by Jerry Hullinger

– There is a general misconception among non-dispensational scholars that there is but one dispensational approach, namely, the Kingdom approach to the Sermon on the Mount. Moreover, this lone option is often misrepresented as well. Since dispensationalists believe the following:

1.            Jesus offered the Davidic Kingdom to Israel at his first coming

2.            Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount during the time of this offer

And

3.            Israel rejected the kingdom offer by rejecting the Messiah

Then

4.            The Sermon on the Mount has no application today

Observe the three following citations:

At the other extreme [the first extreme being Tolstoi and the Christian Marxists] is the earlier American Dispensationalism which relegated the Sermon to the millennial Kingdom, leaving a historical dichotomy between the present and the future…”[1]

Some teach a dispensational view of the Sermon on the Mount, saying that it has nothing whatsoever to do with modern Christians….it says, in effect, that the Sermon on the Mount has nothing to do with us….According to this view I need not read the Sermon on the Mount; I need not be concerned about its precepts; I need not feel condemned because I am not doing certain things; it has no relevance for me….We must likewise ignore the gracious promises in this sermon. We must not say that we must let our light shine before men.[2]

As a result of this theological structure (dispensationalism), the Sermon on the Mount has no immediate relevance or application to the Christian…This theological construction is so all-embracing that it is extremely difficult for a member of this school of thought to accept a different interpretation of any particular passage without endangering the entire system….In dispensationalism, the interpretation of Matthew’s Gospel is one of the crucial support pillars of the theological structure. Remove it (or any one of a dozen other pillars), and the structure collapses.[3]

There are some who have held to the position stated above; however, these can best be classified as ultra-dispensationalists and are the rare exception.[4] The above statements reveal two points of misunderstanding. First, the Kingdom View is misrepresented. It has been observed by dispensationalists Ryrie and Campbell (both of whom hold the Kingdom View and represent an earlier form of Dispensationalism) that while they relate the Sermon primarily to the millennial age, it still has application to the present.[5] The same is true for other earlier dispensationalists including Scofield and Chafer.[6] Second, Dispensationalism is misrepresented. It is assumed either that all dispensationalists hold or must hold to the Kingdom approach which is why it is called the “dispensational interpretation.” [7] Yet, this view is not an essential of dispensational theology and is not held by many dispensationalists as will be demonstrated below.[8] There is not a uniform dispensational approach to the Sermon any more than there is a uniform amillennial approach to it.

In the discussion below, four different views of the Sermon held by dispensationalists will be examined. Though there are points of validity in all of the options, the writer will argue that the final view presented is the most credible.

 

The Millennial View (aka the Kingdom View)

Statement of the view

This view applies the Sermon primarily to the future earthly Kingdom which the Lord announced as being at hand, and has been held by numerous dispensationalists during the mid-twentieth century approximately.[9] As stated above, since the Sermon was delivered during the time when the Kingdom was being offered, its prime referent point is the time of the Kingdom. Since the Kingdom was rejected, its application today becomes secondary.

Support of the view

The chief support for this view is the Sermon’s setting during the Kingdom offer. Since the kingdom was rejected and consequently postponed, so also is the kingdom’s constitution and rule of life, namely, the Sermon on the Mount. So, because the Sermon appears in the first half of Matthew’s Gospel, some millennial interpreters have dismissed it as only applicable to the Jews in Jesus’ day.

A second support is Matthew’s law/grace distinction. This position assumes that Jesus was speaking under the old dispensation of law, which has been superseded by the dispensation of grace. Therefore, the Discourse was merely an Old Testament ethic not applicable today.

Closely akin to the preceding, a third argument for this view is the impossibility of keeping the demands of the Sermon. This argues for its place under the dispensation of law. These legal demands were done away when God began to deal with people in a new way in the dispensation of the church.

A fourth premise of this view is the interpretation of “law” in the Sermon. It is assumed that this is a technical term referring to the Mosaic legal code from which the believer has been delivered.

One final pillar upon which the millennial view rests is the “fact” that neither Christ nor the early Church actually sought to follow it. This is based on a comparison of Matthew 5:39 and John 18:23.

Weaknesses of the view

The first problem with the millennial view is the many references throughout the Sermon which are incongruous with the millennial kingdom. Disciples will be reviled and persecuted (5:11-12); wickedness must be prevalent since the disciples are to be salt (5:13-16); and Pharisees, thieves, and false prophets will be present (5:l7-10; 6:19; 7:15).

If Satan will be bound during the millennium, why pray in 6:13, “Deliver us from the evil one?” This is a strange kingdom indeed where Christ is said to “rule with a rod of iron.” It should be pointed out in fairness, however, that the adherents of the view are aware of this problem. Their explanation is that these things belong to the tribulation period before the actual millennium. In positing this large block of material to the tribulation period, the “millennialists” really destroy their own position. For by doing this, they are applying a great deal of the Discourse to a period other than the millennium.

A second difficulty with this view is that the Sermon is made a ground for admission into the kingdom. This immediately gives rise to at least three problems; (1) the kingdom would be sparsely populated, (2) to make the Sermon’s ethics an entrance requirement implies a period of testing which would obviously be before the kingdom.  This then, applies the Sermon to a time other than the millennium, and (3) it makes entrance into the kingdom a matter of merit rather than of grace.

A third weakness relates both to the time of composition and the original readers of Matthew. The point therefore, is that if Matthew lived in the church age, and wrote to a people in the church age, it is doubtful that his material would be relegated to a time before then.  It could be argued that Matthew’s recording of the Sermon was simply historical and therefore not necessarily meant for the Church. However, the ethical demands are confirmed throughout Scripture and cannot be confined to one time period.  Further, if this logic were followed through, the Sermon would not have validity even in the millennium, since it was simply part of an historical record.

The next difficulty lies in the anticipatory nature of the Sermon in relation to the kingdom.  There is not the slightest intimation that the ethics here are only for the kingdom. Rather, it looks forward to people entering the kingdom (5:21); receiving rewards in the kingdom (5:12, 19, 46; 6:1, 2, 4); praying for the coming of the kingdom (6:10); and prior to that, persecution and false prophets (5:11-12; 7:15-18).

A fifth problem is the insistence that the life-style portrayed in the Sermon is impossible to live out in the church age. This is a weak point for two reasons: (1) neither Testament ever excuses anyone from a command because of its difficulty. There are many New Testament commands impossible to fulfill completely (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:15; I John 2:1; Col. 3:3).  Godly standards, though unattainable completely in this life, are nevertheless to be the goal of every believer through dependence on the Holy Spirit and (2) this argument is used selectively in the Sermon, The main place it is used is Jesus’ retaliation in John 1:23, thus contradicting Matthew 5:39.  It is then concluded that the demands are impossible and will only be fulfilled in the millennium. Yet, no such suggestion is made for the sections dealing with murder/hatred and adultery/lust.  But these ethical instructions are all found in the same section of the Sermon.

Another difficulty exists with the purpose of the law.  This misrepresents the function of the Law. The Law was given for the sanctification of a redeemed people.  It was not intended to blast people out, but to guide them in the path of holiness.

A seventh difficulty also surrounds the Law. Those espousing the millennial view assume the mention of the Law to be a reference to the Mosaic Law.  Yet, when the two references in the Sermon are examined (5:17; 7:13), it is evident that more is being referred to than simply the Mosaic Law.

An eighth problem with this view is the presence of the Sermon in Luke’s Gospel not related to a kingdom motif.  It is admitted by “millennialists” that if Luke and Matthew are recording the same Sermon, doubt would be cast on their interpretation. Yet, it is widely accepted by Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars alike, that the two are the same. This is important, for Matthew and Luke do not follow the same theological chronology in their Gospel. Luke apparently expected his readers to follow these things. Thus, if the two accounts are of the same sermon, the “millennialists” chief support (the Sermon’s placement by Matthew within the kingdom-offer setting) would be shattered.

A ninth objection to the millennial view concerns the charge that the early church did not seek to implement its teachings. If this were true, one would not expect to find many references to the Sermon in the writings of the early church. The opposite is true however. The Didache (dated from the end of the first to the middle of the second century) emphasizes love of enemies, turning the other cheek, and the Lord’s Prayer.

 

The Penitential View

Statement of the view

The penitential view (also called the Lutheran view) was popularized in theological circles by the famous German Gerhard Kittel. It was also held by such scholars as Machen, Tholuck, and Gore. Those who subscribe to this position view the Sermon as a body of law which makes the individual cognizant of his sin, and drives him to God. It shows the need of depending on Jesus alone for salvation. A variation of this view also is related to the Mosaic Law, and is thus presented here. It sees the Sermon as presenting the righteousness needed to enter the kingdom which is being offered by Christ. As the Law was an exposition of the holiness of God, and what that demanded, so the Sermon on the Mount reveals the demands of a holy God.

Support of the view

One support for this view is an emphasis on 5:17-20 where Jesus talks about fulfilling the law and the prophets. Speaking in a legal setting, the effect of the Sermon would be the same as the effect of the law—no one can be justified by it and must find another means of justification (cf., Gal. 3:24).

A second foundation of this view is the fact that Jesus told His hearers that their righteousness had to surpass that of the Pharisees (5:20, 43).

A third reason this approach is taken is the belief that the primary audience is the unbelieving multitude. It is pointed out by the supporters of this view that the text states the multitudes were present as Jesus began and closed the Sermon (5:1; 7:28). In addition, Luke notes that “a great throng of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon” were present (Luke 6:17). Finally, the invitation of Matthew 7:13, the warning of judgment in Matthew 7:21-23, and the parable of the two foundations in Matthew 7:24-27 must be directed to unbelievers.

Weaknesses of the view

The first problem with this position is that Matthew does not picture the Pharisees as the most righteous people of their day. Rather, he pictures them as hypocritical (Matt. 6, 23). It is doubtful that only Jesus noticed their pretentious lives. This is seen by the objurgation of them by John the Baptist (Matt. 3:7-12).

Another obstacle in this view is that Jesus did not identify his coming simply with the Mosaic Law, but with the whole Old Testament (Matt. 5:17). Thus his demands in the Sermon fulfilled those of the Old Testament. He was asking for obedience to the revealed will of God just as the prophets had done

A third weakness has to do with the audience referent. While unbelievers were certainly present, and perhaps addressed at times by Christ, the internal evidence of his words shows them to be primarily applicable to believers (e.g., Matt. 5:13, 14, 16; 6:9, 32). Also, both Matthew and Luke identify them as the primary audience (Matt. 5:1; Luke 6:20).

A fourth problem has to do with the law/grace distinction as discussed under the millennial view. The reader is referred to that section.

 

Interim Ethic View

Statement of the view

This approach views the Sermon as an ethic for the time preliminary to the establishment of the kingdom. This idea, called Intermsethik, was proposed by Albert Schweitzer. He viewed the kingdom as entirely eschatological which would be brought about by a catastrophic irruption of God into the world. Since Jesus’ preaching occurred before this event, the Discourse was to be in force until that time.

A parallel to this idea can be seen in the special laws that go into effect during a time of war. The disciples were soldiers awaiting the kingdom. They were to conduct themselves by these stringent measures until the kingdom came, and the interim period was over. The kingdom did not come, however, and apparently Jesus died in despair and disillusionment. Such to Schweitzer was “the historical Jesus”—a deluded first-century apocalyptist. Consequently, the Sermon has little relevance to the contemporary Christian. While obviously dispensationalists who hold this view (e.g., Toussaint)[10] would reject Schweitzer’s conclusion, the concept of an ethic for an interim period remains attractive.

Support of the view

Part of the appeal in this view is the avoidance of the problems associated with the millennial view (e.g., incongruities between the Sermon and kingdom, the Sermon as a ground for admission into the kingdom, the identity of the Law, the anticipatory nature of the Sermon, etc.). Another support is the utilization of the grammatico-historical method of interpretation. It connects the Sermon with the offer of the kingdom.

Second, the message of the kingdom is anticipatory, noting a time lapse before the establishment of the kingdom. It looks forward to people entering the kingdom (5:20; 7:21); and it speaks of future rewards (5:12; 6:1, 2, 4, 5).

A third strength is that it identifies the audience as disciples. They are called salt (Matt. 5:13), admonished in righteousness (Matt. 5:19-7:12), and God is called their Father (Matt. 5:16, 19, 46; 6:1, 2, 5).

Weaknesses of the view

Despite the strengths of this view, there remain some serious problems. The first has to do with the termination of the interim period. If it ends when Jesus is rejected by the religious leaders in Matthew 12, then one is forced to conclude that the Sermon has no bearing on the Church today. Thus, the ethic was only in force for a few years, and the interpreter ends up with the same conclusion as the “millennialist.” If, on the other hand, the interim period ends when Christ does set up the kingdom, then the Sermon is in force today. There is a great deal of ambiguity when it comes to answering this question. Does the interim period end with the rejection of Christ in Matthew 12, or when Christ inaugurates the kingdom?

A second problem arises with the question—why would Jesus change the Law? Were not the moral principles God revealed in the Old Testament appropriate for all times?

A final objection to this approach is that the material in the Sermon cannot be shown to be different from the ethics of the Old Testament. In fact, just the opposite is true. Friedlander, in his classic work, The Jewish Sources of the Sermon on the Mount, suggests that all the material in the Sermon has its roots in early Jewish literature. In addition, parallels are also presented for the rest of the Sermon. While the dispensationalist would not reach the Friedlander’s ultimate conclusion, namely, that since Jesus’ teaching is not unique it can be ignored, nevertheless, it does show that much of what Jesus taught is grounded in the Old Testament.

Hence, it becomes clear the words of the entire Sermon were not a new and special ethic for an interim period. Rather, they were the same moral principles which God has desired from His people for a long, long time.

 

The Discipleship Ethic View

Statement of the view

It has been seen thus far, that the millennial approach teaches that the primary application of the Sermon on the Mount is the future kingdom age, and thus today enjoys only a secondary application. Likewise, the interim ethic view would also consider the Sermon to have a secondary application to the present. The believer’s ethic view, however, affirms the Discourse to be categorically for today, as well as for any dispensation.

Support of the view

In enumerating the various supports for this position, there naturally will be a small amount of overlap from some of the other sections. In such cases, no elaboration will be given. The following points are offered in support of the discipleship ethic view.

First, the Gospel of Matthew is interested primarily in the teaching aspects of Jesus’ ministry. This is evident from the material Matthew includes. It has been observed already that this bulk of material has been arranged in five great discourse sections. This is very significant in light of Jesus’ words in 28:20 where He commands the disciples “to teach them all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” For the original readers of the gospel, the “all things” would have included these five great discourses.

Second, nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus abolish the words of the Sermon from being binding in the lives of His disciples.

Third, the Sermon’s applicability in Luke 6 (generally considered to be a condensation of the same message) is not tied to the kingdom-offer setting.

Fourth, the Sermon on the Mount had great influence on later New Testament thought. There is a plethora of references to this in the writings of Paul (e.g., Rom. 6:13; 12:14; Gal. 5:19, 22; 1 Cor. 7:10, 11). James (e.g., 1:2, 12, 26; 2:8, 12, 13; 5:12), and Peter (e.g., 1 Pet. 2:12)

Fifth, it would appear that if the precepts of the sermon do not bind us, then we are not a part of the kingdom of which it speaks. For, if the characterizations of it do not apply to us, then neither would the penalties or rewards

Sixth, as was previously observed, the Beatitudes, as the rest of the Sermon on the Mount contain nothing that was either entirely new or unknown, but based on passages of the Old Testament. Thus, even though the words were spoken when the kingdom was being offered, they maintain their validity.

Seventh, the eschatological and non-eschatological sections of the sermon argue that the ethic is for the present, while the blessings will be realized in the future (5:5, 10; 6:10; 7:21).

Eschatological Categories of the Sermon[11]

Explicit Eschatology

Possible Eschatology

No Eschatology

5:3-12 Beatitudes
5:13-16 Salt, Light
5:17-20 The Old Law
5:21-26 Murder
5:27-30 Adultery
5:31-32 Divorce
5:33-37 Swearing
5:38-42 Retaliation
5:43-48 Love of enemies
6:1-4 Almsgiving
6:5-8 Prayer
6:9-15 Lord’s Prayer
6:16-18 Fasting
6:19-21 Treasures
6:22 The sound eye
6:24 Two masters
6:25-32, 34 Anxiety
6:33 Seek the Kingdom
7:1-2 Judging
7:3-5 Beam and mote
7:6 Profaning the holy
7:7-11 Asking
7:12 Golden rule
7:13-14 The narrow gate
7:15-20 False prophets
7:21-23 Lord…Lord
7:24-27 The two houses

 

 

Eighth, it is true that Jesus spoke these words while the people were still under the time frame of the Law. Nevertheless, Matthew recorded them during the age of the church as a teaching tool for church people.

Ninth, true disciples were the primary audience for Jesus’ teaching.

Tenth, this view sees the historical context as being in a time which anticipates the prophesied kingdom. While the present day context is not exactly the same, it is true that believers today anticipate the same kingdom, and should behave in the same manner. In fact, it could be successfully argued that the invitation at the end of the sermon regarding the narrow road is not an invitation to salvation as it is often presented, but rather, an invitation to Jesus’ disciples to embrace the ethic he has expounded. This makes much more sense in light of the fact that the bulk of the sermon is on righteous living and not on the Gospel message.



[1] Robert Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding (Waco: Word Books, 1982), 18.

[2] D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 1:14-15.

[3] D.A. Carson, The Sermon on the Mount: An Evangelical Exposition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 155-156.

[4] See for example E. W. Bullinger, “Matthew,” in The Companion Bible (London: Oxford University Press, n.d.), 1:1316.

[5] C. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 2007), 114; Donald K. Campbell, “Interpretation and Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount” (ThD diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1953), 49.

[6] The Scofield Reference Bible, 999-1000; The New Scofield Reference Bible, 997; Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947-1948), 5:97.

[7] In addition to the quotes from Guelich, Lloyd-Jones, and Carson, see also Carl F. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 292; T. A. Hegre, The Cross and Sanctification (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1960), 6; C. Norman Kraus, Dispensationalism in America (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1958), 13; G. T. Burke, “Sermon on the Mount,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 1006; Robert Govett, The Sermon on the Mount (Miami Springs, FL: Conley & Schoettle, 1984), iii; George Ladd, Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 104; A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 123; Harvey McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount (NY: Harper & Row, 1960), 69.

[8] One example is Dwight Pentecost who taught during the “golden age” of normative dispensationalism (and continues to do so today). Though not taking the Kingdom View, he wrote that “while we recognize that the Sermon on the Mount in its historical setting was Christ’s instruction to the generation to which he was offering Himself as Saviour and Sovereign, we realize that it has a present-day application….it becomes a guide as to demands that God’s holiness makes upon believers today” (The Sermon on the Mount: Contemporary Insights for a Christian Lifestyle [Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980], 16-17).

[9] Some representatives include Chafer, Gaebelein, Kelly, Pettingill, Ryrie, Scofield, and Campbell.

[10] “Those who come to the Sermon on the Mount with the interim interpretation see in it an ethic for the time preliminary to the establishment of the kingdom” (Stanley Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew [Portland: Multnomah Press, 1981], 91).

[11] These categories are borrowed from Harvey McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount, 90-91.While some of the examples in the various categories may be debatable, the point remains that the Sermon contains a mixture of eschatology and no eschatology.