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Biblical/Doctrinal Studies:
Interpreting the Sermon on the Mount: Special Considerations
by Ed Vasicek

Introduction

These articles originally appeared as 4 one-page bulletin inserts.  Pastor Ed is teaching a series that covers the life and teachings of Christ.  This series is projected to last over 3 years. These articles were inserted to address matters of special heremenutics (interpretational principles). Since they were each compressed into one page articles, they are somewhat choppy and stingy with use of words. Your understanding is appreciated.

Part I: The Interpreter's Nightmare

In my entire preaching ministry, my greatest dread is explaining the Sermon on the Mount. Part of the reason for this tension is that I consider the art of interpretation ("hermeneutics") to be one of my strong points.  I have little respect for poor interpretation or the substitution of application for interpretation. I do not mind the admission that we have questions for which we have no answers, but ignoring the questions as though they did not exist gets my goat. My particular view of interpretational integrity makes it difficult to tackle the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount's teachings, if taken literally and casually, run contrary not only to the Old Testament Law, but also to the latter teachings of Christ and the epistles of the New Testament. Since we generally agree that later teaching clarifies and adjusts previous teaching, we cannot go wrong living by the later teaching of Christ and the Apostles. Before we go further, let's review a few doctrines regarding the Scriptures.

  1. We believe all Scripture is inspired and without error as originally given. We believe God even guided the human authors as to word choice.
  2. We believe all Scripture is evenly inspired. This is called plenary inspiration. The letter to the Romans is just as inspired and authoritative as the words of Christ in the Gospel According to John.
  3. We believe there are no genuine contradictions in Scripture, though there are paradoxes or verses which merely seem contrary to other verses. Context, grammar, and setting resolve most of these conflicts.
  4. We believe in the historical-grammatical approach toward interpretation.  We try to answer these two questions: 1) What did the author have in his mind when he wrote/spoke? and 2) How would the original audience have understood what was said or written?
  5. We make a distinction between Israel, the Church, and the Millennial Kingdom.

These essential considerations will help us begin to navigate through the ebb and flow of the Sermon on the Mount. We will look at other interpretational issues in our next insert. 

By the way, to emphasize how different the Sermon on the Mount is from other Scriptural standards, Roman and Eastern Catholicism (Orthodoxy) provide their followers with two options: Either follow the Ten Commandments OR the Sermon on the Mount. This illustrates part of our interpretational challenge. 

Part II

As I mentioned in my previous sermon, I have studied out the hermeneutics (interpretational principles) for the Sermon on the Mount for over 20 years. Many Bible teachers evade haggling out the difficulties by substituting application for interpretation. The problem is that application, in theory, is to flow from interpretation. We must interpret (or at least attempt to interpret) a text before we apply it or our applications may be misdirected. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount (henceforth abbreviated SOM), Christ tells us that, if our eye offends us, pluck it out. There are people spread throughout the U.S. who have done just that. So rather than a mad rush to apply, we must carefully interpret and ask WHY we think a text means or does not mean something.

In the book, Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost (Stanley Toussaint, ed.), essayist John A. Martin wrote a chapter entitled "Dispensational Approaches to the Sermon on the Mount." He lists the pros and cons to each view. Here are the four views:

  1. The Kingdom Approach This approach sees the teachings of Christ to be the standards of the Kingdom (Millennium) He was offering Israel. Since Israel rejected Christ, the "Teachings of Grace" (the latter teaching of Christ and the epistles) replaced these standards. This view acknowledges that the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount do in fact run contrary to latter teaching. Chafer, founder of Dallas Seminary, championed this view, as did Scofield. Most of my pastor friends lean toward this view. The main objection to this view can be stated in two questions: Why did Matthew devote three chapters to a text that is not all that relevant to our current church age? Doesn't Matthew's Gospel end with Christ commissioning believers to make disciples and to teach them to observe all things, whatever Christ has commanded them?
  2. The Penitential Approach This viewpoint says that the SOM is an intensification of the Law and is meant to bring people to their knees in repentance and pave the way for salvation by grace. The current book, The Gospel Solution, by Weaver and Souder, propounds this view. The main problem is that the Law is our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, not the SOM.  And if the SOM reflects God's standards, can we simply dismiss it as bringing us to conviction?
  3. The Interim Ethic Let me quote Martin's explanation, "Just as special laws go into effect during a time of war, so Jesus taught that a new, strict ethic was necessary for the interim period of time until the kingdom would come." One objection to this view is the question, "When did this ethic therefore end?"
  4. The Believer's Ethic This is the view that says the SOM is given to the church and is the believer's ethic. Many who are dispensational (distinguishing between Israel, the church, and the Millennium) and almost all who are Covenant (and making no such distinction) hold this view. We are to obey its commands and interpret it in light of latter revelation. The problem with this view is that it violates a basic principle of interpretation. Since the audience hearing the SOM did not have latter Scripture, it is improper to interpret the SOM in light of latter revelation. It also ignores that the SOM does contradict some of the ethical teachings of the epistles/latter teachings of Jesus.
My view is a combination of all the above. It fits two convictions: the SOM does run contrary to latter teaching, and the SOM does have application to our day. More later! 

Part III

The Rabbinic teachings of Jesus are very difficult for us to understand, partly because we are divorced from the original culture and mindset of Judaism in the first century. But the difficulties are nonetheless clear.  For example, Christ talks about the blessings of being a peacemaker, yet in Matthew 10:34-35a He says, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father..." Although the "sword" is not the sword of war, it is the sword of division, the opposite of peace. Yet we also hear about the God of peace being with us (e.g., Philippians 4:9).  When Christ was born, the angels spoke of "peace on earth." So let's talk more about interpreting these seemingly contradictory statements.

  1. Truth is not WHOLE truth. For example, believers can experience God's peace right now, but the Christian life also brings persecution and conflict. Western thinking looks at a category in detail before moving on to another subject, but in ancient Israel a tidbit here and a tidbit there were gathered to provide a fuller understanding. Paul the Apostle was very well adapted to the Western mind, at least when addressing Europeans (as in the Epistles). Paul generally addresses matters extensively before moving on.
  2. The Rabbis often used the "hot and cold" technique, which, in essence, is teaching by exaggeration. Christ clearly used this technique in the Sermon on the Mount. Even the illustration about criticizing a speck in another's eye while you have an 8x8 beam in yours is pretty extreme!
  3. The concept of Torah ("Law") is key toward understanding these verses. To our way of thinking, the Law is inflexible to changing circumstances.  Such is not the Jewish concept. Traditional Jewish belief said the Messiah would explain and even make changes to the Law. This fluid concept of the Law must be taken into account.
Christ applied existing Torah to the immediate situation, amplified it, and even changed it. As another Moses, Christ dispensed this "new law" to His disciples. Rabbis often addressed matters of Jewish life. They studied principles from the Law and implemented them in new situations, adapting to changing times, conquest by gentiles, etc. Likewise, Christ adjusted and changed the Law to address some or all of the following needs:
  1. Advising God-fearing Jews how to live under Roman rule. Were the disciples of Jesus to attack Rome and propagate acts of terrorism like the Zealots? How were they to treat the Roman law's requirements to carry a soldier's supplies one mile?
  2. Directing Jews into a better prioritizing of the Law's commands. It was more important to be reconciled to a brother than offer a sacrifice at the altar. It was wrong to cheat family out of needed financial support by claiming one's possessions had been promised as a temple donation. Christ was not destroying the Law, but bringing the Law to a deeper, more mature level (Matthew 5:17).
More "needs addressed" under the "Torah" heading to come next week!! 

Part IV

I previously wrote that the Jewish conception of Torah (Law) was somewhat fluid. The Messiah was expected to adjust Torah, which is precisely what Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount (SOM). Christ sought to address specific issues, including the two we covered last week. Let's look at a few more:

  1. Redefining contentment based upon God's purposes for Israel (during the end times) and the church now. Rather than obeying the Law and seeing national prosperity, contentment must be found in even difficult situations.
  2. Listing the standards of the Kingdom (Millennium) Jesus was offering the nation of Israel and defining the type of repentance He wanted to see if the Millennium was to come in the first century (see Acts 3:19-21, 2 Peter 3:12), while also addressing issues for the church age (a plan which Christ had not yet revealed).
  3. Raising the ethical standard with an emphasis on the internal thought process. The Law DID discuss the internal (e.g., Leviticus 19:16-18), but some Pharisees had emphasized the external (behavior) to the neglect of the internal.

Conclusion

  1. The original audience for the SOM was not the church, but Israel. However, believing Jews before Pentecost and the Church have this in common: both are disciples of Jesus. This explains why Matthew was led to include the SOM in his Gospel. All particulars may not apply to the church, but many do; other teachings are to be studied for application. Like prophecy with its near, non-literal application and its more literal, distant fulfillment, the SOM serves two purposes.
  2. Many of the teachings of Jesus should be interpreted as a special genre (category); they are neither poetry, narrative, nor didactic (as are the epistles). That genre should be called "Rabbinic Oratory."  It makes special use of exaggeration, the hot and cold technique, and isolation of details without a big-picture overview. It often raises more questions than it answers and stimulates self-examination. Although it may be difficult to separate Christ's Rabbinic teaching from His straight instruction, the best rule of thumb is Consistency throughout the New Testament. Another guide is the particular Gospel itself. The Gospel of John, for example, is especially well adapted to the church age, including teachings that are often free of their Jewish context.
  3. Torah Fluency, the idea that certain laws/standards can change, is crucial. I believe in absolutes, but not everything is unchangeable.  All the SOM is relevant in principle and should be applied with caution.  Interpretationally, some sections do not relate directly to the church age; others do. The interpreter cannot completely eliminate the subjective in this regards, only keep it at bay.

You may also like to see A Hermeneutical Procedure To Best Interpret The Sermon on the Mount as well as Walking That Extra Mile: A Slightly Different Twist on Matthew 5:38-48.

Pastor Ed

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Kokomo, Indiana, USA
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