Who Heard the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached?
There probably haven’t been a lot of sermons preached on this particular passage, seeing it is short and acts as a transition from the healing ministry of Jesus to His teaching ministry. This does not mean that He didn’t teach before, but it seems that His teaching was interrupted by the great needs of the people. Starting in Matthew 5:3.Jesu begins the longest sermon that He preached that is recorded in Scripture.
What makes this passage important is that it identifies those who followed Jesus. Who heard the greatest sermon ever preached? Was this sermon preached to Jews only, and therefore its teachings are binding on native Jews? Or is it a sermon reserved for the millennial kingdom as some suggest? The question I would have about this is why would Jesus preach a sermon that had no application to those who heard it that day? And as to the first question, we shall see that there were more than just ethnic Jews among the followers of Jesus.
Let us examine the context in which the Sermon on the Mount was preached. This begins with verse 25 of chapter 4. Here it mentions that a great crowd followed Him. Some of these came from Galilee, which Matthew says starting at 4:13 that Jesus went to after them temptation. Galilee was a region of mixed Jewish and Gentile communities. Matthew mentions “Galilee of the Gentiles” (or nations) from the prophecy of Isaiah as Jesus’ fulfillment of that prophecy. Next Matthew mentions that they came from Decapolis. Decapolis, which means “ten cities” in Greek, was predominantly Gentile. Then Matthew mentions that people came from Jerusalem and Judea who were Jewish. Then he lastly mentions that those from beyond Jordan which was racially mixed. So when we look at those who followed Jesus, they were of mixed nationality. This is especially emphasized that mixed areas come first and last. Then it is interesting that the Geniles from Decapolis come in order before the Jewish areas. I feel this is significant.
These followers made up the “crowd” that Jesus saw in 5:1. The Greek records “crowds” or the plural to indicate that it was a large crowd which came together from every direction. “Crowd” is not necessarily a friendly term. From the point of view of the Pharisee, the word they would have used was “mob” or “rabble”. . They has a special name for these people whom they considered illiterate and uneducated in the Jewish Law. They were the “am ha-aretz” or “people of the land.” Most of the Jewish leaders would have included Jesus and the disciples in this group and say so explicitly in places.
We are not exactly sure when the Pharisees came on the scent, but their origins may go back to the times of Ezra and Nehemiah. Both of these books emphasize the racial purity the Jews were to strictly observe. The Jewish men had to prove their Jewish pedigree, especially for the priesthood. Thos who had married foreign wives had to divorce their foreign wives and disown the children they had by them. This seems so incredibly harsh that I wonder if Scripture should be interpreted on two levels, one normatively which means that we are to observe its principles and informative which is used to illuminate what had gone on in the past but does not have the force of law upon us. Ezra and Nehemiah had excluded the Samaritans from the assembly as people of the land.
However, we see a different picture in the New Testament. Gentiles and those of mixed race were not to be excluded from the new people of God. Matthew is dramatic in demonstrating this. King David by the rules of the Pharisees should have been excluded as he had foreign women in his genealogy which is also Jesus’ genealogy. Matthew did not have to point out these women, but he went out of the way to do so. Two of them were Canaanites, one a prostitute and the other played one. Ruth the Moabitess was especially to be excluded from the assembly of Israel and her descendants forever. Bathsheba was married to a Hittite before David and was probably a Hittite herself.
Matthew seems to avoid the Jewish ceremonies involved in Jesus’ birth. Luke mentions shepherds who were probably Jewish. Matthew mentions Gentile Magi. Matthew skips over the presentation in the Temple, does not mention circumcision, does not mention Jesus confounding the Jewish doctors in the Temple at the age of twelve. In fact, other than Satan taking him to the pinnacle of the Temple during the Temptation in the wilderness, one could read Matthew in such a way as to think that the only time Jesus was ever in Jerusalem was during Holy Week which ended with His crucifixion. I am certainly not saying this is the case, but one must wonder why Jewish ceremony is deemphasized and inclusion of Gentiles emphasized in a Gospel that many commentators feel was written to Jewish-Christians.
Matthew has replaced the synagogue with the church. The fact that Matthew only mentions “church” twice in his gospel should not make us miss this point. It would be like saying that the Gospel of John is not concerned about grace because it is only mentioned twice in this gospel in the first chapter when it is indeed a commentary on how grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. The high point of the gospel of Matthew occurs in Chapter 15 with Peter’s confession. Jesus replies to this with “Upon this rock, I will build my church.” The church as the people of God is in the place of greatest emphasis. (If you want to read more about Chapter 15, you can read my sermon “Upon this Rock” which is in this sermon archive.)
Matthew also has replaced circumcision with baptism. This is mentioned in the Great Commission at the end of the book, another place of great emphasis. The Apostles were to make believers among the nations (Gentiles), baptize them, and teach them to observe everything Jesus had taught the disciple, which would include the Sermon on the Mount. Women could now be included personally in the covenant. They could not be circumcised, but they could be baptized.
Verse one says that when Jesus saw the crowds, He went up into a high mountain. We are reminded of Mt. Sinai in which Moses went up to receive the Law of God. He had to go up alone while the rest stayed in camp. Gere it says that His disciples followed Him up the mount upon which Jesus in the custom of a Rabbi set down to teach. What He would teach was the greatest sermon ever preached..
We know the makeup of the crowd. It was a mix of races. But did they hear the greatest sermon ever preached or did only the disciples? If we follow the Greek strictly, it would seem to indicate that only His disciples actually heard it . A literal translation says “They came to Him, the disciples, and He taught them saying.” As we normally associate His disciples at this point to the twelve. They certainly heard it, but what about the crowd? Did Jesus go up the mountain to separate from them so that He could teach His disciples in private like He did with Moses on Sinai? Or was this sermon preached to be overheard? The fact that the end of the sermon seems to equate a true disciple as one who hears the words of Jesus and puts them into practice, it is certainly possible that Jesus was addressing more than the twelve. But even if it was only the twelve, it indirectly includes al the nations and not just ethnic Israel. These same disciples who heard this sermon were told to tell it to the nations. Jesus could have pointed down the mountain to show the people they were to bring this message to just like in Chapter 16, he could point to the Gentile masses assembled at the pagan shrine of Pan.
I think it is abundantly clear that the Sermon on the Mount was to be heard by people of all nations and times. This is why it is included in the Scripture. This means that it is part of the normative teaching of Jesus for all Christians of all ages. It is not directly applicable to ethnic Israel alone, whether in Jesus’ da or later. It is not meant for the millennial kingdom either. Jesus does not charge His disciples in Chapter 28 to teach them everything they are to observe in the millennial kingdom. Matthew records the beginning of Jesus’ preaching as saying “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. This is in the Greek perfect tense which indicates from this point on, the presence of the Kingdom was a present and continuing reality.
This means that the greatest sermon ever preached is meant for us as well. As we delve further into the sermon, we will see why so many wished it was spoken to someone else like the Jews or for some later millennial kingdom. This teaching is normative for the church as a whole and to individual Christians as well. And it seems to demand the impossible as it does not just address external matters, but the matters of the heart as well. A serious reading of the sermon would make us want to rush back to the Law. Who could observe it. As long as the Sermon on the Mount is put on the ideal level of something we hope to be someday, we can “ooh” and “ah”. When it is brought down the mountain to the earth it makes us say Woe is me1” John Wesley preached several sermons on this sermon that wanted me to pull my hair out when read.
So our study of the Sermon on the Mount is going to be tough. But let us remember as we continue next week our study of the greatest sermon ever preached, let us remember that God is gracious. Part of this sermon is to strip all human pride from us and make us realize that our salvation is entirely dependent on the grace on God’s grace. We must also remember that this sermon was preached by the one who would die on the cross in our place for our sins and inability to keep God’s commandments. This sermon preached without the redeeming grace of God in mind would bring us down to unutterable despair. But when we despair, we realize there is hope. God can do the impossible. The one who begins the good work in us will finish it in us as well. It is God who works in us to will and do of His good pleasure.
Let us not take God’s grace for granted. We should not as Paul says to continue in sin that Grace might abound. What Jesus will teach us in this sermon is truly the heart of God on the matter just as Moses brought God’s will for His people down from Mt. Sinai. We cannot be like those whom Moses left behind eating, drinking, and rising to play around a golden calf. We need to be obedient in prayer and asking God for the strength to act like God’s children should, that the Father in Heaven might be glorified.
Lord, give us wisdom that we might understand this greatest of sermons and the strength for put it into practice. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.