The Sermon on the Mount: Can He be serious?

Text: Matthew 5—8.

The Demands of Christ’s Righteousness

The demands of the Sermon on the Mount (SM) are great. I have presented elsewhere that the style and structure of the Beatitudes call disciples to a sacrificial way of life.[1] Most shudder at the prospect of the commands of the rest of chapter 5. The generosity called for in 6:19-24 is so radical that Jesus immediately followed it with encouragement not to worry about how we will be fed and clothed. (Concerns we might have if we truly don’t lay up treasure on earth but in heaven; if we serve God and not Mammon.) What are we to do with these demands?

Since the Reformation, some approaches to the SM essentially attempt to retrofit its teaching on righteousness into a “justification by faith alone” mold. I use the word “retrofit” because the SM wasn’t made for that purpose. And it doesn’t retrofit well. Such attempts may hold high the doctrine of justification by faith, but they undermine a proper hermeneutic (method of interpretation) and rob the listeners of one of the richest and preeminent teachings of Jesus.

Such retrofitting might sound something like, “The Sermon on the Mount is intended to show us our inability to be righteous on our own. We can never have a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, and so it sends us to Jesus where we receive the free gift of righteousness, which exceeds that of the Pharisees.”

While it is true that we are “unable to be righteous on our own,” that point was never the intent of Jesus’ preaching the SM. His intent was to describe what it means to repent (change how we think and live) and to follow Him. It is a description of how Jesus as King wants the subjects of His kingdom to live. Those who believe He is King, set out to live in these ways. In other words, the SM intends to show us what righteousness is and for us to order our steps accordingly.

Other approaches to the SM suggest that it was never intended for the church, but (then it is either suggested that it was for Jews at the time of Jesus or a still future group of people). One could not draw this conclusion from Matthew’s Gospel. On the contrary, Matthew ends with the “Great Commission” which instructs us to make disciples… “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20) That is a clear reference back to the SM for that is where most of Jesus’ commands for His disciples are in Matthew.

The role of the SM in the early church is evident in both the New Testament letters (Rom. 12:14-21;) as well as the earliest Christian document outside of Scripture, commonly called The Didache, The Teaching, or in its longer form, “The Teaching of the Apostles.” This document was designed for preparing baptismal candidates. This sample reveals that in the 1st century church, they believed the apostle’s taught that we are to follow the teachings of the SM.

3 …Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you; for what thank is there if ye love those who love you? Do not even Gentiles the same? But love ye those who hate you, and ye shall not have an enemy. 4.  Abstain from fleshly and bodily [worldly] lusts. If any one give thee a blow on the right cheek turn to him the other also, and thou shalt be perfect. If any one press thee to go with him one mile, go with him two; if any one take away thy cloak, give him also thy tunic; if any one take from thee what is thine, ask it not back…. 5.  Give to every one that asketh thee, and ask not back, for the Father wills that from our own blessings we should give to all…. (The Didache. Philip Schaff translation.)

It should be apparent that the SM is intended to direct the disciples’ way of life.

The Sermon on the Mount is intended to direct the disciples’ way of life.

The Problem with Christ’s Demands

This subtitle likely gives many pause. How can there be a problem with Christ’s commands or demands? Certainly, there is no problem with the nature of the commands. There is no problem with the lifestyle or ethics they prescribe. There is no problem with their clarity—the only clarity problems have to do with a 2,000-year historical gap between then and now, but even still, they are quite clear.

The problem is that we equivocate; we avoid committing ourselves to obedience. Why? We aren’t (always) convinced that Jesus’s commands are the right thing to do. A piece of the narrative which follows the SM helps to illustrate this point.

18 When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. 19 Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”

20 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

21 Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

22 But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (Matt. 8:18-22 emp. Added)

Jesus had just given the “orders” of the SM and we are told, “the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority” (Matt. 7:28-29). Likewise, in this story Jesus has given orders to cross to the other side of the lake. But then a teacher of the Law, the only one in chapter 8 that doesn’t call Jesus Lord, but rather calls him an equal, “Teacher,” approaches Jesus as if he had not already told him where he was going.

If this guy had considered Jesus as Lord, he would be lining up to get into the boat with Jesus. Instead, he is embracing an abstract notion of what it means to follow Jesus. Jesus’ command, like those of the SM, was quite concrete, even if difficult. This teacher of the Law wasn’t interested in going to the other side of the lake, he wanted to go “wherever you go.”  Following Jesus isn’t an embrace of a vague lifestyle, it is the embrace of a concrete, even difficult (Matt. 7:14 ESV), lifestyle (the SM).

If this guy had considered Jesus as Lord, he would be lining up to get into the boat with Jesus.

Then another from among the disciples (this guy does call Him Lord) offers obedience to go to the other side but with what seems to be a very reasonable request, “let me first go and bury my father.” Given that Jesus still calls this man to follow him as He corrects him (22), I am persuaded, though I can’t be certain, that if this man had lined up to get into the boat and then, as they are getting on the boat, he asked Jesus, “What should I do about my father who just died?” that Jesus would have solved the man’s crisis, allowing him to bury his father.

The problem isn’t with the man’s desire to bury his father, but with the exception to Christ’s commands. We think, “It’s not the right thing to do in this moment for this man to get into the boat and go to the other side.” However, we must define “the right thing to do” by Christ’s commands and then in our lives of following seek wisdom in how to handle the difficulties such obedience brings upon us. In his case, the right thing to do was to get in the boat. For all disciples the right thing to do is to follow Jesus’ ways in the SM.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on the first page of his book Ethics, addresses this issue with poignancy:

Those who wish even to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand—from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: “How can I be good?” and “How can I do something good?” Instead, they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: what is the will of God? This demand is radical precisely because it presupposes a decision about ultimate reality, that is, a decision of faith.[4] When the ethical problem presents itself essentially as the question of my own being good and doing good, the decision has already been made that the self and the world are the ultimate realities.[2]

Bonhoeffer is referencing the original sin: the temptation to define good and evil for ourselves. Our question cannot be (in effect), “What is good?” (The very question of the study of ethics.) Rather it must be “What is the will of God?” for that is, by definition, what is good. The two would-be disciples of Matthew 8:18-22 have not yet surrendered to God’s will as revealed in Jesus Christ.

The Path of Jesus’ Demands

If the Gospels were merely a sentimental appeal to following Jesus what follows would be a story of those who obey Jesus, get in the boat, and go to the others side. In that story, everything would go well. They would experience the life and peace of Jesus’ kingdom. But that is not the story that follows.

23 Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (Matt. 8:23-37 emp. added)

Lest we think obedience to Jesus is all sunshine and roses, these disciples who did obey and follow him, get in the boat and “suddenly” a storm which shook them violently (shook their faith to the core) came up on the lake. And what is Jesus doing? Sleeping!

Let’s be clear: Jesus has commanded some very difficult things (love your enemies, be generous, pray for your persecutors, forgive). Then, when we obey Him, our lives may experience a faith shaking storm that threatens to drown us and it will seem like Jesus is sleeping!

When we obey Jesus’ commands, our lives may experience a faith shaking storm that threatens to drown us and it will seem like Jesus is sleeping!

This is how we recognize who Jesus is. Israel was familiar with God looking like he was asleep! In fact, they sang about it in their worship (Psalm 44)! That they find Jesus sleeping is a fulfillment of Scripture!

The disciples do what any of us would do. They pray! That’s how you wake God up, of course. They go to wake him up and say 3 words: “Lord, Save, drowning!” Prayers don’t need to be long to be effective! “Lord (disciples know who he is), Save [us], we are being destroyed!”

Here’s the promise: When we respond to Jesus’ commands in obedience and go to him in prayer regarding the trouble it gets us in, He will rescue us!


Can He be serious? Jesus was quite serious when He gave us the SM. It is applicable to all who call Jesus Lord. That is the first step onto the path of discipleship (Matt. 28:18). Once we recognize Jesus’ authority, we set out to live in His kingdom. To be sure, in order to do this, we must believe in the God who raises the dead (Rom. 4:17; 10:9). Such faith is called for because to do what He says will often seem absurd to our rational thinking. We love to have good reasons for what we do, and the good reason for Jesus’ commands is that they are His commands. This requires real faith (whether weak or strong does not matter) that God will rescue us.

Lord Jesus, transform our hearts to recognize Your authority. Teach us to follow your will over our own conclusions about what is good. Your will is clearly laid out for us but requires discernment. Give us discernment and keep us from confusing our equivocation with discernment.

[1] Gerard Cisar, The Beatitudes in the Life of the Church, Calvin Theological Journal, April 2022, Vol. 57, No. 1, you can request a PDF copy here.

[2]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, vol. 6 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Accordance electronic ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 47.


Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

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