The Best-Known and Least Understood

The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed. It is the nearest thing to a manifesto that he ever uttered, for it is his own description of what he wanted his followers to be and to do. To my mind no two words sum up its intention better, or indicate more clearly its challenge to the modern world, than the expression ‘Christian counter-culture’.

Taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7: Christian Counter-Culture) by John R.W. Stott Copyright (c) 1985 by John R.W. Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Challenging What We Know

We can “know” something to be true, and then find it is not true after all. I recall confidently assertive to a student that, of course, the name of the region Perea (to the east of the Dead Sea) appears in the Gospels. Despite what I knew to be true, it turns out I was wrong. With a bit of research I discovered that we get that name from other sources. I reported to the student my error.

Some people “knew” the earth was flat or that the sun revolves around the earth. It is very easy to assume something or to follow the received wisdom about the way things are, or about how something has always been done. Perhaps we accepted the word of authority figures—whether parents, teachers, politicians, or preachers—who told us the right way to think or to act. We did not question their word; we thought they were the experts. But then we run into something that calls that wisdom into question. We have to rethink things and investigate the issues thoroughly for ourselves. Ultimately, we may affirm, alter, or completely discard what we formerly accepted as true.

In his sermon [on the mount], Jesus challenges the way his Jewish disciples have been thinking about the kind of life that pleases God. They knew what the religious leaders were saying; but Jesus asserts that what they had heard was not true after all. As we listen in on his challenges, we may need to revise our own thinking about how well we are doing in our spiritual formation-being and doing the “righteousness” that allegiance to him requires. Grasping what he said to his followers, we can translate his principles into our own contexts and pursue this kind of life ourselves.

William W. Klein, Become What You Are: Spiritual Formation According to the Sermon on the Mount, 2006.

The Joyful Announcement of the Gospel of God

Pastor and Professor Darrell W. Johnson sets the scene for the Sermon on the Mount with great description. This could serve as a model for the beginning of a sermon on the S.O.M.

They were sitting in a kind of natural amphitheater, on a sloping hill beside the Sea of Galilee. Some were rough fishermen with their hired hands. Some were shrewd tax-collectors and their cronies. Uptight religious leaders, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, were there because they were growing increasingly curious and nervous about the new Preacher in Palestine.

There were hard-working tradespeople of all sorts, as well as mothers with their children.

They were all, really, ordinary people—broken, hurting, and scared. They were people like me… and like you. Something was happening in their towns and villages. And it was happening because of the new Preacher who had arrived on the scene with what He called “the gospel of God.” He had been joyfully announcing, everywhere He traveled, the good news that history had reached a major turning point. “The time is fulfilled,” He said, “the kingdom of God has come near.” So near—because of Him, and in Him.

And things had started happening! People were being cured of diseases. Those who had long suffered blindness were beginning to see. The lame were beginning to walk. People long held captive by demonic spirits were being set free. People were experiencing the joy of having their sins forgiven. Troubled minds were finding peace. So from all over Galilee, people were flocking to the Preacher, to Jesus of Nazareth. I would have, and I think you would have too.

Darrell W. Johnson, The Beatitudes: Living in Sync with the Reign of God, Canadian Church Leaders Network, 2021.

Salt & Light

Salt and light are indispensable household commodities. Several commentators quote Pliny’s dictum that nothing is more useful than ‘salt and sunshine’ (sale et sole). The need for light is obvious. Salt, on the other hand, had a variety of uses. It was both a condiment and a preservative. It seems to have been recognized from time immemorial as an essential component of human diet and as a seasoning or relish to food: ‘Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt?’

In particular, however, in the centuries before refrigeration had been invented, it was used to keep meat wholesome and to prevent decay. Indeed it still is. H. V. Morton has described the making of ‘biltong’, the dried meat of South Africa: ‘The meat, having been cut and trimmed to the required size, is well rubbed with coarse salt … If properly cured, it will keep indefinitely.’

… Further, the metaphors tell us something about both communities. The world is evidently a dark place, with little or no light of its own, since an external source of light is needed to illumine it. True, it is ‘always talking about its enlightenment’, but much of its boasted light is in reality darkness. The world also manifests a constant tendency to deteriorate.

The notion is not that the world is tasteless and that Christians can make it less insipid (‘The thought of making the world palatable to God is quite impossible’), but that it is putrefying. It cannot stop itself from going bad. Only salt introduced from outside can do this. The church, on the other hand, is set in the world with a double role, as salt to arrest—or at least to hinder—the process of social decay, and as light to dispel the darkness.

Taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7: Christian Counter-Culture) by John R.W. Stott Copyright (c) 1985 by John R.W. Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Salt Left in the Shaker?

Jesus describes his followers as being “salt” and “light” in the world in Matthew 5. When you think about salt, it doesn’t really have a whole lot of value when it’s just sitting in a salt shaker. 

Similar to putting a lamp under a bowl in Matthew 5, It’s only when the salt is put into action that it has the ability to add flavor, to brighten the senses and bring joy to its recipients. In this same way, the Christian is not meant to be kept “on the shelf,” and only used “in case of emergency.” Our lives are meant to add flavor in the everyday, ordinary lives we inhabit.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

The “Softness” of the Sermon on the Mount

Probably nobody has hated the ‘softness’ of the Sermon on the Mount more than Friedrich Nietzsche. Although the son and the grandson of Lutheran pastors, he rejected Christianity during his student days. His book The anti-Christ” (a title he had dared to apply to himself in his autobiographical sketch Ecce homo) is his most violent anti-Christian polemic and was written in 1888, the year before he went mad.

In it he defines what is ‘good’ as ‘all that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man’, and what is ‘bad’ as ‘all that proceeds from weakness’. Consequently, in answer to his own question, ‘What is more harmful than any vice?’, he replies, ‘Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak—Christianity.’

He sees Christianity as a religion of pity instead of a religion of power; so ‘nothing in our unhealthy modernity is more unhealthy than Christian pity.’ He despises ‘the Christian conception of God—God as God of the sick, God as spider, God as spirit’—a conception from which ‘everything strong, brave, masterful, proud’ has been eliminated.‘In the entire New Testament there is only one solitary figure one is obliged to respect,’ he affirms, and that is Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. Jesus, by contrast, he disdains as ‘God on the cross’, and Christianity as ‘mankind’s greatest misfortune.’ The cause of his venom is plain. The ideal that Jesus commended is the little child. He lent no support whatever to Nietzsche’s commendation of the ‘superman’. So Nietzsche repudiated the whole value-system of Jesus. ‘I condemn Christianity,’ he wrote. ‘The Christian church has left nothing untouched by its depravity, it has made of every value a disvalue.’ Instead (in the last words of his book) he called for a ‘revaluation of all values’.

Taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7: Christian Counter-Culture) by John R.W. Stott Copyright (c) 1985 by John R.W. Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Turning the Other Cheek & Mosisssimus Moses

They see in it an unattainable ideal. How can they develop this heart-righteousness, turn the other cheek, love their enemies? It is impossible. Exactly! In this sense, the Sermon is ‘Mosissimus Moses’ (Luther’s expression); ‘It is Moses quadrupled, Moses multiplied to the highest degree’, because it is a law of inward righteousness which no child of Adam can possibly obey.

…We need, then, to observe that the Christian life, according to Jesus, is not all joy and laughter. Some Christians seem to imagine that, especially if they are filled with the Spirit, they must wear a perpetual grin on their face and be continuously boisterous and bubbly. How unbiblical can one become? No. In Luke’s version of the Sermon Jesus added to this beatitude a solemn woe: ‘Woe to you that laugh now.’ The truth is that there are such things as Christian tears, and too few of us ever weep them.

Taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7: Christian Counter-Culture) by John R.W. Stott Copyright (c) 1985 by John R.W. Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

See also Illustrations on The BeatitudesMeeknessMourningPeacePreaching, Purity of Heart

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on the Sermon on the Mount. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

Follow us on social media: