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Prophetic Enlightenment on the Sermon on the Mount

TitleProphetic Enlightenment on the Sermon on the Mount
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1999
AuthorsMarsh, W. Jeffrey
Issue Number1
Date PublishedJanuary 1999
KeywordsExaltation; Jesus Christ; Joseph Smith Translation; Judgment; Lord's Prayer; Sermon at the Temple; Sermon on the Mount

Marsh contrasts the Sermon on the Mount to the Sermon at the Temple that the Nephites received, as well as including insights from the Joseph Smith Translation.


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Prophetic Enlightenment on the Sermon on the Mount

By W. Jeffrey Marsh

Of the 111 verses of the Savior’s Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5–7 [Matt. 5–7] of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, the Prophet Joseph Smith was inspired to revise 84 of them (76 percent) and add 5 additional verses.1 Of these 84 verses changed in the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), 28 are shown in the LDS edition of the Bible (10 in the footnotes of Matt. 5–7 and 18 more in the JST appendix). The remaining changed verses may be seen in The Holy Scriptures: Inspired Version (referred to hereafter as Inspired Version).2

Although some of the JST changes were grammatical in nature, most of them clarify doctrinal understanding and restore significant teachings. Regarding the importance of the JST and other scriptural writings, the Savior declared to Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith’s scribe: “Thou shalt write for him; and the scriptures shall be given, even as they are in mine own bosom, to the salvation of mine own elect; for they will hear my voice, and … be purified, even as I am pure” (D&C 35:20–21; emphasis added).

The Sermon to the Nephites

After His Resurrection, the Savior appeared to the Nephites at the temple in the land of Bountiful and gave essentially the same sermon as His biblical Sermon on the Mount. However, differences exist between the Book of Mormon version recorded in 3 Nephi 12–14 and the versions found in the King James Version and in the JST.

Why the differences? The Sermon on the Mount and the sermon at the temple in Bountiful were given to two different groups of people in two different settings and several years apart. Because of the different audiences, the Book of Mormon account does not contain references to Pharisees, priests, and Levites, for example, nor does it discuss specific reasons why the scribes and Pharisees were rejected by the Lord.

Another difference is that the Sermon on the Mount was given while the Savior was in mortality, but the sermon in Bountiful was given after His Resurrection. Thus, to the people in Israel He said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), but to the people in Bountiful He added, “Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect” (3 Ne. 12:48; emphasis added).

To Whom Was Jesus Speaking?

The JST, like the Book of Mormon, makes it clear that the message now known as the Sermon on the Mount was directed to the Twelve Apostles and to the Savior’s disciples, or the baptized, covenant members of the Church (see JST, Matt. 6:1; Matt. 7:1; footnotes). The sermon was given to the Nephites at the temple (see 3 Ne. 11:1) and to those in Israel on the mount. The temple in Israel was referred to as “the mountain of the Lord” (Isa. 2:3). So in one sense the sermon was aimed at preparing the Saints to make covenants with God.3 It was a call to a higher level of living as well as a mission call to share the gospel with others. In all scriptures that follow, words in italics indicate Joseph Smith’s inspired additions:

“And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,

“Blessed are they who shall believe on me; and again, more blessed are they who shall believe on your words, when ye shall testify that ye have seen me and that I am.

“Yea, blessed are they who shall believe on your words, and come down into the depth of humility, and be baptized in my name; for they shall be visited with fire and the Holy Ghost, and shall receive a remission of their sins” (Inspired Version, Matt. 5:2–4; compare KJV, Matt. 5:2; 3 Ne. 12:1–2).

Come unto Christ

The Book of Mormon account of the Beatitudes contains all the changes made to the Beatitudes in the JST, so we won’t examine them here. It is interesting, however, to note the change in the first beatitude, because that is how the mortal Messiah began His magnificent sermon to proclaim the higher law: “Yea, blessed are the poor in spirit, who come unto me; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Inspired Version, Matt. 5:5; compare KJV, Matt. 5:3).

One individual wrote, “The JST restores an introduction to the beatitudes which stresses the fundamental theme of coming unto Christ through the first principles and ordinances of the gospel.”4

The “poor in spirit” who are humble and teachable will be led by the Spirit to know and understand the principles and ordinances of the gospel. The Lord said:

“The Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world; …

“And every one that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit cometh unto God, even the Father.

“And the Father teacheth him of the covenant” (D&C 84:46–48).

President Joseph Fielding Smith said, “If a man who has never heard the gospel will hearken to the teachings and manifestations of the Spirit of Christ, or the Light of Truth, which come to him, often spoken of as conscience—every man has a conscience and knows more or less when he does wrong, and the Spirit guides him if he will hearken to its whisperings—it will lead him eventually to the fulness of the gospel. That is, he is guided by the Light, and when the gospel comes he will be ready to receive it.”5

In addition to finding the gospel, the poor in spirit can receive His grace by denying themselves of “all ungodliness” and by loving God with all their “might, mind, and strength” (see Moro. 10:32–33). Grace is a divine means of help or strength that can fill us with the Savior’s love (see Moro. 7:47–48), can “make weak things become strong” (Ether 12:27), can perfect us in Christ (see Moro. 10:32–33), and can enable “men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts” (“Grace,” Bible Dictionary, 697).

The Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation clarifies that coming unto Christ is the only way back to the presence of the Father. That is why the Savior’s invitations to us include: “Come, follow me” (Luke 18:22), “Learn of me” (Matt. 11:29), “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), “I have set an example for you” (3 Ne. 18:16), and “Be … even as I am” (3 Ne. 27:27).

Salt of the Earth and Light of the World

The Inspired Version adds a phrase to the beginning of verses 15 and 16 in Matthew 5: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, I give unto you to be …” (compare KJV, Matt. 5:13–14). That refinement makes it more clear that the Savior is inviting His disciples to become the salt of the earth, to become the light of the world. Anciently, salt was a food preservative that was used to represent the importance of Israel preserving her covenants with Jehovah. Salt became a symbol of the covenant between God and man (see Num. 18:19). Thus, under the law of Moses all sacrifices were to be offered with salt (see Lev. 2:13), but only pure, clean salt was to be used, as the Prophet Joseph Smith clarified: “Every sacrifice shall be salted with salt; but the salt must be good” (Inspired Version, Mark 9:49; compare KJV, Mark 9:49).

Covenant Saints are the salt of the earth. They should be a symbol of Christlike living by setting an example and keeping the Lord’s commandments. A righteous personal example can have a positive impact on others’ receptivity. Negative examples can keep people from receiving the gospel message, as Alma reminded his son Corianton: “For when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words” (Alma 39:11).

The Savior asks, “If the salt shall lose its savor, wherewith shall the earth be salted?” (Inspired Version, Matt. 5:15; compare KJV, Matt. 5:13). Salt can lose its savor only through mixture and contamination. Light can be diminished only when it is doused or filtered. The Inspired Version indicates that the Savior is calling His disciples to become Saints so that others might see “your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Inspired Version, Matt. 5:18; compare KJV, Matt. 5:16).

In addition to being the savor (seasoning, flavoring) of mankind, covenant Saints have also been called to be saviors. Note the Savior’s wording in Doctrine and Covenants 103:8–10 [D&C 103:8–10]:

“But inasmuch as they keep not my commandments, and hearken not to observe all my words, the kingdoms of the world shall prevail against them.

“For they were set to be a light unto the world, and to be the saviors of men;

“And inasmuch as they are not the saviors of men, they are as salt that has lost its savor” (emphasis added).

There is only one Savior for mankind, but He has called the Saints to join Him in His work by sharing the gospel with others, redeeming the dead through temple ordinances, and perfecting our own lives (see D&C 1:4). If the Saints are unable or unwilling to do that work, “wherewith shall the earth be salted [preserved]?”

Teaching Others Truth

We are a church of teachers. The Sermon on the Mount was a call to teach eternal truth in a way that touches the innermost feelings of the heart. The Savior gave a significant warning and promise to those who teach: “Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so to do, he shall in no wise be saved in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach these commandments of the law until it be fulfilled, the same shall be called great, and shall be saved in the kingdom of heaven” (JST, Matt. 5:21, Bible appendix).

“Effective teaching,” President Gordon B. Hinckley has said, “is the very essence of leadership in the Church. Eternal life will come only as men and women are taught with such effectiveness that they change and discipline their lives. They cannot be coerced into righteousness or into heaven. They must be led, and that means teaching.”6

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles added: “For each of us to ‘come unto Christ,’ to keep His commandments and follow His example back to the Father is surely the highest and holiest purpose of human existence. To help others do that as well—to teach, persuade, and prayerfully lead them to walk that path of redemption also—surely that must be the second most significant task in our lives. Perhaps that is why President David O. McKay once said, ‘No greater responsibility can rest upon any man [or woman] than to be a teacher of God’s children.’”7


The JST footnote strengthens the charge in Matthew 5:48: “Ye are therefore commanded to be perfect, even as your Father who is in heaven is perfect.” Perfection is an eternal goal, not a mortal possibility. It is, however, a commandment that can, over time and because of the Atonement, be kept. President Joseph Fielding Smith observed: “I believe the Lord meant just what he said: that we should be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. That will not come all at once, but line upon line, and precept upon precept, example upon example, and even then not as long as we live in this mortal life, for we will have to go even beyond the grave before we reach that perfection and shall be like God.

“But here we lay the foundation. Here is where we are taught these simple truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ, in this probationary state, to prepare us for that perfection. It is our duty to be better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we are today. Why? Because … if we are keeping the commandments of the Lord, we are on that road to perfection, and that can only come through obedience and the desire in our hearts to overcome the world.

“… It is the duty of every man to try to be like his Eternal Father.”8

Feelings of inadequacy or anxiety about perfection should not surprise us. Only with the Savior’s help, including the Atonement and Resurrection, will perfection ever be possible. But the marvelous promise is that He can and will help! “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him” (Moro. 10:32). And Nephi offers this encouragement: “Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life” (2 Ne. 31:20).

The word steadfastness in the preceding verse comes from the Greek and means “immovable, settled.” In English it means to stand firm in belief and determination. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ means to be settled and firm in our faith so that He can help us become even as He is.

Doing Alms in Secret

Alms are righteous acts of service or righteous acts of religious devotion (see Matt. 6:1, footnote b). The King James Version states: “When thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matt. 6:3), a physical impossibility if taken literally. The Inspired Version is much clearer: “When thou doest alms, let it be unto thee as thy left hand not knowing what thy right hand doeth.”

The Savior set the perfect example of one who continually did quiet acts of service and numerous acts of kindness for which He sought no recognition (see Matt. 8:4; Luke 8:56; Luke 9:21). John the Beloved closed his testament and bore witness of the Savior’s almsgiving with these words: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). As in all things, the Savior showed us the way.

The Lord’s Prayer

None of the changes in the JST to the Lord’s Prayer are found in the Book of Mormon account. One in particular is profound. The King James Version reads, “And lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13), making it sound as if Heavenly Father occasionally and purposefully leads His children into temptation. The JST footnote reads: “Suffer us not to be led into temptation.”

While some readers wrestle with the false idea that God creates evil and leads us to it, the Prophet Joseph Smith helps us understand that portion of the Lord’s Prayer as a plea for protection from the evil one, as a petition to not let us enter into temptation (compare Matt. 6:13, footnotes b and d). As Joseph Smith himself later taught, only those who resist the Spirit of God are liable to be led into temptation.9

Doing the Father’s Will

The King James Version states: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light” (Matt. 6:22). The JST footnote adds, “If therefore thine eye be single to the glory of God, thy whole body shall be full of light.”

When the Savior undertook the work of the Father to save all mankind, He had regard only for the glory of the Father. The first words we hear from His premortal life as recorded in the scriptures are “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:2). The first words we have in the scriptures that the Savior spoke as a mortal include “I must be about my Father’s business” (Luke 2:49). In Gethsemane He prayed, “Not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). His final words on the cross were “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46) and “Father, it is finished, thy will is done” (see JST, footnote to Matt. 27:50). From His premortal existence throughout His entire life, the Savior’s eye was single to doing the will of His Father.

To follow in the Savior’s footsteps is to assist the Father in His work and glory, which is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). As one source put it, “To be able to say at all times, truthfully, ‘Thine be the honor,’ is to be sanctified; that is to be a Saint.”10 In other words, following the Savior’s example and participating in God’s work through perfecting our lives, preaching the gospel, and redeeming the dead through temple work will sanctify us. The Lord said:

“And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things.

“Therefore, sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you, and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will” (D&C 88:67–68).

Instructions to Ministers in the Kingdom

The JST and the Book of Mormon indicate that certain verses in the Sermon on the Mount were directed to the Twelve, who were about to embark on missions (see JST, Matt. 6:25–27, Bible appendix; 3 Ne. 13:25). Without knowing that, one could assume that the Savior was telling everyone not to worry about food, clothing, or other necessities of life (see Matt. 6:25–34). But His words about taking no thought for those things were spoken in answer to the Apostles’ concerns about providing for themselves and their families while serving in the ministry. He gave the absolute assurance that Heavenly Father would care for His servants if they would “seek not the things of this world but seek ye first to build up the kingdom of God, and to establish his righteousness” (JST, Matt. 6:38). The Lord gave a similar assurance to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon while they were serving a mission to Canada in 1833 and feeling concern for their families (see D&C 100:1).

Although Matthew 6:25–34 [Matt. 6:25–34] was specifically given to the Twelve, the Savior’s general counsel to “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33) is very much applicable to all. The primary purpose of our mortal existence is to come unto Christ by following His example and to invite others to do the same. One of the great challenges of mortality is learning to prioritize—to seek “the riches of eternity” (D&C 68:31) rather than the “vain things of the world [which] you cannot carry … with you” (Alma 39:14). Thus, the JST footnote to Matthew 6:33 reads: “Wherefore, seek not the things of this world but seek ye first to build up the kingdom of God, and to establish his righteousness.”

Judging Others

The King James Version reads: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1), making it sound as if no one should ever judge others. But the JST footnote clarifies the doctrine: “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged: but judge righteous judgment.

The context of verses 2–5 suggests that looking for fault in others or critically condemning others is what is being censured by the Savior. He has counseled us to be merciful, to deal justly, and to judge others righteously—to make appropriate ethical appraisals of others under the influence of the Spirit (see Alma 41:14; D&C 11:12; D&C 121:41–45). He warned us to “cease to find fault one with another” (D&C 88:124) because “with [that same] judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged” (Matt. 7:2).

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles observed there are two kinds of judging, including “final judgments, which we are forbidden to make, and intermediate judgments which we are directed to make, but upon righteous principles. …

“Latter-day Saints understand the final judgment as the time when all men will receive their personal dominions in the mansions prepared for them in various kingdoms of glory. … I believe that the scriptural command to judge not refers most clearly to this final judgment.”11

“Ye Never Knew Me”

Near the close of the Sermon on the Mount, the King James Version states that at the day of final judgment the Savior will declare to some, “I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23). The Savior, of course, knows each of us. Because of the Atonement, He knows us better than we know ourselves, including an intimate understanding of all our pains, sufferings, and infirmities (see Alma 7:11–13). There is nothing He cannot comprehend (see D&C 38:2). He not only knows us but He loves us and helps us (see Alma 36:3; Isa. 61:1–3). In contrast with the KJV, the Inspired Version reverses the thought to its accurate case: “Ye never knew me.

President John Taylor said that the statements in Matthew 7:21–23 [Matt. 7:21–23] will refer to some Latter-day Saints.12 The Inspired Version renders these statements as follows:

Verily I say unto you, it is not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, that shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven.

For the day soon cometh, that men shall come before me to judgment, to be judged according to their works.

And many will say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name; and in thy name cast out devils; and in thy name done many wonderful works?

“And then will I say, Ye never knew me; depart from me ye that work iniquity.”

As He closed His sermon, the Savior gave the comforting assurance that those who “heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them, I will liken unto a wise man, who built his house upon a rock” (Inspired Version, Matt. 7:34; compare KJV, Matt. 7:24). His teachings are a sure foundation upon which we can build our lives to weather any storm (see Matt. 7:25). His philosophy of life—His gospel—exceeds all the wisdom of the world, and His teachings bring to the world things “which they have never considered” (D&C 101:94).

To those awed by the philosophies of men, however, His teachings may seem like “idle tales” (Luke 24:11) or “strange things” (Luke 5:26). Little wonder then that “when Jesus had ended these sayings with his disciples, the people were astonished at his doctrine:

“For he taught them as one having authority from God, and not as having authority from the Scribes” (see JST footnotes to Matt. 7:28–29).

While working through his inspired translation of the Bible, the Prophet Joseph Smith learned that those who receive “the testimony of Jesus,” believe on His name, keep His commandments, and receive priesthood ordinances will inherit the celestial kingdom (see D&C 76:51–54). He also learned that those who refuse to receive the testimony of Jesus, those who are not valiant in the testimony of Jesus, and those who deny that testimony or fight against the witness of the Spirit will be consigned to lower kingdoms throughout eternity (see D&C 76:35–37, 72, 79, 101). To receive the testimony of Jesus is to hear it, accept it, and assimilate it into our lives. God has promised eternal life to those who come to know Him by becoming like Him (see John 17:3; Matt. 5:48).

Blueprint for Exaltation

The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the most significant testimony of our Lord ever recorded. It is a blueprint for exaltation because it bears witness of the Savior’s celestial nature. President Harold B. Lee called it “a revelation of His own character, which was perfect” and said it is an “autobiography, every syllable of which He had written down in deeds,” thus making it a “blueprint for our own lives.”13 The Sermon on the Mount is essentially an invitation from the Redeemer of all mankind to come and watch Him, listen to His words, do what we see Him do, learn of Him, and receive eternal life.

We owe the Prophet Joseph Smith a debt of gratitude for providing the world with the most insightful rendering of perhaps the greatest sermon ever given. The Savior has promised that those who receive His testimony, which undoubtedly includes the Sermon on the Mount, will inherit the celestial kingdom of God. Because of the Joseph Smith Translation, we can discover the true meanings of the Savior’s teachings in this wonderful sermon to a greater extent than ever before.

W. Jeffrey Marsh is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.


  1. See Steven J. Hite and Julie M. Hite, comps., The New Testament with the Joseph Smith Translation, 4th ed. (1996), 48–58.
  2. Published by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which owns the manuscripts of the JST that were preserved by Emma Smith, the Prophet’s wife. Because verses have been added or deleted, some JST verse numbers differ from those in the King James Version.
  3. See “The Sermon at the Temple,” in John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon (1992), 253–56.
  4. Robert A. Cloward, “The Sermon on the Mount in the JST and the Book of Mormon,” in The Joseph Smith Translation, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Robert L. Millet (1985), 164.
  5. Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (1954–56), 1:51.
  6. “How to Be a Teacher When Your Role as a Leader Requires You to Teach,” General Authority Priesthood Board Meeting, 5 Feb. 1969.
  7. “‘A Teacher Come from God,’” Ensign, May 1988, 25.
  8. Doctrines of Salvation, 2:18–19.
  9. See History of the Church, 4:358.
  10. Hyrum M. Smith and Janne M. Sjodahl, Doctrine and Covenants Commentary, rev. ed. (1965), 552.
  11. Quoted in Sarah Jane Weaver, “Scriptures Teach When to Judge, When Not to Judge,” Church News, 7 Mar. 1998, 5.
  12. See Smith and Sjodahl, Doctrine and Covenants Commentary, 462–63.
  13. Stand Ye in Holy Places (1974), 342.