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.
A Moment with the Bible
The scribes were the most renowned teachers of the Law. They not only copied the law, but, as Ezra, had the primary function of expounding on the scriptures. They were also referred to as “doctors of the law.” The Pharisees were generally held in high esteem by the people as those who had attained to the highest standards of spirituality. The scribes and Pharisees put far more stress on the parts of the law that were more visible and obvious than on inner qualities that would fulfill the spirit of the moral requirements. It is evident by the later statements of Jesus that the Pharisees did not have the motive of keeping the Law in order to please God. Instead, their primary concern was the esteem they received from the people by their appearance of spirituality.
Imagine the shock when the people heard Jesus say that their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. But the statement was not only central to their salvation but for ours as well. Service to God cannot be viewed as filling out a tax return. When we report our income and pay our taxes we try to find every legal way of paying as little as possible. We are not concerned with pleasing the IRS, we are concerned with how we can legally escape paying too much. God will not tolerate such service. The moment a person asks how much he must do in order to inherit eternal life, he has missed the whole point. The greatest commandment, to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, precludes any question of how much is enough to satisfy God.
Christians have typically placed far too much emphasis on visible acts of service to God. If one regularly goes to church, he sees himself as faithful and others will commend him. But what about the thoughts and intents of the heart? What about the failures of one’s inner character – failures in the areas of love, patience, and mercy? These, as Jesus said, are the weightier matters of the law (Mt. 23:23). We may fool men, but we are not fooling God when our motives are to make sure men recognize us as righteous instead of being diligent to be certain that God is pleased with us. Jesus later said concerning the Pharisees, “They say and do not” (Mt. 23:3). In the kingdom, there must be a righteousness that exceeds such hypocrisy.
A Moment with the Bible
In the first sixteen verses of Jesus’ sermon He has described the character of a citizen of His kingdom. But the obvious question that would be in the mind of the multitudes would be, “What relationship will this new kingdom have to the Law and the Prophets?”
Jesus states that He has not come to destroy but to fulfill. The two words are used on contrast to one another. “Destroy” means to “disintegrate, demolish, or overthrow.” Jesus did not come to change the law, to add to it, or to overthrow it. He came to fulfill it by accomplishing its goals. The old covenant was to prepare the way for Christ and was never intended to endure permanently (Gal. 3:24-25). The Hebrew letter tells us that the Law was a “shadow of good things to come” (Heb. 10:1), and was imperfect to bring about God’s ultimate purpose of forgiveness of sins (Heb. 8:6-7).
Verse 18 has confused many, but the statement is direct and to the point. The Law and the Prophets (representing the whole of the Old Testament) would not pass away until all is fulfilled. So sure is this statement that Jesus says that even heaven and earth could not pass away until the Law is fulfilled. Jesus later states in Luke 24:44, “that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” Jesus did fulfill all things and when He did the Law “passed away.” Jesus did not destroy the Law, but He did bring it to its intended completion. Paul elaborates on this in 2 Cor. 3:7-13.
Notice that Jesus states that even every “jot and tittle” (smallest marks in the Hebrew), were to be considered important in the Law. This shows that Jesus put His stamp of approval on the inspiration of the Hebrew Old Testament. We use the same Old Testament canon today as Jesus verified while on the earth. Therefore, anyone who would break (disregard) the least of these commandments would be least in the kingdom (without salvation). Jesus would not tolerate anyone disregarding any part of God’s law. That same principle holds true for the new covenant that came into effect at Jesus death (Heb. 9:16-17).