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April 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 2 · pp. 19–25 

Approaches to the Interpretation and Application of the Sermon on the Mount

Bert Friesen

Throughout the history of the church one of the most frequently discussed sections of the Bible is the Sermon on the Mount as it is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Although each writer’s distinctive attitudes and opinions shape the resulting interpretation, certain typical approaches can be distinguished. 1 This essay will describe some of the basic approaches, using writers from the last two centuries to illustrate each.


Hans Windisch and Adolf von Hamack are two writers who could be categorized as representing the liberal approach which claims that salvation can be attained by “doing,” that is, by obeying the commands of Jesus.

According to Windisch, the Sermon on the Mount’s primary foundation is eschatology. The eschatological content which dominates the sermon includes the Beatitudes, the sayings concerning the kingdom, the Lord’s Prayer, and the sayings about passing judgment. However, there is also non-eschatological content like the sayings about salt and light, the prohibitions of oaths and of revenge, and the Golden Rule. Here a purified and radicalized wisdom teaching merges with the prophetic-eschatological proclamation of salvation and judgment. Windisch concludes:

The radicalism of the Sermon on the Mount is not dependent on the imminence of the final revelation, or on the accidental brevity of the interim, but on the essential circumstance that the event for which one must prepare is the rule of God: that the summons comes from God who now, by the mouth of Jesus, demands something utter and absolute. 2

Jesus, as the new law giver in the Sermon, fulfills and improves the Mosaic law. The new commands show the will of God for man and through obedience the individual maintains the relationship of a disciple to his lord.

The Sermon intends to proclaim commands. It presents demands that are to be literally understood and literally fulfilled. Polemic against “fanatics” is to a large extent polemic against the Sermon on the Mount and criticism of Jesus himself. 3

Jesus’ ethical commands concern the individual’s encounter with his neighbour, brother, enemy, and judge. Though they are articulated in individual terms rather than in community, economic, and national terms, {20} social ethics are part of this teaching. Jesus, then, is an expositor of the law, a legislator, a prophet, a future judge, and Lord of a new community. The individual who obeys the commands will obtain both personal righteousness and eschatological salvation. Yet all of this leaves out the individual’s essential need for redemption through Jesus Christ, for regeneration by him, for forgiveness, and for power to obey God’s commands.

Adolf von Harnack also saw the Sermon on the Mount basically as an ethical message. Jesus taught a higher righteousness and the commandment of love. But for Harnack these teachings were aimed at the individual’s disposition and intentions.

A large portion of the so-called Sermon on the Mount is occupied with what he says when he goes in detail through the several departments of human relationships and human failings as to bring the disposition and intention to light in each case, to judge a man’s works by them, and on them to hang heaven and hell. 4

So again it is “doing” which leads to salvation, that is, the “doing” of the moral principle of love with humility which reveals both intention and disposition.


Dispensationalism is a product of a Bible and prophetic conference movement in the nineteenth century which divided history into a number of time periods, or dispensations, in which God dealt with humanity on a different basis in each period.

The classic exposition of this interpretation is the Scofield Reference Bible. In it Scofield states that the Sermon on the Mount contains the law of the kingdom but not the duty of the church.

The Sermon on the Mount has a twofold application: (1) Literally to the kingdom. In this sense it gives the divine constitution for the righteous government of the earth. Whenever the kingdom of heaven is established on earth it will be according to that constitution. . . . In this sense the Sermon on the Mount is pure law. . . . For these reasons the Sermon on the Mount in its primary application gives neither the privilege nor the duty of the Church. These are found in the Epistles. 5

Secondly, he states that the Sermon on the Mount lacks the teaching on grace. The Lord’s Prayer asks the individual to pray for imperfect forgiveness because the forgiveness is based on the individual’s readiness to forgive. However, in the period of grace, full forgiveness is granted to the individual because it is based on Christ’s forgiveness which he has freely granted.

Under the law of the kingdom, for example, no one may hope for forgiveness who has not first forgiven (Matt. 6:12, 14, 15). Under grace the Christian is exhorted to forgive because he is already forgiven (Eph. 4:30-32). . . . Under law forgiveness is conditioned {21} upon a like spirit in us; under grace we are forgiven for Christ’s sake, and exhorted to forgive because we have been forgiven. 6

So if the Christian is under grace and the Sermon on the Mount is pure law, the Sermon on the Mount does not apply to the Christian now.

However, some defenders of the dispensational approach hold to the view that even if the primary fulfillment of the Sermon on the Mount and the full following of its laws are applicable in a future Messianic kingdom, it does not mean that the ethical teachings of Jesus in it are to be ignored.

Thus the dispensational interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount simply tries to follow consistently the principle of literal, normal, or plain interpretation. It results in not trying to relegate primarily and fully the teachings of the Sermon to the believer in this age. But it does not in the least disregard the ethical principles of the Sermon as being not only applicable but also binding on believers today. 7

It still must be concluded that this places the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in a secondary position. It must also be asked by what criteria one is to decide which ethical teachings are applicable and how they are to be applied. For example, will the individual receive mercy only if he shows mercy or does the individual have unlimited mercy from God?

It comes back to the question of salvation. Does salvation include any ethical requirements? Are grace and ethical requirements compatible? Does Christ rule only in the future or can an individual or a community of believers submit themselves now to the rule of Christ and, if so, which of Christ’s ethical demands should be met? Many questions about the Christian life are left unanswered if the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are relegated to a secondary position.


Johannes Weiss reacted to the liberals’ view that the kingdom of God was both imminent in individual experience and realized as an ideal society in history. He held that the kingdom of God was an apocalyptic and eschatological event which only God could establish. Man could pray for its coming but could do nothing to establish it.

Albert Schweitzer supported Weiss. God would establish the kingdom. Jesus thought that this event was imminent. Therefore, the Sermon on the Mount was to be applicable for that brief period of time before the kingdom of God would be established by God. “As repentance unto the Kingdom of God the ethics also of the Sermon on the Mount is interim ethics.” 8 The teachings, when followed, would prepare the disciple for the kingdom’s coming because they taught an ethic of repentance and a new morality to equip one to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus was interested in the law only as it pointed to the new morality, for it would come to an end with the coming of the kingdom. {22}

Since the end did not come immediately both Weiss and Schweitzer concluded that the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount have no validity today. The demands of Jesus in the Sermon are unyielding and impossible to fulfill and therefore can be no guide for ordinary conduct. Carl F. H. Henry writes: “The interim-ethics interpretation contends that literal fulfillment of the Sermon was intended, that it is possible but absurd if the world will continue for more than a few weeks, and that its ethic is therefore irrelevant to the contemporary moral situation.” 9 Only the parts of the Sermon on the Mount which could be separated from dependence on eschatology would be applicable today.

Such a division, which is based on the debatable premise that both Jesus and Paul thought that history would end in their lifetime, would be as difficult as this dismissal of the Sermon on the Mount is artificial. How can the nature of eschatology in the Sermon on the Mount destroy the ethic of the Sermon? Christ’s ethic is eschatological because there will be a final judgment and it is non-eschatological in the sense that it is valid throughout history.


The existential approach denies that the specific ethical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are normative. Rather it points to God’s absolute claim on the individual. The Sermon shows the individual the proper attitude toward God and what a relationship with God should be.

Martin Dibelius states that the Sermon on the Mount reflects an eschatological orientation. It makes radical and absolute demands. Jesus proclaimed the pure will of God without regard to circumstances or conditions in this world. Jesus does not set forth the application of these commands in this world. The demands are therefore impossible to follow because the conditions of the world are not the conditions of the kingdom of God. Furthermore, the world’s conditions are changing. So, man does not do the demands because he can not. But the demands provide a standard by which to solve problems.

This, then, is what the Sermon on the Mount demands—that Christians should live their own responsibility before God. God’s will came to expression not in systems which are applicable only to certain periods and to certain parts of the world. God’s will is revealed in our own midst by signs, the most perceptible of which are the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount. The conditions of this world are not amenable to the Kingdom of God and it is not our task to found this Kingdom. Rather our task is to perform signs, not the signs described in the Bible, but signs of our own time—to perform them as individuals, as communities, as churches, and if possible as nations. . . . The only presupposition here is the transformation of man. A community of men who by their belief and their conduct proclaim God’s will is and would be the most convincing witness of God’s Kingdom. 10 {23}

Gerhard Kittel agreed that the Sermon on the Mount makes absolute demands which can not be carried out by sinners in a sinful world. In laying bare our ethical need it points to the reality of forgiveness and grace, it points to our need to surrender to the authority of Christ.

Here also the Sermon on the Mount is valid as an ethic of attitude. It can be fulfilled only with respect to an inner will in the individual to produce the right actions, but this approach avoids any concrete ethical instruction on how to act. It surrenders the message of Jesus to the speculative presuppositions of existential philosophy. And it presents unnecessary antitheses between attitudes and obedience to commands and between being and doing.


The Anabaptist/Mennonite approach is the view that the Sermon on the Mount teaches both the individual and the community of believers what they must do to be the followers of Jesus.

Even though the demands made in the Sermon on the Mount appear impossible at times, the Anabaptist/Mennonite holds that the demands can be obeyed. God has provided his Spirit to empower believers to be obedient. God forgives them when they fail.

The Sermon on the Mount illustrates a new set of values for Kingdom citizens. Such values as love (for both neighbour and enemy), forgiveness, and self-surrender are radically different from the values of those individuals who are not members of the Kingdom because they have not submitted themselves to the rule of Christ.

This kingdom is not a kingdom in which they parade in gold, silver, pearls, silk, velvet, and costly finery, as is done by the haughty proud world. . . . But in the kingdom of all humility . . . not the outward adorning of the body, but the inward adorning of the Spirit is sought with zeal and diligence. 11

The Kingdom, in this view, is both an ideal as well as a method by which the ideal can be realized through Christ and his Spirit. It is now an imminent reality and will become fully real in the age to come when all will submit to the rule of Christ.

Central to the values taught in the Sermon on the Mount is love. The love ethic meant no retaliation, no war, no killing, no use of force, and no use of punishment as vengeance. No life could be taken by a member of the kingdom of God.

Peter was commanded to sheath his sword. All Christians are commanded to love their enemies; to do good unto those who abuse and persecute them; to give the mantle when the cloak is taken, the other cheek when one is struck. Tell me, how can a Christian defend Scripturally retaliation, rebellion, war, striking, slaying, torturing, {24} stealing, robbing and plundering and burning cities and conquering countries? 12

God gave his children the example of love in that he loved them so much that he gave his Son to die for them. And so their love should follow that ultimate example. It should be more than not doing; it should be doing good. Helping, sharing, preserving and giving in their fullest dimension are all part of living.

The implication of holding such a value as love is the disjunction of the community of believers and the state. Because sinful humanity tends toward disorder the state is there to enforce order.

The state is entered by one’s natural birth, while the church is entered through the new birth. . . . In other words, the state as state cannot be Christian in its organization or its methods. . . . The state cannot be Christian in its methods because it does not control its citizens by the proclamation of the Word of God but by the arm of the law, which is ultimately the method of force. 13

Therefore, the citizen of the kingdom of God must live as one who does not tend toward disorder, or to resist order by force, but who engages in a reconciling ministry and a proclamation of God’s love and an invitation to all to become citizens of the Kingdom of God.

It is not the case that two imperatives are affirmed in the New Testament, obedience to government on one hand and loving the enemy on the other, between which we must choose when they contradict. . . . They both instruct Christians to be nonresistant in all their relationships, including the social. They both call on the disciples of Jesus to renounce participation in the interplay of egoisms which this world calls “vengeance” or “justice.” They both call Christians to respect and be subject to the historical process in which the sword continues to be wielded and to bring about a kind of order under fire, but not to perceive in the wielding of the sword their own reconciling ministry. 14

In the Sermon on the Mount the Anabaptist/Mennonite found a guide to live the Christian life. Beyond this guide there was the example of Jesus. Hans Denck said: “To know Christ truly is to follow him daily in life.” 15


Each of the approaches which have been sketched attempts to answer the question of the relevance of the Sermon on the Mount. Those who accept the authority of the Bible and who seek to be followers of Jesus must confront the question of its application to the Christian life. Jesus makes radical demands but also provides the means to meet those demands. The effort to do Jesus’ demands is both part of the saved state and the process of salvation. Grace and forgiveness are part of the message of the Sermon. Hope sustains both the individual and the community of believers to continue {25} the effort, because hope assures that one day the kingdom of God will be fully realized.

There is, then, in the Sermon on the Mount both grace and duty. To emphasize the latter without regard to the former as the presupposition of the whole of the Christian life is to substitute a legalistic humanism for the gospel. . . . Salvation comes to us as a gift, not as a reward. But the grace that saves also summons us to the way of discipleship. . . . It will always be imperfect, but it can and must be genuine and serious. 16


  1. The following contain sketches of the history of the interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. The book by Kissinger contains an extensive bibliography. Harvey K. McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount (New York: Harpers, 1960); Carl F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957); Archibald Hunter, A Pattern for Life; an Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953); Warren S. Kissinger, The Sermon on the Mount: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. and the American Theological Library Association, 1975).
  2. Hans Windisch, The Meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, trans. S. MacLean Gilmour (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1951), p. 29.
  3. Windisch, p. 172.
  4. Adolf von Harnack, What Is Christianity? trans. T. B. Saunders (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), p. 72.
  5. C. I. Scofield (ed.), The Scofield Reference Bible: The Holy Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1909), pp. 999-1000.
  6. Scofield, pp. 1000, 1002.
  7. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), p. 109. Cf. Scofield, p. 1000.
  8. Albert Schweitzer, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, trans. W. Lowrie (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1914), p. 97.
  9. Henry, p. 292.
  10. Martin Dibelius, The Sermon on the Mount (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1940), p. 137.
  11. J. C. Wenger (ed.), “Foundation of Christian Doctrine” in The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), p. 217.
  12. Wenger, in “Reply to False Accusation,” p. 555.
  13. J. C. Wenger, Separated unto God (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), pp. 249, 250.
  14. J. H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), p. 214.
  15. Kissinger, p. 34.
  16. H. H. Charles, “Sermon on the Mount,” The Gospel of Matthew. Adult Bible Study Guide, by LaVernae J. Dick, ed. Laurence Martin (Scottdale: Congregational Literature Division of the Mennonite Publishing House, 1980), December, 1980, January, February, 1981, pp. 80-81.
Bert Friesen is presently a freelance researcher and writer living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His doctoral studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, were in New Testament.

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