Isaiah In Context

Isaiah has a reputation for being very difficult to understand. I’d like to suggest that Isaiah isn’t actually intrinsically difficult to understand, as long as we read him in historical and prophetic context. Putting Isaiah in context includes understanding the events that he was responding to and prophesying about. These include the imperial activities of Assyria, the superpower of the region. As prophet to Judah’s kings, Isaiah remarked on the intrigues and ventures of Assyria and neighboring kingdoms. At the same time Isaiah was prophesying against his own people in Judah for their sins, especially their pride and oppression of the poor. These two prongs of prophecy, of the threat of surrounding nations and of the sins of Judah, converged as Isaiah warned that the LORD would bring the might of enemy nations to bear on the LORD’s people, to be smitten and scattered, while he also promised eventual gathering and reconciliation.

There’s a joke among Latter-day Saints that there was once a man who always carried around a pocket-sized Book of Mormon in his jacket. One day he was mugged in the street and shot in the chest. Fortunately, the bullet hit the Book of Mormon, which saved his life. As he examined the book later he found that the bullet had made it through First Nephi and the first few chapters of Second Nephi. But stopped there. Amused, he thought to himself, “Even a bullet can’t make it through the Isaiah chapters!”

For those not familiar with the Book of Mormon, there are several chapters from Isaiah quoted in full within its first hundred pages. Readers cruising along with the narrative sections preceding often find the Isaiah chapters intimidating and impenetrable. It’s a common enough experience among my co-religionists that this joke hits home. And it also makes for a useful introduction to my subject, putting Isaiah in context.

Isaiah has a reputation for being very difficult to understand. What I’d like to suggest is that Isaiah isn’t actually intrinsically difficult to understand but it often is difficult to understand in the way it’s read. The way it’s often read is without the historical context that gives that background for what is going on in the book, what Isaiah is responding to and talking about. The Book of Mormon even points this out. Nephi says Isaiah isn’t difficult for him to understand because he knew “concerning the regions round about” Jerusalem (2 Nephi 25:6). That’s actually a very helpful place to start. What are the regions round about? The main regions to know about are:


And it also helps to know something of the rulers involved in the geopolitics of Isaiah’s time. This will make many of the apparently difficult passages in Isaiah much more comprehensible.

Over the course of hundreds of years, from the time of Isaiah to the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the superpowers that dominated Mesopotamia were, in succeeding order: Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. The Neo-Assyrian Empire was in existence from 911 – 609 BC. It was then conquered by the Neo-Babylonian Empire which lasted from 626 – 539 BC. It was then conquered by the Persian Achaemenid Empire, which lasted from 550 – 330 BC, with the conquest of Alexander the Great. In this succession of empires the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were relatively minor powers that were tossed around, besieged, conquered, and deported. Although Israel and Judah were minor powers in comparison to the other kingdoms, the Bible has a much more prominent place in our culture today than the records of any of these empires. And so we see much of this history through the eyes of Israel and Judah. Isaiah is one of these observers who was also very prolific and expressive.

The Geopolitical Landscape

Judah and Israel

Judah and Israel are the two Hebrew-speaking nations that (usually) worship the LORD God, YHWH. I say “usually” because both, Israel especially, tend to worship other gods, either instead of or along with the LORD God. And that’s why the LORD’s bulldog prophets Elijah and Elisha were out there railing against idol worship. These kingdoms had been united under Saul, David, and Solomon. But they split after Solomon’s death. Judah is the southern kingdom, with its capital in Jerusalem. Israel is the northern kingdom with its capital in Samaria. 

Isaiah lived in Judah, the southern kingdom, from the 8th to 7th century BC. He was active during the reigns of four kings of Judah:


The kings to the north in Israel during Isaiah’s lifetime were:

Pekah, the son of Remaliah (737–732 BC)
Hoshea (732–722 BC)

In the early books of Isaiah Pekah is often referred to as “the son of Remaliah”. And he was involved in some alliances with other Kingdoms against the Kingdom of Judah.


By far the dominant power in the region during this time was the Assyrian Empire, sometimes called the Neo-Assyrian Empire by historians to distinguish it from an earlier empire. The Assyrian Empire lasted from 911 to 609 BC. Isaiah’s lifetime coincides with some of its most historically significant rulers. These include:

Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 BC)
Shalmaneser V (727–722 BC)
Sargon II (722–705 BC)
Sennacherib (705-681 BC)

Shalmaneser V was very important in the history of the northern kingdom of Israel because he conquered it and scattered its people. For Isaiah and Judah the two major Assyrian rulers will be Tiglath-Pilesar and Sennacherib.

Aram and Egypt

Two other important kingdoms worth remembering are Aram and Egypt. Egypt should be quite familiar to everyone. It was no longer as dominant a power at this time but it was still significant. Aram, also known as Aram-Damascus, is sometimes called just “Syria”, as it is in the King James Version. This can be a little confusing since the KJV translation talks about Syria and Assyria. So it’s important to keep track of these and remember that they are separate kingdoms. In the Hebrew text of Isaiah it is אֲרָם (aram). And it’s where the name for the Aramaic language comes from. To avoid confusion with Assyria I like to call it Aram or Aram-Damascus. Aram, or Syria, was centered around the city of Damascus. The most important Aramean ruler mentioned in Isaiah is:

Rezin (754 BC–732 BC)

Rezin was also, as we shall see, the last king of Aram.

Egypt is also important in the geopolitical scene because they entered an alliance with Aram-Damascus and Israel and later with Judah.

The Geopolitical History

The first important geopolitical event to know about in Isaiah is the alliance between Aram and Israel against Judah. At this time Judah was ruled by Ahaz, Israel was ruled by Pekah, son of Remaliah, and Aram (or Syria) was ruled by Rezin. Aram and Israel formed an alliance to take over Judah and install a new ruler to replace Ahaz. The reason they wanted to do this was to compel Judah to join them in opposing the Assyrian Empire, which at this time was ruled by Tiglath-Pilesar. This failed however. Ahaz actually entered an alliance with Tiglath-Pilesar of Assyria. And it didn’t work out too well for Aram and Israel. Tiglath-Pileser marched on Damascus, annexed it into his empire, and killed Rezin. He also took portions of Israel and deported portions of its population. Pekah was assassinated shortly after, his rule usurped by Hoshea.

These events are described in Isaiah chapter 7. This is the same chapter that talks about Immanuel and a young girl or “virgin” conceiving (more on that shortly). I’ll read Isaiah 7:1-16 and insert some comments on the history mentioned above. If you’ve struggled painfully through this passage before hopefully it will be a little easier with the above in mind. I think most listeners will be most familiar with the King James Version so I’ll use that translation.

Isaiah 7:1-16

“And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it. And it was told the house of David, saying, Syria is confederate with Ephraim.”

So that’s just a description of the situation we’ve described. Note here that “Ephraim” is another way of referring to the Kingdom of Israel. Ephraim being one of twelve tribes of Israel that was dominant in the north.

“And his [Ahaz’s] heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind. Then said the Lord unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field; And say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying, Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal: Thus saith the Lord God, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.”

So here Isaiah is going to the king of Judah, Ahaz, to tell him not to fear this alliance against him, that it’s not going to prevail. We read here that Pekah and Rezin were planning to install their own puppet, “the son of Tabeal”, as king in Ahaz’s place.

“For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah’s son.”

So these names should all be familiar now. The capital of Aram (or Syria) is Damascus and it’s headed by Rezin. The capital of Israel is Samaria and it’s headed by Pekah, Remaliah’s son. And Isaiah is prophesying that they’re not going to last.

“If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established. Moreover the Lord spake again unto Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.”

The LORD tells Ahaz, through Isaiah, to ask for a sign to convince him of all this. 

“But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.”

Ahaz doesn’t want to ask for a sign, presumably out of piety. But Isaiah and the LORD aren’t buying it.

“And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign.”

So Ahaz is going to get a sign whether he likes it or not. And what is the sign?

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.”

So the sign is that a child is going to be conceived and born and before the child is grown Rezin and Pekah will be gone. In other words, this is going to happen soon. So it’s meant to be reassuring for Ahaz.

Who is this child in the prophecy? Well, if you’ve heard this verse quoted around Christmas you know it’s certainly used theologically by Christians to refer to Jesus. I will make the case in a minute that this is actually a valid theological reading. But, it seems not to be the primary meaning in the original context. The primary meaning of the prophecy is referring to a child who would be born very soon, who would still be a child by the time Rezin and Pekah fell from power. So that couldn’t be Jesus. We don’t know for sure who the child referred to is. It could just be a random, nameless child. But this is often thought to be referring to Ahaz’s son Hezekiah, the next king of Judah.

So what of Christ? And doesn’t the prophecy refer to conception and birth by a virgin? What other virgin has conceived and given birth than Mary the mother of Jesus? First it’s important to note that “virgin” is probably not the best English translation of the Hebrew word used here. In Hebrew the one conceiving is an עַלְמָ֗ה (almah), a “young woman”, not necessarily a virgin; which would be בְּתוּלָה (betulah). An almah could be a virgin and maybe this woman even was at the time of the prophecy. But that also doesn’t necessarily mean she was a virgin when she gave birth or that she conceived as a virgin. That probably wouldn’t occur to a reader prior to the virgin birth of Christ. The primary reading it would seem here is that the miraculous sign is not a virgin birth but the rapidity of the downfall of Rezin and Pekah, that it will occur before the child matures.

Why is this so often translated as “virgin” rather than simply “young woman”. One reason is that in early Christianity the most common version of Isaiah that Christians would have been familiar with was the Greek translation, the Septuagint. And in the Septuagint almah is translated as παρθένος (parthénos), which to the readers in the time of early Christianity was understood to mean, more particularly, a virgin.

But can this prophecy also refer to Christ? I think it certainly can and the New Testament uses it in that way, in Matthew 1:21-23.

“And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”

In our postmodern age we aren’t unacquainted with the idea that texts can have multiple meanings that can extend far beyond the intent of the author. And maybe Isaiah even had a double meaning in mind. Either way we as Christians can certainly read Isaiah with a cristological lens. I’m actually quite partial to finding cristological types all over the place, even in the natural world and in daily life. In Latter-day Saint scripture, in the Book of Moses, there’s a wonderful passage in Moses 6:63 that says:

“And behold, all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record of me, both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual; things which are in the heavens above, and things which are on the earth, and things which are in the earth, and things which are under the earth, both above and beneath: all things bear record of me.”

I think that is fantastic theology. And I think finding a typology of Christ in this prophecy in Isaiah is completely legitimate theologically. So I’m something of a non-partisan, liberal-conservative hybrid in my interpretation of this scripture.

One other point of interest in this scripture is that the title given to the child, “Immanuel” means “God is with us”. That’s:

im, “with” + anu, “us”, a first person plural pronominal suffix + el, “God” or “a god”.

Kings were thought to be representatives of the LORD God so this could be applicable to Hezekiah. But applying it to Christ, as the incarnation of God in human form among other human beings on earth, certainly makes sense for Christian theology.

Another scripture that becomes much clearer with the geopolitical history in mind is Isaiah 8:5-10.

“The Lord spake also unto me again, saying, Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly, and rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son; Now therefore, behold, the Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the king of Assyria, and all his glory: and he shall come up over all his channels, and go over all his banks: And he shall pass through Judah; he shall overflow and go over, he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel. Associate yourselves, O ye people, and ye shall be broken in pieces; and give ear, all ye of far countries: gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces; gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces. Take counsel together, and it shall come to nought; speak the word, and it shall not stand: for God is with us.”

Worth noting here that that last line, “for God is with us” in Hebrew is: כִּ֥י עִמָּ֖נוּ אֵֽל, ki immanu el. And that’s the message that Isaiah wants to drive home here. God is with us so we don’t need to associate ourselves with Aram and Israel. We ought to take in the waters of Shiloah rather than rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah’s son, the kings of Aram and Israel respectively. Here the humble and unassuming House of David is metaphorically compared to the gently flowing waters of the Shiloah, a relatively small stream that supplies water to Jerusalem. But the LORD is going to bring in Assyria, like the waters of the Euphrates. Assyria will wipe out Aram and subdue Israel. It will also come up against Judah and “reach even to the neck”. More on that later. But none of these powers will prevail. “Associate yourselves, O ye people, and ye shall be broken in pieces.”

What is this about Assyria passing through Judah, overflowing  and going over, reaching even to the neck, and stretching out his wings to fill the breadth of the land? This is a prophecy of the siege on Jerusalem by Assyria in 701 BC. This is a fascinating episode in biblical history because it’s also recorded in extra-biblical sources. Both the Bible and Assyrian sources record the events of this siege. By this time the king of Assyria was Sennacharib. Hezekiah entered an alliance with the kingdoms of Sidon, Ascalon, Ekron, and Egypt against Assyria. Sennacherib attacked the rebels, conquering Ascalon, Sidon and Ekron and defeating the Egyptians and driving them from the region. He marched toward Jerusalem, destroying 46 towns and villages in his path. Assyria finally besieged Jerusalem. Both the Bible and Assyrian records concur that Jerusalem was not conquered. They differ on the reason. According to Sennacharib’s account Judah paid him tribute so he left. But according to the Bible an angel of the Lord killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers at Jerusalem after Hezekiah prayed in the temple (2 Kings 18-19). In the end Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled: “It shall not stand: for God is with us.”

The LORD’s Chastisement of Judah

Although Judah is ultimately spared from Assyria it is clear that the LORD is in many ways displeased with what he is seeing in Judah. And though Judah, unlike Israel, is not conquered by Assyria, it is eventually conquered by Babylon. Since Judah is under the covenantal protection of the LORD God this defeat is justified by Judah’s disobedience to the terms of the covenant. Because of this much of Isaiah lists Judah’s offenses and expresses the LORD’s displeasure.

We should note here that modern biblical scholarship theorizes that while the first half of the book, chapters 1-39, is the work of the historical Isaiah, the remainder is thought to be the work of one or more authors writing as Isaiah, but after the conquest by Babylon a couple centuries later. This is often called “Second Isaiah”. These later books are much more consoling and forgiving in their tone, more to the effect of forgiving an already chastened and conquered people than of condemning a sinful and as-yet-unpunished people. In both cases Judah’s offenses are a recurring topic. Let’s look at some examples.

Isaiah 1:2-4

“Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider. Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.”

So it’s quite clear here that the LORD is not pleased with what he’s seeing. And there’ll be a lot more where that comes from. There’s plenty of divine displeasure to spare in Isaiah. Later in the book Isaiah will repeat the warning, “his hand is stretched out still”, וְעֹ֖וד יָדֹ֥ו נְטוּיָֽה ve-od yad-o netuyah (Isaiah 5:25; 9:12, 17, 21; 10:4). Sometimes people interpret the English translation as a message of comfort, the LORD extending his hand in forgiveness. A nice thought, but no. The intended message is that the LORD’s hand is still stretched out to smite. “For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.” Nevertheless, Isaiah also has plenty of messages of comfort. For example, another verse from this first chapter:

Isaiah 1:16-19

“Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.”

So we see the forgiving side of the LORD as well.

Let’s look at a few more examples of the condemnation, not to dwell on that but because they might be a little confusing and it’s helpful to review them so that they make more sense the next time you read them.

Isaiah 5:26-28

“And he will lift up an ensign to the nations from far, and will hiss unto them from the end of the earth: and, behold, they shall come with speed swiftly: None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken: Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind.”

There are a few places where, in the KJV, Isaiah refers to and “ensign”, נֵ֤ס (nes), which is a flag or banner. Sometimes it’s a good thing. And sometimes it’s definitely not. This is one of those verses where it’s not. Here Isaiah is saying that the LORD is putting up an ensign or banner for nations like Assyria and Babylon to come in and invade. And they’re going to attack hard. “None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken.” This isn’t going to be a casual march. They’re coming in ready to fight. And it’s a well-outfitted, well-trained military machine. “Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind.” I’ve heard this passage sometimes interpreted as Isaiah’s vision of a steam locomotive, like he was trying his best to describe a nineteenth century technology in his 8th century BC terms. That’s a creative take, but unnecessary. In context, a literal interpretation makes plenty of sense here already. The Assyrians’s arrows are sharp, their bows are bent and ready to fire, their horses hoofs are kicking up sparks like flint, and their chariot wheels are spinning like a whirlwind. They’re coming in fast. So watch out! I’ll share a positive example of the “ensign” in a bit. But a few more verses of condemnation.

Isaiah 3:16-24

“Moreover the Lord saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet: Therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will discover their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, The chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, The bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings, The rings, and nose jewels, The changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping pins, The glasses, and the fine linen, and the hoods, and the vails. And it shall come to pass, that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and instead of a girdle a rent; and instead of well set hair baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning instead of beauty.”

There are a lot of strange and unfamiliar words used here, especially in the KJV. I’m not sure when I last used “wimples” or “crisping pins”. So what’s happening here? The gist is that the LORD is condemning the people, particularly the women among the people here, for their pride, materialism, and ostentatious display of wealth. All those funny words for their jewelry listed off here; these people are basically blinged out to the max. That’s the takeaway here. And the LORD is going to put a stop to that in a big way. All this fine apparel is going to be taken away and they’ll be stripped naked. They’re hair that was all done up is going to fall out to the point of baldness and instead of being perfumed they’re going to reek. So a dramatic shift from pride to utter shame.

Isaiah 5:8-12

“Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth! In mine ears said the Lord of hosts, Of a truth many houses shall be desolate, even great and fair, without inhabitant. Yea, ten acres of vineyard shall yield one bath, and the seed of an homer shall yield an ephah. Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them. And the harp, and the viol, the tabret, and pipe, and wine, are in their feasts: but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of his hands.”

This is another verse of condemnation that might be a little confusing, with its terms like “homer” and “ephah”. The important thing to know here is that these are units of measure and the gist is that in spite of all their landed wealth they’re not going to get much harvest out of it. Similar to the condemnation of haughtiness in the previously quoted passage, the LORD here is condemning the materialism of the wealthy. By joining house to house and field to field “till there be no place” the wealthy are taking up all the land and dispossessing the poor. Under normal circumstances having all the land would mean that you’ll have abundant harvest and food. But the LORD says no such thing will happen. In spite of all their land, the wealthy will get hardly any harvest from it.

Enough of the condemnation. Now for something positive. Although Isaiah prophesies that the LORD will smite and scatter his people by the might of other nations, like Assyria, he also prophesies that the LORD will gather them again.

Isaiah 11:11-13

“And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. The envy also of Ephraim shall depart, and the adversaries of Judah shall be cut off: Ephraim shall not envy Judah, and Judah shall not vex Ephraim.”

Here the ensign for the nations is set up not to bring in enemy nations to invade the LORD’s people, but rather to gather the LORD’s people from among the nations to which they were scattered: from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from the islands of the sea. That, and the LORD’s people will no longer be divided, between Judah and Ephraim. Instead they will be reconciled.

This message of forgiveness, of gathering the scattered people, is amplified in the later passages that are sometimes called “Second Isaiah”.

Isaiah 54:7-10

“For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer. For this is as the waters of Noah unto me: for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth; so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee, nor rebuke thee. For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.”

These exultant phrases from the later chapters of Isaiah are especially resonant and, in my opinion, some of the greatest in all scripture.


Like Nephi in the Book of Mormon, we can understand Isaiah better with some acquaintance with the “regions round about”, understanding the events occurring during Isaiah’s lifetime that he was responding to and prophesying about. Most significantly these include the imperial ambitions of Assyria, the superpower of the region. As a counselor to Judah’s kings — including Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah — Isaiah remarked on the intrigues and ventures of neighboring kingdoms as they jockeyed and attempted to shift the balance of power from the massive Assyrian bulk to their northeast. At this same time Isaiah was prophesying against his own people in Judah for their sins, especially their pride and oppression of the poor. These two prongs of prophecy, of the threat of Assyria and of the sins of Judah, converged as Isaiah warned that the LORD would bring the might of Assyria, and later of Babylon, to bear on the LORD’s people, to be smitten and scattered. But the Book of Isaiah also contains promises of reconciliation and restoration. As the title page of the Book of Mormon puts it, “to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel.. that they are not cast off forever.” Isaiah prophesied that the LORD and his people could come and reason together and that after their chastisement his kindness would return and not depart. These are the broad themes of the remarkable Book of Isaiah.

Three Truths About Truth

Pete and Todd discuss truth, with an outline of Three Truths About Truth: (1) We aren’t as good at perceiving and remembering facts as we think we are. (2) A lot of our systems are based on a much more limited or squishier version of truth than we often assume. (3) The things we assume and think of as true are often not accepted as true by our neighbors or fellow citizens.

The Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5

What are the attributes by which people can know followers of Jesus Christ? For this the New Testament is our primary source and grounding for guidance. The Sermon on the Mount especially is a key text that teaches how we are to live in order to be the “light of the world”. Here we look at Matthew 5, the first of the sermon’s 3 chapters, where Jesus teaches the fulfillment of the Law, that we are not to become angry or lustful, that we should not resist evil but rather love our enemies and give to all that ask, turning none away, having good will toward all indiscriminately, as the rain falls on both the just and unjust.

I’d like to make this the first episode in a series on the Sermon on the Mount, this episode focuses on Matthew chapter 5. So it will likely follow with a complete trilogy with Matthew 6 and 7. And maybe that will follow with an extended series on other parts of the New Testament.

I’ve read the Bible quite regularly for a number of years but lately I’ve been focusing especially on the New Testament and the Gospels. I think of the New Testament as a focal point. It’s what I keep coming back to for grounding. It’s the primary source and the standard (canon) by which to measure everything else. Our word “canon” even comes from the Greek κανών for “measuring rod” or “standard”. That’s how I use the New Testament.

I posted this idea on Facebook a while back and a good friend of mine, who always has interesting theological ideas asked if I considered the New Testament divinely revealed and/or inerrant. It’s a good question, and brings up the interesting issue of whether or not you can interpret scripture without philosophy, which I don’t think you can because some kind of analysis beyond the Bible is always needed to think about the Bible. Anyway, I think the New Testament is divine but not inerrant. And that relates to the kind of text that it is. Euclid’s Elements is the kind of text that could be inerrant (it isn’t, but it’s pretty darn close). I think of the New Testament like I do the Torah. The Law is not a reflection of eternal truth, as in geometry or logic for instance, but it establishes a covenant, it brings it into existence. It’s divine because it’s a covenant with God. The New Testament establishes a covenant to live in a certain way, a way that is not mandated by nature or physical law. By the mandates of nature or physical law we don’t have to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We don’t have to love our enemies. We don’t have to impart our substance, etc. Usually we don’t. And there are many ideologies that teach the opposite. But these are the kinds of things we are taught to do in the New Testament. We create that contingent truth by entering into the covenant. And they’re the kinds of things I want to embrace. The historical details of Jesus’s life as narrated in the Gospel’s or the authorship of certain letters don’t have to be a one-to-one correspondence to the events as they occurred in order to establish that it’s the kind of covenant that I want to be a part of.

So I want to talk more about that covenant. What is The Way that we follow as a disciples of Jesus? And of course this being 2020 I can’t mention The Way without a reference The Mandalorian: “This is the way”. But that actually is how early Christians referred to themselves, as “The Way”, ἡ ὁδός (he hodos). And “The Way” is referred to in a number of places in the book of Acts; Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22. What is this Way? I think the Sermon on the Mount is key. And one reason I want to say that the New Testament grounds us, that it’s the primary source is because, in my thinking about my Christian ministry to a secular world I think there’s much associated with Christianity that obscures The Way. And I’m sorry to say that we Christians have to accept most of the responsibility for this. Not that there isn’t mischaracterization from outside the Church. But we also have to do a lot better at focusing on Christ rather than Christendom, the cultural, tribal accretions that creep into our Church. I won’t say any more about that but you can probably imagine what some of those things might be. But I want to stick to the positive proclamation of the true Gospel. And for that let’s turn to the words of Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount.

There are lots of things we could point out as we go through these verses but what I want to focus on is The Way that is being shown here. One thing to keep in mind of course is that Jesus himself is the way: Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ὁδὸς (Ego eimi he hodos) (John 14:6). As we go through this, what does it mean to follow Christ, to follow The Way?

Matthew 5:1-10

“And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying:”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

What are the qualities here of the Blessed, the Μακάριοι (Makarioi)? The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Compare these to the martial and heroic virtues of Homeric Greece, Sparta, or even the Roman Empire. As Friedrich Nietzsche would later point out, and not at all favorably, one from these other cultures might look with disdain on these attributes as the attributes of a slave, not attributes to be celebrated and admired but rather seen as pathetic. In a sense Nietzsche wasn’t wrong, except that followers of Jesus see these as attributes of the Makarioi. David Bentley Hart has said of Nietzsche that “he hated Christianity itself principally on account of its enfeebling solicitude for the weak, the outcast, the infirm, and the diseased”. “The losers” one might say. For Christians, the weak, the outcast, the infirm and the diseased are of central concern. They are the ones who matter most to us.

Everything here is a reversal, as is often the case in Jesus’s teachings. The kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit, or as Luke records it, just, to the poor (Luke 6:20). According to legend, when Alexander the Great lay on his deathbed he said his empire should be left “to the strongest”. But Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven will be given to the poor and the Earth to the meek.

Matthew 5:11-16

“Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.”

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

This is an interesting passage to compare with one in the next chapter, “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. (Matthew 6:1) But in Chapter 5 we are encouraged to let ourselves be seen. What’s the difference? Probably it’s a difference of who we are trying to glorify. Are we trying to glorify God or ourselves? Jesus says that we should let our light shine before men so that they may glorify the Father. And that’s important. The Way of the Gospel is not only for personal edification. It is meant to be visible.

An important question to consider: what do people associate with Christ and his Way, on account of knowing you, that you’re a Christian and professed follower of Christ? Jesus said, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) Is that what people see?

This doesn’t mean that everyone will admire loving followers of Christ. Jesus says that we are blessed when people revile and persecute us and say evil things against us falsely for his sake. Even a loving character can be mischaracterized as hateful. So it’s important to think carefully about this. Just because people speak critically of you doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is wrong. But it also doesn’t mean that it’s right. What do fair-minded people think? Or, if fair-minded people aren’t on hand to ask, what would fair-minded people think?

It’s entirely possible for Christians to be judgmental and unloving in pursuit of purportedly Christian motivations. From later in the Sermon on the Mount, “‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’” (Matthew 7:22) Nominal devotion in Christ’s name doesn’t guarantee actual consistency with the Way of his Gospel. It’s necessary to think carefully about these things, since false, even if sincerely intentioned discipleship is not only possible but predicted by Jesus himself.

Matthew 5:17-20

“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

There are a couple of interesting points here. One, which we’ll see a lot of in the following verses, is that The Way of Christ is hardly a permissive, anything-goes kind of ethic. It’s an intensification and internalization of good conduct that goes beyond what was previously taught. Yet Jesus also says that his burden is ἐλαφρός, (elaphros), “light” (Matthew 11:30) Something to think about.

The other thing that’s kind of interesting here is the role of change and development in God’s dealings with humanity. Jesus didn’t destroy the Law but he didn’t leave it as it was either. He came to “fulfill” the Law, πληρόω (pleroo). I don’t want to distract too much from the scripture with philosophy but, like I said before, sometimes it’s useful. The philosophical process of the dialectic makes use of this notion that in development prior stages can be, not negated but taken up and incorporated into subsequent stages. This is both useful and risky. Immutable principles can be inadequate to a wide range of circumstances or to changing circumstances. But they do have the benefit of being stable. The capacity for change also makes heresy possible. So what do we do? Well, as with seeking to let others see our good works we have to be careful. Latter-day Saint leader Hugh B. Brown said: “One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind; from this all other freedoms spring. Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking.” The stories of the New Testament show a lot of changes: changes to dietary laws, changes to the practice of circumcision, etc. And these changes were challenging. Not only because of obstinance but also because it wasn’t obvious to sincere followers of Christ what the right answer was. So they had to get together in council to figure it out prayerfully. There’s an instructive lesson in that.

Matthew 5:21-26

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.”

This is an astounding passage. And perfectly indicative of the high standards of The Way of Christ. How is a Christian to comport themself with others? As their light shines for others to see what is it that others see in the follower of Christ. Certainly it’s the complete opposite of violence but also aggression of any kind. Not just physical violence but also verbal violence or an unkind attitude. Needless to say this is extremely difficult. Especially since, as Jesus foretells, a Christian is to be the subject of much abuse. But the Christian is not to respond even with anger. Or to belittle another in any way. “Raca” is an Aramaic expression that also means essentially to call someone a fool.

I never met my maternal grandfather but he was by all accounts a wonderful person. I’ve heard a story where he was asked to think of somebody he didn’t like and had a really hard time thinking of anyone. Eventually he decided that if he had to choose someone he could settle on Fidel Castro. I always get a kick out of that. And I do think it’s closer to the kind of character Christians are to have. James spoke of being βραδὺς εἰς ὀργήν (bradus eis orgen), “slow to anger” (James 1:19). I think of developing a kind of incapacity to anger or to think in disparaging ways of others. The capacity to become angry comes so naturally, unsurprising since it is instrumental to our survival as animals in nature, “red in tooth and claw”.

Matthew 5:27-30

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”

This is another example how it’s abundantly clear that Jesus, far from abolishing the Law and the prophets, or loosening its strictness, rather is even more strict. But in a way that, much like the intensification from not murdering to not being angry, follows a similar pattern of internalization. Not only is the act of adultery prohibited, but lust itself. The move is to focus on a deeper transformation of character that is the ultimate root of the actions that eventually follow from it.

If anyone in history is prone to the non-literal it’s Jesus. So it can be a puzzle sometimes to know what to take literally and what not to take literally. Since he so often rebukes his disciples for taking him too literally I figure it’s probably best to assume, when in doubt, that something is not literal. That would seem to be the case with the calls for dismemberment in this passage. Are we really to pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands if they are implicated in our lust? (One might also consider other more directly implicating body parts). I think not. But the hyperbole serves its effect to emphasize the severity that Jesus intends. Lust is corrosive and offensive to the soul.

What are we to make of this as modern-day Christians? And I say “modern” because, frankly, cultural norms change. Certainly they do. In theory we live in a more sex-positive world today. And I think a lot of that is good. But is that the Christian part of me or the secular Western part of me talking? Well, I say we’re more sex-positive in theory. But we’re also very anxious. I think in recent years it’s becoming ever more apparent that sexual conduct has deep emotional and existential consequences. The MeToo movement that went viral in 2017 brought special attention to this. A need for structure in our sexual conduct is apparent from experience.

Jesus condemns adultery, not sex itself. And that may go some way in resolving the tension. The question of lust is a little more complicated. Is sexual desire itself bad or only when it’s directed toward someone other than a spouse? Paul gives us some insight into some of the perspectives of early Christians, or at least certain factions of them. He said to the Corinthians that celibacy is good but not for everyone. He also says married folks can take periods of sexual abstinence for periods of time but that they shouldn’t do it for too long. Why? “It is better to marry than to burn [πυρόω, puroó].” (1 Corinthians 7:9) The connotative meaning there being to burn with passion. Lust here, even between spouses, seems to be a not-good thing and sex between spouses is a permissible, if less holy, concession mean to prevent sexual desire between spouses, rather than to fulfill or celebrate it. At least, that’s one interpretation. I think this is one example where rational methods of theology and philosophy are needed to supplement the primary sources of scripture. But it’s important to do that honestly and transparently, without motivated reasoning. If we’re going to temper some of these passages on sexual desire within marriage we need to be careful about doing the same to passages about nonviolence and love of enemies, and be consistent.

Matthew 5:31-32

“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”

This is kind of related to the previous passage on lust and gets into the question of the views of Jesus and other early Christianity on sex, marriage, and procreation. Here Jesus gives a strong condemnation of divorce and by implication a strong endorsement of the sanctity of marriage, once entered into. This goes to show some of the complexity of Jesus’s views. Or at least it looks kind of complex, maybe because it doesn’t quite map onto the way we divide up different positions in our time.

In Matthew 19 we get some expansion on Jesus’s views on divorce.

“The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?’ And He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.’ They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ He said to them, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.’” (Matthew 19:3-9)

So this is very consistent with Jesus’s statement in Matthew 5. And Jesus gives a very strong endorsement, or a sort, or marriage: “the two shall become one flesh”. But his disciples have an interesting reaction. They say: “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10) That seems kind of cynical. But surprisingly Jesus gives qualified affirmation of this view.

“But He said to them, ‘All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.’” (Matthew 19:11-12)

Does Jesus mean this literally? As usual, it’s difficult to say. It cohere’s decently with the idea that “it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish”. I’m guessing it’s non-literal. But at the very least there seems to be an endorsement here of celibacy as a path of holiness and devotion.

Jesus also seems to downplay marriage when he is asked which – of the multiple men a woman had been married to and widowed by – this woman would be with in the resurrection. And Jesus says the question is meaningless because “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30) Jesus doesn’t explain why this is, but one interpretation is that since in the resurrection people are no longer dying and the earth is not being depopulated there’s also no need to repopulate it. So marriage is unnecessary. If that is the reasoning the ends of marriage would seem to be much more directed at procreation than at romantic love. In our modern conception of marriage as a relationship of romantic love we certainly can imagine a reason, beyond mere procreation, for marriage to persist in the resurrection. We love our spouses and want to continue being married together. But this reason doesn’t seem to be on the radar of the Gospel writers and people described in these accounts.

This is another point on which modern Christians need to apply theological and philosophical reasoning with the primary sources in the scriptures to figure out how to properly understand them, especially where the first-century concerns and questions don’t quite map onto our twenty-first century concerns and questions. If the first-century writers didn’t address the same questions we have, we have to do some additional thinking.

Some food for thought along these lines. In Latter-day Saint belief marriage does persist into the resurrection. This is something of a doctrinal challenge given the teachings of the New Testament. It is interesting though that Joseph Smith, when he taught about the possibilities of carrying our family relationships beyond the grave spoke of the process as one of craftiness.

“If you have power to seal on earth & in heaven then we should be crafty. . . . Go & seal on earth your sons & daughters unto yourself & yourself unto your fathers in eternal glory . . . use a little Craftiness & seal all you can & when you get to heaven tell your father that what you seal on earth should be sealed in heaven. I will walk through the gate of heaven and Claim what I seal & those that follow me & my Council.”

Historians have noted how our conception of what marriage is supposed to be has expanded in modern times beyond procreation. We now see it as a partnership of romantic love. That does change the game a little bit. Could it be that Joseph Smith was thinking here to institute, by craftiness, something that was not in God’s plan previously? That in Jesus’s time marriage in the resurrection wouldn’t have made much sense, but to us today it does? Just a thought.

Matthew 5:33-37

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:33-37)

There’s probably not much interest these days in making ostentatious oaths anyway, in which we would invoke heaven, earth, or the Holy City. But what insights can we take from this? Once again it’s an intensification of the commandment. Not only should we not swear falsely but we shouldn’t swear at all. Why is that? Jesus seems to be saying here that these oaths imply a good deal of presumption to power that we aren’t entitled to. “You cannot make one hair white or black.” You can’t invoke heaven, earth, or the Holy City because these don’t belong to you and you can’t control them.

The Epistle of James gives further insight:

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit’; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’ But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16)

I think here of the theological notions of providence and grace. There are things that happen that we have no knowledge or control over. And it is wisdom to recognize this lack of control. Last night I was sitting around a fire with my family on the front porch and it was really windy. The fire kept on moving from one direction to the next and my daughters were commenting on how it was acting so crazy. I brought up how Jesus taught that the wind blows where it wants to, and you hear the sound of it, but can’t tell where it comes from and where it goes. And how that’s like the Spirit. (John 3:8)

Matthew 5:38-42

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.”

With this we get into the heart of Jesus’s ethic of nonviolence. This is what I consider a core piece of Christ’s message that defines what it is to be a Christian, but one that has also been repeatedly ignored by the nominal Christianity of Christendom throughout history. And it is here where we must start to do some real introspection and soul-searching.

First a note about the quoted passage, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus is indeed intensifying this commandment. But what is he intensifying? These are sometimes known as talion laws or lex talionis. The basic idea being that the punishment should match the injury perpetrated. And it is indeed strict, but just. I don’t want to downplay that. In Deuteronomy it says “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deuteronomy 19:21)

But it’s worth noting a more progressive side to this that we at least what we might call progressive relative to the surrounding nations. For example, when speaking of this lex talionis in Leviticus it says: “You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 24:22). Foreigners are not to be treated more harshly. The standard is strict but it is also consistent.

Christine Hayes said of this in her Open Yale course on the Hebrew Bible:

“This was a radical concept in its day, evidently. The punishment should fit the crime, no more and no less for all free persons — granted slaves are not included — regardless of social class. Equality before the law. And this casts the principle of talion, I hope, in a new light. The law of talion, which is essentially the principle that a person should be punished according to the injury they inflicted, it’s been decried as a primitive, archaic reflex of the vengeance or vendetta principle. The notion of “an eye for an eye” is usually cited or held up as typical of the harsh and cruel standards of the vengeful Old Testament God. But when you look at it in a comparative light in its legal context, we see that it’s a polemic against the class distinctions that were being drawn in antecedent and contemporary legal systems, such as the Code of Hammurabi. According to the Bible, the punishment should always fit the crime regardless of the social status of the perpetrator on the one hand or the victim on the other. All free citizens who injure are treated equally before the law. They’re neither let off lightly nor punished excessively.”

So I just wanted to give the “eye for an eye” principle fair treatment. But, how does Jesus intensify these limitations to punishment? He says “not to resist an evil person”. We are not even to apply the punishments of lex talionis. If someone gouges out your eye you’re not supposed to retaliate and gouge their eye out. If someone knocks out your tooth you’re not supposed to knock out their tooth. In a sense this is quite unjust. But Jesus doesn’t seem concerned about that. What a radical ethic! Does he really mean it? Something millions of Christians have puzzled about for centuries. It seems impossible. He could not possibly have meant it. Hyperbole again?

Let’s keep going. “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” My goodness! Really? And who does that? It’s worth noting here a tradition of interpretation that there is a kind of resistance in this nonresistance, of the sort of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. It seems very likely that turning the other cheek to an oppressor will or should shame them for their oppressive actions. So this gives the victim some degree of power. Or another interpretation that if the first blow was a dismissive one with the back of the hand the second will have to be with an open palm, which is thought to be less dehumanizing. Maybe so. Those seem like decent secondary meanings. And there certainly is a paradoxical power in nonviolent resistance. But the primary meaning is still startling. We might ask, as other disciples asked in the Gospel of John: “Hard (Σκληρός, Skleros) is this saying. Who is able to hear it?” (John 6:60)

Jesus then says to go above and beyond what your oppressors demand. “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” But this generosity is not only for oppressors. “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.” That last part may be meant to apply to oppressors but not necessarily. It seems like what’s being taught here is indiscriminate generosity and service. Which we’ll see more of in the next and final passage of this chapter.

Matthew 5:43-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

This passage is all about universalization and indiscriminate benevolence. We are not to evaluate or judge the merits or desert of others to be recipients of our good will. It is to be imparted freely without thought of merit. There are no more labels, at least none of any consequence. If we have enemies they are not to be treated any differently from friends. So in what sense are they even enemies anymore? None on our part, even if they persist to think of themselves as such.

This is again something that I see as a definitive Christian attribute. And it’s much ignored. We can certainly be forgiven for not living up to this standard. But we can’t ignore this standard as Christians. This is central to our discipleship.

One of the things I love about the Gospel is its incongruity with human nature and the total irrelevance of that incongruity. Not retaliating, loving our enemies and praying for them. These things are very contrary to natural human tendencies. And that’s the point! Because we are not supposed to persist in our natural human tendencies. In fact we’re supposed to die to that kind of natural, animal life and crucify it. When Jesus told a rich man to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then follow him, and then said how hard it would be for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, his disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus said, “For mankind it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:21-26) Yes it’s impossible. So a new life is needed. Paul said, “our old self was crucified with him.” (Romans 6:6) And also that for anyone in Christ there is a καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), a “new creation”.

Much has been said in the past few decades about evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and the ways our behaviors are constrained by our physical makeup and its evolutionary background. Now, as a matter of scientific theory I find evolution very convincing. I do think we have shared ancestry with all the other animals and all living things on this planet. I actually think that fits perfectly with the idea of the moral inadequacy of our animal nature. We aren’t naturally inclined to love each other indiscriminately, to be peaceable, to not resist. In evolutionary terms that’s a recipe for extinction. So it makes sense that our animal behavior is very much contrary to that. But Christianity calls us to transcend this genetic and evolutionary heritage, to make a radical break and to enter this καινὴ κτίσις (kaine ktisis), this “new creation” in Christ.

I love the image Jesus gives of the indiscriminate nature of this benevolence and good will. God the Father “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” I think this relates to the notions of providence and grace I mentioned earlier. We are not in control of things in the world. The wind blows where it wants to. It is not for us to portion out good and bad things. As Christians, as followers of Christ, it is for us to put forth all our efforts to fill the world with good, for all people, as much as we can.

Jesus says, “You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Is this possible? As he says elsewhere, “For mankind it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” But my takeaway with all this is how to be the light of the world that Jesus talks about. How are people to know us as disciples of Jesus Christ? This is the stuff we should be striving for. When people see the way we live and want to understand why, if they turn to the Sermon on the Mount it will all make sense and explain our behavior, and they’ll think, “Ah, I see why they act like that now. This is what they’re trying to do. This is why Christians are so loving toward all people in such surprising ways.”

So that’s Matthew 5. I’ll follow this up later with Matthew chapters 6 and 7.

God’s Dynamic Character

Mike and Todd discuss the work of Jack Miles and the different experiences and perspectives on God found in the Bible. Approached as a biography, the Bible crafts a fascinating and dynamic story of God’s developing character and God’s developing relationship with humanity. God is at times creator, destroyer, liberator, lawgiver, conqueror, executioner, wife, Holy One, recluse, puzzle, and Ancient of Days. And then, for Christians, the development and new birth of God as human being, co-sufferer, and teacher of nonviolence and universal love.