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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
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 than being judgmental 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’ (the word 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:
And what does this attitude demonstrate? Why, that such a person is not really wanting to be healed, is not desirous of being ‘saved’ at all. For a saved person who has been transformed in the way that we have just examined in 5.3-9 would never have said that. He would have carried on obeying God’s Law because of the compulsion within him. We can compare here the two women who were arguing before Solomon as to whose the live baby was (1 Kings 3.16-22). One was prepared to lose the baby rather than see it killed. The other was prepared to see it killed rather than that the other should have it. Solomon thus had no doubt as to whose the baby really was. She proved it by her attitude of heart. And we prove whether we are His by our attitude towards His instruction. As Jesus will shortly say, ‘he who hears my words (concerning the Law) and does them not’ -- will be caught up in a flood of judgment and will be destroyed (7.27).
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 Himself 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 it, to build it up and to cause it 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. It meant 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 it does not mean that heaven and earth will not literally pass away, 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 it 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 not having contempt for others (they are rather to be poor in spirit, meek, peacemakers); not having wrong attitudes with regard to marital and sexual relationships (they are to be pure in heart); not 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 (ge-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 a 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; Proverbs 15.8). 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 first 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. The second 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. He speaks as One conscious of the fact that He has unique authority from God. 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. (The idea of ‘throwing it from him’ indicates that He did not intend to be taken literally). 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 spoken of here (‘was said’) 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 intended 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’ (Genesis 15.16). 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 by God, 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. It was thus 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 by an oath, 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 to 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 it 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 any real physical damage to the one whom he strikes. 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 it is 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 us 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 by imputation - Hebrews 10.14) 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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