The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishingby Jonathan Pennington
Length: Approximately 12 hours.
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In The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, New Testament Scholar Jonathan Pennington provides an illuminating and powerful theological commentary on the most famous teaching of our Lord.
Who should read this?
This book would be an incredibly valuable resource to anyone interested in studying the Sermon on the Mount on a deeper level. I would highly recommend that pastors who intend to preach on these passages buy this commentary.
The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most familiar sections in the Bible. Even those who have no background in church have heard phrases such as “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile,” likely without knowing where they come from. However, familiarity does not equal understanding. Even many believers today are perplexed about what to do with the strict moral teachings of the Sermon. Many are troubled by sayings such as, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, ESV). What are we to do with this?
Jonathan Pennington has done an incredible service to the church with this work. As a person that was raised in church and has heard this Sermon a gazillion times, I must confess that certain verses in the Sermon have perplexed me for a long time. This book really served to bring it all together in my mind and provide me with a much deeper understanding of the major themes and purposes of the Sermon.
First, I must emphasize here that this book, as the subtitle indicates, is a theological commentary. It’s not verse by verse exposition, but rather a commentary on the major theological themes contained in the Sermon and an examination of the major themes in it. A verse by verse exposition would be more helpful in understanding particular verses, but this commentary is incredibly helpful in that it helps the reader to see the big picture of the Sermon on the Mount and how the particular verses fit into the unified whole. This book is divided into 3 major sections. The first is called “orientation,” in which Dr. Pennington provides the basic context, themes, and structure for the Sermon. The second section is the passage by passage commentary on the text. Finally, section three is a brief theological reflection.
The two chapters in this book that serve as the anchor to the theological picture painted by Dr. Pennington are chapters 2 and 3, in which he argues that there are two Greek words that are absolutely crucial to understanding the central message of the Sermon. Dr. Pennington argues in a convincing fashion that these two words are translated in a not-so-helpful way in most English translations. The first word is makarios, which is discussed at length in chapter 2. This is the word that is translated as “blessed” in the beatitudes.
The English term “blessed” usually refers to the active divine favor that one passively receives. However, based on arguments from the usage of this word in other sources, Dr. Pennington shows that makarios is more of a descriptive term. “Makarios clearly refers to human flourishing or fullness of earthly life.”1Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: a Theological Commentary. Baker Academic, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2018. 46-47. Therefore, the beatitudes are not describing the way they receive God’s favor, but rather are describing the sort of person that is living a life that leads to human flourishing.
The second word is teleios, which is translated as “perfect” in Matthew 5:48. The word “perfect” in English refers to the absence of moral impurity of any kind. However, Dr. Pennington argues that teleios communicates the idea of wholeness or singular devotion. It is “not moral perfection but wholehearted orientation toward God.”2Ibid, 46-47. This is the central point of the first major section of the Sermon. Jesus contrasts the wholehearted righteousness that He requires of His disciples rather than the purely external righteousness of the Pharisees. This teleios righteousness is that righteousness that “exceeds the scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 5:20). Therefore, Matthew 5:48 is not an exhortation to moral perfection that is impossible for believers to keep, but rather an exhortation to be whole and complete, just as our Heavenly Father is.
Dr. Pennington argues that this theme of “greater righteousness” that is wholehearted and singular in its devotion to God is the “meta-category that makes sense of the whole Sermon.”3Ibid, 89. Many interpreters have seen the moral exhortations in the Sermon as an intentionally high moral standard that is impossible for us to reach, which should lead us to despair of our own righteousness and seek the imputed righteousness of Christ. I believe, as does Dr. Pennington, in imputed righteousness as necessary for justification.
However, this concept should not be read into the Sermon. The Sermon should be allowed to speak for itself. The moral standards contained in the Sermon are essential elements to living the Christian life that God enables and empowers His people to keep by the power of the Spirit.
What a wonderful book. Honestly, it is the finest I’ve ever read on the Sermon on the Mount, and one of the finest books I’ve read this year thus far. It is scholarly without being obnoxiously boring. It is readable and personable. It is pastoral and challenging. It is faithful to the text of Scripture, and it engages with recent scholarship with honesty and integrity. I will refer to this book whenever I teach, preach, or write on the Sermon, and I’m eager to read more by Dr. Pennington.
The analysis of makarios and teleios mentioned above is a major strength of this work. Those two chapters changed the way I think about the Sermon as a whole, and I believe that if most readers of the Sermon were to internalize those two concepts, it would greatly improve their understanding of the message of the Sermon.
The eschatological dimension of the Sermon that is frequently referenced in this book is also a major strength. In the Sermon, Jesus is teaching his disciples what life is to look like for his followers in the inaugurated Kingdom of God. This is not a manifesto for a Kingdom that will come in a future millennial period as in the classical dispensational interpretation, but rather is a Kingdom that has broken into time and space through the advent of the King Himself. These are the ethical standards for the followers of the King in the here and now.
I’m normally a very critical, difficult to please reader. That is what makes it all the more pleasant for me to say that I’m hard-pressed to find weaknesses for this commentary. It truly does accomplish its intended purpose. If I could find one weakness, it would simply be that it doesn’t give much attention to individual verses, so I would be forced to consult another commentary to learn more about a particular verse. In this way, the commentary isn’t as comprehensive as it could be. However, like the subtitle says, this is a theological commentary, so it can’t exactly be faulted for not being what it wasn’t intended to be.
This book is truly a must-read for studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Dr. Pennington has written a wonderful work that I expect to turn to again and again in my life and ministry. Buy this book and read deeply. If your pastor is preparing to preach on these texts, buy him a copy. I can’t recommend this fine book highly enough.
“True human flourishing is only available through communion with the Father God through His revealed Son, Jesus, as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.”
“Christianity is not just a set of doctrines added onto or even fundamentally altering Judaism. It is the revelation of God Himself in a person.”
“Jesus is being presented here as the Messiah who fulfills God’s ancient and promised purposes. While the Sermon will cast a vision of how disciples should live, it is first of all a Christological statement.”