The Sermon on the Mount,  a traditional outline

This outline is fairly typical of those found in many commentaries. It approaches the Sermon on the Mount as encouragement, principles for moral living and guidelines on holiness, and places more emphasis on the format of the words, than the topics they address. As this site adopts an alternate outline based on the Ten Commandments, the two approaches are contrasted in the text. They are not mutually exclusive, as the Sermon appears to contain both stylistic structures and thematic structures, the former overlaying the latter, but with each contributing to the text’s meaning.

Matthew 5:1-12 - The Beatitudes, Jesus encourages his followers

An introductory narrative precedes The Beatitudes and a few reflections on persecution follow them. The section between is commonly treated as eight distinct beatitudes, but some prefer to considers Matt 5:3-9 as seven beatitudes and Matt 5:10 as a summary of all seven.

Matthew 5:13-16 - Christian witness

Matthew 5:13-16 is traditionally considered as encouragements to witness, whilst Matt 5:17-20 is seen as addressing the issue of the Mosaic Law. On one level this is a quite reasonable conclusion, but it is equally possible to consider Matt 5:13-20 as a single block of teaching inspired by the fifth of the Ten Commandments, with its underlying theme being that keeping the command to honour your father and mother involves accepting the wisdom of your Heavenly Father. 

Matthew 5:17-20 - Attitudes to the law

This section is traditionally seen as comments on the nature of divine law and Jesus' relationship to it, and intended as an introduction to the antitheses. An alternative approach is to recognise that fulfilling the law relates to honouring your (Heavenly) father and therefore to the fifth of the Ten Commandments, an approach suggested by the antitheses that follow.

Matthew 5:17-48 - The Antitheses, interpreting the moral law

Most interpreters consider that the six antitheses, with their repetitive refrain of “You have heard it said” and “but I tell you”, comprise a logical unit of teaching on Old Testament law.

An alternative approach is to recognise that, just as the first two relate to the Ten Commandments, so the remainder do as well, just as anyone listening to a Rabbi might have expected. In which case:

Matthew 6:1-34 - Guidance on holy living

These verses are traditionally interpreted as a series of individual commands aimed at encouraging a holy lifestyle. However, the main commentary proposes that Jesus teaching on hypocrisy (including the Lord's Prayer) is a continuation of his teaching on the ninth commandment (false witness) and that the remainder of this section, with its consistent emphasis on wealth, therefore relates to the tenth commandment (not to covet).

Matthew 7:1-6 - Attitudes to others

The customary approach is to interpret these as stand alone comments on judging others and the exercise of wisdom in presenting truth to others. An alternate approach is to assume that the Golden Rule (Matt 7:12), a typical rabbinical preacher’s concluding summary, is in its original position. That being the case, these verses must be a continuation of the teaching on possessions found in Chapter 6.

Matthew 7:7-7:29 - Personal application

The remainder of Jesus' teaching is generally seen as a collection of sayings concerning the personal application of spiritual truth. However, Matt 7:7-11 may also be viewed as the conclusion of teaching on possessions (i.e. the tenth commandment), leaving the Golden Rule to serve as a typical Rabbinic summary, which is then followed by some concluding thoughts on how to choose the right way.

The purpose of the structure

It is worth noting that the strongly stylised elements that comprise the Beatitudes and the Antitheses may be formulated that way to act as a contrast to one another, a series of seven rewards for perseverance, contrasted to a series of six rebukes for misinterpreting the law, their numbers chosen to highlight the contrast between perfection (7) and imperfection (6). The placing of these sections serves to highlight the material between them, with its emphasis on the role of Jesus' disciples as custodians of the divine law.