Since the start of the year, we’ve been working our way through Matthew’s gospel on Wednesday evenings. And we’ve reached the Sermon on the Mount and have spent four Wednesdays on it already.
We noticed, when we began to study this sermon, that it recalls what happened in the days of Moses when God instructed Moses on a mountain. And here in Matthew’s gospel, we have the Lord Jesus and he’s instructing his disciples on a mountain. And in the days of Moses, there was the promise of blessings for God’s faithful people; and there was the threat of curses for those who were unfaithful. And the Sermon on the Mount begins with blessings and it ends with a warning to those who are unfaithful and who do not do what the Lord commands. As we’ve gone through Matthew’s gospel together, we’ve seen several connections to the Old Testament. And that’s true of the Sermon on the Mount as well.
And we spent one Wednesday on the blessings, or the beatitudes, which the Lord pronounced on his people. And most of the blessings are for the future. So, we will be comforted; we will inherit the earth; we will be filled and so on. Those blessings are for the future, when Christ comes again. But the first and last blessings are for the present: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is, right now, the kingdom of God. And blessed are those who are persecuted, for theirs is, right now, the kingdom of God. So, most of the blessings are for the future and we must wait for them. But we don’t have to wait to belong to the kingdom, because whoever trusts in Christ for forgiveness and turns from their sin in repentance is added to Christ’s kingdom in this life. And so, already, in this life, we belong to his kingdom. But, as members of his kingdom, we can expect persecution from those who do not believe and who are not part of his kingdom.
And after the beatitudes, the Lord describes his people as being salt and light. Salt is useful for many things and it benefits lots of people and it’s good. And Christ has made his people like salt, because he has made us to do good to others and to perform good deeds and to benefit the people around us. And the world around us will see it, because the Lord has made us lights which shine. And our good deeds, our good works, will shine brightly in this dark world. And the outcome will be that people will praise, not us, but they will praise our Father in heaven. He gets the glory for any good we may do, because he’s the one who enables us to do good by his Son and Spirit.
And then the Lord went on to make clear that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. So, he had not come to do away with the Old Testament and to introduce a completely new religion and a completely new way of living. No, his teaching was the fulfilment of what had gone before. And he fulfils the Law and the Prophets, because he’s able to explain to his people what the Law truly means. And therefore, in his teaching, he shows us that what God is looking for from his people is not outward conformity to the law, but inward conformity as well. God wants us to obey him in thought and word as well as in deed. And so, he expects from his people a different kind of righteousness than the Pharisees and teachers of the law possessed. Their obedience was outward only, whereas our obedience is to be inward too, obedience from the heart and an inward righteousness of mind and motive. That’s what God expects from his people. And, of course, he gives us his Spirit who works in us from the inside to renew our hearts so that we’re able to love the Lord and his law. And the Spirit works ins us to make us more and more willing and able to obey God our Father from the heart.
And in verses 21 to 48 of chapter 5 the Lord gives us six examples of the kind of inward obedience and righteousness he’s been talking about. So, he refers to murder and adultery and divorce and oath-taking and revenge and love. And these are examples or illustrations to help us understand what he’s been talking about. And so, this is not all that we’re to do, but it’s a sample of what he wants us to do to help us understand his will for us. In each case, he begins by quoting what the rabbis had been saying about God’s law. And then he goes on to give the proper interpretation of God’s law. And who better to interpret God’s law for us than God himself, because that’s who he is.
We’ve already studied the first two: murder and adultery. The rabbis were saying that the command forbidding murder was only concerned with the outward, physical act of murder; and only the person who actually murders another person will be subject to judgment. But the Lord Jesus made clear that the person who is angry with someone and who lets his anger continue and fester is liable to judgment. And so, the commandment forbidding murder not only forbids the act of murder, but it also forbids angry thoughts. And the Lord also made clear that it’s about doing what we can to maintain good relations with one another. If you’re angry with someone, go and sort it out. If someone is angry with you, go and sort it out.
And the rabbis were saying that the commandment forbidding adultery was only concerned with the outward, physical act of adultery. But the Lord Jesus made clear that the commandment not only forbids the outward act, but it also forbids anyone from looking at another person lustfully. So, it’s about sinful thoughts and desires and it’s about what goes on in our hearts. And 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 that brings us to what he says about divorce and oath-taking and revenge and love.
Verse 31 begins with the Lord saying, ‘It has been said….’ So, he’s referring to what the rabbis had been teaching about divorce and remarriage. And what had they been teaching? ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ Now, you’ll see from the little footnote in the NIV that the Lord is quoting from Deuteronomy 24:1. So, God’s law permitted a man to divorce his wife. However, from what the Lord goes on to say about adultery, it’s apparent that the issue here concerns the proper grounds for divorce. In Deuteronomy 24, God said that a man may divorce his wife if she becomes displeasing to him. And the rabbis used to discuss what that meant and some of them believed a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason. So, if she displeased him by burning his dinner, then he was permitted to divorce her. So, that’s what many of the rabbis taught about divorce.
The Lord goes on in verse 32 to give the correct interpretation of the law. And so, he tells us that anyone who divorces his wife causes her to become an adulteress; and anyone who marries her commits adultery as well. How are they committing adultery? They have committed adultery because, in the sight of God, the woman is still married to her first husband. Outwardly, in the eyes of the world, they are no longer married because the marriage has come to an end and she’s free to remarry. But inwardly, in the eyes of the Lord, they are still married, because, for him, marriage is a permanent, life-long union.
Having said that, the Lord adds that if the man’s wife has been unfaithful, then the man may divorce her. And presumably the reverse is also true: if a woman’s husband has been unfaithful, she may divorce him. But the point is that unfaithfulness is the one proper ground for divorce. I should add, of course, that we know from 1 Corinthians 7 that divorce is also permitted where one spouse has deserted the other. And I should also say that even when divorce is permitted, it’s not required.
But here’s the Lord, fulfilling the Law and Prophets by making clear how to interpret God’s word correctly. What did the Lord mean when he said that a man may divorce his wife if she displeases him? He meant he may divorce her only if she has been unfaithful to him. But leaving aside unfaithfulness, how can a husband protect his wife from committing adultery in the sight of God? By remaining married to his wife. Just as God’s people must do whatever they can to restore any relationship which has been broken, and just as God’s people must do whatever they can to keep their thoughts and desires pure, so God’s people who are married must do everything they can to stay together.
Let’s move on now to verses 33 to 37 and to the topic of making and keeping oaths. What had the rabbis been teaching? According to the Lord, they were saying, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ This is an amalgamation of several Old Testament texts which refer to oaths and vows including Leviticus 19:12 and Deuteronomy 23:23. According to the Scriptures, when anyone made an oath or vow, they were required to keep it.
So, the Lord is once again quoting from the Scriptures. But from what he goes on to say, it seems the issue he’s addressing is the way people tried to get out of the oaths they made. Matthew 23 is helpful here, because, in that passage, the Lord refers to the way people said they were not bound by an oath when they swore by the temple, but they were bound by an oath when they swore by the gold on the altar in the temple. So, they were finding loopholes in what they said in order to get out of what they promised. In the same way today, people might say that they had their fingers crossed when making a promise. So: ‘You can’t hold me to my promise, because my fingers were crossed.’ Or they will say that they didn’t mean it. Or someone today might break a promise by saying they were only joking. Here in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord refers to people swearing by heaven and by the earth and by Jerusalem and by their own head. We don’t know which was which, but presumably swearing by some of these was considered less binding than the others. And so, this was a way to give themselves a way out: ‘I have to keep that promise, but not that one.’
But what does the Lord say? Verse 34: Don’t swear at all. Verse 37: Simply let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ no. In other words, always keep your word. You should be the kind of person whose word can be trusted so that whatever you say, you will do. And there shouldn’t be any difference between what you say and what you mean. There shouldn’t be any inconsistency or contradiction in what you say and what you mean.
Now, since the Old Testament teaches us to keep our oaths, then clearly it’s not unlawful for us to make an oath. In fact, the Lord himself is sometimes depicted as making an oath. For instance, in Psalm 110, it says the Lord swore and will not change his mind about something. And so, when the Lord Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount not to swear at all, he must mean that we’re not to swear an oath with the deliberate intention of deceiving someone. We’re not to create a loophole in what we promise so that we can get out of it. When we promise something, we must keep our promise. Let there be no difference in what we say and in what we mean. Let there be no difference in what we say outwardly and what we think inwardly.
Verses 38 to 42 are about revenge. ‘You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth”. Again, the Lord Jesus is quoting the Old Testament, because those words are from Exodus 21:24 and other places. And the point of the law was to guide judges in Israel so that they would not punish lawbreakers excessively. They law helped them to see that the punishment must fit the crime. Any punishment must not be too light so that it seems the lawbreaker has gotten away with it. But at the same time it must not be too heavy. It must be just right. It must be fair.
But how were the rabbis misinterpreting God’s word? From what the Lord goes on to say about not retaliating, we get the impression that they were allowing the people to seek personal vengeance for themselves for every offence committed against them on the grounds that God’s word requires it. After all, didn’t God say ‘eye for eye’? Therefore, if someone has offended you, or hurt you, or done something against you, then you have the right, and even the duty, to get your own back.
That seems to be what the rabbis were teaching. And so, here’s the Lord, giving the right interpretation of God’s word. And from what he says, it’s clear that we should not seek personal revenge and we should not retaliate when someone offends us. So, do not resist an evil person. The word translated ‘resist’ can also be translated ‘retaliate’ and that’s probably the better translation. He means we’re not to repay evil for evil.
And in the examples which follow, the Lord is once again using hyperbole. That is, he’s deliberately exaggerating to make the point that we should not seek personal revenge. So, when someone strikes your cheek, it’s not so much that you offer him your other cheek, but that you don’t hit him back. If someone sues you for your tunic, it’s not so much that you give him your cloak as well, but that you don’t sue him back. If someone forces you to go one mile, it’s not so much that you go two, but that you won’t force him to do the same. And if you once asked someone for something and he refused, don’t refuse him when he asks you for something. So, you ask your neighbour for help, but he refuses. A week later, he asks you for help. What will you do? Will you say ‘no’ because he didn’t help you when you asked? Or will you ignore the fact that he said ‘no’ to you and will you give him the help he needs?
The rabbis taught tit for tat. Do to him what he did to you. After all, didn’t God said ‘eye for eye’? But that’s not the will of the Lord. Yes, the judge must punish lawbreakers. But you, in your personal life, in your dealings with the people around you, you’re not to take revenge. You’re not to retaliate. You’re to overlook what others have done to you. We’re to bear with one another’s faults and failings. Do not retaliate.
Let’s turn now verses 43 to 47. ‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour”‘. Well, that’s straight from the Bible, isn’t it? It’s from Leviticus 19:18. However, ‘hate your enemies’? That’s not in the Bible. It seems the rabbis were saying that our duty to love our neighbour implies that we’re to hate our enemies. So, that’s what they were saying. And the Lord goes on to give the proper interpretation. We’re to love our enemies and we’re to pray for those who persecute us. And then he adds, ‘that you may be sons of your Father in heaven’. He uses the image of a son with his father to convey the idea that loving our enemies will mean we’ll be like God. Since God loves his enemies, then you should love your enemies too. And he goes on to illustrate how God loves his enemies. Does God cause the sun to rise on the good only? No, he causes the sun to rise on the evil as well. Does God send the rain on the righteous only? No, he sends the rain on the unrighteous too. By referring to the sun and rain, he’s referring to God’s good gifts, because we wouldn’t have any food if God did not send the sun and the rain to make the crops grow. And so, God gives his good gifts to all kinds of people. He is good to all. And since God is good to all, then you should be good to all.
And if you only love those who love you, what reward will you get? In other words, loving those who love you is not big deal. Sure, even the tax collectors do that. And, of course, the tax collectors were regarded as big sinners. So, even big sinners do that. And if you only greet your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Even the pagans do that. So, everyone loves those who love them. But God’s people are to be different. They’re to love even their enemies, because that’s what our Heavenly Father does.
And the passage ends with verse 48: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ What does he mean? He can’t mean ‘morally perfect’ because none of us can be morally perfect or sinless in this life. One scholar (Talbert) suggests he means we should be inclusive in our love as God is. So, just as he loves the righteous and unrighteous, so we should love our neighbour and enemies. However another scholar (Pennington) suggests that the word translated ‘perfect’ really means something like ‘complete’ or ‘whole’. And therefore the Lord means we should be completely or wholly devoted to doing God’s will. So, I’ll do everything I can to restore broken relationships. I’ll do everything I can to keep my thoughts and desires pure. I’ll do everything I can to maintain my marriage. I’ll do everything I can to keep my word. I’ll do everything I can not to take revenge. I’ll do everything I can to love everyone I meet. I’ll do everything I can, because I am wholly devoted to doing God’s will. That’s what our attitude should be. And not just doing his will outwardly, in our actions, but inwardly too and from the heart.
Before we finish, let me remind you of two things. First of all, let me remind you of the good news of the gospel and how the Lord Jesus gave up his life to pay for our sins and shortcomings and he shed his blood to cleanse us of our guilt. And through faith in him, we’re pardoned by God for all that we have done wrong and we’re accepted as righteous in God’s sight for the sake of the righteousness of Christ. And so, though we may have done everything wrong, God regards us as if we’ve done everything right. I need to remind you of this, because none of us has done what Christ has said. Have I done everything I can to restore broken relationships? Have I done everything I can to keep my thought and desires pure? Have I done everything I can to maintain my marriage? Have I done everything I can to keep my word? Have I done everything I can not to take revenge? Have I done everything I can to love everyone I meet? Have I always been wholly devoted to doing God’s will? There is no one who has done everything we should do and all of us have broken God’s laws in countless different ways by our sinful thoughts and words and desires and deeds. All of us are sinners who deserve to be condemned. But the good news is that Christ has paid for our sins in full; and through faith in him we are forgiven. And so, when we come to the Lord’s Table next week, we can come with thankfulness and joy because Christ’s body was broken for us and his blood was shed for us. And because of him, we are forgiven.
And the second thing to say is that after Christ died, he was raised and he was exalted to heaven to receive the Holy Spirit whom he poured out upon his church. And the Holy Spirit is our sanctifier, the one who works in us and makes us more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth. He’s the one who renews us inwardly. And therefore he’s the one who helps us to obey the Lord from the heart. And so, we can rely on him. Throughout the week, he reminds of us God’s will. And he not only reminds us, but he helps us to do it. Isn’t that what we need? You get those instructions from IKEA about how to build a wardrobe or a chair. The instructions tell you what to do, but they do not help you to do it. They say, ‘Do this’, but they don’t help you to do it. But the Holy Spirit not only reminds us of God’s instructions, but he’s working inside us to help us to keep them. And when we fall short, he’s there to remind us of the good news of the gospel and to reassure us that we’re forgiven for the sake of Christ. And he’s there as well as the deposit, guaranteeing what is to come, which is eternal life in the presence of God, where we will be glorified and made perfect where we’ll never sin or fall short again.