The Starting Point of the Sermon on the Mount

What’s the first word or phrase that comes to mind when you hear “Sermon on the Mount”? When I come to Matthew 5-7, I always jump to one word: grace. Despite containing some of the most difficult teachings you’ll find in the entire Bible, the Sermon on the Mount inspires so much joy. Why? Because it reminds me that, with Jesus, grace always comes first.

Those who know their need for grace

The sermon opens with the Beatitudes, where Jesus describes those to whom the kingdom belongs as “blessed.” These are not people who are simply happy; they are approved of by God. Blessed are “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn, “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” “the peacemakers,” and “those who are persecuted for righteousness” (Matthew 5:3–10).

When we come to these descriptions, we often twist them into a to-do list to measure ourselves against. We break them down into distinct individuals in a way that they were never meant to be understood. It is not a case of some being meek and others being peacemakers, for example. The Beatitudes represent a single group of people sharing similar characteristics. They are like those whom the psalmist describes in Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifice God desires is a humble spirit—O God, a humble and repentant heart you will not reject.”

Basically, blessed are those who know of their own need for grace.

The promise of grace for those in need

And what’s more, Jesus is faithful to answer their need with the promise of grace. “The kingdom of heaven belongs to them,” he said (Matthew 5:10). They shall be comforted, inherit the earth, be satisfied, and receive mercy. “They will see God” and “be called children of God” (5:8–9).

Is that not amazing grace? For God to bring this promise to those who are profoundly broken by their sin, to those who place their trust in him and in the finished work of Jesus on the cross is astounding! In the Sermon on the Mount, God says to us, “My kingdom is yours, for you are my children and I love you.”

The pattern of the promise

What’s more incredible is that this is not an isolated message. It is the pattern, the promise, running through the entirety of Scripture. For example:

  • When God looked out on the world and saw all humanity doing evil only continually, he showed favor—or grace—on Noah and his family.
  • In giving the Law, God gave commandments, not so that he might redeem the Israelites and make them a people, but because he already had!
  • Virtually every one of Paul’s letters starts with a reminder of what God had done. In fact, Romans starts with an 11-chapter explanation of all that God had done in history and how he was (and is) restoring all things.

The Sermon on the Mount continues that pattern. Before he uttered a single command, Jesus offered grace. He offered good news for all who were weary and heavy laden, to free them from the guilt of their sin and their failure to keep God’s commands—calling together a people for whom he would obey all the commands of God perfectly.

The greatest grace of all

And perhaps that’s the greatest grace of all in the Sermon on the Mount. When we look at its ethical teaching—I mean, really look at it—it’s easy to see that there isn’t a single command that can be fulfilled through human effort.

  • We can’t address our own issues before looking at the problems of someone else—nor can we even fairly evaluate others. (Matthew 7:1-5)
  • We can’t muster the energy to persevere in prayer. (Matthew 7:7-11)
  • We can’t even do to others what we would have them do to us! (Matthew 7:12)

It’s ludicrous to think that we’re capable of obeying anything Jesus commands us without his grace empowering us! The burden of even something that seems insignificant is too great for us to bear.

But grace bears it for us. And it’s grace that allows us to persevere. It’s grace that allows us to pray knowing that the Father will give good gifts to those who ask. Grace allows us to be careful of how we judge, examining our own hearts before passing judgment on another. Grace allows us to put others before ourselves, doing to them what we would have them do to us. No amount of willpower will allow us to do these things. Only God, by his grace, can.

First published October 2015. Updated for content and style May 2024. Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash

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