Fulfillment – 5:17-20
Six times in this chapter, Jesus refers to things the Pharisees taught, and then gives God’s viewpoint in contrast. The King James expresses it, “Ye have heard it said…but I say….” Here in the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus begins His public ministry, it was essential He give this foundational teachings concerning true righteousness.
Verses 17-20 gives us the background and the introduction to the six commands that follow. In these four verses, Jesus first tells how God views His own laws before the Son of God expounds on these six separate points of the law in verses 21-48. Jesus selects these six because they were the ones most often abused by the religious rulers of His day. The scribes and the Pharisees were so stuck on themselves, they invented the proverbial saying, “If only two men went to heaven, one would be a scribe and the other a Pharisee.”
Jesus’ message was controversial, for it was not just another boring rabbinic lecture. One can view the entire Sermon on the Mount as an expansion of the topic of God’s righteousness versus man’s version, for righteousness is really the central topic of Matthew 5-7. The entire Sermon on the Mount verifies that Jesus is not interested in superficial religiosity.
The questions surrounding these four verses are, “What constitutes true righteousness and how do I get it?” “How is God’s brand of righteousness different than that of the religious rulers?” It is ironic that Jesus vouchsafes the answer to a Pharisee, one who came to Jesus secretly, named Nicodemus (John 3).
Throughout the rest of chapter five, Jesus lays down the type of righteousness required for membership in the Kingdom of God. He makes it crystal clear that the type of righteousness God demands is vastly different than the brand the Pharisees had (v. 20). Whereas their “righteousness” was external, Jesus requires internal purity. They were great at cleaning the outside of cups (Matthew 23:25), but God desires to make permanent changes deep inside the heart of every believer.
Taught to us by Jesus Christ Himself, this message is more than just a list of basic, common sense admonitions. They are practical commands for every believer. In a word, it’s about discipleship. Jesus said that His “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), and as the King of His eternal kingdom, He has the right to expect kingdom citizens to be different.
As Jesus began His “Inaugural Address,” the Sermon on the Mount, some people may have thought that He was going to abolish the entire Old Testament and start over. But that was not the case. Matthew 5:17 makes it clear that the “Law and the Prophets”—a phrase that sometimes represents the canon of the Old Testament as a whole—was safe. In fact, in this passage, Jesus forbids anyone to tamper with even a little part of it. Jesus wanted to assure the congregation on the mount that the whole Old Testament is sacred. He didn’t want people to fear that the Messiah would change everything they held sacred. Although Jesus blasted the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, He always reverenced the Scriptures and never diminished their authority one iota.
Jesus told them that it was not part of His mission to delete any part of the sacred writings. When He faced Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, Jesus quoted only Scripture. All throughout His teaching ministry, He quoted only from the 39 books of the Old Testament that we have today.
The Messiah did not quote from some alleged “hidden” or supposed “lost” books of the Bible. Your love for the Old Testament will increase as you see it as the only written authority Jesus ever quoted…and realize that you own these same 39 books He studied.
Jesus was telling the crowd that day (and He is telling us) that He didn’t come to hurt us, but to help us. He did not come to destroy but to deliver. The Old Testament isn’t anti-Christian. Jesus had to show that He loved and respected the entire Old Testament. It was vital at the outset of His ministry, that He make it very crystal clear that He was not anti-Scripture. Since the Jews would never take a Messiah seriously who did not reverence it, Jesus affirms His personal allegiance to the Word of God.
This is one of Jesus’ two “book reviews.” Here in verse 18, He warns humankind not to tamper with the Old Testament. When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, the New Testament had not yet been written. But in the last chapter of the Bible (Revelation 22:18-19), Jesus Himself warns us not to add or subtract from the New Testament either. Jesus’ assessment of both Testaments is the same: love, respect and obey the entire Bible.
One must pause to consider…can the watered-down translations of recent years be considered tampering with God’s Word? Do those who alter God’s Word want to alter God’s standards? But Jesus’ rules do not change just because twenty-first century theologians want to change the rules. Remember that there is a punishment for Bible tampering (Revelation 22:19), for bad theology will lead people astray. Paul admonished young Timothy to “study to show yourself approved unto God, a minister who is unashamed by rightly interpreting the Word of Truth” (II Timothy 2:15).
If you want to be sure you are understanding God’s Word correctly, become filled with God’s Spirit, for Jesus promised that He would “lead us into all truth” (John 16:13).
Don’t take chances with what Jesus held the most sacred. This year, endeavor to read your Bible through. If you say you live by God’s Word, discover anew the dynamic truths within it.
Jesus had already demonstrated His respect for the Scriptures by using it in all of His answers to Satan (cf. Mt. 4). Here in the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, He reiterates His love and respect for the written Word by telling the people, “I have not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets…but to fulfill.” His “fulfilling” was His practical interpretation of God’s Word, not just that men should correctly teach it, but also obey it. His strongest teachings were against those who abuse the Bible by twisting it to suit themselves.
Here at the beginning of His teaching ministry, Jesus states that His purpose was to unfold and reveal the spiritual realities of God’s written Word, to fulfill it. The word “fulfill” (v. 17) suggests the image of a vessel filled up to the brim, and this vessel is the Word of God. He fulfilled it by properly interpreting it and by showing the Father’s true intention behind His laws. This was part of His messianic mission. Jesus did not come to waste our time by attempting to interpret trivial details of the Law.
Throughout His teaching ministry, He gives us many reasons why He came:
Matthew 9:13 – “I am come…to call sinners to repentance”
Luke 19:10 – “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost”
John 10:10 – “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly”
John 12:46 – “I am come as a Light unto the world”
His arrival changed everything. In Acts 6:14, the proud religious rulers were fearful that “this Jesus shall change…the customs Moses delivered to us.” His teachings were so radically different than those of the self-acclaimed religious experts that they eventually killed Him for it.
Jesus was literally persecuted to death.
In Matthew 10:34-38, Jesus stated emphatically how His arrival would affect people. Pause now and read this dynamic passage.
In Matthew 5:18, Jesus tells us that heaven and earth will pass away before God’s Word will. In the context here, “heavens” refer to the sky and the planets. The phrase “heavens and earth” was a proverbial expression encompassing all creation. His Word has more permanence than the stars, the sun and the planets. Jesus affirmed the everlasting, eternal permanence and duration of the Word. Jesus’ work and words will extend to the end of time. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” Matthew 24:35.
In the very last verse of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus commissions us to “teach everything that He has commanded us.” By saying this, Jesus places His own words right alongside the teachings of the Old Testament and His words and teachings form the foundation of the New Testament. Jesus taught that the entire Word of God is sacred, precious and worthy of our highest respect. (II Peter 1:4).
Murder – 5:21-26
Jesus begins a series of six illustrations depicting how God views the laws of the Old Testament. We will call these the “They say…but I say” passages. All six deal with human relationships and how men and women are accountable to God for their attitudes and actions. All people will gauge our discipleship by the way we love one another (John 13:35).
From verse 20 to the end of chapter five, Jesus shows how and why the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees were inadequate. Jesus adds no new writings, but gives the correct interpretation of those which already existed. He wants people to know how to correctly use what has been abused. Through such teachings, Jesus was showing how insufficient the man-made rules and regulations of the religious rulers really were. They strained to see gnats, yet swallowed camels (Matthew 23:24). They seemed to have forgotten that at the heart of God’s law is love. The Gospels reveal the hatred of such men toward Jesus as He attempts to show how important human relationships are to God. Jesus points directly to decisions that we make in everyday situations and the actions that follow. Jesus knows how easily our attitudes turn into actions.
These six illustrations and commands bespeak the divine displeasure concerning anger, murder, adultery, rash vows, adultery and divorce. They are practical admonitions about how to get along with others. Children can understand them: many adults do not.
When Jesus quotes the Old Testament, He usually says, “It is written.” In Jesus’ mind, what “is written” is fact. But when He quotes the Pharisees oral tradition and writings, He often says “It has been said.” He clearly shows that what people may commonly believe is not necessarily the way God sees it.
The first illustration is found in verse 21-26. It points out how God looks at anger. The law commands that men should not murder one another. Since murder stems from hatred, Jesus commands us not to get angry or stay angry and clarifies the fact that hate is the root cause of murder. By controlling the anger of a moment, one may avoid the remorse of a lifetime. Thousands are incarcerated today for “road rage” and regret they did not pull over and cool off. Anger restrained is wisdom gained.
When we resent someone for something they did to us, we are nursing a controlled anger. For the Christian, holding grudges is a deadly habit. Solomon taught that “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).
If you are angry at someone, call them today and apologize. The tension this relieves is fantastic.
The act of murder isn’t the entire sin: the cause of the anger proceeding it must be dealt with. Furthermore, the full punishment for anger and murder cannot be paid for on earth: hell awaits those who commit these acts without repenting.
Jesus addresses those who are angry with others (v. 22) and reminds us of our responsibilities to one another. Since God is our Father, it means that people should treat each other as siblings. Name calling is forbidden, for it leads to fighting and animosity. To call someone “Raca” is to call them a fool. It is an insult to one’s intelligence in any culture to call someone a moron, stupid, or an idiot. Children often chant that, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But they do. To name call is an outward manifestation of an inner problem.
Jesus is teaching here that God does not bless tongue murder. He will not allow us to think that slander is justifiable. James teaches us that the tongue can be set on fire from hell (James 3:6). Jesus confirms this by saying that the angry, slanderous person is in “danger of hell fire” (v. 22), illustrating the dreadfulness of the punishment. God’s wrath is directed against those who sin in thought, word or deed.
In verse 23, we are forbidden to come to worship and give offerings to God with bitterness in our hearts toward others. The word “therefore” here shows Jesus is drawing a conclusion from His previous statement.
We cannot pout when we tithe.
We don’t get to bear a grudge as we give an offering.
We can’t be mad at someone when we come to God’s house.
This entire passage urges us to forgive offenses…and to do it quickly before things escalate.
But why? Because some may think that they can love God while hating others. Some may think that their tithes and offerings somehow balance out personal grudges—that they can buy God off by giving money or doing some noble, sacrificial work. But acts of true worship can never be performed in anger.
In the Old Testament, the root concept of the altar concerned forgiveness and atonement. In the New Testament, an altar can be any place that we kneel in submission to God. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that, “If we forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). When we are at the altar worshipping God, it is then we should be the most sensitive to the voice of the Holy Spirit. We come to God’s altar to have our attitudes altered. That’s what God’s altar is designed for.
Jesus commands us to make reconciliation with those who anger us. Nothing is said here about who is right and who is wrong. Jesus’ point here is that you can’t offer to God until and unless you try to make reconciliation first.
Note that even small offenses need forgiveness. The word “aught” in verse 23 means, “the smallest possible thing.” Jesus commands that the offended one seek reconciliation. In contrast to the way the world views offenses, Jesus said we are to approach them if they have something against us. We are to leave our gift at the altar, for far more urgent in God’s sight is the need for healed relationships. He doesn’t need our money, just our obedience. The Lord views estrangement due to hatred as equal to murder. Jesus was rebuking the formal religion of the day which put more stock in formal offerings than forgiveness.
Notice that only after reconciliation are we to return and offer our gifts to God (v. 24). Jesus explains that the angry, bitter person has no right to sacrifice to God. Jesus also addresses the danger of postponement. The word “first” in this verse stresses urgency. Settle it quick, Jesus says in the next verse, while there is still time for healing in the relationship. “Don’t allow the sun to go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26). “Go and humble yourself and be reconciled” (Proverbs 6:3).
The key word in this passage is “quickly” (verse 25). Be reconciled before the hate and anger festers.
Do it ASAP.
Do it before the dispute worsens.
Do it before it comes to a court battle. (Notice the use in this verse of the words, “judge, officers and prison”)
Do it before there are legal proceedings.
Do it before the lawyers get involved.
Do it before it comes before a human judge.
Do it. Do it right. Do it right now.
Do it while you still have the opportunity to settle it out of court.
The sooner the better. Speed is of the essence. Jesus is saying if you don’t forgive, the point will come in your quarrel that mercy won’t be possible.
The longer you wait to apologize, the harder it becomes to say you are sorry. Do it right away, for the offended party may become exasperated by your procrastination and stubbornness. We are commanded here to do what is often the hardest thing to do. We fear rejection and misunderstanding. Jesus does not demand our gifts before we forgive, for He knows human nature, our reluctance to do as He commands. It costs us nothing to forgive others except our pride.
Although some would argue that their relationship to God is more important than their relationship to others, Jesus teaches us that our attitude toward God is directly reflected in our relationship to human beings. First and most importantly, be reconciled. Then return and worship God with a renewed spirit.
As we obey Jesus, we will develop the will to have pure and loving relationships with others. So get your communication right with human beings before you attempt to communicate with God. You can’t buy God off with your gifts no matter how large they are. The Lord reserves His conversations for those who converse in humility with their brothers and sisters.
Jesus’ teachings on adultery (vv. 27-30) are connected with His thoughts concerning divorce (vv. 31-32). Both are horrible sins in God’s sight and one is often the cause for the other. The point here is restraint and fidelity. God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), and what Jesus tells us here confirms His desire for lifelong fidelity between a husband and wife. Marriage is important to Jesus. His first miracle took place at a wedding. In heaven, we will be served a marriage supper. In more than one of His parables, God is depicted as a groom. Jesus knew that people would lust so He gives us a law. He does not try to explain why we lust: He simply warns against it. If Jesus didn’t think lusting was harmful, He would never have mentioned it.
The Pharisees taught that if one does not commit the act of murder, he is innocent. Jesus brought it to a higher level when He taught us not even to get angry. The Pharisees taught that if one does not actually commit adultery, he has not sinned. Jesus said don’t even lust with your eyes. What Jesus said may have shocked those steeped in hundreds of years of tradition. Heart adultery was a completely new concept in the first century. But God foresaw the twenty-first century dangers of phone sex and the porno-net, so He built this fence for all who want to be safe.
The sinner may say, “It doesn’t hurt to look!” but Jesus says otherwise. When you continue to look to excite your lust, you’ve as much as committed the act itself. He teaches us in the Beatitudes to restrain all ungodly appetites. James 1:15 teaches us that the longer you lust, the more likely you are to perform the act. Jesus tells us that ensnaring looks are also “forbidden fruit.” Eve was guilty when she ate the fruit…but she had to long for it first.
Eve gazed on the fruit just long enough to act on her lust for it…and lost paradise.
David looked at Bathsheba long enough to lust for her…and their first child died.
Samson’s lust for Delilah overpowered him…and he died like an animal.
Achan lusted for silver and gold…and got his entire family destroyed.
Judas visualized having a bag of silver…and ended up committing suicide.
The Pharisees had restricted the scope of the sixth commandment to the raw act of fornication with a married woman. Jesus showed the ideals of God’s law are to purge us of all impure thoughts. In God’s sight, the man who “has a roving eye” is an adulterer already. If the heart was pure, why the lustful looks? Since Jesus doesn’t call attention to the woman here, it proves that the nature of a woman is not the same as a man’s. There are fewer websites for woman who like to lust than there are of websites for lustful men. Men, who should be leading the way spiritually, tend to be morally weaker than women. Jesus understands human nature and gives men this sobering warning.
The strong analogy of gouging out one’s eye or cutting off a hand (vv. 29-30) is graphic, but shows how serious we must be in getting sin out of our lives. Job made “a covenant with his eyes” that he would not sin (Job 31:1). Why don’t we?
Divorce – 5:31-32
Having dealt with lust and adultery, Jesus moves on to teach on what it often results in: divorce.
The prohibition against divorce in this passage is may seem unreasonable to many Americans but not to God, for the Lord doesn’t judge sin on the basis of its social acceptability. Jesus gives further teaching on this same subject later in Matthew chapter 19 and takes us back to Genesis where God says the two are to become one flesh.
The true intent of the prohibitions against divorce in Deuteronomy was to protect a woman from being turned into the street with no legal right to remarry once she had been booted out by her husband. She would tend to be branded as a “shamed” woman, whether she ever married again.
Furthermore, the divorcing husband is actually driving her into a potentially adulteress lifestyle because she has become a marked woman. The divorcing husband is not innocent. The law of Moses required paperwork—a document so that the divorce could be finalized. God views marriage as both a legal and a spiritual covenant. But the Jews had twisted God’s intent into laws of convenience, re-writing the laws of God to allow divorce for trivial reasons. Jesus upheld the standard of lifelong, monogamous marriage as Paul reaffirmed in Romans 7:1.
Jesus places Himself here on the side of the woman, as He did concerning the woman caught in the act of adultery. He wanted to let men know that women cannot be treated like property or cattle. In protecting the honor of the woman, Jesus was also protecting the honor of the Old Testament as well. Although the Old Testament law did allow divorce, Matthew 5:32 is a safeguard against it. Jesus teaches this to warn couples not to entertain them.
The Bible leaves a couple no easy way out when the going gets rough. Many seek to get God “on their side” in their divorce proceedings. Those who seek divorce as a solution may search their Bibles for loopholes but Jesus gives none. Marriage in God’s eyes doesn’t end as easily as it might in the eyes of man. The divine Judge of the universe admonishes people to stay married. Both the husband and the wife suffer loss when a marriage is dissolved. No one ever truly wins in a divorce courtroom except the attorneys.
His statement in 5:32, “except for fornication” was not intended as a loophole to use as an instant excuse for divorce. In the extreme, fornication or adultery could be used as a reason to divorce. It is stated in order to leave no grounds for divorce when there is no fornication involved. Jesus is teaching here that, because of sexual sin, the marriage bond has already been broken to a great extent. If infidelity had not taken place, divorce might never be considered.
The Lord foresaw marriages in our century. Had Jesus not dealt with divorce in His day, think of how much more cheaply it might be treated today. He clearly teaches us that discarding one partner for another is not the answer.
So sacred is marriage to Jesus that the when the bond is broken, there are repercussions for anyone treating cheaply what God had originally joined together. Infidelity pollutes one’s soul. “No Tampering” is the sign God puts on the door of a married couple. None should dare to treat cheaply what God values so highly.
Jesus is concerned about sexual carelessness. He never taught on the subject of “safe sex.” Jesus builds a wall of protection around the married couple in these verses. He shows how God views people who treat marriage cheaply. The heart of verse 32 is to clearly state that God’s desire is for a man to have one wife for life. Couples must think of innovative ways to sweeten and strengthen marriages not looking for fine print to get out of them.
A beautiful wedding doesn’t guarantee a beautiful married life. But if you have invited Jesus to your wedding, invite Him into your marriage as well.
Oaths – 5:33-37
Jesus never wastes His breath on trivial things. If He puts making rash vows and taking oaths in the same category with adultery, divorce and murder, then it’s important to God. Vows and oaths to God had their place, but man tends to forget their original intent. “Better to not take an oath than to take one and not keep it” (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5).
During the earlier days of the judicial system in our country, people were required to testify under oath by swearing on the Bible. This was done to affirm that their testimony was as true as God’s Word. The phrase at the end of this vow was, “so help me God,” invoking God to witness and affirm the oath. Today we hear the expression “I swear on my mother’s grave” as if to say, “If I break this vow, it will bring dishonor to my family.” Children playing are often heard to say, “I swear on a stack of Bibles!” It is common today to hear people say in everyday conversations, “I swear to God that it’s true!”
Vows and oaths are common, and therein lies the problem. People tend to swear to do things and sign documents but often default on their word. Jesus is not forbidding the taking of vows, but the abuse of them. To be frivolous with an oath is to be frivolous with God Himself.
The Lord upheld the Old Testament laws as sacred. When He says, “You have heard it said,” He is pointing to the many years throughout which God’s law had been twisted and reinterpreted by man. In this verse, Jesus refined the third commandment to “not take the name of the Lord in vain.” In Leviticus19:12, God said, “Don’t swear by My Name falsely.”
Taking oaths was a common practice throughout the Bible.
In Genesis 21 – Abimelech made Abraham swear to God he wouldn’t harm him.
In Genesis 25 – Jacob made Esau swear when he traded off his birthright.
In Genesis 47 – Israel made Joseph swear he would not bury him in Egypt.
In Joshua 2 – Rahab made the two spies swear they would save her and her family.
In Ezra 9 – Ezra made entire nation of Israel swear to divorce their heathen wives.
In Jeremiah 22 – God swore by Himself that there will be judgment.
In Matthew 26 – Jesus Himself didn’t hesitate to testify under oath. When He was told to swear by God if He was the Christ, Jesus said, “You have said it.”
When you sign your name to something bought on credit, you are swearing to pay for it. Millions are in debt in America because they have hastily given their word to pay for things but don’t. When one has a good “credit report” it means that their name can be depended upon. With this in mind, it is good to reflect upon how good credit and paying our bills on time can positively affect our testimonies.
Jesus commands us to “pay up” – to fully perform the vows we make (v. 33). It is superfluous oaths that Jesus teaches against. Vows today are often as worthless as New Year’s Resolutions. We swear to ourselves we will lose weight this year but we avoid exercise. A man may swear to God to forever cherish the wife He provided…but soon trades her off for a younger model.
The use of the name of God was somewhat respected by the Jews due to the third commandment (Exodus 20:7), so they sought ways to vow but leave God out of the oath as much as possible. This only led to abuse of the reason for vowing in the first place. The Pharisees had come to believe that as long as God’s name wasn’t involved, the oath wasn’t binding—paving the way for half-hearted, frivolous oaths. But omission of the name of God within the oath doesn’t omit the possibility of judgment if the vow is broken. The religious rulers of Jesus’ day had come to be preoccupied with the degree of binding force an oath may have. To swear by this or that inanimate object was supposed to add or diminish the power of the vow. The Pharisees and Sadducees swore on such things as the temple and the gold of the temple (Matthew 23:16-19). Jesus told them not to do it.
Jesus quotes Isaiah 66:1, “Thus saith the Lord, heaven is my throne and earth is my footstool.” To swear by inanimate objects is not trivial, for Jesus teaches here a link between these things and heaven (v. 34). Don’t swear by earth either, for God owns that as well. Neither swear by Jerusalem (v. 35), for that is God’s Holy City. Jesus is not against making vows to God, but He commands us in verse 33 to perform the oaths we make.
I am not even to swear on my own life, for I am actually inviting God to kill me if I fault on my vow (v. 36). Why? “Because you can’t make one heart black or white.” In those days, you could not control your hair color. The fact that you cannot control the natural aging process (of your hair becoming white) points to the fact you have no power to make yourself young or old. The fact that I cannot control my aging process should remind me that God gave me life in the first place. So to swear by myself is to swear by the One who gave me life. I am not to swear on my own life (“by your head” v. 36), for I am really asking God to strike me dead if I am lying.
So how do Jesus’ thoughts here translate into twenty-first century theology? To answer this question, we must get at the psychological reasons why humans make vows in the first place. Somehow, we have come to believe that swearing before God will help us keep the vows we make. So Jesus says here to just “tell it like it is.” “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” The point here is that the Christian should make him or herself crystal clear. Our communication should be simple, truthful and easily understood.
To speak in “shades of gray” is from Satan, for he is the father of lies (John 8:44). In the first book of the Old Testament, he told half truths to Eve in the garden, In the first book of the New Testament, he did the same to Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus warns of the evil purposes that are often hidden behind oaths. Satan has contempt for all sacred things, including vows.
With the divorce rate reaching epidemic proportions in America, it is obvious that marriage vows are often not taken seriously either. At the altar, ministers are often heard to say, “I charge you both in the sight of God”…to do such and such. When he asks the couple to repeat after him, he stands in God’s place. When the couple say to each other, “I pledge you my faithfulness,” it means they swear to have sex with only that person “till death do us part.” Then they vow to forsake all others and keep only unto each other as long as they both shall live,” affirming God’s standard for lifelong marriages.
The wedding rings are the emblems of those vows. They are a constant reminder of the fact that each has sworn to love, honor, cherish and protect the other. Couples often forget that they took an oath before God. Therefore, they invoke His judgment upon them if they break their vows. Has any marriage ever ended beautifully? How sweet is the atmosphere in a divorce courtroom? It is neither incidental nor accidental that Jesus teaches on rash vows immediately after teaching on adultery and divorce (vv. 27-32).
In Matthew 26, Peter swore to Jesus that he would never deny Him. But later in the same chapter, Peter swore he never knew Him. In Matthew 5, Jesus stresses the need for integrity in what His disciples say, for He knows they will also be saying and teaching His Word. A Christian is always “under oath” to tell the truth, so Jesus here seeks to protect the attitude behind the words His disciples speak.
We are to protect life – don’t murder or be angry (vv. 21-26).
We are to protect marriage – don’t fornicate or divorce (vv. 27-32).
We are to protect our integrity – don’t vow flippantly (vv. 33-37)
Revenge – 5:38-42
Jesus spoke to Jews living under an inflexible Roman rule, but His teaching concerning mercy held no meaning for Romans. Their mercilessness was already legendary. However, the concept of showing mercy was already firmly established in the Jewish mind by the Old Testament law. “If an enemy is hungry, feed him” (Proverbs 25). Jesus was not proposing new ideas before a legislative assembly. He was sharing on topics already familiar to common folks…but from God’s point of view.
The Jewish leaders tended to insist on taking revenge and even to mandate repercussions against wrongdoers. They overlooked Leviticus 19:18 which forbade revenge and bearing a grudge. Jesus quoted part of that very same verse when He said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Although the concept of “an eye for an eye” was indeed part of Old Testament Law (Exodus 21), Jesus opposed the traditional obligation to punish the offender. Revenge is an instinct, a carnal one. The spirit of Leviticus was to promote justice, not demand retaliation. One had the right to decline to prosecute.
The concept of demanding a “tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21) was so well known in Israel, it had come to be known as the “lex talionis”—“the law of the tooth.” Since every culture on earth has laws, the concept of demanding repayment for offenses had been universally engrained in the minds of men centuries before Jesus came. But Moses’ law was given to regulate the decision of judges: never to promote vengeance. In the kingdom that Jesus came to establish, private retaliation was not part of His manifesto. Concepts of love, patience, mercy and grace permeate all of Jesus’ teachings.
To illustrate mercy from God’s perspective, Jesus gives us four illustrations in the verses that follow:
1. Turning the other cheek – v. 39
2. Giving away both your coat and cloak – v. 40
3. Going two miles when compelled to go one – v. 41
4. Lending to those that seek to borrow from you – v. 42
Jesus taught us that our private dealings with one another must be governed by the principle of forgiveness, not the desire to “get even.”
All four of these situations have one thing in common: personal insult and degradation. They refer to personal injustices and how we are to handle them.
Why should I not retaliate when slapped? It insults my honor.
No one likes to be slapped in the face. Although it may not hurt very much, it is always a direct insult to one’s honor. Dealing with personal affronts is difficult for almost everybody. By not reacting to trivial things, we can teach people about eternal things.
Why should I give away both my coats? It is exploitation.
This refers to laws concerning personal property. In the era in which Jesus lived and taught, people commonly wore both an inner and an outer garment. To sue someone for their innermost coat was to strip them of even the bare essentials. “If they demand your jacket, give them your shirt as well.” From this verse the old adage developed concerning giving another “the shirt off my back.” Jesus sought to neutralize defense mechanisms, to suffer loss rather than quarrel.
Why travel that second mile? It means being taken advantage of.
The picture here is the loss of personal freedom. The word “mile” here is a Roman mile—about a thousands paces. Jesus commands us to go two thousands steps instead. It’s better to serve this man than to fight him. By walking with him you can witness to him and turn a fiend into a friend. Go the distance with him peacefully. While we do not invite impositions, we can use them for God’s glory.
Why lend and give things away? What’s mine is mine!
This is really a command to give to those in need; not set yourself up to be exploited. The Christian is to be ready and willing to give to others as freely as Jesus has given to us. Nothing is said here about giving to the lazy and thereby promoting further laziness. Paul teaches in II Thessalonians 3:10 that those who refuse to work should go hungry. Jesus’ point here is to not seek repayment for what you give. We have no excuse to be stingy. View a request from another as a chance to bless them. In meeting their physical needs, they are more likely to listen to your testimony. We are to give willingly, not grudgingly, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (II Corinthians 9:7).
But this does not mean Christians are to be wimps, punching bags and doormats. (Note that nothing is said about standing idly by while another person is being slapped) Neither does it mean to disregard all laws of self-preservation. It means to resist evil when possible, but don’t seek vengeance when evil comes upon you. “Father, forgive them” was Jesus’ heart cry from the cross. He would have contradicted His own teachings had Jesus taught us to “Love your neighbor: but slap him back!”
We are to go two miles, give up our coat, lend and turn the other cheek rather than fight. Such concepts are difficult for Christians—and almost senseless to unbelievers. Paul reiterates this same concept in Romans 12:17, “Repay no man evil for evil.” But being slapped, sued or forced to do things against our will tests our true Christianity. Turning the other cheek, giving away possessions, personal inconveniences and unpaid personal loans can cause bitterness, resentment and broken relationships. But Jesus teaches us to respond to the needs of others in the spirit of grace, mercy and understanding.
As always, Jesus stands alone in such teachings. He taught us these principles because He knew we would encounter injustices, that people would be mean to us, exploit and insult us. Jesus did not teach us how to avoid conflict but rather how to react to it. II Peter 2:23 reminds us that, when He was reviled, Jesus didn’t retaliate. His commands are self-authenticating, for human beings tend to respond favorably when shown love and mercy. His laws of non-retaliation are further explained by the laws of love He teaches in the verses which follow.
Love – 5:43-48
This passage serves as an expansion of Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself (Mt. 22:39). He teaches a complete reversal of the natural tendency to hate one’s enemies. We are to love them instead.
Jesus uncovers the fallacy of what the religious leaders claimed and blows away all they taught as hearsay. He seemed to view their petty regulations as just wind. Christ’s protest here is that they had added their own thoughts to God’s Word and said, “and hate your enemies.” The Pharisees had twisted Leviticus 19:18 and claimed that hatred was approved by God, when in fact that verse forbids revenge. They also omitted the second part of that very same verse which teaches us to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” This passage proves how far the Rabbis had departed from God’s original Law. Nowhere did Moses ever teach that we are to hate people.
We need to read the Old Testament through Jesus’ reading glasses. In verse 44, Jesus tells us to bless and pray for our enemies. God knows that this type of response to offenses does not come easily to most human beings. To love one’s neighbor is not so hard, but to love one’s enemies? This is why He sent His Holy Spirit to help us. Jesus does not ask us to love what they do to us, but to love them personally. When we hate people and seek vengeance, the cause of Christ is hindered. This is one of the most difficult tests of our fidelity to God. The natural tendency of human beings is payback. As children of God, we cannot hate the people that we witness to.
Furthermore, we are to bless those who curse us, as Jesus already taught in the Beatitudes (v. 11). To “bless them” means that we are to speak well of them, to answer them with friendly words. The Lord does not ask us to be hypocritical. When we have said all the good we can, we are to say no more (I Peter 3:9).
“Do good to those who hate you” (v. 44). This is a step beyond saying nice things to those who curse. This means “going the second mile” and inconveniencing yourself in order to help the very ones who seek to hurt you. It’s easy to render good to those who do good to us, but to do good to those who would harm us is nearly impossible without the assistance of the Spirit of God.
“Pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus has already addressed persecution at the end of His Beatitudes (vv. 10-12). But here He draws us deeper into the love of God and commands us to pray for them. Why? Because He knows it is impossible to hate someone and pray for them at the same time.
Praying for your enemies is not a psychological trick. Prayer breaks Satan’s power by diffusing hostile intentions. Pray that by your words and deeds your enemies will be drawn closer to God by seeing the love of God in you. To accomplish this, forgiveness is essential. In verse 45, Jesus provides us with the reason for all this: “that we may be seen as God’s children.” Such love toward enemies marks us as belonging to Christ. As Jesus prayed for His murderers, we resemble God as we love our enemies.
Just as God sends His rain “on the just and the unjust” so we are to show impartiality in our love to others. Both sun and rain, deliberately and regularly sent from God, are proofs of His love for humankind. Natural elements such as sunshine and water illustrate how much God loves even those who take His blessings for granted. We do not deserve His blessings…just as our enemies do not deserve ours. Jesus says to bless them anyway.
He is asking us to go beyond what sinners typically do. “If you only love those who love you” (v. 46) it does not definitively show the love of God within you. Doing good to those who do the same to you is natural but to love your enemies is spiritual. “What reward do you get for that?” asks Jesus. “What’s so special about it? If you only converse with those you love, how is that type of love unique?” Jesus commands us to go beyond what comes easily…and walk that second mile.
“Therefore” (v. 48) as if to say “in conclusion,” Jesus summarizes everything He has taught in the previous verses by stating that we should seek to be mature as our Heavenly Father is. We are to be “teleioi” – completed. The term refers to a mechanism that is complete with all its parts. Applied to human beings, it means that nothing is lacking. Jesus means for us to be totally mature. This term also describes one who has “come of age,” one who has become a spiritual adult. The Writer to the Hebrews uses this same term when he urges us to “advance steadily toward spiritual maturity.” (6:1 Amplified)
Jesus concludes this dynamic chapter by urging Christians to be consistent and unbiased in our love for others. If this was impossible, Jesus would not have so commanded us. Believers must believe that they can be better than they are. Paul taught the Philippians to strive toward maturity and admitted that he was still moving toward that goal himself (3:12). Look back over the dynamics Jesus has covered in this chapter:
Endure evil and be ready to go that extra mile.
Don’t do wrong to anyone and don’t avenge wrongs.
Don’t hate the one who hurts you. Love him instead.
Make spiritual maturity your goal.
The Sermon on the Mount forces believers to make choices. It progresses from simple Beatitudes to the challenges of loving enemies. Taken as a whole, Matthew 5-7 is Jesus’ claim upon the entire life of every believer. It was radical teachings such as these that nailed Jesus to the cross.