A Manual for Christian Living - Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

E very seminarian of the Syriac Orthodox Church must learn by heart the Sermon on the Mount in Aramaic – the language in which Jesus originally spoke it. 

These three chapters (Matthew 5 to 7) contain the undisputed heart of the radical new teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. They are the most distinctively Christian pages of the Bible, at least in terms of instructions for living.  

Although the Sermon on the Mount comes very near the beginning of Matthew’s record of the adult life of Jesus, the evangelist records several experiences that Jesus went through shortly beforehand. Firstly, He was baptised (Matthew 3:13-17). As He came up out of the water, there came down from heaven the Spirit of God and the voice of the Father saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Those words combine the meaning of two quotations from the Old Testament about the coming Messiah. Psalm 2:7 affirms “You are my Son” who will rule the nations. Isaiah 42:1 speaks of the Lord’s delight in His chosen one, the suffering Servant who will bring justice to the nations. At His baptism, therefore, Jesus received assurance of three certainties: He was the beloved chosen Son of God, in front of Him lay the way of suffering, but His final destiny was to be the victorious King.

Baptism was a key moment in the life of the Lord Jesus and is also key in the lives of His followers, albeit for a different reason. The early Church saw baptism as admission into the Christian community. Today this is seen particularly for those who come from a background of another religion or no religion and choose to follow Christ; it is often after baptism that their persecution begins. Baptism is a clear dividing line between the world we have left behind and the journey we are now embarking on. Baptism can be seen as the moment when we enlist in the Lord’s army to fight the spiritual fight of faith. 

The Apostle Paul says that in baptism we are buried with Christ and then raised to live a new life (Romans 6:3-4). In some early traditions, the baptismal candidate would descend three steps into the pool, at the first step stating their rejection of the world, at the next their rejection of the flesh and at the third their rejection of the devil, and they would affirm their new faith and commitment to the triune God as they ascended.

According to scholars the renunciation of the world, the flesh and the devil was used by almost every branch of the Church in their baptismal liturgies from the second century onwards, whether or not there were three steps to descend, but after the Reformation some churches began to abandon this practice. 

In some contexts, such as the pagan society in which the Church was born and certain religious contexts today, the need to renounce Satan and all his works is obvious, for example if there are idols or demonic rituals. Baptism was “the public act in which the Church declared to the world (and Satan) that the new Christian no longer belonged to the kingdom of evil”1, that he or she had been  delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Colossians 1:13 ESV). 

According to Alexander Schmemann, baptism is also a kind of exorcism:

In the baptismal rite, which is an act of liberation and victory, the exorcisms come first because on our path to the baptismal font we unavoidably “hit” the dark and powerful figure that obstructs this path. It must be removed, chased away, if we are to proceed … the Devil is there defending that which he has stolen from God and claims as his possession ... a mortal fight is about to begin whose ultimate issue is not explanations and theories but eternal life or eternal death. For whether we want it or not, know it or not, we are all involved in a spiritual war that has been raging from the very beginning. A decisive victory, to be sure, has been won by God, but the Devil has not yet surrendered. On the contrary according to the Scripture, it is when mortally wounded and doomed that he stages the last and most powerful battle. He can do nothing against Christ, but he can do much against us. Exorcisms therefore are the beginning of the fight that constitutes the first and essential dimension of Christian life2

Baptism is a clear dividing line between our old life and our new life in Christ.

I mmediately after His baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted (literally “tried”) by the devil (Mark 1:12). Similarly the Israelites, having been wonderfully delivered from their enemies at the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:19-21), were immediately led by Moses into the desert with all its hardships (Exodus 15:22). Baptism, that vital declaration of faith in Christ, of having turned from an old life and begun a new life with Him, is often followed by a time of testing. Many Christians have found that, soon after their baptism, difficulties assail them. It could be sickness, depression, or various practical problems. It could be waves of desire to return to old sinful patterns of living that have been discarded. It could be mockery, criticism, rejection, even violence, from loved ones disapproving of their step of faith. All these trials are sent by the devil who, enraged by the baptism, is tempting the believer to forsake Christ and the Christian way of life.

In the case of Jesus Himself, we are told of three areas of temptation during His lonely 40-day fast in an area of the Judean desert which the Old Testament calls Jeshimon, meaning The Devastation (Matthew 4:1-11). The Greek word πειρασθῆναι (peirasthēnai) is often translated as “to be tempted” with the nuance of being enticed, but really it has a more positive meaning along the lines of being tested or tried or proved. The devil may intend to make us sin but, when God allows the devil to test us, it is so that we can conquer sin (1 Corinthians 10:13). Temptation is not meant to weaken us but to strengthen us, so that we emerge from the ordeal purified. Job, in the midst of his terrible sufferings, declared, “When he has tested me I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). Some have said that temptation is the test which comes to a person whom God wishes to use.

Each of us will face our own temptations, perhaps different from those facing other Christians we know, and perhaps different at different times of our life. Our Enemy is cunning and keeps manoeuvring and adapting his mode of attack. We should not expect to reach a stage of our earthly Christian life when temptation ceases; that will come only with our heavenly rest.  

Jeshimon was a dusty and sterile wasteland, near the Dead Sea, where little or nothing could grow. When the devil tempted Jesus there, the tests were those appropriate for a Person with supernatural powers but the basic principles are typical of many temptations that we commonly face: pleasure; prestige, pride and power; and possessions. Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread to satisfy His physical needs. He was tempted to make a spectacular demonstration of His special status to amaze the world. He was tempted to accept a gift of all the kingdoms of the world in return for worshipping the devil. In response to each, Jesus rebuked the devil with verses from Scripture. 

We all face temptations in a variety of forms. Satan will never stop attacking us, but we know that God gives us strength to overcome those temptations.  

A fter emerging from His ordeal in the desert, Jesus began His ministry. Large crowds came long distances to follow Him, but Jesus climbed a mountain, leaving the crowds behind. There, on the mountainside, He sat down and His disciples came to Him. Then, says Matthew, He opened His mouth and taught them (Matthew 5:1-2). Some Bible translations remove the apparently redundant words here (how could someone teach without opening their mouth?) and simply state that Jesus began to teach them. But these translations lose an important layer of meaning. The phrase to “open one’s mouth” was used in Greek to flag up to the reader that something unusually important was coming. It was a phrase that prefaced either a solemn and weighty utterance or an outpouring from the heart at a very intimate level. We must add to this the information given in the previous verse that Jesus was sitting down when He spoke. When a Jewish rabbi was doing official teaching, he sat down. He might give unofficial teaching when standing or walking around, but he would sit down to deliver his main and central teaching.

So we know that what Jesus is about to say is of paramount importance. But to whom is He opening His heart and giving this most significant teaching? To His disciples (Matthew 5:1). In the ancient world, a disciple (Greek μαθητής, mathēts) was a dedicated learner who not only tried to absorb the teaching of their master but also wanted to interact with him and try to imitate his way of life, with the hope of eventually becoming like him. Personal, deep and permanent commitment to their master was the main characteristic of a disciple. 

This is surely how the small group who gathered about Jesus on this particular mountainside differed from the vast crowds who had been following Him all over Galilee. To “follow” is a noble Bible word (ἀκολουθέω, akoloutheó in Greek). The literal meaning of the Greek verb is to be on the same road or the same way as someone else. Interestingly, the Book of Acts reveals that the early Christians described their faith as “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 24:14,22) or the “Way of the Lord” or the “Way of God” (Acts 18:25-26).

Following was not only what the large crowds did (Matthew 4:25) but also what Peter, Andrew, James and John did when Jesus called them from their fishing nets and boats (Matthew 4:20,22). It is what Jesus later commanded all His disciples to do, in a context showing that He meant them to follow His example in life and if necessary by dying (Matthew 16:24). Sitting on the mountainside, Jesus spoke to the most steadfast and devoted of His followers, whom the Gospel-writers, using the language of their day, called His disciples. 

Christ calls us to be His disciples, learning from His words and His way of life, faithful to Him in all things.

T he Sermon on the Mount is therefore addressed to all of Christ’s committed followers today, for we – if we have given our lives to Him – are His disciples too. Indeed, making more disciples is what Jesus commanded the Eleven to do (Matthew 28:16-20). 

In these three chapters Jesus tells us how to live as His disciples in the world – what should be going on in our hearts, minds and wills, and how we should behave. He teaches us how to follow Him along the right path, the pathway of God, the narrow road that leads to life (Matthew 7:14) even as Satan tries to divert us on to wrong paths. He shows us how to prevent our natural desires causing us to fall into temptations, how to resist the devil’s offers of getting pleasure, prestige, power and possessions by wrong methods or for wrong and often prideful purposes, or whatever the devil dangles before each one of us.  

The Sermon on the Mount is instructions for radical discipleship, not defined by the Church or by culture or by history or by tradition but by the very nature of Christ. The Lord Himself is to be our model. The decision to be His disciple will affect every aspect of our lives. 

The Sermon on the Mount is Christ’s teaching specifically for those who have left the kingdom of darkness and entered His Kingdom; that is, His disciples, meaning all Christians. 

Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones described the Sermon on the Mount as “nothing but a great and grand and perfect elaboration of what our Lord called His ‘new commandment’. His new commandment was that we love one another even as He has loved us… here we are shown how to do it.”3

The Sermon on the Mount teaches us how Christians ought to live: the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) show us what our inner attitudes should be, shaping our minds, emotions and desires, while the rest of the three chapters shows us what our actions should be. 

But, we may ask, how can we possibly obey this teaching? The standards of the Sermon on the Mount seem unattainably high. Yes, it is true that we cannot do it in our own strength, but the Holy Spirit, at work in Christ’s disciples, will help us. 

We must also note that the Sermon on the Mount is primarily a description of character. It is not a new version of the Ten Commandments or an ethical code to be followed mechanically. It is a series of illustrations of Christians behaving in a truly Christ-like way.

At the same time we must note that we are still meant to live by God’s law and keep His commandments, just as Jesus did. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus emphasised that He had not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them, and that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees who were the “holiness movement” of Jesus’ day (Matthew 5:17-20). It is true that our salvation has been granted to us by God’s grace (His unmerited and free gift to us) and not by anything that we have done, as stated in Ephesians 2:8-9. It is His grace, continuing to work within us, which enables us to be faithful to His laws and commandments.  We are not under the law in the sense that it condemns us.  But we are still meant to live it, even to go beyond it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us how. We will begin to look in more detail at this in the next article. 


 

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo

International Director, Barnabas Aid

 

1 Steve Wilkins, “Baptism as Exorcism”, Theopolis Institute, 24 March 2015,  https://theopolisinstitute.com/baptism-as-exorcism/ (viewed 13 January 2023).

2 Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit: A liturgical study of baptism, Crestwood, NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974, pp.23-24.

3 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount Vol.1, London, Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1959, pp.15-16. He is referring to John 13:34.

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