Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Jonathan Pennington about how we find true completion and flourishing in the Sermon on the Mount, a passage of Scripture the church has historically struggled to understand practically.
Topics of conversation include:
- What is the importance of the structure and placement of the Sermon on the Mount?
- How should we understand the meaning of blessed in the Beatitudes?
- What does Jesus mean when he commands his disciples to “be perfect?”
- What does the Sermon on the Mount teach us about the heart of God’s law?
Dr. Jonathan Pennington serves as associate professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Dr. Pennington is the author of several books, including The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Baker Academic, 2017). He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and is also on the preaching staff at Sojourn Church East in Louisville, KY.
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:16):
The Sermon on the Mount is the greatest sermon ever preached. Some of the most famous verses of the Bible come from this sermon. From the Beatitudes, like “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God,” to the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets,” to the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” to hard teachings on sins like lust, and the command to gouge out your eyes so that you might obtain the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount is about Christian discipleship and human flourishing. And there’s a lot to discover in these three chapters from Matthew’s Gospel. With us today to discuss the Sermon on the Mount is Dr. Jonathan Pennington, who serves as Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a PhD in New Testament Studies from the University of St. Andrews, and is the author of Reading the Gospels Wisely, Jesus, the Great Philosopher, and the book we will be talking about today, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing. And he also serves on the preaching staff at Sojourn East in Louisville, Kentucky. But more than that, Dr. Pennington is one of my favorite professors I’ve ever had. If you’re thinking about going to seminary, my advice is this: find someone that you absolutely love their teaching and take every course you can with them. And that was Dr. Pennington for me. He comes in first place, tied with my doctoral supervisor, Michael Haykin. Dr. Pennington, welcome to the show.
Jonathan Pennington (01:44):
Hey, thank you so much. Glad to be in such austere company. That’s awesome—with Michael Haykin. I’m glad to hear it.
Brian Arnold (01:50):
Absolutely. You guys have had the most impact on my theology and my thinking and I’m forever indebted to you. So thank you.
Jonathan Pennington (01:57):
Brian Arnold (01:58):
Well, our big question today is this: how does the Sermon on the Mount apply to my life? And I want to start actually with a different question, and that is: does the Sermon on the Mount even apply today?
Jonathan Pennington (02:12):
Yeah, that’s a great question. And, you know, I suppose maybe for a lot of listeners, they might think “of course!” But actually throughout the church’s history, a lot of times the great Sermon on the Mount, you know, the first teaching of Jesus in the gospels, right there in Matt. 5-7, a lot of times people have tried to avoid what it’s saying, either tried to, or have kind of inadvertently avoided applying it to our lives. There are different theological groups throughout the church that have sometimes said that the Sermon on the Mount does not apply to us because for example, it just makes really high demands on us. I mean, you know, you just sit down and read it—you’re going to feel really convicted and, you know, feel really challenged that I can’t do these things. So a lot of times, especially in our Protestant traditions, a lot of times people have just kind of said, well, you know, the sermon on the Mount doesn’t really tell us what to do, because that would be Law and that would be bad.
Jonathan Pennington (03:09):
So all it’s doing is showing us how bad we are and therefore we need, you know, we need Jesus’s forgiveness. And of course that’s true. You know what I mean? We do need Jesus’s forgiveness. We can’t have any relationship with God apart from his initiating and justifying us and making us born again. But I do think it’s a problem if we kind of write off the Sermon on the Mount in that way, and think that it doesn’t apply to us. So I think it is a real question that has often happened throughout the church’s history, unfortunately.
Brian Arnold (03:39):
Well, and it’s an important one. For those who may be unfamiliar with the Sermon on the Mount, in Matt.5:48 Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” And we’re going to talk about what Jesus means by that, but that is this high moral standing, right? I think about someone like Martin Luther and this Law—Gospel tug of war that he has, and the struggle of reading the Sermon on the Mount.
Jonathan Pennington (04:05):
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I wasn’t going to throw Luther under the bus, but since you did, I’ll give a little push off the curb as well. And we always have to be careful because great thinkers and leaders are more nuanced a lot of times than their followers are. And especially when you’re talking 500 years later. But I do think the Lutheran tradition, which ended up influencing other traditions too, like the Reformed tradition—unfortunately it’s influenced it this way—has a lot of times had this very kind of flat-footed or too large of a hammer to kind of deal with the Bible, and these big categories that everything is Law telling you how bad you are and crushing you, or it’s Gospel, just communicating to you that you’re forgiven. And of course those are really helpful categories. That is true. But the Bible I think is more nuanced and more subtle than that, and does have a lot more going on than just those two big categories. And I think the Sermon on the Mount is a prime example of that. You can’t just write it off as “Law” that’s “bad”, nor is it only saying “you’re forgiven.” It’s saying something in between, that’s beautiful and good. And that’s what I think I’m trying to get at with this.
Brian Arnold (05:18):
I look forward to fleshing that out a bit as we go, but for those who may not even be familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, can you kind of give us the big, broad overview of the structure of it?
Jonathan Pennington (05:27):
Sure. Yeah. It’s something I care a lot about. So again, it’s the first big teaching in the whole New Testament, it occurs in Matt. 5-7, of course, which is the first Gospel in the New Testament. And it really is part of five big teaching blocks in the Gospel of Matthew, but it really stands at the head of them. And in the Sermon on the Mount, as you said in your intro, it’s got some of the kind of greatest hits of the Bible right there, you know, the Golden Rule, and the Beatitudes, and famous teachings that are often called the Antitheses: “You’ve heard it said, but I say to you…” You’ve got “Don’t be anxious, but look at the sparrows.” I mean, you just go through it. It’s just got so many rich and beautiful teachings. So I would say that the way it’s put together, as a lot of great literature and teaching is, it’s in threes, it’s in groups of three. There’s the Beatitudes at the beginning, and then you’ve got the big central section of the sermon that goes from 5:17 to 7:12, a big chunk with a lot of things in it. And then you’ve got a conclusion that talks about being a wise person, as opposed to a foolish person and receiving what Jesus has to say wisely rather than foolishly. So the biggest overview is these kind of big three parts with the Beatitudes (the beginning), the challenges to be wise at the end, and then the big teaching in the middle.
Brian Arnold (06:46):
Well, so I hope our pastors listening feel encouraged: three points, and a story at the end, you’re doing it just like Jesus did it, right? There’s one other thing I want to talk about as it regards to structure and the significance of the Sermon on the Mount. When we talk about the Bible, we talk about the Canon, which means “what belongs as God’s word.” And I don’t know how hard you press on this issue, but seeing the Sermon on the Mount as the central piece of Matthew, which is the central piece of the Gospels, which is the central piece in the New Testament, which is the central piece of the entire Bible. Would you place that much weight on the Sermon?
Jonathan Pennington (07:26):
I would, yeah. I mean, yes and no. I mean, I think historically throughout the church’s history, that is exactly how people talked. So if you go back, starting in the church fathers, they will often talk about the Sermon on the Mount being kind of the locus of Christianity. And sometimes they overstate it, you know, like pastors do today as well. But certainly the centrality of the Gospels in the whole Canon is a clear conviction of the church from the earliest days, the central role of Matthew within the Gospels—I mean, there’s a reason it stands always at the head of the fourfold Gospel book—and then that first teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. I mean, all those things do really incline you to put a lot of weight on the Sermon. Now I do think it’s an overstatement to say that it is all of Christianity. I don’t think you can find all of Christianity in the Sermon on the Mount. I think Matthew would resist that himself, because he doesn’t just give us one teaching block. He gives us five teaching blocks, and those five teaching blocks are in the context of a story about Jesus, God incarnate entering the world, Emanuel, and then dying and rising, and ascending and commissioning. So, you know, it’s not the entirety of the message of the Bible, but it really is a sort of crucial hotspot.
Brian Arnold (08:41):
That’s a really good way to describe it, I think. You focus on two particular words in your book and give them a lot of emphasis. And I was wondering if you could kind of unpack them for us. The first one is blessed, makarios, and the second is perfect or complete, teleos. So can you walk us through those words and why they’re so important for the Sermon on the Mount?
Jonathan Pennington (09:02):
Yeah, sure. Be happy to. And in the book that you’re talking about, I wrote a whole chapter just on each of those words, which, you know, sometimes can be overdone. In this case, I think they really needed a chapter. And those represent about 10 years of me beating my head against these two words, because, you know, some words translate more easily than others. But sometimes, especially some of the most important ideas in a culture or a piece of literature and a language don’t translate well, because every language and every culture kind of maps reality in little different ways. And that’s kind of the power of words and the power of language, is that it’s a way of mapping reality. And because language is embedded in history and culture, different languages and different cultures kind of talk about things in slightly different ways.
Jonathan Pennington (09:54):
And sometimes you have a great word for an idea in one language and then another language just doesn’t quite have that word, you know? And so sometimes you borrow those words, like maybe, you know, schadenfreude, the German word for taking pleasure in someone else’s pain or something. You know, we don’t have a single word for that, but the German, of course the Germans do, right? Yeah, of course the Germans, they just make huge words all the time. But in this case, what I came to discover was that, as important as the Sermon on the Mount is, as English translators and English readers, we have a huge dilemma, because two of the most important ideas in the Sermon on the Mount need to be translated from Greek into words we don’t really have in English. So it’s a bit of a bummer.
Jonathan Pennington (10:43):
Now it turns out most other languages can do this better than English, but for whatever historical or accidental reasons, English really struggles to communicate a couple of the key ideas in the Sermon. The first is makarios, which the Latin…that’s the Greek word, the Latin word is beatus, which is where you get the English word Beatitudes right? That’s why we call them the Beatitudes, because the influence of the Latin Bible for a long time. How all those Beatitudes, you know, the word there in Latin is beatus, which behind it again, is this Greek word makarios, and behind that is a Hebrew word, ashar, or ashre. Those words all connect with each other really well. You can translate between those three languages. It’s when you come to English that the breakdown occurs. And the problem is that the word, the English word blessed doesn’t quite do what ashar, makarios, beatus mean, because those words mean something much more like “flourishing” or “happy” or “shalom,” or “thriving,”
Jonathan Pennington (11:50):
It’s hard to come up with a great word for it, because it does mean that God is the one who’s active, involved—you know, we can’t really be truly happier flourishing apart from God. But the problem is the English word blessed communicates to a lot of people the idea that God is actively blessing someone, which is the very use of the word blessed, but makarios/beatus aren’t talking about God actively blessing someone, they’re a description of what the blessed life looks like, or what the flourishing life looks like. So we probably don’t have time to unpack all that, but the point is, it’s a subtle difference, but one that really makes a difference in how you interpret the Sermon. And I guess I bring it down to this fine point: Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount by giving nine descriptions of what the truly flourishing life looks like. And that’s why I translate them as flourishing. Our flourishing. Flourishing are the poor in spirit. Flourishing—some translations translate that as “happy.” Most of our translations today in English translate it as “blessed,” but I just think that slightly miscommunicates, because it kind of communicates that if you do these things, God will bless you. And that’s not what Jesus is saying. So maybe you want to ask more about that. That’s the shortest version of that I can do. I’ll pause and see if you want to ask any further questions.
Brian Arnold (13:15):
Yeah, I think it’s really important for our listeners, because we use the word “blessed” all the time in our culture. And typically when people say that, it’s things that they think God has given them. So “I’m so blessed because I have my health. I’m so blessed because my house, my car, my job, whatever,” they tie it to tangible types of things. And then we read the Beatitudes and Jesus flips things upside down and calls this person blessed. So yeah, what would you say to somebody listening, who only uses the word “blessed” in kind of that materialistic sense and yet the Beatitudes are talking about being poor in spirit, hunger and thirst and persecution.
Jonathan Pennington (13:54):
Yeah. Hashtag blessed, right?
Brian Arnold (13:56):
Jonathan Pennington (13:57):
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, there’s a couple of things going on there. The first is that, again, it’s not…the beatitudes are not descriptions of a kind of formula with God. If you do these things, God will bless you. That’s the first kind of mistake. But the other one would be that if you do primarily think of blessedness in material terms, which, you know, I think most Christians would not do that. Although maybe in culture more generally we might. But even if we generally wouldn’t say that, I think it’s hard to kind of avoid that because that’s kind of the world we live in. But if you do have any inclination to think of God’s blessings primarily in material terms, the Beatitudes will definitely destroy that, because what Jesus says there is very counter-intuitive, very counter-cultural, very non-natural, because almost everything he says there is negative. It’s giving up your rights. It’s, you know, even he goes on to talk about turning the other cheek later, but it’s not seeking justice for yourself, but willing to be wronged, it’s having a poverty of spirit. It’s being in a place of hunger and thirsting, which is a place of lack. And so, yeah, it is, they are very, topsy-turvy, they’re very overturning of our hearts and our expectations. And that’s very much what Jesus is about.
Brian Arnold (15:19):
I think that’s a really helpful way to understand the Beatitudes and it’s culturally shocking. It was culturally shocking, I’m sure, for Jesus’s original audience as well. I mean, this is what makes the Sermon on the Mount, such a lasting influence in culture. Let’s go over to the second word, this idea of perfection or completion. What did Jesus have in mind there?
Jonathan Pennington (15:39):
Yeah. I mean, my hesitation in talking about these, because it sounds like…I don’t want it to come across, like I’ve got this magic Greek wand that, you know, if you just do Greek, you could understand all this. It’s not that.
Brian Arnold (15:49):
You don’t? You told me when I took Greek, you did, I’m confused.
Jonathan Pennington (15:53):
Right. Maybe I’ll get one for Christmas.
Brian Arnold (15:56):
There you go.
Jonathan Pennington (15:56):
I, yeah. I don’t…yeah, it’s always…we have to be careful because it’s not to say that people can’t read their Bibles. They can, and we have great English translations. The problem is not with the translations. The problem is, again, that in English, the word “perfect” has come to mean something that is not what the Greek word means. And that’s what happens over time, you know, languages evolve and the word, the English word “perfect” now I think communicates the idea of “free from flaw, free from imperfection.”
Jonathan Pennington (16:32):
It kind of emphasizes the kind of purity or the, well, the perfect sense of it. But that’s not really what teleos, the Greek word—and there’s a whole bunch of Greek words behind that—mean. It means something more like “whole,” or “complete,” or “mature,” even. So you can hear it in the word integrity, like an integer. If you think back to math class, you know, an integer a whole number as opposed to a fractional or divided up number. So that’s kind of the idea of this, of the teleos word group, is “complete, whole, consistent.” And you know, there’s an older sense of perfect in that. Was it the Cleveland Browns a few years ago who had a perfect record, meaning they lost every single game?
Brian Arnold (17:19):
That’s right. Go Bengals.
Jonathan Pennington (17:20):
Or was it the Bengals? Sorry.
Brian Arnold (17:23):
No, no, it was the Browns. I’m saying “Go Bengals” because they’re so much better.
Jonathan Pennington (17:28):
Yeah. So, you know, that’s a kind of sense of perfect that I’m talking about where it’s “complete.” Right? And in that case, completely bad. But that’s the closest thing. But I just don’t think “perfect” is a good translation of Matt. 5:48. How I translate it in my book is “complete” or “whole”—something like that. So “whole” (W-H-O-L-E.) So, and that’s because that’s the basic idea is being complete. And it turns out, if you read the whole Sermon on the Mount with that idea of wholeness or integrity or consistency, it’ll make sense of a ton of what’s going on there, especially the kind of the whole middle section of the sermon. It’s all about a consistency of our internal lives with our external lives. And that’s, what I think Jesus is really getting at.
Brian Arnold (18:15):
And if we brought that back around to what we were saying at the very beginning of people who thought it’s almost too burdensome because of the quest for perfection, well, it’s really talking about flourishing and completion, right?
Jonathan Pennington (18:26):
Brian Arnold (18:26):
That takes us out of that challenge. Well, we’re kind of at a place right now where I want to pivot us and talk about the Antitheses really quickly, because those are things that people read and they think, “what am I supposed to do with this?” So Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said,” and he quotes Moses, and he says, “but I say to you.” Which is kind of fighting words, that he is placing himself above Moses and saying something more seemingly stringent. And so for example, the command on lust. So if you look at somebody with lust in your heart, you’ve committed adultery with them. And then he goes to these, what seem like radical commands. So gouge out your eye, cut off your hand. And as a church historian, I think back to somebody like Origen, who took this command quite literally and castrates himself. Should we be taking Jesus’s commands to this extent? How do we read this?
Jonathan Pennington (19:24):
Yeah. That is what we should do.
Brian Arnold (19:27):
Ok! Go and do likewise, listener.
Jonathan Pennington (19:28):
Yeah. Yeah. There’s so much here, so much here. And it really gets back to that wholeness idea. I mean, this is, I don’t call those the Antitheses exactly for this reason, because I don’t think Jesus is primarily…his point is not to contrast primarily what God said in the law, but he is going to say something different, which I’ll get to, or he’s going to emphasize something different, but what he’s doing, I call them the exegeses, the explanations of the Law. He’s not saying, “in the Old Testament, you know, God said, do not commit adultery, and I’m saying, don’t commit lust,” because that would communicate like that in the Old Testament, God was fine if you were full of lust, as long as you didn’t physically commit adultery, right?
Jonathan Pennington (20:16):
Which already in the 10 commandments, that’s already underscored, right? He ends it with them not being covetous, right? Towards your neighbor, even your neighbor’s wife. So it’s not as if in the Old Testament, God only cared about the external, and then in the New Testament, Jesus is like upping the ante and saying, “well, all right, I got good news and bad news. God only cared about the external person in the Old Testament. But now he cares about the internal, sorry, dudes.” You know, that’s not the contrast. That’s why I don’t call them the Antitheses, because God has always seen and cared about our hearts—in the Old Testament, and the New Testament, God is the same. Humanity is the same. And our problem is a heart problem, because it’s from the heart that our actions come, good and bad. And so Jesus is not contrasting the Old Testament law per se, with what he’s saying. What he’s emphasizing is that if, like the Pharisees, you and I read God’s law, as if it’s just about the external, and you don’t pay attention to the internal, then you have missed what God is saying.
Jonathan Pennington (21:21):
So Jesus is being a perfect prophet here, in that he’s unpacking, he’s exegeting what God has already said—that, yeah, don’t commit adultery, but do not be content, Pharisee or modern day Christian, of thinking that I’ve obeyed that if I just don’t commit the act of adultery. Jesus is saying, “Good for you. I don’t want you to commit adultery, but you need to look inside as well because that’s where the righteousness that God cares about really happens.” That’s the wholeness idea, to be teleos, to be whole. That you don’t just have external righteousness, you’ve got internal righteousness as well. So that’s why it’s so important to read those in light of the wholeness theme. If I could just say something super quickly. So what’s the discontinuity? What is the difference between Jesus and Moses? Well, Moses was the instrument through which God gave revelation.
Jonathan Pennington (22:14):
Jesus is God incarnate. That is the difference. And I don’t think you can see that any place better than John 1 or Matt. 1. But John 1 is the idea where Moses is the instrument through which the law is given. And that’s a grace, John 1 says, but Jesus is the manifestation of hesed and emet. He is the manifestation of grace and truth come into being in the world. So when Jesus says, “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you,” he’s emphasizing what God has already said, but now he’s saying this, “I am the authority in the world that is giving this instruction straight from God.” And so that’s where the discontinuity comes in.
Brian Arnold (22:55):
Which is an important discontinuity to demonstrate the significance of the Son and his ability to speak into these things. And it reminds me of where Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Whitewashed tombs, you clean the outside, you’re dead inside. The cup is cleaned on the outside. It’s dirty on the inside.” So Jesus really striking at the issue of the heart. Well, for those who are listening, I hope this conversation has been encouraging to you to think of this Sermon on the Mount, as this Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom. Those are your words, Dr. Pennington, to describe the sermon on the Mount and just the kind of flourishing that can come out of living out of Jesus’s teaching, here. We talk about how this applies to life. Well, if we can follow these words and put ourselves at the feet of Jesus and listen to him, we will find true blessedness. We’ll find true completion, wholeness, shalom, as we seek to follow his word. So thank you for this conversation and thank you for joining us today.
Jonathan Pennington (23:59):
Thank you very much.
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