Thursday, December 23, 2010

Review of D.A. Carson's "The Sermon on the Mount"

D.A. Carson's The Sermon on the Mount: An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7 is a greatly helpful and concise volume. Having previously existed as a series of lectures, the material was revised for the printed page, being edited in such a way as to be more suitable for a reading audience as opposed to a listening one. The result is a readable wealth of practical wisdom and instruction drawn solely from the famous sermon of Christ recorded by Matthew.

Within this relatively small tome we're treated to a biblical exposition that is refreshingly devotional and challenging. Carson does not write dispassionately as is the custom of many in his field, but instead pours his heart into expounding and reflecting on these rich passages of Scripture. We observe this admirable attitude in his opening words:
The more I read these three chapters – Matthew 5, 6, and 7 – the more I am both drawn to them and shamed by them. Their brilliant light draws me like a moth to a spotlight; but the light is so bright that it sears and burns. No room is left for forms of piety which are nothing more than veneer and sham.
Throughout the exposition, Carson refuses to let us forget that the teachings of Christ demand a radically obedient response from those who profess to follow Him.

In the first chapter, Carson argues that one of the keys to understanding the Sermon on the Mount is to recognize that its pervasive theme is the kingdom of heaven. In fact, the opening beatitudes begin and end with this theme. Those who meet the condition of being poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3) are rewarded with the kingdom of heaven itself and the same is true of those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake (Matthew 5:10). Carson insightfully explains the significance of this: “To begin and end with the same expression is a stylistic device called an 'inclusion.' This means that everything bracketed between the two can really be included under the one theme, in this case, the kingdom of heaven.”

As Carson also points out, Matthew's expression “kingdom of heaven” is more than likely synonymous with the phrase “kingdom of God” used by other gospel writers. Comparing passages like Matthew 19:23 and Mark 10:23 supports this idea. Carson suggests that Matthew's use of slightly alternative terminology was a result of his Jewish background which fostered a desire to revere the name of God.

In his exposition of Matthew 5:17-20, Carson ably handles some difficult issues surrounding Christ's relationship to the Old Testament law. After prefacing with an affirmation of the clear teaching that Jesus did not come to abolish the law (Matthew 5:17), Carson draws our attention to a conspicuous problem:
If Jesus did not see himself abolishing the Law and the Prophets, but fulfilling them, why, for example, is there good evidence that he abolished the food laws (Mark 7:19)? Why do New Testament writers, after Jesus' death and resurrection, insist that the sacrificial system of the Old Testament is at best no longer necessary, and in principle abolished?
Before presenting his own interpretation, Carson offers a few brief summaries of the different ways people have generally attempted to answer these questions. He begins with what is probably the most popular method of solving the problem, namely, positing a three-fold division of the Old Testament law: moral, civil, and ceremonial. Exponents of these three distinctions argue that Christ was only speaking of the moral law and not the civil and ceremonial laws. Thus only the moral law remains in effect, while the civil and ceremonial laws can be safely abolished.

I found Carson's critique of this view particularly insightful. In addition to pointing out that Jesus' words appear to be quite all-inclusive, Carson argues that these alleged three divisions (moral, civil, and ceremonial) cannot be understood as mutually exclusive units: "When God approved certain ceremonial sacrifices in the Old Testament, people were morally bound to practice them. Again, if God forbade certain civil practices in the Old Testament, it would have been immoral to proceed with them." In other words, disobedience to any of the proposed three classes of law must be considered breaking the moral law. Disobedience to God is immoral regardless of what kind of law is disobeyed.

Carson contrasts this view with what he believes is the correct solution to the problem of Matthew 5:17. In order to demonstrate what Jesus means when he says “I have not come to abolish [the Law and the Prophets] but to fulfill them”, Carson focuses particularly on the word fulfill. In Matthew's gospel, the term is used eight times. In six of these occurrences, the word unarguably refers to Old Testament prophecy that has now been fulfilled, that is, has now come to fruition. Carson argues further:
Elsewhere Matthew records Jesus as saying, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John” (Matt. 11:12f). Not only do the Prophets prophesy, but the Law prophesies. The entire Old Testament has a prophetic function; and Jesus came to fulfill the Old Testament.
In other words, when Jesus says that he came to fulfill the Law, he is declaring himself as being that to which the Law points; the one of whom the Law prophesies. Therefore, Jesus makes it clear that the Law in its entirety is not to be done away with. Rather, the Law, in its prophetic function, finds its fulfillment in Christ.

There is an unusual literary motif of the Sermon on the Mount that I think Carson pointedly explains, and it's the way in which Jesus often uses antithetical language in order to stress a teaching. For example, in Matthew 5:29 we are taught “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” Rather than prescribing a literal practice of self-mutilation, Jesus is here using an antithetical form of speech in order to demonstrate the level of animosity we are to express toward even the first hints of sexual immorality.

Another example of this kind of rhetoric is found in Luke's gospel (14:26) where Jesus says “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father or mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Surely the purpose of this statement is not to promote a resentful ill will toward one's parents, for Jesus clearly teaches elsewhere that we are to honor our father and mother (Mark 7:10-13). Rather, Jesus speaks this way in order to demonstrate that our devotion to him should rise to such a surpassing degree that even our closest familial relationships are deemed far less important. However, while these words are not meant to be taken in an absolute sense, Carson offers us wise advice: “Indeed, it is important to let this antithetical and categorical form of statement speak, in all its stark absoluteness, before we allow it to be tempered by broader considerations.”

Carson's high regard for practicality shows forth unmistakably in his comments on the Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12. He starts by pointing out that many people misquote Jesus' words by stating the verse in the negative form: Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you. This, however, is not what Jesus taught. The command is given in the positive form: Do to others what you would want them to do to you. Carson inimitably illustrates the profound difference between these two statements:
The negative form would teach behavior like this: . . . If you do not enjoy being hated, don't hate others . . . However, the positive form teaches behavior like this: If you enjoy being loved, love others. . . The positive form is thus far more searching than its negative counterpart. Here there is no permission to withdraw into a world where I offend no one, but accomplish no positive good, either. What would you like done to you? What would you really like? Then, do that to others.
The above highlights are only a few reasons why this book would be a great addition to the library of any student of the Bible. The reverence with which the author handles the text of Scripture is clearly evident from the first page to the last. D.A. Carson has proven himself an able expositor and his work is always worthwhile. He has a keen ability to effectively tackle critical theological issues while avoiding the trap of mind-numbing technicality. There is great insight here for the theologian and layperson alike. I would recommend this succinct volume to anyone who is looking to read a solid exposition of Matthew 5-7 that stays close to the text and makes consistent application throughout.

Carson, D.A. The Sermon on the Mount: An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5-7.