A reading of some of the modern literature about Jesus Christ and His ministry gives the impression that He was some sort of itinerant Jewish peasant, wandering aimlessly about the hills of Judea and Galilee, stopping to preach whenever a crowd of any size formed to listen. One imagines a scruffy and unkempt band of men seated on a hillside and the white-robed rabbi Jesus standing above them on a rock, speaking to a smattering of equally ragged people down the slope. From the looks of them, a collection plate passed among them would gather nary a farthing!
A close reading of Scripture, however, paints a different picture. Jesus' "wanderings," for example, are not haphazard but calculated itineraries. He goes where crowds are already formed—at festivals, in markets and synagogues, at the Temple on the Sabbath, etc. Moreover, Judas carries a money box (John 12:6), and it collected enough coin to entice him to steal from it. Luke 8:2-3 says that many women supported Jesus, and at least one of them had links to the moneyed classes. This is not to say that Jesus lived like a modern televangelist, but He was in no way destitute.
In addition, at times in His ministry, Jesus is followed by "great multitudes" of people from every rank of society and every nearby region. He comes in contact with Roman centurions, aristocrats, merchants, lawyers, religious leaders, Greeks, Sidonians, as well as the common fishermen, farmers, craftsmen, lepers, and tax collectors (many of which were fabulously wealthy). Jesus helps and preaches to them all.
In His famous Sermon on the Mount, we see what Jesus preached to them. This extended oration is found only in Matthew 5-7 and in a more truncated form in Luke 6. There are enough differences between the two passages to conclude that they may be accounts of different sermons. For instance, Matthew 5:1 says the Sermon took place when Jesus and His disciples "went up on a mountain." Luke 6:17, however, describes Jesus coming down with His disciples to "a level place" to speak before "a great multitude of people."
Perhaps what we call the "Sermon on the Mount" is the core of what He said many times and in different locales throughout His ministry. In fact, a quick scan of Mark and Luke reveals that sections of what Matthew includes in the Sermon are scattered throughout their narratives. From this evidence, some scholars believe that the Sermon on the Mount never actually happened as reported in Matthew's gospel, but that Matthew simply gathered snippets of Jesus' various teachings into a neat, easily digested package.
However, like the parables of Matthew 13 and the Olivet Prophecy of Matthew 24, the apostle presents the Sermon as private teaching to the disciples. It is logical to believe that Jesus would give extended, detailed instruction to His disciples in a straightforward, unbroken manner as He does in the Sermon on the Mount. Later, He would preach on the same things to sundry audiences in different places, when circumstances might dictate the subjects He addressed. The differences between Matthew's and Luke's versions of the Sermon follow their differing audiences and purposes in writing their gospels.
Matthew's version is better organized, being divided into several major sections. It begins with the famous beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), a list of eight character traits that please God and bring great satisfaction and reward to the disciple who demonstrates them. It has been said that Jesus opens up with an unmatched salvo of godly standards of character—the righteous attitudes of those who will enter the Kingdom of God.
The beatitudes are followed by a short passage on the disciple's responsibility to be a witness for God (Matthew 5:13-16). A disciple must not only believe what God says, but he must also openly practice it in his life. Others, seeing God's way of life in action in a fellow human being, may be attracted to it and give God glory by believing and living it as well.
Verse 17 through the end of the chapter contains an explanation of God's law that most nominal Christians fail to understand. Jesus proclaims immediately that He did not come to destroy God's law but to fulfill it, meaning not to keep it completely in our stead, but to show by His example how it applies to the Christian life. Jesus' life is the perfect model of the law of God in action. The ensuing examples that He provides show how, for a Christian, the application of the law goes beyond the mere letter to the spiritual intents and principles of the law. These illustrations explain how a Christian's righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisees', whose keeping of the law never went beyond its face value. Jesus concludes the section with an exhortation to His disciples to become "perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect." A high standard indeed!
Matthew 6 elucidates Jesus' positions on various religious works: charitable deeds (verses 1-4), prayer (verses 5-15), and fasting (verses 16-18). In His treatment of each subtopic, He emphasizes that each act is private and personal, something to be seen only by the doer and God Himself. The Christian religion, then, is not to be a matter of hypocritical public recognition—as Pharisaic practice had devolved to—but of humble private practice. In the lengthy passage on prayer, He instructs the disciple in how to approach God with reverent familiarity, as one would a beloved father.
The next section, Matthew 6:19-34, concentrates on the place of money and possessions in the Christian life. Jesus' disciples are not to worry about their sustenance, for God loves us and will take care of us. Instead, we are to focus on the Kingdom of God and becoming righteous. If our goal is clear before us and we do not waver from it, we will stay safely on the right path.
Chapter 7 is comprised of six pearls of wisdom that a Christian needs to master in his walk with God, all of which center on the subject of judgment. They cover such areas as hypocrisy, persistence in seeking God and His good things, walking the straight and narrow path revealed only through Christ, avoiding false teachers and their lies, discerning true Christians from false ones, and building a stable and enduring life on God's truth. A Christian who makes these points part of his daily life will be able to handle the inevitable vicissitudes and trials of life.
The Sermon on the Mount is a Christian manifesto par excellence. A person who takes it as his or her own and follows its dictates will be a son or daughter in whom God is well pleased.