.

To be ‘poor in spirit’ means poor with reference to one’s spirit and probably then signifies a recognition of spiritual need and bankruptcy before God, for which a person can provide no remedy.  Psalm 33(34):19 (referred to in 1 Peter 5:6-7) says that God “will deliver the humbled/downhearted in spirit.” This would be the closest OT analogy. The Qumran documents several times identify the pious as “humbled of spirit” (‘nwy rwh). John Nolland comments that “the members of the Qumran community identified themselves as the poor to whom the eschatological promises apply (1QH 18.12-15).”[36] He suggests that the sense of affliction experienced in the exile continued to the time of Jesus. The Qumran covenanters see themselves as patiently bearing “the affliction and poverty of the exile period, the period of God’s wrath” until the day of the final battle.[37] As Blomberg warns, we must not spiritualize or secularize this text. Whoever sustains severe affliction (whatever their economic status) such that their spirits are crushed, and sense that their affliction reflects their disjointed relation with God, fits this category. Jesus encourages such to believe that they can participate in the Kingdom of God in this age, if they will follow him. They are blessed to have this hope. Jesus blends spiritual and social concerns in a balanced way. However, we have to be careful not to assume that poverty of spirit is an automatic indicator that they have God’s approval. Response in faith to Jesus is still necessary for the blessing to be experienced.

“Those who mourn” describes people who have sustained serious loss and thus experience grief. Matthew does not define the causes that generate this mourning. Paul can use this word in 1 Cor. 5:2 in reference to grief over sin. BDAG declare regarding Matt. 5:4 that the people “mourn not for their own sins, but because of the power of the wicked, who oppress the righteous.”[38] I am not sure how the authors of this lexicon can be so dogmatic. I would suggest that the truth lies in the sinful and oppressive matrix created by personal, external, and systemic sin humans experience in this fallen world. We do not need to only focus on one category of sin as the cause for such mourning. Jesus promises that people grieving because of sinful oppression can have hope of divine comfort, if they show repentance. This will come in the form of joy and elimination of that which oppresses.

When Jesus refers to “the meek” (v.5), we should probably discern its significance in the light of Psalm 36(37):11:

οἱ δὲ πραεῖς κληρονομήσουσιν γῆν but the meek shall inherit the land (earth) (NETS [New English Translation of the Septuagint]).

In such contexts (cf. also Psalm 24(25):9 (2x); 33(34):2; 75(76):9; 146(147):6; 149:4) the term describes people “unable to forward their own cause and in every case are dependent upon God for rescue.”[39] In addition, if Moses was “meek” and Jesus is described by this term in Matt. 11:29; 21:5, then I suggest it speaks of individuals who are submissive to God and his plans. In the case of Jesus, meekness defines his voluntary dependence upon God and submission to his will, unwilling to do anything that God does not initiate.

To these meek, humbly dependent people, Jesus promises the earth! In Matthew 16:26 Jesus will warn his followers that if they seek to possess the ‘cosmos’, rather than God, they will ‘lose their souls’. But here Jesus promises those who know full well their impoverishment, grief, and inability to rescue themselves, i.e., their submissive dependence upon God and his direction, that they have the opportunity in the Kingdom to “inherit the earth/land.” Of course, this language echoes God’s covenant promise to Israel – they would possess the land of Palestine. Jesus takes this promise and completely alters it. Those in the Kingdom will rule with the Messiah – in the new heavens and new earth revealed to John (Revelation 20-22). Jesus in this promise re-shapes the covenant promise related to land in an entirely new way.

We must pause here and note that the categories of people Jesus describes in the first three beatitudes form the subject of Isaiah’s prophecy in 61:1-7 – the poor, the mourning, and those shattered in heart – captives and the blind. While Luke uses Isaiah 61 to introduce and frame the meaning of Jesus’ ministry at the very start of his mission, Matthew seems to incorporate these same ideas in the beatitudes. Isaiah’s vision provides the framework for Jesus’ Kingdom reality (cf. also Jesus’ response to John the Baptist in Matthew 11). This is another way in which Matthew demonstrates Jesus’ fulfillment of the OT promises.

Jesus recognizes that some in the crowd long for God to act and restore justice – they hunger and thirst for it. Jesus echoes this in 6:33-34. There is a desperate focus to their desire, an active determination to see God’s will done on earth. These people see the chaotic moral and social disorder and yearn for God to step in and make all things new. Jesus promises that full satisfaction will be possible.

Mercy, purity and peace-making suggest a more positive spiritual activity. These people seek through their living to inaugurate God’s rule within their sphere of influence. In the OT eleēmōn (ἐλεήμων) often translates חסד [40] which signifies “the active kindness appropriate to a committed personal relationship.”[41] A spirit of generosity becomes evident. (Cf. Proverbs 17:5 – He that has compassion shall receive mercy.)  Perhaps this concept is related to Jesus’ teaching that those who are unwilling to forgive will not receive forgiveness from God (6:12, 14-15). “Purity in Heart” reflects the ethos of Psalm 24:3-4 – only those who have clean hands and pure hearts should enter into God’s presence. If this is the background, then Jesus here would be defining a standard of integrity that rejects deviousness. When oppressed or deprived, the commitment to purity may waiver. People who pursue God’s will with this degree of intensity demonstrate their desire to be with God and Jesus promises there is that potential. I am not sure there is any connection by Matthew here with the Emmanuel concept, i.e., God with us. Finally, Jesus comments on “peace-makers.”[42] We have no context to determine what the threat is – whether social or political, but Jesus congratulates those who take the initiative to restore and maintain peace. Consider Psalm 34:14 (cf. 1 Peter 3:10-12) – “seek peace and pursue it.”[43] Isaiah 9:6-7 promises that God will generate peace through the Davidic progeny. Since God seeks to establish peace, those people who genuinely and seriously “make peace” show their solidarity and spiritual genetic linkage with God. The Hebrew concept of peace, shalom, is more inclusive than the Greek idea, defining the harmony and wholeness of all life.[44]

Within the Christian tradition “seeing God” has come to mark the highest state of blessedness any human could attain. The book of Revelation is remarkable for the insights it provides into the visible qualities of God. John’s Gospel affirms that Jesus reveals God to such an extent that Jesus says “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (1:18; 14:9).

Jesus concludes this section of third person beatitudes (v.10) by acknowledging “those who stand hunted/persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” Perhaps this situation is the kind of context that generates poverty of spirit, mourning, and humble dependence. Alternatively, as Blomberg, notes (as also 1 Peter (3:14; 4:14-15) affirms), people who live according to the description of the beatitudes generate opposition from a hostile world. Is this an ethical presumption – something that cannot be avoided? Peter’s use of this material in his first letter raises some interesting questions about his linkage with Jesus’ teaching and his possible awareness of Matthew’s Gospel. Within first century Judaism there emerges a significant literature about the righteous sufferer. 3rd and 4th Maccabees particularly give voice to this notion, even suggesting that the death of the righteous is in some sense able to atone for the sins of Israel (cf. 4th Maccabees 10:20;16:19; 17:9-10 “they vindicated their nation, looking to God and enduring torture even to death”). Jesus will refer to the persecution of the prophets within Judaism (Matthew 23; 2 Chronicles 34:16; Jeremiah’s story). Perhaps the ultimate declaration of one’s loyalty to God and thirst for righteousness is demonstrated by steadfastness in suffering for righteousness’ sake.

The transitional verses 11-12 shift to the second person and Jesus moves from general principles, to specific commands that his followers will be expected to obey. Loyalty to Jesus becomes the basis, the kind of righteousness necessary (v.10) for a person to participate in the Kingdom (“for my sake”). His followers must realize that their allegiance to him will generate verbal abuse[45], persecution[46] and defamation[47] (the same categories Peter mentions in his letter).  Despite this experience, Jesus declares them fortunate, because “your reward is great in heaven.” This should generate joy and gladness (the same words are used in 1 Peter 1:6-8; 4:12-16 in contexts of testing). The theme of rewards occurs at 6:1 and 6:19-21, but the term used here is ‘treasure’. As Paul expresses, our light and temporary suffering works for us an eternal glory, a reward that God has already prepared, a crown of righteousness.[48]

Finally, Jesus connects the righteous suffering his followers will experience with that experienced by the Israelite prophets.[49] Just as the writer of Hebrews 11 reminds his audience about the heroes of faith and their participation in the “great cloud of witnesses” 12:1), so Jesus places his followers directly in the frontlines of God’s people, a heritage stretching back to Abraham. This is their spiritual genealogy. As people pursue his mission, they pursue God’s mission, even though many Jewish people have rejected Jesus as the Messiah. The persecution of the Messianic community is a sign of their inclusion in the Kingdom and so should generate confidence and gladness (cf. 1 Peter 4:15-16). Perhaps Jesus is also comparing the role of his followers with that of the former prophets – witnesses for God (28:16-20). Can we say that disciples have a prophetic role as they fulfill the Great Commandment?

[1] We speculated in earlier lectures that this discourse material may have been included in the so-called earlier Aramaic edition of the Gospel, which subsequently was integrated in a fresh composition with the Markan material to form our Gospel of Matthew.

[2] This English term suggests a spoken, public presentation that possesses coherence around specific, related ideas, but is not as tightly organized or reasoned for example as a lecture might be. There obviously were times when Jesus made extended teaching presentations to his followers. John 13-16, the so-called Upper Room discourse, would be an additional example to those we discover in Matthew’s Gospel.

[3] 26:1a. This wording, minus the term “all,” occurs at 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1. However, the clauses following this expression vary considerably, usually reflecting the context.

[4] Similar usage occurs at Matthew 14:23; 15:29. If Jesus makes Capernaum his centre, what “mountain” would be close by? The traditional scene for this event is a gently sloping hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, about 200 feet above the level of the lake. Certainly not a “mountain” as normally the English term would describe.

[5] This expression occurs seven times in Matthew (5:1; 13:36; 14:15; 18:1; 24:1,3; 26:17). Three of these are at the beginning of discourses (5:1; 18:1; 24:3). 13:36 occurs in the middle of a discourse.

[6] About 75x. He refers to the disciples of John (9:14; 11:2; 14:12) and the disciples of the Pharisees (22:16).

[7] 13:52; 27:57; 28:19.

[8] The word ‘apostle’ only occurs here in Matthew’s Gospel (cf. Mark 6:30).

[9] Michael Wilkins, Following the Master. A Biblical Theology of Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervans, 1992):179. This is a popularized edition of his publication The Concept of Disciple in Matthew’s Gospel: As Reflected in the Use of the Term μαθητής, NovTSup 59 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988).

[10] The Hebrew or Aramaic terms for disciple do not occur in the Qumran literature.

[11] Within Pharisaism some leaders had specific disciples who collaborated with them in certain projects. The Pharisee Pollion had a disciple named Samias who worked together in a scheme with Herod.

[12] John’s disciples might be clustered in this category (Matthew 9:14; 11:2-3; 14:12; Acts 18:24-25; 19:1-3).

[13] Perhaps a disciple of the Pharisees was an adherent, a person in training to become a Pharisee, learning the law and the oral traditions surrounding it that were specific to Pharisaism.

[14] John’s Gospel refers to “disciples of Moses” (9:28), i.e., Pharisees. They claim to follow the revelation that God gave to Moses in the Torah. Discipleship in this instance means following a certain type of teaching based upon close study of its contents.

[15] Martin Hengel, The Charismatic leader and His Followers (1968; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, transl. 1981):81. He denies expressly that “Jesus’ relationship to his disciples [can]…be derived from the analogy of the teacher-pupil relationship such as we find among the later rabbis.” He cites H. Conzelmann who emphasized that “What is specific about Jesus’ self-consciousness is documented in his relationship with his disciples.” (p.87). Jesus dared to act in God’s place. Where Hengel is misguided, I think, is in his construal that Jesus saw the Kingdom so near as to obviate the necessity for his teaching to be learned. Consider Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 11:29 “learn from me.”

[16] C.G. Montefiore, Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teachings (1939):218.

[17] Berger Gerhardsson, “Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity,” published in Memory and Manuscript. Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity, combined edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998): 24, 27.

[18] Much of this analysis is dependent upon Hans Betz, The Sermon on the Mount. Hermeneia (Minn.: Fortress Press, 1995), 50-66.

[19] Cf. Blomberg’s characterization in his commentary on Matthew, page 94.

[20] Martin Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Combined Volumes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977): 16-17.

[21] Augustine, The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, I.1.1. He is probably the first to refer to this discourse as “The Sermon on the Mount”.

[22] Blomberg, Matthew, page 95.

[23] Robert Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount. A Foundation for Understanding (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1982): 27-33.

[24] Don Carson, The Sermon on the Mount. An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978): 151-157.

[25] Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus (Oxford, University Press, 1991): 200.

[26] Ibid., 195.

[27] Ibid., 196.

[28] Jonathan T. Pennington. Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), 331-48.

[29] Don Carson, op.cit., 12-13.

[30] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minn.: Fortress Press, 1996), 200.

[31] Ibid., 473-474.

[32] Betz, op.cit., 103.

[33] Ibid., 105.

[34] Betz., op.cit., 94.

[35] Cf. Blomberg, op. cit., page 98. We know from Deuteronomy that blessings and curses are often joined together. 2 Enoch 52:11-12 shows this same pattern.

[36] John Nolland, Luke, I (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, Publishers, 1989):282-283.

[37] Ibid., 282.

[38] BAGD, p. 795.

[39] John Nolland, Matthew, 201.

[40] Mercy is one of God’s most fundamental characteristics (Exodus 34:6). Cf. Micah 6:8.

[41] John Nolland, Matthew, 203.

[42] The Roman emperor is named “peacemaker of the world” (Dio Cass. History, 72.15.5). Some argue for a connection here, by linking these ideas with Isaiah 45:7, where the LXX speaks of ὁ ποιῶν εἰρήνην, “the one who makes peace.”

[43] Perhaps Matthew writes with knowledge of what is happening in the Jewish-Roman war and the rejection of peace-making by those who have taken over the Jewish leadership of Jerusalem and the Temple. Josephus describes these events from this perspective.

[44] Paul defines the believer’s ministry as “the ministry of reconciliation” in 2 Corinthians 5.

[45] Jesus experiences this in 27:44.

[46] Matthew uses it in the discipleship discourse (10:23) and the woes discourse (23:34) to indicate hostile action. It relates specifically in these contexts to intra-Judaic opposition. There is a triple use of this verb in vv. 10-12. Such concentration suggests this kind of opposition was particularly concerning to Matthew and his audience. They are lambs among wolves. They are labourers in the harvest (10:2). And precisely because they carry out Jesus’ commission, as his advocates and delegates, they are maligned (10:23-24).

[47] The Pharisees defame Jesus in 12:24, 34.

[48] Promise of rewards in 10:40-42.

[49] Consider Jesus’ reference to the prophets in 13:16-17. His followers are ‘more than prophets’ (11:11). In 10:41a they are accepted “in the name of a prophet”, i.e. they are construed as prophets. Consider Peter’s citation of Joel 3 in the Pentecost Sermon (Acts 2) and his description of how common Israelites will prophecy as the Spirit comes.