Some observations on The Sermon on the Mount (was Re: [asa] A question on morals (OT and NT))

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Sun Nov 08 2009 - 13:01:11 EST

Bill Powers wrote:
> 3) Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is not intended to create a new law, but rather
> to explicate and clarify what is already the Law.

Exactly so.

There are at least five points one could make in support (apologies for the length, but one can't do the subject justice otherwise);


1) The Sermon on the Mount (SotM) itself contains a repudiation of the idea that Jesus intends to overturn the Law. In fact, it even contains a warning AGAINST such a practice;

17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. - Matthew 5:17-20

Note that this stands as the preface to Jesus' remarks on the Law in SotM. As such, one needs to put a VERY good argument that the author of Matthew's gospel intends to condemn abrogation of the Law AND put an abrogation of the Law in the mouth of Jesus - all within the space of a few verses. Indeed, it is to be noted that Jesus elsewhere condemns the religious teachers of his day for distorting the Law because of their religious traditions (Mark 7:1-13). So the reality is that the situation is the OPPOSITE of that normally envisaged: Jesus stands as the champion of the Law who wants to draw God's people back to its proper obedience and not an "innovator" who wants to repudiate or "go beyond" what has been written.


2) Regarding the social context of the SotM - I'd like to restate my previous claim (i.e. that Jesus intends a critique of his contemporaries in the religious establishment) with some expansion;

The SotM is pervaded with references, often critical, to Jesus' religious contemporaries; "unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees" (5:20); "the hypocrites in the synagogues" (6:2); "when you pray you shall not be like the hypocrites" (6:5); "when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites" (6:16); and so on. It also contains injunctions against judgement (7:1-6) and false teachers (7:7-12) - which, given what the Gospels say elsewhere about the religious establishment using the Law as a means of exclusion - seems to me most properly seen as a polemic against the all too common tendency of those in positions of religious authority (then and now) to use their moral code as a stick to beat others.

In this respect, it is no coincidence that the SotM *begins* with the beatitudes: thus indicating that God's system of values is not the same as ours. In particular, it is not the religious elite, but those the religious elite consider excluded, who are the "blessed" (another pervasive theme in the Gospels - "the first shall be last, and the last first" Matt 20:16, "the healthy have no need of a physician, but the sick" Mark 2:17; "if you were blind you would have no sin, but you say 'we see' therefore your sin remains" John 9:41). It is therefore appropriate that toward its end SoM speaks of the rejection of those whose "obedience" toward God is shown through superficial works of righteousness rather than obedience to the deeper purposes of the Law (cf. Micah 6:6-8 et passim);

21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (Matt 7:21-23)

Here we might parallel SotM with the shorter "Sermon on the Plain" (Luke 6:20-49) which not only contains pretty much a précis of SotM, but takes place in the context of polemical encounter with the members of the religious establishment (cf. Luke 5:17-6:19) - as does pretty much ALL of Jesus ministry in all four gospels. Here one has to take seriously the fact that Jesus closest parallels are the OT prophets - who came precisely to declare the "deeper" things of the Law over against corrupt religious practice and teaching.

Let me just add that I agree with Pete Enns that the trajectory in the NT is away from the Law - where Pete and I are likely disagree, I think, is that I do not believe that this trajectory is particularly pronounced until after the coming of the Holy Spirit. I'm open to correction on the point, but it doesn't seem to me that a move away from the OT Law is particularly pronounced in Jesus' teaching - or, at least, Jesus doesn't seem to me to be such a glaring departure from the sort of thing found already in the OT prophets where the issue is one of interpretation and implementation of the Law, not a critique of the Law itself. In short, given the "spectrum" of Biblical approaches to the Law, I place Jesus a bit further back on the spectrum (more Jewish than Christian!) than I think Pete might.

But this said, Pete was right to call it "messy" - perhaps the best thing is just to focus upon where we are (or should be!) now, rather than trying to precisely delineate the various stations on the route by which we came to be here. We can gracefully disagree on the later whilst sharing agreement on the former. Any comment, Pete?


3) As regards the purported "ban on oaths" from Matt 5:33-37 (which has been specifically raised in this thread) there are two things worthy of note:

First, in Matthew 26 we find first Jesus (v.57-67) and then Peter (v.72) subjecting themselves to oath - facts which have to be squared with an alleged blanket ban on such practice in Jesus' teaching. So too the facts of later Christian practice - even Paul, with his quite radical take on the place of the Law in Christian living - is prepared to subject himself to oaths and their attendant rituals (Acts 18:18; 21:23-24; II Cor 1:23).

Second, we find EXACTLY the same teaching ("let your yes be yes, and your no be no") in the Jewish Talmud (see the relevant entries on Matthew 5:33-37 in David H. Stern, _Jewish New Testament Commentary_, [Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996] and John Lightfoot, _A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica_, Oxford Univ. Press, 1859, republished by Baker, 1979 and Hendrickson, 1995). Clearly the Rabbi's themselves do not intend to overturn the OT Law but to draw out its proper meaning - so why should we say anything different in respects of Jesus?

Let me say that, exegetically speaking, I think there is nothing particularly problematic here, except for the person who wants to assert that Jesus meant to "correct" the OT teaching on the taking of oaths. As a general rule the "ban on oaths" has been understood in Christian history as being a repudiation of the practice of hasty or insincere oath taking - which practice was (apparently) common amongst Jesus' religious contemporaries (not to mention being justified by a degree of exegetical creativity!).

There is a nice little piece at which says pretty much all I would want to say whilst there are plenty of other examples of instances in which Christians have interpreted Matt 5:34 as an injunction against vain or rash oaths rather than as a blanket injunction. See, for instance, chapter 22 of the _Westminster Confession_; "Of Lawful Oaths and Vows" ( - esp. paragraph II). One could multiply instances ad nauseam.


4) The earliest reference to the SotM in Christian literature that I could locate (Irenaeus, _Against Heresies_, Book 4, Chapter 8, c.180) advances precisely the claim that Bill is making here (see on-line at Referring specifically to the SotM Irenaeus writes;

He [Jesus] did not teach us these things as being opposed to the law, but as fulfilling the law, and implanting in us the varied righteousness of the law. That would have been contrary to the law, if He had commanded His disciples to do anything which the law had prohibited. But this which He did command—namely, not only to abstain from things forbidden by the law, but even from longing after them—is not contrary to [the law], as I have remarked, neither is it the utterance of one destroying the law, but of one fulfilling, extending, and affording greater scope to it.

One only need note that this is pretty much the prevailing orthodoxy throughout the subsequent history of exegesis of the SotM.


5) In line with the historical tradition, pretty much every contemporary commentator agrees with the point Bill is making - as one would see by consulting the commentaries. I need not here reproduce the views therein but I will close with one nice little quotation from Tasker's Tyndale Commentary on Matthew;

It can be concluded therefore from this section that the moral law of the Old Testament is recognized by Jesus as possessing divine authority, but that as Messiah He claims authority to supplement it, to draw out principles that lie latent within it, and to disclaim the false deductions that had been made from it. This is what He seems to have meant when He said '? am not come to destroy, but to fulfil' (17).
Tasker, R.V.G. _The Gospel According to St. Matthew_, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981. p.67.


Hope it helps.


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Received on Sun Nov 8 13:01:32 2009

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