Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon on the Mount: Sections C & C' (part 3)

Continuing where we left off in this series about the Sermon on the Mount, we return to the controversial passage in chapter five which says:
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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all has happened. Therefore whoever relaxes 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. 

As we begin, I want us to be honest with what the text (above) says and does not say. By focusing upon what is (and is not) said, and being honest about what we find, that should help deflect any unnecessary debates or arguments. In other words, if the text (above) doesn't say something clearly, or at all, I want us all to have a healthy attitude and not debate or be dogmatic about what we think Jesus must have meant, or could only have meant. With that in mind, I want us to examine whether Jesus said that every “iota” and “dot” of the Law would pass away.

Is that what Jesus said (above)?

Upon close examination, no matter how you slice and dice the text, Jesus most certainly does not say that every iota and dot would pass away. With certainty, the only claim which can be made is that Jesus promised some iota or dot definitely would pass away at some point in time, when “heaven and earth pass away.” So then, with this in mind, we can be certain that, in the very least, Jesus (and Matthew) intended to communicate that a time was certainly coming in which some of the Law would necessarily change. When “all has happened”, as Jesus said, the Law and the prophets would be fulfilled, bringing about the passing away of “heaven and earth.” That was a certain event on the horizon, in their future.

What, then, did Jesus mean by “until heaven and earth pass away”? 

And how does this claim fit into the surrounding context of this Sermon about Christians being persecuted and falsely accused on his account, and of the Kingdom of heaven approaching near?

I will begin by answering the first question. 

At first glance it seems obvious that Jesus could have only meant the passing away of the literal, physical cosmos of “heaven and earth” as we now know it through scientific investigation. That means, presumably, the literal, physical cosmos would pass away before any iota or dot of the Law passed away as well. (Remember, Jesus did not say that every iota or dot would pass away. He only promised that some would.) If this is what the reader wants to commit to, then he or she must also commit to no aspect of the Law passing away yet—not one iota or jotbecause the literal, physical cosmos has not passed away yet (at least, not that I'm aware of). All of the law, therefore, must still be binding and authoritative as it was originally intended and composed—with no apparent qualifications offered by Jesus—until the literal, physical cosmos passes away. 

If that’s the position you want to pick and stick with, that’s your decision. I'm no longer encouraging that kind of interpretation. For years I was a "theonomist," and I still recognize the merits of such deeply biblical convictions. But I'm convinced that in order to make sense of what Jesus actually said, studying it within the context of Matthew's Gospel is most appropriate. That way the reader doesn't have to do all sorts of mental gymnastics with other New Testament Scriptures in order to rationalize their convictions. If a "theonomic" spin is the kind of interpretation you’re committed to, feel free to skip the rest of what I offer as an alternative. And yes, there is an alternative.

That alternative is this: Jesus was referring to a symbolic cosmos of “heaven and earth” passing away, which would bring about a necessary change of the Law after all of that had happened, being “filled full” by Jesus himself. 

Now, before I go any further, I want everyone to notice that no matter which interpretive option is chosen, it remains crystal clear that Jesus does not—and never promised to—abolish the whole Law. He only promised that some necessary change would occur when all fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets “had happened.” 

What, then, exactly is this symbolic cosmos? 

To answer that question, I’m going to quote from a first century contemporary of Jesus’ apostles, a sadducean priest of Jerusalem who described in his works what was common knowledge in his generation. Writing about the Law of God, Josephus comments (Antiquities of the Jews, Book III, chap.6, section 4), saying:
Now the tent within those pillars was the most holy place, God’s dwelling place; but the rest of the tent was the tabernacle, which was open for the priests. This proportion of the measures of the tabernacle proved to be an imitation of the system of the cosmos; for that third part thereof which was within the four pillars, to which the priests were not admitted, is a heaven peculiar to God.

Pretty clear, right? The Law of God gave Israel a blueprint for worship, and the layout of that blueprint (i.e. the “proportion of the measures of the tabernacle”) included three spaces, the “most holy place” in which God dwelled, “the rest of the tent” which the Law calls “the holy place”, and the outer courtyard surrounding the tabernacle, which comprises the rest of the tabernacle blueprint. That blueprint therefore consisted of three parts: the courtyard, the first tent which was open for the priests, and the second tent in which “the priests were not admitted” because it was “a heaven peculiar to God.” All of these proportions and measures of the Tabernacle given in God’s Law “proved to be an imitation of the system of the cosmos.” 

Josephus was not the only “theologian” to identify this connection between Israel’s temple and the cosmos. Another biblical commentator who made this same connection was Eusebius, the late-3rd century/early-4th century Bishop of Caesarea, whose works confirm a long-standing patristic understanding about the old “heaven and earth” passing away and being replaced with the new heaven and earth, the new Jerusalem, the new kingdom of God realized on earth. Since I have already commented on numerous works of the Church Fathers in this regard, which can be found here, I will limit the quotations from Eusebius to one series of comments. He wrote:
"All authorities concur in the declaration that "when all these things should have been done,” as our Lord said, "the end" should come; that "the mystery of God should be finished as he had declared to His servants the prophets”; it should be completed; time should now be no more; the end of all things (so foretold) should be at hand, and be fully brought to pass; in these days should be fulfilled all that had been spoken of Christ (and of His church) by the prophets; or, in other words, when the gospel should have been preached in all the empire for a testimony to all nations, and the power of the Holy People be scattered (abroad), then should the end come, then should all these things be finished. I need now only say, all these things have been done: the old and elementary system passed away with a great noise; all these predicted empires have actually fallen, and the new kingdom, the new heaven and earth, the new Jerusalem—all of which were to descend from God, to be formed by His power, have been realized on earth; all these things have been done in the sight of all the nations; God's holy arm has been made bare in their sight: His judgments have prevailed, and they remain for an everlasting testimony to the whole world. His kingdom has come, as it was foretold it should, and His will has, so far, been done; His purposes have been finished; and, from that day to the goal of his purposes in time, it will be the duty, as indeed it will be the great privilege of the Church, to gather into its bosom the Jew, the Greek, the Scythian, the Barbarian, bond and free; and to do this as the Apostles did in their days--in obedience, faith and hope.

Clearly then, if we operated with this same understanding of a symbolic cosmos in which sociological structures and concepts were understood in terms of cosmic geography and temple ideology, it’s not difficult to discern that Jesus and other first century Jews would have been thinking of the world as they knew it—the microcosmic locus of which was contained in their temple, in Jerusalem, as designed in God's Law. Indeed, later statements of Jesus within this very same Gospel—Matthew’s Gospel—seem to suggest that their "heaven and earth" would pass away with their old covenant temple administration.

In Matthew 23-24, Jesus uses the same phrases, and yet he clearly referred to first century events regarding the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. 
23:29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the land, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. 37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate." 24:1 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple.But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. 9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole empire as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the land will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. 32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Notice carefully that in both statements of Jesus, the exact same kind of phrase is used twice, and they both declare that “heaven and earth” will pass away when “all has happened.” Yet Jesus also says twice that all will happen in that generation.

Matthew’s Gospel isn’t the only scripture which promises that some important aspects of the Law would completely pass away when the Old Covenant administration had definitively ended (which we know historically occurred with the destruction of Herod's temple in 70 A.D.). The entire letter of Hebrews is about a necessary change in the Law pertaining to the priesthood. Just look at what chapter eight has to say about that:
   Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a liturgist in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” But as it is, Christ has obtained a liturgical-ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first one had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
   For he finds fault with them when he says:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.  For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.  For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Understand the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sin-offerings no more.
   In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. 

And Hebrews chapter nine says this:
   Now even the first [covenant] had regulations for liturgy and an earthly sanctuary. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. After the second curtain was a tent called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. 
   These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first tent, performing their ritual duties, but into the second [tent] only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first tent is still standing (which is a parable for that time into the present). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
   But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

The book of Hebrews isn’t the only New Testament scripture to teach that some necessary change in the Old Covenant Law was necessary. There are many others. And now is not the time to discuss the specific details of how the Law has changed. I just want to point out how clear the Scriptures are that the Law of God itself taught some necessary change by Christ and in Christ, and that those changes did not abolish all of the Law. 

All of the necessary changes to God’s Law have come to pass by Christ and in Christ. But it’s not necessary that we think of these “changes” as abolishing the Law or the prophets as a whole. If we are thinking in the context of first century Christianity, between 30—70A.D., with the transition from the old covenant administration to the new administration, what would get abolished in that generation was the old covenant temple, which was essential to the whole old covenant administration prescribed in the Law of God. 

As Christians who care about understanding the entire Bible in it’s historical context, we must keep in mind that it is literally and physically impossible to keep the “whole law” of the old covenant administration without the old covenant temple. That is what Jesus and his apostles referred to when describing the definitive “end” of the old creation and the beginning of a new creation. 

Jesus began his temple-replacement project with his incarnation, death, and resurrection. With his ascension he began to make the old temple obsolete, preparing the people of Israel for it's inevitable point of vanishing away, as promised. With the destruction of Jerusalem and Herod's idolatrous temple in 70A.D. his vindication was complete; heaven and earth passed away; everything promised about end of the Old Covenant administration had all happened.  

What does this mean practically for the Church today? 

First of all, it means that Jesus "filled full" all of the Law and prophets in order to  build a new temple in his Body, the Church. That also implies that a necessary destruction of the old temple was required. But notice carefully that by destroying the old temple and it's whole administration that does not at all imply that the Law or the Prophets would be destroyed. Rather, by filling full the Law and the prophets, Jesus was promising to build upon them and incorporate them into the transfigured temple of his Body, the Church. Therefore, it is not at all unreasonable to think that the Church would be wise to retrieve and utilize what is essential to the Law’s design and the Prophet’s vision, as long as their retrieval is for the purpose of building upon that sure foundation of the new Christ-centered “heaven and earth," instead of merely rebuilding the ruins of the old temple and it's administration which Jesus damned. 

People often mistakenly assume that this cannot be the case. Jesus supposedly could not have been teaching that the Church may retrieve what is wise and essential to the Law. It must be all of the Law or none of the Law (and all grace instead), it is argued. Otherwise, why did Jesus say that anyone who relaxes the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so would be considered least in the kingdom of heaven? Certainly—or so it is thought—Jesus requires Christians to keep every iota and dot of the Law (i.e. “the least of these commandments”), and he does so in order to teach us that we cannot possibly keep it. And since we can't possibly keep it, we ought to get rid of our need for it entirely in order to focus on how gracious God is in saving us apart from it.

That is what I want to discuss in the next post. Is that really what Jesus taught?

In preparation for what the following post will address, I want us to consider what Jesus meant by “the least of these commandments.” 

By saying that, was Jesus referring to "the least of these commandments" contained in the Law and the prophets? Or was he referring to something else?

And how would such a claim--as you imagine it--fit into the surrounding context about first century Christians being persecuted and falsely accused on his account, and of the Kingdom of heaven approaching near?

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sermon on the Mount: sections C & C' (part 2)

Continuing in this series about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, we now come across one of the most controversial passages of the New Testament:
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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.   Therefore whoever relaxes 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.

Countless interpretations of these passages have been offered, and I’m not going to pretend as though I have the definitive interpretation to it either. However, I do believe I have something worthwhile to offer, namely a view which endorses the Law of God and the teaching of His prophets, as well as a necessary change of Law (a “transfiguration” of the Law and the Prophets, so to speak) which must take place when “heaven and earth” are to pass away. But first, we must ask and attempt to answer an obvious question which likely would have crossed the minds of Jesus’ first century Jewish audience.

Why would anyone in Israel think that Jesus came to abolish the Law or the Prophets? Did Jesus come to teach in opposition to “the Law” and the Prophets of God?

I think St. Augustine’s comments about this passage provide a healthy dose of wisdom for all Christians to consider. He wrote:
After He had exhorted His hearers to prepare themselves to suffer all things for the sake of truth and justice, and not to hide the good gift they were about to receive, but to learn it with such good disposition that they would teach it to others, while aiming their good work toward the glory of God, and not toward praise for themselves—then He begins to instruct them and to show them what they should teach. And, just as if they were saying by way of inquiry: ‘Behold, we are willing both to suffer all things for thy name’s sake, and not to hide thy teaching. But what is this very thing which you forbid to be hidden, and for which you command that all things be suffered? Are you going to mention other things in opposition to what is written in the Law?He answers, ‘No.’ For He says: ‘Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill.’

So then, what did Jesus mean by “fulfill”?

In order to answer this question, let’s take a quick tour through Matthew’s use of this very word, “fulfill,” in order to see how it is used throughout this Gospel.
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:22-25, cited from Isa. 7:14)

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. his was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”  (Matthew 2:13-18, cited from Hos. 11:1 and Jer. 31:15)

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:12-17, cited from Isa. 9:1, 2)

And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” (Matthew 8:14-17, cited from Isa. 53:4)

Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:15-21, cited from Isa. 42:1–3)

Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” (Matthew 13:14, cited from Isa. 6:9,10)

This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 13:35, cited from Psalm 78:2)

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’ (Matthew 21:4, cited from Zech. 9:9 [it also echoes and alludes to various visions within Isaiah, e.g. Isa. 62:11])

While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”  At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled. (Matthew 26:47-56, alluding to many interwoven passages of Scripture about an end of the Old Covenant, but most especially Dan. 9:24)

Notice that according to Matthew’s own consistent use of this term to “fulfill”, it always occurs alongside citations from the Old Testament Scriptures. Taking that into account, along with it’s more straight-forward literal meaning to “fill full”, one obvious interpretation of what Jesus meant was to embody what was foreshadowed by the Law and the Prophets, thereby “filling full” what was lacking in them. In “The Law” and “The Prophets” of God we find clear illustrations of God’s holiness, loyal-love, righteous indignation, mercy, goodness, long-suffering, patience, and kindness. But did any single Israelite, or even any generation of Israel collectively, ever typify that reality

Even a cursory glance through Scripture will show that the answer is clearly ‘No’. Israel was given the Law and the Prophets, but every individual Israelite and even Israel collectively was lacking something significant which needed to be filled full. 

I realize that many Christians don’t accept this way of viewing the Law or the Prophets. But please bear with me and hear me out. 

What was Israel lacking, which the Law and the Prophets could not fill full?

We could also ask, what were the Law and the Prophets lacking?

The answer is actually much more simple than what ordinarily meets the eye. Both the people of Israel, and the Law and the Prophets they had received were lacking the power to raise the dead and grant eternal life and immortality (I Tim 6:16; II Tim 1:10; I Cor 15:53-54; Rom 2:7). Jesus came to accomplish that, once for all time, and even for those righteous saints who had already died (Heb. 11:1-12:2). But in order to do so, the filling full of what they were lacking had to be according to the terms of God’s Law as spoken through His prophets. The Law and prophets functioned as a pedagogy of death, with limited access into the Divine presence. Even the Law itself instructed Israel about an inevitable "time of reformation" which would result in direct access to the Divine presence without fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15; 9:8-10). As long as the "first tent" (the Holy Place) was still standing, the Holy Spirit was indicating that the way into Holy places, where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, was not yet opened for the living or the dead. As I have indicated elsewhere in an academic paper, the book of Revelation teaches that after the definitive end of the old covenant administration, with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 A.D., that access into Holy places is opened for all, and all the saints who have died in Christ ascend thrones, and they are each given authority over the nations to participate with Jesus in making all things new.

Only the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and vindication of the Son of God could open that way into the heavenly realities of eternal life with God (Heb 8:1-5). Not only did the temple of Jesus' Body have to be destroyed, but the Old Covenant temple and it's whole system of administration needed to be destroyed along with him in order for the New Covenant kingdom to advance throughout the world, uniting heaven and earth together in his Church and  thereby colonizing earth with the life of heaven.

So then, in a secondary sense, the Law and the Prophets were not only lacking the power to destroy the power of death, but they were also lacking their promised Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, who alone could accomplish that cosmic task.

Again, St. Augustine’s comments are helpful:
This sentence admits of a twofold meaning. …By saying that He has not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it, He says that He is going to make it complete by adding what it lacks and that He is going to observe it by doing what it contains. …He does not destroy what He has found in the Law when He supplies what it lacked; on the contrary, He strengthens it by giving it completeness. …For, when one is observing what has been added for the sake of completeness, he is all the more surely observing what has been previously established as the foundation.

Accordingly, it cannot be said that Jesus came to end all usefulness of God’s Law or what his prophets taught. Indeed, the very opposite seems to be the case. Yet, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Jesus is not only endorsing the usefulness of God’s Law and the teaching of His prophets. He is also teaching that there will come a time when “heaven and earth" will pass away, and when that occurs there must be a necessary change of Law (a “transfiguration” of the Law and the Prophets, so to speak). 

In the next post I will try to bring clarity about when that time would be, and what that implies for Christians today. Here’s a teaser though: That time is not in our future. The first “Heaven and earth” already passed away.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Sermon on the Mount: Sections C & C' (part 1)

Continuing in this series of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, we move on to the next two parallel sections: C & C’

According to the literary structure of the Sermon, those sections correspond to 5:11-20 and 7:7-12, as seen below:

A. Jesus ascends mountain surrounded by crowds (4:23-5:2)
   B. Blessings (5:3-10)
      C. Fulfill “the law and prophets”/ glorify “your Father in Heaven” (5:11-20)
         D. Two triads about Torah (5:21-48)
            E. One triad about spiritual discipline (6:1-18)
         D'. Two triads about Godly priorities (6:19-7:6)
      C'. “This is the law and prophets”/”your Father in Heaven” provides (7:7-12)
   B'. Warnings (7:13-27)
A'. Jesus descends mountain surrounded by crowds (7:28-8:1)

Section C (5:11-20) reads like this:
  Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 
  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 
  You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.
  You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. 
  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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 
  Therefore whoever relaxes 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.1

Remembering what was mentioned in the previous post, this section begins with another “beatitude,” but it was clearly designed to begin a new section because it rests outside of the inclusio of the first eight beatitudes ("because theirs is the kingdom of the heavens"), and also because it is addressed in the second person plural, whereas the previous eight beatitudes were addressed in the third person plural. 

Here, beginning in verse 3, it is noteworthy that Jesus considers his first century Jewish audience on the Mount to be fortunate for being falsely accused of evil, and even being persecuted for such false attributions of “evil” on his account. Jesus could not have been more clear that the persecutions of which he spoke were not vague existential feelings about “suffering” as a human being, or even being persecuted for their own foolishness, but rather it was for their loyalty to Jesus

Jesus was the controversial figure in the midst of Israel, and their loyalty to his message—which was only a message of peace and hope for those who believed him—was what provoked false accusations and persecutions.

When considering that historical context, one of the first questions which came to my mind was how their promised “fortunate” situation of being persecuted for loyalty to him related with the following statements about salt and light, or about “abolishing the Law or the Prophets”, or about giving glory to their Father in heaven. 

For the next few posts, I’m going to illustrate how they are related. 

Let’s begin with the first question: Why did Jesus teach about salt and light in connection with persecution? 

At first glance the answer is not obvious. In fact, the more we look at the verses in context the more questions we could ask, like why compare people to salt? What is Jesus implying about their “saltiness”? And what does salt losing its taste have to do with false accusations and persecution for loyalty to Jesus? So what if salt gets thrown out and trampled under feet? The connections are not very obvious.

Almost every biblical commentator I have studied suggests that salt was used for: flavoring, preserving, and purifying (cleansing), so therefore that must be what Jesus meant. Jesus must, allegedly, have meant that his disciples are to be the means of preserving the earth, or of being a witness of what God finds “tasteful” and pleasing to him, or that they were to be a purifying agent within society. 

All of these are somewhat interesting to me, but not terribly convincing. And that is because what Jesus actually said is not what our English Bible translations have offered. The more straight-forward “literal” translation would actually look like this:

You-all are the salt of the land, and if the salt is to become foolish, in what will it be made salty? For no one is it2 still potent, except for being-thrown outside and to be trampled under the people.

The most obvious difference in this (accurate, but wooden) translation above is the word foolish. That Greek word just so happens to always mean “foolish" in both canonical and non-canonical literature, which means that it is very strange to translate it as having “lost its taste,” as though it was somehow an idiom for losing taste (even though we have no examples of this idiom elsewhere in Greek literature). For a few examples within the canon, take a look at I Cor. 1:18-25, Romans 1:18-22. The Greek word clearly means “foolish.” Therefore I think it’s safe to say that without any evidence of this being a unique idiom, Jesus probably meant it in its most common usage: to become foolish“Lost its taste” is likely not what Jesus meant.

He said that if the salt is to become foolish—i.e. if they, who are the salt of the land, are to become foolish—in what will they be made salty again? 

Let’s now focus on what the implications are.

What does this mean: “If the salt is to become foolish…”

If Jesus meant that they might actually become foolish, i.e. disciples behaving like true fools in the sight of others, then Jesus could have been telling them that they would become practically worthless except for being used to create a path for others to walk on. After all, the Roman government was known for having paved many of their roads with salt.

This exhortation would then be to not become actual fools, but rather to remain “wise” in order to remain useful, so as to avoid being thrown outside and trampled by others.

There is one other alternative (or complimentary) view, which I tend to favor.

If Jesus meant that they might become “foolish” to the tastes of others, then he would have been implying that they shouldn't be surprised when their accusers would mistreat them cast them out and trample them. That would make this an exhortation in preparation for that treatment, precisely because they are the salt of the land and cannot cease being “salty,” regardless of whether their accusers consider them “wise” or not. As salt of the land, they would still be used to create a path for others to walk on.

It is along with this latter interpretation we find the great saint and theologian, Theophylact, Archbishop of Ohrid (1055—1107 AD) agreeing. He said:
The prophets were sent to one race only, but you are the salt of the whole land. By your teachings and reproofs you act as an astringent upon the slack and the indolent, so that they will not breed the worms that never die. So do not desist from your astringent reproofs, even if you are reviled or persecuted. …Even the prophets before you were persecuted for the sake of virtue, Jesus said, and so you have the example of their sufferings to give you courage. …[For they were] cast out from the rank of teacher and trodden under foot, that is, despised. 

This interpretation also comports well with the following statements about them being the “light of the world”. Again, a more wooden translation of the Greek text would look like this:
You-all are the light of the world. A city laying above a mountain is not capable of being hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel-basket, but upon a lampstand, and it shines for all those in the house. Likewise, shine the light of you-all in the presence of the people, so that they may see the good works of you-all and glorify the Father of you-all who is in the heavens.

Notice carefully that Jesus compares them with two objects: a city set above a mountain and a lamp within a house. In both of these scenarios, night-time and darkness is assumed. So then, if night-time and darkness is the background of these cultural metaphors, a bunch of questions emerge:

  • What would it have meant for them to be the light of the world?
  • Why is a city laying above a mountain not capable of being hidden, even in darkness?
  • Why do people light a lamp and place it upon a lampstand in a house at night?
  • Is this merely a metaphor which encourages them to do good works that glorify God?
  • Or is Jesus, again, preparing them for the reality that light exposes what is hidden in darkness?
  • What is the relationship between shining their light and being fortunate when others revile them, persecute them, and utter all kinds of evil against them falsely on Jesus’ account?

In case Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t seem to be clear enough, it turns out that both Luke and Mark record these very same words of Jesus within a context of exposing what is hidden in darkness. 

Luke 8:4–17 says:
And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it.  And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” 
And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. 
No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.

And Mark 4:10—25 says:
And when he [Jesus] was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that ‘they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.’ ” And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”  And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

Here is what I think Matthew’s literary design shows us: What Luke and Mark teach explicitly about exposing what is hidden in darkness, Matthew prefaces with a beatitude about suffering persecution and false accusations for Christ’s sake. Suffering for Christ’s sake until the coming judgment upon Israel would definitively expose who was living in darkness and who was the light of the world. Those who heard the words of Jesus and cherished them in an honest and good heart, and produced fruit with patient endurance through trials were the ones exposing what was hidden in darkness. 

The main point of these metaphors is to prepare the people of Israel to be the light of the world as Christians—on Jesus’ accountand to be willing to receive persecution for it. 

Not everyone whose deeds are exposed by their light would glorify their father in heaven, but many would. This is what the Book of Acts is about: Witnessing to the nations, reconciling Jews and Gentiles as one Body in Christ, while receiving persecution from the anti-Christian Jewish authorities.

Notice also that Jesus doesn’t go into detail about what their good works are. Since Christ’s Kingdom was coming in that generation, and Israel’s kingdom was coming to an end, their faithful shining of light into the darkness, and suffering persecution for loyalty to Jesus, were their good works.

In closing, the insights of St Theophylact describe exactly what I’ve been trying to illustrate above. He wrote: 
First He calls them salt and then light. He who reproves what is done in secret is light, “for whatsoever doth make manifest is light.” The apostles did not enlighten one nation only, but the world. Jesus teaches them to struggle and to be strict in living a virtuous life, for they will be in view of all. Do not imagine, He says, that you will be hidden away in some corner, for you will be most visible. See to it, then, that you live blamelessly, lest you become a stumbling block for others.

In the next post I will continue to discuss the relationship of this "fortunate" situation with what Jesus meant by fulfilling the Law and the Prophets.

1. Notice carefully that this section ("C") contains six distinctive sections. I only mention this now because I will be bringing it up again in future posts, when addressing section C', which also contains six distinctive sections. 
2. "it" refers to the salt