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: Dispensationalism and the Sermon on the Mount
The third of the three attempts, and the fourth misunderstanding of the Sermon on the Mount overall, is the view of some forms of early dispensationalism, a movement of scriptural interpretation that had a tremendous influence in the first part of this century and has left an abiding influence upon many conservatives through the justified success of the popular Scofield Bible. According to this system of Bible interpretation, the Sermon on the Mount was an official proclamation by Jesus of the ethical principles on which his messianic kingdom would be founded. And this kingdom was identified with the years following Christ’s second coming. In these three chapters the Lord Jesus Christ speaks as Israel’s king. Hence, the ethics of the Sermon are to be applied not to our age, the age of the Church, but to the future age of Christ’s earthly rule. Dr. I. M. Haldeman, one of the early leaders of dispensationalism, wrote, “The Sermon on the Mount must be taken in its wholeness and in its literalness. This sermon…cannot be taken in its plain import and be applied to Christians universally…It has been tried in spots, but…it has always been like planting a beautiful flower in stony ground or in a dry and withering atmosphere.”1 Similarly, the old Scofield Bible says, “For these reasons the Sermon on the Mount in its primary application gives neither the privilege nor the duty of the Church.”
Now, I have no quarrel with some types of dispensationalism. I am not a dispensationalist myself. But if you find it helpful in your own study of the Bible to divide biblical history into periods in which God seems to have been particularly interested in demonstrating certain truths—such as the inability of man to govern himself by conscience, human government, law, or anything else—then go ahead. I am for any system that actually helps you to read and assimilate the Bible. And I am delighted to say that the Scofield Bible was the greatest influence upon my own early study of the Scriptures. Moreover, I want to stress that I have the deepest respect for these gifted teachers. They were deeply spiritual men. They were steeped in the Bible—far more, for instance, than most Bible teachers today, myself included. All this is true. And yet, I am convinced that in its approach to the Sermon on the Mount the leaders of dispensationalism were just wrong. And it is no discredit to them to say it. There has never been a system of Bible interpretation that has been right in every point, and the early leaders of dispensationalism would have been the first to admit their own fallibility.
Now, why was this view wrong? I believe we must acknowledge that this view of the Sermon on the Mount was wrong for at least three reasons. First, it is entirely without proof from the Scriptures. The dispensationalists say that the ethics of these chapters are reserved exclusively for Christ’s coming messianic kingdom. But surely this is nowhere to be found in Christ’s teaching. In fact, the reverse is true. Rather than indicating that the present import of his words might be postponed, Christ actually emphasized their lasting validity. The Sermon is filled with present imperatives: rejoice, swear not, go, give, take heed. And Jesus said, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (5:18). Our Lord nowhere indicated that his words were to be disregarded, either then or now.
Second, it is apparent from any careful study of the Sermon on the Mount that it is precisely a world such as ours that Christ had in view when he spoke the words of the Sermon. According to the dispensationalist, the words should be applied to an age in which the Lord’s earthly rule is established and in which justice is enforced and righteousness required. But if this is so, what could be the possible meaning of a verse such as Matthew 5:44: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” In the kingdom age no one will have liberty to practice these things–to persecute others or use them despitefully—and a statement like this would be meaningless.
No, the world of the Sermon on the Mount is a real and sinful world, a world of tax collectors, unjust officials, hypocrites, thieves, the weak, the poor, and false prophets. And it is a statement of how those who were to be born again by faith in Christ are to live—in spite of them.
Explain how some forms of early dispensationalism approached the Sermon on the Mount.
What two reasons are given for why this approach was incorrect?
Prayer: Ask the Lord to bless your reading, study, and understanding of Scripture by the Holy Spirit’s illuminating work.
1I. M. Haldeman, The Kingdom of God (New York: F. E. Fitch, 1931), 149.