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).
A Moment with the Bible
Immediately after saying, “You are salt,” Jesus uses a second figure and says, “You are light.” Salt preserves and flavors, changing the nature of the recipient. Light points the way so that a person does not stumble or become lost. Under the category of light, Jesus uses two figures: a city set on a hill and a lamp. A city indicates the force of many lights giving off a beacon that can be seen from a great distance. Together, Christians offer a greater influence than if they only did their work as individuals. A city set on a hill cannot be hid and yet many local churches are unknown by the residents of their own community. A church must not forget that it does not exist to simply comfort the saved, but to be a light to those who are lost.
The picture of a lamp is intended to show something that no one would do. Who would light a lamp and then cover it up? The Lord has created us as lamps reflecting His light. We will have done the very opposite of our purpose if we hide our light. But how many Christians work closely with coworkers and friends without them ever knowing that there is a light among them? A Christian who thinks he is a light without ever opening his mouth is badly mistaken. Peter states, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
Most importantly, notice the words of verse 16: “Let your light so shine…” Here is the goal of being salt and light. We are to live in such a manner that our influence will cause others to “glorify your Father in heaven.” Christian, are you thinking about how your actions and words are seen by those around you? How easily and quickly we can forget our purpose when we are overwhelmed by the stress of our daily grind! Thus Paul states, “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one” (Col. 4:5-6).
A Moment with the Bible
The strength of the kingdom of heaven is first found in the character of its citizens. We have seen that in the beatitudes. But that is not the only power of the kingdom. The power of the kingdom is also seen in its influence. “You are salt,” Jesus said. In a world filled with corruption, kingdom citizens are present in order to stop the spoilage and bring true spiritual flavor to the lives of men and women around them.
For salt to be worth anything it must have potency. In Luke 14:33-34, Jesus explained how a Christian maintains potency: “So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?” We maintain our potency by the fact that we are willing to sacrifice everything to serve the Lord. Here is the critical difference between a kingdom citizen and the “common” religious person. Good morals will not differentiate us from people in the religious world. But a true disciple of Christ stands out and draws people to the Lord because he is radical in the cost he will pay in his life to put the kingdom of God first. Christians who will put their own comforts before the Lord’s work have lost their flavor; they have no influence.
Next, for salt to be worth anything it must touch that which it intends to influence. Salt that “touches” will actually change the nature of what it contacts. Many Christians avoid unbelievers. They do not like to be around them nor do they have any intention of making a sinner their friend. But salt that is left in the container has no value for its intended use. We must get the salt out of the shaker. We must touch the lives of a corrupt and flavorless world if there is ever to be a change. If we stay inside our houses and never invite a sinner to share our lives, we are of no use to the Lord. Jesus ate with the tax collectors and sinners because they were the ones who needed the salt. The one accusation made of Jesus that was true was that He was a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). A kingdom citizen will go and do likewise.