In the verses we studied last week the Lord Jesus made clear that he had not come to abolish the Law or Prophets, but to fulfil them. And one of the ways he fulfilled the Law and the Prophets was by explaining to his people how to interpret the Old Testament properly. And we see that in today’s passage, because in today’s passage the Lord contrasts what the people had heard before about the Law with what he has come to tell them about the Law. He contrasts what they had heard before from the rabbis with his own interpretation of the Law. And, of course, his interpretation is the right interpretation, because he is God. Who better to interpret God’s law than God himself?
And then, the Lord also made clear that our righteousness needs to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees. Now, we don’t enter Christ’s kingdom because of our own righteousness. We can’t earn our way into his kingdom by the things we do. We enter Christ’s kingdom through faith in Christ and by relying on what he has done for us. But Christ the King expects the righteousness of the members of his kingdom to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees, because what he’s looking for from his people is a different kind of righteousness than theirs. The Pharisees were only concerned with outward obedience to the Law. And they also nullified the word of God by their traditions. So, instead of keeping to God’s law, they kept to their own traditions. But what the Lord is looking for from his people is obedience to God’s Law and not to their traditions. And what the Lord is looking for from his people is inward obedience. He’s looking for obedience from the heart and an inward righteousness of mind and motive. And the only way we can obey the Lord like that is if we have received the Holy Spirit from him. He gives us his Spirit to help us become more and more willing and able to obey the Lord and to keep his Law.
In today’s passage, the Lord speaks about murder and adultery. In the next passage, he speaks about divorce and oath-taking and retaliation and loving your neighbour. In each case, he begins by referring to what they heard in the past about these issues from the rabbis. And so, look down to verse 21 which begins with the words, ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago….’ And you’ll see he says something similar in verse 27 and in verse 31 and in verse 33 and in verse 38 and in verse 43. In each case, he’s referring to what they have heard. Normally, when the Lord refers to something in the Old Testament, he says, ‘It is written.’ But he doesn’t say that here. He doesn’t say, ‘It is written’, but ‘You have heard that it was said….’ So, he’s referring to what the rabbis had said about God’s word. He’s referring to the way they understood and interpreted and taught God’s Law. But what they said about the Law was very different from what God meant by the Law.
And so, the Lord then goes on to give the proper interpretation. So, take a look at verse 22, where he says: ‘But I tell you that….’ And it’s the same in verse 28 and in verse 32 and in verse 34 and in verse 39 and in verse 44. So, ‘You have heard that it was said…’, ‘But I tell you….’
Since the Lord Jesus is God then he’s able to give his people the right interpretation of the Law. He’s able to explain to us what the Law means and what is required from us. And as I’ve already said, what he’s looking for from his people is more than outward conformity. He’s looking for inward obedience.
Verses 21 to 26
And so, in verses 21 to 26 he’s talking about murder. And he begins in verse 21 by saying,
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder’ and ‘anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’.
The first part of what they were saying comes straight from the Old Testament. It’s the sixth commandment which you can find in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5: ‘You shall not murder.’ However, the second part of what they were saying is not in the Old Testament. This is their interpretation of the commandment. And from what the Lord goes on to say, it’s clear that what they were saying is that the commandment is only concerned with the outward act of murder. So, only the person who actually murders another person will be subject to judgment. According to the rabbis, the commandment isn’t about anything else apart from that one outward act.
That’s what the people had heard from the rabbis. But the Lord goes on to make clear that the commandment is about a lot more than the outward act, because anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. The rabbis were saying you’ll be liable to judgment for murdering someone. But the Lord says you’ll be liable to judgment for being angry with someone.
I mentioned John Murray last week. He suggests the Lord is referring to malicious, causeless anger. That is, to an unholy anger. And we tend to distinguish between righteous and unrighteous anger, because it’s appropriate — isn’t it? — to feel anger towards wickedness. Furthermore, another scholar suggests that the Lord is referring here to ‘the person who goes on being angry’. And this fits with what we read in Ephesians 4, where Paul says, quoting Psalm 4, ‘In your anger do not sin’. And he goes on to explain that we’re not to let the sun go down on our anger. In other words, don’t let anger fester so that it continues on from one day into the next. Instead of letting it fester, be reconciled to the person you’re angry with. And so, in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord is referring to the person who goes on being angry and who expresses his anger by saying ‘Raca’ to his brother, which was a term of abuse, or by saying ‘You fool’ to his brother. This person who goes on being angry expresses his anger towards his brother by insulting him, when instead he should do what he can to be reconciled to his brother.
And so, the Lord goes on to give us two illustrations. In the first, someone is offering his gift at the altar. So, he’s in the middle of an act of worship. But he remembers that there’s someone who is angry with him. There is someone who has something against him so that their relationship has been spoiled. So, he’s at the temple to worship God but he’s remembered his brother is angry with him. What should he do? Well, living at peace with one another is so important that this man should postpone his act of worship and, before doing anything else, he should go and be reconciled to his brother. And only then, after he’s sorted things out, should he return to the temple and offer his gift.
Incidentally, that’s one of the reason churches have pre-communion services. At the pre-communion service, we’re reminded that before we come to the Lord’s table, we need to deal with any sins in our life and we need to be sort things out with anyone who is angry with us. And so, we have the time between the pre-communion service and the communion service to sorts things out.
Then, in the Lord’s second illustration, he describes someone who is on the way to court. What should he do? He should try to settle matters quickly with his adversary before they get to the court, otherwise, when they get to court, he might be end up in prison.
Let me summarise the Lord’s teaching here. Firstly, the person who goes on being angry and who therefore insults his brother is liable to judgment. Secondly, he illustrates what he means by referring to two people who realise that someone is angry with them. And their duty is to go and be reconciled to their brother.
And so, what’s the sixth commandment about? It forbids murder, of course. But it’s about more than that. It’s about doing what we can to maintain good relations with one another. If you’re angry with someone, don’t let it fester for days. Sort it out quickly. If someone is angry with you, don’t let it fester. Sort it out quickly. Ultimately, of course, it’s about loving one another instead of hating one another, because didn’t God love us? And didn’t he therefore send his Son into the world to reconcile God and sinners?
Verses 27 to 30
In verse 27 the Lord refers to what the rabbis taught about adultery:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery’.
That’s taken straight from the Ten Commandments. It’s the seventh commandment. But from what we Lord goes on to say, we can suppose that what the rabbis were saying is that the commandment forbids the outward act of adultery and nothing else. And so, the Lord Jesus goes on to clarify what the commandment is about. The commandment forbids not only the outward act, but the commandment also forbids anyone from looking at a woman lustfully.
Once again, one of the commentator suggests that the Lord is referring to the person who goes on looking at another person with lust. In other words, the Lord may not be referring to ‘passing attraction’, but to a ‘deliberate harbouring of desire’ for an unlawful relationship. John Murray refers to the man who fixes his eye on a woman with lewd and lustful desire. And the word the Lord uses for ‘woman’ refers to a married woman. So, he’s referring specifically to a man who deliberately harbours a desire for another man’s wife. But, of course, the Lord’s words apply more widely than that to anyone who goes on looking with lust at another person.
John Murray is careful to explain that not all sexual desire is sinful. But the proper place for its expression is within marriage. And so, the Lord is not referring to lawful desire, but to sinful desire. And he’s making the point that the seventh commandment is not only concerned with the outward act, but it’s also concerned with sinful thoughts and desires. And according to the Lord, the person who goes on looking lustfully at another person has already committed adultery in his heart. It’s not so much that looking lustfully at someone may eventually lead to adultery. It’s that looking lustfully at someone is already adultery.
And the Lord refer in verses 29 and 30 to our eye and hand. With our eye, we look. With our hand, we act. Well, if your right eye causes you to sin, cut it out and throw it away otherwise you may end up in hell. If your right hand causes to you sin, cut if off and throw it away otherwise you may end up in hell. Now, we need to be clear that the Lord is using hyperbole. That is, he’s deliberately exaggerating to make the point that sin is so serious, and the consequences of sin are so serious, that we must do whatever is necessary to remove sin and the causes of sin from our lives. He doesn’t expect us to cut our eyes out and to cut our hands off. He’s exaggerating to make his point. In any case, cutting out our eyes and cutting off our hands would not really solve the problem, because our sinful heart and our fallen human nature is the real source of sin in our lives. So, he doesn’t expect us to mutilate ourselves, but we’re to do whatever is necessary to remove sin and its sources from our lives.
So, the rabbis said that the sixth and seventh commandments were concerned with outward acts only, but the Lord made clear that the commandments are deeper than that. The sixth commandment not only forbids murder, but also ongoing anger. And God’s people must do whatever they can to restore any relationship which has been broken. So don’t let your anger fester, but go and sort it out. And if someone is angry with you, then go and sort it out. Make it your responsibility to restore your relationship with the other person.
And the seventh commandment not only forbids adultery, but also sinful thoughts and desires. And just as God’s people must do whatever they can to restore any relationship which has been broken, so God’s people must do whatever they can to keep their thoughts and desires pure and to keep themselves from committing adultery in their hearts.
And in order to obey the Lord like that, we need the help of the Lord. We need his forgiveness when we fall short of doing his will. And so, when we fall short, we must confess it and ask for his forgiveness. And we also need his Spirit to renew us inwardly more and more so that our heart’s desire will be to obey the Lord from the heart.