TLDR: The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most widely-quoted sections of the Gospels. In this text, Jesus used powerful and timeless communication techniques that have resonated with religious and non-religious audiences alike. If you’d like to deliver your content and have the message really stick (perhaps for centuries to come), try the following techniques: frame your message using positive language; challenge the status quo with a higher goal; use powerful and simple images; and speak with authority.
So What? Jesus’ communication techniques can help us communicate our most passionate ideas, as well.
Biblical experts have said that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as famously recounted in Matthew 5-7, is the most important of all his teachings. In the sermon, he laid out moral guidelines that later became the basis of Christianity, inspiring generations of devotees.
The sermon is remarkable for its use of paradox, challenging the status quo of his time (and possibly ours) with a fresh perspective on success and who exactly is #Blessed. It starts with the opening lines:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Choosing Positive Framing
The Oxford Dictionary defines the word “beatitudes” as “supreme blessedness.” In this “supreme” mountaintop sermon, Jesus spared his listeners a list of “thou shalt nots” and instead offered them an evergreen message of compassion and hope.
When you craft your communication using positive language, it opens the ears, hearts and minds of your listeners. They become more receptive to your ideas, especially if they’re presented in a new and surprising way.
Challenging the Status Quo to offer a Better Way
Jesus’ understanding of “supreme blessedness” was in some ways the opposite of the cultural traditions and religious teachings of his time. Rather than downplaying these differences, he emphasized them. He called upon his listeners to imagine a higher standard of living, while reminding them often that they were “blessed.”
Six times in the sermon he says, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .” For example:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
Great communicators frequently draw comparisons between the status quo and a higher goal. Many years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. would use this technique in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, saying, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And Mahatma Gandhi often reminded his followers, “The future depends on what we do in the present.”
Powerful, Yet Simple Imagery
Jesus also used simple, powerful images that would have been meaningful to his listeners. He told them to “be like salt,” which was used to flavor and preserve food, even more so in ancient times. These simple images still resonate today:
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”
Later in this sermon, he asked his listeners to consider flowers in a field and birds in the air. If God took care of these lowly creatures, why do they worry whether God will take care of them?
“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
People have spent thousands of years unpacking the symbolism in these images, but the images themselves are simple and easy to understand. Even children get them.
Content With Authority
At the end of the sermon, gospel writer Matthew comments, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke as though he had the God-given authority to do so. He didn’t say, “This is what I think…” or “My opinion is…” He was not wishy-washy. He spoke as though his words were true; he claimed the authority to speak his truth.
Authority is earned. It comes from being confident in your beliefs, understanding your material, and knowing in your bones that this is a message that you must deliver. While a college degree or job title can confer some authority upon you, ultimately you must claim that authority before you can convey it to others.
Most of us find that authority difficult to muster in our communication. It helps to really believe in what you’re speaking or writing. We can plug into this by infusing our communication with a high degree of meaning and purpose. Speaking to great human truths, to your deepest truths, can help you tap into that authority.
Most of us don’t (intentionally) deliver sermons on a daily basis. We might be writing marketing copy, an email campaign, or an email to a colleague. But the more we can use these communication secrets – framing the positive, challenging the status quo with a higher vision; using powerful yet simple images, and speaking with authority – the better our messages will ring from the mountaintop.
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