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Augustine and McKnight Agree: Jesus's Sermon is The "Perfect Standard of the Christian Life"

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I'm currently preparing an early-2014 sermon series that will focus on the teachings of Jesus. As I've begun preparing I find myself drawn to some of his earliest recorded teachings in his famous sermon on that famous mountainside, Matthew 5:1-7:29. But as I've worked through the so-called Sermon on the Mount I'm not sure I quite know what to make of it. Apparently, I'm in good company. According to Scot McKnight it's perplexed people for generations.

In his new Sermon on the Mount commentary, an inaugural volume in an important new series, The Story of God Bible Commentary, McKnight makes clear that church history is filled with similarly perplexed people. And he bemoans how many of them have responded by softening, reducing and recontextualizing the Sermon—resulting in reinterpreting it altogether in 4 ways (pg. 1-2):

  1. As a ramped up Mosaic law designed to reveal sin
  2. As an image or code of personal, private morality
  3. As a set of standards for hyper-committed, elite Christians
  4. As a sketch of grace-shaped Christian ethics performed only by those living by the Spirit

McKnight says these interpretations won't do: "There is something vital...in letting the demands of Jesus, expressed over and over in the Sermon as imperatives or commands, stand in its rhetorical ruggedness. Only as demand do we hear this Sermon as he meant them to be heard: as the claim of Jesus upon our whole being." (3)

In last week's column we examined McKnight's outline of four angles from which Jesus "did" ethics. This week I'd like to explore how this four-angle ethical scheme plays itself out in McKnight's commentary, beginning with Jesus and his disciples and a crowd of people on a mountain in Matthew 5:1.

Jesus's Sermon is "the greatest moral document of all time," (3) McKnight insists. And Jesus doesn't let us get away with reducing its scope and claims in order to make it less bothersome. Instead his sermon drives home one haunting question: Will you follow me?

LISTEN to the Story

McKnight does something I've not seen done before in a commentary: he begins with the end. Which makes sense, because the ending helps frame the entire sermon, along with the context-forming brackets of 4:23-25 and 9:35.

He explains that along with 10:1, the Greek used in these brackets are the only three places where these words are used together in Matthew, leading him to conclude:

Matthew 4:23-25 outlines what Matthew will tell us about Jesus's ministry (teaching, preaching, healing) in Matthew 5-9, Matthew 9:35 tells us that Matthew has completed his sketch of Jesus's ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing, and then Matthew 10:1 shows that Jesus empowered his twelve apostles to extend that sketched ministry of Jesus to others. (20)

In essence 4:23-25—9:35 provides a sketch of the ministry and mission of Jesus. These two brackets provide verbal cues to draw our attention to this sketch, beckoning people to do what he taught and did. That's the function of the Sermon's ending, which is why McKnight addresses it at the outset: "Jesus ends his sermon by calling people to do what he has taught." (20)

One of McKnights four angles is a so-called Ethic from Above, the idea that Jesus speaks directly as the voice of God, which requires a response. Listen to this passage and you'll realize that it presents Jesus's moral vision and summons us to follow him; it gives us a picture of Jesus and prompts us to make a decision.

EXPLAIN the Story

McKnight explains that this picture is Jesus as new Moses: "Jesus is teaching the new law as the new Moses for the new people of God. As such, [the Sermon] partakes in an Ethic from Above, but since this ethic is so tied to Jesus, it is also a messianic ethic." (24) Just as God through Moses taught Torah to the gathered Israelites at Horeb, Jesus set forth his moral vision with the crowds gathered at a mountain.

One of McKnight's more interesting claims here is that the recorded "Sermon" might be more of a collection of teachings from "various settings," (22) rather than one large speech at a single moment in time. While McKnight makes a similar claim in his introduction and says others do, too, (17) he cites no other sources who share his claim.

At any rate, the point being, just as Moses ascended the mountain, sat on the mountain, descended the mountain, and taught Torah, so Jesus does the same. "Israel's Torah/moral vision has now come to its completion in Jesus's moral vision." Which is why the beginning and ending context is so important: "It guides us to see in the Sermon not simply a moral vision but Jesus himself, the Jesus who is the new Moses with a new moral vision for God's new people." (24)

LIVE the Story

One of the primary goals of the SGBC series is to probe how a given text might be lived out today. In response to this sermon, McKnight outlines 4 ways to live in our world so that our story lines up with the Bible's story:

  1. A New Kind of Evangelism—"The Sermon on the Mount, when read from the special contextual clues Matthew provides at 4:23-25 and 9:35...is a compelling presentation of Jesus and his moral vision," (25) which McKnight contents attracts people to Jesus. Jesus's story is the euangelion, after all.
  2. A New Kind of Teacher—What we learn about Jesus in the Sermon is that he is the Teacher, the new Moses, the new law-giving teacher. "By presenting Jesus as the new Moses, Matthew is laying down a messianic claim for Jesus. This new kind of teacher is the messianic, new Moses." (25) Which requires a response.
  3. A New Posture—If Jesus is the new Moses, there is one proper response: we are to assume the posture of a student. "The posture of a student, and nothing is more apropos at this point in studying the Sermon, is to sit and listen." (26) Mary, unlike Martha, sat and listened; the disciples did it, too; Paul did it with Gamaliel. And we need to do it in response to the Jesus presented in the Sermon.
  4. A New Obedience—In addition to this posture one more response is needed: we're called to follow and obey its teachings; we are called to do what Jesus teaches. McKnight says "This is the plain teaching of Matthew 7:13-27; 12:49-50; and 28:16-20. This new obedience leads to an entirely new life." (217)

 

Introducing this pericope McKnight quotes Augustine's own feelings regarding Jesus's Sermon: he believed it was the "perfect standard of the Christian life," which McKnight believes drives home an important question: Will you follow me? (21) In light of this clarion call, we best not minimize, dilute, or explain away these important words. These common approaches fail Jesus's words.

Read more of McKnight’s commentary on Sermon on the Mount: Get the free eBook, Kingdom Vision

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Jb_headshotJeremy Bouma (ThM) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.

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