Summary: The Beatitudes (it means "blessing") are probably the most famous words Jesus uttered. They are also among the most mis-understood. To understand the Beatitudes we need to know Jesus person and His mission.
The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the most famous part of Jesus’ earthly ministry. I think it’s safe to say that more people are familiar with at least parts of this series of sermons than are the account of the cross.
In Matthew’s gospel (which is ordered topically more than chronologically) they are the first real words of Jesus.
There are perhaps five or so ways of interpreting the Sermon on the Mount. Some of them are downright silly, but a couple bear consideration.
1) The impossible ideal. The ideals in the Beatitudes (latin: beatus, blessed) and the Sermon on the Mount as a whole show us how sinful we really are and how much we need a Rescuer. Paul said the law was a tutor to lead us to Christ (Gal 3:24). The Sermon on the Mount is pretty radical stuff because it flies in the face of a religion that relied on external behavior, when pleasing God really comes from the heart outward, not the actions inward.
2) Kingdom Age. That these are going to be what it is like in the kingdom age and that now they are just examples of what is to come
3) Social gospel. Some take these to mean Jesus was giving us ethics to help usher in the kingdom age here on earth by reforming society.
4) The New Testament law. It’s just the law restated in Jesus’ words.
Others suggest that the Sermon contrasts the “now” with the “what will be.” We have parts of the kingdom age now, but will be fully realized when Jesus returns.
What’s my take on it? I really borrow from all of these, really. One way to look at this is a reintroduction of God. When the children of Israel came out of Egypt, God took them to Mt Sinai where he married them and introduced his character to them in the Law. Now Jesus, God in the flesh, stands on a mountain near the Sea of Galilee and re-introduces God’s character personally. The face of God was hidden in a dark cloud, but Jesus’ face is right out there for all to see—just as the Law somewhat hid the true depth of God’s righteousness, now Jesus reveals it fully.
Mt. Sinai Sermon on the Mount
The letter of the Law The Spirit of the law
The Law revealed The Law explained
The surface of God’s character The depth of God’s character
A character sketch A character fully realized
So is the Sermon on the Mount “Jesus’ Guide to Living a Better Life?” A lot of people think that it contains a set of principles to follow. I think it is about presenting a man to follow. Think about Matthew’s point in this gospel and Jesus’ mission.
Satan tempted Jesus to be something He was not: selfish. Now in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reveals that character more fully—to love God and love others selflessly is what God is like. Jesus has come to rescue and restore. But first He has to let us know just how bad things are so He can then reveal how good He is and the way of salvation He makes for us. It seems counter to that purpose to simply tell us how to live, when He knew we could not do it.
Already by this time large crowds followed Jesus. Matthew’s gospel is arranged topically, so already he has done much healing and teaching throughout Galilee.