Sermon: The Greatest Sermon
Scripture: Matthew 5-7
In this week’s lessons we introduce our new series on the Sermon on the Mount, and see its significance for our Christian lives.
Theme: The Other Extreme
At the other extreme from the Social Gospel’s approach to the Sermon on the Mount are three attempts to reject it entirely and to concentrate on the so-called legitimate aspects of the Church’s proclamation. The first of these three attempts has been found in a type of preaching that has identified the Sermon on the Mount with legalism. To this way of thinking, the Sermon on the Mount is essentially a carry-over from the law of the Old Testament, although a better interpretation of it, and is opposed as such to the gospel of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ and to his atoning work on Calvary. According to this view Christ appears in Matthew 5-7 solely as the lawgiver (like Moses) and his laws are the laws of his kingdom.
This wrong approach betrays the most insensitive misunderstanding of Christ’s teachings. It is true that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus Christ is pictured as a second Moses, but the point of the comparison lies mostly in the area of contrast. Six times in chapter five Jesus is quoted as saying, “Ye have heard that it hath been said… but I say unto you…” (vv. 21f., 27f., 31f., 33f., 38f., 43f.). And this implies his greater and independent authority.
The chapter itself closes with a most un-Mosaic statement, devastating to all attempts to exalt human righteousness as a means of salvation: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (5:48). This is not legalism. It is not the Old Testament law restated. It is a condemnation of all attempts to please God by legalism in order that the way might be cleared for a man to come to God by faith in Jesus Christ and to receive a new life capable of that which he requires. To identify the Sermon on the Mount with legalism is to miss the entire flavor of what our Lord is saying. For Christ’s ethics go beyond the law of Moses in order that we might be brought to the feet of the gospel.
The second of the three attempts is an objection to the Sermon on the Mount that arises from the feeling that the standards set down are impossible and are, therefore, not to be taken seriously by Christians. Someone once explained her objection to the Sermon on the Mount like this. She said, “The Sermon on the Mount teaches that if someone hits you on one cheek you are to turn the other; but if you do that, they will hit you on that cheek also. And you’ll end up by getting a beating. It says that if a man sues you for your coat, you are to let him have your cloak also. But if you do that you will end up with nothing. The Sermon on the Mount is impossible to practice in a world such as ours. It is not to be taken seriously.”
Well, I must admit that this objection has some persuasive logic to it, because we do live in a world that often makes the ethic of Christ seem to be impossible as a practical matter. And I am glad to note that this line of argument at least recognizes the terribly high standards that are found here. But isn’t it true that Christians are called precisely to an impossible standard of conduct? And isn’t it true that the Holy Spirit is given to them precisely for this purpose?
Moreover, to reject the Sermon on the Mount is also to take an unjustifiably high-handed approach to the Bible. The error of the one who raises this objection—and I must say also the error of many Christians who hold this and similar views—is actually the error of liberalism, which feels at liberty to accept one part of Scripture while it rejects another. Neither this view of the Sermon on the Mount nor liberalism entirely subjects itself to the Bible. And the only difference is that liberalism holds to the ethic (or part of it) while rejecting the gospel, whereas this type of conservatism holds to the gospel while rejecting the ethic. If the Bible says that “all Scripture is … profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” this means the Sermon on the Mount, too. And Jesus must have had it in mind when he told his disciples, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, . . . Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
Describe the first of the three attempts to reject the Sermon on the Mount.
What is the second of the three objections to the Sermon on the Mount?
Application: Can you think of specific subjects addressed in the Sermon on the Mount that even Christians might sometimes have difficulty with, in part because of pressure from the secular culture to think differently?