Jesus’ “Sermon On The Mount” might be the most famous sermon recorded in the Bible. Matt 5:20-48 is a key section of that sermon, and not without controversy. Many brethren say the six times in Matt 5:20-48 Jesus says “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, … But I say unto you …” are about Jesus correcting false interpretations of the scribes and Pharisees, and giving the true meaning of the old testament law. But this view overlooks two important facts I think all would admit to be true:
· in each case where Jesus says “ye have heard it hath been said” he quotes the old testament law
· in each case where he says “But I say unto you,” Jesus teaches something consistent with new testament law
So the fact of the matter is that Jesus is contrasting new testament law with quotations from the old testament law. And I am afraid speculating there is more to it than that will lead to false conclusions on more than one important Bible subject.
Jesus Came To Teach New Testament Law
Just three verses before the opening of the sermon on the mount, Matt 4:23 tells us that “Jesus went about … preaching the gospel.” So we should expect at least much of what Jesus taught in the sermon on the mount to be new testament law. Other passages teaching Jesus would be teaching new testament law while here on earth are Luke 16:16 (“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached” – NASB), Heb 2:3 (“How shall we escape, if we neglect … salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him”), Mark 1:14, Luke 4:43, John 1:17, John 12:48, and John 14:26. Though Jesus did do some teaching on the law of Moses in his ministry, it shouldn’t surprise is that the sermon on the mount (and Matt 5:21-48 in particular) contains considerable new testament teaching.
Some might wonder how Jesus could teach new testament law while the old testament law was still in effect. Consider the following illustration: Suppose the U.S. decided to change our road system so that everybody was to drive on the left side of the road like they do in England, don’t you think the authorities would tell people about the new system before the implementation date? We might call this “preparatory” warning or teaching.
Some Bible examples of “preparatory teaching” (teaching that would be binding at a future time) are:
· Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 24:17-18 (e.g., “Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes”) were not germane when Jesus spoke it – not until the destruction of Jerusalem.
· John 6:39 says “And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which … believeth on him, may have everlasting life ….” Isn’t John 6:39 intended to prescribe a new testament condition of salvation?
· Jesus’ statements in John 3:3,5 “Except a man be born again” and “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” are they not stating New Testament conditions of salvation?
· Regarding withdrawal and the church in Matt 18:17 (“And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican”), didn’t Jesus give those instructions before the church even existed?
· Though Matthew 26:26-29 is given before Jesus’ death, the Lord’s Supper is a New Testament practice, correct?
Now considering there are so many examples of preparatory teaching in the Bible, why should it surprise us that Jesus is also doing this very thing in Matt 5:21-48? Just like most “Last Will And Testaments,” the stipulations of Jesus’ Will were stipulated before they went into effect.
Thou Shalt Not Kill versus Mistreating Your Brother
Consider the first case in verses 21-26. If “Thou shalt not kill” is an exact quote of one of the ten commandments (Exod 20:13), why would we conjecture that it represents a false interpretation by the Pharisees? Remember the old illustration of one of our preachers reading Mark 16:16 verbatim to an older lady who then responds “that is just your interpretation”? We’re going to have to quit using that illustration if we are guilty of doing the same thing as the older lady, classifying an exact quote from the Bible as being false doctrine. Furthermore, “whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment” is a true representation of Num 35:12 and the judgment done at the cities of refuge. As in Matt 5:21-48 other five cases, Jesus here quotes an old testament verse, and then proceeds to give the stricter new testament teaching: don’t be angry with your brother without a cause, and don’t call your brother Raca or fool.
Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery versus Lusting
“Thou shalt not commit adultery” is an exact quote of Exod 20:14. Of course someone could make a false application of a quote from the Bible, but how could an exact quote of an old testament verse itself be a false application of old testament teaching? If you just quote Matt 19:9 with no comment, could an unscripturally married person correctly accuse you of falsely interpreting Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage?
For the second time, Jesus quotes an old testament verse, and then proceeds to give the stricter new testament teaching, in this case, “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” The truth is that in all six cases, Jesus quotes the old testament, and then presents his new testament teaching/ethic, which is stricter than the teaching of that old testament verse.
Divorce For Any Uncleanness versus Divorce Only For Fornication
A few say Matt 5:31 is not a quote from Deut 24:1, but I ask you to look at them side by side. In the KJV we have “let him write her a bill of divorcement” and “let him give her a writing of divorcement.” What is the significant difference? Just like the other five cases, Jesus is quoting what the old testament said and then giving his new stricter law. Deut 24:1ff allowed divorce for any uncleanness, while Jesus’ teaching is divorce only for the cause of fornication.
Jesus does the same thing (contrast the new testament divorce law with the old testament divorce law) in Matthew 19:8-9, which reads in the NKJV “… Moses … permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you ….” Notice that Jesus is contrasting his law with “precept” that Moses “wrote” (Mark 10:5), and is also reinstituting the divorce law that was in effect at the beginning of creation.
Jesus does not contrast his divorce teaching in Matt 5 and 19 with false teaching. Instead he contrasts it with the actual divorce teaching of the law of Moses. This confirms again that all of Mat 5:21-48 is about a contrast between the old and new testament laws.
Before we move on, let’s drive home the fact that Matt 5:32 and 19:9 are not old testament teaching with the following chart showing the difference in Jesus’ teaching on divorce and Moses’ teaching on divorce:
Moses On MDR ≠ Jesus On MDR
|Moses’ MDR Teaching
Deuteronomy 24:1-4, etc. (OT)
|Jesus’ MDR Teaching
Matthew 5:32, 19:9, etc. (NT)
|divorce for any uncleanness Deut 24:1
||divorce only for fornication Matt 5:32a
|may let captive wife go if “no delight in her” Deut 21:10-14
||departing is wrong I Cor 7:10
|adulteress put to death Lev 20:10
||adulteress can be divorced Matt 19:9a
|divorcee could remarry Deut 24:2
||divorcee may not remarry Matt 19:9b
|polygamy allowed Exod 21:10, II Sam 12:8, Deut 21:15-17
||polygamy disallowed I Cor 7:2
|marry wife of dead brother Deut 25:5
||no such requirement
One reason it is so important to properly understand this argument is in order to combat the up and coming “MMLJ Doctrine,” the false theory that all of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are solely old testament teaching. This scheme says Jesus’ divorce teaching is therefore the same as Deut 24:1-4, and consequently a hop, skip, and a jump to concluding Deut 24:1-4 (which allows the put away woman to remarry) applies today. Let me hasten to say we should never ever believe something simply because it will help us fight another false doctrine, but when the truth does help us, we should use it to God’s advantage.
While we are on the topic of consequences, realize that if Jesus is just explaining the true meaning of the old law in both Matt 5:32 and 19:9, then no divorce is authorized today, not even a divorce for fornication. Those are the only two new testament verses stating the exception; all the other relevant marriage texts (Rom 7:2-3, I Cor 7:10, 39, etc.) simply state the no divorce rule without exception.
Thou Shalt Not Forswear versus Don’t Swear At All
“You shall not swear falsely” in Matt 5:33 (NKJV) is a quote of “ye shall not swear by my name falsely” in Leviticus 19:12. Note the old testament is consistent on this point of performing oaths:
· Numbers 30:2 “If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.”
· Psalms 15:1,4b “Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? … He that sweareth to his own hurt (detriment, ptd), and changeth not.”
· Deuteronomy 6:13, 10:20, 23:21-23, Ecclesiastes 5:4
Matthew 5:33 would not be a false interpretation of the old law by the Pharisees, as it unequivocally runs contrary to their very teaching and practice (as described by Matthew 23:16-22).
The essential ingredient in swearing that Jesus condemns here is adding a guarantee to your word (implying you are more likely to tell the truth than without that guarantee – Matthew 5:37b). Such a guarantee is not needed from a man who keeps his word all the time, is it?
What is Jesus saying in Matt 5:33ff? The old testament taught you could swear, but you had better do what you swore you would do. The new/stricter teaching is you shouldn’t even swear to begin with (“swear not at all”). Instead, just let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay. To say it is okay to swear today (in a court of law or other special circumstance) fails to recognize the contrast of Matt 5:33-34. If that view is correct, how is the teaching of verse 34 any different than the teaching it is contrasted with in verse 33?
Observe the following parallels to the critical phrase “at all” in Matthew 5:34:
· My wife punishing our kids: “You can’t watch television at all today, not Andy Griffith, nor Monday Night Football; just pass the time by reading a book.” Would some TV be allowed by that declaration?
· John 18:38: “Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.” Did Pilate find no faults in Jesus, but with a few exceptions?
· I John 1:5: “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Does that mean some darkness (sin) is found in God?
Everybody knows what “at all” means when it is used this way. God couldn’t have condemned all swearing any stronger, could he?
We shouldn’t close this discussion of swearing without noticing James 5:12 which says “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.” Those who take the opposing position on this topic evidently have this very different version of James 5:12 – “Swear seldom, but not by heaven, not by the earth, neither by any other frivolous oath: and make and keep solemn oaths.”
Lastly, if God had wanted to say we were never to swear, not even in a court of law, please tell us how he could have said it more definitively than the way Matt 5:34 and James 5:12 express it. Let me emphasize that any line of reasoning on Matt 5:20-48 that leads to saying it is okay to swear today should cause someone to rethink that line of reasoning. Matt 5:34 and James 5:12 are unequivocal on this point – “swear not at all” and “swear not … by any … oath.”
An Eye For An Eye versus Turning The Other Cheek
Matt 5:38’s “An eye for any eye, and a tooth for a tooth” states exactly what Exod 21:24 and Lev 24:20 taught. Again I ask, how could an exact quote of an old testament verse be a false interpretation of old testament teaching?
Many brethren get around the force of this passage by saying it refers only to “personal” vengeance, but the passage doesn’t mention personal vengeance, so limiting it to that is subtracting from God’s word (Matt 22:19). It means to never retaliate against physical violence – personal, impersonal, national (war), any violence. And by including personal vengeance, it stands in direct contrast to the “revenger of blood” instructions in Num 35:19. Rom 12:17a tells us to “recompense to no man evil for evil.” That is an absolute. The old law most certainly taught “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but Jesus’ new law never authorizes such. I don’t see how anybody thinks it could.
Hate Your Enemy versus Love Your Enemy
In the last of the six cases, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor” is an exact quote from Lev 19:18. And “hate thine enemy” is what the old testament taught in some circumstances in passages like Deut 23:3-4,6-7, Psalms 26:5, 31:6, 139:21-22 (“I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies”).
Consider that the Israelites were told by God to destroy other nations in war, even obliterate women and children at times. That is hate in action (not sentiment) similar to Proverbs 13:24 (“He that spareth his rod hateth his son”) and Genesis 25:34 (“Thus Esau despised his birthright”). Today Christians are to act the very opposite toward their enemies. Compare the difference between the two laws:
· I Sam 15:3,33 – “… go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman infant and suckling … Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.”
· Matt 5:44 – “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you …”
Does anybody really think Jesus and his law authorizes what the Israelites were commanded to do in I Sam 15:3,33? There was a theocracy in place under the old law. That would only have worked if God’s people were supposed to fight physically for that theocracy. Today there is no theocracy, so there is no need for such warring (hate in action) on the part of Christians. The kingdom of Israel was “of this world,” but Jesus’ kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36). Hate for enemies (e.g., participating in warfare against them) should be replaced with love for those enemies.
We Should Expect Overlap Between OT and NT Teaching
Some seem to be confused by the fact that two or three of Jesus’ “But I say unto you” statements introduce concepts that were also taught in the old law. They ask – didn’t the old testament condemn lust in passages like Prov 6:25 and Job 31:1? The answer is yes! But remember, when we teach the ten commandments are no longer binding, the Sabbatarians immediately ask us why it is still wrong to kill and steal today. Let’s not make the same mistake the Sabbatarians do. Matt 5:21-48 is revealing new testament law, but new testament law and old testament law overlap in many cases. Let me illustrate with passages everybody would agree make a contrast between the old and new testament laws, but where the new law given overlaps with old law. John 1:17 says “the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” But was there no grace or truth in the Old Testament”? Hebrews 10:28-29 contrasts physical death as a punishment for sin under Moses’ law versus spiritual death under our law, but wasn’t there also spiritual death in the old testament?
The following are Matt 5:21-48 principles which are true under both covenants:
· 22 – prohibition against mistreatment of brethren (note: verses 23-26 is an old testament illustration of that – compare to Matt 18:17 where new testament instruction is given in old testament terms)
· 28 – sexual lust
· 29-30 – serving God is more important than eye or hand
But as we’ve already demonstrated, the difference in divorce and remarriage as taught by verse 32 compared to what the old law taught on the subject, and the difference in swearing as taught by verse 34 versus the old law, prove Jesus can’t be educating primarily about the old law in Matt 5:21-48.
Just to make it clear which law Jesus is expounding, I ask which “But I say unto you” does not constitute new testament teaching?:
· don’t mistreat your brother?
· no sexual lust?
· divorce only for fornication?
· don’t swear?
· resist not evil?
· love your enemies?
Why Is It So Important To Understand This Section Correctly?
It is important for us to have the proper understanding of Matt 5:21-48 because a number of crucial Biblical teachings hinge on this text. As I have already mentioned, some use the “Jesus is explaining the true meaning of the old law in Matt 5:21-48” idea as a basis for their heretical conclusion on divorce and remarriage (the “MMLJ Doctrine”). A number think it is okay to swear in court and other places, when they couldn’t draw that conclusion if they had a correct understanding of what is going on in Matt 5:21-48. Many use the old testament to justify being a soldier and fight for one’s country in war, when Matt 5:21-48 shows specifically the old testament law and new testament law teach differently on whether or not a child of God may join other citizens in warring against national enemies.
Said By Them Of Old Time
Some make the argument that since Jesus used the expression “said by them of old time” instead of “written by them of old time,” that he couldn’t be referring to the written law of Moses. But those making such an argument should know better. Surely they recognize Mark 7:10 (“Honour thy father and thy mother”) to be a quote from Exod 20:12 even though the word “said” is used, not “written.” In Luke 4:12 Jesus says “It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” but the parallel in Matt 4:7 Jesus says “It is written.” Certainly we understand both of these verses to be quoting Deut 6:16. And isn’t James 2:11 quoting from the ten commandments even though the word “said” (not “written”) is used twice?
There is something else significant to notice in Jesus’ phrase “said by them of old time.” The claim is made that Jesus is correcting the false teaching of the scribes and Pharisees of his day, but that won’t work. They were not “old time” relative to Jesus; instead, they were “new time.” Notice how the expression “old time” is used elsewhere in the Bible:
• Acts 15:21 “For Moses of old time …”
• I Peter 3:5-6 “… in the old time the holy women … being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham …”
• II Peter 1:21 “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”
Clearly then, when Jesus referred to things said by them of “old time,” he was referring to scripture written long before he lived, not the Pharisees that were contemporary with Jesus.
Now that we understand its context, we see Matt 5:20 is saying the new testament law we live under is a stricter law than the old testament law the Pharisees were amenable to. The verse is saying our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, not exceed their wickedness. The point is that the divine law we are amenable to is stricter in many ways than the divine law the Pharisees were amenable to. And after all, isn’t that the theme of verses 21-48?
One more thought: Matt 5:21-48 was written decades after the new testament law went into force. Does it really make any sense that it is all only old testament law? It would serve no purpose for those it was written for at that time, or for us today. Jesus is contrasting new testament law with old testament law in Matt 5:21-48; we shouldn’t allow temptation to preach grandiose overrule the simple truth of this scripture.