Getting the Sermon on the Mount Right (The Anabaptist Challenge), Part 1

by David Servant

No doubt you’ve heard of Mennonites. Perhaps also of the Amish. Maybe even the Brethren and Hutterites. All fall under the heading of “Anabaptists,” who trace their roots to 16th century Germany and Switzerland. Their predecessors were part of what is known as the Radical Reformation, a response to perceived corruption in both Roman Catholicism and the expanding Magisterial (state-wedded) Protestant movement led by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others.

Picture of the Sermon on the Mount
The artist who painted this picture certainly didn’t “Get the Sermon on the Mount Right,” as Jesus and His Jewish followers would have had a little darker skin!

The early Anabaptists, like the early Christians, were pejoratively named by their persecutors, but in their case because of their distinct doctrine of re-baptizing adults who had already been baptized as babies. The word anabaptist means “one who baptizes again.” Anabaptists noticed that infant baptism, practiced by both Roman Catholics and the Protestants of their day, wasn’t found in the New Testament, and that the apostles seemed to baptize only those who were old enough to understand the gospel, repent of their sins and follow Christ.

Anabaptists also believed that authentic moral transformation was the mark of the true Christian, recognizing that “faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:26) and that Jesus and the apostles espoused certain standards of righteousness upon which salvation hinged. For example, Jesus said in His most famous sermon, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20), and then He continued by elaborating on specific standards that were certainly not being attained by the average scribe or Pharisee.

The original Anabaptist leaders were highly-educated, Spirit-filled, courageous men full of missionary zeal. Some expressions of early Anabaptism were characterized by charismatic gifts such as prophecy, speaking in other tongues, and healings.

Early Anabaptists often suffered greatly for their faith. While Protestants were persecuted by Catholics, Anabaptists were persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants acting in conjunction with the state. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured, drowned, beheaded, or burnt at the stake. One, Michael Sattler, tried and convicted as a heretic in 1527 by Roman Catholic authorities, first had his tongue cut out, after which red-hot tongs were used to tear twelve pieces of flesh from his body en route to his execution—where he then was burnt alive.

Suffering violently for so many years at the hands of professing Christians, it is not difficult to understand why Anabaptists have been committed to nonviolence from their earliest days, even apart from their convictions about the application of Jesus’ words regarding “turning the other cheek.” They will not serve as police or in the military, but during times of war have distinguished themselves in public service as conscientious objectors.

Nor is it difficult to understand why modern Anabaptists have strong convictions about the separation of church and state. There are two very separate and distinct kingdoms in Anabaptist thinking, one that belongs to “Caesar,” and one that belongs to Christ. There is no overlap. Unlike most Christians who would endeavor to serve Christ through their God-given opportunities to participate in governments (that Scripture says are established by God; Rom. 13:1-7), Anabaptists don’t participate in civil government, either by holding office or voting. Yet they do obey civil authorities so far as those authorities do not demand allegiance that requires disobedience to Christ.

European persecutions ultimately led to the mass emigrations by Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites to North and Latin America in subsequent centuries. Many settled in my home state of Pennsylvania under the original invitation of William Penn, and some of their descendants, fine Amish people, are personal friends of mine.

It is impossible not to respect the legacy of the Anabaptist movement, but it hasn’t been without its flaws. Like just about all other Christian groups, Anabaptists have a history of splitting among themselves over doctrinal and lifestyle disagreements. For example, the Amish, who split from the Mennonites over the issue of shunning wayward members, have split themselves many times. One of the most conservative splits of Old Order Amish, known as the Swartzentruber Amish, split into three new groups in the 1990s.

Anabaptist Doctrinal Pillars

While Martin Luther believed Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was impossible to obey, and some modern theologians think it is a moral code only for the future Millennium, Anabaptists view it as the blueprint for everyday Christian life. They take it as literal as possible. (They aren’t ripping out an eye or cutting off a hand when they stumble, however.)

Anabaptist groups do differ on the application of Jesus’ most famous sermon. For example, regarding Jesus’ forbidding the laying up of earthly treasures, some, like the Hutterites and Bruderhof (who split from each other), literally share all their possessions and live communally in an attempt to imitate Acts 2:44-45. In contrast, the Amish don’t live communally, but they look out for each other, and they shun many modern conveniences. They don’t own automobiles, for example, although they regularly ride as paying passengers in automobiles driven by non-Amish people when their horse-drawn buggies are inadequate for their transportation needs. On the other hand, most Mennonites do own automobiles, yet one group restricts the color to black. Legalism always lurks in the shadows of those who are trying to live in the light.

Before I begin to offer any doctrinal critique of Anabapist theology, I should tell you that I think I have just as much respect for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as any Anabaptist. It is a blueprint for daily life. I also believe that faith without works is dead, and I’ve written several books that would make many Anabaptists squirm with conviction, such as, The Great Gospel Deception: Exposing the False Promise of Heaven Without Holiness, and Through the Needle’s Eye: An Impossible Journey Made Possible Through God. Moreover, I’ve been trying to practice what I preach. I founded and direct a ministry called Heaven’s Family that, through a devoted staff of 37 saints and thousands of financial partners, has invested millions of dollars in advancing Jesus’ kingdom and serving people whom He labeled the “least of these” in more than 40 of the world’s poorest nations. And I have laid up some treasure in heaven myself. And for those reasons, when some Anabaptists condescendingly tell me that I “just don’t want to pay the price to truly follow Jesus,” which is why I’ve “reasoned away His commandments,” or that they don’t want to waste their time on “foolish and ignorant speculations” (2 Tim. 2:23), I turn the other cheek.

Anabaptists generally believe that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus introduced new laws for the new covenant, laws that uphold a higher moral standard than what is found in the Law of Moses. The primary basis of that premise is Jesus’ six statements that begin with either, “You have heard that it was said,” or “You have heard that the ancients were told” (Matt. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43), after which Jesus mentions a law or teaching derived from the Mosaic Law that is followed by His words, “But I say to you” (Matt. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). For brevity’s sake, from now on I will refer to them as “Jesus’ six statements.”

The purpose of this teaching (as well as next month’s) is to examine the premise that Jesus introduced new laws for the new covenant that reflect a higher moral standard than what is found in the Mosaic Law. It is not only Anabaptists who hold to this premise, but also others within certain “holiness” circles who disclaim the Anabaptist label.

The Examination

First, we should not automatically assume—just because Jesus referenced a law or teaching derived from the Mosaic Law that was followed by the words, “But I say to you”—that He was altering or upgrading part of the Mosaic Law. It is possible that Jesus could have been explaining that what His disciples had heard was incorrect or incomplete, and thus He was about to correct or complete their misunderstanding. For example, imagine a police officer saying to you, “You have heard that robbing a bank is illegal, but I say to you that stealing anything that belongs to another person is illegal.” You would not assume the officer was informing you about recently-enacted laws that conveyed a higher moral standard. Rather, you would understand that he was elaborating on the theme of theft, helping you to understand that robbing a bank is not the only example.

Here is an example, taken from later in Matthew’s Gospel, of Jesus’ using the phrase “but I say to you” to communicate to His disciples that their understanding regarding a certain topic was correct, yet incomplete:

And His disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” And He answered and said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished.” (Matt. 17:10-12, emphasis added).

We see that Jesus fully affirmed what His disciples had heard the scribes teach about the coming of Elijah, but He then revealed something the scribes had missed, namely that Malachi’s prophecy that God would send “Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Mal. 4:5) was partially fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist.

As we read Jesus’ six statements, we would be foolish to rule out the possibility that He was, in fact, not introducing new laws with higher standards, but rather elaborating on old laws found in the Mosaic Law. And that is especially true since Jesus introduced His six statements with these words:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-20, emphasis added).

Although those introductory words don’t preclude the possibility that Jesus established standards that exceeded those found in the Law and Prophets, we should certainly reject outright any interpretation of Jesus’ six statements that has Him contradicting the Law of Moses or any of the Prophets. To contradict what is found in the Law and Prophets is equivalent to abolishing what Jesus said He would not abolish. Beyond that, if Jesus contradicted anything found in the Law and Prophets, He contradicted Himself, as He, being God, was the divine author behind both. Additionally, for God to contradict Himself or change His view on fundamental moral principles would require that God’s essential character change, which is impossible. Allow me to illustrate:

Let’s imagine someone suggesting that, during the old covenant, God wanted His people to always tell the truth, but that under the new covenant, He only expects them to tell the truth when they swear on a Bible. In all other instances, lying is acceptable. Such a suggestion would obviously amount to a divine moral downgrade. Of course, no one would accept such a suggestion as being valid, as it would imply a fundamental moral character change in God Himself. God cannot lie (Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Thus lying (and particularly when used to gain advantage over or harm someone) can not be morally acceptable to Him.

The same would be true if anyone suggested a reversal of the above example, such as teaching that under the old covenant God only expected His people to tell the truth when they swore on the Bible, but that under the new covenant, He expects them to always tell the truth, a divine moral upgrade. Such a teaching would imply that, at one time, some lying was acceptable to God, which would imply that God Himself has undergone moral improvement, now that lying, unlike previously, is always unacceptable to Him. For the same reason that we would reject the suggestion of a divine moral downgrade, we should also reject the suggestion of a divine moral upgrade.

Understanding this, Steve Gregg writes regarding Jesus’ six statements:

Since all morality is merely a reflection of the character of God, which cannot change, it is impossible for morality to change. The unchanging God cannot abhor today what He found respectable in the past. Jesus came to shed light on aspects and dimensions of the law which had been obscured by rabbinic tradition. Therefore, when Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old time, ‘You shall not murder,'” He did not finish the statement by saying, “but I say to you, ‘Murder!'” Rather, he explained that there are other ways by which one may become a “murderer” in God’s sight without actually killing someone. He did not say, “You have heard that it was said to those of old time, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, ‘Commit adultery!'” Rather, He explained that there are ways to become guilty of this sin without actually touching a woman, but by merely looking at a woman to lust after her. In saying these things, he was not creating a new ethic (Job had known this truth thousands of years earlier—Job 31:1). Jesus never changed one moral issue from the law. He merely expounded on the deeper implications of the law that had been neglected by His hearers and their teachers.[1]

As we consider Jesus’ six statements with these thoughts in mind—thoughts which are based on what is revealed in the entirety of Scripture—we are better able to correctly interpret them. We should be highly suspicious of any interpretation that has Jesus altering fundamental morality, effectively pitting Him against the Mosaic Law, His Father, and Himself.

Regarding each of the six statements, we will ask two questions.

First, when Jesus’ referenced something from the Law of Moses, did He accurately quote a specific commandment, or was He referencing what the scribes and Pharisees taught? Take note that in none of the six cases do we find Jesus saying, “The Law of Moses says…” Rather, we find Jesus saying, “You have heard…” So what His audience had heard may or may not have been an accurate reflection of what was taught in the Mosaic Law. Thus the reason for our question. And obviously, if Jesus was “raising the standard,” we would expect that He would correctly reference the old standard before revealing the contrasting “new standard.”

The second question we will ask concerning each of Jesus’ six statements is this: Was the alleged “new standard” Jesus introduced actually a new standard that cannot be found in the Mosaic Law? If a standard Jesus advocated can be found in the Mosaic Law, then it was not a new standard.

Jesus’ First Statement

Let’s begin with the first of Jesus’ six statements:

You have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not commit murder” and “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, “You good-for-nothing,” shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, “You fool,” shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering (Matt. 5:21-24).

Did Jesus accurately cite the the Law of Moses?

Yes and no. “You shall not commit murder” is found in the Ten Commandments, but “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court” is not found in the Mosaic Law anywhere. It must have been something Jesus’ audience heard from the scribes and Pharisees, and in light of Jesus’ counterpoint, it seems their teaching focused only on deterring murder while ignoring those things that lead to murder and that are, in themselves, lesser forms of murder. Jesus contrasted the appraisal of a human court with the appraisal of God’s court, a much stricter court that sometimes sentences the guilty to hell.

Was the standard Jesus prescribed a new standard that cannot be found in the Mosaic Law?

Consider this: No one would ever think God’s original prohibition in the Mosaic Law against murder was a divine allowance to strangle someone, as long as one released his chokehold in just enough time for his victim to gasp for air and just barely survive. And if that chain of logic is traced to its logical beginning, we realize God’s prohibition of murder included a prohibition of the anger and hatred that can lead to murder, as well as venomous words that often precede murder. God doesn’t want anyone in the “murder groove.” His original prohibition against murder was a prohibition of hatred.

Moreover, God has never wanted anyone to be in the murder groove because He has not changed and neither have His fundamental moral standards. There was never a time prior to the Sermon on the Mount when God would have approved of an Israelite bringing an offering to the temple who had a broken relationship that could be repaired. The second greatest commandment was to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18), so it obviously superseded any obligation regarding temple offerings.

To claim that in Matthew 5:21-24 Jesus was raising the standard is to claim that the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself is not found in the Mosaic Law and that during the old covenant, hating one’s neighbor was acceptable to God. Yet we specifically read in the Law of Moses: “You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him” (Lev. 19:17).

Thus it is safe to conclude that Jesus was not, in His first of six statements, raising the moral standard. He was simply elaborating on the existing standard, something any honest person will have to admit.

Jesus’ Second Statement

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell (Matt. 5:27-30).

Did Jesus accurately cite the Mosaic Law’s standard?

Yes. However, as was the case with the first statement, He elaborated on the implications of that standard. No one would ever think that God’s prohibition against adultery was a divine allowance to engage in a sexual relationship with your neighbor’s wife just as long as it didn’t go as far as intercourse. And if we trace that logic to its beginning, it is obvious that God’s prohibition of adultery included a prohibition of what always precedes adultery, namely, lust.

God does not want anyone in the “adultery groove,” and He has never wanted anyone in that groove because He has not changed and neither have His fundamental moral standards. There was never a time prior to the Sermon on the Mount when God would have approved of an Israelite man lusting after a woman. In fact, lust was prohibited in the Tenth Commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Ex. 20:17). And Job, who it is thought lived long before the Mosaic Law and who thus lived only under the law of his God-given conscience said, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1).

Lust, like murder, is also a violation of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself, a commandment found in the Mosaic Law. Lust was a sin under the old covenant.

To claim that Jesus was raising the standard in Matthew 5:27-30 is to claim that lust was acceptable to God under the Mosaic Law, an absurd idea. Thus it is safe to conclude that Jesus was not, in the second of His six statements, raising the moral standard, as any honest person will admit.

Jesus’ Third Statement

It was said, “Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce”; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matt. 5:31-32).

Of course, the topic of divorce and remarriage is hotly debated within Christian circles. But my purpose in this teaching is to determine if the standards Jesus set in His six statements were a moral upgrade to the Mosaic Law. So we will simply ask our two questions regarding Jesus’ third statement.

Did Jesus accurately cite the Law of Moses?

No. “Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce” cannot be found anywhere in the Mosaic Law. Jesus’ counterpoint leads us to think that He was actually citing the lax teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, who apparently emphasized the importance of divorce certificates while ignoring the sin of illegitimate divorce. We know for a fact that the majority of Pharisees in Jesus’ time believed that a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all, as indicated by their questioning Jesus over that very issue (Matt. 19:3), as well as by the historical evidence for the rabbinic debate at the time regarding what constituted an “indecency” for which the Mosaic Law allowed divorce (Deut. 24:1-4).

Was the standard Jesus prescribed a new standard?

If we conclude that it was, we must assume that Jesus’ decree— “Everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” —would not have been true under the Law of Moses. That is, under the old covenant, God allegedly found no fault with the man who divorced his wife for reasons other than unchastity, and in no way was such a man guilty of making his ex-wife “commit adultery” when she remarried.

Such a view obviously raises questions about the alleged new view of fundamental morality by God, whom the Bible says “does not change” (Mal. 3:6) and “with whom [there] is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (Jas 1:17).

Of course, we know that under the Mosaic Law, God did find fault with the man who divorced his wife for reasons other than unchastity. We read in Malachi:

“This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit…. Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously” (Mal. 2:13-16).

In this case, God referred to divorce as “treachery,” due to the fact that Israelite men were breaking their marriage vows when they divorced “the wives of their youth,” apparently to marry younger women. To claim that Jesus was establishing a new, higher standard, now making divorce lawful only for unchastity whereas it was formerly lawful for any reason, is to claim that God did not speak through the prophet Malachi.

All of this is to say that Jesus was not establishing a new standard regarding lawful divorce, but was rather elaborating on the existing standard established in the Mosaic Law (not to mention the Law of Conscience). This is further proven by the fact that, in every other instance when Jesus equated divorce and remarriage to adultery, the Law of Moses was clearly in view, just as it is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-20).

For example, when the Pharisees questioned Jesus about the lawfulness of divorcing one’s wife for any cause (Matt. 19:3-9), they were asking if, according to the Mosaic Law, it was lawful to divorce for any cause. They even cited the Mosaic Law’s provision for divorce in their later argument. The entire conversation was framed within the Mosaic Law, and took place during the era of the old covenant when the Mosaic Law was still in force. When Jesus said to them, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery,” none of them thought to themselves that He was establishing a new, higher standard. Rather, they all naturally assumed He was elaborating on the true standard of the Mosaic Law.

This is perhaps even more obvious in Luke’s record of one of the incidents when Jesus equated divorce and remarriage to adultery:

The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail. Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery (Luke 16:16-18, emphasis added).

Clearly, the third sentence in that passage is an illustration of the concept presented in the first two sentences. Prior to John’s preaching the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand, anyone who was preaching was preaching from the Law and Prophets. John, however, had an exciting new message that became very popular, so much so that it overshadowed the Law and Prophets in many peoples’ minds, making the Law and Prophets irrelevant. Jesus experienced the same misconception regarding His own preaching (Matt. 5:17), one that is analogous to what happens in modern evangelical circles when people excitedly “accept Jesus as their personal Savior” but then ignore Jesus’ commandments.

Jesus, however, strongly condemned such a view, saying that, in spite of what anyone might think, it was easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail. The Law and Prophets were still very relevant. Adultery was still a sin. So is breaking a marriage covenant. Thus, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.”

This is just one more proof that Jesus’ third statement in the Sermon on the Mount was not the establishing of a new, upgraded moral standard, but a simple elaboration on the old standard found in the Law of Moses.

I’m sure you are taking note of the trend of my analysis. Next month, we’ll cover the remaining three of Jesus’ six statements, clearly showing how they too, do not reflect a divine moral upgrade, but rather an attempt by Jesus to help His audience understand the full depth of a few of God’s fundamental commandments, commandments that the scribes and Pharisees had so distorted. — David