A) The Old and New Covenants
By the end of the Old Testament, the Hebrews had come to recognise God, who they called Yahweh, as the Lord who led, protected, loved and was merciful towards them. In return he asked them for pure worship and social obedience. The old covenant has its roots in the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his only son, Isaac to God. God did not intend that Abraham should kill Isaac; he just wanted evidence of obedience. As a result, God promised Abraham:
“I will indeed bless you, I will multiply your descendants … and by your descendants all nations of the Earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” Genesis 22.
It is renewed by Moses and God by the giving of the Decalogue in Exodus 19 and 20. Moses establishes the Torah which becomes the cornerstone of Jewish ethics, especially after it was written down for the first time during their terrible exile in Babylon.
By the beginning of the 1st century AD, the Jewish rabbis were teaching on the basis of the Hebrew Bible, that God had chosen Israel as special people. The Jews were still expected to keep the covenant with pure worship and a balanced social order. It was expected that they will fall short of these high standards. When they did, they could repent and restore the covenant. Two ways of repenting was:
- Acts of worship, especially sacrifices to God
- Making up to the person who was harmed
The new thinking was about grace rather than legal obligation. Judaism was a living religion. If you kept the covenant you’d be happy. If you did not, you might get some of your punishment in a judgment out of this world. Therefore, the transition from the old covenant to the new covenant of Jesus was not from the law to gospel but rather from grace through the Torah through the name of Jesus. Modern scholars suggest that Jesus never intended a split from Judaism or the founding of a new church. Rather, he predicted that end of Judaism, in its present form, and its replacement by the open rule or the kingdom of God. In this kingdom, the righteous would receive justice, and the unrighteous would be condemned. He saw himself as setting up this kingdom and he, himself was the point of entry for the new relationship or covenant with God.
B) Love and Law
Background to Jewish Law
Jesus’ teaching was tied to Jewish law. Majority of the early Christian church was Jewish (and disciples and Jesus). The Jews considered themselves as unique especially because they were monotheistic. They had centrality of worship and sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple. Even though the Jews were scattered around the world, they had a common aim in their religious belief. The local Jewish teaching went on it the synagogue whether they lived. They learnt the Torah and particularly the Decalogue, the food laws and the rite of circumcision. It cut them off from other races. It had 2 forms:
Apodictic – absolute commands (like the Categorical Imperative). E.g. Decalogue – deontological.
Casuistic – teleological – consequences (Utility)
It was the job of the rabbis to keep the law up to date. Most of them belonged to the religious political party called the Pharisees. (About 6000 rabbi Pharisees in Israel in Jesus’ time). Early Christians were engaged in debate with the Pharisees. They worked on the Sabbath law which was difficult to keep in an agricultural society. They established 39 categories of work which could reasonably prohibited on the Sabbath. Some of the food laws had got distorted. E.g. boiling the kid in the mother’s milk. It had turned out to be not mixing meat and dairy dishes. It had begun as a ban on Canaanite sacrificial practices. Keeping the law was a joy and not a burden. Pagans were attracted to Judaism as it had definite laws. They were welcomed into the synagogue, but weren’t required to follow the food laws or circumcision.
C) The Sermon
The Sermon on the mount is one of the five sections around which Matthew’s gospel is constructed. It is unlikely to have been one off speech but rather a series of teachings. It establishes the differences between the Jewish and the Christian thinking and then turns to the three central Jewish practices of alms-giving, prayer and fasting. It goes on to talk about possessions versus trust in God’s providence. It states the golden rule – do until others as you do to yourself.
D) The Kingdom of God
The message of the kingdom is central to the whole of the gospel teaching. St. Mark started his gospel with:
“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is close to hand. Repent and believe the gospel.” Mark 1:14,15
Most modern scholars do not think the kingdom of God is a place or arriving at a certain time but as a state – a relationship between the believer and God. It is God’s reign in the hearts, minds and lives of humans. Entry is made by repentance and by putting God first.
“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The young man thinks he has “earned” his place by keeping the law. He has not. The disciples have given up homes, families and wealth in obedience to God’s law. In ethical terms, they have surrendered their wills to God. What God requires, is what is moral. God loves all – even those who hate him. Jesus’ command was to love God and your neighbour. From this yielding to God will flow the healing qualities of the kingdom. E.g. physical healing – freedom from the domination of evil; no resting on the Sabbath – there can be no rest from showing love. (Mark 2:23-28) Not being dominated by ambition (Mark 10:35-45), not obeying the dietary laws (Mark 7:2-20) and be willing to die for God (Mark 9:34-38).
NB: (Modern scholarship) – A number of modern scholars like T.F Glasson and B Chilton explain the kingdom of God as God’s saving activity which results from each individual’s acknowledgement of God as king. So the kingdom comes from each one individually when they accept God as the king of their life. This appears to get rid of the old argument whether the kingdom is here now or whether it will be an eschatological event.