Matthew 5:17-48

Jimmy JoMatthew, SermonsLeave a Comment

Read the passage here.

Last week, we continued our study of Matthew by beginning our study of the Sermon on the Mount – arguably, the most famous of Jesus’ teachings.  Because of the length of the discourse, we will take several weeks to get through it all.  However, it’s worthwhile remembering that it is presented as a single didactic unit. 

Because it’s so heavily studied, several ways have been proposed of understanding its structure.  For the sake of simplicity, we will be following John Stott’s structure: 

  • A Christian’s Character (5:3-12)
  • A Christian’s Influence (5:13-16)
  • A Christian’s Righteousness (5:17-48)
  • A Christian’s Piety (6:1-18)
  • A Christian’s Ambition (6:19-34)
  • A Christian’s Relationships (7:1-20)
  • A Christian’s Commitment (7:21-27)

Our passage today covers the first major section of the Sermon on the Mount.  As we have seen, it contains the “You have heard that it was said…But I tell you…” motif that we mentioned last week. 

We’ve discussed how Matthew’s purpose in writing his gospel had to do with the demonstration, or defense, that Jesus was in fact the promised Messiah that the people of Israel were waiting for.  Though people wondered if this was true, the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion and death put this into question (if not outright rejection) for many people.  Matthew is demonstrating, however, that this rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, is due to a misconception of the nature of the kingdom that Jesus is actually bringing. 

Related to this notion of the misunderstanding of the kingdom has to do with Jesus’ understanding (or teaching) of the Law, which is what our passage today deals with.  One of the charges against Jesus, particularly from the religious elite, is that he does not understand, or that he ignores the Law of Moses.  This essentially amounts to a charge that Jesus doesn’t understand or ignores the covenant basis for the people of God. 

Remember, one of the charges against Jesus that we saw in the gospel according to John was the keeping of Sabbath.  And, if we recall, though it was quite awhile ago now, Jesus charged the religious leaders with themselves misunderstanding the Sabbath. 

And that is what we’re seeing here today, as well:  Jesus challenging the understanding of the Law, particularly by the religious leaders.  Let’s take a look at the opening verses of today’s passage: 

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20

So what should be clear is that Jesus immediately refutes the notion that He either doesn’t care about the (O.T.) Law, or that (more commonly among Christians) the Law has become superseded or surpassed by Jesus (or that we only need the New Testament). 

What is also probably clear, though perhaps slightly less so, is that Jesus is explicitly presenting an interpretation of the Law, and thus of the kingdom, that serves to challenge or correct those interpretations offered by the so-called experts – the Pharisees and teachers of the Law (scribes, in other translations). 

Thus, in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, which Stott labels “A Christian’s Righteousness,” but which might otherwise be understood as something like, “the Law of the Kingdom,” Jesus presents several antitheses in the form of, “You have heard that it was said…but I tell you…” 

Now we don’t have time today to delve into each antithesis that Jesus presents.  However, Jesus is dealing with several topics as representative of the Law as a whole.  They are: 

  • Murder (21-26)
  • Adultery (27-30)
  • Divorce (31-32)
  • Oaths (33-37)
  • Justice (38-42)
  • Enemies and Neighbours (43-45)

Now this is another aside, but it might be worth considering that items 2 and 3 fall under one rubric – that of adultery(?).  The reason for this may be that the statement about divorce doesn’t strictly follow the “You have heard that it was said” pattern (It begins merely, “It has been said.”).  We can see that all of the antitheses follow that common pattern, but that the remarks regarding divorce depart from that pattern.  

The point simply is that the injunction against divorce might be considered to fall under the larger rubric of adultery (which might again fall under the larger rubric of right relationship with one’s spouse).  That would give us the following: 

  • Murder (21-26)
  • Adultery and Divorce (27-32)
  • Oaths (33-37)
  • Revenge (38-42)
  • Enemies and Neighbours (43-45)

Without putting too fine a point on it, if we take that as correct, we once again have a motif of fives, specifically in regards to Jesus’ teaching on the Law. 

Now the reason I present that as an aside is, firstly, because this may not be overly convincing (i.e. it might be wrong).  The second is that it’s possible to over-think these sorts of things and see patterns where no patterns exist. 

However, I do want to suggest that what Jesus is doing is not merely giving us five or six particularly problematic examples of mis-interpretation of the Law, but he is actually addressing the entire Law and the practice (or malpractice) of the interpretation thereof. 

Now once again, I want to apologize for not taking the time to look at each individual antithesis and examining them more closely.  It’s highly worth doing and I recommend that we each read this passage closely and carefully.  But what I want to do is to consider this section of the sermon (specifically addressing the Law) as a whole and try to understand what Jesus is doing.  What we read, once again, is Jesus saying: 

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20

He is adamant in stating that the covenant Law is a good thing, and still stands for God’s covenant people.  But does this mean that we still have to avoid eating pork or wearing clothing that is made from two kinds of cloth?  Or, as some have argued, are we as Christians free to ignore it all? 

In an attempt to address this, I want to take a look at what Jesus says in this part of the passage.  Specifically, in verse 19, Jesus says, “…anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands…” This translation is, as is our usual, from the NIV.  Other English translations render this slightly differently, but maintain a similar force: 

  • 19 …whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments… (NRSV)
  • 19  Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments (NKJV)
  • 19  Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments (NASB)
  • 19  So if you ignore the least commandment (NLT)

But take a look at how the ESV translates this: 

  • Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments…

It may be subtle, but I think the ESV takes a different direction in translating the Greek, here.  All of the other English translations can be read as something like, “contradicts,” or “counteracts.”  But such a translation doesn’t really seem to align with what Jesus is saying in the rest of the passage.  He’s not concerned with people who obviously break, ignore, or contradict the Law.  He’s concerned with people who don’t live out the fullness of the Law. 

Thus, when we read, for example: 

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

Matthew 5:21-22

…we understand that Jesus’s concern is not merely with those who break the law of, “you shall not murder,” but with those who relax the significance of what the law means or points to – that is, those who don’t live out the full meaning of the Law.

The Pharisees and scribes could probably not be accused of breaking the law.  But in their efforts to specify the parameters of the law, they often reduced it to the narrowest possible interpretations.  Thus, they were less concerned with the significance of Sabbath – they were rather concerned with the precise definition, duration, and quality of work.  I believe that details are important, but by focussing only on the details, by paying attention to only the minutiae, the religious leaders were accused (by Jesus) of essentially reducing the Law to irrelevance. 

So inasmuch as we understand the Law as a list of rules and requirements, we tend to want to do what the religious leaders did.  We narrow our understanding to those things that we absolutely have to do, or absolutely have to avoid.  And so long as we do or avoid the right things, we think ourselves righteous. 

I’m not a bad person, we say.  After all, I don’t murder, I don’t steal, I don’t cheat on my wife.  Doesn’t that make me a good person? 

But if we remember the conversation we had in our study of the Pentateuch – that is, the Law – we remember that God’s concern is not with rules and regulations (strictly speaking), it’s about character.  Once again, what kind of people are we trying to be?

When we focus on the minutiae, we reduce the Law, we reduce the gospel, to the bare minimum requirements.  For some people, that’s all we actually want – the bare minimum to get us into heaven.  But Jesus is interested in the more.  Jesus is interested in the fullness.  Jesus is interested in the kingdom of God. 

Now a final thing that I want to consider is the nature of the examples that Jesus gives.  And looking at the list, we see that all of these examples have to do with relationships – that is, how we live in community with one another (I don’t mean, and I think it’s obvious that Jesus isn’t referring only to relationships with other Christians).  Later on in the gospel of Matthew, we’ll read: 

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:37-40

And I think this is important.  In relationships, the primary consideration cannot be, “what are the rules that I have to follow?”  We cannot, in seeking to love our neighbours as ourselves, be thinking in terms of, “what is the least I have to do?” or, “what is the most I can get away with (while still obeying the law)?”  Rather, our question should be more along the lines of, “what is the best way to love?” 

Perhaps it would be helpful to re-frame how we think about these things.  Instead of asking, “Did I murder?  Did I cheat on my wife?  Did I break my promise? and etc.”, perhaps we could be asking ourselves, “How well did I love my neighbour and my enemies?  How well did I love my wife or husband?  How much grace, mercy, and generosity have I shown to those around me? 

Our reading today closes with the words, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48)  On this side of eternity, we are not perfect.  We are not yet as we were meant to be.  But this doesn’t mean that we can ignore Jesus’ words (here) as hyperbole, or metaphor.  We are called to a life – the kingdom life – that is, in fact, the only life.  And to cast aside, turn our backs on, all that which is not-life.  So we seek to love God well; and we seek to love others well.  Because we believe that only in this is there life.

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