We observed in our last lesson that Jesus set up this section of his teaching by warning about relaxing any of God’s commands. But Jesus does not simply tell everyone that their righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Nor does he simply tell everyone to stop relaxing his laws. Instead, Jesus is going to spend quite a bit of time illustrating how the religious leaders in his day were actually doing what he said they must not do. If you scan through chapter 5 you will see that Jesus begins each topic with the phrase, “You have heard that it was said” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). It is important to observe that Jesus does not say, “It is written.” Jesus is not saying, “Here is what the Law of Moses said, but I am telling you something new and different.” Often the Sermon on the Mount has been understood in this way. But Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. Jesus’ concern is about the teachers of the relaxing what the commandments said. Therefore, what Jesus is doing is not giving new law in contrast to the Law of Moses. Rather, Jesus is exposing what the religious teachers are saying and how they are relaxing the law. Then Jesus places God’s standard back where it ought to have been in the first place.
Now we might wonder why we would care about this. What does it matter to study how the religious teachers were relaxing the laws of God in Jesus’ day? The answer is that this section is very relevant to us because what we will see is how they were relaxing God’s laws is how we also relax God’s laws. In other words, this is how we can exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. So let’s consider how they relaxed the law and we will consider if we do the same.
Murder/Anger (Matthew 5:21-26)
The first teaching Jesus references is murder. Now we know that murder is written in the Law of Moses as a violation of the commandments. But as we read what Jesus said in verse 22 it becomes clear what the religious leaders were teaching. The teaching was that anger and slander were acceptable responses toward people because the law said to not murder. So you can do what you want toward someone else as long as you do not kill them. Notice what people were considering acceptable in verse 22. They were maintaining their anger toward someone. They were insulting someone. They were calling people names like fool. Jesus doing any of these things makes a person worthy of judgment. The word “raca” that some translations keep was a word of contempt or abuse.
Jesus’ first correction is to show us that having hatred in our heart is condemned. We cannot say that we have done well because we did not get into a fist fight or did not kill the person. Hatred and the words that flow from that hatred are condemned. When we slander people, call people names, curse them, or speak evil about them, we are coming under the judgment Jesus is speaking about. But notice that it is not enough to keep ourselves from speaking evil about someone or toward someone. Look at verses 23-26.
Notice that the standard is reconciliation. If you realize that someone has something against you, you need to stop your worship and be reconciled with that person. Now think about how far the standard is from where the religious leaders had set the standard. The religious teachers indicated that you were doing well if you did not murder someone. They were teaching people that they were keeping God’s law if they did not murder. Now I want us to think about ourselves. How often do we vindicate ourselves in our relationships, with people we know and do not know, and even in our marriages because we did not act on our hatred to kill or harm the person!
But now think about what Jesus just told us. When you were filled with hatred or rage, you were wrong, regardless of what the other person did. When you lashed out with your words, saying hurtful words, abusive words, or calling them names like “idiot,” you were wrong. When you did not try to reconcile the broken relationship, you were wrong.
Everyone who hates his brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. (1 John 3:15 CSB)
Relationships matter to God. How we treat each other matters to God. How we feel about other people matters to God. We must stop excusing our anger and excusing our words. Please consider the point that Jesus makes. Our worship is a complete sham if we are not reconciling with people who have something against us. This is what the apostle Paul proclaimed to the Romans.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceable with all. (Romans 12:18 ESV)
We are only getting righteousness right when we are the peacemakers. We are only getting righteousness right when we are trying to reconcile with those who have something against us. So what do you think this means if we are the ones who have something against someone? We are going to be the first person to go and try to solve the problem, not make things worse with our anger. Please hear what Jesus is saying. Anything less than seeking reconciliation is to lower God’s standard. We should understand this because this is what God has done for us through Jesus. God desired and made a way for reconciliation with us. Those who are in God’s kingdom and are living the blessed life are those who make for peace and seek reconciliation in our relationships.
There was another way the religious teachers had lowered the standard of God’s law. They taught that adultery was the line of sin that was not to be crossed. But notice Jesus addresses our hearts again. Jesus says that you are not doing any better if you are looking at a person with lust. Please hear what Jesus is saying. You should not be patting yourself on the back because you have avoided adultery but you are looking at people lustfully. Lusting but not touching is not the goal of the Christian. Notice that this is not a mere suggestion by Jesus. Look at what he says needs to happen. If your eye causes you to sin, you need to tear it out and throw it away. It is better to lose one of your members than be cast into hell. Does Jesus think lust is serious? Jesus says people are going to hell for lust. Do not lower the standard by thinking that looking or lusting is not a violation of God’s law. What you are watching matters to God. What you dwell on in your mind matters to God. What your eyes look at matters to God.
Please notice that the response we are to have is an aggressive response. We need to rip out of our lives whatever maybe generating lust in our hearts. I will assert that with the way the internet is these days, every home needs to have parental controls, content filters, and content blockers installed. It is far too easy to accidentally come across sinful material. I would especially encourage this if you have children in your home. We should want accountability. We should want to act aggressively like Jesus to keep ourselves from these prevalent temptations. Jesus gives a picture that his people will actively go to war with lust and sexual temptations. Jesus wants us to do everything we can to maintain purity and avoid lusts. There is no justification for pornography or lust.
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God (1 Thessalonians 4:3–5 ESV)
We are to have self-control. We need to control our minds and control our thoughts. We need to cut out of our lives the areas where we are failing.
For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. (Matthew 15:19–20 ESV)
Notice that another reason for purity is because what begins in the mind will be tempting to carry out in the body. We must stop making excuses for ourselves for the things we watch and the things we dwell on in our hearts. If we really want purity in our lives and in our homes, then we will take what some might think are extraordinary steps to shut down the areas where you are lusting in your hearts. When would you ever cut off parts of the body in real life? We see this happen when an infection becomes so extreme that the only way to stay live is amputation. We need see lust in this light. It is a poison. It is an infection. It must be cut off if you are going to have life.
Do Not Lower the Standard
What Jesus wants us to look at is if we have been lowering God’s standard in these various areas of life. The temptation is to think because we have not committed a “really bad sin” like murder or adultery that we must be doing well. But Jesus says you are not doing well if are not reconciling with people or if you are lusting in your heart. This is the exceeding righteousness that God demands.
It is only when we look at these standards that our hearts are exposed and we see the need for forgiveness. No one can stand before God and say that they are keeping the law as God gave it. The point is to convict us so that we will be poor in spirit, mourn over our sins, humble ourselves, seek righteousness, be more merciful, become pure in heart, and be peacemakers. Seeing the standard is supposed to make us repentant people who see that we are not righteous and have fallen far short of God’s glory and will. Seek God’s forgiveness. Then fight for purity. Then desire peace and reconciliation with those who have wronged you. Then your reward will be great in God’s kingdom.