The Sermon on the Mount

Brian W. Thomas
Wednesday, September 1st 2010
Sep/Oct 2010

Recovering the Message of Scripture

In this special section of our "Rightly Dividing the Word" issue, nine pastor-theologians help shed light on some popular texts of Scripture that tend to lose their true redemptive-historical significance in a culture of interpretive narcissism.

In the past decade numerous studies have highlighted the sad demise of biblical literacy, a fact well known to regular listeners of the White Horse Inn. Many Christians can no longer recite the basic tenets of the faith, including the Ten Commandments, let alone answer the question, "What does this mean?" This is not to say that moralism has fallen on hard times; you can rest assured it continues to flourish. The problem lies in our inability to distinguish the law from the gospel as we read the Word of God that both kills and makes alive. Nowhere is this more prominent than in popular treatments of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) where monographs and sermons perpetuate the problem with titles such as "The Keys to Success" and "Blueprint for Building the Christian Life."

From this perspective, Matthew's "mount" becomes shorthand for Sinai with Jesus reprising the role of Moses to offer the spiritually devout a better life now by doling out moralistic tips. By making the law the terminal point, many unknowingly fashion a Jesus who is more akin to a life coach than a Messiah. In what follows, we will briefly sketch how a law/gospel hermeneutic might correctly divide this critical passage.

The law is not difficult to locate in this periscope. "You have heard that it was said…but I say to you" (Matt. 5:22-48). Throughout this discourse, many interpreters find Jesus expanding the ethical horizon of the moral law as he pulls back the curtain on the issues of anger and murder, lust and adultery, marriage and divorce. But in light of Jesus' announcement that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets in the least (5:17), it is perhaps better here to see Jesus illustrating the moral perfection the law has demanded all along, overriding previous distortions that sought to dull the law's sharp edge. Jesus is not enlarging the circumference of the Torah but demonstrating how it judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. The law is more than a list of do's and don'ts–it is the perfect will of God for man that describes his relationship to God and his fellow man within the context of a covenant relationship. (See Peter C. Bender, Lutheran Catechesis.)

The gospel of the sermon rings most loudly when Jesus reveals the reason for his coming; he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets (Matt. 5:17). These are the most comforting words of the entire passage. The law is holy and inviolable, leaving us with no place to hide as it brings its penetrating indictment (lex semper accusat). Jesus' purpose is not to abolish but fulfill (plerosai). Since he is holy and perfect, he does not need to fulfill the law for himself, but does so that his perfect obedience may be imputed to those who are unable to keep what the law demands, which happens to be perfection (cf. Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16). As David Scaer notes in The Sermon on the Mount, "The message of the Sermon is not a demand, driving the Christian to an impossible moral perfection, but it comes to the Christian as a demand fulfilled already in Christ and which is now made possible for believers, since it has first reached its demands in Christ." Jesus not only fulfilled the law by actively keeping its moral obligations, but also passively by receiving the judgment we deserved for failing to keep it–for the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). From this approach, the law's requirements are not flouted but fulfilled; and in their fulfillment we confess that Jesus is the Messiah–the One to whom the law and the prophets were pointing all along (John 5:46).

The thought that one's righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees in a first-century context would have been devastating (5:20), for these two groups were thought to have reached the height of holiness; but from Jesus' vantage theirs was a righteousness that fell well below what God would accept. Those who teach that people merit God's righteousness by works of the law commit the worst of errors; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified (Gal. 2:16). The righteousness of which Jesus speaks is qualitatively different from that of the Scribes and the Pharisees; it is a gift appropriated by faith alone. (See William R. Farmer, "The Sermon on the Mount," SBL Seminary Papers.)

The Sermon on the Mount must be interpreted in light of its primary recipients, the disciples (Matt. 5:1). Likewise, this discourse must not be torn asunder from the rest of Matthew's Gospel. Jesus not only fulfilled the Law of Moses, but also the promises of Abraham, David, and the prophets. While Matthew certainly includes Mosaic typology throughout his record, it is reductionistic to think of Jesus as simply a new lawgiver or a second Moses.

Jesus did not come in the flesh to sit on the sidelines of life, cheering us on like some kind of spiritual Phil Jackson. This view leads to pietism (legalism) or antinomianism (licentiousness). Rather, Jesus took the field in our place because we have utterly failed and fouled out. By faith we share in the fulfillment victory he accomplished on another mount called Golgotha, and on account of this, we are freed from the law's tyranny and able to walk by faith in the Spirit bearing good fruit (Matt. 7:20). As the King's disciples we must always look to Yahweh's provision, not our personal performance. Our obedience never affects our relationship with God; it merely reflects the relationship God has graciously bestowed in Christ. May God continue to teach us by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience the high art of rightfully distinguishing the law and the gospel as we handle the precious Word of truth.

Wednesday, September 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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