The Internal Application of the Law
3. Concluding Remarks
The Correct Emphasis of the Law
The Fulfilment of the Law
I have tried to use the capitalised word ‘Law’ when I am referring to the sum total of the Old Testament Law and ‘law’ when referring to regulations contained within that body of Law or of man’s laws which are a trait of every human society throughout the world.
I have also taken the liberty of interpreting the quotes used and of italicising where I feel necessary only to make it easier to understand the concepts being discussed.
I feel sure that, somewhere, I should have used the alternate word but, alas, I shall leave that for the astute reader to discover! Although my use of the word seems straightforward to myself, this capitalisation should clear up any unintended misunderstanding in my text.
The first verses in the Sermon on the Mount (5:3-16) have dealt mainly with what the disciples of Christ are, in a series of nine beatitudes followed by two statements regarding both salt and light. Conduct is not far from the mind in any of the statements for a disciple can be distinguished by the things he or she does but, primarily, the words have served as declarations of the types of people followers of Christ should be.
Here, Jesus moves on to a consideration of the correct interpretation of the Law (specifically the commandments given to the nation of Israel at the time of the making of the covenant through Moses) in six short ‘re-interpretations’ that cut across the Judaism of its day which looked no further than a legalistic observance of the commands and an interpretation of them in actions that had to be rigorously applied to believers in order for a right relationship with God to be earnt.
Preceding these, however, an introductory passage (5:17-20) speaks generally concerning Jesus’ relationship to the Old Covenant Law.
That law is an integral part of our society is a certain statement but many believers have erred on the side of caution when they approach the commands of Jesus and only substitute one Law of the Old Covenant for another ‘higher’ law which believers are now bound to serve Jesus under.
I remember a minister I heard when I was in my early years as a christian say just that. He spoke of the Sermon on the Mount as being a law which is much harder to keep than the Old Covenant ever was and so confused the issue as to the relationship of the believer to Law and commandments. His hearers probably left (if they’d been listening) with the understanding that Jesus came not to abolish the Law and the prophets (5:17) but to make them much more difficult to obey and keep by His unique expansion and interpretation of them!
In the minister’s case (and I shan’t define who he was any further in case I misheard him - after all, I was a very young christian), the Old Covenant meant observance of a written code for a covenant relationship whereas the New was a relationship with God which necessitated the observance of a new written code. But this isn’t the New Covenant - the Law has totally changed position, it hasn’t simply been redefined or reinterpreted and becoming a christian is not putting oneself under the burden of a set of rules but a dynamic and life-giving relationship with God Himself.
Although the Old has external tablets, the New has commandments written within the believer themselves, written on the human heart (Jer 31:33). This is a clear problem to our legal minds who live out our everyday lives bound by laws and regulations, but both Divine Law and man’s law are not for the christian - they are, rather, for the men and women who choose to go their own way who are exhorted by the Law that their lifestyle is unacceptable to God and needs change.
We base our society on law thinking that by writing law we will reform society, but it can’t be done. Only a change in the heart of man can change society and, when that happens, law is no longer needed. As I Tim 1:8-11 states
‘Now we know that the Law is good, if any one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the Law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, immoral persons, sodomites, kidnapers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted’
If you are, by nature, loving your fellow man, what law do you need to restrict yourself? So the christian is under no law if (big word) he loves those around him and seeks their welfare. And, if we are no longer under law, we are free to serve both God and man to the full.
Therefore, if christians do by nature from the heart what the Law requires (Rom 2:14-15), they fall under no law for they fulfil or keep it in its entirety without ever seeing the need to work at a legalistic observance and so earn some measure of righteousness under their Law observance.
Indeed, for all Abraham would be concerned, we could burn all the scrolls in the world along with our Bibles and leave no page of writing able to testify to God - it just wouldn’t matter to him for he was saved and found himself acceptable to God solely by hearing the voice of God and by obeying it - just as we all are (Gen 15:6).
As we approach this passage, therefore, we are seeing Jesus call the Pharisees and scribes’ interpretation of the Law into question (5:20) as he upholds the Law as being righteous and a reflection of what God had intended His people strive for under the Old Covenant.
When the foundational principles of the Law are understood and applied, observance becomes not a matter of legalistic actions which have to be observed but pointers to show how one is to conduct oneself in any or all other situations that the Law does not deal with. Though the Pharisees and scribes extrapolated the Law to make it apply to the minutest of actions and situations, they neglected to see the principle that love for God and love for one’s fellow man were the foundation of everything (Mtw 22:34-40).
Mtw 5:17-20 serves as a fitting introduction to the following verses which expound the Old Testament Law, outlining the first mention of Jesus’ relationship to the Mosaic Law and hinting at the unacceptability before God of the righteousness which comes through the interpretation of the Law by the scribes and Pharisees.
We will deal with this in the following section under the header ‘Fulfilment’.
The following verses (5:21-48) are easily divided into six sections (5:21-26, 27-30, 31-32, 33-37, 38-42, 43-48) each being introduced with the words ‘You have heard that it was said’ or some such variation. This makes studying the passages a little easier and we will deal with each one as they occur in chronological order in the chapter.
Each of these six divisions, however, can be further divided up into three if the third of these divisions is taken to be either the solution to a known ‘problem’ that could be levelled against the interpretation or an explanation as to the correct interpretation. Perhaps it’s best, though, to make just a twofold division and label them ‘Scripture’ and ‘Interpretation’, incorporating any explanation into the latter of these two headers.
This seems to be the main burden of Jesus’ teaching - to lay down the Scripture before His hearers that has been misinterpreted and follow it up with a detailed explanation of the true basis of the Law and of its application.
Alternatively, a three fold division of the entire six sections is possible where:
5:21-30 is seen as outlining the internal application of the Law (both murder and adultery are shown to be affairs of the internal workings of the heart rather than external physical actions that are only to be avoided)
5:31-37 is taken to be referring to the correct emphasis of the Law (both divorce and oath making are seen to be allowances given to the Israelites until the perfect would come in Christ), and
5:38-48 is interpreted as outlining the fulfilment of the Law (where retaliation and hatred are seen to be poor reflections of the character of God, perfection being the overriding principle to strive for, thus presupposing the foundational concept of ‘love’ as being the disciples’ aim - though this principle is not spelt out as such until later in 22:37-40).
This may, again, seem a little strained, but it’s the structure I shall be employing to divide the six-sectioned passage up for this commentary.
I began this web page with a brief discussion of the relationship of both the Divine Law and man’s law to the christian believer because of the exposition that Jesus gives from 5:21 in which he puts to one side the methodology and conclusions drawn by the scribes and Pharisees and goes on to show the foundational principles upon which it was built.
However, Jesus begins not by informing His listeners that the subject upon which He will speak is solely the commandments laid out in the Mosaic Law but refers initially to ‘the Law and the prophets’ and His relationship to them both (5:17). Indeed, Jesus’ unique relationship to both the Law and the prophets is summed up in His statement that He has come (as on a mission) not to abolish but to fulfil them.
But just what does this mean? Firstly, we need to define the boundaries for the phrase ‘the Law and the prophets’.
Matmor comments here that
‘The Law strictly denotes the Pentateuch [Genesis to Deuteronomy] and that is its meaning here. With it Jesus joins the prophets. The Jews spoke of “the former prophets” under which heading they included the books from Joshua to II Kings and “the latter prophets” which were the books we speak of as prophecy’
As such, Jesus is not narrowing down His own fulfilment through His mission to simply the Torah, the Jewish Law Books, but to the entire Canon of Scripture then generally accepted as being authoritative and binding. Jesus also uses this phrase to indicate the entire writings of Scripture elsewhere, summarising the teaching of the Canon (Mtw 7:12) as
‘...whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the Law and the prophets’
‘...You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the prophets’
Moreover, although Jesus specifically states here that His mission was not to abolish either the Law or the prophets, He elsewhere states (Luke 16:16 Pp Mtw 11:13) that
‘The Law and the prophets were until John [the Baptist]; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently’
showing that the uniqueness and importance of the Old Testament writings has lessened now that the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven has started to be preached. That is not to say that the old writings are now obsolete and irrelevant but that the reality of what they pointed towards has now come in the person and form of Jesus Christ and His ministry and, as it will be wholly fulfilled, in His subsequent death, burial, resurrection and ascension.
The shadow cannot be as important as the reality and, therefore, their prime importance to point the way towards what was shortly to come has lessened. But they are still vitally important for a believer in order that what has now come can be seen for what it is (Rom 3:21) - the fulfilment of all that the Father had promised and planned for - but, without the fulfilment of the new, the old lacks completeness.
Jesus has, therefore, come not only to fulfil the sacrificial rules and regulations that were given to Israel to ameliorate their consciences and to point forward to Christ, not only to be the conclusion of the Law and of all its regulations and precepts but to fulfil, to bring to completion, all the Old Testament writings.
Jesus, then, sits as the conclusion of the Old Testament - the final word apart from which the Scriptures have no end and hang loosely pointing towards something that was to bring a fitting finale to all that had been foreshadowed, promised and alluded to in the Old.
Indeed, this appears to be the meaning of the Greek word translated ‘fulfil’ here (Mtw 5:17 - Strongs Greek number 4137) where commentators are at variance as to its precise meaning in this context. We should not imagine that for each and every verse or passage, there is an allusion to the Christ which must, somehow, find its fulfilment in an action of or in the person of the Messiah but, rather, that the entire body of OT literature points at an incompleteness which only the Coming One could hope to ‘fill up’ and make whole.
Therefore, speaking of the OT believers, the writer to the Hebrews states (Heb 11:39-40) that
‘...all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect’
Perfection - or, more properly, ‘completeness’ - was not possible under the Old Covenant because the conclusion of all matters had not yet arrived. When He finally arrived, however, Jesus could rightfully say that both the Law and the prophets would be fulfilled in Him. As Matfran notes
‘Jesus is bringing that to which the OT looked forward; His teaching will transcend the OT revelation but, far from abolishing it, is itself its intended culmination’
Indeed, now that Christ has come, the Old Testament cannot be properly read without a consideration of Christ and to take any part of it as devoid of a future realisation of the outworking of God’s plan in Him will be devoid of any real sense, providing no eschatological framework in which the Scriptures can be interpreted.
Matthew’s use of the Greek word translated ‘abolish’ in 5:17 (Strongs Greek number 2647) is one that throws an interesting light onto the implications of what both the scribes and Pharisees had been doing by their interpretation of the Law.
It may be going too far to envisage, at this early stage, that Jesus’ enemies were accusing Him of annulling the importance and relevance of the Law and the prophets and of setting up His own legal framework in which men and women may be saved - even though it is not impossible - but His statement certainly does appear to counter some sort of argument that Jesus felt could have been levelled at His ministry.
Mathag asserts that the statement ‘Think not that I have come to abolish...’
‘...presupposes the existence of the opinion that is denied...’
though he remains uncertain whether the scenario presented to the reader is one in which the original recipients of the Gospel of Matthew found themselves. There are many such scenarios and it is not without possibility that Jesus is answering his critics before they even so much as speak - forewarned is forearmed, especially for His disciples.
The Greek word translated ‘abolish’ means ‘to destroy utterly’ (as both Vines and Kittels) and shows Jesus’ repudiation of any allegation which may be levelled at Him - not an allegation that He regarded the Law as immaterial but that He was actively destroying its importance by His own ministry.
This is quite some iconoclastic approach which Jesus is speaking against here but it’s interesting to note that it is the same charge that He levels at the scribes and Pharisees in Mark 7:6-13 where He points out to them that, by their own unique interpretation of the Scriptures, they are nullifying the weightier matters of the Law, so abolishing the commandment by their own interpretation.
Jesus, on the other hand, underpins the Law with the principles that can be easily understood and outworked. Instead of reinterpreting the Law to make it just a series of regulations, He interprets them to call into account the very heart of man, thus showing that men and women have fallen short of God’s perfect standard rather than being able to justify themselves that they had lived up to some sort of standard obtained from God’s Laws but which were far removed from their intent.
This has specific relevance to the interpretation placed upon the OT Scriptures by the scribes and Pharisees and says more about the wrong way of salvation that the Jewish religious leaders had devised than it does about the new way which was to be made for all through Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension shortly to take place.
Jesus goes on to assert the importance of the Law (5:18) by asserting that even the minutest of its contents - small strokes of the nib which would normally have had little or no effect on the general meaning of the Scriptures, if I understand it correctly - were not to be removed from the contents until ‘all is accomplished’.
The ‘iota’ (Strongs Greek number 2503), although the smallest of the Greek letters in the alphabet, is normally taken as being a translation from the Aramaic and meaning (as Matmor)
‘...the yodh, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet’
The ‘dot’ (Strongs Greek number 2762) is normally taken to be representative of (as Matmor)
‘...a tiny projection on some letters (that helped distinguish similar letters)’
If such a small item as these two were considered important by Jesus, then there can be no thought of Jesus going one step further to negate certain parts of the Scriptures, let alone to ‘destroy utterly’ the Law and the prophets that stood amongst Jewish society as testimony to God’s movings in and of His promises to the nation.
Certainly, Jesus will radically reinterpret the Scriptures but He has no intention of laying them to one side to introduce His own ideas of what God’s Law should be.
Unfortunately, the AV’s ‘fulfilled’ at the end of 5:18 makes the reader think that the same Greek word is being used as is employed at the end of 5:17 but the words are completely different. In the former, the word rightly means ‘to bring to completion’ and we saw how Jesus proclaimed that His mission was not to do away with the Law and the prophets but to complete them for, without Him, they cannot be made whole and complete. Here, though, the idea is somewhat different.
The word employed (Strongs Greek number 1096) means ‘to bring to a full end’ or ‘to take place’ and the implication is that the Law (and probably the prophets also) cannot be invalidated until the time comes when everything that has been promised and foreshadowed will have come to pass. Therefore, Matfran defines the meaning here as ‘until what [the law] looks forward to arrives’ and goes on to comment that
‘The Law remains valid until it reaches its intended culmination; this it is now doing in the ministry and teaching of Jesus. This verse does not state, therefore, as it is sometimes interpreted, that every regulation in the OT Law remains binding after the coming of Jesus. The Law is unalterable, but that does not justify its application beyond the purpose for which it was intended’
That there are still events which must take place before all things are accomplished is evident from Scripture and the continued existence of the record of both the Law and the prophets is important for believers to ascertain and understand what they will be.
Indeed, the opening remark of the verse that nothing will pass from the Law ‘until heaven and earth pass away’ may be taken to infer the fulfilment of all things at the close of the age when Jesus returns to set up a visible Kingdom in Jerusalem and that, at that time, all things will have been brought to a full end, inferring the future age when the Law’s relevance will be further restricted by the establishing of God’s perfect rule over all the earth. The phrase may also be referring to a time even more future than the Lord’s return when a new Creation comes about in a world in which there is no longer any sin (and, therefore, no need of Law).
This is certainly one interpretation but it is not the only one.
But, as to the basis of the covenant under which the disciples now serve God, the old laws and regulations are seen to be completed in Christ who is the end of all that was required from believers and who sits at the conclusion of all the promises to the Old Testament believers who looked forward to what was soon to come but which they could not grasp and experience.
Therefore, the Law is still of prime importance in the Kingdom (Mtw 5:19) even though the relevancy for the believer has now changed through the sacrificial death, resurrection and ascension of Christ back into heaven. A lessening of any or all of these commandments laid upon mankind cannot be envisaged but the basis of salvation is seen at once to be not the payment of wages due to the life of the self-righteous believer but the free bestowal of forgiveness upon all who turn to God having acknowledged their own state before Him.
Only in Christ - and, therefore, in the NT believers - can both the Law and the prophets said to have found their completion for they both sit at the conclusion of all that was both foreshadowed and promised. Any undermining of those OT Scriptures (whether they be considered to be ‘small’ commandments or ‘large’ ones. The Rabbis seems to have had some sort of grading structure amongst the commandments - see Aboth 2:1) would, therefore, undermine the believer’s position and the importance of the person and work of Christ on the cross for, without it, they have no origin from which their relationship with God can spring.
Jesus actually calls into account any believer who takes even the least of the laws which are equally binding on mankind and resigns them to the least position in the Kingdom of Heaven (Mtw 5:19). Even more important is that His disciples should not teach men and women the slackening of any of the Old Testament laws for, by so doing, they undermine the authority of it all, so promoting a gradual chipping away of the Divine standard recorded in the Pentateuch.
One can’t help but think of the disregard many of the twentieth century’s christian leaders have had for this verse. While it is true that it is not always easy to determine which laws and regulations have been fulfilled in Christ and so laid to one side - though, in my study of Leviticus with the intention of making it relevant into today’s society, I found very few that were as difficult as some would make out - the contempt with which some of the Scriptures have been treated almost defies belief by people who say they are more concerned to uphold the teaching of Christ rather than the legalities of the Old Testament.
Of course, what that actually means is that Scriptures such as Mtw 5:17-20 are consigned to the wheelie bin of their theology for they uphold the unswerving commitment of Christ to the relevancy for man of the Mosaic Law (though, as pointed out previously, the position of the Law has changed under the New Covenant).
It would appear, then, that although we can ever-so-religiously ignore certain Old Testament rules and regulations, we do so at our own peril and, even though we may be highly elevated within the established Church structures of our day, in effect we are considered as nothing in the Kingdom of Heaven because of our relationship to the Divine Law.
Alternatively, the little old lady who looks into the commands of God and takes them seriously as being the very voice of God to present day society is in a much better position than any Archbishop (oops! I’ve gone and named a church office!) who treats the Divine Law with contempt. I wish we could have more old ladies as Archbishops...
Finally, Jesus turns His attention to the scribes and the Pharisees (5:20) but they have not been very far from His mind throughout His opening sentences and they will be in His immediate view as Jesus goes on to reinterpret the OT Law (5:21-48).
Jesus annuls one sect’s interpretation of the written Law (and therefore the means of righteousness by those ideals) and introduces His own authoritative interpretation and exposition, insisting upon perfection rather than legalism and self-justification (see Mtw 7:28-29).
His continual assertions throughout the subsequent passage of
‘You have heard that it was said...but I say to you...’
is not meant to pull away from the Scripture but from the interpretation that had been placed upon the Scripture quoted by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day (embodied now for us in the pages of the Mishnah and, subsequently, in the Talmud and various other Jewish writings).
Jesus shows that the correct interpretation of the Law is not based upon an attempted legalistic interpretation and extrapolation of the words that Moses wrote down so many years ago but upon an understanding of the foundation of the Law itself and the adherence to those principles. For, only in so doing, can the principles upon which the Law is based be applied to situations which could not have been adequately addressed by the brevity of the Law.
Only when the Law is seen to teach both love for God and love for man can these two principles be applied to situations that present themselves to the believer. If these are stripped away from the commandments such as ‘Thou shalt not murder’, the technicalities of what murder should be defined as can be twisted or reinterpreted in the light of our present experience but, when the foundational principle of seeing love for man and love for God’s image are the necessity and reason behind it, the external definition of what constitutes ‘murder’ becomes largely irrelevant.
Indeed, legalistic definitions of the Law’s intent open up loopholes and avenues of opportunity for those who are both clever and cunning and who attempt to get their own will done by justification of the Law. For murder could be justified (as it is today) in many situations that present themselves but, if hatred for man is seen to be at its heart, any legalistic interpretation cannot stand which presents scenarios that are external to a man’s heart.
Jesus’ subsequent exposition, therefore, is aimed squarely at providing an accurate explanation of the Law’s intent and to cut away at the false interpretations that have been placed upon it by the Jewish leaders of His day. Righteousness through a wrong interpretation and application of the commands of God can never achieve a righteousness before God that can gain Divine acceptance but, while it is wrong to think of Jesus’ exposition as being simply a correct interpretation that His disciples must now try to justify themselves by observing (before God can be satisfied), a correct understanding of His will and His ways is, rather, necessary.
‘The Pharisees were almost universally praised in Jesus’ day and were regarded as outstanding examples of people who lived by the Law of God’
is sufficient for the alarm bells to start ringing in our own ears if we have achieved a level of righteousness amongst the world that reaps for us a reward of praise. Let each of us be concerned that the basis of our praise is from God Himself and based, not upon our own achievements, but upon the work of God.
The Internal Application of the Law
In these two passages, the initial teaching of Jesus is not to negate the severity of the Law of God and to undermine the importance of two specific commands of God from the Old Covenant but neither is it to do just the reverse and to elevate them with such an interpretation that it makes them unattainable and unliveable.
Jesus is concerned to expound the Law to His hearers so that they may simply know the full intentions and implications of the Law upon them. Yes, the scribes and Pharisees could point to their own lives (as could the religious and self-righteous amongst the crowd) and declare that they had neither committed murder nor adultery in accordance with the Mosaic Law - but Jesus points out that, by keeping the Law as a purely external set of rules, they had failed to condemn those things within themselves that God also found distasteful and unacceptable before Him.
The importance of the Law was not just to highlight external applications, therefore, but to speak concerning internal attitudes which would grow through the nation’s lives and produce the fruit of sin if left to grow unchecked and undealt with.
The Law comes through these two Scriptures, then, in a new and fresh way - not by rewriting them but by a reinterpretation that chips away at self-sufficiency and shows the full root cause of the physical manifestations which the religious leaders were able to declare that they had never committed.
Instead of the Law being good news to the self-righteous, it actually becomes the worse news possible when properly interpreted. But the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven becomes the saving Word for all men and women - both those who, through the Law, have lives that look good on the outside and those who, under the Law, realise that the requirements of God upon their lives hit home to the very root of their being.
With a correct interpretation of the Mosaic Law, the Gospel becomes the only way back to God through Christ.
On a personal note, I can’t help but note that it’s all very well and good teaching on the subject of the cross and the great theological doctrines of propitiation and the like (my first series of notes released on the web) because it gets a believer away from facing up to the reality of one’s own life before God (in the here and now, this side of the cross) and the internal problems which confront the believer when they start to look inward and face up to what they see.
All these passages (all six of them) have been extremely difficult to deal with - not always because it has been a struggle to come to terms with the correct interpretation but because the words of Christ call oneself to account for the life that is being lived ‘on the inside’.
It’s not enough to give the correct interpretation of the matter if, having done all this, the very words that have been written are the very ones which condemn the writer! I implore each one as they approach these passages, therefore, not to gloss over the implications of Jesus’ words as referring to ‘someone else’ but to take them personally as I’ve had to do.
In this first of six passages which could stand independently from one another, Jesus begins by introducing a Scripture with the phrase (as the RSV - a phrase which recurs at 5:33)
‘You have heard that it was said to the men of old...’
though some commentators point out that the translation may better run
‘You have heard that it was said by the men of old...’
implying that what Jesus is about to quote is the interpretation of the written Law by the Rabbis, the oral law first embodied in the scrolls of the Mishnah towards the end of the second century AD. This understanding of the turn of phrase mainly stems from the fact that the Scripture subsequently quoted is not an exact one, the second clause going on to make mention that
‘...whoever kills shall be liable to judgment’
an obvious addition to both Ex 20:13 and Deut 5:17 where just the simple statement ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is recorded. The phrase may, however, have been derived from a reading of Ex 21:12 which reads
‘Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death’
at the start of a passage about accidental death and implying the necessity for judgment in the Jewish courts of law.
When Jesus says that ‘it was said’ it is perhaps best to understand it as a reference to the oral tradition and interpretation of Scripture that had been asserted to have been handed down from the times of Moses to the present day, thus giving the Rabbis justification for the belief structure they had imposed upon Scripture.
This may seem implausible, but Aboth 1:1 states plainly that
‘Moses received the [oral] law from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets committed it to the men of the Great Synagogue [that is, a body of 120 men who travelled with Ezra back into the land of Israel from exile in Babylon]. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence around the Law’
and the instruction in the Law that the Pharisees gave Israel was, therefore, expected to be accepted as having been handed down orally through every generation of Israelites until it had arrived safely with the current religious leaders.
It does seem likely, therefore, that the entire phrase uttered by Jesus is a quote or paraphrase from the Rabbi’s oral law that they taught as equally binding upon the Jews as the OT Scriptures. The phrase doesn’t appear to occur in the Mishnah, however, but the main burden of that work may exclude the possibility.
Having said this, it is, perhaps, better not to insist on a hard and fast interpretation here, though, for the other quotes by Jesus in the five other passages are mostly taken directly from Scripture itself.
The interpretation of the Scripture by the Rabbis, however, was mostly external and temporal - they neither looked beyond the act of murder to see the root cause of anger which worked through a man to bring about the termination of a life and neither did they see the eternal consequences of such an act - that is, the judgment from God which was to be poured out upon the presence of anger.
The Law certainly condemned anger displayed towards a brother. Lev 19:17-18 reads
‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself...’
but this does not seem to have hit home in the Rabbi’s interpretation of the strict command not to kill even though their citation of Lev 19:17-18 was known to them and were sufficient grounds for annulling a vow that had been hastily made (Nedarim 9:4).
Although they realised the necessity of prohibiting physical murder, they failed to see the root cause of such an action and to speak against it. It would be going too far to say that it was because they held anger in their own hearts that they failed to turn their eyes to the root causes for there were many good Rabbis who strove, it would appear, to do what was right (such as Nicodemus).
But where they allowed the Law only to speak superficially, Jesus expands the Law to show the real problem of murder and where it comes from. That is to say, murder comes from within a man (Mark 7:21) and it cannot be conceived of as something purely external and physical. A man is just as liable to the judgment of God upon his anger directed towards his brother as he is to the outworkings of that anger through a physical act of murder.
This concept was not beyond the Rabbis and, had they thought about Scriptures such as Gen 4:6-7, they would have been able to realise that the Law must necessarily lay bear the thoughts and intentions of the heart and not just speak concerning outward actions.
For, speaking to Abel’s brother Cain, God questioned him saying
‘...Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it’
When Cain failed to come to terms with the anger that was burning within him, he plotted a way to murder his brother and so fulfilled or brought to a conclusion the anger that he had failed to deal with. What the commandment of the Law condemned, therefore, was not just an external manifestation that had to be prohibited, but a warning that internal feelings which produced external consequences needed also to be dealt with (just as with adultery which Jesus will go on to speak about shortly).
In the apostle John’s first letter, he also repeats the seriousness of this passage and goes one step further than Jesus when he writes (I John 3:15)
‘Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him’
Certainly, the implication in Jesus’ words are there for all to see and read and, by equating murder with anger and speaking of them both in terms of judgment, He necessarily shows their relevance to the commandment of Ex 20:13.
The threefold pronouncement of Jesus in 5:22 is not easy to assess, mostly because there are a number of possibilities and alternatives. The RSV reads (with comments)
‘...every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults [better ‘says Raca to’] his brother shall be liable to the council [the ‘Sanhedrin’, the Jewish court which sat in Jerusalem to pronounce judicial decisions], and whoever says, “You fool!” shall be liable to the hell [or Gehenna, the regular word for the final place of punishment] of fire’
The first question that arises is whether the three ‘judgments’ outlined for the three actions are to be considered as earthly or heavenly judgments. Both the first and the third seem only to be able to be taken in the latter of these senses but that would leave the reference to the judgment of the Sanhedrin as somewhat perplexing. Although it is the regular term used for the Jewish High Court, it is, perhaps, better to take it as referring to the Divine council or assembly where judgment is handed out on the final day. This certainly gives the three statements a harmony of interpretation.
Secondly, should we envisage these three phrases as being constructed so as to be shown to be dealing with progressively worse sins? This is possible but unlikely simply because anger - which is the subject of the first statement - is equated directly with the sin of murder and it is very difficult to conceive of anything which could be elevated to be even worse.
True, the outworking of that anger through two condemnatory statements (‘Raca’ and ‘Fool’) may be seen to be one step further down the road to the contemplation of physical murder, but I John 3:15 previously quoted raises anger into the position of murder and it’s difficult to see anything which could be considered to be of any greater condemnation for mankind.
Thirdly, just what is meant by the term ‘Raca’ and ‘Fool’ as spoken by Jesus? The first, Raca, is an Aramaic transliteration probably meaning something like ‘empty-headed’.
If Raca is a transliteration, ‘Fool’ may also be even though it would need to be asserted that the compiler of this Gospel from the Aramaic manuscripts assumed that the original word was similar to the Greek ‘fool’ and so put that meaning in rather than translate the word (which he may have felt would not have been understood by his intended readers as Raca would have been).
‘Fool’ is possibly, then, a transliteration of a Hebrew word used both in Jer 5:23 and Ps 78:8 meaning ‘rebellious’, ‘stubborn’ or, perhaps, ‘heretic’. If one calls a brother an outcast from God’s presence or a rebel against God indicating almost the same thing, the accuser, says Jesus, actually stands in danger of becoming an outcast himself away from the presence of God eternally.
Perhaps significantly, the Aramaic Matthew on line translates the word with ‘lunatic’ but notes that the Aramaic is an
‘...idiomatic figure of speech: “Mute” implying demonic possession’
which would certainly maintain the seriousness of the expression when used.
The producers of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were equally concerned to deal with the outbursts of anger and hatred which occurred within the life of their religious community though their regulations concerning such actions were only minor judgments which, it would have been hoped, would cure the offender from allowing such anger to work through him.
IQS 6-7 (the Community Rule) demanded almost perfection of dealings between fellow brothers of the Community and punishment, if serious, could be imposed of upto one year exclusion along with penance. This is far from Jesus’ teaching here and there are no earthly fines or consequences being imposed, but the seriousness of animosity between brothers is taken with greater seriousness by Jesus over that of the Community because transgression here has eternal not temporal consequences.
Through Mtw 5:21-22, Jesus’ ‘you’ has remained in the plural as He’s talked to the disciples about the reinterpretation of murder but, from 5:23, His ‘you’ becomes singular as He turns His attention to some practical outworkings of the teaching He’s just brought before His followers.
However, Jesus, instead of giving an example of individual anger which needs to be dealt with, changes tack and speaks about the situation where the anger of a brother needs to be addressed by another brother who has become aware of it.
Commentators make a little too much of this next scenario (Mtw 5:23-24) and think that Jesus is teaching His disciples that the anger in the heart of another interferes with the relationship a believer has with God Himself.
Therefore Mattask implies that, unless reconciliation takes place, the christian who may not be able to deal successfully with his brother’s hatred (after all, it’s a matter of the other brother’s freewill - the brother can only go to him and try to be reconciled) will be rejected by God when he writes that
‘God does not want to receive offerings from Christians who are not at peace with one another...’
Matfran also is too bold as to think that, by going to a brother who holds a grudge against oneself, everything will be made perfect and his words that
‘If God will punish anger, we cannot worship Him with grudges unsettled’
will condemn people who have tried to be reconciled to their brother and yet who have been unsuccessful through no fault of their own. Mtw 18:15-17 should be read here to provide a fitting balance to Jesus’ words (and, more especially, to those of the commentators!) even though the scenario there mentioned is not exactly the same.
This whole idea of a grudge being held which effects the relationship with God of another should not be made to come from this passage in Matthew for this does not appear to be the intention of Jesus’ words. The intention is to make the disciple of Christ responsible for the salvation of a brother who has alienated himself away from the presence of God and who will bring himself under eternal judgment should he continue to live in that state.
While it is quite true to say that the offerer may be the one who is at fault (as Matfran) and therefore is the only one in the position of being able to put things right in the relationship, the Scripture does not say as much and the teaching shouldn’t be pressed into speaking just into this restricted situation. There may have been no deliberate act of sin or offence on the part of the offerer but the point being made is that he is still responsible to try and effect reconciliation in the unacceptable situation.
Though Jesus instructed His disciples that they must turn to forgive a brother as often as he turns to them for forgiveness in repentance (Mtw 18:21-22), here Jesus urges His followers to be pro-active. They are not to wait for such a situation to occur but to take it in their own hands and seek out their offended brother and try to be reconciled to them. And the urgency of the matter is such that even an offering to God must be laid aside in preference of reconciliation.
Interestingly, there is a Rabbinic parallel here in Yoma 8:9 where we read that
‘...for transgressions that are between a man and his fellow, the Day of Atonement effects atonement only if he has appeased his fellow...’
In other words, forgiveness from God can only be bestowed upon a believer if they have first been reconciled to their fellow believer. This goes much further than Jesus’ statement here and there is no implication in Jesus’ words that the offering presented to God was a sin offering of any description designed to restore a damaged relationship with God.
What’s in view for Jesus is that the disciple should be concerned to restore his brother back into a correct relationship with himself even before he comes before God to offer either sacrifice (the dealing with sin is not implied) or a gift.
Finally, Jesus goes on to speak of the practicalities of reconciliation (5:25-26), a reason that would probably have served as a somewhat relevant prompt for some of the disciples there present to avoid unnecessary self-loss!
Who said we shouldn’t appeal to a believer’s self-interest on occasions?!!
But, even though the scenario presented to the disciples would have caused them to think about their relationship with certain ‘debtors’, the point Jesus is making is not unconnected with what has just preceded it.
By using this parable, Jesus is saying something like
‘If this happens in the real world, how much more will it happen in the one to come? Therefore, be reconciled speedily to your brother before you stand before the heavenly court and there is no escape from God’s hand’
and Mathen’s paraphrase is worth reading which says
‘Be not surprised about the urgency of My command that you be reconciled; should it be that you were to pass from this life with a heart still at variance with your brother, a condition which you have not even tried to change, that wrong would testify against you in the day of judgment...’
Mathag, however, sees no reason to interpret the judge as being God, saying that
‘It is a mistake to allegorise the details...’
but, if this is not done, Jesus’ words become simply wisdom directed at those of His disciples who either owe certain people money (Mathag notes that ‘the background here seems to be non-Jewish since the Jews did not imprison for debt’ - the use of the Greek word for the Roman quarter-penny, the quadran [worth about one sixty-fourth of a denarius], may also indicate this. But the real point is not in the setting but in the urgency of the need for reconciliation that mustn’t be left undone) or who have offended them in some way that the Jewish law would sentence them for.
Besides, the idea of a court of law which dispenses justice as an illustration of the heavenly court with eternal consequences is not absent from the Gospels (see Mtw 18:23-35 where lack of forgiveness and mercy reap eternal consequences).
And there is some urgency in Jesus’ words here by imploring His disciples to make friends ‘quickly’ while they are being dragged through the streets to appear before the magistrates when there will be no escape from the court’s sentence. Once the court is reached, there is no escape from the hand of the accuser and judge, a point which emphasises the need for the followers of Christ not to be slow in being reconciled to one’s brother (the word is ‘accuser’ here so it could also have the interpretation of ‘enemy’ included within it).
In conclusion, Jesus has shown that the root cause of murder is anger and that the Law was not solely concerned to forbid physical murder but to address the inward condition of heart in an Israelite that needed dealing with (Mtw 5:21-22). Although anger must be dealt with by the followers of Christ, they are also responsible, if they learn of an offended brother, to go to that person even before service to God and to attempt to be reconciled to them (Mtw 5:23-24).
There is also an urgency in this matter that the disciples must be concerned to pay attention to (Mtw 5:25-26).
The first couple of verses follow the same pattern as those words spoken to the disciples concerning murder in the previous passage. Jesus just quotes the Scripture here (Ex 20:14) from the list of ten commandments in the Mosaic Law and, once more, brings home to His hearers the internal application of such a regulation.
Adultery - just like murder before it - is an outward manifestation of an internal disorder (that is, lust, desire or covetousness) and, though just the negative prohibition occurs in the Mosaic Law, Jesus’ emphasis is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture in, for instance, II Sam 11:2-4 in the incident of David’s adulterous act with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his closest of men and fellow warrior, Uriah the Hittite.
If one removes the internal desire from the incident, the physical transgression of adultery would never have taken place but, as it was, David was led astray by his own desire when he went after that which he wanted to possess that was not rightfully his.
Adultery with Bathsheba in David’s heart, therefore, took place long before sexual intercourse ever took place within the palace and the act of offence before God was only an outworking of the series of thoughts and desires which had been left to go unchecked in David’s mind (see my notes here for a fuller discussion of the incident).
Although the Pharisees had rightly interpreted the commandment to refer to physical adultery and would have been able to point to the words and be honest in their proclamation that they had stayed the right side of the Law, they had not been careful to think about the implications for the internal workings of mankind and to look at themselves to see whether there were seeds within themselves that could overflow through their lives which would cause such action.
Jesus condemns the internal imaginations of adultery as being just as much a problem as the outworkings of that desire (Mark 7:21), even though the implications of a physical act and all that implies (such as the joining together of two people into one unit and the breaking of the marriage relationship) can have more far reaching and disastrous consequences than just the inward thoughts.
But the Pharisees really should have seen that the Law had something to say about the internal workings of man when they came to the tenth and final commandment (Ex 20:17) which mentioned, amongst other things, that the Israelite was not to
‘...covet...your neighbour’s wife...’
immediately indicating that, though Ex 20:14 may speak of a physical act, these words could not be consigned to anything other than an inward attitude of heart. Although they knew the law, they failed to apply the law to the inward workings of their mind and so justified themselves through their external actions over and above what was going on within.
But Jesus joins both Pharisee and sinner together by His reassessment of the commandment, something that the religious leaders would have taken exception to (though Matmor notes a couple of references in the Talmud where the Rabbis equate gazing upon parts of a woman as being sexual enticements, the implication seeming to be that this shouldn’t be done.
But they appear to stop short of Jesus’ radical teaching in 5:29-30. Mathag cites two sources from the Babylonian Talmud to show that the idea of sinning in the heart through one’s desires was not unknown amongst the Rabbis but this is rather late and it’s not altogether certain whether a direct connection can be made with the times in which Jesus lived and taught).
After all, they were the keepers of the Law and the sinners, who gave free vent to their feelings and desires, were always considered to be below them.
Had they not suppressed their feelings of covetousness and desire in order to keep the Law? But Jesus demanded that purity be a matter of the internal workings of the heart also, not just something that was visible to men on the outside (Mtw 23:25-28).
Though the Rabbis may have begun to realise the internal demands of the Law (see above), the real offence of Jesus’ words is that they stand condemned along with the sinner who gives free vent to his desire and who both physically murders and commits adultery.
Jesus moves on from His initial assertion about the importance of internal purity to a statement in which He urges the disciple to be radical in his dealing with temptation (Mtw 5:29-30), phrases which have probably been taken literally throughout the course of Church history - there are certainly modern day examples that have come to light.
A parallel passage exists within the Gospel in 18:7-9 which reads
‘Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire’
Here the idea is of radically removing temptations to or instruments of sin because of the severity of the consequences of the sinful act. One might interpret this passage as referring to external acts and the practicalities of removing temptations to sin from oneself is also recorded in the Apocrypha in Sirach 9:8 where the reader is urged to
‘Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman and do not gaze at beauty belonging to another; many have been seduced by a woman’s beauty and by it passion is kindled like a fire’
the writer going on to urge his readers not to take another man’s wife out for dinner or to drink wine with her in case his heart is led astray. Such advice is practical for safeguarding the disciple from wandering into an action that goes directly against the commandment of God and, implicit in each of these, is the understanding that desire lies as the root cause of the eventual sin.
The context of Mtw 5:29-30, however, make it difficult to imagine any other instructions being given by Jesus other than those which cut directly at the root of the problem - the inward desires and cravings of the human heart which cause adultery to be committed on the inside. What is needed is a radical approach to purity, one that lays the axe to the root of a man’s desire within himself so that wrongful thoughts may never be developed.
As in the previous passage, Jesus changes from speaking in the second person plural to the singular and so brings home His teaching onto a more personal level.
Mattask states that the burden of these two verses is to encourage the disciples to realise that
‘...a limited but morally healthy life is better than a wider life which is morally depraved...’
but his interpretation of the eye as being the channel through which the temptation comes and the hand representative of the action whereby the sinful act is committed is going too far. As I previously noted, Jesus is concerned not with external sin here but with the internal problems which condemn the man who thinks adulterous thoughts just as much as the one who commits the deed.
Jesus, therefore, uses both the eye and the hand in similar ways, simply to urge His hearers (as Mathen) to
‘Take drastic action in getting rid of whatever in the natural course of events will tempt you into sin’
and Mounce, quoted in Matmor, states that the imagery of severing the eye and hand
‘...emphasises the crucial importance of taking whatever measures are necessary to control natural passions that tend to flare out of control’
If a situation stimulates your heart, therefore, to think upon unrighteous actions, it’s best to either end the situation or your own part in it. If a relationship is the cause of internal imaginations which stir up the believer to think in ways against the known will of God, then, equally radically, the relationship must be removed from the experience.
Instead of taking Jesus’ words literally here - for, after all, the removal of a right eye cannot deal with the desires of the heart when the left eye can be employed for the very same cause of stumbling - we should better see in them the radical approach that Jesus lays upon His disciples to remove themselves from situations that will cause internal transgression of the Law.
The real problem for a christian is not whether he can live out his existence in places and remain pure externally but whether, by his participation in events and places, he can maintain purity internally. For a very long time, the Church has emphasised the need for believers to stay away from all manner of buildings (such as cinemas and pubs) because their physical presence there is considered to be an affront and a cause of offence to God.
But the real danger for the christian is not in their physical participation but in the effect such places have on the internal workings of their heart and the test must be whether, for instance, what is seen and heard through the films which are watched, the tv programs that are followed or the radio programs that are listened to is whether they are causing internal desires and temptations to be stimulated which are displeasing to God.
Such all-inclusive statements as ‘Cinema is bad’ do not help the believer come to terms with why such places should be avoided but by an accurate assessment of what such films do on the inside to a believer, one can determine whether they should be avoided.
After all, as Jesus says, the disciple must be radical in his approach to remove internal sin from himself for there are eternal consequences for failing to succeed or to be lax in these areas. It is far better to enter eternal life not ever having attended a cinema if it is a cause of internal temptation and sin (to use the above example) than to enter eternal life with the full experience of life’s delights only to find that ‘your whole body go into hell’.
3. Concluding Remarks
And so the thief has got away pretty lightly! Though the ten commandments mention both murder (Ex 20:13) and adultery (Ex 20:14) and Jesus brings home to His hearers the necessity of understanding them as having internal origins, the thief has largely gone unmentioned (Ex 20:15).
But that is not to say that the disciple who has heard Jesus speak concerning these commandments will not consider the inward applicability of all the regulations of the Mosaic Law and see how they condemn a lifestyle which is evident on the inside of a person’s life and which the outside world seldom, if ever, sees.
So we shouldn’t take Jesus’ words to be solely concerned with deepening in application two of the commandments while the others are left to remain as external transgressions only. For theft is as much an affair of the heart as both adultery and murder are, there being a desire of covetousness on the part of the thief directed towards a material object that he has no right to possess the way that he wishes to obtain it.
It is not sufficient to say that theft only takes place amongst those people who cannot afford the product they so desire - yet, even in this case, the onus is on the would-be thief to be content with what they have (Luke 3:14) - but very often the thief steals something that he could afford with a little more prudence in his financial affairs.
But the desire to steal comes from within a man through an attitude normally of covetousness - or, perhaps, envy and jealousy - and the importance of seeing it as an internal problem is just as relevant as the transgressions of murder and adultery. Jesus, then, only mentions these latter two commandments to give His disciples good illustrations as to the internal application of the Law and of the need for the disciple to look within himself, not priding himself on the external image he portrays into society but being concerned to put right those things that only he (and God) can see.
The ten commandments do hint at the internal nature of the Law in Ex 20:17 when it talks about the need not to covet a neighbour’s possessions. But it would appear that such outworkings of covetousness were the main weight of the teaching of Judaism at that time and the internal state of a Jew was too easy to hide away from the light of demonstrable action.
The Correct Emphasis of the Law
The first two passages we considered from the viewpoint of Jesus bringing home to his hearers the internal application of OT rules and regulations that had been largely interpreted as external and physical actions dissected cleanly from any internal motive. Jesus said there that the internal thought and attitude was just as much an affront to God than the actual physical sin though we did also note that the consequences of real murder and adultery are more far reaching than when the internal sin is committed and kept ‘personal’.
Here, Jesus takes two Scriptures (the second of which is more a summary of OT teaching on the subject) and puts the correct emphasis back into them. Moreover, what God had allowed the Israelites through their weakness to continue practising is seen to be of no importance now that the perfection of the new has come.
What the Jewish leaders regarded as commands, Jesus regards as allowances (Mtw 5:31-32 - divorce) - what they regard as binding and unbinding, Jesus regards as splitting hairs (Mtw 5:33-37 - oaths). In both instances, Jesus shows that the temporary allowance of the Old Covenant has been superseded by the perfect way that the coming of the Kingdom had brought.
There was no longer any need for divorce because marriage was to be seen as a lifelong commitment to one another as it always had been from the beginning of Creation and neither was there any need for oath taking for God had always required that men and women tell the truth with every word they utter.
Therefore, although the Law made provision for man’s weakness, now that the perfect had begun to be established through Christ, there was no longer any need to live as anything other than as true reflections of the heavenly Father (Mtw 5:48).
There is a definite connection between the previous passage which dealt with adultery and the subject of divorce which places people in positions of temptation to commit sexual sin.
In Jesus’ day and age, there was varied teaching amongst the Rabbis as to what constituted adequate grounds for divorce and I have already dealt with this subject as outlined in the Mishnah in my notes found here.
The following is an extract from them which give us the main ideas as they occurred in the Judaism of Jesus’ day:
Grounds for divorce were varied and some reasons may seem peculiar to us in this present day. For instance, when one of the parties married was a deaf-mute, it seems as if the man could put the other away solely on these grounds of physical impairment even though he had married her in the condition - either himself or his wife being the mute (Yebamoth 14:1). Similarly, grinding flour, baking bread, washing the man’s clothes, cooking his food, breast-feeding her children, making the bed and working in wool were all requirements of the woman and, therefore, it follows that, should these be neglected, divorce could follow (Ketuboth 5:5). Husbands could even put away their wives because they were barren (Gittin 4:8) even though we now know that the problem may have lay in the man rather than the wife.
The Rabbis were not absolutely certain, however, just what constituted grounds for divorce (Gittin 9:10). The school of Shammai stated that the only grounds were unchastity whereas the alternative school of Hillel went so far as to say that the divorce could be justified
‘...even if she has spoiled a dish [of food] for him...’
One Rabbi even said that, from Scripture, divorce was justified if the husband found one who was more attractive than his present wife. This does appear to be rather an extremist view, however!
The Rabbis were not, therefore, altogether definitive as to what a woman could be expected to be divorced for, even though there were obligations laid upon her which would have been sufficient grounds for a certificate of divorce being issued (see the web page previously cited for details as to the exact procedure concerning the issuing of a bill of divorcement).
Jesus begins this short section by paraphrasing Deut 24:1 which only constituted the beginning of a judicial decision instructing the Israelites as to what they should do should the original husband who has divorced his wife have a desire to remarry his wife once she has subsequently become the wife of another man and been divorced.
As such, the Scripture is being taken out of context when Jesus quotes it as
‘...Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce’
but this appears to be a paraphrase of how the Rabbis had taken the Deut 24:1-4 passage and the teaching that they had imposed upon it.
At a later date (Mtw 19:3-9), shortly before Jesus is to be condemned by the Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees ask Jesus the question
‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’
thus attempting to fuel the fires of contention which surrounded this entire subject. Jesus’ answer is unswerving from what He says here before His disciples and He states unequivocally that a marriage relationship cannot be broken.
This doesn’t appear to have satisfied the Pharisees and their following question illuminates their understanding of Deut 24:1-4 when they say almost indignantly (my italics)
‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’
For them, the passage in the Law had become a command almost laying upon them some sort of obligation that they were obliged to take up and apply - the only problem to their discussion seems to have been what grounds were justifiable.
The Law is seen here to make provision for man’s weakness (Mtw 19:8) but, now that the perfect has come in Christ (Mathag asserts that ‘...followers of Jesus, recipients of the Kingdom, are still not in this new era rid of their hard hearts [so that] divorce and remarriage will continue to occur among them...’ - I fundamentally disagree with his very convenient attribution of weakness to the christian when Jesus urges his hearers to be perfect as God is - Mtw 5:48), any grounds for divorce save adultery are deemed by Jesus - and therefore God Himself - to be unjustifiable. Even if - horror of horrors! - your wife can’t cook, that is not sufficient grounds to have her exiled away from the marital home! Besides, with court settlements as they are, wouldn’t it be cheaper for the man to either learn how to cook or to buy his wife Saint Delia’s comprehensive cookery course?!!
In Mtw 19:9, Jesus lays the charge at the Pharisees’ door that whoever has divorced his wife on any grounds apart from unchastity (that is, through the wife’s sexual promiscuity) and has gone on to marry another has committed adultery because the marriage cannot be broken by anything other than an illicit sexual relationship.
In Mtw 5:31-32, however, although this is also taught in the final clause, Jesus also makes the point that divorce in the society of His day pushes the woman into a position of needing to remarry in order for her to be able to live adequately within that society.
That is to say, the woman, who was not expected to forge her own career in Israel but to rely for financial welfare through the work of her husband, could only choose the lower and morally degrading forms of employment for herself such as prostitution unless she was able to find a marriage partner who would take her and so offer her protection and welfare within his home. This is not an absolute statement for the story of Ruth the Moabitess shows that provision could be obtained for the widow through gleaning at harvest time - but, even here, Ruth still looked to obtain a marriage partner that she might acquire a secure financial life. Besides, Ruth was a not a divorcee but a widow and her treatment may have been a little different had she been so.
If the marriage could not be broken, a subsequent marriage relationship was immediately seen to be adulterous and, because it was only the man who had the right to divorce in that age (though see Jesus’ statements concerning the woman divorcing her husband in Mark 10:11-12 and it is not unknown for a woman to petition the Jewish courts who could then insist that the husband divorce his wife if her complaint succeeded), Jesus laid the sin of the divorced wife squarely at the door of the divorcing man.
That is certainly revolutionary teaching and it cut across the teaching of Jesus’ day, upholding marriage as being unbreakable and undissolvable except on the grounds of unchastity which, to be honest, was an action which had already broken the marriage relationship. Divorce was seen, therefore, not to be so much pro-active and of making something happen which was not a present reality as acknowledging the new condition that had already been brought about through the sinful sexual union.
Jesus’ teaching naturally follows on from the previous passage on adultery of the mind (Mtw 5:27-30) where Jesus taught His disciples to remove positions of temptations from themselves. Here, the logical outworking of that teaching is to, firstly, be careful not to put other believers into positions of temptation where they sin against God and, secondly, to endeavour to make sure that, by their unwise and heart-hardened actions, they would not find themselves responsible for another’s inadvertent and necessary sin.
As Jesus said later in His ministry (Mtw 18:7)
‘...it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!’
But what are we to say of Jesus’ teaching in the present day and how relevant is it in a society where most women do not find the need to get remarried following a divorce? In some marriage relationships, the woman is more likely to be able to stay financially solvent because of the wage that she currently earns.
In these situations, do the same sort of principles apply?
The bottom line is that marriage cannot be broken except on the grounds of unchastity - whether that be through an act of the man or the woman - and that remarriage is necessarily considered to be an act of adultery on behalf of whichever partner decides to remarry.
Of course, the relevancy to present day society is further complicated by the common practice throughout most of western society of engaging in sexual intercourse either before marriage or as part of a cohabitation when no marriage agreement or vows will ever be made.
Perhaps we need to get back to a Biblical basis and consideration of sexual intercourse for us to fully understand the implications of our present day society that treats sex like a play object? For, in the beginning, with no marriage contract having been signed nor marriage ceremony performed (after all, where would they have been able to get bridesmaids from? And who knew how to bake a cake?), Adam and Eve were considered to have entered into a marriage relationship through sexual intercourse (Gen 2:23-25) being echoed in the words of Jesus in Mtw 19:4-6 where sexual union is spoken as being an act of God whereby two become one in a binding relationship. That’s not to say that two people who choose of their own freewill to have sexual intercourse are fulfilling the will of God for their lives but that the procreative act is a gift of God given to mankind to unite two together as one.
Similarly, Paul’s assertion (I Cor 6:16) that
‘Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written “The two shall become one flesh”’
indicates that, even when there is no covenant relationship with a sexual partner, a bodily union as occurs in marriage has taken place through the act of sexual intercourse.
If this interpretation is correct, sexual intercourse is the binding act which secures a permanent relationship between two individuals of the opposite sex and, as such, any dissolving of the relationship cannot be realistically achieved however much we would like to think of casual sexual relationships or of moving on from one arrangement into another which is more fulfilling.
Divorce can therefore be seen to be the applicable label when the break down of a relationship takes place but the only justifiable grounds for such a dissolving of a relationship is unchastity which would free the guiltless party to remarry or recommit themselves into a different relationship. The subject of violence within a partnership is another subject altogether and, although the Bible does not give liberty to the injured party to remarry (it does not, to my knowledge, ever address directly the problem of violence within a marriage relationship), neither does it command that they stay in the home to suffer more abuse.
Sexual intercourse is looked upon as too trivial an act by our present day society and we reap the consequences of our own choices in increased mental illnesses and the break down of society’s structure which, at one time, used to provide security for the healthy growth and development of children.
Certainly, a strengthening of the marriage laws will do nothing to check the moral decline in western society - what is needed is a change in people’s hearts and attitudes that recommits them to follow Christ even amongst the established Church which has flaunted the rule of Christ for principles that can only be labelled ‘the world’s wisdom’.
As Matfran points out
‘The application of this radical ideal in a society which regards divorce as normal will inevitably raise serious pastoral problems, and will call for great sensitivity’
but Jesus’ words concerning the marriage relationship are not hidden behind clever phraseology and cannot be open to one’s own interpretation.
Finally, a qualifying criteria needs to be inserted here for, men and women who have lived their lives apart from God but who commit their lives to Christ at an age where they have already entered into a marriage relationship and, perhaps, a divorce, need to be certain of where they stand in Christ with their previous relationships.
Paul’s principle in I Cor 7:20 seems to be the most applicable where he writes that
‘Every one should remain in the [marital] state in which he was called’
The reality of the cross coming into the experience of a believer’s life marks a change of life and a reassessment of a person’s standing before God. Though for a great many years a person may have lived as a rebel before God, from the time that they come into a covenant relationship with God through the work of Christ, all things become new.
Therefore, the marital status of a new believer should remain as it is until the Lord can be heard on this matter. Personally - and I here give my opinion as to marriage relationships which occurred before the cross became a reality - most of what occurred can be put to one side as dealt with through the cross and marriage ties dissolved before salvation can be accepted as being absolute break downs in order that the new convert may make a new start. It is an amazing act of God, however, that even here God can restore relationships that were forged outside Him.
Of course, there may be certain things that a believer needs to put right in their past but, for the sake of peace and to give the new convert a new start, the old affairs of the heart should, wherever possible, be committed to and dealt with by Christ. Even divorce on grounds that are anything other than adultery should be accepted, in my opinion, as being effective and binding so that the believer can start life afresh with Christ.
What happens after salvation comes to an individual, however, is entirely different.
Jesus begins the third of the six passages with the same words as He began the first, namely
‘...you have heard that it was said to the men of old...’
where the italicised word could equally be taken as meaning ‘by’. See on the first of these six passages for a discussion of the implications of this alternative reading.
The quote which follows is certainly not a direct translation from the Mosaic Law but appears to be a summary of such passages as Ex 20:7, Lev 19:12, Num 30:2 and Deut 23:21 where the subjects of vows and oaths are dealt with.
Swearing by the Lord’s name was taken as a cause of great solemnity by the Lord for, by invoking the name, the truth of what was uttered as a consequence was being affirmed so that, should the utterance be shown to be a lie, it was an affront to God Himself who was equated with the falsehood. Oaths could also be used to assure the hearer that such a course of action was to be done and that the surety of its performance was not in doubt but here, in Jesus’ own mind, the vow is more in view whereby a believer would affirm that a certain service to God would be performed and show the commitment in his life by invoking an oath.
The type of oath meant by Jesus, then, is the one where an individual would use an object to affirm that what he was saying was the truth but specifically when service to God was in mind. There does not appear to be any indication that what is being meant is, for instance, an oath taken in a court of law where, it should be pointed out, the procedure of the Jewish court of its day was much different with regard to oaths than our present day system is.
Mathen urges his readers to believe that Jesus volunteered an oath when he stood before the High Priest when he comments that
‘...it was under oath that Jesus declared Himself to be the Christ, the Son of God (Mtw 26:63-64)’
but the Scripture passage shows that Jesus was put under oath by the utterance of the High Priest rather than volunteering to go under oath to verify the truth of any statement that He had previously made.
As the Mishnah makes plain, the adjuration to affirm what is being levelled at a defendant is the responsibility of the judge to impose, and not for the defendant to volunteer (for instance, Shebuoth 5:5 - the passage concerning ‘oaths of testimony’ begins at 4:1).
The exact form of the oath used in everyday conversation is lacking from the text of the Mishnah but what the pages testify to is that oaths were used in most situations where the truth needed to be ascertained and especially where two witnesses or claimants to an object contradicted one another.
Interestingly, there does not appear to be too much of an investigation done where an object was claimed to be owned solely by each of two parties and the oath taken by both of them as to sole ownership only had the effect of causing the object to be divided in half and a part given to each (Baba Metzia 1:1) presumably each person’s oath being taken as being truthful!
However, Simeon ben Shetah was recorded as saying (Aboth 1:9)
‘...Examine the witnesses diligently and be cautious in thy words lest from them they learn to swear falsely’
so false testimony was partly expected in a case of law where two suitors stood against one another. The Jewish judge was to be at pains to examine the evidence in such a manner as to make sure that what he said to the suitors did not give them sufficient grounds to formulate an oath that would stand in their favour against the other and so pervert the course of justice.
This would, however, indicate that what was uttered with an oath was generally expected to be believed once spoken and would indicate why, in Baba Metzia 1:1 above, two contradictory declarations under oath are each accommodated within a judicial decision which cannot hope to be anything other than a compromise.
Interestingly, the Mishnah gives Israelites free course to lie when taking an oath on certain occasions, Nedarim 3:4 stating that
‘Men may vow to murderers, robbers or tax-gatherers that what they have is Heave offering even though it is not Heave offering; or that they belong to the king’s household even though they do not belong to the king’s household...And the school of Hillel say: even in the form of an oath’
presumably where the character of the assailant is such that, if truth cannot be expected to be uttered by them, they cannot expect to receive truth in return! No doubt, such a procedure would have reaped a condemnatory word from Jesus!
The Mishnah really only deals with the more ‘official’ types of oaths rather than the everyday ones which Jesus speaks against in this fourth passage but, even so, the pages testify to the importance of the vow in everyday Jewish society.
However, although we have thought briefly about the subject of oaths in first century Israel, Jesus makes it plain that what He has in mind is primarily the kind of vow which testifies to a certain service to God - therefore marking it out more as a religious vow than a social affirmation of either truth or action.
Having said that, Jesus’ final statement concerning truthful statements which needed no oath to back them up is equally applicable, I feel, with regard to most of the oaths and vows that were taken upon themselves by men and women in everyday society.
Having stated the command that He wishes to comment on, Jesus goes on to show the unnecessary verbal formulae which accompanied such affirmations of service to God.
The Jews thought that, if they put themselves under oath but failed to mention the name of their God, YHWH, in their oath, that they were not culpable for either performing their vow or for the truth of their statement that they were substantiating.
As Mathen comments
‘...in the thinking of the scribes and Pharisees and their forerunners an oath sworn “to the Lord” must be kept; on the contrary, an oath in connection with which the name of the Lord was not expressly mentioned was of lesser significance. One did not need to be quite so conscientious about keeping it...If the affirmation which he had made was a lie or if the promise was never even meant to be kept, that was not so bad, as long as he had not sworn “to the Lord”’
Both tractates Shebuoth (‘oaths’) and Nedarim (‘vows’) deal with the subject and the latter of these is, perhaps, the best one to read to determine what constituted a binding ‘oath’ and which was deemed inappropriate or void, Nedarim 3:1 stating that
‘Four kinds of vow the sages have declared not to be binding: vows of incitement, vows of exaggeration, vows made in error and vows [that cannot be fulfilled by reason] of constraint...’
but exact details as to what phraseology could be regarded as genuine is, again, lacking from the text. That is, it seems impossible to determine whether swearing ‘by Jerusalem’ was deemed binding upon the utterer in the same way as, for instance, ‘by YHWH’ was. Jesus will go on to comment on this entire procedure and verbal formula in His sweeping condemnation of the Pharisees and scribes shortly before His crucifixion (Mtw 23:16-22) but background for these passages is somewhat lacking from the Jewish contemporary records.
Significantly, Shebuoth 4:13 states that a public adjuration to tell the truth ‘by heaven and by earth’ is not binding (Cp Mtw 5:34) and that the adjured person is exempt from having to respond to the question. Again, though, the Mishnah is commenting on a public adjuration to testify whereas Jesus seems to be speaking of the initiative residing with the person who decides to take upon himself the oath so that it represents more of a vow.
But Jesus points out that the swearer should be careful to realise that, as certain things are associated with God, all those objects taken in the oath statement are as if God is being called upon to bear witness to the truth of the statement and so performance of the act or authentication of the statement is being allied with the presence and name of God Himself (Mtw 5:34-35).
When it comes to an oath taken and a part of one’s anatomy is used to bear witness to the truth (where a curse would be expected to fall upon oneself if the statement was incorrect or the action left unperformed), Jesus says that the finiteness of the person involved cannot substantiate anything (Mtw 5:36).
In other words, do not swear by anything associated with God and think that you can get away with a lie because it’s as if God Himself has been invoked but neither swear by anything less than God because the oath is meaningless.
Rather, a disciple should be concerned simply to tell the Truth.
The Mosaic Law had made provision for the Jew to affirm the Truth of what he was both to testify to and to perform before God but, now that the perfect has come in Christ, the need for affirmation of what is spoken becomes unnecessary.
Jesus’ statement in Mtw 5:37 that a disciple should be concerned simply to say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and expect to be believed is not without OT parallel and, in the context of Jesus’ concern to speak of service to God, fits in perfectly well. In Eccles 5:4-5, Solomon commented
‘When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it; for [God] has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay’
In other words, Jesus again uses OT Scripture to interpret and expound the true meaning of the Mosaic Law even though a direct quotation is not used.
Such an expectation of the disciple seems also to have been what was required amongst the Essene communities where Josephus comments (pages 134-135)
‘...Every word they speak is more binding than an oath; swearing they reject as something worse than perjury, for they say a man is already condemned if he cannot be believed without God being named’
Just like the Essenes, then, Jesus urges upon His disciples to be like God who performs always those things which He says. No oath is necessary for God to utter to prove the Truth of His words - even though God does, at times, use oaths for the sake of mankind - but one should simply speak the Truth so that men and women may rely upon whatever is uttered.
As Matfran notes
‘...an oath is needed only if a person’s word alone in unreliable; it is an admission of failure in truthfulness’
‘...let him become so truthful, so thoroughly dependable, that his words are believed’
and, again, Matmor that
‘The important thing, Jesus is saying, is to tell the truth and keep one’s pledges without insisting that a certain form of words must be used if it is to be binding. No oath is necessary for the truthful person’
James also brings the truth of Jesus’ statement to the recipients of his letter and expands the application Jesus gave His words of referring to vows of service promised to God, to make it apply to all forms of conduct for the christian disciple when he comments in words similar to Christ (James 5:12) that
‘...above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation’
Anything more than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ comes from the evil one - that is, it is a device that men and women use to justify their own testimony even when it is false. Therefore, says Jesus, do not allow yourself to be led into a position where you use an oath to substantiate a lie but be concerned only to utter what is correct from one’s mouth without the need for any affirmation that what one is saying is correct.
Again, I must hasten to point out that the context of Jesus’ words (Mtw 5:33) make the reader take them to refer solely to the performing of religious service and duties to God and that Jesus calls upon His disciples to be ‘honest to God’ without the need for any oath to be taken upon their lips. Secondly, though, the application of the principle to all forms of situations within society is not without relevance and the disciple should be concerned to endeavour to speak the truth at all times without the need for any affirmation of the veracity of their words.
In some cultures, where the over-exaggeration of events is a common trait (and I happen to live in one such area!), this will be more of a challenge than in others.
The Fulfilment of the Law
I noted in my introduction to this web page that, of the three labels I’d used to divide the six passages into three groups of two, this was perhaps the weakest description of the contents!
I haven’t changed my mind.
But, in the sense that (Rom 13:10)
‘Love is the fulfilling of the Law’
then the label works and is an accurate description of the contents of these two passages for, teaching against personal vengeance (Mtw 5:38-42) and against hatred of one’s enemies (Mtw 5:43-48), love must naturally take the place of what resides in a disciple’s heart in order that natural tendencies are over come and both vengeance and hatred transformed into demonstrations of the love of the Father for all mankind.
Therefore, in both these passages, love cannot be far from any consideration of what Jesus was meaning when he talked about the reversal of what was generally accepted amongst the society of His day.
Jesus’ fifth subject for comment takes almost a perfect quote from the OT Mosaic Law and reinterprets it in the light of what it had originally been given for, even though the original intention is not mentioned by Jesus in His argument.
The quote comes from three specific passages (Ex 21:22-25, Lev 24:13-23, Deut 19:15-21) but, in each one, what was primarily in view was instruction for the judges of Israel when they sat to decide on cases that were brought to them. It was never intended that the principle of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ should ever be taken up by individuals and applied to their own personal situations when they were wronged.
The only application of the principle was for the courts, the magistrates and the judges who, when a case had finally been decided upon, were given the authority to inflict punishment on the guilty in order that justice might be seen to be done and that Israel may stand in fear that it was not profitable to do what was against God’s Law.
But the Pharisees seem to have taken the verse to justify personal vengeance even though the apparent reason for the provision in the Mosaic Law was to allay any need for such acts. Therefore Mathen states that
‘The Pharisees...appealed to this law to justify personal retribution and revenge’
Even though I’m quite willing to accept such a statement, it’s only fair that I point out to the reader that the evidence for such a belief and practice seems to be lacking from contemporary Jewish sources so we are only surmising that this was the case rather than being able to point to a written record for proof.
If the courts did their job properly, vengeance was never to be seen throughout the Israelite nation even though justice would be seen to be done. It is only when the people of a society take the law into their own hands that there begins to be a breakdown of order which all too easily deteriorates into tribal wars and familial vendettas (the film ‘Unforgiven’ being an excellent illustration of such vengeance which springs from a failure to dispense justice to even the most despised amongst society - I wouldn’t recommend the film, however, as it’s extremely violent!).
It’s not that the repudiation of personal vengeance was lacking from the OT and Prov 24:29 says plainly to the reader that the Israelite should not say
‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done’
but words such as these seems to have gone unnoticed and unapplied by Judaism in general even though amongst the writers of the DSS the idea was not lacking. They wrote (IQS 10:18-19) that
‘I will pay to no man the reward of evil; I will pursue him with goodness. For judgment of all the living is with God and it is He who will render to man his reward’
but, even here, there is the idea of revenge against the ‘men or perdition’ on the ‘Day of Revenge’, presumably an eschatological day when the sons of the community would be elevated over those who had oppressed them. The passage also goes on to be at quite some variance with Jesus’ teaching as presented to us in this fifth passage.
Matfran notes that the Mosaic legislation was pre-empted by the eighteenth century BC code of Hammurabi which mentioned the same principles of eye and tooth and that, like the Mosaic Law
‘Its intention was not to sanction revenge but to prevent the excesses of the blood-feud by stating that the legal punishment must not exceed the crime’
With the weakness of the present day judicial system, many individuals wish to mete out such an ‘eye for an eye’ punishment on their assailants and, although they are without justification from Divine Law, one can’t help sympathise with them when justice is rarely seen to be done in matters of personal injury and loss.
But Jesus words are plain here. The principle of an ‘eye for eye’ is not to be taken as a personal vendetta against one’s enemies as it was wont to be in the society of Jesus’ day and, in place of personal retribution, Jesus urges His disciples to go in the opposite direction and to counter evil - not with more evil - but with good (Rom 12:21).
Indeed, Jesus’ words are even more significant in a Jewish world where the courts do not appear to have handed out ‘an eye for an eye’ judgments (see the quote from the Mishnah below). It was not for the disciples to take upon themselves this lack but to put aside all thought of personal retaliation.
In today’s society where ‘an eye for an eye’ is equally lacking from our courts, Jesus expects His disciples to show a similar attitude and not to take personal vengeance into their own hands.
Jesus is showing, therefore, His great respect for the Law here by commanding that a return to its original intention of taking vengeance from out of the personal realm and into the hands of the courts (even though the latter of these two principles was not being practised by the Jewish authorities, possibly because of a restriction placed upon them by the occupying Roman authorities). Yet, even though the courts were failing to dispense their God ordained function, personal vengeance was not to be taken up and reintroduced into society.
Jesus begins His explanation with the statement that the disciple should not (Mtw 5:39a)
‘...resist one who is evil’
a translation which appears to be a poor representation of what the Greek actually says at this point. Mattask points out that
‘If the adjective [one who is evil] is masculine, it should be rendered “the man who injures you” and, if neuter, “injury”...’
so that what Jesus is actually teaching His disciples is that they should not be concerned with personal injury and a comment on the disciple’s neglect of opposing evil forces within society is not being spoken of. After all, Jesus opposed what He saw to be against the will of God and opposed to the Kingdom of Heaven, even when it came in the form of the religious leaders of His day (for example, His comprehensive denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in Mtw 23:1-36) but He was not concerned when personal injury came His way if it was a reaction to His commitment to doing the will of God.
Matfran also notes that
‘The verb anthistemi [Strongs Greek number 436 - translated with the verb ‘to resist’ in Mtw 4:39] is sometimes used for “take legal action against”. These verses are not, therefore, a prescription for non-violent resistance (as they are often interpreted) but for no resistance at all, even by legal means...Jesus is not reforming the legal code but demanding an attitude which sits loose to personal rights’
It is not sufficient, therefore, simply to say that the disciple is not to strike an assailant back (as applied to Mtw 5:39b) but that he should not seek any form of retaliation whatsoever when the event is solely a matter of personal loss or injury - and that’s the bottom line. Whether the disciple steps in when evil is being promoted within society is not being addressed by Jesus here but solely the situation where a disciple finds himself the object of a personal attack, whether physical or verbal.
As Matmor concludes
‘Jesus is referring to private retaliation not to public order and He is instructing His followers not to be intent on getting their own back when someone wrongs them’
Jesus moves on from a general statement of non-retaliation to some specifics which should not be taken as the only situations in which His words apply. He first speaks (Mtw 5:39b) about an assailant who strikes a disciple on the right cheek and the follower is instructed to offer the other side of his face to be struck also.
The verb ‘to strike’ (Strongs Greek number 4474) used here primarily denotes (as Vines)
‘to strike the face with the palm of the hand or the clenched fist’
even though originally, it seems to have meant the striking of a person with a rod or staff. Matfran sees Jesus’ intention of outlining a strike from an assailant with the back of the hand but this appears to be an incorrect understanding of the word even though this is unimportant to our discussion - it is, however, possible if we suppose that the assailant is right handed and that the natural way to make contact with the right cheek would be to use the back of the hand. However, what is significant is that Baba Kamma 8:6 details damages that were payable to an injured party for all manners of assaults (an indication that the ‘an eye for an eye’ judicial principle was not being applied in the society of Jesus’ day). The passage notes that
‘If a man cuffed his fellow he must pay him a sela...If he slapped him he must pay him 200 zuz...If [he struck him] with the back of his hand he must pay him 400 zuz...’
but the interesting principle here is not that the monetary payment was considered to be compensation for the physical injury received but that
‘...all is in accordance with a person’s honour...’
What Jesus appears to be outlining here by speaking of being smitten on the cheek and turning the left one also is not that a believer should accept personal injury but that he should be unconcerned with personal honour. That makes quite some difference to our normal interpretation of such a passage for we see Jesus’ words as urging His disciples to be physically abused repeatedly when, in the context of Jesus’ day, the point is that they are being dishonoured by such an attack. The application of Jesus’ words is not, therefore, correctly applied to physical abuse but to all manner of situations where personal honour is being undermined and ridiculed (even though that will include physical attack).
The disciple, therefore, must be unconcerned with his social position and the honour with which he is regarded within society. Sure, physical abuse is not pleasant but the real reason for such an attack in Jesus’ day is to dishonour and humiliate the disciple, not to injure him. The disciple is not to be concerned with the dishonouring and even go so far as to allow himself to be dishonoured further by turning to his assailant his other cheek for smiting.
If a disciple shows that he treats humiliation with contempt and is unconcerned with his own honour, then the assailant loses the power that he expected to achieve over him by his action.
A right cross from the disciple is not to be recommended...
Next, Jesus deals with a legal situation where the disciple is being sued for the possession of his undergarment (Mtw 5:40).
Again, the idea is one of dishonour being bestowed on one of Christ’s disciples and the willing offering of the extra garment to show that humiliation is not something that will affect the disciple to the point of him seeking retaliation and vengeance.
The coat (Strongs Greek number 5509) was the under or inner garment of the ancient world while the cloak (Strongs Greek number 2440) was the outer and warmer garment which was essential for travel and to keep warm and was far more valuable than the former.
The situation has a basis in the Mosaic Law (Ex 22:25-27) where a pledge of clothes taken from a debtor had to be restored to him before sundown because they were the means whereby he was to keep warm through the night and great dishonour and shame would be brought on him should he not have them returned.
The word employed for the garment which could not be taken in pledge in Ex 22:25-27 (Strongs Hebrew number 8008) is a general word for clothes and needn’t be specifically referring to the outer or inner garment. The point here, though, is that clothes were an important commodity in ancient Israel and were the only means some had of keeping warm through the cold nights. Therefore, the Jew who had not had his clothes returned to him would be in danger of being humiliated by his lack of covering and spend an unpleasant night trying to keep himself warm.
As Matmor comments
‘A person had an inalienable right to his cloak; it could not be taken away from him permanently. Its voluntary surrender is thus significant’
and shows us that Jesus is teaching His disciples that they are to consider themselves to have no personal rights in this world that they should not consider giving up as and when necessary, even to the point of giving them over voluntarily to one who is considered to be an enemy.
Jesus’ example of someone forcing the disciple to go with him a mile is a scenario which comes directly from the Roman occupation of Israel and would, therefore, have been somewhat poignant to His listeners.
The word ‘forces’ (Strongs Greek number 29) is better ‘to compel someone to render service’ and is a loan word from the Persian language from the days when the Royal Courier had authority to press gang help in the despatch and delivery of the king’s decrees and important messages.
But, as Matfran notes, the practice was assimilated into many an occupying army’s rights over the subjugated people and the word came to be used as
‘...a specific term for the Roman soldier’s practice of “commandeering” civilian labour in an occupied country’
though it appears that the Roman application was primarily in causing someone of an occupied country to bear the load of the ruling army rather than, as in the Persian Empire, to assist in whatever task was deemed necessary even to the point of having their animal taken from them for the continued journeying of the king’s mail and business.
The Greek word is used with the same meaning in Mtw 27:32 where Simon of Cyrene is compelled to carry Jesus’ cross to Gethsemane by the Roman soldiers responsible for the crucifixion.
Instead of resenting such an imposition upon oneself, Jesus says, the disciple should be happy to go with the soldier a further distance if he so wishes (Jesus is not saying that you have to go twice the distance that you are required to go for that would be a cause of offence to the one who has press ganged you into service - but only if the need arises and then willingly!)
The ‘extra mile’ is more correctly ‘one thousand steps’ (Strongs Greek number 3400) which would be a little shorter than our 1760 yard mile and would correspond roughly to 1.5km. Nevertheless, the meaning is still the same.
Again, personal rights are in mind as they are in Jesus’ final example concerning the would-be beggar and borrower (Mtw 5:42). This is one Scripture that I find difficult to come to terms with in our present day society when there are adequate welfare organisations who look after those who have little of their own and who give free handouts to people who have no possibility of a regular source of income.
But the principle, as Matfran notes, seems to be that the disciple is to consider that
‘...the need of others comes before my convenience’
If we were to take this example absolutely literally and apply it in each and every situation which confronts us, there would, as Lukemor comments (quoted in Matfran),
‘...soon be a class of saintly paupers, owning nothing, and another of prosperous idlers and thieves’
There is an OT Law precedent, though, which can be found in Deut 15:7-8 where it is noted that if there is a poor Israelite that is discovered in any of the towns, then the nation (or, better, the individuals of that nation for the ‘nation’ had no corporate welfare system) must not harden their hearts against him but
‘...lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be’
Notice that ‘need’ is the subject of legislation here and it seems best to take Jesus’ words as inferring the same. If a person should ask a disciple of Christ for a video recorder, one must truly sit down and think whether this really is a need or whether the request should be turned down. But to give what is necessary for the bodily nourishment and sustenance if the disciple has it within their power to do so is laid upon them by Christ.
Neither should a disciple refuse a brother what is necessary as a loan to be repaid (and with no thought of exacting interest). It seems strange to me - and perhaps it’s just me - that individuals in the Church seem forced to have to take out necessary loans and repay large sums of interest on them (thus reducing the amount of money available for the Lord’s work) when there are those in the fellowships who have sufficient funds to lend a believer money for their short term financial need. The loss of interest that a believer would have gained if the money had remained in an interest bearing bank account is always going to be less that the interest payable by the brother who needs to take a loan - and, therefore, the Church will necessarily become financially poorer by its hardness of heart and its lack of commitment to apply the words of Christ to its situations.
But, it does need to be emphasised, that need is at the root of the disciple’s commitment to both give and to lend when asked and the principle of Christ is that the disciple should not be concerned for personal welfare when there are others less fortunate than themselves (notice also that Jesus does not speak of only giving to brothers who beg from you or who ask for a loan - but wisdom needs to be exercised in all situations).
Concluding, it appears that Jesus is saying that, in everything, the personal rights of the disciple are trodden under foot by the disciple themselves in order that the will of God might be done and that the need of his fellow man would be both satisfied and met.
Jesus’ quote here is part from the OT and part an interpretation of what certain OT passages seem to have been taken to be teaching, even though there was sufficient places in the Scriptures to indicate that such an assumption was unwarranted and unfounded.
The thought here, just as in the previous passage, is to do with personal rather than corporate love directed at those whom the disciple may feel and express less love towards than they do others. Certainly, the word ‘hate’ here can mean ‘love less than’ or ‘do not love’ rather than denote positive hatred towards someone but, with the context of Jesus’ words, the more antagonistic interpretation of the content of the word is equally applicable.
Again, the scribes and Pharisees seem to have interpreted an OT passage and added ‘and hate your enemy’ as a natural consequence of the first statement of Lev 19:18 (though whether they did this in reality is not discernible - but, somehow, the implication of one directing love at one member of society gave the suggestion of the consequence of hatred being directed towards another) but it was an erroneous addition.
If the Law commanded that no vengeance was to be taken ‘against the sons of your own people’, the natural inference was that you could bear a grudge and take vengeance against those who were regarded as not part of the nation and, therefore, those who were your personal enemies - hence the reference to the tax collectors and Gentiles in Mtw 5:46-47.
Even the subsequent command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ could be taken to be restricted in its application to just one’s neighbour (whether that be the person who lived immediately beside you or the fellow Israelite who lived throughout the land).
The previous verse (Lev 19:17) also exhorts the Israelites to
‘...not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbour, lest you bear sin because of him’
thus attempting to forge any links between warring Israelites and to bring the nation together as brothers and friends even when there was a grievance between them. This verse also stood as justification for Jesus’ previous teaching to His disciples that anger is murder of the heart and the reason why the physical termination of life takes place (Mtw 5:22) - the Law said specifically that sin could be borne through the hatred which was resident in the heart of the brother Israelite.
Such an interpretation of the Law, however, was repudiated by Ex 23:4-5 which should have shown them that the addition of positive hatred towards one enemy was incorrect for even if ‘one who hates you’ was in need of help, the onus was on the Israelite to lend assistance to him to rectify his problem.
Notice here that the Scripture makes no mention of the enemy being one from the nation of Israelites but just ‘your enemy’. In that case, the application was necessarily to include all those men and women who were considered to be at variance with oneself, whether Jews or Gentiles.
An example also exists in the OT outside the Mosaic Law when David, pursued by king Saul for nothing that David had done against the king, allowed Saul to live on more than one occasion when he had the opportunity to slay his enemy. Such a response to evil with good did not go unnoticed by king Saul who commented (I Sam 24:17-19)
‘You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands. For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day’
Saul going on to declare that, because of David’s goodness (I Sam 24:20)
‘...you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand’
Also in Prov 25:21-22, we read the exhortation that
‘ If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you’
though the reason for such goodness directed towards one’s enemy is to attempt to bring them into a position where they realise and ‘feel’ their sin and so have opportunity to turn from their ways. Jesus’ words in the passage, however, do not hold this connotation and there is no idea that the reason why a man should love his enemy is to bring him into a place of repentance. The only reason, as we shall see, is that love for one’s enemies is exactly the attitude God adopts to all mankind and the disciple must be like the One he has pledged to both follow and serve (Mtw 5:45ff).
We saw in the previous passage how the writers of the DSS seem to have upheld Jesus’ interpretation of the Law which spoke of the need of not returning evil for evil but of pursuing all men ‘with goodness’ even when evil was directed toward them. However, balanced against this - and in the same work - are the statements by the writers (IQS 1) that the individuals in the Community
‘...may love all that [God] has chosen and hate all that He has rejected...’
‘...they may love all the sons of light...and hate all the sons of darkness...’
though, even more offensive (IQS 9) appears to be the exhortation
‘Everlasting hatred in a spirit of secrecy for the men of perdition!’
All these three shed some light on the other quotations and probably push us toward an interpretation that what was meant by pursuing the evil with goodness was more like tolerance than positive love. Significantly, Ps 139:21-22 has the psalmist, David, state
‘Do I not hate them that hate thee, O Lord? And do I not loathe them that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies’
even though he had shown himself to be capable of showing love to the person who had persecuted him, driving him away from the presence of God and seeking to murder him for no good reason. There is a sense in which the righteous man cannot tolerate the unrighteous because of the things that are done by that person against God and this appears to be in mind here.
On a separate occasion, Jesus was asked to define what was meant by the word ‘neighbour’ after the inquirer had declared the Law to be summarised in the two principles of love towards God and loving ‘your neighbour as yourself’ (Luke 10:25-28).
But the lawyer asked the question to justify himself, no doubt thinking that Jesus’ answer would confirm to him that he was already fulfilling the Law by his affairs with those round about him and those he came into contact with that were fellow Jews.
Jesus’ reply must have caused this lawyer some consternation and horror for, instead of defining ‘neighbour’ as ‘fellow Israelite’, He chose to tell the story of a Jew who was going down to Jericho from Jerusalem and who was attacked and left for dead by robbers. Even though his fellow countrymen refused to help (due to the risk of contracting ceremonial defilement, no doubt), there was a Samaritan, a people who were hated by the Jews because of the impurity of their genealogical descent, who offered his enemy the necessary first aid, even investing his own money in care for the Jew (Luke 10:29-37).
Having got the lawyer to declare that the only one who had shown himself to be a neighbour was the Samaritan, Jesus, in effect, told the lawyer to go and be a neighbour to everyone who hated and despised him and, perhaps also inherent in Jesus’ words, to everyone who he hated and despised.
By defining ‘neighbour’ in terms that were revolutionary for His day, Jesus basically taught His disciples that there was no man or woman outside of the disciple’s care and love. And, if even those who hated and despised the follower of Christ were to be looked after (just as the implications of Ex 23:4-5 taught), then Jesus’ words here in Mtw 5:43-47 cannot be taken any other way than Jesus intended them - not just to have a tolerance (as the DSS Community seem to have done) but a positive love for those who were actively opposed to them.
As Matfran notes
‘The disciple’s attitude to religious persecution must go beyond non-retaliation to a positive love’
Jesus urges His disciples to be like their spiritual Father who gives to all men - even those who hate Him - the things that they need to live out their existence on the earth (Mtw 5:44-45). God’s love is here seen to be the primary motivating factor in the dealings of the disciples with those around them and, without this example, the follower of Christ would not have the reason to mimic the One he is seeking to be like.
But, as Jesus says, if the Father gives to all men what they need and that this action on His part demonstrates His commitment and love towards them, then so should His followers - who have been created in the image of God - be reflecting His character throughout all the earth (Gen 1:26-27).
Even in the difficult situation of persecution, when the disciple wants God’s vengeance to fall on their oppressors rather than some positive blessing, they are still to pray for them - though the subject of their prayers seems to have been left open to the imagination.
Certainly, something along the lines of repentance and salvation would be in order rather than asking God to give them a bigger or better car - and vengeance is certainly not even remotely in the picture! But personal prayer is directed at a personal persecutor and points us towards the understanding - just as in the previous passage - that the personal rights of a follower of Christ are being set to one side in order that the perfection of God the Father might be released in the earth throughout His disciples.
Furthermore, the love of the followers of Christ must go beyond the love that is displayed by the people who the nation generally treated with contempt (that is, the tax collectors and non-Jews) and be a definite reflection of the character of God into all society and to all men (Mtw 5:46-47).
The religious leaders may have prided themselves on their love for those who loved them back and for their concern for their fellow believers and fellow Rabbis, but where was the love that God displayed even to those who hated Him? For instance, note their derision over the multitudes when they comment (John 7:49) that
‘...this crowd who do not know the Law are accursed’
As Mathen notes
‘In such an atmosphere it was impossible for hatred to starve. It had plenty to feed on’
A man can easily display love towards those who reciprocate that love (John 5:44), but when it comes to distributing care and time towards those who only respond with negative attitudes, hatred and persecution, only true love that’s a reflection of God Himself will overcome such problems.
True love is not echoing what is apparent in the world but displaying the love that God has for all mankind. What difference would the world see in another exclusive club called ‘christians’ or ‘disciples of Christ’ if the love they displayed was only towards one another? Surely even tax collectors huddled together and reciprocated one another’s love - as well as the Gentiles - but the disciples were to have an open concern for all men not just those who belonged to the brotherhood.
Salutations mentioned by Jesus in Mtw 5:47 were important everyday actions which maintained links between fellow Jews and other groupings. Zondervan notes that
‘On various occasions - encountering another in the way, return from a trip, farewell, birth of a child, etc - it was Oriental custom to express personal regard, inquire as to the other’s welfare and to wish him well. On meeting another person, it was customary to greet him with “Hail!” (Mtw 26:49) and on parting “Go in peace” (I Sam 1:17). These oral greetings were often accompanied by kneeling, embracing and kissing’
The Jewish Rabbis also needed to give instruction as to both when they could be offered and be refused depending on the religious procedure which was taking place at the time they became necessary (Berakoth 2:1, 5:1) and, when in the Temple Courts, Jews were expected to (Berakoth 9:5)
‘...salute his fellow with [the use of] the Name [of God]...’
It must be pointed out, however, that the Mishnah notes more than Jesus’ mention that the Gentiles and tax collectors gave greeting to their own kind for Jews were exhorted (Shebiith 4:3) to give
‘...greetings...to Gentiles in the interests of peace’
thus showing that there was, at least at that time (c.200AD), a deliberate attempt on the part of the Jewish religious leaders to pacify the Gentiles and to tolerate them.
Jesus’ disciples, however, were to go even beyond this and to include all men in their salutations, even the ones who they considered to be their enemies.
Mtw 5:48 naturally follows on from 5:47 and serves as a fitting conclusion to the sixth and final passage (though see the brief last section below for further thoughts on the relevancy of the sentence) and the word translated ‘perfect’ carries the meaning here probably of ‘brought to completion, full grown, lacking nothing’ rather than ‘sinless perfection’, a doctrine of the Church which is difficult to wholly justify from Scripture.
Jesus urges His followers to be complete and lacking no good characteristic, saying that, if we do not love our enemies then we are neither complete nor full grown (that is, mature in the things of God).
Concluding, Jesus consistently taught that His followers should prove themselves (as Mathen)
‘neighbour to the man in need, whoever that might be...’
There is a love that God shows to all men regardless of their love or hatred of Himself - this is what God requires of His disciples. Love - without first being loved (see my notes here) - is therefore primarily fulfilled and demonstrated in the work of the cross where the unlovely were loved to such a high degree that God redeemed them through His own personal suffering and agony.
Mtw 5:48 also stands as a fitting conclusion to the entire passage which began with Mtw 5:21 as it emphasises the need for perfection (completeness) in the life of the disciple of Christ.
This entire subject of perfection has seen many varied interpretations down through the course of Church history and I have tried to deal briefly with this subject in my notes on the web page here. For a fuller discussion of perfection and what it means for the believer, the reader should turn here.
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