the Sermon on the Mount – anything but law vs grace

It’s fairly typical to treat the Sermon on the Mount as a simple case of law vs grace.

On this view, the impossibly high moral standard Jesus lays out functions merely to reveal our wretchedness and drive us to the foot of the cross. There, grace trumps the strict demands of justice because God forgives us, refusing to punish us as law-breakers.

Problem is, this seems to run aground against Jesus’ own words about how his teaching fulfils the law (rather than abolishing it).

But how? How does Jesus fulfil the law?

It’s a question that gets sharpened as the Sermon on the Mount unfolds. Because a lot of the time it sounds a lot like Jesus is setting aside the law.

That’s certainly what it sounds like when it comes to the infamous lex talionis in (Matthew 5.38-42):

‘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 evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Isn’t Jesus flat out contracting an explicit Old Testament command? One found no less than three times God’s own law — in Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, and Deuteronomy 19 to be precise.

How is this a case of fulfilling the law?

The key lies in the purpose of the command in its Old Testament context.

It’s aim is not to provide a permissive minimum standard for punishment, licensing bloodthirsty revenge. Rather, it’s aim is twofold:

  1. To elevate retribution from a personal vendetta-type thing to something embedded within public legal processes.
  2. And to set a maximum limit on punishment so as to arrest the natural cycle of tit-for-tat in which the ante is always upped and opponents are treated not as persons but as obstacles to be swept away.

Jesus knew this. And he also knew the ways in which this was being twisted — and its potential loopholes exploited — by the legal experts of the day.

So Jesus outlines a new and more radical way to achieve the law’s goal:

“Don’t resist evildoers”, Jesus says. “Instead, expose their wickedness. Refuse to play their game. And break the circuit of violence.” (This, I take it, is what Jesus has in mind by the examples he gives of active non-resistance in verses 40-42 — he’s not talking about being a doormat.)

And this is a long way from pitting law against grace.



  1. Hello!
    My name is Anders and I found your blog today.
    I would like to comment on your post.

    “Modern liberals often criticize Tor•âh′ (the books of Moses) as being barbarically harsh. When Tor•âh′ requires an “eye for an eye,” and the like, however, this implies only after a trial in, and sentencing by, the appropriate Beit-Din (Judaic court). Moreover, because it was impossible to be exact in, for example, impairing one eye exactly the same as another that was injured resulting in only partial loss of sight, this was interpreted to imply the monetary value placed on an eye, not gouging out an eye. Even Rib′i Yәho•shu′a’s – the Jewish Messiah – usage of this analogy (The Nәtzâr•im′ Reconstruction of Hebrew Ma•tit•yâh′u (NHM) 5.29), to drive home a point, was figurative.”

    Ribi (title of a Jewish leader) Y’hoshua -the Jewish Messiah – didn’t teach about salvation as those whom are Christians teach. He taught in accordance with this:
    As stipulated in Deuteronomy 6:4-9,11:13-21 one is required to keep all of the directives of Torâh′ to one’s utmost—viz., “with all one’s heart, psyche and might [lit. “very”]“—”for the purpose of extending your days and the days of your children… like the days of the heavens above the earth” (i.e., eternal life). According to the Hebrew Bible, Ezekiel chapter 18, the Creator confer His atonement in His loving kindness to those and only those turning away from their Torah [Books of Moses]-transgressions and (re)turning to non-selectively observance of the commandments in the books of Moses. As it is well demonstrated on the website of and in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the “Old Testament”), this is what the Jewish Messiah was prophesied to teach. Deuteronomy 13:1-6 in Hebrew declares a person to be a false prophet, who is adding and/or subtracting commandments from Torah,

    Following the human Jewish Messiah called Y’hoshua leads oneself into non-selectively observance of the commandments of Moses to ones utmost, including an immensely meaningful relationship with the Creator.

    Kind regards,
    Anders Branderud

    1. Hi Anders,

      It sounds like we’re roughly on the same page about how Jesus/Y’hoshua (if I remember my Hebrew, that’s often translated into English as ‘Joshua’ right?) claims to fulfill rather than set aside the Torah. Thanks for filling in the Jewish background on the intention of the lex talionis. That’s very much what I had in mind.

      I find it so interesting how, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets forth such a radical call to fulfill the maximum intent of the Torah that by the end of the sermon (in Matthew 7) he’s saying “Whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice (could this be a paraphrase of the Deuteronomic ‘Hears them to keep them’?) will find life”. So, in effect, he’s functioning in the place of the Torah — or perhaps the giver of Torah…

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