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A Feature Review of
The Sermon on the Mount
The Story of God Bible Commentary
Hardback: Zondervan, 2013
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Reviewed by Alex Dye.
Under normal circumstances, I would not voluntarily choose to review a Biblical commentary, not because I do not enjoy them or find them valuable but because that would then mean that I would need to read it cover to cover rather than simply use it as a reference source, which is my usual modus operandi. However, I could not pass up an opportunity to review Scot McKnight’s take on one of the most challenging, inspiring, and ignored passages of Scripture in the New Testament: The Sermon on the Mount. I use the term “ignored” not to suggest that we do not currently preach or teach on this subject, but rather to say that we tend to treat this Sermon as quaint, antique, and maybe even unreachable for the average disciple. And yet, not only is this the longest section of direct teachings that we have by Jesus in the New Testament, but in this sermon we are privy to his core character as well as His intentions for Christian discipleship.
McKnight explains in the introduction his own reasons for writing a commentary on this particular section of Scripture:
“The Sermon on the Mount is the moral portrait of Jesus’ own people. Because this portrait doesn’t square with the church, this Sermon turns from instruction to indictment. To those ends-both instruction and indictment-this commentary has been written with the simple goal that God will use this book to lead us to become in real life the portrait Jesus sketched in the Sermon.” (1)
It is with this “simple goal” in mind that McKnight deftly tackles Matthew 5-7, exploring the cultural context of Jesus’ message and assessing it against the backdrop of our modern day world.
One of the most important concepts in McKnight’s commentary is that of ethics of Jesus. He uses this meta-theme to engage the various subjects addressed in the Sermon on the Mount. McKnight asserts that Jesus uses four ethics throughout his discourse: ethics from above, beyond, below, and “messianic ethics designed for the messianic community.”(8) He stresses that none of these ethics, by themselves, properly contain the full scope of Jesus’ ethical position, but rather that they must be understood in relationship with one another.
Firstly, then, an ethic from above is the authority of God, as mediated through the spoken words of Jesus. In the same way that the “words” of God became law in Torah, Jesus’ words bear the power of the Father God. Secondly, the ethic from beyond remembers the work of the Old Testament prophets in that they are “bringing God’s future to bear on the present.”(McKnight 10) This is exemplified in both in Christ’s ministry and of the kingdom of God as containing both a future and present reality. He cites too that eschatology is necessary for an ethic of the Kingdom; “An ethic unshaped by eschatology is neither Jesus’ nor Christian.” (11) Thirdly, McKnight identifies Jesus’ wisdom from below, which is a wisdom rooted in the experience of humanity. And finally, he names a “messianic ethic,” which is a combination of above, beyond, and below and also includes the working of these ethics in the church as well as the influence of the Holy Spirit upon them.
McKnight refers back to these categories throughout the commentary; his breakdown of ethical types helps one to recognize that Jesus’ many sayings must be understood in their ethical context. Truly, the backbone of this commentary lies in his delineation of Jesus’ ethics as outlined in the introduction. The reader would do well to familiarize him/herself with this and then refer back to it regularly. Admittedly, though, these are difficult concepts to understand and could provide some with a barrier upon entry to the commentary.
Like most commentaries, McKnight spends sometime discussing authorship, structure, date, etc. But this is minimal in comparison with the space he dedicates to discussion of ethics; this should alert the reader to notice that this commentary will be, at its very essence, different from anything else available on the market. He is more interested in the ethical implications of Jesus’ sermons rather than answering some of the who, what, and where, which are more suited for a traditional Bible commentary. Additionally, one will notice there are very little verse by verse breakdowns or word studies; this commentary is an entirely different animal.
Each chapter tackles a certain passage of the SOM and is divided into three sections, “Listen to the Story,” “Explain the Story,” and “Live the Story.” This appears to be the lay out that will be used for other entries in the series. “Listen to the Story” is used to introduce the passage and provide any related Scripture or even non-Scripture texts. The section labeled “Explain the Story” looks at the passage against the background of the meta-narrative of the Bible and addresses issues dealing with context, etc. And finally, “Live the Story” provides the oft-requested “application” section, although I would note that the suggestions are richer, deeper, and more challenging than what might be available in a traditional preachers or lay commentary; additionally, McKnight approaches this section not just in terms of superficial personal application, but also as it applies to the broader world, addressing such difficult issues as the church’s current attitudes toward and relationship with Jewish peoples, reconciliation, both on a larger level such as Nazi Germany, but more importantly on a local and personal level, the gray (or at least nuanced) realities of divorce and remarriage, and many others which evangelical Christians are reticent to address with such brutal honesty and grace.