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Matthew 5:21-32

As we said last time, in considering vv. 17-20, Christ says that his disciples must practice a deeper, purer, more authentic righteousness than that advocated and practiced by the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, that is, the very people who were noted at the time for their devotion to righteousness and to the law of God.  But they understood God’s law superficially, as generations had before them and have since and as, far and away, most people do today.  Christ did not come to change the law, certainly not to relax its demands.  Nor has he come to add to the law as if it were somehow an inadequate summary of God’s will for human life.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “He has in fact nothing to add to the commandments of God except this, that he keeps them.”  [Cost of Discipleship, 111]  What is more, he not only keeps them himself he explains to his disciples how they must keep them and what true obedience will involve for them.  His purpose is to reveal the law’s true meaning, the full depth and reach of its demands.  What Jesus is demanding of us is not simply more obedience than the Pharisees offered, but deeper, truer, and better obedience.  The reason why this kind of obedience is essential is that it is the mark of a true Christian, a sign that he or she has been born again by the Spirit of God and is a follower of Jesus Christ in fact and not in name only.  [Stott, Christian Counter-Culture, 72-75]  That point will be stressed at the end of the Sermon on the Mount.

Now, what follows in the rest of the chapter, of which we are taking half this morning, are examples of this truer understanding of God’s law and this deeper, authentic Christian righteousness.  There are six paragraphs, each written in the same form, of which we are taking the first three this morning as exemplary of the whole.  In each paragraph we find an illustration of the contrast or antithesis between Pharisaic righteousness – that is the righteousness that people practice who do not have true faith – and true righteousness such as Christ both demands of his followers and works into their hearts and lives by his Spirit.  Each paragraph places the contrast in this same formulaic way:  “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago…but I say to you…”

Now it is essential to the right understanding of the Lord’s teaching that we accurately identify the Lord’s antagonist in these six antitheses.  Some have held that he is contrasting his teaching with that of Moses and that, in this way, he is inaugurating a new law, a new morality, a new ethic for his followers that transcends and improves upon the ancient law delivered by Moses.  In other words, the one side of the contrast or antithesis in each paragraph, the “You have heard it was said…” side of the contrast, refers to the teaching of the Old Testament.  So each contrast amounts to this:  The OT said this, but I say to you…  In a way, we can understand why people have thought that because the first element in each of these contrasts bears a direct resemblance to what is found in the Mosaic law.  More about that in a moment.  But, often as you hear this interpretation, it must be rejected as utterly contrary to what Jesus has already said here, what he will say in these six illustrations of his meaning, and what he teaches elsewhere.  He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, he said in v. 17, and then went on to declare that not the smallest detail would fall away from the law of God until all was fulfilled.  It would be passing strange if, after saying not the least stroke of a pen would fall away from the law, he went on immediately to say that he was correcting, receiving or replacing a number of laws with new and better ones!  But there is more.

  1. First, in each of these antitheses, Christ says “you have heard that it was said…”  That “said” is very important.  That is not the way Jesus ordinarily quotes the Law of God as revealed by Moses.  When he cites God’s law he says it is or it stands written, not it was said.  What Jesus is contradicting is not the written Word of God, but the oral tradition of the rabbis, the additions to God’s law, the explanations of it that the rabbis had developed over the previous centuries and which these people still heard because the teachers of the law, the scribes, continued to offer these oral interpretations in the synagogue services week by week.
  2. Second, as I said, there is the echo of the law of Moses in the first element of each of these contrasts or antitheses.  We might well suppose that when Jesus says in the first antithesis, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,’” he is doing nothing more than quoting Moses.  After all, “Do not murder” is the sixth of the ten commandments. But when we come to the sixth and the last of these antitheses, in v. 43, we read “You have heard it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”  “Love your neighbor” is part of God’s law and is, in fact, a citation of Leviticus 19:18.  But there is no command anywhere in God’s law “to hate your enemy.”  The addition of “hate your enemy” was a rabbinical attempt to interpret and explain the law of God but, in fact, was a distortion of that law, a misunderstanding of it, a corruption of it.  As we look more closely at the other five antitheses it becomes clear that there too it is not the law of God that is being rejected but distortions, misunderstandings of that law.  These distortions are what Jesus rejects; not the laws themselves.  And this understanding of these six contrasts agrees with what we know to have been the Lord’s view of the ancient Scriptures and the Law of Moses.  He was a lover of God’s Word and an upholder of it at every turn, both in his living and in his teaching.  But, he was not averse to correcting misunderstandings of the Scripture that then prevailed in the church.  He did that regularly.


Now there are two fabulously important things to notice about the scribal traditions, the rabbinical interpretations of the law, the Pharisaical approach to obedience that Jesus overturns in his teaching here.

  1. The first is that in every case the true demand of the law is being relaxed or reduced.  Obedience is being made easier.


We might not think so reading those rabbinical interpretations of the law as they can be found in the Mishnah or Talmud, the great collections of rabbinic tradition and legal interpretation.  After all, there are literally thousands of these regulations and we might think that trying to live by so many rules would be the worst sort of burden and bondage.  But, as a matter of fact, what the scribes and Pharisees were doing was making obedience easier, more accessible; they might even have said, they were making it possible to be righteous and obedient before God.  So the thrust of these traditional interpretations was to make the law’s commandments – the laws that required us to do something or forbade us from doing something – less demanding and the law’s permissions – what it did not require but allowed – still more permissive.  I’m not saying that the rabbis would have agreed that they were doing this, but this was the actual effect.

For example, the first antithesis concerns a commandment:  you shall not murder.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law restricted the scope of this commandment to the most overt and outward behavior only.  If you didn’t actually take an innocent person’s life, if you didn’t stick the knife in his or her heart, you had kept that commandment.  Similarly, in the case of the second antithesis:  if you didn’t actually sleep with another man’s wife or another wife’s husband, you had kept the seventh commandment.   Jesus said, however, that the commandments reached, and had always reached, into every corner of our lives, into our attitudes toward one another, into all of our behavior toward our fellow men; that it was possible to kill someone in one’s heart without ever anyone knowing that you even disliked him.  Anger toward others is a breaking of the law of God against murder because anger is murderous in its character!  Uh oh!  We get away with murder, in that sense, all the time, almost every day!  In the same way, the Pharisees had restricted the commandment about swearing to oaths involving the divine name only and the obligation to love one’s neighbor they restricted to certain people only (those of the same race and the same religion).  [Stott, 79-80]

In the case of the law’s permissions, such as divorce, the Pharisees and scribes had made it even more permissive and so easier to keep at this point also.  The biblical law permitted divorce in the case of the discovery of some “indecency” on the part of a spouse, as we read in Deuteronomy 24. That is almost certainly a reference to some kind of sexual infidelity. The rabbis had extended the permission to cover virtually any whim on the husband’s part.  And in the law’s permission to seek retribution for injustices committed against you, the scribes permitted personal revenge, that is, the seeking of vengeance above and beyond what the law courts might impose.

In each and every case, obedience has got easier; the demand of God’s law has been relaxed.  And in every case Jesus restores the demand of God’s law to its original, deep, pervasive requirement of a profound obedience that recognizes the law’s true demand and seeks to meet it in heart, speech, and behavior.  The law is a reflection of the character of God and those who seek to keep it truly will try to be God-like in their justice, their mercy, their faithfulness, and their love.

It was, therefore, the Pharisees who were contradicting God’s law, not Jesus.  It was the Pharisees who, for all their vaunted devotion to the law, were, in fact, failing to obey it and it was Jesus who was calling his disciples to a much more radical and so authentic obedience to the law of God.

Now, remember, this is not ancient history that we are reading this morning.  This is the story of mankind in every age, in every place.  He always finds a way to relax the stringent requirements placed upon him by God’s law, even if that law is only an echo in his conscience.  He has been made a moral creature.  He cannot help but feel that he is obliged to live a righteous life and to give answer for such a life.  That is why he is always judging other people for what he perceives are moral failures on their part and that is why he is always defending himself for his own behavior, no matter how reprehensible it often is.  And the way men and women come to terms with the fact that they know very well they ought to live in a certain way and do not in fact live that way, is to conspire with one another to relax the requirements, to accept another level of obedience as sufficient, to lower the bar to that height, however low, which everyone can rather comfortably reach.  It is done in highly religious circles; it is done in secularist circles.  And it is done in the same way that the Pharisees did it.  The demands are relaxed and the permissions are extended.  If we must be righteous we define righteousness down until it is not so hard to be righteous after all.

Nowadays, for example, we are being told that virtually any sort of sexual behavior is permissible, even acceptable, except those few behaviors that we still outlaw and the outlawing of which makes us seem still as interested as ever in being righteous and just.  So sex before marriage is acceptable, homosexual sex is acceptable, but actual adultery is still frowned on in most circles – though this may go the way of the rest before too long – and, of course, pedophilia and some other perversions that are the behavior of only a few are still proscribed with moral outrage.

And in the case of permissions, while continuing to praise a generous and forgiving spirit in many contexts, in seeking personal revenge or simply a big payday, we sue at the drop of a hat, having agreed as a culture that this is just and right.  And so, of course, in the matter of divorce, which is now, legally speaking, almost as easy to get as it was to get married in the first place.

American people don’t think of themselves, of course, as Pharisees, but in the sense in which Jesus is discussing the law of God and the moral life of human beings they are precisely that; that and nothing more.  Indeed, we have, as a culture, outdone the Pharisees; beaten them at their own game!  We have diminished the demand of God’s law, in some cases, nearly to the vanishing point, and we have stretched its permissions to the breaking point.

  1. The second thing to notice about the scribal traditions, the rabbinic interpretations of the law is that their inevitable effect is to domesticate sin, to make it something relatively innocuous and manageable.


We might, at first thought, find it strange that legalists should be libertines, but, in fact, that is what they always are and always must be.  You might think that legalists – people who are counting on their moral or religious performance to get them to heaven – would be rigorists, holding themselves to the highest conceivable standards of behavior, but it is not so; it is never so.   The rigor is a sham, the high standards mere pretense.  If you take the view that, in some way, shape, or form, your goodness will get you to heaven – that is legalism – then, human sinfulness being the inescapable reality that it is – you must in some way diminish the effect, the importance, the virulence of sin.  If your goodness is the key to your salvation, then you must make it possible to be good; you must make it possible to be good enough for God.  A resolutely honest legalist would throw in the towel and admit that he has no hope of salvation because he is not good enough and cannot be good enough for God.  But legalists are never so honest.  No one chooses for himself a way of salvation that is impossible to walk.  They play a game, instead, and the game is domesticating sin, rendering it toothless, so that we can believe ourselves to be much less sinful than we are and so able to be good enough for God.

That is precisely what the Pharisees did and what most people do today. It is at this point, importantly and interestingly, that Jesus found the cancer that was not recognized by the pious people of his day.  Jesus did not object to the Pharisees’ doctrine of God, or of Holy Scripture, or, even, of their doctrine of the sovereignty of God.  The Pharisees were the Calvinists of their day when it came to divine sovereignty.  There were many things about the theology of the teachers of the law to which Jesus never made an objection. On several occasions he sided with the Pharisees against the Sadducees, who were the theological liberals of that day.  Even the Pharisees’ zeal for the law of God he can and does approve and even, on several occasions, compliment. So where was the problem?  What was the fatal error that Jesus discerned in their teaching and their living?

It was the fact that they didn’t take sin seriously!  And as a result they had a false understanding of righteousness.  They had contrived a way to satisfy themselves that they had sin under control and that they were accordingly righteous enough for God.  And they had done that with two techniques.  The first was casuistry, the many and varied regulations by which they taught people how to be obedient to God’s law.  They called these regulations a “fence” around God’s law.  Keep these man-made regulations and you would keep God’s commandments. If you weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath day they devised unending regulations about what you could and could not do so that you would not do work and so disobey the fourth commandment.  These regulations had the inevitable effect of treating sin in isolation.  Sin became simply the particular violation of one of the 613 commandments in the Torah.  Then sins were rated, into greater and lesser sins, and the main thing became the avoidance of the greater sins.  In this way sin as a fundamental bent of the human heart, a corruption deep within us that stains everything coming out of us, a visceral spirit of rebellion against God is forgotten.  People worry about sins and not about SIN.  They worry about what their hand does and forget about what their heart thinks and feels, and forget still more completely about what their heart is not thinking and not feeling.  In all legalistic systems sins of commission are emphasized and sins of omission, the far greater sins by the way – our failures to love God and to love or neighbor – are minimized.

The second technique of the Pharisees by which they domesticated sin was the introduction of the idea of a person’s merit, merit accumulated by righteous acts, an idea the OT knows nothing about.  With merit, something is placed over against sin as a counter-balance.  Merit compensates for sin.  So, even if one commits sins, one can balance the ledger with merit.  Sin is suddenly something we can control.  [Jeremias, New Testament Theology, 147]

It was this understanding of human life and righteousness that the Pharisees had developed that made Jesus Christ so unnecessary to them. They did not need a redeemer to take away their sins, or to endure the punishment of them in their place, because they imagined that they had contrived a way to deal with sin themselves.  That was their fatal error; that was the cancer that Jesus detected in their spiritual life.

We tame sin in the very same way today and in some ways the Pharisees never heard of.  We do what they did, of course.  Most Americans, the surveyors tell us, believe that they have in fact kept the ten commandments.  Very few Americans can tell you what the ten commandments are, though they can guess at a few, but they still believe that they have kept them.  Why in the world do they think that?  Because they have the Pharisees’ view of the commandments, superficial and outward.  They haven’t killed anyone.  They have never broken into someone’s house and stolen his TV set or her jewelry.  Many have never slept with another’s spouse.  They have never lied in court.  And, if they have done things they don’t want to admit having done to others – cheated on their taxes, indulged in pornography, shoplifted an item or two, lied about themselves or others, lost their temper regularly at home, etc. – well, they’ve done many good things as well that offset their mistakes.  Talk to anyone seriously about salvation, about the meaning of life, about how to please God and get to heaven, and I guarantee you, this is what people, even highly sophisticated, intelligent people will tell you.  We are all Pharisees at heart!  People really do think themselves good enough for God.  Pharisee is what everyone becomes who treats sin as something benign, something subject to our control.

What is more, we have developed a wrinkle or two that make the Pharisees of Jesus’ day seem like amateurs in this matter of taming sin and rendering it, if not harmless, at least not terribly dangerous.  We have come to view sin as a sickness or addiction, something more that happens to people than that people do and are responsible for.  Recovery groups nowadays often teach their clients to think of themselves as innocent and injured rather than as willful violators of God’s law who must seek God’s forgiveness and repent.  What this view has in common with Pharisaism is its innocence about sin.  It does not proceed on the Bible’s view that sin is part of our fallen nature and comes up from deep within us unbidden at every moment, a moral cancer, a spiritual disease that effects us in ways we hardly understand.  It does not admit that our particular moral failures are part and parcel of the comprehensive moral failure of our lives.  Modest remedies, topical applications, will never be adequate to control this raging rebellion against God that burns in our hearts and has burned in every human heart since Adam and Eve chose to rebel against God.

But with its view of sin, modern man, like ancient man, is sure that he has the means at hand to take care of the problem.  Why bother God when all I need are some rules to guide my behavior and some good works to put against my mistakes in the ledger book of my life?

But against all of this comes Jesus Christ with his thundering NO!  Righteousness is not outward performance alone.  That is the easiest part.  And, even as outward performance, it is not nearly so easy as the Pharisees made it and people today are accustomed to make it.  The law demands a great deal more than people want to believe, even in outward behavior.  And then it demands the obedience, the purity, the love of the heart and of the life down to its bottom.  It forbids not only illicit sexual activity, which in the Bible is any outside of marriage, it forbids impurity of thought as well as of action.  It forbids lust for a woman as well as sex with a woman who is not your wife.  It not only forbids the broken vow that has been made in God’s name, it requires that your word be your bond and that you be scrupulously honest in what you say about everything and to everyone.  God’s word is true and so must yours be.  It not only forbids that you take another human life, it requires you to love your neighbor in your heart and care for his life.  It even requires you to love your enemy, as God loved you when you were his enemy.

So you see, Jesus is saying, you cannot understand what righteousness is if you don’t understand what sin is.  You cannot appreciate what righteousness really is unless you are aware of how comprehensively unrighteous you actually are.  Sin is a violation of God’s law and righteousness is a keeping of God’s law, but to understand either one must understand what and how much the law of God requires of us.  These are interrelated questions with the profoundest implications imaginable.

It is this understanding that distinguishes Christians from other folk, even other religious folk.  They take sin so seriously.  They think themselves such great sinners.  They worry about being righteous because they think that being righteous is not only terribly important but unbelievably difficult.  People wonder why Christians are so pessimistic about themselves and why they make such a big deal of forgiveness and of faith in Jesus Christ.  They wonder why they make such a great issue of whether a person believes in Jesus or not.  But it is all because they think they have tons and tons of egregious sins to be forgiven and only in Christ and through Christ could they ever escape the guilt and power of their sin.  And they know that what is true of them is true of everyone else.  I had a conversation on my doorstep the other day with some Mormon fellows and in the midst of that conversation I told them that the reason I couldn’t be a Mormon was that they had no answer for sins as great as mine; they didn’t have enough righteousness for me.  And, you know what?  They got offended because they thought I was telling them that they weren’t righteous, that there was something wrong with their lives.  I explained that I wasn’t talking about them, but about me, and about my need to have so many sins removed.  I told them, that, being Mormons, they expected me to cover my sins with my good deeds and I knew I couldn’t do that!  And the only sense that they could make of that was that I was saying that they weren’t good enough for God.  Precisely!  But they took it as a slander instead of as a statement of fact!  Real Christians take the assertion that they are not and cannot make themselves good enough for God as a statement of fact!

Alexander Whyte, the great Scottish preacher of a century ago, said that he wanted to be known as an expert, a specialist in the study of sin.  He was willing to leave other distinctions to other men.  Some in his own day thought that he painted human nature too black.  Well that is hard to do and there were, in any case, in that day, as there are in ours, very few who aspired to be specialists in this kind of teaching.  What is more, it is a great emphasis in Jesus’ own teaching.  It is he who was constantly holding our noses to the inner cesspool of our lives.  It was he who refused to allow us to think that if we conformed outwardly to the expectations of our culture we were, for that reason, righteous people, when our hearts were far from God and far from our neighbors also. I will have done you great good, all of you; and will have given you a great gift, if I could, by the grace of God and the Spirit of God working in and through his Word, give you permanently a sense of how high is the standard of God’s righteousness set for us and how profoundly we fail to meet that standard at every turn.  Understand that and everything else in the Christian faith becomes plain and clear.  Remain unclear at this fundamental point and the rest must remain vague and uncertain.

Near the end of Whyte’s ministry the world and the church was changing around him – was beginning to change into that kind of world and church that we know so well today.  Messages on sin and on the relentless and profound demands of God’s righteousness were becoming less and less popular.  People were wanting what they thought were more positive messages about human life and human potential.  One summer holiday Whyte found himself tempted to change his message and to limit his attention to sin and righteousness.  He knew it would gain him some popularity among many.  But, as he told his congregation,

“…what seemed to me to be a Divine Voice spoke with all-commanding power in my conscience, and said to me as clear as clear could be:  ‘No! Go on, and flinch not!  Go back and boldly finish the work that has been given you to do.  Make them at any cost see themselves in God’s holy Law as in a glass.  Do…that, for no one else will do it.  No one else will so risk his life and his reputation as to do it.  And you have not much of either left to risk.  Go home and spend what is left of your life in your appointed task of showing My people their sin and their need of my salvation.”  [Barbour, Life of Alexander Whyte, 532]

One parishioner wrote of this “powerful but gloomy sermon on Original Sin,” and another said “My heart sank as I listened to these words.”  But another wrote a note to her minister that night thanking him for a message that met her most urgent need and which she feared no other minister would have preached to her.  As one of his parishioners wrote after his death, “No preacher has so often or so completely dashed me to the ground as has Dr. Whyte; but no man has more immediately or more tenderly picked me up and set me on my feet again.”  [J.M.E. Ross (ed.), Lord Teach us to Pray, xiii]

You see the Lord’s teaching here, however rigorous and demanding, however knifelike it cuts through the hypocrisies so common to us all, is ultimately the basis of the only honest and true hope and encouragement known to sinful man.  It is the only true gateway to authentic, lasting joy.  That is why this note of sin and righteousness is sounded so often and so clearly in Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus Christ was a preacher of righteousness, but, because he would not heal the wound of his people lightly, he was first a preacher of sin.  And if you want to understand and embrace his salvation and then live the life of righteousness to which he has called you, you must hear him and believe him when he talks about what God’s law really requires of you, no matter the gloomy facts that you must then face about yourself and your sinfulness.  If you have Jesus view of sin and righteousness it means, in the first place, that you will know that you need a Redeemer and you will know where to find him.  You’ve got too much sin and are piling up more every day ever to imagine that you can deal with this yourself.  You haven’t tamed sin at all, it is a lion that is devouring you and will devour you unless someone rescues you from it. But, paradoxically, to accept Jesus’ view of sin and righteousness will also mean that you ever after will live a different, a very different life, because you will never content yourself with what you know very well is not righteousness – outward and superficial conformity to rules – when Christ is after a purity, a faithfulness, and a love in the heart, a love for God and for man so strong that it cannot but bring in its train a cascade of attitudes and acts very different, utterly different from what is common to man.  That is how it is that here in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is speaking to his disciples and only to them, to those who have found life in him, and speaking to them about the life that they must live and only they can and will!