This blog began as a pretty hard-core thin-libertarian blog. When I was a child and all that. As I have grown into a man, I came to understand that moving toward liberty required much more than perfecting an abstract non-aggression principle.
As this understanding has evolved, more of my writing has focused on topics that are Christian. I won’t belabor the reasons behind this in detail; those of you who have been around for awhile understand this evolution and the reasons behind it. Let’s just say there is no liberty without this foundation.
I have mentioned a couple of times that I am spending and plan to spend some meaningful time on the Sermon on the Mount. I didn’t think that I would be writing about my studies here, and still am not sure that I will after this post – I will have an “ask” at the end of this post regarding this. My studies will involve the following two books:
Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, by D. Martin Lloyd-Jones
Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, Vol.2 - The Sermon on the Mount, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev
So, why am I writing about it here? I have read the introductions to each of these books – these are before getting to the first verse in Matthew chapter five. There are some good points that are a little more in the ballpark of where this blog has led me, so I thought it made sense to at least dive in this far.
I selected these two books because I wanted an examination of this sermon from two different theological traditions. The book by Lloyd-Jones was recommended to me by a couple of pastors who are strong on the exegetical, expository sermon path. Metropolitan Alfeyev, the author of the second book, is a bishop in the Russian Orthodox Church. So, the Catholics among us don’t feel left out, the first endorsement of this second book is from Pope Benedict XVI: “This is a work of great importance…”
Why study this sermon? In hindsight, the question answers itself, yet I never really came to the answer until recently. First, of course, it is the longest discourse of Jesus during His earthly ministry recorded; that’s reason enough. Per Metropolitan Alfeyev:
No other Gospel contains such as extended and systematic exposition of Jesus’ spiritual and moral teaching.
But, second, it is the ultimate statement of how we should live – man’s purpose, or telos. In other words, by properly identifying our purpose and holding this as the north star, we are then able to properly determine natural law ethics. And living in accord with natural law moves us toward liberty and gives our lives meaning.
How do I differentiate quotes from two different books by two authors with very long names / titles? Let’s go with DMLJ and MHA.
DMLJ: The Sermon on the Mount is nothing but a great and grand and perfect elaboration of what our Lord called His ‘new commandment.’ His new commandment was that we love one another even as He has loved us. … It is a perfect picture of the life of the kingdom of God.
MHA: Its very position in this Gospel, and in the entire corpus of the four Gospels, compels one to see in it a sort of spiritual and moral program that is further uncovered on the pages of the New Testament.
Yet, I have read this sermon numerous times and never really dealt with it. Lloyd-Jones deals with this:
It is possible for us to read the Bible in such a mechanical manner that we derive no benefit from doing so.
I certainly have experienced this. I read a couple of chapters, content to get through this. Then what? Nothing. I have taken away nothing but the feeling of having progressed through the Bible. Or, perhaps worse, I take away the verses that support my preconceived notions, and ignore those that seem to get in the way.
DMLJ: There is a sense in which it is true to say that you can prove anything you like from the Bible. That is how heresies have arisen.
This is clear. Certainly, many of the earliest heretics were sincere men, in search of truth. But in Lloyd-Jones’ view, they may have come to the Word with preconceived ideas, then found support for these everywhere in Scripture.
He sees this manifest especially in the area of law and grace. Yes, we are under grace, but does this mean we have nothing to do with law? No, he offers – we aren’t under the law in the sense of being condemned by it, but we are still meant to live it – and based on this sermon, go beyond it!
DMLJ: Christ kept the law; He lived the law….
We (at least many Protestants) have so overemphasized grace that we neglect Christ’s teaching of not only living to the law, but exceeding it. And the best way to face this question, as Lloyd-Jones sees it, is to squarely face the Sermon on the Mount.
DMLJ: what does the Sermon on the Mount mean to us? Where does it come in our lives and what is its place in our thinking and outlook?
I will stand first in line in having failed to stare these questions right in the face. Perhaps because to live as such seems impossible. Well, it kind of is:
DMLJ: …no man can live the Sermon on the Mount unaided. … The Beatitudes immediately take us into a realm that is beyond the law of Moses completely.
MHA: the moral radicalism of the Sermon on the Mount has often puzzled commentators. How realistic were Jesus’ calls to spiritual perfection? …Early Christianity perceived the Sermon on the Mount as a call to action.
MHA: Grace is the divine gift that is necessary in order for people to fulfill Jesus’ commandments and to live in truth. With the help of grace, and not by their own efforts alone, his followers are called to seek and attain the kingdom of heaven.
In the first three centuries, the sermon was often used as a classic exposition of Christian ethics. The idea that parts of it were impossible to live by was lacking from the earliest teaching. Yet, there was an acknowledgement that not every Christian could achieve this condition; there was room in the Christian community for those not capable of fully living according to this teaching.
No one could perfectly keep the law of Moses, yet Jesus tells us to go beyond this. As Christians, we are to live like this. Christ died to enable us to live the Sermon on the Mount.
The sermon shows us the absolute need for new birth, for the Holy Spirit to work in us. We read the Beatitudes and feel utterly helpless. It is when we feel such helplessness that we come to understand how dependent we are on God’s grace.
DMLJ: If you want to have power in your life and to be blessed, go straight to the Sermon on the Mount. … Face the Sermon on the Mount and its implications and demands, see your utter need, and them you will get it. It is the direct road to blessing.
And the world is in desperate need of Christians living the Sermon on the Mount. Lloyd-Jones wrote these words in 1959. How much truer are these words today?
Lloyd-Jones addresses the difficulty of living in accord with the sermon; no part should be read outside of the whole. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I suspect he will develop this as he proceeds verse by verse. Metropolitan Alfeyev comments on this as well:
The Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew is a whole, coherent text that has its own clearly thought-out structure and composition.
Taken as a whole it isn’t a “law.” It is a description of what we as Christians are meant to be. To argue with any one point means that we don’t understand the whole. To disagree with any of it says something about us, not about the sermon. If we find any of it ridiculous or believe any of it is impossible, we can be certain our interpretation is wrong. The apostles and the saints through the ages have lived it – we cannot say perfectly as Christ did, but they did live it.
DMLJ: Beware of the spirit of arguing against them; beware of making them ridiculous; and beware of so interpreting them as to regard any one of them as impossible. Here is the life to which we are called.
To whom is the sermon addressed? Metropolitan Alfeyev offers: the multitudes are mentioned, also the disciples are mentioned – but only four of them. At the end, it is noted that the people (the multitudes) were amazed.
MHA: …he addressed his words either to both the disciples and the people, or to the disciples only but in such a way that the people could hear them also.
What does Lloyd-Jones take away? The Christian is one who must be concerned about keeping God’s laws; he must live always realizing he is in the presence of God; finally, he walks in fear of the Lord.
To my surprise, an overlap between these two books. From Metropolitan Alfeyev, when he also addresses those who approach the Scripture with a theory then find verses that support their theory:
This is pointed out by the well-known mid-twentieth century Welsh Protestant preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the introduction to his own commentary on the Sermon on the Mount:
The mistake of many consists in that they “approach the Bible with a theory”; with this approach, everything that they read out of the Bible is controlled by the theory, and they cannot find anything in the biblical text besides that which supports their own theory.
Perhaps this will lead to another benefit of using these two sources for my examination. Various Christian traditions have much more in common than that with which they disagree. Call it C.S. Lewis’s hallway.
My “ask”: is it worthwhile that I continue to post at this blog my work through these two books, or is it way too far afield? I am not sure I will follow whatever responses I receive to this, but I do want a sense of this community on this question.