The Sermon on the Mount: Approach to Interpretation

This post begins an occasional series on The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). After today’s introduction, you may expect Bible exposition. I sometimes use the acronym “SOM” to refer to the Sermon on the Mount.

I am indebted to R.T. France for the idea of calling Matthew chapters 5–7 “The Discourse on Discipleship” rather than the more common title “The Sermon on the Mount.”[1] R.T. France correctly points out that Jesus was speaking to those who had responded to his preaching that the kingdom of heaven had drawn near. I will generally stick to the traditional title (“The Sermon on the Mount”), but France’s title would have been better.

How the Sermon on the Mount affects you

It is one thing to title Jesus’ remarks and quite another to figure out how they fit into the lives of Christians today. How did Jesus intend for us to interpret them? To answer that question is not easy! NT scholar Craig Blomberg says, “Perhaps no other religious discourse in the history of humanity has attracted the attention which has been devoted to the Sermon on the Mount.”[2] Out of this vast consideration, at least 36 different views have emerged on the sermon’s message.

Perhaps because Stanley Toussaint is a pastor as well as a New Testament scholar, I prefer his simpler overview of six viewpoints[3]:

1. The Soteriological [Salvation] Approach: People may receive salvation by governing their lives through the principles of the SOM. This idea was once popular among theological liberals, but it had been abandoned by 1980 for the simple reason that, if it were true, no one could be saved!

2. The Sociological Approach: Society would be ideal if guided by the principles of the SOM. This idea fails in that there is no evidence that Jesus was trying to modify society. Several famous people have tried to implement parts of the SOM, though not all recognized Jesus as the Son of God.[4] However, this world-system will be destroyed and replaced by God, not freshened up.

3. The Lutheran Approach: Toussaint calls it “The Penitential Approach.” This view holds that the purpose of the SOM is to make people conscious of their sin and drive them to God. But the Lutheran Approach does not recognize that the SOM is addressed to disciples; thus, he is speaking to people who have already repented and come to God. Jesus says they are salt and light (5:13-14). Still, the SOM does heighten awareness of sin, and that part of this viewpoint has merit.

4. The Millennial or Kingdom Approach: This view says that the way of life presented is applicable to the future Millennial Kingdom, in which Jesus will rule this world (Rev. 20:4). But, to say the least, it would be odd for Jesus to tell his disciples to pray for the coming of the kingdom (Matt. 6:28) when it was already going on. Why would disciples be persecuted and reviled (Matt. 5:11-12) in the future kingdom? Problems abound!

5. The Church Approach: Toussaint calls it “The Ecclesiastical Approach.” The idea here is that the SOM is the rule of life for the church. However, Toussaint correctly points out that the church is not mentioned until Matthew 16:18 and does not exist until Acts 2, following the resurrection of Jesus. So, even though this view is popular and promising, it has a timing problem in NT history.

6. The Interim Approach: The idea of the Interim Approach is that the SOM presents an ethic for the time preliminary to the establishment of the Millennial Kingdom. This concept improves upon #5 by eliminating direct dependence on the presence of the church. That said, SOM also applies to the church throughout the period of its existence. In fairness, I must add that Toussaint would not agree with my application of the SOM to the church and would say that I have modified the Interim Approach as he originally described it.[5]

So, I have used the Interim Approach as the interpretive grid for explaining the SOM, and have taken the position that the principles Jesus gives are directly applicable to the church, even though the church did not exist when Jesus first taught these ideas.

My next post will explain the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, a section often called The Beatitudes.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials prepared for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 153.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 93.

[3] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980) 86-94.

[4] Four men who tried to use SOM in whole or part: Leo Tolstoy, Karl Marx, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

[5] Toussaint got the idea of an interim ethic from Albert Schweitzer and then modified it.

 

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!