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The Message of the King
The first four chapters of Matthew successfully portray Jesus as Messiah and demonstrate the dual nature of His mission: to fulfill the Old Law and to establish the New (Matthew 5:17-18).
Chapters five through seven retell Jesus’ first sermon and are the heart of this new system of law. In this sermon Jesus lays the groundwork for His subsequent ministry and the development of the church by depicting the natures of His kingdom and its subjects.
The Jews of Jesus’ day grossly misunderstand the nature of the Messianic kingdom. The Jews believe the Messiah will come to establish a political kingdom that will overthrow the current Roman occupation of Palestine. The Sermon on the Mount reveals the true type of kingdom Jesus comes to establish by focusing on spiritual issues. Here Jesus gives spiritual principles and demonstrates that He wants to reign in human hearts rather than an earthly throne, a point He also makes clear to Pilate just before He is crucified (John 18:36).
Although the Jews of Jesus’ day are fond of the Old Law, they grossly misunderstand its nature. As the synoptic records show, the leaders of Jesus’ day not only misapply the Old Law, but also they corrupt it with their human traditions (Matthew 22:29; Matthew 15:3). The pervasive thought is that Mount Sinai symbolizes the summit of God’s communication with man. This misunderstanding also plagues the early church as Judaizers seek to discredit the apostolic doctrine.
The Sermon on the Mount stands in contrast to Mount Sinai. God never intends for the Old Law to remain forever. One of its purposes is to prepare Israel to bring forth the Savior for all mankind (Galatians 3:23-24). The Law condemns but offers no perfect sacrifice for man’s sins (Galatians 2:16). Jesus comes to be the perfect sacrifice and to fulfill the Old Law (John 1:29; Matthew 5:17-18).
The essence of God’s final revelation is contained in the Sermon on the Mount. It is the code for kingdom citizens today. While it bears similarities to and springs from the context of the Old Law, it is fresh and new. It is not a mere re-interpretation of Old Testament precepts. Jesus’ words "You have heard…but I say to you," are not designed, as some maintain, to explain what Moses "really meant." Jesus’ words are new revelation and, as such, demonstrate God’s will for Christians.
Matthew says that Jesus goes about all Galilee, teaching the gospel of the kingdom (Matthew 4:23). What immediately follows this statement is the Sermon on the Mount. Thus the Sermon on the Mount is "kingdom law" and is authoritative for the New Testament church. At the end of this sermon, the people are astonished at Jesus’ doctrine and authority (7:28-29). Such astonishment proves that what they hear is different from anything taught before.
If the Sermon on the Mount is not new law then several conclusions logically follow:
1. John the Baptist fails in his mission. John’s mission is to bring people back to the Mosaic Law and cause a reformation of heart. If Jesus’ teaching is not new, then He and John are equals, and John’s words in Matthew 3:11 are perplexing. Jesus also says that the prophets and the law prophesy until John (Matthew 11:13). This statement indicates that with Jesus’ coming there is a change in God’s divine system.
2. Jesus’ mission fails. Jesus’ mission is to reveal the Father (John 14:7). If Jesus provides nothing more than the Old Testament provides, then God’s nature is as veiled today as when Moses revealed the Law.
3. Jesus’ deity is questioned. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasts His law with the Old Testament. His statement, "but I say to you" shows that He is making scripture rather than quoting it. As deity, Jesus has the right to give new revelation.
4. None of the Sermon on the Mount is binding today. The epistles make it very clear that the Old Law passed away at the cross (Colossians 2:14). If Jesus’ teaching is only commentary on what Moses means, then it is part of the Mosaic system and is abolished at the cross. There is no dilemma with Jesus creating these laws while the Mosaic Law is technically in effect. Hebrews 9:16-17 shows that a testament must be given while a person is alive but only takes effect after his death. Jesus lives under the Mosaic system, but His words take full effect after the cross.
In the final analysis, if the Sermon on the Mount is not law for Christians today, then the church is left with only Acts, the Epistles, and the Revelation. Since most of what we find in the first four books of the New Testament occurs before Jesus dies, if the Sermon on the Mount does not apply to Christians, then neither does the rest of the Gospels’ content.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus uses the context of the Old Law to contrast the New. The use of the terms "contrast" and "New" does not imply that Jesus repudiates the Law. On the contrary, Jesus lives in accordance to the Law while revealing the New. George F. Battey identifies four basic positions Jesus takes toward the Mosaic Law as He preaches the Sermon on the Mount:
1. Jesus sometimes accepts the teaching of the Old Testament and brings it over just as it is. Jesus shows in Matthew 5:43-44 that He fully accepts that one must love his neighbor and binds it for all time.
2. Jesus sometimes adds to the Old Testament teaching. In Matthew 5:21-22 Jesus shows that He accepts the Law’s prohibition against murder but further adds to it a prohibition of anger.
3. Jesus sometimes subtracts from or qualifies the Old Law. In Matthew 5:31-32 He limits divorce to the cause of "fornication." Thus, Jesus subtracts from the permissive Mosaic system.
4. Jesus sometimes rejects the Old Law. The concept of "an eye for an eye," is mutually exclusive to the teaching, "do not resist evil." To "hate one’s enemy" is contradicted by the command to "love your enemy" (Matthew 5:38-42).
In conclusion, the Sermon on the Mount accomplishes three masterful purposes. First, it depicts Jesus’ kingdom as spiritual rather than physical. Second, it contrasts the Mosaic Law with the New Law. Third, it contrasts the religious hypocrisy of the Pharisees with the qualities of God’s children. The sermon stands as a masterpiece, a wellspring for countless sermons. No other selection of scripture more aptly depicts the nature of God. It has been appropriately called "The Magna Charta of the Kingdom," "The Manifesto of the King," "The Compendium of Christ’s Doctrine," and because it seems to come after the choosing of the Twelve, "The Ordination Address to the Twelve" (Luke 6:13). In the final analysis, however, it is "The Truth."
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
And seeing the multitudes: Jesus is always aware of the needs of the masses who follow Him (4:24). He cares for them as does a shepherd, extending His love to them both physically and spiritually (9:35-36; 15:32-38). His sermons are designed for the common people and are in stark contrast to the elitism of the scribes and Pharisees (Mark 12:37).
he went up into a mountain: Scripture does not reveal upon which mountain Jesus gives this sermon. Galilee is hilly country with ample locations from whence a teacher might address a large multitude. Tradition ascribes a hill between Mount Tabor and the Sea of Galilee as the "Mount of Beatitudes." Delitzsch calls this mount "The Sinai of the New Testament" (Vincent 33). Broadus indicates, however, that Matthew’s words should be taken to mean that Jesus goes into a mountain region rather than on a single mountain (Broadus 86).
and when he was set: It is the custom in oriental cultures for a teacher to sit to give his address. The hillside provides a natural "pulpit" from whence our Lord preaches to the hearers below.
his disciples came unto him: The picture Matthew paints is one of serenity. Jesus gathers His disciples to Himself and begins to instruct them in the ways of righteousness. We should not assume, however, that only his disciples are present. Great multitudes follow Jesus, and from their final reaction, it is obvious that they hear His entire address (7:28).
And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying: There is some question as to whether this sermon is the same as that recorded by Luke’s gospel (Luke 6:17). Both sermons seem to have the same time frame and occur after the calling of the Apostles. They also share much of the same content, but Luke’s account is abridged (Matthew has 107 verses but Luke has 30). One marked difference, however, is the fact that Luke indicates that Jesus preaches these words on a "level place" rather than on the mountain. Commentators seek to harmonize these accounts with various explanations. The issue is of little significance. These two accounts may be of the same occasion because it is not unusual for the small mountains found in Palestine to contain level places. It is also possible that like many preachers today, Jesus teaches the same material on several closely related occasions.
Blessed [are] the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Verses three through twelve form the first unit of this magnificent sermon. In these verses Jesus describes the spiritual requirements for the citizens of the Messianic kingdom. Like lightening bolts, the Master’s words jolt His listeners. What He teaches is in antithesis to all contemporary Jewish expectation.
Blessed: Jesus uses the term "blessed" nine times in this section. The Latin term beati (meaning "blessed"), as found in the Vulgate, is the origin of our common title "The Beatitudes" (Fourfold 228). The Greek word employed is makarios and means happy, fortunate, or blissful. In Homer’s day it holds the idea largely of outward prosperity irrespective to moral quality and is used to describe the Greek gods. With the philosophers, however, a moral element is attached but only as it applies to finding virtue in increasing one’s own knowledge. In scripture the word is lifted to its highest connotation. Jesus uses it to symbolize a happiness that is based on pure character and holiness. Scriptural blessedness is not based on outward circumstance or superficial feeling but is based in the reality that one is dedicated to God and is approved by Him. To be approved by God, one’s life must be molded by the principles in His word.
[are] the poor in spirit: By Jesus’ day Judaism has developed into a milieu of pervasive materialism. Outward form has replaced inner substance, and current thinking holds that the messianic kingdom will provide material wealth for its citizens. Many also believe that God Himself will give the higher class (i.e., rich and religious elite) the highest privileges in this kingdom. This thinking, no doubt, originates with the elite as one of their methods of suppressing the poor (Matthew 23:13-14; Luke 18:9).
In the first beatitude Jesus shatters this messianic expectation and shows that His kingdom consists of those who are destitute. Nevertheless, He is quick to clarify the type of poverty He requires. Jesus is not making a statement about material possessions but uses a Jewish misconception to introduce a spiritual truth.
The word "poor" (ptochoi) means to be destitute and carries with it the idea of crouching, cowering, or cringing (Robertson 40). It is the same word that Jesus uses of Lazarus to show his absolute poverty and dependence on the rich man (Luke 16:20). In the context of Matthew 5, Jesus uses the term to describe one who fully comprehends his spiritual poverty and understands that he is totally dependant upon God (Isaiah 66:2).
The Jews need to understand this principle. Many of the conflicts Jesus encounters with the Jews arise over their pride of self-sufficiency. The parable of the Pharisee’s Prayer, for example, is spoken in rebuke of those who trust in themselves that they are righteousness and despise others (Luke 18:9). Paul also encounters this same obstacle in his ministry to the Jews (Romans 10:1).
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven: The first step to becoming a citizen of Christ’s kingdom is the shedding of one’s filthy rags of self-righteousness (Isaiah 64:6). One must acknowledge his total spiritual bankruptcy. Apart from the Father, man is wretched, poor, naked, and miserable (Revelation 3:17) as the Prodigal Son aptly demonstrates (Luke 15:11). As faithful sons, however, citizens of Christ’s kingdom are heirs to untold riches. Salvation is not offered to man because he is worthy but rather because he is utterly destitute of merit. All glory belongs to God (Romans 5:8; Titus 3:5).
Blessed [are] they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed [are] they that mourn: Man is a creature obsessed with physical comfort. Enjoyment, happiness, delight, laughter, and recreation are held at a premium while pain, sorrow, heartache, and tears are avoided at all cost. Each year billions of dollars are spent so that man might forget the human condition. Entertainment, drugs, alcohol, and sex are all billed as the prescription for happiness. Jesus, however, indicates that His followers find blessedness in mourning. "Happy are the Sad," He says, but what does this paradox mean?
There are many things over which the child of God may appropriately mourn: the wickedness of the world, the plight of the oppressed, and the affliction of the innocent, for example. In this context, however, Jesus refers to one’s mourning over his own personal sins. In Jesus’ first beatitude, He reminds us that we must recognize our utter poverty apart from God. This second beatitude speaks of that which separates man and God. Isaiah says, "But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid [his] face from you, that he will not hear" (Isaiah 59:2).
Sin and true happiness are incompatible. The citizen of God’s kingdom finds little joy when sin is in his life. God’s people have always been those who mourn when they trespass against Him. After his sin with Bathsheba, King David cries, "Blot out my transgression, Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me" (Psalms 51:1-3, NKJV). After Peter denies Jesus he goes out and weeps bitterly (Matthew 26:75). Paul’s words remind us that godly sorrow has a vital role because it produces repentance to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Of the nine terms for sorrow, the one Jesus uses (pentheo—mourn) is the strongest and most severe (MacArthur 157). It is used in the LXX to describe the mourning for the dead and represents a heart-wrenching grief (Robertson 40). In this beatitude Jesus paints the picture of total humility and acknowledgment of one’s spiritual plight.
for they shall be comforted: Jesus does not leave us comfortless in our sorrow over sin. He promises strength that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7). Such comfort (parakaleo) comes from the knowledge that our sins are forgiven. It is a sense of pardon, peace, and freedom arising from a restored purity in Him (Ellicott 48). By using the emphatic pronoun (autos—they) Jesus indicates that only those who mourn over sin will be comforted.
The child of God does not need to suffer from perpetual guilt. If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have continual cleansing through Jesus’ blood (1 John 1:7). The Christian’s sins are forgiven with confession (1 John 1:9, James 5:16).
Contextually this beatitude promises comfort from the grief that comes from personal infractions against God. In a more general sense, however, the Christian finds comfort from every earthly sorrow. Even in those instances when the believer mourns this world’s injustice, he takes comfort in knowing that God is in total control.
Blessed [are] the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed [are] the meek: Each of the characteristics Jesus describes stems from a mental disposition. Meekness (praus) denotes one who is gentle, humble, considerate, mild, unassuming, and courteous (Fowler 213). The Greek word is not readily expressed in English because "meekness" is often equated with "weakness" (Vine 56). People assume that one is meek because he cannot help himself. Scriptural "meekness," however, is the fruit of power. It is an inner temperament that results from having the proper relationship with God. This disposition allows the believer to face difficulty and persecution without undue concern about himself or his personal rights. Jesus demonstrates this characteristic when He stands before Pilate and says nothing in His own defense.
Such a statement undoubtedly shocks those Jews who yearn to assert their rights over Rome even to the point of shedding blood. Jesus, however, says that His kingdom is characterized by inner strength rather than external force.
for they shall inherit the earth: The final phrase of this beatitude is the source of much controversy. In order to arrive at legitimate possibilities of meaning, we should first determine what Jesus does not mean.
1. Jesus is not teaching that His kingdom will be an earthly kingdom and that He will rule on earth for one thousand years. Jesus has already demonstrated that His kingdom is spiritual, a fact He will also later tell Pilate (Matthew 5:3-4; Matthew 4:17; Matthew 16:18; John 18:36). This verse does not support the pre-millennial doctrine or the "Paradise Earth" doctrine of the Watch Tower Society.
2. "Inherit the earth" does not refer to material prosperity. While God does not condemn earthly riches, they are not necessarily promised to those who live faithful lives. In fact, the Bible warns about an undue focus on material possessions (Matthew 6:19-20; Matthew 19:23; Luke 18:23; 1 Timothy 6:9; James 4:13). God promises His children their earthly needs (Psalms 37:25; Matthew 6:30), but He does not promise riches in exchange for righteousness. This verse does not support the modern theory that God promises financial prosperity to believers.
What does Jesus mean? Some believe that the righteous inherit the earth in that they will more fully enjoy it, realizing that God has prepared the earth to be used by His people for His glory (Fourfold 231). Others hold that the "meek inherit the earth" in that the righteous will triumph over the wicked on Judgment Day.
Each of these possibilities holds merit but misses the main idea. This verse is better interpreted in light Old Testament history. First, the Greek word for "earth" (gen) may also be translated "land," and the Greek word for "inherit" (kleronomeo) refers to one receiving an allotted portion (Vine vol. 2 13). Therefore, Jesus is saying that the meek will inherit their allotted portion of the Promised Land. Jesus is alluding to the inheritance that God gave ancient Israel when she entered Canaan to teach that His followers will also receive an inheritance. As those who faithfully followed Moses received their inheritance in Canaan, so those who faithfully follow Jesus will receive theirs in heaven—the rest that remains (see Hebrews 3, 4). The Christian is a pilgrim in this world, making his way toward that promised inheritance (1 Peter 2:11; Hebrews 11:10).
Meekness is the key to gaining this inheritance. As noted, meekness stems from an inner quality that allows man to patiently endure life’s hardships. Many under Moses displayed an attitude opposite of meekness and fell in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1-13). Today the believer can fall short of his "rest" if he does not patiently and meekly endure (Hebrews 4:1).
In this verse we again see Matthew’s appeal to a Jewish audience. Unlike Luke, who omits this beatitude, Matthew includes those things that paint vivid images in their Jewish minds.
Blessed [are] they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed [are] they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: Physical nourishment is a basic human necessity. Without food and water, man cannot survive. When one is starving, his only passion is sustenance. When one has no water, his primary concern is to quench his thirst. Such intensity for righteousness (dikaiosune) must be a part of the Christian life also. The believer must have an insatiable desire for "righteousness." Righteousness is obtained by seeking God’s way and walking in His commands (Matthew 6:33). In the first beatitude Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who are void of self-righteousness. In this beatitude He blesses those who fill that void with God’s righteousness.
David portrays the proper attitude when he says, "My soul thirsts for You, My flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water" (Psalms 63:1, NKJV). By using the present participles in Greek (peinontes, dipsontes) Jesus shows we must experience an ongoing, constant, continuous hunger (Fowler 215). Like the Bereans, we must seek righteousness daily (Acts 17:11). It must be a life-long spiritual quest. As we grow spiritually, so too grows our appetite (1 Peter 2:2).
Righteousness requires responsibility on man’s part. It is not simply imputed without obedience. Jesus indicates that man has a role to play in obtaining righteousness by hungering and thirsting for it. John tells us that to be righteous we must practice righteousness (1 John 3:7). Paul reminds Timothy to pursue righteousness (1 Timothy 6:11). He further reminds the Romans that salvation is obtained by obedience to the faith found in the gospel (Romans 1:5; Romans 1:16-17).
for they shall be filled: This is a promise of complete satisfaction. In Christ our spiritual bellies are filled and our every godly desire satisfied (John 4:14). The word "filled" (chortasthesontai) is a very graphic word and originally applies to the fattening of animals in a stall (Vincent 38). Similarly, the Christian never has to go hungry; he can sit at God’s banquet table and feast.
Blessed [are] the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed [are] the merciful: The citizen of Christ’s kingdom must extend mercy to others. The reason is clear: "Those who in poverty of spirit recognize their need of mercy are led to show mercy to others" (MacArthur 187). Citizenship in the kingdom comes with God’s mercy through His Son Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:4). Mercy, forgiveness, love, kindness, and grace all go hand in hand (Matthew 6:14-15). Having received these blessings from God, the believer should find it natural to extend the same to his fellow man.
The Roman world in which Jesus lives knows little of mercy. Theirs is a world characterized by conquest, domination, and human injustice. Mercy is viewed as a sign of weakness and unmanliness. One Roman philosopher goes so far as to call mercy "the disease of the soul" (MacArthur 188). Jesus challenges His hearers to reach out to others with mercy. To despise mercy is, in reality, to glorify brutality (Matthew 5:43-48). Jesus demonstrates ultimate mercy when He says, "Father forgiven them, for they know no what they do" (Luke 23:34).
for they shall obtain mercy: Those who show mercy are promised a measure in return. This truth may be witnessed in two ways. Practically speaking, those who show mercy will obtain it more frequently from their fellow man and will always receive it from God (Psalms 41:1; Proverbs 11:25; James 2:13; Luke 6:37). Mercy always manifests itself through action. It is not just an attitude of the heart but is an extension of the hand (James 1:27; James 2:14-26). God does not need our mercy, thus we can only demonstrate it by our actions toward other humans. As we treat others, so God will deal with us. Thus, in this sense we determine our own judgment.
Blessed [are] the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed [are] the pure in heart: Christianity should not be only an external display of piety. God is concerned with inner substance as well. Having instructed His followers to be merciful to others (verse 7), Jesus now addresses the proper motivation behind such action.
The scribes and Pharisees are notorious for their ritual and ceremonial piety. They scrupulously keep the traditions and the Law, but inside they are like whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:27). Their actions do not stem from true piety but from a desire to be seen of men. Jesus rebukes such impurity of heart (Matthew 6:1-18; Matthew 7:15-23; Matthew 12:33-37; Matthew 15:1-12; Matthew 23:1-36). Ironically, by looking for men’s praise, the Pharisees miss seeing God. Theirs is the fragile reward of earthly recognition not the eternal reward of God’s abiding presence (Matthew 6:1-2).
for they shall see God: The picture is of a subject desiring audience with his king. Spiritually speaking, those who come into God’s presence are not necessarily those who "punctiliously perform but those who are personally pure" (Fowler 219). James says, "Purify your hearts, you double minded" (James 4:8). Paul commands Timothy to be an example of the believers in purity (1 Timothy 4:12). And John tells us that we must be pure for God is pure (1 John 3:3). Because God is pure, He will not accept into His presence any who are impure.
Jesus says that only those who have pure hearts will fully experience God. Impurity of any kind will cloud our relationship with the Father. Those whose hearts are clouded with sin will miss the full joy of God’s abiding presence. Prayer, worship, praise, and service are thwarted by impurity. In order to fully experience God, we must present ourselves as holy sacrifices (John 4:24; Romans 12:1-2).
Blessed [are] the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed [are] the peacemakers: Once again Jesus shatters the Jewish misconception that His kingdom will be one of worldly conquest. The Jews long for a day when Gentiles will grovel at their feet. Jesus, however, turns His followers’ heads toward peace instead of war (Isaiah 2:4). Here He describes the rudimentary disposition of His subjects. As the prince of peace, Jesus calls His disciples to be like Him and mend broken relationships (Isaiah 9:6).
Jesus does not say, "blessed are the peace lovers" but "blessed are the peacemakers." One may love peace and enjoy its benefits without actively involving himself in the process for peace. To be a peacemaker, however, calls for positive intervention. The Christian’s role as peacemaker is two-fold. First, he must actively seek to restore broken relationships between his fellow men. Second, he must seek to bring his neighbor to peace with God through obedience to the gospel (Acts 10:36; Ephesians 6:15).
In every relationship the Christian must seek peace. Between husband and wife there must be peace. Between child and parent there must be peace. In the church there must be peace. And between the Christian and his fellow man there must be peace. God loves peace and blesses those that make it. James says that the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:18). In addition, Paul tells those at Thessalonica to be at peace among themselves (2 Thessalonians 3:13).
for they shall be called the children of God: The Greek word Jesus uses here for "children" is huios meaning "sons." It stresses the believer’s close relationship with God. Just as a "son" emulates his father, so believers emulate God. Just as God makes peace through His son, so His children must live in peace with their fellow man (Romans 12:18).
Blessed [are] they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed [are] they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: In spite of verse nine, the believer’s life will not always be characterized by peace. The apostle Paul promises Timothy that all who will live Godly will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). With persecution, however, comes a blessing: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The real essence of Jesus statement is steadfastness. Blessed is the one whose conviction of mind is strong enough to weather the physical abuse of persecution. Blessed is the one whose faith in God allows him to stand the test. Blessed is the one whose godly character is so anchored that he cannot be bribed with physical comfort.
By this point in Jesus’ ministry the scribes and Pharisees are already setting about to destroy Jesus (Mark 3:6; Luke 6:7-11). Jesus knows that the persecution will only grow in intensity and so warns His followers and promises them blessings if they remain faithful.
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven: Jesus is not saying that all persecution is beneficial. God is not interested in bodily asceticism merely as a religious exercise. He is not interested in those who pose as persecuted to gain attention. Rather, one will be blessed if he suffers for righteousness’ sake. There must be a right reason behind our suffering. Peter makes it clear that we are blessed if we suffer as a Christian (1 Peter 4:14-16). When we are mature enough to endure persecution for Jesus’ sake, then the kingdom will be ours.
Blessed are ye, when [men] shall revile you, and persecute [you], and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Blessed are ye: This verse continues the same thought as verse 10. Again Jesus makes the point that suffering is sometimes the result of righteousness. Persecution to early Christians is very real and comes in many ways. To publicly announce one’s faith often results in lost jobs, business, and livelihood. To profess Jesus publicly sets one at odds against official state religions leading to imprisonment and often death. Professing Christianity might also lead to alienation by friends and family. Jesus reminds us that we are blessed when we suffer these things for His sake.
when [men] shall revile you: Jesus mentions three basic ways evil men persecute the righteous. First, they do it with words. The word "revile" (oneidizo) carries the idea of seriously insulting and literally means "to cast in one’s teeth" (Vine 263).
and persecute [you]: Second, evil men might persecute believers with physical and bodily harm. The word "persecute" (dioko) has the basic meaning of putting to flight when threatened with bodily harm (Vine 178).
and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake: Third, believers might face the spread of false rumors. They may be slandered for their faith. The Lord adds the word "falsely" in order to modify the type of evil spoken against His followers. Obviously no evil accusation should find its basis in truth since the Christian’s life must be above reproach.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great [is] your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
Rejoice: There can be joy in the midst of persecution. Unlike happiness that is based on circumstances, true joy is a product of the will. One decides to be joyful in spite of difficulty because of his eternal relationship with God. Joy is a discipline that must be learned. Paul reminds the Philippians that he has learned to be content in every situation (4:11).
and be exceeding glad: The term "be glad" (agalliao) literally means to skip and jump with excitement—to be overjoyed. Like a happy child, the believer can "skip for joy" as he excitedly realizes that God has everything under control.
for great [is] your reward in heaven: The reason the believer skips for joy is because there is a great reward in heaven (2 Timothy 4:8). Earthly possessions fade and might be lost, but heavenly treasures are eternal (Matthew 5:19-21).
for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you: For the persecuted citizen of God’s kingdom there is comfort in knowing that he is in good company. When one is persecuted he stands in the same illustrious class as Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Elijah.
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
Having completed the character requirements for the citizen of His kingdom, Jesus now gives the job description. The Christian has a mission, and his life is filled with purpose. No believer should ever feel worthless or without significance because God has granted the challenge of impacting others. Jesus’ words about salt and light demonstrate this truth. No metaphor gives a more apt description of the Christian than these.
Ye are the salt of the earth: Salt has long been a precious commodity. In Roman times soldiers are often paid in salt. The expression, "worth his salt" comes from this practice. The word "salary" also stems from this concept. In addition, salt in ancient societies is a token of friendship. To share salt with another denotes companionship. Salt is also used to bind contracts. In 2 Chronicles 13:5 God makes a covenant of salt with his friend King David. Salt is also used in Levitical offerings (Leviticus 2:13).
Opinion varies as to why Jesus compares His followers to salt. Some indicate that, like salt, the Christian is to be the flavor of the world. How unpalatable this world would be without Christians and their influence!
Others see this metaphor as a depiction of the pain and discomfort the Christian causes this world. Just as salt stings a wound, so the believer’s godliness pains the wicked. The ungodly have never found Christians to be good company.
Some see an analogy between the Christian and salt in that, like salt, the Christian whets the sinner’s thirst for godliness.
Still others see the pure white color of salt as indicative of the pureness of the Christian life.
but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men: Connected with the responsibility is a warning. When the believer ceases to exert a saving influence on the world, he is no longer beneficial to God’s purpose. Just as salt can lose its flavor when tainted with foreign materials, so the Christian can become insipid when corrupted by the world (2 Peter 1:4). His utter uselessness is seen in Luke’s phrase, "it is fit for neither the land nor the dunghill" (Luke 14:35). The phrase "lost its savour" (moranthei) comes from a verb which means to be dull, sluggish, to play the fool, and depicts a lack of efficacy (Robertson 42).
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
Ye are the light of the world: The next three verses form one continuous unit in Jesus’ second metaphor. Like the first, this metaphor aptly portrays the nature of the Christian’s life and saving influence.
Light is a necessary element for both physical and spiritual life. Here Jesus describes His followers as those who illuminate a world lost in spiritual darkness. Paul describes the Philippians as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (2:15) and commands the Ephesians to walk in the Lord as children of light (5:8).
The believer is illuminated by and reflects the light of Christ. Jesus says, "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12; John 9:5; John 12:35; John 12:46; Matthew 4:16). The Christian reflects the light of Jesus by obeying the gospel and by living by it daily. Doing this, he can save himself and others (1 Timothy 4:16).
A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid: Many ancient cities are built on hill tops. Such a vantage point provides protection from enemies and visibility to travelers. Just as an elevated city cannot be hid, so the Christian’s influence must be visible to lost sinners. McGarvey aptly notes that because the Christian lives in view of all, neither blemish nor beauty will be concealed (52). Thus, Jesus’ illustration applies to being both a good or bad example.
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
Neither do men light a candle: The Greek word lynchnos refers to an oil-burning lamp that is commonplace in every ancient household (Earl 3). These lamps are often small and can be concealed within the palm of one’s hand, yet when filled with olive oil and lit, they provide the necessary light for the one-room cottages of Palestine. In like manner the Christian may seem small in the vast darkness of this world, but when filled with the oil of righteousness and burning brightly, he dispels much darkness (Matthew 25:4).
and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick and it giveth light unto all that are in the house: Like a lamp, the Christian is of no use if his light is covered. Jesus speaks here of the foolishness of placing a lamp under a measuring basket. The lesson is that Christians must not allow anything to hinder their illumination. When a believer’s light is dim, both he and others will stumble. Christians must trim their wicks by removing sin, worldly cares, and by dedicating themselves to the Lord. Mark’s gospel illustrates a similar teaching but adds that men do not put a lamp under the bed (Mark 4:21). Lamps are designed to be placed on stands so that their light can be seen. So, too, Christians are designed to shine forth their good works.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
Christianity is neither an exercise in self-stimulation nor in self-exaltation. Rather, it is a lifestyle of serving God so others will glorify Him.
Jesus’ words drive a stake in the heart of Pharisaistic piety. Seeking only to elevate themselves, the Pharisees have little interest in glorifying God. Jesus’ disciples, in contrast, produce good works so that God receives the glory (John 15:8; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Philippians 1:11; 1 Peter 2:9).
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
What follows in the remainder of this chapter is a contrast between the Law of Moses and the Gospel of the Kingdom (4:23). Six times our Lord uses the phrase "ego de lego humin" (But I say unto you) as He contrasts His teaching to the Law and assumes superiority over it (Robertson 44).
At least two reasons may be given for Jesus’ clarification of His position toward the Law. First, He wants all to clearly understand that He respects the God-given authority of Moses. His mission is not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. Second, by this statement, Jesus disarms any charge of blasphemy by the Jewish leaders who constantly seek to entrap Him (Matthew 9:3; Matthew 26:65; Luke 5:21; Luke 10:25).
Think not that I am come to destroy: The term "to destroy" (kataluo) means to loose, dissolve or to pull in pieces (Broadus 98). It carries with it idea of demolishing and is used of the Temple in Matthew 24:2. In Matthew 5 Jesus uses the term in antithesis of "to fulfill" (pleroo) which carries the idea of completion, accomplish, make full, or to fill up (Vines 22). Jesus comes to accomplish the prophecies of the Mosaic system concerning Him.
the law, or the prophets: The Law (Hebrew: torah) is a technical term used specifically to describe the Pentateuch (i.e., the first five books of the Old Testament). At times, however, it is used in a general way to denote the entire collection of Old Testament scripture. The term "prophets" includes both the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) and the Prophets (Isaiah, Daniel, etc.). Therefore, when Jesus combines these terms, He is referring to the entire Old Testament.
I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil: Jesus explains that His mission is in complete harmony with the Law. As the Messiah, He fulfills its prophetic promises. Jesus does not "destroy" the law by disobedience neither does He "destroy" it by letting it remain unfulfilled. He keeps the Law perfectly and carries out every prophetic utterance regarding His ministry. When these prophecies are accomplished, the Law can be taken out of the way (Galatians 3:24-25; Ephesians 2:15; Colossians 2:14).
It should be noted that the word "fulfill" in this context does not have reference to Jesus giving the true meaning of the Law or filling up what was lacking in its deep spiritual content. Jesus is not raising the Mosaic standard to spiritual perfection and thus leaving Moses’ Law intact. Jesus is giving the gospel of the kingdom—a new and spiritual law with a more powerful energy (James 1:25).
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
For verily I say unto you: The word "verily" is translated from the same Greek word from which we get our term "amen." It is a term denoting verity, agreement, or truth. The Lord often uses "amen" to introduce new revelations and to demonstrate their validity (Vine 53). In using the term Jesus calls His hearers’ attention to the divine truth He is about to say.
Till heaven and earth pass: The most sure and permanent physical structures known to man are heaven and the earth. By using the phrase "till heaven and earth pass," Jesus proverbially demonstrates the certainty of the Law’s fulfillment.
Jesus is not saying that the Law will remain in legislative effect until the end of time. Clearly this is not the case (Ephesians 2:15; Colossians 2:14). Luke helps the understanding of this verse by adding, "It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail" (Luke 16:17, NKJV). Jesus’ statement in the first part of this verse is about fulfillment not duration (The Expositors Greek Text 104). The Law’s duration is addressed in the latter part of verse 18.
one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law: Jesus says that not the smallest part of the Law would fail until "all" is fulfilled. By using this phrase Jesus also attests to the minute plenary inspiration of scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). Every jot and tittle is God-breathed. The "jot" (Greek: iota; Hebrew: yod) is the smallest letter of the alphabet. The "tittle" (Greek: keraia—lit. "little horn") refers to a tiny pen stroke used to distinguish between similar letters. An example in modern English would be the difference between a C and a G.
till all be fulfilled: All will remain in effect until it is completed and comes to pass. Here the "all" has reference to the great facts of our Lord’s life, death, resurrection, and the establishment of the kingdom of God (Ellicott 55). Jesus’ words in verse 17, "Think not that I am COME," show that He is referring to His ministry.
Thus Jesus is saying that the Law will pass only when His earthly mission has been accomplished. Fowler correctly observes that in Jesus’ ministry and kingdom all things of the Old Law are either actually or potentially fulfilled. Jesus sets in motion those principles that will accomplish God’s complete purpose (Fowler 247).
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach [them], the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments: Through disobedience, deceit, and manmade traditions, the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day master the art of evading the strength of Moses’ Law in order to nullify its force (Mark 7:9-13). Jesus notes that even the "least" commandment of God is still from God. The Jews also master prioritizing God’s commands, keeping only what they think are the most important. Jesus points out to His followers that disobedience is a habit not easily broken. If one has an attitude of disobedience toward God’s authority in one dispensation, he will struggle with the same under another.
and shall teach men so: One who breaks the law of God himself is more inclined to teach others to break God’s law. This teaching might be done by word or example, like is seen with the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus rebukes this kind of behavior.
he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: "Least in the kingdom" does not infer that God accepts a minimal amount of disobedience into His kingdom. It does not imply that if one rebels against God he will only be demoted and will not fully loose his reward. Instead, Jesus is pointing out the seriousness of breaking God’s law. Those who disobey and lead others astray stand in greater condemnation (James 1:1). All good Jews of Jesus’ day want to be part of the Messianic Kingdom and want every reward it has to offer. To the Jewish mind, therefore, Jesus’ words are a full condemnation.
but whosoever shall do and teach [them]: Jesus places the doing of the law before the teaching of it to others. The teacher must put the truth in himself before he is qualified to pass it on (Robertson 43). Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees for neglecting this process (Matthew 23:3).
the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven: "Great in the kingdom" refers to those whom God accepts. Total obedience is necessary to achieve the reward of heaven. Although God’s grace, via the blood of Jesus, aids us when we sin, obedience is still necessary.
For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed [the righteousness] of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
For I say unto you: "For I say unto you" connects this verse to the last. Having demonstrated the correct attitude toward law, Jesus now draws a contrast between His followers and the Pharisees (Mark 7:9-13; Matthew 23:3).
That except your righteousness shall exceed [the righteousness] of the scribes and Pharisees: Jesus literally says that one’s righteousness must "abound above" (perisseusei pleion) that of the Pharisees (Young’s Literal translation, Matthew 5:20). The picture is that of a river which overflows its banks (Robertson 44). Such a statement undoubtedly shocks Jesus’ audience. The scribes and Pharisees are viewed as the most pious and righteous of the Jews. The problem, however, is that while they observe the Law in minute detail, they do not apply it to their own hearts. They are interested in external purity only rather than inward righteousness. Jesus openly criticizes such hypocrisy and demands more from His followers.
ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven: Jesus does not want those who are only pure outwardly; He wants those who possess purity within. Also, note that the righteousness described here comes from "doing" God’s law (19). It is a righteousness that depends on personal obedience to the faith (Romans 1:6). The notion that God imputes righteousness to us apart from obedience to His law is not found in this verse or elsewhere in the New Testament.
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
This verse begins a series of six contrasts. In each contrast Jesus addresses a major precept from the Old Law and then contrasts it to the New Law. His New Law demands more than external obedience; it demands a change of attitude as well. A careful analysis of each contrast reveals two important points: (1) Jesus begins each section by giving an accurate assessment of the Mosaic Law either by quoting it or summarizing it. (2) He then follows this quotation or summary with His New Testament doctrine.
Some believe that Jesus’ words are primarily aimed at scribal misinterpretation of Mosaic Law. Such cannot be the case because Jesus cites the law as spoken "to" the ancients. He is not addressing the relatively recent perversion that arises between the time of Malachi and John the Baptist.
The Expository Greek New Testament says, "Christ’s position as fulfiller entitles Him to point out the defects in the law itself, and we must be prepared to find Him doing so" (106). Barclay notes that Jesus claims with His own authority the right to make certain changes in the Old Law (134). This is further illustrated by the phrase "But I say" (ego de lego humin). In the Greek this phrase is emphatic, demonstrating the difference between Jesus’ teaching and Moses’.
While the Jews have certainly perverted the Law, and while Jesus may at times allude to such perversions, His major intent is not to correct scribal error. His intent is to reveal new precepts that supercede the old.
The ultimate objective of all judicial law is observable compliance. Earthly judges do not to convict a man of mental infractions against law. The Mosaic system is predominantly such a system. While there are exceptions where God intervenes directly in bringing sin to justice (Joshua 7:14; Leviticus 10:1), punishment is generally meted out by Israel’s leaders who must depend on empirical evidence. Such limitations are unfortunate because a person might keep the letter of the law without being truly righteous in God’s eyes (Coffman 62). Jesus reminds man that the New Law has God as its Judge and that He will bring both thought and deed to light.
Ye have heard that it was said: In each section Jesus addresses His audience with the words "ye have heard" (21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). This phrase has obvious reference to the public reading of the Law in the synagogues on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16; John 12:34; Acts 15:21). The common people, who are often illiterate, depend on the scribe’s verbal reading and interpretation.
by them of old time: The phrase "tois archaiois" is better translated "to the ancients" both here and in verses 27 and 33 (Broadus 102, McGarvey 33) and refers to that which is taught by Moses and the prophets to ancient Israel.
Thou shalt not kill: By quoting the sixth commandment of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:13) Jesus draws attention to the sanctity of life. Life is a sacred gift to be cherished (Leviticus 19:10-13). It is God who breathes life into the first man (Genesis 1:7). While God excuses killing in cases of war, capital punishment, self-defense, and accident under Moses’ Law (1 Kings 2:5; Deuteronomy 19:21; Exodus 22:2-3; Numbers 35:11), He forbids murder with malice.
and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: This is a summation of several Old Testament laws (Exodus 21:12; Leviticus 24:17; Deuteronomy 16:18). When one is accused of murder under Moses’ Law, the various courts have the power of condemnation or acquittal (Deuteronomy 16:18). This "judgment," therefore, does not refer to the end of time but has reference to the smaller tribunals found in every important Jewish town (Broadus 102).
But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
That whosoever is angry with his brother: Under Moses’ law hatred of one’s brother is condemned but does not have the same penalty as murder (Leviticus 19:18). Now, however, Jesus makes hatred equal to murder because they both stem from an evil heart (Matthew 5:43-44). To illustrate that "anger" makes one as guilty as actual murder, Jesus uses a familiar analogy: the Jewish judicial system. As will be noted, in each situation and before each court, "anger" ultimately leads to guilt and conviction.
without a cause: This phrase is not in the best and most ancient manuscripts (McGarvey 54, Broadus 103). Several early church "Fathers" report it absent in "the accurate copies" (Broadus 103). It is probably to be omitted from the text as reflected in the American Standard Version, the New American Standard Version, and the Revised Standard Version. "Without a cause" seems to insinuate that anger is acceptable under certain conditions. However, there is no just cause for the kind of anger discussed in this verse.
danger of the judgment: These words have reference to the local municipal court of the town elders (Deuteronomy 16:18-20; Numbers 35:15-32). Here Jesus warns that "anger" has the potential of leading to guilt before the local court system. In reality, however, Jesus is leading to the conclusion that any improper thought or action ultimately makes one guilty before God. See comments below.
and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca: "Raca" is an Aramaic term of contempt or scorn meaning "empty-headed, blockhead, or senseless."
shall be in danger of the council: The "council" refers to the Sanhedrin—Israel’s Supreme Court. This body, composed of seventy men, tries the most serious offenses and pronounces the severest penalties, including death by stoning (Acts 6:12 to Acts 7:60). Again, the point is the same as above. Jesus uses the court system of Israel to show that God judges the man who resorts to verbal scorn just as guilty as if he were being guilty of a capital offense.
but whosoever shall say, Thou fool: "Fool" (more) primarily denotes one who is dull, sluggish, and stupid and has reference to moral worthlessness. To call someone by this term shows utter contempt for God. To so criticize the creature slanders the Creator. When an angry person demonstrates such an attitude toward his fellow man, he is not far from the actual act of murder.
shall be in danger of hell fire: "Hell fire" (geenna tou pyros) has reverence to the Valley of Hinnom, a ravine south of Jerusalem, where once the pagan god Moloch was worshiped (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3; Jeremiah 7:31). When Josiah abolishes these pagan practices, the valley is turned into a fiery dumping ground for filth and the corpses of criminals (2 Kings 23:10). The term "Gehenna" is borrowed by Jesus to denote the final eternal punishment of the wicked (Matthew 5:22; Matthew 5:29-30).
Some believe that the three punishments (judgment, council, hell fire) are designed to illustrate degrees of punishment: death by sword inflicted by "the lower courts," death by stoning inflicted by the "Sanhedrin," and "the fire of Gehenna." This, however, seems unlikely and fails to explain how calling someone "fool" is worse than saying "raca" (see Broadus 104). This verse is more easily understood if each of the infractions and subsequent punishments are viewed as being equal. In other words, "anger" leads to "guilt," "raca" leads to "guilt," and "fool" leads to "guilt." In each case the various "courts" pronounce "guilt," and in each case the evil thought begins the process. When interpreted correctly, these verses show Jesus saying that God’s law not only forbids murder but anger with its oral manifestations (Broadus 14). Every infraction, even those of the heart, is liable to judgment before God. Three classes of anger are mentioned. "Anger" is the emotional distaste for another. "Raca" scorns a man’s mind and calls him stupid. "Fool" scorns a man’s heart and character" (Vine 114). The point of this verse is that no one has the right to emotions that lead to contemptuous speech, harmful deeds, or action against his fellow man. Christians should avoid calling others "fool, jerk, stupid, moron," or any other term that demeans a fellow man created in the image of God. Even benign terms, when spoken in anger, can condemn the believer (Matthew 15:19).
Interestingly, Jesus is often angry with the Pharisees and on occasion calls them "fools" (Matthew 23:17; Matthew 23:19; Mark 3:5; John 2:15; John 6:70). The conclusion drawn is that such language might not be essentially wrong in every situation. These terms, however, are reserved by Jesus for the hardest hearts and are not spoken in flippant anger but because He has truly assessed their hearts.
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar: The believer’s relationship with God is intrinsically tied to his relationship with his fellow man. The allusion is to the Temple and the sacrifices the people offer to God (Deuteronomy 16:16-17).
and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee: God will not accept the gifts of a man who knows of a problem with his brother yet refuses to take corrective action. Jesus is not concerned with who is the guilty party. It is the responsibility of the worshiper, the one who seeks a relationship with God, to make the first move toward reconciliation. Jesus’ command is an aorist imperative carrying with it the idea, "Get reconciled, take initiative" (Robertson 44). Pride and self-justification must be abandoned. God will not accept worship from one who will not humble himself before his fellow man (cf. Matthew 18:15-17 and Galatians 6:1).
Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way: Even if the gift is at the Temple and the sacrifice is in progress, even if hands have already been laid on the sacrifice (Leviticus 1:4; Leviticus 3:2), it must be abandoned until the grievance can be addressed.
first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift: The verb Jesus uses here for reconciliation (diallagethi) denotes mutual concession after mutual hostility (Robertson 45).
Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.
Agree with thine adversary quickly: In the previous verse Jesus describes reconciliation in the context of religious service. Here He switches to a judicial setting and gives a parallel teaching. This verse assumes that a legitimate complaint has been levied. Jesus’ advice is to get the matter settled with haste. "Agree" (isthi eunoon—agree with) literally means, "Be well minded toward" (Vincent 40). Thus there must be a proper attitude for reconciliation to occur. Ill thoughts and motives should not be allowed to fester because problems from the heart that are not settled quickly will likely erupt again.
whiles thou art in the way with him: The picture here is a settlement that is made out of court. This is sound advice because it is easier to be reconciled with someone before a dispute reaches litigation than it is after the courts are involved. When the court is involved, the disputants forfeit their say in the matter and must accept the decree of a stranger. The end in such a circumstance will undoubtedly be worse than if one humbles himself and settles privately with the plaintiff.
Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.
The background of this statement is "debtor’s prison." In Jesus’ day such prisons are common (Matthew 18:23-25). When one is found guilty, he is held in prison until he or another pays the debt. McGarvey says, "If it were not paid at all, he remained in prison until he died" (55).
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time: Once again Jesus uses the same opening phrase as in the previous contrasts. While the words "to them of old time" (tois archaiois) are excluded from many manuscripts, the context demands such an addition of thought.
Thou shalt not commit adultery: Here our Lord accurately quotes the seventh commandment as found in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18). The divine principle against adultery, while not coded until Sinai, stems from the creation. When God places Adam and Eve together as husband and wife, they become one flesh. They are glued (Greek: proskollao—glue, cement) to one another inseparably (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5). This bond of marriage is to be kept sexually pure (Exodus 20:14; 1 Corinthians 7:2-3).
Marriage is the most primary of all human relationships. Any sin that fractures the sanctity of this basic building block weakens the fabric of society and ultimately undermines the church. No sin is more devastating than adultery. Adultery destroys trust between husbands and wives. It subjects innocent children to grievous pain It mocks the veracity of the marriage vow, and it destroys the symbolism of Jesus and the church (Ephesians 5:32). Scripture continuously speaks against sexual immorality. It is so serious under the Old Law that it brings the immediate penalty of death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). Under the New Law its penalty is spiritual death (1 Corinthians 6:9; Galatians 5:19-21; Hebrews 13:4; Revelation 2:22; Revelation 21:8).
The specific verb Jesus uses here (Greek: from moichao—commit adultery) in its most technical sense refers to unlawful sexual intercourse with the spouse of another (Vine 33). As the context indicates, however, all sexual impurity and lust is condemned even in such cases where neither party is married.
But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
But I say unto you: With the emphatic phrase "I say unto you" (ego de lego humin) our Lord manifests His authority as He equates adulterous thought and action (Matthew 7:29). While the tenth commandment of the Decalogue condemns coveting a neighbor’s wife, there is no legal recourse for such thoughts, unlike with the verifiable act of adultery (Leviticus 18:20; Leviticus 20:10-20). In this passage Jesus shows that even the mental infraction makes one guilty before God. Jesus’ words intensify, internalize, and spiritualize the Law’s previous prohibition. Notice again that in each of these contrasts Jesus is not simply correcting scribal misinterpretation of the Law. If this were His intent, He could have simply cited the tenth commandment. Instead He lays down new and authoritative law.
That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her: Just as murder stems from an impure heart (Matthew 5:22) so does adultery. No man will commit such a grievous act if his thoughts are pure before God (Psalms 119:11; Matthew 5:8; Romans 12:2; Philippians 4:8). In this verse Jesus goes beyond the carnal act and takes issue with the root of the problem (James 1:14-15; 1 Peter 2:11).
The type of look that Jesus condemns here is not one of admiration or affection but one of longing lust. Broadus says that it is an intentional looking for the purpose of stimulating and delighting an impure desire (108). The word Jesus uses (blepo—look) is a present participle and refers not to an incidental or involuntary glance but to a continuous gaze (McArthur 302).
Sin is not produced by the temptation itself but by the response of the believer toward it. If one rejects illicit desires, purity will be maintained and spiritual growth may actually result from the temptation (James 1:12). If, on the other hand, lust is allowed to reign, sin will compound. A good example is David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 2:11). David is not at fault for seeing Bathsheba bathing; his sin results from his unbridled lust and what subsequently takes place.
No verse is more applicable for modern Christians than this one. Explicit movies, television programming, print media, society’s relaxed morality, and immodest dress make today’s battlefield treacherous. Every believer, male and female, must make a covenant with his eyes to resist sexual temptation (Job 31:1; Psalms 119:37; 2 Timothy 2:22). Fantasy (the mental enjoyment of a sin not yet committed in the flesh) should also be driven from the Christian life.
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast [it] from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not [that] thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast [it] from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not [that] thy whole body should be cast into hell.
Our Lord demonstrates the seriousness of sexual impurity by two astounding illustrations. Taken together, they show the progressiveness of lust. What is seen with the eye and enjoyed with the mind will very often be acted upon by the hand.
offend thee: The phrase "offend thee" (skandalizei se) may be better translated "make you to stumble." This substantive form of the verb carries the idea of a snare or trap that quickly springs shut when an animal touches it (Robertson 46).
pluck it out, and cast [it] from thee, cut it off, and cast [it] from thee: Anything that ensnares the Christian must be radically removed regardless its preciousness. In Jewish culture the right eye and the right hand represent the best sight and skill of a man (Zechariah 11:16; Exodus 29:20). To lose either will be considered tragic, yet such will be a small price to pay if one’s soul can be saved.
Our Lord is not advocating ritualism or self mutilation. Paul warns against asceticism in Colossians 2:21-22, and Jesus rejects ritualism in Matthew 15:20. One might pluck out his eyes and cut off his hands and still be lost at the final judgment. No amount of physical mutilation will cleanse the heart (see Matthew 15:1-21 and Mark 7:1-23). By using figurative language and hyperbole, Jesus shocks His hearers as to the seriousness of sin (Matthew 18:8-9).
It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife let him give her a writing of divorcement.
Verse 31 is a basic summary of all that the Mosaic system legislates on divorce (Fowler 279). It has Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as its specific backdrop.
God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) and never authorizes it under Mosaic Law. Jack P. Lewis observes, "No Hebrew law institutes divorce any more than it does polygamy and concubinage" (Lewis, Difficult Texts, 16). Because of Israel’s hard hearts, however, God regulates it. Deuteronomy 24 is an ex-post-facto regulation of this societal horror.
Moses commands that a "writing of divorcement" be given when a divorce occurs. There are two primary reasons for this command. First, it protects the woman from being sent away by an angry and impulsive husband. The husband will be required to calm down and issue a certificate of divorce. Second, it prohibits the remarriage of a divorced woman to her first husband after she has been "defiled" by a second marriage. In other words, a husband must think twice before divorcing his wife because if she marries another, he cannot take her back. Thus Moses is not sanctioning divorce but is discouraging it and is preventing wife swapping. Jeremiah addresses this issue by asking, "If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man’s, shall he return unto her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted?" (Jeremiah 3:1).
To fully grasp the meaning of this verse and what Jesus says in verse 32 it is necessary to understand that Mosaic Law does not allow divorce for the cause of fornication. Whatever the cause under consideration in Deuteronomy 24, it is not sexual immorality. While both ancient and modern commentator dispute the meaning of "some uncleanness" (Hebrew: ervath dabhar—lit: the nakedness of a thing—the stated cause of the divorce of Deuteronomy 24:1), scripture clearly shows that it does not refer to fornication or adultery. The Mosaic Law addresses five different situations of fornication, but not one allows for divorce. Notice the following cases:
A. Premarital impurity between a man and an unmarried, unengaged woman results in marriage or a fine but not divorce. "He may not put her away all his days" (Deuteronomy 22:28-29; Exodus 22:16-17).
B. Premarital unchastity between a man and an engaged woman (not engaged to him) results in a death sentence for the man. The woman’s fate is dependant upon the location and circumstances surrounding the impropriety (Deuteronomy 22:23-27).
C. The post-marital discovery of a wife’s pre-marital unchastity results in the death penalty for the wife (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).
D. Adultery between a man and woman, not married to each other, results in death for both (Deuteronomy 22:22).
E. Suspicion of adultery results in the priestly administration of a divine "bitter water test." If found guilty, the woman suffers a slow and ignoble death from the Lord (Numbers 5:11-31).
"Divorce" is not an option when sexual immorality occurs in the five cases above. Marriage, monetary fines, or death is the result but not divorce. Therefore, we must conclude that the term "some uncleanness" (Deuteronomy 24:1) refers to less than fornication. This is significant because some suggest that "the exception" (Matthew 5:32) is simply a restatement of Mosaic legislation. According to this view, the New Covenant does not provide for divorce and remarriage. This, however, is not the case because fornication never results in divorce under Mosaic Law.
Some maintain that since the word Jesus uses for "divorce" in this verse and in verse 32 is apoluo (divorce, loose, let go free, put away), He is referring exclusively to the Jewish espousal period and is not legitimizing the dissolution of an actual marriage (see notes on Matthew 1:18-19). The major difficulty with this "no-divorce" position is that Jesus’ teaching springs from Deuteronomy 24, which applies to the broken marriage bond not a broken betrothal. Nevertheless, the point is moot because not even the espousal period allows "divorce" on the grounds of immorality since in that cultural context betrothal is an element of marriage. Furthermore, when used in the context of a man and wife, the common meaning of the term apoluo always is to divorce and not merely separation or the breaking of an engagement.
But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
But I say unto you: Jesus again pronounces His authority in matters of divorce and remarriage by using the emphatic phrase "ego de lego humin" (But I say unto you). Consequently, the teaching that follows stands as authority for the church today.
That whosoever: Jesus finishes His teaching in verse 31 the same way He begins—with the term "whosoever." It is apparent that those to whom Deuteronomy 24 is given are God’s covenanted people, national Israel. Likewise it is apparent that those to whom this new restriction is given include only God’s covenanted people, spiritual Israel. Jesus’ teaching is aimed exclusively at those within the church (see full discussion on "whosoever" in Matthew 19:9).
shall put away his wife: This phrase refers to divorce and is the same Greek term used in verse 31 (apoluo—to let loose, let go, set free, divorce).
saving for the cause of fornication: This is the exception in our Lord’s instruction on God’s basic rule of marriage. In no case does an exception negate or diminish the force of the rule. Rather it shows under what conditions the rule may be amended. If this expression is removed from verse 32, we have much the same teaching as is found in Luke 16:18 and Mark 10:11-12 (see Genesis 2:24).
In this place Jesus gives the single cause of "fornication" (pornia) as grounds for the dissolution of the marriage vow. This term, also translated "unchastity," is a general concept that may include incest, prostitution, homosexuality, bestiality, etc. Here it has specific reference to "adultery."
causeth her to commit adultery: If a man dismisses his spouse for reasons other than "fornication," he makes her to commit adultery. The force of this statement is startling. In the case where a husband initiates divorce proceedings against an innocent wife, he becomes guilty. He is the "agent of cause" and shares in immorality. Although a husband may have no control over his wife’s voluntarily sexual sin, if he sends her from his house for reasons other than fornication, God’s judgment stands against him.
The assumption of Jesus’ argument is based on the idea that the dismissed woman will likely remarry. The impact of this teaching escapes the modern reader since society now lauds a woman who is career minded and self-sufficient. In ancient cultures, however, role distinction is more closely maintained. Under harsh Jewish society a woman without a husband might find herself in dire economic straits. Thus she might be forced to remarry.
Other issues that might impact a dismissed woman’s decision to remarry include loneliness, unfulfilled natural desire, and a negative social stigma. McGarvey says, "A woman when divorced by her husband naturally seeks a second marriage, if for no other reason than to vindicate herself from the imputation cast on her by the divorce" (McGarvey 56).
Jesus places the weight of this teaching squarely on the man’s shoulders. The man has the role of "family caretaker." He is to provide both physically (Genesis 3:17-19) and emotionally by nourishing and cherishing his wife (Ephesians 5:29). To do otherwise violates God’s plan of marriage. A man should think twice before dismissing his wife on trivial grounds because by dismissing her he manifests contempt of his responsibility.
and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery: Jesus’ legislation, if followed, eradicates the immorality that results from unscriptural divorce. When this law is rejected, all parties become entangled in guilt: the husband, whose pretended divorce goes for nothing in God’s sight and who by remarriage commits adultery (Boles 143); his second "wife" because he is ineligible to marry her; the first wife, who becomes a fornicator when she marries another (see Romans 7:2); and the second husband who has, in reality, taken another’s wife. Thus four people are involved in the sin.
The clear impact of Jesus’ teaching is that the one who has no right to divorce has no right to remarry. Therefore, any attempt to justify an unscriptural divorce and subsequent remarriage is futile.
Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:
One of the most abhorrent human evils is dishonesty. When God creates Adam and Eve, He places them in a garden of perfection. Harmony exists between God and man. Satan’s entrance brings deceit, and the truth of God is exchanged for a lie.
In this section (verses 33-37) Jesus reminds us that citizens of God’s kingdom are to speak only the truth. God is truth so He expects His children to possess this characteristic (Proverbs 6:16-17; Proverbs 12:22; Psalms 119:163; Revelation 21:8). To illustrate this expectation, Jesus discusses the issue of swearing.
Thou shalt not forswear thyself: The Mosaic Law teaches that the Jew is not to perjure himself (epiorkeo—forswear) and that all oaths are to be made in a special way. Thus, to understand Jesus’ new teaching, note the following background regarding Old Testament oath taking.
Oath taking in the Old Testament is addressed even in the Patriarchal age. Various practices are connected with swearing. In Genesis 14:22 Abram lifts his hand toward God and calls Him as a witness. In Genesis 24:2-9 a hand is placed under the thigh as the oath is taken to underscore the solemnity of the vow. Although oath taking is quite pervasive in scripture, no single formula seems to be followed in the making of oaths. The following scriptures are a few of the Old Testament references that describe the practice of swearing: Genesis 24:7; Genesis 31:50; Genesis 31:53; Genesis 47:29; Genesis 50:5; Genesis 50:25; Judges 21:5; Ruth 1:17; Ruth 3:13; 1 Samuel 1:26; 1 Samuel 17:55; 1 Samuel 19:6; 1 Samuel 20:3; 1 Samuel 25:26; 2 Samuel 2:27; 2 Samuel 3:9; 2 Samuel 11:11; 2 Samuel 15:21; 1 Kings 2:23; 1 Kings 18:10; 2 Kings 2:2; 2 Kings 6:31; Ezra 10:3-5.
Swearing may be defined as a solemn declaration or promise about someone or something with God being called as witness to the inviolability of the speaker’s words. The logic seems to be that Deity fills the void in humanity’s credibility gap. Hebrews 6:16 corroborates this basic definition.
Under Mosaic Law oaths are not only accepted but are commanded at times. Three basic oaths are taken:
1. The Exculpatory Oath—designed to clear oneself from guilt when no witnesses are available as in cases of stolen property (Exodus 22:11), shedding of innocent blood (Deuteronomy 21), and suspected violation of marriage vows.
2. The Adjuration—a summons to appear and give testimony or information. Leviticus 5:1 addresses the necessity of adhering to such a summons. Acan’s family apparently fails to respond to such an adjuration that has been placed on the entire camp, resulting in that family’s destruction (Joshua 7).
3. The Voluntary Oath—though voluntary, once this oath is made it becomes obligatory (Leviticus 5:4). Psalms 15 speaks about the necessity of keeping one’s oath even if made in rashness. The evil wrought in Joshua 9:15, Judges 11:30, 1 Samuel 14:24, and Matthew 14:7 is verdict against rash oath taking.
but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: God is to be the only object of the Jews’ oath. They are not to swear by any other name. The third commandment of the Decalogue says, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord they God in vain." While often viewed solely in the context of profanity, in its strictest sense it refers to false swearing. Keil and Delitzsch say that it "prohibits all employment of the name of God for vain and unworthy objects, and includes not only false swearing…but trivial swearing in the ordinary intercourse of life" (The Pentateuch 118).
Swearing is not wrong in the Old Testament, but it is minutely regulated. It must follow the prescribed formulas as found in passages such as Numbers 30 and must be done only in God’s name (Deuteronomy 6:13). As will be noted, however, the scribes eventually encourage swearing by other than God’s name. They reason that swearing by less important things makes their word less binding. Jesus places this on par with lying.
But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
Swear not at all: If our Lord’s words "swear not at all" (me omosai holos) are taken alone, this seems to be a universal prohibition of all oath taking. History is not without those who so interpret this command. J. A. Broadus lists several groups who have traditionally opposed swearing: Anabaptists, Waldensians, Mennonists, Quakers, etc. He also indicates that such early notables as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, and Jerome decline the practice (Broadus 115).
We find, however, various occasions in the New Testament where individuals call God as a witness or take vows. Jesus himself answers under oath before Caipaphas and the Sanhedrin council. The term used in the Authorized Version is "adjure" (exorkidzo) and refers to being placed under oath (Robertson 217). In Romans 1:19 the apostle Paul calls God to witness the solemnity of his love toward the saints at Rome (see also 2 Corinthians 1:18-23; Galatians 1:20; Philippians 1:8; and 1 Thessalonians 2:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:10). In 1 Thessalonians 5:27 Paul puts the church under oath as he charges them before the Lord that his epistle be read to all. In Romans 14:11 Paul applies to Christians an Old Testament passage that includes swearing (Isaiah 45:23). Other New Testament passages such as Luke 1:73, Acts 2:30, Hebrews 3:11; Hebrews 3:18, Hebrews 6:13, and Revelation 10:5-6 also indicate that swearing is practiced.
The above evidence suggests that Jesus’ prohibition is qualified. The lists of "neither and nor" that follow verse 34 provide the key to understanding God’s restrictions on swearing.
Swear not at all: As noted above, this statement is qualified and must be taken in the context in which it is given. Jesus now gives some examples of the type of swearing Christians are to avoid. The gospels adequately show that by Jesus’ day many religious perversions exist (Matthew 15:9; Mark 7:11). Oath taking has not escaped such perversion. While the scribes despise outright lying, they have concocted a more subtle way of deceit—a loophole to the law. They teach that the obligation to honor their oaths depends on the value of the object by which they swear. They teach that only when God’s name is used is the vow absolutely binding. If lesser objects are sworn upon, the oath is valued in relation to the object used and might even be forgotten (Lenski 235).
neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: To swear by heaven instead of by God is an attempt to circumvent one’s promise. Heaven was created by God and is where His throne is. Therefore, since God cannot be divorced from His place of residence, to swear by one is paramount to swearing by the other.
Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: Likewise, the earth is God’s creation and cannot be divorced from Him. To swear by the earth not only violates Old Testament passages but ignores the fact that God’s presence is everywhere therein.
neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King: To swear by Jerusalem accomplishes nothing in an attempt to remove oneself from the all-seeing eyes of God. Jerusalem is not only where the Temple is but is the city of David and is the representation of the kingdom of heaven.
Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black: Ultimately God controls everything. He not only determines the color of man’s hair, He is the creator of man’s head. Thus to swear by one’s head is to acknowledge God’s presence.
The custom of false swearing that Jesus addresses here is further addressed in chapter 23. Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees and shows again that God cannot be removed from everyday life (see 23:16-19).
Notable Scholars on the Issue of Swearing
From the above it seems clear that Jesus does not forbid all oaths. Judicial oaths and vows made to God on solemn religious occasions are not condemned. McGarvey, however, is right when he says,
"But as these are the only exceptions found in the Scriptures, we conclude that all other oaths are forbidden" (McGarvey 57).
Albert Barnes says, "It was merely the foolish and wicked habit of swearing in private conversation; of swearing on every occasion and by everything that he condemned" (57).
Lenski remarks, "Jesus shows why oaths are still necessary. The prince of this world rules so many men that the state, which has to deal with the ungodly as well as with the godly, is compelled to require oaths in order to establish truth and to confirm promises. Since the world is so full of liars, the state cannot trust a simple ’yea’ or ’nay.’ Hence the Scriptures permit necessary oaths" (239).
A matter of conscience
In similar fashion to the groups mentioned above, many in the church of Christ also universally decline the practice of swearing. This view is to be highly respected. Although scripture indicates that Matthew 5:34 be interpreted in light of Jewish perversion, one must never violate his conscience. While it may be acceptable to swear on solemn occasions and in judicial settings, it is certainly acceptable not to swear. Jesus will illustrate in verse 37 that a Christian’s simple "yes" or "no" should be enough to establish the truth. Swearing is not bound on Christians as a positive imperative. No matter one’s conscience, it should generally be avoided as familiarity may lead to levity.
For those, however, whose consciences are not settled on the issue, the following questions should be considered:
1. What is the difference between swearing an oath and vowing a vow? Does a Christian violate Matthew 5:34 during a wedding ceremony?
2. How may we harmonize those occasions in the life of Paul where he called upon God as witness if all swearing is forbidden?
3. What criteria might we use in determining on which occasions swearing is acceptable?
4. What general need is there to swear in today’s society?
5. How could solemn, or judicial oaths, made respectfully before God be rightfully attributed to the "evil one" (see verse 37)?
6. In substance, what is the real difference in judicial settings between taking an oath and saying, "I affirm."
7. When one who administers baptism raises his right hand what significance does the act have? How does Daniel 12:7 and Revelation 10:5 relate to this practice?
But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: A Christian’s simple "yes" or "no" should be sufficient to establish the truth. Anything more than this comes of evil (i.e., the evil one). The Christian does not need an elaborate system by which he can renege on his word or deceive those that hear him. A Christian means what he says and says what he means. Because believers are children of the King (5:45; 1 John 3:1), they ought to possess the Father’s divine attributes. Therefore, since God is truth, Christians must always speak truthfully.
To swear flippantly in everyday conversation harms credibility for swearing by its nature elevates certain statements above others. Everything a Christian says should be true! Lenski says, "The man whose heart is true to God utters every statement he makes (logos) as though it were made in the very presence of God before whom even his heart with its inmost thought lies bare" (Lenski 238).
for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil: Any deliberate speech other than the truth comes from an evil motive and has the Devil ("the evil one") as its source. Both "evil" and "Evil one" are appropriate interpretations of Jesus’ statement with commentators differing in preference. James, however, indicates that the former is probably correct and says, "lest you fall into judgment" (James 5:12).
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
The last two sections of chapter 5 address the believer’s position toward his enemies. Generally speaking, verses 38-42 give certain restraints while verses 43-48 encourage certain actions. When both sections are combined, a complete and perfectly balanced code of conduct emerges. Luke’s gospel emphasizes this intimate harmony by combining them into one discourse (6:27-36).
An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: The "eye for eye" concept of the Old Testament is found in passages such as Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21. Under Moses’ Law life is given for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, wound for wound, etc.
Mosaic Law is to be carried out in proper judicial form (Exodus 21:22; Deuteronomy 19:18; Leviticus 24:14-16). By Jesus’ day, however, many perversions are occurring within the Mosaic System. In many instances, personal revenge has replaced judicial justice. Many Jews act as their own judge and jury (See Barnes 59, Broadus 117). The scribes have missed the point of the "eye for eye" legislation (lex talionis—law of like for like), which is actually designed as a way to provide mercy and benevolence. Instead, they use it to justify anger and malice. In the next verse Jesus will address this issue, proving that citizens of His kingdom no longer seek personal revenge in any form.
Modern society, because it manifests a general laxity toward law and order, finds such legislation as given under Moses shocking. McGarvey, however, notes that the "eye for eye" concept is the best possible law in a rude society (Fourfold 244). This legislation does produce at least four positive results:
1. It encourages restraint. No society will survive the onslaught of evil without some kind of control mechanism. Unlike Christ’s kingdom, whose citizens submit to inner spiritual guidance (Hebrews 8:10), worldly kingdoms are often forced to "bear the sword" as a means of restraint (Romans 13:4).
2. It is equitable. God does not leave the punishment of offenses to the capriciousness of individual whim. He establishes legislation whereby Israel’s judges can fairly sentence the guilty (Exodus 21:22; Deuteronomy 19:18-21; Leviticus 24:14-16; Hebrews 2:2). The offender will have no more done to him than he has done to his fellow man. While modern society defines justice in terms of "rights" and "legal loopholes," Mosaic Law provides for retributive justice.
3. It is merciful. As in #2, the offender is saved from excessive retaliation by proper legal procedure. Vigilantism, such as Lamach boasts of, is forbidden (Genesis 4:23-24; Leviticus 19:18; Proverbs 20:22; Proverbs 24:29).
4. It prevents crime. Fair and swift punishment produces fear, which, in turn, strengthens law and order (Deuteronomy 19:20). Laxity breeds rebellion. "Lex talionis" provides a swift and pre-set solution to civil disobedience. No long court battles are needed; an offender knows what punishment he will receive even before the crime is committed. McGarvey again notes that the object of Old Testament law is not to sacrifice the offender’s eye but to prevent the crime, thereby saving both men’s eyes (Fourfold 244).
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil:
That ye resist not evil: The key point of Jesus’ magnificent sermon is "righteousness that exceeds" (Matthew 5:20). Unlike the Pharisees who seek personal revenge, Christians are not retaliatory. Believers seek a higher ethic where God is in charge (Romans 12:17). Paul addresses this issue in Romans 12:17 by saying, "Repay no man evil for evil." Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:12, "Being reviled we bless, being persecuted we endure it." Peter commends those who suffer wrong (1 Peter 2:19) and reminds his readers of Jesus’ behavior (2:23).
Jesus’ command, however, must be interpreted in light of its context. Jesus is not advocating spiritual passivity. Neither is He striving to produce sanctimonious "Milque Toasts." He is saying that we are to minimize personal pride and dignity and be willing to accept what unjust behavior is levied at us. Revenge is unacceptable because God is in ultimate control. He will repay (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30).
Jesus’ teaching does not exclude Christians from taking advantage of legitimate legal or civil protection. A Christian has the authorization to use to his advantage those institutions designed of God (Romans 13). But even though a believer might seek such protection from civil judiciaries (Acts 16:36-38; Acts 22:25; Acts 25:10-11; Acts 26:1-2; Romans 13:4), he must exercise caution. What often begins as a quest for justice quickly ends in a hunt for vengeance. When the believer enters the legal system, he enters a worldly arena. Some matters are best left in the hands of God. And while it is clear that Paul, on more than one occasion, seeks protection through legal means (Acts 16:37; Acts 22:25), his appeals seem to be on the grounds that the law, granted by God to civil authorities, has been perverted by his accusers rather than on the grounds that he has suffered personal injury.
Lenski aptly says, "The law is not placed into our hands but is taken out of them. The very God who placed that law and its execution where it belongs, into the hands of the government, places another law and its execution, the law of love, into the hearts of Christ’s disciples" (Lenski 241).
Nevertheless, in one arena the believer is never to be passive. When "truth" and "God’s honor" is at stake, the believer must resist evil. He must rise to the challenges of battle (Ephesians 6:10-20; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5). James instructs us to resist the devil (4:7). Paul resists false brethren (Galatians 2:5). Later he withstands the erring apostle Peter to his face (Galatians 2:11). He also warns Titus to resist evil talkers (1:9-13). Even Jesus cleanses the Temple twice by physically overthrowing the tables of those who sell merchandise (John 2:13; Matthew 21:12).
But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have [thy] cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
Jesus’ teaching here essentially and practically covers all forms of personal mistreatment: loss of honor, loss of property, loss of freedom, and loss of control. Four real-life applications are tailored to fit the rule given in verse 39a.
But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also: Here Jesus speaks of a loss of honor. Though not life threatening, a slap on the face is a gross insult. Such an attack is open to public view. It is antagonistic and deliberate. The believer, however, is not to retaliate against such an assault against his dignity.
Jesus is the perfect example of this disposition. While He staunchly defends God’s truth, He never concerns Himself with personal honor. When beaten, spit upon, and mocked, He does not retaliate but goes silently to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). Isaiah predicts, "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting" (Isaiah 50:6). Even as Jesus hangs from the cross He says, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:24).
And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have [thy] cloke also: Here Jesus addresses a loss of property. The love of worldly goods is always a deterrent to serving God (Matthew 19:22). Material goods, even when wrongfully taken, must not be placed at a premium.
The "coat" is really a type of shirt or undergarment. The cloak, however, is the more valuable and costly outer garment. It is highly prized because it serves as a blanket at night and against rain and cold. Most commoners in Jesus’ day are poor and have only one cloak. Under Moses’ law this outer garment can be taken as a pledge but must be returned before nightfall (Exodus 22:26). Jesus’ teaching, therefore, seems even more radical because He instructs people to voluntarily give up both garments.
And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain: Jesus now addresses a loss of liberty. During Jesus’ day Roman rule prevails. One law that particularly goads the Jews is the Roman soldier’s right to force a Jew to carry his pack for one mile. While the practice relieves the soldier, it inconveniences and angers the citizen who must bear his enemy’s weapons. This humiliating practice is not an invention of the Romans but can be traced back to Cyrus and the Persian Empire (Robertson 48).
Again Jesus’ statement is radical. Those who would be servants of God must be servants of the king—including Caesar. Not only does Jesus command the travel of one mile, He insists that the citizen cheerfully offer his services for another mile. Christians are to manifest the same demeanor in their everyday lives, occupations, and family relationships (cf. Ephesians 6:5-8; Philemon 1:14; 1 Peter 2:18). In spiritual matters Christians are to be people of the second mile.
Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away: The final statement in this section is also radical. One relinquishes control of his possessions when he freely lends to others. It is human nature to selfishly hold on to what we consider ours. Christians must remember that God owns everything. Even the pagan poets recognize that it is within Him that we live, move, and have our being (Acts 17:28). We are not our own (1 Corinthians 6:19). Our conduct, therefore, should be generous and liberal toward others.
Mosaic Law provides for lending to the poor (Exodus 22:25-27), and Jesus’ words must be interpreted in such a context. A believer is under no obligation to lend to those who are lazy, undeserving, or greedy. To do so violates other scriptures (see 2 Thessalonians 3:10; 1 Timothy 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:11). The believer, however, must be open-hearted and generous to those who have legitimate needs (see James 2:14-17; 1 John 3:17; Matthew 25:35-45).
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.
This is the sixth and final antithesis between the Law of Moses and Jesus’ new law. In each of the previous contrasts our Lord has accurately quoted or summed Mosaic legislation and then asserted His own authority over it. By so doing He does not destroy the Old Law but affirms and establishes universal principles that supercede it. These principles are not confined to national Israel but apply to spiritual Israel.
Thou shalt love thy neighbor: This teaching is found in Leviticus 19:18. Moses says, "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I [am] the LORD." It must be clearly noted that the context of this statement is confined by the phrase "children of thy people." In other words, Moses is instructing Israel to love their fellow Israelites. The concept of "neighbor," in Mosaic terms, is narrowly defined to include only those of like nationality. Because the gospel widens the scope of God’s kingdom, Jesus will show in His ministry that all fellow human beings must be viewed as one’s neighbor. Thus there is a marked change from physical Israel and spiritual Israel. Loving one’s neighbor, no matter the race, is fully and beautifully illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10).
and hate thine enemy: Enemies in this context refer to Israel’s national enemies. While individual foreigners are to be treated with kindness (Leviticus 19:33-34), under Mosaic Law Israel is not only allowed but commanded to hate her national enemies. This often leads to battles and bloodshed. Deuteronomy 7:1-16 commands the destruction of foreigners including Ammonites and Moabites. Exceptions, however, are given to Egyptians because Israel was once a stranger in their land and to Edomites because they are related to the Israelites. In general, however, Israel is to abhor other nations (see 1 Samuel 15:3). The rationale for such a command is clear when one considers the idolatry and difficulty Israel faces as she mingles with heathens. Exodus 34:12 says:
"Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves: For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name [is] Jealous, [is] a jealous God."
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
Love your enemies: This statement stands in stark contrast to the position national Israel holds toward her enemies. Spiritual Israel is a peaceable kingdom. Christ’s citizens render to no man evil for evil (Romans 12:17), neither do they overcome evil with evil (Romans 12:19-21). Their weapons of war are not carnal but mighty to the pulling down of strong holds (2 Corinthians 10:4). Benevolence reigns (Acts 2:44-45). Isaiah anticipates such a people when he prophesies, "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:4).
Jesus’ words no doubt sting the Jews who live under the daily oppression of Roman domination. In every sense Romans are enemies both nationally and personally. Yet Jesus’ words are unmistakable. His followers are to love their enemies whether personal, national, political, or social. This is a blanket requirement. There are no technical loopholes and no theological outs. As Christ’s kingdom cuts across all boundaries, so love crosses all boundaries.
The type of "love" Jesus commands is agape love. It is love that seeks the highest interest of another (1 Corinthians 13; John 3:16). It is love which sacrifices. And while it often includes emotion, its source is the will. It is not based primarily on attraction or fondness toward another; agape love is a decision. This is a love that demonstrates itself in action.
Jesus will show that agape love manifests itself in three radical ways: in blessing, in doing good, and in praying. These adequately cover the range of all human endeavors: words, works, and worship.
bless them that curse you: To bless one who is cursing us means that we return good words for evil. It is easy to speak well of (eulogeo—bless) those we admire; praise for our friends comes naturally. But Jesus does not call on us to have a natural love. He demands a super-natural love. It is the kind of love that speaks kindness when fiery curses are being hurled at us. It is the kind of love that gives a soft answer in hopes of turning away wrath (Proverbs 15:1). It is the kind of love that controls the tongue (James 3). What we say is an indication of the condition of our hearts.
Jesus’ words are evangelistic. Love for all men, even enemies, opens doors of opportunity (Romans 12:20). Chasms of hatred can only be bridged with love.
Some challenge Jesus’ words here as being an impossible command to obey. Perhaps in one sense they are. Without Jesus as Lord, true love is beyond comprehension. Worldly minds will always struggle to understand goodness that thrives in an environment of bitter hatred and antagonism.
do good to them that hate you: The love that Jesus requires is an active love. True love is inseparably linked to works. Doing "good" is only half the picture. It is easy to reach out a hand to those we love. It is even easy to sacrifice for those we feel kindness toward. It is quite a different story, however, to meet the needs of those who hate us. The beloved John writes, "But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels [of compassion] from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:17-18). James reminds us of the same in his second chapter. God has given the perfect example of love in action—even toward His enemies—in sending His Son (Romans 5).
and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you: The believer has reached a great stage of maturity when he prays for his enemies. To pray for one’s enemies indicates that God is in control and that we want the best for our enemies. We want them to be saved and to be blessed by God like we are blessed by God. What effect our prayers have on our enemies is unstated. No doubt God can take providential measures to change the hearts of evil men. Nevertheless, even if this is not what God does, our prayers change our hearts. This is perhaps the great mystery of prayer. Prayer changes us so that we might be better servants in God’s kingdom.
When Jesus gives instruction to pray for those who persecute us, He is reminding us of a three-way link. The believer has the job of seeking the welfare of others even when he is praying to God. Too few realize that friendship with God is dependant on our action towards others. John says, "He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now" (1 John 2:9).
Two things happen when we pray for our enemies. First, we relinquish anger. How can we sincerely ask God to bless someone we hate? Second, we take the focus off ourselves and put our eyes on Him. We place the matter in God’s hands. Anger is often multiplied when we try to handle our enemies by ourselves, yet when we turn things over to God, His love overshadows hate.
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: This is the first reason the Christian is to love his enemies. The second reason is given in verse 46. Here the phrase "That ye may be" carries the idea of "becoming." In doing good to his enemies, the Christian grows to be more like God and to possess His character. The believer should have an inner, undying desire to emulate his Heavenly Father. It should be a natural part of his spiritual growth.
for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust: Just as God blesses all mankind, both good and evil, with a measure of general grace, so the believer must do the same. As God provides evil men with sun and rain so His children must provide goodness to their enemies.
The psalmist says, "The eyes of all wait upon thee; and thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing" (Psalms 145:15-16).
For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more [than others]? do not even the publicans so?
For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye: This is the second reason that Christians are to love their enemies. They are to love them so they can stand apart from the world. It takes no special effort to love those who love us. Agape love requires more than merely doing good only to one’s friends.
do not even the publicans the same: Publicans are tax collectors and are considered sinners. They are despised by most Jews as being the lowest of the low. They are considered traitors because they collect tribute money from their fellow Jews and give it to Rome. In addition, many publicans extort money from their fellow Jews by over taxing them, making themselves rich at the expense of their countrymen. McGarvey quotes Cicero who "pronounces their business the ’basest of all means of livelihood’" (60).
Clearly not all tax collectors are dishonest for Jesus calls Matthew from his seat of custom. Jesus, however, uses this illustration and the common perception of the day to show that if one only loves his friends he is no better than the common sinner. Even sinners are good to their own. God calls His children to a righteousness that exceeds such selfish standards.
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more [than others]: If one greets or "salutes" only his friends, how is he better than pagans who do the same? The Jew is very cordial to his fellow Jew. Jesus, however, commands that genuine kindness be shown to all men, even those who are not fellow Jews.
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
There is no better way to sum up this section than this. Be perfect for God, our Father, is perfect.
This verse has long been at the heart of controversy. Does Jesus mean that Christians are to be absolutely perfect? If so, how can this ever occur? Or does Jesus use the term in a functional sense. Is He saying that His followers are to be mature, full-grown, suited for love?
Both interpretations have merit. The word "perfect" (teleios) has a variety of connotations; therefore, context must determine its meaning. Sometimes it means "complete" without any moral element attached (Hebrews 9:11). In other instances it means "complete in growth of body or mind" (Ephesians 4:13). It may mean "complete morally" (Matthew 19:21; Colossians 1:28). And there are still other places where it seems to refer to completeness in both knowledge and moral excellence (Phillipians 3:15).
If Jesus has reference to total perfection then His statement appears to be impossible. John says, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). Perhaps this is our Lord’s point. Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that we are totally dependant on Him, His sacrifice, His blood, His perfection, and His grace. We must ever cry, "Lord, be merciful to me a sinner."
"The command…makes the moral perfection of God our model. It is, of course, impossible for man to attain to this perfection; yet any thing short of it is short of what we ought to be. While man can not attain to so much, God can not require less: for to require less would imply satisfaction with that which is imperfect and this would be inconsistent with the character of God. To require this is to keep man forever reminded of his inferiority and, at the same time to keep him forever struggling for a nearer approach to his model" (McGarvey 61, see also Fowler and Coffman for the same basic viewpoint).
On the other hand, if Jesus is referring to functional perfection then we can draw quite another conclusion. If this is Jesus’ meaning then He is not addressing sinlessness, but maturity. He is saying that we are to love in an impartial way, doing good just as God does. Barclay says that a thing is perfect when it fully realizes the purpose for which it is planned, designed, and made. He further illustrates the point by explaining that a tool (e.g., screwdriver) is perfect if it fits the hand, fits the screw, and completes the job. Thus his conclusion is that a man will be "teleios" if he fulfills the purpose for which he is created. To be like God one must love saint and sinner alike (Barclay 177-178, see also Boles, Barnes, Broadus, Lenski for the same basic viewpoint).
It is difficult to say with certainty which viewpoint is correct. Both have merit. Contextually, Jesus places this command in conjunction with loving the enemy. This is without doubt a mature love. Lenski says, "It is incorrect to think that the goal of loving our enemies is too high for us. This goal we must reach by the grace of God, otherwise God cannot regard us as His sons" (253). While dogmatism is unwarranted, it seems logical that Jesus’ words may be taken in this sense. The believer should remember that ultimate perfection is humanly impossible. The knees should ever be bent in humble submission.
Contending for the Faith reproduced by permission of Contending for the Faith Publications, 4216 Abigale Drive, Yukon, OK 73099. All other rights reserved.
Editor Charles Baily, "Commentary on Matthew 5". "Contending for the Faith". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany