Getting the Sermon on the Mount Right (The Anabaptist Challenge), Part 2

by David Servant

In last month’s e-teaching, I challenged a premise—held by Anabaptist and other holiness groups—that Jesus established new moral standards during His Sermon on the Mount that were higher than those found in the Law of Moses. The basis of that Anabaptist premise is the assumption that Jesus’ six “You have heard…but I say to you” statements are each examples of Him quoting a standard found in the Law of Moses followed by “a new, higher standard” that was, from that moment on, binding on His followers.

Picture of Jesus Christ teaching the Sermon on the Mount

This premise is naturally suspect in light of the fact that it is not taught by any author of any New Testament epistle. And it is easily tested by asking two simple questions: (1) Was the standard Jesus referenced in the “You have heard” section of each of His six statements an accurate quotation of a standard found in the Mosaic Law (or at least a close paraphrase)?  And (2), Was the standard Jesus advocated in the “but I say to you” section of each of His six statements an actual new and higher standard that can’t be found in the Law of Moses? Another way of posing the second question is, Was the behavior Jesus condemned in each of His six statements acceptable to God prior to the Sermon on the Mount? (That is what Anabaptists and their theological counterparts are unwittingly claiming.)

Applying those two questions last month to the first three of Jesus’ six statements revealed that in none of them was Jesus establishing a new, higher standard than what was already found in the Mosaic Law. Rather, we found that Jesus was simply elaborating on moral standards that any honest reader could find in the Old Testament. Under the Law of Moses God disapproved of murder, hatred, selfish anger, dissension, abusive language, adultery, lust, and selfish divorce.

And this should not surprise us, because not only is it true that “God is love” (1 John 4:16), but it is also true that “God has always been love.” He does not change, and neither do His moral standards or expectations. And because God loves and has always loved everyone, He has always wanted everyone to treat others as they want to be treated, loving their neighbors as themselves. Thus, from the time of Adam, He’s given every person a conscience that condemns any selfish behavior. And that is also why we find God condemning in Scripture—even prior to the giving of the Mosaic Law—certain selfish behaviors. We also find Him condemning the selfish behavior of Gentiles—to whom He never gave the Law of Moses—after He gave it to the descendants of Israel.

Think about the Law of Moses for a second. Although certain parts of it, such as the Ten Commandments, reflect moral principles (that is, how others should be treated), a large percentage of its content has nothing to do with morality, but rather focuses on ceremonial ordinances. Moreover, it was a set of laws given to only a tiny slice of humanity, and to that tiny slice for only a limited amount of time. When the Mosaic Law became obsolete with the inauguration of the new covenant, the moral standards that predated it, found in every person’s conscience, did not become obsolete. That is precisely why Paul, who claimed the Mosaic Law was no longer binding on himself even as a Jew (1 Cor. 9:20-21), sometimes quoted moral commandments from the Mosaic Law—such as “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Do not commit adultery”—as if they were binding on new covenant believers (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14). Morality has never changed because God has never changed.

With these things in mind, let us consider the final three of Jesus’ six “You have heard…but I say to you” statements, asking the same two questions we asked regarding the first three.

Jesus’ Fourth Statement

Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, “Yes, yes” or “No, no”; anything beyond these is of evil” (Matt. 5:33-37).

Did Jesus accurately cite what the Mosaic Law had to say about making false vows?

Yes. Although He may not have quoted it verbatim, He certainly expressed the spirit of the Mosaic Law regarding vows (see Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21, 23). God expected the people of Israel to keep their vows.

Was Jesus establishing a new standard that can’t be found in the Mosaic Law?

Some say yes because of Jesus’ words, “But I say to you, make no oath at all.” And if that was what Jesus said, that would be a new and different standard. However, that is not what Jesus said. Take note that He said:

But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, “Yes, yes” or “No, no”; anything beyond these is of evil.

Jesus was not, of course, forbidding the making of vows and oaths, as they are nothing more than promises or declarations of what one will do. What could possibly be evil about making a promise? Was Paul sinning when he wrote to the Corinthians, “I will come to you after I go through Macedonia…. But I will remain in Ephesus until Pentecost” (1 Cor. 16:5, 8)? Was he sinning when he promised Philemon that he would repay any debts incurred by his new convert, Onesimus (Philem. 18-19)? Are marriage vows displeasing to God? Are salvation vows forbidden by God, when a repentant sinner tells God he is turning from his sin?

Jesus was clearly forbidding the practice of making oaths by “swearing” by something, such as heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or one’s head. That was, indisputably, the common practice of the scribes and Pharisees, as revealed by Jesus’ own words about them recorded in Matthew 23:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…. blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.” You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, “Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.” You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it” (Matt. 23:15-22).

Pathetically, Israel’s spiritual leaders had concocted a means that made lying lawful. All one had to do was know the pharisaic intricacies of the rules governing oath-swearing.

So again we ask: In this fourth statement, was Jesus establishing a new and higher standard?

To claim that He was would be to claim that, under the Mosaic Law, lying was sometimes acceptable to God, an annulling not only of the Ninth Commandment, but scores of other scriptures that clearly establish God’s expectation for truthfulness. For example, Numbers 30:2 would have to be interpreted to actually mean, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth, except when he does so by swearing on the temple, the alter, or heaven. In those cases, lying is acceptable.

Moreover, although we are told in Revelation 21:8 that all liars will be cast into the lake of fire, you were lucky if you were a liar under the Law of Moses, because you were born at a time when God’s standard was lower—a time when liars did not have to worry about hell!

Jesus’ Fifth Statement

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you (Matt. 5:38-42).

Did Jesus accurately cite the Mosaic Law?

Yes, the words, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” are found three times in the Mosaic Law (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21).

Was Jesus’ counterpoint a moral upgrade?

At first glance, one might think so. Note, however, that in each instance where the phrase “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is found in the Mosaic Law, it is contained within instructions related to Israel’s civil law. More specifically, they are found within instructions that regulated Israel’s court system. God expected Israel’s judges to administer justice.

The most obvious example of this is found in Deuteronomy 19, and below I have italicized sections that verify the judicatory context:

A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed. If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both of the men who have the dispute shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days. The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you. Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot (Deut. 19:15-21).

In none of the three cases when “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is found in the Mosaic Law could it be rightly interpreted as a command for individual Israelites to exact revenge for offenses committed against them. In fact, the Mosaic Law clearly forbade taking any personal revenge (which is one reason God established a court system in Israel):

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord (Lev. 19:18).

Vengeance is Mine, and retribution (Deut. 32:35).

So let’s recap:

In His fifth statement, Jesus first quoted a civil statute from the Mosaic Law that charged court judges to administrate justice, a statute that specifically referenced non-trivial offenses (“life for life, eye for eye…”). Within that same Mosaic Law was a prohibition against individual Israelites taking personal revenge, so there is no way the “eye for an eye” passages could be considered to be instructions for individual Israelites to take revenge. And finally, Jesus told His followers to not take revenge for offenses that were trivial by comparison to those listed in the “eye for an eye” passages. Moreover, He told them to offer their petty offenders an opportunity to do twice the harm they intended.

So we have a choice of interpretation. We can conclude that Jesus did not know that the “eye for an eye” instructions in the Mosaic Law had no application to His followers outside of Israel’s civil law, and that He was unaware that same Law forbade His followers from taking personal revenge, and because of His ignorance regarding these matters, thought it was time to correct the low moral standard of the Mosaic Law (of which He was the divine author). So in a grand, divine moral flip-flop, He abolished the alleged law that required individual Israelites to exact personal revenge for major offenses, and from the Sermon on the Mount going forward, He expected His followers to never do what the Mosaic Law allegedly required them to do, taking no revenge, even for petty offenses.

Or we can conclude that Jesus was alluding to the perverse teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, just as He had done in his previous four statements, correcting their twisted teaching that apparently justified, by misapplying the “eye for an eye” passages in the Mosaic Law, revenge—even for petty offenses. We might also conclude Jesus was affirming that, while Israel’s divinely-established court system was designed for non-trivial offenses (such as murder and maiming), God expected trivial offenses, such as cheek-slapping, to be met with mercy that shames the offender.

The second of those two interpretations would seem to be most plausible, especially in light of the fact that the concept of mercy-shaming one’s offenders is, in fact, an Old Testament ethic:

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
You will heap burning coals on his head,
And the Lord will reward you (Prov. 25:21-22).

Mercy-shaming one’s enemies is also contained in the Mosaic Law:

If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him (Ex. 23:4-5).

Honest readers of this passage who lived under the Mosaic Law would extrapolate the relevant moral principle and find application to other situations where they might “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). Pity the pathetic Israelite who saw his enemy’s horse lying helpless under its load and said to himself, “Glad that isn’t a donkey, or else I’d have to do something.”

All of this is to say that, the claim that Jesus was, by His fifth statement, introducing a moral upgrade to the Mosaic Law is simply not true. Jesus was only correcting the perverse twisting of the Mosaic Law by the scribes and Pharisees while affirming the ethic found in the Law.

By the way, Paul would agree that the ethics of not taking one’s own revenge and mercy-shaming one’s offenders have not changed from old to new covenant. To prove that claim, here are his own words to new covenant believers:

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. But “if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink, for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:19-21).

You probably noticed in those verses that Paul quoted two passages I’ve just quoted—Deuteronomy 32:35 and Proverbs 25:21-22. It is indisputable Paul believed that the new covenant ethic was identical to the old covenant ethic. There was no upgrade. In His fifth statement, Jesus was not introducing a higher ethic.

The Sixth Statement

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:43-48).

Did Jesus accurately cite the Law of Moses?

Yes and no. If your New Testament translation capitalizes Old Testament quotes, Matthew 5:43 looks like this: “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.” The Mosaic Law certainly instructed the Israelites to love their neighbors, but it did not instruct them to hate their enemies. In fact, as we have already seen, it instructed them to love their enemies in certain situations, shaming their enemies by showing them undeserved mercy, returning good for evil.

So, once again, there is no doubt that Jesus was citing, not the Mosaic Law, but what His audience had heard from their teachers, the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus’ counterpoint seems to indicate the scribes and Pharisees not only taught their students to hate their enemies, but that their “neighbors” whom the Law commanded them to love were only those people who loved them.

And it is clear that Jesus was not establishing a higher moral standard, but rather affirming the old standard, a standard that God not only revealed in the Mosaic Law, but one that He has been teaching all the earth’s inhabitants through His own example. Long before the giving of the Mosaic Law, God had been causing His sun to rise on the evil and good and sending crop-growing rain on the righteous and unrighteous, two examples of Him loving His enemies. And this “natural revelation” is yet another reason it is so absurd to claim that “loving one’s enemies” is a new, higher moral standard introduced by Jesus. God has expected people to love their enemies from the very beginning, and He naturally included that standard in the Mosaic Law.

New Covenant Sins That Were Not Old Covenant Sins?

To make the claim that Jesus was introducing new, higher moral standards in His six statements is to claim that, prior to the Sermon on the Mount, all of the following were acceptable to God: (1) spewing venomous, hateful words against one’s brothers, (2) elevating ceremonial laws above moral laws, as exemplified by the act of presenting a sacrifice at the altar even when one knew he had a broken relationship, (3) lustfully looking at women, (4) divorce for any reason, just as long as one gave his wife a divorce certificate, (5) lying, (6) taking personal revenge for even minor offenses, and (7) hating those who have caused offense.

Just a cursory reading of the Mosaic Law would be enough for any reader to realize the grave error of such a conclusion. All seven items in my list above would be violations of God’s commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself, an old covenant law (Lev. 19:18). Thus, none of them could have been acceptable to God even prior to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And thus, Jesus could not have been introducing new, higher moral standards.

Beyond this, one would expect—if Jesus did morally upgrade the Mosaic Law—that the apostolic authors of the New Testament epistles would have made mention of such an important theological and moral fact. However, not only do they never mention it, but they actually refute it, affirming old covenant ethics—just as they were originally written—as binding upon their new covenant readers. Allow me to cite two proofs:

1.) I’ve already mentioned a New Testament passage in which Paul quoted two Old Testament passages to support his prohibition of revenge and his admonition to love one’s enemies:

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, and I will repay” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:19-21).

Paul indisputably believed both ethics predated the Sermon on the Mount: There was no moral upgrade.

2.) And I’ve already briefly mentioned the Old Testament commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself, a commandment Jesus declared to be the second greatest. It must thus be the greatest social commandment—that is, the greatest commandment regarding relationships with others—of the old covenant. It is a law that was carried over from the Law of Moses to the Law of Christ, as proven by its endorsement by (1) Christ (who told His disciples to teach their disciples all that He commanded them), and by (2) the apostles James and Paul in their epistles to new covenant believers.

James wrote:

If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well (Jas. 2:8).

Take note that James referred to the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself as the “royal law,” clearly elevating it above all other laws, and informing his new covenant readers that they were “doing well” if they were fulfilling it. He did not charge them with keeping a higher social or moral standard than what was found in the Mosaic Law.

The apostle Paul similarly believed the new covenant believer who loves his neighbor as himself “does well,” as he fulfills all the other social commandments of the Mosaic Law. Paul, just like James, did not hold his readers to any higher social or moral standard than what was found in the Mosaic Law. To the Roman Christians he wrote:

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8-10).

To the Galatian Christians Paul similarly wrote:

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:13-14).

If Paul or James believed God had radically altered or upgraded the moral ethics revealed in the Mosaic Law, why did they both hold up the summarizing ethic of the Mosaic Law as the standard their readers should strive to attain? Why did they, along with all the other authors of the New Testament epistles, never mention that the moral standards of the new covenant were higher than those of the old covenant?

A Defense

 To buttress their argument regarding the alleged higher standards of the Sermon on the Mount, some Anabaptists appeal to scriptures in the New Testament epistles that speak of the passing of the Mosaic Law with the demise of the old covenant and the inauguration of the new covenant. As we have just seen, however, although it can rightly be said that the Law of Moses has ceased to be binding on any descendant of Israel, it cannot be rightly said that the moral and social ethics found in the Law of Moses have ceased to be binding on any human being, as those ethics predate the Law of Moses (being found in every human conscience), and those ethics were clearly carried over into the Law of Christ.

Thus, when we read Anabaptist proof texts such as Hebrews 7:12, “For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also,” we can be sure that the author is speaking of changes in the laws regarding the Levitical priesthood, and not those of fundamental ethics and morality. Naturally, under the new covenant, none of the laws that regulated the Levitical priests are relevant, as the Levitical priesthood has ceased. We have a new High Priest after the order of Melchizedek (see Heb. 7).

A Final Thought

But what about the “new commandment” that Christ gave to His apostles, a commandment to love one another, even as He loved them (John 13:34-35)? Was Jesus not establishing a higher ethic with a higher standard than what was found in the Mosaic Law?

“New,” of course, does not necessarily mean “morally superior” or even “different.” It just means “new,” as in not existing before. Up until that point, Jesus had not told any of His followers to love each other as He loved them. But think about it. How did Jesus love His disciples? He loved them perfectly according to the standard He had given in the Mosaic Law, loving them as He loved Himself. Jesus’ new commandment was a re-phrasing of an old commandment. Instead of phrasing it, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “Treat others just as you want to be treated,” Jesus said, “Just imitate Me.”

Jesus repeated that same new commandment to His apostles, further elucidating His meaning:

This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends (John 15:12-13).

John referenced this in his first epistle:

We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1 John 3:16-17).

So we see that “laying down our lives for the brethren” does not necessarily refer to literally dying on their behalf, but rather refers to making sacrifices on their behalf, an ethic that certainly existed prior to Jesus’ words in John 13 and 15! The Mosaic Law was chock full of requirements for the people of Israel to make sacrifices on behalf of their fellow Israelites, and particularly on behalf of the poor, whom John also highlighted.

The Irony

What is perhaps most ironic about those who believe Jesus upgraded moral standards by His six statements is that their understanding of those alleged higher moral standards sometimes requires that they transgress what the Bible actually teaches are the highest standards. For example, Anabaptism’s unique theology of nonresistance, based on Jesus’ words regarding not resisting an evil person, requires Anabaptists not to use any force to stop evil people from harming others. This “act of love” towards perpetrators requires an act of abandonment towards the victims and a cooperation with injustice, which is a violation of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

They likewise unwittingly denigrate those who have dedicated their lives, and in some cases given their lives, protecting and delivering others (including Anabaptists) from evildoers. Jesus’ words regarding the greatest love being demonstrated by those who lay down their lives for others certainly has application to those who literally die while attempting to defend those whom they love.

Similarly, the bizarre theology of some (not all) Anabaptists regarding divorce and remarriage, based on their interpretation of Jesus’ words in which He equated divorce and remarriage to adultery, requires new Anabaptist converts to divorce their spouses and break up their families if they have previously been married and divorced—hardly an act of love towards their current spouses and common children, and one that requires them to break their existing marriage vows, repeating their previous sin.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was preached when the old covenant was still in force, several years prior to the inauguration of the new covenant at His death and resurrection. If His most famous sermon was a revelation of new laws for the new covenant, laws that reflect a higher moral standard than what is found in the Mosaic Law, did Jesus actually not expect His audience to obey His commandments until after His death and resurrection? Or was He expecting them to live up to standards that are unique to the new covenant while still living under the old covenant? Did people in His audience who were living up to the old covenant standards—and thus were righteous before God—suddenly become unrighteous when the standards were upgraded that day? Were people who were on the path to heaven suddenly on the path to destruction? These are all questions for which Anabaptists and their spiritual counterparts have no good answer.

So I rest my case. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was not an abrupt upending of the morality and ethics God had been teaching every person since Adam, one that strangely made unacceptable what had been acceptable to Him for millennia. It was not the New Testament equivalent of King Rehoboam’s ratcheting-up of Solomon’s standards when he told the people of Israel, “Whereas my father loaded you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions!” (1 Kin. 12:11).

No, Jesus placed on His disciples a yoke that is easy (alternately translated “comfortable” or “pleasant”) and a burden that is light (Matt. 11:30) by focusing their energies on simply loving God and neighbor, and by empowering them through His indwelling Holy Spirit. His Sermon on the Mount was a re-revelation of what God had already revealed from the beginning, through every rain shower and sunrise (Matt. 5:44-45), through the voice of every man’s conscience (Rom. 2:14-16), and through what Jesus referred to as “the weightier provisions” of the Mosaic Law, namely, “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). Any interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount that contradicts God’s revelation through creation, conscience, and the crucial moral elements of the Mosaic Law ought to be rejected. — David