Background ( Matthew 4:18—5:16)
[January 29, 2012] If we are to understand the Sermon on the Mount, we need to see it within the dynamic of the Gospel according to Matthew, that it is not a summary of Jesus’ ethical stance but rather a description of where He is—namely the Kingdom of the Heavens—and the place to which He calls His believers. Instead of it being a summary of what we are to do, it is a description of what we become when we are where He is. Where He is does not refer to His stance but rather to His Person, to who He is in relation to others. When we hear His call and give ourselves to Him, we come into a relationship as a person with His Person and are brought to share this place where He is—in relation to the Father, in relation to each other. If it were merely a stance, we would only need His teaching and example. What takes place here is something much different.
The Beatitudes describe the place where Jesus finds Himself in His humanity. He is poor in spirit, for He denies His soul and places Himself in dependence upon the Father for His will and the Holy Spirit for His guidance and empowerment; He mourns for the world; He is meek; He hungers and thirsts for righteousness; He is merciful; He is pure in heart; He makes peace; He is persecuted. Because He is all this, and thus is the Beloved Son of the Father in whom the Father has found His delight, He is blessed and receives the blessing of the Father: the Kingdom of the Heavens, comfort, the inheritance of the earth, satisfaction, mercy, the vision of God, being called the Son of God.
At this point in time, these things are only true of Him, but He becomes the place of blessedness, the Promised Land, to those who come to Him and give Him their allegiance and fidelity. The blessings, as we shall see, are still conditional, but they depend on the believer’s relationship to their Lord, who brings them into the place where He is as He transforms them by His relationship to them. When they come to Him, they begin at once to participate in His relationship to the Father and to others, and this brings them under the government of the Kingdom of the Heavens, that is, its discipline. On the one hand, participating in His relationship to the Father brings them into a place of forgiveness, reconciliation, justification, and grace, and participating in His relationship to others makes them into His siblings and siblings with one another, or in other words, the church. The other side of this coin, however, is that the Father now disciplines us according to these relationships. We come under the standard of the Kingdom of the Heavens and under its government, its ruling and judgment.
The Kingdom of the Heavens overcomes its opposition. So when the Gospel according to Matthew seems to speak—with respect to the believer—of conditions and judgment instead of grace, it is the conditions and judgment of grace, or under grace. They takes place on the inside of this circle. The Kingdom of the Heavens overcomes us, but in order to save us. On the other hand, when the gospel speaks of the unbeliever, the conditions and judgment refer to the way things are outside this circle. There is no relationship to the Lord except that of alienation and antagonism; the government of the Kingdom of the Heavens in this case overcomes in order to defeat. If a person comes to believe by grace, the character of that judgment becomes gracious, for now the same judgment works to save us.
Giving the Correct Interpretation of the Scriptures (5:17-20)
Contrary to what many Christians say, Jesus did not come to abolish or annul Judaism. He was not opposed to the Torah and the Halakah. Nowhere does He give this impression. He does not put an end to them by fulfilling them, as if now they were exhausted. No, Jesus even says that not one iota or serif shall by any means pass away from the Torah or the Prophets until it all come to pass, that is, not until the heavens and the earth pass away. This hardly accords with our modern understanding about the origin of these texts, for we see glaringly how their origin takes place within the ambiguities of history and the behavior of flawed human beings. Nevertheless, Jesus says, “Truly I say to you.” He means it.
Was He a fundamentalist, then? Not in the sense of twenty-first century fundamentalists. For the modern fundamentalist believes in the text as a symbol; they do not believe in the text when correctly interpreted. Often they eschew interpretation, insisting merely on the text itself as a symbol of authority. As a result, they take no responsibility for their interpretation and consequently their interpretation is perverted by their own cultural assumptions. The authority of the Biblical text however does not lie in the text as a symbol but in the meaning of the text. Therefore unless the text is understood it has no authority. Its authority lies in its correct interpretation and understanding; and then its authority speaks for itself, for it has the authority of truth.
According to the rabbinic use, to abolish or annul Scripture is to misinterpret or misapply it. To fulfill it is give it its correct or true interpretation and application. Jesus’ coming is the correct meaning and application of the prophetic texts and so He fulfills them. This, however, is also true of the meaning of the entire Scriptural corpus. He is the One to whom it all points, at least typologically. In verse 19 Jesus speaks specifically of the commandments, the Halakah (halak means the “walk”). Jesus, by His own obedience, fulfills the Halakah. He also, knows the true significance of the Halakah; He knows what its essence is and what it is driving at. The etymology of Torah has to do with an archer (moreh) shooting an arrow (yarah), and thus an arrow seeking its target. Jeff A. Benner says (on http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/12_torah.html) that Torah literally means “the arrow from the archer,” and derivatively, “the teachings from the teacher.” Jesus can fulfill the commandments because He knows that which the arrow seeks. He knows this, of course, because His complete obedience to the divine Archer gives Him this insight.
Jesus says that to annul the littlest part of the Halakah is be the least in the Kingdom of the Heavens but to practice and teach the Halakah is to be great in the Kingdom of the Heavens. To annul the Halakah is to misinterpret and misapply it: to “shoot the arrow,” as it were, at the wrong target. Apparently this is what the Pharisees and the scribes were doing. There were different schools of Pharisees and scribes can refer to a whole range of people from teachers to copyists. Jesus probably has in mind some more than others, but He includes them all in His statement. He is challenging their interpretation of the commandments perhaps because they are missing the main factor—which is Himself!—and therefore their arrows are missing the correct target. Unless our righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, we shall by no means enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens. The “righteousness” to which Jesus refers is not objective but subjective. It does not refer to our justification before God based on the righteousness of Christ. Rather it refers to our “fulfilling” the commandments. What makes the difference in our “walk” is the presence of Jesus and our relationship of fidelity to Him. It is not that the Torah of Jesus is so much more exacting than that of the scribes and Pharisees, it is that it is on target.
In later terms, it has to do with the indwelling of Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is always the case but obviously so in the case of Gentiles who do not follow the Halakah of Moses given to Israel.
To be the least or great in the Kingdom of the Heavens refers to our being under the government of the Kingdom of the Heavens and how we stand there. This refers to the present. In the following verse Jesus speaks of entering the Kingdom of the Heavens. This refers to the future. As long as a believer is in this life, she or he is under the government of the Kingdom of the Heavens, that is, the person is under the discipline of the Kingdom. The Father disciplines them in order to bring about the salvation of their soul by passing it through death: that is, ending its identification with the constructed (false) self that is produced by and is subject to the gestalt of the world.
Entering and possessing the Kingdom of the Heavens refers to the believer’s reward at the coming of Christ, that is, whether the believer can (yet) share in His glory. When Christ gathers us to Himself He will judge us (see 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10, 12; 1 Corinthians 4:4-5; 3:13-15; Matthew 16:27; Revelation 22:12; and Hebrew 10:27, 30). If we are not ashamed at His coming but He says to us, “Well done,” then we enter and possess the Kingdom of the Heavens, the realm of beatitude or blessedness, where we reign with Christ and share His glory, the glory of His transfiguration (the divinization of His humanity). If not, we shall be separated from that for a time—cast into the outer darkness—until we “catch up.” The fire of His judgment shall try us and some will only escape with their lives. Eternal life is the possession of all (true) believers, but we do not inherit it, that is, enter into the enjoyment of eternal life, until we enter into the Kingdom of the Heavens. The future inheritance of eternal life is different than our present possession of it. In our inheritance, eternal life gets to unfold into its glory. At present, that glory is latent, awaiting the appearance of our beloved and longed-for Lord and the fire of His judgment.
To enter and possess the Kingdom of the Heavens requires more than that we believe in Jesus. It requires even more than that we give Him our loyalty and fidelity and allegiance. It requires that He transforms us by our obedience to Him within this relationship. Peter was a disciple of Jesus, and therefore a believer, before he learned to take up the cross and follow Jesus on that way. We are all like him. It takes time. The Peter who confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” whose confession was the foundation of the church, was not yet ready to deny himself and take up his cross and follow Jesus to the losing of his soul (Matthew 16:13-27).
Anger and Liability to Judgment (5:21-26)
Jesus gives a series of examples in which the usual interpretation of the Halakah, or at least the standards that people hold, fall far too short of the target and therefore annul the Halakah. Jesus too “builds a fence” around the commandments, but not by adding more outward regulations but by clarifying or raising the inner standard. “You have heard that it was said to the ancients … but I say to you …”
The first example has to do with anger. The commandment says, “You shall not murder.” However, what this commandment points only broadly in the right direction. Jesus uses the illustration of mundane judgments—before the gate of the city, before the national Sanhedrin, and before the judgment seat of God—to illustrate a scale of liabilities to judgment. Even anger makes us liable to the judgment. Anger is not necessarily wrong. Jesus was often angry Himself. But anger makes us liable to the judgment. Liable means that we become highly answerable or responsible for our actions when we are angry; we are susceptible to God’s judgment; and we likely (though not necessarily) to sin.
Jesus outlines how He expects believers to behave towards each other in chapter 18. “Whoever stumbles one of these little ones who believe into Me,” referring to any believer, not just children (see the context), “it is more profitable for him that a great millstone be hung around his neck and he be drowned in the open sea” (18:6). He goes on in verses 8-9, “If your hand or your foot stumbles you, cut it off and cast it from you; it is better for you to enter into life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire,” and so on. He then offers a remedy in verses 15-20 when “your sibling sins against you,” and in verses 21-35 He speaks of the consequences of not forgiving your sibling “from your heart.” If we do not forgive our sibling, we will be, in the language of the parable, “delivered to the torturers until we have repaid all that we owe.” If Jesus was talking about unbelievers, none of what He says would make any sense. He is talking about the judgment of believers.
Jesus goes on to speak of bringing one’s gift to the altar in the outer court of the Temple. One worshipped God by making an offering. This also describes the worship of the church. We offer worship to God not only with our praise but by our ministry to one another, in which we take what the Lord has given to us and offer it up to God by sharing with our fellow believers. When we bring unbelievers to faith, this also is an offering. However, our offering as such is “blocked” if we are not reconciled to our siblings. Before we can really function in the church, we must be at peace with all our siblings. If not and that impasse remains until we appear before the judgment seat of Christ, we will not enter the Kingdom of the Heavens but instead the Judge will send us to prison where we will be disciplined until we have the last penny. This is similar to 18:34. We must not only reconcile ourselves to others before we die, but we must also reconcile ourselves to them before they die, or get out of our reach. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus has no tolerance for enmity between His believers, absolutely none.
The word “brothers” probably included fellow Jews who are siblings in a different sense than fellow believers in the Messiah Jesus. Jesus also speaks of one’s opponent. This probably includes any human being, for any unbeliever may be a future believer, and thus already a member of the elect. While the imperative of Jesus’ concern is intensified in the immediacy of the local church (which includes all the believers in a parish, a geographical locality), we need to apply it to our relationships with all people.
Let me continue these reflections in another blog entry.