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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- THE BOOK OF RUTH --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- EZRA---NEHEMIAH--- ESTHER--- PSALMS 1-58--- PROVERBS---ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
JESUS’ WORDS CONCERNING REQUIRED ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOUR UNDER THE KINGLY RULE OF HEAVEN (5-7), FOLLOWED BY A THREEFOLD REVELATION OF JESUS AS LORD AND THE REVELATION THROUGH HIS WORDS AND ACTIONS OF JESUS AS SON OF MAN, SON OF GOD AND SON OF DAVID IN CONTRAST WITH THE CLAIM OF THE RABBIS THAT HE IS IN LEAGUE WITH THE PRINCE OF DEMONS (4.23-9.35).
The continuity of Matthew’s Gospel comes out in the way that verses which regularly appear to close off a section, also become the opening verses of the next section. This is true here in regard to 4.23-25. For 4.23-25 can be seen as not only closing off the previous section but also as opening up this section thus forming an inclusio with 9.35. It commences with 4.23 ‘And Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the good news of the Kingly Rule, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people’, and can be seen as closing with 9.35, ‘and Jesus went about all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the good news of the Kingly Rule, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness’.
In between those two parallel statements we have firstly a sayings section (the Sermon on the Mount), and then an activity section where what Jesus is begins to be made clear. These are as follows:
So initially we find an example of Jesus’ teaching (5.3-7.12), which is summed up in proclamation concerning the Kingly Rule of Heaven where Jesus’ Lordship is revealed (7.13-27), a proclamation which is then followed by examples of His healing of ‘all manner of disease and all manner of sickness’ (8.2-9.34), which reveal Him as Lord (8.2, 6, 21, 25) and are put in the context of a quotation from Isaiah 53.4 concerning the Servant of YHWH (8.17). The King thus proclaims the requirements under His Kingly Rule (5-7), and demonstrates the grounds for His authority in what follows (8-9).
Furthermore both sections open with reference to ‘great crowds’ (4.25; 8.1). The first has in mind the ‘great crowds’ (4.25), who are deliberately left behind so that Jesus can speak to His disciples up in the mountain (5.1). Meanwhile some of the crowds filter up into the mountain to hear what Jesus is saying to His disciples (7.28), which may help to explain the severity of the way in which Jesus ends up His words (7.13-27), although He would, of course, also have been aware that some of the many who professed discipleship were not fully committed (John 6.66). The fact that some of the crowds filtered up would explain why there were then so many that in 7.28 they could be spoken of as ‘crowds’, although not as ‘great crowds’ (8.1).
Then He comes down from the mountain and is once again involved with the ‘great crowds’ (8.1), with which He continues to be involved as the Servant of YHWH (8.17), until the time comes for Him to escape across the sea (8.18, 23, 28). This is then followed by incidents in which He is revealed as the Son of God and vanquisher of demons (8.29); the Son of Man with authority on earth to forgive sins (9.6); the Great Physician Who has come to make men whole (9.12); the Heavenly Bridegroom (9.15); the Raiser of the dead (9.25); and the Son of David Who opens the eyes of the blind (9.27), whilst ludicrously being charged by the Pharisees as being in league with the Prince of Demons (9.34).
THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT (4.23-7.29).
The Setting For the Sermon on The Mount (4.23-25).
Having had a successful ministry throughout Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and preaching the good news of the presence among the people of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, and having drawn great crowds from all over Palestine and beyond, Jesus withdrew into a mountain, and there ‘His disciples’ (those who were now following Him as a result of His ministry) came to Him for more teaching.
4.23-25 ‘And Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the good news of the Kingly Rule, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people. And the report of him went forth into all Syria, and they brought unto him all who were sick, bound with many kinds of diseases and afflictions, possessed with devils, and epileptic, and palsied, and he healed them. And there followed him great crowds from Galilee and Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judaea and from beyond Jordan, and seeing the crowds, he went up into the mountain, and when he had sat down, his disciples came to him.’
In these words we have a summary of Jesus preaching, which is partly repeated in 9.35. This draws attention to its overall nature, and to the great crowds that He attracted , many of whom came for healing (for further commentary on these words see part 1 ). This work clearly went on for some time, until at length Jesus recognised that it was time for Him to get those who had become committed alone so that He could give them deeper teaching, and show them what would be required of disciples. But even here He was circumvented by some of the crowds arriving to listen in on what He was saying.
REQUIRED ATTITUDES AND BEHAVIOUR UNDER THE KINGLY RULE OF HEAVEN (5.1-7.29).
Having travelled widely throughout Galilee, and having proclaimed the need for repentance and response to the Kingly Rule of Heaven, Jesus now recognised the need for those who had responded to His message and had become His followers to know more of what had happened to them and more of what was required of them. Up to this time His message had been to the crowds, and had essentially been, ‘Repent, for the Kingly Rule of Heaven is at hand’ (4.17), although, of course, expanded on, even though we are not told in what way. Now He wants to instruct the wider group who have become disciples. The small group who went around with Him could learn while they accompanied Him about, but the wider group of disciples, of whom there would be many, would require special attention at the times when they came to Him. And this message is a kind of clarion call, first outlining who and what they are, and then calling on them to go and live it out in the world so that they might be the light of the world (5.14), as Israel should have been (Isaiah 42.6; 49.6). And it ends with the reminder that ‘in that Day’ they will have to give an account, not just to God, but to Him (7.22-23).
We should remember that even with the presence of what was seen by them as a great Prophet among them life had to go on. Fields had to be tended, farm animals cared for, daily needs catered for. The make up of the crowds, and of the general disciples, would therefore vary considerably as He went from place to place, and from season to season, and many who had responded to His teaching, and in that sense were His disciples, did not follow all the time, just as Peter, Andrew, James and John had not done so before they were especially called, even though they had been ‘believers’ for some time (see John 1.35-51). We must therefore distinguish the disciples who followed Him and went about with Him, of which there were a good and varying number, and from among whom were chosen the twelve, and probably numbering over seventy (see 8.18-22; Luke 8.2-3; 9.57-62; 10.1), from those who had eagerly responded to His message and could be classed as ‘believers’, and had either been baptised by either John or by Jesus’ disciples (e.g. John 3.22-23; 4.1-2), or had committed themselves to Him in Galilee and saw themselves as being now under the Kingly Rule of God, and who regularly came to hear Him teach, but who did not go about with Him all the time. But all were ‘disciples’. (The term can be defined by 28.29. It represents those who have responded to the teaching of Jesus with commitment, and we could add in the light of 16.18, ‘and have become potential members of the new congregation of Israel which was being introduced by Jesus’). And we must differentiate both of these groups from the crowds who at first idolised Him, and loved to hear Him teach, but who had made no real commitment. All had to be catered for.
So we note in 5.1 the deliberate distinction between ‘the crowds’ and ‘the disciples’. The crowds gathered to Him, flocked around Him and sought healing. They wanted to hear the words of the prophet, but had as yet not responded in depth. The ‘disciples’, however, were different. They had repented and had entered under the Kingly Rule of Heaven. The ‘Kingly Rule of God’ was in them (or among them)’ (Luke 17.21). They had responded from the heart to the light that had shone on them (4.16). They were now greater than John the Baptiser in status because they had come under the Kingly Rule of God (11.11) and were enjoying something of the drenching of the Spirit of God (see on 3.11; and compare Luke 11.13; John 3.1-6; 4.10-14). And four at least had already been called to be ‘fishers of men’ (4.19), consider also Philip (John 1.43). It was therefore now necessary for them to know more of what all this involved.
Jesus therefore moved away from the crowds and went up into the mountain, where He waited for ‘His disciples’ to ‘come to Him’. The word may well have gone out that they should join Him there (for it is said that they ‘came to Him’). Or alternatively a number of disciples may have gone up with Him, and ‘came to Him’ might simply signify what happened when He sat down. Either way they gathered around to hear what He had to say. But the main point of mentioning ‘going up into the mountain’ is precisely in order to differentiate this teaching from the earlier proclamations. Here He had moved to a quieter and more rarified atmosphere where He could speak more personally to His own followers.
We should pause in awe at this moment. Here was the first gathering that we know of, of the new congregation of Israel that Jesus had come to establish. Here on this mountainside was being gathered the nucleus of an army that would shake the world. Later Jesus would speak of being able to call on twelve legions of angels, but the truth was that He did not need twelve legions of angels, for He had these men. And the words that He was about to speak to them would resound throughout the world, and would never be forgotten. Here was the beginning of an army greater than that of Alexander the Great, and the mighty Pompey, and the all victorious Julius Caesar. It was an army that would take the world by storm. And few would have noticed the man who sat by Jesus with his writing implements at the ready, so that he could faithfully record His words (The Testimony of Jesus). They had their Scriptures. They little realised that the New Testament was being born.
So He sat down and ‘opened His mouth’ and taught them. In the Old Testament the ‘opening of the mouth’ often indicated the bringing of a special word from God (see Ezekiel 3.27; Daniel 10.16, and contrast Isaiah 53.7 where He refused to open His mouth to His oppressors). A similar situation applies in 13.35. There also, as here, He was revealing the ‘secrets kept hidden from the foundations of the world’, that is, was bringing out what men had missed of God’s truth from the beginning, and was expanding on it.
It is important that we see that these words are spoken to those who have been prepared for them. This is not a message to the crowds as a whole. The message to them was ‘repent and respond to the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ (which we see expanded on in chapter 13). They needed a change of heart and a willingness to submit to God’s Rule. This is a message for ‘the disciples’, those who have already repented, who have entered the Kingly Rule of Heaven and are ‘seeking first’ His Kingly Rule and His righteousness and must continue to do so (6.33). The light has dawned on them (4.16) and they have seen it and have responded, and are thus themselves to be the light of the world (verse 14) and persecuted for His sake (verse 11). It is not therefore a message for the onlooker, but for the believer. Here was a community of Heaven, and it is on Heaven that Jesus will concentrate their minds, especially in the latter part of His Sermon, before He sends them back into the world.
The fact that it is encapsulated between an opening summary, where it is the disciples who were present (5.1), and a closing summary, where the crowds were present (7.28-29), demonstrates that it was not totally exclusive. No one was prevented from coming. But its focal point was different. It had in mind those who were committed. Of course, once it was known that Jesus was teaching His disciples in the mountain, some of the interested crowd would naturally follow, and they would not be turned away. And yet His words were not for them unless they truly repented and turned to God and came under the Kingly Rule of Heaven.
This is the first use in Matthew of the term ‘disciple’ which means a ‘learner who is responsive to his teacher’, and regularly referred to the students who attached themselves to a Rabbi in order to learn from him. It was elsewhere also used of those who were most closely attendant on John the Baptist in a similar way (9.14; 11.2; John 1.35). John’s disciples practised fasting and attended on John in his prison, so it clearly indicated a genuine commitment. In the same way these ‘disciples’ of Jesus were those who had revealed themselves as committed to Jesus and wanted to learn from Him, even though not all could follow Him about everywhere.
The change in the text from ‘disciples’ at the beginning (5.1) to ‘crowds’ at the end (7.28) indicates that as He spoke to ‘the disciples’ who had gathered, some in ‘the crowds’ learned about it and also slowly filtered up the mountain and gathered around, in the same way as crowds would often gather around a group of disciples in the Temple who were listening to a popular Rabbi. In this way the crowd around Him would gradually grow from being a bunch of ‘disciples’ to being a larger ‘crowd’. But not all in such a crowd would be seen as ‘disciples’, and we must accept Matthew’s own description of the fact that His words in this sermon were specific to the disciples, even though they were open to be heard by the crowds. Indeed the hope was that they too might become genuine disciples. (He would not turn any away). But the words were not specifically directed at the crowds. To them He spoke in parables (13.13-17; Mark 4.11).
This fact is brought out quite clearly by the content. Those to whom these words were actually spoken were seen to be those who had been singularly favoured by God (5.3-9). They were called on to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (5.13-14). They were those who would be persecuted on Jesus’ account (this is conclusive as to the fact that they were committed disciples) in a way comparable with the prophets (5.11). They were clearly in the Kingly Rule of Heaven, for their behaviour within it is weighed up and considered (5.19). They pray, ‘Your Kingly Rule come’, recognise their responsibility to advance that Kingly Rule, and their responsibility to forgive others, (forgiveness was a feature of the coming ‘kingdom’), and pray for ‘Tomorrow’s bread’, that is, they pray to eat with the Messiah at His table (6.9-14). They are expected to set aside concern about food, drink and clothing and to seek first God’s Kingly Rule (6.33). They are of those who genuinely call Him ‘Lord, Lord’ and seek to do the will of His Father Who is in Heaven (7.21-22). All this points to those who have repented, have been forgiven and have entered under the Kingly Rule of Heaven in response to Jesus’ call (4.17).
As we have already seen, this is the first of five large discourses in Matthew (see also chapters 10, 13, 18, 23-25), each presenting us with different aspects of Jesus’ teaching, and this one is to be seen as presenting us with the picture of the true disciple of Jesus (and therefore of the true Christian disciple), together with instructions as to the attitude that they must have towards life and towards Him.
Note on The Context and Source of the Sermon on the Mount.
We have only to read these ‘instructions’ carefully to see that they bear the mark of Jesus’ genius. Running through them like a golden cord is the handprint of the Master. No man ever spoke like this man. Classic literature is in one sense very little different from ordinary literature in that the words used are the same. But it is the way in which those words are put together, and the ideas that they convey, that make the difference. And that is why they are remembered and become world changing. It is the same with this message. It is more than a classic, it is a work of genius. It is not a question here of selecting out from His material something here and something there, and trying to find from it something spectacularly new. It is a matter of seeing the whole. For the whole is, in its presentation, spectacularly new, even though it is firmly based in the Scriptures. Nothing like it can be found before or since. It presents a total picture that has astounded the world throughout the centuries, including many of differing religions and no religion. Any view of it that does not recognise this element of genius within it can be dispensed with immediately. To suggest therefore that it could be the invention, or even part invention, of a committee or ‘school’ (apart from that consisting of Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is so absurd as to be ludicrous. For it hangs together as one whole and has far too much quality for that. It contains ‘the ring of truth’ and ‘the mark of its genius’ throughout. It bears the stamp of a unique personality. It is not only unique in its generation, it is unique in every generation.
We must therefore recognise the danger of our becoming so interested in minutely examining the bark of the trees that we miss out on seeing the glory of the forest. It is a danger for us all. What seems out of place in a tree might turn out to be necessary to make up the whole forest. So it is one thing to suggest that like all writers, including the Gospel writers, Matthew was inevitably influenced by his environment when he wrote his Gospel, (as all historians necessarily are), and for that reason selected his material accordingly, it is quite another to suggest that he felt free to alter the sacred words of Jesus to suit the purposes of his fellowship, or to invent some (whether ‘in the Spirit’ or otherwise), and impute them to Jesus. To those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God such a thing would have been unthinkable. They must have seen His words from the very beginning as unique. And this would be especially so for one who could at the same time cite Jesus’ words, ‘not one jot or tittle of the Law shall fail until all is fulfilled’. Such a man would not apply any less stringency to the very words of the Messiah in the restatement of that Law, than he did to the Law itself. There is therefore no justification at all for the suggestion that the early church, and especially Matthew, thought that the words of a Christian prophet could be acceptably represented as though they were the words of the earthly Jesus. That would have been totally unacceptable. A Christian prophet might say ‘thus says the Lord’ but all knew that a Christian prophet could be fallible, that his words had to be weighed, and that those who weighed his words could be fallible too (1 Corinthians 14.29). But like the Old Testament Scriptures the words of Jesus themselves would be seen as sacrosanct. (It may well be that that was what was meant by references to ‘The Testimony of Jesus’ e.g. Revelation 1.2, 9; 12.17; 19.10). Paul himself makes this clear, for he carefully distinguishes the words of Jesus from his own, giving them more weight (1 Corinthians 7.10). Consider also his words in 1 Timothy 6.3.
So to suggest that the words of a prophet could have been represented as being the actual words of the earthly Jesus would have been seen as incomprehensible to the early church. Such words might certainly be seen as ‘from the Lord’. But not as on a par with the actual teaching of Jesus the Messiah when He was on earth. A person who tried to introduce such words as the words of Jesus would soon have been shamed by eyewitnesses who knew Jesus’ teaching by heart, and those who had obtained their information from eyewitnesses and had also carefully learned it by heart, for they would know better. And it would have been quite right that he should be shamed.
Nor in fact could any committee or school, even if it had wanted to, have been able to produce this flawless gem, or have written something like it, for it is of such a deep moral quality that it has gained the approval of religious men of all ages and all faiths. All such recognise that it bears within it the stamp of One person, and that One a person of outstanding moral genius. Scholars have scoured the vast array of the teachings of the later Rabbis, which also include citations from earlier Rabbis, and have here and there found pearls of genuine wisdom, and even sayings similar to those of Jesus, especially when ‘sympathetically’ treated. This is not surprising because both looked to the same Scriptures (the Old Testament) and drew many of their thoughts from them. But only Jesus could have produced what we have here, cohesive from beginning to end, with every word telling (and being commented on through the centuries), and covering religious and moral truth in a way that is unique. Many great men have patterned their teaching on that of Jesus. But Jesus was Himself the pattern. Few Jews take their Mishnah to their bedroom with them, and meditate on a different passage each day, until they have covered the whole. But that is what millions have done with the teaching of Jesus throughout the centuries, and still do today.
We can compare the Lord’s Prayer (6.9.13). Who else gave a prayer so comprehensive in its scope, so simple in its presentation, before He did? We can scour the teachings of the Rabbis and select a little from here, and a little from there, and make up a similar (although rather verbose) prayer, but there is nothing to compare with this, both in its presentation and its use.
Even today in our secular society what is good in society is founded on His words here. (Not that we obey them, but because they have influenced the very way men think). And the same applies to the teaching of Islam. That too echoes Old Testament teaching and some of the teaching of Jesus, along with material taken from apocryphal gospels, for Mohammed gained many of his ideas from the teaching of Jesus, even if he did receive it in a very distorted form.
We can understand why atheistic writers would try to demonstrate the opposite position to this, because it undermines their whole position. It demonstrates Who Jesus really is. But it is difficult to understand how spiritual men fail to see it. It is, of course, partly due to their needing to appear to be respectable scholars by looking in detail at the trees and so not noticing the forest, and then being caught up in the detail. But the clarity of vision and succint coverage of such wide topics as we find in the sermon, presented in a way that is so different from, and so superior to, any other writings of that time (and of the following centuries) is so unique that it has to be the work of one man, and that one a spiritual genius. As with the questions of Socrates, what He said is so obvious afterwards that we all think that we could have said it, but the point is that although much of it is based on the Old Testament Scriptures no one had ever said it in quite such a comprehensive, clear and yet succint way before. Nor had they attempted to do it with such authority. We only have to compare the Rabbis in order to recognise this. It is true, of course, that by saying this we are giving a value judgment, but it is one, we would emphasise, that has the support of history and of men of all religions and diverse creeds throughout the centuries (even though they have regularly distorted it themselves). All agreed that never man spoke like this man, and accepted that what He said proved that He had the right to say ‘I say to you’ (instead of ‘thus says the Lord’). But it would have been totally unforgivable for a mere prophet to use such a concept in order to present his own words, however inspirational.
Whether it was a complete sermon in itself, or a summary made up from Jesus’ well remembered words put together to form a whole, may be open to question, and is probably a question which will never finally be answered satisfactorily, simply because all see things differently and there can be no final proof. But there is much about the intricacy of the sermon and its whole framework and presentation that may be seen as suggesting the former, as we shall see as we consider it. What can, however, be affirmed is that Jesus’ words were clearly treated by the early church as being on a par with the Old Testament Scriptures, and as so sacred that they must not be essentially altered. And that that must actually have been so is proved, because otherwise the purity of His teaching would not have been preserved. For it would not be long before men who tried to ‘improve it’ actually distorted it. Only its accurate preservation as originally given explains why we can appreciate it today as we find it here. Had man got to work on it, it would soon have become degraded. It is true that translation into Greek proved necessary, and this to some extent blurred Jesus careful attempts to make it easy to memorise, something which is discernible in what we can conjecture was possibly the original Aramaic (its Aramaic origin is clear to most). But we can be sure that such translation was not carried out haphazardly, and if it had proved unsuccessful would soon have been put right by spiritual men in authority who knew both Aramaic and Greek (of which there were large numbers) and actually knew what Jesus had said. That was after all one reason why the Apostles had been appointed (John 14.26; 16.12-14). The preservation of His teaching had become a major reason for their existence (Acts 1.21-22).
Furthermore much of what Jesus said would certainly have been repeated over and over again by Him at different times, and in different circumstances, for like all itinerant preachers Jesus would have repeated His material constantly, and deliberately so in order that it might be remembered. This partly explains many echoes of it in other contexts in the other Gospels. But this was because He wanted His words to be remembered by heart, and designed them for that purpose, repeating them continually and thus using the repetitive methods beloved of the ancients, varying them to some extent to suit the circumstances, but keeping their essential content the same. So the fact that extracts from the Sermon on the Mount can be compared with snippets in the other Gospels proves nothing about the constitution of the Sermon. It simply demonstrates that He deliberately repeated what He said here time and again until His hearers could not forget it.
The fact of such repetition, and determination to retain its accuracy, is the only explanation of why we have so ‘little’ of the teaching of Jesus. For it is not so much surprising that we have such a quantity of His teaching, as surprising that we have so little. That is undoubtedly partly because so much of it was repetitive, and because no one apart from eyewitnesses was allowed to add to it. (This is so in spite of John’s rather exaggerated comment in John 21.25. Had he really thought that so much further teaching was available he would have made sure that far more of it was written down before he died, for it is quite clear from His Gospel that he was trying to supplement the tradition lying behind the other Gospels. He had had a long life in which to do it. Certainly there would be variations on the themes, and possibly many other parables, but essentially we probably have within the Scriptures most of the thought of Jesus in condensed form).
But that this Sermon is not the result of some half remembered or manipulated phrases, suitably transformed and altered up to form a Manual of Discipline for some local church, or even manufactured to suit the conditions of that church, must be considered certain. Such a concoction would undoubtedly have watered down what was said, and introduced debatable elements, a process which would have degraded the teaching beyond recognition, and we would thus not have found the pearl that we have here. The early church were quite frankly incapable of producing something like this (otherwise we would be worshipping them). Indeed we have enough examples from post-Gospel history to conclusively demonstrate that that is so. The truth is that had men tried to ‘improve on it’ for their own purposes it would not have retained its moral purity, and its total grandeur. We would not have had what we find in the Gospels. It would rather have been something marred by man, whether ‘church prophet’ or otherwise. (Unfortunately for the early church it was unable to produce spiritual geniuses out of a hat like some scholars can, geniuses who then remarkably disappeared from history as nameless wonders, although God did find a Peter, a John and a Paul who were shaped by the teaching of Jesus). For that is what man does when he tries to improve on ‘classics’. However genuine he might be he taints all that he puts his hand to, because he reads into it his own prejudices and biases, and concentrates on what suits him. And the 1st century was not noted for its geniuses, while this sermon reveals the hand of a spiritual genius.
In the same way it is impossible for a mere commentator to do justice to its depth. The interconnecting links and thoughts are so many and varied that they deny full analysis. They reveal the hand and intricacies of a Master. While we will seek to bring some of these out in the commentary, we do not pretend that we have comprehended the whole. And we know that the more we study His words the more we will discover. For the truths that shine out from His words have spawned a multitude of books and commentaries. And still there is more to be fathomed. Here then, as every commentator has to confess, we can only begin to sample what is beyond value and beyond analysis, and seek to do the best we can with it, noting especially the number of complicated structures that are involved, without pretending to have fathomed them all, and seeking to pierce their depth of thought, which, while it is grounded firmly in the Old Testament, must be seen in terms of an Old Testament renewed quite beyond the ability of any ordinary man to do it.
On the other hand, having said all that we do have to make the attempt, if only with the aim of starting the reader off on a voyage of discovery which he will find is never ending the more he studies it. Like so much of what Jesus taught it is profound, and yet amidst its profoundness is a vein of simplicity that makes it accessible to all. Hopefully then we can tap into this simplicity.
We should also remember that it is always possible, yes, even probable, that notes were actually taken by someone of what He said. Jesus may indeed have required it. Matthew, a one time tax-gatherer, would have been well trained for such work, for he had constantly had to keep records in his previous employment. It would indeed be second nature to him to keep records. Perhaps that was one reason why Jesus sought him out, in order that he might be ‘the recorder’ for the group, for He did not make him the treasurer (John 12.6). (Every ancient king had his recorder). When Jesus sought out Peter, Andrew, James and John it was as fishermen, and He cited this in their call. They were to fish for men. Is it not equally likely that when He called the recorder of taxes, He wanted him from now on to record His words? It would certainly explain why Matthew could here present the whole Sermon, (and also the other large discourses for which he is so well known) while in other parts much of Jesus’ teaching is given in smaller doses.
But even if we feel with some that we have to account for its preservation by looking to hearers who had extremely retentive memories (not unusual in those days when memories were constantly active, and Matthew’s training would also have been helpful in this regard) who heard the same message, repeated in a manner designed to aid the memory, a number of times, and could compare notes together, we need not be in doubt of its accuracy. That was the method used for passing on the Teaching of the Elders among the Jews, and it proved highly successful. And, as the form and method of construction of Jesus’ words make clear, Jesus spoke in a way designed to ensure that they were remembered. He clearly considered that of considerable importance. And even if the Christian Jews among them clung to oral tradition, it would not be long before people who were not bound by Jewish traditions wrote down what Jesus had said. For many, especially when the Gospel went among the Gentiles, it would indeed be the natural thing to do. Letter writing was a common feature of men’s lives, and it is hard to believe that in the letters of Christian communicators no words of Jesus were written down.
(Nor must we underestimate the Eastern memory. At one college where I taught the Senior Lecturer of Statistics thought that he had caught an Asian student cheating. He found that his own long and protracted lecture notes had been repeated word for word in an exam without any attempt made to disguise the fact. The only explanation that seemed possible to him was that somehow the student had smuggled his notes into the exam room. But when the student was called in to account for it a month or so later, to the astonishment of the lecturer he simply recited the notes off word for word. He had them all off by memory without a single error. And he was not unique).
End of Note.
A Suggested Analysis of The Whole (5.1-7.29).
We will now seek to present an analysis of the whole sermon. But before presenting it we will explain briefly how we have finally gone about it. As is well known the first thing to do in considering something like this is to look for the inclusios and patterns, and among these we would draw attention to the following:
1) ‘Do not lay up for yourself treasure on earth --’ (6.19)
2) ‘Do not be anxious for your life --’ (6.25).
3) ‘Do not judge --’ (7.1).
4) And possibly ‘do not give what is holy to the dogs’ (7.6).
Each being followed by a spiritual activity which resulted in the opposite, thus:
1) ‘Lay up treasures in Heaven’ (6.20).
2) ‘Seek first His Kingly Rule and His righteousness’ (6.33).
3) ‘Cast out first the plank out of your own eye that you may see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye’ (7.5).
4) And possibly ‘ask and it will be given to you’ (7.7).
The whole commences with the idea of treasure that is corrupted by predators (6.19) and ends with the parallel idea of not giving treasure to swine (7.6). Note also the dictums on which these inner passages end, ‘You cannot serve God and Mammon’ (6.24); ‘Do not therefore be anxious about tomorrow - let the days own trouble be sufficient for that day’ (6.34); ‘Do not give dogs what is holy etc. ---’ (7.6).
These are all indications of careful planning and thought. So as we study it we must not ignore the fact that the sermon is extremely carefully constructed and well thought out.
We have said ‘threefold or fourfold’ because on the whole ‘do not give what is holy to dogs --’ fits best as the closing caption to what has gone before (see later), nevertheless as it also appears to act as an antecedent to ‘ask and it will be given to you --’ it would seem that it performed a twofold function. Possibly both uses were intended, with the fourth comparison also opening and bringing into contrast the final words.
Having then briefly laid down the basis for our approach, we will now commence with a summary analysis of the three chapters, after which we will then study each of the sections one at a time.
Analysis of 5.1-7.29.
(There is in fact an argument for combining these last two under the heading ‘do not- -- but ---. They are both in fact dealing specifically with the contrast between what they must not do, and what they must be).
It will be noted that ‘a’ is an opening summary, followed in the parallel by a closing summary. That in ‘b’ Jesus commences with encouragement and in the parallel He closes with encouragement and warning. In ‘c’ He speaks of those who are true prophets being blessed, and in the parallel of the fate that awaits false prophets. In ‘d’ He calls for their true behaviour to have an impact in the world, and in the parallel He stresses the path that that true behaviour must follow. In ‘e’ He calls for His disciples to seek true righteousness, and in the parallel to seek the good things of God, (which very much includes true righteousness). Centrally in ‘f’ are His various exhortations followed by His instructions on what to be rather than on what to do.
It is surely not accidental that the section dealing with the reorientation and ‘expansion’ of the Law (5.21-48) is in five divisions. Five is the number of covenant and we may see this as the renewal of the ‘requirement’ sections of the new covenant, based on the old covenant, although now written in the heart, a new covenant which is being made with the beginnings of the new Israel (Jeremiah 31.31-34; Ezekiel 36.26-27; Hebrews 8.8-13). It is the law to be written in the heart by the Spirit. But it is a renewal and revivifying of the Law, not its replacement.
It will be noted that the passage deals with personal relationships, rather than simply with basic deeds. The old law spoke of murder, adultery and divorce, false testimony in court, seeking vengeance, and a restricted form of love; but Jesus has in mind both murder and hatred; adultery and lust; false accusations and lack of truth as a whole; a restriction on the idea of demanding personal justice from others to its fullest extent, which will result rather in compassion and generosity towards others; and the need not only to love one’s neighbour, but also to love one’s enemies, and indeed to love all men everywhere. His words epitomise what lies at the very heart of direct relationships between people, and describe what needs to be done about it. It will be noted that stealing and coveting are not brought in here. They speak more of an attitude towards ‘things’. In chapter 5 Jesus is considering relationships and attitudes towards persons, and ‘things’ will be dealt with in what follows.
These five new ‘commandments’ are then followed by the six warnings, (or seven), with their antitheses, (twice three indicating intensified completeness, or seven indicating divine perfection), which emphasise true worship and religious practise, followed by an emphasis on single-mindedness towards God, a right attitude of heart towards material things, and the avoidance of all greed (and therefore stealing and coveting) and censoriousness, along with all self-aggrandisement and hypocrisy. These warnings demand the humility and purity of heart revealed in the Beatitudes, without which they would fail of accomplishment (5.3-9).
It will be noted that on the whole the Sermon is composed, not so much of specific commandments, but of an attempt to cover every major aspect of life. That is also the basis of all the beatitudes. That is what Jesus does, for example, with the five things that ‘are said’ by men which He then ‘improves on’. He does not say that the originals were wrong in every case, only that they were treated in too pedantic and limited a fashion, or misapplied. He then goes to the root of them and brings out what His disciples’ attitude of heart should be with regard to the subjects that they dealt with, making them inescapable. And the same applies to the warnings which follow and their antitheses. In each case His emphasis is not so much on what must be done but on the attitudes that must be maintained. He does not replace the Law, He transfigures it.
Having recognised this we can now therefore look at His words in detail. But before doing so we should perhaps note the recurrent themes throughout which are central to the whole. Thus:
If it be asked whether this is speaking of the present Kingly Rule of Heaven over His disciples on earth, or the future everlasting Kingly Rule of Heaven, we can only reply that in most cases it refers to both. It refers to the Kingly Rule of Heaven in general, because there is only one Kingly Rule of Heaven. Some serve in it on earth (Jerusalem is ‘the city of the great King’ (5.35), and thus He already reigns on earth), others serve in it in Heaven. It is only occasionally that we have to differentiate. Some press into it now on earth (11.12), and repentant tax-gatherers and prostitutes enter it in front of the Pharisees’ very eyes even in the time of John (21.31), while all who are His will one day enjoy the fullness of the privilege above (8.11). It is not a place, so much as an attitude towards the King and a sphere of spiritual existence (elsewhere thought of to some extent in Ephesians in terms of ‘the heavenly places’).
So as we approach this section we must do so recognising that if we are to understand its contents, we must see them as spoken to those who are consciously in submission to the Kingly Rule of Heaven, and therefore:
In other words they are to see themselves as the new Israel who are replacing the old (21.43), the new ‘congregation’ (16.18; 18.17), His new firstborn (compare Exodus 4.22). Or perhaps we should rather alternatively say that they are to see themselves as bringing the old Israel to fruition, with the dead wood being cut out and replaced by new branches (John 15.1-6; Romans 11.17).
His words are thus spoken to an exclusive company who are to be different from both the old Israel and the Gentiles, although an exclusive company that anyone may join by repenting and coming under the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Of course He longed that all of Israel might participate in this new Israel, but He would soon learn to His anguish that they would not (11.20-24), and therefore restricted His preaching and that of the disciples to ‘the lost sheep’ among the house of Israel (10.6), telling His disciples not to waste their time on those who would not listen, but rather to shake from their feet the dust of those who did not see themselves as lost sheep, thus treating them as Gentiles (10.14).
A further thing to note at this point is the numerical patterns contained in this carefully produced sermon. It commences with a sevenfold pattern (5.3-9). That indicates that the divine hand is on ‘those who are blessed’ (by God).
This is then followed by seven threefold patterns, some of which include either twofold or threefold possibilities:
Seven Threefold Patterns.
So the threefold patterns dominate in a sevenfold presentation.
Opening Summary (5.1-2).
5.1-2 ‘And seeing the crowds, he went up into the mountain, and when he had sat down, his disciples came to him, and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying,’
Jesus had seen many crowds, and had welcomed them, but at this point in time He considered that they were preventing Him from teaching His disciples more specifically. So He went up into the mountain to get away from the crowds. The description is deliberately separating this teaching off from that to the crowds.
The definite article on ‘the mountain’ may simply indicate ‘the mountain nearby’, or it may indicate a favourite mountain which He used regularly. Or it may even convey the idea of a place for special seekers after God, just as today after a time of prayer we might say that we have been ‘on the mountain top’. The quieter atmosphere and surrounding grandeur would certainly enable His disciples to listen better. But there is no attempt to associate it with anything in the Old Testament Scriptures. Matthew is not here overtly trying to present Jesus as a new Moses. Rather he is seeing Him simply as attempting to get the disciples somewhere where they can be brought closer to God, just as He had previously sought out the wilderness when he was working out His future.
Note On The Mountain.
It is probable that the mention of ‘the mountain’ is to be seen as significant in Matthew. Mountains in Matthew can be divided into three groups, mention of a ‘high (or very high) mountain’, mention of ‘the mountain’, and general mentions of mountains, including the Mount of Olives.
1). References to a high mountain.
There is one reference to ‘a very high mountain’ and one to ‘a high mountain’. The former was probably an ideal mountain, and the second literally one that really was unusually high. But both are places where Jesus had extreme experiences. Let us briefly consider them:
It will immediately be obvious that these are two ‘out of this world’ experiences. In the one the Devil is trying to draw Him into his clutches, in the other He is surrounded by God’s glory as His own glory is revealed (compare John 1.14; 17.5). It may well therefore be that in these cases the height of the mountain was also to be seen as symbolic, as well as in one case literal.
2). References to ‘The Mountain’.
It may well be that when Matthew indicates that Jesus went up into ‘the mountain’ he wants us to know that He has an important message to convey, for each example contains an event of significance.
It will be noted that in the first two cases the mountain is seen as a kind of haven from the crowds. In the third case it does not at first appear to be a haven from the crowds, but we should note that this is a special crowd. They are all included in the partaking of the covenant meal and have been with Him in that isolated place listening to His words for three days. They are therefore almost if not completely disciples, and not just the normal ‘crowds’. The fourth case fits into the pattern of the other three. It is where He meets with His disciples to give them their commission for the future.
Furthermore the first and the last examples are places where Jesus specifically charges the disciples with their responsibilities, while the two middle ones reveal His power over creation, and end with the glorifying, in the one case of Jesus, and in the other of the God of Israel. We are probable therefore justified in seeing mention of ‘the mountain’ as pointing to ‘mountain top’ experiences.
End of Note.
And there ‘He sat down’ and His disciples ‘came to Him’. His sitting down suggests that their coming had been anticipated. It was normal for a Jewish Teacher to teach His disciples sitting down. And once they were there He ‘opened His mouth’ (compare 13.35 citing Psalm 78.2). The idea behind this phrase would seem to be that of indicating something new that would be spoken (compare Ezekiel 3.27; Daniel 10.16). Then after that ‘He taught them’. We note therefore the careful preparations made to get everything right for the delivery of what He was about to say. He clearly considered it to be very important.
God Has Already Blessed His True People By Producing In Them A Right Attitude of Heart, And An Indication Of The Blessings Both Present and Future That Will Result from It (5.3-9).
As we consider the Sermon on the Mount its demands are such that the question must necessarily arise, ‘What kind of people could possibly live in accordance with this teaching of Jesus?’ And the answer will now be given. It is those whose hearts have been changed, those whom God has ‘blessed’ and has thus prepared for it, those who have come under the Kingly Rule of Heaven.
It is important here to recognise the implication of the way in which the ‘beatitudes’ are presented, for they are not to be seen as just pronouncements of general interest. Casual readers tend to look on them as casual truisms. And they think how nice they are in theory, how well they roll off the tongue, and how surprisingly true they sometimes are, especially when they happen to agree with their own position. They see them as kinds of proverbs. But Jesus was not talking in generalities, and He was not citing proverbs. He was talking to specific people. He was not interested in nice theories, He wanted direct response.
We need to note here that following the custom of the time among the Jews Jesus often used alternative expressions so as not to overuse the name of God. Thus He speaks of the Kingly Rule ‘of Heaven’ rather than the Kingly Rule ‘of God’ (Mark and Luke render it as the Kingly Rule of God for the sake of their Gentile readers). For other uses of ‘Heaven’ as a circumlocution for God see also Mark 10.21 with parallels; 12.25 with parallels; 13.32; Matthew 5.12; 6.20; 16.19; 18.18; Luke 6.23; 10.20; 12.33; 15.7.
He speaks of God as ‘the (our, your) Father’ or the equivalent a number of times (17 times in the Synoptics excluding parallels, even more in John). He also speaks of God as ‘the Lord of Heaven and earth’ (Matthew 11.25/Luke 10.21); the Power (Mark 14.62 with parallels; Matthew 26.64); the Wisdom (Matthew 11.19/Luke7.25); the Name (Matthew 6.9/Luke 11.2); the Great King (Matthew 5.35); the Most High (Luke 6.35). It is not that He always avoids the use of God’s name, it is simply that He did not want to be thought of as using it lightly. (There is a lesson for us all to learn here. We do use His name too lightly).
It was also His practise throughout His teaching to regularly use the passive verb in order to indicate the activity of God without the necessity of constantly mentioning His name. Thus here in verse 7 ‘they shall obtain mercy’ is intended to signify ‘God will be merciful to them’. This is sometimes called ‘the divine passive’. And excluding parallel usage it occurs over ninety times in the Gospels. In other words to a quite remarkable extent it is one of Jesus’ main characteristics, and we should therefore, when considering His teaching, always be looking out for evidence of a similar idea.
Thus following these precedents ‘Blessed ones (makarioi), the poor in Spirit’ must be seen as drawing attention to the fact that such people are to be seen as like that precisely because they have been blessed by God. (It is similar to using a passive verb). They are not just to be seen as ‘happy’ or ‘fortunate’ in some general kind of way. They are to be seen as the specific subjects of God’s positive blessing. They are to be seen as those on whom God has acted in His grace and compassion. He has brought them deliverance and righteousness in order to establish His new people (Isaiah 46.13). The Anointed Prophet of YHWH has endued them with God’s blessing so that they might be oaks of righteousness (Isaiah 6.13).
Thus what He means by ‘Blessed ones, the poor in spirit’ is ‘Blessed by God have been and are those who are seen to be truly the poor in spirit. For they are like that because God has positively blessed them, and worked it in them and on them, and that is why they have come to Me and are responding to My words, and the result is that the Kingly Rule of Heaven is theirs’.
He is here speaking of those who are ‘poor in spirit’ in the right sense, those who are humble and contrite before God (compare Isaiah 57.15), and are so precisely because of the blessing and activity of God. It is God Who has blessed them by making them ‘poor in spirit’, and therefore humble and contrite, and open to Him. (To put it in another way found in Matthew, it is the result of the drenching of the Holy Spirit referred to in 3.11 as active through Jesus. See on that verse and compare Luke 11.13; John 3.1-6; 4.10-14).
And the same thing applies to the other beatitudes. In a similar way God has blessed them by bringing His true people to mourn over sin, to be ‘meek and lowly’, (and not therefore being those who are always trying to defend or uplift themselves and exert their rights), to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart and to be desirous of bringing men to peace with each other, and especially to peace with God. All has come to them as a result of the positive blessing of God.
The fact that this is so comes out in the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus. For when Jesus said how hard it was for a rich man to enter under the Kingly Rule of Heaven (19.23), and His disciples accordingly asked who then could be saved, He replied that while it was impossible with men it was possible with God (19.26). In other words it is those whom God blesses by making them poor in spirit etc. who can be saved whether they are rich or poor, because it will be the result of God’s miraculous working on their lives. (Compare John 6.44). Thus He is making clear that what in the end distinguishes men is whether God has been active in their lives. His words about how hard riches made it for people to enter into the Kingly Rule of Heaven simply therefore really meant that a change of heart was likely to happen to more of the ‘poor’ because they did not have so many distractions to prevent them from listening and responding. But His later words then indicated that God could bring about such a change even in those who were more wealthy. And once having been so blessed by God, the benefits described in the beatitudes would follow, and they too would become the kind of people described in the beatitudes. This indeed would be the test of whether they really were the ‘blessed of God’.
Two things stand out about these people whom God has blessed. The first is that they have begun to live like God’s ‘holy ones’ (saints) in the Old Testament. They are the poor in spirit and humble (verse 3; compare Psalm 70.5; Isaiah 11.4), and the sin-convicted (verse 4, compare Psalm 34.18; 51.17; Isaiah 57.1; 66.2). They are the lowly in heart (verse 5, compare Psalm 138.6; Proverbs 3.34), and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness (verse 6, compare Psalm 42.2; 63.1; Isaiah 41.17-20; 55.1-2). They are the merciful (verse 7, compare Psalm 18.25; Proverbs 11.17), and the pure in heart (verse 8, compare Psalm 24.4), and the ones who make peace (verse 9, see Psalm 34.14; 37.37; Isaiah 32.17 and contrast Isaiah 59.8; Jeremiah 6.14; 8.11). It is these about whom He is speaking, and they are like this precisely because God has worked on them (in other words because Jesus has drenched them with the Spirit - 3.11). They have repented and received His forgiveness, and have done so because God has stepped in and blessed them.
It will further be noted that in each case those who are represented as having been blessed by God in this way have been given this attitude of heart as something that they are to continue to maintain in the light of the eternal future, that is, in the light of what is to come, again based on the Old Testament promises. For those promises have now appeared on the horizon as a result of the presence of Jesus among them. In Him their eyes are to be fixed on things above (compare Colossians 3.1-3). Thus they are to look to the Kingly Rule of Heaven as already theirs (verse 3; compare Isaiah 11.4; 57.15), to God’s present comforting and to the enjoying one day of God’s eternal comfort in the new Jerusalem (verse 4; 11.28-30; Isaiah 52.9; 66.13), to the inheriting of the earth and of the new earth (verse 5; 19.29-30 with Mark 10.30-31; Luke 18.30; and see Psalm 37.9, 11, 18, 22, 24, 29; Isaiah 65.17-25), to being filled to the full with righteousness as they spend eternity with the righteous and with the Righteous One (verse 6; Psalm 17.15; Isaiah 24.16; 32.17; 51.5; 61.3, 10; Daniel 9.24; Hosea 2.19; Malachi 4.2), to the obtaining of everlasting mercy (verse 7; Psalm 100.5; 103.17; Isaiah 54.8), to the hope of seeing God as He really is (verse 8; Revelation 22.4; Psalm 17.15; 42.2), and to being called, with tenderness, ‘the sons of God’ (verse 9; Hosea 1.10). These hopes, Jesus assures them, will be enjoyed, both in the present and the future, by those whose hearts have been made right by God, and the result of these hopes will be that their hearts, and minds, and wills, will continue to be filled with these right attitudes towards God and man (2 Corinthians 4.17-18; Colossians 3.1-3).
For it should be noted in this regard that when the New Testament speaks of ‘rewards’ it is mainly this which it has in mind. It is not speaking of some kind of great reward that will make us richer and more important than others and lift us above everyone else so that we can sit on thrones looking down on them, making us unbearable. (How dreadfully inconsistent that would be among people whose greatest desire should be to serve and to accept service from Him because that is a central feature of Heaven - 20.28; 23.11; Luke 12.37; 22.27. The desire to be above everyone else will not be found in Heaven). It is speaking of the reward of the bringing to the full of what has already been planted in the initial seed. It is speaking of our righteousness being made full. In other words, what the child of God is and enjoys as a result of becoming a child of God now, he will be and enjoy much more abundantly as a result of his fuller continual response to God in the future, and even more abundantly in the eternal Kingdom. Thus those who do not respond fully will lose out in some degree. They will inevitably to some extent ‘lose their reward’. For example, they will be called by God ‘the least in the Kingly Rule of God’ (5.19), they will receive less praise from God (1 Corinthians 4.5).
Jesus seems regularly to have opened His messages by proclaiming how God had blessed His own a number of times. Thus for example in the parallel sermon in Luke 6 He opens with four ‘blessed are you -’ statements followed by four ‘woe to you -’ ones. But the sermons and audiences are sufficiently different to suggest two separate messages, even though they indicate a similar approach.
For if we contrast the two, the beatitudes in Matthew are contemplative, and more ‘spiritually’ oriented, they present a full-orbed picture of the spirituality of ‘the new righteous’, while those in Luke are more confrontational and more practically oriented, recognising not only the presence of those who have responded to God’s call, who had been mainly the poor and afflicted, but also the presence of the sceptical and self-assured, who were mainly like that because of their wealth and status. In Luke’s case the blessings and woes made a division between the righteous and the unrighteous.
It would in fact have been difficult to adapt all the beatitudes in Matthew to the emphasis found in Jesus’ words in Luke, in ways that Jesus would have wanted to, for the latter deal much more specifically with physical realities, the realities of the poverty, hunger, tears and persecution which had brought many of His disciples close to God, and which was in direct contrast with the self-satisfaction, self-congratulation, self-sufficiency, and self-exaltation of the wealthy and religiously arrogant who had little room for God, mainly because of their wealth or perceived status. He was not excluding all the rich. The purpose of His ‘woes’ (or we may translate the word as ‘alas’) is precisely in order to try to reach their hearts.
In Matthew He is speaking only to the disciples, and is speaking for their consideration and encouragement in a beautiful overall description of what it is to be a follower of His. In Luke, while speaking to such, He is also confronting His opponents, and those whose riches and reputation kept them afar off. So the two situations are clearly very different.
It is true that Matthew does in fact contrast blessing with woes, for the seven blessings here contrast with the seven woes in chapter 23. But the fact that he keeps them so far apart (although paralleling them in the overall chiasmus discovered by an analysis of the Gospel - see introduction) stresses the chasm between them. They represent two different emphases at two different times. It is not so in Luke.
However what the dual use of the ideas by Matthew and Luke, even though used from very different angles, does demonstrate, is how Jesus called on similar material time after time, while changing it to some extent in order to suit the occasion and the audience. Here, however, in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew and Jesus are concentrating on God’s blessing of those who have come to believe. Here in these opening words then we have one more proof that this message is aimed at believers.
We must now consider the words themselves.
Note that in ‘a’ the ‘blessed ones’ (by God) are the lowly and gentle who recognise their own spiritual inadequacy without God, and it is to them that the Kingly Rule of Heaven belongs, both in the present and in the future, while in the parallel the ‘blessed ones’ are the peacemakers who will be called ‘sons of God’, because they will be made like Him and will share their Father’s presence (2 Corinthians 6.18; 1 John 3.1-2; Romans 8.15; Revelation 22.3-5). In ‘b’ are described those who mourn over sin and over the needs of God’s people, and in the parallel those who are pure in heart, because they have mourned over sin. Repentance has enabled God to make them pure. On the one hand therefore they will be strengthened and encouraged, and on the other they will see God. In ‘c’ those who bow under the forces that come against them and have thus learned compassion are paralleled with the merciful. They have learned mercy through their experiences as watered by the Holy Spirit. They will therefore enjoy God’s present provision on earth and finally inherit the new earth, for they are those who will obtain mercy. And central are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. They are conscious of their lack of righteousness, and the lack of righteousness in the world, and they long for all to be put right through God acting powerfully in ‘righteousness’ and deliverance (compare Luke 18.6-7; Isaiah 46.13; 51.5). Through Jesus they can be assured that God’s righteousness will triumph, and that they themselves will be filled with and surrounded by righteousness, the righteousness of God, in both this world and the next.
We note next that there are seven beatitudes given here, seven indicating a picture of ‘divine perfection’ (for what some see as an eighth see on verses 10-12). They can be compared with the ninefold fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.22 (a threefold three). But we must stress again that the point of Jesus’ words here is not of general attitudes regardless of context. He is not speaking here in vague generalities. These are not just proverbial sayings applying to the world in general. This is not ‘Wisdom teaching’ as such. Jesus is not sitting in front of people in general and providing them with interesting proverbs to mull over. He is speaking to a dedicated group of disciples of whom special things are expected, and describing what God has worked in them.
So this is a call to action, a call to live in a certain way as a result of God’s inner activity and blessing, as His following words make clear (it is very similar in some ways to the exhortations in Deuteronomy 20.5-8, where the purpose was to encourage the hearts of the warriors, not to encourage desertion). It is a call to live out what God has worked in them. Then having described those whom God has blessed, and how He has blessed them, He will go on to describe what He now requires of them. But He does want them to recognise that they are not like this because of their own efforts. Their ‘salvation’ has been all God’s work (and from one point of view will continue to be so, for He will continue to work in them ‘to will and to do of His good pleasure’ - Philippians 2.13). It is because God has ‘blessed’ them. But the consequence is that they must now work it out with fear and trembling (Philippians 2.12).
So although often taken to be so, we must repeat that these are not generalisations about people as a whole, as though He were simply saying, ‘it is better in general to be poor than rich, it is better in general to be merciful rather than unmerciful, it is better in general to be pure in heart than not to be so, whether you believe in God or not’, and so on. Nor is He saying that people who come under these general descriptions, such as ‘the poor’ and ‘the mournful’ and ‘the merciful’ will be blessed under any and all circumstances (although it may in general be true in some cases). Indeed it would have been the height of foolishness to say that those are blessed, or necessarily will be blessed, who are living in unremitting abject poverty, or in constant mourning through bereavement, or are permanently submitting to being downtrodden with no hope of release, or who are spiritually hungry but never finding satisfaction. It would be self-evidently wrong. That was not what Jesus’ coming was about at all. He was not encouraging the downtrodden among society to put up with their misery by somehow convincing themselves that they were somehow blessed. For the truth is that none were less blessed than they are, unless through it they came to know God (except perhaps the very rich, who are often miserable in their riches).
Nor would it be in accordance with Scripture to say that all such will automatically enjoy the Kingly Rule of God, or that all such would experience comforting, encouragement and strengthening, or would ‘inherit the earth’ by enjoying the blessings of this life (Psalm 73.1), or would be filled with the satisfaction of true righteousness, or would obtain mercy, or would see God. Experience testifies otherwise, and that in fact many such people simply die in their misery without hope of anything beyond, and many more live in despair. We must thus not see Jesus as a purveyor of benevolent platitudes, even wise platitudes, as indeed His subsequent teaching makes clear. Nor, we repeat, must we see Him simply as a great Wisdom teacher, even though He could be seen as greater than the greatest of them all (12.42). The way He preaches proves that He was rather an Active Mover of men. He wanted people’s active response to His words, and was not satisfied unless He had it (7.13-27).
So what Jesus is declaring here is to be seen as directed to specific people of a particular kind, initially in the context of Galilee. That is, to those who had heard through His voice and the voice of John, the voice of God. (Subsequently they are directed to all who have heard His initial word and have responded). It is they who have been blessed by God. They have repented and come under the Kingly Rule of Heaven. They have been transformed by the working of the Spirit in their inner man. They have become what is described here, men and women who are ready and eager to hear His word. And now they are to learn what is required of them.
But we should further note that He does not then give them a list of instructions and rules, or a manual of discipline. Instead he indicates the attitudes that they already enjoy as a result of God having been at work in them, and explains that these are the attitudes that they must now take up and expand on. For as we shall see, the whole of chapters 5-7 will deal mainly with the outworking of these attitudes of heart. As a result of having experienced the working of God within them (His blessing) they will be, and must be, humble in spirit, mournful over sin, accepting of the vicissitudes of life, hungry after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart and concerned to bring men to a state of being at peace with God, for that is the kind of people that God has now made them to be. For they are a new creation in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 5.17).
He is declaring that it is those who are like this, as a result of having responded to His words, who are therefore proved to have been truly blessed by God, which is the reason why they are now as they are; and that they are still truly blessed because God is still active in blessing them; and that they will continue to be so because God will continue to bless them both in this life and in the life to come. His point is that it is because they have been made like this as a result of the goodness and blessing of God that they are now there listening to Him as His disciples, and that it is something to which they must respond wholeheartedly. They are thus to be unique in the world so that through them the world may see God. This is what Jesus’ ‘baptising them in Holy Spirit’ (3.11) and shining His light on them (4.16) has accomplished.
And as we have already seen, the direct connection of these spiritual benefits as being indicators of their position before God is further evidenced by His reliance for these ideas on the Scriptures, where they have already been seen as applying in the past to those who have previously known the blessing of God. It is the connection of what He is saying with the Scriptures that itself indicates that His words are to be seen as applying only to the truly godly. For every one of the blessings that He describes were also used to describe the godly in the Old Testament. It is the poor in spirit and humble (verse 3; compare Psalm 70.5), and the sin-convicted (verse 4, compare Psalm 34.18; 51.17; Isaiah 57.1; 66.2), and the lowly in heart (verse 5 compare Psalm 138.6; Proverbs 3.34), and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness (verse 6 compare Psalm 42.2; 63.1; Isaiah 41.17-20; 55.1-2), and the merciful (verse 7; compare Psalm 18.25; Proverbs 11.17), and the pure in heart (verse 8, compare Psalm 24.4), and the ones who make peace (verse 9, see Psalm 34.14; 37.37; Isaiah 32.17 and contrast Isaiah 59.8; Jeremiah 6.14; 8.11), about whom He is speaking, and they are like this precisely because God has worked on them (in other words because Jesus has drenched them with the Spirit - 3.11; Psalm 143.10). They have repented and received His forgiveness, and have done so because God has stepped in and blessed them.
They are therefore now truly blessed as they gather to hear His words, for they can have complete confidence in their futures, and in God’s sovereign work within them. The Kingly Rule of Heaven is theirs (verse 3); and they can be sure that they will be encouraged and strengthened (‘comforted’) in the future (verse 4, Isaiah 40.1; 49.13; 51.3, 12-13 etc.); they will inherit all that is best on the earth, and in the end will ‘inherit’ (and therefore receive as a gift, for inheritance is a ‘gift’ word) the new earth which is for ever (verse 5, Psalm 37.9, 11, 18, 22, 24, 29); they will find spiritual fullness both in the present and in the future (verse 6, compare Isaiah 35.7; 41.17-19; 44.3; 49.10; 55.1); they will obtain mercy, both day by day and in that Day (Psalm 100.5; 103.17; Isaiah 54.8); they will ‘see God’ now and will see Him even more really in the hereafter (Revelation 22.4; Psalm 17.15; 42.2; 1 John 3.2); and they will be called sons of God (Hosea 1.10). In Christ they have all, and He will confirm it in them to the end in order that they might be found unreproveable in the Day of Jesus Christ, and all due to the faithfulness of God (1 Corinthians 1.8-9).
So when Jesus says ‘Blessed ones, they --’ He does not simply mean ‘how fortunate they are’. He means that they have been actively and positively blessed by God. They are in God’s hands. Their lives are hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3.3). God is at work in them to will and do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2.13). They have been singularly favoured by God. And He now therefore has for them the purpose that they be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
It should also be noted that the first three beatitudes contain within them the essence of what the Spirit-filled Anointed Prophet of Isaiah 61.1-3 has brought. They are like this because He is at work among them. He would ‘bring good tidings to the poor’, He would ‘comfort all who mourn’, He would ‘bind up the broken hearted’, He would ‘deliver the oppressed’. Thus in these beatitudes are pictured those who have been and are being successfully ministered to by the Anointed Prophet. They have received the good tidings from Jesus. They have been ‘comforted’ by Jesus. Their hearts have been healed by Jesus. They have been delivered from oppression by Jesus. They have received from Him the oil of joy, and the robe of praise, and have been planted in righteousness. For as we have already seen, (see introduction), in this particular section of Matthew the ‘filling to the full’ of Isaiah’s promises is what is being emphasised (3.3; 4.14-16; 8.17; 12.17). So He wants them to recognise that the King and Servant of the Lord of Isaiah’s prophecies is here among them and that in their case they are already blessed because they have responded to Him (see 3.3; 4.15-16; 8.17; 12.14-16; 20.28).
‘Blessed ones, the poor in spirit.’ This certainly includes the thought that those spoken of (the blessed) are ‘happy’ and ‘enjoying spiritual fullness’ and blessed because of the future benefits that they will enjoy, but that is not at the heart of its meaning. Rather His emphasis is that they are that because of what God has done in them. Its central meaning is that they are ‘poor in spirit’ because they have been actively and positively blessed by God. They have been worked on by the Holy Spirit (see Psalm 143.7 with 10). They have been given a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 36.26). It means that they are like this because God has worked within them to make them humble within, and that that is why they are as they are.
As previously mentioned, but repeated here so that it will not be forgotten, the use of the passive verb or its equivalent, without an obvious reference, is regularly a way in Jesus’ teaching of indicating God as the subject. It is typical of Jesus’ teaching. It was a method used by the apocalyptists, and also later used by the Rabbis. And here Jesus is using the adjective makarios (with the verb assumed) in the same way. He is saying ‘blessed indeed by God are those whom He has made poor in spirit in the right way, so that as a result of that poverty of spirit they have come to listen to Me and to respond to My words in order that they might enjoy ultimate blessing. How glad they should be that they have not been hindered from it by wealth or arrogance or the cares of life, and all this is because God has blessed them and worked in their lives and made them poor in spirit’.
This word ‘poor’ basically indicates the destitute. But in the Old Testament it regularly refers to the godly who recognise their own desperate spiritual need. It became a synonym for the godly in Israel. And we therefore regularly have to determine from the context whether the literal poor or the ‘poor in spirit’ are in mind (see for example Psalm 22.24 where ‘the poor’ refers to the Psalmist, and it is a Psalm of David).
Luke expresses similar words as being spoken by Jesus directly to His listeners. ‘Blessed are you poor’ (Luke 6.20) he depicts Jesus as saying, and he compares it with, ‘Alas for you rich’. At first this appears to be saying something different, as though He was saying that it was a blessing to be very poor, but in fact He is not. For the ‘you’ is what makes the difference. It is only those poor in front of Him, poor though they may be, who are said to be blessed, and they are seen to be blessed precisely because they are the responsive poor. They are here in Jesus’ presence because they recognise the poverty of their lives and are looking for something better. They have thus been chosen by God to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingly Rule which He has promised to those who love Him (James 2.5). On the other hand the rich onlookers, who were probably observing Him either out of disdainful interest or in order to decide what to do about Him, came under His ‘Alas’ or ‘Woe’ (Luke 6.24-26). So the reason that the poor were blessed was not because they were poor, but because they were there with their hearts open for Him to speak to them, and were open to God’s working on their lives. Jesus is not saying that God had blessed the poor who were not there. They still struggled on in poverty without help. Thus it was only His listeners who in this case should look on themselves as favoured.
We should in this regard consider that among those whom He is addressing, are Peter and Andrew, James and John. While they have left all and followed Him, their background is not one of total poverty, and should they wish to they can go back to their boats, and their businesses (John 21.3 compare 4.21; Mark 1.20). They are not thus the helplessly poor and destitute. They are the willing poor, the poor by choice. And they are that way because they have been blessed by God within, because they had not suffered the distraction of great riches.
In view of Luke’s use of ‘poor’, which can mean ‘actually physically poor’, at least to some degree, some have suggested that we should perhaps translate 5.3 as ‘blessed in spirit are the poor’ with the emphasis on the fact that Jesus is speaking of the poor and that the poor are more likely to find blessing in spirit because their minds are not taken up with riches and ambition. But that is to miss the dynamic behind the phrase, which is indicating the positive blessing of God. It would in fact have been foolish to say that all the poor everywhere are blessed in spirit. They are not. But it was a very different matter to say it of those who, as a result of God’s blessing, were there to listen to Him.
So in neither Matthew nor Luke is there the idea that poverty itself is a blessing. Jesus’ idea is not that it is a blessing to be poor, except in so far as it is those who are less rich who tend to think more on spiritual things, and will therefore, if they respond to Him because of it, as these have who are before Him, come into blessedness. Nor is He speaking of those living in abject poverty, (although the word can mean the very poor), as though somehow that was a wonderful thing to be. Nothing was further from Jesus’ mind. His whole concentration is on the particular ones whom God has blessed, and what the result has been in their attitude towards life. Show me the person who is humbled and lowly and contrite and hungry after God and merciful and seeking to be pure in heart and desirous of making men’s peace with God and I will show you a person whom God has blessed. It will be a person who was dwelling in darkness but on whom the light has shone (4.16). He will have repented and come under the Kingly Rule of Heaven (4.17), and will have been drenched with the Holy Spirit (3.11).
The world, and the Pharisees, tended to think that it was the rich who were blessed by God, but Jesus did not see material ‘blessings’ as a blessing. He was only too aware of what wealth could do to a man’s soul. He knew that in such people ‘the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches and the desire for other things choked the word and it became unfruitful’ (Mark 4.19). For such people’s minds were fixed on other things than the things of God. They had too many distractions. That is why Jesus did not see the rich young man as blessed. He was indeed far from blessed. He went away sorrowful because he had great possessions. While he was rich, he was really ‘poor, and still in need of mercy, and wretched, and blind and naked’ (Revelation 3.17). That is why even today Jesus has many lip-followers whose satisfaction with their affluent lifestyles prevents them from a true living commitment. They call Him ‘Lord, Lord’ but do not do what He says (7.21). They should take note of the fact that Jesus said that there is sadly no place for them in the Kingly Rule of Heaven (it was Jesus Who said it, not us). They have not been blessed, otherwise the thoughts of their hearts would be different. But they can be blessed. Let them but respond to Him truly and they will be blessed, and will become like those described here.
Thus we must interpret Matthew here as signifying mainly poverty ‘of spirit’ (see Proverbs 29.23). This does not mean poor-spirited (although some might be that for a while) but those of whom Jesus is speaking who have a sense of lowliness, who are not bumptious or overbearing, but who rather are aware of spiritual need, and of the fact of their total undeserving. They admit that without Him they can do nothing really worth while and lasting. And this change of heart is because of God’s work within them. It may be that being poor helped them to come to this position. But it is certainly not a position enjoyed by all who are poor.
A similar phrase, ‘poor in spirit’, was found at Qumran which supports this interpretation. There it signified a helplessness and lowliness of spirit which was looking for God to step in and help them, because they could do nothing of themselves (although in a different context). So the whole point in Luke is that their hearts (whether rich or poor) have not been prevented by riches from coming to Him, while in Matthew we may see it as similar to its meaning at Qumran. Indeed the Psalmists regularly spoke of ‘the poor’ when they were indicating the humble and lowly, possibly because most of such were to be found among the relatively poor in contrast with the godless rich (see Psalm 34.6; 37.14; 40.17; 69.28-29, 32-33; Isaiah 61.1). Such people may in the end be seen as summed up in the words of Isaiah 57.15; 66.2; Psalm 51.17. They are those who are of a contrite and humble spirit who tremble at His word.
The idea of the godly poor thus becomes synonymous with the righteous, while the ungodly rich become synonymous with the unrighteous. Compare Psalm 37.14 where ‘the poor and needy’ are paralleled with ‘the upright in the way’. This is something later exemplified in the Dead Sea Scrolls (for example the War Scroll parallels ‘the poor in spirit’ with ‘the perfect of way’ (War Scroll 14), and says of them ‘you will kindle the downcast of spirit and they will be a flaming torch in the straw to consume ungodliness and never to cease until iniquity is destroyed’ (the War Scroll 11)). But the final attitude of those mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls was not the same as the one that Jesus was encouraging, for they wanted nothing less than to destroy their enemies and put the ungodly to rout. However, the initial idea of poverty of spirit was similar, even though it had a very different outcome.
But with all this emphasis on ‘the poor’ it is quite clear in the end that not all the poor are actually righteous, nor are all the rich actually unrighteous. For as Jesus declared in the context of the failure of the rich young man, God can work miracles in all (19.26). God is merciful to all who call on Him from a true heart.
‘For theirs is the Kingly Rule of Heaven.’ To them (hoi ptowchoi) ‘belongs’ the Kingly Rule of Heaven. That is, they have entered under His Rule now, and they will enjoy it now, and also in the everlasting future. We may here bear in mind Psalm 22.28 where the Psalmist declares ‘of YHWH is the Kingly Rule (Psalm 21.29 LXX tou kuriou he basileia), and He reigns over the nations’, and this in a context where He has ‘not despised the affliction of the poor’ (verse 24, Psalm 22.25 LXX ptowchou), where ‘the poor’ is the Psalmist, and it is a Psalm of David. Thus it is to the poor (ptowchoi) in spirit that the Kingly Rule of Heaven belongs.
Almost the whole of Judaism was waiting and longing for this ‘Kingly Rule of God’ to be manifested on earth (although in a totally distorted way) but it was these few who were poor in spirit who were to receive it and enjoy it. For God had purposed His Kingly Rule and eternal life for those whom He had purposed to bless, those whom He will draw to His Son (John 6.44). And the reason that the Kingly Rule of God is now seen to be theirs is because they are now responding to Jesus and following Him (see John 10.27-28). They have put themselves under His kingly rule. Their awareness of their spiritual need and their lack of concern for worldly goods (they were willing to leave all and follow Him) is the consequence of their having turned their thoughts towards Him, and they have submitted to His Reign over their lives. Notice the present tense, which contrasts with the future tenses that follow, thus stressing its ‘presentness’. ‘Theirs is the Kingly Rule of Heaven’. It is something that they enjoy even now. For the Kingly Rule of God is within them and among them (Luke 17.21). They are pressing into it and refusing to take no for an answer (11.12). But it is also a permanent present. It signifies that the Kingly Rule of God will also be theirs in the future, when they will enter into the everlasting Kingdom, for that is in the end simply a continuation of His Kingly Rule on earth (see Isaiah 11.4; 42.4). Thus those who have been blessed by God, and are His, enjoy both present and future blessedness.
This is not saying that it is good to be in mourning because the result will be that someone is sure to comfort us. It rather has in mind Isaiah 40 (‘comfort, comfort, my people’) where the people of God were mourning over their sin, and God promised that finally He would come to them and encourage and strengthen them, and lift them up. He would take them in His arms like a shepherd and would ‘comfort’ them (Isaiah 40.11). In the same way the Anointed Prophet will come ‘to comfort (encourage, strengthen, establish) all who mourn’ (Isaiah 61.2) and to give them ‘the oil of joy for mourning’ (Isaiah 61.3), words which Jesus must surely have in mind here. These mourners, then, are those who are looking for ‘the consolation’ at the hand of the Lord of what are at present a downtrodden remnant who represent the true Israel (Luke 2.25). They are discovering that ‘the Lord is near to those who are broken-hearted and who are contrite in spirit’ (Psalm 34.18; compare Psalm 51.17; Isaiah 57.1; 66.2). And they have been brought into that blessed state by God so that through it they may be freed from their sins and brought through to enjoying the sustaining presence of God, which was a position that must now with God’s encouragement and strength (‘comfort’) be constantly maintained. And the result is that both now and in the future life they will continue to be ‘comforted’ and made strong (see Isaiah 49.15).
We may include here also the thought found in Psalm 119.136, ‘My eyes shed streams of tears because men do not keep your Law’. Here the mourning is of a godly sort caused by the fact that other men and women do not love God’s Law. Those who are His are always constrained in this way. Nothing grieves them more than the failure of men and women to respond to and love God’s word. It is the result of the Psalmist himself having become contrite in spirit. For further Old Testament examples of mourning over sin see Ezra 10.6; Psalm 51.4; Ezekiel 9.4; Dan. 9.19-20.
Thus the idea here is that those who are disturbed about their sinfulness, and about the sinfulness of others, to such an extent that it has caused them to mourn over it and seek Jesus, are like this because they have been truly blessed by God, and the result is that they will have found in Him the encouragement and strength that they need. They are thus seen to have truly repented. And they will therefore also enjoy His Great Comfort, both now and in the Last Day (Isaiah 40.1; 49.13; 51.3, 12-13 etc.).
So we are here already seeing the kind of people who make up Jesus’ disciples. They are humble and lowly, and aware of sin. And they have recognised in Jesus the One Who has come to save His people from their sins (1.21). And that is why they are seen as being those who have been blessed by God.
The ‘meek’ are those who take the buffetings of life and do not rebel against them overmuch. They accept them from the hand of God. They do not get riled up at them. They are not always seeking revenge. They accept what life brings. They do not allow themselves to be upset over things that they can do nothing about. They do not throw their weight about. They concentrate on what does matter. They are ‘meek and lowly in heart’ like Jesus was (11.29). Thus the word could be used to describe an animal which responded to its reins.
And yet like Him ‘the meek’ are strong for what is right. For they are bold in testimony. When necessary they speak out against sin. But even in boldness of testimony they remember Whose they are (1 Peter 3.15). They respond to His reins. That is why in 1 Peter 3.4 Peter speaks of, ‘the hidden man of the heart in the envelope/clothing of a meek and quiet spirit which is in the sight of God of great price’.
In Psalm 69.32 ‘the meek’ are paralleled with those ‘who seek after God’. Their ‘meekness’ (Godlike humility) does not mean that they let people walk all over them. But it does indicate they are not always thinking of themselves and their own rights. Rather they think more about others and about God. They are exemplified in 5.44-48.
The words here are actually cited from Psalm 37.11, where we are told that such people will ‘inherit the earth’, in contrast with those who ‘will be no more’ (Psalm 37.10-11). In the context in the Psalm the idea behind this is of a wholesome and prosperous life, enjoying the earth’s benefits, in contrast with the sudden doom of ‘the wicked’ (the ungodly). The latter may not happen immediately but God sees that the day of the wicked is coming (Psalm 37.13), while the righteous know that their heritage will abide for ever (Psalm 37.18). So the meek, the godly, those who are responsive to God, will find that they prosper spiritually in their life on earth and that things on earth will be good to them, at least spiritually (19.28-29; Mark 10.29-30). And in the end they will finally inherit the new earth in which dwells righteousness (2 Peter 3.13; Isaiah 65.17), the new earth in which is based the eternal Kingdom.
But this could not possibly have been said of all meek people. For it is totally untrue to say that all who are meek will ‘inherit the earth’. Many of them will in fact be ground into it, even though it may sometimes be true that often the meek will survive when the strong have destroyed each other. But the Psalmist is rather speaking of those who are like this because of their response to God. God has blessed them and made them meek, and it is because they are the blessed ones of God that they will ‘inherit the earth’, both in terms of enjoyment in this earth, and, in the final consummation, in the new earth.
A very good example of true meekness was Moses. He was ‘meek above all men who were on the face of the earth’ (Numbers 12.3). But that did not mean that he was a soft option. What it meant was that he never fought his own cause or considered his own interests. He was wholly out for the Lord. When people attacked his own interests he left it in the Lord’s hands. But how different it was when people attacked the Lord’s interests. Then his strength was supreme, but always in obedience to what the Lord told him to do. And indeed the one time when he did give way to his own urgings he forfeited the right to enter the promised land with his people, because he had disgraced the Lord in front of them (Numbers 20.12).
We must here first consider what hunger and thirst in these terms signify. It must be remembered that these words were spoken to people, many of whom could only afford at the most one good meal containing meat a week, if that. And what they had then had to be shared with the whole family, while during the remainder of the week they subsisted on what they could afford, which was often very little. Hunger was what happened when even that failed. So they regularly knew what real hunger meant. For some it was a constant experience.
Furthermore many of them constantly knew what it was to be out working in the hot sun and be some distance away from water, meanwhile having to carry on until the opportunity came to struggle through the heat of the sun to find a well, which might well contain but little water, which they would share between them. Thus for them being what we would call really thirsty and panting for water was a regular experience. And even in the good times they knew what it meant to have to depend on water from a distant spring and having to share any available water collected with their families and friends. But that was everyday experience. They would not think of it as thirst. Thirst came when they were caught in a sandstorm in the wilderness, having to wait, kneeling down with their faces covered and their backs to the wind, until the storm died down, sipping any water that they carried and then having to survive until they could find more, with their lips cracked and dried, their throats parched, and their thirst constantly growing worse and worse.
So they regularly knew what real hunger and thirst meant. To them it was not just a matter of feeling a little peckish and a bit parched, but of real hunger and thirst. And this was what they would think of here, a craving and desire which had to be satisfied.
‘After righteousness.’ Verbs of hungering and thirsting are usually followed by the Genitive indicating the desire for a part. The use of the accusative here signifies the whole rather than a part. Thus the idea here is of seeking total righteousness.
In its central place in the chiasmus, this beatitude sums up all the others. And it is speaking of the ones who are genuinely ‘hungry and thirsty for full righteousness’. They long for it and they crave it. And because of this, and because it is what God has worked within them, they will all be filled. For they had been made aware of their lack of righteousness, and they have repented, and they are aware that Jesus has brought them forgiveness, and so now they are hungry and thirsty to have more of it and to be more like Him (Psalm 42.2; 63.1; Isaiah 41.17-20; 55.1-2), and the promise is made that they will finally be ‘satisfied’, their hunger and thirst will be satiated, and they will have all that they need.
Basically they had been made aware of their sin and spiritual need, and in their hunger and thirst they had turned to look to the source of their salvation, to Jesus Christ (compare 1.21; John 4.10-14), Who had saved them from their sins. They had been made righteous in Him (2 Corinthians 5.21). And this had now given them an even greater hunger for righteousness. They ‘seek first the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness’ (6.33). That is their great desire. And so they now look for that work which God has begun in them to continue until they are themselves fully righteous in practise in the sight of God, until God wholly approves of them, until they are unblameable before Him. They want His Kingly Rule to be made real in their lives. So nothing is more important to them than to seek His righteousness, and to be like Him (1 John 3.2). And they do this because God has blessed them, and given them this hunger and thirst, and because they are confident that He will continue to bless them. How different these people are from modern man’s picture of the ideal man, confident, overbearing, selfish, and spiritually bankrupt, or even the self-righteous. But these latter are hardly likely to be blessed.
We should note here that in Isaiah, ‘righteousness’ regularly equates with vindication and deliverance. It is active righteousness, God’s righteousness in action. Through the work of the Anointed Prophet His new people are to be given a garland of rejoicing ,the oil of joy and the garment of praise and this in order that they might be called ‘trees of righteousness’, (as a result of) the planting of the Lord, so that He might be glorified (Isaiah 61.3). Thus they will be able to say, ‘He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness’ (Isaiah 61.10), indicating by this that He has not only accepted them as righteous, but has been acting on them to make them righteous. The idea in both cases is that God has acted in righteous deliverance, so that, by His action, His righteousness, will not only revealed but will also surround them and be imparted to them, with the result that their own resultant righteousness, will be revealed. For when the skies open He will pour down righteousness as the rain (compare the drenching in the Holy Spirit - 3.11) and the earth will produce deliverance (Isaiah 45.8). Isaiah 44.1-5 demonstrates that this very much has in mind spiritual blessing.
And again He says, ‘I bring near My righteousness --- and My salvation will not delay, and I will place salvation in Zion for Israel My glory’ (Isaiah 46.13; see also 51.5, 8; 56.1). Here again God’s work within them is in mind. So when God brings near His righteousness to those who are hungry and thirsty after righteousness, they will enjoy His deliverance and salvation, while the Mighty Warrior, ‘the Redeemer Who will come to Zion and to those who turn from transgression (repent) in Jacob’, will also be upheld by salvation and righteousness, and He will wear righteousness as a breastplate and the helmet of salvation on His head (Isaiah 59.16-17, 20). The idea in all this is that the Righteous One, through His Redeemer, will act in righteous power producing righteousness and salvation in His people. This is the righteousness for which those blessed by God will be hungering and thirsting. It is first imputed as they are taken up in His righteousness, and it is then imparted as they are changed from glory into glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3.18).
And along with a personal desire for righteousness we may see here the thought of their longing for the deliverance and vindication of all God’s true people, something which is to be revealed as a result of His powerful activity. They long for God’s salvation to come about in themselves and in all His people, as they long for the Messianic deliverance. They look for the establishment of righteousness under God’s King (Isaiah 11.1-4) and Servant (Isaiah 42.1-4). This combination of personal aspiration and corporate hope is a full part of the Gospel. The individual is important, but the individual is also part of a larger body of which he or she is a member. Each is the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6.19), and yet so are the whole body (2 Corinthians 6.16). And it is the presence of the Holy Spirit that will produce righteousness.
‘They will be filled.’ The word indicates that their hunger and thirst will be fully satisfied. They will enjoy something of His righteousness even now in all its aspects as He moves in saving power among them, but in the end they will be even more fully vindicated, being made fully righteous, and enjoying righteousness to the full when they are presented holy, and unblameable and unreproveable before Him. They will in the end gorge on true righteousness, enjoying to the uttermost extent the righteousness of God in Jesus, both imputed and imparted, and sovereignly exercised on them as in Isaiah. And they will not just enjoy it as individuals, they will enjoy it as part of God’s true people. They will see God’s purposes come to their full consummation with themselves being a full part of it. God’s King (Isaiah 11.1-4) and Servant (Isaiah 42.1-4) will have been finally established in righteousness and justice, and His people will all be one in it together with Him.
So while the emphasis in the first three beatitudes is on men’s attitude towards God because God has blessed them, and on God’s resulting response to them, although it would certainly be an attitude that made them responsive to their neighbour, now in this fourth beatitude the full significance of His righteousness and salvation on behalf of His people has been made known. And then finally in the last three beatitudes Jesus will turn His thoughts more specifically towards their attitude towards others. For they must love both God and their neighbour. In these beatitudes they reveal something of what is in the heart of God.
Not only does God make men lowly of heart and contrite, but He also blesses them by making them merciful, so that in return they can find mercy from Him. Such people as have been described will inevitably be merciful because God has been at work in them. They will thus forgive others because they have been forgiven (6.12, 14-15; 18.33). That is why Jesus could point out that those who would not forgive could not be forgiven. For it was evidence that they had not been made merciful. The merciful will have compassion on the weak, and give strength to the needy, because they are aware of their own need (9.13; 12.7). They will not be over-judgmental and yet will always be ready to humbly help their brothers and sisters (7.1-6; 12.7). They are meek at heart, so they will not exert their rights to the detriment of others (5.38-39). And the result is that they will obtain mercy from God and will have God’s forgiveness now, and mercy in the Last Day (Psalm 100.5; 103.17; Isaiah 54.8). ‘They will obtain mercy’. That is, God will be merciful to them. They will bask in His abundant mercy. For God is the abundantly merciful (Exodus 20.6; 34.7; Numbers 14.18; Deuteronomy 4.31; Psalm 18.25; 103.8, 17; 136 all; Isaiah 49.10, 13; 54.8, 10; 60.10; Zechariah 10.6)
The idea of mercy is seen as important in both wisdom literature (Proverbs 3.3; 11.17; 14.21, 22, 31; 17.5; 20.28; 21.21) and the prophets (Isaiah 57.1; Hosea 4.1; 6.6; 12.6; Micah 6.8; Zechariah 7.9). Mercy and truth are not to forsake men (Proverbs 3.3) and the merciful man does himself good (Proverbs 11.17), so that those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished (Proverbs 17.5). Mercy, along with truth, even preserves the king, for his throne is upheld by mercy (Proverbs 20.28). And men must especially show mercy to the poor (Proverbs 14.21, 31). In Isaiah 57.1 the righteous are paralleled with the merciful. And when there is no mercy in the land (along with truth and the knowledge of God) God has a controversy with His people (Hosea 4.1), for God desires mercy and a knowledge of God rather than offerings and sacrifices (Hosea 6.6). Indeed to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God is God’s prime requirement for man (Micah 6.8), while in the exercising of justice, mercy and compassion must always be present (Zechariah 7.9). Thus mercy is at the very centre of God’s requirements for His people, and it was partly the lack of this that angered Jesus about the Scribes and Pharisees (9.13; 12.7; 23.23). It was the sin that finally showed them up for what they were.
Those whom God has blessed will also be pure in heart. Central to the thought here is Psalm 24. The ones who would ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His holy place must have ‘clean hands and a pure heart’ (Psalm 24.4). Then they will not ascend in vain. And this involves among other things not having one’s thoughts fixed on vain and useless things, nor on dishonesty and deceit (Psalm 24.5). The pure of heart have their hearts fixed on God and are open and honest. None can therefore say that they have been truly blessed by God if there has not come into them a yearning for such purity of heart, for without it they cannot approach God. It is the upright and righteous who can behold His face (Psalm 11.7; 17.15). If men and women have no desire for purity of heart it is thus clear that God has withheld His blessing.
And this purity of heart results in a singleness of mind and purpose, and a rejection of all that is impure and false. The ones whom God has so blessed may still be sorely troubled by impurity of thought, but their greater desire will now be to be freed from it. They will hate impurity. For the pure in heart are those whose eyes are fixed on God and on what is good. Their eye is single (see 6.22; James 4.8) and their heart is pure, and this purity of heart will result in equanimity of spirit. They set their hearts on whatever is true, honourable, right, pure, lovely or gracious (Philippians 4.8). They do not lift up their souls to what is false, or engage in lies (Psalm 24.4). They are not envious of others (Psalm 73.1). They do not allow their eyes to stray (5.28). They rather turn their eyes and their hearts away from anything that displeases God. And thus their vision will be clear and they will see God in their hearts, ‘seeing Him Who is invisible’ (Hebrews 11.27), and one day will see Him as He really is (1 John 3.2; Revelation 22.4; Psalm 17.15).
Moses speaks of it as resulting from ‘the circumcision of the heart’ which removes men’s stubbornness and enables them to love the Lord with their whole being (Deuteronomy 10.16; 30.6). The hardness is cut away from their hearts leaving ‘a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36.26, compare Isaiah 44.1-5; Jeremiah 31.33-34). They have thus become new creations (2 Corinthians 5.17). And that is what has been the experience of those disciples who have responded to God in repentance (4.17) and are here with the genuine intention of listening to Jesus. They have been blessed by God with purity of heart, and thus with a singleness of mind that is also pure. And it provides them with a spiritual check up before the final application in the remainder of the Sermon. If they fail here they need go no further.
The final description in the list is of those who seek to make peace, because they have been blessed by God. God has worked within them and given them peace, contentment and wellbeing (shalom) and so they seek in the right way to reconcile people with each other and to calm troubled waters. They are peacemakers. Their great desire is that of establishing harmony among men and women by dealing with the problems that lie between them. They are to ‘seek peace and pursue it’ (Psalm 34.14; 1 Peter 3.11). They are to seek to fulfil Paul’s dictum, ‘If it be possible, as much as lies in you, be at peace with all men’ (Romans 12.18). Such a suggestion would not have been seen as good news by many Galileans. They had a reputation as turbulent rebels. They hated the Romans and took every opportunity to hit back at them. So for it to be suggested that they should be peacemakers would have riled them beyond bearing. But it was an essential part of Jesus’ message. He was here as the Prince of Peace.
And He wanted to remove from His disciples any idea that He might be here to make war. He wanted them to see that He had come to reconcile men to God, not to set them at each other’s throats. On the other hand, having said that He was a realist. And so He also later warned them that His coming would spark off dissension and hatred (10.34-36), it would set people at the throats of Christians. But that was not to be the result of the activity of the blessed, and was not in mind here. That would come about through the unblessed. At this point He was laying a foundation of peacemaking.
But even greater than the desire to make peace between men should be the desire of those whom God has blessed to bring harmony between men and God. They should love their enemies (5.44). They should long that all men and women might find peace with God. For this is in the end what making peace and producing wellbeing is all about. In Old Testament terms to proclaim peace is to declare the Good News of salvation (Isaiah 52.7). It is to seek to bring men to God. It is therefore to proclaim the coming of the Servant of the Lord (52.13-53.12) and Prophet (Isaiah 61.1-2). For there can be no real permanent peace without reconciliation to God. Thus they do not try to suggest that such peace is available without repentance, saying ‘peace, peace, where there is no peace’ (Jeremiah 6.14; 8.11), because they know that that would be foolish. For above all they want to bring men and women into a peace with God that is true and genuine. So they proclaim only what is true, even when that does not satisfy others. It is not peace at any price.
Such people then walk in peace and at peace, while proclaiming the whole truth. Their feet are shod with the shoes of the Good News of peace (Ephesians 6.15). And they follow the Prince of Peace and His ways (Isaiah 9.6), and require that others do also. They seek to bring men and women into the Kingly Rule of God, so making peace. They seek to break down the walls of partition between men by bringing them to Christ (Ephesians 2.14). And by this they thus reveal themselves as true sons of God, in that they are behaving like God, and like His Son, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9.6). Thus here the term ‘sons of God’ would seem largely to indicate those who are declared as sharing the same aims and purposes as God, and as behaving as He does (compare 5.45).
So we see here an attitude completely contrary to that at Qumran. There all hope was for the war that would drive out their enemies and establish God’s people (themselves). They exulted in the idea. Their idea was peace for themselves and destruction for their enemy. But Jesus’ attitude is revealed as the very opposite of that. His people were to seek to make peace, both between God and man, and between man and man, applying it in the end to all men who would respond. And in general it would not be a very popular idea.
But where do we find the idea of ‘sons of God’ in the Old Testament, other, that is, than the bene elohim (the ‘sons of the elohim (God’) who are angels? And why should the term be specifically connected with peacemakers?
One place in the Old Testament where Israel are seen as the son of God is found in Exodus 4.22, where Israel is depicted as His firstborn son, something which is in mind in Hosea 11.1, which is in turn cited in Matthew 2.15. But there the thought is of the singular ‘son’. Israel was there God’s corporate son. So if Jesus had had Exodus 4 in mind He could have used the singular ‘son’. On the other hand there are other places where Israel are described in terms of being His sons. The idea is, for example, found in Deuteronomy 14.1, ‘you are the children (LXX - ‘sons) of YHWH your God’, where it is an argument used for showing why they should not do undesirable things. A similar use is found in Hosea 1.10 (compare 2 Corinthians 6.18) where the restored of Israel will be called ‘sons of the living God’ because they have been restored and are to be abundantly blessed in numbers as a result of their restoration to God, a verse which, in 2 Corinthians, is connected with their being set apart as pure and separated to God. All these examples demonstrate that the term ‘sons of God’ denotes a people of especial holiness and purity, and this might well be seen as going along with being peacemakers.
But the place where ‘a son’ is most connected with peace making is in Isaiah 9.6. There the Son who is to be born will be the Prince of Peace. So Jesus’ point here may well be that those who are like the Son in being peacemakers will themselves be seen to be true ‘sons of God’, enjoying their sonship through Him (see Galatians 4.4-7; Romans 8.9-17). And they will thus be identified as God’s sons in the everlasting Kingdom. (Compare Hosea 1.10 which is spoken of the restoration of those who had previously gone astray).
We may thus summarise the seven beatitudes as indicating the attitude wrought in men by God as a result of His work in their hearts, an attitude required by Jesus to be continued in His disciples (and us). And this work that God has brought about in them is so that they will continue to be like this, and enjoy the present blessedness and future rewards that will certainly be theirs. They describe what His disciples have become through repentance and entry into the Kingly Rule of Heaven, and give them something by which they can measure the genuineness of their own salvation. And the result will be that as they keep their minds fixed on things above they will become more and more like this, with God more and more working in their hearts to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2.13), and as a result they will be truly blessed, both in the present and under the eternal Kingly Rule. And all this is in the light of what God has done within them through the Holy Spirit at work through Jesus (3.11) and because Jesus is saving them from their sins (1.21).
The Persecution of the Godly, And the Blessedness That Is Seen To Be Theirs As A Result. They Will Therefore Be Like The Prophets Of Old Who Were Also Persecuted, And Will Be The Salt Of The Earth And The Light Of The World (5.10-16).
It will be noted that we have not included verse 10 in the above series of beatitudes, even though it appears to follow precisely the same pattern, and in spite of the fact that at first sight it appears to be the tail end of an inclusio made up of ‘theirs is the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ in verse 3 and 10. And yet there is good reason for not doing so, for once examined more carefully it will be seen that it does not actually strictly follow the same pattern as the previous verses.
The previous seven beatitudes are all of a kind. They have indicated the present spiritual condition of those whom God has blessed, including aspects such as poverty of spirit, a state of mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst for righteousness, an attitude of mercy, purity of heart and the heart of a peacemaker. It is not a question of anyone choosing between them. All have in varying degrees been worked into the hearts of those who have been blessed by God. But this ‘eighth’ beatitude, very much refers to something done to people in the past, even though still effective in the present time, and is therefore not strictly parallel to them. It is very much ‘the odd one out’. Rather than having in mind the present position of His disciples as the other beatitudes do, it has in mind what has happened to people who are seen as connected with the past (they ‘have been and are persecuted’). They also were ones blessed by God, but they are not specifically those addressed in verses 3-9.
Thus verse 10 is neither referring to anyone’s spiritual condition, nor is it looking at the present, both of which are an essential aspect of verses 3-9. Its conformation with them is thus in form not in substance. It does not fit into their pattern.
The exclusion of it from the list of beatitudes is further supported by the fact that it fits better into the context if it is seen as introducing what follows, for, as can be seen from the chiasmus below, it fits very adequately into the pattern of the following verses. Furthermore, seeing it in this way also fits in with the idea of the seven previous ‘blessings’ as paralleling the seven ‘woes’ of chapter 23. Had the beatitude in verse 10 exactly paralleled the other seven these considerations would have had to be thrust aside, but in view of the total difference in approach from the other seven these other considerations must be seen as gaining considerable weight.
Thus it seems more probable that we are to see verse 10 as forming a very suitable continuation link between the seven blessings, and His following words which deal with the persecution of those to whom He is speaking, that is, as its being the introduction to verses 10-12, rather than as being simply an eighth blessing of a slightly different kind to the others. And as we shall see His words in verse 10 do actually form an important introduction to the theme that follows.
(We have no ardent quarrel with the majority who wish to make it an eighth rather distinctive beatitude, something which might be seen as supported by its parallel ending to that in verse 3, for after all, the two statements referring to the present possession of the Kingly Rule of God would make a good inclusio. Nevertheless in our view the overall evidence is against it and it interferes with the argument. It is better seen as transitional).
So we would suggest that its exclusion from the previous list would seem to be supported by two facts:
Certainly its likeness to them in structure emphasises how closely the seven beatitudes are to be linked with it and what follows, but in view of the change of tense the persecuted and blessed ones of verse 10 do not appear to be identical with the blessed ones of 3-9 (who are in fact referred to in verse 11). We can talk of timeless presents and the perfect taking an aoristic force as much as we like, but the question still remains as to why such a shift had to be resorted to. if it was a continuation of the beatitudes. Why not simply have verse 10 as a timeless present as well?
The question then that we must ask is why there was such a change of tense? And if it is not part of an inclusio why does it end with the same phrase as verse 3?
In fact the first question is answered if we look at the balance of verses 10-12. This small passage opens with - ‘Blessed ones those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake’, - and ends with - ‘so (as in verse 11) persecuted they the prophets which were before you’. The parallel is clear. The former is then followed by, ‘for theirs is the Kingly Rule of Heaven, while the latter is preceded by ‘for great is your reward in Heaven’. Again the parallel is clear. The parallels and the balance are unmistakable. The whole emphasis of the passage is then based on verse 10 as introducing people who have been persecuted in the past. The idea is that having outlined how His disciples have been blessed He turns that idea of God’s blessing on the persecuted ones of the past, in order to introduce the idea to the disciples that they too must expect to be persecuted. Verse 10 thus includes the prophets, it includes famous martyrs of the past (see Hebrews 11), it includes John the Baptiser who has been persecuted and still is being persecuted, and it includes some of John’s disciples, who must surely also have suffered to some extent for their faithfulness to John, and were still doing so. These are shown to enjoy a similar blessedness to the people being described in verses 3-9, and that in a phrase which is similar to and follows the pattern of verses 3-9, while at the same time being intended to be introductory to verse 11. Verse 12 then goes on to make the contrast with the prophets more specific.
In view of the fact that the disciples had not yet been persecuted their persecution could not simply be described in the same form as the previous beatitudes, for it had not happened. So we may see Jesus as devising this way of continuing the general pattern of the beatitudes by following them with a beatitude on persecution which clearly refers to those persecuted in the past, in such a way that it could then lead on to introducing the future persecution of the disciples, something which He was well aware was coming. It also had the intention of introducing the persecution of those in the past as an encouragement to the disciples. A blunt introduction of the disciples’ coming persecution without the encouragement of the fact that it had already been experienced by others might have been something that He saw as too abrupt. And besides He probably wished positively to give them that encouragement. Verses 13-16 can then be seen as explaining, by contrast, what will cause men to wish to treat them so badly. No one is more hated by the ungodly than those who act as salt and come bringing light.
The mention again of ‘for theirs is the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ then brings out that the prophets, and martyrs, and John and his disciples, will not lose out on the Kingly Rule of Heaven either, indeed they will have the same blessing as the current disciples in verse 3. And if it be argued that the Kingly Rule of Heaven was not for them we simply point out that in 8.11 it is made quite clear that figures from the past will also sit down in the heavenly Kingly Rule of Heaven. It was not for them on earth because its time was not yet come.
This interpretation further explains the difference between ‘for righteousness’ sake’ in verse 10 and ‘for My sake’ in verse 11. John after all came ‘in the way of righteousness’ (21.32) and the blood of the prophets was ‘righteous blood’ (23.35). See also 13.17 where the ‘righteous men’ certainly include those who have suffered in God’s name. So they suffered ‘for righteousness’ sake’, for the carrying forward of His purpose of deliverance (see on verse 6), while for Jesus’ disciples there was the greater joy and privilege that they suffered ‘for His sake’. Note also how this places Jesus in a position at least on an equality with that of ‘righteousness’ (is this last a circumlocution for God on the same basis as the use of ‘Heaven’?).
By this means Jesus is seen to be bringing together the saints of the past and the saints (‘holy ones’, God’s true people) of the present, while putting the main emphasis on those in the present, that is, His listeners. Yet at the same time He is demonstrating that they are now being called on to carry on the witness (light) and preserving influence (salt) of the prophets. For Jesus’ new community this is evidence that they do not stand on their own. They are rooted firmly in the past, as the past is rooted firmly in them (Hebrews 11.40).
The Persecution of the Godly, And the Blessedness That Is Seen To Be Theirs As A Result. They Will Therefore Be Like The Prophets Of Old Who Were Also Persecuted (5.10-12).
Analysis of 5.10-12.
Note how in ‘a’ reference is made to the persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and in the parallel reference is made to the persecuting of the prophets. In ‘b theirs is the Kingly Rule of Heaven and in the parallel great is their reward in Heaven. In ‘c’ those who are reproached and persecuted are blessed, and in the parallel they are to rejoice and be very glad, and centrally in ‘d’ the cruelty of the treatment of His people is emphasised.
As we have already noted this section also follows a threefold pattern. ‘You’ (His disciples) are addressed, and are advised that firstly they are to be persecuted for His sake (10-12), secondly that they are to be the salt of the earth (13), and thirdly that they are to be the light of the world (14-16).
Here those who are blessed by God ‘have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake’. This can hardly refer to His current disciples, for they are hardly yet in a position to have faced any real level of persecution. And if it had been meant to refer to them, why the change of tense? Thus the blessed ones spoken of are in the past, which is confirmed by the introduction of the present listeners in verse 11. For John, who is specifically said to have ‘come in the way of righteousness’ (21.32), had certainly been persecuted ‘for righteousness’ sake’, and we may see it as very probable that some of his faithful disciples had suffered with him in one way or another. They would not have sat idly by while he was hauled off to prison, and they may well have been roughly handled when they visited him, as very bravely they continued to do (11.2). And they may also have come in for mistreatment in the synagogues as well, in the same way as Jesus’ disciples would later. So Jesus may here be pointing His disciples in that direction as an example.
The past tense may, however, also be seen as including the prophets (who are specifically referred to in verse 12) and others who in the past have suffered ‘for righteousness’ sake’. There were in fact no lack of heroes of the faith in the past (Hebrews 11.35-38). And that such would enjoy the Kingly Rule of Heaven is implicit in 8.11 where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are also seen as enjoying it. If this is so then this reference to the persecution of others in the past is a timely warning to His disciples of what they too can expect (see 10.17-23), and an assurance that the saints of the past will not lose out, any more than they will. (It also confirms the exclusion of this beatitude from the original list of beatitudes). And the whole point is that these things happened to God’s blessed ones in the past, with the consequence being their enjoyment of His Kingly Rule. This is then ample confirmation that His present blessed ones will experience the same.
The persecution of the prophets is a clear theme in 2 Chronicles 36.16, see also 1 Kings 19.10, 14; Nehemiah 9.26; Jeremiah 2.30, so that Jesus was by no means the first to draw attention to it (21.34-36; 23.29-31, 35). Indeed, as He points out, the persecutors drew attention to it themselves (23.30). Jesus is thus aligning His present disciples with the past, as part together of all God’s purposes through history.
The switch here to the second person confirms that the previous verse is referring back to the past. His God-blessed disciples are now to recognise that they too will be reproached, persecuted and calumniated in the same way as the saints of the past. In the end people will have little good to say about them also. And in their case it will not just be for righteousness’ sake, it will be for His sake. Theirs is the greater privilege. Furthermore the use of ‘for My sake’ confirms that the listeners are genuine disciples. Only genuine disciples could suffer ‘for His sake’. They will be seen as fine while they are not treading on people’s toes, but once what they say becomes personal to the people in question, or begins to touch on sensitive ideas, antagonism will soon arise. Godly persons very often do find it difficult to understand how anyone can treat them in this way when all they are doing is taking to men and women the most wonderful message known to men, but it will in fact not be long, if their testimony is true, before they find that it is so. For they will be disturbing the consciences of men and women, and the almost automatic result will be retaliation and persecution and insults. People do not like their consciences being disturbed.
But when disciples are so treated ‘for His sake’ they can take comfort in the fact that it indicates that they are those who have been blessed by God, and that they are truly His.
‘Reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely.’ Note the small chiasmus. Persecution is central as being the most virulent, but is surrounded on each side by their being the subject of virulent words. It does, however, also follow a pattern, first the reproaches, then the persecution, and finally the calumniation of their names to the world as their reputations are destroyed.
‘Falsely’ is omitted in some manuscripts, such as D, most Old Latin witnesses and the Sinaitic Syriac version, and also in Tertullian. But the weight of the evidence is for inclusion. It was probably omitted because the copyist could not accept that the disciples might behave falsely. It does bring out to us that it is important that we ensure that we do not deserve any calumniations. It is not blessed to be persecuted for merely being awkward.
And when persecution happens they should rejoice. Indeed they should be deliriously happy. For it will indicate that they are deserving people, and it will mean that their reward in Heaven will be great. To them will belong the Kingly Rule of Heaven which has been given to the persecuted ones of verse 10. Eternal blessedness will be theirs. For such treatment will put them into the same category as the great prophets of the past. For the prophets too were persecuted by the fathers of these people in the same way as they will shortly be. This last statement parallels that in verse 10. Those prophets were ‘blessed ones’ as well.
Here then Jesus’ current disciples are paralleled with the prophets. They are presumably indeed to see themselves as prophetic men. Theirs is to be the privilege of carrying on in the train of the prophets, and indeed, because of their present position in the Kingly Rule of God, to be at present of an even higher status than they (11.11).
And here He stops, on a high note with no jarring thought of false prophets. But later He will add a warning. He will introduce the thought that they must take heed to themselves. For towards the end of Jesus’ message the contrast will be brought out of false prophets. Sadly they too will arise. And they will be known by their fruits (7.15-23). It will then be brought out that it was important therefore that His disciples recognise the danger of becoming false prophets. They were to ensure that if they were persecuted and insulted it was for the right reason. They must look to the fruit that will be borne in their lives in the doing of the will of Jesus’ Father in Heaven (7.21). By ensuring that they do His will, they will then ensure that they remain as true prophets. However, this is not part of Jesus’ message yet. At present He is speaking with positive confidence in His disciples, and showing them what kind of people they are and must be. For their present status demonstrates that they have been truly blessed by God.
‘Your reward in Heaven.’ That is, ‘your reward stored up for you by God’. This is another example of the desire to avoid using God’s name more than necessary. The point is that no one will lose out, however much they are called on to suffer.
Rather Than Deserving Reproach And Calumniation They Are to Be The Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World (5.13-16).
Having commenced His sermon by revealing what the disciples are, by virtue of God’s active work within them (His ‘blessing)’, and having warned them against persecution as a consequence, in a similar way to the prophets, Jesus now explains the significance of it for them in the context of the world. They are present in the world in their new state as preserving salt and as revealing light. And although through it many will be blessed, that is why they will be persecuted (this is the story of Acts).
Here we have further evidence that His words in the Sermon are mainly directed to disciples. Not only are they to be persecuted for His sake, but their special influence in the world is to be powerful and all-pervading. And this could only be spoken of people in whom verses 3-9 have been actualised so that what is spoken of there has become a living experience.
We are aware, of course, of how far the disciples came short of this ideal, certainly for a long time, but at least a beginning has been made. They are now changed men, and on the way to becoming ‘perfect’ (verse 48), fully matured in righteousness and love, even though they have a long way to go. They have therefore even now become agents through whom God will fulfil His purposes. This should comfort us with the thought that we too do not have to have become perfect before this can happen, for He reveals His glory in earthen vessels so that all the glory will go to Him (2 Corinthians 4.7).
The Disciples Are The Salt Of The Earth (5.13-14).
Jesus’ first declaration about His disciples is that they are the salt of the earth. And this is then followed by a grave warning. For it is possible for (Palestinian) salt to lose its savour. And then what will the result be? It will be fit for nothing but to be thrown away to become the equivalent of the dust under men’s feet.
Analysis of 5.13-14.
Note the parallels. In ‘a’ it is the salt of the earth, influential and effective, while in the parallel it is useless and rejected, and fit only for men to treat with contempt. In ‘b’ the salt loses its savour, and in the parallel it is thus good for nothing. And in ‘c’ we have the central punch line. If this happens there is no way in which it can be restored.
Note also the advance in thought. First the idea itself, ‘you are the salt of the earth’, then the warning, the salt can lose its savour, then the catastrophic realisation, that if it does there is then no way for it to be re-salted, then the consequence, it is useless for anything, and then the result, it becomes something to be trodden under men’s feet.
As we shall see, this combination of advance in thought alongside chiastic comparisons in parallel is a feature of the Sermon on the Mount, a sign of the genius that lay behind it.
In order to understand this illustration we have to know something about Palestinian ‘salt’. It was not pure salt. It was gathered from areas like those around the Dead Sea, and contained considerable impurities. When it was stored there was always the danger of dampness causing the actual salt (sodium chloride) to dissolve leaving behind a tasteless mass. The ‘salt’ would then have lost its savour, and there would thus be no further use for it. Some, however, argue that it is the very impossibility of salt losing its savour that is the point behind the illustration. True disciples cannot lose their saltiness. Therefore those who do simply reveal that they were never salt at all. Either way the point is the same. Without saltiness they are worthless.
‘You are the salt of the earth.’ While these salts were sometimes used as fertiliser they were not very effective as such, and that idea is probably not intended here. The meaning rather is that the disciples are like salt among the people of the world, and the thought of its uniqueness is in mind. There is no replacement for salt. In the same way His disciples were to recognise that they too were unique in the world (as Christians also ought to be, but for the right reasons, not because of peculiarities of behaviour). Salt was famed for its preservative qualities, and for making things palatable. It prevented corruption advancing so quickly, and brought out what was good in food. And it thus both kept things edible and made them enjoyable. It could also be used as a cleansing agent (Exodus 30.35; 2 Kings 2.19-22; Ezekiel 16.4). In the same way the disciples, behaving in the way described in verses 3-9, will slow down the corruption in the world, and make the world itself a better place by the effects of their example and their teaching, slowing down the spread of corruption, making the world a more tasty place by transforming many of those who are within it, and having a continuing purifying effect.
Note the ‘YOU are’ (the ‘you’ is emphatic). This was spoken to His disciples, not the general run of people. It refers to the same ones as were to be persecuted and reviled for Jesus’ sake (verse 11). The emphasis may be as a contrast to those who would revile them, or it may simply be a positive assessment of them in contrast to the rest of the world. We should note in passing that they are not told to ‘become salt’. That has already been done for them by God. They are rather to reveal the saltiness that God has put within them.
Salt was also used by the Rabbis as a symbol of wisdom (see Colossians 4.6). This may explain the use above of the Greek verb ‘become foolish’ which probably translates the Aramaic ‘tapel’. This was closely associated with ‘tabel’ which indicates to lose taste and may disguise a typical play on words of a type that Jesus loved. This then reveals the disciples as also being the source of the true wisdom in the world. They are being trained up by Jesus in order to be the world’s source of true wisdom. How sad then if they cease to do His will and become foolish.
But what if through neglect the salt lose its savour? Then it will be useless. It will cease to have any effect and will become fit only to be thrown out onto the streets, to be treated with the contempt that it deserves. This is looking back to His previous indication that the disciples are replacing the prophets, and is introducing the warning of the danger of becoming false prophets, which will be developed in more detail towards the end (7.15-23). It is therefore at this stage a warning to be careful how they behave, and how they learn and teach.
‘With what will it be salted?’ There is no way of restoring saltiness to the mass of chemicals that the dissolving of the sodium chloride (salt) has left behind. In the same way once His disciples have lost their way they will find it very difficult to get back to what they were (but thank God not impossible, for at that point there is a difference. We are dealing with God’s ability to restore. God can ‘make it again’ (Jeremiah 18.4). But this must not be presumed upon). All they can then hope for is to be tossed out for the rubbish collector to collect, meanwhile being trodden over by heedless men and women.
‘It is from then on good for nothing.’ Once men have lost the salt of a truly godly life they may witness all they like, but they will achieve nothing lasting.
‘Trodden under the foot of men.’ The phrase indicates disdain and contempt, or, even worse, being totally ignored. Once the church is ignored it is a sign that it has lost its savour. The picture is probably that of being tossed out as rubbish into the streets, to be later collected by the rubbish collectors, but meanwhile walked over by all. It has. however, been pointed out that such salts were used in strengthening the flat roofs of houses, with the result that people would then trample it under foot. But this is probably becoming too sophisticated.
Jesus regularly uses the illustration of salt, and it would simply be being pedantic to suggest that they must all have been said at the same time just because of the mention of salt. Consider Mark 9.50; Luke 14.34-35; see also Mark 4.21; Luke 8.16; 11.33. But there is little real parallel and no reason for therefore suggesting that they are the same saying taken up and used in a different context. The picture was such a useful one that He must literally have used it scores of times in different ways. The unfortunate impression given by some scholars, in their eagerness to discern what Jesus might actually have said, which results in their trying to find a core in a number of sayings, is that Jesus simply went around making inane comments, and all the interesting expansions came from the later interpreters, who were all moral geniuses.
His Light Having Shone On Them (4.16) His Disciples Are To Be The Light Of The World.
In 4.16 a great light was seen as having come into the world in Jesus Christ, and as having shone on Galilee, revealing God and Himself to the people. Now the disciples are to recognise that they have a similar function, to be a light to the world (note the oneness implied by the singular noun). And they must ensure that that light shines for one purpose only, to bring glory to God in Heaven. It is not accidental that Matthew spoke of the coming light, before describing Jesus’ teaching about them as the light of the world. We may reasonably assume from what Matthew said that Jesus had also prepared them for this by speaking in a similar way.
Note that in ‘a’ they are the ‘light’ of the ‘world’, and in the parallel they ‘glorify’ their Father in ‘Heaven’. By their actions on earth they are to bring Heaven to earth. In ‘b’ they are like a city on a hill visible to all, and in the parallel their good works are to be visible to all (for the right reasons, not in the same way as the Pharisees). In ‘c’ men light a lamp, and in the parallel the disciples are to let their light shine before men. Centrally in ‘d’ it is to shine to all who are in the house.
But note also that there is the prime statement followed by the progression. They are the light of the world. They cannot therefore be hidden. Nor should any attempt be made to hide it. Rather it should be allowed to shine out. Then men will glorify God in Heaven. (The twofold pattern continues).
“You are the light of the world.” As we have seen the idea comes from the fact that Jesus Himself has come as a light into the world (4.16; compare John 8.12). And the purpose of that light is to reveal God, and what He is like, to men on earth. God is in Heaven and they are on the earth. Thus if men who are on the earth are to see God, it must be in Jesus and in His people as they live out their lives on earth. ‘The world’ may not here have the same wide significance as in 28.19. But it contains the seeds of that idea. There may have indeed already have been in Jesus’ and Matthew’s minds the thought of the Servant as the light of the nations (Isaiah 42.6; 49.6; compare 12.18-21).
But the words that probably lie at the root of Jesus’ idea here are those of Isaiah 60.3 where Israel’s light is to shine out because the glory of God has come upon them (they have been ‘blessed’ as in verses 3-9) in order that they might shine out of darkness and be a light to the nations. This would link in with the idea of glorifying God in the last phrase of the verse, and with the recognition that they are now the new congregation of Israel (16.18; 21.43).
Note how this first assumes that the world is in darkness. That is constantly the theme of Scripture (Psalm 82.5; 107.14; Proverbs 4.19; Isaiah 9.2; 42.16; 49.9; Luke 1.79; John 1.5; 3.19; 8.12; 12.46; Acts 26.18; Ephesians 4.18; 5.8). And it then declares that in His true people God has brought light out of darkness because they have come in contact with the Light of the world (4.16; John 8.12; compare also Acts 13.47; 26.18; Ephesians 5.8).
“A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” Jesus’ idea is that the city has been set there by God, just as He has now set the disciples in the world as His witnesses. But that does not exclude the idea that men do set their cities on hills so that they can be admired. With its white houses any city set on a hill would glisten in the sun by day, and at night the lamps shining in the houses would draw attention to its presence. It thus could not be hid either by day or by night. And because His disciples have been given a prominent position, they also cannot be hid. This is bringing home the inevitability of their position. It is the inevitable position for all true Christians, a privilege given to them by God. And cities set on hills and made visible are vulnerable to attack. They will be ‘persecuted’.
This likening of the true people of God to a city is later taken up in Revelation where the heavenly people of God are seen in terms of the new Jerusalem, with its foundation laid on the Apostles. A city as one entity with large numbers of inhabitants is a good picture of the one body with its many members. There may have been a hint here in Jesus’ words of how this tiny group of disciples will grow in numbers until they become like a populous city.
“Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel measure, but on the stand.” Furthermore when men light a terracotta oil lamp in their homes it is in order that it may shine out. They do not put a corn measure over it. (Note that, as with an attempt to hide the city, the idea would be ridiculous). Rather they put it on a stand or table where it can give light to all. So would it be foolish for the disciples (and us) not to let their lights shine out before men by what they are, how they behave, and what they say. For that is now their very purpose for being in the world. This general idea was used often by Jesus with interesting variations on the theme (see Mark 4.21; Luke 8.16; 11.33).
“And it shines to all who are in the house.” The aim must be that everyone will benefit (compare Philippians 2.15).
“Even so let your light shine before men.” The illustration is now made specific. They are the light whose light is to shine out into the world before men. If they are faithful as the lamp of God they cannot help but shine, and through their lives, as well as with their lips, they will thus give testimony to Jesus.
“That they may see your good (kalos) works.” Compare here 11.4-5; Acts 2.22. Jesus would do great works. And the disciples would do similar works of power. But the people of God in general are to be zealous of more ordinary ‘good works’ because they are God’s own possession (Titus 2.14), and good works are regularly urged on God’s people throughout the New Testament. ‘Kalos’ means good in the sense of being attractive. They are not to be works that are thrust on people who do not want them. The Sermon will later amplify on these good works which in the end signify the doing of the will of His Father Who is in Heaven (7.21).
Note that what they are and how they behave is pre-eminent. If the people of God, and especially the preacher, are not behaving well the preacher preaches in vain. Their good living and positive actions for the good of others must be visible to all, not because they thrust them in front of their noses like the Pharisees and Gentiles do (6.2. 5, 7, 16), but because their good works so abound that they cannot help but be seen. They should not want to be seen of men, they should want God to be seen of men. It is these good works above all else, discreetly and lovingly carried out, that convince the world of the truth about Jesus.
“And glorify your Father who is in Heaven.” And their sole aim in all this is to be in order that men may glorify the Father of the disciples Who is in Heaven. This is the first mention of God as being their Father, but it will occur regularly through the Sermon. Note, however, that the first mention speaks of their responsibility to their Father. It is because they acknowledge their responsibility to bring glory to Him that they can later be seen as relying on His provision for them. Note also that He is the Father of the disciples, not of those who see their good works. The pronoun is specific. There is a general sense in which God is the Father of all men by creation, but in the sense used in the Sermon on the Mount He is the Father only of disciples of Jesus, those who are seeking to be true sons of their Father (5.9, 45) because of the blessing that He has worked on their lives.
Note how ‘your Father in Heaven’ contrasts with the ‘light of the world’. Their Father is in Heaven. The only way that men will see Him is if they see Him in us. For we are in the world. If our light shines brightly in what we are and how we behave (without any ostentation), men will become aware of Him and will glorify Him.
And now, the basis of discipleship having been sorted out, we can move on to the detail. For as we now come to the main body of the Sermon it is on the basis of the fact that we recognise that the working of God in His disciples in verses 3-9 has resulted in the effectiveness of their ministry to the world in verses 13-16. Had they simply perfected personal holiness in secret they might not have been persecuted, it was when they began to affect the world around them (13-16), and make the world feel guilty, that the world began to react and hit back (10-12). The world did not want to be shaken out of its apathy, and would resent it. What follows will now bring out more fully what their ‘good works’ are to be, and will reveal the way in which they are to be truly a light in the world.
Having revealed how God has worked in His disciples in a life-transforming way in verses 3-9, and having shown them that they are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world in verses 13-16, Jesus now goes into detail about what that will involve, and how it will lead up to the final consummation, that is to the fulfilment of ‘the Law’ (the Torah - the ‘Instruction’ of God) and of the Prophetic hopes.
This passage begins with a short introduction (5.17-20) and then considers:
This is then followed by a closing summary (7.7-12) in which they are to ask for and seek all that He has spoken of.
The Scriptures were the be all and end all to most Jews, and that was especially true of the Law (the Torah), that is the first five books of the Bible. They were the centre of their faith and of their being. And they considered that their own final fulfilment would only be found in a perfect existence under that very Torah, with it having been fully illuminated to them under the Messiah (compare Deuteronomy 17.18-20), so that they would enjoy all that it promised for the future as it came to its final consummation in the way described by the Prophets.
It is true that the Sadducees with their interest in the priesthood were on the whole more interested in the application of the Torah to the Temple, and to the status quo, and concentrated on the maintenance of the Temple ritual and on getting along with their Gentile rulers. As far as they were concerned the Torah was fulfilled in this. But for most of the Scribes, together with the Pharisees and the common people, (thus the vast majority of Israel), their hopes were firmly set (at least in theory) on the fulfilment of the Torah when the Messiah, (or in the Dead Sea Scrolls even more than one Messiah, a priestly and kingly one) would come and establish God’s everlasting kingdom, ensuring in it that they lived under the Torah as illuminated by the Messiah (Deuteronomy 17.18-20). It would be the perfect age (Isaiah 11.1-10; 65.17-25).
In this section (5.17-7.12) therefore Jesus now emphasised that He had come to bring this about, but as interpreted in His own way. This, He said, was why He had come. He had not come ‘to destroy’ the Torah or the Prophets, but ‘to fulfil’ them, with this contrast between destruction and fulfilment intended to bring out the emphasis on His intent to fulfil them. The point that is being made is that the Law and the Prophets are certain of fulfilment, and that all that they have pointed forward to will therefore undoubtedly come about, and that His purpose in being here is in order to ensure that this will happen. For there is no root of destruction in the Torah and the Prophets. Indeed if anyone was destroying them it was those who opposed Him, the Scribes and their acolytes.
And in order to demonstrate that this is so He will now explain and expand on the Torah, rooting out its deepest meaning, for He wishes it to be fully understood that He will not only ‘fulfil’ them by fulfilling the promises concerning the Coming One, but will also ‘fulfil’ them by ‘filling them full’, and bringing out their deeper meaning. But in doing so it must be in order to introduce the golden age of righteousness, not in order to produce a lot of mini-Scribes and mini-Pharisees. So He will now proceed to fix men’s minds firmly on the Kingly Rule of God, with God as their Father in Heaven (as long as they have repented and come under that Kingly Rule), and will call on them to walk in true love towards others, to avoid hypocrisy, to set their minds and hearts on things above, and not to be judgmental of each other. Rather they are to strive to assist each other by removing splinters from each other’s eyes while at the same time being fully aware of their own deep failings (7.1-5). On the other hand they must also not waste their time on those whose hearts are closed to their message (7.6). So to that end they are to pray earnestly and continually for the ‘good things’ of God (7.7-12), which include the Kingly Rule of Heaven (5.3; 6.10; 6.33), the enjoying of His righteous deliverance (5.6; 6.33), and the full working of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11.13). All this will then prepare them for the final calling to account of men and women which will be required at His own hands as ‘the Lord’ (7.22-23). This is what the shining forth of His followers (verse 14-16), and the fulfilment of the Torah and the prophets (verse 17), was finally to result in.
It is with this in mind that He now emphasises that He has not come to destroy either the Law (in Hebrew the ‘Instruction’ of God) OR the Prophets.
By speaking of ‘not destroying’ either The Torah or the Prophets He may be:
But whichever way it is, His main point is that whatever might or might not be said He has not come to destroy either the Torah or the Prophets, but to ‘fill them full’, that is, to bring them to their ultimate completeness, and to accomplish all the purposes of God revealed in them. And He adds that this must be so because from an earthly point of view they are indestructible.
And with this in mind He warns of what their attitude to ‘the Law’ (now including both the Torah and the Prophets as it sometimes does) must now be. They must not treat any of it lightly, but must honour the whole. For anyone who treats even one part of it lightly will thereby lose out, while those who honour it will themselves be honoured. And He adds as a final warning that they must certainly not see His word as the majority of the Scribes and Pharisees do. The Scribes and Pharisees used it as a means of trying to establish their own righteousness through ritual and through their own self-exalting ideas. But those who are His must recognise that they must rather seek a different kind of righteousness, the righteousness of the poor in spirit, the righteousness that will come with power from God as He comes in salvation in the way that Isaiah had promised, a righteousness which will result in a life lived in accordance with what He will now reveal in what follows in His sermon.
It is thus His intention so to magnify and expand on God’s Instruction (the Law in the light of the Prophets), that He reveals more of its real requirements, and at the same time as He is doing this, to point forward to the necessary bringing about of all that Moses had hoped for in it, by the establishing of God’s Kingly Rule as men enter it under His Lordship (7.21) and themselves build on a foundation that will last for ever (7.25). He thus has in mind to ‘fulfil’, that is, to bring to completeness both the Law as God’s revealed manner of living (5.21-7.12), and the Law with its future hopes (Genesis 3.15; 49.10; Numbers 24.17; Deuteronomy 17.18-20) concerning the establishment of God’s rule (7.21).
With regard to the expectations of the Torah we must never forget what Moses’ hopes were as revealed in the Torah. We must never forget that his last sight on earth was the country in which he thought that God’s Kingly Rule would be established (Deuteronomy 34.4). And at that stage he had thought that he was surveying the future ‘kingdom of God’. That was his hope and the hope of his people, and that was why he had given them God’s Law, and as far as Jesus’ listeners were concerned he had written of that hope in such places as Genesis 3.15; 49.10; Numbers 24.17; Deuteronomy 17.18-20. Thus the Torah was seen by Moses as very much pointing forward to the establishment of the coming Kingly Rule of God.
Furthermore in 2.15 Matthew has already stressed the coming of the King out of Egypt, and that for the very purpose of establishing that Kingly Rule which had previously failed of fulfilment (Hosea 11.1-12). And now here it was happening before their very eyes (compare 21.31-32). And He firmly assures them (7.13-23) that He will fulfil both the hopes of the Torah and the Prophets in Himself, by Himself being the fulfilment of all to which they point, as ‘the Lord’ Who will call all to account (7.23), will remove all that offends (7.19, 27), and will establish all that endures (7.25), and will thus bring His people into the everlasting Kingdom (7.13-23).
Jesus sees nothing negative about the Torah or the Prophets as properly interpreted. He sees the Law as holy, and just, and good in the same way as Paul does (Romans 7.12). The only reservations that He does have are about the interpretations of the Scribes and Pharisees. Furthermore He also does not want the people to see anything negative about the Torah and the Prophets either. Indeed He will now stress their earthly permanence. He loves the word of God and He loves the Law, for they reveal what God is and point forward to what He intends to accomplish.
We can compare how Paul also sees the Law as something that he delights in, in his inmost self (Romans 7.22), so that with his mind he serves ‘the Law of God’ (Romans 7.25). The Law was no enemy to Paul when rightly used. Its achievement was a part of his hope. He too desired that Christians should live in accordance with the Law (Galatians 6.13-14). It was sin and the ‘law’ or principle of sin within him, and the Law as misused and misapplied in the wrong way, that was his enemy. As a joyous response to the mercy and gracious working of God it was a delight. It was only as a means of legally being made acceptable to God that it was a curse. And this he also recognised could only be combated in Jesus Christ, for he recognised that in Him sin could be defeated and that as a justifying medium the Law was ‘ended’ in Christ (Romans 10.2).
So both Jesus and Paul make clear that they honour the Law, while at the same time speaking of man as misusing the Law (compare 1 Timothy 1.7-11). Jesus makes this clear in verse 20, and constantly throughout Matthew, culminating with chapter 23. Paul does so by his constant attempt to bring men out from ‘under the Law’ when seen as a threatening executioner, so that they can then live out the Law in perfect freedom from condemnation in the way in which it was intended to be lived (Galatians 5.13-14). Thus in this sermon, by bringing out its inner and glorious meaning, Jesus will reveal that what God is more concerned with in the Law is the attitude of the heart that looks to be God-like (‘sons of their Father’), rather than the specific slavish keeping of individual commandments and rituals which was the forte of the Scribes and Pharisees. For the latter approach to the Law could only trick men (like the rich young man) into thinking that they were ‘getting along fairly well’ (19.20). But He wants people to recognise that it is not a matter of ‘getting along fairly well’. It is a matter of having a heart right towards God, brought about by God’s saving work within, and of recognising the need for the inner sinful heart to be dealt with. It is a matter of acknowledging their need to come to Him as their Father in Heaven with all their thoughts on things above. It is man’s hatred and contempt for others (verse 22), and his lust (verse 28) and his perversity and dishonesty (verse 37) and his desire for vengeance (verses 38, 43) that have to be dealt with, not just his outward disobedience to certain individual, but limited and even sometimes misrepresented, commandments. Thus His disciples have to learn not to be vengeful, and not to be at enmity with their brothers, or with the world outside Judaism (verse 43), but to respond in love and compassion and consideration (verses 39-42) and to reveal love as their heavenly Father does (verses 44-45) both among their own people and to the world ‘outside’ (verses 45, 48). This is the true purpose of the Law, of God’s Instruction.
He then goes on to call for a true-hearted response to God (6.1-18), and a setting of the mind on the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness (using ‘God’ here rather than ‘Heaven’ so as to link Him firmly with His righteousness), which will result in their using all their earthly possessions in the purposes of God (6.19-34). And this must include the casting off of a judgmental attitude of heart (7.1), for who are they to act as judges? Rather than setting themselves up as Judges they should make themselves able to ‘doctor’ others (take the splinters out of their eyes) (7.1-5), although even then they must still be aware of those whose hearts are so hardened that they will not be receptive to what they have to offer (7.6). And as they do this, they must do it with constant prayer for the bringing in of the good things of God which God longs to give them, which will result in the fulfilment of the Law and the prophets, in that they will be doing to others what they would have them do to them (7.7-12).
But He then concludes by stressing that all this summation of the Law and the prophets (5.17-7.12) reveals the narrow way that leads to life, in contrast to the broad way that leads to destruction (7.13-14). As they face up to Him and what He has come to do they must choose this day Whom they will serve, and how they will respond to Him. And that leads on to men having to face up to His Lordship and the fact that all will be called to account, and will either find that they are established or will come crashing down. In the light of this they must therefore beware of false teachers and prophets (7.15-20). For in the final analysis all will be accountable to Him as their Lord, when the truly righteous will come into their own, and those who have refused to respond to His words will find that everything will collapse around them (7.21-27). In ALL of this is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.
A Digression On The Attitude Of Paul To The Law.
The problem, however, with the particular passage of the Sermon on the Mount that we are looking at is that many Christians have gained a false idea about the Law based on the use of it made by some of the Scribes and the Pharisees (as represented by the old Paul). They have failed to note that when Paul has seemingly written in order to displace the Law, it has not actually been with the intention of rendering it void or of suggesting that it is of no concern or interest to the Christian, but has rather been in order to put right the wrong use of it. He has simply revealed what its correct use is (Romans 3.31). When for example he says that we are not ‘under the Law’ (Romans 3.19; 6.15; 1 Corinthians 9.20-21; Galatians 3.23; 4.4, 5, 21; 5.15), he does not mean that we do not have a responsibility to seek to carry it out with our whole heart in the way that Jesus describes here. He would have agreed wholeheartedly with Jesus about that. He means that we are not to see it as the method of determining our salvation. It is not to be the arbiter of whether we are saved or not. It is not a means by which we can measure our own righteousness. (And Jesus nowhere suggests that it was).
Nor, Paul points out, are we to look for salvation by an assiduous keeping of the Law. That was the mistake being made by many of the Scribes and Pharisees, whatever might have been the ‘official position’. All the Scribes and Pharisees laid great emphasis on the keeping of the covenant and on the mercy of God, but it was very easy to go a step beyond that, as many of them did, and actually see the ‘keeping of the covenant’ as a way of becoming acceptable with God. It is ever the tendency of man’s heart to think that he can be saved by ‘keeping the Law’, by being ‘good enough’ for God. And this is simply because we are too foolish to recognise that whatever ‘good’ we may do, it makes not a jot of difference to our position before God as far as salvation is concerned, because we can never be good enough. We cannot change ourselves. If we fail in one point we are guilty of all (James 2.10). Our hope with God must lie in His mercy. For as with Israel at Sinai the truth is that our acceptance with God and our deliverance from evil can only come about through His graciousness and mercy (Exodus 20.2). God sovereignly intervened in order to deliver Israel from Egypt and from bondage, and in the same way He must sovereignly intervene if we are to be saved from the grip and condemnation of sin. But there seems little doubt that many Pharisees did believe that if only they could get their covenant-keeping right (which then became a matter of fulfilling all necessary ritual requirements), all would be well and God would step in to act on behalf of Israel. And that is why Paul points out that the moment that we put ourselves ‘under the Law’ as the arbiter of our salvation in this way we are lost. For the Law condemns us and our hopes are over almost before we even start. And James says precisely the same thing (James 2.10). The Law in this sense is like a mirror which shows us the kind of people we are (compare James 1.23). But we do not pick up the mirror and try to wash our faces with it. Rather it turns us to the soap and water. And in the same way the Law is intended to turn us to Christ and to His salvation, as originally depicted by the offerings and sacrifices (Hebrews 7-10).
Paul does, however, make quite clear elsewhere that while Christians may not be ‘under the Law’, in that they see it as hanging over their heads like an executioner’s axe, he does expect Christians to ‘fulfil the Law’ (Galatians 5.14; 6.2; 1 Corinthians 9.21), in the same way as James does (James 2.8). There is no disagreement between Paul and James on this. And Paul’s attitude to the Law can possibly be summed up as follows:
Show me the person who genuinely says to God, ‘O how I love Your Instruction (Law)’ (Psalm 119.97, 159), and I will show you the one whose heart has been transformed by God and who is saved, even though he may sometimes become unstuck in his obedience. He will not be looking at his own righteousness but at God. But show me the one who totally disregards His Instruction, and I will show you the one who is not saved (see 21.28-29), whatever he claims. For had he been saved he would have begun to love God’s Instruction, just as the blessed persons in 5.3-9 reveal it by their new attitudes, and the Psalmist in Psalm 1 delighted in it. The truth is that while salvation is not of man’s works, it does work. For it is God Who works by means of it. It transforms individuals so that they begin to walk according to the Law of God, which then becomes the Law of Christ, as given here in the Sermon on the Mount (1 Corinthians 9.21; Galatians 6.2 compare James 1.25). And it transforms their view of His Instruction. They begin to will and to do according to His good pleasure because God has worked within them (Philippians 2.13). They are ‘created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has foreordained that they should walk in them’ (Ephesians 2.10). They say, ‘Oh how I love your Law!’ (Psalm 119.97).
End of Digression.
But what does Jesus then teach with regard to the Law? As we have seen He teaches that people must repent and come under the Kingly Rule of God (4.17), and the assumption behind this is that they thereby receive forgiveness (Mark 1.4). He teaches that God then shines on their lives in Jesus Christ (4.16), and works in such people’s hearts so as to transform their lives, with the result that, because of His ‘blessing’ them they begin to live as revealed in 5.3-9, and thus become the light of the world (5.14-16). They can then be seen as being God’s beloved children, called upon to please their heavenly Father (5.9, 48; 6.1, 4, 6, 9; 7.21). Then they must live this out in terms of the Sermon on the Mount, not in order to find mercy (be saved), but because they have obtained mercy (have been saved) and desire to please Him and do His will.
We can analyse this central part of the Sermon (5.17-7.12) as follows:
Thus in ‘a’ Jesus backs up the Law but says that He will fill it to the full, and the aim is to lead the people into a fuller life by their achieving a righteousness ‘exceeding that (better than that) of the Scribes and Pharisees, while in the parallel He exhorts them to achieve that fuller life by a persistent seeking of their Father in Heaven for ‘good things’, things that pertain to an abundant life (John 10.10), which will result in the same. In ‘b’ and its parallel we have the negatives and the positives of His teaching, the first aspect related to the Instruction (Law) of their Father and the second aspect relating to seeking their Father in Heaven. Underlying all is the getting away from individual commandments and achieving rather a different attitude towards life.
The Permanence of the Law And The Warning To Observe It Truly So As To Experience A Fuller Righteousness (5.17-20).
Having spoken to His disciples of a life which acts as a preservative in the world, and which abounds in ‘good works’ which glorify and reveal God because of the love that they reveal, a love that shows them to be ‘sons of God’ and to be imbued with the righteousness of God (5.3-16), Jesus commences this central section of His sermon by declaring that they are therefore now to see Him, not as a destroyer of the Law or the Prophets, but rather as their fulfiller (compare 2.15, 23; 4.16). They should recognise that He has come to ‘fill the Law and the Prophets to the full’. They must not therefore think that the message of repentance and forgiveness, and of the working of the Holy Spirit through the Messiah, makes their required response to the Law or the Prophets unnecessary. Rather it encourages it. And He stresses the essential permanence of the message of both the Law and the Prophets. By responding to both the Law and the Prophets (note how the ‘or’ indicates that they should be seen as separate issues in the argument) they will be what they ought to be. He thus thoroughly vindicates the Law and the Prophets and points out that in order to fulfil them truly the people must rise well above the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees. They must reveal a righteousness which is the result of the working of the One Who works in righteousness and deliverance (Isaiah 46.13; 51.5, 8; 56.1; 61.3). And they must see to the heart of God’s message, and not be tied up by the observance of regulations, even though such observance may be helpful within reason (23.3). In that way they will experience and walk in the way of true righteousness as preached by John (21.32) and Himself (5.6; 6.33).
The fulfilment of the Law is very much in mind in the first part of the sermon and the fulfilment of the Prophets in the last part, but it would be a mistake to make this a strict separation, for in the end both are fulfilled throughout.
Analysis of 5.17-20.
Note that in ‘a’ He has not come to destroy the Instruction (Law) of God, or the words of the Prophets. Rather His aim is the true ‘filling full’ of the Law, and in the parallel the true achieving of it is demanded and if not He will destroy their hopes of entering the everlasting Kingly Rule. In ‘b’ the permanence of the Law is emphasised and in the parallel the doing and the keeping of it leads to a permanently high place in the everlasting Kingly Rule of Heaven. Central in ‘c’ is the warning against failing to support even the ‘least’ of the commandments, something which will result in being ‘least’ in the Kingly Rule of Heaven.
But there is also another pattern to be found here, as well as the chiasmus.
Here again, as well as the chiasmus, we also have a sequential arrangement. ‘a’ leads to ‘b’ and each ‘c’ leads to its ‘d’. Furthermore each ‘d’ reveals a consequence as regards the Kingly Rule of Heaven, (the least, the great, and the no way), while the first two ‘c’ and ‘d’ items are also direct contrasts with each other.
We also remind ourselves that in verses 17-20 the ‘Law’ is firstly to last as long as the present creation does (18), secondly it is not to be relaxed but is rather to be done and taught (19b), and thirdly it must be fulfilled in the right way, and not in the way of the Scribes and the Pharisees.
We shall now consider each verse in detail.
This dramatic statement can be viewed in a number of ways (although the list is by no means exhaustive).
We do not necessarily have to select just one of the above. Jesus might well have been embracing a number of them in His mind in an overall, majestic statement that He was here to fulfil the Scriptures in every detail and from every angle (as He then emphasises), so as to make them flower in every aspect of what they declare, both instruction-wise, and prophetically. For we must not let the term ‘Law’ deceive us. It covered the whole of the Pentateuch, not just the regulations but its whole future expectations. The Pentateuch depicts the establishment of the Kingly Rule of God over His people (Exodus 19.6; 20.1-18) and is also written with the expectancy that the Kingly Rule of God will be permanently established in the promised land. That was the whole purpose of the deliverance from Egypt, and why Moses climbed the mountain so that he could survey the land of His Kingly Rule before he died (Deuteronomy 34). The Law was expecting the seed of the woman to bruise the Serpent’s head (Genesis 3.15 compare Romans 16.20). It was expecting Shiloh to come to Whom would be the gathering of the people (Genesis 49.10). It was expecting a star out of Jacob (Numbers 24.17). It was anticipating a King Who ruled according to God’s Law (Deuteronomy 17.18-20). It was anticipating another prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18.15). All that is why Matthew has pointed out in 2.15 that The Exodus deliverance will go forward in Jesus.
For as we have seen and are to see, there is no doubt that Jesus did see the Law and the Prophets as being fulfilled in Himself, that He did see Himself as coming to give His life a ransom for many (20.28) and as a sacrifice for sin (26.28; Isaiah 53.10), that He certainly never suggested that the Law and the Prophets were not binding on Himself and His disciples (23.2), even though at times He did reinterpret them in order to give them a greater impact, and that He did exhort men to keep God’s Law and rebuked those who treated it lightly.
Furthermore as He was in this very sermon about to lay the fullest emphasis on the need to observe God’s Law, not only in letter, but in spirit, it would seem very capricious not to include this in what He was intending to indicate. But it should then be noted that His sermon did not stop at that. The expounding of the Law was in order to lead on to the need to seek for the spiritual wellbeing which would enable them to fulfil it (7.7-13) and to the recognition of Jesus’ Lordship, in the light of which they should live (7.22-23). It thus covers both instruction and prophetic attitude, as well as revealing Him as the Coming One above and beyond that. For the second part of His sermon, and even parts of the first, are very reminiscent of the prophetic attitude, and indeed few would deny that in fact He goes even beyond the prophets in His requirements, while His reference to His status as ‘Lord’, in such a way as to indicate that their attitude towards Him, and His attitude towards them, would determine their eternal destiny (7.21-23), is not only the fulfilment of what the prophets had spoken, but a clear indication that He is present as the Sovereign Lord and Judge in a way beyond what even they expected. He is the Shiloh Who is to come to Whom the people will gather (Genesis 49.10). He is Himself the Judge of all the world (Genesis 18.25). And this is especially so as He then closes off the Sermon by stressing His own sayings, rather than the sayings of Moses (7.24, 26). Thus we will not go too far wrong if we are inclusive rather than exclusive when we consider His meaning here in the light of the whole sermon.
Note on The Oral Law.
After the Exile there had been great concern among the faithful concerning the keeping of the Law of God, and as time went by a group of Scribes gradually built up who sought to analyse and interpret the Law in detail in order to help the people to know what they should do in order to keep it. These interpretations then grew and grew in number, and were passed on by the Scribes to their students, who in turn became Scribes. And as will happen with human beings the detail took over and the spirit behind them was excluded (the same would also happen with the church). They analysed the Law into over six hundred stipulations, and sought to comment authoritatively in some detail on all. These authoritative pronouncements were a part of ‘The Traditions of the Elders’. But they had become a burden too grievous to be borne. The idea had originally been good, but of course not all the interpretations were of the same quality, and the multiplicity of them was simply confusing, not to say overpowering. Furthermore some of them were simply ways of avoiding the original intention of the Law, even though sometimes with sympathetic intent. Jesus put them to one side and refused to accept their authority. He felt that too much stress was being laid on them, and that they often actually evaded the Law, or interpreted them in a way that was more profitable for the Scribes and their supporters than for the people (Mark 7.9-13). And in fact He would now set about reinterpreting the Law in another way, in a way that took people away from trying to keep a list of rules and emphasised rather the taking up of a right attitude towards each other, towards material things, and towards God. Get the attitude right, He was saying, and the Law would then, as it were, look after itself.
End of note.
‘Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets.’ Any thought of the destruction of the Law would have been abhorrent to every Jew, and indeed to Jesus Himself. The people might empathise with His partial rejection of the traditions upheld by the Scribes and Pharisees (for the fact that it was only partial see 23.3), but they would not have accepted the idea of the destruction of the Law itself. It lay at the very heart of their beliefs, as in fact it did His, and they loved it and trusted in it. They did not want it removed or destroyed. He was seen as acceptable precisely because they did actually believe that in Him and in His teaching the Law was being given its full weight and authority, as supported by His own prophetic authority. He was a full upholder of God’s word (unlike the Scribes and Pharisees, although they would have claimed to be - Mark 7.9, 13).
This then does raise the question asked by some as to whether Jesus was speaking about the whole Law or just the moral law. It is doubtful whether such a thought would have crossed anyone’s mind in those days. Such distinctions were not then made. All was seen as God’s Law. He was thus speaking about the whole Torah. But certainly Jesus did gradually introduce the idea that He was replacing the old ordinances of the Law, not by them ceasing to be a part of God’s revelation, but by His own fulfilment of them (20.28; 26.28), so that once the ultimate sacrifice had taken place there was no requirement for any further sacrifices. The revelation with regard to this was thus not abrogated, it still stood firm but was fulfilled through a greater and better sacrifice (which is the message of the letter to the Hebrews). All the ritual obligations were to be seen as fulfilled in Jesus Christ for those who believed in Him.
And He elsewhere also drew attention to the fact that the lessons behind the old rituals having been learned, they no longer needed to be given such emphasis (Mark 7.15-23). What needed rather to be learned was the lessons that they contained. Thus while He Himself observed them, the old laws of cleanness and uncleanness were to be seen rather as pointing to the need for God’s people to keep themselves from all that could be seen as coming short of the ideal, all that connected with sin and the dust of death (see our commentary on Leviticus). And now that same purpose was to be fulfilled by God’s people separating themselves from the impurity of sin, the thing that really spoiled man within (15.17-20; Mark 8.18-23). By separating themselves from what was really unclean they would become sons of God (2 Corinthians 6.16-18, compare Matthew 5.9), so that the rituals that had once been the evidences of a people separated to God as His holy people, were no longer required , having been replaced by something new, deliverance from all the sins of the inner heart (Mark 8.18-23), a process already begun in the disciples (5.3-9). In the end therefore it is true that it is the moral aspect of the Law that is seen as still retaining its full usefulness, but not because the law was seen as needing to be replaced or was rejected as such, but because having achieved its ends parts of it were to be seen as having been filled to the full in Him and His sacrifice for us (as Isaiah has prophesied), with the lessons of the old Law made redundant and replaced by the new.
‘I came.’ Compare 11.18; 21.32, where ‘John came’. The thought in both cases is that both John and Jesus came from God, but it clearly does not indicate pre-existence in the case of John. It rather in both cases emphasises that they have a mission from God. However, in John’s Gospel Jesus would certainly be seen as emphasising His pre-existence (John 3.13; 8.58), and Matthew has earlier given an indication of something similar in that He has been seen by him as ‘God with us’ (1.23).
‘The Law or the Prophets.’ The Law was technically the first five books of the Bible (‘the Torah’ - God’s ‘Instruction’), but the term was soon used loosely by some to describe the whole of the Scriptures (John 12.34; Romans 3.19; 1 Corinthians 14.21), including the Psalms (John 10.34). As far as they were concerned God spoke through it all. This may therefore be why Jesus did not feel any need to continually mention the prophets separately once He had made the position clear. The expression ‘The Law’ could then be seen as covering both. The ‘Prophets’ included the former prophets (many of what we call the historical books, from Joshua to Kings), as well as the great prophets themselves. But notice the ‘or’ which indicates that here the two ideas, while close, are also to be seen separately.
The Law unquestionably had a special importance for the Jews. It was always read first in Synagogue services, and at this stage all who claimed to be Jews (including also the Samaritans, although they would not have seen themselves as Jews, nor have been seen as Jews) would without exception have seen the Law as central to their religion, and pivotal (the whole Law not just the regulations), while the prophets were variously assessed, with some leaning towards putting great weight on them, while others gave them less of an emphasis, although apart from the Samaritans all probably gave them some weight. Thus the mention of the Prophets as well as the Law in what was the opening verse of the central part of the sermon (see above) may well be seen as indicating that, in spite of the emphasis He would now lay on the Law, in viewing Him it was necessary to look wider than just to the Law. He was not to be seen as just another expounder of the Law. He was also the fulfilment of the flowering of both the Old Testament Law and the Old Testament prophecy.
‘Not to destroy, but to fulfil.’ The negative emphasises the positive, a device often used in Scripture. It brings out that His aim was the exact opposite of destruction. For His aim was to confirm, to build up and to cause to flower, and His purpose was to establish all that the Scriptures spoke of. It was to build it up and fulfil it in order to make both Law and Prophets come to completion. That is the purpose of His coming. It is to ‘fill both to the full’. And this includes the fulfilling of all the expectations and promises of both, for the Law also contained prophecies of the future, both typologically (2.15, 23) and prophetically (Genesis 12.3; 49.10; Numbers 24.17; Deuteronomy 18.15, all of which were also interpreted prophetically at Qumran), while the Prophets were full of them. So His aim was to bring both to their fully determined end.
It may be asked, why did Jesus speak of the possible destruction of the Torah, even if it was only as a negative? At least three answers are possible:
That the confirming of the Torah is at least a part of His purpose comes out in His continual emphasis on the fact that it must be observed; that the building up of the Torah is a part of His purpose comes out in that He does go on to ‘build it up’ in the following verses; and that the final fulfilment of the Torah is part of His purpose comes out in that His Sermon ends with Him being revealed as ‘Lord’, where He is clearly to be seen as both Arbiter and Judge (7.22). And as the first two suggestions certainly concentrate on the Law needing to be lived out, the inclusive reference to ‘the prophets’ as an alternative in verse 17 emphasises that the third is very much included in His thinking, and that His words therefore also unquestionably signify bringing the Law and the Prophets to their full fruition in Himself, so that not one part of them will be lacking in accomplishment, something which is His own constant theme (see 10.34-36; 11.3-5; 12.40; 16.21; 20.28; 21.42; 22.42-45; 26.24, 54, 56; and for example Luke 10.23-24; 22.37; 24.27; John 5.45-46), as well as being the theme of Matthew as we have already seen.
Jesus then makes the strongest possible assertion of the permanence and almost divine status of ‘the Law’ and all that it promised. He emphatically declares (‘truly I say to you’) that rather than being destroyed it will certainly continue as authoritative until the destroying of the present Heaven and earth (2 Peter 3.7, 10; Revelation 20.11) and its replacement with the new Heaven and the new earth (2 Peter 3.13; Revelation 21.1-22.5, an extension of the idea in Isaiah 65.17-25), and will last to such an extent that not even the smallest part of it will ‘pass away’, that is be removed from having authority. And in the end all of it will be accomplished, that is brought to its full realisation, to the last jot and tittle (to the smallest letter and the smallest symbol).
‘One jot’ is, in the Greek, ‘one iota’, the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. This therefore represents the equivalent of either the yod or the waw in Hebrew, the one the smallest letter, the other looking very similar to an iota, either of which can often be removed from a Hebrew word without changing the sense. The point being made therefore is that even these semi-redundant letters are to be seen as a necessary part of the whole. God has caused them to be there and therefore they were permanent. A ‘tittle’ is literally ‘a horn’. It is referring to either the small stroke added to some Hebrew letters in order to differentiate them from others, or even to some kind of mark placed in the text for added, but relatively unimportant, significance. Thus Jesus is affirming the infallibility of the written Law, as originally given, as it stood. He is declaring that it must be accomplished because it is part of God’s word to man.
One distinction, however, that Jesus does make about the Law and the Prophets elsewhere, is that they continued to prophesy until John, that is until the coming of the Kingly Rule of Heaven began to bring about their fulfilment (11.13-14; Luke 16.16). The assumption is often made that they then ceased because something better had come. But that does not mean that their fulfilment ceased, or that they ceased to have effect, only that more prophecy would be unnecessary because the fulfilment of what had been given had already commenced, that John was the final prophet. He thus sees the Law and the Prophets as complete, and His own coming as beginning the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets rather than as part of the build up towards it. The build up had ended with John. The ‘last days’ were to be seen as here. What happens from that time on is therefore to be seen as the outworking of all that has been promised, the beginning of its fulfilment.
‘The Law.’ This possibly indicates ‘the Law of Moses’ as found in the Pentateuch, although it is more probable that it covers both that and the prophets, on the basis of the recognised and stereotyped phrase ‘the Law and the Prophets’ (7.12; 22.40, compare 11.13). Indeed ‘the Law’ in Jesus’ eyes can also include the Psalms (John 10.34, compare Luke 24.44), thus having in mind the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures.
It is true that ‘until heaven and earth pass away’ might theoretically be seen as simply indicating what was seen as impossible, and thus as emphasising that the Law is everlasting, (and its intrinsic significance can hardly be anything other than everlasting, for eternity will be the fullest revelation of the perfection for which the Law was striving). But there are clear enough indications that that is not so, for Jesus could say that at the resurrection men and women are to be as the angels (22.30) so that the reproductive activity of creation will be no more, while He makes clear references to the fact that the future, and therefore the eternal future, will be ‘not of this world’ (7.21; 8.11-12; Luke 16.19-31; John 14.2-3). This therefore confirms that Jesus did in fact believe that Heaven (the material heavens) and earth would themselves one day pass away, as Peter confirms (2 Peter 3.10-13).
‘Truly (Amen) I say to you.’ The use of the Hebrew/Aramaic ‘Amen’, transliterated into Greek, and signifying a firm assurance, occurs over thirty times in Matthew, while ‘I say to you’, signifying a unique authority, occurs over fifty times. His is thus the voice of certainty and authority. By this Jesus was declaring that He spoke with an authority shared by no other, that guaranteed what was spoken.
The word ‘amen’ used in this way is found elsewhere only in a Jewish work of the late 1st century AD called the Testament of Abraham. There it is found in 8.7 (where God sends a message to Abraham saying ‘Amen I say to you that blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your seed, and I will give you all that you ask from me, for I am the Lord your God, and besides me there is no other’) and in 20.2, (where Death says in response to a question from Abraham, ‘Amen, amen, I tell you in the truth of God that there are seventy-two deaths’). It will be noted that both are seen as affirmations from ‘another world’. The Testament of Abraham is a Jewish writing written probably in the late 1st century AD, but it may reflect previous usage. On the other hand the author may have picked up the idea from Christian usage, and thus ultimately from the teaching of Jesus. So the evidence either suggests that Jesus is using a term which would be seen by all as indicating His own ‘other-worldly’ uniqueness, or has actually being introduced for the first time by Him for a similar reason. Either way it represents unique authority.
‘Amen.’ This transliteration of the Hebrew occurs four times in LXX (1 Chronicles 16.36; Nehemiah 5.13; 8.6 (twice)) and also in the Apocrypha, but never as used here except as mentioned above.
Short Note on the Authority of the Bible.
Jesus’ emphasis here was, of course, on the permanence and completeness of the whole Law (at least of the whole Pentateuch) as such, as something concerning which every word was valid and indisputable. But while that is so it also has wider implications. For if what Jesus says here is true it indicates that He put His authority behind every word in the original text of the Pentateuch as originally given (and saw the current text as giving a reasonable representation of it), declaring it to be indisputable and permanently valid. Those therefore who on the basis of this statement speak of the Pentateuch as ‘verbally inspired so that every word is seen as God-given’, rate Jesus among their number. This is really indisputable.
The question of the full verbal authority of Scripture then boils down to the question of how we view Jesus. If we consider that Jesus brought us the whole truth from God without error, and that we enjoy the benefit of that truth in His words in Scripture (a value judgment we can make by considering and weighing up His words for ourselves) then we have no alternative but to believe that at least the Pentateuch as originally given is inerrant (every jot and tittle). If we do not believe that then we have to say ‘Goodbye’ to an inerrant Jesus, and the Jesus of the Bible. We are simply left with a Jesus formed according to our own imaginations. Our faith ceases to be in Jesus but in ourselves, and in what we decide to accept. That is why belief in the inerrancy of Scripture finally comes, not from examining Scripture, although we have to do that, but from examining Jesus Christ, and making up our minds about Him, whether He really is the Son of God or not. Once we are sure of that everything else falls into place, for He constantly asserted the absolute reliability of Scripture. And we then recognise that any problems we have with inerrancy are due not to the Bible but to our own lack of knowledge, or our own lack of faith in Him. We can then be confident that if only we had full knowledge we would have the answer to every problem. Meanwhile we can trust Him and look to the Bible in confidence, even if we cannot ourselves find an answer to every difficulty that it raises. The ‘only’ problem then is the interpretation of it. But that is another question.
End of note.
Note that the first ‘a b’ and the last ‘a b’ both indicate an undesirable situation, while the central ‘a b’ indicates the desirable state of affairs. (A few important manuscripts such as Aleph, D, W, omit the central ‘a b’ but it is included by the majority of manuscripts. The omission was probably due to a scribal lapse in picking up his copying from the wrong ‘ouranown’ (Heaven).
Here we are given three alternative positions of people over against the Law. There are firstly those who are lax towards what they see as the less important commands, and will thus be called ‘the less important ones’; secondly those who treat all the commands without exception (because they honour the fact that every jot and tittle is from God) with the seriousness that they deserve, and will thus be called ‘great’; and thirdly those who actually misrepresent the whole by following the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, who will simply be excluded. The first will lose out in that they will be seen as ‘least important’ in the Kingly Rule of Heaven, the last will lose out because they will not even enter the Kingly Rule of Heaven (they prefer rather to obey the Scribes), and those who honour all God’s words without exception will be called great in the Kingly Rule of Heaven (compare 18.4). Attitude to God’s word and all His requirements is thus seen as vital for our future. The seriousness of what is involved in not entering the Kingly Rule of Heaven is brought out in 8.11.
It should be noted that Jesus’ purpose in these words is in order to stress the need to observe every last detail of the word of God. Nothing may be cast aside. A lax attitude towards the word of God is seen as making someone of little account in the sight of God. On the other hand to take a totally wrong approach to it as the Scribes and Pharisees did, and thus to misuse it, will be to be cut off from God completely. This was very much preparing for what Jesus would now go on to say. It contains a serious warning to take heed to His words, and not to let one of them be lost or disregarded.
‘Shall loose.’ The Rabbis were said to ‘loose’ a law when they relaxed it and made it less demanding because it was felt to be too severe in practise. But Jesus is here rather thinking of those who set aside a law because it is thought to be unimportant. His aim in saying it is certainly not in order to allow His disciples to choose what their level of dedication should be, but to make clear that what their attitude should be is to see all His requirements as equally important. He thus makes clear His severe disapproval of those who are lax with God’s word.
Yet at the same time He does not want to exclude, absolutely, those who do not have quite that total dedication. He rather makes clear that, while He does not reject them outright, He has a low esteem of them. Elsewhere Jesus certainly does allow that there will be different levels of devotion (11.11; 18.4), and different levels of ‘reward’ (1 Corinthians 3.15), yet we should also remember that He let the rich young man walk away sorrowfully and did not suggest that he was nevertheless acceptable as a minor disciple and had received eternal life, which was what his question had been all about (19.16-26). The impression given is in fact that he went away without eternal life. We do well not to treat lightly the loss of Jesus’ esteem.
Note that it is those who teach laxity as well as those who are lax, who are ‘least’. Jesus clearly saw any laxity towards the word of God as being heinous.
‘One of these least commandments.’ ‘These commandments’ loosely connects with the overall commandments of the Old Testament of which not one jot would fail until all was accomplished. Note that the idea is not of general laxity. (Jesus does not expect that). The person in question has only been lax on one. But in the event is one too much! Jesus is really concerned to ensure fully disciplined lives and a total commitment to all His commandments.
‘Great.’ That is, of the highest standard. In other words they pass out ‘A1’.
‘The Kingly Rule of Heaven.’ Whether this refers to the Kingly Rule of Heaven while on earth or the eternal Kingly Rule is not a question we have to answer. Both are in fact the same Kingly Rule and those within it are simply either on earthly or heavenly service. Thus this signifies that whether on earth or in Heaven, those who have treated lightly any part of the Law of God lose out in His eyes. The only difference is that for those on earth there is still time to do something about it.
‘The righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees.’ That is, their way of keeping the Law criticised by Jesus in chapter 23, involving detailed observation of ritual, and the interpretation of it to their own advantage, while ignoring the principles of mercy and compassion. The Scribes and Pharisees that Jesus was speaking about (the majority) analysed the Scriptures minutely so as to exactly follow the letter of the Law, rather than considering its implications and the wider implications of such commandments as required love for their neighbour and for the stranger among them (Leviticus 19.18, 34), and yet they made a great show of how religious they were (compare Luke 18.9-14). Tithing the smallest thing was more important to them than going out of their way to help others, and they judged all men on that basis. They were condemned both for behaving like this (23.3), and teaching the same attitude to others (23.15). We can compare here Isaiah 1.11-18.
‘Your righteousness.’ Jesus was not simply comparing their dedication with that of the Pharisees, nor saying that somehow they needed to outdo them. He was talking about a different form of righteousness. It was the righteousness worked within men who had repented and come under the Kingly Rule of Heaven, a God-implanted and God-imputed righteousness (see on verse 6. Compare Isaiah 61.3). They were illuminated, empowered and forgiven by God, and transformed into those who obeyed God’s Law as revealed by Jesus. His righteousness and deliverance had been revealed (Isaiah 46.13). This was the righteousness that saved, and produced the kind of people who will fulfil the injunctions He is about to give. We may again compare this with the idea of righteousness found in Isaiah where righteousness is paralleled with deliverance (Isaiah 46.13; 51.5, 8; 56.1). Isaiah declared that Israel would enjoy ‘righteousness and deliverance’ when God broke in to save. The righteousness was God’s as, in His righteousness, He acted to bring about ‘righteousness’ and ‘salvation’, the setting free and restoration of His people, with the result that they too became righteous. Something of that is reflected in the use of the term ‘righteousness’ here. What was required was a God-inworked righteousness. His idea is that God will have acted on them in righteousness in order to make them righteous, firstly in His sight, and then in their practical inner lives. When used in Matthew of believers, righteousness always has this significance of the delivering power of God (see 3.15; 5.6, 10; 6.33; 21.32).
‘In no way.’ An emphatic negative.
‘Enter into the Kingly Rule of Heaven.’ Compare ‘enter into life ‘(18.8, 9; 19.17). We enter the Kingly Rule of Heaven now when we yield our lives to Him and submit to His rule, and will one day enter it in its fullness after the resurrection.
Note on the Scribes and Pharisees.
The Scribes were looked on as the Biblical scholars of the day. The majority were Pharisees, but there were also Scribes of the Sadducees and probably also more general Scribes. Their aim was to enable the people to understand the Torah and the Prophets, with especial emphasis on the former, and the Pharisaic Scribes isolated from the Torah over six hundred laws, making pronouncements on many of them as to how they should be observed. The interpretations were sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes rigid, and all too often facile. Their dicta were united with other traditions brought down from the past known as ‘the traditions of the elders’. When people had a problem about how they should behave in particular circumstances they would seek out the Scribes who would have memorised all the traditions of the elders and would call on them in order to discover a solution to their problem. But the problem with many of the Scribes was that they had become tied down to their own traditions rather than looking afresh at the Scriptures, and their interpretations were regularly rigidly determined by their traditions. Their interpretations therefore followed set patterns. There had been, and were, godly Scribes who were full of compassion according to their lights, and wise in their teaching, but the truly great ones were few, and the false copies many, and it was these last who mainly continued to pester Jesus. There can often be no one more narrow-minded than those who cling to and expound and try to carry forward the words of great Teachers, interpreting them by their own narrow ways of thinking, and that was true of these. For Jesus’ overall criticism of them see chapter 23.
The Pharisees only numbered about six to seven thousand but their influence was huge because of what was seen as their piety. Initially they had probably been mainly godly men who reacted against the Hellenisation programmes carried out against the Jews by the Syrian overlords, with the result that they had therefore developed a concern for special Jewish practises, aiming thereby to preserve distinctive Jewishness. That is why they began to lay great emphasis on ritual washing, avoiding ritual ‘uncleanness’, tithing even the smallest thing, and strict observance of the Sabbath in accordance with their rules. And these had gradually taken a place in their thinking above what they should have had. They hoped thereby to attain merit. This had initially been alongside a living faith in God, but as can happen all too easily, the living faith tended to diminish over time, and the ritual took over and thereby became all-important. (The same process occurred later in the Christian church, resulting in all the distortions of the mediaeval church. It is always to be guarded against. This was true legalism). Their main strength was in Judaea, although there were also Pharisees in Galilee. They would meet in groups, often around the meal table, for discussion and mutual encouragement. They did not run the synagogues, but undoubtedly had influence in them. Jesus was sometimes invited to join in with such groups (see for example Luke 14.1-24, also 7.36-50). So not all Pharisees were in total disagreement with Him, or totally antagonistic towards Him. We tend to hear about the ones who were and overlook the ones who were not.
Both the Scribes and the Pharisees were highly respected by the people, the former for their knowledge and the latter for their ‘piety’. The suggestion therefore that their righteousness was lacking, and was insufficient to allow entry into the Kingly Rule of God would have been startling to the common people, for they were seen as portraying Scriptural standards and Scriptural truth, (we can compare the later monks and friars, some of whom were godly men, but many of whom became rogues and self-seekers benefiting from the reputation of the few) something about which Jesus was now about to undeceive them. For Jesus was only too well aware that they had become bogged down in an overemphasis on ritual which had begun to count for them more than morals, and that much of their piety was at the worst hypocritical and self-publicising, or at the best simply self-striving. He wanted the people to recognise that they must look away from ritual and self-striving to experiencing the power of God working on them in righteousness and deliverance.
We must beware of thinking that Jesus was at odds with all Scribes and Pharisees. Many came to Him with genuine questions (22.34-40; Luke 10.25-37; John 3.1-6), and others invited Him to partake in meals with them. They were willing to listen to what He had to say, even if critically. A number of them later became believers. The danger is that we tend to see them all in the light of the more bitterly critical ones who dogged His steps. But that many of the Scribes and Pharisees undoubtedly did end up opposed to Him the Gospels make clear. They felt that He was undermining their credibility among the people (which in some ways He was) and grew more bitter as time went on, until in the end they undoubtedly consented to His crucifixion, with some even taking part in brining it about.
End of note.
Five Fuller Applications of the Law (5.21-43).
Having laid down the importance of the Law of Moses and the Prophets, and having stressed that both were of God and to be treated with the greatest of respect and honour, and that both should be obeyed, Jesus now set about showing what that obedience should consist of. It was not to be on the basis of listing certain commandments, and then ticking them off and saying smugly, ‘All these things have I observed from my youth up’. It was to be by seeing these commandments against their whole background, and recognising the approach to life that they demanded. As the Law itself had said, by recognising this and living by it they would find what it meant to live a genuine spiritual life (Leviticus 18.5). This was the full-orbed spiritual life to which God had delivered them by His active righteousness at work upon them.
So in order to bring home what His disciples’ approach to the Law should be Jesus selects five pivotal aspects of the Law, and expands on them and explains them. Each example commences with ‘you have heard that it was said --.’ He then draws attention to the fact that as a result of their literalist and hidebound interpretation the Jews have in many cases missed much of the significance of the Law.
So He draws attention to what others in the past have laid their emphasis on, and then brings forward what by their pedantic interpretation these others have missed. In doing so He at the same time deals with aspects of life that go to the very root of the personal attitude of people towards others. He describes how a man who is spiritually whole, and has the attitudes implanted in him described in the beatitudes, will behave with regard to them. Thus He deals with such things as: not being antagonistic towards and having contempt for others (they are rather to be poor in spirit, meek, peacemakers); having wrong attitudes with regard to marital and sexual relationships (they are to be pure in heart); having wrong attitudes towards honesty and truth (they are to be hungry after righteousness and truthful); the importance of not being vengeful (they are to be merciful); and finally He emphasises the overriding principle of love. It will be observed that all these facets of the Law cover different aspects of a person’s personal relationships. The one who lives in accordance with them will have ‘life more abundantly’ (John 10.10). For these are the personal attitudes that can make or mar a person’s whole enjoyment of life (Leviticus 18.5).
He distinguishes the five as:
It will be noted that in ‘a’ the question of hatred is dealt with while in the parallel it is the question of love. In ‘b’ the need to be harsh with oneself is emphasised, while in the parallel He stresses the need not to be harsh with others. Central in ‘c’ is the requirement for total honesty.
It will further be noted that the section then ends with a contrast with the Gentiles, and a reference to ‘your Heavenly Father’. Thus they are to have the same attitude as He has towards all men, and not just be like the Gentiles, any more than like the Scribes and Pharisees. What they are to be is like their Heavenly Father. These themes are also taken up in the next section. So in this section we learn some of the personal attitudes of heart towards others that must prevail under the Kingly Rule of God, as He brings out the full significance of what the Law intended.
There is also a further chiastic pattern to this section. He commences by dealing with anger (5.22a), and finishes by dealing with love (5.44). He then moves on to men’s insults (5.22b), which can be contrasted with how they are to respond to insults (5.39-42). After that He deals with dishonesty in the sexual matters which lay at the very basis of their existence (5.28-32), which can be contrasted with the total honesty that God requires in all things (5.34-37). That is then followed by the divorce certificate which registers the breaking of a solemn agreement (5.31-32), which can be contrasted with His words on oath-making (5.33-35). All these things were important in maintaining harmony between people, and especially between ‘brethren’ (Leviticus 19.16-19).
1). The Disciples’ Attitude With Regard to The Commandment Concerning Murder And Attitudes of Hatred and Contempt Towards Others.
The first commandment Jesus draws attention to is that concerning murder, and He begins by pointing out how the ancients have looked at it. They have not said, ‘God hates murder, how then can we ensure that it never happens?’ They have simply accepted it as a fact of life and have passed judgment on it. They have failed to look beneath the surface.
Murder, He accepts, was rightly looked on by them as a heinous crime. And that was proved by the fact that they passed judgment on it. But instead of them then going on to draw out the wider implications from this by asking how they could avoid murder, the ancients had been satisfied to stop with it as a fact of life and simply declare their judgment on it. They had totally failed to look beneath the surface of the commandment, and ask themselves what God was really wanting of them. They had not asked, how can we ensure that this never happens?
Jesus’ point will be that had they genuinely been concerned about pleasing God they would have recognised that the ten commandments, which made up the essence of the covenant in Exodus 20.2-17 and revealed what God hated, were clearly intended to go deeper than being just prohibitions of particular basic crimes as though God was concerned only with those particular crimes. They had been intended to raise questions about how, in the light of them, they could please God by removing all the root causes which led up to such things. That had in fact been made clear by the fact that the tenth and final commandment had stressed the need to look at the motive lying behind the commandments. There He had condemned ‘coveting’. So that should have alerted them to the need to look behind the commandments to what caused the actual things that were condemned.
And their need to look behind them had also been indicated by the fact that the laws that followed the ten commandments, in for example Exodus 21-24, had amplified the original ten commandments, and had expanded their scope. That in itself had also demonstrated that they needed to be analysed and expanded on.
So it had been made apparent right from the beginning that the ten commandments were not to be seen just as ‘absolutes’, banning one thing. It should rather have been recognised, as the forbidding of coveting and the later amplification of the law revealed, that God was concerned in them to cover a whole range of actions and attitudes that could be seen as lying behind these commandments. Thus the command not to murder had been intended to raise questions about all the basic instincts, feelings and attitudes that could lead to murder. The command not to commit adultery had been intended to make men ask, how can we avoid breaking up the fundamental relationships between men and women united by God? And so on. So each statement in those absolute commandments had in fact held within it the requirement to deal with the attitudes that lay at the root of them. They had been intended to lay down for ever the basis of all the relationships that people had with each other. And had they loved God (and their neighbour) that is how they would have treated them.
But how had men and women actually treated them? The ancients had rightly looked on murder as a heinous crime, and they had then added to the commandment their own comment on the judgment that it deserved. But that proved that they had simply taken it at face value without enquiring what lay behind it. That very fact revealed that in their moral immaturity they had missed the point. For having added their dictum they had been satisfied that that dealt with what the commandment was all about, the sacredness of human life. But what they had failed to see was that God wanted them also to be concerned with what lay at the root of murder. As the tenth commandment demonstrated He was concerned with what lay behind men’s acts, such as for example the covetousness which often lay behind them, and now here in Matthew 5 the anger (also seen as important in the Law, compare Leviticus 19.17-18). The command against coveting in itself should have awoken them to the recognition of the fact that He was also concerned with all the factors that lay behind the commandments, factors such as hatred, contempt for others, and not having regard for other people’s feelings.
But the truth was that when it came to the ‘lesser’ crimes which stopped short of murder, such as crimes of violence and arrogance and false accusation, they had ignored them. Their concern had virtually ceased with murder. Why, even those responsible for justice had actually indulged in these ‘lesser crimes’. Thus calling for the striking of people who were not in a position to retaliate was a regular feature of life among those in authority, even among judges (compare John 18.22; Acts 23.2); while a severe beating at the hands of judges of common people held on remand, or who were witnesses, was also commonplace (see Acts 5.40; 16.37); and it would appear that showing contempt for, and insulting people, which often lay at the root of murder, were hardly frowned on at all, except by those to whom the insults were addressed. So Jesus stresses that the commandments had been indicating that it was not only murder that was deserving of the judgment in God’s eyes, but that all that lay behind murder, such as acting in anger, showing contempt for or ridiculing others, and so on, should equally have been seen as heinous. ‘You shall not murder’ should have been seen as signifying ‘you shall not have the attitudes that lead up to murder’. All knew the kind of thing that led up to murder, such things as anger, that then led to violence, and that then resulted in murder, but they had done nothing about it. And they had failed to see that while contempt and ridicule may not kill, but might only murder a person’s personality and reputation, they also were to be seen as sowing the seeds of murder, for that is what might finally result. In other words He is indicating that God’s aim had been to get rid of all the sins of men that could lead up to murder, but that they had ignored the fact altogether. Furthermore they had by this ignored all the laws that had required the maintenance of harmony in Israel.
Having declared that He then goes on to point out what people who have offended their ‘brothers’ in this regard should do about it. They should not just be satisfied with deciding to be different from then on. Rather, before they even considered coming to worship God again, they should first seek to restore the harmony among them and make things right with their fellowmen (compare Leviticus 19.17). Otherwise they would even then still be seen as guilty of encouraging murder.
His point here is not that the ancients were wrong to bring murderers to justice. Far from it. Where they went wrong was in concentrating on that and excluding the ideas that lay behind murder, treating the ultimate crime as so important that they overlooked what might be seen by them as lesser activities, but which were in fact almost as important, certainly to the victims, and far more commonplace. For if only those were properly dealt with the question of murder would not even arise.
Analysis of 5.21-26.
Note that in ‘a’ killers will be in danger of ‘the judgment’ and its consequences and in the parallel those who do not agree with their adversaries are in danger of not leaving prison until they have paid their last penny. In ‘b’ three alternative verdicts are issued against certain behaviour and in the parallel three alternatives are also suggested in respect of certain behaviour. In ‘c’ reference is made to offering gifts at the altar and in the parallel the gift is offered, but only when all is well. In ‘d’ reference is made to a brother having something against you, and in the parallel you have to be reconciled to your brother. Centrally in ‘e’ is the urging that you do not offer your gift until you have first been reconciled to your brother.
We must also again remind ourselves that in verses 21-26 there is an overall threefold pattern which includes other threefold patterns. Thus we have firstly the warning concerning three different forms of prospective ‘murder’ together with their threefold connected judgments (22), secondly the need to be reconciled with one who has been offended, expressed in a threefold way as bringing his gift to the altar, leaving his gift before the altar, and offering his gift at the altar (23-24), and thirdly the warning of the threefold consequence that may follow for those who are not willing to be reconciled, being brought before the judge, handed over to the police, and finally put in prison (25-26).
Overall then these words are carefully constructed.
This is the first ‘you have heard that it was said’ of the five occurring in the chapter. These deal with violence (verse 21), marital relationships (verse 27), honesty (verse 33), desire for vengeance (verse 38) and partiality (verse 43), things which go to the very root of people’s lives. This statement will in each case then be compared with what should be. Together they cover all the basic relationships which lay between human beings. The Rabbis also used comparative techniques, raising theoretical possibilities based on words from Scripture, only to reject them, but none had done it in quite the same authoritative way as this. They postulated solutions, but they did not declare them to have divine authority. So Jesus was not speaking as a Rabbi putting forward guidance. He was speaking as the Messiah.
‘Those of old time.’ In this case this refers to the verdict of the elders of the past on murder, based on the Law of Moses, possibly even going back to the wilderness community itself. He is not criticising them for that as such. But His point is that their religious Leaders and Teachers should not have been satisfied with simply dealing with murder, and satisfying themselves by solemnly declaring a judgment on it. They should have taken much more trouble over dealing with the root causes of murder, including dealing with ‘lesser’ methods of ‘doing violence’ to people which could lead to murder.
Jesus implied criticism of this statement was not that it passed judgment on murder. He would have agreed that no crime was worse than murder, for it takes away a person’s life. It is a crime from which there is no recovery for the victim. It was therefore right also that it should result in the murderer being brought to judgment, as the Law had in fact laid down. But His point was that by adding on that reference to judgment to the ‘all embracing’ commandment they had taken away the wide ranging nature of the commandment. They had virtually made the commandment concentrate on only one thing, the actual act of murder itself. They had as it were sealed it within itself. But they should not have done that and then assumed that that dealt fully with the commandment. They should rather have considered what led up to murder. Thus they had failed to realise that behind that commandment lay a total prohibition on all the attitudes and behaviour that could lead up to murder. He is saying, ‘We should not just condemn the murderer, we should ask what led up to the murder. (‘What has my brother against me?) We should not just say, that is what the murderer did and we will punish him for it, we should ask, what did we all do that made him do this thing?’
But that is what they had not done. By adding to the word of God the idea of judgment being passed on murder they had given the impression to the common people that once murder was under control, all kinds of violence and maltreatment of people was allowable and was legal (compare Acts 8.3; 9.1, 13, 21; 26.11), as long as it stopped short of murder, which of course in the end it never would for men would be tried too far. And while we may, after long centuries of failure since the time of Jesus, have learned a few lessons about the need for ‘non-violence’ and ‘anger management, (and it took a long time and a sound grounding in Christian ideas before we did learn them), we have certainly not in general learned the lesson of the need for a genuine consideration for the feelings of others, while the fight for our ‘rights’, of which we are so proud, is often carried on at the cost of other people’s rights. And the truth is that even what we have learned has been largely due to the effects of the teachings of Jesus, a fact which many now conveniently ignore. Thus Jesus now examines examples of what it is that causes murder.
“I say to you.” This will be repeated on each proposed extension of men’s understanding of the commandments. Jesus speaks with a unique authority. He does not need to appeal to the fathers, or to the wisdom of the past. He can speak on His own authority. This is basically at the minimum a Messianic claim. And He does it as One Who expects that His authority will be accepted.
Jesus now looks at three examples of people’s attitudes towards each other, each of which God is concerned about, and each of which, (and even more so when they were combined), could lead up to murder. And He describes three punishments for them which get severer as they go along. These are first the ordinary law court (compare Deuteronomy 16.18), then the Supreme Court (the Sanhedrin, or the court of twenty three members set up to deal with criminal matters), and finally the tribunal of God. His point is that as we become more involved in sin so the judgment gets steeper, and that while no one would, of course, be taken to court, or before the Supreme Court for such behaviour as He describes, they should certainly recognise that it might eventually lead on to that if the anger gets out of control, and that meanwhile they can be certain of the fact that they will have to face the judgment of the Messiah and of the Supreme Court of God, where they can be sure that they will receive the full punishment for their behaviour. For let them be in no doubt about it, for such things they will be cast into the destructive fire of Gehenna.
The fact that there is a build up in the level of the punishment, (compare also the building up of the situation in verses 25-26) suggests that we are to see a build up in the level of sin. What He may thus be saying is that men commence with anger, then they move on to ridicule and contempt, and then they move on to more serious accusations, and as their crime grows (with the seething anger still there) so does their being deserving of condemnation. All of us know what it means to allow anger to build up into resentment, and resentment to build up into more violent reaction It was as a result of this that the people had persecuted the prophets. And this would eventually be why His disciples would be persecuted, because this was how people regularly behaved. And yet no one in authority had as a whole really stopped and considered these matters. As long as the number who were murdered had been kept to a reasonable level they had been satisfied with passing judgment on the murderers, and had left the world to seethe on by itself.
The first example He speaks of is anger. Jesus here goes beneath murder, and other acts of violence, and asks what it is that causes them. And His reply is that it is people’s ‘anger’. Control people’s anger and there will be far less murder. So He points out that as far as God is concerned, not only murder, but to show unreasonable or undeserved anger towards others also puts men and women in danger either of men’s judgment or of God’s judgment. It is in a sense equally deserving of the same kind of punishment as murder (‘the judgment’), for it is murder in waiting. Anger may well even in this life lead to activities which result in a chargeable offence before a court, or it may not, but however that might be, they can be sure that it will certainly be a chargeable offence in the judgment to come. In God’s eyes, if not in man’s, it is seen as ‘judgment-worthy’.
The next example is of someone calling his brother or sister ‘Raca’. We do not know exactly what this denoted, but it is clearly either a comment of extreme animosity, or of grave insult or of supreme contempt. Many see it as being a transliteration of the Aramaic ‘Rake’ signifying, ‘blockheaded, empty headed, stupid imbecile’ (as multi-language Jews many of Jesus’ listeners would be used to carrying words over from Aramaic into Greek). Others have referred to a Zenon papyrus of 257 BC where the word is used in an uncomplimentary, if not foul manner, and where it is not related to the Aramaic. But either way the idea is not just of a casual comment (although such too should be watched) but of a comment made as a specific judgment on someone, a judgment which could only cause offence. Jesus may have seen this as a sin standing on its own. But He may equally well have seen it as the next stage on top of anger. First the anger, then the insult spoken in anger. That would explain why the judgment becomes more severe. In God’s eyes he should be in danger of ‘the council’, the Supreme Court (either the central or a local sanhedrin, or the court of twenty three).
So Jesus mention of the ‘council’ (or Sanhedrin) as being what men and women who say such things will be in danger of, rather than just ‘the judgment’ as in the case of anger, may well be His way of demonstrating that because the sin is building up, the judgment is building up. Let men and women not think that God will treat such things lightly. Of course the Sanhedrin would only actually be interested in such a ‘crime’ if the insult was made against people who were considered to be important (such as themselves). But Jesus wants them to know that God treats seriously all people who behave like this to anyone.
How we see this will depend on the meaning we give to the word ‘fool’ (moros). It could refer to someone being seen as ‘foolish’ or ‘lacking in common sense’ (the usual meaning of the Greek word), or it could be seen as a transliteration of the Hebrew ‘moreh’ signifying ‘God-despiser’, ‘rebel’ (see Jeremiah 5.23; Psalm 78.8; Numbers 20.10; Deuteronomy 9.23; 21.18; Joshua 1.18; 1 Samuel 12.15; Nehemiah 9.26; Isaiah 1.10; 63.10; compare Psalm 14.1, although LXX has aphrown here and never uses moros). In this latter case it is therefore the equivalent of declaring them to be worthy of Hellfire, which helps to explain the severity of the punishment. They are receiving what they wished on others.
If we take it as the first this might indicate that Jesus is selecting the severest punishment for what may seem the lesser ‘crime’. In that case He may be harking back to the same principle as lay behind His reference to ‘the least commandment’ (verse 19). As He has already pointed out there is no such thing as a least commandment. All are important. And now He may be pointing out that there is no least sin, all are important. So even calling a brother or sister ‘a fool’ is to deserve the greatest punishment of all. For it is a sin, and all sin brings forth death.
Or He may be saying that as the person’s anger has built up, and has then moved on to insult and contempt, it has now finally boiled over into an accusation which in that society would have been seen as the height of insult, or even worse. It was a suggestion that the person was godless and a rebel against God in a society where to be that was to be despised and even hated. Thus the person responsible for these words is now in even greater danger, he is in danger of the Gehenna of fire.
The Gehenna of fire originally referred to the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. It had been defiled by idolatry and child sacrifice (2 Kings 23.1), and had been turned into a rubbish dump and place for the disposal of the bodies of criminals (compare Isaiah 66.24 which refers to such a rubbish dump). But by the time of Jesus it had come to signify the eternal judgment of God.
So Jesus’ meaning is clear. His point is that in giving the commandments God had always intended His people to go to the root of them, in this case to the root of unrighteous anger and unfeeling contempt.
Jesus then comes down to practicalities. Of course such ‘crimes’ will probably not end up in court. But let them still be aware that the great Judge of all knows all about them. And He will not treat lightly those who behave in this way and are unrepentant. For they have caused disharmony among God’s people, and have been involved in false accusation. The Law had always stressed the importance of removing causes of anger by face to face contact with the other party (Leviticus 19.17), but it was not something that was commonly practised. It was, however, to be practised by His disciples.
So if they are considering coming before Him with gifts while still being unreconciled to someone against whom they have sinned, (or who alternately may have sinned against them), let them pause and think. They are coming before the Judge of all Who knows their hearts. Let them remember, ‘Blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who seek righteousness.’ So if as they approach the priests with their offering they recall that they know of someone who holds something against them, they should leave aside their gift before the altar, (that is, unoffered), and first go and seek reconciliation with their brother or sister. Then when that is achieved they may come and offer their gift, confident that it will be accepted.
The first point that we gather here is that in their unreconciled state there is no point in them offering their gift (compare Jeremiah 7.9-10). It can only bring judgment on them (compare here 1 Corinthians 11.27-32). It may seem perfectly acceptable to men, and to the priests, but it will not be acceptable to God. He will not give regard their gift, but will rather regard their undealt with sin, and the disharmony among His people, and He will thus have no regard for their prayers (see Isaiah 1.12-15; 1 Samuel 15.22; Psalm 66.18). The second is the need for positive action in seeking reconciliation. We may feel that it was all the brother’s fault, (just as he probably thinks it was all our fault), but that must not stop us from seeking to be reconciled to our brother. What is wrong between us must first be put right, and we have a responsibility to see to it in humility and love. If we would be right before God, we must be right with the world. And such reconciliation always involves compromise and a willingness to come to terms. The third point is that once we are reconciled, or at least have made a real and genuine attempt to be so, then God will accept our gift. It will then be noted before God to Whom all hearts are open and from Whom no secrets are hidden.
This does, however, raise the question as to who is our ‘brother or sister’ in these terms. While Jesus would undoubtedly have felt that it was most important for this to happen among His disciples in their relationships with each other (the Qumran community were strong on the idea of harmony within the community) it is probable that He was not restricting it to that. For as He would point out later even Gentiles can behave like that with those whom they love (5.44-48). Nor is He limiting it to fellow-Jews, as His parable of the Good Samaritan brings out (Luke 10.29-37). Indeed these examples may confirm that He in fact means by ‘brother and sister’ all men and women of reasonable goodwill (compare Matthew 25.40, where all nations are gathered, and ‘these’ are not differentiated from the nations apart from their having been in need).
(We say those of reasonable goodwill because to approach those who have no goodwill would be useless, and might even heighten animosity and bring reprisals. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent. But even some of these may be won over by a genuine revealing of love and sorrow over failure ).
Imagine what an impression it would make if one Sunday in our churches the minister were to say, ‘Our next hymn (or song) is number 64, but before we dare to try to sing it let us first be reconciled with all in church who have anything against us’, and this was followed by a period in which there was a genuine attempt to fulfil what he asked. Revival might well break out. And yet the truth is that for us to sing a hymn without being reconciled to others is to make us like these who brought their gifts to the altar and took no notice of what Jesus had said. We need therefore to heed the warning that followed.
It will be noted that the assumption behind these words is that the people in question (His disciples) are in the habit of going to the Temple and bringing their gifts to the altar (note the ‘continual’ tense). It is spoken of as the natural thing for them to do. Thus it demonstrates that these words were spoken well before 70 AD. The description is far too descriptive and detailed to be simply metaphorical. Thus it fits perfectly into the time of the teaching of Jesus, while it fits not at all into a late first century or a Gentile environment, except in a very secondary way.
Finally Jesus brings out a further point and that is that being unreconciled might lead to repercussions. It may not only bring us problems before God, it may also bring us problems with men. For not only might our attitude prevent us from being able to approach God and have fellowship with Him, it might even result in reprisals against us. Thus even from a worldly point of view we are advised to be reconciled with people who have something against us.
For if we are slow in seeking reconciliation we may find that the pace builds up, and we may suddenly find ourselves being called to account. And then we may be found guilty, with the court handing us over into the custody of the police, with the result that we might find ourselves in prison. The background for the idea of prison for such offences is Greek and Roman rather than Jewish and fits perfectly into the environment of Galilee of the Gentiles. All in Galilee knew the ways of the Gentiles among them in which they could so easily be involved. (This would also serve to confirm that ‘brother’ includes Gentiles). But again Jesus is not just mainly thinking of the practicalities as His last comment makes clear. While they may escape an earthly court let them recognise that they will not escape the heavenly court. For these illustrations are but a picture of the final tribunal before the great Judge of all, when every penny that we have will be exacted from us because we have failed to obey God.
The word for ‘adversary’ is a legal term and basically here means ‘the plaintiff’. The ‘officer’ is the one appointed to carry out the judge’s instructions. The ‘penny’ is strictly the lowest level of coinage.
Similar words to these are found in Luke 12.57-59 in a different context and with a different emphasis. But that need not mean that Jesus only ever said them once and each Gospel writer used them as they thought fit. This was precisely the kind of illustration that was good for repetition and useable in a number of ways. And if He saw His regular listeners repeating them as He spoke Jesus would have been only too delighted that His hearers had so learned His words by heart that they could repeat them along with Him. For the expectation that His words would be remembered was a main consideration when He worked out what He would say, and was the main purpose of continual repetition. And the words fit aptly, both here and in Luke.
(The fact that Jesus constantly repeated His teaching, with variations, helps to explain why we seemingly have so little of it when He seemingly taught so much. John indicates that there is much that we do not have, but he clearly felt that what the church did have covered the main ground of what He had said over a number of years, otherwise he would no doubt have arranged for them to have more. And none knew what Jesus had said better than him - see John 21.25).
2). God’s Concern About the Purity of Women: What The Disciples’ Attitude Is To Be Towards The Law Concerning Adultery, Divorce, and Sexual Attitude: The Need To Be Harsh with Themselves About Sin (5.27-32).
Continuing to deal with the commandments in the order given in Exodus 20 Jesus now takes up the question of the commandment about adultery, but it should be noticed here that central to His concern is the permanence of marriage and the purity and oneness of a man and a woman within that marriage. That is why He is concerned about adultery and defines it so widely. And that is undoubtedly what He sees as central to this commandment (compare 19.3-10). For the reason why the thoughts of the person described are seen by Him as so heinous is because they indicate a readiness to interfere in God’s purpose in creation, and the reason why divorce is seen as so heinous, unless there has first been adultery involved, is because it also equally interferes with God’s purpose in creation. While He is therefore certainly concerned to prevent the disciples from sinning, He is even more concerned to establish the permanence and sacredness of the marriage relationship as seen in God’s eyes, and to warn them that it must not be broken.
Thus He describes two types of further ‘adultery’ on top of actual adultery, types which would not have been seen as such by the Jews, and warns His disciples against them, indicating by His words that God had both of these in mind when He gave His commandments. The first case that He takes up is that of the male with the wandering eye who deliberately seeks to have adultery with women in his heart, or alternatively seeks to entice women into lustful response with his eyes, and the second case is that of the husband who divorces his wife when she is still ‘pure’, that is, she has neither been unfaithful nor has degraded herself sexually. In both cases, says Jesus, their action leads to adultery, the one because the man’s thoughts have been with the intention of interfering in a marriage relationship, and have, as it were, intruded on the woman’s purity, thinking all the while in terms of trying to break her oneness with her husband, or have alternatively enticed the woman into herself engaging in impurity of thought, with a similar result, and the other because she will be left with little choice but to marry again, otherwise she would be found without protection or means of support. Thus she would have to have sexual relations with another man as a consequence, so breaking the God-ordained oneness between herself and her initial husband. It is with the intention of preventing these two types of adultery that He concentrates on what He deals with here. He is therefore concerned to look underneath the idea of a straightforward adulterous act that results in divorce and punishment, (in the same way as He looked underneath the commandment concerning murder), and consider the implications behind it. For what is wrong with adultery in His eyes is not just that it is a ‘sin’, but that it hits at the very root of God’s purpose of the making one of a man and a woman in marriage. While the Jews might see adultery as wrong because it might cast doubt on whether a child was really the true heir, to Jesus it was wrong because of its effects on the oneness of a pair united by God (thus He saw the man’s adultery as being as bad as the woman’s).
For as He will declare in 19.4-6, when God created man and woman it was that they might become ‘one flesh’. ‘For this reason a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh’ (Genesis 2.24, compare Matthew 19.4-6). And Jesus adds in 19.6, ‘what God has joined together let not man separate.’ This demonstrates that He considers that sexual relations are, for man, something very different than they are for animals. For man they are not just for rutting and producing offspring. They are intended to be a force that binds the man and woman together as one. (Thus the man who has sexual relations with a prostitute is made one body with the prostitute - 1 Corinthians 6.16). The importance that Jesus laid on this comes out here and in 19.4-6. To Him and to God marriage was a sacred union that nothing must be allowed to defile, and it is noticeable that Jesus lays as great a stress on this for the man as for the woman. So a man who goes astray in his thoughts, or leads astray a married woman by them, is in his heart attacking the very principles on which creation stands, and the same is true if a man divorces his wife other than for unfaithfulness so that another marries her. For then she is being made into an adulteress by both men. It is they who are guilty in this case.
We should note here also that in His words all the emphasis is on the failure of the men. It is they who entice her with their eyes, it is they who by divorcing her are seen by Jesus as causing the woman to commit adultery. The general tendency in Judaism was in fact the opposite. They tended to see the women as the ones who were mainly guilty of adultery. The man could be forgiven for his adventures, the woman could not be forgiven for responding. This is not to deny the fact that a man caught committing adultery with a married woman was in Moses’ day sentenced to be stoned, and would be looked on at all times with great disapproval if he was found out, but simply to bring out that it was the woman who tended to carry the lion’s share of guilt in these matters. As long as he left married women alone a man might sow his wild oats without too much disapproval, but a woman involved in a sexual liaison would be heavily frowned on. An adulterous woman was seen as a shame and a scandal, while an adulterous man might be seen as an adventurer. But Jesus was aware where the blame very often lay, and took up a very different view.
It should be noted again that what concerns Him is anything that might have the intention of interfering with a woman’s purity and oneness with her husband. There is no suggestion that sexual activity is wrong in itself. Indeed within marriage it was actually God’s intention from the beginning. His command had been to ‘Go forth and multiply’. And it was to be the binding force that bound a man and a women together physically, for they were to be made ‘one flesh’. But what He clearly condemns is anything that aims to affect the purity of either a marriageable or a married woman, and thus her oneness or prospective oneness with her husband. We may see as being in mind here, ‘blessed are the pure in heart’. Those who would ‘see God’ must be faithful in maintaining the inviolability of the marriage bond. For to God permanent, lifelong marriage is seen as important. What Jesus is concerned about with adultery is thus its interference in God’s purpose for creation. He sees it as breaking up the harmony of creation, and thereby lying at the very heart of man’s rebellion against God. This idea of harmony is important all through this chapter.
It should be noticed that this was not a question of Jesus being influenced by Jewish opinion. Jewish opinion was in the main very different from this. The majority among the Jews would certainly have agreed that it was the woman’s responsibility to be pure and faithful to her husband, but in their view the man could divorce his wife if he wished to, and if he did so there was no harm done. To them he had a freedom with respect to sexual matters that she did not have. Jesus squashes that idea once and for all. To Jesus both were equally responsible to maintain a pure marriage, with both being required to be equally faithful. Thus the wayward thinker, and the casual husband were both guilty before God. This is the ‘new’ angle that Jesus introduced with regard to this Law. And yet He would have said that it was not new. In His eyes it had been intrinsic within the Law right from the beginning. It was only man’s subsequent perversity that made it seem new.
Note On The Jewish Attitude to Marriage and Sexual Behaviour.
In the time of Jesus the general view among the Jews was that a man could indulge in sex outside marriage as long as it was not with a married woman, for this latter would be to trespass on the rights of her husband. However, if her family knew anything about it and were in a position to do so they could then demand that he marry her. But either way no great shame was involved for him. A woman, however, who behaved in this way would be deeply shamed (thus Mary’s dilemma). The Law in fact demanded that he then marry her (Exodus 22.16; Deuteronomy 22.28).
Furthermore in the eyes of most Jews a man could divorce his wife if he felt that he had some grounds for it, simply by giving her a certificate of divorce in the presence of witnesses and making clear his intention. But a woman could not divorce a man except by an appeal to a court. The court might in some circumstances require the husband to divorce her depending on the situation, but it was not something to be relied on. Normally therefore a woman was powerless to do much about her situation, and her only resort would be to her family.
But as we have seen Jesus indicates that God is far from agreeing with such ideas. He agreed with the requirement for women to be chaste and faithful, but demanded the same of men. And He further demanded that men should do nothing which might cause a woman to violate any vows made to her husband, whether she did it willingly or otherwise.
Furthermore, the Jews should have been aware of how seriously God treated divorce for no priest was to marry a divorced woman (Leviticus 21.14)
Respectable women were, of course, closely guarded in those days and would be required to be well covered up at all times. A respectable woman would not go out on her own, but would remain at home, and when she did go out she would be well covered up. And certainly in the Old Testament, while a betrothed woman might be found out alone in the countryside working, that would never be so of a married woman (compare Deuteronomy 22.22 with 22.25-27). In such circumstances she would be under her husband’s eye. Thus there would not be as much temptation around for a man as there is today. The man who lusted after a married woman would therefore probably be going out of his way to do so. He would be deliberately out to attract a woman. Jesus, however made clear that that was totally unacceptable. No other Jew of Jesus’ day took up Jesus’ uncompromising position.
End of note.
It should be noted at this point that ‘and it was said’ in verse 31 is adding on an addendum to 27-30, not commencing a new section. This is demanded by the grammar, the sense and the chiasmus. And it is confirmed by the fact that if it was not so it would also break the sequence of murder, adultery, false witness. Thus we should see five main headings and not six in the series.
Analysis of 5.27-32.
We again remind ourselves that in verses 27-32 we have the threefold activities related to adultery, firstly looking on a woman with lust in the heart (28), secondly cutting off eye and hand (two alternatives) in order not to sin (29-30), and thirdly the attempt to make an alternative attempt to commit adultery through unacceptable divorce (31-32)
Jesus commences by citing the seventh commandment, and the first thing that will be noted is that He makes no reference to ‘those of old’. These words accompanied reference to the commandment about murder (verse 21), and will accompany the one about the swearing of oaths (verse 33). They do not, however, occur in verses 38 and 42 which are similar to here. It may therefore simply be stylistic, or it may be that this commandment was not seen as having been added to by those of old. ‘It was said’ is neutral. It simply refers back to the past without necessarily passing a verdict on it. But once again He brings out that the commandment is speaking about more than might at first appear on the surface. He is bringing out that its concern is in the end for the purity of a man and a woman in a lifelong, indissoluble marriage, undisturbed by the effects of man’s sinfulness.
Thus He now speaks of anything that might result in adultery, whether through the wife’s unfaithfulness, a man’s wandering thoughts or eyes, or through divorce and remarriage, and warns against them all. To Jesus, anything that might interfere with a lifelong marriage, whether it be by attitude, by invasion by men’s thoughts or by the breakdown of the marriage, was to be abhorred, for it was attacking the God-ordained oneness between a husband and wife. For as He will say later, ‘from the beginning it was not so’ (19.8).
Once again Jesus declares authoritatively, “I say to you.” Once He has spoken that settles the matter. The principle here is very clear. Even the desire for adultery in the heart, a desire which is encouraged in himself by a man, is the equivalent of adultery. The man who looks on a woman with the desire to break in on her purity, thus considering breaking the oneness between her and her husband, is actually to be seen as guilty of committing adultery. He is invading her purity, and in his mind appropriating her for himself, without having the intention of forming a permanent relationship with her as his one and only wife (which of course he could not have in the nature of the case). He is intending to cause a breakdown of the original purpose of God in creating man and woman. For it had been God’s purpose from the beginning that each man and each woman should have one partner to whom they would be insolubly bound until death broke the bond, looking only to them. The lustful look with intent at an unmarried woman, (unless with the genuine aim of marriage), or at a woman who was already bound to another, thus hit at the very purpose of God in creation. It indicated rebellion against God’s will. In God’s eyes it was therefore as much adultery on the person’s part as if he had actually had sexual relations with her. And he has thus by it broken God’s law.
Alternately we may translate this as, ‘every one who looks on a woman to cause her to lust’. (The wording is literally ‘for the lusting of/by her’). The idea then is that he has persuaded her to return his desires and there is therefore a very real case of adultery in their thoughts, brought about by his actions, but the final result is the same.
Here then Jesus is stressing that the thought is father of the deed (as with hatred and murder), and it is therefore something that His disciples must equally avoid because it attacks both the purity of the woman, and marriage itself, at their very heart. It is contrary to the sanctity of marriage. The idea that lustful thoughts were sinful was not new. In the Book of Jubilees 20.3-4, written by a Pharisee in 2nd century BC the writer says, that we should ‘keep ourselves from all fornication and uncleanness --- let them not fornicate with her after their eyes and hearts.’ In the Testament of Isaiah 7.2 we read, ‘except for my wife I have not known any woman. I did not act in a sexually immoral way by lifting up my eyes.’ While in the Psalms of Solomon 4.4 it was said of someone with disapproval, ‘his eyes are on every woman without distinction’. In Qumran also we read of the ‘fornication of the eyes’, while later the Rabbis would stress that a woman’s little finger, or her leg, or her voice, or her eye, could all lead on to impure thoughts in a man (such women would in general be well covered up and thus even a hint of sexuality would be enough). But while they were aware of the impropriety of such behaviour, none of them suggested on their own authority that this is precisely what God’s commandment was against. They disapproved, but they did not condemn. And yet this is what Jesus was saying.
And lest this be dismissed as just another example of theological hairsplitting Jesus rams home the seriousness of the matter. This is so important that if a man’s right eye cause his thought to roam in this direction, he should, as it were, pluck out his eye and hurl it from him, so concerned should he be not to sin in this way. For it would be better to lose an eye and be half blind, than for his whole body to perish in Gehenna. The eye is in fact regularly connected with sin (see Numbers 15.39; Proverbs 21.4; Ezekiel 6.9; 18.12; 20.8) and clearly has a connection with a sin such as this.
There is no thought here that this mutilation should become a part of Jewish Law, or that this dismemberment should be carried out by others as a sentence on what he had done. For who would know of it? (Indeed were it so the vast majority of men would be half blind). It is a private and personal matter, and the choice is the man’s. It is a moral choice. Nor does Jesus intend it to be carried out literally. He is using exaggeration to enforce His argument, as He regularly does. What He is really saying is that a man should go to any extreme in order to prevent himself from sinning in this way. He should be prepared to take drastic action. And today we can add the rider that if a woman dresses in such a way as to attract the roving eye she too is equally guilty. She is persuading men to commit adultery with her in their hearts.
The mention of the ‘right’ eye suggests the most important eye. To have said both eyes would have resulted in total blindness. It was not the thought that the man make himself wholly blind. The thought was rather of getting rid of the offending member and paying any price to be rid of the sin. The picture is of the man recognising his sin, and immediately and violently responding by taking out his eye and throwing it from him because it had sinned. Mark 9.42-47, in another context, simply says ‘your eye’. This simply confirms that Jesus used similar illustrations and varied them. In fact, of course, this would not solve the problem, for it was not really the eye that had sinned, it was the whole person. Seeming to deal with the offending member would not really get to the root of the problem. Both eyes would need to be put out for it to be effective, and even then it would still not prevent evil thoughts. So to take it literally would be foolish. Nor would it be consistent with His rejection of mutilation in verses 38-42. It is rather a stress on the need to take decisive action emphasised by exaggeration.
Jesus now takes it one step further, moving from the initial eyeing of the woman to actual bodily contact. If a man allow his hand, (or any of his body parts), to stray in the woman’s direction, even if it be his vital right hand, then he must cut if off and hurl it from him. For that would be better for him than having his whole body perish in Gehenna. Again the severity of the proposed remedy stresses the seriousness of the sin, and the greatness of the effort that should be taken in order to avoid it. Jesus is clearly very much concerned about this type of sin.
We can compare for this violent action the words of Paul in Colossians 3.5, ‘Put to death, therefore, your members which are on the earth, fornication, uncleanness, passion --’. His words are just as violent as the words of Jesus but we do not see it as a suggestion that we commit suicide, for we relate it to the cross.
There is, however, a possibility that the ‘right hand’ here is a euphemism for the private parts. Such were often referred to euphemistically in the Old Testament by such means in order to avoid mentioning them directly (e.g. Isaiah 57.8). Thus He is, as it were, saying ‘pluck off your private parts’.
But the matter does not just stop there, for man in his ingenuity can find a way around this. He divorces his wife. And then he argues that he can be free to cast lustful eyes on another. Jesus declares that that is not so. Unless the wife has committed adultery the marriage is permanently binding and the man cannot free himself to marry another. Divorce for adultery is allowed as an exception because it will, of course, have broken the unity between the married couple, because by her act of adultery the woman has bound herself to another man. The husband will therefore no longer be bound. Indeed if he followed Jewish custom he would feel himself bound to arrange a divorce (compare 1.19). The woman will thus be living in sin but he will not. But apart from this exception he is bound to his wife as long as she lives, just as she is bound to him (Romans 7.1-3).
The case that ‘was said’ here was built on Deuteronomy 24.1-4. But that law was intended rather in order to prevent a woman who has been divorced for ‘uncleanness’ and has been married to another, from then returning to her first husband. That is forbidden. It is an abomination to God. The husband has rightly divorced her because she has united herself in some way to another man. Therefore he must never receive her back. Otherwise he too would be condoning sexual uncleanness. But this was not intended to encourage, or even indicate approval of divorce. It was catering for a situation where adultery, or similar, had already taken place.
It is difficult to see how Jesus could have laid a stronger emphasis on the sacredness and indissolubility of marriage. It is clear that in His view nothing was to be allowed to break the marriage bond. And the extremeness of His suggested remedies about plucking out and hurling away the eye and cutting off and throwing away the hand, together with His whole emphasis, brings out that God sees this matter as of vital importance. Woe betide, therefore, those who treat divorce lightly. That there is forgiveness even for the sin of adultery John 8.4, 11 makes clear (and so does Psalm 51). But it was with the stern injunction that it must never happen again, while the divorced person goes on in adultery, as David did, and for him, although he was forgiven, the consequences of his sin also continued. We must not underestimate the mercy of God, but we must also beware of presumption. It should be noted, however, that Jesus did not suggest that those who had been divorced should get together again. Indeed that would be to go against Deuteronomy 24.1-4, and would be equally sinful if they had then married another.
‘And it was said.’ This falls short of the full ‘you have heard that it was said’ (5.21, 27, 33, 38, 43). It is therefore clearly an addendum to what has gone before and not the indication of the beginning of a new section.
‘Let him give her a writing of divorce.’ The Greek word for ‘of divorce’ means ‘of relinquishing rights to a property’. That was mainly how a Jew would see his wife. It was very different with Jesus. To Him she shared equality with the man, for they had both been made one. The certificate of divorce stated that the woman was free to marry again and had to be signed and verified in the presence of witnesses. It was based on Deuteronomy 24.1 and provided the woman with the means of proving that she was no longer bound to a husband. But Deuteronomy 24.1-4 was never intended to provide general grounds for divorce. It was to be used in cases where a woman was found guilty of ‘an indecent thing’. This might have included adultery which her husband did not wish to charge her with publicly (otherwise she would suffer the death penalty), suspected adultery which could not be sufficiently proved but of which the husband had little doubt, potential adultery, and so on. Often the woman’s family might come to some agreement about it in order to prevent the worst happening to their daughter. Rabbi Shammai saw ‘an indecent thing’ as indicating adultery, and Jesus basically agrees with him, but Rabbi Hillel argued that it could apply to any failure, such as burning the dinner. Not surprisingly, knowing the hearts of men, Hillel’s decision tended to be the most popular among the men, for they felt that it gave them divine authority to divorce their wives if they wished to. Divorce had thus become fairly commonplace. We can compare the Samaritan woman who had had five husbands under the same laws (John 4.18). We can also compare the attitude towards women in Ecclesiasticus 25.23-26, ‘A woman who will not make her husband happy is as hands which hang down and as palsied knees --- if she does not go as you would wish, cut her off from your flesh’. Jesus, however, makes clear that marriage was permanent in the eyes of God and that the only possible grounds for divorce was ‘fornication’, for that meant that the sin of adultery had already been committed, and the oneness with her husband had already been destroyed.
‘Except for the cause of fornication.’ The word for ‘fornication’ can signify premarital sex, but it can also indicate general sexual misdemeanours, and adultery (compare also 19.9). Thus here it refers to adultery. But it might have included other sexual misdemeanours. In other contexts Jesus does not add this reservation (Mark 10.12; Luke 16.18), but it was clearly necessary when speaking to Jews, for now that an adulterous woman was no longer necessarily stoned to death there had to be some means by which the husband could be set free from the wrecked marriage. And Jewish thinking required a man to divorce such a wife.
The differing verses are as follows: ‘Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of fornication, makes her an adulteress’ (verse 32); ‘Whoever divorces his wife, except for fornication, commits adultery (19.9); ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery’ (Mark 10.12); ‘Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery’ (Luke 16.18). It has therefore been suggested by some that Matthew is expanding Jesus’ words in order to reflect the position in his own day. But the more probable reason is that Mark and Luke are stating the accepted position held generally by Christian Gentiles, who did not consider it essential to divorce an adulteress, and were therefore simply abbreviating Jesus’ statement to agree with it, without introducing the added complication about fornication which applied more to a Jewish situation. Matthew, on the other hand, is providing the detail about the exception, because he is well aware, as Jesus also had been, that the Jews who read his words would insist that a man must divorce a wife caught in the act of adultery in accordance with Jewish tradition, in order to maintain the purity of Israel, and was confirming that Jesus was in agreement with that. Note that both Mark and Luke have ‘and marries another’ as an additional statement, stressing the fact that the man is choosing to commit adultery. They are more concerned with that than the exception. Thus all are indicating the aspects of what Jesus said which they wish to bring out.
Note on The Idea of Marriage and Adultery.
Scripture from beginning to end lays great stress on purity within marriage. It is stressed in Genesis 2.24. It is stressed in the fact that the major reason for the physical destruction of the Canaanites was to be because of their defiling sexual practises when their ‘iniquity was full’. It is stressed in the various provisions in the Law where it is made clear that the actual physical act of sexual union is seen as binding a man and woman together as one. (Thus a man who has sexual union with an unmarried woman must marry her. If she is betrothed or married he must be put to death, and she also if she consented). It is stressed in the teaching of Jesus, as here (see also 19.3-12). It is seen to lie at the very heart of creation. Scripture does not therefore treat the sexual act lightly. For even if a man has sexual relations with a prostitute, it makes him one with her and if he is a believer, defiles the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6.15-19). To have had sexual relations with someone who is not the sole living partner with whom those relations have first been enjoyed is therefore seen as a major sin. Such people bear the permanent stain of being ‘adulterers’ although the consequence for the forgiven adulterer is never spelled out. It is made clear, however, that they can never be restored to their original purity. They are for ever stained. We in the west tend to treat it lightly. Only eternity will reveal at what cost.
However, that there can be forgiveness for one who has committed adultery as long as there is genuine repentance comes out in Leviticus 19.20-22, in the only example where adulterers were not to be put to death (but see also Deuteronomy 21.14 which presumably allows the man and woman to marry again). But the point in both these cases, is that they were not fully fledged members of the community. See also John 8.1-11. This must not, however, be seen as removing the seriousness of the sin. Murder too could be forgiven, but we do not therefore sympathise with murder.
End of note.
3). The Disciples’ Approach To Oath-Taking And Reliability (5.33-37).
In Jesus’ day the taking of oaths was popular and often somewhat hypocritical. Going by what was written later they were divided into oaths which must be observed, and those which could be broken because they did not involve the Lord. Much time and effort was expended in deciding which was which, and which could therefore be avoided (which removed any purpose behind making an oath and rendered it worse than useless). Sometimes the result was hair-splitting. Thus an oath sworn ‘towards Jerusalem’ was considered binding whereas an oath sworn ‘by Jerusalem’ was not (compare also 23.16). So by wording an oath carefully a person could seem to be binding himself, and could then later plead that it was not so. This all demonstrated a lack of concern for truth as such, the suggestion being that it only mattered when the Lord’s Name was somehow involved. Thus it was truth that became the victim. And it made a false distinction between what did involve the Lord and what did not. Jesus will by His words both falsify that distinction, by showing that in fact the Lord was even involved in determining the colour of a man’s hair, and thus could not be left out of anything, and will also reinstate the importance of being truthful. He was concerned that His disciples recognise that what they said or promised should always be able to be relied on.
His citation is a free rendering (possibly Jesus’ own reconstruction, although He may have had it quoted at Him) of part of Leviticus 19.12 and part of Deuteronomy 23.21, combined with part of Psalm 50.14. ‘You shall not swear by my Name falsely’ (Leviticus 19.12), ‘when you make a vow to the Lord your God you shall not be slack to pay it’ (Deuteronomy 23.21), but ‘shall pay your vows to the Most High’ (Psalm 50.14). Consider also ‘you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’ (Exodus 20.7; Deuteronomy 5.11). And also ‘when you vow a vow to God do not delay paying it, --- it is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay’ (Ecclesiastes 5.4-5; and see ). His purpose in citing it was in order to bring out the current thinking on oaths.
The Old Testament can be seen as dividing oaths into two main types. The first type was those which were made in connection with a solemn covenant made under God’s instructions (Exodus 24.3-8; Ezekiel 17.19), which even God would involve Himself in (Genesis 22.16), and this included those made as part of a testimony in court (Exodus 20.16), when the court was acting in God’s Name. Such testimony on oath was often legally required by God Himself (e.g. Exodus 22.11; Numbers 5.19; 1 Kings 8.31). It is probable that Jesus does not refer to that kind of oath here, for He would not have set aside the legal requirement for an oath which had been laid down in such circumstances by God Himself, and indeed He Himself would later respond to such an adjuration on oath (26.63-64). Compare how Paul also makes use of mild forms of oaths in solemn matters (2 Corinthians 1.23; Galatians 1.20; Philippians 1.8; etc.). Furthermore He also makes it clear that the oaths that He is speaking of here were ambiguous, they may or may not have been intended to invoke the Lord’s Name. He is probably therefore not referring to legal oaths, which would necessarily directly invoke the Name of the Lord, but to oaths in the common course of life.
The second type were oaths that were made voluntarily. God never required men to make such oaths, but men regularly chose to do so in order to support their word, or in order to bind others under the oath, simply because men were seen as untrustworthy. In such cases all oaths taken in the name of the Lord were to be seen as binding (Numbers 30.2), for it would have been dishonouring to God if His name was called in and used as surety and then the oath was reneged on, with the result that His Name had been taken in vain (Exodus 20.7; compare Jeremiah 5.2; Hosea 4.2; Zechariah 5.4; Malachi 3.5). Provision was, however, made for someone to redeem something that he had ‘dedicated’ to the Lord, while in the case of persons they always had to be redeemed (Leviticus 27.1-25). The exception to the inviolability of an oath was where a wife or unmarried daughter had made an oath before the Lord. In that case a husband or father could rescind it as long as he did so immediately on hearing of it. If he did not, it then became binding, as though he had made it himself (Numbers 30.3-15). But in the Old Testament it was not only oaths made in the Name of the Lord that were binding. All oaths were considered to be binding (Psalm 15.4; Hosea 4.2; Malachi 3.5).
But what it is important to note is that none of them were in the first place demanded by the Lord for He made it quite clear that He did not require oaths in the normal course of life (Deuteronomy 23.22). On the other hand, if oaths were taken they must not be in the names of other gods. If they must swear them, then they must use the Name of the Lord (Deuteronomy 10.20). Thus the use of oaths (apart from those required before courts) was not demanded by God in the Old Testament, and Jesus was not therefore here changing something that the Scriptures had originally required. He was dealing with the current attitude towards oaths.
The more popular interpretation concerning oaths in Jesus’ day was that only those sworn to the Lord were specifically binding. That could be very convenient if someone regretted making an oath. But that then raised the question as to which oaths were binding because made in the name of the Lord and which were not. The Mishnah (record of Rabbinic teaching) would later spend a good deal of time over the question. Jesus, however, swept all these arguments away. As far as He was concerned the Scriptures, and therefore the Law, had made quite clear that making oaths was never a necessity for anyone outside the law court, and therefore His disciples should be so honest and reliable that they did not need to make them. In the Kingly Rule of God this should not be necessary. Their word should be their bond. Josephus tells us that the Essenes also considered that to make oaths simply demonstrated the dishonesty of the person making them, ‘they say that one who is not believed without an appeal to God stands condemned already’ (although it should be noted that they did make initiation oaths and bound themselves in a covenant, so they were not fully consistent). Philo was also concerned about the prevalence of oaths and discouraged their being connected with God’s Name. If men had to make oaths, he said, let them connect them with something else. Jesus in fact declares that that is not viable, because everything outside man’s control is connected with God.
Analysis of 5.33-37.
Note that in ‘a’ what is said by others is described, and in the parallel what Jesus says is described. In ‘b’ there is the command not to swear at all, and in the parallel the command not to swear by their heads. In ‘c’ Heaven and the throne of God are mentioned, and in the parallel Jerusalem and the city of the Great King. Centrally the earth is the footstool of His feet. As regularly in this sermon there is also a sequence.
Furthermore we remind ourselves again that in verses 33-37 we have firstly that they are not swear by any of three things connected directly with God (34-35), secondly that they are not swear by their heads (with two alternative possibilities described, their hair being white or black) (36), and thirdly the need for them only to say one of two possibilities, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ (37).
As described above this was probably a citation that someone had thrown at Him, possibly as a Tradition of the Elders, or He may have put it together Himself from the Scriptures mentioned above as an indication of what people were quoting ‘from the past’. The gist of it was that when men swore an oath they were not to do so falsely, but were to perform them to the Lord. Jesus does not deny the truth in it, but He goes on to declare that as His disciples they should not resort to oaths which the Scriptures did not require. Rather because they were under the Kingly Rule of Heaven they should be so honest that oaths were not required. After all a man under the Kingly Rule of Heaven was speaking as one who was a servant of God. He could not therefore lie.
Once again we have Jesus’ authoritative “I say to you.” He again claims to speak with unique authority. Jesus is here probably referring to general oaths which had become a common feature in a society which was lax with the truth (as the need for a multitude of oaths proved). He probably did not have in mind specific oaths made in court, especially those required in the fulfilment of legal ritual as prescribed by the Old Testament (e.g. Exodus 22.11; Numbers 5.19; 1 Kings 8.31). Nor was He forbidding them to make oaths of loyalty to their rulers. He was not inviting persecution for them. (It would be different once idolatry became involved in such oaths). In fact the disciples would be in no position not to respond to such oaths. Jesus Himself responded to a court oath before the High Priest (26.63-64), and all were called on at times to swear fealty to king and emperor, in the case of Jews accompanied by the offering a sacrifice for him in the Temple. This distinction is further demonstrated by the type of oaths that He now describes.
Thus Jesus is lifting His disciples above both the general Old Testament environment, and the environment in which they were then living, into a higher sphere of truthfulness. His basic point is that God had not required oaths in the general course of life, which was therefore a demonstration of what His will really was (Deuteronomy 23.22), so that under the Kingly Rule of Heaven they were unnecessary, for that was a sphere where truth was all.
The type of oaths that He is speaking of is now made clear. They are those which are not directly made in the Name of the Lord (as court oaths mainly would be, for solemn emphasis) but those which used circumlocutions. Oaths made ‘by Heaven and earth’ were later seen as not being made ‘in the Lord’s Name’. Those ‘towards’ Jerusalem were, but that was determined later. But such would not anyway be a solemn oath in court in terms of the requirements of the Old Testament (and thus ‘the Law’). It will be noted that He makes no reference to oaths actually made in the Name of the Lord. This helps to confirm that Jesus is not referring to solemn court oaths.
Jesus then gives His reasons why they should not use such oaths. All of them are the equivalent of being ‘in the Lord’s Name’; an oath ‘by Heaven’, because Heaven is the throne of God, an oath ‘by earth’ because it is His footstool, an oath ‘towards Jerusalem’ because that is the city of the Great King, and an oath ‘by my head’ because it is God who created it and is its Overlord as is demonstrated by the fact that they cannot alter their age, making themselves white-haired and therefore older, or black-haired and therefore younger. They may dye their hair all they like, and hair dyes of a kind were known at the time, (hair dying was certainly practised in Egypt), but they could not alter what they essentially were. God was in total control of that.
Here Isaiah 66.1 ‘Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool’ and Psalm 48.2 ‘Mount Zion in the far north, the city of the great King’, are in mind. Note the emphasis in each case on God’s Kingly Rule. Both Heaven and earth are in the throne room, the One the symbol of His sovereign power, the other the symbol of His worldwide authority (compare 28.19). Jerusalem is His city and therefore the scene of His Kingly Rule, and He has absolute and acknowledged sovereignty over His disciples’ ‘heads’ and therefore over their lives. So those who are His and under His Kingly Rule will not debase what is His by calling on them in unnecessary oaths. They will rather give due honour to their King. Nor do they need to do so for they will always speak as those who are in the presence of the King.
Here then we have a picture of the whole Kingly Rule of Heaven, the throne room with its throne and footstool, the King’s city and the King’s ‘heads’, His men and women. In the Psalm the great King is God Himself, but here there may well be the thought that it includes Jesus, even though His kingship has not yet been spoken of openly in front of the disciples. They will learn of it in the future (16.16, 27-28; 17.5, 25-26; 19.28; 20.21; 21.5; 24.30; 25.31-46). Note how in the parables in 18.23-35; 22.2-13, the King is His Heavenly Father (e.g. 18.35) while by 25.31-46 the King is Jesus Himself. Consider also the words of Paul, ‘we have been transferred (from the tyranny of darkness) into the Kingship of His beloved Son’ (Colossians 1.13). The reader, however, knows all about the emphasis on His kingship from previous chapters.
The combining of their ‘heads’ with the other three symbols of royalty is an indication that Jesus is speaking to those who acknowledge His rule within the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Their heads also are royal, with their hoary crown or otherwise, having been given by God. Note how in the Psalm the Jerusalem spoken of is very much an exalted Jerusalem, ‘beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth’, all tremble before it, and it is very much God Who has exalted it. It is the symbol of Heaven on earth. Note also the contrasts here, Heaven contrasted ith earth, the exalted royal Jerusalem contrasted with their heads. God rules over all.
So they are to restrict their replies to specific assertions. They are to say, ‘yes, yes’ or ‘no, no’. The point here is either that people will be listening for the oath, ‘yes, I swear by --’ but will rather hear another ‘yes’, or that it represents the firmness with which the disciple of Christ says ‘yes’ and ‘no’ because they speak only the truth (compare James 5.12). It is not intended to indicate a special form of oath. The assumption is that under the Kingly Rule of God nothing but the truth will be spoken.
Indeed anything more than such a firm assertion must be seen as being the product of the Evil One (or of an evil heart). The use of tou ponerou is regularly ambiguous, compare 3.39; 6.13; 13.38; 1 John 5.19. But see 13.19 where it must be translated ‘the Evil One’. Evil and the Evil One are closely connected, and the Devil is specifically linked by Jesus with falsehood. He is the ‘father of lies’ and abounds in falsehood (John 8.44). Therefore here we should probably see it as signifying the Evil One. On the other hand in verse 39 it means either ‘the evil person’ in the sense of one who wishes to impose himself on you, or evil itself. But here in verse 37 the Evil One has to be resisted whereas in verse 39, because it is a different kind of ‘evil’, it does not have to be resisted but has to be responded to with a loving response. This brings out the wide ranges of meaning of the term.
His Disciples Are To Show Generosity Of Spirit, Not To Cry For Vengeance (5.38-42).
In this example Jesus is replying to a mistaken interpretation of the Law. The purpose of the law ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (the lex talionis), was in order to put a limit on vengeance in a fierce age. The idea was that no one should be killed because he had accidentally, or in a fair fight, knocked someone’s tooth out. The maximum that could be demanded was that he also lose a tooth. Very often, in fact, such a case would be resolved by the payment of compensation, depending on the circumstances. But where the injured party and his friends were insistent on vengeance, then this law limited the vengeance that they could legally exact, without leaving them feeling unfairly done by. The problem was, however, that many had seen in it an excuse for demanding such vengeance, thus misusing what had originally been, in terms of those days, a compassionate law.
Jesus informs His disciples that under the Kingly Rule of God this was not to be the attitude that they followed (compare Leviticus 19.18). Rather than demanding tit for tat His disciples should respond to unpleasantness by showing humility, kindness and generosity of spirit. The examples given should be noted, however. This is not a question of giving in to random violence and/or a way of dealing with people who intend to do real physical harm to them (how they were to deal with that is another question not specifically being covered here), this is describing how to deal with people who for one reason or another they might be tempted to resent because of the unpleasant and humiliating behaviour that the people have shown towards them. That is then followed by a positive demand that they also show generosity to all in need, and be ready to lend to anyone who requires such help. This is the opposite of desiring vengeance. It is to give unreservedly.
By this they will be revealed as peacemakers, a concept closely connected with the idea of not seeking vengeance in Romans 12.18-21.
Analysis of 5.38-42.
Note that in ‘a’ we have the cry for retaliation, demanding hurt for hurt from someone who has hurt us, and in the parallel we have the contrary spirit of the willingness to lend generously to one who wants to borrow from us but deserves nothing from us. In ‘b’ comes the command not to resist unpleasant behaviour, and in the parallel the command to respond pleasantly to anyone in need who asks of us. In ‘c’ and parallel we have two examples of responding pleasantly to unpleasant behaviour when what we see as our ‘rights’ are being invaded, and centrally in ‘d’ we have an example of generosity to someone who is being mean-minded towards us.
Thus in verses 38-42 we have three examples of generosity, firstly ‘do not resist someone with bad intentions’ (39-41), secondly ‘give to him who begs from you’ (42a), and thirdly ‘do not refuse him who would borrow from you’ (42b), with the first example then illustrated in a threefold way with a description of the response that should be made to being smitten on the right cheek (39), being sued for the inner garment (40), and being legally forced to carry a soldier’s pack for one mile if required to do so (41). In different ways all are revealing openness towards others, and have the aim of achieving harmony among people.
Known as the lex talionis, in ancient days this law was common in many cultures in times far preceding Moses. It is found in the Code of Hammurabi from the 18th century BC, and it was probably old then (and was incorporated within Israel’s Law Code, see for it Exodus 21.24; Leviticus 24.20; Deuteronomy 19.21). Its purpose was to prevent blood revenge and to limit the penalty that could be exacted, by making it fit the offence. There was, however, also in it the thought that justice must be satisfied and that sufficient satisfaction should be obtained. However, man being what he is, it became the standard by which many lived. In the way that they interpreted it, it was the exact reverse of ‘do to others as you would that they would do to you’. It said, ‘I will demand of others what they have done to me’ (something forbidden by Proverbs 24.29). But at least it was a restraint on crime and prevented worse crimes by satisfying people’s sense of justice. On the other hand, as Jesus will point out, it is not the kind of standard that should be followed under the Kingly Rule of a wise and beneficent God Who Himself shows mercy to the undeserving. Nor is in line with the Law of God which said, ‘You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love you neighbour (and the foreigner who is among you - Leviticus 19.34) as yourself’ (Leviticus 19.18).
Jesus now again sets His own authority up against the wisdom of the ages. “I say to you --.” All that man has seen as wisdom in the past is now subjected to the King of the ages. And He wants His disciples to show compassion and mercy, rather than demanding their ultimate rights.
“Do not resist (or ‘stand up against’) him who is evil.” This is not a general overall statement that evil is never to be resisted. Taken out of context it would clearly not in fact even be right, for one of the main aims of the disciples of Jesus was to be to resist evil when it was wrought on others, and especially to resist the Evil One in every way (James 4.7). Furthermore they had already basically been told to resist evil in verse 37. Certainly in the light of the Old Testament they would be expected to protect the rights of the poor and the needy, the widow and the orphan. In the words of the Psalmist we are to, ‘Do justice to the afflicted and destitute, rescue the poor and needy, deliver them out of the hand of the wicked’ (Psalm 82.3-4). As we consider this therefore it is a reminder that we must always be careful to interpret terms within their context and not put a stress on them that they do not have.
Here the ‘evil’ or the ‘evil person’ is not represented as grossly evil, (compare ‘if you then being evil --’ in 7.11 which is spoken of the disciples in order to remind them of their own sinful hearts). The ones spoken of here are not murderers or those engaged in illegal activities, or violent actions, rather they are people who are acting quite legally but are behaving arrogantly and unpleasantly and are seeking to demonstrate their superiority and claim their ‘rights’ over others in one way or another. They are representatives of an ‘evil’ world, behaving as the world does. And in process of this they are making demands on the personal life of the disciple himself, not on the helpless poor. If he puts up a defence therefore he is not defending others, but simply defending himself, and revealing himself as on a par with the other. He is thus not being ‘meek’ (see on 5.5), nor is he being righteous (5.6), nor is he being a peace-maker (5.9). He is not demonstrating that those who are under the Kingly Rule of God are not like other men and women. To such behaviour then the disciples are not to retaliate with like for like, but are to respond generously and compassionately, returning good for evil, gentleness for arrogance, generosity for meanness, and helpfulness for hardness of spirit.
The man who smites another on the right cheek is clearly doing it with his right hand, and will therefore be smiting with the back of his right hand, and the Mishnah tells us that, to the Jew, to be smitten with the back of the hand was thought of as a double insult. The person who does it is trying to demonstrate his own superiority, and to humiliate the other. He is trying to hurt their deepest feelings and put them in their place. He may even to some extent have the right to do it. Certainly no one would accuse him of a crime. But he is nevertheless misusing his position or betraying his arrogance and behaving contemptibly. His purpose is not to do the one he strikes any real physical damage. Assuming that it was not deserved as a result of some uncalled for remark, he is seeking to remind the person whom he strikes of his place and to show his contempt for him (compare Acts 23.2). But instead of producing resentment and a desire for retaliation in the disciple of Christ, which would be the natural reaction to such treatment, it is to do the opposite. It is to arouse a loving response. The disciple is to do the exact opposite of what is expected of him. Instead of glaring and being filled with hatred in return he is to turn the other cheek. He is to openly demonstrate that he is not offended and that he has only thoughts of love and compassion towards his tormentor. He is to show that he is perfectly ready to receive more of the same. He is by his action contrasting the Kingly Rule of God, a sphere of love and gentleness, with the tyranny of darkness, a sphere of arrogance and violence. He is contrasting God with the world, to the world’s disadvantage. He is openly witnessing to the difference between the two. Note that he does not just stand silent and say nothing. It is not passivity. He positively acts to bring out the wrongness of the situation.
Why then did Jesus, when He was smitten, rather than do what He Himself had taught Jesus, quietly ask for justification of the act (John 18.23)? We must in that case remember what the situation was. Jesus was in some kind of court, and all that went on would be recorded. Furthermore He was defending Himself at the High Priest’s request and therefore the action of the soldier was reprehensible. If it went down in the record that He had had to be smitten it would have suggested that He had been guilty of some crime. Thus it was necessary for Him to set the record straight and demonstrate before the hearing that He was innocent, and had done or said nothing wrong. He did not want the record to suggest that He had been discourteous in any way, or had been deserving of being smitten. But He was not retaliating with evil for evil. He was quietly seeking to show the High Priest and the court that they were in the wrong. It is a reminder that we must not simply act mechanically with regard to things like this. We too have to think about the consequences of our actions even in these circumstances. For in the end Jesus is not just talking about an insulting blow to the cheek. He has in mind any way in which someone demonstrates a wrong and antagonistic attitude towards a disciple, an attitude that has to be responded to with compassion and love.
The one who sues another for his tunic (or shirt) presumably has a right to do so, but is showing no compassion. He is being remorseless. For the one being sued in such a way is clearly in poverty, otherwise the shirt off his back would not be in question. The plaintiff is clearly determined to have the shirt off the poor man’s back and to leave him unclothed. He is demonstrating a determination to squeeze the last penny out of him and to humiliate him. He is showing extreme meanness of spirit. While strictly legal, what he is doing is in fact to go against the higher law. For the Law commanded that he show concern and generosity towards the poor (Leviticus 25.35; Deuteronomy 15.7-8; Proverbs 14.21; 21.13).
However, if this is done to the disciple, instead of showing resentment he is to respond with generosity. He is to hand over his outer cloak as well, the cloak over which the one who is suing has no rights (see Exodus 22.26-27; Deuteronomy 24.12-13). There was no way in law that the plaintiff could obtain the outer cloak. Thereby the disciple reveals his willingness to meet all his obligations over and above what is required on him, and to put the attitude of the other to shame. And he also demonstrates that to be humiliated by being rendered clotheless is of no concern to him. To him life is more than clothing. (Although there is no thought that he would strip there and then. He would have to borrow clothes). And besides he is confident that his Father will supply him with clothing (6.30, 32). And at the same time he is demonstrating what the Kingly Rule of God accomplishes in men, and is contrasting it with the tyranny of darkness. All will be able to judge between the actions of the two. The disciple is acting as true salt and as a light in the world.
The one who compels another to go a mile with him is a Roman soldier, who had a perfect right in law to demand that someone carry his equipment for one mile (strictly 8 stades or one thousand paces). This was the law under which Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus’ crosspiece (27.32). Most Jews resented this law bitterly. To them it was the ultimate in humiliation. But the soldier had the right to expect it. Most Jews would make clear to the soldier their resentment. But it was not to be so for those under the Kingly Rule of God. As servants of the King they were to be only too glad to lend a hand to someone who wanted assistance, even to a soldier of Rome. Unlike the zealots they were not to look on him as an enemy, but as someone to be loved, as God loved him and sent him sunshine and rain.
All three illustrations reveal that the people in question, while they may well have been within their rights, were nevertheless behaving unpleasantly, and humiliating the objects of their unpleasantness. That is what is being indicated by the word ‘evil’ here. And the reply to such behaviour is to reveal pleasantness, and love, and peace, and a total lack of concern at being humiliated, all of which is revealed by their positive response, rather than to demonstrate resentment and retaliation. It is also to reveal the attitude and behaviour prevalent in the Kingly Rule of God. Note that in each case the disciple does not just submit, he acts positively in order to bring out his different view on the world from others. He will be revealing that as a disciple of Christ he is the servant of all (20.26). And all will say, ‘God is with him of a truth’.
So the response of the disciple is to turn the other cheek, thereby disquieting the striker and revealing a totally different attitude of heart and mind. It is saying, ‘if that helps you, do it again. I do not mind. I serve the One Who was so smitten and I am proud to share His humiliation’. It reveals the non-violence of the Kingly Rule of God. The one who sues you for your tunic is forbidden by law to take your cloak from you, for you need it to sleep in (see Exodus 22.26-27; Deuteronomy 24.12-13). So by offering him your cloak you are going beyond the law in order to satisfy him, and doing something totally unexpected. And hopefully he will recognise his own meanness of spirit and be brought to consider his ways. You are returning good for evil, and demonstrating sacrificial generosity, and making him see what he ought to have done in the first place. Furthermore you are manifesting to him the effect of being under the Kingly Rule of God. The Roman soldier who has exerted his legal right over you will be taken totally by surprise by your offer to carry his equipment a further mile. He will never have experienced anything like it before. It will open up the opportunity of testimony to Christ (he will want to know why you have done it) and he will never forget you or your testimony. He will tell all his comrades about it. By this means you will be the light of the world (5.14), and, in each case, what you have done you will have done for Christ, and Christ will reward you with His blessing. And by your act you will have demonstrated to the one who sought to get one over on you the depth of the love of Christ Who when He was reviled did not revile in return, but instead submitted the reviling to God and was content with whatever His verdict was (1 Peter 2.23). It would be the attitude of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 50.6; 53.3-4, 7 (compare Matthew 26.27). It would reveal to all that here were men who had a new heart and a new spirit within them (Jeremiah 31.33; Ezekiel 36.2-27), and who were thus involved in the eschatological renewal. They were under the Kingly Rule of Heaven and experiencing the eschatological work of the Spirit (Isaiah 43.1-5; Ezekiel 36.26). The Kingly Rule of Heaven had drawn near.
It should be noted that these positive actions in response to the evil prevent the submission from being just a negative act. It is not a matter of meekly submitting and doing nothing. If we see someone else being treated in this way we might step in. But here the person involved will hopefully be brought up sharply by what is done, and will be made to think. It is not a question of doing nothing in the face of evil. It is a matter of witnessing to the Messianic peace and love.
These commands are rooted in the Old Testament. They are not spoken in a capitalist environment, but in an agricultural environment. The idea is that when someone who is in poverty or in dire straits comes seeking your help you are to be more than ready to offer it (compare Psalm 112.9). The background to it is found in Deuteronomy 14.28-15.11. There Moses described the giving of the third year tithe for the poor, from which the poor could always seek help, followed by the command to lend money to those in dire straits even if the seventh year, when all loans had to be cancelled, was approaching. The poor who came seeking help from the tithe should receive what they asked for. (But if no tithe was available then the disciple of Jesus should in the same way help to meet their need). The borrower should not be refused a loan, even though part of it would even be subject to cancellation. And of these things God said, “You shall give to him freely and your heart will not be grudging when you give to him, because for all this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. --- You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land” (Deuteronomy 15.10-11).
Jesus was here aware that this generosity of spirit required by that law was often being overlooked, or begrudged. But it was not to be so under the Kingly Rule of God. His disciples were to demonstrate the generosity that God had spoken of in Deuteronomy, and by doing so, would reveal that the Kingly Rule of Heaven was therefore present.
‘Give to him who asks of you.’ This is more generous even than Deuteronomy. Jesus is expanding the idea by also saying, ‘whatever you have, be willing to share it with those in genuine need, whatever the circumstances’. But he is certainly not saying that if mischievous people try to get all your money from you, you should let them have it. That would not be wise stewardship of what belonged to the Lord. Nor would it be doing them good in the long run.
Nor is he advising giving money to people who will spend it on drink or drugs. Often, if they claim to be hungry, we should in those cases ‘go the extra mile’ and take them to a food store. On the other hand we must not use these factors as an excuse for being mean-spirited. The whole idea is that as a result of our open-handedness, declared to be in the Name of the Lord and participated in generously, the world will glorify God, and will see a demonstration of the Kingly Rule of Heaven at work among them. They will see what kind of people God has made into. But lest this give the impression that they only behave in this way with an ulterior motive Jesus will now stress the importance of true love as being the right motive for it all.
The Disciples Are To Love Even Their Enemies And Are To Seek To Be Perfect Even As Their Father in Heaven Is Perfect (5.43-48).
Jesus has been slowly building up to this final revelation of the love that epitomises the Kingly Rule of God and the One Who is over it. There was to be no hatred or insulting of others, no dividing of married couples made one, total openness and honesty, loving response to unpleasantness, and now all is capped by a picture of total love.
Analysis of 5.43-48).
Note that in ‘a’ they are to reveal that they are like their Father in Heaven, and in the parallel they are to do the same. In ‘b c’ and its parallel we are presented with the two similar alternatives within a threesome, something which has been a regular feature of this whole passage. The threesome is found firstly in ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’, secondly in the double contrast of the alternative position, and thirdly in the final demand that they be perfect.
The passage once again commences with a statement made by others. ‘It has been said.’ This represents the popular attitude. And what has been said is that ‘love your neighbour’ necessarily excludes one’s enemy. The statement had thus clearly become somewhat commonplace that ‘you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. Here a central feature of the Law appears seemingly to have been taken up, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19.18), but then limited by the addition of what seems a commonsense rider, ‘you shall hate your enemy.’ But in fact it will be noted that the whole emphasis of the first statement has by this been altered. The idea of the demanding depth of the love revealed in Leviticus 19.18 is dropped (‘as yourself’) so that the cutting edge is removed, while the contrast with the enemy takes away even more force from the idea of love. It has simply become a statement seen as speaking of friendship as against enmity. In this form it is very similar to ideas expressed at Qumran, ‘love the sons of light -- and hate all the sons of darkness’. It has become a parochial representation of national solidarity, and a softening up even of the requirement to a neighbour. And we can also parallel the idea in Rabbinic teaching, where commenting on Leviticus 19.18 we find the comment, ‘against others (who are not your neighbours) you may be revengeful and bear a grudge’. Although that must not necessarily be seen as typical of all Rabbinic teaching.
Jesus then deals with this misrepresentation and dilution of the Law by disposing of the statement ‘hate your enemies’. This removes all doubt on the matter. He is saying that His disciples must rather positively love their enemies, and must pray for those who persecute them. This fact that they must pray for those who persecute them demonstrates that it therefore includes their personal ‘enemies’. But that ‘enemies’ here is intended to cover a wider range, and does not just indicate personal enemies (although it does also include them), comes out in the statements that follow. It is to cover all men everywhere, in the same way as God makes His sun rise on all men everywhere, and it is to be towards those whom men would not expect to be loved, for it is to be different from the way in which civil servants and Gentiles were wont to behave.
The love is then given a practical edge. They are also to pray for their persecutors, the idea being that the prayers will be positive and for blessing on those who persecute them. This adds to the conception of love. Their love is to be towards those who are actually at the time using them badly. The love is to be both personal and universal, and also practical. For to the Jew nothing was more practical than praying for God’s blessing on another. With that prayer would go all his goodwill and practical support. The prayer is to be a positive attempt to bring good down on their persecutors. The mention of persecution takes up 5.11, and therefore includes all who treat them badly and seek ill of them. These too are to be loved.
Defining this love is not as easy as saying it. Certainly it includes the thought of doing good to all men (compare Luke 6.27-28, 32-33; Galatians 6.9-10; 1 Thessalonians 5.15) but it must also include the thought of a beneficent attitude towards them. We should not be satisfied just with behaving well, our attitude must be right as well. While we cannot feel affectionate towards all, we can certainly have a feeling of beneficence towards all. We can ensure that we see them as God sees them. We can ensure that we do not hate or despise them, even while we hate what they do and despise their behaviour, because God despises it. But we are to recognise that they are fellow human beings like ourselves and are themselves therefore loved by God (Who in fact loves us and yet despises and hates the sins of us all).
This is an advancement on the Psalmist in Psalm 139.20-22, although we should note that there he was probably dealing with assailants who were seeking his blood, and were openly rebelling against God’s authority. And besides, it was really their sins that he hated. But that in the Old Testament period His people were to treat their enemies rightly comes out in such verses as Exodus 23.4-5; Proverbs 24.17-18; 25.21.
While many examples can be cited, taken from writers of many nations, which recommend a show of love towards enemies, none is as open, and without an intention to benefit by it, as this by Jesus. Such an attitude is indeed only possible to one who is under the Kingly Rule of Heaven and therefore recognises that nothing earthly can overthrow it or prevent its progress, so that he knows that he will triumph in the end, because God will triumph. It is altruistic love from a position of security and strength, with no strings attached.
The Babylonian ‘Counsels of Wisdom’ said, ‘Do not return evil to the man who disputes with you, requite with kindness your evildoer’ but the aim was so that the person might come out of the court case that he was facing unscathed. Cicero recommended love and mercy as the best way of being able to rule men, but again he had an ulterior motive in view. How to control the masses. Epictetus declared that the true Cynic ‘while he was being flogged must love the men who flogged him, as though he were father and brother of them all’, but this is because he himself delighted in whatever came from the hand of Providence and therefore saw all as good. Seneca even said, ‘if you wish to imitate the gods, do good deeds also to the ungrateful, for the sun also goes up on the evil, and the sea stands open even to pirates’. But note that it is an ‘if’, not a command. It is merely a general comment, to be observed or not as they wished. All this is good, but it falls short of Jesus’ demand for absolute love under all circumstances and for no other motive than to be like God, Who expects nothing in return.
‘That you may be sons of your Father Who is in heaven, for He makes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’ Just as being a peacemaker would result in His disciples being called ‘the sons of God’ (5.9), so here those who love their enemies will reveal themselves to be true sons of their Father, and are to become so more and more. They are to seek to earn the approving epitaph, ‘they are their Father’s sons’. For His mercy is in general unrestricted. He sends equal benefits on all. And they must do the same. This does not mean, of course, that the whole of the rest of the Bible is being cancelled out. God’s antipathy to sin (His wrath) is still fully true, judgment still awaits all. Nor does it deny His special love for His own (nor the special love that Christians have for one another). But the point here is that meanwhile God in a general way treats all the same, and is beneficent towards all, and that therefore those who are under His Rule must do the same. This demonstrates the remarkable universality of the love that is required of us. We too are to love all.
Jesus then draws attention to the difference between what He is describing and what is more common among men. He points to two types of people who would not be looked on with favour, and who would not be expected to have any love for most Jews. The first are the civil servants’ or ‘tax collectors’. They were out to screw what they could out of people, (or certainly that was the way in which they were seen), and yet they could still love their family and friends. They loved those who loved them. And the same was true even of the Gentiles. Even they greeted warmly those who were their friends or comrades. So both national outcasts and an outcast world were capable of love. And with the salutation went hospitality. Thus loving others was not in itself a sign of anything remarkable. But His disciples were to reveal how different they were from both by loving those who did not love them, and by greeting warmly and giving hospitality to those who did not greet them. Implicit within these references is that they were also to love the tax collectors and the Gentiles. Otherwise how would they be different from them? Thus none are to be excluded from their love. And they are to do it in order to be like God, in order to reveal that they are true sons of the Kingly Rule of Heaven.
The first thing to note here is that ‘you’ is both plural (in contrast with much of what has gone before) and emphatic. It means ‘you band of disciples’ (you new congregation of Israel), in contrast with all others. This idea of the completeness and ‘perfection’ of the whole body particularly comes out in Ephesians 4.12-13. Those separated to God (His ‘saints’ or ‘holy ones’), who are being taught by those appointed by God, are to be ‘perfected’ for His service. And that will go on until ‘we all attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a ‘perfect’ man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’. This is the aim set before God’s people as a whole. By this the Kingly Rule of Heaven will be manifested and they will be the light of the world. So while it applies to each, it also applies to all, and when one comes short he mars the whole body. In view of this it can therefore only indicate potential perfection rather than present perfection, the hope of what is to be striven for and finally achieved.
Here in the context of Matthew we may see this command statement as either closing off these few verses (43-48) or as closing off this whole section (5.17-48). If the former it has in mind the universal and all-embracing love of God described in verses 43-48. Their ‘perfection’ or ‘completeness’ will be revealed by their being ‘all embracing’ in their love like God is. Those who fail to love all will not be ‘perfect’ as their heavenly Father is, for He does love all, and they will thereby mar the whole body. Alternately it may be emphasising the need to fulfil all that is contained in the Law and the Prophets concerning God’s Instruction, as in 5.17. In this case it has in mind the need to observe every last detail of God’s Instruction (5.19), thus being ‘like God Himself’ by seeking to achieve the total fulfilment of His revealed will. That is why those who break one of the least of the commandments and teach men so will be called ‘least’ in the Kingly Rule of Heaven (5.19). They are a blot on the whole. For, as we will see below, being ‘perfect’ is often linked with conforming to the whole will of God.
We may also see ‘you shall be’ as indicating firstly what their aim must be, they are to be ‘perfect’ in their loving and in their living as God is, and secondly as indicating what will in the end be the result of their being His disciples and totally committed to His will. They will become ‘perfect’ in the fullest possible sense, for they will one day be like Christ, and will see Him as He is, which is why they are now to seek to purify themselves even as He is pure (1 John 3.2-3).
These two aspects of perfection come out if we consider other verses where the word is found. For the word translated ‘perfect’ here is ‘teleios’, which means ‘attainment of an end or aim, completeness, being all-embracing, being of full measure, being fully grown, mature, and up to standard, being perfect’. Thus in 19.21 the rich young man would be ‘perfect’ if he sold all and followed Jesus. He would be rounding off his present high standard and ‘making it complete’. He would be filling up what was lacking in his attitude by getting rid from his make-up of the love of wealth and becoming someone totally dedicated to Jesus, seeking first the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness (6.33). It was the one thing lacking in him. Once he had done that his dedication to God would be complete. In Romans 12.2 Paul speaks of the need for us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, for that is what will constitute our true spiritual worship and priestly service. And this will be achieved by our not being conformed to this world, but by our being transformed by the renewal of our minds, that we may prove what is the good, acceptable and perfect will of God. Both 19.21 and Romans 12.2 are indicating that in order for us to be ‘perfect’ and be matched with the perfect will of God there must be total dedication and separation from the world and its aims and follies, and total commitment to following Jesus, with minds and wills that are open to the working of God. And here in Matthew Jesus expected that of the whole band of disciples. They were to be team players in the game of love.
In 1 Corinthians 2.6 Paul writes of ‘speaking wisdom among those who are perfect’, that is among those who are so dedicated and in tune with God that their minds are spiritually attuned to receive spiritual truth (1 Corinthians 2.12-15). In 1 Corinthians 14.20 being ‘perfect’ is contrasted with being like a child, ‘in malice be children, but in how you think (in mind) be perfect’. They are not to be developed in malice, but they are to be developed and fully grown in how they think. It therefore means fully grown spiritually, spiritually adult and mature. In Ephesians 4.13 Paul says, ‘until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’. Here what we should aim to be is described and ‘perfection’ indicates becoming like Christ in all His fullness through believing in Him and knowing Him more and more, something to be eventually achieved by the whole church, even though it has not yet been achieved. In Philippians 3.12, 15 Paul recognises that he is not already perfect (cognate verb), that is fully fitted for resurrection, and that is because he does not as yet sufficiently know Christ and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death. And yet he does class himself among those who are ‘perfect’, that is, are morally and spiritually mature, who should therefore be pressing on towards the goal, towards the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (when full perfection will be theirs). In Colossians 1.28 it is Paul’s aim, by admonishment and teaching in all wisdom, to present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. In Colossians 4.12 Epaphras is depicted as striving in his prayers for the Colossians, praying that they might stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God. He longs for them to be people of full faith. In Hebrews 5.14 milk is for babes but solid food is for perfect, that is, full grown men, but full grown men who have, by reason of use, had their senses exercised to discern between good and evil. In James 3.2 the man who can control his tongue demonstrates that he is a perfect man, able to control his whole body. He is fully mature and in total control. Thus ‘perfection’ firstly has in mind full growth and maturity in spiritual and moral experience, and secondly becoming like God Himself in the fullness of spiritual and moral experience.
Coming back to Matthew then Jesus is not speaking of the attainment of individual disciples, but of the attainment of the whole. He sets before the whole band what their goal together must be, although, of course, in the fulfilment of that goal each individual must play his part. Thus perfection is the goal and the end, not achievable (except theoretically) immediately, but to be attained in the end. It is what his band of disciples, and later His newly founded ‘congregation’ (16.18; 18.17), are to be aiming for. And it must be achieved in terms of what He has been saying, and especially in their revealing of universal love, that is, of love to all, in the same way as God’s beneficence is revealed towards all.
By this they are to reveal the all round perfection of their Father. And they will do so by the complete fulfilling of His perfect Law (Instruction), because in that Law is revealed His very nature. In Leviticus 11.44-45; 19.2; 20.26 God had required His whole people to be holy as He was holy, separated from sin and set apart so as to reveal His all round goodness, and therefore as having to keep themselves from all that was defiling. And that had included love for their neighbour and for the foreigners among them (Leviticus 19.18, 34). That still remained true. They were to be in the world but not of the world. But now they were above all to reveal this by the heavenly love that they showed for all the world, in the same way as their Father in Heaven did. While separated from the world as citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3.20) under the Kingly Rule of Heaven, they were to embrace all who were in the world within the embrace of their love. And by this they would as a whole become complete men and women, developing into full Christlikeness, ‘to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Ephesians 4.13), with each one being an essential part of the whole.
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