I mentioned in a previous post that Charles Quarles’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount is my favorite resource on this portion of God’s Word. It was one of the first commentaries I consulted on a weekly basis in preparing to preach through the Sermon in my local church. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Quarles about his commentary and the Sermon on the Mount in general. Below you will see the questions I posed to him followed by his answers.
Dr. Quarles is professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. I appreciate his willingness to dialogue with me on this, and am grateful that he’s produced such a helpful resource for pastors and other students of the Bible.
How did you come to have such an interest in the Sermon on the Mount?
One of the themes of my ministry is 2 Timothy 2:15. I believe that every preacher and teacher of the Holy Scriptures will one day stand before the Lord and give an account for the way in which he has handled His word. Correct biblical interpretation matters and it matters greatly. After concentrated study on the Sermon on the Mount for several years, I concluded that most resources jumped straight to application of the Sermon’s teachings without properly wrestling first with the proper interpretation of the Sermon. My own study led me to believe that some of the interpretations that many take for granted are actually incorrect.
These are the words of our Savior, the Immanuel. We must never twist them or distort them. We should give our best efforts to interpreting them correctly and avoid putting our own words into Jesus’ mouth.
Do you see any common patterns of misinterpreting the Sermon on the Mount among preachers, teachers, and scholars? What are some keys to interpreting the Sermon faithfully?
Absolutely. The section on the history of interpretation highlights several of these patterns. Some interpreters dismiss the relevance of the Sermon on the Mount by arguing that it belonged to the old covenant era and was abrogated through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Others insist that it is the ethic of the millennial reign and is impractical in the present age. Many use it merely to prove that human beings cannot possibly live up to God’s righteous demands and illustrate that salvation must be by grace rather than by works. Still others interpret the Sermon on the Mount in such a way that living in accordance with it would require Christians to withdraw from society. In one way or another, all of these interpretations miss the point.
The Sermon on the Mount describes that extraordinary righteousness that will characterize Jesus’ disciples because of the dramatic change produced in us through the gospel. Matthew’s Gospel explains that Jesus performs the baptism of the Spirit and that Jesus’ death initiated the new covenant described by Moses, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in which God transforms the heart of His people by the power of the Holy Spirit. Understanding the promises of the new covenant and the miracle of new creation is absolutely critical to the proper interpretation of the Sermon.
Besides the fact that it’s Scripture, why do you think the Sermon on the Mount has held such a special place in the life of the church through history?
The Sermon on the Mount is the most extensive description of the righteousness that should characterize His disciples and the richest exposition of the Christian ethic in all of Scripture. Any who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” will be drawn to these words of our Savior.
As I studied and preached through the Sermon on the Mount recently, I found it to be very convicting for me, especially in certain areas. In what ways has the Sermon challenged you personally?
I was very tempted to skip this question, because a candid reply is deeply personal. But you have every right to pose the question and I sense an obligation to answer. I concluded the Preface with this statement:
I covet each reader’s prayer for my own growth in godliness. For I recognize that if my life is not as apt a commentary on Jesus’ sermon as this book, I have failed to hear the true voice of the Teacher on the mountain and this book is an expression of the hypocrisy that Jesus so despised. May Christ grant to us a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees and mirrors that of the Father’s own heart.”
Thus it is fully appropriate for every reader to seek to ensure that I continue to strive to apply the Sermon to my own life.
In recent years, I have been most challenged by the Sermon’s teaching regarding integrity, anxiety, and love for one’s enemies. Principles of integrity in the Sermon on the Mount prompted me to challenge unethical behavior in a Christian organization that I served. The challenge was brushed aside by the organization and I was ultimately forced into a change of jobs, a drastic reduction in income, and a move far from the church that we loved, far from two of our children, and far from my father who was dying of cancer. Leaders of the organization publicly made all sorts of false accusations that could have badly tarnished my testimony and greatly harmed my ministry. I confess that, at moments, I panicked. Yet Jesus’ teaching regarding worry, the proper priorities of a disciple, and the Father’s care convicted me and comforted me. His assurance that the Father sees what occurs in secret helped sustain me and reminded me to focus on pleasing Him without concern for my public image. Now, as I struggle to discern how to respond to those responsible, Jesus’ teaching about love for our enemies is particularly challenging. I find myself reflecting on Matthew 5:43-48 just about every day.
What are the top resources you would recommend for those wanting to study the Sermon on the Mount in depth?
My commentary focuses mainly on the proper interpretation of the Sermon. Other books on the Sermon focus more on the practical application of the Sermon and will be helpful supplements. I’d recommend the treatments of the Sermon by D. A. Carson, John Stott, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Even more importantly, I would urge students of the Sermon to do an in-depth study of Matthew’s theology as a whole. I briefly introduced key theological concepts in Matthew in the introduction to the commentary in order to lay a foundation for correctly interpreting and applying the Sermon. I explain these concepts much more fully in A Theology of Matthew: Jesus Revealed as Deliverer, King, and Incarnate Creator (Explorations in Biblical Theology 11; P&R, 2013).
Do you have any advice for pastors who are thinking about preaching a series through the Sermon on the Mount?
Make sure that you lay a strong theological foundation for the proper interpretation and application of the Sermon on the Mount. Many people who have attended church for years do not understand that the gospel promises not only the forgiveness of sins but the radical transformation of the sinner. Without understanding this dramatic change produced by the Holy Spirit, the Sermon on the Mount will be dismissed as an impractical ethic. The Sermon on the Mount insists that Jesus’ disciples are sons and daughters of God. The Sermon on the Mount shows that this does not merely mean that we have entered into a new relationship with God, but that we will also bear a new resemblance to God. As God’s sons and daughters, we will resemble the heavenly Father in our character fulfilling the adage “like father, like son.” The righteousness of the Christian disciple surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees because their righteousness focused on obeying the commandments of God in their own strength. Our righteousness focuses on expressing the character of God by the Spirit’s power. Apart from these fundamental Gospel truths, the Sermon will be misinterpreted and we are likely to view it only with a sense of complete hopelessness.