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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

On the Mount (10)

“It was said ...”

So begins our next distinct section of the Sermon on the Mount, and since it’s a lengthy one, I won’t reproduce it here in its entirety but simply link to the relevant “paragraphs” or “subsections” for convenience.

I’m going to need to make a few general comments about this section before diving into its subsections individually, because they have so much in common.

There are six of these, a number which in scripture makes me go “Hmm ...”

Numbered, Weighed ...

I’m not big on reading too much into the use of numbers, but you can’t make your way through the Bible without noticing that select numbers (three, seven, twelve and forty, for starters) are repeatedly associated with specific events or themes.

Bible scholars say six is the number of mankind. Mankind was created on the sixth day. Under the Law of Moses, men are appointed six days to labor. The sixth of the Ten Commandments is a prohibition against murdering one’s fellow men. Six hours of suffering on a cross by the Perfect Man atoned for the sins of mankind once and for all. The number of the Beast of Revelation is 666, and it is said to be “the number of man”, or “a man”.

Meaningful? You tell me.

Short of the Mark

In his own strength, mankind always falls short. In Joshua 6, the people of Israel march around the besieged city of Jericho for six straight days, and nothing happens. On the seventh day, God knocks down the city walls for them before a single arrow can be notched or a single sword unsheathed.

Suggestive? Possibly. Like I say, I don’t read too much into numbers. But there are six of these ‘It was saids’, every one of which falls short in some way of God’s will for those who love him and desire to be subjects of his kingdom.

Commonalities

The formal design of verses 21 through 48 is obvious to anyone who recognizes patterns, likes poetry or is familiar with the rhythms of formal oratory. All but one of these ‘It was saids’ are preceded by the words “You have heard that”, the subsection on divorce being the sole exception. All six are followed shortly by the words “But I say to you,” followed by the Lord’s restatement of a societal principle found either in the Law of Moses or in a modified form in the teaching of the rabbis. In every case the Lord’s restatement hews to the spirit of the Law rather than the letter, and ups God’s standard to the point of near-impossibility.

Hence the “falling short”. Perhaps.

I’m not sure these six restatements are necessarily exhaustive. There remains plenty of material in the Law of Moses that could potentially be reframed to show its spiritual import and intended lessons more clearly. Had the Lord done so, it’s likely the Sermon would have been thirty chapters long instead of three. What Jesus said is sufficient, obviously; but the commonalities between the subsections seem to suggest a similar attitude toward other areas of the Law would not be out of keeping with the kingdom spirit.

The Kingdom Spirit

The six ‘It was saids’ relate to the following subjects:
1. Anger Matthew 5:21-26
2. Lust Matthew 5:27-30
3. Divorce Matthew 5:31-32
4. Oath-taking Matthew 5:33-37
5. Retaliation Matthew 5:38-42
6. Love Matthew 5:43-48
In the first two instances, as with verses 17 through 20, failure to meet the Lord’s kingdom standard puts the legalist in danger of what looks an awful lot like eternal damnation. Those who insist on the Law as their means of justification before God find themselves in serious peril: “Whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment”, “Whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council”, “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the Gehenna of fire” and “It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

Ouch. No kidding.

The View from Down the Road

The thoughtful follower of Christ today recognizes he is coming to these instructions from the distance of a couple thousand years, and tries to puzzle out the best approach. Some consider the Sermon a kind of template for Christian living. Carl Vaught says most believers think the Sermon on the Mount sets forth the “central tenets of Christian discipleship”.

But viewing the Sermon as essentially Christian can be a dangerous undertaking. Not to our salvation, which is as rock-solid as the Father’s evaluation of the worth of his own beloved Son (I am assuming genuine, works-producing belief here, not merely verbal assent to a series of propositions about God), but to our assurance of salvation. That can be a touchy thing, very much subject to our emotions and current subjective assessment of our own spiritual state.

Picture, for instance, the Christian who is angry with his brother. Is he in danger of the fires of hell? Of course not. His emotions will do what they will do, and as he confesses his sin to his Father in heaven and asks for parental forgiveness, will dissipate and ultimately become irrelevant to his spiritual condition. He knows he is wrong, and the Spirit of Christ within him prompts him toward confession and forgiveness. A momentary weakness in execution has no bearing on his justification before God, which stands on the basis of his Saviour’s perfect sacrifice, not his own temporary and shabby response to it.

Plain Words and Explanations

I am not attempting here to explain away the plain words of the Lord Jesus on the Mount. But they were spoken under the Old Covenant to a people attempting to approach God on the basis of legal righteousness. The Christian does not approach God that way. We only call him “Christian” in the first place because he has appropriated the once-for-all sacrifice of Calvary, and has no interest in attempting to justify himself by good deeds and law-keeping.

There are certainly lessons in the Sermon that the Christian can and should learn about the sort of conduct God loves and hates. But it is useful to recognize that the threats of eternal torment we encounter in this passage are directed against those who would be inclined to blithely condemn others for failing to keep the Law of Moses, all the while missing the obvious: that the Law condemns everyone under it alike.

They are Jewish words for Jewish ears designed to change the way that Jews thought about their law and their history.

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