Although the majority of Christians have held the Sermon on the Mount in high esteem, like other parts of the scriptures it has come under criticism. Some have even suggested that it was never really delivered. They say its subject matter changes so frequently, it must be only a collection of ethical statements that lack sufficient unity to constitute an actual sermon.
But the Book of Mormon attests to the authenticity of the discourse recorded in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the Gospel According to St. Matthew. For the resurrected Lord delivered, on the American continent, essentially the same marvelous address identified in the New Testament as the Sermon on the Mount.
Moreover, the restored gospel gives us the perspective to see why the sermon is a very systematic statement instead of a mere collection of ethical fragments.
In brief, the Sermon on the Mount might be outlined as follows:
Matthew 5:1–12. The Lord addresses his followers, gives the Beatitudes, broadly identifies what is expected of his disciples, and assures them of blessings if they will comply. [Matt. 5:1–12]
Matthew 5:13–16. The Lord speaks of his disciples as the salt of the earth and the light of the world, which implies a signal responsibility. [Matt. 5:13–16]
Matthew 5:21 to 6:34. The Lord illustrates that his gospel requires more of mankind than did the law of Moses. [Matt. 5:21–6:34]
Matthew 7:1–23. The Lord gives a series of six broad, fundamental principles of counsel and warning. [Matt. 7:1–23]
Matthew 7:24–29. The Lord uses a powerful parable to convince his hearers to accept his message and do what he has asked them to do. [Matt. 7:24–29]
Let us begin with Matthew 5:17 [Matt. 5:17], where the Lord made a very important declaration regarding the law of Moses: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” This is the pivotal verse of the entire sermon, and unfortunately, it has been grossly misunderstood by some interpreters.
W. T. Jones, on page 312 of his book A History of Western Philosophy, falsely assumes that Jesus “was too good a Jew to reject the Law altogether. He did not want to do away with it but to complete it—to explain what it really meant.” Jones mistakenly believes that “fulfilling the law” meant merely explaining the law.
Actually, in sharp contrast to this false humanistic notion, we have the words of Abinadi in the Book of Mormon. Abinadi taught that the law of Moses had been instituted to keep the stiff-necked children of Israel in daily remembrance of God. It was the intent of the law of Moses to point their souls to Christ. (Jacob 4:4–5.) He also taught that were it not for the atonement that would be made by the Messiah, “they must unavoidably perish notwithstanding the law of Moses.” (Mosiah 13:28.)
Decades later, after the resurrected Christ redelivered his great sermon to the Nephites, he perceived that some of his listeners wondered at what he had said about the law of Moses. And he said to them:
“The law is fulfilled that was given unto Moses.
“Behold, I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel; therefore, the law in me is fulfilled, for I have come to fulfill the law; therefore it hath an end.” (3 Ne. 15:4–5.)
The Lord himself clearly and emphatically declared that it was he who gave the law of Moses, and that in him, the Lord, the law was fulfilled and had an end. Once we understand this concept, we can begin to see the unifying theme of the Sermon on the Mount.
The Lord’s statement that he came to fulfill the law, to make the final and infinite sacrifice himself to atone for the sins of mankind, is the basis for the rest of his sermon: thereafter he illustrates with numerous examples that his gospel requires more exemplary conduct from man than did the law of Moses.
The unity of the Sermon on the Mount is further reinforced if we remember that the Lord was addressing his followers and not a throng of hecklers, unbelievers, and idly curious folk. At the outset, Matthew says that the Lord, seeing the multitude, went up into a mountain; and when his disciples came unto him, he taught them. Joseph Smith’s Inspired Version of the Bible makes this point very clear. The Lord says:
“Blessed are they who shall believe in me; and again, more blessed are they who shall believe on your words, when ye shall testify that ye have seen me and that I am.
“Yea, blessed are they who shall believe on your words, and come down into the depths of humility, and be baptized in my name; for they shall be visited with fire and the Holy Ghost, and shall receive a remission of their sins.” (JST, Matt. 5:3–4.) Here the Lord calls upon men to believe in him, and not merely in a set of ethical propositions.
In Matthew’s account of the sermon in the King James Bible, the Lord says, “Ye are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13), and “Ye are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). These great appellations could be addressed only to disciples. Again, in Matt. 5:11, the Lord declares:
“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”
Could the Lord be talking to anyone else but his disciples whose identification with him will spell inevitable persecution from the world?
Once we understand that Jesus is speaking to believers and that he is teaching them how to live according to the law of the gospel that has replaced the law of Moses, then we can see the unity of the Sermon on the Mount. In no way can it be dismissed as an assemblage of irrelevant, moral platitudes (certainly baptism in the name of the Lord and the promise of the Holy Ghost are more than ethical matters). The Sermon on the Mount is a constitution of fundamental, practical, and real theological requirements grounded in the testimony that Jesus is the Christ, that one must be willing not only to accept the ethical dimensions of the Lord’s teachings but be willing also to embrace him as the Redeemer of mankind.
Having laid the foundation for his sermon, the Lord then proceeded to give a series of specific illustrations that emphasize that outward conformity is not enough for his disciples. They must undergo an inward change.
Approved behavior alone is not the goal. As important as proper behavior is, it is not the objective of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The purpose of the gospel is the rebirth of the natural man. Approved behavior is merely a concommitant resulting from the spiritual renewal that lifts man “from death unto life.” (1 John 3:14.)
Here are some examples of how the Lord illustrates this concept in his Sermon on the Mount:
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill. … But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. …” (Matt. 5:21. See also 3 Ne. 12:21.)
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you. That whosoever looketh on it woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27–28. See also 3 Ne. 12:27–28.)
“Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shall perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all. … But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay. …” (Matt. 5:33–37. See also 3 Ne. 12:33–37.)
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:38–39. See also 3 Ne. 12:38–39.)
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 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. …” (Matt. 5:43–44. See also 3 Ne. 12:43–44.)
As these passages of scripture indicate, the gospel requires not just good deeds, but pure motives: not just clean hands, but pure hearts. In a little different vein, and yet still illustrating the higher requirements of the gospel, the Lord continued with instructions such as the following in paraphrase:
Following these, the Lord gave another charge that may appear at first to deal with another specific matter; however, a thoughtful consideration will indicate that it is a statement very broad in its scope and constitutes what I like to call a perspective passage. The Lord said:
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
“But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
Here the Lord contrasts the temporal with the eternal, or that which has only temporary or mortal value with that which has lasting and eternal value. This concept is a recurring one; it constitutes a principal theme running throughout the teachings of Christ.
One of the passages in the Sermon on the Mount that has received particular attention at the hands of modern critics is found in Matthew 6:24–34 [Matt. 6:24–34]. The criticism surrounds verse 25, which reads [Matt. 6:25]:
“Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. …”
Critics find this admonition totally impractical. If men obeyed it, they say, there would be social chaos. However, in the Inspired Version, and even more clearly in the Book of Mormon account of the sermon, we find the revelation as follows:
“And now it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words he looked upon the twelve whom he had chosen, and said unto them: Remember the words which I have spoken. For behold, ye are they whom I have chosen to minister unto this people. Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. …” (3 Ne. 13:25.)
Although the sermon as a whole was directed to those who were (or would be) Jesus’ disciples, this particular counsel was directed to the twelve special witnesses of Christ. It was not intended that others should “take no thought.”
Chapter 7 of Matthew, constituting the third and last major section of the sermon, includes a series of five fundamental principles of counsel and warning.
3. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. … If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them. …” (Matt. 7:7, 11–12. See also 3 Ne. 14:7, 11–12.)
4. “Enter ye in at the strait gate. …” (Matt. 7:13. See also 3 Ne. 14: 13.) Though this passage of warning in the seventh chapter of Matthew is very short, it is of sweeping import. The key phrase is quoted above; the significance lies in the word strait. It is not the word straight, which means erect, direct, upright, not bent or bowed, not crooked; rather, it means strait—narrow, tight, confined, strict, rigid, exacting, and difficult. The gate the Lord describes as leading unto life is an exacting one. Apparently, in these verses, the Lord wanted to make it clear that his gospel is not a haphazard affair but entails precise and exacting requirements.
5. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” (Matt. 7:15. See also 3 Ne. 14:15.) After the Lord gives this counsel to his disciples, he reveals the criterion for distinguishing the false from the true prophets: “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” (Matt. 7:20. See also 3 Ne. 14:20.)
6. With the body of the sermon now complete, the Lord concluded with a warning to his disciples included in two powerful statements. The first harks back to the theme of the sermon based on the testimony that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. We read:
“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
“Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
Because he suffered and paid the price for man’s redemption and mercifully offers mankind forgiveness through faith in him, repentance, and baptism by his authorized servants, it is appropriate that Jesus Christ should sit in judgment in this way.
The Lord closed his majestic sermon with a last statement of warning in the impressive parable of the wise man and the foolish man. The one heard the Lord’s teachings, lived them, and was like a wise man who built his house on a rock; and when the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon the house, it fell not. The other one who heard his teachings failed to do them and was like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and when the rain descended, and the floods came, and the wind blew and beat upon the house, it fell; and great was the fall of it.
Clearly, the Sermon on the Mount is a discourse firmly established on the atoning mission of Christ. In it are outlined the fundamental requirements for the disciples of Jesus who should be willing to suffer revilings and persecutions for his name’s sake. That there might be no misunderstanding regarding his messiahship, the Lord firmly established himself as the judge of mankind, inviting all men to do his will, so they might have eternal life.
There is no wonder that when Jesus ended those sayings, “the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority. …” (Matt. 7:28–29.)