This exposition of the Sermon on the Mount was originally published under the title “Christian Counter-Culture”, before being added to the Bible Speaks Today series some years later. Although it only covers three chapters of Matthew, it is a worthy addition to the series, and allows the Sermon to be covered in much more depth than would otherwise be possible. The extra space however, is not devoted to surveys of the various theories about how the sermon came to be in the form it is, but the focus is always kept on practical application for today’s Christians.
While the book doesn’t strictly speaking have an introduction, the opening section on 5:1,2 effectively functions as one. Stott claims that the world is seeking for a counter-culture – a different, and better way to live, but have looked at the church and found confusion instead. He sees the sermon as a call to Christians to demonstrate a genuinely different way of life. He defends the sermon against criticism that it is inauthentic, irrelevant or unattainable. He also argues that it is not a gospel of righteousness by works, but it is a new law that leads us to Christ and shows us how to please God.
The beatitudes are set out as graces that all Christians need to manifest, and from the following verses he argues for Christians to be an influence for good in society. He sees Jesus’ antitheses as correcting distortions of the Mosaic law, to show that Christian righteousness is deeper than mere outward conformance to law.
Stott is careful not to make legalistic prescriptions about how the sermon should be applied, but still is willing to discuss many specific contemporary issues (e.g. pornography). His handling of the subject of divorce is gentle, and he includes an extended discussion of whether the non-retaliatory command should relate to the law courts. Basically, he tries to pick up on those verses which typical Christian readers might have questions about and works through the issues. As such it makes it a valuable resource for those who are studying or teaching their way through the sermon in a small group setting.
The first half of the sermon contains much material related to a Christian’s righteousness, while the second deals with prayer and Christian relationships. The sermon is broken down into 12 sections, and although he sometimes may be trying to be too neat with the structure he finds, it is a helpful way to organise the material.
There is not a great deal of discussion of how the sermon might have been heard by its original audience, and the political implications it would have had. He does however emphasise the multi-faceted “authority” of Jesus seen in the sermon, especially in the way he speaks of himself.
John Stott is convinced that the Sermon on the Mount is highly relevant teaching for today’s Christians. His practical focus throughout will mean that everyone will find something to challenge and inspire them. Reading through it should not prove difficult thanks to Stott’s good writing skills and devotional warmth. It will also serve as a good companion to any introductory commentary on Matthew, which will not typically be able to afford so much space to the sermon.