Dr. Charles “Chuck” Quarles is a professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Having worked through portions of his book, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, I think I’d like to audit a few of his classes! The book is volume 11 in a broader series, the NAC Studies in Bible & Theology, edited by E. Ray Clendenen. It is the first of the series that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. In some ways, the series reminds me of IVP’s New Studies in Biblical Theology, but less “academic” and a bit broader. For instance, volumes often seem to veer more toward systematic theology and church life, such as one on the Lord’s Supper and another on Baptism.
Quarles’ contribution seems somewhat unique in the series in that, for all intents and purposes, it is a traditional Bible commentary, albeit one that covers only Matthew 5-7. So in the beginning, we find what we’d expect in a commentary: history of interpretation, canonical relationships, structure, theological framework, etc. We do not find, however, discussion of date, authorship, audience, or provenance, which he would have probably included had this been a full-blown commentary on Matthew.
Quarles takes a more or less conservative approach when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount (henceforth, “SM”). What I mean by that is he doesn’t go down the road many in our day travel of labeling “poor in spirit” as materially poor or “hungering and thirsting for righteousness” as a desire for social and societal justice. Does he omit those referents? No, but his view is broader and, in my opinion, more balanced. This is the case throughout the commentary. “Balanced” is a fitting adjective of Quarles’ work here.
“Profound” is another apt descriptor. I love Quarles’ emphasis throughout on Inaugurated Eschatology: The “already and not-yet” of the Kingdom of God. He places the SM in the context of Israel’s history and its speaker, Jesus, in his context as the greater eschatological Moses delivering a new law from a new mountain. While this is not a new or radical idea, it is one that is unknown to many in the church because of our biblical illiteracy on the one hand and our failure to read the Bible as one, grand redemptive narrative on the other hand. This biblical-theological context deals a death blow to treatments such as that of Emmet Fox, “The spiritual leader who revealed the true power of positive thinking”, in his Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life (which, incidentally, was sent to me for review by mistake…I was supposed to get Scot McKnight’s commentary but the publisher sent Fox’s!). In this light, I absolutely loved chapter 4, “The Theological Framework for Understanding the Sermon on the Mount.” An extended quotation will sum up the chapter well:
Those who view the SM as an expression of impossible demands fail to interpret the sermon in light of the broad theological themes of Matthew’s Gospel. These themes assure the reader that the disciples of Jesus have been divinely enabled to fulfill the teachings of the SM because (1) they have participated in the new exodus, (2) they have experienced the new creation, and (3) they are beneficiaries of the new covenant. (p. 21)
Each of these themes is succinctly developed, and the reader is well equipped to understand Matthew 5-7 in a profound way and avoid interpretive pitfalls as a result. Quarles connects all of Jesus’ teaching in the SM to the theological themes of Matthew, and by extension, the whole of redemptive history.
Here’s another quote “from the horses mouth” that I loved. The context he is referring to is the connection of Matthew 5:1-12 to Deuteronomy 33:29 and the whole story of Moses, the Exodus, and the formation of Israel. See if you can stomach it:
This background suggests that the Beatitudes are not mere expressions of ethical principles accompanied by rewards but are pronouncements of salvation that identify Jesus’ disciples as the new Israel…Thus in the Beatitudes the new Moses pronounced the blessings of spiritual exodus (liberation from slavery to sin) and spiritual conquest (victory over spiritual enemies) to the new Israel. (pp. 29-40)
Quarles also places the SM in its soteriological context. What I mean by that is this: He clearly identifies the audience as those who are already disciples of Jesus. So as far as salvation is concerned, the SM isn’t how to “get there”, but rather how to live once we “are there.” Quarles states,
[T]he SM was not primarily about how one entered the kingdom. Rather, it was a description of the character and conduct of those who already belonged to the kingdom. The SM is not a call to repentance; it is a description of the expression and evidences of true repentance. (p. 38)
He notes how the joyful consequences of God’s blessing in Matt. 5:4, 6, and 7 are “divine passives” and they introduce the whole sermon. In reflecting on this “ordering”, he writes, “This order suggests that the righteousness described in the sermon is a result of divine blessing rather than a requirement for divine blessing” (p. 42). Amen, and a helpful safeguard against reading works based righteousness into Jesus and hence pitting him and Paul against one another.
Perhaps one of the best compliments I can pay Quarles is to say that I was challenged in my own faith through his commentary. It is certainly “academic” in that it deals with real scholarship and interpretive issues. But, unlike many 21st century American parishioners, “academic” is not a cuss word for me; God gave us minds and asks us to use them in loving him and others. All that being said, while Quarles writes to the intellect, he also writes to the will and emotion of the Christian (which cannot be said of most commentaries). For instance, when speaking of the first Beatitude (Matt. 5:3), he writes,
Christ’s message in this beatitude is that when individuals recognize their absolute inability to save themselves and cast themselves on Christ in total dependence on Him, He graciously reigns over them as King here and now and graciously promises them a part in His future kingdom. (p. 47)
Again, in reference to the second Beatitude (Matt. 5:4),
“Will be comforted” means that God will act to restore the broken relationship and bring the repentant mourner back into full fellowship with Himself. The sorrow of the sinner’s exile from God will be replaced by the joy of His presence. (p. 54)
And again, in reference to the 4th Beatitude (Matt. 5:6), he writes,
A tiny infant can hunger and thirst, but that infant is utterly incapable of satisfying those longings alone. Similarly, a believer can never satisfy his hunger or quench his thirst for righteousness. Only a gracious God who transforms mind, heart, character, and behavior can do so. The lifestyle described by the SM is not the product of mere human effort. It is the result of transforming grace. (p. 61)
When it comes to the Beatitudes, it is hard to not be spiritually challenged! Quarles masterfully brings the meaning of the message to the modern reader.
“Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church.” This subtitle is utterly appropriate. Jesus’ message in the SM is incomprehensible apart from Jesus’ context in redemptive history. Yet the way we approach the SM is often disconnected from said history, and as such we lose Christ’s message. I am thankful to Dr. Quarles for making the message plain and accessible in this work. If you want a robust picture of the SM in context, take and read. You’re mind will be better for it, as will your heart.
Buy it here.