I am told and have indeed read that I missed perhaps one of the greatest speeches ever given by an American President last night as the latest State of the Union Address was delivered. I have also heard or read many of the speeches delivered by some of the world’s greatest orators, so I started pondering the question, what was the greatest speech ever given?
There are several that quickly come to mind. Based on their content and the climate of their times, it would be difficult to select just one. Would it be Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech, of maybe Winston Churchill promising to “fight them on the beaches”? How could one not consider the great Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech, still quoted today, or Nelson Mandela’s numerous anti-apartheid speeches? There’s Patrick Henry declaring “Give me liberty or give me death” and Abe Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address. And in stark contrast to the current Build a Wall rhetoric, there is the ever memorable “Tear down this wall” speech by my favorite President, Ronald Reagan. And even more impressive than these is the oration delivered by history’s first recorded Christian martyr, Stephen, a Christian apologetic speech delivered to the Sanhedrin recorded in Acts Chapter 7 just before he is stoned to death for Christ. So with so many great speeches to choose from, who gets the nod as Numero Uno?
In my most humble of opinions, I don’t believe there has ever been a more meaningful, impactful, history-changing speech ever given than that which Christ gave and first recorded in Matthew 5-7, now commonly referred to as The Sermon on the Mount. In it is contained the essence of all good and proper living. One does not even need to be of the Christian faith in order to appreciate the heart of what is being taught, but as a believer it may be the most concise delivery of the Christian tenets of faith ever composed in one sitting. Much has been written throughout history pertaining to the sheer content of this incredible sermon. In his Fifth Century book Saint Augustine says;
“If any one will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as w read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think that he will find in it, so far as regards to the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian Life“.
The great sermon can be broken down into several sub-sections, each worthy themselves of being considered great speeches. The oration starts with the Beatitudes, or as some refer to them, The Blessings, or even more literal, the Happy sayings. “Happy are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom; Happy are those who mourn for they will receive comfort; Happy are the meek for they will inherit the earth, and so forth. These were not new revelations necessarily as many came from previous Old Testament writings, but Jesus shed new light into the heart of each blessing that focused on the ideals of living a life of love, service and humility, a lesson not confined to political or religious views alone.
Then Jesus begins to speak of salt and light, metaphors rich in context as to how believers should live their lives of faith openly and unashamedly. Jesus refers to himself as the Light of the world. As believers, we are each imparted with that same light so that we may be lights in the world. He also uses the terminology of being salt, and how ineffective we become if we lose our faith, or saltiness, good for nothing more than filling in holes on a walking trail.
Then He goes into a discussion where He gives teeth to Old Testament Law with such phrasing as “you have heard it said…but I tell you…”. Christ doesn’t abolish the law but fulfills it to the “nth” degree with things like, “you say don’t murder but I say don’t even call someone an idiot” or you say don’t commit adultery but I say if you even look at a woman and think about having sex with her you are just as guilty-harsh and difficult teachings for sure. He goes on with exchanging the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy with instead praying for your enemies and those who wish you evil. His statements turn their thinking and beliefs upside down!
Form there Jesus teaches his disciples and ultimately the world how we are to pray. Whether you consider The Lord’s Prayer as a literal and perfect daily prayer or you use it as a model to fashion your own prayers after, it may be the single most cited, recorded and printed piece of literature of all time! And he immediately follows it up by giving us the key to unlocking the beauty and promise of the prayer, that being the importance of forgiveness, by reminding us that “if we do not forgive others their sins against us, our Father will not forgive us our sins either“. The prayer has five components, acknowledgement of God’s deity, submission to his will, Petitions for our provisions, forgiveness of our sins and triumphant living over temptation; all we need, any day, every day!
Jesus then reminds us of the folly of worrying with the familiar verse reminding us that if he sees even the tiniest of birds and takes care to feed them, how much more is he concerned with the affairs of the lives of his children. And as for possessions, if even King Solomon was not as adorned as the flowers in any wild field, how much more God wants to clothe us with all good things. There is simply too much good stuff to chew on here, basic, sound biblical rules of conduct and promises of God’s provision and sufficiency for our daily lives.
This sermon goes on to deliver so much more than we can take in. From warnings about being judgmental when we should be more aware of our own faults, to the famous “ask and receive, seek and find, knock and come in” teachings about approaching God in prayer. And on it goes, the wide and narrow gates, true and false teachers, Smart and stupid builders, Mind Blown! He left the crowds who had gathered to hear him in shock and amazement as they had never been taught by anyone with such insight and vision or with overwhelming authority. And it hasn’t changed up to this day, over two thousand years later!
Greatest speech of all time? I confidently contend that you can’t find one better than the Sermon Christ delivered in Matthew, but what, you may ask, is the differentiator for this speech compared to any of the other worthy candidates? It’s easy actually, Credibility. If you were just to read the speech in Matthew 5-7, it would be impressive on its own merit, but what happens immediately after, recorded in Matthew Chapter 8, seals the deal. As Jesus comes down from this famous speech on the mountain, large crowds still followed him. Among them was a leper, an outcast due to his condition. The leper humbly bows before Jesus and asks in all good faith for Jesus to heal him. With the simple words “Be Clean” the leper’s skin condition immediately disappears and his skin is renewed and pure again. For thousands of witnesses, this elevates Christ from just a good speaker to the Divine Son of God with all power and authority to back up his previous words. All other speeches that deal with the heart of decent living from that time forward are directly connected in every decent and moral way to the words Christ delivered to us and to the world on the mountain that day, the greatest speech of all time!