the righteousness of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and “hyper-grace”

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20

There are some within what is called the hyper-grace camp of the church who relegate Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount to his ministry to the Jews and as a function of the Law, simply to condemn them in their sin. Ironically what Jesus actually is doing is talking about a righteousness which can only be realized by grace, and comes from the inside out.

There are aspects of the old covenant in the sermon, such as Jesus’s reference to offering gifts at the altar. But the heart of the sermon is plainly the difference in the righteousness that comes with Jesus and the gospel of God’s grace and kingdom in him. Of course this is fully realized through Jesus’s death and resurrection followed by his ascension and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But to relegate the Sermon on the Mount to the old covenant and the Jews, and essentially what we’re delivered from is a misreading of scripture, and a terrible loss.

And for that matter there is much that is rich for us in the Old Testament. God has always had his people, a remnant by grace (Romans 11:1-6). Abraham and David are held up as exemplars for us of God’s grace through their faith (Romans 4). Abraham who God promised to be the father of many nations is called the father of us all by his faith as both an example to us, and the one through whom would come God’s blessing of the Seed who would bless the world, the Messiah, Lord and Savior Jesus (Romans 4; Galatians 3).

The Sermon on the Mount is a centerpiece, perhaps the centerpiece of Jesus’s teaching in the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 the parallel to it, and Jesus’s Upper Room discourse the eve of his crucifixion also central to his teaching. Of course his teachings are sprinkled all throughout the gospels as in his parables (like the Good Samaritan, and the Lost/Prodigal Son), separate sayings, and his teaching on the destruction of the temple and the end times.

We read to some extent how Jesus’s teaching is fulfilled in the letters which followed after Pentecost. But Jesus’s words stand on their own, as well. To miss them by waving them off as a function of the law is a great loss to the church, not only in terms of losing the teaching, but in the failure to handle accurately the word of truth. Something we all have to keep working at, and hold each other accountable to, in and through Jesus.

Advertisements

the new covenant replacing the old covenant

For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Romans 10:4; NRSV

When Jesus cried out on the cross, “It is finished,” (John 19:30), not only did that mean his time and travail on the cross, but surely as well, and perhaps primarily, the work he had come to do, which would be vindicated by his resurrection from the dead.

What specifically was accomplished at that point was the end of the old covenant, and the beginning of the new covenant. This change is in terms of fulfillment and completion of the old, and out of that, the metamorphosis into the new.

Jesus by his death brought in a new order in which the requirement of the Law might be fully met in those who have faith and live according to the Spirit rather than the flesh (Romans 8). And so also is fulfilled the greater, deeper righteousness Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. Far from relegating that sermon to a different time and people, the heart of it is fulfilled both in terms of the true meaning of the Law, and how it’s supposed to be lived out now. Of course we have to read that sermon in context, so that not every line in it lines up with today (e.g., the altar in it). But the essence of it is surely apt, fulfilled in the new covenant: an internal righteousness that goes right to the heart to change the life.

So there is both continuity and discontinuity. Surely a radical newness along with a fulfillment of the old covenant, which itself is actually called imperfect (Hebrews) and even flawed, seemingly because of its dependence on sinful humans for its fulfillment (Jeremiah). Jesus’s coming and specifically his death sealed in the new covenant, which is dependent on God and God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus and from that by the work of the Spirit mark the start of a new resurrection life, the new creation. If we doubt such a claim, thinking it too radical, and perhaps think that this awaits the after life, then we need to read again the entire New Testament and compare it with the Old Testament. All of this in and through Jesus.

understanding scripture’s story

One of my favorite biblical scholars and theologians, N. T. Wright has explained scripture in terms of a five part story:

  • Creation
  • Fall
  • Israel
  • Jesus
  • Church

I would like to add a sixth part which would would have to do with Jesus’s return, sometimes called the Second Coming, and maybe a seventh part could be added (to make it seven parts in all?) which would have to do with the final outcome, the eternal state.

To understand any part of scripture, one needs to see it in context, its immediate context, certainly, but also in the context of the whole, the entire Bible and witness of scripture.

I am leery of simply writing off any scripture as completely irrelevant for us today, since the New Testament, including the letters written to the churches clearly suggest otherwise. At the same time, we obviously don’t read the story well when we read it in what has been called a flat way, as if all of it has precisely the same application as when it was written. For example the rules in Leviticus 14 about mold in homes certainly do no apply in the same way for us today.

The cross, Jesus’s death is certainly a “game changer”, but what leads up to it does impact what follows. For our application today, we may need to especially emphasize what follows, but to understand that well, we need to see what preceded it. There is so much here that Christians don’t quite see or apply in the same way. But it’s a grave mistake on the one hand to think for example that the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t have profound meaning for our understanding of the faith today, and even how we understand the letters written to the churches. Jesus was speaking mainly to Israel, but he was pointing out to them just what kind of kingdom he was bringing, certainly clearly anticipating what was to follow. On the other hand, it’s also a grave mistake to think that the cross in Jesus’s death did not make a profound difference in what followed: no less than the beginning of the new covenant of course in Jesus’s blood.

We have to keep working at, which means taking it all seriously, but seeing it in the context of the whole. The fulfillment coming, of course, in and through Jesus and through his death, the resurrection following.

grace is the answer, period (in Jesus, of course)

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:11-14

Much much Christianity, I’ve seen over the years. And grace has been sprinkled on all of that. First though, it would be good to give a definition or description of grace. Grace is God’s gift and favor to those who don’t deserve it, and could never earn it. Back to the original thought: Christianity is New Testament Christianity insofar as it is imbued with grace. And to understand that, we need to contrast it the same way the New Testament itself contrasts it: with law.

The law condemns us, because none of us lives up to its demands, or even can do so. The law ultimately points us to our need for a Savior. And that’s where God’s grace come in through Jesus and the cross, Jesus’s death. It is on the basis of Jesus’s death, by that and that alone by which we can be saved. And that is God’s gift of grace to us received by us through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). And as the Titus passage above makes clear along with the Ephesians 2 passage, that opens us up to a new life. But grace alone is the means to forgiveness and new life in and through Jesus.

believing lies

[The devil] was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

John 8

Lies are a dime of dozen, maybe simply more evident nowadays via the internet. There certainly was never any shortage of them. They can be blatant or subtle. And it can get to the place where it is hard to sort out truth from falsehood, fact from fiction. And it seems like we humans are bent and prone to error.

Oftentimes the lie is in the perception, failing to appreciate the intent, and often the complexity in what one is evaluating. That was true of the people in Jesus’s day who were failing to see him for who he really was: God become human, radical enough, but even more radical, God having become human to die even for them, for their sin, for the sin of the entire world. And to usher in a new world in which the truth would set people free.

Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

John 8

Falsehood and lies blind and bind us. And most of it is on a personal level deep inside of us. Handed down to us from well meaning and maybe not so well meaning people of our past. Words which have echoed in our brain for years and years, and shaped us more than we would like to admit. But part of knowing the truth is to begin to understand the lies.

Truth in life, in our world is devastating enough. One could well lament forever, given the seemingly bottomless pit of evil in our world. But to know the truth involves taking in the entire picture. God became flesh, fully human in Jesus the Son, and completed what God called Israel to do, in bringing in God’s kingdom to earth. Through the cross, yes, the cross. Through Jesus’s death no less. And then came the resurrection life, the new creation, in which all of God’s good intentions are fulfilled, and sin and death, endemic in the old creation, are gone.

I struggle with lies throughout the course of many days, many moments turned into hours, I suppose, of many days. That probably is especially true when I’m tired, and not into scripture as much as I need to be.

We need to reflect on God’s Word in Jesus and the gospel, which is expansive in its impact in all of life, as seen both in scripture and in our lives. We have to begin to sort out truth from error from there. And anytime we sniff and end up discerning falsehood, summarily dismiss it.

Lies want to hold on tenaciously, with tentacles which grip our very souls and imprison us in their dark shadows. But

…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

We all need that freedom. Certainly I need it. I can still, even after all of these years in Christ, become a victim of lies. Instead we need to receive the truth as it is in Jesus, accept that, and find in it a gracious, loving Father who forgives all our sins, and makes us his children in and through Jesus. We need to find the freedom in the light which comes from that. And begin to become shaped by that truth, which in essence is a person, Jesus. It is through him and his death that we are brought into this new light and life.

So today in the midst of the dim roar of life with all its demands and struggles, I want to better discern falsehood, and learn more and more to live in the truth. Knowing in all of that my own limitations and even failures, but accepting God’s word about Jesus, and even ourselves, as well as all of life- in him. And there is much more to say on that (the book of Ephesians is not a bad place to start).

Jesus, or Moses?

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

John 1:17

Law and grace is a theological theme from scripture. It is interesting how both John in John’s gospel account, and Paul handle this theme (see Paul’s treatment in Romans 7 for one example of his teaching on it).

The Law/Torah ends up being preparatory for the grace that would follow in Jesus. Essentially the Law is both directive, put in place for a new nation, Israel, certainly for individuals as well as the nation as a whole, and the Law was the means of convicting the people of their sin, that they are sinners, and thus the preparation needed for people to receive the needed salvation in Jesus. So the Law is important in its function and place. Another example from Paul, the Law a temporary guardian/disciplinarian to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:24), and see the entire book of Galatians.

We may think this is not an issue for us today. After all, aren’t we Christians, and not Jews? How could we be followers of Moses rather than Christ? Inadvertently so, I’m afraid. It’s our tendency to think that the answer is to know more and do more, and that’s essentially the effect of the Law front and center. And again, it’s needed in its place to convict us as sinners (Romans 3:20).

This is a big subject, a glimpse of it here, hopefully. Christ brings the grace and truth which Moses evidently didn’t and indeed couldn’t. Truth follows grace, which I think is a hint that what we’re talking about is more than truth as knowledge, but truth in life, ultimately found in Jesus himself (John 14:6) and yes, in his death. By his death we die as well, so that our salvation not only from, but to and for is begun only in and through Jesus.

faith, hope, and the greatest of all, love

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13

In the midst of another terrible disaster (praying for them), when there is challenge after challenge in life with hardly any rest, when being tired is the norm and exhaustion is what one tries to, but doesn’t always avoid, when it seems like one is left alone in their own thoughts, when dreams have long been forgotten and one is trying only to survive, when it seems like life has taken a turn for the worse, fill in your own blanks, whatever it is that we’re facing, in Jesus faith, hope and love always remains.

Faith means we believe and trust in God, in God’s promises to us and to the world in Jesus, even when, and we might say especially when they make little or no sense to us. That doesn’t mean they don’t make sense in the overall scheme of things, or when one is considering and comparing worldviews, including the view which might question such an endeavor. Faith ultimately looks to God’s promise in Jesus which is focused on the cross and the life which flows out from that. It is our crucified, resurrected Lord we follow as God’s resurrected people, and the heart of our faith is always the turning point of the cross, of Jesus’s death. All the promises of God are dependent, hinge on, and ultimately find their meaning in that.

Hope is a confidence by faith (Hebrews 11:1) that what God has promised, he will fulfill and bring to completion in and through Jesus. It keeps us going, when all other hope seems gone. Hope of course is needed by humans. There seems to be nothing worse than a hopelessness given to a despair which simply gives up on life, and might simply muddle through it in a set cynicism, or even worse, think of ending it all. We all need hope, and that hope is ultimately found in Jesus and the good news in him, of course Jesus and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).

And then, last, but not least, there’s the greatest of all: love. In the context of the passage written above, it is described:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

1 Corinthians 13

It is found in Jesus who is the revelation of God, of who God is, of what love is, again ultimately through the cross. It is again, Jesus crucified. That is the kind of love that changes and moves us to love in return. And with that same kind of love. Certainly a gift of the Spirit, to us. And that keeps giving and giving (and receiving and receiving, as well), to the very end, no matter what. Of course a discerning love, as well (Philippians 1:9-11). A love in which faith and hope find their true meaning.

And so we have faith, hope and love, whatever else is happening, all very much needed in this existence, in and through Jesus.