Matthew records that the early ministry of the Savior consisted of going about, “all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people which believed on his name” (Matt. 4:23).
As He did so, “his fame went throughout all” the land and “there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan” (Matt. 4:24-25).
The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount
“And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him” (Matt. 5:1). The Savior then delivered a masterful discourse that has become known as the Sermon on the Mount.
The setting for the sermon is of interest for a several reasons. The following are important to this writing:
- Catherine Thomas has noted: “The Greek text of Matthew describes Jesus ascending the mountain, where he delivered the Sermon on the Mount. This mountain evokes another ancient mountain from the Old Testament — Mount Sinai, where Jehovah delivered the great law of Moses. The allusion is no accident. Jehovah had again ascended a mount from which he would deliver another law. Allusions from the Old Testament permeate his address and illuminate his message.”
- Seeing a diverse multitude following him, the Savior left the crowds and ascended the mountain, leaving the ease of the valley travel behind. This forced only the true disciples to follow him. There is a message of “cost of discipleship” in this. By following the Savior, the disciples would be required to leave the world behind and live at a higher level. Only by living at a higher level, would the disciples learn things that could not be learned in any other setting.
- The Sermon of the Mount evokes temple imagery. Most ancient Near Eastern societies viewed their gods as living in mountains: Olympus for the Greeks; Cassius for the Phoenicians; Saphon, Hermon, Tabor, and Carmel for the Canaanites; and Sinai for the Israelites. These were all mountains upon which the respective societies considered their god(s) as living. When temples were built to house deity, the temples were often considered “mountains.” If possible they were built on mountains or high places. If not, the structure of the building was designed to represent a mountain (such as the Mesopotamian ziggurat). When the Savior ascended the mountain to deliver this most significant sermon, there can be not question that His intended subject was of a higher nature — the temple. Indeed, it is significant that when the Savior delivered a similar sermon to the Nephites, it was in the temple at Bountiful (3 Ne. 11:1).
A Temple Text
When the Sermon on the Mount is viewed within the light of temple worship, what appears as a disjointed discourse is unified. John Welch has observed that both the Savior’s Sermon on the Mount and in the temple at Bountiful are temple texts. “The temple context is what gives the Sermon its unity and, therefore, an exceptionally rich background against which it can be understood and appreciated.”
The message delivered by the Savior on this occasion was not meant merely to produce a greater ethical living in his disciples. “Salvation comes by living the doctrines proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount!” exclaimed Elder Bruce R. McConkie. “That sermon — properly understood — is far more than a recitation of ethical principles; rather, it summarizes the Christian way of life, and it charts the course true saints must pursue to become even as He is.”
He continued, “This sermon is a recapitulation, a summary, and a digest of what men must do to gain salvation; and the eternal concepts in it are so stated that hearers (and readers) will get out of it as much as their personal spiritual capacity permits. To some it will point the way to further investigation; to others it will confirm and reconfirm eternal truths already learned from the scriptures and from the preachers of righteousness of their day; and to those few whose souls burn with the fires of testimony, devotion, and valiance, it will be as the rending of the heavens: light and knowledge beyond carnal comprehension will flow into their souls in quantities that cannot be measured.”
Elder McConkie explained that the sermon has not been recorded in its entirety. “The Sermon on the Mount has never been recorded in its entirety as far as we know; at least no such scriptural account is available to us. What has come to us is a digest; the words in each account that are attributed to Jesus are, in fact, verbatim recordings of what he said, but they are not all that he said by any means.” Further, he noted: “The Sermon on the Mount is not an assemblage of disjointed sayings, spoken on diverse occasions, that have been combined in one place for convenience in presentation, as some uninspired commentators have speculated.”
The Sermon on the Mount begins with an overview of man’s progress to exaltation given through what has become known as the beatitudes (5:3-12). Each beatitude confirms a condition of gospel living that man must achieve and maintain in order to receive celestial glory. Note the first four conditions and their relationship to each other:
- The first condition: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). The Book of Mormon augments this verse in this way: “Yea, blessed are the poor in spirit who come unto me (3 Ne. 12:3; emphasis added) The poor in spirit are those who recognize their spiritual need, and, as the Book of Mormon adds, demonstrate their faith by coming unto Christ.
- The second condition: “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (5:4). They that mourn are the poor in spirit who mourn their spiritual poorness and repent of their sins. The promise of comfort is the promise of forgiveness.
- The third condition: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (5:5). The meek are those who submit to the higher power of God “as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19). Formal submission to the Lord is actualized through the covenant made at baptism (see 2 Ne. 31:7; D&C 20:37). The blessing granted the meek consists of “inherit[ing] the earth” – a blessing not realized until the earth becomes the celestial kingdom (see D&C 88:17-26).
- The fourth condition: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness (5:6) for they shall be filled with the Holy Ghost”(3 Ne. 12:6). Regarding this verse, Stephen Robinson asked: “When are you hungry? When are you thirsty? When you don’t have the object of your desire. It is those who don’t have the righteousness that God has — but who hunger and thirst after it — who are blessed, for if that is the desire of their hearts, the Lord will help them achieve it.” Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness desire to learn and live of the things of God and eternal life. When one has such hunger, he has achieved the requisite worthiness to have the gift of the Holy Ghost.
As can be seen, the first four beatitudes reflect the first four principles and ordinances of the gospel.
These principles and ordinances are part of the preparatory gospel (D&C 84:26-27) and serve to initiate one onto the “strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life” (2 Nephi 31:16-17).
The first principles and ordinances of the gospel bring one into a proper relationship with God. They put the first commandment first in our lives. The first two great commandments are: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 22:37-39).
We speak much in the Church about serving our fellowmen. But often we forget that it is the second commandment. But, as President Ezra Taft Benson has stated: “We bless our fellowmen the most when we put the first commandment first.” Developing this thought, President Benson said: “To love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is all-consuming and all encompassing. It is no lukewarm endeavor. It is total commitment of our very being — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually — to a love of the Lord.”
He then said: “When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. Our love of the Lord will govern the claims for our affection, the demands on our time, the interests we pursue, and the order of our priorities. We should put God ahead of everyone else in our lives.”
With the first commandment first in our lives, we are bettered prepared to live the second commandment: to love our fellow men. Neal A. Maxwell stated: “Believing in a loving God who is perfect helps us to love our imperfect neighbors. I see now that the first commandment must be first and, therefore, the second commandment must be second, for without a knowledge of love of God and his help, our concerns for our neighbors would diminish.”
The next four beatitudes deal with the second commandment:
- The fifth condition: “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (5:7). This beatitutde can be viewed both in simple way as well as a higher way. At an elementary level, the meaning is simple: those who help others will receive help from the Lord.
At a more complex level, the meaning deals with temple issues. The merciful are those who have already received the Lord’s mercy of forgiveness through baptism. Yet the baptismal requires them to serve others (see Mosiah 18:8-10) in order to receive further mercy of the Lord. What mercy? The power to achieve our divine potential!
Let me explain. Receiving God’s mercy or grace is essential in order to advance in righteousness in the kingdom of God, eventually becoming as God is. Grace has been defined as an “enabling power.” God’s saving grace that enables man to save their souls in the celestial kingdom and achieve exaltation within that kingdom is granted to those who do the will of the Father.
Further, the initiation of his saving grace is granted only after one enters into the saving ordinances of the gospel wherein sacred covenants between God and man are made. Harold B. Lee taught, “The saving ‘grace’ of the Lord’s atoning power” is extended “to those who would receive the saving ordinances of the gospel.” Through the ordinance of baptism, we receive the divine grace of forgiveness that qualifies us to receive spiritual rebirth through the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Now spiritually reborn, we must then grow up to godhood. This will require further enabling power through divine grace or mercy. This grace comes through the higher ordinances of the temple. Each ordinance and covenant made in the temple helps us to receive more grace that enables us to become like God. Yet each covenant is a further covenant regarding service in the kingdom. As we serve others, we are granted greater grace or mercy.
Therefore, the fifth beatitude states that our receiving divine grace and mercy is dependant upon are extending grace and mercy to others. Hence, we are told in D&C 93 that we receive “grace for grace” (vss. 12-20). As we grow in grace we empowered to become more pure in heart.
- The sixth condition: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (5:8). They shall see him because of honoring their temple covenants. The Lord has said: “And inasmuch as my people build a house unto me in the name of the Lord, and do not suffer any unclean thing to come into it, that it be not defiled, my glory shall rest upon it; Yea, and my presence shall be there, for I will come into it, and all the pure in heart that shall come into it shall see God” (D&C 97:15-16).
Temple ordinances are orienting in nature. Through temple ordinances we center God and His work and glory at the center of our lives by covenant. In a modern revelation, the Lord promised that to those who single their lives to the glory and work of God “the days will come that [they] shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto [them], and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will” (D&C 88:67-68).
- The seventh condition: “Blessed are the peacemakers”–those who like Melchizedek, the Prince of Peace, help others to “enter into the rest of God” through temple ordinances (JST Genesis 14:25-40 and Alma 13:13-19)–“shall be called the children of God” (5:9). The children of God are those who are rightful heirs of all that God has (Romans 8:14-18; Galatians 4:1-8).
- The eighth condition: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (5:10-12).
hose who have achieved the first seven conditions have become different from those who live the ways of the world. The world does not like those who are different and often persecutes them. Those who are persecuted have, like those in Lehi’s dream, arrived at the tree of life and are persecuted by those in the “great and spacious building” (1 Nephi 8:27). They have “escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Peter 1:4). They are in the world but are “not of the world” (John 17:14-16). Such persecution is a good sign!
The Salt of the Earth
Upon the conclusion of the beatitudes, the Savior declared “Ye are the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13). In the Book of Mormon version, He said: “I give unto you to be the salt of the earth” (3 Nephi 12:13). This implies a challenge or an invitation. But what is the invitation?
An Old Testament understanding of how salt was ritually used will aid our understanding of the invitation.
Salt was used in a variety of sacrifices of the Mosaic Law as a symbol of indestructibility (e.
g. Lev. 2:13). On one occasion, the Lord referred to a series of obligations as a “covenant of salt” to demonstrate the eternal nature of the covenant that had just been made between Him and Israel (Numbers 18:19; see also 2 Chron.13:5).
With this understanding in mind, the invitation to become the salt of the earth was a challenge to enter into the higher law of the gospel with an everlasting covenant. This is stated clearly in modern revelation: “When men are called unto mine everlasting gospel, and covenant with an everlasting covenant, they are accounted as the salt of the earth and the savor of men” (D&C 101:39).
Of this statement, Elder Delbert L. Stapley, a former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, taught: “When an individual truly repents and is baptized by an authorized servant of God into the true Church of Christ and receives the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands by those possessing the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood, he has entered into the everlasting gospel and becomes a member of God’s Church and kingdom. By accepting the covenant of baptism, each convert obligates himself or herself to serve the Lord, to do his will, and to keep his commandments. This is the first qualifying step for the application of ‘the salt of the earth’ status.”
But repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost are not enough. Elder Stapley taught: “The second step is to ‘covenant with an everlasting covenant’ (D&C 101:39.).” He explained: “As we gain knowledge of the revelations, we learn that the gospel contains many covenants vital to the eternal welfare of man.”
These covenants, he taught, include the temple ordinances. “Every worthy church member privileged to enter the temples of the Lord for his or her endowment blessings accepts covenants and obligations of the most sacred nature, revealed of God for the glory of his children.
“Every couple kneeling across the altar from each other in the temples of God for holy marriage enters into a covenant of the highest order, which is God’s order, and which sealing and covenant is for time and for all eternity.
“There are other covenants and obligations growing out of the endowment as well as the marriage contract which are binding upon the individuals concerned, and their obedience thereto assures the sanctifying influence and power of the Spirit and the spiritual renewing of their bodies in preparation for the blessings and glories which are to come.”
By living up to their covenants, the Savior taught his disciples that they would be “the light of the world.” Further, they were encouraged to share that light with others (Matt. 5:14-16).
Commanded to Live at a Higher Level
Following the invitation to come to the higher laws and covenants of the gospel, the Savior stated: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matt. 5:17). To understand this statement, four things must be understood:
- The phrase “the law, or the prophets” means the Old Testament.
- The Greek word translated “fulfill” means to bring to a completion.
- The law of Moses was given with the intent of bringing Israel to Christ and the higher law, a law that they were not ready to understand at the time of Moses (see 2 Nephi 11:4; Jacob 4:5; Mosiah 3:14-15; Mosiah 16:14; Alma 25:15-16; Ether 12:11).
- The prophets of the Old Testament prophesied of the coming of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, Christ had come to fulfil the intent of the law of Moses and the prophecies of the prophets.
With this in mind, the Savior taught that the disciples’ righteousness must “exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matt. 5:20). The Greek word translated “righteousness,” is a legal term meaning ‘observance of the law’ or ‘right conduct.’ The Savior would have used the term differently than the scribes and Pharisees. They would have used the term to mean strict legal correctness or “the letter of the law.” What motivated them to observe a strict observance of the law is hard to. But an examination of the four gospels would suggest that their motivation was not their love of fellowman.
But “righteousness” as employed by the Savior meant to honor the intent and goal of the law. Paul tells us that the goal of keeping every commandment should be love (see 1 Tim. 1:5). Therefore, the motivation for keeping every commandment should be love–love of God and fellowman, the first two great commandments. In so doing, by keeping the commandments, one is developing “the pure love of Christ”and therefore becoming even as God is (see Moroni 7:47-48).
Important, then, to the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount is that our observance of the commandments of God should focus on the intent of the law not strictly the do’s and don’ts. In fact, towards the end of the Sermon, the Savior declared that God’s judgment will not rest simply on the works of the law — the do’s and don’ts — but rather on what we have become by our works.
“Verily I say unto you,” the Lord said, “It is not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, that shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven. For the day soon cometh, that men shall come before me to judgment, to be judged according to their works. And many will say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name; and in thy name cast out devils; and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I say, Ye never knew me; depart from me ye that work iniquity” (JST Matt. 7:30-33; emphasis added).
Doing the works of the Lord without real intent — love of God and fellowman — is insufficient for entrance into the celestial kingdom of God. If we are not coming to know the Lord through our works, then they are just works.
This was taught by King Benjamin, who said, “For how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?” (Mosiah 5:13; emphasis added) In line with this, Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught “that the Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts — what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts — what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.”
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