Matthew Chapter 05 - “I Say to You” Part 2


MATTHEW 5:21-48

IN THE LAST CHAPTER I mentioned Jacob Neusner’s fascinating book, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. To me the most fascinating section of that book is when Neusner is pretending to explain Jesus and his teachings to one of the great rabbis of the Jewish faith. In order to instruct but also understand Jesus, this master rabbi turns to Makkot 24A-B of the Babylonian Talmud, which provides various summaries of the Torah.

Rabbi Simelai expounded, “Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses... David came and reduced them to eleven [Psalm 15]... Isaiah came and reduced them to six [Isaiah 33:25-26]... Micah came and reduced them to three [Micah 6:8]... Isaiah again came and reduced them to two [Isaiah 56:1]... Amos came and reduced them to one, as it is said, ‘For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel. Seek Me and live’ [Amos 5:4]. Habakkuk further came and based them on one, as it is said, ‘But the righteous shall live by his faith’ (Hab 2:4).”

After the master rabbi completes this quotation, he turns to Neusner and says, “So, is this what the sage, Jesus, had to say?” Neusner replies, “Not exactly, but close.” “What did he leave out?” asks the rabbi. “Nothing,” says Neusner. “Then what did he add?” “Himself,” admits Neusner.

That’s right! Jesus didn’t remove anything from God’s Law, and he didn’t add anything to it—except himself. “Come follow me,” Jesus will say again and again to all who want entrance into God’s kingdom. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he will announce to his apostles as he commissions them to teach all nations “to observe all” that he has commanded (28:18, 19). Jesus holds to the Law in its fullness. It is what he adds—namely himself—that changes everything. Because of this addition, like most of the scribes and Pharisees in the Gospels, Neusner rejects him. But it is also because of this addition (or what we would call “fulfillment”) that you and I receive him, as the Apostle Thomas did, as our Lord (John 20:28).

In the last chapter, as we looked at 5:17-48,1 showed you how the phrase “I say to you” was the key phrase of that text. This is not only because it is re­peated nine times, but also because it nicely summarizes the two main themes of this section—divine authority (“I say”) and kingdom ethics (“to you”). If Jesus is the King, what is to be our kingdom behavior?

In the last chapter we touched on this second theme as we looked at verses 20 and 48. I shared how e are not to act like the Pharisees with their unrighteous “righteousness,” but rather to act like God in his perfect love— loving others, even our enemies. I also shared how the six Old Testament commands on murder, adultery, divorce, vows, retaliation, and love of neigh­bor, as interpreted and applied by Jesus, put on this perfect love.

Now we come to Part Two, “to you.” As we focus on verses 21-48, we will give two answers to the question, why these six? Besides using them as illustrations of this theme of perfect love, of the 613 commands in the Torah why did Jesus choose to teach on these six?

The First Reason

The first reason is to expose the unlawfulness of the scribes’ and Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law. Six of those nine “I say to you” statements are antithetical. Look, for example, at the beginnings of verses 21 and 22: “You have heard that it was said to those of old...” (v. 21); “But I say to you...” (v. 22). Note that these antitheses do not start, “It is written” (cp. 2:5; 4:4, 7, 10). Neither do they start with “what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (cp. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:3). Here the stress is not on reading what is written but rather on hearing what has been said: “You have heard that it was said” (cp. v. 31, “It was also said”). Jesus speaks this way because he is addressing their oral traditions, those man-made additions to or subtractions from the Word of God. Remember that he has just told us in verses 17-19 that he did not come to abolish the Law, not even the smallest letters of it. Nor did he come to relax any of its commands or to condone anyone who does. However, in verse 20 he does tell us in a sense that he has come to abolish something. He has come to abolish the unrighteous traditions of the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees—to show that their take on the Law is lawless and thus antithetical to kingdom entrance.

When I was first learning how to read, study, and teach the Bible, one of the lessons I learned is something called “the line of Scripture”. We are to hold to the line of Scripture, which means that we are not to go below the line (that is, subtract from Scripture) because this leads to liberalism, nor are we to go above the line (that is, add to Scripture) because this leads to legalism. So, for example, to teach that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, but has arisen spiritually in the hearts of those who believe in him—that’s liberalism. That’s not what the Gospel texts teach. Or to teach that since Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday (i.e., the Christian Sabbath), we should “celebrate” the reality of the resurrection by being dour all day—no dancing, playing cards, or smiles on Sunday—that’s legalism. It is adding to what those Gospel texts teach.

All of us, even the best Christians, are prone to these errors—of going above or below the line of Scripture. I remember the story of the great American evangelist Peter Cartwright. Cartwright is known for losing the U. S. Congress seat to Abraham Lincoln, but is better known for being a Methodist circuit rider. A circuit rider rode a horse from town to town throughout the Wild West—then Tennessee and Kentucky—preaching the gospel. Cartwright was a very rugged man, as one had to be in order to do this job. And for who he was and what he did—he baptized 12,000 people—I honestly admire him.

Yet he had his flaws. As the story goes, one day after he preached, a man came up to him and, to test the sincerity of Cartwright’s Christianity, struck him on the right cheek and then again on the left. Through both blows Cartwright stood his ground. He did not retaliate. Yet when the man struck him a third time, this strong evangelist landed a nice upper cut on that chap's face. And as he did so he said, “My Lord said nothing about a third slap.” As deserving as the punch may have been, that is getting off the line of Scripture! Or it is at least an example of misapplying the spirit of the text.

Well, the scribes and Pharisees were masters of manipulating the Bible like that. Much of Jesus’ conflict with them was due to their legalism—e.g., make sure you don’t carry that load of laundry on Saturday, or make sure you twist that sacred curl of your hair from right to left and not left to right. Here, however, his conflict is with their liberalism.

Look first at verse 21. Here we have the sixth commandment from the Ten Commandments: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). To this they added, “And whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” What’s wrong with that? That sounds good. It even sounds like what is written in Numbers 35:30, 31. What’s wrong with it is that the “judgment” referenced here is only the judgment of the civil courts (not a judgment from God), and as such it is a judgment only based on what man can see.

Thus, in his initial correction of their liberalism in verse 22, Jesus says that there are fuller implications to the sixth commandment. He teaches that we should worry about the civil court and their judgment for murder, but we should also concern ourselves with God, who looks deep within our hearts and sees all its secret intentions (Romans 2:16). We should concern ourselves with him and his X-ray vision and his eternal judgment (“the hell of fire”). The root of the crime of murder is in the human heart, yet physical murder is not the only bad fruit of that heart—our tongues can kill as well as our hands! Saying what we ought not to say and doing what we ought not to do are both damnable offenses, not always in the civil courts but certainly in the Final Court—for we will all stand before God’s throne of judgment and give an account for every deed and every word (Matthew 12:36).

Jesus continues his correction in verses 23-26. Here he takes the nega­tive command—“You shall not murder”—and he gives it a positive thrust. He basically says:

Don’t you dare come to worship God—to bring your sacrifice of thanks­giving to the altar in the temple—and yet hold hatred in your heart toward your brother. If you can’t forgive your brother (i.e., fellow believer), don’t think God will forgive you [see 6:15]. Those who are friends with God are friendly with others. Those truly reconciled to God are reconciled to others.

You see, the Pharisees loved to live below the line of Scripture. What can I get away with? What are the minimum requirements of the Law?

Sometimes elders are asked by engaged couples who are trying hard to remain sexually pure before marriage, “How far is too far?” That is a normal question, but it is also a pharisaical one. The sentiment is, how close can I get to breaking God’s Word without technically breaking it? We are all prone to think this way. But who naturally asks what Jesus is encouraging us to ask: “How far can I extend the commands of God? How can I expand a negative command to every imaginable positive application?”

This is in fact what we see in verses 27-32 on the commands about adul­tery and divorce.

In “the good old days” of the first century there wasn’t much good about the popular divorce proceedings. In Greco-Roman circles divorce required no formal or legal procedure. A man (and it was usually the man) could just write a certificate of divorce, or he could just say to his wife, “Hey, honey, you’re not my ‘honey’ anymore.” And that was it. Divorce was more common then than it is now in America. In Jewish circles there was certainly a higher view of marriage due to God’s Law concerning adultery and divorce. According to Deuteronomy 24:1, divorce was only permissible if a man found “some indecency" in his wife. That phrase “some indecency,” which is clearly defined in the text's context, became a blanket statement that covered up a husband’s unlawfulness.

Here is what happened. Some of the religiously elite made this “some indecency” clause as wide as the ocean. According to the Mishnah, a record of these oral traditions that Jesus is combating, a man could divorce his wife if she burned his toast. I'm not kidding. It is laughable to us. But it was no laughing matter to Jesus or to the thousands of poor women such divorce laws crushed.

What the so-called “righteous” in Jesus' day would do was get married, then for some small reason find a legal way to have many sex partners. How? Divorce and remarriage! Divorce and remarriage! Divorce and remarriage!

This still happens today, doesn’t it? The Roman Catholics call it an annulment, We need to find a clever term like that to save our spiritual skin, these scribes and Pharisees would turn their noses down upon the pagan for his sexual liaisons, but their behavior was much the same—legally pure (only sex within marriage), yet sexually impure (with eight different wives).

Our Lord will have none of this liberal but anti-liberating interpreta­tion “No easy divorces,” he says. What is written in Deuteronomy was not intended to “facilitate divorce but to restrict it.” Divorce destroys the original intent of marriage—it separates what God, in his providence and for his pur­poses, “has joined together” (see 19:6). It divides families, leaves women and children at risk, and can cut the core out of a culture or country.

Adultery is the one reason given here for divorce. This is because that sin alone breaks the covenant bond. Sex in marriage is like superglue. It binds a couple together. It makes two one—physically and metaphysically! But if that bond is severed, it is so difficult to re-glue these two pieces. Yet, by God’s grace it can be done and in most cases should be done (God models this in the Prophets; see especially Jeremiah 3).

This is one reason why, I think, before Jesus speaks about divorce and a wife’s adultery, he speaks to the men about their adultery—the private parties they throw with their eyes and their minds. “Listen, guys,” Jesus essentially says in verse 28, “before you throw your wife out on the street and marry another, take a good look at your own eyes. See if you might first find... oh I don’t know... a gigantic log! For if you so as much look at a woman with lust in your heart you are guilty of adultery.” Jesus turns the tables on the men of his culture, the men of all cultures! He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone (John 8:7).

From there Jesus moves on to the sin of breaking oaths. The Old Testa­ment Law is not opposed to vows or oaths per se (Numbers 30:2; Deuter­onomy 23:21-23). But what the scribes and Pharisees did with the Numbers and Deuteronomy texts was devise a number of “escape clauses from binding oaths.” If you made an oath by Jerusalem or Heaven and earth or even the hairs on your head, you could break that commitment. It was only if you said, “I swear to God” that the oath was binding.

Joe: Hey, you promised to pay me by Tuesday.

John: Now, wait a minute, pal. I never said, “I swear to God.” I only said, “Cross my heart and hope to die.”

Ah, such trickery with the Torah! Are you starting to see how, with a hammer in hand, Jesus is chiseling away the scribes’ and Pharisees’ spiritual facade, exposing their outward lawfulness as inward lawlessness?

Next we come to verses 38-42, his second to last hit. Here our Lord is dealing with the famous law from Exodus 21:24 (cp. Leviticus 24:20; Deuter­onomy 19:21), “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

What the religious scholars did with this command, which was designed not for private revenge but legal justice and “not to justify retaliation but to limit it,” was twist it to say (I paraphrase), “Hey, if you toucha me, I breaka your face.” They twisted God’s Word so as to condone the unloving attitude and action of “I’m gettin’ even.”

Jesus will untwist their twisting and teach that Exodus 21:24 is a righ­teous law that is for the protective good of the individual and community alike. Imagine a world where the government doesn’t punish people for crimes. What an awful world that would be. But also imagine a world where there was no personal retaliation. Imagine that. It’s not easy if you try. Imag­ine the day when a slap on the cheek doesn’t lead to a lawsuit, fistfight, or war. Imagine a world in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven, where selflessly walking the extra mile and giving to those in need are practices as common as raindrops in Ireland. Such is and will be the kingdom of God.

Finally, we come to the sixth antithesis (say that phrase six times), verses 43-48. The command to love one’s neighbor comes from Leviticus 19:18. The addition “and hate your enemy” comes from (let me see... ) nowhere in the Bible. But it does come, quite naturally, from the human heart. There is nothing as natural, easy, and sinful as only loving those who love us and hating those who don't. Yet perfect love, the kind of love to which Christ is calling us, loves like God the Father does daily. In his gracious provision for daily needs.

God loves indiscriminately both the good and the evil, both those who love him and those who don’t. That is the kind of love we are to show to all, and that is the kind of love that runs like a river through these twenty-eight verses.

So do you see, with these six antitheses, how Jesus shows the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law to be utterly unlawful? With some subtractions and additions, they went below the line of Scripture. They were liberal in the worst sense of the word. I’m a liberal. I love freedom (that’s what the word means), the freedom that comes from obedience to the gospel and walking in the way of the Spirit. They were liberals who used their freedom for lawless living, all under the guise of perfect adherence to God’s Law.

The -Second Reason

The second reason Jesus chose to comment on these six particular Old Testament commands was to allow the richness of God’s Word to make us—what’s the first beatitude?—“poor in spirit,” or, I’ll put it this way, to allow the holy heaviness of the Law to make us wholly humble before God.

What do I mean by this? Well, picture a clean-cut kid. He’s eighteen, gets good grades, obeys his parents, loves his brothers and sisters, and vis­its Grandma from time to time. He doesn't party, doesn’t stay out too late, doesn’t fool around with girls, and he goes to church each week and even prays each night before he goes to bed. This is a good kid. This is the boy most parents want their daughter to bring home someday.

With his handling of the Law, Jesus tells this good kid to sit down and hold out his hands. Then our Lord proceeds to place this heavy command and that heavy command upon this young man (YM).

Jesus: Have you ever murdered somebody?

YM: No, sir, of course not.

Jesus: What I mean is, have you ever lost your temper? Have you ever let a careless, biting, hurtful word fly from your mouth—like “You block­head” or “You foolish idiot”?

YM: Yes, sir.

Jesus: Alright, here’s a 200-pound weight. Hold that in your right hand. Are you ready for the next question? Here it is. Have you ever committed adultery?

YM: No, sir. I’m not even married.

Jesus: Oh no, no, my question for you has nothing to do with marriage. Let me put it this way—have you ever thought any impure thoughts about any girl?

YM: Yes, sir, of course, sir.

Jesus: Ah, I thought so. Well, here you go—another 200-pound weight. Put this in your left hand.

At this point Jesus looks at this poor soul and, noticing his discomfort, says, “Shall I go on?” The young man answers, “No, sir, please stop. I get the point.” Jesus replies, “But I haven’t gotten to the 500-pound question, the one I planned to place on your head. Don’t you want to hear my ‘perfect love’ question? Have you loved everybody, even your enemies, at all times?” “No, sir. I’m done, sir. I get the point.”

He gets the point. Do you get the point? What’s the point? The point is that we have a very inadequate anthropology and thus theology. We don’t feel the weight of God's glory, the heaviness of his holiness. One of our favorite questions gives the game away. We love to ask, "How could a good and loving God send anyone to the grave?” Why doesn’t anyone ask, “How can a good and holy God bring anyone to the Kingdom?” Or “How can an absolutely good, pure, sinless, utterly transcendent God redeem rebels, save sinners, take ‘worms’ like us (as Isaiah calls Judah in Isaiah 41:14), and metamorphose us into worshippers?” Who asks questions like those these days? Or who even asks the psalmist’s question, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4).

Recall the time in the Gospels when that rich young ruler (that clean-cut kid) came up to Jesus and said, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Before our Lord went to God’s Law—to some of these very commands here in Matthew—what did he do first? He said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:17, 18). Only God is good. We don’t really think that. We’re fine with “God is good.” We just don’t like the adverb “only.” Only God is perfectly good.

Here in Matthew 5 Jesus explains the full and rich implications of God’s perfect Law so that we might embrace poverty of spirit—recognizing our unrighteousness and thus our need for God’s perfect righteousness. We must know that the road to the Kingdom is not paved with good intentions, good works, or even keeping the works of the Law (as if that could be done), but it has been paved already by the Man of Sorrows, who bled for our sins, carried the cross of our condemnation, and died so we might live. Draw a straight line from these commands to the cross, from 5:21-48 to 27:50—“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.”

I’m not saying that kingdom ethics here are not important for those who already believe in Jesus. What I am saying is that such ethics are significant for those who don’t believe but should. Sure, what we have here teaches us something. For those who believe, the Law is our guide, showing us the way to please God. That is here. Jesus speaks of true worship in verses 23, 24—you can’t worship God unless you love and forgive others. He speaks of doing battle with our flesh in verses 29, 30—he calls (interestingly) for external actions to deal with internal issues. We are to cut out an eye and cut off a hand—even what is most precious and seemingly necessary—for the sake of our souls. That is all here. But more than that and beneath that is the Law as our schoolmaster or guardian, to use Paul’s terminology in Galatians 3:24. The Law guides us to a true understanding of ourselves so that we might recognize the depth of our sin and the love that God offers to sinners in the person of our Savior, Jesus Christ. The holy heaviness of the Law ought to make us wholly humble before God.


(R. Kent Hughes. and Douglas Sean O'Donnell., 2013; edited Carl Hinton., 2020)

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