Today we read the most famous sermon in the world, The Sermon on the Mount. Welcome! Jesus teaches the Beatitudes, about salt and light, about the law, about anger, lust, divorce, vows, retaliation and loving our enemies. It’s a long chapter with tons of practical information.
JESUS GIVES THE BEATITUDES / 5:1-12
Matthew 5-7 is called the Sermon on the Mount because Jesus gave it on a hillside near Capernaum. This “sermon” probably covered several days of preaching. In it, Jesus revealed his attitude toward the law of Moses, explaining that he requires faithful and sincere obedience, not ceremonial religion. The Sermon on the Mount challenged the teachings of the proud and legalistic religious leaders of the day. It called people back to the messages of the Old Testament prophets who, like Jesus, had taught that God wants heartfelt obedience, not mere legalistic observance of laws and rituals.
The most well-known and provocative portion of the Sermon on the Mount is known as the Beatitudes (5:3-10). These are a series of blessings promised to those who exhibit the attributes of God’s kingdom.
- present a code of ethics for the disciples and a standard of conduct for all believers,
- contrast kingdom values (what is eternal) with worldly values (what is temporary),
- contrast the superficial “faith” of the Pharisees with the real faith that Christ wants, and
- show how the future kingdom will fulfill Old Testament expectations.
5:1-2 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: . . .NIV Large crowds were following Jesus—he was the talk of the town, even of the entire province, and everyone wanted to see him. Jesus had already been preaching throughout Galilee (4:12-25). During that preaching mission, Jesus had healed several people: a government official’s son in Cana (John 4:46-54), Peter’s mother-in-law and many others in Capernaum (Matthew 8:14-17), a man with leprosy (Matthew 8:1-4), and a paralyzed man also in Capernaum (Matthew 9:1-8). (See the Harmony of the Gospels included in the back of this commentary.) These events happened prior to this sermon. (Matthew’s Gospel is arranged topically rather than chronologically.) The many miracles that Jesus had performed throughout Galilee accounted for his immense popularity. When people learned of this amazing preacher with healing words and healing power, they sought him out and followed him.
Jesus often presented his teaching up on a mountainside. Jesus did not have access to public address systems or acoustical amphitheaters. So he used what he himself had created—the natural stage of a sloping hill, which were plentiful on the western coast of the Sea of Galilee. The people sat on the slope below him. After Jesus went up, he sat down (a typical teaching position for a rabbi).
Matthew then reported that his disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. Some scholars say that the word “disciples” refers to the crowds, many of whom were Jesus’ followers (and therefore, his disciples). However, others say that this refers specifically to the Twelve, whom Jesus had just chosen . Most scholars agree that Jesus gave these teachings primarily to the disciples, but that the crowds were present and listening (see 7:28). Much of what Jesus said referred to the ideas that had been promoted by the religious leaders of the day.
The disciples, the closest associates of this popular man, might easily have been tempted to feel important, proud, and possessive. Being with Jesus gave them not only prestige, but also opportunity for receiving money and power. However, Jesus told them that instead of fame and fortune, they could expect mourning, hunger, and persecution. Jesus also assured his disciples that they would receive rewards—but perhaps not in this life.
5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”NKJV The Beatitudes are not multiple choice—pick what you like and leave the rest. We must take them as a whole. The Beatitudes describe how Christ’s followers should live. Each beatitude tells how to be blessed. “Blessed” means more than happiness; it means singularly favored, graciously approved by God. Jesus’ words throughout this sermon seem to contradict each other. According to worldly standards, the types of people whom Jesus described don’t seem to be particularly “blessed.” But God’s way of living usually contradicts the world’s. The Beatitudes don’t promise laughter, pleasure, or earthly prosperity. To Jesus, a person who is “blessed” experiences hope and joy, independent of his or her outward circumstances. The disciples, riding on the wave of Jesus’ popularity, needed to first understand kingdom priorities.
Jesus explained that the poor in spirit are blessed. The poor in spirit realize that they cannot please God on their own. They are “poor” or “bankrupt” inwardly, unable to give anything of value to God and thus must depend on his mercy. Only those who humbly depend on God are admitted into the kingdom of heaven. In this beatitude and in the very last one (5:10) the reward is the same. And in both places the reward is described in the present tense—”theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The intervening beatitudes describe the reward in the future tense. The final consummation of all these rewards, and of the kingdom itself, lies in the future. However, believers can already share in the kingdom (as far as it has been revealed) by living out Jesus’ words. It must be remembered, one is not rewarded for being virtuous; virtue is its own reward.
|LIFE APPLICATION – ACTING STRANGELY|
|People who want to live for God must be ready to say and do what seems strange to the world. Christians must be willing to give when others take, to love when others hate, to help when others abuse. By putting aside our selfish interests so that we can serve others, we will one day receive everything God has in store for us. To find hope and joy, the deepest form of happiness, we must follow Jesus no matter what the cost.|
5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”NRSV In another seeming contradiction in terms, Jesus explained that those who mourn are blessed. Jesus reminded his disciples that the prophet Isaiah had promised that the Messiah would “comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:2 niv). Scholars differ on the exact nature of this mourning. Some say that Jesus was referring to the nation of Israel mourning for its sins; others interpret this more personally, explaining that it refers to those who mourn for their own sins or even for personal grief or oppression. Tied with the beatitude in verse 3, this means that humility (realization of one’s unworthiness before God) also requires sorrow for sins. Still other scholars see in the word mourning a picture of God’s people who suffer because of their faith in him.
Whether Jesus’ followers mourn for sin or in suffering, God’s promise is sure—they will be comforted. Only God can take away sorrow for sin; only God can forgive and erase it. Only God can give comfort to those who suffer for his sake because they know their reward in the kingdom. There he will “wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17 niv). Jesus explained to his disciples that following him would not involve fame, popularity, and wealth. Instead, it could very well mean sorrow, mourning, and suffering. But they would always know that God would be their comfort.
5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”NRSV The word translated “meek” (praeis) occurs only three other times in the New Testament (Matthew 11:29; 21:5; 1 Peter 3:4). In all three other places, it is translated “gentle.” The meaning conveys humility and trust in God rather than self-centered attitudes. The psalmist, contrasting the destinies of the meek and wicked, wrote, “For evildoers shall be cut off; but those who wait on the Lord, they shall inherit the earth. For yet a little while and the wicked shall be no more; indeed, you will look carefully for his place, but it shall be no more. But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace” (Psalm 37:9-11 nkjv).
Meek people realize their position before God (5:3) and gladly live it out before their fellow humans. They do not look down on themselves, but they do not think too highly of themselves either. Such people exemplify the Golden Rule. They are not arrogant; they are the opposite of those who seek to gain as much for themselves as possible. Ironically, then, it will not be the arrogant, wealthy, harsh people who get everything. Instead, the meek will inherit the earth. To the Jews, this implied the Promised Land; Jesus used the “earth” to refer to the future inheritance of the kingdom. According to Revelation 21-22, believers will enjoy a new heaven and a new earth. God will one day freely give his true disciples what they did not grasp for themselves on earth.
5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”NRSV The words “hunger and thirst” picture intense longings that people desire to satisfy—necessities that they cannot live without. The psalmist wrote, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Psalm 42:1-2 nrsv). Those who have an intense longing for righteousness are blessed. What kind of righteousness? Most likely, this refers to personal righteousness—being so filled with God that the person completely does God’s will, without tripping up, sinning, making mistakes, and disappointing God. Righteousness refers to total discipleship and complete obedience. It may also refer to righteousness for the entire world—an end to the sin and evil that fill it. In both cases, God’s promise is sure—they will be filled. He will completely satisfy their spiritual hunger and thirst.
Regarding the longing for personal righteousness, John, one of Jesus’ disciples, later wrote, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2 niv). Regarding the longing for a righteous world, Peter, another of Jesus’ disciples hearing this message, later wrote to persecuted believers: “But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Peter 3:13 niv).
The fourth beatitude bridges the God-centered concerns of the first three and the neighbor-centered focus of the last four. The appetites and satisfaction Jesus promised were directed at both external and internal desires. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness experience that longing in at least three forms:
- The desire to be righteous—to be forgiven and accepted by God; to be right with God.
- The desire to do what is right—to do what God commands; imitating and reflecting God’s righteousness.
- The desire to see right done—to help bring about God’s will in the world.
|LIFE APPLICATION – STARVED|
|Hungry for hamburgers, maybe; hungry for victory on the tennis court, normally; hungry for the love of that special someone, usually . . . but hungry for righteousness? We don’t hear about that one too often.|
|We must proceed carefully here. Christians are not to get hungry for self-righteousness. We’re not to be prickly and perfect and proud about our morals. That just feeds the ego.|
|Christians growing closer to the Lord Jesus want what he wants. When evil happens, they hurt for victims and long for the end of evil’s influence and strength. They want God’s victory over evil to be complete soon—even now. They hunger for the end of trouble, for the full measure of God’s peace and righteousness.|
|Whenever you pray for God’s will to be done, you are getting hungry for righteousness. Pray often, until the little pangs become a passion and your heart becomes centered on what God wants most.|
5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”NIV Merciful people realize that, because they received mercy from God, they must extend mercy to others. The word “merciful” implies generosity, forgiveness, and compassion, and it includes a desire to remove the wrong as well as alleviate the suffering. Jesus repeated this warning several times in this Gospel (see 6:12, 14-15; 18:21-35). We must be people who show mercy. That they will be shown mercy is not contingent upon how much mercy they showed; it is not that God will be merciful because these people have been merciful. Instead, believers understand true mercy because they have received mercy from God. Also, this promise does not guarantee mercy in return from people. The believers’ comfort comes in the knowledge that, no matter how the world treats them, God will show them mercy both now and when he returns.
5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”NRSV People characterized as pure in heart are morally pure, honest, and sincere. They are people of integrity and single-minded commitment to God. Moral purity, honesty, and integrity come only through such a commitment. In turn, people committed totally to God will seek to be morally clean. Because of their sincere devotion to Christ, they will see God, here and now through the eyes of faith (Hebrews 11:27), and finally face-to-face (1 John 3:2).
5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”NRSV Jesus came as “the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6-7) and gave the ultimate sacrifice to bring peace between God and humanity (Ephesians 2:14-18; Colossians 1:20). God calls his children to be peacemakers. This involves action, not just passive compliance. Peacemakers do more than just live peaceful lives; they actively seek to “make peace,” to cause reconciliation, to end bitterness and strife. This peace is not appeasement but dealing with and solving problems to maintain peace. Arrogant, selfish people do not concern themselves with peacemaking. Peacemakers will be called children of God because they reflect their Father’s character. This has a royal sense—they will share the glories of the Messiah’s kingdom.
|LIFE APPLICATION – MAKING PEACE|
|How do you resolve conflict? Most people use different means for different settings.|
|Making peace with your children includes defining the boundaries between right and wrong, enforcing discipline, and affirming each child with love and affection.|
|l Making peace with friends includes broadening your mind to include the possibility that someone else’s ideas make sense. It means accepting your friend’s explanation at face value and applying the least hurtful meaning to the offensive words you heard. It means taking a step toward trust, away from anger, and onto an unmarked playing field called vulnerability. That’s the risky price of friendship.|
|l Making peace with your spouse can be the most difficult of all. Sometimes it requires outside help, often a lot of listening, mutual confession, and rebuilding of love that’s been burned. Too often today, the alternative is to quit.|
|Make peace your aim. Not sloppy acquiescence—the Milque-toast peace of people without backbone or principle. But strong peace—hard won, committed to the other, centered on God, ready for the wear and tear that another day may bring.|
5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”NKJV Unfortunately, people who exemplify the characteristics already mentioned, who put others before themselves and who attempt to make peace, will seldom receive applause and honors. Often, they will be persecuted instead. Because they are “righteous,” having oriented their lives around God and his will (see 5:6), they stand out from the world and become marks for enemy attacks. The world is under Satan’s control, and believers belong to the opposing army. Persecution should not surprise Christians. Later, when Peter wrote to persecuted believers, he urged them to be sure that their persecution was truly for righteousness’ sake and not for wrongdoing on their part (1 Peter 4:12-19). The reward for these believers will be the kingdom of heaven. God will make up for the suffering that his children have undergone because of their loyalty to him. The reward here matches the reward in 5:3, rounding out this list of characteristics of those who belong to God.
|LIFE APPLICATION – TEN STEPS OF BLESSING|
|The order and orientation of the Beatitudes provide several key insights. The Beatitudes begin and end with the promise of the kingdom of heaven (5:3, 10). They progress from the point of greatest need (spiritual bankruptcy) to the point of greatest identification with Christ (experiencing rejection for his sake). The first four beatitudes outline a deepening relationship with God; the second four depict the impact of our relations to others. Clearly, the Beatitudes are not stages through which we pass and go on, but responses that we must keep on making. Each day we must utilize our opportunities to show mercy, practice peacemaking, and purify our intentions.|
5:11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”NIV The Beatitudes end at 5:10, despite the word “blessed” at the beginning of this verse. This thought expands on 5:10, that the persecuted are blessed. Up to this point, the beatitudes were spoken in the third person: “Blessed are those.” Here Jesus switched to the second person, focusing his comments directly at his listening disciples. Jesus was telling his disciples that they shouldn’t be surprised when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
|Jesus would face such treatment. Later he explained to his followers that they should expect nothing different (10:18; 24:9; John 15:20). In 5:10, the persecution is because of righteousness; here it is because of me. To imitate Jesus is to live righteously, and, as explained above, this evil world hates righteous living.||Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. In fact it is a joy and a token of his grace.
5:12 “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”NRSV Jesus clearly described the way the disciples should respond to this kind of treatment: Rejoice and be glad. The word translated “be glad,” agalliasthe (also translated “exult”), refers to deep, spiritual joy (see Luke 1:46-47; Acts 16:34; 1 Peter 4:13). This type of rejoicing is eternal—unhindered and unchanged by what happens in this present life.
How can anyone rejoice when being insulted, persecuted, or slandered? While that would not be the first and most natural response, a person with righteous character can rejoice and be glad because of the promise: Your reward is great in heaven. When God judges the world, the persecution will pale in comparison to the great reward that awaits. The reward is heaven itself. See 16:24-27 and 19:28-30 for more on rewards.
Besides that, the disciples had good company. The Old Testament described many prophets who had come with God’s message and had faced persecution, rejection, and even death (see 21:33-46). Jesus placed his disciples in a long line of God’s followers who lived righteously and spoke truthfully—only to suffer for it. The Jews held the ancient prophets of God in high esteem; to be placed among them was a great honor. Jesus explained that to live and speak for God in the face of unjust persecution, as did the ancient prophets, would bring great reward in heaven.
|LIFE APPLICATION – IN GOOD COMPANY|
|Jesus said to rejoice when we’re persecuted. There are four reasons that persecution can be good: (1) It can take our eyes off earthly rewards, (2) it can strip away superficial belief, (3) it can strengthen the faith of those who endure, and (4) our attitude through it can serve as an example to others who follow. We can take comfort in knowing that God’s greatest prophets endured persecution (Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel). Persecution proves that we have been faithful; faithless people would be unnoticed. In the future, God will reward the faithful by receiving them into his eternal kingdom, where there is no more persecution. No matter what you face today, if you remain faithful to Christ, one day you will receive a joyful reward.|
JESUS TEACHES ABOUT SALT AND LIGHT / 5:13-16
In these verses, Jesus explained to his disciples the true nature of their calling. They would be salt in a dreary world, light in a dark and evil world. But they would do this only because of the one who came as “the Light of the World.” This handful of men brought salt that we can taste and light that we can see even today. We, in turn, must pass “salt” and “light” along to others.
5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”NRSV In the ancient world, salt was used for flavoring and as a preservative. Instead of being made by evaporation of salt water, the salt came mostly from salt marshes in the area southwest of the Dead Sea. Salt had commercial value, but the impure salt taken from the sea and its environs was susceptible to deterioration that left only useless crystals. Jesus’ question How can its saltiness be restored? did not expect an answer—for once salt has deteriorated, it cannot be used as a preservative. Jesus warned them against being defiled by impurities. Even today in Israel, people scatter such salt on the flat roofs of their homes to harden the soil and prevent leaks. These roofs are still used for children to play and for group gatherings, so the salt is still literally trampled under foot.
As salt preserves and brings out the best flavor of food, so believers should affect others positively. If a seasoning has no flavor (has lost its taste), it has no value. Jesus clearly told his disciples (the word “you” is emphatic, meaning “you, my followers”) that if they wanted to make a difference in the world, they would have to be different from the world. God would hold them accountable to maintain their “saltiness” (that is, their usefulness). If we are too much like the world, we are useless. Christians should not blend in with everyone else. Jesus tells us, as he told the disciples, that we must be different if we want to make a difference. We dare not allow the world to dilute our effectiveness. If we do, we are of no value to him.
|LIFE APPLICATION – WORKING|
|How can we be salt when we’re working? Most jobs, even the humdrum kind, provide opportunities for saltiness. We can solve problems, keep equipment working, and serve human needs. Christians ought to be proud of their work.|
|Next time you think you are going nowhere in a boring job, consider your work as a “thank you” to God for the salvation Christ gave you. Do your job with skill and commitment as a missionary in the marketplace, salting your small corner of the world with God’s message of renewal and joy.|
5:14 “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”NKJV As salt makes a difference in people’s food, so light makes a difference in their surroundings. Jesus came as “the light of all people” (John 1:4 nrsv) and would later explain, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12 niv). Christ’s disciples must live for Christ, shining like lights in a dark world, showing clearly what Christ is like. Who could hide a city that is sitting on top of a hill? Lanterns glowing from behind its walls send a light at night that can be seen for miles. Because Jesus is the Light of the World, his followers must reflect his light. If we live for Christ, we will glow like lights, showing others what Christ is like.
|LIFE APPLICATION – WHO TURNED OUT THE LIGHTS?|
|“Why would anyone try to hide a light?” Jesus asked. Unfortunately many Christians do just that. We hide our light by|
|l being quiet when we should speak|
|l going along with the crowd|
|l denying the truth|
|l letting sin dim our witness for Christ|
|l not explaining the truth to others|
|l ignoring the needs of others|
|Be a beacon of truth—don’t shut off your light from the rest of the world.|
5:15 “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”NIV How absurd it would be to light a lamp and then put it under a bowl (referring to a clay jar that would conceal the light). People light lamps to spread light, enabling them to see what they are doing or where they are going. Thus people place lights on stands in the best location for them to spread their warm glow.
Jesus emphasized that the disciples would continue to reflect the light of their Master, the Light of the World. They could no more hide the light than a city on a hill can hide. They must not try to conceal their light any more than one would light a lamp and then conceal it under a clay jar. Being Christ’s disciples means being distinctive. Being Christ’s disciples means spreading the light to everyone in the house—that is, everyone with whom they have contact.
5:16 “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”NRSV In the same way that a light shines from a lampstand, Christ’s disciples must let their light shine before others. The very reason for the existence of that light is to illuminate—helping show people what to do and where to go. How would people see this light? Through the good works of Christ’s followers. Jesus made it clear that there would be no mistaking the source of a believer’s good works. Others will see and give glory to your Father in heaven. This contrasts with the attitude of the people he will chastise in 6:1, the ones who do good works for their own glory. The believer’s light shines not for himself but to reflect the light back to the Father and so direct people to him.
In an attempt to steer clear of works for gaining righteousness, good works are often neglected in church life today. But clearly the Bible supports the importance of doing good (see Ephesians 2:8-10; 4:12; 1 Timothy 5:10; 6:18; 2 Timothy 2:21; 3:17; Titus 3:1, 8, 14; James 1:22; 2:14-26; 3:13). Good works are important not only as a witness to others but as a continuation of the work Christ began on earth.
|LIFE APPLICATION – IN THE SPOTLIGHT|
|Who gets the spotlight when you witness for Jesus—God or you? When you work all day on a service project, give testimony on Sunday, or lead the church building campaign, whose image and reputation is most important?|
|Your life is what people see, but the spotlight is all God’s. Not that God needs an image boost, but the focus of your witness should always point beyond you to the one you represent. Give your ego a break and give the honor to God.|
JESUS TEACHES ABOUT THE LAW / 5:17-20
God gave moral and ceremonial laws to help people love him with all their hearts and minds. Throughout Israel’s history, however, these laws had been often misquoted and misapplied. By Jesus’ time, religious leaders had turned God’s laws into a confusing mass of rules. When Jesus talked about a new way to understand the law, he was trying to bring people back to its original purpose. Jesus did not speak against the law itself, but against the abuses and excesses to which it had been subjected.
5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”NRSV Jesus did not come as a rabbi with a brand-new teaching that he had thought up and hoped to convince people was true. Instead, he came as the promised Messiah with a message heard from the beginning of time. He came not to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill the promises in those Scriptures. The meaning for “fulfill” has been taken three ways: (1) to accomplish or obey the Old Testament laws; (2) to bring out the full meaning of the law and prophecy, showing how Christ is the fulfillment of all to which they pointed; (3) to bring the Old Testament law and promises to their destined end or intended completion. Most likely, “fulfill” contains the thrusts of both (2) and (3). Jesus fills to fullness; he completes and transcends the law.
|The Old Testament law is not rescinded but now must be reinterpreted and reapplied in light of Jesus. God does not change his mind. He did not send his Son to repeal, abolish, or annul what he had told his people previously. Instead, the Father sent his Son as the fulfillment. Jesus’ coming had been part of God’s plan from creation (see Genesis 3:15). The disciples would not thoroughly understand how Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures until after his death and resurrection (Luke 24:25-27).||Our Lord’s mission was not to destroy, but to construct. As noon fulfills dawn and summer spring, as manhood fulfills childhood and the perfect picture the rude sketch, so does Jesus gather up, realize, and make possible the highest ideals ever inspired in human hearts or written by God’s Spirit on the page of inspiration.
F. B. Meyer
Jesus’ reference to the law means the commands in the Pentateuch—the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy. In synagogues on the Sabbath, a rabbi would read a portion from the Law and a portion from the Prophets. Unfortunately, many of the learned men of the day who should have seen in Jesus the fulfillment of their Scriptures completely missed him. The Pharisees attempted to follow meticulously the law and saw Jesus only as a lawbreaker. The Sadducees revered only the Pentateuch but missed the promises of the coming of the one through whom all nations on the earth would be blessed (Genesis 22:18).
|LIFE APPLICATION – THE SPIRIT OF THE LAW|
|What did Jesus have in mind when he claimed to fulfill the law? He illustrated his claim in the paragraphs that follow. Jesus repeated traditional applications of God’s law and showed them to be shallow. He taught the principle of true application: understanding the deepest and broadest implications of a command in order to take immediate action. Jesus emphasized that the law wasn’t simply “letter,” but also “spirit.” In the language of today Jesus might have said, “Don’t believe those who try to deal with God by using legal technicalities. God knows your heart and will reject rationalizations.” Unless we face the truth that God’s standards will not be met by our halfhearted efforts, we will never recognize our need for a Savior. Jesus clarified the intent of the law; then he claimed to be our only way of escape from the judgment we deserve for our failure to obey God’s commands.|
5:18 “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”NIV Jesus used the words “I tell you the truth” (also translated, “Truly I say to you,” or “Verily, verily”) several times in his speaking. They signal that what he said next is of vital importance. In these words Jesus ascribes the highest authority to God’s Law. Not only did Jesus fulfill the law, but until heaven and earth disappear (meaning until the end of the age) the Law will not change. There are two “until” clauses:(1) “until heaven and earth disappear”—the eternal validity of the law is established; (2) “until everything is accomplished”—probably means the total plan of God.
Not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will be set aside or will disappear from the law book. In Hebrew writing, some letters are very small (the Hebrew letter “yod” is the smallest letter). Others are distinguished by just a slight stroke of the pen (for example, a small dot above the double “s” distinguished “s” from “sh”). Jesus upheld the truth of every letter of every word in God’s Law. Furthermore, Jesus’ statement certifies the absolute authority of every word and letter of Scripture. God’s plan will never change. God’s Law recorded in Scripture looked forward to and prepared people for the One who would come and fulfill it. Everything prophesied in God’s Law will take place. No promise or prophecy in the Law will remain unfulfilled. Everything will be accomplished.
5:19 “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”NRSV Jesus will fulfill and accomplish the entire Law and the Prophets (5:17-18). He explained, therefore, that his followers must also keep and practice the commandments included in the Law and the Prophets—even the least of these commandments. No one has the authority to set aside or alter any of God’s laws. In addition, teachers have the responsibility to live correctly and to teach correctly so that they do not influence others to break even the smallest law. Jesus was using hyperbole to make a point and, most likely, was not referring to minutiae of the law for which the Pharisees were contending so scrupulously. In the rabbinic debate, some would distinguish between “greater” and “lesser” commandments. Christ did this only for illustration.
Because the Law and the Prophets point forward to Jesus and his teaching, people can “do” and “teach” the commandments by following Jesus and adhering to his teachings. Those who do so, Jesus explained, will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. This may refer to degrees of rewards in heaven, but it most likely does not mean rewarding of status in heaven. Neither breaking (and teaching others to break), nor practicing and teaching even “the least of these commandments” ultimately determines a person’s inclusion in the kingdom of heaven, so Jesus was simply indicating how people who treated the law in those ways would be regarded by God. Those who treated any part of the law as “least,” and therefore breakable, would themselves be called “least” and, presumably, be excluded. Jesus explained to his disciples, the men who would be responsible to carry on his message, that they must live carefully and teach carefully, not taking God’s will lightly. Jesus’ followers must respect and obey even the least commandment if they want to accomplish great things for God.
If Jesus did not come to abolish the law, does that mean all the Old Testament laws still apply to us today? Did Jesus mean that Christians today must follow every law recorded in the Old Testament? Not even Jesus stood for law keeping that was void of heartfelt worship (see the next verse, 5:20). Jesus was emphasizing an attitude of respect toward God’s Word and God’s will. The Old Testament includes three categories of law: ceremonial, civil, and moral.
- The “ceremonial law” related specifically to Israel’s worship (see Leviticus 1:2-3, for example). Its primary purpose was to point forward to Jesus Christ; these laws, therefore, were no longer necessary after Jesus’ death and resurrection. While we need not follow all these ceremonial laws, the principles behind them—to worship and love a holy God—still apply. The Pharisees often accused Jesus of violating ceremonial law.
- The “civil law” applied to daily living in Israel (see Deuteronomy 24:10-11, for example). Because modern society and culture differ so radically from that time and setting, we need not keep all of these guidelines specifically. However, the principles behind the commands are timeless and should guide our conduct. Jesus demonstrated these principles by example.
- The “moral law” (such as the Ten Commandments) is the direct command of God; thus, it requires strict obedience (see Exodus 20:13, for example). The moral law reveals the nature and will of God, and it still applies today. Jesus obeyed the moral law completely and expects his followers to do the same.
5:20 “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”NKJV Jesus’ words in 5:19 may have sounded exceedingly difficult (“How can anyone keep all the commandments perfectly?”), but here Jesus made it seem even more difficult. Not only did he expect his followers to keep every part of the law, but he also expected them to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, an almost impossible task. The Pharisees were exacting and scrupulous in their attempts to follow God’s Law as well as hundreds of traditional laws. They spent their lives in rigid devotion to keeping every commandment. In Old Testament times, scribes prepared new scrolls of Scripture. By New Testament times, they had become teachers and lawyers in Jewish courts. How could Jesus reasonably call his followers to a greater righteousness than theirs?
Jesus was not placing impossible demands on his followers, expecting them to be even more pious and careful to scrupulously obey every law; however, Jesus was speaking about the attitude of the heart, the righteousness found on the inside when God works in a person. The Pharisees were content to obey the laws outwardly without humbly looking to God to change their hearts (or attitudes). Jesus was saying, therefore, that the quality of our righteousness should exceed (abound more than) that of the scribes and Pharisees, who looked pious, but were far from the kingdom of God. True followers of God know that they cannot do anything to become righteous enough to enter the kingdom of heaven, so they count on God to work his righteousness within them. Their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees because it rests on a relationship with God. That kind of righteousness fulfills the Law and the Prophets; Jesus will describe that kind of righteousness in the following verses. The disciples could not see how this would all work out. They could not yet understand Jesus’ teaching from the perspective of the Cross. But Jesus made it clear to them that external piety, fine robes, and rigid law keeping was not the way. Instead, he himself was the only “way” (John 14:6) to enter God’s kingdom. To know how to have righteousness exceeding that of the experts would require following Jesus.
|LIFE APPLICATION – RIGHTEOUSNESS CHECK|
|Jesus was saying that his listeners needed a different kind of righteousness altogether (love and obedience), not just a more intense version of the Pharisees’ righteousness (legal compliance). Our righteousness must (1) come from what God does in us, not what we can do by ourselves, (2) be God-centered, not self-centered, (3) be based on reverence for God, not approval from people, and (4) go beyond keeping the law to loving God who gave the law.|
JESUS TEACHES ABOUT ANGER / 5:21-26
Following from 5:20, the question most likely hung in people’s minds, “How can we possibly be more righteous than the law-abiding Pharisees?” In the following verses, Jesus outlined some examples of the “how.” Six times he will say, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you” (5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44). With these words he explained that his teaching went beyond what the Ten Commandments and the Torah said. Jesus showed the true intent of God’s Law. The people did not need to be more righteous than the Pharisees by the number of laws that they kept; they had to be more righteous in the way they kept the laws. To truly keep the law as God intended, the people could not get by with lip service and with obeying the letter of the law alone. Instead, Jesus’ teaching reached to the application of the law, into people’s motives and attitudes, showing people’s utter inability to keep the law without a relationship with God, who made the laws.
5:21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'”NIV “You have heard that it was said” is an understatement— Jesus was quoting from the Ten Commandments in 5:21 and 5:27. Moses had brought these commandments to the people long ago in the nation of Israel. The Pharisees were teaching that the command against murder, found in Exodus 20:13, referred just to taking another person’s life. Murderers were subject to judgment (death—see Exodus 21:12; Leviticus 24:17) through certain legal proceedings, also described in the Law.
|LIFE APPLICATION – NAME-CALLING|
|It’s not the words that put us in jeopardy of hellfire. We could think of a lot worse names than “you fool” to call people. It’s the attitude. By calling someone a fool, you write that person off as worthless, a zero, nothing, nobody.|
|And what is the problem with that? That worthless nobody (in your judgment) is someone made in the image of God. If God’s image is a fool, doesn’t that make God a fool too?|
|Next time you write someone off, think about whom you’re really talking about.|
5:22 “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”NRSV When Jesus said, “But I say to you,” he was not doing away with the law or adding his own beliefs. Rather, he was giving a fuller understanding of why God made that law in the first place. For example, Moses said, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). The Pharisees read this law and, not having literally murdered anyone, felt righteous. Yet they were angry enough with Jesus that they would soon plot his death, though they would not do the dirty work themselves.
Jesus, however, taught that his followers should not even become angry enough to murder, for then they would already have committed murder in their heart. Killing is a terrible sin, but anger is a great sin too because it also violates God’s command to love. “Anger,” here, refers to a seething, brooding bitterness against a brother or sister, which could refer to a fellow believer. It is a dangerous emotion that always threatens to leap out of control, leading to violence, emotional hurt, increased mental stress, spiritual damage, and, yes, even murder. Anger keeps us from developing a spirit pleasing to God. We may not go to court because of our anger, but it does make us liable to judgment. While “judgment” in 5:21 referred to human court, in this verse it refers to divine judgment. “Council” refers to a local council, probably not to the Sanhedrin. To stoop to insulting or calling a fellow believer a derogatory name makes one liable to such judgment as ends in the hell of fire. Angry words and name-calling reveal a heart far from God: “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them” (1 John 3:15 nrsv). The rabbis used the word “Raca” (translated, “you fool” or “idiot”) to excommunicate people; common people used it as an insult.
The word translated “hell” is Gehenna. The name derived from the Valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where children had been sacrificed by fire to the pagan god Molech (see 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3; Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35). Later, during the reign of good king Josiah, the valley had become the city’s garbage dump where fire burned constantly to destroy the garbage and the worms infesting it. Gehenna, hell, is the place of “fire that shall never be quenched” (Mark 9:43, 45, 47-48 nkjv) prepared for the devil, his angels, and all those who do not know Christ (25:41; Revelation 20:9-10). This is the final and eternal state of the wicked after the resurrection and the Last Judgment.
|LIFE APPLICATION – ANGER|
|Jesus put anger and murder in the same category. He saw a direct connection that we usually deny. In this and other relational matters, like adultery, Jesus taught that intention is a significant part of wrongdoing. Anger leads quickly to a whole range of emotions and actions. When anger is not righteous (see Ephesians 4:26; James 1:19), it becomes destructive. Anger tends to be like a gushing spring that quickly floods its surroundings unless it has a clear channel through which to flow. Anger can destroy its host as well as anything or anyone against which it is directed. Anger may require the following controls:|
|Confrontation—expressing anger in appropriate ways|
|Contemplation—examining why we are angry|
|Confession—asking God and others for help in dealing with our anger|
|Condemnation—revising inappropriate expectations that lead to anger|
|Based on Jesus’ warning, we cannot assume that anger will go away by itself. It must be directed, controlled, and resolved.|
5:23-24 “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”NRSV At certain times of the year, especially during Passover, Jews brought gifts (referring to animal sacrifices) that they offered at the altar in the temple in Jerusalem. This “altar” stood in the Court of the Priests; the person bringing the gift entered this inner court to worship God and offer a specific sacrifice (these are described in the book of Leviticus). The Jews brought their gifts as a matter of course, as part of keeping God’s Law. But Jesus explained that those who come into God’s presence to worship must come with pure hearts, not hindered by broken relationships that they had the power to mend. Interestingly, this verse focuses not on the worshiper’s anger, but on the anger someone else feels toward the worshiper. Jesus explained that if the worshiper remembered someone’s anger against him or her, that person should leave the gift and go immediately to be reconciled to the offended brother or sister. Then he should come back to worship and offer his or her gift.
The Old Testament prophets repeatedly told the people that “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22 nrsv). Love for God and for fellow believers is more important than gifts brought to the altar (Isaiah 1:11; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8). Jesus said that even such a solemn occasion as worship in the inner courts of the temple should be interrupted in order to bring reconciliation among believers.
|LIFE APPLICATION – GRUDGES|
|You’ve tried your best to patch things up with your friend, but she’s still torn. She can’t let it go. She won’t talk to you and doesn’t answer your calls. What do you do . . .|
|l when friendship requires your complete surrender to her point of view?|
|l when it’s clear you have to give up a different friend to win her friendship back?|
|l when her pout is unreasonable and childish?|
|It is time to bring your worries to God in prayer. In relationships where nothing looks hopeful, where every contact digs the hole deeper, try prayer. Pray for your friend daily—for her happiness, recovery, and immediate needs. Time is a healer and miracles can happen—especially when God is at work bringing people together.|
5:25-26 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”NIV While 5:24 referred to a believer dealing with the anger of a fellow believer, this verse focuses on dealing with an adversary. In Jesus’ day, a person who couldn’t pay a debt would be thrown into prison until the last penny was paid. A “penny” was one of the smallest Roman coins, worth two-fifths of a cent. This shows that the debt had to be fully paid. Debts were repaid by selling property or going into contract as an indentured servant or slave. If he or she had no way to earn money to pay back the debt, the debtor could very well die in prison. Jesus recommended that his followers take immediate action to either reconcile with the angry person (5:24) or settle matters quickly in the best way possible before the angry person handed them over to the judge. Under Roman law, the plaintiff went with the defendant to court. On the way, they could settle matters however they wished. But once a legal verdict was reached, it stood.
It is practical advice to resolve our differences with our enemies before their anger causes more trouble (Proverbs 25:8-10). You may not get into a disagreement that takes you to court, but even small conflicts mend more easily if you try to make peace right away. In a broader sense, these verses advise us to get things right with our brothers and sisters before we have to stand before God.
|LIFE APPLICATION – COURTS AND JUSTICE|
|In the first century, courts were controlled by the army of occupation, the Romans. Appealing a court decision meant seeking the favor of some Roman stiff-shirt and, eventually, the emperor himself in Rome. At every turn, the justice system meant power, compromise, and submission to paganism.|
|Today in democratic societies, courts are accountable to law and to the people. Trial by jury and rights protected by constitutional agreements make our courts as fair as any in the history of human law. But still, should Christians use them?|
|Christians should try to settle disputes without the intervention of the state as third party. (Even our courts encourage such settlements.) Many Christian attorneys and counselors help people avoid formal court action.|
|When a lawsuit appears necessary, remember, parties go to court as antagonists, doing battle, seeking a victory. The process can be emotionally exhausting. So pray for justice and for your “enemies” across the courtroom.|
JESUS TEACHES ABOUT LUST / 5:27-30
In his teaching about lust, Jesus literally got to the heart of the matter by explaining that sin begins in the heart. With strong language Jesus described how his followers must rid themselves of sin. While we cannot be sinless until we finally are with Christ, we must keep a watch on our thoughts, motives, and temptations in the meantime. When we find a destructive habit or thought pattern, we need to “cut it out and throw it away.”
5:27-28 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”NRSV Again Jesus quoted one of the Ten Commandments, You shall not commit adultery (Exodus 20:14). According to the Old Testament law, a person must not have sex with someone other than his or her spouse. Jesus said, but I say to you that even the “desire” to have sex with someone other than your spouse is mental adultery and thus sin. Jesus emphasized that if the act is wrong, then so is the desire to do the act. For a man to look at a woman (or a woman to look at a man) and lust is virtually the same as committing adultery. The word “lust” means the desire for an illicit relationship. Jesus explained that adultery begins in the heart that harbors lust. To simply avoid the act of adultery but to have a mind filled with lustful thoughts and desires for someone else misses the point of God’s law.
To be faithful to your spouse with your body but not your mind is to break the trust so vital to a strong marriage. Jesus was not condemning natural interest in the opposite sex or even healthy sexual desire, but the deliberate and repeated filling of one’s mind with fantasies that would be evil if acted out.
Some think that if lustful thoughts are sin, why shouldn’t a person go ahead and do the lustful actions too? Acting out sinful desires is harmful in several ways: (1) it causes people to excuse sin rather than to stop sinning; (2) it destroys marriages; (3) it is deliberate rebellion against God’s Word; (4) it always hurts someone else in addition to the sinner. Sinful action is more dangerous than sinful desire. Nevertheless, sinful desire is just as damaging to righteousness. Left unchecked, wrong desires will result in wrong actions, hurt others, and turn people away from God.
|LIFE APPLICATION – SECOND LOOK|
|“Private sins” have a fatal attraction by appearing to be internal, hidden, secret. Jesus declared lustful looks to be sin. God is not bound by our privacy—our thoughts and emotions are as visible to him as our actions. From the divine perspective, they are actions. This, in part, explains their sinfulness. Lust also creates an offense before God by misusing one of his most powerful gifts—the capacity to reflect. That part of us most able to consider and appreciate our Creator, his Word, and his world, becomes increasingly toxic as we use it to consider sin. Unlike an offending eye or hand, a sinful mind cannot be removed. Don’t give in to lustful desires.|
5:29-30 “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”NIV When Jesus said to get rid of your eye or your hand, he was speaking figuratively. He didn’t mean literally to gouge out an eye because even a blind person can lust. But if that were the only choice, it would be better to go into eternal life with one eye or hand than to go to hell physically intact. This strong language describes how Jesus’ followers should renounce anything that would cause them to sin or turn away from the faith. The action of surgically cutting sin out of our lives should be prompt and complete to keep us from sin. Believers must get rid of any relationship, practice, or activity that leads to sin. A person would submit to losing a diseased part of the body in order to save his or her life. In the same way, believers should willingly cut off any temptation, habit, or part of their nature that could lead them away from Christ. Just cutting off a limb that committed sin or gouging out an eye that looked lustfully would still not get rid of sin, however, because sin begins in the heart and mind. Jesus was saying that people need to take drastic action to keep them from stumbling. Self-denial is preferable to sin and its consequences.
The reason? Jesus explained that it would be better to have lost some worldly attitude or possession than to be thrown into hell because of it. (The word for “hell” is Gehenna, also used in 5:22—see the explanation above.) This is radical discipleship. While none of us will ever be completely free from sin until we get a new glorified body, God wants an attitude that renounces sin instead of one that holds on to it.
|LIFE APPLICATION – GET RID OF IT|
|Sometimes we tolerate sins in our lives that, left unchecked, could eventually destroy us. It is better to experience the pain of removal (getting rid of a bad habit or something we treasure, for instance) than to allow the sin to bring judgment and condemnation. Examine your life for anything that causes you to sin, and take every necessary action to remove it.|
JESUS TEACHES ABOUT DIVORCE / 5:31-32
Divorce is as hurtful and destructive today as in Jesus’ day. God intends marriage to be a lifetime commitment (Genesis 2:24). People should never consider divorce an option for solving problems or a way out of a relationship that seems dead. In these verses, Jesus was also attacking those who purposefully abused the marriage contract, using divorce to satisfy their lustful desire to marry someone else. Make sure your actions today help your marriage grow stronger rather than tear it apart.
|LIFE APPLICATION – UNFAITHFULMESS|
|Jesus said that divorce is not permissible except for unfaithfulness. This does not mean that divorce should automatically occur when a spouse commits adultery. The word translated “unfaithfulness” implies a sexually immoral lifestyle, not a confessed and repented act of adultery. Those who discover that their spouse has been unfaithful should first make every effort to forgive, reconcile, and restore their relationship. We should always look for reasons to restore the marriage relationship rather than for excuses to leave it.|
5:31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.'”NIV Jesus again pointed out a law from the Old Testament that his listeners knew well. The law, given by Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, said, “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house . . .” (Deuteronomy 24:1 niv). The subject of divorce was hotly debated among the Jews at this time. Some religious leaders (those who followed Rabbi Hillel) took this to mean that a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason. They explained that “something indecent” could refer to anything that “displeased” the husband. In a culture where husbands viewed their wives as “property,” divorce was fairly easy to obtain. However, other leaders (who followed the teachings of Rabbi Shammai) said that divorce could be granted only in cases of adultery.
5:32 “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”NIV The religious leaders permitted easy divorce, as well as remarriage after divorce. But Jesus said that the sacred union of marriage should not be broken and that to remarry after divorce was committing adultery. However, Jesus here gave one exception regarding divorce, an exception not included in the same teaching recorded in Mark 10:1-12. The Greek word translated “marital unfaithfulness” is porneia. It has a broad range of definitions, referring to (1) committing adultery (one offense); (2) unfaithfulness during the betrothal (engagement) period; (3) an illegitimate or incestuous marriage (the man and wife were later discovered to be near relatives); or (4) continued and unrepented unfaithfulness. Any of these reasons would mean that a rupture had already occurred in the marriage. For a man to divorce his wife for one of these reasons was simply a recognition that his union with her had been ended by her sexual union with another. It would be possible then that adultery would be an exception to the prohibition against remarriage.
However, Jesus would not stand for men tossing aside their wives. Marriage is so sanctified in God’s eyes that remarriage after divorce amounts to adultery. Notice that while the divorced woman would become an adulteress, the man who divorced his wife would be at fault—he causes her to become an adulteress. Jesus will explain his strong words in 19:3-12 on the grounds that God originally intended marriage to be for life.
God created marriage to be a sacred and permanent union and partnership between a man and a woman. When the husband and wife both enter this union with that understanding and commitment, they can provide security for each other, a stable home for their children, and strength to weather life’s storms and stresses.
|LIFE APPLICATION – MAY A DIVORCED PERSON REMARRY?|
|Jesus would seem to prohibit divorced persons from remarrying, forcing them to live either in celibacy or in sin. Jesus’ main point was that people should not use the divorce laws to dispose of a partner in order to get another one.|
|The nagging question for Christians remains: May a divorced person, who truly repents of a sinful past and commits his or her life to God, remarry?|
|We long for a simple, direct reply to that question, but we have only biblical context as an answer. We have Jesus’ high view of marriage and low view of divorce recorded in the Gospels. Jesus proclaimed new life—full forgiveness and restoration—to all who would come to God in repentance and faith. Spiritual discernment is essential here, but the gospel— God’s promise of wholeness and full healing—includes the sacred bond of marriage. Churches should be ready to give a repentant, formerly married person the opportunity to marry another believer.|
JESUS TEACHES ABOUT VOWS / 5:33-37
In Jesus’ day, people commonly made oaths, or vows. Although God’s law took these vows very seriously, many of the religious leaders had invented legal maneuvers to get around keeping their oaths. Jesus told his followers not to use oaths—their word alone should be enough (see James 5:12). Are you known as a person of your word? Truthfulness seems so rare that we feel we must end our statements with “I promise.” If we tell the truth all the time, we will have less pressure to back up our words with an oath or a promise.
5:33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.'”NIV This fourth example focuses on people’s words. Jesus did not refer to any specific commandment, but he summed up Old Testament teachings on the subject of oaths and vows (see Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 5:11; 6:13; 23:21-23). When a person made an oath, it bound him or her to keep it, whether it was an oath to another person or an oath made to the Lord.
5:34-36 “But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.”NKJV However, Jesus told his followers not to swear (or make oaths) at all. The religious leaders had designed an elaborate system indicating how binding an oath was depending on how the oath had been made. Such a system was a contradiction in terms (an oath by definition is binding), and it made light of God’s Law. The leaders said that if they swore by heaven or by the earth or by Jerusalem, they could get out of their oath without penalty because they did not make the vow in God’s name. Jesus explained that an oath is an oath. A promise is binding before God, no matter what words are used. It would be ridiculous for a person to say that he or she didn’t really invoke God’s name on the oath. Heaven is God’s throne, the earth is His footstool, and Jerusalem is the city of the great King. Furthermore, Jesus added, “Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.”NKJV Even the hairs on people’s heads belong to God, so a person cannot get around an oath by swearing by your head. In other words, because people had made oaths into an elaborate system allowing for deceit, Jesus explained that his followers ought not make oaths at all. They ought to be so well known for their honesty and truthfulness that they would not need to make oaths. Jesus was not condemning the use of oaths in a court of law, nor vows made to God (such as Paul fulfilled, see Acts 18:18), but the kind of statements that added an “I promise” or “Honest!” Christ’s followers did not need to say that. Jesus explained why in 5:37.
Each time Jesus used the pattern “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you,” he was presenting a traditional standard upon which to base a higher one. Rather than let people off the hook, he set the hook deeper. Jesus spoke about oaths in order to point out that they were not the main problem—integrity was. Oaths are no substitute for personal integrity. A liar’s vow expresses a worthless promise. But when a person of integrity says yes or no, that person’s simple word can be trusted. Make integrity your standard.
5:37 “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”NIV Jesus simply emphasized that his followers should tell the truth: When they say yes they mean yes, and when they say no they mean no. Consequently, people can trust and believe anything else they say as well. Those who add to their words with an oath imply that their words cannot be trusted. The phrase “from the evil one” is also translated “from evil,” revealing the sinful one’s need to back up words with a vow. People need oaths only when telling lies is a possibility. Believers, however, know that they are accountable to God for every word they speak, so they will speak truthfully and do what they promise. Keeping promises builds trust and makes committed human relationships possible.
|LIFE APPLICATION – SAY YES, SAY NO|
|Are you the kind of person who|
|l can’t say no when a caller asks for a donation?|
|l takes on too much at church?|
|l worries over whether people like you?|
|l worries over whether God likes you?|
|If so, this verse is your first lesson in assertiveness training. You need to learn how to say yes and mean it, and how to say no and stick to it, as a child of God.|
|Try this. Next time someone asks you to do something you cannot accept, resist the urge to launch into a twenty-minute explanation of your schedule conflict, and just say, “I’m sorry, but no.” Wow! Does that feel good?|
|Pretty soon, you will start believing in your own yes and no as genuine reflections of your intentions. You’ll be you again, and not someone else’s image of you.|
JESUS TEACHES ABOUT RETALIATION / 5:38-42
When people hurt us, often our first reaction is to get even. Instead, Jesus said we should do good to those who wrong us! Instead of keeping score, we should love and forgive. This is not natural—it is supernatural. Only God can give us the strength to love as he does. In the following illustrations, Jesus used hyperbole (extreme examples) to make a point about the attitudes of his followers.
5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'”NKJV This example came from God’s Law as recorded by Moses in Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-20; and Deuteronomy 19:21. While the law sounds severe to us, in its time it set guidelines against what may have been escalating personal vendettas among people. The principle of retribution, lex talionis, gave judges a formula for dealing with crime. That is, “Make the punishment fit the crime.” The law limited vengeance and helped the court administer punishment that was neither too strict nor too lenient.
5:39 “But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”NKJV The word “resist” translates the word anthistemi, also used for “take legal action against.” Not only did Jesus command against getting back at someone physically, but he commanded against “getting back” by any other means as well. Jesus focused on the attitudes of his followers when dealing with evil individuals. The world advocates getting even, looking out for oneself, and protecting one’s “personal rights.” Jesus’ followers, however, were to hold loosely to their “personal rights,” preferring to forgo those rights for the sake of bearing witness to the gospel and the kingdom. Being willing to set aside one’s personal rights does not mean that believers have to sit passively while evil goes unhindered (see how Paul dealt with this matter in Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:8-12).
“A slap on the right cheek” was literally a blow from the back of someone’s hand, an act that even today shows the greatest possible contempt. A person who slapped another in this way was giving a great insult. According to Jewish law, the one who slapped another faced punishment and a heavy fine. Thus, the law was on the side of the victim, and the victim would have every right to take this offense to court. Jesus said not to take the legal channels, however, but to offer the other cheek for a slap as well. Jesus did not ask his followers to do what he would never do—he received such treatment and did as he had commanded (26:67; see also Isaiah 50:6; 1 Peter 2:23). Jesus wanted his followers to have an unselfish attitude that willingly follows the way of the Cross instead of the way of personal rights. They should entrust themselves to God who will one day set all things right.
To many Jews, these statements were offensive. Any Messiah who would turn the other cheek was not the military leader to revolt against Rome. Because the Jews were under Roman oppression, they wanted retaliation against their enemies whom they hated. But Jesus suggested a new, radical response to injustice: Instead of demanding rights, give them up freely! According to Jesus, it is more important to give justice and mercy than to receive it.
|LIFE APPLICATION – THE CYCLE OF REVENGE|
|The “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” formula expresses the harsh standards of justice. When the principle was applied in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21), the context involved punishment administered by society at large in response to a personal crime. Practicing this principle on a personal level leads to revenge. Far from settling offenses, revenge escalates them. This is because we don’t just get mad and we don’t just get even; we get “just-a-little-more-than-even.”|
|In the face of this human dilemma, Jesus proposed a better way—the radical response of love. His standard was not an attack on the necessity for justice. Rather, Jesus was presenting a practical, rational, and holy way to deal with personal conflict and offense. The apparent impossibility of our generating love and concern for our enemies on our own directs us to God for help. Rely on him for strength to give the appropriate response.|
5:40 “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.”NKJV Under God’s law, no one could take a person’s cloak. “If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate” (Exodus 22:26-27 nrsv). The cloak was a most valuable possession. Making clothing was difficult and time-consuming. As a result, cloaks were expensive, and most people owned only one. A cloak could be used as a blanket, a sack to carry things in, a pad to sit on, a pledge for a debt, and, of course, clothing.
In this case, the person was suing for the tunic, an inner garment worn next to the skin. Jesus said to let the person take both. Again Jesus focused on the attitude expected of his followers. They should hold their possessions very loosely.
5:41 “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”NRSV This is an allusion to the forced labor that soldiers could demand of ordinary citizens, commandeering them to carry their loads a certain distance (one mile, the term for one thousand paces). The Jews hated this law because it forced them to show their subjection to Rome. Yet Jesus said to take the load and willingly go two miles. Jesus called for a serving attitude (as he himself exemplified throughout his life and especially at the cross). Jesus’ words probably shocked his hearers. Most of the Jews, expecting a military Messiah, would never have expected to hear Jesus issue a command of nonretaliation and cooperation with the hated Roman Empire. By these words, Jesus was revealing that his followers belong to another kingdom. They need not attempt to fight against Rome (as did the Zealots, a militant group of Jews), which could only end in defeat. Instead, they should work on behalf of God’s kingdom. If doing so meant walking an extra mile carrying a Roman soldier’s load, then that was what they should do.
|LIFE APPLICATION – THE SECOND MILE|
|In an unequal power situation, you have no choice about the first mile. The soldier has the sword, so you carry his gear. And it’s a mile and an hour you can never get back. You’re the loser.|
|What’s to be done?|
|The second mile is your choice. It’s your way of saying, “God is in control here. He gives me energy, and a mere mile does not exhaust me. That sword is nothing; God is everything. Do you want to know where the real power lies? Try to keep up with me and I’ll tell you.”|
5:42 “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”NIV Jesus’ followers should have a generous spirit. Because they loosely hold on to their personal rights and possessions (as illustrated above), they can freely give when the need arises and won’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow. While people should not blindly give away their possessions (the book of Proverbs makes recommendations about this, see Proverbs 11:15; 17:18; 22:26), Jesus illustrated the heart attitude that he expected of his followers. They must willingly put other’s needs before their own and other’s rights before their own.
JESUS TEACHES ABOUT LOVING ENEMIES / 5:43-48
By telling us not to retaliate against personal injustices (5:38-42), Jesus keeps us from taking the law into our own hands. This also keeps our focus on him and not on our own rights. By loving and praying for our enemies, we prove our relationship to our Father, show his love in an unlovely world, and overcome evil with good.
5:43-44 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”NRSV The Pharisees interpreted Leviticus 19:18 as teaching that they should love only those who love in return, “neighbor” referring to someone of the same nationality and faith. While no Bible verse explicitly says hate your enemy, the Pharisees may have reinterpreted some of the Old Testament passages about hatred for God’s enemies (see, for example, Psalms 139:19-22; 140:9-11). But Jesus explained that his followers would do the true intent of God’s law by loving their enemies as well as their neighbors. When a Pharisee asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor” (Luke 10:29), Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable, Jesus explained that his followers must show love to all kinds of people—no matter what faith, nationality, or personality—enemies included. If you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, you truly show that Jesus is Lord of your life.
Jesus explained to his disciples that they must live by a higher standard than what the world expects—a standard that is impossible to reach on mere human strength alone. People who have experienced God’s love understand what it means to be loved undeservedly. Only with the help of God’s Spirit can his people love and pray for those who seek to do them harm (see Romans 12:14-21).
5:45 “So that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”NRSV The Father in heaven shows undiscriminating love to all people, allowing the sun to rise and rain to fall on both the evil and the good, the righteous and the unrighteous. Therefore, his children (those who believe in him) must reflect his character and show undiscriminating love for both friends and enemies. This verse refers to physical blessings on earth, not spiritual blessings. Obviously God’s children will receive far more in the future. In the meantime, God’s love reaches out to all people. God’s people must do the same.
5:46-47 “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”NRSV Jesus has been explaining the much higher standards that are expected of his followers, standards higher than those the world or even their religion accepted. “Why the command to love enemies?” someone might ask (5:44). Jesus would answer, “Because that will mark my followers as different, with hearts and minds turned over to God alone, who can help them do just that.” Anybody can love those who love them—that comes naturally, even for tax collectors (who were among the most hated people among the Jews of Jesus’ day; see more on 9:9-13). In the same way, if Jesus’ followers greeted only their fellow believers, they would be no different from the Gentiles (non-Jews who did not believe in the one true God). Those disciples who live for Christ and are radically different from the world will receive their reward.
5:48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”NRSV The word translated “perfect” is teleios, a word that can also be translated “mature” or “full-grown” (as in Ephesians 4:13; Hebrews 5:14-6:1). Jesus’ followers can be perfect if their behavior is appropriate for their maturity level—perfect, yet with much room to grow. Considering all that Jesus had said in this chapter, the perfection Jesus required of his followers did not include strict and flawless obedience to minute laws. It called instead for an understanding of how the law pointed to the heavenly Father who is himself perfect. The law itself was not the standard of perfection, God was. Those who loved God and desired to follow him would keep his law as he required. But they did this not on their own strength or to put themselves above others. They did this not because they were already perfect, but because they were striving to be perfect, to reflect their Father’s character.
As followers of Jesus Christ, how can we be perfect?
- In character. In this life we cannot be flawless, but we can aspire to be as much like Christ as possible.
- In holiness. Like the Pharisees, we are to separate ourselves from the world’s sinful values. Unlike the Pharisees, we are to devote ourselves to God’s desires rather than our own and carry his love and mercy into the world.
- In maturity. We can’t achieve Christlike character and holy living all at once, but we must grow toward maturity and wholeness. Just as we expect different behavior from a baby, a child, a teenager, and an adult, so God expects different behavior from us, depending on our stage of spiritual development.
- In love. We can seek to love others as completely as God loves us.
Lest any of the previous standards of righteousness fail to humble us and show us our spiritual bankruptcy apart from God’s grace, Jesus drove home his point with the piercing demand for perfection. People often use the declaration “No one’s perfect” as their basis for self-justification: “No one’s perfect, and God must know I’m doing the best I can.” In reality, “No one’s perfect, and no one does the best they can either” (see Romans 3:9-20). As long as we give credibility to our own feeble efforts at righteousness, we will never recognize our desperate need for a Savior.
Our tendency to sin must never deter us from striving to be more like Christ. Obedience is the key to discipleship. The message of the Sermon on the Mount is that Christ calls all of his disciples to excel, to rise above mediocrity, and to mature in every area, becoming like him. Christ’s demands cannot be met by those who attempt to do so on their own strength—only through the Holy Spirit. Those who strive to become like Christ will ultimately experience sinless perfection, even as Christ is perfect (1 John 3:2-3).
Source: Life Application Bible Commentary – Matthew.