Sunday, December 10, 2017

On the Mount (8)

If the chronologists have it right (and they seem to agree more than they disagree), the Sermon on the Mount was preached less than halfway into the Lord’s ministry, probably during its second year.

God’s kingdom is mentioned eight times in the Sermon’s three chapters. In these studies we have tried so far to ensure we don’t ignore the elephant in the room: the Sermon’s original, primarily Jewish audience.

As a nation, Israel did not take up the Lord’s offer to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

A Legitimate Offer

But they could have; it was a perfectly legitimate offer. The Lord’s reluctant declaration that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” comes almost two years later.

That’s important, because some Christians read the Sermon as if it were addressed to them directly rather than to a people attempting to draw near to God on the basis of law. That sort of approach has a rough time with statements like this one:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Oh dear. If that’s addressed to you and me today, we’ve got some serious explaining-away to do if we intend to continue maintaining that the believer is eternally secure in Christ. Could we really be saved by faith only to lose our standing with God the moment we have difficulty letting go of a single nasty grudge, and find ourselves in danger of the fires of hell?

That sounds like a very uncomfortable place to live.

Waffle, Waffle, Waffle

One way around that difficulty is to waffle … er, equivocate … on the meaning of God’s ‘forgiveness’. Perhaps Jesus wasn’t really saying failure to forgive puts us in danger of eternal judgment, only that it ruins our enjoyment of fellowship with God in the here and now. In that case, “neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” amounts to no more than a heavenly ‘time out’.”

Maybe. But that sounds like a bit of an evasion to me. Given his audience, it seems far more likely that that Lord is not concerned with eternal security at all — or fellowship, or the Church, or civil proceedings against criminals, or any of a myriad of other subjects. He’s simply saying that those who will not stop using the Law of Moses to condemn their neighbors and justify their own grudges are in effect asking to have their own sins held up to the same impeccable legal standard as they impose on others when they finally find themselves before God. And good luck with that: justification cannot be had on the basis of law.

If it’s me, there’s not one single scrap I’ve ever had in my life with anyone, no matter how horrible, that is worth risking my eternal salvation to win. Not one. If that’s not precisely the kingdom perspective, at least it’s scratching around somewhere in the neighbourhood.

A Kingdom Predicated on Law

But these are the sorts of difficulties raised by the offer of a kingdom in which citizenship depends on obedience to law. I would maintain that was NOT the sort of kingdom the Lord Jesus was offering Israel, despite the fact that it was precisely the sort of kingdom most Jews were expecting.

In brief then, if we look at the Sermon as the “law” of the Christian life, we’re going to have no end of trouble. Rather, if we look at it as an in-depth exploration of the inadequacy of trying to approach God through law-keeping, we may find it a little less perplexing, and we’ll also find ourselves explaining away much less of it.

Sorry, back to the kingdom of heaven. Western moderns have a thing for precision. It’s nice to be able to encapsulate a concept in a pithy phrase or two, not least because it’s easy to remember. Unfortunately, the kingdom of heaven does not seem to fit neatly into our little Western boxes.

Not Checking Boxes

It’s good news (the “gospel” of the kingdom). It’s bad news (“the axe is laid to the root of the trees”). It’s “at hand”, but it’s also “to come”. It belongs to the “poor in spirit” and the “persecuted”, but “the violent take it by force”. Entering it requires that your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees but the greatest in the kingdom is as humble as a child. The rich exclude themselves from it while the publicans and sinners sail right in.

Whatever may be reasonably said about the kingdom, it can’t easily be summed up in a word or three.

Is it possible that the kingdom offered to Israel and the kingdom subsequently “given to a people producing its fruits” might appear very different to the untrained eye, even though they are based on the very same spiritual principles?

I think it might be, as we shall shortly see.

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