Jesus preached the most memorable sermon ever preached.
What is the most memorable sermon you have ever heard? Think about it for just a minute. Who preached this message? How much do you recall specifically about what was said? Most sermons are made up of three main points and a conclusion. Do you remember any of the points or a main takeaway of the sermon that stands out most in your memory?
We churchgoing folk hear sermons on a weekly basis, and it’s often dolefully reflected how quickly the words of those sermons fade from our memories. One study suggests that a week after hearing a teaching, we retain only a dismal 10 percent of what we heard. But one sermon in particular defies these odds, persisting in our memories across not just a week, but hundreds of years. You probably know significant portions of it. In fact, you almost certainly have memorized several verses of it. But before we talk about that sermon, consider what makes any sermon memorable in the first place.
One Single, Seamless Message
The typical Sunday sermon involves not just the content of the message and the credibility of the messenger, but also the appeal of the messenger — an emotional appeal made through tone, volume, pacing of speech, and body language. We call this rhetorical tool pathos. The most memorable messages you have ever heard have probably stayed in your head not just for what they said but for how they were communicated.
Take, for example, John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech,” or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Much of the staying power of those sound bites has to do with the speaker’s pathos as much as the words — his or her physical presence, the air and tone of the individual.
Consider, then, how remarkable it is that a 12-minute sermon preached over 2,000 years ago has managed not just to have staying power among Christians, but to find its way into the everyday speech of Christians and non-Christians alike. I’m referring, of course, to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ longest recorded teaching found in Matthew 5–7.
Have you ever described someone as the salt of the earth? Have you ever been told to judge not, do unto others, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, or stay on the straight and narrow? Ever heard the expression, “That guy is so generous, he would give you the shirt off his back”? Or the expression, “I’m not one to toot my own horn”? Ever been advised not to throw your pearls before swine? Ever used #Blessed in a social media post? Then your thoughts and words have been shaped by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Have you ever performed hand motions to the songs “This Little Light of Mine” or “The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock”? Ever corporately recited The Lord’s Prayer? Ever coached yourself that tomorrow will take care of itself? Ever reminded yourself to ask, seek, and knock, or to take the log out of your eye? Then you’ve drawn wisdom, encouragement, or instruction from the most memorable sermon ever preached.
A quick skim through the Sermon on the Mount reveals that it contains many of the most well known, most oft-repeated passages in all the Gospels. I would wager that you’re familiar with every single part of it. But are you familiar with all of it as one single, seamless message, with a beginning, a middle, and an end? Do you know how each individual part contributes to the overall message Jesus delivered to His disciples as He sat on a Galilean hillside? Its order isn’t haphazard. The sermon’s structure adds to both its beauty and its staying power. As the late theologian John Stott noted, Jesus preaches the substance of a disciple’s character, influence, righteousness, piety, ambition, relationships, and commitment.
But unlike the words of JFK or MLK, all of the words of Jesus come to our modern ears with no pathos. Anyone who wasn’t present to hear the sermon preached has no idea how it fell upon the ear or landed on the eye. Where did Jesus’ voice rise and fall? Where did He pause and linger on a phrase? What was the expression on His face? How did He gesture with His hands? Was His tone warm or stern? While we might infer some of these things simply from the content of different parts of the sermon, the reality is that we can’t know. But the more startling realization is that we don’t need to. The words themselves, well-ordered and well-articulated, carry the impact necessary to etch the sermon into our understanding.
But don’t judge your pastor too harshly if his sermons don’t stick as well as this one has. These are eternal words, spoken by the God-man Himself. It’s understandable if your pastor’s sermons aren’t as memorable. This sermon is the utterance of God on a mountaintop, given with all the same authority and power as when God thundered on Mount Sinai in Exodus 19–20, but with some critical differences. When God spoke at Sinai, the people stood far off and trembled. When God speaks at an unnamed mountaintop in Galilee, the people draw near and sit at His feet. At Sinai, God spoke in wind and fire. In Galilee, God speaks in a still, small voice. At both mountains, the law is expounded, but in Galilee the true and better Moses delineates what it means to have the law written not on Sinai’s stone tablets, but on hearts of flesh.
The Sermon on the Mount is many things, but it’s certainly an invitation to the glories of the new covenant. It invites all who hear to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn what discipleship asks of us, as well as what it gives. And it is an invitation to take what we learn and turn it to action.
At the conclusion of the sermon, Matthew records that “the crowds were astonished at his teaching” (Matt. 7:28). And His teaching still astonishes to this day. Twelve minutes of preaching, still speaking truth over 2,000 years later. Truly, “the grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever” (Isa. 40:8).
Sermon on the Mount Bible Study by Jen Wilkin
In His sweeping depiction of kingdom citizenship, Jesus utters some of the most familiar passages in all of Scripture. Most of us have only encountered the Sermon on the Mount in fragments, considering its subdivisions as complete teachings in their own right—a study on blessedness; a reflection on the Lord’s Prayer; a discussion of religious devotion, money, ambition, and relationships.
What if we navigated these three chapters in Matthew as they were originally heard? What if we read them as one cohesive, well-ordered message, intended to challenge us to think differently about what it means to be a follower of Jesus?
This 9-session study will give you the opportunity to do just that. Come and learn from Jesus, just as His disciples did. First released in 2014, this study is now updated with new teaching videos from Jen Wilkin.
This article originally appeared in HomeLife Magazine.