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SM #18: HOW TO EAT THE BIBLE (An Introduction to the Six Antitheses)

Updated: Feb 24


When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, Lord God Almighty. ~ The prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 15:16)


SUMMARY: Read this and skip the rest (if you want)


  • Jesus has stated his main thesis, that real righteousness (right-relatedness) goes beyond the letter of the law to living out the love behind it all.

  • He is about to teach through six examples or six illustrations (called "the six antitheses") that will help us understand the implications of his thesis.

  • In some examples Jesus shows us how to interiorize or principlize the law - to look for and follow the reason behind and beneath the rule.

  • In other examples Jesus completely asserts his authority by overriding and replacing the law with a new way of living.

  • The Old Testament was a "batteries not included" covenant. The New Covenant comes power packed with the presence, character, guidance, and gifts of the Holy Spirit.



CORE (The heart of the message):


Jesus teaches us how to internalize, interiorize, principlize, and metabolize the teaching of the Bible. Disciples of Jesus are freed from following the letter of the law to focus on the spirit of the teaching, with the help of the Holy Spirit. As we read, we ask: what is the intention, motivation, and essence that animates specific commands? This is how “the Law of Christ” works.


"Jesus is not just giving moral commands. He is unveiling a whole new way of being human." ~ N.T. Wright (Matthew for Everyone)



CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage):


In the chapter before this, Matthew records the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. After fasting forty days and forty nights, says Matthew, Jesus was hungry. (Matthew has a knack for plainly stating the facts with zero drama.) So the Devil begins with tempting Jesus to use his miracle-working power to serve his own needs, cleverly disguised as a plea for evidence of who Jesus really is: "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus will have none of it. And the way he responds to Satan's temptation is amazing - Jesus quotes Scripture (Deuteronomy 8:3) talking about the Word of God as his true food.


It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ~ JESUS (Matthew 4:4)

Brilliant!


Now, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will go on to assert his authority over the Bible itself. Yet, this doesn't mean we are free to disrespect or discard Scripture. For starters, the Bible is how we learn about this amazing authoritative Jesus! But there is even more going on there. Jesus could have responded to the Devil with any authoritative dismissal he wanted ("Get thee behind me Satan!" comes to mind). But instead, Jesus responds by quoting Scripture for all three temptations.


If the Son of God uses Scripture to overcome the enemy, who are we not to honour the Bible completely and dig into its nourishing message regularly.


My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. ~ JESUS (John 4:34)

If we want to nourish our souls by learning God's Word and doing God's will like Jesus, we will need to learn how to interpret and apply the Bible like Jesus. That's what the rest of Matthew 5 is about.


A reminder of where we are in the sermon:


  • PROLOGUE: Jesus is presented as the new Moses, bringing his followers out of slavery to sin and into true freedom. After going through the water and into the wilderness, Jesus ascends a mountain to give God's people God's will and God's way. The values of the New Covenant are being written, not on tablets of stone, but on human hearts (see 2 Corinthians 3). Crowds are listening, but Jesus directs his teaching toward his disciples.

  • INTRODUCTION: Beatitudes + Salt & Light (Matthew 5:3-16)

  • MAIN THESIS: The Bible leads us to Jesus, and Jesus leads us into his Kingdom of true righteousness. Real righteousness is not rule-compliance but right-relatedness, going beyond law to love, and beyond justice and judgement to grace, mercy, and peace (Matthew 5:17-20)

  • THESIS DEVELOPMENT & ILLUSTRATIONS: the Six Antitheses (Matthew 5:21-48) <-- YOU ARE HERE

  • THESIS SUMMARY: Be perfect in mercy (Matthew 5:48, in light of Luke 6:36)

  • WARNINGS: Hypocrisy, Materialism, Worry, Judgementalism, Falsehood, and Inaction (Matthew 6-7)

  • CONCLUSION: Building our lives on Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 7:24-27)

  • EPILOGUE: The crowds are amazed at Jesus' teaching because of his "authority". Jesus is not just exegeting Scripture; he is taking charge of and centring himself in the whole narrative.



CONSIDER (Observations about the passage):


In our next study in this series, we will begin with the first of the Six Antitheses - six case studies that illustrate and illuminate Jesus' thesis statement. Each of these thesis examples raises a new and important pastoral topic worthy of individual focus (e.g., anger, adultery, revenge, enemy love, etc), and in our upcoming studies, we will explore each Antithesis individually. In this study we will explore the idea of how these six sermon illustrations work together to help us understand Jesus’ main thesis about how to read the Bible, covered in the last four studies.


These six sermon illustrations, traditionally called the Six Antitheses, all follow the pattern “You have heard it said…. But I tell you” – not that, but this. Read the rest of Matthew 5 and you’ll see them all. (Note: Some scholars resist calling these "antitheses" because the term emphasizes contrast and not continuity. They prefer calling these the "Six Illustrations" or "Six Exegeses", etc.)


Some examples will internalize the Law – a process called interiorization. Jesus says in essence: “You have heard this behavioural, surface-level command (e.g., Do not murder), but I’m telling you to look for the loving reason behind and beneath the rule and pay attention to that (e.g., People are inherently and infinitely valuable). This process is also called principlism – referring to reading Scripture to find the transcendent and transferrable principle embedded within the immanent and contextual precept. It is worth noting that heart issues were always God's priority in interpreting and applying the Torah, as the prophets later make abundantly clear. The theme of God rejecting our religious ritual when our hearts are not invested runs throughout the Old Testament (1 Samuel 15:22; 16:7; 1 Kings 8:61; 1 Chronicles 28:9; Psalm 26:2-3; 40:6-8; 51:16-17; 139:23-24; Proverbs 21:2-3; Ecclesiastes 5:1; Isaiah 1:11-18; 29:13; Jeremiah 31:31-34; 32:38-39; Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:25-27; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).


And some of the Six Antitheses simply abrogate, override, end, and replace a specific Law of Moses with a new command from Christ. For instance, Jesus says the Lex Talionis (eye for eye and tooth for tooth) had a role to play in limiting violence for a time, but that time has passed now that his New Covenant is being established. With the Holy Spirit’s help, Christ-followers will go beyond limiting their revenge to renouncing all revenge and loving their enemies. Jesus is not just helping people interpret Scripture better. He is not just a helpful Rabbi calling for religious reform. Jesus is taking authority over the whole enterprise.


The New Covenant that Jesus inaugurates is not just a covenantal addition alongside the Old Covenant, as though it were somehow bolted onto the Old Covenant as a kind of covenant enhancement. People of the New Covenant learn from and honour the Old Covenant, yes. But ultimately New Covenant believers embrace the New Covenant, not as an enhancement to the Old Covenant but as the replacement of the Old Covenant. (And remember, the Old Covenant was always only directed toward Israel to begin with, so if you're not Jewish, the Old Covenant never was yours to begin with.)


By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8:13)

Hatching baby snail eating its own eggshell as a first meal


Fun Fact Of Nature: In some species of snails, as soon as the babies hatch out of their eggs, they eat their eggshell as their first meal. What once functioned externally to protect them now functions internally to sustain and strengthen them. The eggshell’s role as an external protection is over and done. But the shell continues to function, along with other sources, as internal nourishment.



So it is with the Old Covenant Law. The Old Testament once played a protective role, keeping us from doing all kinds of damage to our relationships with God, others, and ourselves. But legislating morality was never enough for God. He always wanted his family on earth to learn to love well, to engage one another with honour and delight. So now the Law endures in value, but it changes in function.


Jesus will teach us how to eat our own Bibles so we can internalize and metabolize the love within the law.



The Old Testament Law condemned sin and motivated godliness through its threats of punishment and promises of blessing. But the Law did not actually empower people to do better – for that we would need the New Covenant coming of the Holy Spirit upon every believer.


The Old Covenant came with the label “Batteries Not Included” on the packaging. The New Covenant comes power packed.


In his famous “Ask, Seek, and Knock” teaching later in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 7:7-11 and compare with Luke 11:9-13), Jesus introduces the idea of the Holy Spirit as God’s cleansing, empowering, and personal presence, now available to everyone. Under the Old Covenant, the Holy Spirit was only given to specific leaders or prophets. So the “Do this or else! Don’t do that or else!” harshness of the Old Covenant was necessary for God’s hard-hearted, stiff-necked, strong-willed rebellious kids. Even some of the more lenient allowances of the Old Covenant were God’s concession to our hard-heartedness (see Matthew 19:8).


But the New Covenant (that’s the New Way of being in Relationship with God and one another) brings about this significant change: the Holy Spirit is offered to everyone. Including us! So Jesus can both deepen and heighten the moral expectation because, in the New Covenant, God softens our hearts and increases our empowerment.


This was always God’s plan. In the Old Testament of our Bibles, we read that one of the distinguishing marks of the New Covenant will be the coming, cleansing, and empowering of the Holy Spirit, putting God’s will into our hearts and not just on external writings (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25-27; Joel 2:28-29). In the New Testament we read that this promise has been fulfilled and the Holy Spirit is now an active presence in the lives of those who follow Jesus (see John 14:16, 17, 26; 16:7-15; Acts 1:4-8; 2:1-21; 15:7-9; Romans 8:9-11; 1 Corinthians 3:16-7; 2:10-16; 6:19; Galatians 5:22-26; Ephesians 1:13-19; 5:18; Colossians 1:9-14.)


For more on the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives, see section "A" in our "How Can We Follow Jesus?" study.



CONFESSION (Personal reflection):


I have been Holy Spirit resistant. And that’s a problem for a New Covenant believer.


I grew up in the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement and I saw such beauty and grace and exuberant joy within this branch of the Christian family tree. But I also witnessed the excesses and abuses that can come with an unbridled Holy Spirit focus. So, I shrunk away.


Fear of charismatic excess has prevented me from really leaning into all that God has for us in the New Covenant. This is, as I have learned the hard way, a recipe for disaster.


In the New Covenant, we don’t use the letter of the law, including the threats of severe punishment for breaking it, to force our steps in the right direction. We don’t have the exoskeleton of the Law around us to entice or threaten us to make the right choice. New Covenant morality requires a higher degree of listening to and learning from Jesus, not only through Scripture, but also through his spiritual presence via the Holy Spirit within us and his Church around us.


Slowly, with the help of dear saints around me, I am learning to fully embrace and let myself be embraced by, all three members of the Trinity.




COMMENTARY (Thoughts about meaning and application):


There are, in the Bible, a few passages that carry the theme of eating Scripture. For instance:


And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the people of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. Then he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth. ~ The prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 3:1-3; also see Jeremiah 15:16; Revelation 10:9-11)

Eating the Bible is a great metaphor for the act of breaking down the external legislation in Scripture to find the nourishing essence, the love within the law. This is the skill Jesus is helping us learn in the Six Antitheses.


Here are some thoughts on how to do this well…


1. Go slow.


If you abide in my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. ~ JESUS (John 8:31-32)

The word translated “abide” (Greek, meno) means to stay, wait, remain, hangout. Jesus encourages us to sit with his teaching, take our time, mull it over. This is how we really “know” (Greek, ginóskó, a word meaning intimate experiential knowledge) the truth that will set us free. The Bible was never meant to be spiritual fast-food.


2. Take small bites.


We don’t have to read through the Bible in a year (but you’re welcome to do that). Read one chapter, one pericope (a section or story), one verse, one sentence, one phrase, or even one word at a time until something stands out to you. Then pause there and make that your focus.


3. Chew your food.


Don’t gulp down chunks of information without taking time to mentally chew. This can happen through praying, journalling, and conversation with others. It also includes meditation. (See Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:1-3; 48:9; Psalm 119.)


The Hebrew word for “meditate” is hagah, which means to mutter, murmur, and muse over something. The image is actually one of a cow chewing her cud. Have you ever noticed that cows always seem to be chewing something? That’s because cows must chew their food twice in order to digest it properly. A cow eats a lot of grass in a day (volume, volume, volume), but then regurgitates smaller portions (called cud) and re-chews them before swallowing the cud into a different part of the stomach (gross but cool). So, like a cow (sorry for the comparison - it's a positive one, really!) we can read an entire chapter of the Bible (initial intake), and then come back to one sentence, thought, phrase, or word to meditate (chew our cud).



4. Don’t rush after eating.


Maybe your grandma told you not to go swimming or running after a meal. That’s also good advice with eating the Bible. If possible, create space after you read to let what you study sink in. Of course, this is an ideal and our schedules can’t always afford a post-meal digestion zone, but when it’s possible, give your mind some space to ponder as you slowly move on with the rest of your day.


5. Exercise.


Eating is important for personal health and growth, but too much eating without exercise can have the reverse effect. The same is true for eating Scripture. Learning God’s truth without expressing God’s love can make us spiritually fat. When reading and meditating, always focus on the application and how you plan to live this truth out in your daily life. For added accountability (something I need to maintain any regular exercise program), talk with a friend or small group about how you're applying what you're learning.


* * * * *


So let’s workshop what we’ve learned, the way Jesus leads us to do in Matthew 5.


According to what we’re learning from Jesus, when we read in the Old Testament “Do not murder”, we ask – why? And we meditate on the inherent value of each human being as infinitely precious image bearers of God (Genesis 1:26-27; 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; James 3:9). We then think about ways we can actively honour people around us, not just not kill them. We are principlizing and internalizing the shell of the law, turning moral rules into spiritual nourishment. We are eating the text.


When we read “do not commit adultery”, we ask why? And we meditate on the value of committed loyal love (God's agape love toward us) and of seeing people as something more than objects to be desired (the meaning of "lust"), for whatever reason. We actively work against our common human habit of categorizing and commodifying other human bodies, minds, personalities, and positions for our own consumption and gratification. "Lust", to be clear, is not only sexual/physical, but can also be social/positional (does association with this person promote my status and esteem?), as well as emotional/sentimental (can I use this person to meet my immediate emotional need?). Whatever stimulates sexuality without commitment is misleading us. Jesus encourages us to practise soul-seeing, that is, looking for beauty in the hearts of people around us, knowing that this spiritual beauty reflects the glory of God in them, which should lead us to want to serve them, not use them. (As I mention this topic of adultery, I’m grateful that you can read my words charitably, knowing that I am not preaching “down” from on high as someone who is successful, but sharing “up” from below as someone who, though a profound failure, is also learning and relearning as I go.)


When we read “Wash one another’s feet”, we ask why? And we realize that any form of humble service to another person should not be beyond us. In fact, no matter what our status, we look for opportunities to serve the practical needs of others in ways that honour them as special to us.



Yes, even with New Testament teaching, we eat the shell of the precept to metabolize the nutrients of the principle. It would be a strange thing to follow Jesus’ principlizing technique for reading the Old Testament, and then become letter-of-the-law legalists when reading the New Testament. Now every command, from “wear a head covering” to “get a haircut” to “greet one another with a holy kiss” to “turn the other cheek” to “walk the second mile” can become meaningful, if we study the context and look for the transferable principle.


Using the Jesus hermeneutic taught in Matthew 5, every teaching of the Bible, Old and New Testament, can have relevance to our lives. And we can smile with joy knowing that the same Spirit who inspired Scripture is now with us to help us understand Scripture – a process theologians call “illumination” (see John 14:26; 16:12-15; Romans 8:14; 1 Corinthians 2:10-13; Ephesians 1:17-19).


Some people can spend their whole lives seeking enlightenment as a one time mega event. But we believe God helps us experience countless micro-enlightenments every time the Holy Spirit illuminates our understanding.


I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. ~ The apostle Paul (Ephesians 1:17-19)


CONCLUSION (One last thought):


Whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed with the depth or difficulty of a Bible passage, don’t be intimidated or discouraged. Never think that Bible study is beyond you. You might not know the historical backdrop, the original languages, or the theological debates surrounding a particular passage, but the Holy Spirit can always use Scripture to speak to all of us. And that includes you.


The Bible itself claims that it has the power to teach wisdom to “the simple” (Psalm 19:7; 119:130). The simple! That gives me hope. The Bible isn’t just for the academics and religious elite. Quite the opposite. The Bible, like the Holy Spirit, is for all of us.


In Acts 17:10-12, the apostle Paul, one of the greatest philosopher-theologian-Bible-scholars of all time, gives a lecture about Jesus at a local synagogue in the town of Berea. And a group of regular folks keep consulting the Scriptures for days after to make sure what he taught was true. And the writer of this passage commends them for their tenacity. Blind faith in Bible scholars, Christian leaders, or blog writers (present company included) is not God-honouring. The Bible is not just for the smartest, the loudest, or the most confident. The Bereans weren’t purely skeptical, but neither were they naïvely trusting. They were eager investigators.


I want to live in that Berean sweet spot between being overly cynical on the one hand and blindly naïve on the other. I hope you will continue to join me as we walk through the Sermon on the Mount in the spirit of the Bereans.


We're now ready to look at the six sermon illustrations that Jesus uses to help us understand what real righteousness is all about. And that's the focus of our next six studies.



CONTEMPLATE (Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic):


Psalm 119; John 14:26; 16:12-15; Romans 8:14; 1 Corinthians 2:10-13; Ephesians 1:17-19; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; Hebrews 4:12; 2 Peter 1:20-21



CONVERSATION (Talk together, learn together, grow together):


  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this passage?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this passage?

  3. How do you experience the Holy Spirit’s voice in your life?

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?



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