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The Sermon on the Mount (3)

J Gibson, Derby

(Mt 5.1-7.29; Mk 3.13-19; Lk 6.12-49)

True Righteousness (Mt 5.20-7.5)

This section gives eight specific examples of how the righteousness of Christ's disciples should exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, who emphasised externals. Christ's disciples should not only live out the true meaning of the Law (inner reality leading to outward righteousness) but also avoid the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in their religious duties and their hypercritical attitude. The expression, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time" (vv.21,27,33) can be translated, "Ye have heard that it was said to the ancients",1 this later translation placing emphasis on the Law which God gave to Israel. With His own unique authority, as the original Law-Giver, the Lord Jesus immediately followed up each quotation from the Law (vv.21,27,31,33,38) – or the Jew's addition to that Law (v.43) – with the words, "But I say unto you" (vv.22,28,32,34,39,44). This contrasted sharply with the scribes and the Pharisees who cited others to enhance their own authority.

Example 1: Good relations (Mt 5.21-26)

Huntington's disease is a devastating inherited condition that leads to a movement disorder and dementia. Current research is attempting to "decipher the neurodegenerative process before symptoms start, in order to freeze the disease in its tracks".2 The Lord Jesus took a similar approach to sin, for while the law commanded, "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex 20.13), and demanded the execution of murderers (Num 35.16), murder is often the end result of a series of stages. It begins with unjustified anger in the heart, leads to increasing degrees of slander with the mouth, and eventually ends in the physical act of murder. In their dealings with Christ, the scribes and the Pharisees became a working example of this. They hated Christ without a cause (Jn 15.25), maligned him (Mt 12.24), and were finally culpable for his murder (Acts 3.15). Speaking as the supreme judge, the Lord Jesus taught that each of these stages called for more severe judgment which, if enforced, would prevent all murders. "Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment" (v.22), this judgment being the name given to a criminal court which was found in each Judæan city, "consisting of seven judges, who had the power of life and death".3 "Raca" was "a word of utter contempt, signifying…empty-headed".4 "Whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council" (v.22), this council referring to "the Sanhedrin – the highest court of judicature among the Jews…consisting of seventy judges".5 A more severe slander was to call someone "fool", which translates "moreh", "the worst thing a Jew could say of a Jew"6: "whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire" (v.22). While the whole context is Jewish, and the threat of hell fire could never apply to Christians, who have been saved from eternal ruin, this teaching remains an awesome challenge. How often do we harbour unjustified hatred in our hearts? How frequently do we criticize other believers?

In all circumstances, whether in the arenas of divine worship or business life, we should attempt reconciliation as soon as possible. Why? Because reconciliation is so important that it even trumps the worship of God: "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (vv.23-24). While the mention of an altar puts this teaching immediately in a Jewish context, this same principle applies to Christians. After all, how can God accept our worship if we have wronged a fellow believer? The importance of prompt reconciliation is illustrated by an example from first century Jewish civil life: "Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing" (vv.25-26). The point was clear. If we delay reconciliation, we suffer more.

Example 2: Sexual purity (Mt 5.27-32)

Adultery is such a serious sin that God not only forbad it (Ex 20.14), but also commanded that all adulterers and adulteresses be executed (Lev 20.10). Just as murder begins with a hateful thought, adultery starts with a lustful look: "whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Mt 5.28). Given the right circumstances, such unrestrained lust will inevitably lead to the physical act of adultery. Believers must, therefore, exercise rigorous self-discipline in their avoidance of sexual sins. The Lord's hyperbolical language emphasised such self-control, not the need to mutilate the body, although, of course, it is better to lose a critical body part (e.g. eye or right hand), which would ensnare us in this area than to "be cast into hell" (vv.29-30). Given the current widespread availability of pornography – two clicks of a mouse – its addictive nature (Prov 27.20), and the destructive effect it can have on our spiritual life, Christians need to be equally self-disciplined in avoiding the lustful look, the first step towards adultery.

No doubt surprising His hearers, the Lord Jesus taught that remarriage following a divorce is also adulterous, for "whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery" (v.32). While the Law of Moses permitted divorce, its demand for a written bill of divorcement (requiring forethought, preventing rash decisions) and its tight restriction over which circumstances allowed for a divorce, were meant to reduce, not increase, the number of divorces (v.31). The Lord Jesus went a stage further, laying huge responsibility at the feet of a divorcing husband. If he divorced a wife who had not been unfaithful, and she went on to remarry, the first husband was accountable for her new adulterous relationship: he "causeth her to commit adultery" (v.32).

Example 3: Straightforward honesty (Mt 5.33-37)

The Old Testament Law acknowledged the binding nature of vows and oaths (Num 30). Although Moses allowed a woman's father (if she lived at home) or husband to disannul her vows, if the father or husband remained silent the woman's vows stood. And "If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth" (Num 30.2). To "forswear thyself" (Mt 5.33) equates to breaking an oath. And this is just what the scribes and Pharisees did. In their oaths they distinguished carefully between the temple and its gold, and the altar and the sacrifice placed on it (Mt 23.16,18). In swearing by the temple or the altar, the scribes and Pharisees gave the outward impression of adding validity to their oaths. In reality, they saw this formula as a means of invalidating their oaths and circumventing the Law of Moses, which, in effect, they broke.

By way of contrast, the Lord Jesus adjured His disciples to speak honestly and straightforwardly, avoiding oaths altogether. In descending order, He said, "Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black" (Mt 5.34-36; see Is 66.1).

Example 4: Submissive yielding (Mt 5.38-42; Lk 6.29-30)

The Old Testament clearly taught that vengeance belongs to God, not to individuals (Lev 19.18; Deut 32.35; Ps 94.1; Prov 20.22; 24.29). But in order to avoid outbreaks of excessive retaliation the Law sanctioned measured retribution, equal to the injury suffered (Ex 21.22-25; Lev 24.19-20): for example, "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" (Mt 5.38). Using four specific examples, the Lord Jesus taught that it is better still to yield to abuses. First, "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (v.39), a standard which Christ lived up to (see Micah 5.1; Mt 26.67). Second, "if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat [chitōn, 'an undergarment'], let him have thy cloke [himation, 'an outer garment'] also" (v.40). Third, "whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile [in forced service], go with him twain" (v.41). Fourth, "Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away" (v.42). Even though these principles will be worked out fully during the tribulation, when saints will be persecuted, banned from trading, and dependent on the Lord to provide their daily necessities supernaturally, if Christian believers showed this same willingness to forfeit their rights, many disputes in local churches could be avoided. To be continued.

1 Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (Baker Book House, 1981).
2 Sarah Tabrizi. Tracking Huntington's Disease. The Lancet, Volume 379, Issue 9831, Page 2043, 2 June 2012D.
3 Bell. Jud. Lib ii xx. 5; Ant. Jud. Lib. iv. viii. 14. cited by Brown J. Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord, 3 vols. (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 1:183.
4 Vine, W E. Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Hendrickson Publishers), p. 925.
5 Brown, J. Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord, 3 vols. (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 1:186.
6 Brown, J. Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord, 3 vols. (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 1:185.


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