Of all the rules and regulations designed to shepherd writers into coherency, “know your audience” is perhaps the most paramount. An essay may be expertly researched, a song beautifully scored, and a movie stunningly edited, but if the final product is not conscious of its audience, the message will, at best, fall on deaf ears. At worst, it will inspire confusion instead of conviction, outrage instead of enlightenment, and animosity where there ought to be self-betterment. A word, ill-spoken, leaves an audience in a worse state than when they began, and the ignorant author may find that they have converted proselytes into enemies.
For a conscientious student, the inverse is also true. If we fail to acknowledge the author’s original audience and have no respect for the nuance of his culture and time, we are often in danger of grossly misrepresenting his intent. As decorated historian Bernard Bailyn laments, “It is one of the central problems in the contemporary practice of history […] It is the problem of recovering the contexts in which events take place: the settings, the unspoken assumptions, the perceptual universes of the participants which shape the meaning of events for those who experience them.” (Baylin 22) Just as a gifted writer must expend great effort to cater to his audience, so a wise student must take equal care to rediscover that audience and approach the author’s work in its natural habitat, to the best of their ability.
Nowhere is the importance of this process more prominent than in the study of the Bible. It is a great irony that pastors preach incessantly trying to convince lost souls that, yes, God wants to talk to them, only to have to advise the newly saved that, no, better portions of the Bible were not written to them or about them. For a religion that finds its worth in a personal relationship with its deity, Christianity’s deepest pitfall is often erroneously interpreting the Bible in a modern, Westernized context. The Bible, in spite of its inspiration, still maintains its status as a historical document. It was written by ancient Mediterranean Jews, marred by a culture and religion most foreign to us, and only by acknowledging this disparity can we truly understand the words of our Lord.
The oft-quoted “Sermon on the Mount,” recorded most completely in Matthew 5-7, is a prime example of the necessity of this careful study. Employed in everything from great sermons to refrigerator magnets, phrases from Jesus’ most famous speech are oft used and widely misunderstood. 5:3 becomes the campaign slogan of those equating poverty with holiness. 5:32 is shackled to women suffering abuse, as if the verse were legitimizing toxic patriarchy. Denominations rise and fall over observance of 5:38-42; churches heeding 6:1-4 prohibit the passing of the offering plate; and warring factions of the Internet unilaterally silence each other with 7:1. All of these are abuses of Jesus’ righteous intent, and all could be clarified with a voyage into the cultural context of His words.
But while many sermons have been preached on the nuances of each individual verse, all is for naught if we overlook the broader issue: To whom was the original Sermon on the Mount given? We must remember that Jesus was not writing a collection of proverbs. This was not an epistle, intended for broad distribution through the network of churches. Rather, Jesus orated this sermon in person, at a specific point in time, to a specific group of people:
“One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, and he began to teach them.” (Matthew 5:1-2 NLT)
Instead of dictating a list of anecdotes to guide life in the church, as many preachers interpret the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was teaching His disciples specific guidelines for their impending ministry (Matthew 10). In so doing, He was providing an elaborate description of the status quo in the Kingdom of God, heralding the spiritual change He was about to bring. And in the meantime, the eavesdropping crowds were given a taste of the rewards and requirements that would befall them if they chose to follow Jesus (7:28-29).
What does this mean for us, as modern students of His word? It means, first and foremost, that we cannot approach the Sermon on the Mount the same way we digest Paul’s writings. Jesus had not yet completed the consummating act on the cross, and the gospel had not yet been preached to the nations. Jesus’ audience was almost entirely observant Jews, and they were still unburdened with the complex reality of a mixed Jewish-Gentile church. This is further reinforced by the understanding that Matthew’s gospel was, perhaps more than the others, intended for a Jewish audience, and his careful crafting of language consistently catered to that (Wayne).
Therefore, we must make the uncomfortable exegesis of removing ourselves—that is, Gentile believers and post-modern Christianity—from the picture entirely. To even begin to properly interpret Jesus’ teaching, we must cede the stage and admit that Jesus wasn’t talking to us. His audience was a crowd of Jews who were, to varying degrees, Torah-observant. Furthermore, Jesus made it inarguably clear both here and elsewhere that He had no intent of replacing the Law (5:17-20). In the end, a Peshat reading of the text leaves room for no other interpretation than the controversial reality that Jesus was preaching to clarify and redefine a holy Jewish life.
Although this exoteric deduction will disappoint many, upon rereading the passages at hand, it becomes immediately apparent that approaching the Sermon on the Mount with this lens greatly clarifies many of the oft-misinterpreted verses. With this “filter” and other relevant historical information in mind, we can recognize, for example, the Beatitudes are intended to redefine who was acceptable in Gods’ eyes (5:3-11). Far from advocating poverty as a prerequisite for holiness, 5:3 serves to dispel the Pharisaic teaching that anyone who was physically poor was despised of God. 5:5 and 5:38-42 condemns the campaign of the Zealots who sought to overthrow the Romans with violence. The majority of chapter five, far from undermining the Torah, in fact compels the hearer to take the Law further by reinstating God’s original intent behind the commands.
One might complain, then, that Gentile believes are entirely excluded from any benefit (or compulsion) associated with the Sermon on the Mount, but the opposite is true. Because a proper contextual reading allows us to exegete Jesus’ original meaning, we are better equipped to translate the principles to our Western, modern Christianity. For example, if 5:41 were to be taken literally at face value, it would be difficult to apply in our culture. However, once we understand that Roman soldiers frequently compelled Jews to carry their gear a certain distance, we receive the revelation that Jesus was advocating that His people reclaim dignity and honor by volunteering to go additional distance—an action which put them back in control without violence. Knowing this, we can much more easily apply the principle to our modern culture, even though it is highly unlikely that anyone would be asked to walk a physical mile. In this way, we can see that, as full members of the Kingdom of God, Gentile believers are equally subservient to the commands given in the Sermon on the Mount, but a proper contextual analysis is first required to interpret the true meaning.
However, even though we Christians may graciously include ourselves in Jesus’ audience by the merits of our Kingdom status, we must recognize that this exegetical approach still strictly excludes the “unsaved.” While we may assume the all-knowing Jesus had the mixed Gentile-Jewish church in mind, we cannot justifiably stretch the application to cover those outside of the Kingdom. In neither the literal nor theoretical context is Jesus speaking to those who do not already fear the Lord.
And this is where 7:1-6, perhaps the most viciously abused passage in the Bible, receives its clarity:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. […] Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:1-2, 6 NLT)
Who were the “pigs” and “dogs” of Jesus’ day? Those were derogatory terms for the Gentiles (or in our modern context, the “unsaved”). Consequently, many have assumed 7:6 refers to dedicating one’s time, worship, and precious resources to unholy endeavors. And while that is surely a useful, if not simplistic, application, I think the knowledge of inclusio implies a much more startling revelation.
In 7:1-5, Jesus has just finished admonishing His listeners that they cannot hold someone to a standard—notably, of course, the standards He has just finished dictating—until they have fulfilled it themselves. However, He swiftly follows up with a caveat: The unsaved are excluded. Under no circumstances are we to apply these teachings to those who do not fear God. And why not? Because not only are these “keys to the Kingdom” sacred, but also because attempting to coerce the ungodly into a godly lifestyle will only inspire them to anger and animosity—as they “trample” your beliefs in hateful arguments and then “turn and rend you.”
The commentary in the NLT version of the New Spirit Filled Life Bible puts it plainly: “Some discrimination in preaching the gospel is necessary. To preach the gospel to those who manifest a contemptuous blasphemy toward it is not only to cheapen it, but also to endanger ourselves.” (Hayford 1207)
Or, as beloved preacher Charles Spurgeon boldly declares: “When men are evidently unable to perceive the purity of a great truth, do not set it before them. […] You are not needlessly to provoke attack upon yourself, or upon the higher truths of the gospel.” (Spurgeon)
If we are to be good stewards of the Word and pay respect to the original context and intended audience, we must consign ourselves to a reality in which we may not be able to tell the world to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (7:12). We cannot use “judge not” (7:1) as a shield against critique, for Jesus never instructed the unsaved to cease judging. And we must ask ourselves if the “narrow gate” truly refers to initial salvation, or if Jesus is advocating the pursuit of a deeper, more dedicated lifestyle within that faith—just as He was advising His fellow Israelites that not all Temple worshippers would find themselves entering the Kingdom of God.
It would take a greater scholar than I to fully expound on all the truths buried in the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount. But two things are apparent: Jesus is calling us to “know our audience,” which means we need to spend less time scolding the unsaved and more time conforming ourselves.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5 NLT)
Bailyn, Bernard. Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History. Knopf, 2015.
Hayford, Jack W., editor. New Spirit Filled Life Bible: New Living Translation. Thomas Nelson, 2013.
Spurgeon, Charles. Commentary on the New Testament. Titus Books, 2014.
Wayne, Luke. “Is There a Difference between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven?” CARM.org, CARM, 2 Nov. 2017, carm.org/is-there-a-difference-between-the-kingdom-of-god-and-the-kingdom-of-heaven.