A Primer on Prayer.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. – Matthew 6:5-8 ESV

The Jews were a praying people. Prayer was an important part of their religious practice. They had prayers, like the Shema, that were to be recited both morning and evening. Services were held throughout the day at the synagogue where the people of Israel could gather for prayer. So, the topic of prayer was not uncommon among those who heard Jesus speak that day. Jesus was not promoting the need for prayer. He was trying to expose the false motivation behind their prayers. Once again, He warns them against hypocrisy – a form of play-acting, where outward appearances were meant to be deceiving. The Greek word is hypokritēs and was used to describe an actor in a play. An actor’s job was to pretend to be someone else, and a good actor was successful when the audience became convinced that he was who he was pretending to be.

The problem Jesus is attempting to address is the presence of hypocrisy in matters of faith. Posing and pretending were not to be part of the life of a child of God. Prayer was important to God. Communication between Almighty God and man was important to Him. Prayer was a means by which men could express their needs to God, but also declare the glories of God. They could ask things of Him, but were also expected to offer praises to Him for all He had done for them already. And yet, prayer had become just another means of promoting personal piety. Praying in public, where others could see and hear you, was not only a way to get noticed, but admired for your obvious spirituality. Public praying was a way to put your righteousness on display, for all to see. But Jesus says, “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them” (Matthew 6:5 NLT). The purpose of prayer was not to get noticed by men, but heard by God. Prayer was not meant to be a public display of your piety or personal righteousness. Remember what Jesus said? “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1 ESV). Like alms-giving, prayer had become nothing more than a means to an end, and the end was the praise of men. When Jesus warns them not to practice “your righteousness” before other people, He is not complimenting them on what they are doing. He is not telling them that their giving of alms and public prayers were righteous acts. He is describing what they were doing as self-righteousness. It was their own, self-produced brand of righteousness. And just so we’re clear, Jesus is not saying that alms-giving or public prayer are wrong. He is simply using these two things as examples of good and godly acts that had become misunderstood and misused by men and women who were desperately wanting others to see them as something they were not. They wanted to be viewed as righteous and holy by their peers, so all they did, they did to get noticed.

But Jesus is out to tell them that they are focused on the wrong audience. They are trying to convince the wrong people of their righteousness. It should have been God they were worried about, not men. He should have been the focus of their prayers. And rather than spending their time trying to convince others that they were something they were not, they would have been better off letting God know exactly who they were. It was Os Guinness who wrote, “I live before the audience of One – before others I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to prove.”

It is important that we recognize that Jesus is not condemning public prayer. But prayer is intended, first and foremost, to be a spiritual activity. It is meant to be a conversation between man and God. Prayer is intended for adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication. It is meant to give to God (glory, honor, adoration). But it also provided as a means by which men can get from God (forgiveness, healing, guidance). Jesus is rejecting the idea of righteousness being inextricably linked to public prayerfulness. Jesus is saying that, if you pray to impress men, you will fail to gain approval from God. Acts of righteousness done with nothing more than recognition in mind are not acts of righteousness at all, but right things done for the wrong reason. Jesus is exposing the kind of prayer that is self-focused, and meant to get you seen and heard. That is prayer meant to impress, not confess. It’s prayer meant to gain the praise of men, not offer praise to God. It’s prayer designed to boost our reputation before men, not boast in the reputation of God.

So, what are we to do? Not pray? No, Jesus says that we are to go into our room, shut the door and pray to God – in private – where no one else can see. And God, who sees all, will not only see you, He will hear you, and reward you. He will bless you, approve of you, and express His pleasure with you by answering your prayers. The apostle John tells us,

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. – 1 John 5:14-15 NLT

In essence, Jesus is telling us that if we prayer in order to impress men and to get their praise, we will get what it is we desire: Their praise. But we won’t get what we prayed for from God. If getting noticed for our prayers is more important to us than getting our prayers answered by God, we will become well-known and revered for our prayer life, but God won’t become known for His answers to our prayers. Prayers prayed to get noticed by men, will always fail to get men to notice God. But our responsibility as God’s children is to bring glory to Him, not ourselves. We are here to point men and women to God, not to us. We are meant to lift Him up, not ourselves.

Jesus goes on to describe an aspect of prayer with which we all struggle. How do you get God to hear and answer you? So, even if you pray in private, where no one can hear you but God, how do you make sure He really does hear you? Once again, Jesus exposes a misconception. He tells them, “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again” (Matthew 6:7 NLT). When you talk to God, don’t try to impress Him with the length of your prayer or your choice of words. Don’t drone on and on, somehow thinking that God will be more prone to hear you if your prayer comes across as intense. It is neither the intensity or longevity of our prayers that cause God to answer. It is the motivation of our heart. James tells us, “when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong – you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:3 NLT). Wrong methods. Wrong motives. That’s the problem. Later on in this same message, Jesus will say:

“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” – Matthew 7:7-11 NLT

We are to ask, and we are to trust God for the answer. He isn’t going to give us something we don’t need or can’t use. But it’s important to remember that God is not going to give us everything we ask for, because too often our motives are wrong. Also, we don’t always know what it is we actually need. We may think we need healing, but God knows we need to learn faith. We may ask God for a financial solution to our problem, when He knows that the real issue is spiritual in nature. We have a greed problem. So, rather than give us money, He teaches us to live within our means, learning to trust Him for our needs.

Sometimes, we spend far too much time asking God for things. But Jesus reminds us, “your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” (Matthew 6:8 NLT). This doesn’t mean we don’t have to ask God for things, but that the purpose behind our prayer is not to share information with God, but to communicate our dependence upon God. We don’t pray to keep God up to speed with all that is going on in our life. He already knows. We pray in order to convey to Him our complete reliance upon Him for everything. Prayer is an act of submission to God. It is the adoration of God. It is a means by which we offer up our thankfulness for all that God has done and is doing in and around our life.

Prayer wasn’t meant to get you noticed by men. It also wasn’t intended to get you noticed by God. He already knows everything there is to know about you. Prayer is an expression of humility to God, showing Him that we are completely dependent upon Him for all things. But how easy it is to make prayer an expression of pride and self-promotion. So, Jesus warns us not to pray that way. But then He gives us an example of how we are to pray. But that’s for tomorrow.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Giving To Get.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.– Matthew 6:1-4 ESV

Jesus has just dropped a bombshell on His listeners: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 ESV). And as disconcerting and discomfiting as His words may have been, He was simply trying to explain to them about the true nature of godly righteousness – that alien, outside-of-yourself kind of righteousness that comes from God and can’t be manufactured, only faked. But how easily we trade in God’s view of perfection for man’s. How quickly we forget about what God expects of us and lower our standards. That is exactly what Jesus was confronting among the Jews in His audience. They had long ago traded internal holiness for external piety. They had learned to settle for the praise of men rather than the praise of God. They were stuck on a horizontal plain, viewing righteousness from a purely human standpoint, measuring themselves by comparing themselves with others. So, Jesus starts off this section of His message with a warning. He uses the word, “Beware.” In the Greek, it is prosoche, and it means “to beware, take heed, be attentive to.” Jesus used this word a lot.

Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.” – Matthew 7:15 ESV

But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. – Matthew 10:17 NLT

“Watch out!” Jesus warned them. Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” – Matthew 16:6 NLT

Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets.” – Luke 20:46 NLT

In essence, Jesus is telling His listeners to be perfect and to be careful. His use of the word, “beware” is designed to get their attention and to warn them to listen carefully to what He is about to say. Just as He had in the verses above, Jesus is trying to open the eyes of those sitting on the hillside, using stern words of warning to make His point.

If you recall, the word, “blessed” that Jesus used repeatedly in His opening remarks, really refers to the approval of God. So, those beatitudes or blessings could read like this:

Approved by God are the poor in spirit

Approved by God are those who mourn

Approved by God are the meek

Approved by God are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

Approved by God are the merciful

Approved by God are the pure in heart

Approved by God are the peacemakers

Approved by God are the persecuted, reviled and slandered

We are to seek the approval of God, not men. We are to seek the reward of God, not men. Those who do will be part of the kingdom, be comforted, inherit the earth, be satisfied, receive mercy, see God and be called His Son, and enjoy a great reward in heaven. Jesus is speaking of the vast difference between man-made versus spirit-induced righteousness. Jesus says they are to beware of practicing their righteousness before other people. In other words, their motivation should not be recognition. Those who seek to do good things so that they will be deemed good people by those who see them, will have all the reward they are going to get. They’ll get the praise of men, but not the approval of God. That kind of man-pleasing, praise-seeking righteousness will get you no reward from God. Why? Because it is not the kind of righteousness He requires.

Now Jesus gives us three examples from real life. The first has to do with alms-giving, which was giving to the poor and needy as an act of mercy. The Greek word is eleēmosynē  and it refers to “a donation to the poor” and was sometimes called, “compassionateness.” Jesus is accusing His audience of giving to get merit, rather than giving out of mercy. Their giving to the poor was motivated by a desire for recognition. That was the reward they sought, and Jesus tells them that they will have the reward they seek: The praise and approval of men. But they will not receive the one reward they so desperately need: The approval and blessing of God.

The kind of man-made righteousness that Jesus is describing is done only to receive the praise of others. It is done to be seen and to garner recognition and reward. But Jesus tells them that, when you give, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. In other words, keep your giving private. So private, that it will be like one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing. What a different mindset. Instead of seeking recognition, seek to keep your actions hidden. Do what you do, in secret – concealed, private, and hidden from the view of others. But know this, God will see what you are doing, and reward you – in His way and according to His own timing.

Jesus is not suggesting that there is anything wrong with alms-giving or charity. But anyone who thinks they are righteous because they give has missed the point and misunderstood what godly righteousness really is. In fact, giving in order to get recognition isn’t righteousness at all. At least, not according to God’s definition. And throughout this portion of His message, Jesus will emphasize that our greatest concern should be what God thinks and how He views our actions. In fact, Jesus will repeatedly emphasize that, when we give out of mercy, not in search of merit,  “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” While no one around us may know what we have done, God will and, more importantly, He will know why we have done it. He will know the motivation of our heart. And that is still the key behind what Jesus is trying to teach here. This is all about the heart. Giving to get noticed is about the head. It’s about ego, pride, self-esteem and measuring our worth by what others think of us.

But alms-giving was intended to be an act of mercy. It was giving to those in need, not so you could get something out of it. To give to those who do not have, just so you could have what you desire, is a twisted and warped way of life. It is ungodly and unrighteous. It reveals a love of self, but not a love of others. And Jesus warns, “Beware!” Don’t do it. That kind of giving is hypocritical, mere play-acting, intended to give the impression of mercy, but motivated out of the insatiable need for merit and men’s praise. And, Jesus says, practicing that kind of righteousness will get you exactly what you desire, but not what you need: God’s approval and blessing.

In his letter to the believers in Ephesus, Paul wrote:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT

We did nothing to earn our salvation. And we can do nothing to earn a right standing before God now. Our acts of righteousness do not earn us God’s favor. We perform acts of righteousness because we have already earned His favor and have His Spirit living within us. It is the righteousness of Christ, credited to us by God the Father, that allows us to do “the good things he planned for us long ago.” We have been made new so that we might live new lives, motivated not by merit and men’s praise, but out of willing obedience to God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Godly Perfection.

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:48 ESV

In all that Jesus has said up to this point, this one line jumps out like no other, and He makes it at the tail end of His discussion regarding love. Jesus has let them know that the kind of love God expects from those are blessed and approved by Him is a non-discriminatory love. It isn’t a love that has to be earned or deserved in some way. There is no expectation or demand of love in return. In other words, it’s not reciprocal in nature. Human love says, “I’ll love you, as long as you love me back.” But that’s a self-centered kind of love. Jesus said, “If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that” (Matthew 4:47-48 NLT).

Our model for love is to be God, not man. Which is what led Jesus to say, “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:49 NLT). And if we’re honest, the very first thought that goes through our minds when we hear that statement is, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Is Jesus serious? Is He really asking us to live up to some kind of godly form of perfection? Is He calling His listeners to do the impossible? YES!

What Jesus is demanding is righteousness – God’s brand of righteousness. Mankind is adept at producing flesh-based righteousness. That is what Jesus has been addressing during this opening section of His message. He knew that those in His audience tended to measure their righteousness based on external adherence to some set of rules or standards. Here’s how they approached righteousness:

“As long as I don’t commit adultery, I’m doing okay with God.”

“If I don’t kill anyone, I am keeping God’s law and keeping Him happy with me.”

“If I happen to divorce my wife, I’ll still be okay with God, as long as I do it in the prescribed manner, according to His law.”

“I thank God for oaths, that allow me to break my word, but in a way that God will accept, even if my friends don’t.”

“God even approves of me when I do harm to others, as long as I’m doing it to get even.”

“And I can keep God loving me as long as I love my neighbor and hate my enemies.”

But all of those thoughts are based on a human understanding of righteousness, a merit-based concept that connects righteousness to behavior. But Jesus is presenting a radically different view that teaches that God’s ultimate expectation of men is nothing short of sinless perfection. In fact, the Greek word Jesus uses that is translated “perfect” is teleios and it means “whole” or “complete.” It was used to refer to consummate human integrity and virtue. Jesus wasn’t calling for a better, slightly improved version of human righteousness. He was calling for sinless perfection. And there wasn’t a single person in His audience that day who could pull it off, including His 12 disciples. We are all totally incapable of doing what Jesus is saying, without His help.

What Jesus is demanding is simply a reiteration of what His Father had demanded of the Israelites centuries earlier.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” – Leviticus 19:1-2 ESV

The Hebrew word translated as “holy” is the word qadowsh. It means “pure, clean; free from defilement of crimes, idolatry, and other unclean and profane things” (“H6918 – qadowsh – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It was also used to speak of someone or something’s status as having been “set apart” by God for His use.

You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. – Leviticus 20:26 ESV

It was a call to separation and distinctiveness. The people of Israel were to be holy, set apart by God for His use. But their holiness was not to be simply a positional reality. It was to have practical ramifications. God had expectations regarding their behavior, but also regarding the condition of their hearts. They were expected to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV). And they were expected to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18 ESV).

The apostle Peter would echo the words of Jesus in his first letter.

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV

Be holy – in all your conduct. Be perfect – just as your heavenly Father is perfect. Those are some staggering concepts to get your mind around. They come across as so far-fetched and impossible that we end up treating them as some form of hyperbole or over-exaggeration on Jesus’ part. Surely, He can’t be expecting us to be holy like God is holy, or perfect in the same way God is perfect. But Jesus is simply revealing the standard of God. God doesn’t grade on a curve. He doesn’t dumb down the test because of the spiritual acumen of the students in His classroom. One of the issues Jesus is exposing in His message is that the Jews were guilty of lowering God’s holy and righteous standards so that they could somehow measure up. That’s why Jesus said, “if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT). And He topped that off with the bombshell: “unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NLT).

God has always expected and demanded perfection. He has always required that His people be holy, just as He is holy. There is no lower standard. God doesn’t take a look at mankind, recognize their inability to live up to His expectations, then lower the bar so more people can qualify. Later on, in this very same message, Jesus will reveal “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it” (Matthew 7:13-14 NLT). God’s way is not the easy way. The kind of righteousness He demands and expects is not easy to achieve. It’s impossible. The life of holiness He requires of those who would be His children is measured by His own holiness. It is a holiness and righteousness that is far superior to anything the Pharisees or teachers of religious law could ever hope to produce.

Holiness and godly perfection are high standards indeed. And they are impossible to produce in the flesh. You can’t manufacture what God is demanding. You can’t be like God without the help of God. The apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth and reminded them:

Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God said:

“I will live in them
    and walk among them.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
Therefore, come out from among unbelievers,
    and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord.
Don’t touch their filthy things,
    and I will welcome you.
And I will be your Father,
    and you will be my sons and daughters,
    says the Lord Almighty.” – 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 NLT

Then he follows this up with the logical conclusion or application.

Because we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God. – 2 Corinthians 7:1 NLT

You see, there is an expectation of separation. We are to live differently and distinctively from those around us. Part of how our holiness should manifest itself is in the alternative way of living that we model. As God’s children, we have a capacity to live differently than all those around us. We have the ability to live truly righteous lives because we have received the righteousness of Christ. We have the Spirit of God living within us and empowering us to live like Christ. We have a high standard to live up to: Jesus Christ Himself. He is the model of righteousness we are to emulate – not scribes, Pharisees, rabbis, pastors, teachers, evangelists, parents, or friends. That is, unless they are modeling their lives after Christ. Paul put it this way: “And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NLT).

So, when Jesus said to the crowd seated on the hillside that day, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” He wasn’t presenting anything new.  He was simply reminding them that God’s standard had not changed. He had not lowered the bar. Human alterations and addendums to God’s laws might make them easier to live up to, but they couldn’t produce the kind of righteousness God was expecting. That’s why, as Paul reminds us, God did for us what the law could never have done.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

Holiness and perfection are not impossible, unless we try to produce them on our own. God never intended the law to be lived up to. Yes, He expected His law to be obeyed, but He knew that sinful men would never be able to keep His holy standard. The law presented God’s divine criteria for holiness. It made painfully clear what God demanded in the way of behavior from mankind. But in the end, it was intended to reveal our sin and our need for outside help, what Martin Luther referred to as “alien righteousness” – a righteousness outside of ourselves.

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 NLT

Jesus was introducing the concept of godly perfection and preparing His listeners for the day when He would offer Himself as the payment for the sins of mankind and the means by which they mighty be made right with a holy God. Godly perfection would be made available to men through the death of the Son of God and through the power of the Spirit of God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Love Like God.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 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? – Matthew 5:43-47 ESV

Jesus has just finished addressing His listeners’ wrong perspective regarding the “law of retaliation” or lex talionis. The law, as they understood it, said “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” In other words, it gave permission to seek retaliation against an enemy as long as it was equal in weight. But Jesus gave them a whole new interpretation of that law, saying, “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39 ESV). And He follows up His counsel to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile with something even more shocking. He tells them to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. Jesus is attempting to move their emphasis off of retaliation and on to love and reconciliation. But not just toward their friends and neighbors.

Once again, Jesus clarifies what was a wrong perception on their part regarding the law of God. And it is essential that we know what the law actually said. The specific law regarding love of your neighbor is found in the book of Leviticus.

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 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.” – Leviticus 19:18-19 ESV

Notice that there is no mention of hating your enemy in this passage. And also notice that the law prohibited hatred for a brother and clarified that hatred emanated from the heart. Hatred wasn’t necessarily a visible action, but was most certainly an inward attitude, and its source was the heart. Yet the Jews had somehow taken this law and added to it an addendum that prescribed hatred for their enemies. Where the law was silent, they gave it a voice, and one that was loudly and vociferously hateful to all those who didn’t meet their definition of neighbor. Because, as far as they could tell, the law only required them to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

In their simplistic way of looking at things, they believed this law taught that love has its limits. The kind of love it demanded was reserved for neighbors, not enemies.  Enemies were unworthy of our love. But as He has done so many time already in this message, Jesus dismantles their false arguments and replaces it with the reality of what God was demanding when He gave this law. Jesus was trying to get them to understand that godly love knows no bounds. The law of God provided no place for partiality or personal preferences regarding who your neighbor might be.

This passage brings to mind a story that Jesus would later tell to an expert in the religious laws of the Jews. Luke records it for us in his gospel.

One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”

The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor? – Luke 10:25-29 NLT

The man’s question to Jesus had to do with eternal life. More specifically, he was asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. He was wanting Jesus to tell him what actions he must take to be approved by God. And, as Jesus was so often prone to do, He answered the man’s question with a question. He asked the expert in religious law what he thought the law of Moses actually taught. And the man answered by quoting from part of the Shema, the morning and evening prayer recited by all faithful Jews.

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  – Luke 10:27 ESV

And while Jesus affirmed that the man’s answer was correct, He also told him that it would require living it out in real life. So the man asked Jesus the next logical question, “And who is my neighbor?” What do you think this expert in the religious laws of the Jews expected Jesus to say? He was looking for Jesus to agree with his understanding of of the word, “neighbor.” But instead of answering the man’s question, Jesus told him a story.

A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On his way, he was attacked by robbers and left for dead. In the course of the day, three men saw him lying on the roadside. A Jewish priest came by, but crossed to the other side of the road. Next, a temple assistant, another Jew, saw the man, stopped to look at him, but left him there. Finally, a Samaritan, a non-Jew, saw the man, and stopped to offer him aid. Not only that, he paid to provide for the man’s ongoing care until he could get back on his feet.

After telling His story, Jesus asked the expert in the law, “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” (Luke 10:36 NLT). And the man responded, “The one who showed him mercy.” And, once again, Jesus affirmed that the man had answered correctly, but told him, “now go and do the same.”

What makes Jesus’ story so compelling is that it presents a Samaritan as the hero. Samaritans and Jews hated one another. Samaritans were considered half-breeds by the Jews. They were the descendants of Jews who had been left behind when the Babylonians had conquered Judah and taken tens of thousands into captivity in Babylon. Many of those who were left intermarried with the pagan nations. The Samaritans were looked down on by the Jews and were often referred to as dogs. They were enemies of the Jews. But in Jesus’ story, it was the Samaritan who showed mercy and love to a Jew. He treated him as he would a neighbor, or fellow Samaritan. But the two Jews in the story refused to do anything to assist their fellow Jew.

So what does this story have to do with what Jesus had to say that day on the hillside in Galilee? In essence, Jesus was telling the Jews in His audience that they don’t get to choose who they love and hate. He was presenting a new paradigm, a new way of life, in which those who are approved by God will love in the same manner and with the same intensity as they had been loved by God. And the apostle Paul reminds us of just how great God’s love really is:

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

And he tells us we are to imitate God, following the example of love He provided through His Son’s sacrificial death on the cross.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2 NLT

And Jesus takes this kind of love one step further, encouraging his listeners to pray for those who might persecute them. The natural human response would be to curse them and ask God to bring down hurt and heartache on them. But Jesus says, don’t curse them, don’t wish ill on them and don’t seek revenge against them. And Paul would pick up on Jesus’ strange-sounding counsel, telling the believers living in pagan Rome:

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. – Romans 12:14 NLT

Peter would also echo the words of Jesus:

Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it. – 1 Peter 3:9 NLT

It would be natural to ask Jesus, “Why?” What purpose is there in loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us? What possible good could come out of living and loving like that? And Jesus gives us the answer.

…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven… – vs 45

This takes us back to verse 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” 

Those who are blessed or approved by God will emulate Him. They will reflect His character. They will love like He loves. God is indiscriminate is His goodness, “For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5:45 NLT). He shows His love even to those who hate Him. He bestows His blessings on those who curse Him. He sent His Son to die for all who had rebelled against Him. Jesus Himself, while hanging on the cross, was able to pray, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NLT). And while He prayed that prayer, the Roman soldiers who nailed His hands and feet to the cross gambled over His clothes right beneath Him.

The love Jesus came to reveal was not a reciprocal kind of love. To love those who love you in return is an insufficient, earthly love. It is a selfish, what’s-in-it-for-me kind of love. But Jesus would later say, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NLT). And Paul would clarify that even our friends are undeserving of the kind of love to which Jesus is referring.

When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. Romans 5:6-8 NLT

Jesus is calling for a love that emulates the love of God Himself. It is a selfless kind of love. It is a non-discriminatory kind of love. It is not based on the loveliness or lovableness of the other person. We are called to love as we have been loved by God. And our love is not to be reciprocal in nature, but redemptive. Our goal is restoration and reconciliation, not so much with us, but between our enemy and God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Give, Rather Than Get Even.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. – Matthew 5:38-42 ESV

Now Jesus shifts His focus to what was known as the “law of retaliation” or lex talionis in Latin. This was a very common practice in the ancient Near East. And the Mosaic law had made provision for it. Exodus 21:23-25 reads: “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The book of Leviticus provides further insight into how this law was to be applied:

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, and whoever kills a person shall be put to death. You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 24:17-22 ESV

This was a corporate law, to be applied and overseen by the ruling authorities. It was not to be applied by individuals against individuals. But the Jews had lifted this law out of its context and extended its intended meaning. They had turned it into an excuse for personal retribution, with no jurisdiction by any legal authority. The problem with that interpretation was that it had no end. It would lead to an escalating form of violence as each offended party attempted to out-do the other in terms of payback. Yet, this law had actually been intended to legislate and therefore limit vengeance. It was prescriptive and restrictive, and was meant to defend against vigilante-style justice. The last thing any society needs is its citizens taking matters into their own hands when it comes to retribution for harm done.

But the Jews had a distorted understanding of this law. They were actually using it as justification for enacting revenge on those who did them harm. In their minds, lex talionis made payback a viable option in any and all cases. In other words, they believed it taught that retribution was permitted by God and, therefore, was justifiable. But Jesus was out to confront their perception with reality.  He was going to teach them that God preferred that they pay back evil with good. They were to seek reconciliation, not retribution. Jesus provides them with a list of requirements that directly contradicted their understanding of  lex talionis.

“Do not resist the one who is evil”
“Turn the other cheek”
“Give your cloak as well”
“Go the extra mile”
“Give to the one who begs”
“Don’t refuse the one who would borrow from you”

What is Jesus saying? He is refuting their distorted, self-focused view and teaching against a spirit of retaliation and retribution. He is NOT denying the right to self-defense. He is NOT promoting pacifism. He is teaching a change of heart that allows us to respond in love, not anger. It was the very life that Jesus lived and modeled while He was on this earth. The prophet, Isaiah, had predicted that the Messiah, when He came, would suffer oppression and harsh treatment. But He would not retaliate.

He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. Unjustly condemned, he was led away. – Isaiah 53:7-8 ESV

On the night that Jesus was betrayed and arrested, He assured His disciples that this was all part of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Him. He could have retaliated, but He chose not to.

Then the others grabbed Jesus and arrested him. But one of the men with Jesus pulled out his sword and struck the high priest’s slave, slashing off his ear.

“Put away your sword,” Jesus told him. “Those who use the sword will die by the sword. Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly? But if I did, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that describe what must happen now?” – Matthew 26:50-54 NLT

When Jesus was brought before the high priest after His arrest, He did not lash out, but instead, He fulfilled the very words of Isaiah.

Then the high priest stood up before the others and asked Jesus, “Well, aren’t you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?” But Jesus was silent and made no reply. – Mark 14:60-61 NLT

Jesus provides His listeners with five practical illustrations of what this life of self-sacrifice might look like.

Turn the other cheek – be willing to suffer shame for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Let him have your cloak as well – be willing to suffer loss for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Go with him two miles – be willing suffer inconvenience for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Give to the one who begs from you – be willing to suffer being taken advantage of for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

Do not refuse the one who would borrow from you – be willing to suffer financial loss for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of the lost

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul sums up what Jesus is saying:

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord.

Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.”

Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good. – Romans 12:17-21 NLT

Do you see how radical and revolutionary all of this would have been to Jesus’ listeners? Jesus was contrasting the law of retaliation with the law of love. He was calling people to a life of self-sacrifice and a ministry of reconciliation, not revenge. He was telling them that the blessed or those who were approved by God would be the ones who understood their calling to give their lives away, rather than get even. Once again, Jesus was not teaching something new, but was clarifying what the Scriptures had always taught. The book of Proverbs contains numerous admonitions concerning the life of loving patience and reconciliation.

Sensible people control their temper; they earn respect by overlooking wrongs. – Proverbs 19:11 NLT

If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the Lord will reward you. – Proverbs 25:21-22 NLT

Revenge simply perpetuates the problem. Retribution, rather than solving anything, only results in further retaliation and escalating tension. That’s why Paul would encourage the believers in Corinth by telling them:

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. – Romans 12:14 NLT

And this was not something Paul taught, but failed to live out in his own life. He held himself to the same exacting standard.

We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us. We appeal gently when evil things are said about us. Yet we are treated like the world’s garbage, like everybody’s trash—right up to the present moment. – 1 Corinthians 4:12-13 NLT

The apostle Peter would also encourage his readers to follow the teachings of Jesus and the example He had given with His own life.

Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will bless you for it. For the Scriptures say, “If you want to enjoy life and see many happy days, keep your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it. The eyes of the Lord watch over those who do right, and his ears are open to their prayers. But the Lord turns his face against those who do evil.” – 1 Peter 3:9-12 NLT

Peter quotes from Psalm 34, a psalm of David. And he uses the words of David to remind his audience that God rewards or blesses those who live according to His laws and standards. But the ability to live in accordance with God’s laws is impossible apart from the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. And the Spirit is only available to those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Paul, Peter and Jesus were teaching that this new life of self-sacrifice was impossible apart from the grace of God revealed in Christ alone and available through faith alone. Jesus knew that what He was teaching was beyond the capacity of His audience to carry out. They were incapable of living, loving, sacrificing and responding in the way Jesus was commanding. They might be able to pull off their distorted understanding of the law of retaliation, but when it came to the law of love, they were going to need help. They were going to require a righteousness they didn’t have and a strength they did not possess.

English Standard Version (ESV)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Speak Truth.

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. – Matthew 5:33-37 ESV

God puts a high value on truthfulness. He keeps His word and He expects those who belong to Him to do the same. In Jesus’ day, oaths were common place and were used to validate or prove that what one had said was true. If you made a statement, you would back it up with an oath, saying something like, “By the temple, I swear that what I am saying is true.” If you were promising to do something, you might add an oath, like “I swear by Yahweh.” Basically, you were adding credence to your words by using something of greater significance and value as proof of your sincerity. But there were several problems with this practice. First of all, God had long ago warned the people of Israel to value and protect His name. God’s name was directly tied to His character. To profane or misuse His name was to treat God with dishonor. So, God had said, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7 ESV). When we read that passage we tend to associate it with cursing or using God’s name as part of a curse. And while that most certainly is a way of using His name in vain, the original context had to do with using God’s name in any way that brought contempt or dishonor to Him.

Over in the book of Leviticus, we read: “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:12 ESV). Notice the key word, “falsely”. If you made a statement and used God’s name as a form of guarantee, and then it became clear that what you had said was untrue, you were guilty of profaning His name. You had lied and had involved the name of God in the process. This was clearly forbidden. And yet, in Jesus’ day, it had become common practice. And the religious leaders had come up with an elaborate system of curses that provided loopholes and escape clauses, so that your oath didn’t have to be non-binding. In essence, they developed a hierarchy of oaths, where some were more binding than others. If you swore by God’s name, it was considered binding, But if you swore by heaven and earth, it was not. Swearing toward Jerusalem was binding, but swearing by Jerusalem was not. And the problem in all of this was the underlying lack of truthfulness. That is what Jesus is trying to expose. Listen to the harsh accusations He would later level at the religious leaders.

“Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! For you say that it means nothing to swear ‘by God’s Temple,’ but that it is binding to swear ‘by the gold in the Temple.’ Blind fools! Which is more important—the gold or the Temple that makes the gold sacred? And you say that to swear ‘by the altar’ is not binding, but to swear ‘by the gifts on the altar’ is binding. How blind! For which is more important—the gift on the altar or the altar that makes the gift sacred? When you swear ‘by the altar,’ you are swearing by it and by everything on it. And when you swear ‘by the Temple,’ you are swearing by it and by God, who lives in it. And when you swear ‘by heaven,’ you are swearing by the throne of God and by God, who sits on the throne.” – Matthew 23:16-22 NLT

You see, the Jews believed that it was their obligation to back up their promises with oaths. That was their distorted perception of the Old Testament teaching concerning oaths. In their mind, making an oath kept you honest, at least in the eyes of others. One of the problems we face in reading these verses is that we don’t quite understand what it means to make an oath. You may have heard someone say something like, “I swear on a stack of Bibles”, but we don’t put a lot of stock in a statement like that. If someone were to say to you, “I swear on my life”, it wouldn’t necessarily provide you with any more confidence that what they were saying was true. Even if we hear someone say, “I swear to God”, we don’t automatically give that person’s words more credence or credibility. In fact, we might doubt their word even more. Someone who has to back up his word some form of oath is probably already lacking in integrity and questionable as to their reliability.

Jesus is exposing the underlying issue of dishonesty – a lack of truthfulness. He tells His audience to back up their promises with action. In other words, they are to do what they say they are going to do. Speak truth. And the truth is, if you’re honest, an oath won’t be necessary. Be a man of your word. Be a woman who is known for integrity of speech. No exaggeration. No half-truths. No broken promises or false commitments. Jesus puts it in easy-to-understand terms: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matthew 5:37 ESV).

You’re probably familiar with the term: “My word is my bond.” It simply means that my word should be the guarantee, and no written contract outlining obligations or penalties is necessary. What I said, I will do. What I promised, I will fulfill. My word is truth. That takes integrity. And in Jesus’ day, that was a character trait that was in short supply. But He came to establish a new way of living. He came to provide a new kind of righteousness that mirrored the very character of God.

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? – Numbers 23:19 NLT

God is truthful and trustworthy. He doesn’t lie. He never breaks His covenants. He keeps His word. And He expects the people of God to live the same way. We are to be a people of our word, not just people of the Word.

One day, while Jesus was speaking with a crowd of followers, He made the statement, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32 NLT). Confused by what Jesus had said, they responded, “But we are descendants of Abraham. We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?” (John 8:33 NLT). They couldn’t comprehend what Jesus was saying. And so they fell back on their status as descendants of Abraham. They claimed special rank because of their Hebrew heritage. But Jesus told them something quite the opposite.

“For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies.” – John 8:44 NLT

Satan is the father of lies and he is your father. Now, that’s the way to win friends and influence enemies. But Jesus was not out to win a popularity contest. He had come to reveal the truth. He would even go on to claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT). Truth and lies cannot coexist together. A people who make a habit out of lying and justifying their actions with elaborate oath systems are not trustworthy or truthful. They don’t reflect the nature and character of God. And Jesus was letting His listeners know that their actions were out of step with God’s will for their lives.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, who would later become a leader in the church in Jerusalem, took the teachings of Jesus and applied them to those under his care.

“But most of all, my brothers and sisters, never take an oath, by heaven or earth or anything else. Just say a simple yes or no, so that you will not sin and be condemned.” – James 5:12 NLT

People whose hearts and lives have been changed by God through faith in the death of His Son, don’t need to lie. They will speak the truth. Jesus would later say, “But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:18-19 NLT). In bringing up the issue of oaths, Jesus was revealing an underlying problem with dishonesty. But He had come to change all that. Yet it would only happen if those who lie recognize their problem and turn from the father of lies to God the Father through Christ, His Son. By placing our faith in Christ, we are given the capacity to live as He did, reflecting the very nature of God in both word and deed.

The apostle John provides us with the reminder that right actions stem from a right relationship with God. Our lives will be characterized by truth when we have come to know Christ as our Savior.

If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. – 1 John 2:5-6 NLT

Living as Jesus did: honestly, truthfully, and with integrity. The truth has set us free. And so we are free to speak truth. We are free to live in truth. The apostle John goes on to remind us that knowing the truth must show up in the practice of the truth. In other words, our belief should influence our behavior.

This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. – 1 John 1:5-6 NLT

The words we speak are a reflection of the condition of our heart. And Jesus was describing the character of those who would be citizens of His Kingdom – those who would eventually place their faith in Him as their Savior. Their words would be truthful and their character, trustworthy. They would require no oaths to substantiate their claims or need to resort to swearing to prove their integrity. Their transformed hearts would result in trustworthy speech.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Heart of Unfaithfulness.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

Jesus follows up his radical statements regarding lust and adultery with a clarification of what the law actually says about the topic of divorce. Once again, He opens His remarks with the words, “It was also said.” What follows was not intended to be a restatement of the law, but a clarification of what the law actually taught. Jesus is showing His audience, made up primarily of Jews, that they have misconstrued the meaning and intent of what was written in the book of Deuteronomy. Here are the actual words found in the Law of Moses:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

Divorce was a problem in Israel. And the reason was because the people had been taught to minimize the moral aspect of divorce. Their interpretation of this passage from Deuteronomy centered solely on one thing: The certificate of divorce. In other words, they read this law and saw it as a license to divorce their wives. Now, it is important to realize that, in Israel’s ancient culture, women had no rights. They were not free to divorce their husbands. So this law was aimed at men. And it was not intended as some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, providing men with an easy exit strategy from an unhappy marriage. But that is what it had become. Divorce had become common place. It was as simple as a written piece of paper, a certificate of divorce. There were no lawyers, courts, or judges involved. And the action was done with little or no thought to any spiritual or moral ramifications the decision might entail.

These verses are directly tied to the ones preceding them, where Jesus talked about adultery. Every Jew knew that adultery was wrong. But they had separated the idea of adultery from divorce, and Jesus wasn’t going to allow them to do so. Which is why He says, “I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32 ESV). In just a few short sentences, Jesus drops the hammer on the Jewish concept of divorce. All the way back in the book of Genesis, at the very point in time when God had made woman from the rib of man, He said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). God’s intention had been that a man and woman would be joined together as one, for life. There had been no provision for divorce. And, at a later point in Jesus’ ministry, this issue would be raised by the Pharisees, when they point-blank asked Him, “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2 NLT). The passage makes it clear that they were attempting to trap Jesus with this question. It was designed to be a no-win scenario. If Jesus said a man was not allowed to divorce his wife, the crowds would turn on Him. A hard line view on marriage and divorce had gotten John the Baptist beheaded by Herod. So the Pharisees wanted to see what Jesus was going to say, and His response was simple, yet direct. He did what He was so often prone to do – He answered a question with a question: “What did Moses say in the law about divorce?” (Mark 10:3 NLT). And they responded, “Well, he permitted it. He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away” (Mark 10:4 NLT). Now, notice closely what Jesus says to them:

“He [Moses} wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. But ‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” – Mark 10:5-9 NLT

C. E. B. Cranfield, in his commentary of the Gospel of Mark, clarifies that the Deuteronomy passage to which Jesus refers…

…is a divine provision to deal with situations brought about by men’s sklerokardia [hardness of heart] and to protect from its worst effects those who would suffer as a result of it. – C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark

In other words, this was a concession, and not to be confused with some form of divine permission to divorce. It was intended to keep men from following up one sin with another. The certificate of divorce was a legal document that was based on one thing and one thing only: Some proof of “indecency” in the life of the wife. The Hebrew word used in the Deuteronomy passage had to do with actions related to indecency, shamefulness or dishonor. A man couldn’t just grow tired of his wife and send her packing. He wasn’t free to “fall out of love” with her and produce a piece of paper to get rid of her. There had to be moral reasons for him to divorce her. And, if he did divorce her, he had to deal with the moral ramifications of his decision. Jesus makes it perfectly clear, that unless the man’s wife was guilty of unfaithfulness, in the form of sexual immorality, he had no right to divorce her. If he did, he was causing her to commit adultery with the next man she married. Because, in God’s eyes, she and her first husband were still one. And if she did remarry and was given divorce papers a second time, the first husband was not free to remarry her, without being guilty of adultery as well. And any husband, after having divorced his wife, who decided to marry a woman who had also been divorced without proper cause, would be guilty of adultery.

Why is Jesus belaboring this point? What is the real issue He is addressing? It is faithfulness. It all gets back to the perception/reality problem. For the Jews, their perception regarding divorce was that divorce was possible under certain conditions. You just had to follow the rules. But with the help of the religious leaders, the rules had been redefined. Divorce had become an accepted norm. But Jesus was out to deal with reality. He blatantly countered that divorce results in adultery. Marriage was intended to be a covenant, a binding relationship between two people and sealed before before God Almighty. And Jesus clarifies the significance of that reality, when He says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9 ESV).

Divorce was never God’s intention for mankind. Marriage was designed to be a permanent union, creating a divine union between two individuals. Divorce is nothing less than a breaking of the marriage covenant. It’s an act of unfaithfulness. And God had stated that the only legitimate grounds for divorce would be based on unfaithfulness. And yet, He was not prescribing divorce as the solution to the problem of unfaithfulness. Jesus made it painfully clear that the only reason God made a provision for divorce. “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8 ESV).

One of the things God has always looked for in His people is faithfulness. God expected the people of Israel, as His chosen people, to remain faithful to Him. But He often accused them of spiritual adultery.

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 ESV

Israel had a track record of unfaithfulness to God. They couldn’t keep from wandering after other “lovers.” And the whole point Jesus seems to be making is our unfaithfulness on a horizontal level is a reflection of our unfaithfulness on a vertical level. How are we to remain faithful to God if we can’t remain faithful to our spouse? Our lack of commitment reveals a heart problem, not a compatibility issue.

God’s greatest concern is man’s relationship with Him. Sinful man is divorced or separated from God. Unfaithfulness has created a barrier between man and God. All men and women have proven themselves unfaithful to God. We have gone after other lovers, pursued other gods, and sought other relationships to meet our needs and satisfy our desires. But God, in His grace and mercy, sent His Son as the means by which we might be restored to a right relationship with Him. He wants to end our spiritual adultery and put a stop to our unfaithfulness. And it will only take place if we allow Him to renew our hearts and redeem us from our love affair with sin, self and Satan.

Jesus is calling the people of God back to God. I love the way the apostle Paul puts it:

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 NLT

A spirit of divorce permeated the people of Israel, and it was fueled by unfaithfulness. Their flippant attitude toward marriage and divorce was a sad reflection of their attitude toward God. They had been unfaithful to Him and were without remorse. But for those who would be citizens of God’s Kingdom, life was to be different. Their love for God and others was to be constant and consistent. But only the grace of God expressed in the sacrifice of His own Son would make that kind of love possible.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Love vs Lust.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. – Matthew 5:27-30 ESV

Notice what Jesus says here. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” For the average Jew, God’s prohibition against adultery was only referring to the physical act itself. And while God had clearly commanded, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14 ESV), Jesus informs them that God had far more in mind with this law than they perceived. The issue was the heart. In the Old Testament, God accused the people of Israel of spiritual adultery time and time again. And not just when they were actually worshiping other gods. They could be unfaithful and adulterous even in the midst of their worship of Him. Listen to the strong words He had for them:

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

They had a heart problem, and so did the people in Jesus’ audience that day on the hillside. They just didn’t know it. They were stuck on the externals: the outward meaning of the law and their physical adherence to it. As long as they restrained themselves from actually committing the act of adultery, they were good with God, or so they thought. When Jesus refers to lust, He uses the Greek word epithymeō, which meansto set the heart upon.” The word itself was not positive or negative in its meaning. It all depended upon the context. And in the context of another person’s spouse, lust was wrong. It was to strongly seek what had been forbidden by God. So what Jesus is really telling His audience is that it’s all about their purity of heart, not the physical act of adultery itself. In other words, it’s all about the motivation that leads up to the act and that begins in the heart. This was not a new concept. Jesus was not introducing something radical here, but simply reminding His listeners of what the Bible had always said.

Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. – Proverbs 4:23 NLT

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? – Jeremiah 17:9 NLT

To refrain from committing adultery was not enough. Just because someone has the fortitude to keep themselves from having sex with their best friend’s wife, doesn’t mean they don’t want to or haven’t obsessed about it regularly. That seems to be Jesus’ point here. You can brag all you want to about your commitment to God’s law, and you may impress your friends with your piety, but not God. Because He knows your heart. He knows your every thought. God isn’t just interested in outward compliance to His law, He wants a wholehearted commitment to Him and His will regarding righteous behavior.

And Jesus gives a shockingly graphic prescription for handling the problem of lust.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. – Matthew 5:29 ESV

That sounds a bit drastic doesn’t it? Is Jesus really recommending that we pluck out our eyes to keep from lusting? But wait, He’s not done.

And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. – Matthew 5:30 ESV

Would cutting off of your hand keep you from sinning? Probably not. And that is not what Jesus is teaching here. He is clearly using hyperbole, an over-exaggeration in order to drive home a point. So, what is His point? To understand what Jesus is saying, it might help to use a real-life scenario as an illustration. Early on in the reign of King David, we are told that a time came “when kings go out to battle” (2 Samuel 11:1 ESV). It was springtime in Israel, the time of year when warfare took place. But the passage tells us that while Joab and the forces of Israel went to war, “David remained at Jerusalem.” He stayed behind. And then we’re told:

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. – 2 Samuel 11:2 ESV

David had time on his hands. And notice what it says: “he saw”. David “saw” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is ra’ah, and it means “to behold, enjoy, look upon.” In other words, he lusted. But his lust was wrong, because this woman was not his wife. In fact, the story will reveal that she was the wife of one of David’s soldiers. But notice that, at this point in the story, all David had done was lust. He had looked and enjoyed. But that would prove to be inadequate for David.

So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. – 2 Samuel 11:4 ESV

David “took” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is laqach, which means “to seize, to take, carry away.” He saw and he took. He used his eyes and his hands. He gazed longingly and wrongly on something that was not his, then he seized it in order to satisfy his own desires. James makes it quite clear what was going on in David’s heart and life at that moment:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:14-15 NLT

David saw with his eyes and took with his hands. His lustful thoughts resulted in sinful actions. But it all began in his heart. D. A. Carson provides us with some helpful insight into what Jesus meant by plucking out our eye and cutting off our hand.

We are to deal drastically with sin. We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little bit of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out. – D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

Our greatest desire should be to live in conformity to the will of God. And anything that would prevent us from doing so should be seen as expendable. A big part of our problem is our inordinate love affair with the things of this world. We lust after, covet, desire, and long for the things the world offers. We seek satisfaction and significance from the things of this world. In essence, we commit adultery with the world in order to satisfy our lustful desires. We see and we take. But James gives us a second word of warning:

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:$ NLT

And James wasn’t done.

Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. – James 4:8-10 NLT

There it is again: Purify your hearts. Adultery is a heart issue. Lust is a heart issue. And impurity of heart is the real problem. That is why Jesus said earlier, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8 ESV). Purity of heart has to do with loving God by giving Him every area of your life. It is to “love the Lord your God will all your heart, all you soul, and all your mind” (Matthew 2:37 NLT). Purity of heart is not outward conformity to rules, but integrity or wholeness of life. It is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of life. If you are seeking after God, it will be hard to seek satisfaction and significance elsewhere. If you are busy lusting after God, you will find it difficult to lust after someone or something else. Purity of heart flows out and influences our hands and our eyes.

Remember what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees regarding their man-made laws and regulations:

“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.” – Matthew 15:19-20 NLT

External behavior is a byproduct of the inward condition of the heart. Adultery is a result of misplaced lust and desire. When we should be seeking all our satisfaction and significance from God, we end up committing adultery in our hearts, proving unfaithful to Him and turning our affections to something or someone other than Him. For Jesus, adherence to the letter of the law was not the point. It was the condition of the heart. He was coming to do radical heart surgery on the people of God. He was trying to get them to realize that their problem with God was not their inability to keep His laws, but their incapacity to love Him faithfully, which kept them from living for Him obediently. Until their hearts were renewed their affections would remain misplaced. But their capacity to love God rather than lust after everything but God, would only be possible because of God’s love for them. God had sent His Son, Jesus, to die in their place as the payment for their sins. And the apostle Paul reminds us of the true extent of God’s matchless love.

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:7-8 NLT

Love was to replace lust. But their ability to love as God demanded would only be made possible by God’s love for them as expressed in the death of His Son on the cross. As the apostle John put it, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19 ESV). Jesus was describing life in His Kingdom, a radical new way of living and loving that would not be based on law-keeping, but on the heart-transforming, life-reforming love of God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Lack of Love.

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. Matthew 5:21-26 ESV

Jesus has just finished saying, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19 ESV). This was a direct reference to the Pharisees and other religious leaders who were guilty of playing fast and loose with the Law. Jesus would make a habit of referring to them as hypocrites, accusing them of putting their own man-made laws ahead of God’s commands. They would find ways create loop holes regarding the Law by making their own set of counter commands that allowed them to claim strict obedience while actually ignoring God’s commands altogether. So, Jesus puts a kibosh on their little scheme by revealing that adherence to God’s law was not open to interpretation or alteration. Not even He, the Son of God, was free to eliminate or amend a single law. In fact, Jesus is now going to show that obedience to the Law required far more than merely external adherence. Keeping the letter of the law was not enough. It wasn’t so much about rule-keeping as it was about the condition of the heart.

One of the phrases you will hear Jesus use repeatedly in these verses is “you have heard that it was said.” Grasping its meaning is essential to understanding what Jesus is saying. He is addressing perception versus reality. With the “help” of the religious leaders and interpreters of the law, the Jews had become confused about what the commands of God actually were. By saying, “You have heard”, Jesus is claiming that their understanding of the law was skewed and inaccurate. Somewhere along the way they had missed the whole point. It really wasn’t about legalism and rule-keeping. It was about the condition of the heart. NOT doing something didn’t mean you had NO desire to do it.

For instance, Jesus addresses the common perception regarding God’s command not to commit murder and labels it as inaccurate and insufficient. It wasn’t just about taking another person’s life. It was about hatred, and hatred stems from the heart. In fact, Jesus is getting to the heart of the issue (excuse the pun). Murder is an expression of hatred or contempt. And just because you manage to refrain from committing murder doesn’t mean you lack the desire to do so in your heart. Later on, in this same gospel. Matthew records the words of Jesus where He clarifies the true source of murder and why God created a law against it.

“But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you.” – Matthew 15:18-20 NLT

Jesus spoke these words in response to an accusation leveled against His disciples by the scribes and Pharisees. They had come to Jesus, in a huff, wondering why the disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate. This was one of the many man-made laws they had created that were of higher importance to them than the rest of God’s law. They were obsessed with outward purity and were accusing the disciples of eating with impure, defiled hands. And Jesus would have some very strong words for these men:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” – Matthew 23:25 ESV

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 ESV

God is concerned about the condition of the heart. That is why Jesus makes the argument that it is not only those who commit physical murder who are guilty and worthy of judgment, but those who hate. “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22 ESV). Whoever insults his brother or, out of hatred, calls him a fool, is just as guilty as a murderer. Jesus knew the heart of man. He was well aware of the pride that welled up in the hearts of those who could claim to have kept God’s law because they had never committed murder. But Jesus gives them the bad news that, in God’s eyes, their hatred was just as condemning. 

Most Bible translations label the topic of this section of Jesus’ sermon as “Murder.” But what Jesus is really talking about is love or the lack of it. Most of us have kept God’s command not to murder, but every one of us is guilty of having hated another human being. You see, our perception is that murder is forbidden and everyone who commits murder will be judged. But Jesus reveals that the reality is much different. Hatred is forbidden and anyone who hates his brother is just as guilty before God as if they had murdered him. God’s ultimate desire for us is not we simply refrain from murder, but that we replace our hatred with love.  Animosity and hatred were rife within the Jewish community, and they saw nothing wrong with it. In fact, they would come before God with their offerings and sacrifices, while harboring hatred for one another. Jesus says, “if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24 NLT). How can you expect to show love to God by offering sacrifices to Him when you can’t even show love to those around you. The apostle John reveals the absurdity of that mindset.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters. – 1 John 4:20-21 NLT

It is so easy for us to excuse our hatred of another human being. We justify it and rationalize it away as being well-deserved. We see our hatred as harmless. But Jesus would say that it devalues the life of another human being in the same way that murder does. It takes away their dignity. It diminishes their worth. We view them as unworthy of our love, all the while forgetting that God sent His Son to die for us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). He had every right to hate us, but instead, He loved us. The apostle Paul reminds us of the amazing reality of that love.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!). – Ephesians 2:1-5 NLT

God loves, and so should we. This isn’t about an absence of murder, but the presence of hatred and a lack of love for others. A world devoid of murderers would not necessarily be a place marked by love. A decline in the crime rate does not reflect a change in the hearts of men, but is more likely tied to increased law enforcement. The law can enforce compliance, but cannot change the hearts of men. Paul wrote of his former relationship with God’s law:

I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! – Romans 7:7-8 NLT

Paul could try to refrain from coveting, but his heart would do everything in its power to disobey God’s law. Coveting could not be stopped by a law. It could only be controlled. The law can only manage behavior, but is incapable of changing the motivation behind the behavior. A speed limit sign does not get rid of the desire to speed. It simply controls it by threatening punishment for disobedience. But fear is never the right motivation for obedience. It can force compliance, but it can never change the sinful disposition within.

Jesus came to change the hearts of men and women. He came to do what the law could never have done. Paul tells us the good news of what Jesus later accomplished by His death on the cross.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

Not only are we capable of refraining from committing murder, we are able to love one another. We can even love our enemies. Not in our own human strength, but because of the power of the Holy Spirit within us. We have the capacity to love as God has loved us.

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Perfect Law Perfectly Fulfilled.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 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. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20 ESV

Jesus knows that what He is saying is going to be misunderstood and misconstrued by His hearers. He is well aware that the content of His message is going to sound controversial, even heretical to some. So, He takes just a few minutes to assure them that He is not promoting something contrary to their Scriptures, which is what He means by “the Law or the prophets”. His message was radical, but not in that sense. In fact, Jesus is about to show them that His words are well within the teaching of the Law and His own life is a fulfillment of what the prophets had written. For Jesus, this was all a matter of proper interpretation of Scripture, not conflict with it.

So much of what Jesus was up against was a misunderstanding on the part of the Jewish people regarding their own Scriptures. And their ignorance regarding their sacred writings was due to the teaching of their own religious leadership. Later on in His ministry, Jesus would confront the Jewish the scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the law, telling them, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life” (John 5:39-40 NLT). These men were renowned for their knowledge of God’s Word, but were ignorant of its true meaning and content. Jesus would expose the Pharisees for their rampant abuse of God’s law.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” – Mark 7:6-8 NLT

For generations, these men had taken the Laws of God and interpreted them for their own benefit. They had twisted God’s words and added to them their own traditions and man-made laws in order to lessen God’s requirements. And as much as they may have known about the coming Messiah from the writings of the prophets, they completely missed who Jesus was because He did not fit their expectations. Years later, after Jesus had resurrected and returned back to His Father’s side in heaven, Stephen would preach a powerful message to the Jews that would end up with his death by stoning.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” – Acts 7:51-53 NLT

So, Jesus assures His listeners that He is not contradicting the Word of God, He is actually fulfilling it. The Jews saw the Law as an end unto itself. In other words, it was their ability to keep the Law that brought them approval by God. They believed that it was their capacity to live up to God’s law that earned them God’s blessings. So, they developed work-arounds and loop holes to make compliance easier. Jesus would accuse them of this very thing.

“You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” – Mark 7:9-13 NLT

The law was impossible to keep and was intended to point people to their need for a Savior. It could expose sin, but not remove it. No man, no matter how knowledgeable he was of the law, could keep it perfectly. That is, until Jesus came. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee and an expert regarding the law, would make this point clear in his letter to the Galatians.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

Jesus claims that He did not come to abolish or do away with the law, but to fulfill it. He didn’t come to refute what the prophets had said generations ago, but to bring about all that they had written. The Old Testament Scriptures, including the Law and the prophets, pointed toward Jesus. They predicted His coming. They revealed the kind of life that God required, but that no man was capable of living. They showed the level of righteousness required for man to receive God’s approval. And Jesus, the Son of God, came to live that life and demonstrate that kind of righteousness in human flesh.

Taking a direct stab at the religious leaders in His audience, Jesus says, “So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT). In other words, if you attempted to diminish, dilute or alter God’s requirements in any way, you would end up having no part in His Kingdom. “But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT).To obey God’s laws was impossible. But not if one found the power to do so through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus was coming to offer the only means by which life in His Kingdom could be achieved: By the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Then Jesus drop the bombshell that had to have left the heads of those in His audience spinning.

“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven! – Matthew 5:20 NLT

What? Was He kidding? Had He lost His mind? How in the world could anyone be more righteous than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees? These men were considered the spiritual elite of their day. They were the crème de la crème, the top dogs, the religious rock stars of Israel. But Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring. He is contrasting man-made righteousness with Spirit-produced righteousness, something that would be made possible after His death and resurrection and the Holy Spirit’s coming. He is eliminating altogether any concept of self-righteousness and revealing that His righteousness, which is far better than that of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, is what can make men right with God. Jesus is referring to an alien righteousness, a righteousness that is outside of yourself.

There are two kinds of Christian righteousness… The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without.  This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies though faith… – Martin Luther, Two Kinds of Righteousness

The righteousness of man won’t gain God’s approval, because it is insufficient. Once again, Paul reminds us:

For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die. – Galatians 2:21 NLT

And he elaborates on this very same point in his letter to the Romans:

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

The very next section of Jesus’ sermon is going to develop this idea of a superior righteousness. He is going to reveal that God’s requirements are more intense and demanding than His audience had ever dreamed. The kind of righteousness God required was impossible. Therefore, all those blessings Jesus had opened His sermon with were totally elusive and out of reach for the average Jew. Or were they? This entire sermon is designed to set up what appears to be a irreconcilable problem, but then point them to an unbelievable solution. In fact, He will wrap up His sermon with these words:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” – Matthew 7:13-14 ESV

And later on in His ministry, Jesus will reveal exactly what He meant be the narrow gate.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 NLT

Whether those in the crowd that day recognized it or not, they were standing in the presence of their future hope. This man they had come to see was more than just a teacher and miracle worker. He was the very fulfillment of all that God had promised. And He was the God-ordained means by which men could be made right with God. Gone were the days when men would vainly attempt to please God through religious rule-keeping. Jesus had come to do what no man had ever done before. Keep God’s law perfectly and completely, making Himself the perfect, spotless sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson