Kingdom Voices: Luke Timothy Johnson on the Sermon on the Mount

Last night was my first week “teaching” our women’s class at church.  We are currently inching our way through the Sermon on the Mount (coincidentally, we are doing the same thing in our Sunday morning class, which means this is my kind of church!).  Last night, we looked at the section on oaths.  It is kind of a strange section, so I came to class armed with Bonhoeffer and Willardwho both had some thought-provoking ideas about the passage.  I also looked up what Luke Timothy Johnson had to say about it in his book, The Writings of the New Testament.  While doing so, I found some cool thoughts on the “sermon” as a whole (he says that the term, “sermon,” is misleading).

Johnson views this collection of thoughts to be Jesus’ authoritative interpretation of the Torah.  He makes some really great points about the divine standard that is promoted in these chapters.  I encourage you to read these words and really ponder their depths:

The phrase ‘father in heaven’ runs throughout the sermon as the constant point of reference (5:16, 45, 48; 6: 1, 4, 6, 14-15, 18, 26, 32; 7:11, 21).  And if it is God’s effective rule that Jesus announces, then God is the only adequate measure of it:  ‘Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect’ (5:48).  The words of Jesus, therefore, do not present a program capable of human fulfillment, but a measure for all Christian existence.  A measure less ultimate than God would mean a kingdom less ultimate than God’s.  This is the essential framework for understanding the Messianic interpretation of Torah by Jesus” (201).

I love this idea of God’s holiness being the standard for the Sermon on the Mount.  Despite my best efforts, I tend to read the sermon as a list of rules, a “raising of the bar” on the Torah.  I read it and think, “Wow, that is a lot I have to do.  The Sermon on the Mount, however, is so much more profound than a list of rules.  It is a glimpse into what it means to be holy–what it means to be like God, quite frankly.  Johnson’s words here put me in awe of my calling as a member of God’s kingdom.

A few paragraphs later, he goes on to discuss Matthew 5:20, where Jesus says that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Regarding Jesus’ words here, Johnson asks:

But how do Jesus’ teachings exceed those of the Pharisees?  Certainly not in the multiplication of commands, for we are here presented with only a suggestive sample.  The exceeding is to be found in the radical nature of Jesus’ interpreation:  radical in the sense of getting to the root.  Jesus’ interpretations assert God himself as the only adequate and ultimate norm of the kingdom” (201).

That idea of the Sermon on the Mount simply being a “suggestive sample” is intriguing to me.  Even though I’ve always known that Jesus does not address the entirety of the Torah in this sermon, I have always tended to view it as a complete code of ethics.  I am intrigued by the idea that Jesus is just giving us a little sampling of how to interpret  what God really wants from us.  And again, I like how Johnson reasserts that God is “the only adequate and ultimate norm of the kingdom.”  I have grappled with the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount before, and Johnson’s interpretation helps confirm my suspicions that it is so much more than an updated version of “the rules.”

Finally, Johnson gives a helpful breakdown of the alterations Jesus makes to the traditional understanding of Torah:

How does the Messiah interpret Torah?  He radicalizes it in three ways.  In the case of murder and adultery (5:21-30), he demands an interior disposition corresponding to outer action.  For the prohibitions of swearing and divorce (5:31-37), he demands an absolute adherence rather than a mitigating casuistry (though cf. 19:9).  In matters of human relationships (5:38-47), he demands a response that goes beyond the letter of the commandment.  These antitheses serve to assert Jesus’ authority to interpret for the kingdom (201).

It might be my love for classification that makes me enjoy this last passage so much, but I appreciate how Johnson analyzes Jesus’ interaction with Torah here.  His analysis helped spur on my own thinking about the way that Jesus reinterprets the Law.

All in all, I really enjoyed these thoughts.  Part of why I’m putting them on the blog is that when I found them, they were highlighted and starred from when I read them years ago.  Needless to say, I had totally forgotten them.  I don’t want to let them get away again!

What do you think about Johnson’s analysis?  Do you have any “push back” to his thoughts?

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on April 19, 2012 at 10:00 am

    As Johnson put it, these chapters “do not present a program capable of human fulfillment”. That’s true, because Jesus did not give his life so that we can better follow the rules. Rather, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1), and that yoke Paul wrote about is the yoke of trying to follow the law rather than allow the Spirit to live through us and in us.

    I think you captured the thesis of Matthew 5-7 with this, Kim: The Sermon on the Mount, however, is so much more profound than a list of rules. It is a glimpse into what it means to be holy–what it means to be like God, quite frankly. Jesus told us what the Father is like, told us he and the Father are one, and lived a holy life to show us what he meant. Amazing.



  2. Posted by bekster081305 on April 19, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    I also have thought of the SOTM as a perfect standard that is impossible for humans to reach on their own (so, to me, the whole thing sets up the need for Christ as our savior), though I haven’t necessarily made the connection that Jesus is interpreting the law that they already have. That’s interesting. That idea makes sense when you look at, for instance, Jesus’ actions on the Sabbath which follow the spirit of the law if not the human interpretation of the letter of the law. Aside from all of the sacrifices and ceremonial washings, etc. in the OT (which are replaced by other things in the NT), I get the feeling that God has always wanted the same thing from His people. (“I desire mercy, not sacrifce,” etc.) I often forget that the “Greatest Commands” (love God, love others) actually came from the OT.


    • Posted by Tim on April 19, 2012 at 4:02 pm

      “the whole thing sets up the need for Christ as our savior”

      That’s how I take it too, Becky. It’s a standard of holy living achievable only by Christ, and from which we can benefit only in and through Christ.



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