If you weren’t with us last Sunday, we are looking at a section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is correcting the Jewish people’s incomplete understanding of the Law of Moses in order to challenge their false sense of righteousness before God.
For example, if the command “thou shalt not murder” also included our unjustified anger (our emotions as well as attitudes) and “adultery” encompassed our thoughts, passions, and imaginations, then no one could justifiably consider themselves righteous before God. Indeed, as we read in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God!”
In fact, because the heart of the problem is a problem of the heart, in the few verses leading up to where we find ourselves this morning Jesus illustrates how religious attempts to outwardly fix what is fundamentally an internal condition is as silly as “plucking out an eye” or “cutting off a hand” to keep from sinning. All it does is leave a person deformed!
Again, as we work our way through the end of this chapter, there will be this tendency to consider how you might live up to the ideal Jesus describes. Please reject this compulsion. As Christians, our reaction should not be to feel condemned that we fall short and then scheme out various ways in which we might better ourselves but to prayerfully ask that Jesus might stand in the gap and fill in the areas we’re lacking through His Spirit.
Let’s continue our examination of this incredible sermon… Matthew 5:31-32, “Furthermore (Jesus segues from the discussion of adultery) it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ (In Jewish Law, this was a formal document that validated the dissolution of a marriage and allowed the two parties to move on.
In light of what the Law of Moses said about divorce and more specifically how the scribes had interpreted these Scriptures, Jesus declares…) But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”
In the Greek, the word translated as “sexual immorality” is porneia and broadly covered all sexual acts between adults outside of marriage. This would include premarital, heterosexual, and homosexual actions as well as those during a marriage that occurred with anyone other than your spouse. In English, a better translation would be the old-school word fornication.
In Deuteronomy 24, the Law broadly justified the act of ending a marriage when “it happens that a man’s wife finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her.” At this point, the Law then stipulated the man could “write her a certificate of divorce.”
By the time of Christ, the Jewish rabbis were divided on what God meant using the word “uncleanness.” The liberals saw anything that caused the husband displeasure as being grounds for divorce. This could include all kinds of silly reasons like burning breakfast.
The more conservative interpretation of the Law restricted uncleanness to a sexual sin proven by witnesses either before or during the marriage. In both instances, a divorce required a formal “certificate” be granted validating the justification was acceptable.
In this passage, Jesus does more than simply align Himself with the conservative belief that “uncleanness” spoke of adultery as being the only justifiable reason for the termination of a marriage… He extrapolates the tragic repercussions of an unjustifiable divorce. This was something the Law didn’t specifically address and the rabbis intentionally ignored.
Jesus says, if a man “divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality,” because the divorce was not legal according to the Law and the husband and wife were still married in the eyes of God, the man ends up committing two sins: First, the man is guilty of an unlawful divorce. While the Law of Moses didn’t list out the consequences, Jesus does…
You see when the man’s wife eventually remarries, because she’s not technically divorced, his sinful actions have now caused her to commit adultery as well as her new husband. Since adultery was a capital offense according to the Law this was not a good situation. Because the illegal separation led to this sin, Jesus holds the first husband responsible.
If all of this seems complicated and harsh, you’re absolutely right! The Law was strict in order to reinforce both the sanctity of matrimony and the importance of marital permanence. While concessions for sin were considered, divorce was never God’s ideal.
I’m going to leave off a larger discussion of divorce until Matthew 19 when Jesus gives a more extensive teaching on the subject. I will say I’m glad we’re now under grace and serve a God of second chances! That said, Jesus’ point in bringing up this controversial topic was to once again take the letter of the Law much deeper than they considered. They were arguing about the particulars of divorce without considering the adverse ramifications.
If any point of application can be made without the benefits of the larger discussion, you do need to realize a few things about divorce. First, there are Biblical grounds whereby divorce is permissible by God. In this passage, adultery and sexual immorality are one. In other places, we’ll find the abandonment of an unbelieving spouse is the other. Sadly, the Church has placed too much of a stigma around the topic that has been unhelpful and unnecessary.
Secondly, just as there are marriage unions accepted by the State but rejected by God, there are also divorces and remarries God recognizes and others He doesn’t. Again, this is a complicated subject that will necessitate a much larger look when we get to Matthew 19.
Lastly, while divorce may have an appeal at the moment, it should be avoided if possible as the repercussions tend to reach much further than you could ever imagine. Friend, God will always bless a person willing to put aside temporary feelings in order to be obedient.
Matthew 5:33, “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’” Within the Law, God had been clear His name was not to be taken in vain. As such, the Hebrew people rightly forbid swearing on the name of the Lord when it came to making an oath to someone else.
Matthew 5:34-37, “But I say to you (Jesus is going to carry forth God’s intentions beyond what they perceived), do not swear at all (do not affirm any oath or promise): neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But (instead of placing the trustworthiness of your oaths and surety of your promises on any of these things) let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”
Practically speaking, Jesus is saying His disciples needed to possess the type of internal character that their word was their bond and therefore any promises or oaths that were made could be trusted. Basically, if you make a promise, Jesus is saying you need to keep that promise so that your words have value and mean something.
I don’t want to belabor such an obvious point, but it’s true people who always fail to make good on what they say they are going to do are some of the most difficult people to be around. Over time their words end up being meaningless and they become undependable. Heaven forbid any disciple of Jesus taints his witness in such an unavoidable way!
Napoleon Bonaparte famously said, “The best way to keep one’s word is not to give it.” While there is wisdom in refusing to rack up a debt with words you can never pay off with actions (many of us should learn the art of saying, “No!” rather than saying, “Yes” when we know we can’t follow through), because we reflect Jesus, Christians should contrast the world in that we make promises people can depend on us following through with!
Jesus continues… Matthew 5:38-39, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”
Admittedly, there’s a lot of controversy around these verses and I’d add a misunderstanding as to what Jesus was and was not saying to His disciples. Let me give you a practical example of what I mean… In his commentary of the Bible called The Message, Eugene Peterson presents this passage the following way, “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it.”
Without question, there is a camp that takes what Jesus is saying as a prohibition against self-defense. They’ll argue that when facing someone wanting to cause bodily harm Christians have been called by Jesus to submit and that we’re forbidden from fighting back.
Before I say anything further, let me acknowledge the reality there is an incredible power in a nonviolent reaction to violent aggressions. MLK and the many pastors behind the civil rights movement are wonderful examples of this reality. By refusing to return violence with violence, these brave men were able to sway public opinion in their direction and in doing so bring about radical social change to America. Sadly, it’s a lesson many have forgotten!
And yet, while a subject like this could merit an entire study in and of itself, in the end, my issue with this particular perspective is threefold: (1) It fails to take into account the totality of what the Scriptures say on the topic. (2) The issue is complex and can vary situationally — it’s not black and white. (3) This isn’t what Jesus was advocating in this passage.
For starters, there is a great misconception about this Law originally presented in Exodus 21. In fact, Gandhi (another famous advocate of nonviolent protest) even mocked the virtue of the statue when he joked, “An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind.” Sad for him, he should have been more focused on how a person gets to heaven!
Understand, the Law referenced by Jesus was revolutionary in the day God gave it and was intentionally designed to contrast the ethics of His people with the pagan nations around them. You see this law required an evenhanded, proportional, just retribution for a crime that was to be measured out and executed by the larger society and not the victim. “An eye for an eye” presented guardrails so that the society did devolve into vigilante justice.
Ultimately, the goal of this command was to restrict the judges of Israel regarding what could and could not be considered a fair retribution. The Law limited a verdict and therefore punishment to no more than the same impact yielded by the crime itself. The price for “an eye” or “a tooth” (things that don’t grow back and can’t be restored to the victim) could not exceed requiring “an eye” or “a tooth” from the perpetrator as recompense.
With that in mind, we next need to consider the context in which Jesus was invoking this principle… What scenario He’s applying the Law too? When Jesus says, “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” He’s obviously taking a principle designed to place limitations on the way judges could execute appropriate retribution and now applying it to individuals facing a very specific act within that culture — a slap to the right cheek!
Because the right hand was known as the hand of power on account most people were right-handed, an open-handed “slap” to “your right cheek” would have been backhanded.
What makes this important is that it tells us Jesus wasn’t describing a physical assault aimed at inflicting bodily harm (like being punched with a closed fist or struck with an open palm), but a personal insult designed to entice a reaction and response.
When such an overture was made, Jesus says, “I tell you not to resist an evil person” (or literally don’t set yourself against those with a bad nature) but instead “turn the other cheek to him also.” Again, the idea of “turning the other cheek” had a specific connotation.
Jesus wasn’t telling His disciples that it was somehow wrong to defend against a violent aggression… That if someone punched you in the right cheek you were to offer up the left one as well. Instead, within the context of the Law He just cited, Jesus is saying we should resist reciprocating the insult (“an eye for an eye”) and seek to deescalate the situation (“turn the cheek”). Basically, we shouldn’t return insults with insults.
In way of application, if someone punches you in the face, don’t think you’re being holy if you decide to roll over and take the beat down. My advice is the same as I’d give either of my two sons. Put up both hands, defend yourself, and if you have to go on the offense — keep it proportional. “An eye for an eye” but not a tooth and kidney as well.
I’ll also add there is something noble in fighting to defend the defenseless. I have a dear friend who a few years ago came to church a week or so after giving his life to Jesus beaten up — swollen face, black eyes, broken rib or two. I asked what happened?
He said he was at a wedding the day before and some guys were making physical threats to a lesbian couple at the reception. Knowing they were outnumbered, he stepped in to defend them knowing what would happen! I asked why he did what he did and he told me he figured it’s what Jesus would have done. Christian, sometimes self-defense is necessary. As a Christ-follower, defending the defenseless is always necessary.
Getting more to the heart of what Jesus was addressing… When was the last time someone verbally insulted you and you didn’t feel the immediate compulsion to fire right back? When was the last time you fired back and the situation didn’t quickly devolve into a mess? As Jesus’ disciples, we should seek to remain above the fray and be willing to deescalate — especially when we know doing so will require us to let go of our pride.
Jesus adds… Matthew 5:40, “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.” Is Jesus saying Christians shouldn’t defend themselves against a frivolous lawsuit? No. For the same reasons as before, I don’t believe this to be the case.
Instead, what Jesus is saying makes more sense when a person isn’t suing you maliciously, but with cause. In such a case where you’ve caused someone harm and the appropriate recompense was “your tunic,” you should be willing to go above and beyond by offering “your cloak” as well. If the Law required ________, our contrition should go even further.
Matthew 5:41, “And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” In Roman society, by law, a soldier had the right to commission a person to carry an item for him up to a mile. One mile was the legal maximum. Because Galilee was home to a large military presence, this dynamic was something the Jewish residents understood all too well.
A great example of this in practice is presented in Matthew 27:32. When Jesus proved unable to carry His cross all the way to Golgotha, we’re told the Roman soldiers “found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name” in the crowd, and “they compelled Him to bear His cross.”
In this verse, Jesus was saying something really difficult for His disciples to hear let alone accept. Keep in mind, the Hebrews were an oppressed people under the military thumb of Rome. Because they were deeply patriotic, they all hated the Romans as a result.
Please realize, because of this, being called out by a Roman soldier and given this particular command was as insulting as it was infuriating. And yet, Jesus challenges their heart. Instead of being angry and mad at the situation, Jesus instructed His disciple to not only go one mile as Roman law required — He tells them to “go with him two!”
While it’s true we don’t face the same kind of dynamic as those living in Galilee during the first century, the principle Jesus is articulating is still applicable to our civic responsibilities as His disciples. You see when it comes to the basic duties our ruling government asks of its citizenry, we should be willing to go above and beyond the minimum requirement. When it comes to casting a ballot instead of voting only once we should be willing to cast two!
Matthew 5:42, “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.” Again, I believe it’s an overreach to assume Jesus wants you to give to someone without applying any type of wise considerations. Such a perspective fails to take into account the totality of what the Bible says about this topic. To this point, Jesus doesn’t specify how much you’re to give to the one who asks or is seeking to borrow.
As with so much of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t giving His disciples rules to obey. He’s describing the type of people they were to be! As Christians, we’re to be known by our generous spirit. You see generosity is a central characteristic of the followers of Jesus.
Never forget… God has not given you physical blessings to hoard to yourself. Instead, God has blessed you so that you might be a conduit by which He can bless those around you.
Matthew 5:43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” While in Leviticus 19:18 the people were instructed to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” there is no passage in the Old Testament where God instructed the people to “hate their enemies.” It seems this was a false interpretation taught by the rabbis.
Matthew 5:44, “But I say to you, love your enemies (let that sink in for a moment… Jesus uses the Greek word agape which describes a divine love), bless those who curse you (speak blessings towards those who speak evil towards you), do good to those who hate you (be the author of goodness toward those who author hate), and pray for those who spitefully use you (to treat abusively) and persecute you…” (Jesus is exhorting you and me to respond to the evil directed towards us with the exact opposite reaction.)
It’s worth pointing out two realities of this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. First, what a lofty set of commands! Can we be honest that apart from the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit working in and through our lives none of these things would be possible! Such characteristics are absolutely foreign to the way this world operates.
Secondly, isn’t this a really perfect description of Jesus and an illustration of the way grace operates? I’m so thankful Jesus doesn’t treat me the way I’ve treated Him — that He was an adversary when I was an enemy, that He cursed me when I cursed Him, that He authored hate when I hated him, that He didn’t return spite for spite and persecute me. I’m so thankful He hasn’t returned to me the things I deserve to be given.
So much of what Jesus is discussing is a heavenly reciprocation to a world filled with evil. Christian, by His grace Jesus has given us the very opposite of what we deserve! In the end, the only way we’ll ever be able to demonstrate this divine grace towards the world around us is to first experience that grace and be thoroughly transformed by it!
Why is it important for Jesus’ disciples to immolate these characteristics? Matthew 5:45, “That you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
The phrase “He makes His sun rise and sends rain on the just and unjust” is really fascinating. In Jesus’ day, as with the many centuries before, because it was believed the gods controlled every aspect of the natural world, weather patterns were viewed as either being the evidence of divine favor (you were good and just) or displeasure (evil and unjust).
Today, we’d call this karmic justice. Good people will always have good come around to them and evil people will ultimately get their due. What this means is bad things (the rain) should be seen as a judgment whereas good things (sun rising) are evidence of God’s pleasure.
In light of what He’s just said (that His disciples would have enemies and be cursed, hated, treated spitefully, and persecuted), in making this simple statement, Jesus affirms everyone is subjected to the same experiences thereby debunking this entire notion. In contrast, what differentiates the good and just person from the evil and unjust is not circumstance but whether or not that person is considered a child of God.
Jesus closes out this section by pointing out why His disciples are so different… Matthew 5:46-48, “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (Tax collectors were considered the most morally corrupt people in society.) And if you greet your brethren only (receive joyfully), what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? (If you perform the basics of the Law, what makes you any different from the world around you?) Therefore (Jesus sums up His entire point) you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Jesus wraps up this thought that began back in verse 17 by throwing down the gauntlet. If a person is trying to be right with God by obeying the Law, nothing shy of perfection was required. There was no escaping the reality that beyond the letter of the Law, a person was also required to be blameless regarding the heart of God behind the Law.
So what should our reaction be… I can’t do this so I hope God has another plan! In this, you have not only come to see yourself correctly but the ultimate mission of King Jesus!
In making this statement, “You shall be perfect” Jesus wasn’t giving them a goal to attain. Rather, He was making a predictive statement as to what His disciples would one day become. Because of His righteousness that has been imparted to us, we have been justified before our Father in heaven. When God sees you He sees His perfect Son Jesus.
Many years after this Sermon on the Mount, Paul would deliver a sermon in a synagogue in Antioch where he’d declare in Acts 13:38-39, “Therefore let it be known to you, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.”
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