If you haven’t been with us the last several weeks, we are currently in the midst of one of the most famous discourses ever given by a religious leader known as the Sermon on the Mount when, in response to the massive crowds coming to be healed, Jesus ascends one of the many hills surrounding the Sea of Galilee in order to address His disciples.
As we transition away from The Beatitudes and Jesus’ treatise on His disciples being the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” in light of these various character traits, I’m going to evolve our approach moving forward in order to pick up the pace a bit.
Goal #1 will be to work systematically through the text so that you understand what it is that Jesus was actually saying. After that, Goal #2 will be to focus on explaining the implications of what was said and its relevant application to our lives.
Jesus continues… Matthew 5:17-18, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. (It’s worth pointing out the things Jesus was teaching were so revisionist in that day this notion He intended to somehow go beyond the Law and Prophets was a genuine concern Jesus felt compelled to address publicly.) I did not come to destroy (to overthrow or dissolve) but to fulfill (literally to fill to the full or to render complete).
For assuredly, I say to you… (Since we’re going to see Jesus use this phrase frequently throughout the rest of His sermon, let me explain what makes it so radical. While in the Old Testament we have the common refrain of the prophets, “Thus says the Lord,” in a remarkable and obvious contrast, uniquely Jesus spoke with complete authority. “I say…”)
… Till heaven and earth pass away (Jesus affirms a future event recorded in Revelation 21), one jot or one tittle (the smallest punctuation marks in the Hebrew language) will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” (Jesus confirms the absolute and eternal nature of God’s Word within the context of the temporariness of heaven and earth.)
In a rather lengthy discussion about the Law and how God never intended for man to live up to its holy standard (which explains why the Law necessitated a sacrificial system whereby a person could atone for their constant failures), in Galatians 3:24, the Apostle Paul gets to the fundamental purpose behind the commandments. He writes, “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, (for what reason) that we might be justified by faith.”
In His infinite wisdom, following their deliverance from Egypt and commission to be His holy people, God gave the Hebrews the Law in order to serve as a constant reminder of two important realities. (1) They could never live up to His ideal (“they’d fall short of His glory”), and (2) A right-standing before Him could never be earned and would have to be given.
When Jesus says, “I did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill” He’s saying He came to render complete the ultimate work the Law had been given to accomplish in the first place.
You see Jesus came to earth in human flesh in order to live a sinless life according to the righteous standard established by the Law. Then, because He never transgressed the Law, Jesus was provably sinless and the “wages of sin” (death) were not required of Him. In this sense, the life of Jesus literally “fulfilled the Law” opening the door to another work.
In the Old Testament framework, a substitutionary sacrifice had two distinct functions in the life of a sinner. The death of the sacrifice provided atonement (it satisfied the debt owed by the sinner) and it yielded a temporary righteousness before God. Think of it this way… A sacrifice took a person’s sin unto itself while imparting a righteousness in return. Many Bible scholars refer to this incredible transaction as The Great Exchange.
Understand, it was only on account that Jesus was righteous according to the standard established by the Law that He was able to be our substitutionary sacrifice.
And yet, where (as the author of Hebrews aptly pointed out) the “blood of bulls and goats” proved insufficient to address our core issues, since Jesus was human, His death was able to permanently satisfy our debt and in turn impart a lasting righteousness. Amazingly, as with the Old Testament system, such a work was only possible through an act of faith.
In Romans 8:1-4, Paul expounds on this incredible reality. He writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
As incredible as all of this was when Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount there was a significant problem that had to be addressed… The Hebrew people had lost sight of God’s original purpose for the Law! You see a righteous standard that was to illustrate their need for a Savior had become a religious code by which they were seeking to earn a right-standing before God. Instead of the Law being a description of who God wanted His people to be, the Jews had twisted the Law into a list of things they were to do and obey.
Because this was the case, over the next several verses of this sermon, Jesus is going to tear down their false moralism and unfounded sense of goodness by taking them beyond the letter and getting to the heart behind the Law. “If you think you’re good with God because you’re obeying the Law, let’s see how good of a person you really are!”
Matthew 5:19, “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments (the word “breaks” implied an action deeper than disobedience and spoke of being released from a bond… “Whoever unbinds themselves from the requirements of even the least of the commandments given by God in the Law”), and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven (smallest is stature, importance, authority, rank); but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
The first critical point Jesus makes to His audience was to stress the importance of not only obeying the more difficult aspects of the Law to be righteous but also possessing a strict adherence to even the “least of the commandments.” This idea is echoed in James 2:10, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.”
While it’s absolutely true you sin because you’re a sinner and not the other way around, how many sins must you commit to be considered sinful? How many lies must you tell to be a liar? How many times must you cheat on your spouse to be a cheater? How many people must you kill before you’re considered a murderer? How many licks does it take to get to the center of our sinful nature? The answer — one!
Jesus continues by dropping the hammer… Matthew 5:20, “For I say to you (meaning this is definitively true), that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
For those standing on this mountainside listening to this sermon, what Jesus just said was so gnarly it was difficult to comprehend. From their perspective, there was no one more righteous than “the scribes and Pharisees!” Since they were the standard, it stood to reason that if they couldn’t be good enough no one could ever be good enough!
Not to jump too far ahead of ourselves, but the final verse of this chapter gets to the fundamental point Jesus is making. He says in verse 48, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The problem was that the people were looking at the religious leaders as the standard for righteousness when they should have been looking at their “Father in heaven.” Nothing less than total perfection was what God required.
For those with any delusions at this point that God would allow them entry into heaven on account of their personal goodness, Jesus is about to completely rock their world! Matthew 5:21-22, “You have heard that it was said to those of old… (In the next several sections of this sermon we will find this repeated structure. Jesus will first quote from the Law only to then explain the heart of God behind that particular statute. He begins…) ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’”
This particular commandment was originally given by God from Mount Sinai in Exodus 20:13 and then repeated 40 years later when the Children of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 5:17. Within the Law of God, “murder” — which was defined as premeditated manslaughter — was a capital offense punishable by death.
“But I say to you (“you’ve heard it said, but I say to you” intended to create a contrast) that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”
Please understand being “angry with a brother” isn’t in and of itself a wrong thing. In fact, there are times when anger is likely the most appropriate response. Instead, Jesus is referencing anger “without cause” or without a justifiable reason and explanation.
Because this is the same Greek word used for “judgment” as we saw in the previous verse, Jesus is telling His disciples, from God’s estimation, being “angry with a brother without a cause” was on par with the actual act of murder and therefore demanded the same deadly consequence. Jesus is saying, “You know it’s a violation of God’s Law to murder someone, but I say that unless you have cause being angry with a brother is just as condemnable.”
“And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council (or the Sanhedrin). But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire (literally the fires of Gehenna).” (The word “Raca” articulated contempt for one’s intelligence like calling someone a moron. Referring to a person as being a “fool” was to assault their character.)
Jesus is telling His disciples that even the attitudes that lead to anger which can then manifest into the act of murder are also included in this one simple commandment. “You’ve heard it said, but I say God was addressing more than just an action.” Amazingly, if you were feeling good about your personal righteousness, Jesus is saying that you’ll be held just as responsible for your attitudes and emotions as your actions!
Writing on a related topic in Romans 7, Paul (who himself had been a devout Pharisee and had prided himself on his ability to obey the Law) explains how God’s command, “You shall not covet!” eventually stripped him of his self-righteousness. While all the other commands referred to physical actions, covetousness was a matter of the heart.
Everyone in the crowd that day understood “murder” was a violation of God’s Law and warranted judgment; and yet, Jesus wanted them to know the holy standard being addressed by the commandment went much deeper than a person’s actions. Though true attitudes merit different degrees of punishment, from God’s perspective, the roots by which an action eventually manifests (anger and contempt) were just as wrong and damning.
Matthew 5:23-24, “Therefore (because of the serious way in which God views our attitude towards a brother) if you bring your gift to the altar (so if you’re coming to Temple to make an offering to God in worship), and there remember that your brother has something against you (this phrase “has something against you” implies you are guilty of doing something wrong that has caused a rift), leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
The implications of what Jesus is saying and the practical application for our lives as His disciples are profound. Jesus is telling us if you’ve wronged a brother, He would rather you not worship or serve until you’ve taken the necessary steps at reconciliation.
Let me very quickly address this idea of reconciliation… Restoration is the act of a relationship being returned to the way it was before it was broken. In contrast, reconciliation is a return to the relationship within a new context on account of whatever transpired.
For starters, when Jesus says, “Be reconciled to your brother” He’s addressing the guilty party. If you’ve done wrong by your brother, Jesus is saying it’s incumbent upon you to act. That said, if you’re the person in the wrong, Jesus is also acknowledging how your expectation should be reconciliation and not a restoration. In the end, whether a relationship is restored or enters into a new normal depends on the reaction of the offended party.
Jesus continues by explaining the reason seeking reconciliation when you’re at fault is important… Matthew 5:25-26, “Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him… (The word “adversary” was a specific word that referred to an opponent in a lawsuit, with the idea of “agreeing with” being a commitment to seek a remedy. Why?)
“… Lest your adversary deliver you to the judge (this was a Roman official), the judge hand you over to the officer (literally the under-rower), and you be thrown into prison (there was no such thing as a prison in Jewish Law). Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny (satisfied the debt).”
In the Law, reconciliation was only possible through the act of restitution. If I harmed you, it was therefore incumbent upon me to do more than simply own it and apologize. I needed to be willing to practically do whatever was necessary to make you whole. In these verses, Jesus is pointing out that recompense will always be carried forth one way or another.
In a literal sense, there is no doubt Jesus is exhorting His disciples to handle their beef with one another quickly and to do so in-house. What a determent to our Godly witness in this world when Christians need a secular arbitrator to rectify their differences.
That said, moving beyond the legal ramifications, there is a deeper lesson to consider… When we fail to do what’s needed to reconcile an issue we may have with a brother or sister by either avoiding the problem, resisting the admission of guilt, an unwillingness to make restitution, or a refusal to seek forgiveness the consequences end up being much worse.
Have you ever been imprisoned by a broken relationship? Because you haven’t been willing to do your part to resolve issues with another person, you’re miserable. That person is always on your mind. The contention remains a festering wound. You’re being eaten alive by guilt. In fact, seeing that person at church proves to be a source of pure anxiety. Jesus’ point… Doing whatever is needed to deal with it is so much better than ignoring it!
Matthew 5:27-28, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” (As with the earlier example of murder, this command was originally given by God from Mount Sinai in Exodus 20:14 and then repeated again in Deuteronomy 5:18. According to Leviticus 20:10, adultery was also considered a capital offense.)
While everyone would agree that adultery was a clear violation of God’s Law, Jesus adds… “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman (the idea is to see with one’s eyes and then to gazes upon with the intention) to lust for her (or too long for her in one’s mind sexually, to desire her in one’s heart, or to covet what is forbidden… Jesus says this person) has already committed adultery with her in his heart (and guilty of the command).”
It’s important to point out Jesus was not speaking of a sexualized image you could not avoid seeing with your eyes nor is He addressing an involuntary sexual thought that randomly pops into your head. In our sensual culture, we’d all be in serious trouble!
Instead, Jesus is describing something that may have at first been accidental but quickly became deliberate. In this scenario, an image that entered one’s mind through the eyes ends up resulting in the sinful longing of one’s heart (i.e. David & Bathsheba).
One of the things that separate humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom is our capacity for imagination. The power to think beyond what is possible or presently actual has enabled mankind to progress technologically, scientifically, socially, and culturally. I’d also add the power of imagination has enabled mankind to digress morally and ethically.
What makes this section of Scripture revolutionary, and I should add different from the lesson He was articulating by equating anger with murder, is that Jesus is saying God holds people just as responsible for our thoughts and imaginations as He does our actions! Again, if you were feeling good about yourself, it’s unlikely you’re feeling that way now.
While no one would argue actually cheating on your spouse isn’t a terrible deed, Jesus is telling His disciples the process of looking upon another with desire and the mental scenes that are subsequently allowed to play out in our minds is just as wicked. If the command not to murder included emotions and attitudes, the command not to commit adultery includes our thoughts, imaginations, and passions even if they aren’t acted upon!
If you listen to Bible studies on this section of Scripture, this is the point in the message where the application morphs into providing practical tips that will help you guard what you allow your eyes to see or various ways you can take your thoughts into captivity. Knowing this would be our reaction to this section of His sermon, I love what Jesus says next…
Matthew 5:29-30, “If your right eye causes you to sin (literally if your right eye causes you to stumble or trips you up), pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish (basically it is the more advantageous, long-term outcome), than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”
Oh, the number of sermons you’ve likely heard preached off this famous text because the applications for the preacher are endless! Sadly, what we have here is a perfect example as to why it’s dangerous to cherry-pick passages out of the context in which they were given. Case in point, I’m convinced Jesus is not saying what most interpret Him as saying.
There is no question Jesus is making an important point using hyperbolic language and that what he’s articulating should not be taken literally in any way. We know this to be the case for two simple reasons… First, the prospects of the body entering heaven maimed as opposed to being cast into hell whole are ludicrous on its surface. There is simply no secondary Scriptural evidence to support such a supposition.
Secondly, if you carry forth these suggestions to their logical end, you still fail to remedy the core problem. For example, if we’re being honest, if you remove your right eye, you’re left with a left eye to sin with. If you pluck out both, you are still unable to erase whatever sinful images are stored in your brain that caused you to sin in the first place.
In many ways, this reminds me of the famous scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that features the Black Knight who refuses Arthur King of the Briton's necessary passage. After Arthur abruptly cuts off his left arm, the Black Knight smugly replies, “Tis but a scratch.”
Refusing to cede defeat against the King, he proceeds to also lose his right arm. Assuming the fight to be over, Arthur is quickly taken back when the Black Knight starts kicking him claiming the loss of his second arm was just a flesh wound. At this point, Arthur cuts off a leg, but again the Knight continues the fight by reverting to head-butting. It’s only after King Arthur cuts off both of his legs that the Knight finally concedes, “Ok. We’ll call it a draw!”
In order to understand what point Jesus is making using such dramatic hyperbole, we need to ask two relevant questions… Is Jesus emphasizing the drastic measures His disciples should be willing to take to keep ourselves from sinning? This is the common interpretation.
Or… In light of the fact Jesus has just told us sin is more than a physical action but is tied to our internal attitudes, emotions, desires, thoughts, and imaginations is He illustrating to His disciples how truly useless, ineffective, inconsistent, and ultimately silly the drastic measures taken by religious people are when it comes to dealing with sin?
Here’s another way of thinking about it… In the context of the overarching purpose for the Sermon and more specifically the subject matter He’s just unpacked (you must be more righteous than the religious leaders to enter the kingdom and your core assumptions about the Law and what constituted obedience were incomplete), is Jesus now giving us advice on how we can deal with our sin or is He illustrating how we really can’t do anything?
To this point… I do agree with what most conclude about this section of Jesus' dissertation. Without a doubt, Jesus is wanting all of us to realize the heart of man’s problem is a problem of man’s heart. It’s why He takes murder back to our emotions and attitudes, and adultery to our thoughts and imaginations. You see outward actions always manifest from an internal condition. Murder is simply the evidence of unjustified anger. The final act of a spouse cheating the result of something percolating in the mind for some time.
When pressed with what to do concerning sin, the religious person jumps at the chance to present practical remedies. Even when it’s acknowledged that external actions like murder and adultery are the result of an internal condition, the applications remain the same.
“Christian brother and sister, in this passage Jesus is clearly telling us that if we’re really His disciples we should be willing to take drastic — even dramatic measure to deal with our sin! Sure, it would be crazy if you actually cut off a limb or plucked out an eye, but you can do something! Here are 12 steps you can employ to tame your wily anger. Or… Here are some practical ways you can safeguard against lusting after that pretty lil lady at work.”
Here’s the problem with this approach… Legalistic remedies that place the onus on things for me to do or refrain from doing to overcome an outward sin that manifests from my sinful heart not only never works, but always result in self-mutilation and deformity. Rumor has it even Steven Hawking couldn’t kick his porn addiction. The fact is religious works fail and they’ll always leave you in worse shape than before!
In closing, if drastic measure towards sin were the solution, plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand to enter heaven would indeed be preferable. Again, the Bible is clear you can never change an internal condition through an external restraint. And yet, if, as the Gospel message demands, the heart of the problem is a problem of the heart, there is a solution… Ask God to transform your heart knowing a change in behavior naturally results!
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