by Jeffrey J. Harrison


Several events in the ministry of Jesus are associated with a small green valley in the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. Known as Heptapegon (Seven Springs; Tabgha for short), its name refers to the seven springs that bubble out of the ground there. Thanks to these springs, the valley stays green in the summer when the surrounding hills turn brown. The runoff from these springs makes a pleasant little waterfall into the Sea of Galilee. This may be where the fishermen were cleaning their nets when Jesus called them to be his disciples (Matt. 4:18-22).

Directly above this little waterfall rises a low hill with a small cave in its side. The cave is just large enough for a handful of people to sit out of the heat of the sun. The Christian pilgrim Egeria, who visited the area in the early 5th century, identified this hill beside Tabgha, marked by a cave, as the hill on which Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).*

* This is the earliest known identification of the site. "Near the Seven Springs.... On the hill nearby there is a grotto on top of which the Savior preached the Beatitudes" (Egeria as preserved by Peter the Deacon, 12th cent.).

The top of the hill is a small level area (shaded white in the picture), behind which the land rises steeply for a short distance, creating a natural amphitheater (shaded yellow).* Beyond this, the hill continues to rise toward the modern Church of the Beatitudes above. In this natural amphitheater, as many as 5,000 people could sit to listen to Jesus' message. Behind him, as a backdrop, was a peaceful view over the Sea of Galilee.

* This small level area may be the "level place" mentioned in Luke 6:17. If so, Jesus' "Sermon on the Plain" (Luke 6) is another account of the same sermon. The original Byzantine chapel at the site (4th cent. AD) was located beside this level area, not at the site of the modern church further up. You can still see the ruins of the Byzantine chapel sticking up above the grass. The accuracy of its location is strengthened by the fact that there were still Jewish Christians living in nearby Capernaum at the time the chapel was built, who undoubtedly preserved an accurate memory of the location of Jesus' sermon.

In his teaching, Jesus laid out the law of his Messianic kingdom: "You have heard [in the Law of Moses].... But I say to you...."* By giving this new law (or new interpretation of the Law), Jesus identified himself as the Prophet-like-Moses of Deuteronomy 18. As Peter proclaimed on the day of Pentecost: "Moses said, 'The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers; you will listen to him in all that he will say to you. But it will be that every soul that will not listen to that prophet will be completely cut off from the people'" (Acts 3:22, quoting Deut. 18:18,19; see Teaching #1: The Prophet like Moses). That prophet is Jesus. His teachings are the instruction we must obey.

* The Law of the Messiah, though often neglected by Christians, is mentioned repeatedly in the New Testament, by many different names: the Law of Messiah ("Law of Christ," Gal. 6:2, 1 Cor. 9:21), the Law written in their hearts (Rom. 2:15 in reference to the prophecy of Jer. 31:33), the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:2), the Law of faith (Rom. 3:27), the royal Law (James 2:8), the Law of liberty (James 1:25, 2:12), the commandment of the Lord (2 Pet. 3:2), the holy commandment (2 Pet. 2:21), the commandment (1 Tim. 6:14), his commandments (1 John 2:23, 2 John 1:6), my commandments (by Jesus; John 14:15,21; 15:10).

The intensity of Jewish expectation for the Prophet like Moses can be seen in the embassy of priests and Levites that came from Jerusalem to John the Baptist. They asked him, "Are you the Prophet?", that is, the Prophet like Moses (John 1:21). This is also the meaning of Philip's words to Nathanael: "We have found him of whom Moses wrote in the Law" (John 1:45, see also 1:25). The reaction to the feeding of the 5,000 also pointed to this hope: "This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world" (John 6:14, see also 7:40).

The importance of Jesus' Messianic Law, as with the Law of Moses, is hard for most Christians to grasp today, with our generally negative view of religious law. But just imagine if you lived in the time of Moses, or that of Jesus, in a world filled with pagan religions. In those religions, if you needed something from your god, you would make an offering of, say, a pair of sheep. But how would you know if your pair of sheep was enough to gain the favor of the god? Maybe giving only two sheep would be an insult to the god. So perhaps it would be better to give 4 sheep, or 6, or 8, or...? There was no way to know what was enough to gain the favor of your god.

This was (and still is) the predicament of pagan religion, and in fact of man-made religion in general. As the prophet Micah put it, "With what will I go before the L
ORD?.... Is the LORD pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Should I give my first-born for my sin, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" (Micah 6:6-7). What is enough? Thousands of animals, rivers of oil? Human sacrifice? You can never be sure when your god will bless you or when he (or she) might suddenly turn around and destroy you.* Even today, this lack of assurance leads people to great extremes in religion. In some parts of the world, they pierce their bodies with huge pins. In others they walk across hot coals. In others they whip themselves to draw blood. In others they become suicide bombers. All these and thousands of other religious actions are designed to get the attention of the gods (or God), who otherwise, they think, might not notice them at all.

* There are many episodes in Greek pagan literature where in spite of an offering being given, the request was rejected and some tragedy befell the worshipper. The pagan gods were generally seen to be distant and unconcerned with human affairs. The same is true of the modern semi-secularized holdovers from pagan religion: fate, luck, and the stars (astrology).

But through Moses, God did something radically new: he made a detailed, written agreement with his people, something no god had ever done before. In this agreement, he promised to be Israel's God and that they would be his special people (Ex. 19:5,6). They didn't have to worry if he was paying attention to them: he promised to care for them always. And he gave them specific instructions of what he expected in return, in behavior as well as in offerings. Even if you violated this agreement, there was a built-in mechanism by which you could be restored: the sacrificial system.* Now there was no more religious uncertainty. There was no more wondering if your god would be satisfied with your offering. You knew exactly what he wanted, and that if you kept within the agreement, he would always take care of you. What a relief! No wonder the Israelites were so quick to accept this agreement (Ex. 19:7,8).

* Although this applied only to inadvertent or unwilling violations. Willful violation was punished by God with being "cut off" from his people (karet), which according to some rabbinical authorities meant, in the absence of repentance, early death and punishment in the world to come. The early Jewish Christians adopted a similar view, that unrepented sin and falling away from the covenant with Messiah leads to eternal destruction (Heb. 6:4-8).

This is why the Law was and still is today something good and positive to religious Jews. It's the basis of their special relationship with God. When religious Jews mention the Torah (the Law of Moses), they get a warm, nice feeling like that Christians get when they talk about the Word of God. It's God's communication to them, his instructions for enjoying a special relationship with him.

But by the time of Jesus, many things in the Law of Moses had become unclear. There were abuses and misunderstandings.* And so people were looking for the Prophet like Moses to clarify the Law to them. This was the purpose of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: to clarify the Law of Moses by delivering the new law of the Kingdom, the Law of the Messiah.**

* Including the deception of legalism, in which many sought to establish their own personal righteousness by works of the law, something that is completely at odds with the original spirit of the Mosaic covenant.

** Although the Law of Moses was given only to Israel, the Law of Messiah applies to those of every nation who accept Jesus as Messiah (see Teaching #13: The Laws of Noah).

In introducing his message, Jesus made it clear that he did not come to do away with the Law of Moses: "Do not suppose that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fill them" (Matt. 5:17).* Rather than replacing the Law, Jesus' teaching brings the Law of Moses to its "fullness"--its full meaning. This implies both a right understanding of the Law and the proper fulfillment of its requirements.

* The "Law and the Prophets" is the Jewish name for the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), in Hebrew, Torah, Nevi'im, v'Ketuvim (the Law, Prophets, and Writings), often abbreviated TaNaKh.

To emphasize the point, Jesus underlines the ongoing validity of the Law: "For amen I say to you, until the heaven and the earth pass away, a single iota [the smallest letter] or a single stroke [used in writing] will certainly not pass away from the Law until all comes to pass" (Matt. 5:18). In this devotion even to the individual written letters of the Bible, Jesus reflects the views of his contemporaries and of later rabbis, whose teachings often turned on the slightest detail of the written text of the Bible.

Rather than replacing the Law of Moses, the new Law of Messiah is in continuity with it: "Whoever, therefore, looses [does away with] one of the least of these commandments and teaches the people in this manner, will be called the least in the kingdom of the heavens; but he who obeys and teaches [even the least commandment], this one will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens" (Matt. 5:19).* If you want to be great in the kingdom of God (and of his Messiah), Jesus says, you must also obey and teach the commandments of the Old Testament!**

* The kingdom of heaven is the Jewish way of saying the kingdom of God. God's name was considered too holy to mention, so substitutes were used, such as Heaven, Glory, Power (Matt. 26:64), the Most High (Luk. 1:32,35,76; 6:35). Today "the Name" is a popular substitute (as in the expression Baruch Ha-Shem, "Blessed be the Name"). Many religious Jews write the word "God" as "G-d."

** This obedience includes care to distinguish to whom a particular commandment is given. Most provisions of the Law of Moses are directed exclusively to the Jewish people. To incorrectly assume that a particular commandment must also be obeyed by Gentile Christians is a misunderstanding and a violation of the Law ("Judaizing"). Only those commandments explicitly directed to Gentiles are required of Gentile Christians. This includes those (mostly moral) laws repeated in the Law of Messiah (the New Testament, all of which is required of both Gentile and Jewish Christians). But it excludes most of the ceremonial law, the laws of sacrifice, and the food laws, which are unique to God's covenant with Israel. For a more complete discussion of these crucial distinctions, see Teaching #13: The Laws of Noah.

And he proceeds to do just that, starting with the commandment against murder (Matt. 5:21, quoting Ex. 20:13). But the interpretation Jesus gives to this commandment goes far beyond the usual understanding. For not only does he say that the action of murder merits punishment; getting angry with your brother merits an equal punishment. Even worse is calling your brother a name in anger, such as raca (empty-head) or "you fool" (5:22).*

* The punishment Jesus gives for using the name raca is appearing before the Sanhedrin Council, the highest court of the Jews, which judged crimes of the greatest severity. The punishment for calling your brother "you fool" is to be sent to the "Gehenna of fire." This is the equivalent of the lake of fire in Rev. 20:15, the place of eternal physical punishment.

An example of the use of these names can be found in a story about one of the rabbis in the generation before Jesus* who met a group of farmers going to sell their wheat for a certain price. Later, he met another group of farmers going to sell their wheat for a greater price. When he asked why the price of the second group was greater, they said, "You stupid Babylonian, do you not know the rule--according to the labor, so is the reward? And we have brought the wheat from a greater distance, so our price is higher." The rabbi replied to them, "You foolish, empty-headed persons (raca)! I ask you a civil question and you answer me rudely!"**

* Hillel, originally from Babylonia, which explains the response of the second group of farmers.

** Judah Nadich, The Legends of the Rabbis, vol. 1, p. 204. For other examples of the use of raca see Ta'an 20b, BK 50b, BB 75a (in the Babylonian Talmud).

Jesus' teaching implies that this rabbi and those like him were missing the point of God's Law. They were obeying the letter of the Law by avoiding murder. But they were disobeying the spirit of the Law by getting angry at their fellow man. Here, as in many of his other teachings, Jesus looks not just to outward behavior, but to the condition of the heart. Getting angry with your neighbor is a sin as bad as murder, if not worse, since these angry feelings are what lead to murder and war and all other kinds of violence. This can be seen in the Middle East today. Palestinian children don't just wake up one day and decide to attack Israeli soldiers. First they are taught to be angry with Israelis. Then they start to hate them. And only then are they willing to risk their lives in suicide attacks. And so it goes with many on both sides, here as in many other places around the world.

It all starts with an angry thought. Jesus' solution is to reject the angry thought just as firmly as we should reject murder itself--even if there are legitimate grounds for our anger. As he says a few verses later, you should not only "love your neighbor" (Lev. 19:18) but even "love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44). This, he teaches, is the "fullness" of the law, the true spirit of the Law of Moses.

As usual, Jesus pushes the point even further: Not only should we avoid becoming angry ourselves, we should also go to great lengths to keep our brother from being angry with us. Jesus uses the example of a person in the Temple, in the process of presenting an offering, who suddenly realizes that his brother has something against him. What does he advise? "Leave your offering there before the altar, and first go make peace with your brother, and then come bring your offering" (Matt. 5:23). This could mean several days, if not weeks of travel and considerable expense. But Jesus makes it a higher priority to reconcile our earthly relationships than even to worship God. Why? Because as John put it many years later: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen is not able to love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20). By hating our brother, we become disobedient to God. This is the "full" meaning of the commandment against murder. Right actions, without the right attitude, miss the point of God's Law!

Next, Jesus mentions the commandment against adultery (Matt. 5:27, quoting Ex. 20:14). The letter of the Law says that you must not commit the act of adultery. But Jesus says the true spirit of this law is that you must not even look with lust (Matt. 5:28). Jesus wasn't the first to teach this implication of the Law of Moses. The Book of Jubilees, written a century or so before the time of Jesus, says, "See that no woman commits sexual immorality with her eyes or her heart" (Jub. 20:4). Physical immorality starts with inner or spiritual immorality. And both are just as displeasing to God. Whether it's thoughts that rise up in our minds, or ideas or images that come in from the outside, how can we occupy our minds with such things and be right with God? The Psalmist says: "I will put no worthless thing before my eyes" (Ps. 101:4). We must guard not only our bodies, but our eyes and our hearts!

To emphasize how serious this is, Jesus gives the radical teaching, "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away from you: for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body be destroyed than that your whole body be thrown into Gehenna" (Matt. 5:29). The lust of the eye is more damaging than a traumatic, permanent injury to our bodies. This puts things in proper perspective. We tend to give top priority to health along with professional achievement and material acquisition. But God puts top priority on personal holiness: how we think as well as how we act toward others.

This is the true meaning of the Law of Moses: not only that we control our bodies, but that we also control our minds--our spiritual life--and bring both under the leading of the Holy Spirit. As Paul put it, we are "taking every thought captive to the obedience of Messiah" (2 Cor. 10:5). The Law of Moses emphasizes outer conduct. But the Law of Messiah clarifies God's intentions, emphasizing the inner life of the spirit, while it continues to affirm the obedience of the flesh. The Law of Moses is weak because of the weakness of the flesh. But the new Law of Messiah releases the Holy Spirit into our lives, through whose power we are able to fulfill the requirement of the Law of Moses (Rom. 8:3,4).

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