…on the Sermon on the Mount
An Alternative Understanding
In the majority of popular Christian thought, Jesus’ teaching on the Law in Matthew 5 is thought to be a confirmation that the 10 Commandments are still binding on Christians today for life and practice. However, the purpose of this brief article is to show an alternative understanding of Jesus’ words that in no way removes or undermines the authority of His teachings, while at the same time offering a clearer understanding of this passage in light of the New Covenant’s exclusive administration of grace. The New Covenant is an administration which now declares that all those ‘in Christ’ are no longer under the Law, but who now serve in the new way of the indwelling Spirit of Christ (Rom 6:14-15, Gal 5:18). They are now completely dead to the Law, released from its enslaving captivity (Rom 7:1-6). They are permanently set free from all of the Law’s condemnation and legal demands (Rom 8:1, Eph 2:15, Col 2:14).
The First Audience
To begin, it must be understood that Jesus was not addressing an assembly of post-Pentecost, Spirit-indwelled Christian believers. Jesus was born a Jew. He was circumcised a Jew. His ministry was exclusively to the Jews (Matt 15:24). He was specifically born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law (Gal 4:4-5). But since this blood redemption had not yet been accomplished, the Old Covenant of Sinai was still very much in effect at the time Jesus gave his sermon on the mount. The New Covenant was not brought into effect until later, when Jesus’ blood was shed on the cross (Lk 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25). Therefore, when Jesus taught the Jewish crowd, the Law was still acting as that old “guardian” to Israel, holding her captive and enslaving her to sin (Gal 3:22-23). The Way to the Father had not yet been opened up.
The Redemptive-Historical Context
When we view the sermon on the mount in this redemptive-historical context, it takes on a very different meaning and purpose. No longer do we understand Jesus’ teaching on the Law as a higher standard of good, moral, Christian living. Rather, we see Jesus amplification of the Law’s requirements (“but I say unto you . . . “) as a truly killing ministry of death and condemnation (2 Cor 3:6-9) aimed squarely at those who were under the Law covenant. Jesus was not exhorting the Jews, and least of all us Christians, to aspire to a higher standard of moral living. No, he was showing the utter impossibility and complete hopelessness of ever gaining entrance into the kingdom of heaven through a works-righteousness under the Law.
The Law’s Demand for Perfection
Jesus’ teaching on the Law was intended to destroy the Jews’ confidence in their own legal self-righteousness. Jesus was using the Law in keeping with the divine purpose for which it was given to the Jews: to expose and condemn sin, to increase the trespass, and to hold Israel enslaved under its captivity until the Messiah’s blood-redemption would be revealed to them . . . so that, ultimately, they might be justified by faith alone in Him, apart from the works of the Law (Rom 3:20-21, Gal 2:16, Gal 3:19-24).
Hear the extreme woe of the Law’s demand in Jesus’ words:
“For I tell you, unless YOUR RIGHTEOUSNESS exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, YOU WILL NEVER ENTER the kingdom of heaven.” v.20
“Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” v. 22
“Truly, I say to you, YOU WILL NEVER GET OUT until you have paid the last penny.” v.26
“If your right eye causes you to sin, TEAR IT OUT and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, CUT IT OFF and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” v.29-30
“YOU therefore MUST BE PERFECT as your heavenly Father is perfect.” v.48
Hear the severity . . . never enter the kingdom, liable to hell fire, never get out, and amputate offending body parts. But the last and final woe is perhaps the single most severe statement in Jesus’ entire discourse. By human standards, it might have been remotely conceivable for a super-devout Law keeper to exceed the combined righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. But to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” raises the bar of required righteousness to an inconceivable level of infinite proportions.
The Futility of Law-righteousness
Think of how utterly foreign this teaching of Jesus would have sounded to the first century Jew. They did not even comprehend God in terms of “Father” or “Abba”. To them God was not intimate or near. Rather, He was “Yahweh”, “Almighty”, “Elohim”, “The Holy One of Israel”, or “Lord of Hosts”. He was closed off, distant, unapproachable, and hidden within the Holy of Holies behind the veil. The Jew had no direct access to God. All of his fellowship with God had to be mediated through an elaborate system of divinely appointed priesthood, furnishings, ordinances, ritual, and shedding of blood.
So when Jesus tells the crowd that they “must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” he is effectively causing all of their imagined Law-righteousness to completely vanish and be accounted as utterly worthless. Think for a moment at precisely what Jesus’ statement means to the Jews: the perfection required by the Law is the perfection of a divine sonship, wherein the Son possesses God as his very Father, and their communion causes the Son’s perfection to be identical to the Father’s intrinsic perfection.
This thought would have been blasphemous to the Jews of Jesus’ day! For a Jew to consider himself a “son of God”, in relation to an intimate heavenly Abba, was unthinkable . . . they considered Jesus a blasphemer on account of it (John 10:31-42). The Jews were willing to call Abraham their “father”, but not their God.
What we have in this discourse is Jesus destroying the Jew’s national-consciousness in trusting the Law to save, or sanctify, or obtain favour with God according to their own works-righteousness. In a veiled way He is showing them that they are stumbling over the Stumbling Stone in their efforts to keep the Law (Rom 9:30-33). He is crushing them and leaving no other option but to believe on Himself, the only Divine Son of God . . . who came as the incarnate God-Man to perfectly fulfill the eschatological Righteousness that was promised in the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17, Lk 24:44-45, Rom 9:30-10:4).
The Necessity of Faith in Messiah
In his sermon Jesus is shutting the Jews up to the righteousness of faith that would soon be revealed in Himself at the cross, through which sinners would be reconciled to God. Jesus would become the only “Way” to the Father (John 14:6) whose divine sonship would give sinners the right to become “sons of God” through faith in His name (John 1:12). He alone would be the “image of the invisible God”, the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature” (Col 1:15, Heb 1:3) who would be perfect as His heavenly Father was perfect.
Jesus’s Amplification of Jewish Law
Jesus amplification of the Law also shows us that its purpose was NEVER intended to assist or produce moral perfection in fallen man. For even if the attainment of such perfection was possible through the self-recovery efforts of fallen creatures, it would still have been infinitely inadequate and detestable in God’s sight.
The Law’s goal in Israel was infinitely higher than producing mere moral improvement or behavioral modification. Rather, God gave the Law as a divine type that anticipated and pointed toward the perfections found in the coming Messiah alone. The Law demanded nothing less than the incarnation of the Son of God . . . “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption!” (1 Cor 1:30) . . . who became “the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4). The creature of dust could never attain to this pre-eminent standard of Spirit-saturated righteousness by any futile works of his own. The promise of Messiah’s divine sonship that the Law contained caused it to become a condemning ministry of death to all those enslaved under its binding regulation (2 Cor 3:7-9, Rom 5:20). What fallen son of Adam could ever hope to become the perfect Son of God, the divine God-Man?
With such an infinitely high standard that Jesus proclaimed, the Law’s only true demand on Israel was that she look by faith to the Righteousness that was pictured concerning Himself (Rom 9:30 to 10:4). Jesus declared from the outset of the sermon the He himself was the Law’s interpretive key . . . “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.” v.17
Messiah Alone Satisfied the Law’s Demand
And having fulfilled the entire eschatological anticipation of the Law’s shadow, Jesus became the final and only Righteousness of God to all who believe. In the cross, all the iotas and dots of the Law had passed away because all righteousness had been accomplished (v.18) and fulfilled in Himself alone. In the cross, the Law was finally abolished and taken out of the way, being nailed to His cross, because its demand of justice was satisfied in Him alone (Eph 2:15, Col 2:14, Heb 8:13). Only in the cross had the old order of heaven and earth “passed away” (v. 18), because it was superseded by the inauguration of the New Creation, in which all things have been gloriously made new, in the Son alone (2 Cor 5:16-19).
And so we find ourselves with a truer understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the Law in Matthew 5. It was not given as a higher moral standard or written code by which to live. Rather, it was given to reveal Israel’s desperate inability of ever attaining the righteousness that God requires of Adamic rebels . . . namely, the perfection of Jesus’ own divine sonship in relation to his heavenly Father . . . a perfection that no man can attain to except by faith in the Son alone.
Implications for New Covenant Believers
As New Covenant saints, this understanding of Matthew 5 should give us exceeding great comfort and joy!
We need not be confused as to Jesus’ purpose on preaching the Law to the Jews. The perfect righteousness that He expounded on the mount could never be attained by Israel under the Law. But it is now a glorious reality that we, New Covenant saints, already possess in Him to the fullest, by faith alone (Rom 3:21-22).
Through Jesus we can now call God our “Abba, Father”, resting in His sonship and full provision of grace. His redeeming grace has made us to be sons of God with Him (John 1:12-13, Heb 2:11, 1 John 3:1-2) and has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (Col 1:12). We now have no fear of condemnation (Rom 8:1). We are assured that the righteous requirement of the Law (divine sonship) has been fulfilled in us by the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:4), who now indwells us (Rom 8:9, 11), and who irreversibly seals us for His eternal possession (Eph 1:13-14, Eph 4:30).
The Superiority of the New Covenant Ministry of the Spirit
His life-giving Spirit now produces in us the heavenly character of Christ-likeness that He expounded on the mount (2 Cor 3:18, Rom 8:29). In Him we are filled with the fullness of God’s love (Rom 5:5, Eph 3:16-19), and He causes us to display His own redeeming love for others, including our enemies (Rom 13:8, Rom 12:14-21, Gal 5:14, 1 John 3:14). By his Spirit we produce the divine fruitfulness of Jesus, the true Vine (John 15:4-5, Gal 5:22-23). And by his Spirit we have the very resurrection life and power of Christ living in us (Eph 1:18-20, Gal 2:20).
Truly, this is grace upon grace . . . sinners made sons and brought near to the Father, through the perfect redeeming sonship of the Son!
~ John Dunn