Sermon on the Mount (2)
In our last lesson about the “Sermon on the Mount,” we saw that the broad context was a series of five narratives which Matthew presents in his Gospel. And this first one is a discourse on authentic discipleship. We then saw how Jesus’ audience had a very different concept of kingdom than what Jesus had; they were thinking military and physical strength, but Jesus was thinking spirituality and moral strength. So Jesus introduces His sermon by talking about His disciples’ character (what we often call the Beatitudes), then the disciples’ persecution, and then the disciples’ influence—they must not let the world set the pace for them, but they must set the pace for the world. Then we examined the transition from the introduction to the body of the sermon where Jesus gives a clarification, an explanation, and an exhortation. The clarification: His message is not designed to put down the Old Testament. The explanation: His disciples must continue to have such a great respect for the Old Testament in which they both obey and teach. The exhortation: His disciples’ righteousness must surpass that of the present Jewish religious leaders! This statement would have had the audience wondering, “Well, Jesus, what kind of righteousness are You talking about? How can our righteousness exceed theirs?” So the rest of the sermon strives to explain the kind of righteousness that Jesus wants His disciples to manifest.
Jesus first explains that His righteousness properly interprets the Law. We see that Jesus contrasts the religious leaders’ misinterpretations of the law with His proper interpretation of it. He uses six examples, and each begins with a formula: “You have heard that it was said …” and then He gives the misinterpretation (Note vv. 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, and 43; many modern Bibles now put these six examples in paragraphs to help us see them more clearly). The misinterpretation is followed by a reinterpretation which comes from Jesus Himself, and is introduced also with a formula: “But I say to you …” This is a very common way for a Jewish rabbi in Jesus’ day to teach, but what is uncommon is repeating Himself six times to hammer home His point: “Listen to Me; follow My way of interpreting the Law; My interpretation goes far beyond a check-list mentality that focuses on actions alone!”
So what drives the way that Jesus interprets the Law? Before we see the answer, allow a couple of brief deviations to set the stage. When our forefathers wrote the Constitution, one of the freedoms which they wanted this country to have was freedom of speech. You can express your ideas without fear of the government suppressing you. We have people out there today in a billion dollar industry called pornography—both printed and online. Now, if we tried to take legal action against that group to stop their publications and online sites, what would be the first thing they would cry, “Freedom of speech! Freedom of speech! We have the right to say what we want!” Now, here’s a question: “Are these people misinterpreting the constitution?” I believe they are. “Why? Doesn’t the Constitution provide for freedom of speech?” “Yes, certainly, but is this the kind of freedom of speech that the founding fathers were envisioning as they wrote about freedom of speech?” No, I don’t think so. The writers of our Constitution were basically God-fearing men who sought to build a strong moral foundation for our country. Since this is the case, I do not believe that their desire for free speech was their sanctioning of promoting pornography or any other evil communications that could ruin our country. The point: what is important in any interpretation of any writing is the author’s intention. We write things down with the intention of communicating some message. The study of literature and the study of law have much to do with trying to discover the circumstances that may have driven the intentions of an author. Here’s the next deviation. With an audience of this size, there are bound to be a few people who like to read novels. Many of you probably devour chapter after chapter until you reach the novel’s final chapter where all of those knots are untangled, all of those problems are resolved, and all of those mysteries are clarified. But maybe there are of few of you who don’t like to wait so long. After about the first three chapters, you think: “Hey let’s flip to the back and see how this is all going to work out in the end.” Then, after reading the last chapter, you might read the rest of the book or you might not.
Alright, now let’s get back to our question that began these deviations. So what drives the way that Jesus interprets the Law? Before we look at the six examples this morning, let’s cut to the chase and arrive at “the final chapter.” Some people link verse 48 with the paragraph before it, but I believe, and this is strictly my opinion, that this statement was intended by Jesus to summarize His interpretive approach in all the previous examples. “Therefore, you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” This passage often sends us on a big guilt trip, and we all really struggle with it. Some say, “This command is exaggeration, and it should not be taken literally.” Others say, “Since perfection is impossible, this passage is teaching us to throw ourselves on God’s mercy.” Still others say, “Well, it’s impossible to do, but we should strive anyway.” Others say, “Maybe this is a command for those “green beret” soldiers in Jesus’ army, you know, the super spiritually elite.” When we look at this verse in light of its context, which is the proper interpretation of God’s law, maybe it will become clearer. The word “perfect” is also used throughout the New Testament to mean “mature, complete, full grown, but not partial”. So the term here is not saying that we must be morally flawless. What Jesus is saying is, that when you go to interpret the Law, remember who the Author is, remember what His intentions were when He first wrote it, and seek to respect the full interpretation that He desires, and not the partial misinterpretations of the religious leaders. “Be complete as God is complete.” If you’re in doubt about an action, ask: “Would this action make for greater holiness?”
So what does Jesus' interpretation look like? Paul (himself once a Pharisee) summarizes it well in 2 Corinthians 3:6 where he says that God made him the minister “of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Holy Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Holy Spirit gives life.” The letter approach turns devotion into a system, obedience into a checklist, and relationship into regulations. So now let's look at each of these six examples.
Now let's read vv. 21-26. The letter says that we shall not murder and the religious leaders would add that if you do, you'll be in danger of the court's judgment or the death penalty. The religious leaders hadn't killed anybody lately, so they could all pat themselves on the back! “We've kept the letter!” Jesus goes deeper: “Let me show you what the Holy Spirit was driving at. It's not just about murder; it's about learning to control our anger and learning to resolve our conflicts quickly. If you harbor bitterness against a person, you are already in danger of the court's judgment. If you call someone a blockhead, stupid, a nitwit, an idiot, you're already threading on thin ice. After attacking people, then we start the real mud-slinging against their character—you huckster, you shrew, you fiend, you Jezebel! That kind of talk, Jesus says, will put you in danger of eternal condemnation! So see, Jesus says, it's not just about knifing or pulling a gun on someone, it's about learning to control your anger because if you don't downgrade others and attack their character, then you'll never have to worry about murder. In fact, if you're about ready to go to church, but then remember that someone is upset with you, go to them first and try to work things out. Maybe you can say something like this: “I don't know exactly why you're upset with me, but we need to work through this. We need to talk it out and rebuild our friendship. I don't want resentment to keep us apart now or in eternity.” Jesus also encourages us to be reconciled with others as quickly as possible. He has another little parable here telling us that the quicker we settle up, the less likely we'll have to pay up! The apostle John caught Jesus' drift because he later wrote in one of his letters: “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15)! By the letter of the law, we're all pretty safe, but when we understand God's intention, maybe some reconciliation needs to take place quickly. Whatever that old conflict may be, won't you take the first step today in making it right before the sun again goes down on your wrath?
Then there's the next example in vv. 27-30. Let's read it. The religious leaders' misinterpretation was that everything was alright as long as there was no physical contact. The letter has been observed. Jesus then shows that adultery goes back long before the physical act. “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19). Now Jesus is not teaching here that natural sexual attraction is wrong. It was God Himself who made the sexes to begin with. But Jesus is condemning the deliberate harboring of desire for an illicit relationship with all the steps which that might entail. Jesus uses exaggeration here to drive home His point: Quit looking at provocative things or looking in a lustful way! Quit handling anything that would cause you to stray? Quit going to the places that promote licentious lifestyles! You see, God allows the birds of temptation to fly over our heads, but we don't have to let them build their nests there! Who wrote the law? God did, and we want to become like Him, and we want our hearts to be like His. The letter kills, but the Holy Spirit gives life! “[Jesus] knows that used improperly, sex can destroy us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. So to protect us, He place limitations on it. He knows things we could never know or could only learn firsthand through painful experience. So [Jesus explains to us the Law's true intent]: “This is [God's] way of protecting you: sexual relations are reserved for marriage. Enjoyed there, it's wonderful [and you're also keeping your vows]. But outside marriage, it can ruin your life” (Cope). So let's stop feeding our lusts, and let's remember that the real price of lust is losing our close relationship with God. Before we fantasize on the physical, let's remember that the other person also has a soul and other kinfolks. Let's try to channel our sexual energies into some good activity rather than being duped by Hollywood's lies that you can play with fire and not get burned!
Then the next example is found in vv. 31-32. Let's read it. “In Jesus’ day, the dominant position on divorce (much like in our society today) was the most liberal position possible. The only requirement was the giving of a legal document called “a certificate of divorce”. Yes, such a certificate is mentioned in Deut. 24:1-4. By that period of Jewish history, divorce had become so easy and casual that a man could dismiss his wife for such trivial things as burning his meal or embarrassing him in front of his friends. Often the husband didn’t even bother to give a reason since none was required. [No court decision was required, only action on the husband's part (France)]. [But if you'll read Deut. 24:1-4, you discover that] the focus of that passage is not the issue of whether divorce is permitted or not. It does not “endorse” divorce (much less “command” it)! It’s rather just a statement of a very particular, very specific, law that was given to deal with the matter of adultery. You see, through the laws of Moses, God addressed the reality that people were evil, and they would (therefore) commit adultery. And so (if a man did that to his wife) at least the “certificate of divorce” would afford the woman some protection (from slander and evil speaking), and provide proof of her legal freedom from her former husband, and her consequent right to re-marry! But it hardly “condoned” (or even “excused”) divorce! Jesus said later in Matthew’s gospel: “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so” (Mt 19:8) (Kielar). “The marriage-wrecking approach of this loophole [religious leaders] missed the whole spirit of Moses” (Cope). When we go back to Genesis 2, we see that God's dream for marriage was that it be permanent. A husband and wife were to be married for life, and there are no exceptions mentioned there. Jesus mentions here that the only exception for divorce is sexual immorality. Let's not twist this teaching like the Jews' religious leaders; Christians can start thinking: “Well, if I leave him or her and live alone, then pretty soon they will commit adultery, and then I can have a Scriptural divorce!” That attitude is exactly the one that Jesus is teaching against here! “The [religious leaders] read the Old Testament to justify divorce. Jesus read it to justify marriage. The [religious leaders] called it a command while Jesus called it a concession” (Cope). The letter of law kills, but the Holy Spirit gives life.
The next example deals with oaths in vv. 33-37. What's going on here? The religious leaders where saying, “Now if you make an oath in God's name, you'd better keep it! But if you swear by heaven, or by earth, or by Jerusalem, or by your own head, then you don't have to keep it; that's like crossing your fingers. You only have to be committed to “convenient truth” when you make your oaths and carefully word them. But Jesus says, “No, stop these word games! Examine your hearts; truth at all times should remain supreme in them! Hence, in your daily conversations with others, avoid oaths altogether. Let our speech be so truthful, so utterly dependable, that our word is enough for others to know where we stand. Of course, Jesus' teaching on honesty being God's policy here could also be applied to many other situations: answers on test questions, forms filled out for the IRS, hunting and fishing limitations, job resumes, telling our parents that the movie rating is only PG. The Holy Spirit's intention is that we always speak the truth. James caught the drift of His brother's teaching because he states in 5:12: “But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No,' 'No', lest you fall into judgment.” Of course, Satan is the “father of all lies” (John 8:44), so when we go beyond a simple “Yes and No,” we are often falling back into his camp!
The next example starts with v. 38. If there was any verse the religious leaders could quote, it was Deut. 19:21: “Your eye shall not pity: life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” There it was in black in white; you can retaliate! Right? Jesus said, “No, wrong!” The context is the courtroom, so this verse does not sanction our taking matters into our own hands. The context again shows that this law was designed to protect. We often want to respond with “head for an eye,” but God limits how much punishment the court can give. “On the individual level, Jesus said, what God has always wanted us to do is repay evil with good, to repay cursing with blessing” (Cope). To give a slap with the back of the hand was an extreme insult in Jesus' culture. He is talking about bearing shame; this passage is not talking about suffering violent abuse. His disciples are to demonstrate a radical unselfish attitude with regards to their property. Anyone could be forced to carry a Roman soldier's armor for one mile; this was Roman law. But to carry it two, that was sheer voluntary service. The needs of others must supercede our inconvenience. “We, as His people, are called to match insult with blessing, scowls with smiles, hate with love, and bitterness with forgiveness. When we do that, we've come close to the core of what it means to have righteousness inside out” (Cope). Jesus' interpretation on this passage must have been a real shocker. Just as it continues to challenge us even today! The letter kills, but the Holy Spirit gives life!
Then the last example comes in vv. 43-47. Let's read them. The religious leaders again had a misinterpretation; “Oh yes, we'll love our fellow Jews, but then we'll hate all our adversaries, especially the foreign ones!” “Not so,” replies Jesus, “You must have an undiscriminating love for all people.” What Jesus demands almost sounds like He's “passed from the difficult to the unreal” (Cope). “The disciple's attitude to religious persecution must go beyond non-retaliations to positive [prayer and love. ] ... There is a sweeping universality in the love Jesus demands which had no parallel in Jewish literature” (France). When Jesus challenges us to love our enemies, it is not an emotional feeling, but an act of determination of our wills (Jesus could not command an emotion). We practice kindness because God expects it and models it. He loves all and doesn't demand anything in return (Jesus forgave even while on the cross); we strive to follow His great example! “Jesus asks us to think about all the people who make our lives difficult. And then he asks us to exercise a new kind of holy love, the kind that comes when we want to be changed into the likeness of our heavenly Father” (Cope)! And now after these six examples, Jesus concludes again: when you go to interpret the Law, remember who the Author is, remember what His intentions were when He first wrote it, and seek to respect the full interpretation that He desires, and not the partial misinterpretations of the religious leaders. “Be complete as God is complete.”
So how can we further understand Jesus' approach to interpreting the Law. Here are some principles to keep in mind. “First, the spirit of the law, the intent, is more important than the letter of the law. As we all should know, it is not enough not to kill; we must also love and be patient and gentle. More important than the letter is the spirit. What counts is your attitude, your heart's desire. In fact, those who look only to the letter delude themselves. Those who look only to the letter can so easily deny their sin and misery and Savior. The [Jewish religious leaders] did that. [The letter of the law is important,] but we must put the spirit of law before the letter. Secondly, obedience to the law is more than action. Thoughts, motives, and desires are equally important. The law of God is as concerned with what leads to an action as with the action itself. [The religious leaders] were concerned only about the act of adultery, but our Lord emphasizes that the sin in the heart and mind is just as wrong in the sight of God. Anything that leads to sexual immorality – whether it be actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires – is just as wrong as [the physical action. That's a high standard, but the control of mind will lead to a control of the body.] Thirdly, the law was not given to hinder us but to help us; the law was not meant to be oppressive; rather, it was meant to promote our freedom! This is vitally important. We must not think of the holy life, of living for Jesus, as something confining, restraining, and [stifling.] Not at all. The whole purpose of the law, like the gospel, is to bring us to the glorious liberty of the children of God! Lastly, the ultimate purpose of the law is so that you and I can come to know and serve and love God. This means that at the end of each day the question to ask is NOT: “In what way have I added to my sin and misery? What am I guilty of today?” No, those are not the ultimate questions. The one test which you must always apply to yourself IS this: “How was my relationship to God today? Did I please Him? Did I serve and love Him? Did I live for Him today?” (Dieleman) The letter approach turns devotion into a system, obedience into a checklist, and relationship into regulations. So as we seek to interpret our Bibles, let's always remember its Author, His intentions, His desires, His having our best interest at heart, and let's strive to please Him in all our thoughts and actions! Jesus first explains that His righteousness surpasses that of the religious leaders because it properly interprets the Law! Jesus certainly challenges the best that is in us! The letter kills, but the Holy Spirit gives life! Will you devote your life to following the Holy Spirit and pleasing our heavenly Father? Be an authentic disciple of Jesus today!