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The Sermon on the Mount
John 5:1 to John 7:29. The Sermon on the Mount: see Luke 6:20. This sermon is so similar to the sermon reported by St. Luke (Luke 6:20), that it is best to regard them as identically the same. It is true that it has been plausibly suggested that our Lord during His preaching tours often repeated nearly the same sermon to different audiences, and that St. Matthew has given us the sermon as delivered at one place and St. Luke as delivered at another, but the resemblances are so extremely close, and the divergencies for the most part so naturally accounted for, that to regard them as identical is more natural. St. Luke’s version is much shorter than St. Matthew’s (30 vv. against 107), and it contains nothing that is not in St. Matthew except the four woes (Luke 6:24-26). There are, however, striking parallels to St. Matthew’s sermon in other parts of St. Luke’s Gospel. No less than 34 vv. scattered through his later chapters correspond to utterances in St. Matthew’s sermon, so that altogether the two Gospels contain about 61 parallel vv. The natural inference from this is that, upon the whole, St. Luke gives the sermon as our Lord actually delivered it, and that St. Matthew (or, rather, his authority) has inserted at appropriate places in the sermon other utterances of our Lord dealing with the same or similar subjects. In a literal sense, therefore, St. Luke’s report is, speaking generally, the more trustworthy, but St. Matthew’s is the more valuable as containing numerous authoritative explanations of its meaning. The discourse was probably what we should call an ordination sermon, delivered, as St. Luke states, immediately after the choice of the twelve apostles (Luke 6:20). St. Matthew, however, inserts it appropriately enough at the beginning of the Galilean ministry, in order to give the reader a general idea of the Master’s teaching at this period.
The great interest of the sermon is that it is a more or less full revelation of Christ’s own character, a kind of autobiography. Every syllable of it He had already written down in deeds; He had only to translate His life into language. With it we may compare the wonderful self-revelation in John 17, but there is an important difference. There we have His self-revelation as Son of God, holding communion with the Father in a manner impossible to us; here we have Him pictured in His perfect humanity as Son of man, offering us an example, to which, if we cannot in this life completely attain, we can at least approximate through union with Him. In this sermon Christ is very near to us. The blessedness which He offers to the humble and meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the seekers after righteousness, and the persecuted for righteousness’ sake, He first experienced Himself, and then commended to others. And the power by which He lived this life is the very power by which we also must live it—the power of secret prayer (Matthew 6:5.) St. Luke tells us that the night before this sermon was delivered was spent entirely in private prayer (Luke 6:12).
The sermon is very important for a right understanding of Christ’s conception of ’the kingdom.’ It is ’the kingdom of the heavens.’ It exists most perfectly in heaven itself, where angels and glorified saints live the ideal life of love and service, finding their whole pleasure in doing God’s will and imitating His adorable perfections. This blessed life of sinless perfection Christ brings down to earth in His own person, and makes available for man. Every baptised Christian is taught to pray, ’Thy kingdom come,’ and that is interpreted to mean, Let Thy will be done by men on earth as it is done by angels and saints in heaven. The kingdom, then, is just the heavenly life brought down to earth, and its aim and standard is nothing short of the perfection of God Himself, ’Be ye therefore perfect—especially be ye perfect in love—even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). Of this kingdom God the Father is King (cp. the phrase ’kingdom of God,’ used by the other evangelists, and the ancient Doxology to the Lord’s prayer), but Jesus Himself exercises the immediate sovereignty, being the Father’s full representative and endowed with all His powers. He is expressly called King only in Matthew 25:34-40, but His regal authority is sufficiently implied in the Sermon on the Mount, where He appears in the character of a divine legislator (Matthew 5:21.), as the judge of quick and dead (Matthew 7:21-23), and as the sole revealer of absolute truth (Matthew 7:24-26).
The inward and spiritual view of the kingdom, which is prominent in the Sermon on the Mount, is not inconsistent with its identification elsewhere with the visible Church of Christ (Matthew 16:18-19), which includes both worthy and unworthy members (Matthew 13:47). Our Lord identifies His Church with the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:18-19), because it is the divinely appointed means of establishing it. To it is entrusted the awful responsibility of implanting and nourishing the spiritual life of God’s children. As to unworthy members of the Church, although they are ’in’ the kingdom, they are not ’of’ it.
The profound impression which the Sermon made at the time has been surpassed by the impression which it made on subsequent generations. The Mount of Beatitudes has become to all the chief nations of the world what Sinai was to Israel, the place where an authoritative moral code, and what is more than a code, an authoritative moral ideal, was promulgated. Not even the most sceptical deny that it shows originality and genius of the highest order, and reveals a character of unequalled moral sublimity. The many parallels and resemblances to this sermon adduced from rabbinical writings, some of which are quoted in the commentary, rather enhance than detract from its unique character. Its use of current rabbinical phraseology only throws into greater prominence its matchless originality and independence. But what struck the hearers even more than its moral splendour and originality, was the tone of authority with which it was delivered (Matthew 7:29). Jesus spoke, not as a scribe dependent on tradition, nor even as a prophet prefacing His words with a ’Thus saith the Lord,’ but as one possessed of an inherent and personal claim upon the allegiance and obedience of His hearers. In His own name and by His own authority He revised the Decalogue spoken by God Himself on Sinai, and declared Himself the Lord and Judge of the human race, before whom, in the last great day, every child of man will stand suppliant-wise to receive his eternal recompense. It is sometimes said that the Sermon on the Mount contains little Theology and no Christology. In reality it expresses or implies every claim to supernatural dignity which Jesus ever made for Himself, or His followers have ever made for Him.
Analysis of the Sermon.
I. The Beatitudes. What kind of persons are really blessed or happy (Matthew 5:3-12).
II. The relation of Christ’s disciples to the world as its salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16).
III. The relation of the New Teaching to the Law and the prophets as their fulfilment. It repeals ancient ordinances which were imperfect and transitory, expands the moral and spiritual principles of the OT. to their full development, and in so doing enables Judaism to become the religion of the human race (Matthew 5:17-48).
IV. Practical instructions in righteousness for the citizens of the kingdom, forming a striking contrast to the ideas of righteousness current among the Scribes and Pharisees. Alms, prayer, forgiveness, fasting, wealth, freedom from anxiety, rash judgments, reserve in communicating sacred knowledge, persistence in prayer, the two ways, the necessity of good works, stability of character (Matthew 6:1 to Matthew 7:27).
I. The multitudes] viz. those mentioned in Matthew 4:25. A (RV ’the’) mountain] The traditional site is the Horns of Hattin, or Mount of Beatitudes, a low, square-shaped hill with two summits, about 7 m. SW. of Capernaum. St. Luke says that the sermon (if indeed he is speaking of the same one) was delivered ’in the plain’ (AV), or ’on a level place’ (RV). If we wish to harmonise, we can say that ’the level place’ was half-way down the mountain.
Was set] The usual attitude of Jewish rabbis in teaching, indicating authority. So in the early church the preacher sat, and the congregation (including the emperor) stood. His disciples] i.e. not only the Twelve, as would be the probable meaning in the Fourth Gospel, but Christ’s followers in general. The Twelve had already been chosen, although St. Matthew places the event later (Matthew 10:2-4), and this sermon was their ordination address: see Luke 6:13.
1-12. The Beatitudes. Properly speaking, the beatitudes are seven in number, Matthew 5:10-11, Matthew 5:12, forming an appendix. These three vv. being counted in, the number of beatitudes is raised, according to different methods of division, to eight, or nine, or ten, the last corresponding to the number of the ten commandments. St. Luke has only four, the first, fourth, second and eighth, in that order. As recorded in St. Luke the beatitudes are more paradoxical and startling. They appear to bless actual poverty, hunger, and mourning, and are followed by four woes upon the wealthy and those who receive their consolation in this life. In form St. Luke’s beatitudes are possibly more original than St. Matthew’s—they are certainly more difficult—but the sense is best expressed by St. Matthew. The beatitudes express, (1) the qualifications necessary for admission into Christ’s kingdom; (2) the blessedness or happiness of those who possess those qualifications; (3) in St. Luke expressly, and in St. Matthew by implication, the misery of those who do not. Observe that the qualifications of the citizens of the kingdom are not the performance of certain legal acts, but the possession of a certain character, and that the ’sanctions’ or promised rewards, unlike those of the Decalogue, are of a spiritual nature. The beatitudes must have been a painful disillusionment to those whoi believed that the coming kingdom of thé Messiah would be a temporal empire like that of Solomon, only differing from it in its universal extension and unending duration. The virtues here regarded as essential, humility, meekness, poverty of spirit, are the very opposite of those ambitions, self-assertive qualities, which the carnal multitude admired. We cannot doubt that Jesus intended the beatitudes, and indeed the sermon generally, to act like Gideon’s test, and to sift out those who had no real sympathy with His aims. Somewhat later He carried the sifting process still further, and some who had stood this test, ’went back, and walked no more with Him’ (John 6:66).
Scheme of the Beatitudes (after ’The Teacher’s Commentary’):—
1. The poor in spirit (From this fundamental condition the other virtues mentioned grow.)
|Scheme of the Beatitudes (after ’The Teacher’s Commentary’):—|
|I. The poor in spirit|
|(From this fundamental condition the other virtues mentioned grow.)|
|(The inner life towards God)||(Its outward manifestation towards man)|
|II. They that mourn||answering to||III. The meek|
|IV. They that hunger after righteousness||" "||V. The merciful|
|VI. The pure in heart||" "||VII. The peacemakers|
|(supplemental)||VIII. The patient in persecutions|
3. Blessed] The beatitude type of utterance, like the parable, is not without example in the OT. (Psalms 1:1; Psalms 41:1; Psalms 65:4; Psalms 84:5-7; Psalms 89:15; Psalms 119:1-2; Psalms 128:1-2, etc.), but Christ has made both types peculiarly His own. Beatitudes express the essential spirit of the New Covenant, in contrast to the Old, which was prodigal of denunciations (Deuteronomy 27, 28, 29, etc.). The thunders of Sinai proclaiming the Decalogue form a striking contrast to the gentle voice of the Son of man on the Mount of Beatitudes proclaiming the religion of love. Blessedness is higher than happiness. Happiness comes from without, and is dependent on circumstances; blessedness is an inward fountain of joy in the soul itself, which no outward circumstances can seriously affect. Blessedness consists in standing in a right relation to God, and so realising the true law of a man’s being. According to Christ, the blessed life can be enjoyed even by those who are unhappy, a paradox which the ancient world, with the exception perhaps of the Stoics, did not understand. The Greeks thought that the blessed life was possible only for a very few. It was impossible for slaves, for the diseased, for the poor, and for those who die young. Christ taught that it is possible for all mankind, for the meanest slave, and the most wretched invalid, as well as for the wealthy, the prosperous, and the great. He went even beyond the Stoics. They taught that the wise man is blessed. Jesus opened the blessed life to the simple and uneducated.
The poor in spirit] St. Luke, ’Blessed are ye poor.’ The expression is difficult, and is interpreted in two ways. (1) ’The poor in spirit’ are those who feel themselves spiritually poor, and in need of all things, and so approach God as penitents and suppliants, beseeching Him to supply their needs, clothe their nakedness, and enrich their poverty. Poverty of spirit is the opposite of pride, self-righteousness, and self-conceit; the spirit of the publican rather than of the Pharisee; the spirit of those who wish to learn rather than to teach, to obey rather than to command, and are willing to become as little children in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven. (2) Others, following St. Luke’s version, see in the saying a more definite reference to actual riches and poverty. They understand our Lord to mean that a Christian, whether rich or poor, must have the spirit of poverty, i.e. he must possess his wealth as if he possessed it not, and be willing to resign it at any moment without regret, and to say with Job, ’The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ This interpretation makes a spirit of detachment from the world and all its allurements, of which wealth is for most men the chief, the first condition of the blessed life.
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven] not only ’shall be theirs hereafter,’ but ’is theirs now.’ The kingdom is here regarded, like eternal life in the Fourth Gospel, as a present possession. Usually it is regarded in this Gospel as something future, manifested only at the end of the world. On ’the kingdom’ see prefatory note and Intro.
The rabbinical parallel to this beatitude is chiefly interesting by way of contrast. It runs, ’Ever be more and more lowly in spirit, since the expectancy of man is to become the food of worms.’
4. They that mourn] St. Luke (following a different recension of the Sayings) has, ’Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh.’ That sorrow of the acutest kind (and that is what the Gk. indicates) can minister to blessedness, is a paradox which the world cannot understand, but which is profoundly true in the experience of believers. (1) The sorrows that God sends or permits, if received with humility and submission, ever refine and ennoble the character, and elevate it into closer union with the Father of spirits. Hence the apostle can even ’glory in tribulations also: Knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience’ (i.e. tried and proved character); ’and experience, hope’ (Romans 5:3-4); and a follower of his can write, ’Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them that have been exercised thereby’ (Hebrews 12:11). (2) Those who mourn for the sorrows of others out of Christian sympathy, are rewarded by the very exercise of that sweet act of compassion, and find many comforters in their own real sorrows. (3) Those who mourn for sin with a godly sorrow, saying with the publican, ’God be merciful to me a sinner,’ are comforted by the removal of the burden of sin, and the forgiveness of its guilt. (4) Those who mourn for the sins of others, who pray earnestly for their conversion, are often comforted by the success of their prayers.
Comforted] the word implies strengthening as well as consolation. The faculty which is exercised by the true mourner is strengthened by use. Those who bear their sorrows patiently grow in patience; those who sorrow for others grow in sympathy; those who sorrow for their own sin deepen their penitence; those who intercede for the sins of the world grow in the likeness of the great Sin-bearer and Intercessor. The comfort comes from the exercise of the spiritual faculty, and from the consciousness of growing more like God; but there is also that final comfort in the world to come, when ’God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes’ (Revelation 7:17).
Third Beatitude (not in St. Luke)
5. The meek] A quotation from Psalms 37:11. The ’earth’ is not only the new earth spoken of 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1, but refers also to the present world. The words are a prophecy that meekness will prove a greater power in the world than pride. This was revolutionary doctrine. Judaism meant pride of race and privilege; Babbinism, pride of learning; Roman imperialism, pride of power; Greek culture, either pride of intellect or pride of external magnificence. All agreed that the meek man was a poor creature, and the worldly world thinks so still. Nevertheless, meekness is irresistibly attractive, and exercises a wider spiritual influence than any other type of character. ’He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek.’ See further on Matthew 18:4.
Meekness is a virtue which can be exercised both towards God and towards man; and inasmuch as it involves self-control, it is not a weak but an heroic quality. ’He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city’ (Proverbs 16:32). A meek man is one who is not easily provoked or irritated, and forbearing under injury or annoyance.
6. That hunger and thirst after righteousness] St. Luke, ’ye that hunger now.’ Righteousness here is goodness or Christian perfection in its widest sense: cp. Matthew 5:48, Psalms 42:1, Psalms 42:2.
Filled] i.e. shall attain completely to the character at which they aim.
Fifth Beatitude (not in St. Luke)
7. The merciful] Our salvation is made dependent upon our showing mercy to every creature that can feel. Every kind of cruel amusement, or cruel punishment, as well as every wanton act of cruelty, is strictly forbidden. It should be remembered that cruel speeches no less than cruel acts are forbidden by this commandment. Words can lacerate more deeply than stripes. By the ancient Greeks and Romans the emotion of pity was generally regarded as a fault, or at least as a weakness. The Stoics were in practice humane men, but they regarded pity in the abstract as a vice. ’The wise man,’ they said, ’succours, but does not pity.’
8. The pure in heart] The ’heart,’ both in the OT. and NT., stands for a man’s inmost soul, and so the purity here required is not the ceremonial cleanness of the Levitical law, nor even the blamelessness of outwardly correct conduct, but complete purity of inward thought and desire. A thing is pure when it contains no admixture of other substances. Benevolence is pure when it contains no admixture of self-seeking; justice is pure when it contains no admixture of partiality; love is pure when it contains no admixture of lust. A man’s heart is pure when it loves only the good, when all its motives are right, and when all its aspirations are after the noble and true. Purity here is not synonymous with chastity, but includes it. See God] Just as the liar does not understand truthfulness, and does not recognise it when he encounters it, so the unholy person does not understand sanctity, and cannot understand the all-holy God. But those who cleanse their hearts understand God in proportion to their purity, and one day, when they are cleansed from all sin, will see Him face to face (Hebrews 12:14; 1 John 3:2-3; Revelation 22:4).
Seventh Beatitude (not in St. Luke)
9. The peacemakers] Peacemakers are, (1) those who reconcile men at variance, whether individuals, or classes of men (e.g. employers and employed), or nations; (2) those who work earnestly to prevent disputes arising or to settle them peaceably (e.g. by arbitration); (3) those who strive to reconcile men to God, and so to bring peace to their souls. They shall be called the children (RV ’sons’) of God] Because in this aspect they are especially like their heavenly Father, who has sent peace and goodwill down to earth in the person of His dear Son, who is charged with a message of reconciliation.
10. Which are persecuted] RV ’that have been persecuted.’ The reference is not to past persecutions of OT. saints, but to those of the disciples, which Jesus sees to be inevitable, and graphically represents as already begun.
12. The prophets which were before you] By ranking His disciples with the OT. prophets, Jesus seems to imply that they also are prophets. It is this possession of prophetical gifts by the first disciples which justifies the Church in regarding the NT. as the inspired Word of God: see Acts 11:27; Acts 13:1; Acts 15:32; Acts 21:10; 1 Corinthians 12:28; 1 Corinthians 14:1; Ephesians 2:20; Ephesians 3:5; Ephesians 4:11, etc.
13-16. The relation of Christ’s disciples to the world. Nothing corresponding to this section is found in St. Luke’s sermon, but parallels occur in Luke 14:34-35 and Luke 11:33. The section is well placed by St. Matthew. The connexion of thought is clear and natural. Having spoken of their persecutions, Jesus proceeds to encourage His disciples by speaking of the greatness of their mission in the world. They are to be the salt of society. Salt preserves food from corruption, and seasons it, making it wholesome and acceptable. So the disciples are to purify the society in which they move, setting a good example and counteracting every corrupt tendency. For this purpose their Christianity must be genuine. Men must feel that they are different from the world, and have a savour of their own. The salt which has lost his savour is the Christianity which is only worldliness under another name. Again, the disciples are to be the light of the world, being the representatives of Him who is the world’s true Light (John 8:12). They are to enlighten it as its teachers, and also by the examples of their lives. They are also to be as a city set on a hill, which cannot be hid. In this figure they are contemplated not as individuals but as a visible society, or Church. The old city set on a hill was Jerusalem (Psalms 48:2). This was shortly to be trodden under the foot of men as having lost its savour, and the new society was to take its place. Christ here solemnly warns us that the standard of living in the Church must be visibly higher than the standard of living in the world. A Church which tolerates a corrupt ministry, or laxity of life among its communicante, is not bearing its witness before the world.
13. Wherewith, etc.] i.e. either, ’Wherewith shall the world be salted?’ or ’Wherewith shall the salt’ (i.e. the disciples) ’be salted?’ cp. Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34. Salt in Palestine, being gathered in an impure state, often undergoes chemical changes by which its flavour is destroyed while its appearance remains.
15. A candle] RV ’a lamp’: see Mark 4:21; Luke 8:16; Luke 11:33. A bushel (Lat. modius)] RV ’the bushel,’ i.e. the one which is kept in the house for measuring the corn or meal for the daily provision of bread. The modius here is probably the Heb. seah = 1½ pecks.
16. Let your light] This is not inconsistent with the command to be humble and to do good by stealth, especially as the collective good works of the Christian brotherhood as a whole are chiefly spoken of. ’Our light is to shine forth though we conceal it,’ says St. Hilary. Origen and other writers testify that the good works of Christians did more to convert the world than miracles or preaching.
17-20. Christianity as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. This section is especially appropriate in St. Matthew’s Jewish Gospel. St. Luke’s sermon, being for Gentile readers, has nothing similar, and in his whole Gospel there is only one parallel v. (Luke 16:17). In one aspect Christ’s attitude to the Law was conservative. He regarded Christianity as continuous with, and in a true sense identical with, the religion of the Law and the Prophets. He could even repeat the current teaching of the rabbis that the Law was eternal, and that not a jot or tittle could be taken from it. He severely rebuked such of His disciples as should presume to despise or undervalue the smallest part of the OT. They should not indeed be excluded from His kingdom, but they should be the least in it (Matthew 5:19). On the other hand, He made it clear that this eternal validity did not belong to the Law as Moses left it, but to the Law as ’fulfilled,’ i.e. developed, or completed by Himself. He superseded the Law and the Prophets by fulfilling them, and He fulfilled them in all their parts. The spiritual and moral teaching of the Law and of the Prophets He freed from all lower elements and carried forward to their ideal perfection. The political teaching of the Law He completed by laying down the principles of the perfect state. Even the ceremonial law He fulfilled. The Law of Sacrifice was fulfilled in His sacrificial death, and in the spiritual sacrifices of prayer and praise and thanksgiving in which His precious death is pleaded. Circumcision became ’the circumcision made without hands,’ i.e. Holy Baptism. The Passover became the Lord’s Supper. The sanctification which the Law gave to one day in seven, was extended by Christ to every day in the week, and even the sabbath itself was, in a certain sense, perpetuated and continued by Him as the Christian ’Lord’s Day.’ Even such minor matters as ceremonial ablutions and the distinction of meats received their due fulfilment when Christ made possible the inward holiness which these outward observances symbolised.
Above all, the prophets were fulfilled by Christ in a most comprehensive way. He was not content simply to carry out their idea of the Messiah, wonderful as it was. He improved upon it, or, in His own words, ’fulfilled it.’ No careful student of the OT. can fail to see how infinitely the actual NT. fulfilment exceeded the expectation of even the most enlightened OT. prophets. This, and not the mere literal fulfilment of their predictions, is what Jesus meant by ’fulfilling the prophets.’
18. One jot (Gk. iota)] stands for Yod, the smallest letter in the Heb. alphabet. Tittle (lit. ’little horn’)] is one of those minute projections by which otherwise similar Heb. letters are distinguished: cp. Luke 16:17. The rabbis taught, ’Not a letter shall perish from the Law for ever.’ ’Everything has its end: the heaven and the earth have their end; there is only one thing excepted which has no end, and that is the Law.’ ’The Law shall remain eternally, world without end.’ Christ uses the rabbinical language in a new meaning of His own (see above).
19. A warning against the disparagement of the OT., now so common.
20. The sense is, ’I mention doing as well as teaching, for unless you practise what you preach, you will be unable, like the Scribes and Pharisees, to enter into the kingdom of heaven.’
21-26. Revision of the Law of Murder (not in St. Luke’s sermon, but a parallel to Matthew 5:25-26 occurs in Luke 12:58-59). Christ now shows by a few illustrative examples how the Law is to be understood and practised by His disciples; in other words, how it is to be ’fulfilled.’ The old law punished only the act of murder. The Law of Christ condemns the emotion of anger in its very beginnings. Unreasonable anger is declared a crime in itself, to be punished as such by the local tribunal (the judgment). Its mildest expression in word (Raca) is to be considered a capital offence, to be dealt with by the supreme Sanhédrin (the council). Its more abusive expression (thou fool) is worthy of hell-fire. Murder itself is not mentioned as being an impossible act for a disciple of Christ. The language is, of course, rhetorical. Its intention is to mark the immense gulf that separates the morality of the Law from the morality of the Gospel.
The passage is interesting as being the first clear reference in the NT. to Christianity as a Church or Organised Society. The Church is spoken of under Jewish terms (’the judgment,’ ’the council,’ ’the gift brought to the altar’), but a Christian sense is certainly to be read into them. It is implied that the Church will exercise moral discipline over its members, and that its public worship will be in a certain sense sacrificial: cp. Hebrews 13:10. If it be asked whether the graduated punishments mentioned are temporal or eternal, ecclesiastical or divine, the answer is ’both’; for, according to Christ’s promise, the discipline of the Church on earth, when rightly exercised, will be ratified in heaven (Matthew 16:19; Matthew 18:18 cp. John 20:23).
21. It was said by them of old time] RV ’to them of old time.’ It was said by God Himself. Hence Christ, in adding to it by His own authority (’But I say unto you’), claims to be equal to God. So also in Matthew 5:28, Matthew 5:32, Matthew 5:34, Matthew 5:39, Matthew 5:43: see Exodus 20:13. The judgment] i.e. the local tribunals of seven men appointed in every village (Deuteronomy 16:18; 2 Chronicles 19:5, Jos. ’Antiq.’
4.8.14). They appear to have had the power of the sword.
22. Brother] either a fellow-Christian or a fellow-man. Without a cause] RV omits.
Raca (Aramaic)] i.e. ’Empty-head’: cp. Judges 9:4; Judges 11:3. The council] i.e. the supreme Sanhedrin of seventy-one members at Jerusalem having cognisance of the most serious offences, such as blasphemy. Thou fool] i.e. ’thou wicked and godless man’: see Psalms 14:1. Some think that the word here (more) is not Gk. but Heb. (=moreh, rebel). Hell fire] RV ’the hell of fire,’ lit. ’the Gehenna of fire.’ ’Gehenna,’ i.e. the valley of Hinnom (an unknown person), was the place in or near Jerusalem where children were made to pass through the fire to Moloch, and, according to Jewish tradition, where the bodies of criminals were burnt. Hence Gehenna became a synonym for hell, the place of final punishment.
25. Thine adversary] The injured brother of Matthew 5:22 is now represented under the figure of a creditor who has power to bring the debtor before the judge, and to cause him to be cast into prison. Prison] i.e. divine punishment in general, whether in this world or beyond the grave in the intermediate state (Hades), from which release was regarded as possible (Matthew 12:32). Not, however, in hell (Gehenna), from which there is no release (Matthew 18:8). The idea is that God will exact the full penalty for all offences against the law of love. In 1 Peter 3:19; ’prison’ refers exclusively to punishment in the intermediate state: cp. Judges 1:6.
26. Farthing (Lat. quadrans)] about half-a-farthing. Lk (Luke 12:59) has lepton, i.e. about a quarter of a farthing.
27-30. Revision of the Law of Adultery. Jesus expands the Mosaic prohibition of adultery into a law of inward purity of the strictest kind, and gives important counsel to the tempted.
27. By them of old time] RV omits: see Exodus 20:14.
29-30. This saying is found in Mark 9:43, but in a less natural connexion. It is repeated Matthew 18:8. Its meaning is that those who are seriously tempted should discipline themselves with the greatest severity, depriving themselves even of lawful pleasures. Thus certain amusements and certain kinds of reading, in themselves harmless, are to some occasions of sin. Such persons ought to avoid them altogether. Others find drink such a temptation that they ought to be teetotalers. Others find friendships that they value so dangerous that they ought to give them up. This giving up of what is pleasant and lawful, because to us personally it is a spiritual peril, is what our Lord means by plucking out the right eye and cutting off the right hand. Asceticism of this kind is different from the asceticism of those Eastern religions which regard the body as evil. Its principle is that it is better to live a sinless than a complete life.
29. Hell] i.e. Gehenna, the place of final punishment.
31, 32. Revision of the Law of Divorce. Christ restrained the excessive licence of divorce which existed at the time, and declared marriage to be (with possibly a single exception) absolutely indissoluble. Since St. Matthew alone mentions the exception, and all other NT. passages speak of Christian marriage as absolutely indissoluble (Mark 10:2; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:3; Cor Romans 7:10-11), it is maintained by very many, probably the majority, of recent critics, that the words ’except for fornication’ both here and in Matthew 19:9 are an interpolation, introduced by Jewish Christians to modify the excessive strictness of the original utterance, and that Christ Himself forbade divorce altogether. On the principles of criticism now generally accepted, this view is highly probable.
If we accept the words ’except for fornication’ as authentic, it is best to understand them as meaning ’except for adultery,’ and thus to bring our Lord’s teaching into line with that of Shammai, who, in opposition to the laxer view of Hillel, who allowed divorce for any, even the most trivial cause, permitted it only for adultery. The other view that ’fornication’ here means prénuptial sin, for which, when discovered, a Jewish husband was allowed to repudiate his newly-married bride (see Deuteronomy 22:13.), is not so probable, though it is, of course, possible. The question of remarriage after divorce presents considerable difficulty. The remarriage of the guilty party is condemned by our Lord in strong terms: ’Whosoever shall marry her when she is put away’ (or, ’whosoever shall marry a divorced woman’) ’committeth adultery.’ Whether the innocent party is permitted after a divorce to marry again is a disputed point among Christians. The Eastern Church permits it; the Western Church, upon the whole, forbids it. The stricter rule, though it sometimes inflicts hardships upon individuals, seems the more desirable from the point of view of public policy, seeing that it best maintains the stability of the family, the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage, and the possibility of repentance and reconciliation after sin.
31. See Deuteronomy 24:1, and on Matthew 19:3.
32. Shall marry her that is divorced] i.e. for adultery; or, ’shall marry a divorced woman.’
33-37. Revision of the Law of Oaths. The prohibition ’Swear not at all’ is to be taken in its widest sense, and not simply as forbidding the common oaths of conversation. Christ looks forward to a time when truthfulness will be so binding a duty that oaths will no longer be necessary even in courts of justice. This is one of those ideal commands which cannot be fully carried out in the present state of society. Our Lord Himself at His trial allowed Himself to be put on oath (Matthew 26:63). But one day there will come a time when a man’s word will be as good as his oath.
33. By them] RV ’to them’: see Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21, etc.
34. Oaths that did not expressly invoke the name of God were considered less binding than those that did. Jesus cuts at the root of the practice by showing that the oaths ’by heaven,’ etc., were really in essence, if not in form, oaths by God.
37. Quoted by St. James (James 5:12). Of evil] RV ’of the evil one,’ i.e. the devil: cp. Matthew 6:13.
38-42. Abolition of the Law of Retaliation: cp. Luke 6:29, Luke 6:30. It is a difficulty to some that God should ever have sanctioned the barbarous principle of ’an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (Exodus 21:24). They do not reflect that in its own age this principle represented a farreaching moral reform. The thirst for vengeance is not naturally satisfied with an eye for an eye; it goes on to demand a life. Hence when Moses allowed the injured man to exact an eye and no more, he was imposing a salutary check on private vengeance. Our Lord goes further, and forbids private vengeance altogether. It is true that vengeance contains a good element, viz. righteous anger against wrong, but this is so bound up with personal vindictiveness, and so certain, if gratified, to let loose a man’s worst passions, that our Lord forbids it altogether. Christians are not to resent injuries, they are not to attempt to retaliate, they are, in our Lord’s figurative language, to turn the cheek to the smiter. Does this forbid us on fitting occasions to expostulate with a wrong-doer, or to bring him to punishment? By no means. There are occasions when in the interests of society, and in the interest of the criminal himself, it is necessary to resist evil and to bring the wrong-doer to justice. Our Lord elsewhere fully recognises this (Matthew 18:15).
38. See Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21.
39. Resist not evil] RV ’Resist not him that is evil,’ i.e. the person that would injure you. Right cheek] This is only a figurative illustration of the general principle: cp. Matthew 5:40-41, Matthew 5:42.
40. Thy coat (Gk. chiton)] ’Vest’ or ’shirt’ would be better. The cloke (himation) is the outer garment, used also as a covering by night: see on John 19:23.
41. Shall compel] RM ’impress.’ When Roman troops passed through a district, the inhabitants were compelled to carry their baggage. This compulsory transport was a recognised form of taxation, and is probably what is alluded to here. Translated into modern language, the saying, means that Christians ought to pay their taxes and undertake other public burdens cheerfully and willingly. The word translated ’compel’ is Persian, and had reference originally to the royal couriers of the Persian empire, who had power to impress men and beasts for the king’s service. In Matthew 27:32 it is used of Simon of Syrene, who was compelled to bear our Lord’s cross.
42. Give to him, etc.] Not an exhortation to indiscriminate charity, but to that brotherly love which Christians ought to feel even towards the improvident and wicked. It is right to give to him that asks, but not always right to give him what he asks. The best form of giving or lending is that which helps people to help themselves.
43-48. Hatred of enemies forbidden, love enjoined (Luke 6:27-36). The maxim ’Thou shalt love thy neighbour’ is found in Leviticus 19:18. The words ’Thou shalt hate thine enemy’ are nowhere found in the Pentateuch, which indeed contains isolated texts of an opposite tendency, e.g. Exodus 23:4. Nevertheless, our Lord’s words are a fair general description of a code which allowed the law of retaliation, and preserved the rights of the avenger of blood. Even in the Psalms, which represent a later revelation, personal hatred for enemies is openly expressed (e.g. Psalms 109). The law of love here proclaimed by our Lord in its most comprehensive sense is the most characteristic feature of Christian morality. In the NT. God is revealed as Love, as a Father who loves his children with impartial affection. And as His supreme perfection consists in Love, so those who would be perfect must love their fellow-men, even their enemies, as He loves them (Matthew 5:45).
44. Love your enemies] The word for ’love’ is carefully chosen. It is not demanded that we should love our enemies with a natural and spontaneous affection (philein), but with the supernatural Christian love that comes by grace (agapan). Pray for them, etc.] Jesus fulfilled His own injunction when He prayed for those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34): see also Acts 7:60; 1 Corinthians 6:12.
46-48. ’The love Christ enjoins is not to be confused with the good feeling and even affection that may exist between members of the same class, the love that is found even among despised tax-gatherers. But “ye shall be perfeet” in the obligation of universal love.’
46. Publicans] In classical literature ’publicans’ are wealthy Bomans who bought from the Roman government the right of collecting the taxes in a certain district. The publicans of the NT. are the actual tax-collectors. In NT. times only duties on exports, not direct taxes, were collected by publicans. Publicans bore a bad reputation among the Jews, partly for their dishonesty and extortion, and partly for their unpatriotic conduct in collecting taxes for a foreign power. The rabbis ranked publicans with cutthroats and robbers.
48. Perfect] Glorious words! The perfection spoken of is the perfection of Love, the supreme virtue both of God and man (1 Corinthians 13:13; 1 John 4:16).
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Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Matthew 5". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25