[June 8, 2008] We continue looking at the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapter 5. Christians often talk about the Ten Commandments, but here is Jesus’ own description of the behavior He wants from His disciples. These words are addressed to us. We need to hear them as addressed to us by Jesus Himself now, as if we were in front of Him and He Himself were speaking and attaching our name. Through the Holy Spirit it is literally true. We cannot ignore Him. In His presence we need to take these words with absolute seriousness.
We are looking at the six examples that Jesus gives of how He fulfills the Law and the Prophets by giving their true application, and how our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and their scribes. Last week we considered the true application of the Torah (the Law)—what God is really looking for from us, what the goal and purpose of Torah is.
Today we ask, why these particular examples? What do they have in common? If we are to understand them correctly, in our own setting, we need to know what it is that Jesus is driving at. What is the situation that He sees us in? Here we see Jesus giving the true application of the prophets of Israel.
We think of prophecy as predicting the future, and it does do this. But primarily prophecy proclaims where we are in the present in light of the big picture, in light of God’s purpose, in light of where we are heading. Prophecy interprets the present. Prophecy, of course, is God’s own Word, so it always sees the present in the light of Christ. It proclaims Christ. Prophecy does not just give us information about the future or even the present. Prophecy also has an application. We need to “keep” or apply—in the proper way for us—the commandments of the Law, of course. But we may not know that we also need to apply the words of prophecy. The Book of Revelation opens with the words, “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy and KEEP the things written in it” (verse 3). People are interested in what prophecy predicts, but few study it to find out what it is we must keep.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is telling us not only how to really keep the Law, but also how to live prophetically. What do I mean?
The Prophetic Setting
The setting of Israel’s great prophets began with Elijah, in the days of King Ahab, after David and Solomon. The books of the prophets—the four major prophets and the twelve minor prophets—center around the judgment that fell upon Israel and Judah in the days of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires, and Israel’s salvation by the coming of the Messiah.
When the Assyrian and Babylonian empires invaded, they relocated huge populations, including the whole of the upper classes, to their own lands, thus destroying the national identities of the people they conquered. The Bible calls this the Exile.
The message of the prophets was that Israel needed to submit to the situation of God’s judgment, not take matters into their own hands but instead wait for the coming of the Messiah, and in that submission they were to learn to be faithful. When the Messiah comes, Israel and Judah, the whole Gentile world, and even the creation—the deserts and the animals—would be miraculously restored. In other words, exiled Israel was to wait for the coming manifestation of God’s kingdom.
A small remnant returned to Palestine in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, Zechariah, Haggai and Malachi, but this return was not the fulfillment of their hopes. It was a sign only. Israel was not regathered, the Messiah did not come and the kingdom of God was not manifested. The Exile did not end.
This was still the situation when Jesus came. The Exile is mentioned in the genealogy that opens the Gospel according to Matthew and it is implicit in the prophecies that Matthew quotes. Israel is living under God’s judgment, and the prophets had said that they were not to try to seize control of the historical process but were to humble themselves, be patient, and wait on the Lord. And they were to be faithful in that situation.
So now Jesus comes. When He is baptized, the Father announces that Jesus is the One in whom all God’s delight resides. He comes out of the desert and announces that the kingdom of God has now drawn near—in Himself. As it will become clear, He is the promised Messiah that Israel is waiting for.
But while the kingdom has drawn near, the manifestation of the kingdom has not yet arrived. Jesus comes in humility and rejection. He knows that He must purify Israel and the nations first, by offering Himself up to God as an atoning sacrifice. The manifestation of the kingdom has not come and the exile is not over. What has happened is that the reality of the kingdom has come. Jesus is the reality of the kingdom, and He gathers around Himself (into the reality of the kingdom) the beginning of a faithful remnant.
This faithful remnant—I’m talking about the original disciples and afterwards all the Jews who believe—are the faithful of Israel because they receive the Messiah in His humility. Afterwards Gentiles enter the circle of disciples by receiving Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, on the same basis of faith in Him. We are grafted onto the tree of Abraham’s faith and share in Israel’s promises. We also—this is the point—share in Israel’s exile and suffering and patience!
This has not happened! The church has NOT been faithful. But Jesus still calls us to it, and will continue to call us until His second coming.
The Messiah comes twice and the church exists between the two comings. The manifestation of the kingdom of God has not come yet. We are still living in the days of Israel’s exile (we believing Gentiles are sharing that exile with Israel), in the days of Israel’s patience, and in the humility and rejection of Jesus the Messiah. The church, existing ‘here,’ in this prophetic ‘location,’ also knows the reality of the kingdom—inwardly, spiritually, through Christ dwelling in us, and within the community of the church, as the Body of Christ—through the Holy Spirit. As Gentiles who share fully in the Messiah’s salvation, we are a sign to Israel that the reality of the kingdom has come.
We, however, need to know where we are in terms of the world, in terms of the historical process. It is ‘here,’ with Jesus in His humility and rejection.
The Great Disobedience
We do not like this, and neither did Israel. After the Persian empire was defeated by the Greek empire, and the Jews in Palestine again came under Gentile control, the Jews rebelled and succeeded in overthrowing the Greeks. In Jesus’ day the Jews still remembered that. That example became more important than what the prophets had said. The Zealots thought that we could use violence to force people to obey God, to seize the kingdom of God by force, and even overthrow the Romans. They justified the use of power. By power we get what we want, and we justify this exercise of power over others by imagining that God entitles us. Jesus confronts this. No, He says, we must keep the word of the prophets. They did not listen.
And neither do we. The church has done the same thing, seizing power for itself, setting up hierarchies, and trying to control the historical process.
The Renunciation of Power
Look at the examples that Jesus gives (last week we considered the first three): anger, lust, divorce, lying, resisting evil and hating our enemies. What do all these have in common? They are all about seizing power: power over my brother in the church, power over women in my personal life, power over my wife in my family life, power over those with whom I deal in society by word and contract, power over the stranger who imposes himself on me, and power over my enemy. In every case Jesus calls on us to renounce this power. This is worldly power—having our way, imposing our will, manipulating others, and controlling and dominating them.
We renounce power because we are waiting on God. We live before God and are completely dependent on Him. This is the subject of the next chapter.
The first example has to do with my brother, my fellow believer. This teaching is the same as in chapter 18. In the church, I must reconcile with my brother or face God’s judgment. Jesus does not even say that I have actually wronged my brother or he has wrong me. As long as there is something between us—it does not matter if my anger is justified or my brother’s anger is unjustified—I must be reconciled to him quickly, while we are on the way. I must allow myself to be wronged, no matter how unjustified. Chapter 18 is clear that among us there must be no hierarchy but we must all take the place of a little child to the others, we must forgive those who wrong us, we must protect, shepherd and care for one another, and we must not despise one another. These are things we HAVE TO do, or come under judgment.
The last example has to do with the enemy. The enemy is not my brother. He is the unbeliever who opposes me. Here reconciliation may not be possible. The enemy has the power to hurt me, and I must allow it. The enemy is not the one with whom I have a personal issue. The enemy is the persecutor, the one who opposes me because I belong to Christ. Jesus says I must treat him the same as my brother, as if we were reconciled, as if he were a blessing to me. He is my enemy but I cannot be his enemy. I must love him.
The Power of Renunciation and Love
The last example speaks explicitly of love, but love is implicitly the guiding principle in all six examples. I must love my brother, love women, love my wife, love those with whom I deal, love the stranger, and love the enemy. Unless we renounce our power over others, we cannot exercise love. (Obviously this does not apply to those who are a danger to themselves, such as children. Jesus’ command is personal, not an abstract ideology.)
When Jesus says, “You therefore shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he is not talking about some sort of legal perfectionism in behavior. He is talking about the Father’s love. Our love should be as perfect as the Father’s. It should be the same kind. It is the Father who loves His enemies. He loved His enemies by suffering with Christ His death on the cross.
The kind of behavior Jesus describes here is His own behavior. The cross is at the unseen current under all He says. In offering Himself to the Father on the cross, He renounced the power to stop the process and to protect Himself. Instead He committed Himself completely to the Father, allowed others to wrong Him, and He did so in love—love for His enemies as well as those who had already committed themselves to Him, as weak as they were.
We may not be able to see it, but this kind of “way,” the way of the cross in the world, is the ultimate form of power. Though, on the one hand, it is the way of humility, of suffering rejection, and of patience, trusting God at all times to sustain you and waiting on God to act—on the other hand, it is our spiritual warfare against the powers of the world. By taking up this “way,” we become the presence in the world of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is opposed to the kingdoms of the world. One day it will overthrow them. By our presence in the world as the church (our corporate identity as a separate ‘people’ is necessary), taking the way of the cross by the renunciation of power and living a life of love, we are inserting into the world—the world which strives with all its might to be independent of God—(we are inserting into the world, I say) the reality of the kingdom of God. By renouncing the power of the world and by loving one another and treating all people with love, especially our enemy, by confessing and proclaiming Christ and thus letting our light shine, by suffering crucifixion in the world, we are not only the salt of the earth, preserving it for God’s mercy until the Day of Judgment, we also are undermining the rebellion against God that is at the base of the social order. When the world seems the strongest, its foundations will collapse. This is our best contribution to the creation.