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A Hermeneutical Procedure To Best Interpret The Sermon on the Mount
by Ed Vasicek

PART ONE:  Special Considerations
by Ed Vasicek


Part I: The Interpreter's Nightmare

In my entire preaching ministry, my greatest dread is explaining the Sermon on the Mount. Part of the reason for this tension is that I consider the art of interpretation ("hermeneutics") to be one of my strong points.  I have little respect for poor interpretation or the substitution of application for interpretation. I do not mind the admission that we have questions for which we have no answers, but ignoring the questions as though they did not exist gets my goat. My particular view of interpretational integrity makes it difficult to tackle the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount's teachings, if taken literally and casually, run contrary not only to the Old Testament Law, but also to the latter teachings of Christ and the epistles of the New Testament. Since we generally agree that later teaching clarifies and adjusts previous teaching, we cannot go wrong living by the later teaching of Christ and the Apostles. Before we go further, let's review a few doctrines regarding the Scriptures.

1. We believe all Scripture is inspired and without error as originally given. We believe God even guided the human authors as to word choice.

2. We believe all Scripture is evenly inspired. This is called plenary inspiration. The letter to the Romans is just as inspired and authoritative as the words of Christ in the Gospel According to John.

3. We believe there are no genuine contradictions in Scripture, though there are paradoxes or verses which merely seem contrary to other verses. Context, grammar, and setting resolve most of these conflicts.

4. We believe in the historical-grammatical approach toward interpretation.  We try to answer these two questions: 1) What did the author have in his mind when he wrote/spoke? and 2) How would the original audience have understood what was said or written?  We might add a third: "How would the original audience, fluent in the Old Testament and the debates of the day, have understood these things?"

We make a distinction between Israel, the Church, and the Millennial Kingdom. These essential considerations will help us begin to navigate through the ebb and flow of the Sermon on the Mount. 

Part II

As I mentioned in my previous sermon, I have studied out the hermeneutics (interpretational principles) for the Sermon on the Mount for over 20 years. Many Bible teachers evade haggling out the difficulties by substituting application for interpretation. The problem is that application, in theory, is to flow from interpretation. We must interpret (or at least attempt to interpret) a text before we apply it or our applications may be misdirected. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount (henceforth abbreviated SOM), Christ tells us that, if our eye offends us, pluck it out. There are people spread throughout the U.S. who have done just that. So rather than a mad rush to apply, we must carefully interpret and ask WHY we think a text means or does not mean something.

In the book, Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost (Stanley Toussaint, ed.), essayist John A. Martin wrote a chapter entitled "Dispensational Approaches to the Sermon on the Mount." He lists the pros and cons to each view. Here are the four views:

1. The Kingdom Approach This approach sees the teachings of Christ to be the standards of the Kingdom (Millennium) He was offering Israel. Since Israel rejected Christ, the "Teachings of Grace" (the latter teaching of Christ and the epistles) replaced these standards. This view acknowledges that the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount do in fact run contrary to latter teaching. Chafer, founder of Dallas Seminary, championed this view, as did Scofield. Most of my pastor friends lean toward this view. The main objection to this view can be stated in two questions: Why did Matthew devote three chapters to a text that is not all that relevant to our current church age? Doesn't Matthew's Gospel end with Christ commissioning believers to make disciples and to teach them to observe all things, whatever Christ has commanded them?


2. The Penitential Approach This viewpoint says that the SOM is an intensification of the Law and is meant to bring people to their knees in repentance and pave the way for salvation by grace. The current book, The Gospel Solution, by Weaver and Souder, propounds this view. The main problem is that the Law is our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, not the SOM.  And if the SOM reflects God's standards, can we simply dismiss it as bringing us to conviction?


3. The Interim Ethic Let me quote Martin's explanation, "Just as special laws go into effect during a time of war, so Jesus taught that a new, strict ethic was necessary for the interim period of time until the kingdom would come." One objection to this view is the question, "When did this ethic therefore end?"


4. The Believer's Ethic This is the view that says the SOM is given to the church and is the believer's ethic. Many who are dispensational (distinguishing between Israel, the church, and the Millennium) and almost all who are Covenant (and making no such distinction) hold this view. We are to obey its commands and interpret it in light of latter revelation. The problem with this view is that it violates a basic principle of interpretation. Since the audience hearing the SOM did not have latter Scripture, it is improper to interpret the SOM in light of latter revelation. It also ignores that the SOM does contradict some of the ethical teachings of the epistles/latter teachings of Jesus.

My view is a combination of all the above. 

Part III

The Rabbinic teachings of Jesus are very difficult for us to understand, partly because we are divorced from the original culture and mindset of Judaism in the first century. But the difficulties are nonetheless clear.  For example, Christ talks about the blessings of being a peacemaker, yet in Matthew 10:34-35a He says, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father..." Although the "sword" is not the sword of war, it is the sword of division, the opposite of peace. Yet we also hear about the God of peace being with us (e.g., Philippians 4:9).  When Christ was born, the angels spoke of "peace on earth." So let's talk more about interpreting these seemingly contradictory statements.

1. Truth is not WHOLE truth. For example, believers can experience God's peace right now, but the Christian life also brings persecution and conflict. Western thinking looks at a category in detail before moving on to another subject, but in ancient Israel a tidbit here and a tidbit there were gathered to provide a fuller understanding. Paul the Apostle was very well adapted to the Western mind, at least when addressing Europeans (as in the Epistles). Paul generally addresses matters extensively before moving on.


2. The Rabbis often used the "hot and cold" technique, which, in essence, is teaching by exaggeration. Christ clearly used this technique in the Sermon on the Mount. Even the illustration about criticizing a speck in another's eye while you have an 8x8 beam in yours is pretty extreme!


3. The concept of Torah ("Law") is key toward understanding these verses. To our way of thinking, the Law is inflexible to changing circumstances.  Such is not the Jewish concept. Traditional Jewish belief said the Messiah would explain and even make changes to the Law. This fluid concept of the Law must be taken into account.

Christ applied existing Torah to the immediate situation, amplified it, and even changed it. As another Moses, Christ dispensed this "new law" to His disciples. Rabbis often addressed matters of Jewish life. They studied principles from the Law and implemented them in new situations, adapting to changing times, conquest by gentiles, etc. Likewise, Christ adjusted and changed the Law to address some or all of the following needs:

1. Advising God-fearing Jews how to live under Roman rule. Were the disciples of Jesus to attack Rome and propagate acts of terrorism like the Zealots? How were they to treat the Roman law's requirements to carry a soldier's supplies one mile?

2. Directing Jews into a better prioritizing of the Law's commands. It was more important to be reconciled to a brother than offer a sacrifice at the altar. It was wrong to cheat family out of needed financial support by claiming one's possessions had been promised as a temple donation. Christ was not destroying the Law, but bringing the Law to a deeper, more mature level (Matthew 5:17).


Part IV

I previously wrote that the Jewish conception of Torah (Law) was somewhat fluid. The Messiah was expected to adjust Torah, which is precisely what Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount (SOM). Christ sought to address specific issues, including the two we covered last week. Let's look at a few more:


1. Redefining contentment based upon God's purposes for Israel (during the end times) and the church now. Rather than obeying the Law and seeing national prosperity, contentment must be found in even difficult situations.

2. Listing the standards of the Kingdom (Millennium) Jesus was offering the nation of Israel and defining the type of repentance He wanted to see if the Millennium was to come in the first century (see Acts 3:19-212 Peter 3:12), while also addressing issues for the church age (a plan which Christ had not yet revealed).


3. Raising the ethical standard with an emphasis on the internal thought process. The Law DID discuss the internal (e.g., Leviticus 19:16-18), but some Pharisees had emphasized the external (behavior) to the neglect of the internal.


1. The original audience for the SOM was not the church, but Israel. However, believing Jews before Pentecost and the Church have this in common: both are disciples of Jesus. This explains why Matthew was led to include the SOM in his Gospel. All particulars may not apply to the church, but many do; other teachings are to be studied for application. Like prophecy with its near, non-literal application and its more literal, distant fulfillment, the SOM serves two purposes.

2. Many of the teachings of Jesus should be interpreted as a special genre (category); they are neither poetry, narrative, nor didactic (as are the epistles). That genre should be called "Rabbinic Oratory."  It makes special use of exaggeration, the hot and cold technique, and isolation of details without a big-picture overview. It often raises more questions than it answers and stimulates self-examination. Although it may be difficult to separate Christ's Rabbinic teaching from His straight instruction, the best rule of thumb is Consistency throughout the New Testament. Another guide is the particular Gospel itself. The Gospel of John, for example, is especially well adapted to the church age, including teachings that are often free of their Jewish context.

3. Torah Fluency, the idea that certain laws/standards can change, is crucial. I believe in absolutes, but not everything is unchangeable.  All the SOM is relevant in principle and should be applied with caution.  Interpretationally, some sections do not relate directly to the church age; others do. The interpreter cannot completely eliminate the subjective in this regards, only keep it at bay.


The average Christian finds it impossible to live both by The Sermon on the Mount and the other commands of Scripture.  They often seem to contradict one another.

The problem is clearly not one of contradiction, but seeming contradiction. Whereas all sorts of hermeneutical systems have tackled The Sermon on the Mount and essentially diluted the teachings of Christ in that sermon while fortifying other commands to try to find a happy medium, the averaging of extremes is at best unethical. So is substituting application for interpretation (which is frequently done for the Sermon on the Mount).

For example, if I take the command of Christ, "Give to everyone who asks of you" (Luke 6:30) and 2 Thessalonians 3:10, "if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either" we can see a clear contrast. Which do we do? Do we give to all (but not necessarily give them what they ask for), or do we refrain from giving food to fellow Christians who are lazy but give help to unsaved people who are lazy...on and on we go.

But the contradiction is cleared up if Christ's command to "Give to everyone who asks of you" is stated within its larger context because Jesus is applying a passage of the Torah.

And that is where the nature of The Sermon on the Mount needs to be understood. The Sermon on the Mount is the application of the Torah (Books of Moses, the Law) to the contemporary challenges of the Jews in the first century under Roman occupation. (See my other article on The Sermon on the Mount for further details.) The "you have heard it said...but I say" formula makes this clear.

The purpose of this paper is to enumerate the hermeneutical process for interpreting The Sermon on the Mount, as it would have been understood by the original audience, an audience well schooled in the Torah, and an audience who, unlike us, knew the Torah portions Christ was applying.

Categories of Teaching

Jesus teachings can be divided into three categories, and the interpreter must determine which of these best fits a particular verse under study:

1.  Category one: Jesus takes a Torah principle and applies it to a controversial issue of that day ( See my sermon and notes, "Walking That Extra Mile: A Slightly Different Twist on Matthew 5:38-48", pasteed below).


2. Category two: Jesus engages in the traditional Rabbinic practice of putting a "fence" around one of the 613 commands of the Torah. Rabbis offered many rulings to help keep people far away from a possible violation. Since Jesus is the Messiah, His fences now become new commands. (They are no longer fences.) Jesus' command not to lust after a woman is a fence built around the command not to commit adultery; His command not to hate one's brother at heart is a fence built around the command to not commit murder.


3. Category three: Jesus adds new but related subject matter to the Torah.

Most of Jesus teachings have been assumed to be in category 3, but perhaps most of the Sermon on the Mount falls under categories 1 and 2. But even many of these are applications of Torah principles. For example, building one's house upon a rock is very much like heeding and obeying Torah.


The Process

1. Determine the category of the teaching.

2. Locate the Torah portion under discussion. This is often the neglected key to properly interpreting The Sermon on the Mount. In fact, if one is not fluent in the Torah, he should be very careful about drawing conclusions from The Sermon on the Mount because he is groping in the dark. I am convinced much of The Sermon on the Mount is an application of Leviticus 19:11-18.

3. Determine the issue of the day being addressed. This takes research into Jewish roots literature, the Talmud, etc., although many issues are near the surface. For example, one obvious issue was, "should we help carry items for Roman soldiers beyond the required mile?" Christ answered with the concept of going the extra-mile, a concept He also applies toward insult (turning the other cheek--once).

4. Remember we have perhaps 10% of the Sermon at most; be careful formulating dogma when we are also in great ignorance of what has NOT been recorded.

5. Ask the important question of all good Bible interpretation: How the original audience would have understood the teaching.  Ask why Matthew (or Luke) included such a portion in his Gospel and how his original readers would have understood it.

6. Remember, Christ spoke Hebrew or Aramaic; a portion of The Sermon on the Mount might become more clear if we discover the meaning of the original spoken (as opposed to written) word.

Remember, Christ spoke as a Jewish Rabbi to a Jewish crowd. Whatever insights you can glean from Messianic Judaism, the Talmud, or Hebraica can affect the meaning.

Walking That Extra Mile: A Slightly Different Twist on Matthew 5:38-48

I can honestly say that I have been "working" on the above verses for approximately 25 years in the back of my mind. Even while a student at Moody Bible Institute, I kept my eyes open to comments or insights that could help me understand these verses.

The problem with the above verses (if understood apart from the context I will mention below) is simple: they fly in the face of BOTH Old Testament teaching, the latter teachings of Christ, and the Epistles. I am not going to elaborate about these differences here, but Lewis Sperry Chafer does a thorough job of this in his book titled, Grace, The Glorious Theme.  Although I do not agree with Chafer's solution to the conflict between the Sermon on the Mount and the latter teachings of Christ and the Apostles, he at least acknowledges the reality of the conflict.

Of course I believe the conflict disappears when we do what good interpreters are SUPPOSED to do, namely answer these two questions: (1) How did the speaker/writer understand his own words? and (2) How would the original audience have understood these words? In light of this, I would like to go into the text with these pre-existing convictions:

1. What Christ taught did NOT contradict the Law nor the Epistles.

2. The Law is not some evil entity for childish disciples but is truly the Word of God and, though incomplete, is as pure as the One Who gave it.

3. Christ did not come to destroy, put down, or devastate the Law, but to fulfill it (properly interpret it).

The Law of Moses was not given to mankind, but to Israel; the Covenant of Noah WAS given for all mankind.

4/ When Christ quotes the OT passage upon which He is commenting, fine; but when He doesn't, it might help to infer the passage and go from there. Since we have perhaps 10% of all that Christ said in this sermon, and since the Sermon on the Mount is a commentary and application of the Law, deducing the texts in question can prove invaluable, though risky.

I have pasted below a bulletin insert I wrote which offers additional thoughts to contemplate:

Jewish Insights Upon the Sermon on the Mount

As I mentioned before, our version of the "Sermon on the Mount" consists of sermon highlights; the actual sermon itself probably lasted two hours. We have perhaps only a dozen "highlight" minutes from which to reconstruct its meaning.

Since Christianity eventually abandoned its Jewish roots, and since gentile believers eventually outnumbered (and later suppressed) Jewish believers, the key to interpreting this sermon was lost. It is only when we remember that the speaker and audience were Jews and that Christ was addressing the hot issues and controversies of the day (including applying the Old Testament Law in light of current circumstances) that the sermon falls in line (not only with the Old Testament but the New Testament epistles as well).

For example, Israel was then under Roman occupation. A Roman solider could legally constrain any non-Roman to carry his supplies for one mile. When Christ speaks of going two miles, He is talking about voluntarily going beyond the requirement of the Roman law. Yet Christ does not say, "as many miles as someone wants." So he encourages us to offer generous but reasonable boundaries.

It is also interesting to note the understanding of the Jews regarding the OT command, "an eye for an eye" in the first century. David Stern comments about how Jews in the first century probably understood this command:

"...eye for eye,"  etc. shows that God was not commanding revenge, but controlling and limiting it. Retribution and punishment must be commensurate with the crime; contrast Cain and Lamech's extraction of multiplied vengeance at Genesis 4:24.

Dr. David Stern (Jewish New Testament Commentary) quotes from an ancient Jewish source, the Mishna (the older part of the Talmud), to show that the Jews did not understand "an eye for an eye" literally. Here is the Mishnah quotation:

"If anyone wounds his fellow, he becomes liable to compensate the injured party for five different aspects of the injury: damage, pain, healing, loss of time from work, and insult...."

Note that the Jews were required to compensate those they insulted.  In ancient Jewish culture (and other cultures, even today), a slap in the face was considered the prime example of a great insult. (We talk about "receiving a slap in the face" or "kick in the pants.") 


When Jesus is talking about turning the other cheek, He is not addressing the issue of self-defense in general, nor national policy, but He is addressing a debate of the day, namely, did the "eye for eye" command apply to being insulted?

Christ made it very clear that individual believers who are insulted for His Kingdom must bear it. Indeed, not availing ourselves of all our rights may provide opportunities for others to see that we are not out to exploit others, that Christians are more concerned with doing right before God than we are with "getting ahead." We are not out to get all the "gusto" we can, but to glorify God.

Note the moderation of Jesus' words. We walk an extra mile, not an extra two. We turn the other cheek -- once.  We give people a reasonable amount of grace before we march off to court, in contrast to immediately claiming our rights. The concept of moderation is all but lost by most interpreters.


Here are a few additional thoughts not in the paper. David Daube in his work, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Hendrickson) devotes a chapter entitled, "Eye for Eye" to discuss the Jewish understanding of Talion (the law of retribution), the subject of the Jewish understanding of the "Eye for Eye" command. To the first century Jew, that expression was more or less synonymous with the idea of financial compensation and litigation. This sets the entire tone for verses 38-42—litigation.  Turning the other cheek, etc., connects to litigation. The only issue that is not about litigation is that of walking the extra mile, which is encapsulated within litigation issues because the principle of walking the extra mile is also the attitude we should take in matters of litigation.

Here is my sermon outline proper:

Walking That Extra Mile (Matthew 5:38-48)


  1. If you have old computer disks from an Apple II computer, they will not work on a Windows based unit without conversion.

  2. Why? Two different operating systems.

  3. Christ demands His followers operate under a different operating system than society at large: a different way of thinking with different values and a different lifestyle.

  4. You must be willing to be different and sometimes radical in the eyes of the world.

MAIN THOUGHT: Being A Disciple of Christ means operating our minds with a different program than most of society, motivated by our relationship with Christ.

That program can be defined by three rules by which to play the game of life.

I. Being Generous With Grace (38-42)
Vs. 38 sets the tone: the matter at hand is litigation and compensation.

  1. Accepting Insults (39)

    The issue here is NOT self-defense, passivity, or non-confrontation. Christ encourages us to confront those who offend us.  The issue is taking an INSULT.

    In almost every culture, the ultimate insult is a slap in the face. At debate in the first century was that fifth point of compensation, namely, for insult. We already noted that quotation from the Mishnah:

    If anyone wounds his fellow, he becomes liable to compensate the injured party for five different aspects of the injury: damage, pain, healing, loss of time from work, and insult....

    Jesus obviously disagreed with this trend (according to Daube, it was being debated in the first century and then solidified into the Mishnah in the 2nd century).

    Jesus was saying "take the insult and ask for more." This is in contrast to the latter Rabbinic ruling in the Talmud:

    "Does he give him a blow upon the cheek? Let him give two hundred zuzees; if with the other hand, let him give four hundred."

    (Bara Kama, cap. 8, hal. 6—quoted by John Lightfoot)

    In contrast to suing a brother for every possible infringement, Christ is saying, "give people space." This has a pragmatic effect, reconciliation (see Proverbs 15:1, "A soft answer turns away wrath."), and it is also WALKING THE EXTRA MILE, giving people the benefit of the doubt.

    Please note Christ is not talking about stabs to the chest, punches to the nose, nor twenty slaps on the cheek. Please pay attention to the MODERATION of this section. You turn the other check for a second slap—but it ENDS there.

    You walk the extra mile, but not an unlimited amount of miles. Once you perceive the absolute moderation of what Jesus is talking about, you realize that things like pacifism are not even being contemplated.

    Jesus is saying, "put up with insult and even a moderate amount of abuse before you take someone to court. Let people have space to be human, to err. Do not take the attitude of an opportunist, perched to exploit every infraction."

  2. Avoiding Litigation

    Again, the main theme of litigation comes into play. Here an example is placed before us; once again, the example is strikingly MODERATE.  A person is wanting to sue another for a tunic. Perhaps there is some disagreement or dispute over a matter, a damage, etc. Rather than go to court, it is better to take loss and settle out of court. This is related to 5:25, so please compare it.

    Rather than fight over ones claim to a tunic (as compensation), the Christian should give it to him (and ones coat as well) if that would preclude litigation.

    It is interesting to note that Christ did not use the example of a house or fortune. Although clothing in the ancient world was more of a commodity back then, the concession is still not THAT major. Better to take a moderate loss and stay on good terms with others than prove your point or win your case. If you won't schmooze, you lose.

    Again, the principle is WALK THE EXTRA MILE, not letting people abuse and exploit us.

  3. Going Beyond Obligation

    I have dealt with the Roman Law and the ability of a Roman solider to constrain any non-citizen to walk one Roman mile (1,000 paces), carrying his supplies. Christ says go beyond—walk two miles.

    Again, the attitude is that of being gracious, going BEYOND what is REQUIRED.  Once again, note the moderation. The text does not say, "Go as many miles as he wants you to go." Christ is exhorting us to an attitude of service, grace, letting people have space, and generosity. But NOT to the extreme. There is still plenty of space for tough love, not being exploited, knowing how to set boundaries.

    If you think about it, Christ IS advocating setting boundaries. But He does not want us to be concerned about others going over the line as much as he does those who CLEARLY go indisputably way over that line. We give others the benefit of the doubt, but we have our limits.

  4. Practicing Responsible Generosity

    I believe the part of the Law Christ was addressing was Deuteronomy 15:9-11:

    Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: "The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near," so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.

    Christ was not talking about giving handouts to every stranger or pan-handler around. He was saying that we do have a responsibility to loan money or offer help to responsible people (destitute because of circumstances beyond their control) we know whether we will be paid back or not.

    Whether "asking" and "borrowing" are merely parallel terms or not is a matter of debate. We should feel under no obligation to give money to anyone who asks us for handouts. If you thought otherwise, a five minute trip to Chicago would find you completely cleaned out.

    Remember, Christ spoke at great lengths about these matters, we have only sermon highlights. Do not confuse truth with whole truth.

    If I am right, that Christ was addressing Deuteronomy 15, then we can see what was at issue: not the worthiness of the destitute person; it is assumed that he is worthy; what is at stake is the uncertainty of being paid back. Folk wisdom is true: do not loan out money you cannot do without. On the positive side, we cannot let responsible people we know go hungry.

II. Being Stingy With Hatred (43-48)

  1. Hatred and love can co-exist—see Psalm 5:5—a time to love and a time to hate

    Based on Psalm 5:5 and other texts, God both hates (is angry at, has wrath stored up toward) sinners and yet loves them (John 3:16).

  2. Loving an enemy means choosing to let our love OVERRIDE our feelings of disgust.

    Not all forms of love are the same. The secret is NOT the Greek word, but the context

  3. This love is in the form of duty, not feeling

    1. note vs. 45

    2. Exodus 23:4-5

    3. Romans 12:18-21

    We do not love our enemy the same way we love God, our spouse, our children, our brethren, or our neighbor.

  4. Love includes greeting others (46-47)

    1. important way to show love; we must change habits

    2. including new people (not just greeting our friends.)

    It is great to have a circle of friends; it is horrendous to never include others or expand ones relationships; Greeting people is IMPORTANT and crucial toward LOVING PEOPLE. Let me say it again: if you don't schmooze, you (and they) lose.

III. Valuing Godliness Above Earthly Status (48)

  1. Even though none of us CAN be perfect, that should still be our aim.

  2. Bow and Arrow—can't always hit bull's eye, but can try

  3. Our models, icons, and heroes influence us more than we think

  4. Television sets the "status"—causing great financial stresses.

  5. Aiming to be like God, not some upper middle class singles on TV

You can aim for designer clothes, a house in that exclusive neighborhood, that brand of car which shouts, "prestige" or you can aim to be like God. You cannot aim at both.


  1. You cannot follow Christ and use society's operating system.

  2. You cannot be out to take advantage of or regulate others.

  3. Christ calls you to be generous with grace, stingy with hatred, and to aim at the right target: knowing God and being godly.

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