Christians: Jesus Didn’t Give You Strict Rules Only to Encourage Dependence on Him

Christians: Jesus Didn’t Give You Strict Rules Only to Encourage Dependence on Him January 24, 2016
Fra Angelico, “Die Bergpredigt” (1437-45). Source: WikiMedia Commons

In the past few days, I’ve had several chance encounters with what seems to be an increasingly common interpretation among some Christians, relating to the teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount is, of course, one of the most recognizable sections of the New Testament and indeed the Bible itself, consisting of interrupted teaching material by Jesus, where he’s at his most poetic, radical and memorable. The particular set of teachings in question here is prefaced by (and includes) this:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20, NRSV)

(For those unfamiliar with this section of the Bible, it might be helpful to read some of the larger context of these verses, to get a better understanding of what exactly it is that we’re working with here—the basis on which the following interpretations that I mention take their starting point.)

A few days ago, one of the most well-known and respected users on Reddit’s Christianity subforum (/r/Christianity) posted a link where they addressed this issue, suggesting that in these verses and those that follow,

the Law stands to convict us as sinners who fall short, in a general and broad sense. Jesus wanted everyone to feel convicted. He wanted people to marvel at the impossibility of fulfilling the Law themselves.

Jesus wanted to provoke this: “How could my righteousness surpass even that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law!?” (Source)

Further, specifically in response to someone having asked about the related verse “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28), and how avoiding this seems to be “an impossible standard,” here are three other examples of a nearly identical interpretation:

You are right to say it is an impossible standard. Jesus said it , in order to disqualify everyone from being able to earn salvation through law keeping, by restoring the Law to its original perfect standard, which only He could fulfill to the dot. Why? To bring them to the end of self , and to look upon a savior. (Source)

Jesus is introducing the Law to his disciples: the one that comes from the heart. This new Law is absolutely impossible to follow. The standards are superhuman. (Jesus, on the other hand, himself followed them and always saw women in their full humanity instead of checking them out.) (Source)

The impossible standard of the law is suppose to bring us to the cross. Because we can not be any means save ourselves we must rely on Jesus completely for our salvation. (Source)

If this is at all representative of a wider view, then, this seems to have fully infiltrated popular Christian popular thought.¹ Here, it’s not so much that Jesus was really interested in his followers’ close fidelity to these ethical teachings—which were pretty explicitly expansions of the Jewish Law, in this particular section of the Sermon on the Mount—but rather the opposite: he wanted them to realize just how impotent they were to even begin to do this to any substantial degree in the first place, and thus that they’d first seek out him.

Now, there are a lot of things being assumed here. At first glance, these seems to be associated with a particularly Protestant notion about faith—which is more or less confirmed by the particularly Lutheran nature of much of this overaching sentiment.² Beyond this, though, one of the major assumptions here is about the interpretation of this line “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

The typical interpretation here is, in brief, that before the coming of Christ, Jews—God’s chosen people—were expected to abide by the Mosaic Law; but that Jesus’ perfect life—however that’s construed—actually “fulfilled” this Law, thus rendering it otherwise obsolete or at the very least totally reconfiguring it. Now, the theology or mechanism behind this has always been murky; but the important idea (especially in the interpretations mentioned above) is that followers of Christ can actually sort of vicariously fulfill the Law themselves through Jesus—through faith in him—or are at least exempt from it in this way. In the word of Martin Luther, Jesus “bestows himself with his fulfillment of it upon us.”³

All together then: with “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” as the focal point of the Sermon on the Mount, the subsequent teachings here—if superficially seeming like actual commands that followers are expected to, well, faithfully follow—were really intended to point toward Jesus as the only one who could have actually abided by them with any genuine fidelity. Presumably, then, the Christian who’s hearing (and understanding) what was really being said in these verses would have a sort of dawning realization that, at most, whatever fidelity that one would/could have to these teachings would only come through the power that faith in Christ invested them with.

Yet there are some serious problems with all this. The main one is that the notion that these teachings were delivered with the implicit understanding that followers wouldn’t be able to abide by them—even if only in spirit, not in the exact “letter” of the law here—is totally absent from the narrative, and in fact contradicted by it at all relevant points. Indeed, having undertaken a wide-ranging survey of latter 20th century and 21st century interpretation of these verses in Matthew—interpretation in the actual field of academic Biblical studies, that is—I’ve yet to encounter a modern interpreter who understands these sections in this way.

While scholars commonly understand at least some of the fulfillment aspect in “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the Law and the prophets]” as intended to suggest the supernatural work/person of Christ himself—for example, that the Law and prophets pointed toward the Messiah, with Jesus fulfilling this role—never is Jesus’ larger message throughout the Sermon on the Mount understood to ultimately point toward his own person (especially in the sort of inferential or subtextual way described above); and never are these teachings not understood as real commands that were reasonably expected to be followed.

This is probably most obvious in the analogy of Matthew 7:24f., which wraps up the Sermon on the Mount as a whole: “Everyone then who hears [ἀκούει] these words of mine and does [ποιεῖ] them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” It’s hard to miss an echo of Exodus 24:7 in these words—a verse which follows Moses’ having read the Book of the Covenant (a major portion of the Law) to the people: “All that the Lord has said we will do [ποιήσομεν] and hear [ἀκουσόμεθα].” In case it wasn’t clear here, the same Greek verbs are used in both Matthew 7:24 and Exodus 24:7.⁴

Conservative scholar Craig Keener suggests, in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, that

The earliest Christians, whose interpretations appear in New Testament epistles and documents like the Didache and the writings of church fathers, demand obedience to Jesus’ teachings recorded in this sermon (Grant 1978). Jesus himself apparently expected full compliance with his teaching . . . expressions of submission to God’s reign over the lives of his followers. To capture the offensiveness of his message in his milieu, modern interpreters must let Jesus’ radical demands confront us with all the unnerving ferocity with which they would have struck their first hearers. (The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 161)

In the end, we might see a parallel here with the Qumran sect, in whose possession the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. As an important corollary of its own messianic scheme, the sect submitted to the authority of an authentic Interpreter of the Law (or interpreters); and in so doing its members centered their lives around fidelity to the unique and strict interpretation proferred here—a vox clamantis in deserto, having uncovered (or restored) the one true interpretation of the Law, where all others had failed.⁵

To them, perfection was possible, even if they often fell short of attaining it; and it’s in this larger context that we can understand the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount to be the restored (true) Law—the precepts of which weren’t to be diminished or discarded as unattainable, but as demands fitting for another one true sect which had proven and distinguished itself (or could prove and distinguish itself) in piety from all others.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] I’m pretty isolated from this kind of popular thought, besides what I catch on the internet. One of the only well-known contemporary (non-academic) Christian interpreters I’m aware of who’s expressed this view is the popular evangelical John MacArthur:

Jesus had stunned multitudes by saying, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 5:20)—followed by, “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48). Clearly, He set a standard that was humanly impossible, for no one could surpass the rigorous living of the scribes and Pharisees (“Jesus’ Perspect on Sola Fide”)

He notes that “[b]ecause of its seemingly impossible demands, many evangelicals maintain that the Sermon on the Mount pertains only to the kingdom age, the Millennium.” I had yet to encounter this view before this, but apparently the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia also notes that

Dispensationalism has limited the demands by referring the Sermon in its primary application to some future kingdom age (cf. Scofield Reference Bible on Mt. 5:2).

James Danaher, in his Contemplative Prayer, offhandedly remarks that

In light of the impossible standard that Jesus has set forth in the Sermon on the Mount, it seems obvious that what we need to ask and seek is that God would extend mercy toward us for having failed to live by the standard that Jesus sets forth. (62)

[2] Taking the article on this in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia as a jumping-off point here, it notes that

The basic problem in interpreting the Sermon on the Mount stems from the uncompromising quality of its demands and the loftiness of its ethic. There appears to be a great gap between what Jesus expects and what people even at their best can accomplish. Practically all the approaches to the Sermon are attempts to explain or alleviate this tension. (414)

It goes on to list five approaches toward this. The first one—the literal view—doesn’t find these extreme demands problematic. The second is the qualification view (which includes the more stand hyperbolic interpretation); the third the limitation view (including the dispensationalist view quoted above, as relating only to the future Kingdom view; as well as Schweitzer’s eschatological and cessationist view); and the fourth a general category of “recent theological interpretations.” It’s (the second interpretation mentioned in) the fourth category here in which the Sermon is

designed to shatter our self-confidence and lead us to repentance, to bring about an experience of despair that forces us to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God. This “theory of the impossible ideal” (Unerfüllbarkeitstheorie) is the view of Lutheran orthodoxy and has been championed by G. Kittel in Die Probleme des palästinischen Spätjudentums und das Urchristentum (1926). The major obstacle is that the Sermon itself contains no indication that Jesus ever intended it to be taken in this way. Jeremias called this view “a classic example of what the consequences are when one interprets Jesus in the light of Paul” (p. 9).

For Jeremias’ discussion, see here. He describes this interpretation e.g. that

He wanted to bring his hearers to the consciousness that they cannot, in their own strength, fulfil the demands of God. He intends to lead men, through the experience of their failure, to despair of themselves. His demands are designed to shatter our self-reliance; nothing else is intended. The Sermon on the Mount, according to this second theory, is ‘Mosissimus Moses’, to take a phrase from Luther; it is Moses quadrupled, Moses multiplied to the highest degree. If the first conception sees in the Sermon on the Mount a perfectionist law, this second discovers in it a pedagogical law, a law the purpose of which is to prepare men for salvation. (Jesus and the Message of the New Testament, 21)

Indeed, while this view was again unknown to me in the context of contemporary academic Biblical studies, it does seem to be much more well-known in Lutheran theology—especially from earlier in the 20th century (or before). Rudolf Kittel had forcefully stated that “the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount is to tear down. It can only destroy. In the last analysis, its singular meaning lies in tearing down and laying bare the great moral need of empirical humanity.” (Cf. Bauman, “Gerhard Kittel: The Sermon on the Mount as Praeparatio Evangelica”; see also “Carl Stange: Lutheran Paulinizing Exegesis” and his essay on Johannes Müller.) This is also expressed in radical terms by Helmut Thielicke: “At the very beginning and as a kind of introduction to discipleship Christ makes us feel the implacable severity of the law and thus leads us to death.”

In Robert Frost’s “A Masque of Mercy” (1947), the bookstore owner simply called The Keeper

refers to “Paul’s constant theme”:

. . . The Sermon on the Mount
Is just a frame-up to insure the failure
Of all of us, so all of us will be
Thrown prostrate at the Mercy Seat for Mercy.

(Quoted from Lundbom, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: Mandating a Better Righteousness, 48.)

[3Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, 5.19

[4] Referring specifically to the view of Stange (again cf. Bauman’s “Carl Stange: Lutheran Paulinizing Exegesis”), Bauman—while acknowledging the clear hyperbolic nature of some sayings—expresses strongly:

Despite the subtleties of Stange’s theological hermeneutic, it is simply impossible casuistically to evade the forthright impression that Jesus in such pericopes as Matthew 5:17-20 unambiguously and lucidly expressed his clear intention of reinforcing by word and deed the continuing validity of the Torah in order to bring to completion by word and deed through his life and work the plan of the Creator for his people. There is no evidence for Stange’s assumption that Matthew meant to convey Jesus’ rejection of the nomistic point of view. Standing as they do within the Old Testament framework, it is obvious that the demands enunciated by Jesus were, like the Decalogue itself, meant to be observed without condition or qualification.

[5] Hultgren, From the Damascus Covenant to the Covenant of the Community, 100-103 n. 45; Collins, Beyond the Qumran Community, 37f. For more see Pate, The Reverse of the Curse, 104f., especially 111f.

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