Archive for February 2016

We don’t Need Two Kingdoms, We Need Law and Gospel

February 4, 2016

Christians should not try to participate in two kingdoms at once. Christians only have one master, and they are already citizens of the kingdom which comes to earth from heaven. We don’t need two different kingdoms or two different laws. . We need law and gospel.

The law-gospel antithesis is about the difference between God’s commands and God’s promises. Legalists turn the promises into the commands, and antinomians lower or eliminate the commands and penalties and threats.

But there are many who would rather be “unencumbered” by the Sermon on the Mount. They do not deny the Sermon on the Mount as “first use of the law” (to create the despair that drives us to the gospel) but they make every effort to teach us how the Sermon on the Mount does not apply to Christians “just as humans” or in any case in which we would be required to love the enemies of our families.

but don’t I know that Genesis 9 is not about grace or faith or the gospel, but only about all humans? Don’t I know that “natural law” is for everybody, including Christian, and that it exempts Christians from the Sermon on the Mount?

Define “natural”—-not “arbitrary”? Not given by a personal Sovereign? Is “natural” evolving?

Define “arbitrary—not “natural”? Positive and for a church, but creatures can “live and prosper” without it?

Define “natural”—-universal and objective? For all times and in all places?

Is “natural” a way to say “sin” without saying “idolatry”? Ethics without religion?

David VanDrunen—Crucial for understanding Matthew 5:38–42 is Jesus’ programmatic statement in 5:17 that introduces his subsequent commands: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” A common reading of this verse in my own Reformed tradition is that Jesus is about to clarify the Mosaic law in response to Pharisaical corruption of Moses. While this reading has the virtue of guarding against denigration of the Mosaic law, it is not an adequate interpretation of Jesus’ words. A general difficulty with this reading is that it fails to reckon with the radical, eschatological newness of the coming of Jesus and his kingdom so emphasized in the preceding texts in Matthew considered above. Matthew 5:17 itself reinforces this sense of eschatological newness. The first use of the key Synoptic phrase, “I have come,” for example, hints at Jesus’ heavenly origin (and hence his authority to say what he is saying) and indicates that Jesus is about to reveal a central purpose of his ministry.10 In addition, Jesus’ denial that he has come to abolish the law or the prophets indirectly offers further evidence of the spectacular newness of the kingdom of heaven: apparently what has transpired thus far in Matthew’s story has given some people the impression that Jesus has come to abolish something in the OT.

More concretely, the way in which Jesus’ commands unfold in 5:21–48 is ultimately incompatible with reading them as clarification of the Mosaic law over against corrupt Jewish interpretation. For one thing, all six of Jesus’ “You have heard” statements either quote or paraphrase the actual teaching of the Mosaic law, not contemporary Jewish interpretation of it.11 Jesus presents his exhortations in comparison with those of the Mosaic law itself. Second, however much the first two antitheses are amenable to the view that Jesus is purifying the interpretation of the law, the last four antitheses cannot reasonably bear such a reading. Jesus does show the inward demands of the prohibition of murder and adultery in the first two antitheses, but whereas the Mosaic law prescribed procedures for divorce, oath-taking, just retaliation, and destruction of enemies, Jesus proscribes these very actions. To say, for example, that what Moses really intended by writing “keep your oaths” was that the Israelites should not swear at all strains the imagination. Jesus’ statement about divorce in 5:31–32, furthermore, cannot be an elaboration of the OT law since it presumes that the death penalty is not applied against adulterers.

A better reading of 5:17 is that Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets by accomplishing all of the things that the OT prophesied. To this point in his gospel Matthew has already labored to show that Jesus’ actions constitute a turning of the ages and bring to pass what the OT foretold and anticipated (1:22–23; 2:5–6, 15, 17, 23; 3:3, 15; 4:4, 6–7, 10, 14–16), and this theme continues in all sorts of ways subsequent to the Sermon on the Mount.12 Jesus’ words in 5:18 confirm an historical and eschatological interpretation of “fulfill” in 5:17 by saying “until heaven and earth disappear” and “until everything is accomplished” (or “comes to pass”). Jesus therefore indicates in 5:17 that he is neither abolishing the Hebrew Scriptures nor simply purifying them from corrupt interpretation. By his deeds and here also by his words, Jesus brings the law and the prophets to historical and eschatological fulfillment.

Thus, as the kingdom of heaven is something strikingly new, so the Sermon on the Mount, the ethic of this kingdom, proclaims a way of life that is eschatologically new. It is different from the way of life under Moses, though in a manner that accomplishes rather than thwarts God’s larger purposes in giving the law and the prophets. How, exactly, does this shape our interpretation of Jesus’ handling of the lex talionis in 5:38–42?

First, we must consider how Jesus’ commands in 5:38–42 are different from the lex talionis as imposed in the Mosaic law. The “eye for an eye” formula appears three times in the Mosaic law and is evidently a cornerstone of its jurisprudence. It was likely not intended to be applied in an overtly literal way, but represented a key legal principle: justice was to be strict, proportionate, and retributive.14 As such it encapsulated, on a personal level, the central Mosaic theme that Israel would be justly rewarded in the land if they faithfully obeyed God’s law and would be justly (severely) punished if they disobeyed.15 However exactly one interprets Jesus’ command not to resist the evil-doer (5:39–42)—to which I return below—Jesus is certainly not instructing his disciples in the most effective way to impose strict retributive justice against those who harm them. Jesus is legislating a principle different from the principle of proportionate justice.

In fact, matters of justice and OT judicial life are raised by all six of the Mosaic commands that Jesus mentions in Matt 5:21–48. The one who murders will be liable to judgment (5:21). A legal bill or certificate is required for divorce (5:31). A central purpose of OT oaths was to secure truth-telling in court (5:33; see Exod 22:11; Num 5:19–21). And the command to hate one’s enemy—through cherem warfare against the Gentile occupants of the Holy Land—was the ultimate expression of God’s retributive justice against the abomination of sin. Jesus even seems to ratchet up the forensic tension as Matt 5 moves along. Oaths ensured that trustworthy evidence would be presented to the court; the lex talionis provided a basic standard of justice for rendering the verdict; and cheremwarfare was the implementation of strict, merciless justice on a macro level.

Jesus’ commands stand in sharp contrast. His kingdom is marked by the absence of judgment.16 Its citizens’ way of life is so pure that there is no possible ground for anyone to bring judgment against them, and when others are in conflict with them they seekreconciliation with the wrongdoers, not judgment against them. The Mosaic law occasionally touched upon internal matters of the heart, but its primary focus was on external matters. Its purpose was to establish and regulate a theocracy, a geopolitical entity in which justice was maintained among its inhabitants. But this radically new kingdom that Jesus has announced is of a very different nature. It does not break into history as a theocratic, geopolitical realm and thus focus on external conduct and seek the strict enforcement of justice.

The disciples of Jesus certainly do not murder or commit adultery, but they also shun sinful anger and lustful glances, matters which are beyond the jurisdiction of any civil justice system. Instead of seeking legal termination of troublesome marriages, they seek to maintain marital relationships. Instead of going to court to establish truth by oath, they tell the truth at all times. Instead of implementing just retaliation against the tortfeasor, they themselves bear the proportionate payback. Instead of wiping out the foreigner from the holy land, their love extends indiscriminately. The Mosaic law, it should be noted, required theocratic Israel to pursue precise and proportionate justice in external matters through oath-taking, the lex talionis, and cherem warfare. These commands were bound up with the nature and purpose of the old covenant community. But Jesus announces that in his kingdom there is perfect and holistic righteousness and no pursuit of precise and proportionate justice in external matters through these various means. Jesus’ kingdom is of a radically new and different nature and these things have no place within it.

My interpretation of 5:17, however, indicates that Jesus’ commands in 5:38–42 not only are different from the Mosaic lex talionis but also reflect the eschatological fulfillment (rather than simple abrogation) of it. How is this the case? It is significant to note that Jesus does not tell his disciples to ignore and walk away from the person who harms them, but to take a second slap, to give up a second garment, to go a second mile. The lex talionis prescribes a second action that is proportionate to the first action: the person who causes the injury is to receive the same injury in return. Jesus’ words in 5:38–42 preserve the twofold action and the proportionality of the lex talionis. The difference is that he exhorts his disciples to bear the second, retaliatory action themselves.17 A proportionate penalty is still borne, but the wronged party rather than the wrongdoer endures it. This reflects the larger Matthean theme that Jesus’ disciples must imitate Jesus in his suffering at the hands of sinners.

Jesus has already told them that suffering is their lot in the present age (5:10–12), and later he explains that as he will go to the cross so also they must bear the cross (16:24–26). Matthew’s gospel alludes to, though does not explain in detail, the substitutionary atonement, Jesus’ dying on behalf of his people to secure the forgiveness of their sins (see 20:28; 26:28). Human beings, as it were, slapped God in the face through their sin, and God responded with the lex talionis—not by justly slapping them back but by bearing that retaliatory slap himself through Jesus. God’s saving action in Jesus satisfies retributive talionic justice once and for all. By bearing in their own bodies the just penalty due to wrongdoers in order to bring healing and reconciliation, Jesus’ disciples are privileged to show forth God’s gracious action toward them in Christ. In this way Jesus’ words in Matt 5 reflect not the abolition but the fulfillment of the lex talionis. The way of life of Jesus’ kingdom is, quite literally, marked by refusal to seek just retribution against the wrong-doer and willingly suffering for the sake of Christ.