Matthew 5:21-48

A common problem understood by everyone is the problem created when someone hears or reads what we said, but does not understand our intent in what we said. We were not misquoted; we said the words. But we were misrepresented because the words we said were interpreted to mean something we definitely did not mean. That is when we have this impossible argument: "You said this. This is exactly what you said. Am I misquoting you? Isn't that exactly what you said?" "Yes, that is exactly what I said. But you misunderstood what I meant by what I said. This is what I meant."

Let me illustrate the problem. The words are, "I will kill you." Four simple words. None more than four letters long. What do the words, "I will kill you," mean? Literally, the words mean that I am going to destroy your life. Is that what those four words always mean? That depends on the intent of the person and the situation, or the context of the situation.

Two good friends who love each other dearly love to play practical jokes on each other. One of them has just executed the perfect practical joke on the other. The perpetrator of the joke is laughing so hard he can't sit up. The victim of the joke, grinning from ear to ear, says to his friend, "I will kill you!" Is he threatening to destroy his good friend's life? No. He is promising his friend that he should be prepared to be the victim of an even more ingenious practical joke.

What if his good friend, the perpetrator, is murdered one week after playing the practical joke? What if the victim of the joke is arrested and tried for his friend's murder? What if he has to admit on the witness stand that he said the words, "I will kill you?" How important is it for the jury to understand what he meant by those words? Which reveals the truth--the literal meaning of the words, "I will kill you," or his intent when he said, "I will kill you"?

This illustrates an enormous problem in interpreting and applying the scripture. The problem is as old as the oldest scripture. Among people who accept the Bible as God's inspired word, disagreements rarely are based on what is said in scripture. People who accept the Bible as God's word commonly agree on the words. Most disagreements center in the intent of the words. What did God intend by what He said? Always, the context is powerfully related to the intent.

Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on what the law said. They disagreed about God's intent in what the law said. Often, the Pharisees declared the law meant only what the words literally said. Jesus commonly emphasized that God's intent went far deeper that the literal wording of the law. Matthew 5:21-48 is an excellent illustration of this problem.

  1. In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus specifically focuses on six understood laws that had a significant impact on daily life in the real world of first century Jewish society.
    1. Those six are:
      1. Matthew 5:21-26: "You shall not murder" coupled with "The murderer is guilty."
      2. Matthew 5:27-30: "Do not commit adultery."
      3. Matthew 5:31, 32: "If you divorce your wife, do not merely abandon her."
      4. Matthew 5:33-37: "You shall not break your vows, but you shall fulfill your oaths to the Lord."
      5. Matthew 5:38-42: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
      6. Matthew 5:43-48: "You shall love your neighbor" coupled with "You shall hate your enemy."
    2. I want us to look at each of those six in a brief overview to see the contrast between the Pharisees' literal, legalistic applications and Jesus' emphasis on God's intent.
      1. We could spend weeks examining all the material in these verses.
      2. There is far more I would enjoy sharing about each of these six statements than I have time to share this evening.
      3. I make this special request: Instead of focusing on details that are of special interest or concern to you, please try to stand back from a focus on details and try to see the broader picture, the broader context.
      4. Remember Jesus is speaking to his disciples who must live and function in first century Jewish society in Palestine.
      5. I hope the handout you have will help you do that.

  2. Consider the six in order.
    1. "You shall not murder; the person who commits murder is guilty."
      1. As far as the Pharisees were concerned, that was simple, direct, and self-explanatory: "It meant what it said, and said what it meant."
      2. Jesus said that the guilt resulting from murder involved matters more than merely the physical act of killing someone
        1. Commonly, anger led to contempt.
        2. Contempt led to murder.
        3. One's hostile anger could get him in trouble with the court.
        4. One's contemptuous treatment of another was a more serious court matter.
        5. To contemptuously reject a person as being utterly worthless and unworthy of any consideration or respect was such a serious matter that the divine court would sentence that contemptuous person to the fire of hell.
      3. So Jesus said, "Accept responsibility for your own emotions and your responsibility to respect other people. In all relationship problems, pursue reconciliation diligently."
        1. The person who restrains himself from committing the physical act of murder has not fulfilled the intent of the law.
        2. God's intent went beyond the physical restraint that prevented murder; it prohibits the hostile anger and contempt that can lead to murder.
        3. Where there is respect for people, there is no murder.
    2. Do not commit adultery.
      1. Again, as far as the Pharisees were concerned, this was simply understood: do not commit the physical act of adultery: do not have intercourse with someone else's wife.
      2. Jesus said that more is prohibited than the physical act.
        1. The problem begins long before the physical act occurs.
        2. The problem begins when a man deliberately looks at a woman for the purpose of visualizing the act of adultery with her.
        3. It is that lustful indulgence that says within, "I surely would if I could."
        4. Jesus said that is the moment when the man becomes guilty of adultery.
      3. He admonishes them not to let a God-created need, a God-given desire be perverted and destroy the entire person.
      4. Do anything necessary to prevent that from happening.
    3. If you divorce your wife, she must understand that she has been divorced; do not merely abandon her.
      1. The context of this command reflects a world and a situation that are completely foreign to us.
        1. Women had no significant status at the time of Israel's exodus from Egypt or in the first century world.
        2. Men possessed all rights and status, so a wife was little more than a possession.
        3. There was a time when a man who did not want to be married merely abandoned his wife without informing her--since she received no explanation, she did not know if she was married or not.
      2. This was the situation that the law originally addressed.
        1. The men of Israel were instructed not to abandon their wives without explanation--if a man was divorcing his wife, she must be fully informed that he was divorcing her.
        2. Of course, the wife did not have the right to divorce her husband; only the husband had the right to divorce his wife.
      3. The Pharisees applied this law in this way:
        1. When you divorce your wife, you must do three things.
        2. You personally must place a simple writ of divorce in her hand.
        3. You must make certain that she clearly understands that it is a writ of divorce.
        4. You must do this in the presence of witnesses.
        5. She must clearly understand that she has been divorced.
      4. Jesus said that the intent of God was not focused in correct divorce procedures.
        1. God was not encouraging frivolous divorce.
        2. Frivolous divorce results in adultery.
      5. Very likely the adultery problem and the divorce problem were strongly inter-related--both commonly involved the indulgent, lustful searching eyes.
    4. Don't break your vows; fulfill your oaths.
      1. The Pharisees focused this law on making your vows or oaths correctly.
        1. Since this was basically an illiterate society, business deals did not utilize written contracts or guarantees.
        2. Deals were closed and guarantees were made by oath: "I swear by . . . that I will do this."
        3. If a person did not swear by the right thing, the oath and the promise it confirmed were not regarded as binding.
        4. Thus a person could lie and steal legally if he were imaginative with his oaths.
      2. Jesus said be so devoted to doing exactly what you promised to do that an oath is unnecessary.
        1. Evil, dishonest people need oaths.
        2. Honest people of integrity will do what they say they will do.
    5. In matters of injury, you will take eye for eye, tooth for tooth.
      1. When this law was given, it was a merciful law, a law of limitation.
      2. One could not inflict more harm on someone than he had received.
      3. The Pharisees focused this law in the concern for justice; justice must be served.
      4. Remember that Jesus described the righteous person as gentle, merciful, pure in heart, and a peacemaker.
      5. The person concerned about the intent of God will refuse to seek vengeance or retaliation--he focuses his actions on mercy, not on justice.
        1. He presents a threat to no one, not even those who are unjust to him.
        2. In a gentle spirit, he does more than is demanded of him and is generous.
    6. Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.
      1. Love your neighbor was clearly declared from the earliest history of Israel; hate your enemy is not found in Scripture.
      2. Perhaps the Pharisees defined neighbor to exclude certain peoples, and made a distinction between neighbor and enemy.
        1. If so, the same legal injunction that required you to love your neighbor also required you to hate your enemy.
        2. What Jesus says would suggest that they focused on hating your enemy.
      3. Rather than addressing the distinction they made between neighbor and enemy, Jesus addressed God's intent clearly: love both.
      4. He gave two reasons for doing so, reasons that would have great meaning to those who wanted to be righteous:
        1. Reason # 1: That is what God does.
        2. Reason # 2: If you don't, you do nothing more than ungodly people do.
      5. His admonition: Imitate God; let God be your standard.

  3. It is quite easy to see how the religious leaders would accuse Jesus of seeking to destroy the law.
    1. His description of a righteous person was radically different from theirs.
    2. His interpretation and application of the law was radically different from theirs.
    3. His understanding of how a righteous person would conduct himself was radically different. The righteous person:
      1. He opposed within himself anger that targeted other people and contempt for other people.
      2. He accepted responsibility for his own feelings and attitudes, and he committed himself to reconciliation.
      3. He refused to abuse sexual passions.
      4. He rejected frivolous divorce.
      5. He was a person of integrity, a man of his word.
      6. He was committed to mercy and kindness, not to vengeance and retaliation.
      7. He was committed to the best interests of his enemies as well as his neighbors.

In all of these contrasts, one theme runs through each. Understanding God's intent will always affect the way we treat other people.

Always seek to understand God's intent in what God said. Never stop learning how to treat people as God intends for the righteous person to treat them.

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Evening Sermon, 1 December 1996
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