Matt. 5:21-48 is a part of the Sermon on the mount that has always bothered me. It’s not what Jesus taught that’s a problem for me, but how it has been perceived.
I grew up learning that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus was giving us a guide for holy living . But I no longer believe that was entirely the case. I believe in Matt. 5:21-48 He was expanding on His statement in Matt. 5:20 that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
For all their faults, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were men who devoted their lives to keeping even the smallest details of the Law. They thought by doing this they were earning a righteousness that would gain them admittance to God’s kingdom. But Jesus said that even as obsessive as they were about the Law, they had fallen hopelessly short of the mark and would certainly not enter the Kingdom.
I believe what He said after that was a series of examples showing what it would take for them to attain the level of righteousness necessary to enter the kingdom in their own strength. I think He chose the first two examples because they were straight from the 10 commandments and were something no self respecting Pharisee would never dream of doing.
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell‘ (Matt 5:21-22).
Certainly no Pharisee had ever committed murder. But I’m just as certain they had all been angry at one time or another, perhaps calling someone a derogatory name now and then. Jesus said there could be no anger, no name calling, ever. Anger is the emotion that can ultimately grow into murder. Whether they followed through or not made no difference to God. As soon as they become angry they were as guilty as if they had committed murder.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift (Matt. 5:23-24).
He said offering a gift of praise or thanksgiving to the Lord while they were at odds with someone is not acceptable. First they must settle their differences with each other so their mind would be clear of any evil thoughts when they came before the Lord.
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny”(Matt. 5:25-26).
He told them to settle disputes privately and quickly. He said no matter what it cost, it would be less than the expense of a trial, and if the judge found against them, it could be even worse.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:27-28).
There is no sin in noticing the attractiveness of another person. The Lord made us to be attractive to one another. But if they began considering what it might be like to be intimate with someone they weren’t married to, desire had been conceived and when that happens it gives birth to sin (James 1:14-15). The key phrase is “looking lustfully”. When they got “that feeling” they would know they were sinning.
Some people think if they look but don’t touch they haven’t sinned. But the Lord said if their looking prompted even a desire to touch, whether they followed through or not, they had already sinned in their heart.
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Matt. 5:29-30).
I think the Lord was indulging in a little sarcasm here because He knew our eyes and hands don’t cause us to sin. In Matt. 15:18-20 He said sin originates in our heart because that’s where all of our evil thoughts come from. But this is the extent a person would have to go to in an effort to achieve the level of righteousness God requires.
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matt. 5:31-32).
Divorce for any reason other than sexual immorality is a sin. In Matt. 19:3-9Jesus explained it to them this way.
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? (Genesis 2:24) So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Regardless of what Moses said, God had previously ordained that those He joined together could not be separated. Therefore, divorce threw everyone involved into a state of adultery; the man, the woman, and anyone they subsequently married. For someone trying to earn his way into the Kingdom, divorce was out of the question.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:33-37).
Man’s natural tendency is to be double minded, but God is not that way. All of Bible prophecy bears testimony to the fact that God says what He will do, and does what He has said. In fact He told us He would never do anything without first revealing His plan through His servants the prophets (Amos 3:7). Earning their way into the kingdom required that they do the same.
Eye for Eye
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you (Matt. 5:38-42).
Here Jesus was quoting from Leviticus 24:19-20. “Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.”
But Jesus said they shouldn’t retaliate at all, but rather they should let the one who struck them once strike them again. He said they should willingly agree to do more than was demanded of them, give to everyone who asks of them and loan to everyone who wants to borrow.
Love for Enemies
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:43-48).
They wouldn’t earn any points with God by only loving those who loved them. Anyone can do that. If they wanted to be perfect they must also love those who hated them and pray for those who persecuted them. The Greek language is more specific here, where the word translated “love” is the highest form of the emotion and describes the love God has for us. The word translated “pray for” means “to bless, or praise.” Imagine wholeheartedly loving your enemies, or offering a blessing or praise to those who persecute you.
Maybe you’re beginning to notice how difficult it would be to live the way this teaching suggests. But I hope you’ll keep thinking about it until you conclude that it’s not merely difficult, it’s impossible. Because I think that’s what the Lord wants you to conclude. He wasn’t giving us a guide for holy living in these examples, He was giving the Pharisees a guide for earning their own way into the kingdom. If you’re not persuaded yet, just read the last sentence again. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48)
A few years ago the question “What would Jesus do?” was a popular way of reminding us to act like He would act in the various situations we encounter in our lives. The verses above explain what He would do, and our knowledge of His life tells us that’s what He did. But if we’re being honest we have to agree that He is the only one who ever lived this way, because He is the only one who is perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.
He also did one more thing that none of us can do, and that one thing made it possible for us to meet the summary standard of Matt. 5:48 irrespective of our behavior. He went to the cross and died for us, and because He did, those who believe in Him are now considered by God to be as righteous as He is (2 Cor. 5:21). From God’s perspective, that once-for-all-time sacrifice has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (Hebrews 10:12-14). In other words it made us perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.
My point in all of this is to demonstrate conclusively that there is nothing man can ever do to either achieve or maintain the level of righteousness God requires for admittance into His kingdom. Isaiah was right when he said, “All of our righteousness is as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6) To me that means we’re either saved and kept 100% by the Lord’s completed work on the cross or we’re not saved at all. It’s what we believe that saves us, not how we behave.