A Moment with the Bible
The Jews divided oaths into two categories: (1) those that were absolutely binding in which the name of God is mentioned in the oath, and (2) all other oaths which were not binding. The Pharisees easily evaded a promise by swearing by things that were “holy,” but then claiming it was non-binding since God’s name was not invoked. They believed a binding oath must be kept, but equivocated on what was a binding oath. Jesus destroys their reasoning. Since God is the Creator of all things, how can one swear by anything that is not in some way connected to God?
When an occasion requires an oath, or when a man begins a conversation with an oath, it is evident that there is the possibility of deceit. An oath taken is to settle the matter. But with the Pharisees, the matter was far from settled. Therefore, Jesus’ answer is to let their statements simply be “yes” or “no.” When a citizen of the kingdom says “yes,” it is the equivalent of swearing by the God of heaven. The Lord’s disciples are governed by honesty and trust. Their reputation for such is so beyond question that a simple yes or no is sufficient. If a person needs to swear it is evident that he has proven by his character to be untrustworthy.
We live in a similar world as did the Jews of the first century. A man’s word can no longer be trusted. If a man makes a promise of his time and something better comes along, he thinks nothing of canceling his promise. God has always held vows in the highest regard with strong condemnation for those who violated them. In Jeremiah 34, God commended the Rechabites because for over 150 years they had kept the oath made by their ancestor to live only and tents and not touch anything from the vine. How many today would regard such an oath made by a person they never knew? The Lord teaches us that a simple yes or no is the equivalent of an oath and therefore we need to be careful what we say and careful to fulfill what we promise.
A Moment with the Bible
There is only one place in the Old Testament in which God gave instructions concerning divorce: Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus is not referencing the text itself, but the Pharisaical interpretation of the text. Their belief was that God had authorized divorcing one’s wife simply by giving her a “certificate of divorce.” However, a careful reading of Deuteronomy 24 reveals that nothing in the text stated that God condoned divorce or remarriage. Jesus later stated that “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, suffered you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt. 19:8). Further, Malachi 2:16 states that God “hates divorce.” It could not be that God condoned divorce under the Law when the Malachi reveals that He hated it.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is typical “if,” “then” Mosaic legislation. For example, in Exodus 21:26, “If a man strikes the eye of his servant and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye.” Does this mean God condoned beating servants as long as one didn’t knock out his eye? No, God is giving the legislative consequences to the action. God is not giving the eternal consequence of the action. So it is in Deuteronomy 24. If a man chooses to divorce his wife and she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and that man divorces her or dies, she may not go back and be the wife of her first husband. It is prohibitive of her being passed back and forth between men, but says nothing of God condoning the practice.
Consider that Jesus corrects their understanding of Deuteronomy 24. If a man divorces his wife (except for fornication) and she marries another, he has caused her to commit adultery. Far from being free from sin, these Jews were a participant in their wife’s adultery. Indeed, even Deuteronomy 24:4 states that she has been “defiled” by the second marriage. Our country is filled with people who have divorced and remarried for reasons other than a mate committing fornication. The result is serious: “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
A Moment with the Bible
In the command against murder, Jesus made it clear that He would not wait for a man to commit the act before He would bring him into judgment. The same is now true with adultery. Lest we take this sin lightly, please be reminded that both murder and adultery required the death penalty under the Law of Moses. This is the way God sees these sins. Most today would say that requiring the death penalty for adultery is barbaric. But in the mind of God, it is just. Adultery is one of the most destructive sins known to man. Few sins are more hurtful or have more wide-range consequences. The family is the foundation of a healthy society and adultery is the enemy of the family.
How can adultery be avoided? The Pharisee was only concerned with the actual act. But the Lord knows that the real problem begins in the mind. Adultery cannot be committed without the thought and the desire. Jesus does not wait for the act to be committed, He will indict us the moment we want to commit the sin. Psychologists often downplay the sin by saying that sexual fantasies are a normal part of the human mind. Such desires may be a normal part of a carnal mind that has been trained by a sex-crazed society, but that does not make them spiritually healthy or right before God. It certainly is not uncommon for thoughts to fly through our minds, but that does not mean we should nurture them and give them free reign. As has been often said, “A bird may fly over your head, but you do not have to let it make a nest in your hair.”
Jesus knew that the command against lust would not be easy; therefore He recommended radical measures in order to defeat it. The “eye” or the “hand,” representing things in life that have the potential to cause us to stumble, must be cut from us if we hope to make it to heaven. These are things that will be very near and dear to our hearts – could it be a television set, a trip to the movies, a friend? – but if it is something that draws us away from God by a lust for this world, it must be cut off. Better to go to heaven without it than to hell with it.
A Moment with the Bible
In understanding this text, we must recognize what Jesus means when He quotes what was “heard” and “said” – You shall not commit murder. This expresses the limited way in which the Jews interpreted the law against murder. As they read it, a man was only guilty when he actually took a life, in which case, he would be in danger of judgment – the judgment of the elders of the city of refuge.
But Jesus states that God is not going to wait for a person to actually take a life before He convicts him. To simply have bitter anger toward a brother would put him in danger of a local city judgment. To go beyond this and actually verbalize one’s hatred by calling a brother “raca” (indicating utter contempt, an “empty-headed fool”), such a person would be in danger of the Sanhedrin, the high court of the Jews. But if one took a step further and called his brother “fool” (Greek: moros – a moral fool, demeaning his intelligence and his moral standing with God), he would be in danger of the final judgment of hell. Notice that such a one never committed the actual act of murder, but he is judged just as harshly. (See 1 John 3:15).
Verses 23-26 are often overlooked and often violated. How many have gone to the place of worship, prayed, sang songs, and even partook of the Lord’s Supper, all the while knowing that a brother has something against them and they have not resolved the issue? We cannot expect God to accept our worship nor be at one with Him in fellowship when we have not done all we can to be one with our brother. We had better “make friends quickly” with an adversary, lest a sin of ours against him be laid before our Judge, in which case we will pay the ultimate price.
“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love god whom he has not seen?” 1 John 4:20.
A Moment with the Bible
In order to properly understand the book of Matthew it is necessary to “think Jewish.” The teachings of Jesus are in a Jewish context and must be understood in light of the Jewish thought of the day. No place is that more true than the text before us.
In today’s study I want to introduce 5:21-48. The repeated phrase Jesus uses is, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you…” Initially, one would think that Jesus is contrasting the teaching of the Old Testament with the teaching of His kingdom. But more careful observation will reveal that Jesus is instead contrasting the correct understanding of the Law as opposed to “that which was heard,” in other words, oral laws/traditions handed down from the time of Moses. The Pharisees believed that after God gave Moses the written Law, He also revealed oral laws that Moses gave to the elders of the people who in turn passed them on to the following generations. These oral laws supposedly gave more detailed explanations concerning the keeping of the written laws. Jesus repeatedly condemned these traditions of the elders as that which went beyond God’s revelation.
By reading through the text it is easy to see that Jesus is not contrasting the Law with His teaching. For example, in verse 43, “You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Where did the Law ever teach the Jews to hate their enemy? In fact, Leviticus 19:34 states that they were to love the stranger that dwelled in their land. To believe that Jesus is contrasting the Law with His new covenant teaching is to suggest that the Lord had no prohibition against hatred, lust, divorce, or false swearing, in the Old Testament. Instead, Jesus is exposing the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees,” who taught that the Law was not violated until the actual act of murder or adultery was committed.
Some, however, take this too far and argue that Jesus teaching in this text does not apply in the new covenant. This also goes beyond the intention of the context. Everything Jesus teaches in this section has been universal laws of God since the very beginning. When has God ever condoned hatred, lust, divorce, or revenge? Each of these principles is as true in the new covenant as they were in the old.