After describing what citizens of His kingdom should look like in the Beatitudes and then explaining how His followers should interact with the world around them (salt and light), Jesus now moves forward in Matthew 5.17-48 to relate life in the kingdom to the Old Testament Law.
Jesus begins by saying that He came not to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (5.17). The Law and the Prophets make up two of the main sections of Hebrew Scriptures, so Jesus here is basically referring to the entirety of the Old Testament.
Within Churches of Christ, we have sometimes been guilty of emphasizing so strongly that we are “New Testament Christians”—meaning that we are saved under the new covenant and that we enter that covenant as described in the pages of the New Testament—that we have given the impression that we don’t think the Old Testament matters very much.
But just so we’re clear, the Old Testament matters to us as Christians, a lot! Jesus says He came not to abolish the Old Testament, but to fulfill it: not only did Jesus follow the Law in His own life, He also fulfilled its prophecies, and accomplished its purpose.
Jesus goes on to tell His audience that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees—the well-respected religious leaders of the day—they will be unable to enter His kingdom (5.20). This helps us to clearly see an important point: rather than getting rid of the Law and letting people do whatever they want now that they are free of it, Jesus actually raises the standards of how people in His kingdom will live. In the SOTM, Jesus calls His followers to the highest standards of moral and ethical conduct that the world has ever known.
Moving forward, Jesus will illustrate how the righteousness of His followers must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees by bringing up six different areas related to the Law. Each time, He will begin by saying, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” When Jesus says this, He is not disagreeing with or contradicting the Law itself, but rather, is setting His interpretation of the Law up against the way the scribes and Pharisees interpreted it. Jesus came to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it, but that doesn’t mean that He is beholden to the traditions of men. As the New Moses who delivers God’s Law anew and as the one who is God with Us Himself, Jesus is the Divine Interpreter of the Law who gets to tells us what it means and how it applies.
We do not have the time to look at each of these six areas in detail, but Jesus relays a similar message time and time again:
- Murder and Anger (5.21-26): Jesus says it isn’t enough not to murder someone; it’s also improper for us to hold anger against our brothers and sisters and insult them. Furthermore, when we are at odds with one another, reconciliation is so important that it even takes priority over worship!
- Adultery and Lust (5.27-30): Jesus says it isn’t enough to refrain from committing the physical act of adultery; it is also inappropriate to lust after other people. Lust is a particularly dehumanizing and selfish sin because it treats the other person as an object whose worth is only determined by their ability to fulfill your desires. We live in a culture that has a major problem with the objectification of women in particular, and in this climate, Jesus says its not enough to simply avoid the physical act of sexual immorality; we are also to control our minds and avoid the dehumanizing act of lust.
- Divorce (5.31-32): Divorce was a hotly-debated topic in Jesus’ day, and He sides with the strictest interpreters of the law, saying that anyone who divorces except for sexual immorality makes their spouse commit adultery (because the assumption is that both parties will get married again).
- Oaths (5.33-37): The Old Testament was clear that God’s people were to be truthful, but over time, this had been perverted to the point that elaborate rules had been developed for ways you could make an oath or a vow, and that only oaths that contained God’s name were binding. Jesus condemns this practice as ridiculous, and basically points out that the only reason that people would feel the need to take an oath to get people to believe them would be if their word in general was suspect. However, if we have a track record of being honest with other people, no oaths or vows are necessary. And this is precisely Jesus’ point: don’t make vows, but simply say “Yes” or “No” and be honest when you say them. The standard for living in Jesus’ alternative community is absolute integrity and honesty, no elaborate oaths or half-truths.
- Retaliation (5.38-42): The Old Testament teaches the law of retribution (an eye for an eye) in multiple places as a legal principle to insure that fair compensation was made for any wrong that was done, but apparently the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had extended this principle to personal relationships. Jesus makes it clear that this sort of retaliation is unacceptable for those who would follow Him, and using four examples from the present day, emphasizes that citizens of the kingdom operate out of interest for others rather than self-interest. We are to prefer nonresistance over retaliation, generosity over legal rights, and concern for others over concern for ourselves. We are to respond to oppressive behavior with the love of God.
- Love Your Enemies (5.43-48): The Law of Moses certainly taught the necessity of loving one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19.18), but the hating of one’s enemy was an inference made by those who wanted to limit the requirement to love. But Jesus says that His followers are not to treat enemies as enemies, but as people we love.
This concludes one of the most difficult sections of the SOTM, difficult not because it is hard for us to understand, but because it is so hard for us to follow. Some of the things Jesus says here seem so extreme that it is tempting to say that what Jesus commands is impractical and would never work in the “real world.” But remember: Jesus doesn’t call His disciples to fit into the “real world”: He calls us to change it by living as salt and light, faithful members of an alternative community.