The Sermon on the Mount 2

I began this series by stating my first presupposition when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount, which is that Jesus actually meant what He said.

My second presupposition is somewhat broader in nature as it has to do with the way we read Scripture altogether.

Scripture should be read Christocentrically.

I believe all Scripture should be read through Jesus. That is, I believe all Scripture points to Him. The written word exists to bear witness to the Living Word. This makes Jesus the primary lens through which we interpret Scripture. Not the only lens, but the primary one. As a disciple of Christ, I want His words to be normative in my life.

Placing a premium on the words of Jesus leads us into dangerous territory. Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” I’ve already stated that I think He really means that. But I also have to reconcile the words of Jesus with the “eye for an eye” language that is also represented in Scripture. I mean, doesn’t it seem that Jesus is at odds with His own Jewish tradition, especially Psalm 137.9 where the prayer is for YHWH to dash the Babylonian infants’ heads against the rocks?

What I want to argue is that being a disciple of Christ means I interpret everything — the text, my life, my understanding of death, etc. — in light of His words and His life. Take nonviolence, for instance. Based on the words of Jesus, I believe nonviolence is the methodology of the Kingdom of God. (Note the difference between nonviolence and pacifism. I believe following Christ requires a commitment to nonviolence, but I cannot accept the full tenets of pacifism in light of the greater balance of Scripture. See the prophetic vision of the Messianic age as the day when swords are beaten into plowshares [Isa. 2; Micah 4]; see also the dramatic reversal of this image in Joel’s call to arms [Joel 3].) But those who are opposed to the way of nonviolence are often quick to bring up the examples of David or Samson or any of a number of OT figures who wielded the sword on behalf of righteousness. Can violence really be such a great offense to God? Isn’t God the same God that commissioned the conquest of Israel? Isn’t the David who slayed his tens of thousands also known as the man after God’s own heart?

All of this is true. But the point I want to make is this: I am not a disciple of David. Nor am I a disciple of Samson. I am a follower of Christ. And I follow Him because I believe He shows us a better way. The Sermon on the Mount is full of “You have heard it said…But I say unto you,” statements, indicating that in Christ, we have a fuller, more complete revelation of God’s will. Paul puts it this way: “He is the image of the invisible God….For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” (Col. 1.15, 19). The one who IS our peace (Eph. 2.14) calls us to the way of peace (Rom. 12.18; 1 Thess. 5.13; Heb. 12.14).

But we never get there if Christ is not our primary lens through which the balance of Scripture must be interpreted.

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9 Responses to The Sermon on the Mount 2

  1. Phil MacLean says:

    Jason, you said: “but I cannot accept the full tenets of pacifism in light of the greater balance of Scripture.”

    To continue the conversation, what aspects of pacifism can you not accept; and why do you think Jesus would not accept them either?

    This is a topic I personally struggle with when it comes to what extent, so I’m curious about your thoughts. Hope all is well man!

  2. Jason says:

    I’ve been back and forth on this issue in my mind for the past three years or so. Like I said, I want to place a premium on the words of Jesus — thus my commitment to nonviolence. But my belief that love for neighbor compels me to protect him / her from someone who is attempting to do them harm keeps me from designating myself a pacifist. You know, it’s the age old extreme hypothetical: what would you do if you saw someone violently oppressing an old woman, a child, your neighbor, etc. My understanding of love for neighbor (per Deuteronomy, the Prophets, Jesus, Paul, etc.) would compel me to act to defend the oppressed. Not in extremely violent ways, but I suppose you could classify this as “use of force” or whatever. I think this is consistent with someone who espouses nonviolence without affirming the full tenets of pacifism. Or maybe a more accurate statement is that I wouldn’t consider myself a pacifist in the classic sense of the term. It seems that there is some latitude within pacifism on some of these issues. But this is where I’m at presently.

    What do you think?

    By the way, Jay Guin has been leading a really interesting discussion on pacifism over at One In Jesus that you would enjoy. He gave me some food for thought on this issue.

  3. Phil MacLean says:

    Yeah, I know what you mean man; I don’t have everything in place when it comes to the pacifist argument either. I struggle with the “standing by while oppression happens” as well with situations. I ask “How could anyone stand by and watch something as horrific as the holocaust?” But I do think that a more Christian response to deal with oppression is to figure out how to “suffer with” or comfort the oppressed rather than bomb the enemy. But in the back of my mind, by Jesus not giving into the tempter when he could have crushed Caesar at anytime and ended Jewish oppression has weight on the issue as well. I do remember Lee Camp telling me one time though, that when we start saying things like “I know Christ said this, but in reality it just doesn’t work today” we are entering dangerous territory and run the chance of stripping the power from the words of Our savior. I also want to be careful not to base too many of my beliefs on “what ifs’ if you know what I mean (ex. what if an intruder came into your house).

  4. jamesbrett says:

    Jason, good to find you on here — and just as good to read some of your stuff. I hope all is well with you guys. Allow me to show some ignorance here and, without disagreeing, ask your opinion: If we’re going to have a primary lens through which we interpret all scripture, why do we choose Jesus? Why not God’s glory? Or God’s kingdom? Or the overarching story of a loving God seeking to bring back to himself a fallen mankind? I don’t know that I really have an opinion on this primary lens idea at this point, and I certainly don’t want to steal away any of the importance of Jesus as Lord and Savior of mankind. But I’m just thinking… if I had to choose a lens (or unknowingly already have), is the person of Jesus going to be mine?

    And I’m amazed this pacifism stuff keeps finding me these last couple of days! Living in Tanzania, the subject doesn’t really seem to come up much — but in just the last two or three days, it’s been everywhere I turn. I went ahead and committed to study it in a little more detail, and also found the Jay Guin stuff. I’m really enjoying going through it…

  5. Jason says:

    I know what you’re saying, Phil. And I certainly agree that we’re in dangerous territory when we start to explain away the words of Jesus as irrelevant or by saying, “That just won’t work in the real world.” I’ll have more to say about that later on in our discussion of the SOM, but I reject the notion that Jesus is giving some kind of “pie in the sky”, unattainable ethic for living. In fact, I think it’s just the opposite. And the extreme “what if” discussions don’t seem to help much here. Back to your original question, it’s probably a bit too strong for me to say “I reject pacifism”…I don’t think that communicates clearly what I’m trying to say. Where I find myself in this discussion is squarely in the nonviolent camp, while not technically a pacifist in the strictest sense.

  6. Jason says:

    Brett, thanks for dropping by. I’ve linked you up in my blogroll…it’ll be good to keep up with you.

    I guess my conviction that Jesus should be our primary lens through which we interpret both the text and our own lives is rooted in the Colossians text I cited in the post: He is the image of the invisible God and in Him the fullness of God dwells. This means Christ is the ultimate representation of God’s will for humanity. I think Jesus shows us what the Kingdom of God looks like. In Matthew 4.17, He declares, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” I think the Sermon on the Mount is Christ’s manifesto on what the life of repentance looks like; He demonstrates to us that the in-breaking of the Kingdom manifests itself through humility of spirit, meekness, purity of heart, turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, etc.

    All of that to say, I believe following Christ means I place a premium on the ethic that He sets forth. It means I take seriously His words and His life…even His call for His disciples to take up their crosses and follow Him. I think discipleship requires this.

    Does that make sense? What do you think?

  7. jamesbrett says:

    What do I think…. I’m really not sure. What bothers me so much is that I know I must be reading the Bible with a primary lens of some sort — how could I not be? But I don’t know what the prevailing lens is in my study of the Word. Worse yet, I’m afraid that at times I can be the kind of person who, once I do figure out what lens I’m using, will defend it simply because I’m using it — rather than because it’s right. All the same, my thoughts:

    I believe the fullness of God dwells in Christ. And I believe Jesus shows us what the Father looks like, as well as the kingdom. And I agree that following Christ forces us to take seriously his words and life.

    But at the same time, if he allowed himself to be sent to earth for a purpose, if he came here to accomplish something, then I would lean toward that purpose being my primary lens. After all he gave up equality with God to achieve that end. For example, if we’d consider Jesus as our primary lens because he shows us what the kingdom of God looks like, then maybe the kingdom of God is worthy of being that lens through which we read the Bible.

    I believe humanity knows what God looks like, how he acts, what he loves, because Christ came to earth in the flesh. And I know all things were created through and for Christ. And Christ is the way to real life. But there are so many questions that can be asked of Christ and his purposes. Why exactly did he come? More to show us what God looks like or to establish his kingdom or to reclaim mankind (all of the above — and more)? Why did he create earth and us in it? Why is it important to show us what God looks like? Or how to live life as it was intended? Or how to love the Father with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength? Or our neighbor? Did Christ himself read the scriptures through a lens? Was he his own lens?

    I wonder if all the questions about Jesus’ purposes can be answered within himself? Or is there required a foundation on which to place them? I think I want to move towards my primary lens being something like God in his totality, or perfect love, or God’s kingdom. Even these, though, still have motivations and answers and purposes behind them.

    I am going to say that for me, today, I am going to choose as my primary lens “the glory of God.” It seems that no matter what question I ask of a text or life or existence or even of Jesus himself, ultimately the final answer (or the first, depending on how you look at it) is “so that God can receive glory” or “because God is worthy of all glory.”

    So I still read the Bible and take just as seriously Jesus’ life and words, though my reason for doing so is not Jesus himself, but the glory of God. Jesus’ words shape my life, but ultimately not so I can look or act like Jesus — but so that I can glorify God. Jesus redeemed us from a fallen life, so that we could glorify God. He established a kingdom in which God would be glorified. He died on a cross to put us in a right relationship with God, so that he could be glorified. He was resurrected so that God’s power over death could be demonstrated and glory given to God.

    These are my thoughts… today.

  8. Jason says:

    I hear what you’re saying, Brett. And I think we agree here more than you realize. You propose the pursuit of God’s glory as the primary interpretive tool for understanding both scripture and your own existence. I can’t argue against that. However, I understand Jesus as the full representation of God’s glory. John 1.14 seems to say that when we see Jesus, we see the glory of God. So inasmuch as I want to pursue the glory of God, I have to understand Jesus in order to have the complete portrait of what God’s glory looks like…or what a life looks like when it is completely committed to the passionate pursuit of God’s glory. Which leads us back to Jesus as our primary way of understanding who God is and who we were truly created to be in the first place. I think the statement “fully God and fully human” is more true than we even realize sometimes.

  9. jamesbrett says:

    I understand what you’re saying. And what I’m going to do now is try to pay attention when studying to the lens through which I’m reading — a little experiment if you will. And then I’m going to try and swap to interpreting everything I read through Jesus, rather than, say, the glory of God. I want to see the difference it makes — though I suspect you’re right that we’re not far apart on this, and I will find mostly similarities…? Anyway, thanks for making me think.

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