Considering Jesus' Teachings

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Published:
February 11, 2016

For this week’s lesson on Jesus’ teachings and the Great Controversy, we have drawn our commentary from a 2008 article by Ernest J. Bursey in Spectrum entitled “The Adventist Community as the Light of the World: Claiming the Whole of Matthew’s Vision” in which he asked “What if our community of faith, the Seventh-day Adventist community, took more seriously its identity as a community of light and salt obedient to the vision of Jesus and Matthew?”  Eds.

 

The austere rigor of the Sermon (on the Mount) has led many interpreters and lay readers to see it as law instead of gospel. The warnings against anger and against sinning with the eyes, the call to perfection—all these the beginning student finds daunting.

Should the Sermon the Mount be retained as preparation for the Gospel by setting the standard of righteousness too high for human achievement? Should it be seen as merely provisional, intended for the Jews of Jesus’ time, in the interim  awaiting the end of the world? Why not admit that its author, a Jewish Christian scribe too closely tied to his perfectionistic past, misunderstood or even betrayed Jesus’ message?

Too loyal myself to both Matthew and Jesus to embrace any of these suggestions, I stumbled on the first beatitude. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “Is.” Present tense. Estin. Not in the future tense, like all the other verbs in the six next verses. Present tense. Why? And why hadn’t I noticed the “is” sooner? Why take an “is” for granted?

Somewhere in the countless cycles of repeating the Sermon and the Beatitudes I heard the “is” in this first foundational Beatitude and began reflecting on its implications. All the calls to righteousness thought and action in the rest of the Sermon have to be read in light of that “is.” If the Beatitudes connect up with Jesus’ call to repent (4:16), then the first Beatitude is an offer of sheer grace, a present possession of our inclusion in the kingdom of heaven.

Membership in the kingdom of heaven is not based on the achievement of ethical perfection or even the performance of a mature believer but on the response of the humbled spirit to the presence of the kingdom. Those who acknowledge their brokenness in the presence of God are accounted as part of his kingdom. That kingdom is present, though its full flowering remains a promise—the reason for the future tense verbs used in describing all the other rewards in 5:4-9.

The gap between Paul and Matthew’s Jesus diminishes, if not completely disappears. Salvation becomes a present reality for the repentant. We can say we are saved. As I coined for my students, “You are not on trial but in training.”

Matthew presents repentance as the foundation for all spiritual and ethical progress. Repentance becomes normative for the disciple when understood as poverty in spirit and sensitivity to the consequences of our ethical and moral failures, and by an appropriate humility and an intense desire for holiness. From this point of view, it is healthy, normal, and right to repent, to be in the process of repenting. 

It is morbid, abnormal, and wrong to live and act otherwise. Repentance is but acknowledging the truth of my spiritual poverty in the presence of the One who knows much more about my spiritual poverty than I imagine. To lightly paraphrase Ellen White, “Every advance in the life of the Spirit is marked by a deepening sense of repentance.”

However, to stop here would fall far short of representing Matthew’s vision. So far, I have written of the disciple in the singular, as if Jesus had said, “Blessed is the one who is poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to him.” Our English translations allow us to imagine that Jesus’ words, “You are the light of the world,” really mean “This little light of mine.”

No, what Jesus had in mind was a community of the repentant. The Greek word humeis, “you” in “You are the light,” is plural, as the old King James Version clarifies, “Ye are the light of the world.” Even the call to “Be ye therefore perfect” is addressed to the community as a whole. One does not develop spiritual maturity in isolation. Jesus did not envision a solitary goodness, a singular maturity.

The purpose of the good works of an enlightening community of the repentant is to lead to the praise of our Father, just as the praiseworthy deeds of children bring praise to the parent who brought them to life, and fed and trained them. . . .

What benefits might then accrue from our taking up Matthew’s comprehensive vision of a community of Jesus’ apprentices? . . .

Denominational attention would be directed to the weightier matters of the law like justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23:23). Local congregations would provide honest moral support in the journey to maturity (18:1-34). The church would be a safe place to grow. And a renewed appreciation might arise for the mature moral vision of Ellen White. 

In summary, this would be a church with a balanced and realistic view of the normal spiritual life with the assurance of a present salvation for the repentant. It would be a church with humility in place of religious arrogance; a church with a sense of identity and mission beyond pointing out who and what is dangerous out there; and a church with members who are actively and creatively loving their evil world instead of isolating themselves from it.

 

Ernie Bursey is a Professor of Religion at the Adventist University of Health Sciences. 

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