From an essay entitled “Hungering and thirsting after righteousness” by the late Princeton Seminary theologian Geerhardus Vos:
The Sermon on the Mount is rightly accorded a chief place in the teaching of our Lord. It carries a weight of authority, sets an ethical standard, and reveals heights and depths of the religious life nowhere surpassed in the gospels. The evangelists in recording it seem to have been aware of this. Matthew does not, as on other occasions, introduce the discourse with the conventional phrase “Jesus said,” but with the quite solemn statement “And he opened his mouth”—thus giving us to understand that the utterance of these words was to Jesus’ own mind an act to which he deliberately proceeded. And Luke conveys somewhat of the same impression by the introductory statement, “And he lifted up his eyes on the disciples and said.” Jesus never spoke without a clear sense of the consequences with which his words were fraught. And blessed is the preacher of whom it can be truly said that ministering the Word of God is to him an holy task. But, while the sense of this was always present with our Lord, it was heightened on this occasion. This was the first time that he set himself to teach his disciples. Here he assumes that peculiar ministry of breaking the bread of life for his own, which he has ever since unceasingly performed through the ages, and even now performs for us, as in these moments we gather round his feet to receive his teaching. In fact it is here for the first time that the term “disciples” occurs in Matthew’s gospel. Hence also the statement that our Lord “sat down,” and, having made the disciples draw near, so taught them. The sitting posture, with the hearers standing around, was characteristic of the relation between teacher and pupils, in distinction from the standing position, marking the prophet or gospel-herald.
The Epitome of Christianity?
To note these details of description is not of merely historical interest, but also of practical religious importance, because it may warn us at the outset against a view all too commonly prevailing concerning the purpose of this “Sermon on the Mount.” The sermon is often represented as a succinct summary of Jesus’ message. It passes for an epitome of Christianity, the teststone of what is essential to our religion. All that is not here, we are told, can without detriment be neglected. Every later type of Christian life and teaching is to be judged, not by the standard of Scripture as a whole, nor even by the authority of the words of Christ as a whole, but by the content of this one discourse. This deplorable error is due to more than one cause. The beauty and glory of truth concentrated here may easily beget a feeling that all else in the New Testament is in comparison of minor value.
A second motive coming into play is that many people in the matter of religious belief wholly abandon themselves to their ungoverned tastes and feelings. They scorn every hard and fast rule of faith and practice. Even submission to the indiscriminate teaching of Jesus they find distasteful. At the same time, unwilling to appear entirely emancipated from all historical bonds of faith, they fall back upon some choice portion of the gospel, preferably the Sermon on the Mount, and cling to it as to the last remaining shreds of the garment of creed, barely sufficient to cover the nakedness of their subjectivity. It is thus that the Sermon on the Mount has become the creed of the creedless.
The Natural Man Flattered
But by far the most influential force driving people to such a view comes from the flattery it supplies to the natural man. It flatters him by taking for granted that he needs no more than the presentation of this high ideal, and that Jesus does him the honor of thinking him capable of realizing it by his own natural goodness. And, last of all, it is not so much what people find in the Sermon on the Mount, it is what they congratulate themselves upon not finding there that renders them thus enamored of its excellence. It is because they dislike the story of the helplessness of sin, of man’s utter condemnation in the sight of God, and the insistence upon the necessity of the cross—it is because of all this that they evince such eagerness to adopt as their exclusive creed a portion of the gospel from which in their opinion these offensive things are absent.
Salvation Before Discipleship
Now all such forget that both Jesus and the evangelist expressly relate the Sermon on the Mount to the disciples, and consequently place back of what is described in it the process of becoming a disciple, the whole rich relationship of saving approach and responsive faith, of calling and repentance and pardon and acceptance and the following of Jesus—all that makes the men and women of the gospel such disciples and Jesus such a Lord and Savior as this and other records of his teaching imply. It is therefore folly to insist that no specific doctrine of salvation is here. It is present as a living doctrine incarnate in the person of Jesus.
We are apt to forget that in the days of our Lord’s flesh there was no need for that explicit teaching about the Christ found in the epistles of the New Testament. At that time he, the real Christ, walked among men and exhibited in his intercourse with sinners more impressively than any abstract doctrine could have done the principles and the process of salvation. If we have but eyes to see, we shall find our Savior in the out-door scenes of the gospels no less than within the walls of the school of the epistle to the Romans. And we shall find him too in the Sermon on the Mount. For this discourse throughout presupposes that the disciples here instructed became associated with Jesus as sinners needing salvation, and that their whole life in continuance is lived on the basis of grace. At the beginning stand the beatitudes, engraven in golden script upon its portal, reminding us that we are not received by Jesus into a school of ethics but into a kingdom of redemption. It is blessedness that is promised here, and the word does not so much signify a state of mind, as that great realm of consummation and satisfaction which renders man’s existence, once he has entered into it, serene and secure for evermore.
Dependence on Grace
And again, foremost among the beatitudes stand those that emphasize the emptiness, the absolute dependence of man upon divine grace. As at the dawn of the gospel, Mary sang: “He has put down princes from their thrones, and has exalted them of low degree; the hungry he has filled with good things and the rich he has sent empty away” (Lk. 1:52, 53), so here those pronounced blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, and they that hunger and thirst after righteousness. It is in no wise to the self-satisfied mind that the Lord addresses himself. His call is not a call to exertion, not even to exertion in holiness. It were too little to say that it is an invitation to receive; it goes farther than that. It amounts to the declaration that the consciousness of having nothing, absolutely nothing, is the certain pledge of untold enrichment.
So much is salvation a matter of giving on God’s part that its best subjects are those in whom his grace of giving can have this perfect work. The poor in spirit, those that mourn, the meek and the hungry, these are made to pass before our eyes as so many typical forms of its embodiment. And because this is so, they are here also introduced as having the promise of the infinite. To be a child of God and a disciple of Jesus means to hold in one’s hand the treasures of eternity. Look for a moment at the second clauses of these beatitudes. Some of the things spoken of may, in a relative sense, be obtained in the present life. Comfort and mercy and the vision of God and sonship are bestowed during our pilgrimage on earth. As a matter of fact, however, these things are here held in prospect not in relative but in absolute measure. In the consummate life only can it become true that the meek inherit the earth, that the eyes of the pure behold the beatific vision of God, that the hungry and thirsty are satisfied with righteousness. This absolute character of the promise writes the principle of redemption large on the face of the Sermon on the Mount. To join together after this manner creature-emptiness and the riches of divine benediction is the prerogative of God the Savior. So long as this voice of the beatitudes is distinctly heard, it will not be possible to find any other religion here than that religion of salvation through the grace of God in Christ.
The rest of the essay can be read here.