Christ and the Law in the Sermon on the Mount

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the April 26, 2014 Sabbath School Lesson


“It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. …In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” Romans 9:6, 8, NIV

In the Sermon on the Mount,[i] Jesus expounded on the importance of a proper view of interpersonal relationships, an understanding that went beyond a literal understanding of commandment keeping. He laid out the idea that obedience was not a check list activity where one could simply check off the Ten Commandments in order to determine if they were righteous. Instead righteousness arose from within the heart and mind and not from outward performance. However, He also said that this did not do away with the law. Instead His teaching appears to have magnified it beyond mere words in a book. Nonetheless, if His followers expected this to end all controversy over the law, they were mistaken.

To a large degree the problems to come in the war over grace and the law were created by the wall of separation that existed between the Jews and the rest of the world. The non-Jews, or Gentiles, were excluded from the Temple, and Jews could not eat or socialize with them in order to remain pure. Some Christian denominations continue in like manner to separate themselves from non-Christians today. This is especially true in families with children when the parents do not want their children exposed to non-Christian influences. This may even extend to non-Christian belief systems, such as Eastern Religions or Islam. Whether right or wrong, this practice may simply be a vestige of our tribal past, couched in religious terminology. Those within the tribe are trustworthy; those without are suspect.

In the case of the early Christian church, this created a problem that could potentially seriously limit the propagation of the Gospel. Some, who were Jews before they accepted Christ and continued to consider themselves Jews after baptism, felt that Gentiles who wished to be baptized as Christians should follow the same path as Jewish Proselytes had always followed, including male circumcision. While some did follow this path both before and after Christ,[ii] many who might otherwise have accepted the Jewish faith remained on the outside because of this onerous requirement.

The Jews did not accept these individuals as Jews but instead considered them “God Fearers.”[iii] They thus acknowledged that these individuals were disposed to worship God but could not overcome the barrier they faced. They were considered outside the Mosaic Law but the Jews still considered these “God Fearers” subject to the Noahide Law,[iv] which came before Abraham and circumcision and by interpretation applied to all individuals whether Jewish or not. These may have constituted the majority of attendees at some synagogues in the Diaspora. They were like cattle pressing against the gates of their stall. Attracted by the Holy Spirit and eager to go through but the barrier of circumcision prevented them. Since even Jesus was circumcised and said He did not come to do away with the law, a view we find presented in the Sermon on the Mount, there may have seemed little hope for those excluded by circumcision. Christianity was in danger of becoming simply a sect within Judaism. If it had, it might never have become the light of the Gentiles as prophesied.[v]

While many Jews, even among the priests, accepted Jesus as the Messiah,[vi] the message may never have traveled beyond Judaism had it not been for a singular incident outside the city of Damascus. According to Paul, AKA Saul, this incident, followed by an encounter with a Christian Jew named Ananias, served to set him apart for carrying the Gospel to the Gentiles.[vii] In order to substantiate his authority as an Apostle, Paul apparently shared this story wherever he went. No matter the basis for his office, he effectively became the desperately needed bridge from Christian Judaism to the yearning Gentiles.

We might have thought because of the Peter’s vision[viii] that he would be the bridge that Paul became, but because of Peter’s vacillating nature (remember the cock crowing incident?), he continued to prove unreliable.[ix] His lack of leadership with the Gentiles created a vacuum that Paul readily stepped into. Whether Paul sensed these Gentiles represented a force that could propel Christianity to the next level, or he simply presented the message he had and was carried along with the resulting flood of Gentile converts, the result was the same. The gospel was now raging like a firestorm outside the limited confines of Judaism. It was only to be expected perhaps that eventually a conflict would arise between the obligations of believers to follow either the Noahide laws or those of Moses.

Perhaps the first step in dealing a serious blow to the Mosaic code was the First Jerusalem Council.[x] In spite of possibly intense debate about the issue, the council decided that the Noahide law was the only law applicable to the Gentiles even though they had accepted Jesus. While this provided authority for the gospel message to continue to spread and grow among the Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire, it was perhaps the first nail in the coffin regarding observance of the Mosaic Law in the Christian church. Perhaps they were not too concerned as the Jewish Christians considered themselves still very much in control of the Christian message from Jerusalem, the holy city of David and the city where Christ died and rose again.

However, that would change after two bloody Jewish revolts against the Romans. By the time of the Bar Kochba revolt, the Romans had had enough and banned all Jews from Jerusalem. Since Gentiles were not Jews, this left them in sole control of the Jerusalem church. Because of the failure of the Christians to join in the revolts and because they had now become ascendant in Jerusalem, there was no small amount of hostility by the Jews toward them. At this time, the Birkat ha-Minim became a component of the daily prayers of many Jews. It contained curses on the Christians and as it became known outside the circles of Judaism served to create no small amount of hostility between the two groups.

This hostility can be seen in the writings of Ignatius, third bishop of Antioch, in the early second century. He was a staunch opponent of any practices that might be identified as Jewish in nature. He wrote that these practices represented a return to a pre-Christian state.[xi] Among these forbidden practices he included honoring the Jewish Sabbath instead of accepting the new Lord’s Day of Christianity.[xii] This is a position that continued to grow in theological implication. It was reflected more than two centuries later in the writings of John Chrysostom. Having previously served as a deacon in the Antioch church prior to becoming Archbishop of Constantinople, he may have been heavily influenced by the conflicts there between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. His rise to power in the capitol of the Byzantine Empire gave him an influence throughout the empire.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that even in our day the controversy continues to rage concerning the role of the law and obedience to it in the Christian church. Today, the Roman Catholic Churches, The Orthodox communions, as well as many Protestant denominations tend to favor mostly the non-Mosaic perspective regarding what is required for membership and consequently the path to salvation. Others, such as the several Seventh-day denominations (Adventists, Baptists, Church of God, etc.) see at least some of the Mosaic provisions as integral to a saving relationship with God.

This plays out theologically as a demonstrated preference for certain parts of the Bible Canon. Those more oriented toward the anti-Mosaic position tend to favor Pauline Theology and consequentially favor his epistles to the Romans and Galatians. Those who favor a more Mosaic perspective, tend to favor the theology of James and gravitate toward his epistle. Naturally as a descendant of those who favored the more limited Noahide call to obedience, Martin Luther considered James an “epistle of straw” that should not even have been included in the Bible.[xiii] While this may be an extreme position, one which Luther removed from later editions of his Bible, it serves to illustrate the depth of feeling that existed on both sides of this issue.

It may be astonishing to see the possible repercussions that pragmatic decisions that seem to make perfect sense at the time can have centuries and even millennia after the fact. Surely the First Jerusalem Council had no idea of the far flung results of their simple desire to accommodate the Gentiles who had accepted Christ, and as Peter had seen, Gentiles that had even received the Holy Spirit. If they had known, would they have decided differently? We may never know this side of heaven. But if they had, perhaps the church would not have grown to be what it has become today.

We are faced with several issues in modern times that may rise to the same level of significance. Gender inclusive ordination, homosexuality, and biblical literalism regarding the Creation story, among others are settling out parties on both sides of their respective arguments. Eventually some denominations will commit to positions on these issues. While we cannot always anticipate every possible outcome of each doctrinal decision, perhaps we should be aware that making a decision does not necessarily make the controversy disappear. It may instead set both sides even harder in concrete so that the battle will continue for centuries. Maybe sometimes an inclusivity that does not choose sides can be better than an exclusivity that does.



[i] Matthew 5-7

[ii] Acts 16:1-3

[iii] Chilton, Bruce, “The God Fearers: From the Gospels to Aphrodisias,” Partings: How Judaism and Christianity Became Two, Biblical Archeology Society, Ed. Hershel Shanks, 2013.

[iv] Genesis 9:4-6

[v] Isaiah 49:6

[vi] Acts 6:7

[vii] Acts 9:1-30

[viii] Acts 10

[ix] Galatians 2:11-12

[x] Acts 15:1-35

[xi] Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesians, 10:1-3

[xii] Ibid., 9.1

[xiii] Luther, Martin, Preface to the New Testament, 1522 Edition.



This Commentary is a Service of Still Waters Ministry


If you wish to receive these weekly commentaries direct to your e-mail inbox for free, simply send an e-mail to:

Scripture marked (NIV) taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Used by permission. NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® and NIV® are registered trademarks of Biblica, Inc. Use of either trademark for the offering of goods or services requires the prior written consent of Biblica US, Inc.




If you want a paperback copy of the current Sabbath School Bible Study Quarterly, you may purchase one by clicking here and typing the word "quarterly" into the search box.