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“The Sermon on the Mount and the Kingdom” – My SAHS 2016 Remarks

For many years I have been involved in the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar (with the horrible acronym SAHS), led by the indefatigable and über-gravitas man Craig Bartholomew.

This year at SAHS (which is now part of IBR) in San Antonio I was asked to give a 15-minute presentation on how the Sermon on the Mount informs our understanding of the kingdom.

Following are my remarks. (I’ve also uploaded this as a pdf to my academia.edu page.)

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IBR-Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar

Nov 19, 2016

San Antonio

Dr. Jonathan T. Pennington

 

“The Sermon on the Mount and the Kingdom of God”

 

Introduction

I have been tasked with the fruitful question – How does the Sermon on the Mount inform our understanding of the kingdom of God? This puts me in the delightful position of getting to share some thoughts about the intersection of two of largest and most important aspects of Holy Scripture – one being the Sermon (as recorded in Matthew 5-7) (the most studied, preached upon, and I would venture, the single-most influential portion of the Christian Scriptures), the other being the kingdom (the most central and unifying theme of Jesus’ teachings). This is a joyful assignment.

Yet I am simultaneously in the unenviable position of having been tasked with a mere 15 minutes to do so! So I will avoid giving you a “yuge” paper – that would be a “yuge” problem – and will instead believe that less is more. After a brief bit of data on the frequency of “kingdom” language in Matthew and in the Sermon I will offer you two overlapping lines of thought about how the Sermon informs our understanding of the kingdom. We might think of these as spheres of inquiry, each of which overlaps with the other in a Venn diagram kind of way.

“Kingdom” in Matthew and the Sermon[1]

There are few things in the scholarly discussion of Jesus that attain the lofty status of true consensus. One thing that does reach that height is that the historical Jesus preached and taught about the kingdom of God. What he thought about himself, whether his followers truly followed him, or why he died are all debated. But no one doubts that Jesus taught and preached regularly about God’s reign or kingdom. All three of the Synoptic Gospels make this abundantly clear.

First among these is the First Gospel, which depicts Jesus’s ministry as very much about God’s kingdom both in action and in content of teaching, with 64 references to the kingdom.[2] As Donald Hagner has noted, the controlling theme for Matthew is the kingdom, and R. T. France observes that the kingdom of heaven functions “virtually as a slogan for the whole scope of the ministry of Jesus” in Matthew.[3] Matthew’s unique contribution to the idea of the kingdom particularly comes through in his exclusive use of the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” (used 32 times), which is synonymous with “the kingdom of God,” though different in connotative nuance.[4]

The Sermon on the Mount plays no small part in this kingdom emphasis, and in fact many scholars see the kingdom as the Sermon’s “principal theological concept.”[5] We see reference to the kingdom immediately in the opening section of the Beatitudes. Indeed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” serves as an inclusio in the first and eighth Beatitudes (5:3, 10), providing a framing and frame of reference for Jesus’ series of macarisms.[6] To structure the Beatitudes and to open the Sermon with references to God’s heavenly reign is to use a megaphone to communicate that Jesus’s ministry is looking forward to the eschaton when God will re-establish his reign upon the earth.

The term “kingdom” also appears six more times in the Sermon, all at crucial junctures in the discourse. Its three appearances in 5:19–20 are very important because these verses serve as the proposition for the whole Sermon.

17Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18Truly I say to you that until heaven and earth pass away not an iota or one pen stroke of the Law will pass away, until all is accomplished. 19Whoever, therefore, lessens one of the least of the commandments and teaches others in this way, that person will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does these commandments and teaches others will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that if your righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees then you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.

The references to the kingdom of heaven here in the thesis statement of the Sermon make clear that the issue at hand is whether one enters into and is a part of God’s people. The same emphasis on entering the kingdom is highlighted at the end of the Sermon in 7:21 – Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

No less important is the high-altitude, exhortation in 6:33 that concludes the middle part of the Sermon, stating that disciples must “seek first the kingdom and his righteousness.”

And even more prominent is the reference to the kingdom in the literary and theological epicenter of the Sermon, the Lord’s Prayer. In the initial threefold petition of the Pater Noster (6:9–10) we are instructed to pray in this particular way:

Our Father who is in heaven,

Let your name be sanctified,

10Let your kingdom come,

Let your will be done,

As these are in heaven, let them be also on the earth.

Here the kingdom is in a Venn diagram–like overlapping relationship with God’s name and will, with the request that all of this reality now in heaven become our earthly experience.

So it is not difficult with this frequency and placement that the kingdom is central to the teaching of the Sermon.

All of these references to the kingdom in the Sermon invite the hearer to recognize that what Jesus is teaching in the Sermon is actually tied directly to his opening words and the general message of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (4:17 ESV).

Moreover, the entire literary frame for the Sermon and the narrative block that follows (Matt. 8–9) are demarcated by references to Jesus preaching and teaching “the gospel of the kingdom” (4:23; 9:35).[7]

This prominence of the kingdom all around and within the Sermon orients the reader to understand that the macarisms and other wisdom being offered by the Sage Jesus are more than simply generalized, universal, human wisdom. Rather, these references to the kingdom of heaven set the first block of Jesus’s teaching in the New Testament into the context of the Jewish story of God’s reign and particularly the Jewish expectation of its eschatological consummation,[8] its coming from heaven to earth.

 

Two Overlapping Lines of Thought Regarding the Kingdom in the Sermon

In my remaining time I will offer just two lines of thought about the intersection of the Sermon and the Kingdom. These are of course not comprehensive and definitive statements but invitations to further inquiry.

(1) The Sermon is a primary locus for Jesus’ program of resocialization into the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ teachings – central of which are the Sermon – have as their primary purpose the forming of people into a new way of being in the world that accords with God’s reign/kingdom. Therefore, we may describe Jesus’ modeling and teaching as a kind of resocialization – an intentional re-forming of our habits, desires, affections (a proper ordering of loves), a re-making of disciples to be like their Father God (“be holy as I am holy”), to be god-like/god-ly.[9]

While this may seem like an obvious thing to say, it is remarkable how unappreciated (and unpracticed) this foundational aspect of Jesus’ ministry is. Rather, we so often read the Gospels and Jesus’ teachings for historical facts, doctrinal nuggets, and maybe even occasionally for “ethics” – all fine things to do. But I would recommend that the primary reading of Jesus’ life and teachings and the one that goes most naturally with the grain of the text is the formative/transformative reading – the reception of the text with an openness to have our affections, loves, habits, judgments – our lives – changed and shaped into conformity with God’s coming kingdom, which is in conformity with who God himself is.

The Sermon, the first teaching block of the NT canon, is a compendium or primary locus point of these transformative kingdom teachings. The Sermon is not the entirety of the gospel nor is it the only place where we learn from Jesus in content or as exemplar, but it is a primary and central one, serving as an epitome (in the technical Greek philosophical sense) of Jesus’ teachings that learners/disciples can continually return to be retrained as they await God’s returning kingdom.

This resocialization into the kingdom and its values is nothing less than what was the conscious and ubiquitous goal of ancient Jewish and Greek education, paideia – the forming of the whole person for the sake of creating a just and flourishing society.

It is within this framework that the Church understood both the Sermon on the Mount and the message of the kingdom – that Jesus was forming a new society or, to use the ubiquitous Greek term in the Fathers (borrowed from Plato and others), a new politeia.

I do not have time or space here to do more than invite you to do your own exploration of this rich idea of politeia that is central to early Christianity. I can simply summarize that a constant thread throughout the Patristic tradition is how Christianity alone provides the true way of being in the world and way of structuring society. One can think of Tatian, of Basil of Caesarea, of Athanasius, of Chrysostom, of Maximus the Confessor, and on and on, all of whom speak of Christianity as the true politeia of the world.

The point is again that the message of the kingdom is a disciple-making message at both the individual and corporate level, and that the Sermon serves as an epitome of this disciple-making, kingdom-oriented instruction.

One of the implications of this realization concerns our understanding of what the gospel is and particularly the voice that Christianity can and should have in society, what we might call public theology. I am not able here to assert what that role should be precisely, and indeed this must be an ongoing discussion requiring contextualization that will vary by time and culture. But I can say that much of the Protestant tradition, and especially certain Evangelical sub-streams of which I have been a part, have little to no conception of how fundamental to Jesus’ teaching is the idea that Christianity is offering a program of both individual and corporate resocialization of affections, values, habits, and practices. The reason Jesus is preaching and teaching about the kingdom is because he is forming a new group of righteous people, and foundational to what this group looks like is the Sermon.

 

And this leads easily into the second line of thought.

(2) The Sermon presents Jesus as a great Philosopher King.

Anyone familiar with either the Jewish wisdom tradition or the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition – or ideally both – can easily see that in the Sermon Jesus is depicted precisely this way: as a Jewish Philosopher/Sage. It is not merely coincidental that the Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions are in confluence here because of the pervasive and centuries-deep process of Hellenization that has already occurred within all of Second Temple Judaism by the time of Jesus. This Hellenized Judaism, which is the origins of Christianity (and rabbinic Judaism), produces sages – wisdom teachers who embody and teach and produce literature that invites hearers into a way of being in the world that promises true human flourishing. Jesus is clearly depicted in the Gospels (as well as throughout early Christianity) as just such a Sage/Philosopher, as a life-coach, or better, the Eternal Life-Coach (!).

This basic understanding makes the Sermon on the Mount, which is woven throughout with virtue and wisdom language (makarios, teleios, glory, etc.) and which ends with the Two Ways option of either being a moros person (fool) or phronimos person (wise), is easy to understand as a piece of wisdom literature being provided by the Wise Teacher Jesus.

But what may not be easy for us as 21st-century readers to understand is that this Sermon on the Mount-y presentation of Jesus as a Sage/Philosopher is simultaneously a depiction of Jesus as the true King, and thus making sense of why the Sermon is about the Kingdom. In other words, Jesus as Sage/Philosopher and Jesus as King are not merely coincidental aspects of the Sermon, but are in fact two sides of the one coin, a coin that depicts not Caesar as emperor but Jesus.

In both the Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions (and more broadly in the ancient world), a king was understood to be the “living law,” the leading Sage/Philosopher who rules and rules righteously precisely because he (or she in the case of great Queen) is the epitome of wisdom and virtue. Whatever cultural encyclopedic evocations “king” may have for you or me – and this will vary somewhat even in this room, depending on your nation – I think none of us would immediately associate “king” with “philosopher/sage” or even “most virtuous exemplar.” Yet this is precisely what the cultural encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world would have associated together. The true king was the true philosopher.

Within the Jewish tradition one can immediately think of the narratived examples of this, with David and the original “son of David,” Solomon, who are depicted as great kings (though ultimately flawed) precisely because they ruled and reigned with such wisdom.

The Greek (and broader ancient) tradition is even more explicit along the lines of this necessity for a good king. “One role of the ideal king in antiquity is to embody the law internally and to produce good legislation that transforms the people and leads them in obedience to the law.”[10] The ideal king is the virtuous one who himself imitates the gods, becoming an animate or living law, which then produces harmony for his subjects.[11]

Much more could be said along these lines, but I will just mention that one of the places where these two related streams of the Jewish and Greek traditions deeply merge is in Philo, who labors to show that Moses was indeed the ideal and perfect philosopher-king who himself was a “living law” so that others may imitate him, implanting his image into their souls, and thereby being led to the truly good life (eudaimonia).[12]

I would suggest to you that this is precisely what is going on in the Gospels as well, including in the Sermon. Jesus is presented as the great and true Philosopher-King who embodies and fulfills the law, who is the example of virtue, and who teaches his citizens to do the same.

To conclude and bring these two points together, we can see that the Sermon and the Kingdom are mutually informing realities: the kingdom is the space where the Great Philosopher King teaches and models a way of being in the world that accords with God’s rulership over the world, a way of being that entails a transformation of the values, habits, and affections of the citizens/disciples of the King Jesus.

 

 

[1] The following section comes from my Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A 

Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic: forthcoming 2017).

[2] A fuller account of the theme of kingdom in Matthew can be found in Pennington, Heaven and Earth, chap. 12.

[3] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, lx; France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher, 262.

[4] As I argue in Heaven and Earth, Matthew’s unique verbiage of “kingdom of heaven” has particularly strong evocations that are a part of Matthew’s elaborate theme that contrasts God’s heavenly ways with humanity’s earthly ways.

[5] This is the expression of Hans Dieter Betz in his “Cosmogony and Ethics in the Sermon on the Mount,” in Cosmogony and Ethical Order, ed. Robin Lovin and Frank Reynolds (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1985), 120.

[6] As will be argued in the discussion of the structure of the Sermon in chap. 5, there are nine Beatitudes, spanning 5:3–11, not eight as some commentators have suggested, nor seven as was commonly argued in the premodern period. The ninth is set apart and highlighted by its repeating the content of the eighth and by its serving as a kind of add-on, bonus feature to the inclusio-ed structure of the first through eighth Beatitudes.

[7] Luz observes that “the kingdom of heaven promised for the future stands over the entire Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 1–7, 172).

[8] Betz describes the clause “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3, 10) as “an anticipatory eschatological verdict” belonging to an account of the last judgment (cf. 25:31–46, esp. v. 34) (Essays on the Sermon on the Mount [1985; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009], 26).

[9] Jason Hood in is exploration of the theme of imitation in Scripture notes that our common word “godly” is merely a shortened form of the expression “god-like.” Jason Hood, Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013).

[10] Josh Jipp, Christ is King: Paul’s Royal Ideology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 45.

[11] Jipp, Christ is King, 50-51.

[12] Jipp, Christ is King, 52.

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