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Pennington, Jonathan T. The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017. 326 pp.; Hb.; $32.99. Link to Baker   

In the introduction to his new book on the Sermon on the Mount, Jonathan Pennington suggests the Sermon should be read in both a Jewish and Greco-Roman context. In placing the Sermon in this dual context, he argues the Sermon is concerned not simply with theological questions but also with the important the existential question of “human flourishing.” By “human flourishing” Pennington means happiness, blessedness, or shalom, a true flourishing which is only available through fellowship with God revealed through his Son and empowered by the Holy Spirit (14). He does not force either a virtue-based ethic on to the Sermon or a Jewish wisdom model. He will attempt to balance both wisdom and virtue (or, Jewish and Greco-Roman context) because Jesus is the fulfillment and incarnation of both.

This first part of this book begins with a chapter on the context of the Sermon. He uses Umberto Eco’s Encyclopedic Context model to show the ideal “model reader” of the sermon has a cultural and philosophical encyclopedia which consists of both Greco-Roman and Jewish elements. Pennington is clear he is not proposing a new way of doing biblical backgrounds, but rather he is trying to locate the Sermon in the right context, and that context is More complex that either Jewish or Hellenistic. He therefore briefly surveys wisdom literature with its emphasis on shalom which only fully restored in the eschaton and Greco-Roman virtue tradition with its emphasis on eudaimoia, or human flourishing. The Sermon on the Mount sits at the crossroads of these two traditions (38).

The middle three chapters of Part 1 deal with key vocabulary used in the Sermon, primarily makarios and teleios. The word makarios is notoriously difficult to translate with a single word. The traditional “blessed” is not sufficient, and although “happy” is closer to the meaning it does not have the same gravitas. Following Scot McKnight, Penning observes if you get this word right, everything else in the Sermon falls into place. By beginning with the Beatitudes, Jesus is “painting a picture of what the state of true God-centered human flourishing looks like” (47). For Pennington, the Beatitudes blend both eschatological reversals with wisdom/virtue. In fact (as is often observed), wisdom literature has an apocalyptic edge.

The second key concept in the Sermon is telios, a term often translated as “perfect” but should be translated “wholeness” or “completeness,” or even “virtuous” (70). The word is important since it appears in Matthew 5:48, a verse which Pennington sees as central to the whole structure of the Sermon. Rather than “be perfect,” he reads this verse as encouraging wholehearted devotion to God. This cardiographic reading of telios helps to explain how a person could keep the whole law and still not be whole (Matt 19:21).

Pennington surveys seven other key term sin the Sermon, including righteousness, hypocrisy, heart, gentiles/pagans, “the Father in Heaven,” the Kingdom of God/heaven, and reward, recompense and treasure. Each are only treated briefly, each is worthy of a chapter (or monograph)! The final chapter in Part 1 is an attempt to provide some structure for the Sermon.

The second part of the book is the commentary proper (about 130 pages) divided into six chapters. Pennington begins each pericope with his own translation followed by a few paragraphs dealing with the overall teaching of the text. Since Pennington subtitled this book a “theological commentary” he often goes beyond exegesis to theological reflection. Most exegetical details are restricted to the footnotes and interaction with the Greek text is minimal (and transliterated). This makes for a very readable commentary which will appeal to both professions and laypeople.

For example, for the Beatitudes there is little traditional exegesis. To be fair, Pennington covered the main issue for the section in his chapter on makarios. He has a sub-section on the Isaianic background to the Beatitudes, a section connecting the Beatitudes with the rest of Matthew, a section on the paradox of suffering-flourishing, and a section on the theological appropriation of the Beatitudes in the rest of the canon.  Although not as clearly marked in other sections of the commentary, Pennington follows this pattern throughout his work. He sets the sayings in context by looking back to the Old Testament, the whole context of Matthew, then forward to the reception of the sayings in the rest of the canon and early church.

The final chapter is a final theological reflection on the contribution of the Sermon on the Mount to a “theology of human flourishing.” He makes a series of “theological assertions” based on his reading of the Sermon. First, Pennington says the Bible is about human flourishing, a claim he needs to make because of the Protestant fear of describing the Bible in this way. Protestants tend to see the Bible as a “drama of redemption” (how does God deal with the sinfulness of humanity), but to focus solely on this misses the rich material throughout the Bible on how people can flourish as humans. This assertion makes perfect sense if one has a biblical view of shalom, essentially the second and third chapter of Pennington’s book.

Second, the Bible’s vision of human flourishing is God centered and (ultimately) eschatological. This point is developed from Pennington’s work on telios in chapter 3. Since the story of the Bible is working toward the restoration of shalom, it is goal-oriented. Part of this goal can be realized in individual human flourishing, but it is also missional and outward focused. By participating in the story of redemption, humans work toward God’s eschatological goal of restoring shalom.

Third, the moral view of the Bible is a “revelatory virtue ethic.” Although he is attracted to ethics as virtue, Pennington is adamant the virtue demanded by the Bible is shaped by and encircled by divine revelation (300). This is not a case of baptizing secular virtue ethics by prooftexting them with the Sermon on the Mount.

Fourth, salvation is “inextricably entailed” with discipleship and virtuous transformation. In this assertion Pennington wants to defuse the potential disconnect between Jesus and Paul. In Matthew, disciples pursue righteousness, in Paul, righteousness is imputed by grace through faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection. Even though they talk about righteousness differently, the Sermon and Paul both have a vision of discipleship as a transformation of the heart.

Fifth, virtue and grace are compatible. Again, this may be another problem generated by setting Jesus against Paul, since in the Sermon the virtuous disciple “seeks righteousness” and Paul is often made to say righteousness as a legal status equivalent to salvation. For Pennington, righteousness, virtue and sustaining grace are all essentially the same vision for Jesus’s disciples.

Finally, Pennington observes that biblical human flourishing will provide an insight into the meaning of God’s saving work. He does not want to leave the impression one can live a happy and prosperous life by following the Sermon on the Mount but never actually encounter Jesus as a savior. Human flourishing is not the only metaphor to describe the message of the Bible (309), but it does provide a framework for understanding redemption and the kingdom of God.

Conclusion. In this book, Pennington demonstrates that the Sermon is a “Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom exhortation” (15). He achieves this goal by setting the Sermon in a canonical context of wisdom literature, but also by paying attention to interaction with the world of ancient ethics texts. Pennington’s contribution to the ongoing discussion of the Sermon on the Mount is far more than a commentary, it is an introduction to biblical ethics. Like Stassen and Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics, Pennington’s book attempts to use the Sermon on the Mount as a foundation for discussing larger issues of discipleship, virtue and ethics.

 

NB: Thanks to Baker for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Setting of the SermonTo celebrate the happiest time of the year (the beginning of school), I am going to give away a few books on Reading Acts. Two weeks ago, I gave Jake Bodet a copy of The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids. Mich.: Baker Academic, 2013) edited by Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald. Last week I gave James Gray a new copy of Reading Luke (Zondervan, 2005).

For this week’s giveaway, I have a paperback copy of W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge, 1963). W. D. Davies is a scholar everyone should read. I read his Paul and Rabbinic Judaism in Bible College; it set the stage for Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism and the so-called New Perspective. His commentary on Matthew in the ICC series (with Dale Allison) is a standard. This book on the Sermon on the Mount book is older, but something of a classic. At well over 500 pages, this is a serious study of the Sermon and one that raises questions Davies works on for the rest of his career. He explores New Exodus and New Moses motifs, Jewish Messianic Expectations,  the setting/background of early Judaism, early Christianity and Jesus’ ministry.

If this book is so good, why am I giving it away? I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You have no idea how good this town is for buying books for biblical studies. I recently bought this at Baker Books in their incredible used section, and when I went to put it on the shelf I realized I had a hardback copy already. Once again, but decaying memory is your gain, I decided I would give it away on Reading Acts rather than return it.

Same rules as last week: Enter by leaving a comment answering this question:  The Sermon on the Mount, Q or no Q?

On Wednesday, September 16 I will randomly select one comment and ship the book out to the lucky winner. If you leave more than one comment, I will only count one comment per person for the contest.

Good Luck!

 

In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus discusses six issues drawn from the Law. While he begins with a quotation of the Law, he interprets the Law in a radical fashion in order to get to the heart of the original command. To use Scot McKnight’s three categories of Jesus’ ethic, the command is “from above” because Jesus is stating in clear terms what he expects from his people and he does this “from below” like a wisdom teacher. In the first two examples in this section, the law states “thou shalt not murder, commit adultery” and Wisdom literature observes often the folly of anger and lust. But there is an eschatological aspect as well since God’s people will live at a higher standard than they have in the past.

Anger ManagmentJesus deals with two of the Ten Commandments, first murder (5:21-26) and then adultery (5:27-30). This should not be taken as an indication Jesus had nothing to say about theft or bearing false witness. We can think of Jesus as setting up a new way of reading these commands since he is more interested in the mental and spiritual practices that result in a breach of the command. If God’s people to not hate, then they will not murder either!

In this interpretation of the sixth commandment, there is a progression from anger, to calling someone ῥακά (raca), to calling someone a fool. The results are also progressive: subject to judgment, brought before the council, and the fires of Hell. If someone thinks they are right with God because they have not murdered, can they say they have never been angry? If they have been angry, can someone say they have never used rough language to describe another person? Most people will be provoked to anger by the stupidity of others (spend a few minutes reading your facebook or twitter feeds; you are going to call someone a fool sooner or later!)

Jesus quotes the commandment they offers three clarifications or extensions of the command. First, Jesus says if you are angry with a brother, you are under judgment. The judgment for murder was to be taken outside town and stoned! Jesus says that even if you have never committed murder, if you were angry you have the same level of guilt as a murderer!

Second, if one calls his brother raca he is liable before the council. Raca is “an obscure term of abuse, probably from the Aramaic meaning “empty one” or even “imbecile.” N. T. Wright suggests the word refers to “vulgar and abusive language” in his translation of the New Testament. The council is the Sanhedrin, the highest court in the land for the Jews.  This is to say something like “you will be taken before the Supreme Court” for judgment.  Both raca and the judgment are stronger than the first two statements.

Third, Jesus says that saying “you fool” will place one in the fires of Hell. While the phrase “you fool” is not particularly strong in English, but in a first century context it was a serious condemnation. The Greek word μωρός (moros) is a strong condemnation, since the Wisdom literature routinely condemns the actions of the fool in contrast to the wise. It is possible Jesus has in mind a “rebel,” alluding to Moses in Num 20:10 (although a different word is used the the LXX, the angry condemnation of Israel is similar in tone). The “fires of Hell” is the word γέεννα (ghenna), a reference to the Valley of Hinnom. Since the valley was used as a place for Molech worship during the reign of Manasseh (2 Chron 28:3) and was often used as a garbage pit, it become a metaphor for fiery judgment.

Thus Jesus says the anger that causes murder is the problem. The people of God cannot think of themselves as righteous because they have not killed anyone, they need to realize that anger and harsh words are even more deadly and under an even harsher judgment that murder.

If this expansion and deepening of the command of the Law is model for applying other commandments, how might we “expand and deepen” the other commands of the Decalogue? Other than adultery, there ought to be a way of describing the attitude behind theft or untruth.

It is no coincidence that the Sermon on the Mount echoes throughout the Gospel of Luke, as well as in Paul’s letters and the rest of the New Testament….  In the first three centuries of the church, no other biblical passage was referred to as often…There is no question that it was understood as the charter document for Christian Living.  Church leaders constantly quoted it when offering moral exhortation. Glen H. Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (Downers Grove:  Invert-Varsity, 2003), 31.

For many Christians, the Sermon on the Mount is the core of Christian Ethics. As Stassen and Gushee state above, the early church used the Sermon frequently to describe how a Christian ought to live out their life in Christ. The same is true for modern Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously used the sermon as the basis for his The Cost of Discipleship, one of the most influential books on the thinking of Christians in the latter half of the twentieth century. For many Christians, the Sermon on the Mount is the foundation for Ethics, so that books like Kingdom Ethics can use Matthew 5-7 as a starting point for an ethical system.

But as Scot McKnight comments in his recent commentary on the Sermon, Jesus does not “do ethics” quite like anyone else. His teaching is not quite virtue ethics or utilitarianism or any other category of “modern ethics.” He therefore suggests “it is wiser to begin by wondering what Jesus sounded like—morally, that is—in a first century Galilean Jewish world” (Sermon on the Mount, 7).

Sermon on the MountAs McKnight explains it, the Sermon makes people nervous because it does not fit any one category of “doing ethics.” He suggests there are three dimensions to the ethics of Jesus, “from above, beyond and below.” “From above” refers to the commands directly from God as found in the Torah. The Law is not ethics in the contemporary sense since it claims to be a direct revelation of God’s will. Jesus speaks this way in the Sermon on the Mount. He teaches “by his own authority” (Matt 7:28-29). Even if he makes reference to the Law (Matt 5:21, 27) or seems to reflect rabbinical debates (Matt 33-37), Jesus declares “this is what I say.”

But Jesus does not simply command. According to McKnight, his ethics also is “from beyond.” Here McKnight refers to a “kingdom ethic.” The disciples of Jesus are part of the new age (already) even if that new age is (not yet) fully present. There is an eschatological dimension to the Sermon on the Mount since the “future has already begin to take place in the present…An ethic unshaped by eschatology is neither Jesus nor Christian” (11). But Jesus did not have in mind a kind of other-worldly detachment from the present world. The coming Kingdom of God shapes the way Jesus-followers live right now in this world.

A third dimension to Jesus’ ethic is “from below,” by which McKnight means Jesus’ ethics are like biblical wisdom. Biblical wisdom is intensely practical and is often based on observation of the human condition. Jesus’ teaching on worry in Matt 6:25-27 says worry is not worth the effort, one is better to find contentment in want God has already provided than worrying about tomorrow. This is not a “from above” commandment, “Thou shalt not worry.” Nor is it based on a prophetic look ahead to a future when one does not have any worries in a future kingdom. It is based on a common observation that people who are overly worried do not accomplish much.

In the end of his introduction, McKnight concludes that Jesus’ ethics are messianic and kingdom-oriented, but they also describe how a gathered, Spirit-filled people are to live. This observation bridges the gap between the original audience and later Christians who seek to follow Jesus.

Do other teachings in the Sermon fit into McKnight’s three categories?

The Sermon on the Mount is very much a Jewish style collection and there are some parallels between Jesus’ teaching and discussions of the Law found in the Mishnah.  For example, exchanging coins for tithes (Mt. 21:12, Maaser Sheni 2:7, Sheqalim), rules for healing on the Sabbath (in Shabbat, cf. Luke 6:6-11), fasting (in Taanit, cf Mt. 6:16-18), Marriage and divorce, (Ketubot, cf Mt. 5:31-32, 1 Cor. 7), Vows (Nedarim, cf Mt. 5:33-37), etc.  Several of the “you have hear it said” topics in the Sermon seem very much based on the same sorts of rabbinic interests in the Mishnah.

This tells us something important about Jesus’ style of teaching:  it was not unlike contemporary Jewish teachers.  But more than this, it tells us something about Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ sayings into the Sermon on the Mount.  Perhaps we can think of the discourses in the book of Matthew as a sort of proto-Mishnah, with a focus on only one teacher, Jesus.

In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus discusses elements of the Law.  Did Jesus come to abolish the Law?  Rather than abolishing the Law, Jesus seems to be re-interpreting it in a somewhat radical manner.   The first three of these examples seem to re-interpret and intensify the law, while the second three seem to interpret the Law which may make the command “lighter.”  Jesus “goes beyond the Law” by returning to the heart of the Law.

In the first two cases, murder and adultery, Jesus takes the command of scripture and emphasizes the emotion underlying the sin.  For murder, the real problem is anger and hatred.  For adultery, the real problem is lust.  Jesus says that one cannot claim to keep the commandments if they have been angry with their brother or lusted in their hearts.  Other Jewish literature recognizes this as well.  Sirach 9:1-9, for example, encourages the one who Fears the Lord to be careful what they look at in order to avoid adultery.  Similar to Jesus, the wise person in Sirach 9 avoids the mental process which leads to lust in order to avoid lust.

Here is an example of this quasi-rabbinical application of the Law, through Jesus, to a contemporary issue.  (Another though experiment, since people like those so much!) I think most Christians are going agree with Jesus that lusting in one’s heart is sinful, and this is usually used to point out that pornography is wrong.  But what about the command to be careful about “murdering in your heart”? If a Christian says using a computer for pornography is wrong, why do we not also say using a computer for violence is wrong?  Playing a violent video game is in fact “murdering in your heart” and ought to be seen as just as great a danger as viewing porn on a computer.   Again, Christians agree watching a pornographic movie is sin, but them watch extremely violent movies.  That Jesus chose to pair violence and sex in his teaching should be a powerful warning to modern Christians who filter one, but not the other.

Is this a fair application of the principles of the Sermon on the Mount?  Why do Christians (rightly) condemn sexual content in entertainment, but not violence?

Was the Sermon on the Mount preached at one time, or is this a compendium of the teaching of Jesus?  The material in Matthew 5-7 appears in a slightly different order in Luke (sometimes called, the “sermon on the plain”).  There are several possibly reasons for the parallel material, but the fact that it is in many cases word-for-word the same raises a few questions about how Matthew and Luke may have worked with sources.  Whether this is sayings gospel like Q or Luke making use of Matthew, there is evidence of some literary dependence.

This is of a controversial subject for evangelicals who hold to inerrancy, since Matthew begins the section with, “Jesus went up on a mountainside and began to teach….”  This statement implies that there was a single occasion when Jesus gathered a crowd and taught them this material.  To some scholars, even many evangelical scholars, Matthew has “created” the Sermon on the Mount by taking many separate sayings of Jesus ans arranging them thematically.

When one hears the phrase “the Sermon on the Mount,” one generally identifies it with Matthew’s Gospel and correctly so, not only because of the presence of the Sermon in the first Gospel but because the Sermon on the Mount, as we know it, is ultimately the literary product of the first evangelist.  Robert Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount, 33.

The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1—7:29) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20–49) are literary creations of Matthew and Luke in the sense that they are collections of Jesus’ sayings that were uttered at various times and places and have been brought together primarily due to topical considerations, i.e., in order to have an orderly account (1:3). There is no need, however, to deny that a historical event lies behind the scene. Jesus’ teaching on a mountain/plain has been used as an opportunity by the Evangelists (or the tradition) to bring other related teachings of Jesus in at this point.  Robert Stein, Luke, 198; cf. Synoptic Problem, 96, 219–20.

In Matthew 5-7 Matthew collects the ethical statements of Jesus, in chapter 13 Parables of the Kingdom, and in 24-25, Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings.  Luke takes the same sayings and places them in a different context (the travel section, when Jesus moves from Galilee to Jerusalem.)  The order of the sayings are different as is the context in which they are spoken, but the meaning is the same.  It is not that the gospel writers created sayings, but rather they set those sayings into a typical context.  Jesus probably often sat on a hillside to teach the disciples with the crowds listening as well.

Other evangelicals find this sort of suggestion to be an attack on the inerrancy of scripture.  For scholars like Robert Thomas, the Sermon on the Mount must have been a sermon preached at one time rather than a compendium because Matthew says that Jesus went up on a mountain and began to teach.

It is difficult to locate an explanation for why Matthew bracketed the Sermon with “And seeing the crowds, He ascended into the mountain; and having sat down, His disciples came to Him; and having opened His mouth, He began teaching them, saying” (5:1–2) and “and it came about that when Jesus finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching” (7:28). If Jesus did not preach such a sermon on a single occasion, why would the gospel writer mislead his readers to think that He did? This question has no plain answer.  Robert L. Thomas, “Evangelical Responses to the Jesus Seminar,” Master’s Seminary Journal 7:1 (1996): 88-9.

If Robert Thomas is right, then this is an important issue – but is he right?  Does inerrancy fall if we understand  Matthew as creating a literary collection of Jesus’ words?  If Matthew created the “frames” around the Sermon (Matt 5:1 and 7:28-29), is it not at least possible we could understand this as indicating that these are the sorts of things Jesus used to teach all the time in similar situations.  All Matthew did was collect sayings on Law into a single “sermon.”

Are the views expressed by Guelich and Stein above as  a great threat to evangelical Christians as Robert Thomas makes it out to be?

The Sermon on the Mount is very much a Jewish style collection and there are some parallels between Jesus’ teaching and discussions of the Law found in the Mishnah.  For example, exchanging coins for tithes (Mt. 21:12, Maaser Sheni 2:7, Sheqalim), rules for healing on the Sabbath (in Shabbat, cf. Luke 6:6-11), fasting (in Taanit, cf Mt. 6:16-18), Marriage and divorce, (Ketubot, cf Mt. 5:31-32, 1 Cor. 7), Vows (Nedarim, cf Mt. 5:33-37), etc.  Several of the “you have hear it said” topics in the Sermon seem very much based on the same sorts of rabbinic interests in the Mishnah.  This tells us something important about Jesus’ style of teaching:  it was not unlike contemporary Jewish teachers.  But more than this, it tells us something about Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ sayings into the Sermon on the Mount.  Perhaps we can think of the discourses in the book of Matthew as a sort of proto-Mishnah, with a focus on only one teacher, Jesus?

In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus discusses elements of the Law.  Did Jesus come to abolish the Law?  After reading this section, rather than abolishing the Law, Jesus seems to be re-interpreting it in a somewhat radical manner.   The first three of these examples seem to re-interpret and intensify the law, while the second three seem to interpret the Law which may make the command “lighter.”

In the first two cases, murder and adultery, Jesus takes the command of scripture and emphasizes the emotion underlying the sin.  For murder, the real problem is anger and hatred.  For adultery, the real problem is lust.  Jesus says that one cannot claim to keep the commandments if they have been angry with their brother or lusted in their hearts.  Other Jewish literature recognizes this as well.  Sirach 9:1-9, for example, encourages the one who Fears the Lord to be careful what they look at in order to avoid adultery.  Similar to Jesus, the wise person in Sirach 9 avoids the mental process which leads to lust in order to avoid lust.

I think most Christians are going agree with Jesus that lusting in one’s heart is sinful, and this is usually used to point out that pornography is wrong.  But what about the command to be careful about “murdering in your heart”? If a Christian says using a computer for pornography is wrong, why do we not also say using a computer for violence is wrong?  Playing a violent video game is in fact “murdering in your heart” and ought to be seen as just as great a danger as viewing porn on a computer.   Again, Christians agree watching a pornographic movie is sin, but them watch extremely violent movies.  That Jesus chose to pair violence and sex in his teaching should be a powerful warning to modern Christians who filter one, but not the other.

A common criticism of Dispensational Theology is that dispensationalists ignore the Sermon on the Mount or make it applicable only to the Jews in the Kingdom.  Unfortunately this criticism has some weight since some early dispensationalists did in fact teach that the Christian did not have to follow the Sermon on the Mount since it applied only to the Jews.  There is no real “pope of dispensationalism” so these early statements are used as straw-man arguments to vilify any form of dispensational theology.

…The Sermon on the Mount has application…literally to the kingdom. In this sense it gives the divine constitution for the righteous government of the earth. Whenever the kingdom of heaven is established on earth it will be according to that constitution (C. I. Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible (1917),  999,1000)

…if it is admitted that the sermon contains requirements for entrance into the kingdom, then it must also be conceded that the teachings of the sermon will be in effect not only during the kingdom age but also at a period immediately preceding. A number of reasons indicate that this period will be that which is known as the great tribulation period (James F. Rand, “Problems in Literal Interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount” BibSac 112 (Jan 55): 28-39, 112 (Apr 55): 125-137; 35).

For example, to pray the Lord’s Prayer was not something that the Christian ought to do since it applies to the Tribulation when Jews will really need to pray “give us this day our daily bread.” The fact that the Lord’s Prayer asks for the “Kingdom to come” was thought to be a prayer that was applicable in the tribulation since the kingdom is what the Jew would be praying for at that time, not what the Body of Christ Believer ought to be praying for today.

The Kingdom Prayer will have its proper and full use in a time yet future. After the coming of our Lord for His people and the catching-up of the Church, there will be a believing Remnant of Jewish disciples raised up, who will go everywhere preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, saying, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at, hand.’ … The Jewish Remnant will be terribly persecuted under the awful reign of the Beast-King and the power of Satan (Rev 13) (William L. Pettingill, Simple Studies in Matthew, 77-79).

This teaching was particularly offensive to those from a Mennonite / Brethren background.  To them, the core of Christian ethics is to be found in the Sermon on the Mount.  Bonhoffer, for example, based his ethics almost entirely on the Sermon on the Mount.  The recent Kingdom Ethics by Stassen and Gushee is based on the Sermon on the Mount as a foundation for Christian ethical thinking.

But the criticism that “all Dispensational Theology ignores the Sermon on the Mount” is simply false.  For example:

It is our conclusion that the presence of evil and evil men, the existence of poverty, famine, hunger, and need, are all contrary to the predictions made in the Old Testament concerning the character of the kingdom. Unsaved will not enter the millennium to run rampant against the righteous (Jer 25:31-33; Ezek 36:22-29; Matt 25:31-46). We thus conclude that the Sermon on the Mount cannot be made to apply to conditions on the earth after the establishment of the kingdom ( D. J. Pentecost, “The Purpose of the Sermon on the Mount,” BibSac, 115 (April, 1958): 135), emphasis mine.

As a correction to the excessive separation of the Church and Israel in the writings of early Dispensationalists, many writers see the application of the sermon as “trans-dispensational,” ethical teachings that are true for any dispensations.  How can there really be any time in the history of the world when the ethical standards of the Sermon on the Mount would not be applicable?  For example, the idea that the command not to commit adultery includes thoughts seems to apply to all of human history.   While it is true that Jesus is dealing with elements of Jewish Law and tradition, the way he (re)interprets these traditions is radical and clearly intended to be foundation for being the people of God from the time of Jesus forward.

Bibliography:

Harry A. Sturz, “The Sermon on the Mount and Its Application to the Present Age” Grace Journal 4:3 (Fall 63) p. 3–15.

John Martin, “Dispensational Approaches to the Sermon on the Mount,” in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, ed. S. Toussaint and C. Dyer (Chicago: Moody, 1986) 35-48.

Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, has a helpful summary of the various approaches to the Sermon on the Mount in theology, see pages 245-247. Page 247 note 36, has several articles on Sermon on the Mount and pastoral care.

Was the Sermon on the Mount preached at one time, or is this a compendium of the teaching of Jesus?

This is something of a controversial subject, since Matthew begins the section with, “Jesus went up on a mountainside and began to teach….”  This statement implies that there was a single occasion when Jesus gathered a crowd and taught them this material.  To some scholars, even many evangelical scholars, Matthew has “created” the Sermon on the Mount by taking many separate sayings of Jesus ans arranging them thematically.

When one hears the phrase “the Sermon on the Mount,” one generally identifies it with Matthew’s Gospel and correctly so, not only because of the presence of the Sermon in the first Gospel but because the Sermon on the Mount, as we know it, is ultimately the literary product of the first evangelist (Robert Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount, 33.

The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1—7:29) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20–49) are literary creations of Matthew and Luke in the sense that they are collections of Jesus’ sayings that were uttered at various times and places and have been brought together primarily due to topical considerations, i.e., in order to have an orderly account (1:3). There is no need, however, to deny that a historical event lies behind the scene. Jesus’ teaching on a mountain/plain has been used as an opportunity by the Evangelists (or the tradition) to bring other related teachings of Jesus in at this point (Robert Stein, Luke, 198; cf. Synoptic Problem 96, 219–20).

In Matthew 5-7 Matthew collects the ethical statements of Jesus, in chapter 13 Parables of the Kingdom, and in 24-25, Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings.  Luke takes the same sayings and places them in a different context (the travel section, when Jesus moves from Galilee to Jerusalem.)  The order of the sayings are different as is the context in which they are spoken, but the meaning is the same.  It is not that the gospel writers created sayings, but rather they set those sayings into a typical context.  Jesus probably often sat on a hillside to teach the disciples with the crowds listening as well.

Other evangelicals find this sort of suggestion to be an attack on the inerrancy of scripture.  For scholars like Robert Thomas, the Sermon on the Mount must have been a sermon preached at one time rather than a compendium because Matthew says that Jesus went up on a mountain and began to teach.

It is difficult to locate an explanation for why Matthew bracketed the Sermon with “And seeing the crowds, He ascended into the mountain; and having sat down, His disciples came to Him; and having opened His mouth, He began teaching them, saying” (5:1–2) and “and it came about that when Jesus finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching” (7:28). If Jesus did not preach such a sermon on a single occasion, why would the gospel writer mislead his readers to think that He did? This question has no plain answer (Robert L. Thomas, “Evangelical Responses to the Jesus Seminar,” Master’s Seminary Journal 7:1 (Spr 96), 88-9).

If Thomas is right, then this is an important issue – but is he right?  Does inerrancy fall if we understand  Matthew as creating a literary collection of Jesus’ words?  If Matthew created the “frames” around the Sermon (Matt 5:1 and 7:28-29), is it not at least possible we could understand this as indicating that these are the sorts of things Jesus used to teach all the time in similar situations.  All Matthew did was collect sayings on Law into a single “sermon.”  Is this as of a great threat to evangelical Christians as Thomas makes it?

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Christian Theology

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