The Greatest Sermon of All Time: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

Condensed Transcript

Take a look with me at the greatest sermon of all time, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It’s three chapters in Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7. Many people throughout history, even many non-Christians, have said this is the greatest sermon of all time. We’re all aware that the best leaders know how to cast a powerful vision of how things could be, how things should be. They masterfully paint an ideal picture of what we should be striving for. Consider Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream…” speech; he said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Such leaders inspire us and motivate us to work hard to bring about their vision. Let’s walk through the Sermon on the Mount and see Jesus’ vision of what the world should look like.     

First, imagine a world without anger. Jesus said:

Matt. 5:21 You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, “Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment.” 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, “Fool!” will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, “You moron!” will be subject to hellfire.

Obviously, he’s referring to the Old Testament law, which we summarize and celebrate as the Ten Commandments. But he takes it much further, beyond the externals, and down into the attitude of our hearts. Imagine a world where people didn’t feed their angry feelings. Imagine a world where kids at school didn’t rip each other to shreds with teasing and body shaming. Imagine a world where people didn’t brutally attack others on Facebook. Imagine a world where there were no racial slurs. 

Second, imagine a world without lust. Jesus said:

Matt. 5:27 You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” 28 But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Now there’s been a bit of confusion about this verse. Many have misinterpreted Jesus here and concluded that He’s condemning all sexual desires. But that can’t be the case because the Bible clearly teaches elsewhere that God gave us sexual desires and that they’re a good thing. In fact, the Bible celebrates and encourages sexual desire. If you find that hard to believe, take a look at Proverbs 5 and the Song of Solomon, otherwise known as the rated R part of the Bible! So Jesus can’t be condemning all sexual desires because then He’d be contradicting other parts of the Bible. No, what Jesus is condemning here are sexual desires that are out of control. Imagine a world where people controlled their sexual desires and focused them on their spouse alone. We all know what happens when sexual desires get out of control. Imagine a world without catcalls. Imagine a world without porn sites. Imagine a world without rape. Imagine a world without incest. Imagine a world without human trafficking.

Third, imagine a world without broken families. Jesus said:

Matt. 5:31 It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce.” 32 But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Imagine a world where children don’t have to wonder if it was their fault that Mom and Dad don’t love each other anymore. Imagine a world without legal or financial messes caused by broken marriages. Imagine a world where Moms and Dads don’t use children as pawns in their war against each other.

Fourth, imagine a world without lying. Jesus said:

Matt. 5:33 Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, “You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord.” 34 But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all… 37 But let your word ‘yes’ be ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’

Imagine a world without 100-page legal contracts, a world without lawyers!  Imagine a world where people don’t spread false gossip. Imagine a world where, when people say they’ll do something, they follow through and do it.

Fifth, imagine a world where people loved their enemies. Jesus said:

Matt. 5:43 You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Imagine a world where people, before they have all the facts, assume, not the worst of others, but the best. Imagine a world where there’s no ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ where Republicans don’t hate Democrats and Democrats don’t hate Republicans. Imagine a world where politicians don’t invent lies about their opponents to get people riled up and rallied to their side.

Sixth, imagine a world with no prideful religious people. Jesus said:

Matt. 6:1 Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people.

Imagine a world where people gave to others, not because they love themselves, but because they love others. Imagine a world where there were no hypocrites at church. Imagine a world where corporations gave money to help others, not because it’s good publicity, but because they truly cared.

Seventh, imagine a world where people didn’t hoard wealth. Jesus said:

Matt. 6:19 Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Imagine a world where rich people freely gave to those in need. Imagine a world where corporations cared more about their employees and customers than revenue and their bottom line. Imagine a world where people chose, instead of buying the newest iPhone, to buy a poor family food for a month.

Eighth, imagine a world with no anxiety. Jesus said:

Matt. 6:25 Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they?

Imagine a world where there’s no need for Valium or Prozac. Imagine a world where men don’t self-medicate at the bar every night. Imagine a world where people aren’t frozen by fear of losing their job, or more commonly, of not keeping up with the Jones’s.

Ninth, imagine a world with no judgmental attitudes. Jesus said:

Matt. 7:1 Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. … 3 Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? … 5 Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Imagine a world where people didn’t think they’re better than others because they happen to struggle with different kinds of sins. Imagine a world where people don’t use the weaknesses of others to make themselves feel better. Imagine a world where you’re not harassed by self-righteous people to be just like them.

Tenth, imagine a world with no evil religious leaders. Jesus said:

Matt. 7:15 Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. 16 You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit.

Imagine a world where religious leaders don’t take advantage of their sheep. Imagine a world where pastors don’t fly on private jets and drive Ferraris. Imagine a world where religious leaders don’t try to create huge followings merely to further their own selfish ambition.

This visionary picture Jesus painted is inspiring and motivating. But if that’s all His sermon did, it wouldn’t be the greatest sermon of all time; it’d merely be a good sermon. What makes this the greatest sermon ever is that there’s a deeper underlying purpose here, a purpose that’s more important than inspiration and motivation. By painting what a perfect world looks like, Jesus helps us realize that this world is far from perfect. It leads us to ask ‘Why? Why is our world so imperfect?’ The answer is simple: because of me, because of you. It’s our fault the world isn’t perfect. Our world isn’t perfect because we’re not perfect.

This deeper purpose is illustrated well by a lifeguard training strategy I’ve heard about. I didn’t experience this in my training to be a lifeguard as a teenager, but I’ve heard about this from others. Sometimes in training new lifeguards the instructors have the trainees attempt to rescue a person who pretends to be drowning. Now everyone is aware this person isn’t really drowning, but are pretending for the purpose of this training exercise. So they send the lifeguard-in-training out all by himself to try and rescue the person. But the person pretending to be drowning makes things very difficult by thrashing and pulling the lifeguard-in-training down with them. In fact, they make it such that it’s impossible for the lifeguard-in-training to successfully rescue them. It’s purposely designed for failure, though the lifeguard-in-training doesn’t isn’t told that.

Throughout the training the lifeguard-in-training is told to try again but, unbeknownst to him, he’s always set up for failure. They might even tell him that if he can’t successfully rescue the person on his own by the end of training, then he won’t graduate and become a lifeguard. On the last day of training, they have him try one more time but purposely craft the situation again such that he fails. You can imagine how discouraging and frustrating this would be, but this is all part of the training. It’s at this point that the instructor explains he was supposed to fail because they made it an impossible task. They did this for the purpose of teaching the lifeguard-in-training a very important lesson: that he can’t do this on his own, that it’s impossible to do this on his own. Sure, the instructor could’ve just told him that but it was best to learn this the hard way by experiencing failure. The point the instructor was trying to drive home through this is that he should never try to rescue someone by himself but instead should always take a life preserver, a flotation device, with him when he goes out to rescue someone.

This training exercise of trying but failing is a powerful way to teach someone that he can’t do it on his own, that by himself he will always fail. And that’s exactly what Jesus is doing through the Sermon on the Mount. Yes, He’s showing us what perfection looks like, which is inspiring and motivating, but His primary purpose is to help us understand that we fall short of perfection, that we’re far from God’s perfect moral standard. Here’s the reason I’m convinced this was His primary purpose: in the middle of His Sermon on the Mount he said:

Matt. 5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I mean, come on, be perfect! Be like God! What? This should cause us to cry out “I can’t, that’s impossible, I’m a failure.” So the appropriate response to the Sermon on the Mount isn’t ‘I’m inspired and motivated to go out and try to live like this.’ No, the appropriate response, when we grasp what perfection really looks like, is to conclude that now I realize I’m not even close. And that’s the point, we need to understand that we’re not perfect so we know that we need to turn to God for forgiveness.

The correct response to the Sermon on the Mount can be seen in the story of the rich young ruler.

Matt. 19:16 Just then someone came up and asked Him, “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?” 17 “Why do you ask Me about what is good?” He said to him. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 “Which ones?” he asked Him. Jesus answered: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; 19 honor your father and your mother; and love your neighbor as yourself. 20 “I have kept all these,” the young man told Him. “What do I still lack?” 21 “If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said to him, “go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” 22 When the young man heard that command, he went away grieving, because he had many possessions.

The rich young ruler came to Jesus asking what good he had to do to have eternal life, that is, to be welcomed into heaven and spend eternity with God. Jesus first noted that God is the only one who is ultimately ‘good,’ which serves as a foreshadowing clue to His underlying purpose here. He then briefly recounted some of the key commandments, much like He did in the Sermon on the Mount. But the young man still didn’t get it; He thought he could be good enough on his own, that he already was good enough, to be accepted by God. He was like the lifeguard-in-training who at first thought he could rescue someone by himself. The rich young ruler had to learn that he fell short of God’s moral standard, which is moral perfection. Of course, Jesus knew the best way to help him realize that because He knew this young man’s greatest moral failing was his love for riches. Thus, Jesus told him that, in order to be perfect (the same Greek word Jesus used in Matt. 5:48), he had to sell everything he had, give it to the poor, and follow Him. Jesus knew this would help him realize he wasn’t morally perfect because He knew the young man would fail at this point.

The young man went away grieving, and some people have concluded from this that the encounter was a failure because he didn’t sell everything he owned. But Jesus’ goal here wasn’t for the young man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, though that would be a wonderful thing to do of course. No, Jesus’ goal was to help him realize he wasn’t morally perfect. So this grieving is actually the correct response Jesus was looking for; it’s the appropriate response when we finally understand that we’re morally imperfect. Such a realization does make us sad, frustrated, ashamed, and sorry. That’s a necessary, though painful, step we have to go through in order to realize we need to turn to God for mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus explained his deeper underlying purpose to His disciples after the rich young ruler left:

Matt. 19:23 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “I assure you: It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven! 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were utterly astonished and asked, “Then who can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Jesus’ deeper underlying purpose with the rich young ruler is the same as it was with His Sermon on the Mount—it’s impossible for humans to be morally perfect on their own, to go to heaven based on their own efforts. Jesus used exaggeration here to make His point—it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than it is for a rich person to go to heaven. But not only the rich, this is the case for everyone; poor people may have different moral imperfections than rich people do, but the fact is it’s impossible for them to get to heaven on their own too. The disciples realize this is the point Jesus is making here because they’re overwhelmed and cry out ‘Then who can be saved?’ They realize that Jesus is implying that no one will be able to make it into heaven on their own. This story climaxes with Jesus’ famous declaration that ‘With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Our first step in finding salvation and forgiveness in God is to realize that we fall short of God’s perfect moral standard, that we’re morally imperfect, that we’re sinners. We have to understand this first so that we realize we need to turn to God for forgiveness and for Him to make us perfect like Him. Thankfully the rest of the New Testament explains how this happens.

I think it’s useful, based on John 14:26 and 16:12-15, to view the rest of the New Testament, after the Gospels that is, as God inspired commentaries to help us understand Jesus’ teaching and actions, including His death on the cross. In other words, the New Testament books after the Gospels were written by the Holy Spirit through Paul, James, Peter, John, etc. to help us understand what Jesus meant through His teachings and actions. They came after Jesus’ ministry because a lot of what they explain to us wouldn’t really make sense until after Jesus died on the cross and rose again. Let’s start in Galatians 3 and see how it sheds light on what Jesus was getting at in His Sermon on the Mount:

Gal. 3:2 I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made perfect by the flesh?

Here Paul is scolding Christians who thought that they could become perfect (Paul used the same Greek word for perfect that Jesus did in Matt. 5:48) by trying to keep the Old Testament law. Paul said no, that’s foolish, and they should know better. He went on to point out that the purpose of the Old Testament law, which we summarize often as the 10 Commandments, is to point out our imperfections:

Gal. 3:10 For all who rely [trust] on the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written: Everyone who does not continue doing everything written in the book of the law is cursed [have keep all laws perfectly or failure]. 11 Now it is clear that no one is justified before God by the law, because the righteous will live by faith. 12 But the law is not based on faith; instead, the one who does these things will live by them. 13 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed.

Paul says here that to be perfect, you have to do ‘everything’ written in the law continually. But this law, which Jesus illustrated powerfully in the Sermon on the Mount, shows that we fall short, that we can’t follow everything in God’s moral law perfectly. And that’s why were cursed, that is, condemned as moral failures. Thankfully though, God still loves us. And that’s why He sent Christ to rescue us from this curse, this condemnation, by taking the condemnation we deserve upon Himself. Christ paid the penalty for our moral failures when He hung on a tree, that is, died on the cross. He promised that if you stop trusting in your own efforts but instead put your trust in Him, that is, your faith in what He did for you, that you’d be forgiven for your moral failures, welcomed into heaven, and given eternal life with God.

This is what happened to me in 1994. I was nearly 17 at the time and a fellow teenager, Iris Davenport (now Iris Goodding), asked me a question that changed my life. She said “If you were standing before God right now and He asked you ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’, what would you say?” I told her that God would let me into heaven because I was a pretty good guy, I hadn’t done anything too bad, like robbing a bank or murdering someone. She then explained, from the New Testament, that that wasn’t good enough. Just like Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount, she explained that God’s moral standard was perfection, that I had to be perfect to get into heaven. I was a bit frustrated and said “Well, nobody’s perfect!” and she replied: “That’s the point.” Because we’re all morally imperfect, God sent Jesus to rescue us from the punishment we deserve for our moral failures. She explained that I had put my faith in the wrong thing, that I was trusting in what I could do to earn heaven, which will never work. But instead I should trust in what Jesus did for me on the cross to reconcile me back to God, pay for my sins to be forgiven, and welcome me into heaven. So that night, on February 4th, 1994, is when I trusted in Christ and became a Christian.

Paul here in Galatians 3 explains the purpose of the Old Testament law is to help us understand our moral imperfection so that we don’t put our trust, our faith, in the wrong thing, in our own ability to earn our way to heaven.  

Gal. 3:22 But the Scripture has shown how everyone is imprisoned under sin’s power, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 Before this faith came, we were confined under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith was revealed. 24 The law, then, was our tutor until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. 25 But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor, 26 for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

Scripture, including the Sermon on the Mount, shows us that everyone is imprisoned under sin’s power. God’s moral law acts like a tutor in the sense that it teaches us that we’re not perfect, which in turns points us to trust, not in ourselves, but in what Christ did for us on the cross.

There is one more chapter I want to look at—Hebrews 10. A large part of the Old Testament law had to do with instructions God gave the Israelites for worshipping Him properly, which involved many animal sacrifices. But this verse explains that such sacrifices could never make people perfect, which again is the same Greek word for perfection that Jesus used in Matt. 5:48.

Heb. 10:1 Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the actual form of those realities, it can never perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices they continually offer year after year.

However, the author of Hebrews goes on to explain how we can become perfect, again using the same Greek word:

Heb. 10:11 Every priest stands day after day ministering and offering the same sacrifices time after time, which can never take away sins. 12 But this man [Jesus], after offering one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God…. 14 For by one offering [dying on the cross] He has perfected forever those who are sanctified.          

This is what Jesus meant when He said ‘With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’

How are you going to respond to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the greatest sermon of all time? Have you realized you’re a moral failure? Do you understand that you can’t be perfect and get to heaven on your own? I urge you to trust, not in your own efforts, but in what Christ did for you. Jesus lived the perfect life you never could and then died on the cross to pay the penalty of death for your moral failures that you deserve to pay. He promised that if you trust in Him you will be forgiven, welcomed into heaven, and that God will transform you from the inside out to be morally perfect like Him.

Convincing Proof