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The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ most well-known teaching and one of history’s most famous speeches ever. Jesus delivered this sermon 2,000 years ago, and the implications of these words are still shockingly relevant and meaningful.

Emphasizing humility, forgiveness, and generous care for our neighbors, Jesus encourages people to choose God’s way of love, which will eventually renew all of creation. He calls this restored world God’s Kingdom. This is a realm in which Heaven and Earth are inseparably combined, a place where life flourishes that’s free from injustice, suffering, and death.

We’re not sure if Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount as one big speech or if Matthew collected Jesus’ key teachings over time and organized them into a sermon-style scene (recorded in Matthew 5-7). Either way, this sermon contains some of the most rigorous ethical demands in the Bible. It has wild ideas like “blessed are the peacemakers” and “love your enemies” and “pray for people who persecute you.”

These ideas might pass for utopian ideals, but they’re nonsense (and weak) in our modern empires, where leadership usually means strength and power more than vulnerability and love.

Why Teach From a Mountain?

In the Gospel of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount story, Jesus is intentionally portrayed on a large hill (or mountain, Matt. 5:1), speaking to a group of hurting Jewish farmers and day laborers who have been oppressed by Rome (and other powerful nations) for too long. They’re sick of being bullied, mocked, and taxed into poverty by those in power. And like their Hebrew ancestors, who had long ago been slaves under brutal Egyptian tyranny, they are in need of a rescuer.

Enter Jesus of Nazareth—the humble teacher everyone whispers about. Family and friends are saying good things, but the power guys are getting irritated about everything he says.

By the time of the Sermon on the Mount scene, many already considered Jesus a great prophet like Moses. Matthew says that crowds gather, and Jesus ascends a “mountain.” This mountain teaching with oppressed people sounds familiar—think about Moses giving instructions at Mount Sinai to the Hebrew people recently freed from enslavement. With all these symbols working together, many in the crowd are wondering if Jesus will be some kind of rescuer: “Is this Jesus a new kind of Moses?”

Matthew compares Jesus to Moses but takes care to show he’s not the same as Moses, nor is his instruction a simple repeat of Moses’ law. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says he is not abolishing what Moses gave; he’s “filling it full.” Jesus’ teaching deepens and expands that first instruction (Hebrew: torah) from Moses.

To better answer the question “What is the Sermon on the Mount?”, we need to dig deeper into the three key distinctives we’ve briefly mentioned. We need to look at:

  1. How Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses
  2. How Jesus’ teaching “fills full” the Hebrew Bible’s law
  3. What Jesus means when he talks about God’s Kingdom

Jesus as the New Moses

Throughout the biblical story, God instructs people in many ways, but two teachers—Moses and Jesus—become primary human instructors. Moses was the only one who experienced God face-to-face (Exod. 33:11), and Jesus is God himself in the flesh. In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, through Jesus, God shows up like a new Moses, arriving to rescue not only all of Israel but all of humanity.

As such, Matthew casts Jesus not only as a new Moses but also as a greater Moses. Somehow, in a speech where Jesus never tells people to respect him or to bow down, the crowds still recognize strong authority in Jesus’ words. His teaching seems to have the ring of truth, and it fits with the Hebrew Bible’s instruction they already know, yet it leaves them utterly astonished (Matt. 7:28).

Jesus is disrupting the common expectations of their world. Moses' teaching also disrupted the common expectations of the Egyptian empire and its Hebrew slaves. Moses taught an enslaved people to become free, not by turning to violence but by turning their attention to God and following his lead—trusting his instruction—which becomes a core theme in the Exodus narrative. That had to sound crazy to enslaved people. Just follow God and trust him to deal with their enemies? But they did, and God set them free as promised.

Like most of us throughout history, the crowds listening to Jesus assume that evil gets eradicated from our world with strong military power and the wealth it takes to build armies. But Jesus goes nowhere near that or an idea that depends on force, coercion, or violence. He promises with his life that the power of God’s love, along with those who choose to embrace it, will eventually outlast and overwhelm all evil everywhere.

Don’t fight evil with the power of evil, Jesus says. Instead, join God in creating goodness throughout the land. If Jesus’ followers listen to his words, they will start seeing their enemies as neighbors and miracles of God who are worthy of love. All evil and every oppressor will ultimately be defeated, Jesus teaches, not with swords but with God’s creative, renewing love.

Moses’ law had always been pointing in this exact same direction. It always intended to form its followers into loving people who honor God by blessing every family on Earth (see Genesis 12:1-3). Jesus is now making good on that intent by finishing—or filling full—the work that Moses’ instruction started.

How Jesus’ Teaching “Fills Full” the Torah

In Matthew 5:17-43, Jesus opens six repeated statements with these words: "You have heard it said, and I say to you …." The first part, “you have heard it said,” refers to the original Torah. Some thought Jesus opposed that first instruction, but Jesus emphatically says the opposite. He doesn’t think the old law is flawed or obsolete. It was limited in its scope, and he’s providing fuller explanation and illustration.

Though the first law did intend to form the human heart, its instructions could be followed in vain—interpreted and followed in a way that had no meaningful effect on the follower. For instance, Jesus agrees with Moses’ prohibition against murder, but his teaching suggests that avoiding murder is only a surface-level goal. One can be considerate or non-violent while still harboring contempt and hate for others. But hateful hearts won’t function in the Kingdom of God, even if they are well-behaved. So Jesus refocuses his listeners to consider their actual hearts and to honestly pay attention to whom and what they truly love.

Real human life and goodness, as Jesus describes it, is not about a simple rejection of murder; it’s about actively loving every person around you, regardless of their status as friend or enemy. Jesus teaches impartial love for all neighbors (not some neighbors). Jesus’ life fulfills the law, and Jesus’ teaching fulfills the law—he fills Moses’ Torah full.

What’s This “Kingdom” Jesus Talks About?

Think about an average neighborhood or village. Imagine if, one by one, its citizens started making decisions to bless one another with resources rather than hoard and fight over them. Imagine what it would be like if society at large considered vulnerability and kindness to be the highest forms of power and glory. It’s a world where mutual love between citizens has made it impossible for evil to continue.

Total peace. Total safety. Total provision. Everyone experiencing the good life.

“The good life belongs to [or ‘blessed are’] those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus says in the introduction of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:6). That word “righteousness” comes from the Greek dikaiosune, which is about right relating with others. To be a righteous person, according to Jesus and the New Testament, we must learn how to relate rightly with all people. In other words, we learn how to love our neighbors.

Jesus says that the good life belongs to people who hunger and thirst for right relationships “because they will be filled [or ‘satisfied’].” They will, according to God’s promise, eventually live in a world where Heaven and Earth are united, where everyone else wants right relationships too—this is God’s Kingdom. Surely many in Jesus’ crowds wanted to be there now.

Notice how Jesus does not promise to take these oppressed Galileans from their bad situation straight to a better world by simply destroying their Roman oppressors. He’s teaching them that a free world doesn’t come about through harming or exterminating enemies. It comes about freely, through something more powerful.

He’s helping them experience freedom within God’s Kingdom right now by choosing to turn their attention to him and his way of love. This is why Jesus invites the people to “seek first the Kingdom” (Matt. 6:33)—to let his Sermon on the Mount instructions guide them through their wilderness, into the promised Kingdom way—and to want that more than anything.

Loving that way of life, he says, leads to a world where every need is met, every tear is wiped away, and every bit of life’s goodness gets experienced by all people.

Don’t allow worries about securing your basic needs govern the decisions you make, Jesus teaches. Instead, more than anything else, pursue God’s Kingdom way of life and right relating with all others. When we do that, we’ll find that life’s biggest needs are no longer an issue (Matt. 6:31-33). When everyone lives like that, fear and violence don’t make sense anymore because the world is altogether good. That good world is the Kingdom Jesus speaks of in his Sermon on the Mount.

How God’s World Will Be Transformed

Moses joined God in this life-renewing work back in Egypt. And Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses to signal that Jesus is doing the same thing. He is continuing the rescuing work God started long ago. But he’s introducing an unexpected trajectory through his Sermon on the Mount, opening humanity’s eyes to the deeper meaning of Moses’ Torah.

As it is, Jesus’ teaching implies that the world won’t be fixed through the elimination of human enemies or through merely escaping our world for a better utopia in the clouds. God’s world—on Earth as it is in Heaven—will be transformed by changed human hearts. Jesus’ frustrated Galilean crowds were probably as unhappy to hear this as we likely are. They want God’s power to destroy their enemies, not God’s power to bless and heal and love them. In fact, Matthew says at the end that Jesus’ crowds were utterly shocked, astounded, and amazed.

Despite hearing the most intense ethical teaching they had ever heard, far greater than any legal experts or religious elites, the people still somehow knew that Jesus spoke truth. And isn’t it true for each of us that, deep down, we prefer kindness and love more than hate or contempt?

“When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed by his teaching,” Matthew writes to conclude, “because Jesus taught them like one who had authority, not like their experts in the law” (Matt. 7:28, NET).