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Introduction

I remember a little joke we shared when we attended teachers college, preparing for a world of children who would sometimes ask questions for which we didn’t have any answers. One wag stood up and said, ‘When you don’t know the answer, make it up, but give the answer with real confidence.’ I don’t think he had politicians in mind! Most people tend to be cynical when they hear politicians speak. But, when they hear representatives of the Christian Church speak, they expect something better, more correct, more reliable.

Not long ago, a well-known, ‘evangelical’ leader was interviewed on the ABC program Compass on the issue of a particular group that was desperately seeking acceptance by the rest of society. He made the statement that it is the ‘Pharisees’ in the Church that had marginalised this particular group. He went on to say that Jesus never marginalised anyone. Is that so? There are many issues that Christians depend on biblical ‘experts’ to clarify for them. However, unless we have some kind of measure against which we can evaluate what they are saying, we have no guarantee that they know what they are talking about; no matter how educated they may be; or, how well-known they may be; or, how authoritatively they seem to speak.

It’s a problem that has always existed. It existed in Jesus’ day. The Pharisees and teachers of the Jewish Law had the responsibility of shaping the people’s understanding of God, and what his law required of them. Many of the ordinary people were either illiterate, or had no way of accessing the Scriptures of the Old Testament. They depended on the religious teachers of the day for their understanding of these Scriptures. Most of them would not have been aware that some time after their Exile in Babylon, something happened in their religious understanding that completely changed the significance of what God required of them.

How did this happen? The Exile in Babylon, that began in 586 BC, was an incredibly traumatic experience for the nation and its leaders. Their trust in the unshakable institutions, such the temple and the worship that was conducted by the priests, suddenly ceased to exist. They no longer had a king. When they finally returned to their homeland by the decree of Cyrus who was inspired by God, they had to reassess their whole self-understanding in the light of the Covenant at Mt Sinai. The need to reassess was correct, but their conclusions were wrong. Their leaders decided that they had been punished by God for failing to keep the Law God had given them. So they set about explaining how that law was to be kept for the benefit of the ignorant masses. (see Jn. 7:49). They added a multitude of explanations to God’s laws, and regarded the keeping of the explanations as important as the original Law. Their concept of righteousness depended on the keeping of the letter of the law. They failed to see the underlying problem, that God looked for an obedience that came from a relationship of trust in him, and a love for him. This was completely missing.

When people went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, they heard the ‘law and the prophets’ and the ‘psalms’ read to them, but the interpretation that followed misrepresented the whole spirit of God’s Word and will for them.

In defining how the ordinary person could become righteous, they left out the essential ingredient—a person’s relationship with God. What they were saying is this: ‘You can become righteous by obeying all the laws that we have set down for you. But, you have to make sure that you obey every letter of the law.’

It is true that the Ten Commandments were the basic building blocks for their understanding of how to live as people who belonged to God. But all of them were commands that told them how to live in their relationship with God and with one another, beginning with the first and greatest requirement, that they needed to love God with the whole heart, soul and strength. (Deut. 6:4). From the outset, they were called into a love relationship with their God. How they obeyed all the other commands depended on how they obeyed the first one.

Let’s imagine two people in a married relationship—because that is the closest image that describes the relationship into which God called Israel. Imagine two people saying to each other, ‘From now on, let us specify in writing how we are going to act towards each other. You will do this, this and this…and I will do this, this and this. We would say that they had missed the plot. They had totally misunderstood what a love relationship is all about. Love introduces a dimension to one’s actions that goes beyond the mere words. This is what Judaism failed to understand.

Matthew 5-7 is the equivalent of God giving his law to Israel at Sinai. In this case Jesus tells his disciples how they should live as his disciples.

Matthew 5:17–21

From the outset, Jesus made it clear that he had not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfil them. In some references the expression the ‘Law and the Prophets’ refers to the whole of the OT. If that is the case here, then Jesus meant that he had come to fulfil all that the OT promised about him. In a sense that is very true. However, the context in Matthew suggests that there is more to it than that. After his introductory comments in 5:17-20, Jesus went on to examine specific laws as taught within the oral tradition of Judaism. It seems likely, therefore, that the ‘Law and the Prophets’ are to be understood in a narrower sense in this context, i.e. in relation to specific commandments and Covenant obligations, especially as they had been misrepresented by the teachers of the Law—not by Moses!

In vv.17-20, Jesus explains his relationship to the Word of God expressed in the Law; and, in the rest of the chapter, he illustrates this relationship. He speaks as someone who has supreme authority (Mt. 7:29; Mk.1:22). Yet, despite this authority, Jesus said he had not come to abolish the ‘Law and the Prophets’, but to fulfil them. What he had to say was obviously in harmony with what God had already said through the ‘Law and the Prophets’, in the OT.

What did Jesus mean by the term ‘fulfil’? One meaning is to ‘complete’, or to bring into being that which was promised. In other words, Jesus brought into being what was promised in the OT. In all of our considerations we need to remember that for a solution to our question to be adequate, it needs to be both necessary and sufficient. The view just mentioned, is certainly necessary for our understanding of the whole of Scripture, but it does not explain in what sense Jesus fulfilled OT law or prophecy in this context. To know in what direction to look for a more comprehensive solution to our question, we need to see what follows Jesus’ introductory comments in 5:17-20.

Jesus went on to deal with the way the oral law in Judaism failed to represent the true meaning of the law God had given Israel. In doing so, he told them how it was meant to be understood, and how it was to be worked out. He made no suggestion that the OT revelation of God’s will as expressed in the ‘Law and the Prophets’ was inadequate. What was inadequate, was Judaism’s understanding of that revelation, and the oral tradition that perpetuated the wrong understanding.

Plummer is right when he says, “fulfilling the Law… does not mean taking the written law as it stands, and literally obeying it. That is what [Jesus] condemns, not as wrong, but as wholly inadequate. He means rather, starting with it as it stands, and bringing it to completeness; working out the spirit of it; getting at the comprehensive principles which underlie the narrowness of the letter. These [Jesus] sets forth as the essence of the revelation made by God through the Law and the Prophets.”[1]

What is clear, is that Jesus condemned the attitude that disregarded even the smallest commandment, and/or was prepared to teach others to do the same. This could not possibly refer to the OT as a whole. Such a person would not be expelled from the kingdom of heaven, but would receive a lesser place in it. He had failed to see the relationship of the parts to the whole, thus weakening the authority of the whole.

The righteousness that God demanded, was far greater than the scrupulous observance of the letter of the law-type of ‘righteousness’ practised by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. The righteousness that God required, begins with the literal observance of the law given by God, but goes beyond it. It seeks to do the will of God fully and wholeheartedly, as the six illustrations in vv21-48, indicate.

Each of the six illustrations Jesus gave to illustrate his meaning, begins with the expression, “You have heard that it was said…,” or, a variation of it. This is not the same as, “…it is written.” Jesus was not referring to the written law, but to the oral law of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. While the written law may have been faithfully read in the synagogues, the teaching that accompanied the reading of the law obscured its true meaning. Most of the population was illiterate, and only knew God’s law from what they were taught, or heard. In the six illustrations given by Matthew, Jesus begins with the original law and then goes on to correct the misrepresentation of it, by the Jewish leaders.

Illustration 1—Hatred and murder (vv.21-26)

Human courts can only judge the act [of murder], while God judges the inward motives that are fostered within a person, and ultimately lead to murder. In saying this, Jesus in no way abrogates the law that forbids murder, but goes to the root of the problem. He says that the problem of hatred needs to be dealt with in the life of the believer, where, and when it begins.

Commentators find v.22 difficult to exegete. There seems to be a gradation of guilt, followed by a gradation of punishment, but what that punishment is, is not very clear. Plummer describes the gradation of guilt as: 1) beginning with unexpressed hatred, 2) going on to expressed contempt, and finally, 3) leading to expressed abuse.

If a Christian allows hatred for a fellow-believer to grow, and doesn’t deal with it, it will lead to even greater acts of rebellion against God’s law, and even greater punishment. The believer has the responsibility to submit his thoughts about fellow‑believers, and the words that they give rise to, to God’s scrutiny, before they lead to actions that are condemned by the courts.

True worship takes place when all one’s thoughts, words and actions are surrendered to the Lord, and are acceptable in his sight. In this reference, the worshipper is at fault, for he has caused a fellow-believer to hold ill-feelings against him. It is in his power to set the matter right. Only if he does so, will his worship be acceptable.

Not only must the problem be resolved, but it must be resolved quickly. “Beware of persisting in conduct which must expose you to the action of him who is at once Prosecutor, Witness, Judge, and the Executioner of the judgement.” This is a parable, and not an allegory. We must be careful not to seek detailed explanation of all of its parts. It merely stresses the urgent need for reconciliation.

Illustration 2—Lust and adultery (vv.27-30)

Purity of heart was not only necessary for any wholesome Christian community, but essential for membership in the kingdom of heaven. The Christian is to live in the presence of One, before whom nothing is hidden, not even the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Heb. 4:12-13).

Again Jesus makes it clear that the act of adultery has its origins in the lustful thoughts that are given freedom to reign in the mind.

The word ‘woman’ in the Greek, is nearly always used of a married woman, or ‘wife’. What Jesus is condemning, in the light of the seventh commandment [against adultery], and probably the tenth one as well [against coveting the neighour’s wife], is the deliberate harbouring of desire for an illicit relationship with one who was out of bounds.

As in the first illustration, there is a gradation of guilt: 1) The eye. That’s the medium through which the temptation comes. Then, 2) the hand, the instrument by which sin is committed.

Jesus is using figurative language in his condemnation. The point he makes, is that the Christian is to withdraw from whatever stage in the temptation he finds himself, no matter how costly it may be, i.e. right eye, and right hand are the most valuable. This cost cannot be compared to the cost he will ultimately pay, if he doesn’t withdraw. Because Jesus is dealing with issues of the heart, he is obviously not talking about self-mutilation. Removal of physical parts of the body does not change the attitude of the heart; something certain schools of Islam have failed to understand.

Illustration 3—Divorce and adultery (vv.31-32)

What Jesus says in this passage must be considered together with Matthew 19:3-9. The traditionally held Jewish view on divorce was based on the Mosaic practice in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The practice that was ‘permitted’ by Moses due to the hardness of people’s hearts, had become hardened into a legal precept.

Moses permitted divorce if a husband found ‘something indecent’ about his wife. The term ‘indecency’ literally means ‘nakedness of a thing’. The real meaning of this expression is not clear, but could possibly refer to some immodest exposure, or unacceptable womanly conduct. It couldn’t mean adultery, because that carried the death penalty.

Cause for divorce was debated by the various schools of Rabbis. The school of Shammai defined ‘indecency’ as sexual misdemeanour that could be proved by witnesses. However, it was the school of Hillel that governed actual practice in Jesus’ day. They regarded ‘indecency’ as any cause of complaint by the husband against his wife.

In pronouncing on the issue of divorce, Jesus said that at the beginning of creation, when God made human beings male and female, marriage was permanent and binding. It was a divinely sealed union, that no human agent had a right to dissolve. While Moses made a concession due to human hardness, the practice of the day did not reflect God’s original intention for marriage. The Jews had taken that which was a concession, and abused it by giving a man freedom to dismiss his wife at a whim.

The only reason for divorce that was legitimate, Jesus said, was marital unfaithfulness, or adultery on the part of the wife. If a man divorces his wife for any other reason, the marriage of the divorced woman and her new husband, was adultery, but the blame for the adultery of the woman rested with her former husband, who “caused her to become an adulteress” (5:32b).

To reject a wife who was guilty of adultery was another matter. To divorce her was simply the recognition that the marriage had already been terminated by the new union. Divorce in such a case was obligatory [See Jeremiah 3:1-8, regarding God’s attitude towards the northern kingdom].

In the story of Hosea, the prophet refused to divorce his wife, despite her unfaithfulness. Consequently, he was able to take her back when he found her. It illustrated the message of the prophet, that God was faithful to Israel despite their unfaithfulness, and did not put them away forever. (Isaiah 50:1a).

Marriage as a covenant, demonstrates to the world what God thinks of covenant keeping. It is not to be entered lightly, but once people enter into a covenant relationship before God, both parties are bound to each other by an unbreakable tie. Is it easy to remain true to that covenant relationship? Far from it. In fact, if we were to try to be faithful to the spirit of the covenant, we would find it impossible. Only the grace of God is able to help us maintain a covenant relationship in a world that is spoiled by sin, and selfishness. Nevertheless, we cannot break covenant without suffering negative repercussions in one way or other. Can God forgive us if under unusually difficult conditions we find that we break this convenant? Yes, he can, but we still have to live with certain consequences that won’t go away easily.

There was a stage among Christian Churches when a couple, faced by irreconcilable differences was encouraged to come before God, admit that they had failed, seek his forgiveness, and part from each other. This was a Christian cop-out, because God says that he hates ‘divorce’ (Malachi 2:16), because divorce misrepresents his attitude toward all relationships. When there are 1 in 2 marriage breakups in Christian Churches, as is happening in the US, then the Church has failed to represent God and his will to the world.

Illustration 4—Truthfulness (vv.33-37)

In the case of murder and adultery, Jesus gave the authoritative interpretation of the spirit of the law, and showed how much more there was to the law than taught by the Rabbis. In the case of divorce and oaths, Jesus opposed the established Jewish tradition. The Jews claimed that only oaths made in the name of God had to be kept, and not necessarily all of them. In regard to swearing, only certain forms were binding. Perjury was not sinful, they claimed, unless the oath was made in a particular form [See Mt. 23:16-22]. The problem of dishonesty had become so great in Judaism, that it was raised in the Talmud, which pronounced that an oath was binding if it was repeated.

Jesus said that all oaths involved God, for heaven is God’s footstool, Jerusalem is his city, and the head is his creation. Every pronouncement made by those who claim to be members of the kingdom of heaven, had to be truthful. James correctly understood what Jesus said, when he wrote, “Let your ‘Yes’ be yes, and your ‘No’, no…” (Jas. 5:12). In interpersonal relationships there is no need for a Christian to confirm the truthfulness of what is said with an oath; the need to confirm what is said with an oath ‘comes from evil’, or ‘the evil one’.

Regarding oaths, however, there are exceptions, such as requirements in courts of law. Even Jesus was prepared to condescend to an oath when questioned by the high priest at his trial (Mt. 26:63-64). The apostle Paul resorted to oaths when he had to deal with the unbelief of some of the Christian churches (2 Cor. 1:23; Gal. 1:20).

The emphasis in Jesus’ condemnation is not on oaths as such, but on untruthfulness that was obscured by carefully verbalised oaths. The casuistry of the Rabbis was totally condemned.

Illustration 5—Retribution (vv.38-42)

The issue Jesus deals with here, is a very old principle of retribution, or retaliation. This principle is laid down in Ex. 21:23ff; Lev. 24:17ff; and Deut. 19:18-21. However, it goes back in history to very ancient laws and practices. One version of this law was recorded in the Code of Hammurabi, in the 18th century BC, where it stated that, “If a man has caused the loss of a gentleman’s eye, one shall cause his eye to be lost. If a man has made the tooth of a man that is his equal to fall out, one shall make his tooth fall out…”, and so on.

Each of the OT references is presented in a slightly different setting. In Exodus, it is a principle laid down when dealing with retribution, where injury or loss has been sustained by one party; in Leviticus, it is given in the context of blasphemy; while in Deuteronomy, it is guidance given to judges when dealing with false witnesses, i.e. If the witness to an alleged injury or crime is proved false, he must suffer the punishment intended for the accused.

In the context of Jewish society, this law was to be implemented by the courts, or judges. It was not an action to be taken by an individual. What did this law, as it was to be applied among God’s Covenant people, really mean? Thompson points out that, “This principle is often misunderstood. Far from encouraging vengeance, it limits vengeance and stands as a guide for a judge as he fixes a penalty suited to the crime…. Basically, [this law] expresses a view of a man’s life as something sacred without material equivalent…. Jesus’ criticism of this law arose from its use to regulate conduct between individuals. He did not reject it as a principle of justice which should operate in the courts of law.” In other words, the courts were to ensure that the punishment did not exceed the crime. In Jesus’ day, physical penalties were generally replaced by financial damages.

When it came to principles regulating behaviour between fellow-Christians, Jesus said that the principle of insisting on retaliation, or retribution, had no place. He did not condemn the prosecution of those who are guilty of robbery and violence; rather, he condemned the spirit of revenge.

A Christian should not “resist” an evil person, or try to “retaliate”. All the examples Jesus gives deal with an individual’s response to another individual. These examples are not to be taken literally; they simply make the point that instead of avenging himself on a fellow-believer, a Christian should do the very opposite. To be able to do that, he needs to adopt a radically different perspective on personhood and ownership of property, than that which exists in the world.

Paul understood that what Jesus said, was a reaffirmation of what God had already made plain in the OT. When he wrote to the Church in Rome, he quoted from Proverbs 25:21-22.

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord. On the contrary; 'If your enemy is hungry feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.' (Romans 12:19-21).

A Christian’s attitude towards one who begs of him, should be generous. In the parallel reference in Luke 6:30, Luke used the verb ‘give’ in the present imperative tense, indicating that this giving should be a regular feature of life. In Matthew 5:42, ‘give’ is in the aorist imperative tense, suggesting the need to give on particular occasions.

It has been suggested that the literal application of this rule could lead to “a class of saintly paupers, owning nothing, and another of prosperous idlers and thieves.” What it does say, however, is that in helping those in genuine need, Christians should do so without a grudging heart. [See Deut. 15:7-11].

What does this have to do with the principle of just retribution? Unfortunately, there are Christians who claim that the poor are poor, because they haven’t worked hard enough, and therefore don’t deserve what their more prosperous fellow-Christians have. Jesus condemns this view of ‘just retribution’ and ‘ownership’.

To insist on the law of retribution being applied among Christians in interpersonal relationships, was to introduce Judaistic legalism into the community of grace. God did not act towards us according to our sins, but according to grace, and we should therefore reflect his grace towards others, either the poor, or those who hurt us. Grace opposes the whole concept of ‘just retribution’. Once again, Paul reflects Jesus’ teaching on this issue, when he wrote to the Church in Corinth:

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. (1 Corinthians 6:7-8).

Illustration 6—Loving the enemy (vv.43-48)

To “love your neighbour as yourself”, was an OT command (Leviticus 19:18). The question that was asked repeatedly among the Jews was, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (See Lk. 10:20). This was asked so that they would know who to exclude from that love. They inferred from this command that the rest were to be ‘hated’. In fact, the term ‘hated’ in the NT simply meant ‘not loved’, or ‘loved less’ [See Mt. 6:24; Rom. 9:13; Lk. 14:26]. The Jews concluded that the law bound them to love their fellow-Israelites, but not their Gentile neighbours. The Pharisees tended to exclude even the ordinary people from the definition of ‘neighbour’. Once they had drawn a circle around themselves, it excluded all others from their concern.

One of the factors that divided Jew and Gentile, and even Jew and Jew, was hostility and conflict. The godly in Israel discovered that they were frequently persecuted by their own fellow-Israelites. At a later stage, Jews tended to define the concept of ‘neighbour’ in the most parochial way, as ‘the person I like’.

Jesus redefined this law in terms of the way God relates to all human beings, good or bad, for all stand in need before him. If the Christian is to reflect his parentage, then he must act towards everyone in the impartial way God, his heavenly Father, acts, who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

If the Christian’s behaviour is parochial, based on ethnicity, class, wealth, interests, and so on, then he is no better than a ‘tax collector’ or a ‘pagan’. These groups naturally gravitate around their own kind.

A disciple of Jesus Christ is a child of the kingdom, and is to reflect the Father’s love and grace to all, even those who are his persecutors. Only in this way will he reflect his parentage faithfully.

Summary and Conclusions

Membership in the kingdom of heaven, requires a righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. In each of the six illustrations, Jesus clarified what that meant. Scraping away the barnacles of human laws and interpretations that had come to hide the real intentions of God, Jesus went to the heart of that law.

God expects His children (emphatic ‘You’) to be in complete harmony with his will, and so reflect the true character of their heavenly Father. This is most likely the real meaning of, to ‘be perfect’. The Greek word for ‘perfect’ is ‘teleios’, and means more than moral perfection; it includes the idea of ‘completeness’ or ‘wholeness’. This is the way Paul uses the word when he spoke of spiritual ‘maturity’ (1 Cor. 2:6; 14:20; Phil. 3:15).

Children of the kingdom are recipients of the grace of God. They are called to live lives that reflect the nature and will of God completely, or ‘perfectly’. It involves understanding what is at the heart of God’s requirements, and living in a way that reflects these requirements, and the grace that underpins them, faithfully, completely, ‘perfectly’. Failure to act in grace towards others, is a failure to understand that one has been saved by grace alone [See Mt. 6:12, 14-15; 18:21-35]. When that happens, the true nature of God is misrepresented.

This integration with the Father’s will, relates to the areas of anger, all male/female relationships, truthfulness, faithfulness in promise-keeping, one’s view of self and ownership of property, and one’s relationship towards everybody else, including those who bring misery to us.

We may have absorbed all kinds of ideas about being a Christian from what other people have told us, from what we have heard in sermons, from what we have read in books. That is what Jesus referred to as, “You have heard it said…” What we need to do is to find out what the Bible tells us about Christian living, and seek the kind of understanding that reflects God’s nature.

Ultimately, what God requires of us, is humanly impossible. So, why dangle before us a demand that is impossible for us to obey? The very impossibility of it, is to throw us on the grace and mercy of God day by day. It is to produce a humility in us, not a self-righteousness as it did among the Pharisees and teachers of the law. It reminds us of what the prophet Micah said,

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8).

[1] Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St Matthew (London: Elliot Stock, 1910) p76.