The Sermon on the Mount
"Clarifying the Law of Moses?"
or "The Constitution of Christianity?"
Steven F. Deaton
Most people agree that the Sermon on the Mount is one of the most eloquent and profound sermons ever, if not the most eloquent and profound. We can learn numerous lessons concerning that which is good and right. The question has arisen, however, "Is the sermon on the mount a clarification of the Law of Moses or is it the Lord's preparation for the kingdom which was yet to come?" We deny the former and affirm the latter. Yet, there are those who disagree with us and say that the sermon is just Jesus' attempt to set the Jews straight on the real meaning of the Law of Moses. Is this true? Can the argument be sustained? Let us investigate.
In Matthew 4, the Bible says, "From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (v. 17). Jesus came preaching and teaching about the kingdom. Further, the chapter reveals that "Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people" (v. 23). The Lord declared the kingdom and confirmed his message with the miracles (cf. Acts 2:22). This kingdom that Jesus preached was not an earthly kingdom--it was not the kingdom of physical Israel (cf. Jn. 6:15; 18:36)! This kingdom that Jesus preached was the kingdom of prophecy (Dan. 2:44).
As Jesus discharged his earthly duties, he called his disciples to him, and from among them he chose twelve to be his apostles (Matt. 5:1; Lk. 6:12-13). While on the mountain with his disciples, Jesus delivered the sermon that is recorded in Matthew 5 through 7. He later came down from the mountain and delivered a synopsis of the sermon to the multitude (Lk. 6:17ff). We affirm that this sermon was taught in order to prepare his disciples and others for the coming kingdom and its law, the law of Christ. It contains truths pertaining to: 1. Attitudes and duties of citizens of the coming kingdom (Matt. 5:3-16); 2. Purpose of the new law (Matt. 5:17-20); 3. Contrasts between the old law and the new law (Matt. 5:21-48); 4. Teaching on sincerity of service of the citizens of the coming kingdom, including giving, prayer, forgiving, fasting (Matt. 6:1-18); 5. Priorities in the coming kingdom (Matt. 6:19-34); 6. Consistency and fairness in judgment and application of the new law (Matt. 7:1-12); 7. Necessity of keeping the new law (Matt. 7:13-24). [In the rest of the study, we will focus on Matthew chapter 5.]
Jesus begins with the "beatitudes," and connects them to the coming kingdom. "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). At the end of the "beatitudes," Jesus again joins them to the coming kingdom. "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:10). Citizens of the coming kingdom will be those who have the characteristics of the "beatitudes." Jesus said men would be blessed when they were persecuted for his sake, not Moses' (Matt. 5:11). This further lends credence to the idea that this sermon is talking about the new kingdom and its law, not the old. [see note at end of article]
Some believe they have an argument when citing Matthew 5:17-20. They say that Jesus is affirming that his work in no way affects that of the Law of Moses. What does it really say? Some misunderstood Jesus' teaching and thought he was trying to destroy the law and the prophets. Why? First, he came across firm and forceful in his teaching (Matt. 7:28-29). Also, it was definitely recognized as a "new doctrine" which was confirmed by miracles (Mk. 1:22-27). However, the Lord did not come as one who was against the law and the prophets. Rather, he always respected the law and taught others to do the same (Matt. 23:1-3).
Moreover, Christ could not fulfill the law if he came to destroy it. The Old Testament scriptures are what pointed to the coming of Christ, his kingdom, and his law (Deut. 18:15, 18-19; Isa. 2:1-4; 11:1-9; Dan. 2:44; Jer. 31:31-32). Later, Jesus explained this to his disciples (Lk. 24:25-27, 44-47). We might think of a contract. When both parties fulfill their end of the agreement, then the contract is no longer in force. That is, when something is fulfilled, it no longer has any ability to legally bind. The certainty of the fulfillment of the old law was so sure, Jesus said, "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled" (Matt. 5:18).
Further, concerning Matthew 5:19-20, there are two possible explanations. First, the most that can be said is that Jesus is telling his disciples to keep the law while it is in force. That is, as long as the law and the prophets are the standing will of God for His people, they must observe them, not as the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees, but as genuine, honest, sincere servants of the Almighty.
The second possible explanation is this: The Jews in general, and the disciples specifically, held the Law of Moses in great esteem. They accepted the law and the prophets as God-ordained. Therefore, since Christ came to fulfill the law and the prophets (for he was the end of the law; Rom. 10:4; cf. Gal. 3:19, 23-25), then Christ and His kingdom were God-ordained! Hence, if they neglected to accept the new law of the coming kingdom, in word and deed, then they would be rejecting the law and the prophets, and barred from citizenship in it! That is, whoever would not practice these commands (break the law of the new kingdom) and would convince (teach) others to do so, would be considered unworthy (least) by those in the kingdom, and vice-versa. Matthew 5:19-20, shows the necessity of adhering to the law of Christ!
Jesus clearly sets forth the difference between the Law of Moses and his law in Matthew 5:21-48. Over and over he says, "Ye have heard...But I say unto you." The phrase "ye have heard," comes from the practice of the Jews not having a copy of the Scriptures for themselves, and thus going to the Synagogues to hear them read, and from the fact that most of the audience on this occasion was likely illiterate or very poorly educated.
"When Solomon's Temple had been destroyed and the Jews were in exile, they survived by gathering together on the Sabbath to learn about their law and traditions. This practice was found to be so useful that when they returned they wanted to continue it and began to build places where they could "gather together." Those places, known as synagogues..." (The New Manners & Customs of Bible Times, Ralph Gower, p. 346).
"Our Lord does not say, "ye have read" (cf. ch. xxi.42), for he was not now speaking to the learned classes, but to a large audience many of whom were probably unable to read" (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 15, A. Lukyn Williams, p. 159).
As the above quote noted, when Jesus spoke to those who generally read and studied the Scriptures, he said, "Have ye not read..." (Matt. 12:3; 22:31; cf. Lk. 10:26). However, when he spoke to those who heard what was read from the law and prophets, he used the phrase, "Ye have heard."
Each time the Lord used the phrase, "Ye have heard," he referred to some part of the law of Moses. Notice the following parallels:
We ask our detractors--those who believe the Lord is simply clarifying the old law--Wherein does the difference lie between the "Ye have heard" statements of Matthew 5, and the actual precepts and statutes delivered to Israel through the law and prophets? You cannot find one! The only differences that exist in Matthew 5:21-48, are the contrasts between what the old law said and what Christ said.
The law of Moses was civil and religious. Judgments were to be made by men, and since men can only judge the outer actions of others, not the heart, they were limited to cases when someone was killed (Matt. 5:21), when someone committed adultery (Matt. 5:27), or when someone broke an oath (Matt. 5:33). However, in the kingdom of Christ, the Judge has the ability to look on a man's heart. Therefore, judgment is rendered at the point of sin's conception: anger (Matt. 5:22), lust (Matt. 5:28), or an oath taken with no intention of fulfillment (Matt. 5:34). That is, under the law of Christ, one is accountable for thoughts and attitudes as well as the outward acts! This was unlike the civil codes and penalties of the Law of Moses.
Likewise, in sharp contrast to the law and prophets, Jesus said that in his kingdom men are not regulated by an "eye for an eye," but are not to resist evil (Matt. 5:39). Similarly, citizens of the new kingdom are to love their enemies (Matt. 5:44). The evidence of the law and prophets' teaching is in the above parallels, which, when examined, will show that what Christ taught was radically different.
The Sermon On The Mount recorded in Matthew 5-7, is the constitution of Christianity! It is the kingdom of Christ in preview and principle! Though Jesus did teach men to respect the law and the prophets, he did not come to earth in order to reestablish them, nor to correct the prevailing Jewish errors. He came to establish his kingdom! "The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it" (Lk. 16:16).
Note: The Old Testament long prophesied that there was a day coming when God would establish his kingdom (Mic. 4:1-3; Dan. 2). This new kingdom would have a new law (Jer. 31:31-34). It was this kingdom that Jesus Christ came to establish (Matt. 16:18). Therefore, we affirm that in the sermon on the mount, Jesus is preaching things which concern his kingdom and its law. If this be denied, and, on the other hand, it is affirmed that Jesus was simply clarifying the old law, then we cannot escape the fact that this would be an outright denial of the kingdom prophecies as having a first century fulfillment. This argument would play right into the hands of the Premillennialists. If not, why not?
e-mail this author at SFDeaton@compuserve.com
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