The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) – Pt. 2

Posted: March 17, 2014 in Bible Study - Matthew, God's Law and the Christian, Misused Bible verses

Law

Matthew 5:21-48

It doesn’t say what you thought it said

Flowing on from his introduction and his call to a righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees, Jesus begins to unpack the Law, and he focuses on some specific areas in which the Law was being misunderstood, misused, and added to. In their attempt to maintain a right standing with God, the Pharisees had tried to make the Law achievable, and in doing so had actually dumbed it down. If we think God gave the written law so that we can fulfil it and somehow become good people by doing so, we have missed the point:

‘…the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious…’ 1 Timothy 1:9

In other words, Jesus had no intention that anyone hearing his teaching would be able to achieve perfect obedience. If we take this to be his intention, then we would have to conclude that he was either wrong and deluded about human moral ability, or that he was cruel in setting such a high standard that no-one is able to reach. Instead, Jesus’ presentation of the law shows us where we have already failed, our inability to succeed, and our need for mercy from him. Hence, the cross.

21-26 Murder (Exodus 20:13)

Not just the action matters, but the intention. Why? All actions flow from the heart. Jesus said:

‘Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them…. What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person’ (Mark 7:15-23 NIV)

Sin is not the naughty things we do. It is an attitude of the heart that refuses to love God and love our neighbour. The outworking of this is specific actions, depending on the opportunities we have to put our attitudes and intentions into practice. So, anger against a person, is in God’s eyes equal to actually performing the physical act of taking their life.

But Jesus extends this even further:

‘Raca’ was the worst term of contempt you could use in the Aramaic language. It was considered so serious that a person who used it could be taken to court and charged with slander. It implied that the person you are insulting is devoid of any moral virtue or integrity. Technically it was a breach of the 9th commandment, ‘Do not bear false witness against your neighbour.’ (Exodus 20:16), and so the accused would be tried by the religious authority, the Sanhedrin.

By contrast, ‘you fool’, literally ‘moros’ – from which comes our English moron, was still an insult, but more on a par with calling someone ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’. It did not refer to their moral integrity and was not considered serious enough to bring someone before the Sanhedrin for. Jesus, shockingly, says that this however puts a person ‘in danger of the fire of Hell’!

Effectively he is saying that being angry with another person, or just simply thinking little of them is a breach of the commandment, ‘Do not murder.’

23-26 is an application of this principle that highlights the relational, other-person-centred nature of God’s law.

23-24 If you are aware that someone you know has something against you – ie your actions are in some way the cause of them becoming guilty of this breach of the law – then you should, in love for them, go an seek reconciliation. This is far more important than just doing one’s religious duty, and so making a sacrifice at the altar should be put off for the sake of reconciliation.

25-26 is not about making sure you don’t end up in jail, but emphasising the personal reconciliation over raw justice. If you settle the matter in court, you will pay the penalty and the matter will be ‘settled’ in the eyes of the law, but where will be the reconciliation?

So Jesus has taken this simple command, ‘Do not murder’ and elevated it to such a height that everyone is indicted; anyone who is not constantly loving their neighbour, working proactively for positive relationships between people, and seeking reconciliation with everyone, is guilty of breaking this command. He now goes on and does the same with other commands.

27-32 Sexuality (Exodus 20:14)

27-28 As with the command on murder, most people read this as, ‘If you are married, don’t become sexually involved with someone who is not your spouse, as long as they remain your spouse.’

But as with the murder command, Jesus also says that it begins with the intention and desires of the heart – lustful thoughts equate to the physical act, and it may often simply be the social mores we have that prevent most people from acting on their sexual desires. The simple fact that porn is one of the biggest online industries (in 2006 worth $96 billion) shows the significance of Jesus’ statement.

29-30 Jesus highlights the power of wrongly directed sexual desire by using extreme language – if you eye or hand causes you to sin in this way, it would be better to lose them, than to head down the downward spiral and become a person who sees others as objects, and one’s sexuality simply as an outlet for one’s own selfish and momentary pleasures.

31-32 The law about writing a certificate of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1) was never intended to be an ‘easy out’ for a man to discard his wife when he became tired of her, yet this was how it was seen. Rather, it was a safeguard for the protection of women, who once divorced would have, in the culture of the day, no means of income and would become destitute or forced into prostitution, as men would see her as ‘damaged goods’ or didn’t want to risk marrying someone only to find out she was already married. A certificate of divorce was proof that she was legally able to be remarried. So again, the Law is personal, other person centred, and about the welfare of others, not simply one’s own personal morality.

33-37 Vows (Numbers 30:2)

Taking special vows – promises before God to fulfill a responsibility, to give an amount of money or serve God in some way – was not required by the OT law, however the law did say that if you do make a vow you should be committed to see it through. The practice became common that people would make promises, and swear by something as a way of demonstrating that they really meant it – effectively like saying, ‘May God strike me dead if I do not do what I say.’ However it can be very easy to take such an oath, and swear ‘by heaven’ or ‘by earth’ or ‘by Jerusalem’ just as a way to get what you want – to enter into a business contract, or to appear holy and pious before others.

In 37 Jesus again raises the bar. Oaths mean nothing if they come from the mouth of a person who has full integrity and who never goes against their word. So unless we consistently and fully keep all that we promise, we are in breach of this law.

38-42 Justice (Exodus 21:23-25)

Jesus quotes directly from the OT law here, with no additions. Some have taken his following words to be a criticism of the law, however he has only just said, ‘I have not come to abolish [the law]… whoever breaks one of the least… will be called least in the kingdom…’ So he is not saying this law is no longer relevant or is wrong; rather, again he is challenging the popular mis-interpretation of the law. Firstly, the penalties of the law were not to be carried out on an individual basis. This was not a license for anyone to lash out in vengeance against someone who hurts them; the proper legal process of a trial with witnesses was to be observed by the authorities, who would then determine the appropriate penalty. Secondly, this law is not about vengeance but restitution. The injured person was to be compensated for their loss, and so the Jews sought to ensure that an equivalent compensation was to be made for the injured person; what they lost because of their injury was made up for by the offender, and the offender should feel a sense of loss equivalent to the harm they has caused their neighbour.

Again Jesus lifts this law to its highest application: don’t demand restitution from someone who hurts you (39), and if you are required to make restitution, give more than is required or demanded (40-41). And don’t wait until a wrong has been done to have this kind of attitude; this law is, again about concern and love for one’s neighbour, wanting to make things right when we wrong them, wanting the best for them, and so this attitude should show through not just when we are required by the courts. We should be willing to have a generous spirit to those who ask of us. As before, this is all about personal relationships and loving our neighbour as we love ourselves.

43-47 Enemies (Leviticus 19:8, Exodus 23:4-5)

‘Love your neighbour’ is at the heart of all of God’s laws about how we should be treating one another. Jesus himself said it is the ‘second’ greatest command, and if you fulfill it you will fulfill all of the laws about relating to our fellow human beings. So here he comes to a climax, as he has been showing us already that the Law is al about loving others, and doing so in a way that is faultless in selflessness.

Yet the Jews of the time had interpreted this command to mean, ‘Only love those who are like you and who treat you well. Anyone else is not your neighbour, but your enemy. It’s OK to hate them.’

As he has been doing repeatedly, Jesus again raises the bar. Love everyone, even you enemies, including those who prove they are your enemies by actively seeking to hurt or kill you! Why? Because when we truly obey God’s law we are not just doing what is right, but we are reflecting the character of God – ‘that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.’ The Law is not merely a set of rules that God made up; it is a display and expression of His own character; it is the way that He Himself is and operates; and as people made in His image, we are designed to reflect that.

‘Man is the living personal image of God; the law is the written, perceptual image of God… when man in the image of God and law in the image of God come together in the fully obedient life, then man is indeed “being himself”. HIs nature is the image of God, and the law is given to both activate and to direct that nature into a truly human life; any other life is subhuman.’ (JA Motyer, in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, entry on ‘Law’)

The term ‘sons of your Father in Heaven’ means ‘like Father, like son’. Our character should be reflective of His. So our attitude to our ‘enemies’ should be the same as that of the Father: He sends sun and rain even to those who hate him and deny that He exists.

48 The Higher-than-the-sky standard

Jesus concludes this section with this statement which in many ways is as devastating as 5:20; in fact it is infinitely more devastating. Not only must we exceed the Pharisees and Scribes, but we must be perfect, to a standard comparable with God’s perfection Himself. Keeping the law is not merely a matter of ticking the boxes; it is being a faultless, unblemished reflection of the God who is all of love, righteousness, goodness, holiness and mercy. This is not merely a high moral standard. Jesus couches this phrase in relational, family language. God is not a being who stands over and against us to impose His law without relationship; He is the Father, and by implication we are created to be in relationship with Him as His children. In this he is not calling people simply to a high moral code of behaviour, but to a deeply personal relationship, in which the Father embraces us and draws us to himself though His Son, Jesus; and this then works its way out in a lifestyle that will reflect His character. The only ultimate way to ‘be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ is to be in relationship with Him through His Son, Jesus; to receive the free gift of perfect righteousness accomplished for us through his death and resurrection.

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