The Devil’s Masterpiece
In the history of interpretation, few passages have spawned more theories and garnered less agreement than the Sermon on the Mount. One commentator said the history of scholarship on the sermon might be called “Versions and Evasions of the Sermon on the Mount.” For this reason, Luther memorably named the interpretive confusion “the devil’s masterpiece”:
Christ here deliberately wanted to oppose all false teaching and to open up the true meaning of God’s commandments, as He emphasizes when He says (Matt. 5:17): ‘I have not come to abolish the Law.’ He takes it up piece by piece and tries to make it completely clear. Still the infernal Satan has not found a single text in the Scriptures that he has more shamefully distorted and into which he has imported more error and false teaching than this very one, which Christ Himself ordered and appointed in order to head off false doctrine. This is really the devil’s masterpiece!
Consider some of the “big” questions which have been bandied about for centuries:
The Sermon’s Integrity.
- Is the sermon an authentic utterance of Jesus?
- Is the sermon one historic sermon or a collection of sayings given by Christ?
- Is Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount the same sermon as Luke’s Sermon on the Plain?
The Sermon’s Audience.
- Historically, was the sermon directly intended for the apostles, or the crowd?
- Theologically, is the sermon intended for all people or Christians only?
- If only Christians, is it intended for a few of Christ’s disciples, or all of Christ’s disciples?
The Sermon’s Timeline.
- Does the sermon offer a set of special provisions for a past historical period, such as the age before the giving of the Spirit?
- Does the sermon present a radical demand for those living in the future, during the short period immediately before the return of Christ?
The Sermon’s Jewish Roots.
- Are the main teachings of the sermon found in Judaism, or are they new?
- Does Jesus present the sermon as fulfillment of Mosaic teaching?
- Does Jesus present the sermon as an extension/explanation/deepening of Mosaic teaching?
- Does Jesus present the sermon to challenge/critique/change Mosaic teaching?
- Does Jesus present the sermon to abrogate Mosaic teaching?
- Does Jesus present the sermon to replace Mosaic teaching (from ‘the new Moses’)?
The Sermon’s Relevance.
- Are the sermon’s contents relevant for the modern world?
- Are the standards attainable?
The Sermon’s Demands.
- What exactly is the sermon calling us to do or be?
In the next few posts, I will trace interpretive strategies historically, then thematically. To let you know where our study will head, let me lay out the thematic options. Broadly speaking, the history of interpretation can be divided into six pathways.
Option #1: The Perfectionist (‘Keep The List’) Route. The sermon says what it means, and means what it says. The emphasis here is on actions to perform, habits to adopt, and rules to keep.
Option #2: The Counsels (‘Monks & Nuns’) Route. God knows that discipleship involves various stages along the journey, and not all callings are the same. There is a higher (harder) path for some who voluntarily answer the call to this noble way of living.
Option #3: The Interim (‘Then & There’) Route. Just as Paul can speak of “the present crisis” in giving instructions to the church at Corinth, Jesus offers a radical yet specific message for his own community at a particular moment of history. For early first-century disciples called to follow Jesus while awaiting the reception of the Spirit–and face their own awaiting persecution–a higher interim ethic was required.
Option #4: The Luther (‘Give It Up To Jesus’) Route. Staring into the face of these commandments can break us; if we are honest with ourselves, we cannot measure up to the calling, and can only imagine one who ever could. That is the point. We can’t perform this level of holiness, and we must not pretend that we can. The focus of the sermon is autobiographical: Jesus describes his own life and work, and we are called to surrender to his mercy, and revel in our imputed righteousness, when we see the standard God requires–and finds in Jesus alone.
Option #5: The Hyperbolic (‘Don’t Take This Literally’) Route. Jesus never meant for disciples to maim themselves, or feel obligated to give money to those who would use it for sinister purposes, or drag their spouse into divorce court for thinking impure thoughts about the latest movie star. The language of the sermon is often metaphorical, hyperbolic, and analogical–intended to describe the way we should think, and the kind of person we should be, not necessarily the action we must literally take or the ‘rule’ we must apply in every situation.
Option #6: The Divine Wisdom (‘Live Into This’) Route. Reading Jesus in concert with ancient philosophers of happiness, and in light of the Jewish wisdom tradition, this route claims that virtuous habits (actions or duties) are integral to character formation, and the path to wisdom and happiness involves the invitation to participate in a way of life. Life in the kingdom–God’s own way of embodying heaven’s values in earthly relationships–can be taught in a variety of ways, including stating principles, giving rules, and offering hyperbolic pictures. The sermon functions to highlight the invitation to let God shape one’s character. The call is so much more than a list of rules, but it includes the kind of life where such actions and habits not only are commonly practiced…but desired from a renewed heart.
In some ways, each view has something right about it, though incomplete. In my view, option #6 can be widened and nuanced in such a way that it incorporates the best ‘truths’ pointed out by each route, while avoiding the omissions or over-readings found in the various routes. To this end, we begin the second leg of our journey.
 Harvey K. MacArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960).
 Martin Luther, “Preface to the Sermon on the Mount,” in Luther’s Works, Vol 21, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), p. 1
EARLIER POSTS IN THIS SERIES
The Complete Art of Happiness: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 1
Life with a Capital ‘L’: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 2
New Things To Love: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 3
A Change of Desire: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 4
The Cost of Apprenticeship: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 5
Calling All Neurotics: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 6
Conversation Partners For Reading The Sermon
THE NEXT POST IN THIS SERIES
Literal When Possible: The Sermon’s Earliest Reception: Background–Part 2
photo credit: Ghirlandaio, Jesus Commissioning the Twelve Apostles (1481)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. He lives in Florence, Alabama, where he serves as President of Mars Hill Bible School.