In His great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave full meaning to the Law of Moses. In doing this, He exercised His divine prerogative of interpreting scripture by explaining how to properly understand the Old Testament Law.
Many people struggle to accept the truth that God is Jesus. Most believers have difficulty accepting that Jesus, and not the Bible, is the source of truth. And even among the Jesus-centred Christian community, there are several, perhaps most, who do not fully embrace the idea that Jesus is the preeminent interpreter of scripture.
In this article, I address this issue – Jesus, the interpreter of the Bible.
I would imagine that if we gathered all the paper used in written commentaries and articles on Matthew Chapter 5, there would be enough material to wallpaper President Trump’s border wall three times over. So, I am not going to add to the digital version of wallpaper by attempting yet another commentary on the Sermon on the Mount. Rather, I want to focus on the subject at hand – Jesus, the interpreter of scripture.
Fulfil, not Abolish the Law
The Sermon on the Mount starts with the Beatitudes, but the crux of the teaching comes in Matthew 5:17-18 where Jesus 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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished”.
It is quite likely that the Scribes and Pharisees had accused Jesus of attempting to do away with the Law of Moses because His declaration refutes this claim. In any event, The Lord Jesus set the first part of his sermon as an interpretation of the Mosaic Law. Moses met with God on a mountain and Jesus, God the Son, met with His people on what Matthew describes as a mountainside. On Mount Sinai, Moses received Ten Commandments and on the mountainside of Galilee, Moses’ heirs received Ten Affirmations.
The 10 Affirmations
The Sermon on the Mount starts with 8 Beatitudes, so-called because each begins with ‘blessed’. However, in the context of what Jesus went on to teach, ‘blessed’ does not mean happy, favoured, or prosperous. The best understanding of the Greek word used here is that it describes those who experience the highest good.
The Beatitudes are, in this sense, affirmations of righteousness rather than promises.
Why do I say there are 10 Affirmations? It might be a bit of a stretch, but it appears to me that in this sermon Jesus purposefully placed His teaching in relation to the Ten Commandments. So, it seems right to me to include the Salt and Light statements (Matthew 5 vs. 13-16) as Affirmations 9 and 10.
Jesus started the Sermon on the Mount with descriptions of the state of true disciples of God. The Ten Commandments identified the Old Testament Israelites and the Ten Affirmations identified what the people of God were supposed to be all along – those who humbly trust God, who suffer for their loyalty, who are meek, desire relationship with God, who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, righteous, salted with wisdom, and light-bearers of truth. In other words, those who truly fulfilled the Law of Moses.
What Jesus meant by ‘fulfil’
The three main ways in which theologians understand ‘fulfil’ are:
- To obey
- To complete, or
- To bring out the full meaning.
Well, Jesus certainly did fully obey the Old Testament Law, and He did bring to completion everything the Law and the Prophets required of the Messiah. However, He also brought out the full, and correct, meaning of the Law, and this is just what He did in this sermon. To make this clear, He proceeded to correctly interpret and give the full underlying meaning of the 6th and 7th Commandments (Exodus 20). He started these expositions, as He did other examples, with the words “You have heard that it was said…” and then followed up with “But I tell you…” There was a Jewish expectation at that time, based on Isaiah 2:3 and Jeremiah 31:31-34 that their long-awaited Messiah would provide a definitive exposition of the Law. This Jesus certainly did, both in this sermon and in his other teachings.
In each instance, Jesus shifted the focus from a behaviour regulated by the Law to an attitude governed by the ‘new’ Law of Love (John 13:34). For instance, he did not abrogate the commandment “you shall not murder“, but rather He revealed the inner attitudes that can result in murder.
Jesus affirms the Scriptures
Right at the outset, Jesus was careful to state that He had not come to do away with the teachings of scripture.
He made this very clear by stating that the Law would remain valid until the end of time, as we know it. However, it is equally clear from his subsequent interpretations of the Law that this ‘eternal’ Law must be correctly understood.
His insistence on properly understanding the meaning and purpose of the Law comes out in the bold statement that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The word ‘righteousness’, as used here, carries the meaning of ‘conforming to the revealed will of God’. God’s Word Translation of the Bible substitutes the words ‘has God’s approval’ where the Good News Translation uses the phrase ‘more faithful than’. The idea here is not that Jesus-followers need to be more meticulous in their legalistic adherence to the Law, but that they need to be more faithful than the Scribes and Pharisees in understanding and living out its true dictates.
And in conclusion
I have been blessed by studying the Sermon on the Mount once again, and my appreciation of both the Lord Jesus and the Bible has increased even more. I have learned some things I had not previously known such as the fact that the Rabbis of that time commonly used salt as an image for wisdom (See Pauls’ use of this in Colossians 4:6). A disciple who loses saltiness (Matthew 5:13) is, therefore, one who has become foolish. In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, this would equate to a Jesus-follower who does not understand and apply the ‘inner’ meaning of the Law as Jesus revealed it to be.
This then makes contextual sense of verse 19 where ‘breaks’ is better translated as ‘loosened’ (as per Young’s Literal Translation). The English Standard Version renders this verse as, “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”.
The bottom line of all of this is that one of the reasons Jesus came to Earth was to teach the correct meaning of the scriptures, and we need to ensure that we follow, teach and apply His understanding.