Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dispensationalism and The Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most important passages of scripture. It is interesting what the different systematic theologies make of it.

Dispensationalism's long-time rival, Covenant Theology, teaches (wrongly and indefensibly, in my opinion--although I am in general a great fan) that Jesus was correcting Pharisaical distortions of Mosaic law, or perhaps clarifying misunderstandings.

Classic Dispensationalism (Left-Behind-ism) has a particularly interesting and equally indefensible position. They teach that the Sermon, while perhaps offering good advice for Christians, is actually the rule of life for the Millennial Kingdom. We read, for example:

According to both Old Testament and New Testament, righteousness and peace are the great words of the [millennial] kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount is the expansion of the personal righteousness, which is required in the [millennial] kingdom. The great words in this present dispensation [the church age] are believe and grace. Not once do these words appear in connection with the [millennial] kingdom teachings of the Sermon (Lewis Sperry Chafer, Grace the Glorious Theme, p. 164).

another example:

In His early ministry to Israel the Lord Jesus gave none of the great heavenly truths for the present Church dispensation. He but mentioned the Church, giving no explanation. Nor were these vital Church truths revealed to the Twelve.
Paul is the declarer of the Gospel of the grace of God to us - Take Romans to Philemon out of the Bible and you are bereft of Christian doctrine. For instance, if you were to take Paul’s Epistles out of the Bible, you could not find anything about the Church, or the Body of Christ; for no other Apostle even mentions the Body of Christ (W. Newell, Peter vs. Paul, p. 6).

We see then that according to classic Dispensationalism the law (rule of life) for the church comes from the Pauline epistles, not from the Lord's great sermon.

New Covenant Theology--a nascent movement primarily in Reformed Baptist circles-- has a third view: that Jesus is replacing the Mosaic law, including if not primarily the Ten Commandments, with a fuller (and final, prior to the end of human history) revelation of God's moral law. Moses' law is a type or foreshadowing of Jesus' law--much like virtually everything in the Old Testament is a type of what was to come in the fullness of time.

Thus when Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
The Covenant Theologian has to argue, absurdly, that Jesus is "correcting" some manner of bad teaching of Moses' law, when in fact Jesus quotes the exact words of the commandment and then contrasts his teaching against the exact words. The dispensationalist must argue that this teaching is not intended for the church, but the inhabitants of a future millennial kingdom. The New Covenant Theologian has the cleanest explanation: Jesus is not saying what was taught before was bad, but what he is offering now is new and better--befitting a new and better covenant and a new and better priesthood.


  1. Jesus specifically says he has not come to mess with the Law. He offers a new covenant, the most recent of several covenants God has offered to humans. The things that got changed are more like administrative regulations of implementation. I would guess that it was time for the old covenant to be superseded because as usual the people didn't understand it and weren't keeping it, and It didn't make much sense any more. I don't have the dispensationalist problem because the Kingdom is just the expression of Jesus' covenant, already present.

  2. Marshall,

    Where does Jesus say that?

  3. Matthew 5:17-20, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets ... not a dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. ... "

    The parable of the rich young man, Mark 10:17-22 specifically affirms the Ten Commandments

    Matthew 15:3 shows how the religious tradition (corban) has been used to undermine the Law: "Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For he commanded, 'Honor your father and your mother' ..." Jesus holds this up as an example of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who have by such means forfeited their claim to sanctification.

    The point in the Sermon on the Mount is by no means that "You shall not kill" is wrong, rather that taken in the small it just chips a corner off the real problem, which is that humans are angry with each other and dismiss each other as fools. Whereas the way to and of the Kingdom is to be raising each other up.

  4. Marshall,

    I respectfully disagree. The “Law or the Prophets” is how Jesus would have referred to the OT. And it says he came not to abolish but to fulfill— as in prophesy. One obeys the law (as commandment) but one fulfills the Law (as in Old Testament prophecy.) Thus, I think, an accurate paraphrase is:

    Do not think I have come to abolish the Old Testament, I have come to fulfill it(s prophecies).

    Jesus is reiterating, as he did at the start of his ministry, that he is the one the OT prophesied about, that he is not some new deity that renders the OT useless. He is not affirming the Decalogue. Nor is he addressing false teaching. Later when he does so it is with no uncertain terms—“woe to you Pharisees and Scribes…” There is none of that here.

    As for the Rich Young Ruler, that account (in my opinion) teaches the futility of trying to earn one’s salvation, not a reiteration of the Decalogue. (As an aside I believe the young man was saved.)

    Paul writes: For he [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, (Eph. 2:14-15).

    And the writer of Hebrews: For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also. (Heb 7:12)

    New and better covenant. New and better priest. New and better law.

  5. I can't do Greek characters, but "plerosai" in Matt. 5:17, which literally means something like "to fill" or "to make full," could just as well be translated as "to complete" as "to fulfill." It's as if an abolitionist had promised to "plerosai" (i.e., complete) the work of the founding fathers embodied in the Constitution.

  6. Do not think I have come to abolish the Old Testament, I have come to fulfill it(s prophecies).

    That's a pretty low view of precognition, let alone prophecy, if somebody has to go out of their way to make it come out right. If I tell you to pass me the ketchup and you do, was that prophecy?

    Jesus is reiterating, as he did at the start of his ministry, that he is the one the OT prophesied about, that he is not some new deity that renders the OT useless.

    You're making my point for me here. Jesus' story is continues from the action of the OT.

    As for the Rich Young Ruler, that account (in my opinion) teaches the futility of trying to earn one’s salvation, not a reiteration of the Decalogue.

    You're probably right, that is one thing it teaches. It also contains an explicit reiteration from the Decalog which Jesus cites as being essential to the inheritance. The point (one point) being that it isn't enough; to "be perfect", one must do more than the commandments.

    ... abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances,...

    "Commandments expressed in ordinances" is the substance of the Mosaic covenant, and as the hypocrites have shown, unfortunately a system of ordinances always has loopholes and getarounds, like misusing corban. Still true today, our attempt to live as a "nation of laws" has been only somewhat successful. What Jesus brought is the law expressed in Spirit. As in the commentary on the Decalog in the Sermon on the Mount.

    And the writer of Hebrews: For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also. (Heb 7:12)

    The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews was writing to the Jews, for whom "The law" was their name for the 5 books of Moses. This is being written against the Levites, I believe, and it is true that Jesus put an end to the Levitical priesthood along with their system of ordinances.

    New and better covenant. New and better priest. New and better law.

    I believe that as Jesus abolished the Levitical priesthood, what we now call priesthood is the typical sort of cock-up that got us kicked out of the Garden. Melchizedek became a priest "not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life." What we call the Saints.

    I think really the difference of opinion we have is that you have a "low view" of the Law, and I have a "high view". (That's OK with me; many mansions....) I think God's plan for Humanity, what is our task and how we should behave, is pretty much in place in the first few chapters of Genesis. All the rest is trying to get us to do it.

  7. Found this blog from a link in the comments over at Vox's place and I found this post interesting so I thought I would add a couple of comments.

    The terms abolish and fulfill in Matthew 5 are used in much the same context that other rabbis of Jesus' day used them. In rabbinic arguments of the time you will see these two words thrown about in arguments regarding interpretations of the Law. Rabbis accuse someone of "abolishing" the law when they judge their interpretation to be fallacious. They claim to be "fulfilling" the Law by giving correct interpretation. The fact that Jesus follows up this claim with a fairly lengthy explanation of His views of several specific commandments would seem to indicate that this is how He is using these terms as well. The "Law and the Prophets" would be a common shorthand way of referring to the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole. In Hebrew, they are known as the Tanak, which is an abbreviation for Torah, Nevi'm (prophets) at Ketuvim (writings), the three divisions they use.

    Just a further comment on the priesthood of Levi "being abolished" by Jesus. I think the writer of Hebrews is actually arguing that Jesus' priesthood is of a fundamentally different order altogether, i.e. the order of Melchizedek. The writer of Hebrews actually admits that Jesus is not qualified to serve as a priest on earth (Hebrews 7:14) in place of the Levitical order, but rather that His priesthood is for a different venue completely (specifically the Heavenly tabernacle where He is qualified to serve as priest according to this other order).
    God promised that the priesthood of Levi would be just as permanent as David's kingly line (Jeremiah 33:19-22) and prophetic passages such as Isaiah 66:21 indicate that God will continue with that promise. It would be incorrect therefore to suggest that the Levitical priesthood was abolished by Christ.

    Last thing I want to mention, that newer and better covenant is right there(in the OT) in the same general context as the promises to the Levitical priesthood as it is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34. God never cancels out a previous covenant with a new one. He builds more into each successive iteration. The covenant at Sinai didn't cancel out God's covenant with Abraham - it further defined it. Same thing with the covenant with David and finally the new covenant of Jeremiah 31.

    Just some things I have picked up along the way as I have studied these things. You may or may not agree with it, which is perfectly fine. I am always willing to discuss and learn.

  8. @jeofurry:
    You may be right from Jeremiah, certainly there are still Levites. But Hebrews says that Jesus has perpetually performed the sacrifices necessary to the Mosaic covenant so the Levite priesthood does not seem to have a special place in the Christian covenant. And there is the difficulty of the destruction of the Temple (which Jesus prophesied). It's an interesting question how Jesus became qualified to perform the sacrifices and what that's about, exactly.

    God never cancels out a previous covenant with a new one. He builds more into each successive iteration

    That's more or less what I was trying to say, that there is a Law that is unchanging from everlasting to everlasting, while the Covenants come and go. Eg, in the Garden of Eden, humans were under the covenant blessing of begin able to do whatever our nature suggested, except for one thing. After we did that, that blessing was withdrawn and in the new covenant humans had to labor for food and suffer pain for children, which is again a blessing but clearly different. So it's not just adding layer over layer, the place gets torn down and rebuilt. Only a remnant is saved.

  9. Interesting fact, the Jewish surname Cohen usually denotes someone whose lineage is Levitical. Cohen is Hebrew for priest.

    There is a real difficulty for us in trying to understand the book of Hebrews properly if we are reading it in English. The problem is that most translators (including the KJV guys) have fiddled around with the verb tenses. The writer of Hebrews used far more present tense that for some reason gets translated to past tense by most modern scholars. I cannot dream of what their reasoning for doing so is, but it certainly can change the meaning of the original text in many places. And nevermind the fact that they insert the word covenant into 8:7 and other verses during that argument where the original writer did not.

    One point of clarification from your statement above, the sacrifice that Jesus offered is not done in terms according to the Mosaic Law. That law never calls for human sacrifice and in fact condemns said type of sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus is offered apart from the tabernacle system and does not correspond to any of the sacrifices detailed in the Torah. To the contrary, the writer of Hebrews informs us that the sacrifices of the Mosaic covenant are not effective for sin. In fact they were never offered as such (Hebrews 10:1-4). It is a common misconception that the sacrifices of the Tabernacle were to obtain forgiveness of sin, but it is an incorrect understanding of the Mosaic system. The OT is replete with statements that sacrifices do not forgive sin and the book of Hebrews quotes several of them. While it is difficult to fully grasp what Hebrews chapter 10 is communicating, it would appear to boil down into an argument that Jesus' sacrifice is purposed to draw us near to God in the heavenly court in much the same way that the earthly sacrifices were given to allow the worshiper to approach God in the earthly courts of the tabernacle. His sacrifice is efficacious because of His sinless life (as demonstrated by the fact that He did do God's will, Heb. 10:9-10). Because of this, Jesus has opened a way for us to enter heaven (Heb. 10:19-20), which is the reason that the early disciples in Acts are referred to as followers of the Way.

    The writer of Hebrews goes to great lengths to differentiate Jesus' priestly ministry from the Levite ministry, by telling us that the two ministries are for different venues. The Levites' venue is the earthly Temple and Jesus' is the heavenly Temple after which the original Tabernacle was patterned. He goes even further to suggest that the two pictures correspond to separate time frames, i.e. the earthly ministry for this present age and the heavenly one for the age that is yet to come (Hebrews 8:4-5). The new covenant has not seen its complete realization yet. We only get a "preview taste" of its scope as we live by faith in Jesus in this present age. Furthermore, it wasn't the covenant itself (the Law) that is the problem, it is the people (us) who are(were) in the covenant. Hebrews 8:8 states this plainly, "For he finds fault with them when he says..." God didn't make a different covenant, instead He is making new people, a new creation as Paul would put it, out of us.

    Sorry for the long comment. I really enjoy this topic and have studied it a great deal over the last several years.

  10. Mounce's interlineal for word study. Bill's blog gets down on people messing with tenses... but I don't see a problem with "covenant" in 8:7 as the object of the demonstrative pronoun "that first"? I would be glad to hear more specifics sometime.

    My understanding is that the Crucifixion is analogous to Passover (at the next turn of the spiral). I think sin/death is a different issue. As you say, the Mosaic sacrifices are either a kind of rent payment or for relief from uncleanliness. The Jews of the Tabernacle had no relief from Adam's sin, as Paul points out often. But I'm thinking there could still be a problem with uncleanliness. So Jesus' sacrifice frees us from uncleanliness; we may fail to wash our hands after urinating and eat whatever doesn't give offense if we wish. ...Whereas we are freed from sin/death only by the new covenant. A separable issue?

    What puzzles me is that the function of a "priest" is to intermediate between the worshiper and the god. Does Jesus intermediate Himself?? (TAOH says God swears by Himself.) Be that as it may since the descent of the spirit "we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus ... through the curtain" which was torn. That is, we can go ourselves to where not even the Levite High Priest could go freely. If the heavenly tabernacle recognizes priesthood, then we are all born again as Even Higher Priests. Priests with Crowns.

    I'm not sure what Jesus as OUR High Priest would mean. TAOH seems at points to differentiate between God and Son. Tricky stuff when thinking about a comparison between Jesus and Melchizedek... will have to think on this more.

    The new covenant has not seen its complete realization yet.

    People seem to mislay that very important point. Just been reading Scott McKnight (The King Jesus Gospel) who preaches that "The Gospel" is "Jesus as the completion of Israel's Story". Seems to me he neglects all that laborers-in-the-vinyard stuff. Likewise also the "salvationists" he criticizes, who want to skip over this covenant and go straight on to the next one.

    No apologies for length necessary to me, this is great fun I see too little of. On the other hand: David, I join Jeofurry in thanks for indulging us the space.

  11. Marshall,
    Sorry I didn't respond sooner. Things have been a little hectic in my world lately.

    I think the sacrifices are among the most poorly understood aspects of Scripture as far as how we are to reconcile them with predominant modern theology. I started doing some serious digging myself after spending time trying to reconcile the thought of Paul going to the Temple in Acts 21 and taking part in the Temple system as a believer. We also know from that chapter that several other believers were going with him at that time and he was "footing the bill" by paying for their sacrifices as well. I can recommend an excellent resource that I found called "What About the Sacrifices?" It is a 4-CD set of messages available from First Fruits of Zion. It actually does a good job of explaining the sacrificial system and further helps to make sense of what is going on in Acts. In the interest of brevity for the comments here, I will mention that the concept of "drawing near" is a key component of the sacrificial system. As such, the writer of Hebrews employs that same phrase on multiple occasions as he explains Christ's ministry and sacrifice. I think this might help with your questions about the idea of Jesus as an intermediary as well.

  12. Heh, our church/minister just concluded a series of sermons on... well... the sermon on the mount.