An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount

by Kent Young

© 2017


MATTHEW 5:17-48

Matthew quotes Isaiah chapter nine when introducing Jesus’ public ministry (Matthew 4:12-17). In doing so Matthew makes an important distinction between Jesus’ ministry and that of John the Baptist. When introducing John’s ministry, Matthew referenced Isaiah chapter forty (Matthew 3:1-3). The passage in Isaiah forty refers specifically to the Lord’s dealings with his own people, the nation of Israel. This was John’s focus. He was to call the nation of Israel to repentance, in light of the coming heavenly kingdom.

In Isaiah nine, however, the focus is shifted somewhat. Rather than specifically calling out the nation of Israel, the prophet references a time when the Gentiles will likewise be ministered to. He says, “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way by the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles- the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:15,16; Isaiah 9:1,2). By quoting this specific prophecy, Matthew indicates that, although Jesus is indeed the Messiah of Israel, his messianic purpose extends beyond simply being a blessing for the Jews. Through Israel’s Messiah, God also intends to bless the Gentile nations. Jesus’ teaching, as well as the kingdom promises contained within it, was meant for both the Jews and Gentiles among his disciples.[1]

The nation of Israel itself had been constantly reminded that the Gentiles would eventually be blessed along with them. The calling and purpose of the children of Abraham was always that through them “all the nations of the earth (would) be blessed” (Genesis 26:4). Therefore, it is safe to infer that Jesus, as the Christ, or the Messiah of Israel, will bring with him blessings not for Israel only, but for all the nations of the earth.

With all of that having been said, however, it must also be pointed out that Jesus’ teaching, at least at this point during his ministry, was still very “Jewish,” at least in one respect. Although as the Messiah he will be a blessing that will eventually reach all nations, Jesus firstly came for the nation of Israel itself. The apostle John, in his gospel, says that Jesus “came to his own,” referring his own nation (John 1:11). Later in his gospel Matthew will describe a Canaanite woman, a Gentile, who comes to him asking for deliverance for her daughter from demonic oppression. Jesus responds to her pleadings for help by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Upon further pleading Jesus replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:22-26). Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. The first task given to him by his Father was the offering of himself and his kingdom to his own people, the Jews. In this way they might finally fulfill the purpose that God has for them and through them.

Sadly, a reading of all four gospel accounts will show that Jesus will eventually be rejected in large part by his own people. John’s gospel says that Jesus “came to his own”, but it then goes on to say that “his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). Jesus marveled at his hometown (Mark 6:6) and lamented over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37,38) because of the unbelief of his own nation. There came a point in Jesus’ ministry where, because of his own people’s rejection of him, he began to open up his ministry more directly to the Gentiles. To extend Jesus’ parable from Matthew 15:22-28, with “the children” despising their own bread, Jesus began to allow “the dogs” to eat. By chapter eleven of Matthew’s gospel Jesus had performed many miraculous signs, but had seen little repentance on the part of his own people. His response to this was to offer himself to any and all who would come to him (Matthew 11:28).

Unfortunately for the nation of Israel, the arrival of the physical, national messianic kingdom became impossible at that time because of their rejection of Jesus as Messiah. However, the Messiah himself was still able to offer the spiritual aspect of the kingdom to whomever would accept him. Thus Jesus, as the true seed of Abraham, would, for now primarily in a spiritual sense, begin to fulfill the promise made to his father Abraham by becoming a blessing to all the nations.

However, at the point in Jesus’ ministry when he was delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had not yet moved on from the offering of himself to his own nation. While his teaching is indeed applicable and binding on his disciples from all nations (Matthew 28:20), there is still a discernible Jewish background behind what he teaches the twelve disciples on the mount.

Law and Prophets

The phrase “the Law and the Prophets” is found twice in the sermon, once at the beginning of the teaching (Matthew 5:17) and once at the end (Matthew 7:12), showing that Jesus’ teaching is very much related to that which was previously given to Israel by Moses. In fact, these two uses of the phrase “Law and Prophets” can be viewed as “bookends,” for Jesus’ ethical teachings. Everything in Matthew 5 that is said prior to the phrase “Law and Prophets” can be viewed as words of introduction, and everything following the phrase in Matthew 7 can be viewed as words of conclusion. The twelve were themselves all Jewish, remember, so it makes sense that Jesus’ instruction is deliberately given within the context of Israel’s Law and Prophets.

In this first section of the Sermon on the Mount, this Jewish element is especially evident. In this first section, the bit following the introductory words, Jesus will bring several new teachings, each of them being presented as a direct comparison to something said in the Law of Moses (Matthew 5:21-48). Considering the fact that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, it is only logical that it would be incumbent upon him to address what had previously been given by God to the nation of Israel. Prior to the coming of Jesus, God had primarily spoken to his people in two ways. Firstly, God gave Israel the Law through Moses, and secondly he spoke through the mouths of the prophets. Therefore, when he wishes to refer to the totality of God’s Old Testament word to Israel, Jesus uses the expression “the Law and Prophets.” Jesus starts this section of the Sermon on the Mount with a brief overview describing how exactly he relates to Israel’s “Law and Prophets.”

Overview: Not Abolishing, but Fulfilling – Matthew 5:17-20

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
Matthew 5:17,18

In giving this overview of his position in relation to the Law, Jesus preempts two possible errors in understanding regarding what his position is.

Not Abolishing

Firstly, Jesus says that he has not come to “abolish” the Law or the Prophets. The Greek word here translated “abolish” means literally “to destroy” (καταλύω: see its use in Matthew 26:21; Romans 14:20). The error that Jesus is warning against is seeing him as one who is in opposition to the God of Moses and who would “destroy” that which he gave. It seems that some early heretical sects held to views such as this, seeing Jesus as serving a god antagonistic to God the creator.[2] Jesus makes it clear that he is the Son of God, and that God his Father is none other than the God of Israel. Jesus has no intention of tearing down what was given by God previously. In fact, he declares that the Law will remain in its entirety until the time when heaven and earth are also destroyed.

Fulfilling, Not Interpreting

Thankfully, most throughout church history have rightly rejected the view that Jesus is out to destroy what was given by the God of Moses. Christians have avoided falling into the error of some of the early heretical sects. Sadly, the same cannot be said regarding the other error that Jesus warns against.

The second error that Jesus would have his disciples guard against is addressed in his statement that he has come “to fulfill.” The Greek word translated “fulfill” is usually used in reference to the fulfillment of prophecy, or generally to mean “to finish,” “to complete,” or “to accomplish” (See its use in Philippians 2:2). Unfortunately, many throughout Church history have wrongly considered Jesus’ words to be no more than a clarifying or interpreting of what Moses had said previously. Within the Reformed tradition, both John Calvin[3] and Matthew Henry[4] say in their commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount that the Lord was correcting Pharisaical misinterpretations of the Law. Likewise, some today teach that there was really no new or different teaching given by Jesus in the sermon. Coming from a dispensational perspective, Louis A. Barbieri Jr., in Dallas Theological Seminary’s Bible Knowledge Commentary, similarly sees Jesus as merely correcting his listeners for seeking after the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law.[5]

While it is true that Jesus does mention the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees as a negative example (Matthew 5:20; 6:2,5,16), these commentators fail to notice that Jesus mentions nothing at all of the teaching of the Pharisees throughout the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is not simply the best in a long line of scribes interpreting the Law. We make a grave mistake if we assume that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is simply correcting wrong interpretations and offering clarifications of the Mosaic Law.[6] Jesus declares that he is himself the end toward which the Law and Prophets were moving. The Law is accomplished in him. This is a crucial point to understand if someone wants to properly understand Jesus’ teaching. Jesus was not interpreting the Law; Jesus was finishing the Law. The difference between these two is crucial. The crowds are specifically said to have noticed that Jesus spoke “not as the scribes.” His teaching was that of one “with authority,” different than those who spoke simply as scribes of the Law (Matthew 7:29). Jesus did not speak as though he were a student of Moses, nor even as Moses’ peer. Jesus said that Moses was simply preparing the way for him.

It is also possible that, in claiming that he fulfills the Law, Jesus is making a reference to Deuteronomy 18:15. Let me explain what I mean.

If there is one point that the Law made very clear it was that Moses was a unique individual within God’s plan. Deuteronomy 34:10 says, “There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.” However, Moses himself predicted a time when a prophet like him would arise, and said emphatically that Israel was to listen to him. Jesus, in saying that he is “the fulfilment” of the Law, is claiming that he is himself the prophet thus predicted.

The similarities between Moses on Sinai and Jesus on the mount are obvious. Both Moses and Jesus ascended the mountain. Both of them brought about new, profound teaching. Both brought about change that will never be undone. Most importantly, both Jesus and Moses spoke with the authority of God.

There is one important difference between the teaching of Moses and Jesus, however, and that is in the origin of the authority with which they spoke. Moses ascended the mountain alone, received the Law on tablets of stone, and having come down, spoke only what was given him by God. From that point onward, in order for a person to assume to speak with God’s authority, unless they were claiming to have direct revelation from God by using the phrase, “Thus says the Lord,” they would refer to what was given previously to Moses by declaring, “It is written...”

Jesus, however, uses neither of these phrases. Jesus’ claim was not “it is written,” nor was it “thus says the LORD.” Rather, Jesus’ claim was the simple phrase “I say to you...” Do you see the subtle, yet infinitely profound difference? The authority that Moses possessed was by virtue of his communication from God. Jesus speaks as though he has that same authority simply by virtue of being himself. While Moses spoke a message from God, Jesus spoke as God. It is no wonder that the crowds were astonished at the authority with which he taught (Matthew 7:28,29).

How Completed yet not Abolished?

Now, if we understand Jesus correctly, he claims that the Law yet abides, nevertheless it is completed in him (5:17). So what exactly does this mean? How can something that “abides” be “completed”? In what sense does the Law remain? In what sense is the Law finished?

In order to answer these questions let’s try to gain some insight by looking briefly into the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. In describing the Jews who disobey the Law, Paul says, “All who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law” (Romans 2:12). He makes the case in no uncertain terms that Israel has failed to keep the Law that was given to her, and thus she now stands condemned by that Law. Some would like to say that the coming of the Christ removes this condemnation for Israel. Jesus disagrees. Jesus makes it clear that the Law remains, and thus, it must continue to judge and condemn those under it who do not keep its commands.

If the Law yet remains, in what sense, then, did Jesus the Christ “fulfill” or complete the Law? Turning again to the apostle Paul’s words in Romans, Paul explains that “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). The apostle tells those who trust Christ that “you also have died to the law through the body of Christ” (Romans 7:4). To establish this point Paul makes an illustration from the Law concerning marriage. So long as both partners in a marriage are alive, the Law of marriage is binding. If one partner dies, however, then the other is free to marry someone else. Likewise, the Law abides (Matthew 5:18), but those who by faith are united to the Christ, have themselves died, died with Christ (Romans 6:5; 7:2-4, Galatians 2:20). Thus, any Jew who rejects Jesus as the Christ is “still alive,” and thus still abides under the condemnation of the Law. Jesus did not come to “abolish” the Law. However, those who are united to the Christ by faith are, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection (and thus their co-death and co-resurrection with him), “not under Law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). So for those who by faith are “in Christ,” they are freed from the Law just as Jesus is. Because of this fact, Paul says that “the righteousness of God has now been manifested apart from the Law” (Romans 3:21).

In summary, Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, and therefore the Law yet abides and condemns. But Jesus did come to “fulfill” or “finish” the Law, and thus the Law has no judgment or condemnation for those who are, by faith, united to him.

Other Senses of “Fulfilment”

There is another respect in which Jesus “fulfilled” the Law as well. Remember, to “fulfill” not only means “to finish” but also “to complete.” We have seen how Jesus “finished” the Law, but there is also a sense in which he “completed” the Law.

Remember in Romans 3:21 when Paul says, “The righteousness of God has now been manifested apart from the Law”? Well he went on to say that “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” The Law itself prophesied that one day a Messiah would come and that this Messiah would accomplish God’s purpose for Israel. Israel failed to obey the Law, and thus they failed to accomplish the righteousness of God. But where Israel failed under the Law, the Messiah will succeed apart from the Law. The Law itself speaks about this coming Messiah and his purpose-fulfilling work. So in this respect, Jesus’ coming to die and be raised, thus freeing men from the Law, was in itself also a “fulfilment” of the Law, in that it was a completion of the prophecy given in the Law.

There is yet another sense in which Jesus “completed” the Law, and this one is a bit more controversial. As we go through the Sermon on the Mount, we will find that Jesus addresses certain deficiencies in the Law, in that it comes short of the fullness of the righteousness of God. We will point these instances out as we come to them, but for an example I will point out one occasion from outside the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus addressed a deficiency in the Law as revealed through Moses.

Later in his ministry Jesus will describe a concession that Moses had made within the Law concerning the Law of marriage (Matthew 19:8,9). Jesus makes it clear that divorce was given as a concession because of the hardness of men’s hearts. If a man ceased to care for his wife, the poor woman would be in the position of a widow, since she would not be able to marry another man without committing adultery. Because hard-hearted men were doing this, God, through Moses, permitted divorce so that the abandoned woman would be legally free to marry another man.[7] Of course this situation differed from God’s original plan for marriage. Jesus, by his own teaching, removes the concession and restores God’s original idea (Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18). In the Sermon on the Mount as well, there are items in the Law of Moses from which Jesus now differs in his own teaching.

I am well aware that this concept will be strange for some Christians to hear, but the Mosaic Law, while indeed given to the nation of Israel by God for specific purposes, did not in itself reveal the entirety of God’s standard of righteousness. Primarily, the Law was given for the purpose of governing the nation. The fleshly children of Israel needed a civil government that would guard them until the appointed time for the appearing of the Messiah.[8] Through this Law God would be able to preserve a lineage that could one day bring about the Christ, the One who himself would display the entirety of God’s standard. But because the Law was governing a fleshly people, it was not able to display the fullness of God’s righteousness, the way that it can be expressed by a spiritual people. This is why Jesus’ new commands “complete” or “fulfill” what was spoken previously. Jesus, in saying that he “fulfills the Law,” is saying, along with the other things mentioned, that the righteousness that he now teaches will serve to complete what was lacking in the Law of Moses.

Kingdom Position

So Jesus has just explained what is the proper understanding of his position as the Christ in relationship to the Law. Before going into his own teaching by comparing it to the Law, Jesus touches again on the “kingdom” theme of his sermon. Jesus gives a brief explanation of how his disciples’ response to his teaching will affect their position in respect to the coming kingdom.

“These Commandments”

“Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same...”
Matthew 5:19a

Contrary to what many commentators say, when Jesus warns against “relaxing” one of the least of “these commandments” he is referring to the commands that he himself is about to give, and not to the Ten Commandments or to anything else from the Law of Moses. Jesus uses the near demonstrative “these” (Greek: οὗτος), where he would likely have used the far demonstrative “those” (Greek: ἐκεῖνος) had he been referring to the commandments given centuries earlier.

Also, remember what Jesus had just said about his “fulfilling” of the Law. The lower, less-complete righteousness of the Law had to do with preserving the nation until the Christ would arrive. This new teaching that Jesus is about to bring, not the Law of Moses, is what truly prepares one for the heavenly kingdom. We must not overlook the fact that, in conjunction with the theme of the entire sermon, the warning that Jesus gives to his disciples has all to do with their position within the coming “kingdom of the heavens.”

Jesus refers to the “relaxing” of these commandments as affecting one’s position within the kingdom of the heavens (see Matthew 5:19b). If we look at this fact in light of Jesus’ discussion of John the Baptist in Matthew chapter eleven, we will find indisputable evidence that, by “these commandments,” Jesus is referring to his own teaching, rather than to anything from the Old Testament.

Notice Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:11. In that passage Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist...” This is important to notice. None had arisen under the Law who was greater than John the Baptist. Of all the Old Covenant servants of God, none could surpass John. It goes without saying, then, that John never taught to “loosen” or “relax” any teaching from the Law. Therefore, if Jesus is saying that keeping and teaching commands from the Law is what secures a person with a great position in the kingdom of the heavens, then John’s position would be the absolute greatest! But what does Jesus say? If we read on in that same verse we find that Jesus says, referring to John the Baptist, that “the one who is least in the kingdom of the heavens is greater than he.” Do you see the point? The absolute pinnacle of righteousness gained under the Law (namely: that of John the Baptist) was inferior to the least acceptable righteousness necessary for entrance into the kingdom.

Of course I do not say this to demean John the Baptist in any way, nor do I mean to imply that John himself will not be rewarded with entrance into the kingdom in the future. My point is that the teaching that Jesus is about to bring is on an entirely new and different plane from that which was given previously. Jesus’ is a heavenly righteousness, higher than anything ever given to earthly men, higher even than the Law of Moses! Therefore, if what Jesus refers to as “these commandments” here in Matthew 5:19 are also said to affect one’s position within the kingdom, they cannot refer to anything of the Old Covenant, since even the standard of John the Baptist, the greatest of all during the period of Law, is below the least in the kingdom of the heavens.

Least in the Kingdom

“...will be called least in the kingdom of the heavens.”
Matthew 5:19b

Now, within the explanation that he is giving here, Jesus speaks of three positions which relate to the coming kingdom. Each position, by clear implication, is potentially inherited by a disciple of the Lord by virtue of his response to Jesus’ teaching.

Firstly Jesus refers to one who “will be called least in the kingdom of the heavens.” The disciple here described by Jesus is one who attempts to “relax” (Greek: “loose”) any of Jesus’ commands. This is a person who, although he will be present in the kingdom, his position will be low. He will not be among those who are said to “reign with Christ” (Revelation 20:4) during the thousand year period, but neither will he be among those who are “cast out” (Luke 13:28). Jesus says that this inferior position will be for those who tend to soften his words for themselves and for others. Jesus will later warn against taking “the broad way” of easier interpretation of his teaching (7:13). The one who takes this way will have his position lessened in the coming kingdom.

Great in the Kingdom

“But whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens.”
Matthew 5:19c

Secondly Jesus describes one who does what Jesus teaches, and then instructs others to do so as well. Jesus says that this one’s position will be “great in the kingdom.” The original twelve disciples will later be instructed, not only to make disciples of all nations, but also to teach them to obey everything that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:20). Much of our New Testament is made up of some of these same original disciples doing exactly that: teaching others to obey what Jesus taught. It should be no surprise, then, when we find out later that Jesus will tell these disciples that their position in the next age will indeed be great. Jesus said of the original twelve that they will “sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28). Just as was the case with the original twelve, each disciple of Jesus who both keeps Jesus’ commands and instructs others in those commands will have a great position, co-ruling with Jesus in his kingdom when it comes.

Will not Enter the Kingdom

“For I say to you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of the heavens.”
Matthew 5:20

Lastly Jesus describes those whose righteousness never reaches the level necessary for them to even enter the kingdom of the heavens. He uses the scribes and Pharisees as an example of the kind of righteousness that falls short of the lowest standard required for entrance into the kingdom.

To an unlearned observer this assessment of the scribes and Pharisees would have been difficult to understand. From an outside perspective, these religious rulers appeared to be the most righteous of everyone in Israel. How then could their example be below the minimum requirement for the kingdom? It is just here that an understanding of the present, spiritual aspect of the heavenly kingdom becomes necessary.

By saying earlier that the “poor in spirit” possess the kingdom of the heavens presently (Matthew 5:3), Jesus has shown that God’s heavenly rulership has already been taken hold of in one sense. Though the blessings of “seeing God,” “being satisfied,” and “inheriting the earth” all await their future fulfilment (Matthew 5:4-9), of the poor in spirit Jesus says that “theirs is the kingdom.” The kingdom presently exists as a spiritual reality, and it is only those who are emptied of themselves, those who are “poor” in their own spirit, who experience it. This is why the scribes and Pharisees are the perfect non-example. Those who, because of their own pride, do not presently abide under the rulership of God by his Spirit cannot be considered as having “entered the kingdom” in spiritual reality today. The righteousness of a prideful person can, at best, be a human, fleshly righteousness; a righteousness of law. The righteousness required for the kingdom, however, must be a different one, a higher one; a righteousness which comes only from the power of the Holy Spirit of God.

In one sense, all who believe have been transferred by God from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son (Colossians 1:12). Thus we can say that, in a positional sense, all believers have already entered the present, spiritual aspect of the kingdom. What Jesus is saying here, however, is that there is a required standard of experiential righteousness necessary for entrance into the coming kingdom when it is manifested upon the earth. Those who have not made a practice of spiritually abiding under the heavenly rule in this age, should not expect any inheritance in the kingdom when it comes in full manifestation. A disciple whose righteousness never goes beyond the carnal observation of the letter of the Law, following the pattern of the scribes and Pharisees, has never begun to abide under the heavenly authority. This disciple, one who has not learned to be spiritually governed directly by his Father in heaven, does not live in the spiritual reality of the present heavenly kingdom, and he should not expect the reward of an inheritance in, nor even simple entrance into, the kingdom when it is manifested on the earth in the future.[9]

These two aspects of the kingdom, the present, spiritual aspect, and the future manifestation aspect, are placed side by side by Jesus in Matthew 24:45-47. Jesus says, “Who then is the faithful and wise slave whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions.”

In the above parable we have the kingdom described as a “household.” The master is said to set the faithful and wise slave “over all his possessions.” Here we have the future “household:” the coming millennial kingdom. The master (picturing the Lord Jesus) rewards his servants (the disciples) with co-ownership of his possessions. No doubt this pictures Jesus rewarding his disciples with rulership (and stewardship) in the future, manifest kingdom. To whom, though, does the master award this privilege? It is to those who are already presently serving in “the household” when he comes. Here is the present “household:” the spiritual kingdom, the church. The disciple’s serving of his Lord during this day of the invisible, “spiritual” kingdom is what earns his position in the manifest kingdom that is yet to come.[10]

Comparison of Jesus’ Teaching With the Law – Matthew 5:21-48

As we get deeper into this section about Jesus’ teaching and the Law, we will see Jesus using some of the content of the Law to provide a contrast for what he is now teaching his own disciples. The disciples of Jesus are a unique group of people. While they were originally composed only of Jews, after Jesus’ resurrection they will be composed of both Jews and Gentiles (Matthew 28:19). More importantly, as opposed to the Old Testament Israelites, the disciples are a people whose blessings are said to await the future kingdom to be finally meted out. Because of the unique status of this group of people, the Law of Moses, while perfect in its content for whom it was given (namely the nation of Israel until the coming of the Christ), is simply not suitable for them. Israel was a people of the flesh; Jesus’ disciples are a people of the spirit. Israel’s promises were earthly; these disciples’ promises are heavenly. Because of these things, the teaching of Jesus is able to be higher, deeper, and even at times directly different from what was given through Moses at Sinai.

As stated earlier, many might take issue with the idea that Jesus was contrasting his teaching with the Law itself. It is common for Bible teachers and commentators to state that Jesus was disputing with some contemporary ideas (perhaps those of the Pharisees) who were misinterpreting what the Law had really said. Many believe that if Jesus were to bring any new teaching, something different than what was given through Moses, then there would be a contradiction with God and a lack of continuity between the Old and New Testaments. The reformer John Calvin takes such a view.[11] In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin says that for one to assume that Jesus taught anything different than what was given in the Law, he would “make God contradict himself, by approving and commanding at one time, what he afterward prohibits and condemns.”[12] The problem with Calvin’s view is in his use of the phrase “at one time.” That’s just the point. With the Messiah having come, it is not the same “time” as it was under the Law. With the coming of the Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit, things have changed. Calvin’s logic is faulty and, more importantly, he disregards the plain reading of the text.

As far as the text is concerned, Jesus does not say, “You are hearing many moderns claim...” Rather he says, “You have heard that the ancients were told.” Jesus does not then go on to quote the Pharisees or any modern scribe, but rather to quote from the Law itself. Each point that Jesus refers to the ancients as having been told is either a direct quote from the Law (“You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery,” “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) or is a fair paraphrase of a teaching found in the Law. To claim that these phrases imply some Pharisaical misconstruing of what was truly given by Moses is to read into the text something that is simply not there.

It is true that Jesus elsewhere does in fact rebuke the Pharisees for their mishandling of the Law. When he does this, however, Jesus does not mince words. He makes very clear what he is doing, and he directs his rebuke directly to the Pharisees themselves (see Matthew 23:13-36). In those instances, one could say that Jesus was acting as a scribe correcting other scribes. The teaching in Matthew 5-7, however, is very different. He is not here speaking as a scribe, but as one with his own authority. It is precisely because of this authority with which he spoke, different from a scribe, that Jesus astonished the crowds with his teaching (Matthew 7:28,29).

Back to Calvin’s logical point. Why does Jesus’ teaching not qualify as “destroying” the Law? If Jesus is bringing new teaching, sometimes differing distinctly from the Law of Moses, how then does this not make Jesus opposed to the God who gave that Law to Moses?

To answer quite simply, Jesus is free to bring a new teaching now because it was he who gave the Law in the first place! More than once Jesus claimed himself to be one and the same as the “I AM” who spoke to Moses (John 8:24,58,59). As the situation changes, the Lord is free to bring new teaching to fulfill a new purpose. The Law was given by the Lord for a specific purpose: to guard and preserve the nation of Israel until the coming of the Christ (Galatians 3:24). The ordinances of the Law were designed to govern a race and a nation; a fleshly people. Now that Jesus the Christ has arrived, making available the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, he is perfectly free to bring new teaching to govern this new spiritual people. The teaching of the Law was good, and if obeyed it brought earthly blessings to an earthly people (Deuteronomy 28:4,5). But Jesus now speaks of a kingdom that is “of the heavens,” and thus requires teaching on a much higher plane.

For illustration, imagine there is a man who has two young sons. Let’s call the man “Marvin.” Now imagine Marvin makes a house rule. He sits his two sons down and tells them, “From now on, you boys are not allowed to play in the front yard. The traffic in our neighborhood is increasing and I don’t want you to get hit by a car. If you want to play outside, then you are only allowed to be in the backyard.” As the boys grow older, the rule is consistently enforced and the boys are prevented from playing in the front yard.

Now, let’s say when Jordan, the older of the boys, reaches a certain age, Marvin decides that it is time for Jordan to take some responsibility around the house. Marvin tells Jordan that every Tuesday he is to take the garbage can out to the road, in order for the trash to be collected. Now imagine that Jordan objects saying, “But Dad, I can’t! This is in clear violation of our standing rule against front yard activities!”

I ask you, is Jordan’s objection valid? Is Marvin, as a result of the previous rule that he made, disallowed from making a new, different rule? Of course not! Marvin, the father, is the one who gave the original rule its authority. Surely, then, he can use that same authority to bring about this new instruction. Similarly, the Lord God gave the Law to a specific people for a specific purpose. Jesus, being Lord, has every right to bring teaching that, based on the existence of a new people and a new situation, supersedes what was given before.

Continuing even further with the illustration, note also that Marvin does not necessarily have to abolish the former rule in order to make way for the new one. If Clint, the younger brother, should decide to play in the front yard, he would still be in violation of the original rule. Similarly, Jesus, though giving a new and different set of commands for his new people, does not abolish the old Law for the nation of Israel. If a Jew has not been “freed from the Law” through faith in Christ, then he is still under the Law. He will still be judged by any short-coming of perfect adherence to the entirety of that Law.

So, in summary, Jesus leaves the Law there as a means of condemnation for those who are under it. However, he freely justifies all those who, by faith, are united to him and thus freed from the Law. This new people, those not under the Law but under the grace of God, now have laid before them the potential to receive the reward of co-rulership with Jesus in the millennial kingdom. The teaching Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount summarizes his righteous criteria for these born-again believers to receive this reward. Jesus begins laying out this standard of righteousness by making comparisons between his teaching and that of the Law given by Moses.

Concerning Murder – Matthew 5:21-26

“You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘You shall not murder’ and ‘whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’”
Matthew 5:21

Jesus begins the comparison of his own teaching with what was given through Moses by addressing the Law’s prohibition against murder.

Jesus quotes the Law from what is probably its most famous section: the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments’ prohibition against murder is found both in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17. Jesus quotes both of those passages verbatim: “You shall not murder.”

Jesus then goes on to summarize what the Law says regarding how a murderer ought to be dealt with. Jesus refers to the Law as saying that “whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” Jesus is not addressing any pharisaical misconstruing of the Law. No, this is a fair summary of what is said in Deuteronomy 19. When someone had killed someone else, whether intentionally or unintentionally, “the avenger of blood” (Deuteronomy 19:6, probably a family member of the deceased) would pursue the manslayer in order to avenge the death. The killer would flee to one of three refuge cities where he would be tried for the crime. If the death was found to be accidental, the killer would be exonerated. If the death was intentional, the murderer would be killed (see Deuteronomy 19:1-11). In other words, according to the Law, “Whoever murders will be liable to judgment.”

“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment;”
Matthew 5:22a

Jesus here brings a teaching that goes well beyond what was given through Moses. Firstly, unlike the Law, which brought no judgment until a physical death occurred, Jesus warns that, for his disciples, there will be a future judgment even of their attitude toward their brethren. Jesus tells his disciples that, like the manslayer under the Law, whoever is angry with his brother will be “liable to judgment.” The judgment spoken of here is certainly the coming Judgment Seat of Christ, before which Paul says all who follow Jesus will appear (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Notice that Jesus does not say that the disciple who is angry with his brother will necessarily be found guilty, only that he will be liable to judgment. It is possible to be angry, yet without sin (Ephesians 4:26). It could be argued that Jesus himself was angry, even with believers, at times. Certainly he was angry with those abusing the temple (John 2:14-16). He was also amazed at the stubborn unbelief of his hometown (Mark 6:4-6), and even became frustrated with the weakness of the faith of his disciples (Matthew 16:8). Thus, it is clear that there is such a thing as being vindicated in one’s anger, and just like the manslayer under the Law, an angry believer might be exonerated by his Judge.

However, James 1:20 warns us that “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” God, in his perfect righteousness, does, at times, get angry. When a man’s anger is in accord with the righteous anger of God, then the anger is righteous and the man is vindicated. However, when it is simply the “anger of man,” not having its origin in God, it produces sin.

Compare, for example, Moses’ anger at Mount Sinai with his anger at Meribah. When Moses came down from Sinai and saw the idolatry of the people of Israel in making the golden calf, it is said that his “anger burned hot” (Exodus 32:19). Moses, in his fury, shattered the tablets containing the words of God. He then (almost unbelievably) ground the idol into dust, scattered the gold dust into the people’s water, and forced them to drink it! Now, I have been angry before in my life, but I can’t imagine being so “burning hot” so as to force an entire nation of people to drink the golden statue they had just made. Imagine the wrath that Moses exhibited in this story. Nevertheless, as we read further into the chapter we find that Moses’ anger was in agreement with the Lord. He was not in sin, because his anger was not “the wrath of man,” but was a zeal for the holiness and glory of the Lord. We read that the Lord completely vindicates Moses’ anger (Exodus 32:30-35).

However, the story is much different at Meribah. When the Israelites were quarrelling with Moses about their lack of water, Moses again grew angry, but this time in a different way. This time Moses’ anger was in defense of himself rather than of God. The Lord’s desire was to provide water for his thirsty people, so he simply told Moses, “Speak to the rock...and it will yield its water” (Numbers 20:8). But Moses, no doubt due to his anger against the people, defied the Lord’s command. Moses struck the rock twice rather than simply speaking to it, while saying to the people, “Hear now, you rebels! Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?!” (Numbers 20:10,11). Not only did Moses’ human anger cause him to disobey the Lord’s command, but he misrepresented the Lord before the people. He implicated the Lord in his own personal wrath by saying that it was “we” (himself and the Lord) who were miraculously bringing forth the water from the rock. The Lord told Moses that, in doing this, he had given a false and unholy representation of God before the people of Israel. It was this event, Moses’ self-centered anger and misrepresentation of the Lord, that prevented him from entering into the Promised Land (Numbers 20:12).

This story should give us some insight into why Jesus gives such a stern warning regarding anger. The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God, and when we, as Jesus’ disciples, stand before him in judgment, even the innermost purposes of our hearts will be judged.

“Whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ will be liable to the council;”
Matthew 5:22b

“Raca” is an Aramaic insult meaning “worthless.” It is important to notice that Jesus rebukes the one who says this to his brother.[13] To call anyone who is genuinely a brother or sister “worthless” is slanderous. It is tremendously destructive and discouraging for a disciple of Jesus to speak this way about a fellow believer, especially since none of the redeemed are without eternal value to the Lord.

The slanderous nature of this insult is why Jesus compares its judgment to being brought before “the council” or “the Sanhedrin.” The Sanhedrin was a higher court in Israel before which only those already found guilty of a crime would be taken. So, in other words, while Jesus’ disciples will be judged as to whether or not their anger against a brother is justified, should their anger result in the calling of one of their brothers “worthless,” then on some level the disciple is already guilty.

“And whoever says, ‘Moreh!’ will be liable to the fiery Gehenna.”
Matthew 5:22c

Finally Jesus addresses a disciple saying “Moreh!” This most likely is also in reference to slandering a brother. While most translations render this word “Moreh” as “fool” as would be correct if it were a Greek word, it probably is also from the Aramaic, just as “Raca” is from the Aramaic. If this is the case, then saying to a brother “Moreh” is an even graver insult than is saying “Raca.” “Moreh,” in the Aramaic, means “rebel.” It is a serious offense to accuse a brother of being useless to God, but it is worse still to imply that a brother is in fact at enmity with God.

Throughout the Old Testament scriptures there are numerous occasions of men being called “fool” and “worthless fellow” (Psalm 14:1; Isaiah 19:13; 1 Samuel 25:25; Proverbs 6:12). Those not following the precepts of the Law were at times rightly categorized as being “worthless.” There were only a few occasions, however, where anyone was called a “rebel.” One such case is when Moses said of Korah that he and his men “despised the LORD” (Numbers 16:30). This was a most serious accusation, and it was proven true by the Lord’s causing the earth to swallow up Korah and those who followed in his rebellion (Numbers 16:32).

However, as we have seen in Numbers 20:10-13, there was another angry accusation by Moses that was not vindicated by the Lord. At Meribah Moses’ anger burned against the assembly of Israel and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels!” He then struck the rock that was to produce water for the people instead of simply speaking to it as he was told to do. We saw earlier that Moses’ attitude was not in agreement with the Lord’s. Do not underestimate the seriousness of this offense! The Israelites were simply in a quarrel with Moses, but Moses accused them of being at enmity with the Lord! For this false accusation and misplaced anger Moses missed out on the opportunity to bring Israel into the Promised Land. The Lord took Moses’ offense seriously and disciplined him accordingly. The same holds true for Jesus’ dealing with his disciples when they slanderously call their brother “rebel!”

While Jesus has spoken of judgments that his hearers were familiar with and related them to his own future judgment over his disciples, in this particular case he introduces a form of judgment that is something far more severe. Jesus does not warn about being liable to judgment or to the Sanhedrin, instead he mentions the judgment of “the Gehenna of fire.”

It is unfortunate that most translations of the Bible translate this word “Gehenna” with the word “hell.” “Hell” is normally understood to be the name for the place of final judgment which is called “the lake of fire” in Revelation 20:10,14,15. Outside of the reference to its being a “fiery” place, there is nothing in the text to indicate that Gehenna ought to be associated with final judgment.

“Gehenna” literally means “valley of Hinnom,” which, according to Joshua 15:8, is a reference to an area on the southern border of Jerusalem. Jesus refers to Gehenna as being a “fiery” place, not because it is one and the same as the lake of fire mentioned in Revelation 20, but because it was an area in which some of the wicked kings of Israel had burned their children in sacrifice to idols (2 Kings 23:10, 2 Chronicles 28:23, 2 Chronicles 33:6). Because of this abominable practice, the prophet Jeremiah says that this same area will one day become a place for God’s judgment on his own people (Jeremiah 7:31,32; 19:6).

The use of the word "hell" by most translations of this passage has caused a number of interpreters of Jesus’ words to struggle to understand Jesus’ true meaning. Knowing that their doctrine does not allow for any believer to be in danger of "hell," they must stretch the limits of reasonable exegesis in order to interpret Jesus' meaning.

Some expositors, believing “Gehenna” to be equated with the lake of fire of Revelation 20, claim that Jesus is simply making a more nebulous statement about sin in general and its consequences. J. P. Lange’s A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew, takes such a view.[14]

Others say that perhaps Jesus is being hypothetical when talking to his disciples about this judgment. According to this “hypothetical” view, Jesus is discussing what might have been the case for the disciples, if they had not found forgiveness. Jesus discusses this hypothetical situation, so the view goes, in order for the disciples to have a greater appreciation for the redemption that they received and their subsequent escape from this kind of judgment. Since the disciples (except for Judas) were saved believers, however, it would seem that, according to this hypothetical view, these warnings have no real application for almost his entire immediate audience. This fact, I believe, ought to rule out this view as a possible interpretation.

The problem with both of these views (i.e. the “nebulous” and “hypothetical” views) is that they each lack a proper understanding of the word “Gehenna” and of the biblical doctrines of both the kingdom and the Judgment Seat of Christ.

Remember that in this passage Jesus is addressing his own disciples, and thus we can reasonably infer that he is warning of a judgment that could potentially come upon them as saved believers. “Gehenna,” therefore, seems more logically to be a reference to the place into which Jesus elsewhere says that a wicked servant will be cast (Matthew 24:48-51; Luke 12:45,46). As we look into the matter further, it will become clear that, in connection with the “kingdom” theme of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, this “casting out” or “going into Gehenna” of the wicked servant ought rightly to be understood to take place during the millennial kingdom period and not during eternity future. It is kingdom judgment for believers, not eternal damnation of the unsaved, that Jesus has in view in this passage. When Jesus elsewhere talks about this “casting out” of the wicked or unprofitable servant, he makes it clear that this sad event occurs at his own second coming (see Matthew 24:50; Luke 12:46), which, of course, occurs immediately prior to the establishment of the millennial kingdom.

A further evidence of the connection between Jesus’ warning about Gehenna and his other warnings about a disciple’s being put out of the kingdom is found in the prophecy of Jeremiah. Jeremiah mentions a time when this valley will no longer be named for “Hinnom” but will be called “the Valley of Slaughter” (Jeremiah 7:32; 19:6). This parallels directly with Jesus’ warning that his wicked servant, the one who abuses his fellow servants while the master is away, will be “cut asunder” as part of his judgment (Matthew 24:51, Luke 12:46). Jesus is giving a very sober warning of a severe judgment for those disciples of his who so viciously slander and insult their brothers.

Now, I am aware of the fact that many will be taken aback at the point I just made. Many Christian systems of theology and biblical interpretation do not allow room for any disciplinary judgment upon those who are truly saved, whether during the millennial kingdom or any other time. Despite this fact, I boldly ask you, reader, to simply ask yourself, with all systems of doctrine set aside for the moment: What is the face-value interpretation of these passages?

When Jesus says, for instance, in Luke 12:47, “The slave who knew his Lord’s will, and did not get ready or act accordingly, will be beaten with many lashes,” does Jesus seem to be referring to a believer or an unbeliever? Can Jesus really refer to an unbeliever as a “slave who knew his Lord’s will”? If Jesus is referring to a slave, does he seem to be referring simply to negative punishment, i.e. loss of reward? Or is he quite clearly referring to positive infliction of punishment?

Or what about in Matthew 18:24-35, when Jesus says that the unforgiving servant was “delivered to the tormentors until he should pay all that he owes”? Could Jesus be saying anything other than positive kingdom judgment on believers, especially as he concludes the parable by saying, “Likewise my heavenly Father will do to you if you do not forgive your brother from your hearts”?

Likewise, in the passage before us in Matthew 5:21-30, does a fair reading of this passage indicate that Jesus is simply making a hypothetical statement about what “might have been” the case had his hearers never believed? Or is he giving a sober and genuine warning about the very real possibility of punishment?

“He who says, ‘Moreh (rebel)!’ will be liable to the fiery Gehenna.”

In his commentary on the passage Robert Govett has this to say to the potential objector to the kingdom punishment doctrine:

“Is it SCRIPTURE? Do not, Christian brother, seek to set aside a truth because it is unpleasant, by raising a storm of prejudice. If this be not spoken to disciples, prove it! Put it down by force of Scripture! Hew it in pieces with that two-edged sword! But if it be the word of Christ, bow to it!”[15]

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Matthew 5:23,24

Jesus’ disciples would no doubt have been filled with concern, as perhaps the present reader of these pages is now, upon hearing these intense warnings of Jesus. They may have been remembering the last time they were unjustly angry with their brother, or perhaps they thought of the last time they had accused and slandered their brother in the manner that Jesus just described. Were they destined for the type of judgment that their master had just said was their due? Had they lost all hope of the reward of kingdom glory, being now sentenced to the Lord’s strong hand of discipline?

Thankfully, for them and for us, Jesus goes on to explain how they and we can obtain forgiveness for this kind of offense against our brethren. Jesus says to “be reconciled to your brother” before you “offer your gift” at the altar. In other words, offenses between the brethren hinder an individual’s fellowship with God. This is a principle on which Jesus elaborates further later in the teaching (see Matthew 6:14,15). Disciples of Jesus will one day stand before him to be judged (2 Corinthians 5:10). If today one’s brother has something against him, it is important for him to make peace with his brother today.

“Come to terms quickly with your accuser (at law) while you are with him on the way, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will never come out from there until you have paid up the last cent.”
Matthew 5:23-26

Again, in this passage we see the very real prospect of punitive discipline that Jesus warns may come upon his genuine disciples. The fact that the disciple remains in prison until he has “paid up the last cent” conjures the same image as Jesus’ explanation of his parable of the unforgiving servant: “Deliver him to the tormentors until he pays all that he owes....Likewise my heavenly Father will do to you if you do not forgive your brother from your hearts.”

Remember we are in the immediate context of Jesus explaining his teaching regarding anger by comparing it to the Mosaic Law concerning murder. Jesus has explained the deadly kingdom dangers that will result from a disciple’s anger and hatred toward one of his fellow believers. In these verses Jesus uses the metaphor of an “accuser at law” to illustrate the point he just made in the previous verses about obtaining forgiveness through reconciliation with one’s brother. The judge before whom the disciples will one day stand is obviously the Lord himself. In this illustration, the accuser is a disciple’s offended brother. Jesus is painting a picture of believers living together with offenses against one another in their hearts. While we walk together with our brothers and sisters in this life, if any of them have a genuine offense against us, then it is as though we are riding in the car with our accuser on the way to the courthouse. Jesus admonishes us, “Seek reconciliation now!” Otherwise, like an accuser at court, once we arrive and are handed over to the Judge, the time for reconciliation is over and the time of judgment begins.

Notice, then, how important our relationships are with our fellow believers! Nothing in our lives as disciples of Christ is as important as the brothers and sisters around us. A brother’s offence disrupts fellowship with God. Yet reconciliation with our brother not only brings about peace with men, but it is also able to restore peace and communion with the Lord himself! As disciples of Jesus, may we always remember how important the Lord considers our interactions with one another. No verbal attack, no false accusation, no internal anger harbored against a fellow believer is overlooked by the Lord. If we wish to be praised and rewarded by Jesus at his Judgment Seat, then we must be careful today to hold each of our brothers and sisters in the highest possible regard; loving them, caring for them, and quickly seeking restoration should we ever sin against them. Remember the words of the apostle Paul, “So then, while we have opportunity, let us work that which is good toward all, especially toward those of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Concerning Adultery – Matthew 5:27-30

“You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at (another’s) wife with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Matthew 5:27,28

Here again we have a direct quote from the Ten Commandments. Jesus had just compared his own teaching to the Law’s prohibition against murder. Now he mentions the Law’s forbidding of adultery (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18). Once again, Jesus teaches something that goes higher than the Law ever did. While the Law forbade the physical act of adultery, Jesus internalizes the matter and forbids looking at another’s wife “with lustful intent.” While the Law brought judgment for the manifestation of the sin in the physical act, Jesus addresses the sin’s point of origin: the intention of the heart.

It is important to notice that Jesus is not speaking of simply the arousal of desire that may come through a man’s unintentional, passing glance at a woman. The construction of the Greek implies that Jesus is speaking of the intention of the look. Jesus is not implying that an unintentional glance puts his disciples at the risk of going into Gehenna (vs. 29,30); rather he is speaking of the intentions of his disciples’ hearts.

When looking into the next command (Matthew 5:31,32) we will see exactly how highly Jesus regards the covenant of marriage. The Law also had a high view of marriage, which is why committing adultery against one’s spouse was such a serious offense. Jesus, however, goes further even than the Law does. While the Law forbade adultery (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18) and carried the death penalty for the commission of adultery (Leviticus 20:10), Jesus forbids his disciples from taking the first, seemingly minor step down the adulterous path.

Men often will have the self-control to avoid pursuing a sexual relationship with another man’s wife. A desire to preserve one’s own marriage, friendships, and even place in society can be sufficient motivation to avoid the overt act of adultery itself. Jesus points out that to truly be acting out of love and concern for one’s own spouse, as well as for one’s neighbor, he cannot even allow himself to gaze lustfully at his neighbor’s wife. Imagine if your neighbor, or for that matter even your wife, could know your inner-most thoughts. Perhaps then the sin of looking lustfully would be more important to us. Jesus would remind us that there is One who can and does know the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

When the Lord spoke to Samuel about who he would have to be king of Israel, he said, “the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Men do not have this ability when it comes to knowing the intentions of one another. An individual may get away with a great deal in this life. Much about his thoughts and intentions seem to be known only to himself. Jesus will later speak, however, of a coming day when all that is covered will be revealed (Matthew 10:26), and he follows this statement by telling his disciples not to fear those who can kill only the body, but rather to fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna (see Matthew 10:29,30). He continues by saying that this is the same One who knows all, even the hairs of one’s head (Matthew 10:30). Indeed, the righteousness that Jesus demands of his disciples is a total righteousness, not simply an outward one; a righteousness that penetrates to the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it from you, for it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into Gehenna.”
Matthew 5:29,30

Jesus once again gives a warning in which he references “Gehenna.” Remember “Gehenna” is a reference to a severe, kingdom-age discipline for Jesus’ disciples. This time Jesus gives a warning in the form of a hypothetical situation. We know that it is in the heart, not in the hands or the eyes, that lustful intent and other forms of sinfulness originate. However, Jesus says that if one’s eye or hand was actually able to cause them to sin, it would be better for them to cut it off or tear it out than for them to face the judgment of Gehenna.

It is as if someone objected to Jesus’ strict teaching by saying, “But teacher, that’s really too much! I can’t control my eyes! And my hands often work before my thoughts can react!” Jesus points out the absurdity of the objection by the severity of His response.

“Well, then cut them off!” he says. Though self-amputation obviously would not really be of any value in changing the sinfulness of one’s heart, hypothetically speaking, it truly would be better to lose an eye or a hand in this age than to face the Lord’s disciplinary hand in the age to come.

As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:5, the Lord will come again, and when he does he “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” How much better it will be for a disciple to have his heart in the right place in this age than to face the Lord’s judgment in the next!

We can gain some further insight into this passage by looking at the similar one in Matthew 18:1-9. That passage starts with the disciples asking Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens?” (Matthew 18:1). Thus we can see that the subject being discussed is position within the coming kingdom. Jesus explained to the disciples the absolute necessity of child-like humility for even simple entrance into the kingdom (Matthew 18:2-4). He then gave a stern warning against the putting of stumbling blocks in front of others (Matthew 18:5-9). The warning he gave there in Matthew 18 is similar to the one he makes here in Matthew 5:29,30. In verse nine of Matthew 18 Jesus says, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away...” The main difference between that passage and the one we are looking at here in Matthew five is that in Matthew 18 Jesus also mentions the alternative to being “thrown into the Gehenna of fire.” He says that the approved disciple, rather than being thrown in Gehenna, will be able to “enter life.”

We must look for a moment at what Jesus means when he says “to enter life” because, seeing in Matthew 18:9 that it is to be understood as the alternative to “going into Gehenna,” correctly understanding this phrase will help us to better interpret the similar phrase here in Matthew 5:29. We can be certain that the phrase “enter life,” when used in this context, cannot be synonymous with the free gift of new birth and the reception of eternal life as explained in John 3. The new birth is clearly explained as requiring no works on the part of the receiver. Only simple faith is required for the new birth and the subsequent reception of eternal life. In the passage in Matthew 18, however, Jesus states in no uncertain terms that works, specifically the avoidance of certain sins, are required to “enter life.”

Jesus makes this point even more clearly in Matthew 19:17-19. In that passage, when speaking to the rich, young ruler, Jesus plainly states, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” The vast majority of commentators have gone to great lengths to interpret Jesus’ words as meaning something different than what they clearly say, that to “enter life” (in this sense) requires “keeping the commandments.” The commentators discomfort with the plain reading of this passage is quite understandable. If one assumes that the phrase “enter life” means the exact same thing as the phrase “be born again,” then the plain reading of Jesus’ words implies a contradiction between his words here to the rich, young ruler and his words, for example, to Nicodemus in John 3. There does not need to be this contradiction, however, if we understand the difference between the words “eternal life” as the present possession of God’s life, and when the phrase is used in reference to the reward of being present for the kingdom during the next age.

Zane Hodges, having seen these varying usages of the phrase “eternal life,” made this astute observation:

“Here it should be stated clearly that in the New Testament eternal life is presented both as a free gift and as a reward merited by those who earn it. But one important distinction always holds true. Wherever eternal life is viewed as a reward, it is obtained in the future. But wherever eternal life is presented as a gift, it is obtained in the present.”[16]

Coinciding with Hodges’ observation, Jesus and the rich young man’s conversation was about “eternal life” in a future sense, and also is clearly mentioned as being a reward according to works.

Notice also that Jesus’ explanation of how one can “enter life” exactly coincided with the teaching of the Law regarding reward for obedience[17]. In Deuteronomy 4:1 Moses tells the children of Israel, “Listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.” The Jews, both collectively and individually, were justified in God’s sight simply because of their trust in him and his sovereign grace (Romans 4:16). Nevertheless, they, like Jesus’ disciples also, had a reward for obedience placed before them that they could either inherit or lose.

Remember, earlier we mentioned that it is best to refer to the gift of new birth and the reward of the kingdom by using those specific terms. Some other terms or phrases are used at different times to express either idea. “Eternal life” is one such phrase.[18] The “eternal life” (Greek: αἰώιος ζωή - “age life”) that the man and Jesus were speaking about in Matthew 19:16-22 was to do, not with the free gift immediately received and eternally secure, but with the conditional reward of entrance into Israel’s future kingdom.

This fact is made explicit in Jesus’ continued explanation to his disciples in Matthew 19:23-30. Immediately after the rich man walked away, Jesus made the statement, not using the same “enter life” terminology but clearly referring to the same concept, that it will be difficult for a rich person to “enter the kingdom of the heavens” (Matthew 19:23). Jesus then elaborates on his point at the inquiry of Peter. Jesus explains that the willingness to suffer loss in this life will procure great reward in the kingdom age. We know that he is referring to the kingdom age because he explicitly says, “In the regeneration, when the Son of Man will sit on his throne of glory” (Matthew 19:28). I cannot understand how this could be viewed as referring to anything other than the millennium.

We can therefore interpret the rich young ruler’s question as being one about the very thing about which Jesus goes on to elaborate: the coming kingdom. The man was essentially saying, “Jesus, I have heard about Moses’ promise of blessing in the Promised Land in return for obedience to his teaching. I have heard of the promise to David that his messianic heir will rule over the whole world from that land. I have heard Daniel and Isaiah and all the prophets speak of that coming kingdom and the glory that it will entail. Now you have proclaimed yourself to be that coming Messiah and have proclaimed that the kingdom is drawing nigh. I ask you, then, what specifically is required from me if I would ‘live,’ as Moses put it, during that coming, glorious age?”

Jesus, then, very appropriately explains what Moses himself gave as a requirement, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” A fair reading of the passage can only lead a reader to one conclusion. The requirement to “enter life,” in this particular kingdom sense, requires works. Jesus did not say, as he did to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” It seems to me the young ruler was already born again. Being justified before God, in both Old and New Testaments, was and is by simple faith in the Lord who justifies. This man believed in the Lord. However, whether regarding the blessings to “live long in the land” in the Old Testament (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 11:9) or to “enter the kingdom” in the New Testament, there are rewards put before those who are justified that can only be realized as a result of the believers’ works. For the Jews to simply live within the land that Messiah will rule over, they must faithfully obey Moses. For the Christian disciple to share the Messiah’s heavenly reign during this same period, he must obey these teachings of Jesus. This has been and will be Jesus’ message throughout the Sermon on the Mount.

Going back to Jesus’ warning here in Matthew 5:29,30, it is clear that he is telling his disciples of two future possibilities for them when they appear before his future judgment seat. They may be rewarded with a position within the coming kingdom (Matthew 24:47; Luke 19:17,18), or they may be cast out (Matthew 24:30) and potentially into the dreaded “valley of slaughter,” which until then will be known as “Gehenna” (Jeremiah 7:32; Matthew 24:51).

Now someone might ask whether Jesus is really being so harsh as to say that a disciple of his, by simply lustfully gazing at another man’s wife, will merit his being thrown out of the kingdom into the fiery Gehenna. A careful look at his words will show that this is not exactly what Jesus is saying. Adultery itself, if left unconfessed and not repented of, indeed will cause a believer to fail to inherit the kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9,10; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5). Some may assume that Jesus’ saying that the one looking lustfully “has already committed adultery with her in his heart” implies that the two sins of lust and adultery are totally equivalent. Jesus does not actually say that. Jesus is saying that, while the two sins are indeed sinful to different degrees, they are still sins of the same kind. The intention of the sinner’s heart is in the same direction, away from the wife that God has given him and toward the wife of another. Thus Jesus is warning that the lesser sin will begin to lead to the worse. This is why the Gehenna warning is appropriate. It is true that the Lord knows and will judge even the thoughts and intentions of his disciples’ hearts (1 Corinthians 4:5), but here he is warning that the sin of the eye can lead someone down the path toward the sin of the body. The latter of which will disqualify a disciple from rulership in the coming kingdom (1 Corinthians 5:10).

I would like to take a moment to address an “extreme” to which this teaching can wrongly be taken. The unwarranted inference that heart-adultery is exactly equivalent to flesh adultery, as we have seen, is incorrect. When this faulty inference is then combined with most translations’ use of the word “hell” in Matthew 5:29,30, an unnecessary level of alarm results for many young Christians, especially Christian boys.

There are helpful ways of addressing the problem of lust in the hearts of young men. However, causing an adolescent Christian boy to fear that his salvation from eternal fire is in jeopardy is not helpful to him at all.[19] The warnings within Jesus’ teaching should be taught with tenderness and sobriety, but there is no need to take them to extremes. Warnings like this one in Matthew 5:29,30 can actually lose their force when interpreters take them beyond Jesus’ intent. Such extremes, especially as they relate to a person’s security in Christ, can cause an unnecessary turmoil of soul. They can even cause the average believer to either ignore Jesus’ genuinely serious commands, or even to dismiss them as hyperbole.

Concerning Divorce – Matthew 5:31,32

“It was also said, ‘Whoever will put away his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’”
Matthew 5:31

In moving on to the matter of divorce, Jesus changes his phrasing somewhat when describing the Law’s command. Concerning murder, Jesus said that the disciples “have heard that it was said to the ancients...” Concerning adultery, the matter of “the ancients” as being the original hearers is only implied and Jesus simply says, “You have heard that it was said.” When he moves on to the matter of divorce Jesus simplifies it further, saying only, “It was also said...” After this section Jesus will go on to discuss a few more commands of the Law and will revert back to the expression “You have heard that it was said...” This slight variation may seem trivial, but it is actually quite important.

Looking at the passage carefully we will notice that in this section Jesus changes from using a direct quotation of the Law to giving his own paraphrase. Therefore Jesus alters his phraseology a bit and does not say that the disciples have “heard” that these things were said. While he does summarize a bit in some other sections as well, this section is the only one in which the referenced portion from the Law is entirely paraphrased.

We should not assume, however, that simply because Jesus is not directly quoting the Law that he is therefore not giving a fair and accurate paraphrase of the Law’s teaching on the subject. Though the Law never directly states that a man putting away his wife must give her a written certificate of divorce, a look at Deuteronomy 24 shows that this is indeed exactly what the Law demands. In the first five verses (Deuteronomy 24:1-5) it is explained that if a man divorces his wife and she remarries only to be divorced again by her second husband, then the original husband is forbidden from taking her back again. Both husbands are innocent of adultery, however, and it is implied that this is because, as both verses one and three say, the husband “writes a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand.” The Law undoubtedly allowed for a marriage to be broken so long as a divorce certificate was given.

“But I say to you that everyone who puts away his wife, unless it is because of fornication, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a put-away-woman commits adultery.”
Matthew 5:32

Jesus will later explain that this divorce process which the Law allowed was given by Moses as a concession and thus does not reflect God’s original intention for marriage. In Matthew 19:8 Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees, says, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to put away your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

The logic of this may seem strange, but in the ancient Hebrew culture it makes perfect sense. For a woman to be “put away” by her husband meant that she was without a household since the men generally were considered to own the estate. In order not to be in the position of a widow the woman would be forced to remarry. This would be an act of adultery, of course, if she were still married to her first husband. Therefore, while a righteous husband would honor his commitment to his wife, a hard-hearted one would “put her away” if he was no longer pleased with her for whatever reason. In order to protect a wife in this position, the Law commanded a husband, if he was unwilling to honor his marriage commitment, to at least make the separation official so that his wife would be free to marry another without becoming an adulteress. Hence the saying, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed...”

Jesus, however, restores God’s original intention by removing this concession. With his disciples there is no longer an understood “hardness of heart” that necessitates a command to divorce. As with the rest of the teaching, while the Law governed people of the flesh in an external way, making necessary concessions for the sake of a functional society, Jesus demands a higher, internal righteousness. For disciples of Jesus the command is not, “If you cannot tolerate your wife, then at least divorce her so that she can remarry,” but rather, “Love your wife and remain committed to her no matter what.” In Matthew 19:9 Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever puts away his wife...and marries another commits adultery.” There is no longer any allowance of putting away one’s wife, not even with a “certificate of divorce” provision.

In chapter nineteen Jesus shows that the divorce provision is done away with, so a man commits adultery if he puts away his wife and marries another. Chapter nineteen speaks about the man who does the divorcing, while here in chapter five Jesus addresses the woman who is being divorced. There he says a man divorcing and remarrying commits adultery; here he explains his new teaching by saying that, by putting away his wife, a husband has caused her to commit adultery. This would not be the case under the Law, so long as the husband wrote a certificate of divorce.[20] Under Jesus’ new teaching, however, a “put-away” woman would be committing adultery if she remarried, as would the second husband, because, again, there is no longer any provision for an official separation.

Now, in this passage (Matthew 5:32) as well as in chapter nineteen, there is what seems to be an exception clause to what Jesus has just taught when Jesus says, in both passages, “Unless it is because of fornication.” Most commentators that I have read see this phrase as meaning that Jesus forbids putting away one’s wife except in a case where the wife has committed adultery. The argument generally is that if adultery has been committed, then the marriage bond is broken already. Therefore the innocent party is absolved (so the argument says) from their duty to the marriage. This is the view that Calvin takes: “An exception is added, except on account of fornication: for the woman, who has basely violated the marriage-vow, is justly cast off; because it was by her fault that the tie was broken, and the husband set at liberty.”[21]

In my view Calvin, along with many commentators who follow him, completely misses Jesus’ point. Let’s look at a few flaws in his argument.

Firstly, while this phrase “unless it is because of fornication” is found in this passage in Matthew 5 as well as in the passage in Matthew 19, it is found in neither of the parallel passages in Mark’s or Luke’s gospels. In Mark 10:11 Jesus is quoted as saying simply, “Whoever puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” The Mark account then goes on to show that in a culture where women were able also to put away their husbands that the same would apply to them (Mark 10:12). The Luke account also brings the same basic teaching as the one in Matthew, only leaving off the phrase “unless it is because of fornication” (Luke 16:18). If the common interpretation is correct in saying that the phrase implies that adultery is grounds for divorce, then Jesus appears to be contradicting himself in the parallel accounts. The Luke account especially leaves no room for such a provision, saying that “everyone who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery.” The continuity of Jesus’ teaching from one gospel to another demands that an interpretation for this passage be able to remain the same with or without the provisional phrase, “unless it is because of fornication.” Otherwise either Matthew is wrong for having it there or Mark and Luke are wrong for removing it.

Secondly, if by this phrase “unless it is because of fornication” Jesus was referring to the act of adultery, then he most likely would have used the word “adultery” (Greek: μοιχεία) rather than the word “fornication” (Greek: πορνεία). Generally speaking, when discussing marriage and fidelity, any illicit sexual activity is described as being “adultery,” where “fornication” is used to mean sexual immorality committed more generally. Jesus’ use of the word “fornication” rather than the word “adultery” gives helpful insight into the correct interpretation of this teaching.

In the original Greek, the words translated “husband” and “wife” are the same as the words for “man” and “woman” (“ἀνήρ” and “γυνή” respectively). The context may imply that a husband or wife is being spoken about, but the simple appearance of one of those words does not necessitate “husband” or “wife” as being the correct English translation. To put it simply, the Greek language refers to a man’s wife as simply being “his woman” and a woman’s husband as being “her man.” Because of this, the same word often rendered “husband” or “wife” could be used in reference to a fiancé; a man or woman to whom one was in fact not yet married.

This was the case with the important example of Mary and Joseph in Matthew 1:19. Although they were just previously said to be “betrothed” rather than married (Matthew 1:18), Joseph is referred to in many translations as being Mary’s “husband.” He was not her husband yet. He was simply “her man” in the more general sense. Therefore, when Joseph found out that Mary was “with child,” he logically assumed that she was guilty, not of adultery, but of fornication. He was said, in this case, to be a “just” or “righteous” man, for mercifully deciding to “put her away quietly.” He did not need to “give her a certificate of divorce” since they were not yet married. Had they been married, it seems to me that he would certainly not have put her away. Joseph was a righteous man, not a “hard-hearted” one as the Pharisees were said to be. Had he been bound by a marriage covenant, we can be quite sure that he would have not considered breaking it.

It is not simply coincidence that Matthew’s account is the only one that mentions “putting away” as being allowed in cases involving fornication. His is also the only gospel that contains this story of Mary and Joseph. Jesus, in his teaching, removes the “certificate of divorce” concession that was given by Moses. There are no grounds given for putting away one’s wife, not even for adultery. He allows for “putting away” on the grounds of fornication, but considering that the other gospel accounts do not need to include this provision, it must be referencing, as Joseph thought was the case with Mary, sexual unfaithfulness that happens prior to marriage. A wise man would not go ahead with a marriage to a woman who commits fornication during their betrothal. If he is righteous, he will also be merciful enough to not want to shame her publically. He would do what Joseph did and seek to “put her away quietly.” However, once married, there are no more grounds for “putting away.” This is why Jesus concluded his original statement to the Pharisees by saying, “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6).

Lastly, I would like to point out that the common understanding of this phrase “unless it is because of fornication,” the one taken by Calvin and others, as meaning that a husband is freed from his wedding vows if his wife commits adultery is totally incongruous with the rest of Jesus’ teaching about the righteousness of his disciples.[22] Are there any other examples where Jesus tells his disciples that their own righteousness is conditional upon the proper behavior of another, even of a spouse? None! Jesus is consistent in telling his disciples that, whenever they are sinned against, they are still to be absolutely unfazed in their own personal righteousness. When struck, the disciple turns the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). When sued, the disciple gives more than is asked of him (Matthew 5:40). If a brother has offended a disciple of Jesus, he is told to reconcile quickly (Matthew 5:23-25). How, then, could Jesus here teach to disregard one’s commitment to his spouse because of the other’s sin?

As Jesus will explain later, the righteousness of the disciple is to be patterned after that of God himself (Matthew 5:45,48). Through the prophet Hosea God actually used this exact example of an unfaithful spouse as an illustration for the way that Israel had treated him while they were committing idolatry. He commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute so that he could experience the abandonment that God felt as his people were unfaithful to him. Did God use Israel’s sin as an opportunity to abandon his own faithfulness? Of course not! Rather he commanded Hosea to “love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods” (Hosea 3:1). If Jesus’ disciples are to follow the pattern of God’s own righteousness, certainly they are not to see the unfaithfulness of another as an opportunity to abandon their own commitment to be faithful.

Concerning Vows – Matthew 5:33-37

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’”
Matthew 5:33

While in the previous section Jesus only paraphrased the Law concerning divorce, here Jesus returns to using a direct quotation, and thus also returned to the phraseology, “You have heard that it was said...” Jesus quotes the Law’s position concerning vows from Leviticus 19:12 and Numbers 30:2. The making of a vow was something allowed under the Law, and the one who made the vow was obliged to keep it.

There were even some cases where the making of a vow was not only allowed, but was even commanded under the Law. In Exodus 22:10,11, a situation is described where one Israelite entrusts his animal to another and the animal dies. The text of the Law reads, “An oath by the LORD shall be between them both to see whether or not he has put his hand to his neighbor’s property.” The one entrusted with the animal is commanded to swear an oath, ensuring that the animal’s death was not his fault. If it was his fault, he must make restitution.

For another example we could turn to Numbers 5:11-31 which describes the process of deciding whether or not a woman accused of adultery is guilty. The accused woman is made to take an oath and then drink a bowl of water mixed with dust from the floor of the tabernacle. The Lord would then make the water poisonous if she was guilty or benign if she was not. This is an example of a vow that was not simply permitted, but commanded by God, with God himself vindicating the one who takes it truthfully.

“But I say to you, do not swear at all...”
Matthew 5:34a

It is undeniably clear that in this text Jesus forbids swearing altogether. James 5:12 makes the same command, “Do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other vow.” This is perhaps the passage most difficult for commentators to twist into simply being a restating or a clarifying of the Law’s position.

Calvin exposes his misunderstanding of Jesus’ position in relationship with the Law of Moses when he says, “(Jesus’) purpose was, neither to relax nor to curtail the Law, but to restore the true and genuine meaning, which had been greatly corrupted by the false glosses of the scribes and Pharisees. If we attend to this, we shall not suppose that Christ condemned all oaths, but those only which transgressed the rule of the Law.”[23]

Of course, one would have to be completely settled on his own doctrine and then attempt to read it back into the text in order to come up with such an interpretation. Calvin’s conclusion is not even remotely conceivable from a plain reading of the text. None of the preceding verses give any indication whatsoever that Jesus is referring to pharisaical misinterpretation, as Jesus directly quotes the Law, pointing out the obvious fact that the Law commanded vows be fulfilled. I would ask Calvin, “If Jesus did intend to ‘condemn all oaths,’ as opposed to only those in violation of the Mosaic Law, how could he have phrased it any plainer than he does here?” Jesus quotes the Law verbatim, then says, “But I say to you, do not swear at all.” I understand that it cuts against certain theological systems, but any unbiased reader of this text must conclude that Jesus is indeed forbidding all oaths for his disciples, thus making this an example of Jesus’ forbidding of something that was not only permitted but even commanded by Moses to the nation of Israel.

“...either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.”
Matthew 5:34b-36

It is important to note that, under the Law, vows were at times indeed commanded by the Lord. This fact gave these vows a strong and sober validity because it was the Lord himself who would carry out the sworn outcome pronounced according to his command (Numbers 5).

Jesus explains, however, that swearing outside of the command of God is utter vanity. This is because a man who takes an oath that God has not commanded is swearing by something of which he himself has no ownership. Men, according to Jesus, must not swear by heaven, because it is “the throne of God” and man has no ownership of it. The same is true about the earth, about Jerusalem, and even about one’s own head. Jesus says, “You cannot make one hair white or black.” Therefore he forbids men to swear by any of these.

“Let your word ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ be ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
Matthew 5:37

Under Law there was an understood “profanity” or “commonness” about all that went on with common language. This necessitated the making of certain statements “holy” by their being sworn before the Lord. In this text Jesus effectively tells his disciples that, with them, nothing is profane; all is sacred. With them, a simple “Yes” or “No” should be sufficient for them to be believed because they treat each word that comes out of their mouth to be subject to judgment (Matthew 12:36). Any vowing beyond this simple “yes” or “no” implies evil. Such vowing implies that a person’s speech otherwise cannot be trusted.

Under the Law, all was considered profane unless it was sworn before the Lord. One could casually speak about his donkey, his tent, or his children. However, he could not take “the name of LORD...vainly” (Exodus 20:7). It was a violation of the Law’s command to take something holy, like the LORD’s name, and make it profane (common). Only when one really meant it could he swear before the LORD (see Numbers 30).

Jesus teaches his disciples to consider all that they say to be “sacred” in this sense, letting their “Yes” always mean “Yes” and their “No” always mean “No.” It is evil and presumptuous to imply a claim to ownership of anything else by swearing by it.

I can see legitimate differences of opinion as to whether the legal oath necessary to testify in a court of law should be considered this kind of forbidden vow because of its containing the phrase, “So help me God.” It is my opinion that it should be so considered.

Concerning Justice – Matthew 5:38-42

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”
Matthew 5:38

Three separate places in the Law contain the words that Jesus quotes in the next section of his teaching. When discussing the principle of justice being carried out, Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21 all say the same thing: “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” The application of this principle extended to the judges in Israel, as well as to any individual who was injured. It was up to the individual to seek vengeance for a wrong done to him, and the judges were to see to it that these vengeances were executed justly.

This principle of justice was also described earlier when Jesus spoke about the Law’s position relating to murder (Matthew 5:21). In that section he spoke about the Law’s position relating to the perpetrator of the crime, then contrasted it with his own teaching. Jesus emphasized the greater strictness of his own future judgment of his disciples and the internal nature of the righteousness that he was demanding. Here Jesus speaks of the Law’s position relating to the victim of the crime. The victim, under Law, was entitled to justice. Whatever loss or injury he suffered would be inflicted on the perpetrator: Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.

Here again, no pharisaical misinterpretation is in view. With regard to justice Jesus described, in Moses’ own words, what the teaching of the Law actually was.

“But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil, but whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And to the one who would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever will force you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who demands from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” Matthew 5:39-42

Again, Jesus presents a teaching that is on a far higher plane than what was given through Moses. Jesus teaches his disciples not to demand justice, but rather to offer mercy and grace. Rather than resisting an evil person or avenging themselves, Jesus commands his disciples to go above whatever is demanded or extracted from them. This commandment would apply to both interpersonal as well as legal situations.

If someone slaps another’s cheek, justice would demand that he be slapped back. Jesus teaches to be merciful, in not retaliating, and gracious in offering the other cheek as well. This teaching applies also in a legal setting. His disciples are told not to go to court to defend themselves, but to give whatever someone would take from them through the civil law. They are to go with one who demands that they go, even beyond what is demanded. They are to graciously give when someone claims to be owed, or even when another simply wants to borrow what is theirs.

For people of the world, and sadly even for many Christians, this particular teaching is judged to be entirely too extreme. In criticism of the type of face-value interpretation that we are taking here, John MacArthur says of this text, “It has been interpreted to mean that Christians are to be sanctimonious doormats.”[24] From a natural viewpoint, we must concede that this teaching does, in fact, appear to be imprudent, irresponsible, and even dangerous.

What then? Are we to take Jesus as simply telling us to be “doormats” that evil men can happily walk all over? Is it simply “sanctimonious” arrogance to think that Jesus’ words can be literally and consistently obeyed?

I believe the answer to MacArthur’s objection is found elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching. Although Jesus does indeed say, in this section, not to resist “the one who is evil” (Greek: “the evil one”), he will later teach his disciples to pray, “Deliver us from the evil one.” It is just here that the Christian finds his true hope of carrying on while obeying this unnaturally restrictive teaching: The believer must look to God himself for protection. Jesus has not simply left his disciples as defenseless sheep among wolves. His disciples have a good shepherd who will only allow the trials to come upon them which he, by his Spirit, equips them to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Concerning Dealing with Enemies – Matthew 5:43-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”
Matthew 5:43

The verses discussed earlier about Jesus’ teaching concerning vows (Matthew 5:33-37) were perhaps the most difficult from which to infer the common interpretation of Jesus’ teaching being merely a clarification of what was written in the Law. There he clearly pointed out the Law’s command to perform an oath, and then gave his direct forbidding of oaths. On the other hand, this verse in Matthew 5:43 is perhaps the one most often quoted in attempting to prove that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, was simply teaching against the scribes of his own day and therefore was not actually changing anything that was said in the Law. Hal Haller, writing as a part of one of my favorite New Testament commentaries, says, “The command to ‘hate [one’s] enemy’ is not found in the OT. It was part of the pharisaical tradition.”[25] This, from my study, seems to be by far the majority opinion among commentators. But is it correct? Let’s look into it.

The first half of Jesus’ reference to the Law is a direct quote from Leviticus 19:18. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

Israelites were told to love their “neighbor,” and one’s neighbor was understood to be “a son of your own people.” In other words, a “neighbor” is a fellow Israelite. Those under the Law were obliged to seek the good of all their kinsmen the way they would for their own selves. Jesus later quotes this as being the second greatest commandment in all of the Law (Matthew 22:39).

However, the second half of Jesus’ reference to the Law is where the controversy lies. Despite numerous claims to the contrary, when Jesus says that the ancients were told, not only to “love your neighbor,” but also to “hate your enemy,” he is not referring to any contemporary misinterpretation of the Law, but is in fact giving a fair paraphrase of what the Law’s position actually was. Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me say once again that the Law of Moses, given by God to the nation of Israel, did in fact command the nation to “hate your enemy.” Where does the Law command this? Let’s look.

When the Israelites’ were about to go in to possess the land promised to them, Moses told them, “You shall consume all the peoples that the LORD your God will give over to you. Your eye shall not pity them, neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you” (Deuteronomy 7:16). According to this text the Israelites were not only told to consume their adversaries, they were told to not let their eyes pity them.

Notice also the language used when Moses explains in Deuteronomy 23:1-8 which people were to be forbidden from assembling with the Israelites as they gathered before the Lord. It is true that there were some other nations who were, in fact, permitted to assemble with them.[26] Of the Ammonites and Moabites, however, the Israelites were told not only to exclude them from their assembly, but they were told specifically, “You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days forever” (Deuteronomy 23:6).

So, when going in to possess the Promised Land, the Israelites were told, not only to kill their enemies, but were specifically told, “Your eye shall not pity them.” And regarding certain of their surrounding nations, they were told to “not seek their peace or prosperity.” I ask you, how would you describe these commands? Is Jesus not giving a fair paraphrase when he says that Moses, not the Pharisees, but God through Moses himself, commanded the Israelites to “hate your enemies”?

While Israel as a nation, at times had allies, they also had enemies. In warfare throughout history it has always been to a nation’s advantage to have a certain emotional distance and rejection toward the people that will be fought against. The spreading of propaganda is a common tactic used in warfare to gain sympathy from an opponent’s troops and citizenry in order to make them easier to defeat. The Law of Moses took preventative measures against this kind of tactic. Jesus is correct in summarizing the Law’s position as commanding Israel to “hate” those who might oppose them in war. In other words, “You have heard that it was said... ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy’.”

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”
Matthew 5:44

Jesus, in this passage, shows us that the commands given under the Law to “hate your enemy” were, like the matter of divorce discussed earlier, not representative of God’s highest standard and desire, but were a concession from God’s original idea.

As Paul explains in Romans 1, from the beginning, mankind as a whole fell into every manner of ungodliness and unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). They rejected God and turned to idolatry, (Romans 1:23) and they embraced their dishonorable lusts to the point where God “gave them up” to their debased minds (Romans 1:24,26,28). Because this type of wickedness was not the exception, but was the pattern with the Gentile nations, God called his people, the nation of Israel, out from among them. Not only did he call the Israelites out, but he also gave them certain barriers to protect them against the corrupting influence of these nations. This is part of the reason that Israel had such strict ceremonial laws differentiating them from the surrounding nations, and why the Israelites were forbidden from intermarrying with those whose lands were being dispossessed. While God’s plan of redemption is to include all nations, the Law brought about certain concessions that had to be made in order to preserve his chosen people until such time that the promise to Abraham could be fulfilled and Israel’s Messiah could be revealed.

Under Law, there was a “wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile. Paul explains that with the coming of the Christ, this wall comes down (Ephesians 2:14). God’s heart from the beginning was to bless all the nations through Israel. Therefore we can know that God’s command in the Law for the Israelites to “hate their enemies” was a temporary, concessional provision. It was different from God’s true purpose. The command was necessary because of the wickedness of mankind, but it never represented the true desire of God’s heart. The giving of God’s Son and the sending of his Spirit enabled God to now, through Jesus, bring the command back to a perfect representation of what his desire truly is.

“So that you may be sons of your Father who is in the heavens. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:45-48

Jesus tells his disciples that they are to be “sons of your Father in the heavens.” They must now express the same kind of “perfect” love that God expresses. Since God causes the sun and the rain to benefit the righteous and the unrighteous, Jesus’ disciples are similarly expected to love in every circumstance.

Some may rightly object that this is an impossible thing for man, in the flesh, to do. Did not Jesus himself elsewhere say that “there is none good but God?” (Mark 10:18) How does he now command that his disciples love “perfectly,” after the same manner that God does?

Jesus will soon explain the secret (see chapter 8: How to Gain This Righteousness). As a glance ahead, though, look at what the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians. He says that those who are “in Christ” are able to be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19). Jesus’ disciples can emulate God’s love because they are actually indwelt by God himself, by the Spirit. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for Jesus to command his disciples to love as he does, without regard to the worthiness of the one receiving the love.

Anyone can love friends and family. Jesus says that there will be no reward in the kingdom for doing merely what the Gentiles and tax collectors do already. His disciples are expected to love with a heavenly love, with the perfect love of God, the kind of love that loves enemies and friends alike. This is only possible because, as Paul also says to the Roman Christians, “God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). This spiritual phenomenon is what enables Jesus’ disciples to obey not only this teaching, but all that Jesus commands. The disciples of Jesus are citizens of “the kingdom of the heavens.” They are a spiritual people, ones who are said to possess the very Spirit, life, and love of God.

It is quite profound that Jesus ends this section of the Sermon on the Mount with this admonition. In this section Jesus has laid out the differences between his teaching and that which was given by Moses. Nowhere is this difference more clearly laid out than in this last command. While the Mosaic Law was the greatest of all forms of human righteousness, indeed it was the only one ever given by God himself, at its best it was still a human righteousness.

If you will remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:34-40, the command to love one’s neighbor is the second highest command in the Mosaic Law, topped only by the command to love the Lord himself. I think we tend to overlook how profound it really is that Israel’s civil government actually required the citizens of Israel to love one another. They were told to love even to the point of esteeming one another as highly as they esteem themselves. What other civil government has ever required such things from its people?

But Jesus points out that even this second highest of commands, the command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, is not beyond human capacity. Even Gentiles can attain to this level of righteousness. While Moses commanded the greatest of human righteousness, Jesus commanded more than human righteousness. In commanding his disciples to love their enemies, Jesus was commanding the righteousness of God. By clear implication, Jesus is commanding his disciples, should they expect any reward with their Father in heaven, to love beyond what is possible for natural men.

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] Again, for a more detailed explanation of the sermon’s context, see the Addendum at the end of this work: “Notes on the Sermon’s Context.” For the matters discussed here, see specifically the subsection “Present/Local Context.”

[2] (Roberts, Donaldson, & Coxe, 1885)

[3] (Calvin, J., & Pringle, W., 2010) See commentary on Matthew 5:21

[4] (Henry, 1994) See commentary on Matthew 5:17-20

[5] (Walvoord, John F.; Zuck, Roy B., 1989, p. 30)

[6] Jesus does do that elsewhere, see Matthew 12:1-14; 23:23,24;

[7] See Deuteronomy 24. For further discussion of this topic see later in this chapter under the section regarding Matthew 5:31,32: “Concerning Adultery.”

[8] See Galatians 3:24. Unlike the King James rendering that the Law “was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ,” my view of what is being conveyed by the Greek is better expressed in the ESV: “The law was our guardian until Christ came.” Paul is pointing out that the Law served to preserve the nation through which God had promised the Christ would come.

[9] The distinction between “inheritance in the kingdom” and “entrance into the kingdom” is a point heavily emphasized by some. These see “inheritance” as an aspect of reward which can be lost, while they see “entrance” as an aspect of gift which is eternally secure (Hodges, 2011, p. 110) (Dillow, 2016, pp. 90, 273, 274). While I agree that there is a distinction between “inheritance” and “entrance,” and that some who “enter the kingdom” will not be among its rulers (inheritors), I see no scriptural support for the notion that all believers will necessarily be granted entrance into the millennial kingdom. I believe they ought to be assured of their entrance into the New Jerusalem in eternity future, but not the millennium. In fact, as we progress through the study of the Sermon on the Mount, we will find Jesus himself warns repeatedly, as he does in this passage in Matthew 5:20, that so far as the millennium is concerned, a genuine believer can not only be among those who are “disinherited,” but can even be among those who are “cast out” (Matthew 22:12,13; 24:50,51; 25:30).

[10] I would just like to clarify once again that Jesus is referring to the disciple’s inheritance within the coming age of reward: the millennial kingdom. As has been shared earlier, this should not be confused with the new birth that a believer receives by grace through faith, resulting in a secured position in the New Jerusalem in eternity future. The position in the one is earned as a reward, while the other is given freely as a gift. For more information on this issue visit:

[11] If John Calvin were still alive, I would likely feel the need to offer him an apology. Multiple times throughout this work I will use Calvin’s teachings as examples of what I believe to be erroneous interpretations. I do not do this because I believe that Calvin was especially erroneous, but rather because he was especially influential. Very often other commentators follow Calvin in his exegesis of certain passages. Many times they follow him into the truth, but in this work we will usually look into those times when they follow him into error. When citing a doctrine being taught by commentators, I generally try to cite the earliest example of that teaching that I can find. Unfortunately, many of the times where there are numerous examples of a particular view being taught that I believe to be erroneous, Calvin’s explanation of that view will be the earliest that I find. So, if you can read this, sorry John. I only pick on you because your work was so influential throughout church history.

[12] (Calvin, 2008, p. 248)

[13] Notice again that believers are the target audience. If unbelievers were the audience then he would not refer to them as “brothers,” nor would it necessarily be slanderous for them to refer to another as “worthless.”

[14] (Lange, J.P. & Schaff, P., 2008, p. 114)

[15] (Govett, Sermon on the Mount, 1984, p. 78)

[16] (Hodges, 2011, p. 251) (Italics mine)

[17] In Jesus’ conversation with the lawyer in Luke 10:25-28, the lawyer asks a similar question, and Jesus responds first by asking, “What is written in the Law?” The lawyer responds by quoting some portions of the Law, to which Jesus responds, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” Though it seems the lawyer and the rich, young ruler come to Jesus with very different motives (the rich, young ruler seems to have been genuinely desiring life in the kingdom age, as in Mark 10:17 he is described as running up and kneeling down before Jesus, where the lawyer is specifically said, in Luke 10:25, to have asked Jesus these things “to test him”), their questions are nearly identical, and Jesus’ immediate response to both is to refer to what has been commanded in the Law. He is understanding both of their questions to be referring to “life” in the age to come, or resurrection and subsequent kingdom entrance. To both he replied with exactly what is written in the Law.

[18] We will see in chapter 9: Conclusion, how the word “salvation” is used in more than one way as well.

[19] More importantly even than preventing this unnecessary extreme, the boy should be properly instructed on how to overcome this type of temptation by walking by the Spirit of God. See chapter 8: How to Gain This Righteousness.

[20] This is further proof that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not interpreting the Law as a scribe, but is giving new and different teaching to his new and different people.

[21] (Calvin, J., & Pringle, W., 2010, p. 293)

[22] While Jesus teaches that a husband or wife is not permitted to abandon their marriage commitment, he does not mention the case of an unbelieving spouse abandoning the marriage. The apostle Paul makes it clear that the Lord himself taught against separation from one’s spouse (1 Corinthians 7:10,11). However, because Jesus doesn’t himself address it, Paul gives his own instruction that an abandoned spouse need not spend a lifetime pursuing the deserting partner. The believing husband or wife can be at peace, not under bondage, knowing that God is able, through them, to save their unbelieving, departing spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).

[23] (Calvin, 2008, p. 248)

[24] (MacArthur, 1985, p. 329)

[25] (Wilkin R. N., 2010, p. 29)

[26] Specifically referred to are the Edomites and the Egyptians (Deuteronomy 23:7).