To read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, most of us turn to the Gospel of Matthew. But Luke also records the sermon in his Gospel, and there are several differences. In the English Standard translation, Matthew’s version is around five hundred words longer. He includes several memorable parts that Luke leaves out. Yet Luke includes some sections that are not in Matthew. Some people argue that such differences call into question the reliability of the Gospels. How can we respond?
We must first realize, that the authors did not have access to recordings. Matthew heard the sermon first hand, and must have recorded the things that captured his heart and mind. Luke, however, drew upon recollections from several people (Lu 1:1-4).
Second, it is safe to assume that Jesus spoke more than either author recorded. Matthew’s version can be read aloud in under 15 minutes, so Matthew and Luke are both selective. Each author chose portions that fit with the overall purpose of his Gospel in addressing a particular audience. Matthew writes for Jews and selects parts of the sermon that refute the legalism of the Pharisees. Luke writes for a Greek man named Theophilus and selects portions that explain what it means to follow Jesus as a disciple.
Third, we should note that the authors sometimes use different wording or grammar to record the same portion of the sermon. Again, critics use such differences to question the reliability of the Gospels. They claim that Luke relied upon accounts that were embellished as they were passed down. But like any public speaker, Jesus probably repeated similar thoughts in different ways. When there is a difference between the versions, he may have said it both ways.
Ultimately, we believe that Matthew and Luke were guided by the Holy Spirit as they wrote. Paul says that all Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Tim 3:16). When we consider how the New Testament authors use the Old Testament, we are led to conclude that inspiration extends even to the words and grammar that are used. So, in spite of the differences we can be confident that both Gospels are entirely reliable.
On Sunday, April 22, we begin our study of Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. He begins his Gospel by describing the “True Wonder” surrounding the birth of Christ. Next he presents a string of stories to answer the question, “Who Is Jesus?” He then uses the Sermon on the Mount to bring his readers to a “Crossroads.” His version of the sermon raises six defining questions to put us on the right path—following Jesus.
Let’s pray that God will use this series to clarify our understanding of what it means to be a disciple and to deepen our commitment to Christ.
– Bryan Craddock