Is there any framework for the structure of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 that we are aware of, or is it just a collected sermon, or portions of sermons from Jesus Christ's ministry on earth?

In my exegesis of this passage, I am struggling to find the common thread as to why the points Christ raises in the Sermon on the Mount are in the order they are, or even why they are all present in this one sermon. This is particularly puzzling for me, as the rest of Matthew is so well structured, especially in regards to Christ's fulfillment of old testament prophecy.

  • 1
    A good place to start your investigations in the SOM's structure is with Dale C. Anderson's article here: biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/jbl/1987_allison.pdf. Anderson takes on Gunther Bornkamm's theory on SOM's structure and exposes what seem to Anderson to be flaws in Bornkamm's explanation. Best wishes! Dec 9, 2015 at 16:20
  • I left a comment and it's not here -not sure if I didn't click right OR if it was erased. Can you be a little more clear about what you mean when you say "in regards to Christ's fulfillment of OT prophecy" -I'm trying to understand where you're coming from. Are you saying he didn't fulfill OT prophecy?
    – Daisy
    Apr 16, 2016 at 20:19

4 Answers 4


The Sermon on the Mount can be understood to be in three parts:

The "New Commandments" (Matthew 5:1-16)

  • First, the New Commandments - the Beatitudes - which set out the New Testament "law" of spiritual rebirth. Strictly speaking, although there are 9 Beatitudes ("Blessed are ..."; Mt 5:3-11), one can count ten teachings if the final verse, "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad ..." is included (Mt 5:12).

  • The teaching on the Salt and Light is a caution to the disciples that they must not only pass on the teaching He has just given them, but that they themselves must live an exemplary life. This is the meaning, for example, of "A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid" (Mt 5:14). One commentary (that of Byzantine Theophylact of Ohrid) explains:

He teaches them to struggle and to be strict in living a virtuous life, for they will be in view of all. Do not imagine, He says, that you will be hidden away in some corner, for you will be most visible. See to it, then, that you live blamelessly, lest you become a stumbling block for others.

(Theophylact's complete explanation of the Sermon on the Mount, written sometime in the 11th century, is available here).

Understanding the New in the context of the Old (Matthew 5:17-6:34)

  • Next he puts the New commandments into the context of the Old, teaching the disciples that He is supplementing and the fulfilling the Old Testament laws. He tells the Disciples that far from being more relaxed they must actually exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5:20). He explains to them that they will be held to a higher standard than these:
    Not only shall they not kill, they will not even be angry (Mt 5:21ff.); not only shall they not commit adultery, they will not even look at a woman with lust (Mt 5.27ff.); they will not be permitted to divorce their wives at will (Mt 5:31ff.); etc.

  • Having related specific points of the Old Law to the New, He teaches on the general need to strive for true righteousness, explaining how one must show mercy (Mt 6:1ff.), how one must pray and fast in a way pleasing to the Lord (Mt 6:5ff.), and how one must avoid attachment to the material things of the world (6:19ff).

Cautions (Matthew 7:1-7:27)

  • He then gives a caution to the disciples to safeguard what they just learned. Having received the teaching of Christ, they must be cautious in judging others (Mt 7:1ff.), to safeguard the teaching and be consistent (Mt 7:7ff).

  • He then gives the disciples final guidance that they must always strive to discern the correct path, even when faced with the trials of life (Mt 7:13ff).


I have taken the above framework largely from a pamphlet written several years ago by a Russian Orthodox missionary, Alexander Mileant.


Two points:

  1. The author you are referring to is Dale C. Allison (not Anderson).

  2. From a paper I did on Matthew 5.17-20:

Matthew 5.17-20 is found within the larger section of Matthew’s Gospel (chapters 5-7) traditionally known as “the Sermon on the Mount.”(2) The structure of Matthew 5-7 is relatively straight-forward:(3) A. 5.1-2: The multitudes gather B. 5.3-16: Introduction 1. Beatitudes (3-12) 2. Salt and light (13-16) C. 5.17-7.12: Central section D. 7.13-27: Epilogue E. 7.28-29: The multitudes amazed

The central section is bracketed by an inclusio that mentions “the law and the prophets” (Matthew 5.27; 7.12).

Dale Allison argues that this central section of the Sermon (5.17-7.12) can be outlined as providing teaching on the three issues of: (1) Jesus and the Torah (5.17-48), (2) the Christian cult (6.1-18), and (3) Social issues (6.19-7.12).(4)

Thus, Matthew 5.17-20 is the beginning of the sermon’s main section that focuses on the righteousness expected of a participant in the kingdom of God, as articulated by Jesus.


(2) “The term ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ goes back to the title Augustine gave to his important commentary on Matthew 5-7,De Sermone Domini in Monte, which was probably written between 392 and 396. In spite of Augustine’s enormous influence on many later Christian writers, Matthew 5-7 was not generally referred to as ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ until the sixteenth century.” G. N. Stanton, “Sermon on the Mount/Plain,” DJG, 736.

(3) The following is based on Stanton, “Sermon on the Mount/Plain,” 740 with a few additions.

(4) Dale C. Allison, Jr. “The Structure of the Sermon on the Mount,” Journal of Biblical Literature 106 (1987), 431-432. Allison goes on to note the similarity of this outline to Simeon the Just, a rabbi of the Maccabean period. “He is purported to have declared: ‘Upon three things the world standeth: upon Torah, upon Temple service and upon gemilut hasadim’ (m. ‘Abot 1.2). The two words left untranslated are usually rendered,‘deeds of loving-kindness.’ Judah Goldin, however, has persuasively argued that the phrase refers more precisely to any pious act of social or religious character… The first evangelist, one is tempted to conclude, arranged his discourse so as to create a Christian interpretation of the three classical pillars.” (p. 443)

Also, this comment by N.T. Wright may be helpful:

“It has, of course, been fashionable to split up the sermon (and it Lukan counterpart) into small pieces, to assign them to places all round the Mediterranean world and times all through the first century, and to credit the evangelists with complete originality in arranging or even inventing the material. I wish to question this current fashion.” N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1996), 287. Also see Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1987), 138-141.

  • Welcome to Stack Exchange, we are glad you are here. If you haven't done so already, you may want to read up on how this site is a little different than other sites around the web... This has the makings of a very good answer, but doesn't quite answer the question directly (no doubt due to you reusing material you wrote previously). Do you think you could tweak it a bit to make your answer clearer?
    – ThaddeusB
    Dec 18, 2015 at 0:29

The Audience
An important factor is recognizing the people present can be divided into two groups:

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. (Matthew 5:1) [ESV]

When Jesus looks at His audience, He sees those who are His disciples and those who are not. Then one should consider if some statements were addressed specifically to disciples. For example, the last "blessing" in the beginning is addressed to His disciples:

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (5:11)

Those present who were not a disciple hear the message and yet were in no danger of persecution "on my account."

On the other hand, the Sermon begins by addressing everyone in the audience:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:3)

The Beatitudes are delivered using the 3rd person "they" (αὐτός). Then Jesus shifts to the 2nd person "you" (σύ).1 At this point the audience knows He is no longer addressing everyone, rather He has singled out His disciples for next part of the Sermon.

In considering the entirety of the Sermon, this technique is two-fold. First, His disciples are told they have a higher obligation than simply to obey the Law (e.g. 5:21-30). Second, those who are not His disciples hear the cost and requirements of being a disciple (e.g. 5:11-16, 5:21-30) and the consequences of failing to become a disciple (e.g. 7:21-27).

Chiasms and Chiastic Structure

Chiastic structure, or chiastic pattern, is a literary technique in narrative motifs and other textual passages. An example of chiastic structure would be two ideas, A and B, together with variants A' and B', being presented as A,B,B',A'.2

Chiastic structures were commonly used in many ways during this time:

…the pattern is a widely employed pattern in the literature of antiquity. It is especially interesting to note the affinity of the structure of Rev. with that of a Greek drama... According to the compositional rules of tragedy, the climax falls near the center of the action, and the denouement comes near the end. The narrative poetry of republican Rome follows the same compositional rules. Students of the literature of Israel and Judaism have found the same structural pattern. The pattern is also present in the visual art of the time. Two examples appear to be especially interesting for the understanding of Rev. Two Roman coins of 35-36 C.E. bear images of the temples of Divus Augustus and Apollo. These temple images exhibit the balanced structure ABCDC'B'A'. 3

As this was a common device, the shift in pronouns at the beginning would create the expectation the same shift would be used at the ending, and that is exactly what happens:

Jesus begins by teaching:
A:  using the 3rd person (5:3-10) [to everyone]
B:  using the 2nd person (5:11-16) [to His disciples - present & future]

Jesus ends by teaching:
B': using the 2nd person (7:13-20) [to His disciples - present & future]
A': using the 3rd person (7:21-27) [to everyone]

Jesus concludes using the same technique. The audience not only knows the Sermon is coming to an end, they should connect the two pairs as shown above: those in the 2nd person (B, B') were addressed to His disciples and those in the 3rd person (A, A') to all people.

Thus the Beatitudes must be understood with 7:21-27 in view. Which is to say, none of those blessings spoken of in the beginning, however desirable, by themselves will ensure eternal life. One must also be His disciple or He will say to "them" He never knew "them;" "they" didn't build "their" house on His words. The implication of discipleship is in the background and creates a tension for those who are not: "Does this apply to me? Do I want to become a disciple?" On the other hand, those who are disciples "hear" an uninterrupted message which they know applies to them.

The Central Idea
When a chiastic structure includes a main point it is called a chiasm, which Brad McCoy defines as "the use of inverted parallelism of form and/or content which moves toward and away from a strategic central component."4 He explains:

…since chiasm involves the parallel inversion of corresponding components in a particular discourse, resulting in an overall structural balance revolving around the distinct central component of the overall unit, a recognition of chiastic structure leads the interpreter properly to appreciate the pivotal function and the emphatic importance of that central thought unit.5

Since there are pairs of supporting points, the central theme is not repeated. The consequence of this structure is to balance the central point between an equal number of supporting points:

A, B, etc ("before" supporting points)
  FSP:  Final supporting point "before"
     X: A unique topic - the central point
  FSP': First supporting point "after" (similar or antithetical to "FSP") 
A', B', etc ("after" and "repeated" supporting points)

The inverted structure ensures the first "repeated" supporting point is the closest to the central point. This allows a listener to understand the "second half" of the message with this point clearly in focus and to reconsider their initial assumptions and understanding of the "first half."

The Lord's Prayer
If the Sermon on the Mount was delivered using the a chiastic structure with a unique central point, the obvious candidate for the main theme is "The Lord's Prayer." In fact, the passages immediately before and after "The Lord's Prayer" display the characteristics of a chiastic structure:

5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6)

The "Lord's Prayer"

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses 16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Regardless of whether 6:7-8 and 6:14-15 are considered part of the central message, what is traditionally called "The Lord's Prayer" has been placed between a pair of supporting points: "...do not be like the hypocrites because "...your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

Here is one possible outline for the Sermon on the Mount:

A Blessed are those who live "above" the Law (5:3-10)
  B Disciples do good works despite persecution (5:11-16)
    C Jesus will fulfill the Law (5:17-20)
      D Greater righteous than the Law (5:21-48)
        E Acts of greater righteous (5:43-6:4)
          F Acting in greater righteousness in secret (6:5-8)
           X The Lord's Prayer (6:9-13)
          F’ Acting in greater righteousness in public (6:14-18)
        E' Rewards of greater righteousness (6:19-24)
      D' Living with greater righteous (6:25-7:11)
    C' How others are treated sums up the Law and the Prophets (7:12)
  B' All will be known by their deeds (7:13-20)
A' Blessed are those who act upon the Law Giver's words (7:21-27)

This outline explains why the points are in the order they are; it also helps to understand them. A chiastic structure which places the Lord's Prayer at the center of the Sermon on the Mount makes the will of the Father and the coming of His Kingdom a key theme. Thus, Jesus did not come to do away with the Law but to fulfill it by doing the Father's will, bringing the Kingdom to the earth. Also, for one to have greater righteousness than the Law (or the scribes and Pharisees), is the will of the Father, which the Law is only a partial expression. So, "do not murder..." falls short of the Father's will if one has hatred, even when there is no murder.

As chiastic structures were used both in oratory and written communication, there is no reason to assume Matthew patched together multiple teachings to make a single message. Rather, it is reasonable to conclude Jesus delivered a single message in the chiastic form recorded. While the central theme is bringing the Kingdom by doing the will of the Father, the role and question of discipleship permeates the Sermon.

The Kingdom and the Father's will are a type of inclusio to the Gospel:

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (4:17)

And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”...Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”...So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. (26:39, 42, 44)

And the ending makes explicit what was implied in the Sermon:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (28:19-20)

The question of discipleship in the background of the Sermon on the Mount becomes a direct command to His disciples.

1. The Received Text has ὑμᾶς, this variant is also in the 2nd person.
2. Chiastic structure
3. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment, Fortress Press, 1985, p. 176
4. Brad McCoy, Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature, Chafer Theological Seminary, 2003, Vol. 9 No. 2, p. 18
5. Ibid., p. 31


The following paragraph from Dale C. Allison's article, "The Structure of the Sermon on the Mount", Journal of Biblical Literature 106 (1987), 423-445, summarizes another theologian's (viz., Günther Bornkamm's) take on what the structure of the SOM is. Though Allison does not agree fully with him, Bornkamm's theory is as good a place to start as any.

In Bornkamm's judgment, 6:9-13, the Lord's Prayer, supplies the clue to the ordering of 6:19-7:12, for the latter is a sort of continuation of the former. Thus, 6:19-24 (on treasure in heaven, on the sound eye, and on God and mammon) emphasizes honoring God and putting him first, which corresponds to the three "Thou" petitions of the Pater Noster: "Hallowed be Thy name;' "Thy kingdom come;' "Thy will be done:' Furthermore, the contrast between "treasure in heaven'' and "treasure on earth'' (6:19, 20) may be intended to recall 6:10c, "on earth as it is in heaven'.' As for 6:25-34, which focuses on the day-to-day mater.ial needs of the disciples, it matches 6:ll, the petition for bread, while 7:1-5, a paragraph on judging others, lines up well with the prayer for forgiveness, 6:12. Finally, Bornkamm interprets the enigmatic 7:6 ("Do not give to dogs what is holy .. :')in terms of apostasy and thereby connects it with the conclusion of the Lord's Prayer, the request for deliverance from the evil one, 6:13. But what then of 7:7-ll (''.Ask and it will be given you .. :')?This section nicely follows 6:19-7:6 because with 7:6 the commentary on the Lord's Prayer is concluded, and this naturally leads to a unit of promises about God's hearing his children's prayers.

  • Thanks for the article. Anderson does a good summary and critique of Bornkamm's theory. The primary issue I have however is that Anderson's hypothesis assumes a post 70 AD date for Matthew. A common view, but to make his hypothesis feasible, you would need to assume that the Sermon on the Mount was an arrangement of some sayings of Jesus Christ, structured by Matthew, as opposed to a sermon of Jesus Christ's recalled by Matthew.
    – Peter
    Dec 15, 2015 at 7:47
  • 1
    @Peter: Forgive me for not reading the whole article. If I'd known Anderson fell into lockstep with the presuppositions of the higher (so-called) critics, I would've taken the time to flesh out Bornkamm's theory, which to me seems to have real possibilities. As you can tell, I am not in sympathy with the school of thought which derogates the very notion of the inspiration of Scripture and gets caught up in the minutiae of who wrote what and when and why and how (straining at a gnat, so to speak) but ignores the sacredness of holy writ. Dec 15, 2015 at 14:55
  • Oh, by the way, Matthew did not employ the word "sermon" in Matthew 5. As with most, if not all, chapter headings (themselves a construct, and not a part of the text of Scripture), they can at times be helpful and even informative, but they have been added to the text by people who were not inspired in the same way the actual authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The words Matthew uses to describe Jesus' words to his disciples are found in the infinitive "to teach" (5:2, "He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying . . . ). Don Dec 15, 2015 at 15:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.