Friday, April 10, 2009

How does the Sermon on the Mount address faulty Jewish beliefs and practices of that time?

The way the Sermon on the Mount addresses faulty Jewish beliefs and practices of that time was to go beyond “the letter of the law” and into “the spirit of the living God” [2Cor 3]. This was a restoration of the morality inherent in the Mosaic Law, requiring a discipline and behavior of faith by the believer that went beyond a mere external practice of Jewish faith and into the hidden nature of the human heart [Mat 6.1-18]. The established Jewish system had created a strict legalism that had crept into the Law, something Jesus spiritualized in his Sermon. By doing this he claims to be morally superior to Moses, as his personal sacrifice on the cross proved more valuable than the thousands of sacrifices which the Law had previously required[1]. This was a view that the Jewish religious teachers of the Second Temple period would time and time again object to.

The Sermon begins with Jesus blessing the downtrodden, the meek [humble] and the “poor in spirit” [Mat 5.3-12]. This section introduces us to the Jewish theme of righteousness not just applicable to our outward person but within “the hidden person of the heart” [1Pe 3.4]. This theme would take centre stage in Jesus’ later debates with the Jewish leaders [Mat 15.1-20; Mar 7. 1-23; Lu 11.37-54]. Jesus then introduces “the central section of the Sermon which runs from Mat 5:17; 7:12”[2], where Jesus identifies himself as the fulfiller of the requirements of the Law [Mat 5.17]. This is the catalyst to the rest of the Sermon, revealing Jesus not only as the unique representative of the Law [cp. Rom 10.4], but as its one and only executor. Jesus was the prophet whom Moses predicted and admonished Israel to listen to, since he would fulfill not only God’s Law but also that of the prophets [Deut. 18.15-19].[3]

In Mat 5.17-18, Jesus rejects the Jewish accusation that he was doing away with the Law. For him, the Law served only a temporary purpose [cp. Gal 3.19; Eph 2.15], something not to be eternally observed [Mat 5.18; cp. Rom 3.31; 8.4]. As a covenantal system of the Palestinian pact with Israel [Deut. 29:1-29; 30:1-10], the Law ended with Jesus’ death on the cross [symbolized by the tearing of the Temple curtain] thus, establishing a new priesthood [believers replacing the Levitical Jewish system].

The Greek word translated “fulfill” [pleroo] points to the understanding that “in Christ” is the limit at which the Law ceases to be [as opposed to teleo, an end], for the Law leads up to Christ who is the fulfillment of its types, and “in Christ” the purpose which it was designed to accomplish is fulfilled. That is, the purpose of the Law is fulfilled in Christ [cp. Rom 10.4, Amplified Bible Version].

The Jews had ignored the justice of God, as dictated in His Law, because they failed to understand the true function and purpose for which God had made it. The Law came in order to teach people what sin was and to point towards the coming Messiah who would fulfill it [as opposed to those who could only try to keep it, cp. Rom 7]. So in Mat 5.17, Jesus marks himself out as the Anointed One of God, the promised Messiah who has freed all believers from everything from which they could not be freed by the Law of Moses, a Law based on “works” [cp. Acts 13.39; Rom 3.20; Gal 2.16].

In this introduction “Jesus is not laying down a new code of legal regulations” [4] but stating great ethical principles inherent in God’s initial commandments. Even so, the question of how exactly Jesus fulfills the Law, whilst not abrogating it, remains a tenuous one. The answer lies in the structural sequence that follows the Matthean account of the Sermon where Jesus uses the saying: “You have heard it said…But I tell you that…” [Mat 5.21-48] in reference to specific Mosaic commandments. The appearance of each is followed by what can only be described as a spiritualizing of the Law in regard to murder, adultery, marriage and religious practices. In doing this, Jesus corrects the faulty beliefs and practices of these commandments, which the Jews had obscured with their own set of rules and traditions [making “void the word of God” [Mat 15.1-20; cp. Mal 1.6; Gal 3.17[5]; Rom 3.23].

In turn, the Jews criticized Jesus because his redefinition of the Law instigated the people to start questioning and oppose long held traditions and beliefs instituted by their greedy, hierarchical legal system. But in reality, Jesus warned the people to avoid the hypocrisy read into the Law by the Jews and not to do away with its inherent “glory and splendor” [cp. 2Cor. 3.7, 9]. The Sermon, then, uncovers this ‘cutting of ethical corners’ by the Jewish leadership in order for them to manipulate the people to their evil plans [cf. Mat 15.3-6].

In Mat 5.17-20 Jesus turns this false interpretation of the Law upside down by appealing to the very same Law and using it as his moral compass, explaining the original purpose and meaning God had intended for it. Jesus, as the promised prophet [Deut 18.15-19] and Messiah, who has been sent to “explain everything” [John 4.25], is the only one able to address this faulty belief system.

For the early followers of Christ this showed that, even though God no longer required the type of strict adherence and observance to specific regulations of the Law instituted by the Jews, He nonetheless expected His people to “observe and practice” all that it teaches [Mat 23.2-3; cp. Deut 17.10-11]. For example, in Deut 17.14-20, the king the Lord God will give to His people is instructed not to lift his heart “above that of his brothers”, due to his keeping a copy of the book of “all the words of this law and these statutes” [v.19-20]. The Jews of Jesus’ time had been guilty of this very act which the Jewish king is warned against.

“…through six concrete examples, (i) what sort of attitude and behavior Jesus requires and (ii) how his demands surpass those of the Torah without contradicting the Torah. … The letter of the law does not give life. All things lawful may not be helpful. One may refrain from murder and still hate, refrain from committing adultery and still lust in the heart, and it is possible to follow the OT’s provisions with regard to divorce and oaths and yet be found in sin. … Purely legal norms, such as those cited in Mt. 5.21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43, can never convey how life is to be lived by those who are genuinely poor in spirit, pure in heart, and full of mercy (5. 3, 7, 8).”[6]

In the first of these examples [Mat 5.21-23] Jesus tackles the faulty Jewish teaching of how to deal with murder: cultivating love from a pure heart in order to abstain from murderous acts. Jesus makes it a crime to desire such things in the heart as it is to commit the act itself. This meant that whoever gets angry with someone will be judged and whoever insults another will suffer condemnation [the second death]. The one who does not repent of these “crimes of the heart” is called a murderer by Jesus. Clearly the morality which Jesus exhibits here is far higher than that of the Law of Moses [cp. Ex 20.13], since it does not tolerate hypocrisy. This is a fulfillment of the prophecy of the “new covenant” where God would write His laws “in our hearts” [Jer. 31.33; Heb 8.10]. This contrasts the giving of the Law by Moses on Mount Sinai [Ex 20] with Jesus on the Mount of Olives.

The same technique is applied to the wrongly held belief of adultery in Mat 5.27-28, where Jesus once again lifts a Mosaic commandment [Ex 20.14] to where God expects it. The one who commits adultery is not only the one who acts upon it, but anyone else who harbors such desires in their heart. We see, therefore, that Jesus, far from abrogating the law, is making it more stringent and pure. This is symbolic of the fact that the Law of the Spirit is “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” [2Cor 3.3-11; cp. Rom 2.29; 7.6; 8.2]. This will become a necessary requirement for citizenship into the Kingdom.

God has begun to enact His plan of creating a “nation of kings, priests and saints…a true people of God” [Ex 19.6; Deut. 7.6; 1Pe 2.9] to be [in the future earth] citizens of the heavenly City of God that everyone who died in faith looked forward to [Heb 11.16]. This is a “new law” as far as the world is concerned but one that has been “hidden in Christ before the ages began” and until now revealed by God to His chosen people [cf. Eph 3.9; 1Cor 2.7; Rom 16.25-26; Col 1.26; 2Tim 1.9].

In the parallel passage of Luke 16.16-18, Jesus reiterates the importance of the Law by stating that it will never be abrogated. And later on he uses the word “Law” in reference to the commandments of God. This is verified by the fact that anyone who divorces commits adultery, yet under the Mosaic Law this was allowed. Later in Matthew Jesus explains why this was so [Mat 19.8] using Gen 2.24 to further establish a link between the current Jewish belief and practice of man leaving his parents for a wife “so they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let not man separate” [Mat 19.3-9]. This passage showcases the way the Jews had wrongly introduced divorce and by doing so, broke one of the central tenets of God’s Law.

“On this basis it was plausible to think that in his exposition of the law…Jesus reestablished the pure teaching of the logos. The other regulations of the law that later came to be distinguished as ceremonial and judicial were viewed as added precepts that came after the worship of the golden calf. The ‘new testament of freedom’ abrogated them while extending and sharpening the ‘free and universal commands of nature’…The ‘new law’ is thus represented as a restoration and consummation of [Mosaic Law]”.[7]

This “teaching of the logos” is furthered reinforced in Mat 5.38-42, where Jesus once again exerts a rigorous demand on the “eye for an eye” commandment [cp. Ex 21.24; Lev 24.20; Deut. 19.21]. From now on people are called to be peacemakers [Mat 5.39-40] and “give to anyone who asks” [5.41-42], a reference to what true acts of justice require. He explains that the Law dealing with public reprisals has been wrongly used to justify personal vengeance over and against the only judge and jury, the Lord God. The erroneous rabbinical application of the Law led to people ‘taking the law into their own hands’. Once again, the morality Jesus exemplifies in this passage seeks to do away with this faulty belief and practice.

Yet, at the same time, some circumstances did require people to resist and defend themselves [cp. Ex 22.2; Mat 24.43]. But the manner in which it was applied was all wrong. Jesus corrects this teaching in the episode where the soldier slaps him [John 18.22-23]. But note that Jesus did not hit him back, something maybe expected within the old interpretation of the Law [cp. Ex 21.12-14; cf. Gen 9.6]. The lesson here is against the use of violence since “those who use the sword will die by the sword” [Mat 26.52], particularly when it comes to personal vendettas. This is further exemplified by what Jesus suffers at the hands of the Jewish judicial system. Jesus knew that resistance could have resulted in further injury or death and revenge in bloodshed. So while introducing a new statute Jesus upholds a central OT tenet where revenge belonged only to God [Deut. 32.35; Rom 12.19-21], the only one who can personally intervene or use “agents of wrath to bring punishment to wrongdoers” [Rom 13.4].

Throughout Mat 5.17-48 Jesus himself uses strong language such as hyperbole and sharp contrasts in order to give an added emphasis to his teaching. The key points being made here include: doing good instead of evil; love not hate; forgiveness not vengeance. This typifies Jesus’ moral standing in relation to the Jews.

Yet ultimately, the Sermon message is about the Kingdom of God, a kingdom whose origins come “from above and not below”, governed by a spiritual Law that in essence fulfills the earthly Law [cp. John 18.36; 8.23]. This was hard for the Jews to understand since it spoke about more than just the rudiments and legality they had introduced into it. The essence being both ethical and moral, following a style of life that is in accordance with those people who intended to enter into the future Kingdom of God. As in the “beatitudes” [Mat 5.3-12], true happiness comes from seeing life from the perspective of God, a view that is always at odds with humanity. The morality of the kingdom Law [Mat 5.17-48] is directed to those Jewish leaders who held onto faulty traditions and customs, written down as code over the centuries by further legitimization.

Jesus ends his Sermon with a challenge to reject the ways of unrighteousness brought on by the replacement laws of the Jewish institution. The alternative is clear: to live a style of life that is in tune with the coming Kingdom, one of peace and joy; or to ignore the Torah of Messiah Jesus, resulting in disaster and eternal death [Mat 7.24-27].

Works Cited

Andrej Kodjak, A Structural Analysis of the Sermon on the Mount, M. de Gruyter, 1986.

Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Oxford Press, 1993.

Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 1991.

Green, J. B., McKnight, S., & Marshall, I. H. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1992.

Harvey K. McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount, Harper, 1960.

Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: The biblical period, Eerdmans, 1998.

James D. G. Dunn, Jews and Christians: the parting of the ways, A.D. 70 to 135: the Second Durham-Tübingen Research Symposium on Earliest Christianity and Judaism, Siebeck, 1992.

James D. G. Dunn, John William Rogerson, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, 2003.

William R. G. Loader, Jesus' attitude towards the law: a study of the Gospels, Siebeck, 1997.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Geoffrey William Bromiley, Systematic theology, Eerdmans, 1998.

Wood, D. R. W., New Bible Dictionary, Intervarsity Press, 1996.

[1] The result was the establishment of a new priesthood made up of Christian believers, with Jesus at the centre as the High Priest and only mediator between God and humans, since he himself was human. See Heb 7-8.

[2] Green, J. B., McKnight, S., & Marshall, I. H., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, p 741, 1992.

[3] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: The biblical period, Eerdmans, p 172, 1998.

[4] Wood, D. R. W., New Bible Dictionary, Inter Varsity Press, p 1080, 1996.

[5] "It does not appear accidental that the 2 principal witnesses for the earlier corruption of Rom 9.5 [“Christ who is God over all”] also attest a similar change here [in Gal 3.16-17]...the textual tradition of [v. 16] preserves a change that appears to achieve the same end...In Gal 3.17, where Paul speaks of the (Abrahamic) covenant that was 'ratified by God', several scribes have made the connection of Christ to Israel's covenant more explicit by adding the words eis Christon: 'the covenant ratified by God unto Christ' (D F G I Byz OL Syr al)." Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Oxford, p 241, 1993.

[6] Green, J. B., McKnight, S., & Marshall, I. H., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Downers Grove, Ill., Intervarsity, p 742, 1992.

[7] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Geoffrey William Bromiley, Systematic theology, Eerdmans, p 71, 1998. Emphasis added.

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