Like most speeches, the Sermon on the Mountain was obviously composed privately before it was delivered publicly. But what is the logic behind Jesus’ meticulous – and magnificent – literary architecture?
As always, the first step is the identification of the greater context, or the position of the text in the bigger picture. In this case, that context is the first of the five major “Covenant” sections in the Gospel of Matthew:
Not only does the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) itself follow the same pattern as the Gospel-section, each of its internal sections also reflects the shape in various ways. Since the sermon is considered to be Jesus’ New Covenant “manifesto,” we should not be surprised to discover that He has employed common variations of the Bible’s Covenant-literary structure as His templates. Some are sevenfold, some fivefold, and one is threefold, but each of these originates in the same sacred architecture:
The three levels on the right (Above, Beside Below) image the vertical triune Garden / Land / World structure of the primeval creation. We also see this threefold division in Exodus 20:4. If we add the mediating divisions, that gives us the five levels seen in the Covenant pattern and the Ten Words. The horizontal triune office, as expressed in the three pieces of furniture in the Holy Place, expands the Ethics of the Covenant and results in the sevenfold “Creation” pattern. (This diagram is from Bible Matrix III: The House of God (forthcoming). You can read the first chapters, which contain some crucial foundations, here.)
Covenant Structure in the Sermon on the Mountain
Creation/Initiation: Jesus on the Mountain (Matthew 5:1-2)
The location implies the authority of God, and the threefold hierarchy (Jesus: Above, Disciples: Beside, Crowds: Below) is a social expression of the Trinity. The order of Moses, the elders, and Israel at Sinai was similar, and once again, God’s high places are sources of graven Words rather than graven images. Jesus does not write His words on stone because under the New Covenant they are to be written on the tablets of the heart.1For more discussion, I recommend James B. Jordan, The Liturgy Trap.
Division/Delegation: The Sons of God (Matthew 5:3-12)
|The poor in spirit inherit the kingdom
(No other gods)
|TRANSCENDENCE||Those who mourn for sin will be comforted
(No false oaths)
|The meek will inherit the Land
|HIERARCHY||Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied
(Honouring parents / Living long in the land)
|The merciful will receive mercy
|ETHICS||The pure in heart will see God
|The peacemakers will be called sons of God
|OATH/SANCTIONS||Those persecuted for righteousness’ sake
(No false witness)
|Those maligned due to the testimony of Jesus
(No coveting house)
|SUCCESSION||The witnesses’ reward in heaven
(No coveting contents)
- The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) are seen as the “New Covenant version” of the Ten Commandments, describing a mature religion of the heart (internal law) rather than a childish obedience motivated by fear (external law).2For more discussion, see “Internal Law” in Michael Bull, Sweet Counsel: Essays to Brighten the Eyes. This shift from external to internal law would be ratified at Pentecost through the sending of the Spirit of God to indwell the saints.
- Although the Beatitudes are not considered to correspond individually to the Ten Words, I believe that they indeed do. The nine uses of “blessed” culminate in a tenth word, an exhortation to “rejoice.”
Ascension/Presentation: Fulfilling the Law (Matthew 5:13-20)
- The symbols employed in this stanza are priestly. The salt refers to the “salt of the [Mosaic] Covenant,” which was to be added not only to the firstfruits meat offerings, but indeed used in all offerings including the showbread (Leviticus 2:12-13, Numbers 18:19). As an enhancer of taste and a cure for corruption, making food acceptable and pure, salt relates to the mouth, and thus to truth (Colossians 4:6; Mark 9:48-50).
- When the lampstand appears at Hierarchy rather than Ethics (as it does in the Revelation), it speaks of mature New Covenant sons filled with the Spirit (as opposed to Old Covenant sons according to the flesh). As a priest, Jesus “trims the wicks” of His disciples.
- A reference to “the heavens and the earth” alludes to the governing lights at the centre of the Creation Week, followed by the exaltation of those who humble themselves and obey God, and the humiliation of those who do not.
Testing/Purification: “Knife & Fire” Sins of the Flesh (Matthew 5:21-48)
|Anger (brother)||WORD||Oaths (integrity)|
|Lust (my eye and hand)||SACRAMENT||Retaliation (your eye and tooth)|
|Divorce (wife)||GOVERNMENT||Enemies (love)|
- Priestly humility in the Garden leads to justice and mercy in the Land and the World, that is, true kingdom. The focus at the centre of the sermon is the sins which characterise rebellious kings: guns, girls and gold.3For more discussion, see “Guns, Girls and Gold” in Michael Bull, Inquiétude: Essays for a People Without Eyes.
Maturity/Transformation: Against Hypocrisy (Matthew 6:1-7:11)
Man’s Gifts (Creation)
God’s Gifts (Glorification)
- Maturity speaks of internal law (see above), but hypocrisy is a disconnect, a lack of integrity, between the external deed and the attitude of the heart. The hypocrite seeks the approval of men rather than of God.
- The first four exhortations concern secret things, but the fourth concerns treasure in heaven, and uses the symbol of the lampstand. The “evil eye” is a reference to Deuteronomy 15:9: “Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto the LORD against thee, and it be sin unto thee.” [KJV]
- Maturity also speaks of “plunder and plagues,” the multiplication in history (and thus, exposure) of one’s secret obedience or disobedience. The fifth exhortation uses various images of multiplication, from the birds (Day 5), clothing (Adam’s conscious nakedness after his sin), the lilies of the field, and the “bridal” glory of Solomon.
- At Conquest (or Oath/Sanctions), Jesus points out that hypocrisy makes us unmerciful, and also unable to judge truly between what is good and what is evil. This leads to the final exhortation, where God’s children understand that His ministry of discipline to us via stones and serpents is discerned by the humble as veiled gifts that lead to investiture with outward glory.
Conquest/Vindication: Judged According to Works (Matthew 7:12-27)
- The penultimate stanza concerns discernment, and although the fivefold Covenant pattern is at the fore, its expression in the five books of the Torah can also be discerned.
- Jesus reveals that the heart of the Law and the Prophets is love, not legislation, a fact that sinners like Adam will always fail to discern.
- The book of Leviticus includes directions concerning the fruit of “uncircumcised” trees.4See Seed, Flesh and Skin for an analysis of the passage.
- In relation to the Covenant Oath, the “name” of Jesus is mentioned three times.
- Another Conquest symbol is the Great Flood, and here Jesus implies that the current temple builders, the Herods, were hypocrites who were building upon sand.
Glorification/Representation: The Incarnate Word (Matthew 7:28-29)
- The construct began with Jesus speaking on the mountain (Initiation), and it ends with a recognition of His divine authority (Representation).
Image: The Sermon on the Mount (1896), Károly Ferenczy, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest.
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References [ + ]
|1.||↑||For more discussion, I recommend James B. Jordan, The Liturgy Trap.|
|2.||↑||For more discussion, see “Internal Law” in Michael Bull, Sweet Counsel: Essays to Brighten the Eyes.|
|3.||↑||For more discussion, see “Guns, Girls and Gold” in Michael Bull, Inquiétude: Essays for a People Without Eyes.|
|4.||↑||See Seed, Flesh and Skin for an analysis of the passage.|