The Law of Christ


Matthew 5:21-47

Last time we noted that the six paragraphs of this section of the Sermon on the Mount illustrated the Lord’s deeper, truer understanding of the reach and demand of God’s law.  The scribes and Pharisees had made obedience a more superficial thing.  Christ was restoring its authority also over the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  This is a characteristic ploy of the human heart, to imagine oneself righteous only because one has defined righteousness in such a way as to make it easy to be righteous.  But when that is done, not only is there no longer any sense that one is in desperate need of a Redeemer – one has all the righteousness he needs already – but no sense of what true godliness consists of and what a devout and holy life should be.  Jesus is setting the record straight.  He is, as we said, rejecting not the law of God itself -–he is upholding that in its true meaning – but the Pharisaic reductions and misinterpretations of the law, all of which relaxed the law’s demands and domesticated our sin and made it manageable.

Now, I want to pay some closer attention to this view of the law that Christ teaches us here, without going into great detail in regard to each of these six illustrations that Jesus employs to make his point.

v.22     Raca was an Aramaic term of abuse.  “You idiot,” is the idea. The insolent and insulting person has broken the sixth commandment as well.

v.24     If God will punish the anger of the heart as well as actual murder, we should not worship him with grudges unsettled, or come to him as if he did not know what was in our heart.  It is no honor paid to God to give him worship while, at the same time, showing oneself uninterested in serving him with one’s heart and life.  The act of worship itself can be nullified by the spirit in which it is done.  What is more, as v. 23 indicates, it is not enough not to be angry yourself; you must also take care not to provoke the anger of others.

v.26     This second comment underscores the urgency with which we ought to seek reconciliation and repent of sins of anger and seek to undo their consequences.  If man’s judgment can be so severe, how much more God’s.  Failure to take advantage of the opportunity to do what is right before God and man may mean that you will bear the penalty of being unreconciled.  So Jesus’ point in these verses is that if anger and insult are so serious and dangerous violations of God’s law, we ought to avoid them like the plague and take action to undo them as speedily as possible.  [Stott, 85]  We must not let estrangement from others remain, still less may we allow it to grow.  We must put it right immediately.  If we want to avoid murder in the truest and deepest sense we must live at peace with all men.

v.30     What we are finding characteristic now is the Lord’s solemnity.  Obedience is a serious thing and any sacrifice is worth making to ensure it.  The looming threat of divine judgment makes the pursuit of true righteousness in this life a matter of life and death.  The tenth commandment forbade coveting another man’s wife, but Jesus finds that requirement also here in the seventh commandment.  In the ancient world the right eye and the right hand were considered the most valuable.  Even they must be sacrificed is the Lord’s point.

v.32     Against the more lax interpretations of the rabbis, Jesus is reasserting the law’s demand for faithfulness and loyalty in marriage.  Divorce is permitted in certain cases, but only in those.  According to the rabbis, a man could divorce his wife for spoiling his dinner or simply because he found a woman he liked better.  [Mishnah, “Gittin,” 9:10]  As Jesus will say later in this Gospel, the intention of God in creating marriage and man and woman for marriage was a lifelong and faithful union of husband and wife.

v.33     The taking of oaths played a great role in Jewish life of the time.  Jesus is concerned that dishonesty not hide behind elaborate rules governing oaths, their type and when they were sworn.  The Mishnah has several tractates devoted to oaths.  It shouldn’t be necessary for his disciples to back up their word with oaths.  In first century Judaism the oath taken to God had to be kept, but the implication is unmistakable that if God’s name is not explicitly invoked one’s word could be more elastic.  Jesus is not forbidding all oaths, such as might be taken in court; he is only forbidding a view of oath-taking that relaxed the requirement of truth-telling at other times.

v.37     Jesus is rejecting the hair-splitting so common in Jewish casuistry.  Your word is uttered before the Lord no matter how you put it.

v.42     It is, of course, a revealing fact about our culture that “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” are widely now taken to refer to a harsh and cruel vengeance.  In the Bible that statement amounts to an insistence on proportionate retribution and forbade an excess of retribution, insisting that the punishment should not exceed the crime.  The principle took punishment out of the private realm of vengeance, but Jewish practice tended to put it back.  [Morris, 126] By the time of Jesus the physical penalties had been largely replaced by financial ones.  But Jesus is saying that even legitimate retribution should not be the principle of a Christian’s private life.  The law when rightly understood forbids the spirit of revenge, which, as we all know, comes very easily to human hearts.  Of course, a willingness to forego the defense of one’s own rights for Christ’s sake, is not incompatible with standing for principles and insisting on the rights of others.  Jesus is talking here about individual behavior on the part of his disciples, not social ethics, still less public order.  This turning of the other cheek is precisely the example that Jesus himself set for us.  The Mishnah, however, reads, “If a man cuffed his fellow he must pay him a sela” and then goes on to specify damages for slapping, hitting with the back of the hand, etc.  [Morris, 127]  It sounds very much like 21st century America, doesn’t it?

            Jesus’ illustrations describe a radically unselfish attitude toward one’s property and one’s ego.  The cloak was a garment that the law said could not be taken from you, so its voluntary surrender would be a powerful statement.  “Forces you to go one mile” may refer to the practice, so galling to the Jews, of Roman soldiers commandeering Jewish citizens as porters.  Jesus is after generosity without conditions in the attitude and the behavior of his followers – a life of open-handed and humble love.

v.47     A self-interested concern is the world’s principle.  The love of the enemy, the unlovable and unattractive, the positively unworthy, is the gospel’s principle and should be the principle of the life of all who were loved by God when they were his enemies.  We are not to take our standards from the world around us.  We are to imitate our God and Savior and not only has he loved us, he loves, in a way, all his creatures, even those who rebel against him.

v.48     Jesus’ followers should aspire to nothing short of all that Christ commands them to be. And at the end of this summing up of the meaning of the law, he returns to the idea of obedience that we find in Moses:  “be holy for I am holy.”  They must not content themselves with matching the standards of their day or even of exceeding them.  They will serve the Lord most faithfully if they are always requiring themselves to serve him perfectly and will content themselves with nothing less. 

Now there are unending sermons staring back at us from these monumental statements our Savior made in describing for us the life we must live as his followers.  Divorce and remarriage are great issues for us today and we could attend to his statements about that.  What it means to love an enemy is a perennial question for serious-minded Christians, and we could profitably explore the Lord’s words about that.  But, once again, I want to respect the main point the Lord is after.  Last time we noted that he wants this deeper, authentic obedience from his disciples, obedience that respects the radical demand of God’s law and its reach into the heart and the thoughts of the mind.  Today I want to concentrate on the seriousness with which the Lord urges upon us this righteous living.  We find that urgency at the end of the first of the six examples, that regarding murder and anger.  We find it again in regard to the second of the examples.  And these exhortations stand for the remaining four.  He might have added such urgent application in the last four cases, but didn’t need to as he had given us exemplary ones in the case of the first two.

And so let me take up what he says in vv. 29-30 when he says that a Christian must take any step, must make any sacrifice in order to offer the purity of his or her heart to God.  The Lord’s language makes us shudder.  “Gouge out your right eye…Cut off your right hand…”  We can’t imagine doing such horrible things to ourselves.  But that is precisely the point of the Lord’s arresting language.  He intends to force us to consider, as it were almost against our will, the great urgency with which he is commending obedience to us.  To be sure, it is hyperbole.  Jesus does not expect to be taken literally.  Some great Christians have taken him in that way.

You may remember that Origen, the influential church father, born in the later years of the 2nd century and living through the first half of the 3rd, as a young man had himself castrated in part in what he judged to be obedience to the Savior’s commandment here and his later reference to men who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God.  Born and raised in a devout Christian home – his father was martyred when Origen was sixteen – he became a charismatic young teacher.  Young people came to him from all over to sit at his feet.  Young women as well as young men fell under the spell of his personality and character as well as of his great learning.  He knew he was, for that reason, exposed to sexual temptation, so he followed what he judged to be his Master’s injunction and mutilated himself so as to remove the temptation once and for all.  As an older, wiser man, he repented of his act, but, of course, it could not be undone.

We understand that the Lord was not intending to recommend self-mutilation to us.  It is hyperbole, exaggeration for effect, that he uses to force upon us a reckoning with how utterly serious we ought to be in ensuring our own obedience to God’s law and our living of that righteous life to which our Savior has summoned us.  The Lord often speaks in this extravagant way to make important points, especially those lessons that we are most averse to learning.  He speaks of the necessity of hating our fathers and mothers if we would be his disciples and so on.

However, hyperbole or not, the point of the language is to drive the lesson home and fix it in our minds.  Righteousness is so important that any sacrifice is worth making on its behalf.

And here, in these verses, the Lord is laying it down as a rule of life that sexual purity is going to require sacrifices.  It will require the taking of steps to ensure that we do not expose ourselves to temptations that we cannot easily withstand.  The man who has fallen knows very well, and bitterly, what sights and what company he wishes he had not allowed himself.  Christ is warning us that the best way to avoid the ruination of one’s righteousness and the judgment of God is to practice righteousness in the heart, in the eye, long before one must summon up his will to practice it with the mouth, the hand and with the body.

The Bible speaks about this in many different ways in regard to sexual purity.  The Father, in Prov. 5, tells his son that he must not go near the door of a temptress.  Simply stay away.  She can’t tempt you if you can’t see her.  You remember what Job so famously said about himself.

            “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl.”
            [31:1]

Later in the same chapter Job admits that God would have cause to judge and condemn and punish him if he had courted temptation and opened himself up to sexual sin and invited impurity.

            “If my heart had been led with my eyes…” [v.7]

            “If my heart has been enticed by a woman, or if I have lurked
            at my neighbor’s door…”  [v.9]

then, Job says, I will deserve my punishment because I gave myself to impurity, I asked for temptation.  But Job knew that sexual sin must be cut off at the root and stamped out before a temptation is allowed to gain a foothold in the mind.  And so, to control his heart, to keep it pure, he made a covenant with his eyes not to look lustfully at women – just as Jesus says not to do here. 

Our imagination is one of God’s great gifts and we can use it every day to further his purposes in our lives.  We can see heaven and hell in our imagination; we can hear him tell us, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ we can see beforehand the consequences of sins that we are being tempted to commit, we can see the Lord hanging on the cross for us, and on and on.  But, like all of God’s good gifts, our imagination can be put to sinful purposes as well, and it is when it is used in the service of impure sexual stimulation.  And nothing so inflames the imagination as what we see with our eyes.  It is doubtful that anyone has ever committed sexual impurity in his actions that did not first commit it in his imagination.

In Thomas à Kempis’ spiritual masterpiece, Imitation of Christ we are given the classic account of the consecutive steps of a temptation.  First there is the bare thought of the sin, nothing but a thought.  This thought is then formed and displayed on the screen of the imagination.  We look at and admire the sight or the deed the temptation is presenting to us.  From the imagination there drips down into the heart the appeal and the delight and the pleasure of the sinful idea that the imagination is displaying to us.  By that delight and appeal the consent of the will is obtained and the deed is done.  [ed. 1733, p. 27]

So, you see, how critical the eyes are at keeping at bay the thoughts that begin that process that leads so easily to sin and eventually to ruin.  “I have made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl.”  Job had Jesus’ understanding of righteousness long before the Lord preached the Sermon on the Mount.  With that covenant he made with his eyes, he as much as gouged out his right eye.

There are many ways to make that covenant still today and perhaps no day has ever needed such covenants as ours does, with visual sexual stimulation so universal, so unrelenting, and so overtly seductive and lascivious.  You cannot move in this culture without seeing what it would be better, what it would be so much better, not to see. Job had only to worry about actual girls.  We have to worry as much or more about pictures of girls, though seductive dress on actual girls and women is of course still a great problem. “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl.”

There is a website nowadays, created by some honest and wise Christian men.  The address is “CovenantEyes.com.”  It is a ministry of accountability.  If you want your eyes to help you and not ruin you, if you want to live a righteous life before God and man, if you want to come up to Christ’s great white throne and be able to stand before the Lord with the evidence of your loyalty to him in the record of your life, then you will make such a covenant with your eyes.  And in order to help you keep that covenant, this website has been established.  In effect you agree to have all your internet usage tracked, a record kept, and that record sent to two Christian friends of yours, two brothers, who, therefore, will know whether your eyes have gone looking to see what they ought not to see.  You agree to hold yourself to account and instead of just saying so, you actually offer your behavior – where it would otherwise be temptingly private – to the inspection of others.  That is the modern equivalent to gouging out your right eye and cutting off your right arm.  And men who are serious about purity before God, who are determined to live a righteous life, especially men who know they are susceptible to such temptations as the eye affords, take just those kind of steps.  And the result is that when, otherwise, they would stumble and then stumble again, in this way or that, they do not.

Imagination is a power stronger than our will if we allow it to operate without constraint and control.  Our problem with food and with weight is often just that:  a problem controlling our imagination.  Our problem with money is often precisely the same:  an imagination running out of control.  So too our problem with the spirit of revenge.  We imagine the outcome of what we perceive to be slights and we imagine with relish the punishments we would like to see visited upon those who are guilty of them.  So it remains, as it has always been, as Job knew it was, that we have to exercise control over our imagination, starve it of the fuel with which it set our lusts to burning, and bring it into and keep it in submission to our Christian will.  Learning that is a large part of learning how to live righteously to the praise of God our Father and Jesus Christ our Savior.

And so wise Christians have always taught.  Thomas Fuller, the 18th century English evangelical, quaintly puts it this way:

            “We should not hollo in the ears of a sleeping temptation.  If
            a giant knock while the door is shut, he may with ease be still
            kept out; but if once open, that he gets in but a limb of himself,
            then there is no course left to keep out the remaining bulk.”
            [Cited in NPNF, I, 156n]

He is saying that the battle is won best by not having to fight it at all, or, at least, by fighting it when the enemy is weakest.

Do you find this hard to take, to contemplate; to cut off sin so early?  I imagine you do.  Robert Murray McCheyne, and a saintlier man has scarcely existed in the world, confessed that he was always being tempted to get as close to the sin as he could without actually committing it – precisely the opposite approach to that the Lord commands here.  Do you blanch at the thought of taking such steps and making such sacrifices, perhaps in part because you know how successful they would be in ending the grip of temptation upon your heart and will?  Well, remember C.S. Lewis’ encouraging observation. 

            “The hard sayings of the Lord are wholesome to those only who
            find them hard.”  [God in the Dock, 191]

That is, it is the man who finds himself on the battlefield and understands what the commander is asking of his soldiers – the pain and effort that will be required – who both knows what Jesus means and grasps the life and death importance of what he says.  Of course he is also the only one fully to understand just how desperate the coming battle will be and how much he will have to demand of himself.  It is the man who knows battle that blanches at the prospect of it.

Near the end of his life, John Adams, America’s third president could say this about himself:

“No virgin or matron ever had cause to blush at the sight of me, or to regret her acquaintance with me.  No father, brother, son, or friend ever had cause of grief or resentment for any [conduct] between me and any daughter, sister, mother or any other relation of the female sex.  My children may be assured that no illegitimate brother or sister exists or ever existed.”  [David McCullough, John Adams, 36]

I suspect that there are far fewer men, even Christian men, who can say that today.  And fewer Christian women who can say a similar thing. However, it is the immeasurably great blessing of our faith and of our salvation in Christ, that his mercies are new every morning and that great is his faithfulness.  A Christian man can always begin to do even that which he should have done before.  Indeed he must.

And he will if only he will listen to his Savior – a man who knew a great deal about what it takes to live a godly life in this fallen world – say that it is better to gouge out one’s right eye than to allow that eye to lead him to sin and then to a life of sin.  Real righteousness begins with the decision of the heart that one will be righteous out of loyalty to Christ, righteous in all those ways that really matter, that really count.  Righteousness begins with the determination that a man will move heaven and earth to live as Christ commands and, in particular, will take those steps that make the greatest difference in the long run.  He will resist temptation first and best by laying the ax to the root of those temptations and cause them to wither even though it means he will not get to enjoy the taste of those temptations while still hoping to be godly.