The structure of the Sermon on the Mount is debated among commentators. The following breakdown is the outline and literary structure I find most compelling among the suggestions they offer.
The Sermon on the Mount is from Matthew 5:1–7:29. Two occurrences of “the Law and the Prophets” (5:17; 7:12) appear to section off this large teaching block into three sections:
- Introduction to the Sermon (5:1-16)
- The main message of the Sermon (5:17–7:12)
- The conclusion of the Sermon (7:13-29)
The “main message” part (5:17–7:12) is also composed of three sections:
- Instances of “you have heard…but I say to you” (5:17-48)
- Disciplines susceptible to hypocrisy (6:1-18)
- Exhortations about trusting in God’s provision and seeking God’s kingdom (6:19–7:12)
The middle of the “main message” section is about “Disciplines,” and there just happen to be three of those also:
- Giving (6:1-4)
- Praying (6:5-15)
- Fasting (6:16-18)
The middle discipline–Praying–breaks into (wait for it…wait for it…) three parts:
- How not to pray (6:5-8)
- How to pray (6:9-13)
- The warning about not forgiving the trespasses of others (6:14-15)
Let’s recap. The Sermon divides into three sections (5:1-16; 5:17–7:12; 7:13-29), the middle section (5:17–7:12) divides into three more (5:17-48; 6:1-18; 6:19–7:12), then that middle part (6:1-18) also has three (6:1-14; 6:5-15; 6:16-18), and, finally, the middle of those Disciplines (6:5-15) has three parts as well (6:5-8; 6:9-13; 6:14-15). The most central section of the Sermon is 6:9-13.
If the Sermon on the Mount is a target, the bulls-eye is the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13).
A few (ahem: three) closing observations:
- The arrangement of the Sermon seems to favor divisions of three.
- The arrangement is a literary work of art.
- The central piece–the Lord’s Prayer–is important for everything that precedes and follows it.