The Sermon on the Mount 15

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” — Matthew 5.17-20

In these verses, we find the key to understanding the balance of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus affirms His role as fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy and Mosaic law, a truth that is all too often lost on modern Christians. Taking a page from Marcion, we’ve almost exclusively absorbed Paul’s theology re: law without giving voice to what Jesus Himself has to say about it. Our reference to the Hebrew Scriptures as “Old Testament” has produced the unfortunate side effect of diminishing these texts as “non-binding” and therefore irrelevant to the Christian experience. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Jesus “fulfills” the law by revealing that which God willed from the very beginning: to create a people to share in the righteous character of YHWH. Indeed, this righteousness — the very hallmark of the Kingdom of God (5.20) — is God’s ultimate purpose for the law and, moreover, his people. But by Jesus’ day, the law that was intended to be life-giving had become burdensome, thanks in no small part to Pharisaic legalism. Moving forward in the Sermon, Jesus will offer an interpretation that greatly contrasts with the view of the Pharisees and the religious leaders of the day. But Christ’s teaching hearkens back “behind” the law, going beyond the legalistic interpretation of the Pharisees, to the embedded Truth of God latent within the law. “You have heard that it was said….but I say unto you.” Jesus contrasts the prevailing view of the law with His “new” teaching that reveals the ultimate intention of God and the purpose of the law.

I find that I much prefer this way of viewing Jesus. He stands as the fulfillment of salvation history, the revelation of the fullness of God (Colossians 1.19). I’ve heard Christian teaching that positions the Old Testament as God’s initial effort to save the world, albeit a failed attempt. So God went back to the drawing board and came up with Salvation Plan 2.0, this time sending His Son to fix what Abraham, Moses, David and everyone else could not. Not only does this kind of theology ignore the teaching of Scripture (Gen. 3.15; Gen. 12.2; Isa. 53; Micah 5.1-5 and other Messianic texts), it also paints the portrait of a “fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants” God who just can’t seem to get it right when it comes to salvation.

The previous call to be salt and light are also instructive for understanding what Jesus says in 5.17-20. N.T. Wright points this out:

Jesus is calling the Israel of his day to be Israel indeed, now that he is there. What he says here can now be applied to all Christians, but its original meaning was a challenge to Jesus’ own contemporaries. God had called Israel to be the salt of the earth; but Israel was behaving like everyone else, with its power politics, its factional squabbles, its militant revolutions. How could God keep the world from going bad — the main function of salt in the ancient world — if Israel, his chosen ‘salt’, had lost its distinctive taste? (Matthew for Everyone, p.40)

Light, salt, law, righteousness — these terms point us back to the inescapable truth that God calls for distinctive character in His people, a chosen people for a singular God. Through the remainder of His sermon, Jesus will demonstrate in great detail the righteousness God wills for His Kingdom citizens.

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9 Responses to The Sermon on the Mount 15

  1. jamesbrett says:

    i enjoyed the post, jason. we’ve recently had some good discussion on this text over at my blog. though it’s been said that i’ve attempted to interpret the text too literally.

    i’ve slowly working to memorize the sermon on the mount, and i keep feeling called to this bit about our righteousness needing to exceed that of the pharisees. that stands out to me so much. i’ve also been studying the book of matthew as a whole a bit lately, and have heard it suggested that we’re to interpret the law through the lens (we had a discussion about this a while back, and i’m still exploring my thoughts on it) of mercy and not sacrifice. jesus mentions seeking mercy and not sacrifice in matthew 9 and 12. and in 12, it’s in the context of him offering rest, yet breaking the sabbath. he tells them they would have understood why he was doing so, if they’d only understood that God desires mercy and not sacrifice.

    and i like that reading of the old law because it was possible for the jews to read it that way — in fact they were encouraged to by many of the prophets. anyway, that’s all a bit scrambled, but my thoughts all the same.

  2. Jason says:

    I think it’s important that God’s standards have always been consistent: he has always desired a people to model his righteousness and his holiness. That’s a good point about understanding the law through mercy rather than as some sort of sacrificial system. I’ll have to give that some thought. But I really like that approach, not only for its implications re: the law itself, but moreover for the implications that brings to light re: Jesus as fulfillment of that law. This makes Jesus the fullest representation of God’s mercy, does it not?

  3. jamesbrett says:

    mark long of rochester was teaching at a men’s retreat in kenya. and he’s the one that brought up this mercy and not sacrifice lens. basically his whole premise for the book of matthew (if i can explain it without looking back at notes) is that it’s written for a scribal community — and matthew is showing them how Jesus expects a scribal community to extend its borders into the world. generally speaking, scribal communities are closed systems, yet we’re supposed to be an open system. i think the reason he likes it so much is that we, the modern church (maybe specifically c of c) are similar to the pharisees, etc, because of our focus on the scriptures (making us a scribal community) and because of our tendencies to put up walls (closed system).

    so the answer is for a scribal community to learn how to interpret (and keep) law through the lens of mercy. that opens the system, and at the same time allows us to be pleasing to God — because it’s what he’s wanted all along.

    the matthew 11-12 text is really important to that idea, because Jesus offers rest, breaks the sabbath, explains how he interpreted scripture to make that the right choice, and points out that the pharisees don’t give people rest, but instead pile on heavy burdens. that’s a closed system, scribal community (ie. the way i grew up).

    so i’m rambling now. but it’s really interesting to me. and, yes, it does make Jesus the fullest representation of God’s mercy. the logos, he is both the message and offering of mercy and the messenger who brings it.

    • Jason says:

      I don’t think you’re rambling; I think you’re on to something here, Brett. And I love that notion of the system opening up when we view it through the lens of mercy.

      Back to Christ being the fullest representation of God’s mercy…our previous conversation was re: Christ as the normative lens for understanding life, ourselves, reality…basically everything. Have you had more time to chew on this? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      I appreciate your blog, by the way. I don’t comment often, but you’re a gifted writer and thinker. I appreciate the ways that you challenge conventional thinking, even in the areas where I subscribe to conventional thinking!

      • jamesbrett says:

        i have had more time to think through it. i think part of my aversion to the idea had to do with my frustration with a focus on Jesus and justification, to the exclusion of sanctification and kingdom life, etc. (not that you were excluding any of this — i think i was just subconsciously trying to take emphasis off of Christ and put it on the kingdom. which was wrong of me.) so i really like the idea that God has expected and desired the same thing for all time from his people. and that this requires a filter or lens of mercy and not duty.

        so i think Jesus enters, then, and gives us the perfect example of what that looks like. basically a “this is what God wanted all along and still does” performance. so, yeah, i think i can accept him as the normative lens for understanding everything. though there’s something about it for me that seems easier still about making decisions through a lens of mercy than asking “what would Jesus do?” [not that this is what you’re saying to do, but it seems a logical end.]

        quick for instance. polygamy here in tanzania. a guy becomes a christian, and he’s got three wives. what do we do? what should he do? asking myself what Jesus would have done doesn’t help me a great deal, because i never saw him in that specific context. but reading the bible making sure if i have to err, i err on the side of mercy does help me.

        what do you think? oh, and thanks for reading my blog, and saying kind things about it. but we both know you’re not conventional. and jason, i should confess, i completely skip your blog on days you talk about ‘lost’ or baseball. baseball because it bores me to death and lost because i’m guessing one day i’ll get the dvds and watch all the seasons while here in tanzania — i don’t want to ruin it….

  4. Jason says:

    I hear what you’re saying, especially with the polygamy issue. I don’t have anything analogous that I can compare that to, but when I find myself in a situation like that (where I don’t have precedent with Jesus in Scripture), I find myself asking, “How can I act redemptively here?” And I think that question keeps me near to the heart of Jesus; in that way, He continues to be my normative lens. That question serves as a reminder of the two most important commands according to Jesus: love God and love others. And let’s face it, what could be more loving than to always seek the redemptive way of dealing with others?

    So I don’t think your category of “Kingdom” is some kind of lens that is diametrically opposed to my whole thing about Jesus; in fact, I suspect that we’re both talking about the same thing, only coming at it from different perspectives and using different terminology. But Jesus Himself spoke about the in-breaking Kingdom of God more than any other human being in history. So clearly, understanding reality through the lens of God’s sovereign kingdom reign can only be done by looking to Christ, the inauguator and herald of that Kingdom.

    By the way…you should check out LOST when it’s all said and done. But don’t read any of the posts…it’s too good of a show to ruin it by reading. Seriously, I’ve never seen a show that caused me to reflect on the themes of redemption, free will, and relationships quite like LOST. If you watch it, you’ll love it.

  5. jamesbrett says:

    how to act redemptively is a good question. i like that. and i also don’t think the kingdom ideas are so far from what we’re talking about here. there’s a lot of overlap in all of it.

    and i’ve seen the first season of lost, and enjoyed it okay. christie likes it more than me. i mean she likes it more than i do. it sounded like she likes lost more than she likes me. but it may be that it gets better after season one? but it’s also true that, living in rural tanzania, my criteria for evaluating tv shows and movies has dropped a lot. it’s just nice to have something to watch…. right now it’s west wing.

  6. Jason says:

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t seeing the overlap between “Jesus as lens” and “kingdom as lens”. Hope that didn’t come across as an arrogant comment on my part; not how I intended it at all.

    LOST’s first season is one of the best (in my opinion). Season 2 and 3 gets a little dense with the mythology at times, but stick with it. Even if the mythology bores you, I think the characters are some of the most well-developed and complicated players in television history.

    • jamesbrett says:

      jason, i didn’t take it that way at all. my sentence should have read more like this: “and i also (in addition to you) don’t think the kingdom ideas are so far from what we’re talking about here.”

      my wife just told me that we’ve seen 3 seasons of lost. so i’m a lot further along than i thought. but i guess that shows i haven’t been so worried about watching the rest. anyway, i will. and then i’ll go back in time to read all the blog posts everyone is writing right now — because i really want to read them even now, not having see the show. [there’s just something i enjoy about theology from pop culture, etc.]

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