Chapters 5-7 contain the widely known and loved Sermon on the Mount. It is one of five long discourses by Christ found in Matthew, the others being Mt 9:35-10:42; 13:1-52; 17:24-18:35; and Mt 23:1-25:46.’
The Sermon on the Mount is:-
The longest record discourse of Jesus.
Formal, rather than occasional.
Stands at the threshold of the NT.
A manifesto of the kingdom of heaven, and an agenda for the Christian life. It defines the quality of their witness, goodness, piety, ambition, relationships, and commitment.
It ‘is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed.’ (Stott)
There are those – especially non-Christians – who imagine that they live by the Sermon on the Mount. They need to be asked if they have ever carefully read it.
In fact, the Sermon was addressed to Jesus’ disciples (even though the crowds heard, or overheard, it, Mt 7:28). ‘The Sermon is intended for followers of Christ in days when they are liable to be reproached on his account and persecuted for righteousness’ sake.’ (F.F. Bruce, Answers to Questions, p42)
5:1 When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain. After he sat down his disciples came to him.
He went up on a mountainside – There is a possible parallel here with Moses, who went up Mount Sinai to receive the law (cf. Ex 19:3; 24:12–13; 34:1–2, 4; Deut 9:9; 10:3). If so, then Jesus becomes the new Moses, and the Sermon on the Mount the promulgation of a new law.
According to Carson, the expression probably means that Jesus went ‘into the hill country’. The expression in Luke 6:17, usually rendered ‘plain’ probably refers, says Carson, to a plateau in a mountainous region. There is, accordingly, no discrepancy between the two, and no reason (from this particular circumstance) to regard the two accounts as referring to two different sermons given on two different occasions.
Crowds…disciples – The former were probably the crowds of Mt 4:25, and would have included men, women, and children. The latter term is used here in its earlier, looser, sense of ‘followers’, not the Twelve who were later called.
But was the Sermon on the Mount delivered to the crowds, or to the disciples? Presumably, it was directed towards the disciples, with the crowds ‘listening in’. Of course, some think that the material was compiled from teaching that was delivered on different occasions, some to ‘crowds’ and some to ‘disciples’.
5:2 Then he began to teach them by saying:
5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
vv3-12 – The Beatitudes. They are pronouncements of blessing. Blessing is the smile of God’s favour. ‘It is a popular conception that if only we had wealth, absence of sorrow and suffering, unrestricted gratification of appetite and were kindly treated by all – that would be blessedness indeed. But Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount reversed this entirely.’ (J.O. Sanders)
McKnight notes that such a list of ‘good guys’ implies a set of ‘bad guys’. Just such a set is found in Mt 23. ‘Not only that, Jesus finds all the “wrong” people on God’s side and all the “right” people against God.’
McKnight cites Dallas Willard in referring to ‘God-based inversion’ and the ‘hopelessly blessables’. He also cites Rosemary Dowsett in recognising that the beatitudes celebrate what in most cultures would be regarded as ‘womanly’, rather than ‘manly’ attitudes and characteristics.
Is it possible to see an organisational shape in the beatitudes? According to McKnight, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw…a list of renunciations: the call of Jesus leads to a life of renunciation (v. 3), and this leads to renunciation of happiness and peace (v. 4), rights (v. 5), our own righteousness (v. 6), our own dignity (v. 7), our own good and evil (v. 8), and violence and strife (v. 9); and they finish with a renunciation summary (v. 10).’
McKnight ventures the suggestion that they may be organised in groups of three. ‘Thus, three on the humility of the poor (“poor in spirit,” “mourn,” “meek”), three on those who pursue justice (“hunger and thirst …,” “merciful,” “pure in heart”), and three on those who create peace (“peacemakers,” “persecuted …,” “insult you …”). Thus, the three central moral themes of the Beatitudes are humility (of the poor), justice, and peace.’
Indeed, the Beatitudes stand in almost total opposition to popular opinion: ‘Happy are the self-confident’; ‘Seek pleasure and fun’; ‘Look after number one’:-
Happy are the pushy, for they will get on in the world.
Happy are the hard-nosed, for they never let life hurt them.
Happy are they who complain, for they will get their own way in the end.
Happy are the blase, for they never worry over their faults.
Happy are the slave drivers, for they get results.
Happy are the streetwise, for they know their way around.
Happy are the troublemakers, for they make people take notice of them.
Happy are those who look after ‘number one’, for they will get more than their fair share.
But Jesus blesses ‘the most unlikely of people’ (McKnight). The beatitudes are simple, yet startling; direct, yet disturbing. They tell us that the experiences we are most anxious to avoid, are the very ones which promote our bliss.
McKnight says that lists of virtues would usually comprise either the names of prominent saints of old, or of those qualities that characterised those who kept the Torah.
The Beatitudes describe, not 8 types of people, but an 8-fold description on one person, the citizen of the kingdom of God. ‘There is no thought that the disciple may choose in which of the beatitudes he will specialise.’ (J.O. Sanders) The same writer points out that in an age of activism it is startling to find the Lord emphasising the passive qualities of character as he does here.
Blessed – Two words in Greek (and also in Hebrew) are translated by the single English word (blessed). Eulogeō (Heb. bĕrākâ) is used in prayer for something that one desires (“Lord, bless the sick”). However, the word used in the Beatitudes is makarios (Heb. ʿāšîr), and this describes an existing state or quality. (Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes).
McKnight warns that ‘the entire history of the philosophy of the “good life” and the late modern theory of “happiness” is at work when one says, “Blessed are.…”.’ He is content with the translation ‘blessed’, but adds that a fuller rendering would be, ‘God’s favour rests upon…’
Carson (The Sermon on the Mount) agrees: ‘those who are blessed will generally be profoundly happy; but blessedness cannot be reduced to happiness…To be “blessed” means, fundamentally, to be approved, to find approval…When god blesses man, he is approving man.’
McKnight further draws attention to the authority of Jesus in making the pronouncements of blessing. For him to declare who is, and who is not, blessed, is to claim an authority greater than that of a mere prophet.
“The poor in spirit” – These are not (a) the uncharitable; (a) those with mock humility (Uriah Heep); (c) those with suppressed personalities; (d) the graceless.
‘Not those who are spiritually poor, that is, lacking in faith or love, but those who have a humble spirit and thus depend on God. (Mt 5:3) Luke’s parallel speaks simply of the poor. (Lk 6:20) That God has “chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to possess the kingdom” was regarded as a well-established fact.’ (Jas 2:5 REB) (Holman)
Noting that Luke’s version (Lk 6:20) has only “poor”, McKnight interprets the person who is ‘poor in spirit’ as ‘an economically, physically impoverished, or oppressed person who not only recognizes her or his need but also trusts in God for full redemption.’ In other words, Jesus speaks of the person who is both economically and spiritually needy – and knows it. The antithesis would then be ‘the rich oppressor’, and these opposites are mentioned in James 1:9–11; 2:1–13; and James 4:13–5:6.
Carson remarks that some of the Heb. words for ‘poor’ can also mean ‘lowly’. See Prov 16:19; Isa 66:2.
Two Gk words are translated ‘poor’. One means a pauper, the other means a beggar. The first describes the condition and circumstances of a person, the second his attitude: conscious of his need, he looks for help and gratefully accepts it. It is the second which is used here: these people are ‘those who have become convinced of their spiritual poverty. They have been made conscious of their misery and want’ (Hendriksen) See Ps 34:18.
McKnight points to Simeon (Lk 2:25–35), Anna (Lk 2:36-38), and Mary (Lk 1:46-55) as notable examples of people who, although economically impoverished, trusted God and longed for the coming Messiah.
‘”The way to deeper knowledge of God is through the lonely valleys of soul poverty and abnegation of all things. The blessed ones who possess the Kingdom are they who have repudiated every external thing and have rooted from their hearts all sense of possessing. These are the ‘poor in spirit'”‘ (Tozer)
Carson remarks on the deadly pride that can arise from impressive learning, fastidious religious observance, or an ostentatious defence of orthodoxy.
“The kingdom of heaven” – ‘The use of ‘kingdom of heaven’ in Matthew is certainly due to the tendency in Judaism to avoid the direct use of the name of God. In any case no distinction in sense is to be assumed between the two expressions (cf., e.g., Mt 5:3 with Lk 6:20).’ (NBD)
McKnight comments: ‘This expression pulls together the entire hope of Israel’s Story for the messianic age. It involves a King (Messiah), a land, a holy, loving people (Israel), and a redemptive power that will create holiness, love, and peace. The “kingdom” describes the fullness of God’s blessing. Those who are poor now, who nonetheless trust in God and wait for God’s Messiah with faithfulness, are and will be the ones who populate God’s kingdom. That kingdom has already begun to make its presence felt from the days of John and Jesus (Mt 11:11–12; 12:28), but it still awaits a future glorious consummation (Mt 7:21; 8:11; 19:23–24; 26:29). Notably, Jesus will later say the rich struggle to enter the kingdom (Mt 19:23–24).’
5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are those who mourn” – This once again presents us with the paradoxical nature of the Beatitudes: “Happy are the unhappy!” The world has little time for those who mourn. It favours the happy, the optimistic. Mourners are either neglected, or offered platitudes.
How different the gospel! Lk 6:25.
What is this mourning?
(a) not sinful mourning – a miserable temperament; a killjoy frame of mind; Jesus pronounces no blessing on the moody and morose;
(b) not natural mourning – due to bereavement, illness, adversity, disappointment; although God often does use such things to draw us to him. McKnight, however, thinks that Jesus includes this kind of mourning in this beatitude. Those who mourn, he says, both grieve at their experiences of tragedy, injustice and death, and reach out to others in their experiences of such things. Such would have been those who responded in a godly way to their exile – with faithfulness and hope. See Isa 61:1-4, on which McKnight comments: ‘This text clearly suggests that the mourners are those who are grieved over both Israel’s and their own exile, who are teamed with one another in grief, and who long for Israel’s return, for the temple to be restored, and for God’s favor to return on Israel. It is a longing for grace and justice and for kingdom, and at the same time a commitment to faithfulness and hope.’
(c) but spiritual, or godly mourning: see the context, vv3,6; 2 Cor 7:10; what is principally in mind here is mourning over our sin and spiritual failure.
Who has not reason to mourn of the slowness of his spiritual growth, the bondage of his besetting sin, the obstinacy of his rebellion against the will of God, the paucity of his spiritual attainment?
Why should we trouble ourselves about sin? –
- because sin is an act and a condition of hostility and enmity against God;
- because sin is an act of lowest ingratitude;
- because sin keeps us from enjoying so many good things: it is impossible to be truly happy while unforgiven.
Carson agrees that godly mourning can be stimulated by broader considerations. ‘Sometimes the sin of this world, the lack of integrity, the injustice, the cruelty, the cheapness, the selfishness, all pile onto the consciousness of a sensitive man and make him weep.’
“For they will be comforted” – As physical pain leads us to the doctor, so spiritual anguish leads us to Christ, 2 Cor 7:10.
What this comfort consists of:
forgiveness, Mt 9:2;
peace, Rom 5:1;
contentment, 2 Cor 12:10;
joy, Ps 126:5;
ultimate blessedness, Rev 7:17.
More generally, ‘knowing God’s faithfulness and final justice, and anchoring one’s hope in what God will certainly do empower the “mourner” to carry on faithfully. One thinks of Paul in Romans 5:3 or 8:37–39 and of John in Revelation 21:4.’ (McKnight)
5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are the meek.” What ‘meekness’ is not: amiableness, servility, lack of opinions or principles. ‘Meekness is not an invertebrate virtue.’
McKnight comments that the meek ‘are those who suffer and who have been humbled, and yet they do not seek revenge but God’s glory and the welfare of others. In other words, they lovingly trust God and hope in God’s timing and God’s justice.’ The same author adds that if we place too strong an emphasis on humility in the first beatitude, we arrive at too close a synonym here. Better, he says, to recognise an economic dimension in the former.
Meekness is perhaps best defined as that quality exhibited by Jesus himself (Mt 11:29).
Meekness is the opposite of haughtiness and self-assertion. Meekness is not weakness, but implies rather that strength is under self-control. The word was used of the breaking-in of horses, and carried the idea of controlled energy.
Abraham (permits the younger Lot to have first choice of land, so that there will not be ‘any quarrelling between you and me,’ Gen 13:8.
Moses (‘Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth,’ Num 12:3)
David (with regard to Saul)
Paul, 1 Thess 2:7 ‘We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.’
Christ, Mt 11:29 ‘I am gentle and humble in heart.’
The Revelation refers to the song of ‘Moses and the Lamb’, Rev 15:3, strong, vigorous meekness being an outstanding characteristic of both. Both could blaze with righteous anger, and yet their strength was held on a leash.
Meekness then, is a humble and lowly view of ourselves, which results in certain attitudes and conduct towards others:-
- Godward: trust and obedience.
- Manward: the meek person is not proud or boastful, but humble, esteems others more than self, and is teachable. Not self-righteous, but sees the best in others. Not grabbing or envious, but is willing for others to have more than himself. Not sensitive about his own status or well-being, but is zealous for the honour and good of others. Not resentful or envious, but forgiving, returning evil with good.
Is this a tall order? Where does this meekness come from? See Gal 5:22.
Meekness is part and parcel of the Spirit’s work in regeneration. We see the futility and sinfulness of our own ways and turn to Christ for new life. Meekness is a natural result of this new estimation of ourselves, of God, and of other people.
To summarise: meekness is not weakness, but strength. See Jas 3:13,19.
“They will inherit the earth” – Strange expression! Harks back to Ps 37:11, ‘The meek with inherit the promised land and enjoy great peace.’
Some argue that we should not place much stress on the contrast (in most English versions) between Psalmist’s ‘inherit the land’ and Matthew’s ‘inherit the earth’, because in both Hebrew and Greek the underlying word carries either meaning.
McKnight insists that we should hear this promise with 1st-century ears: ‘While it has been customary for Christians to see in the NIV’s word “earth” a synonym for “world” now or in the new heavens and earth, there is little likelihood that Jesus would have “world” in mind. We must wrap our minds around the Bible’s Story for the first-century Jew: those to whom Jesus spoke didn’t care two figs for owning Italy or Gaul. They simply wanted shalom in the Land of Israel. The fundamental promise to Abraham, and a promise that shapes everything about exile and return and hope and promise (e.g., Deut 28) is dwelling in peace and holiness in the land God promised them.’ We think, however, that McKnight has overstated his case here. The trajectory of Matthew’s Gospel (to say nothing of the rest of the NT), is towards the Great Commission and the winning of ‘all nations’ for Christ.
Carson comments that ‘entrance into the Promised Land ultimately became a pointer toward entrance into the new heaven and the new earth (“earth” is the same word as “land”; cf. Isa 66:22; Rev 21:1), the consummation of the messianic kingdom.’
Morris: ‘The thought is eschatological; Jesus is looking forward to the coming of the messianic kingdom.’
France (NICNT): ‘There is a general tendency in the NT to treat OT promises about “the land” as finding fulfillment in non-territorial ways, and such an orientation seems required here too. The focus is on the principle of reversal of fortunes rather than on a specific “inheritance.”’
Hagner: ‘The “earth” (τὴν γῆν) originally referred to the land of Israel, i.e., what was promised to the Jews beginning with the Abrahamic covenant (cf. Gen 13:15). But in the present context of messianic fulfillment it connotes the regenerated earth (Mt 19:28; cf. Rom 4:13, where κόσμος, “world,” replaces γῆ), promised by the eschatological passages in the prophets (e.g., Isa 65–66).’
But it is true too that ‘Jesus applies it not territorially, but in terms of the ultimate vindication of the meek. God will give them the high place they would not seize for themselves.’ (France, TNTC)
Wilkins: ‘Ultimately this points to the reign of Christ on this earth (25:35), but even now Jesus’ disciples have entered into their spiritual inheritance (e.g., Eph. 1:18; Col. 1:12; Heb. 9:15).’
‘The verb “inherit” often relates to entrance into the Promised Land (e.g., Dt 4:1; 16:20). But the specific OT allusion here is Ps 37:9, 11, 29—a psalm recognized as messianic in Jesus’ day. Entrance into the Promised Land ultimately became a pointer toward entrance into the new heaven and the new earth (“earth” is the same word as “land”; cf. Isa 66:22; Rev 21:1), the consummation of the messianic kingdom.’ (Carson, EBC)
‘The future reward echoes Ps 37:11 but generalizes the promise of inheriting the land of Israel to include all of the earth. Christian hope does not look forward to inhabiting a particular country but to ruling with Christ over all the globe and ultimately to enjoying an entirely re-created earth and heavens (Rev 20–22).’ (Blomberg, NAC)
Osborne: ‘In Ps 37:11 the “inheritance” (cf. Matt 19:29; 25:34) was the Promised Land, but here it is extended to mean the whole world. Those who are faithful will rule with Christ first for his reign on earth (Rev 20:4) and then for all eternity (Rev 22:5; cf. Matt 19:28). This is an apocalyptic promise meant for the future, not the present.’
In a sense, the meek are already inheriting the earth: ‘a man who is truly meek is a man who is always satisfied, he is a man who is already content.’ (Lloyd-Jones) Cf Phil 4:11ff. Because he puts God’s glory and the good of others before himself and his comfort, he is satisfied with little, and knows that God will give him all that he really needs. He is seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness, and all these other things are being added unto him.
But this has a future reference too. We shall reign with Christ, and enjoy all things in heaven. ‘So that all the blessedness of heaven above, and all the blessings of earth beneath, are the portion of the meek.’
Walke and Yu (An Old Testament Theology) say: ‘Jesus means that the meek will inherit the renewed earth as God’s vindication of them (Matt. 12:27–28; Rev. 21:1–2). This interpretation conforms to the many passages in the epistles regarding the saints’ inheritance. The important point of the beatitude in both Psalm 37:11 and Matthew 5:5 is that those who humbly acknowledge their dependence on God’s power and justice, not on those who grasp the earth on their own authority, will inherit the earth.’
‘The future reward echoes Ps 37:11 but generalizes the promise of inheriting the land of Israel to include all of the earth. Christian hope does not look forward to inhabiting a particular country but to ruling with Christ over all the globe and ultimately to enjoying an entirely re-created earth and heavens (Rev 20–22).’ (Blomberg)
‘One would think that ‘meek’ people get nowhere because everybody ignores them or else rides roughshod over them and tramples them underfoot. It is the tough, the overbearing who succeed in the struggle for existence; weaklings go to the wall. Even the children of Israel had to fight for their inheritance, although the Lord their God gave them the promised land. But the condition on which we enter our spiritual inheritance in Christ is not might but meekness, for, as we have already seen, everything is ours if we are Christ’s.’ (Stott)
5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” – The world says, ‘Seek happiness’. But those who seek happiness will never find it. We are here taught that happiness is a by-product of righteousness. It is the same with a good reputation: (cf. Pr 22:1) if our prime aim is to persuade others to think well of us, we will fail miserably. A good reputation is the reward of a good life; happiness is the reward of a righteous life.
‘Their appetites, instead of being sated by the pleasures of food, sensualities, passions, and lusts, are satisfied only in communion with God, knowing and doing God’s will and seeking the welfare of others. One thinks of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55), but one also thinks of Abraham, who abandoned his home to strike out for God’s land; of Moses, who learned the hard way to be devoted to God; of Samson, whose erratic life embedded yearning for God’s will; and of the apostles Peter, Paul, and John, each of whom left a life to follow God’s way and will.’ (McKnight)
‘Righteousness’ – what is means to do God’s will and to act rightly is a key theme in the Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5:6,16,17-20,21-48; 6:1-18,33; 7:12,13-14,16-21,23-27. It could well be translated as ‘justice’.
‘It would be a mistake to suppose that the biblical word “righteousness” means only a right relationship with God on the one hand and a moral righteousness of character and conduct on the other. For biblical righteousness is more than a private and personal affair; it includes social righteousness as well. And social righteousness, as we learn from the law and the prophets, is concerned with the promotion of civil rights, justice in the law courts, integrity in business dealings and honour in home and family affairs. Thus Christians are committed to hunger for righteousness in the whole human community as something pleasing to a righteous God.’ (Stott)
What is righteousness? (a) Not just social justice and fair play: it more personal and spiritual than this; (b) It is an entire conformity to the mind and will of God; it is freedom from the guilt, power, and desire of sin; it is holiness; it is Christlikeness; (c) What a beautiful thing, yet how elusive! Cf Ps 14:3. The man of the Beatitudes knows he cannot achieve this himself; he knows he is ‘poor in spirit’, and he mourns over his depraved condition. But his very despair leads him to seek help from God: he is learning meekness. No amount of good deeds will make him right with God, cf. Isa 64:6.
Into a hopeless and helpless situation steps God’s Son in his glorious and sovereign grace. He comes to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. Isa 53:11; Jer 23:6; Php 3:9.
This righteousness is twofold: (a) it is imputed; we are justified; we are counted righteous, Ps 32:1; Rom 4:3; (b) it is imparted; we are sanctified; we are progressively made righteous.
McKnight warns that we should be not too quick to read a Pauline doctrine of declared righteousness (justification) into Jesus’ words here. A number of instances within this Gospel cannot bear that meaning: Mt 5:10, 20, 45; 6:1; 10:41; 13:17, 43, 49; 21:32; 23:28, 29, 35; 25:37, 46; 27:19. A distinguished example of righteousness in the sense of observing Torah can be found in the decision of Joseph to divorce Mary (Mt 1:19). This understanding of righteousness ‘focuses our minds on big issues like justice, mercy, peace, faithfulness, worship, holiness, and love.’
What conditions does the Lord lay down so that we might be filled with these good things? He requires an appetite: not English peckishness, but starvation, cf the Prodigal Son, Lk 15:14-18. See also Ps 42:1; 63:1 Jn 6:27.
This hungering and thirsting is (a) painful; (b) is satisfied by nothing but wholesome food; (c) leads to a singleminded pursuit of nourishment (keeps righteousness constantly in mind); (d) avoids all alternatives and distractions, and puts itself in the way of getting it (like Bartimaeus, Mk 10:46); (e) relishes the meal.
Remember that the Lord is ‘our righteousness’, Jer 23:6, so Jesus could have said, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for me.’
“They will be filled” – ‘expresses absolute and utter satisfaction: they will find a kingdom society where love, peace, justice, and holiness shape the entirety of creation’ (McKnight)
This satisfaction is (a) promised by God, Isa 41:17; Ps 107:9; (b) found in Christ himself, Jn 4:14 6:33ff.
The fulfilment is (a) immediate; (b) progressive; (c) final, Rev 7:16.
5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
We turn from our relationship to God to our relationship to others.
Blessed are the merciful – ‘”Merciful” embraces the characteristics of being generous, forgiving others, having compassion for the suffering, and providing healing of every kind.’ (Blomberg)
Here is the bliss of the compassionate. There is a danger of having a passion for righteousness which has no pity for those who have failed to attain it. Such righteousness is cold and unfeeling. Mercy, by definition, is exercised to the undeserving. It is a rare grace, little seen among non-Christians, and all too scarce amongst Christians too. The fallen nature tends naturally to criticism and retaliation, if only to cover over its own deficiencies.
Mercy is not just a feeling: it expresses itself in acts of mercy. It does not condone wrong, but attempts to put the best possible construction of ambiguous motives or conduct.
They will be shown mercy – There is a reciprocal relationship between receiving and giving mercy. The merciful “shall obtain mercy.” And we put ourselves in a perilous position if, having obtained mercy, we are reluctant to show it to others, Mt 18:23-25.
‘The person whose experience reflects these beatitudes is conscious of his spiritual bankruptcy, Mt 5:3, grieves over it, 5:4, and hungers and thirsts for righteousness, 5:6. He is merciful toward the wretched because he recognises himself to be wretched; in being merciful he is also shown mercy.’ (Carson)
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
(Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, act 4, scene 1)
‘Am I merciful or supercilious to the wretched? Am I gentle or hard-nosed toward the downtrodden? Am I helpful or callous toward the backslidden? Am I compassionate or impatient with the fallen?’ (Carson)
Cf. Mic 6:8
We should have mercy
- for the souls of others, Acts 20:31
- for the feelings of others
- for the reputations of others
- for the circumstances of others, Psa 41:1; Lev 19:9; James 2:15
- for the offences of others, Prov 9:11; Rom 12:21; Acts 7:60.
- lack of, a sign of depravity, Rom 1 ‘heartless’
- lack of reason for shame, Job 31:16ff
- presence of, a sign of true faith, James 1:27
- God’s mercy to us, Col 3:12
- benefits to ourselves, Prov 11:17; 19:17. ‘They shall obtain mercy.’
5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
This beatitude closely mirrors Psa 24:3f. See also Heb 12:14.
“The pure in heart” – ‘In biblical imagery, the heart is the centre of the entire personality. Jesus’ assessment of the natural heart, however, is not very encouraging. Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel he says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander,” Mt 15:19; cf. Jer 17:9 Rom 1:21 2:5.’ (Carson)
This is moral purity, not the outward, ceremonial purity that Jesus so consistently by-passed. Behind the word ‘pure’ lies the idea of being unadulterated, free from alloy, like pure gold or clean linen. The pure heart, then, is (a) Single and sincere; free from deceit and hypocrisy, Ps 86:11; Php 3:13. Stott: ‘How few of us live one life and live it in the open! We are tempted to wear a different mask and play a different role according to each occasion…Some people weave round themselves such a tissue of lies that they can no longer tell which part is real and which is make-believe.’ Nothing spoils relationships so much as deceipt and hypocrisy. (b) Obedient and faithful; free from sin and corruption, 1 Pet 1:22; Rev 22:14.
‘Because it is the heart which must be pure, this beatitude interrogates us with awkward questions like these: What do you think about when your mind slips into neutral? How much sympathy do you have for deception, no matter how skillful? For shady humour, no matter how funny? To what do you pay consistent allegiance? What do you want more than anything else? What and whom do you love? To what extent are your actions and words accurate reflections of what is in your heart? To what extent do your actions and words constitute a cover-up for what is in your heart?’ (Carson)
“They will see God” – ‘The vision of God is not a matter of optics, but or moral and spiritual affinity with him. Cleanness of heart brings clearness of vision. Sin fogs the heart and and God becomes invisible. There are moral conditions for spiritual vision.’ (J.O. Sanders)
‘With Christ, the fountain of all purity, dwelling in our hearts, the maintenance of a pure heart is no longer a tantalising mirage but a glorious possibility.’ (J.O. Sanders)
‘The Bible both affirms a beatific vision (see Job 19:26; Ps 11:7; 1 John 3:2; Rev 22:4) and yet seems to deny its genuine possibility (e.g., Ex 33:20; 1 Tim 6:16). There is an immensity and an unapproachability to God that prevents humans from ever gazing directly into the being of God, but we can see and admire a glory surrounding God as we engage in intoxicating, ecstatic worship (e.g., Ex 3:2; Isa 6:1–5; Dan 7:9–10).’ (McKnight)
‘We are afraid that Heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to.’ – C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain
‘The Scriptures are nowhere concerned with the theistic proof or proofs for the existence of God, such as are found throughout the history of philosophy and theology: first, because the knowledge of God in Scripture is essentially revelational, thus displacing the function of such proofs; second, because the knowledge of God’s being from the human side is everywhere intuitional; (cf. Mt 5:8 hence the immense scriptural data on hearing and seeing, which are intuitional terms) and third, because such a simple or abstract statement as “God is” cannot begin to carry all the weight necessary for a meaningful theology and religion.’ (Ramm, ISBE, art. ‘Apologetics, Biblical’) Ramm points out that Calvin’s emphasis was accordingly on the knowledge of God, rather than on the existence of God.
‘Before the plenary fruition of God in heaven, there must be something previous and antecedent; and that is, our being in a state of grace. We must have conformity to him in grace, before we can have communion with him in glory. Grace and glory are linked and chained together. Grace precedes glory, as the morning star ushers in the sun. God will have us qualified and fitted for a state of blessedness. Drunkards and swearers are not fit to enjoy God in glory; the Lord will not lay such vipers in his bosom. Only the ‘pure in heart shall see God.’ We must first be, as the king’s daughter, glorious within, before we are clothed with the robes of glory. As King Ahasuerus first caused the virgins to be purified and anointed, and they had their sweet odours to perfume them, and then went to stand before the king, Es 2:12, so must we have the anointing of God, and be perfumed with the graces of the Spirit, those sweet odours, and then we shall stand before the king of heaven. Being thus divinely qualified by grace, we shall be taken up to the mount of vision, and enjoy God for ever; and what is enjoying God for ever but to be put in a state of happiness? As the body cannot have life but by having communion with the soul, so the soul cannot have blessedness but by having immediate communion with God. God is the summum bonum, the chief good; therefore the enjoyment of him is the highest felicity.’ (Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity)
5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Blessed are the peacemakers – ‘Peace’ (heb. shalom‘) is a comprehensive term covering healthy and harmonious relationships in all aspects of life.
Peace was part of the Messianic hope (Isa 9:5–6; Zech 9:9–10). However, in NT times resistance groups such as the Zealots were willing to use violence. This beatitude would therefore have been countercultural to some.
The peacemaker does not seek peace at any cost. Peacemaking is not mere ‘niceness’, nor endless tolerance. The peacemaker does not pretend that differences do not exist, ‘between those who have experienced apartheid and those who inflicted apartheid, between those who split a church and those who choose to remain, between a husband and wife who are struggling to get along, between two colleagues at the office, or between parents and children who can’t seem to find enough common ground to trust one another’ (McKnight). Relationships of various kinds do break down, and when they do so there is a need for reconciliation. Be a peace-maker, not a trouble-maker.
Peace-making is not appeasement. God is the great peace-maker, but it cost him the life of his dear Son. So it may mean the giving or receiving of a rebuke, or the giving of an apology, or continuing estrangement until the other person offers reconciliation.
The evangelist is a peacemaker, Isa 52:7; Rom 10:15. But the scope of this beatitude is not limited to gospel peace-making. ‘The Christian’s role of peacemaker extends not only to spreading the gospel, but to lessening tensions, seeking solutions, ensuring that communication is understood.’ (Carson)
No wonder they will be called sons of God, for they are like God, and are God’s true ambassadors. In Jewish thought, the term ‘son of’ often carried the meaning, ‘partaker of the character of’ (cf. ‘son of a dog’) and so it is here. The peacemaker reflects the character of God.
The greatest peacemaker is the Son of God himself. He is the Prince of Peace. ‘He makes peace with God and man by removing sin, the ground of alienation; he makes peace between man and man both by removing sin and by bringing men into a right relationship with God, Eph 2:11-22.’ (Carson)
McKnight identifies two areas of tension for those who seek to take this beatitude seriously:- (a) does it imply pacifism, or at least nonviolent resistance? (b) does it apply to international, as well as to interpersonal, relations? With regard to the latter, McKnight replies with a strong affirmative (against Augustine, Luther, and Calvin). Although we agree with McKnight that ‘privatizing one’s kingdom ethics is not the way of Jesus,’ we think that Scripture does distinguish between individual ethics and international ethics.
They will be called the children of God – As McKnight observes, to be called ‘the child of…’ is to take on that person’s character. In the present context, it is take on God’s character of peace (Rom 16:20).
5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness – Just as Christ was persecuted, so his followers will be as well.
This does not pronounce a blessing on all the persecuted. After all, some bring persecution upon themselves by their own offensive behaviour, 1 Pet 3:14; 4:14-15. There is no bliss in the persecution itself, ‘but in the compensations it brings, or the fruit it bears’ (J.O. Sanders). And it must be for righteousness’ sake: some religious persons seem to actively seek persecution as though the more people hate them, the more God will love them.
We live in a sinful and ungodly world. Therefore, we should expect righteous and godly behaviour to stir up ridicule, resentment, even hostility. But let us make sure that any persecution we suffer is because of righteousness. See Jn 15:18-20; Php 1:29; 2 Tim 3:12.
‘In persecution, earth is shut, but heaven opens; Antichrist threatens, but Christ protects; death enters, but immortality ensues; the world is taken from us, but Paradise is awarded; the life of time is quenched, but the life of eternity is accomplished.’ (Cyprian)
5:11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. 5:12 Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way.
When ‘persecuted because of righteousness’, believers should, (a) recall the past (“in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”); (b) rejoice in the present (“blessed are you…rejoice and be glad”); and (c) remember the future (“great is your reward in heaven”). (See Brown, The Message of Nehemiah, 59).
‘He never brings them into so low a condition that he does not leave them more cause of joy than sorrow.’ (Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 37)
Salt and Light
5:13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its flavor, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people.
Involvement, not separation. ‘In light of the countercultural perspectives enunciated in the Beatitudes, it would be easy to assume that Jesus was calling his followers to a separatistic or quasimonastic life-style. Here Jesus proclaims precisely the opposite.’ (Blomberg)
“You are the salt of the earth” – Salt acts inwardly, secretly, by direct contact.
William Barclay points out that there were three special qualities associated with salt in Jesus’ day. First, its whiteness was associated with purity. Likewise, the Christian is to be an example of purity. Second, it was used as a preservative to keep food from going bad. In the same way, the Christian’s influence should protect against moral corruption. Third, the most obvious quality of salt was that it lent flavor to bland foods-the way Christians are to add spice to a spiritually bland world.
Blomberg says that in antiquity salt could refer to many different things, but its most basic function was as a preservative. So also Hendriksen.
The Rabbis often associated salt with wisdom, and with wise speech. This is reflected in Col 4:6.
If the salt loses its saltiness – Lit. ‘is defiled’, or ‘becomes foolish’. France says that the equivalent Aramaic word, almost certainly used by Jesus, also conveyed both meanings. This would be consistent with the association of salt with wisdom, noted above. The thought is not of the salt losing its salty taste, but of it becoming contaminated by other substances. On the dangers of becoming ineffective, esp. by contamination, see Jas 1:27; Rom 12:2.
Consider Christian influence at home, neighbourhood, work, education, arts, politics.
5:14 You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill cannot be hidden. 5:15 People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 5:16 In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.
A Christian may not only lose his distinctiveness (v13), but also his visibility.
Light acts outwardly, visibly, by radiation. It functions are to reveal, to warn, to illuminate and to guide.
How hidden under a bucket: misplaced humility, alleged incompetence, fear of ridicule, fear of failure.
A city on a hill cannot be hidden – Possibly Jesus pointed out some city on the skyline as he spoke. Christians are set on the skyline. The church is to be a landmark. How noticeable is our witness, and how God-glorifying?
If you are of a nervous temperament and of a retiring disposition, take care that you do not much indulge this trembling propensity lest you should be useless to the church. Seek, in the name of Him who was not ashamed of you, to do some little violence to your feelings and tell to others what Christ has told to you. If you cannot speak with trumpet tongue, use the still, small voice. If the pulpit must not be your tribune, if the press may not carry on its wings your words, yet say, with Peter and John, “We have no silver or gold, but such as we do have, we give to you.” (Spurgeon, from a meditation on Job 36:2)
‘Christianity is something which is meant to be seen. As someone has well said, “There can be no such thing as secret discipleship, for either the secrecy destroys the discipleship, or the discipleship destroys the secrecy.” A man’s Christianity should be perfectly visible to all men.’ (William Barclay)
E.J. Carnell was a scholar who was concerned to uphold orthodox theology. However, he rightly criticised ‘fundamentalists’ for many of their unchristian attitudes: ‘The fundamentalist often takes a magical attitude toward the Word of God. This attitude belittles the necessity of material righteousness in the soul-winner. Get the Word out – any manner will do – and God will see that his Word will not return void. This assumes that the responsibility for arousing conviction rests solely with the written Word. But the written Word says otherwise…A (Mt 5:16) prophet must speak, but he must speak with compassion. Example first, then precept. Unless kindness arouses a sense of fellowship, the Word of God will not arouse a sense of conviction.’ (The Case for Orthodox Theology, 123)
John Piper notes that the command for us to be salt and light comes in a context of suffering and persecution (vv13-16): ‘It is not mere good deeds that give Christianity its tang and luster. It is good deeds in spite of danger. Many non-Christians do good deeds. But seldom do people give glory to God because of them.’ (Coronavirus and Christ)
Fulfillment of the Law and Prophets
5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them.
‘This long section is all on one theme, and it is important that its parts should not be interpreted in isolation from each other. The theme is Jesus’ ‘fulfilment’ of the law, which is expressed by general statements (17-20) followed by a series of six examples contrasting Jesus’ teaching with the accepted understanding of the OT law (21-47) and a concluding summary (48).’ (NBC)
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets” – ‘Abolish’ translates a word that was also used of destroying a building. Here, it means to abolish, repeal, or annul.
There may well have been those in Jesus’ day, as also in Matthew’s who thought that he had indeed come to set aside the OT Scriptures. Indeed, there are those today (who might refer to themselves as ‘progressive’ Christians) who think, on the basis of vv21-47, the same thing. Have they not read what Jesus says here?
Not an absolute denial. ‘Comparison with Mt 10:34 shows that the antithesis may not be absolute. Few would want to argue that there is no sense in which Jesus came to bring peace. Why then argue that there is no sense in which Jesus abolishes the law?’ (Carson, EBC)
What, then, is new? ‘They remain the authoritative word of God. But their role will no longer be the same, now that what they pointed forward to has come, and it will be for Jesus’ followers to discern in the light of his teaching and practice what is now the right way to apply those texts in the new situation which his coming has created. From now on it will be the authoritative teaching of Jesus which must govern his disciples’ understanding and practical application of the law.’ (France, NICNT)
‘Jesus essentially says, “Look, if you thought the law was tough, wait till you see this. If you really want to be my disciples, give me your hearts without reservation”‘ (IVP Commentary)
To fulfill them – ‘He will bring the law to its intended goal’ (Blomberg). Or, ‘to make fully known’, cf Col 1:25.
In what sense did Jesus come to fulfil the law and the prophets?
According to Carson, Jesus fulfils them in the sense that they point to him. The meaning would then be the same as in the quotations from the OT in chapters 1 and 2. See Mt 11:13. The Letter to the Hebrews teaches that the cultic regulations of the OT are obsolete precisely because they are fulfilled in Jesus. On this interpretation, three things follow: (a) the antitheses (vv21-48) are not primarily about Jesus annulling, replacing, or even extending the law, but showing the direction in which it points, namely, to himself; (b) if Jesus is the goal of the OT, he is its authoritative interpreter; (c) there is no need to pit Paul against Matthew: Paul well understood that the law and prophets opnited beyond themselves to Jesus, Rom 3:21; Gal 3–4; cf. Rom 8:4.
‘Since throughout Matthew’s story Jesus is portrayed as the true interpreter of God’s will as expressed in Scripture (cf. Mt 12:13, 5, 7; 15:13-14;16:6, 12; 19:3-9; 22:23-46; 23:10), it would appear that “fulfilling” the “Law and the Prophets” necessarily includes revealing in word and deed the true intention of God’s will as preserved in Scripture. Fulfillment is therefore not to be seen in terms of a Pharisaic legalistic adhesion to the minutia of law keeping. In fact, Jesus’ interpretative agenda shifts the focus from the letter of the Law to the heart of the Lawgiver.’ (College Press)
When Jesus of Nazareth, the Carpenter’s son, began his public ministry, the event was not so much a breath of fresh air as a force ten hurricane. Here was an untried, untested, untrained teacher and miracle-worker, who was threatening to blow everything away, to turn everything upside down, to destroy everything that people had been used to. He seemed to entertain no doubts about himself. While all his rivals could do was quote ancient authorities at you, he would look you in the eye and say, ‘I tell you the truth’. We read, Mk 1:27, that ‘the people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.”‘ He did things his own way. He persistently broke the Sabbath. He let his disciples pick ears of corn in the field, Mk 2:23, and it’s against the law to do work on the Sabbath! He healed a man with a shrivelled hand in the Sabbath, Mk 3:31ff, and you’re not allowed to do that! And then, ‘not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God’, Jn 5:18.
So what was he trying to do? Why had he come? To throw the past into the dustbin and make a completely new beginning? And what about the ancient Scriptures? Was he discarding them too?
People today sometimes ask similar questions. Surely, they say, the OT is redundant? It’s just a collection of unbelievable myths and legends, of irrelevant laws and meaningless rituals. The law, surely, has been superseded by grace. Isn’t that why Christ came, to abolish all that Old Testament stuff and to establish a completely new way? They might quote Jn 1:17: ‘For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’
Jesus answer, now as it was then, is absolutely clear. ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.’ His attitude to the OT is: not abolition, but fulfilment. Not eclipse, but culmination. You can liken the OT to a partly-filled container of water. Jesus didn’t come to empty it, but to fill it up. You can liken the OT to the sketch of a picture. Jesus didn’t come to rub it all out, but to complete it.
Jesus came, not to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfil them. But Jesus doesn’t leave at that. Not content with a general endorsement of the the OT Scriptures, he hammers his point home by saying, ‘Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.’ The law, in Jesus’ view, is unmovable, unshakeable. While heaven and earth last, not the least part of it will pass away. Every minute detail must be carried out. ‘The smallest letter’ of the Hebrew alphabet is almost as small as a comma. ‘The least stroke of a pen’ is a tiny projection which distinguishes some Hebrew letters from others. Everything must be accomplished. Accomplished when? Well, as Jesus spoke, some things had already been accomplished (in his coming down from heaven to earth to be born in Bethlehem’s manger), some were being accomplished (in his earthly life and teaching), and some were yet to be be accomplished (in his death, resurrection, ascension, and glorious return). And all this according to God plan which he had been unfolding in the OT Scriptures.
We have seen so far then, that Christ endorsed the OT as a whole and in its detailed parts. And we need to ask: Do we have that same confidence in the OT as the word of God? A vital part of our trust in him, is our trust in those same Scriptures; Scriptures of which he said, ‘I didn’t come to abolish them, but to fulfil them…not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.’ We have also seen that Christ is the key to the OT; he unlocks its meaning. The Scriptures, he said ‘testify about me,’ Jn 5:39. If you go to your OT expecting to find Christ there, you will not leave disappointed.
5:18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 5:19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
“Until heaven and earth pass away” – A conventional way (says France) of saying, “Never”. But this, as France notes, raises a question about the meaning of “until everything takes place” (which seems to imply a time when the law does pass away; indeed has it already passed away, with the coming of Christ?). But no jot or tittle is lost, but all are, rather, taken up in the fulfilllent of what they point towards.
So France paraphrases: “The law, down to its smallest details, is as permanent as heaven and earth and will never lose its significance; on the contrary, all that it points forward to will in fact become a reality.”
“The smallest letter…the least stroke” – The smallest Hebrew letter is yodh, which looks like an apostrophe (‘). A stroke is a very small extension or protrusion on several Hebrew letters, which distinguish these letters from similar ones (like, in English, an R from a P). The Lord’s point is that every letter of every word of the OT is vital and will be fulfilled.’ (Ryrie)
“Breaks” – From the same root as ‘abolish’ in v17. Not so much ‘disobeys’ as ‘sets aside’ or ‘repudiates’.
“The least of these” – The rabbis identified 613 commandments, of which 248 were positive, and 365 negative. They debated which were the most and least important, some of them considering Deut 22:6 to be the least weighty (‘If you come across a bird’s nest beside a road…and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young’. As to which was the greatest commandment, see Lk 10:27-28. Jesus referred elsewhere to ‘the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness’, Mt 23:23. Still, he asserts that none of God’s laws is to be repudiated.
“These commandments” – Probably the OT commandments (so France, who says that the word is only used in Mt to refer to the OT law, and Blomberg), but possibly those of the kingdom, which receives some prominence in these verses (Carson, Banks). In other words, they are the commands given in the Sermon on the Mount. Obedience to Jesus’ commands is also emphasised in Mt 28:18-20.
“and teaches others to do the same” – ‘In this passage Jesus also warns that teachers who undermine students’ faith in any portion of the Bible are in trouble with God. This text addresses not only obedience to the commandments but also how one teaches others (and teaches others to do the same; compare Jas 3:1). I have occasionally taught alongside colleagues who actively sought to undermine students’ faith in the name of “critical thinking;” sometimes they succeeded. Critical thinking is important, but it functions best with the firm foundation of the fear of God.’ (Pr 1:7) (IVP Commentary)
5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
“Righteousness” – dikaiosyne. Although Paul often uses this term to mean ‘justification’ (imputed righteousness), in Matthew it consistently refers to righteous behaviour. See Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, p62.
Jesus says, “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Here is some very bad news. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were the experts. They read the law, they debated the law, and everyone could see that their observance of it was faultless. Now Jesus is telling his disciples that they must surpass all of this.
We do not need to look very far to discover the reason why the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law needed to be surpassed. See Mt 23:1 ff on the difference between the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, and the righteousness which Jesus requires. One is just for show. They other comes from the heart. One is a pretence, the other is based on an attitude of love and obedience to God. The righteousness which Jesus requires does not, as we have seen, set aside the OT law, but fulfils its true intent and purpose.
‘When Jesus said that Christian righteousness must exceed pharisaic righteousness, he meant that Christian righteousness accepts the full implications of the law without trying to dodge them. It recognises that the law’s domain extends beyond the actual deed to the word, and beyond the word to the thoughts and motives of the heart. Pharisaic righteousness was an outward conformity to human traditions; Christian righteousness is an inward conformity of mind and heart to the revealed will of God.’ (Stott, Christ the Controversialist, 150)
Jesus is about to show by means of six examples that this righteousness does not accord with the traditional interpretation of God’s law.
Anger and Murder
5:21 “You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ 5:22 But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell.
v21, etc. “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” Jesus has just asserted, v20, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of God.” He now proceeds to give six examples of how the righteousness of Christ’s disciples must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. And there is a kind of refrain, itself occurring six times, “You have heard that it was said…But I say to you.”
“It was said” – Harper’s Bible Commentary regards this as a ‘divine passive’ (= “God said”). Carson, however, thinks that ‘by this phrase, Jesus is not criticizing the OT but the understanding of the OT many of his hearers adopted (cf. esp. vv. 22, 43, where part of what was “heard” certainly does not come from the OT).’
According to France (TNTC), a Rabbinic formula contrasted ‘I might hear’ with what ‘you must say’, by means of which a student might be advised to reject a more literal interpretation in favour of a less literal (but truer) reading. France adds: ‘Jesus’ repeated formula, unique to this passage, seems to introduce a literal understanding of the Old Testament law. To this he then contrasts his own more discerning exegesis: but I say to you.’
Everybody needs to respond to this in one of two ways.
Firstly, if we take seriously Jesus’ teaching here, our first reaction may be one of self-despair. It simply cannot be done. The standard is unattainable. However respectable we manage to keep our outward behaviour, we know that festering in our hearts are thoughts and motives and attitudes which totally disqualify us from entering the kingdom of heaven. So let Jesus’ teaching here destroy any confidence you may have in your ability to reform yourself, to improve yourself, to recommend yourself to God. Let it lead you from the tattered rags of your own goodness, to the perfect goodness of Christ himself. What you cannot do for yourself, he has done for you. The righteousness that God demands, is a righteousness that God offers to you in Christ. Christ alone has perfectly obeyed the law of God. He alone has born the penalty that our disobedience deserves. He alone has purchased redemption, the forgiveness of our sins. So here is the first purpose of God’s law: to show us our need; to make us conscious of sin; to drive us to Christ. Rom 3:20-22 ‘No-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.’
But, secondly, when we have found forgiveness and new life in Christ, God’s law still has a vital part to play. That law, and these lofty commands of Jesus, now become goals for us to strive towards, standards for us to set our sights on. Not out of raven fear, but out of love and gratitude. Ps 40:8 ‘I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’ For this holiness of life is not some outward, mechanical, heartless conformity to a set of rules and regulations. It grows, rather, out of a living relationship with our heavenly Father, and with his Son, Jesus Christ our Saviour. It goes something like this: Col 3:1ff, ‘Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God…As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’
That is what the Law and the Prophets were all about. That is why Jesus came. That is what the Lord calls each of us to today.
“Angry with a brother” – ‘The AV addition “without a cause” after “every one who is angry” is not supported by the best MSS, but its connotation is supported by the best interpreters, for Christ could not oppose all anger while indulging in it Himself (Mk. 3:5). The point of the text is that the law equates unjustified anger (and even more, insults and hatred) with murder.’ (Gerstner, ISBE, art. ‘Law in the NT’)
“Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” – On the face of it, this seems to contradict passages such as Psa 14:1; 53:1; Prov 28:26; Mt 23:17,19; Lk 11:40; 24:25; Rom 1:21f; 1 Cor 15:36; Gal 3:1. The problem is apparent, rather than real. It is clear that the context here is that of an inner attitude of hatred towards another of which actual murder is the outward extension. Outside this context, there is obviously a place both for righteous anger and for pointing out the foolishness of certain thoughts, actions, and attitudes.
With regard to the meaning of the two terms ‘Raca’ and ‘You fool’, it is possible that the first one would be intended as an insult to a person’s intelligence (‘nitwit’, ‘blockhead’, ‘numskull’ or ‘bonehead’), and the second to his character (‘you scoundrel!’). See Stott’s discussion (BST).
‘Two explanations of this word [fool] are possible: (1) that it is not the vocative of the Gr mōros—a word which was applied by Jesus Himself to the Pharisees (Mt 23:17, 19), but represents the Heb mōrāh, “rebel,” applied in Nu 20:10 by Moses to the people, “ye rebels” (for which he was believed to be excluded from the promised land; cf ver 12; hence we have in RVm “or mōreh, a Heb expression of condem nation”); or (2) that, as Our Lord spake in the Aram, it is the Gr tr of a word representing the Heb nābhāl, “vile, or worthless fellow,” atheist, etc (Ps 14:1; 53:1).’ (ISBE, art. ‘Fool, folly’)
“The fire of hell” – The word translated “hell” is Geenna, or Gehenna, a place in the valley of Hinnom where human sacrifices had been offered (cf. Jer 7:31) and where the continuous burning of rubbish made it an apt illustration of the lake of fire. (Mk 9:44; Jas 3:6; Rev 20:14)
‘Anger and insult are ugly symptoms of a desire to get rid of somebody who stands in our way. Our thoughts, looks and words all indicate that, as we sometimes dare to say, we ‘wish he were dead’. Such an evil wish is a breach of the sixth commandment. And it renders the guilty person liable to the very penalties to which the murderer exposes himself, not in each case literally in a human law court (for no court can charge a man with anger) but before the bar of God.’ (Stott)
5:23 So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 5:24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift. 5:25 Reach agreement quickly with your accuser while on the way to court, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the warden, and you will be thrown into prison. 5:26 I tell you the truth, you will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!
“First be reconciled” – At the Keswick Convention in 1905, F.B. Meyer delivered an address on this text which was so powerful that people rushed out to make restitution, and the post office in Keswick ran out of postal orders!
Obedience to this command brings great blessing to the church. At a conference of pastors in South Vietnam, the Holy Spirit worked with great power. The climax of the meeting came when ministers and missionaries went to one another in confession and seeking reconciliation. The result was that, despite the continuing war, the Vietnamese Church doubled in three years. (J.O. Sanders)
‘The message given by Jesus and the apostles is resoundingly clear: whether our conflicts involve minor irritations or major legal issues, peace and unity are of paramount importance to God. Therefore, peacemaking is not an optional activity for a believer…Token efforts will not satisfy this command; God wants you to strive earnestly, diligently, and continually to maintain harmonious relationships with those around you.’ (Isaac Barrow)
“You will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!” – According to John Hick, this is one of a few passages which seem to suggest that the punishment of the wicked will be finite, and not everlasting:- ‘Since only a finite number of pennies can have a last one, we seem to be in the realm of graded debts and payments, rather than of absolute guilt and infinite penalty.’ We think that this is reading too much into the present text. (Cited by Swinburne, in Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (p. 239). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.)
5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 5:28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
“Do not commit adultery” – ‘Jesus’ teachings expanded the Old Testament law to address matters of the heart. Adultery has its origins within, (Mt 15:19) and lust is as much a violation of the law’s intent as is illicit sexual intercourse. (Mt 5:27-28) Adultery is one of the “works of the flesh.” (Gal 5:19) It creates enmity with God, (Jas 4:4) and adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9)
The New Testament associates remarriage after divorce and adultery. Marriage is a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman. Divorce does not break the bond, so remarriage is viewed as adultery except in cases where unfaithfulness was the reason for the divorce. (Mt 5:32; Mk 10:11-12) The marriage bond is broken by death. (Rom 7:3; 1 Cor 7:39)
Adulterers can be forgiven; (Jn 8:3-11) and once sanctified through repentance, faith, and God’s grace, they are included among God’s people.’ (1 Cor 6:9-11) (Holman)
‘Jesus traces the adulterous act back to the lustful glance and thought, and says that it is there that the rot starts: it is there, therefore, that the check must be immediately applied. Otherwise, if the thought is cherished, or fed by fantasy, the commandment has already been broken.
‘Pope John Paul II excited some comment in 1981 by saying that a man could commit adultery in this sense with his own wife. Emil Brunner, in fact, had said something to very much the same effect over forty years before. But there is nothing outrageous about such a suggestion. To treat any woman as a sex object, and not as a person in her own right, is sinful; all the more so, when that woman is one’s own wife.’ (F.F. Bruce, Hard Sayings of Jesus, 52f)
‘By saying “adultery” Jesus technically addresses only lust for married women … but this is an example that should provoke its hearers to consider related moral issues. Thus, for example, it rules out ‘fornication of the heart’ as well; Israelite law treated premarital sex in part as an offense against one’s future spouse and one’s partner’s future spouse (Deut 22:13–21).’ (Keener)
We tend to distinguish quite sharply between desires and behaviours. We assume, for example, that certain sexual desires are not sinful unless and until they are turned into actions. But Scripture insists that it is wrong to desire certain objects, just as it is right to desire certain others (see, for example, Mt 13:17; 1 Tim 3:1; cf. Ex 20:17). Such sinful desire (see James 1:13-15) is to be distinguished from temptation (which is not in itself sinful; cf. Mt 4:11; Heb 4:15). It is helpful to distinguish between external and internal sources of temptation. An image of an attractive married woman might be set before a man: that is an external temptation, and it is not sinful. But if the man then has sexual desires for that woman, then is an internal temptation, and it is sinful. But what about the underlying ‘orientation’? We certainly deny that only freely-chosen actions can be sinful. But what about ‘orientation’? This is a notion that is increasingly being regarded – by those inside and well as outside the Christian church – as an unhelpful social construct. Indeed, as Christians we insist that we have an inbuilt orientation towards sin. The Christian church – especially in is reformed expressions – has stressed that underlying predispositions have a moral character, belong as they do to what Scripture calls ‘the flesh’. They arise from ‘original sin’. We are sinners both by nature and by choice; both by who we are and what we do. Where a relationship between two people (be they of the same sex or not) is shorn of its sinful elements (the possibility, intention, or actuality of sexual intimacy), then it is capable of being godly and holy. See this article by Denny Burk.
5:29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell. 5:30 If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell.
The eye is, of course, the part of the body through which sexual temptation usually makes its entrance. But what about the hand, in the context of lustfulness? Carson thinks that ‘hand’ is a euphemism for the male sexual organ.
Whole body thrown into hell – Discussing Edward Fudge’s view on Jesus’ teaching here, Robert Yarbrough writes: ‘“Thrown into hell” is not just “rejection, banishment, and expulsion” but active punishment. The image is not of a judge turning his back, exiling someone to a lonely place, or sending someone out of the courtroom. “To go into hell” is not just a passive loss or lamentable setback; it is an active image of someone entering a location of extreme misery and discomfort. “The loss of the total self” is a feeble psychologization of an execrable state in comparison to which bodily mutilation and amputation are much to be preferred, according to Jesus.’ (in Morgan, Christopher W.. Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Kindle Locations 1771-1775). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.) We think that Yarbrough’s case is weakened by a lack of sensitivity to the context. ‘Tearing out your right eye’ and ‘cutting off your right hand’ are (mercifully!) almost universally recognised as hyperbolic statements. It is reasonable, therefore, to regard the present statement as carrying a degree of hyperbole.
5:31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.’ 5:32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Whoever divorces his wife” – ‘Under Jewish law, “adultery” referred only to the wife’s misbehavior, not the husband’s. Matthew does not agree with this view; (Mt 5:28) but because his readers must obey the law of their communities, he deals only with the issue of the wife.’ (NT Background Commentary)
‘There is no time in history when the marriage bond stood in greater peril of destruction than in the days when Christianity first came into this world. At that time the world was in danger of witnessing the almost total break-up of marriage and the collapse of the home.’ (DSB)
“A legal document” – According to DSB, this read: “Let this be from me thy writ of divorce and letter of dismissal and deed of liberation, that thou mayest marry whatsoever man thou wilt.” All that had to be done was to hand that document to the woman in the presence of two witnesses and she stood divorced.
In this antithesis, Jesus is opposing, not Scripture, but scribal tradition. The scribal quotation in the verse seems to be a deliberately misleading abbreviation of the Deut 24 passage, in that it gave the impression that divorce was readily available, even for trivial reasons, provided that a certificate was produced.
‘From early time provision was made for divorce among the Israelites. (Deut 24:1-4) Presumably prior to this decree, a wife could be put out of the home at the pleasure of the husband. Now he was required to write out “a bill of divorce” and give it to his wife as proof that he was divorcing her. This gave some dignity and protection to the divorced woman.’ (Holman)
Here is Calvin’s comment:- ‘As the Jews falsely imagined that they discharged their whole duty toward God, when they kept the law in a national manner, so whatever the national law did not forbid, they foolishly supposed to be lawful. Divorces, which husbands were wont to give to their wives, had not been prohibited by Moses as to external order, but only, for the sake of restraining lewdness, he had ordered that “a bill of divorcement” should be given to the wives who were put away, (Deut 24:1) It was a sort of testimonial of freedom, so that the woman was afterwards free from the yoke and power of the husband; while the husband at the same time acknowledged, that he did not send her away on account of any crime, but because she did not please him. Hence proceeded the error, that there was nothing wrong in such putting away, provided that the forms of law were observed. But they did wrong in viewing as a matter of civil law, the rule which had been given them for a devout and holy life. For national laws are sometimes accommodated to the manners of men but God, in prescribing a spiritual law, looked not at what men can do, but at what they ought to do. It contains a perfect and entire righteousness, though we want ability to fulfill it. Christ, therefore, admonishes us not to conclude, that what is allowed by the national law of Moses is, on that account, lawful in the sight of God. That man, (says he,) who puts away his wife, and gives her a bill of divorcement, shelters himself under the pretense of the law: but the bond of marriage is too sacred to be dissolved at the will, or rather at the licentious pleasure, of men. Though the husband and the wife are united by mutual consent, yet God binds them by an indissoluble tie, so that they are not afterwards at liberty to separate. An exception is added, except on account of fornication: for the woman, who has basely violated the marriage-vow, is justly cast off; because it was by her fault that the tie was broken, and the husband set at liberty.’
“Except for immorality” – This famous ‘exceptive clause’ is also found in Mt 19:9. For Jesus’ teaching on divorce, see also Mt 10:2-12; and Lk 16:18 (cf. 1 Cor 7:10-11). Divorce is disallowed except for ‘immorality’, which may mean (1) adultery, (2) unfaithfulness during the period of betrothal (see 1:19), or (3) marriage between near relatives.’ (Lev 18; Acts 15:29)
The authenticity of the so-called Matthean ‘exception clause’ has been called into question by some scholars, on the ground that it does not occur in Mark and Luke. But ‘it is a difficult matter to invade the psychology of writers who lived nearly two thousand years ago and tell why they did not include something in their text which someone else did in his. Neither Luke nor Mark were personal disciples of the Lord. They wrote second hand. Matthew was a personal disciple of Christ and has twice recorded the exception. It will be a new position in regard to judgment on human evidence when we put the silence of absentees in rank above the twice expressed report of one in all probability present one known to be a close personal attendant.’ (ISBE)
‘The reason for the omission of the exceptive clause in Mark and Luke could be that no Jew, Roman or Greek ever doubted that adultery constituted grounds for divorce, and the Evangelists took it for granted. Similarly, Paul in Rom 7:1-3, referring to Jewish and Rom. law, ignores the possibility of divorce for adultery which both these laws provided.’ (NBD)
‘In all matters of Jewish law there were two schools. There was the school of Shammai, which was the strict, severe, austere school, and there was the school of Hillel which was the liberal, broad-minded, generous school. Shammai and his school defined some indecency as meaning unchastity and nothing but unchastity. “Let a wife be as mischievous as the wife of Ahab,” they said, “she cannot be divorced except for adultery.” To the school of Shammai there was no possible ground of divorce except only adultery and unchastity. On the other hand the school of Hillel defined some indecency, in the widest possible way. They said that it meant that a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner by putting too much salt in his food, if she went in public with her head uncovered, if she talked with men in the streets, if she was a brawling woman, if she spoke disrespectfully of her husband’s parents in his presence, if she was troublesome or quarrelsome. A certain Rabbi Akiba said that the phrase, if she find no favour in his sight, meant that a man might divorce his wife if he found a woman whom he considered to be more attractive than she.’ (DSB)
The word porneia means sexual immorality. To extend its meaning to include other forms of objectionable behaviour, or temperamental incompatibility, is misguided. Such things (writes Stott in Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th ed., p372) may suggest other arguments permitting divorce, but they cannot be based on the meaning of this word.
Hyperbole? ‘Some Pharisaic rabbis allowed divorce for almost anything (just as Roman law did); others allowed it only if the wife were unfaithful (both Jewish and Roman law required divorce for adultery). Yet the stricter rabbis did not view more lenient divorces as invalid. Jesus thus goes beyond the stricter position: not only does he allow divorce only if one’s wife is unfaithful, but he regards divorce for any other reason as invalid, thus making remarriage in those cases adulterous. This seems, however, to be hyperbole (as in Mt 5:29-30), a graphic way of forbidding divorce except when the other partner has already irreparably broken the marriage covenant.’ (NT Background Commentary)
‘If anything is clear about the teaching of Christ, it is that whether rigorist or liberal it was not legalistic…The seemingly impossible commands of Jesus are meant to be obeyed but they cannot be kept piecemeal. They belong to the whole context of a new covenant: “The Gospel preceded the demand” (Jeremias). They are illustrations of a way of living. To argue about whether they are “optional” or “compulsory,” “ideals” or “laws,” misses the point, just as it misses the point to say that they are binding only upon those who belong. They are kept as a response to something seen, human or divine, that overcomes hard-heartedness. When hard-heartedness remains, it is too much to expect them to be kept. We may have to admit even in the church that the harvest of the Spirit (Gal 5:22f) is not ready for reaping.’ (Oppenheimer, in A New Dictionary of Christian Ethics, 161f)
5:33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 5:34 But I say to you, do not take oaths at all—not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 5:35 not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 5:36 Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black. 5:37 Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one.
‘The Anabaptists said that Christ’s prohibition, “Do not swear at all” must be taken literally and was a prohibition against all oath-taking. Calvin looking (sic) beyond such literalistic logic. He pointed to the purpose or intention that Christ had in giving this commandment, and proceeded with his exegesis, commenting, “Here, however, we shall never attain the truth unless we fix our eyes upon Christ’s intention and give heed to what he is driving at in that passage” (Inst IIviii.25).’ (Rogers & McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, 97f)
See Jas 5:12 for a close parallel.
5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 5:39 But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. 5:40 And if someone wants to sue you and to take your tunic, give him your coat also. 5:41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 5:42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.
‘In Ex 21:24, Lev 24:20 and Deut 19:21 we have laws given for the administration of public justice. The practice of private revenge and family feud was to be replaced by strictly fair and impartial public administration of justice. In our Lord’s day this excellent, if stern, principle of judicial retribution was being utililised as an excuse for the very thing that it was instituted to abolish, namely personal revenge.’ (John Wenham, Christ and the Bible, 35)
‘There is a legal flavour to these illustrations [in vv39-41]: a blow on the right cheek was a serious insult punishable by a heavy fine; the cloak was protected from forfeiture by Ex. 22:25–27; and the Roman soldier’s right to commandeer civilian porters (forces you to go is the technical term for this) was limited. All involve not insisting on your rights.’ (NBC)
To the Jew, being slapped in the face was equivalent to being spat in the face. The rabbis held that a blow with the back of the hand, which would normally strike you opponent’s right cheek, was twice as bad as hitting him with the flat of the hand. Therefore, to turn the other cheek is to be prepared to receive the ultimate insult. It is better to submit to a second insult than to retaliate. ‘It is better to suffer wrong twice than to do wrong once.’
For Jesus’ own behaviour in this respect, see Jn 18:22-23. He did not literally turn his other cheek, but fulfilled the spirit of his own injunction by his courteous and dignified bearing.
Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God) thinks that this saying refers primarily to not joining the resistance movement against Rome. But the context scarcely suggests this, let alone demands it. Moreover, the references to persons in the singular (‘someone…you…him’) also weighs against a more political interpretation.
Tunic – an undergarment
Cloak – an outer garment.
This saying is said to have its source in a practice of the Persian postal service. Couriers were placed at fixed points, in order to relay messages. If a man was passing one of these points, the courier could compel him to go to another post to perform an errand on the King’s behalf. But the legal limit for such conscripted service was one mile. So, says Jesus, show that you have a different attitude and a higher motive by cheerfully going further than you have to.
The lesson for us is that we should not be content with doing our mere duty. We should do more, and do it cheerfully. Our Lord willingly relinquished his rights, Php 2:6, and so should we.
Love for Enemies
5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ 5:44 But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, 5:45 so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 5:46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? 5:47 And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they?
‘The OT had given the command, “You shall love your neighbour.” This had been misinterpreted as involving the corollary, “You shall hate your enemy.” But of course in making this addition, which is not a quotation from the OT, the popular teaching was giving it a meaning which is not implied in the context. Lev 19:18 was a command originally intended to embrace every member of the Israelite community, and the rest of the verse makes it clear that an Israelite was not to seek for vengeance or harbour grudges against any of his compatriots. Lev 19:34 goes further and applies the same principle to the resident alien…”Love your neighbour” in the Levitical rule already implied “Love your enemies.”‘ (John Wenham, Christ and the Bible, 35f)
Derek Flood is more sceptical about the ethical status of the OT: ‘While it is frequently noted that there is no specific Old Testament command to “hate your enemy,” one finds this ethos of hatred expressed frequently in the Psalmist’s prayers for violent vengeance against his enemies (see for example Ps 139:21-24, Ps 55:15, Ps 69:27-28, Ps 109:9-12). The policy of enemy-hate is likewise certainly epitomized in the genocide narratives, which had become a major part of the Israelites’ history and identity, shaping their messianic expectations which looked for a warrior messiah to come liberate them from their exile and oppression through bloodshed.’ (Disarming Scripture, p34f)
See Lev 19:16-18.
The fundamentalist ethical code. ‘When the fundamentalist develops his ethical code, he is somewhat prompted by a quest for status in the cult. Consequently, he defines the good life as the separated life – separated, that is, from prevailing social mores. Whereas Christ was virtuous because he loved his neighbour as himself, the fundamentalist is virtuous because he does not smoke, dance, or play cards. By raising a scrupulous demur over social mores, the fundamentalist can divert attention from grosser sins – anger, jealousy, hatred, gossip, lust, idleness, malice, backbiting, schism, guile, injustice, and every shade of illicit pride.’ (E.J. Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology, 120)
‘This is often considered a reversal of the law of Moses, which supposedly required retaliation and was devoid of the principle of forgiveness and love in dealing with enemies…[But] Moses…did not demand the inexorable functioning of the law of retaliation. He specifically warned the Israelites, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love you neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:17f.). Ex. 23:4f states, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the ass of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it, you shall help him to lift it up.” Although “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is the very principle of perfect justice, OT law was not a stranger to forbearance or unaware of the principle of returning good for evil (cf. Job 31:29; Ps. 35:12f.; Prov. 24:17), and nothing forbade the individual’s foregoing some of his rights.’ (Gerstner, ISBE, art. Law in the NT)
Cf. Rom 12:20; 1 Pet 3:9.
5:48 So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The ‘greater righteousness’ has been (a) demanded, v20; (b) illustrated, v21-47; and is now (c) summarised.
“Be perfect” – Gk teleioi. Cf. Mt 19:21 “If you want to be perfect…” It indicates completeness, wholeness, maturity, as opposed to the outward legal conformity to the law as practiced by the scribes and Pharisees. Our lives are not to be lived with robotic obedience to arbitrary rules and regulations, but with total integration to the will of God, and with heartfelt conformity to his character. And after all, this had been taught in the OT itself, Deut 18:13, ‘You must be blameless before the Lord your God.’ Lev 20:26, ‘You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy.’ We are to base our lives, not on the standards of the world around us, but on those of our heavenly Father.
This ‘perfection ‘ is ‘the “more” required in v. 47. Cf. 19:20–21, where again teleios (its only other use in Matthew) indicates God’s requirement which goes beyond legal conformity.’ (France)
‘It is best to understand v.48 as the conclusion to all the antitheses. The OT background to this verse is Lev 19:2, with “holy” displaced by “perfect” (GK 5455). Here for the first time perfection is predicated of God.
‘In the light of the preceding verses (vv. 17–47), Jesus is saying that the true direction in which the law has always pointed is not toward mere judicial restraints, concessions arising out of the hardness of human hearts, still less casuistical perversions, nor even the “law of love.” No, it pointed rather to all the perfection of God, exemplified by the authoritative interpretation of the law bound up in the preceding antitheses. This perfection Jesus’ disciples must emulate if they are truly followers of him who fulfills the Law and the Prophets (v.17).’ (Carson, EBC)
‘Teleios is wider than moral perfection: it indicates ‘completeness’, ‘wholeness’ (cf. Paul’s use of it for the spiritually ‘mature’ in 1 Cor. 2:6; 14:20; Phil. 3:15), a life totally integrated to the will of God, and thus reflecting his character.’ (France)
‘The Greek word teleios (“perfect”) means “having attained the end/purpose.” Since human beings were made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), they are “perfect” when they demonstrate in their lives those characteristics that reflect the nature of God.’ (Mounce)
“As your heavenly Father is perfect” – ‘The conformity to the character of God, to which Israel was called in their role as God’s special people (see especially Lev. 20:26), is now affirmed as the goal of the disciples of Jesus.’ (France)
Some have built on this verse grandiose dreams of sinless perfection. But this would entail ‘reclassifying sin as something less serious than it is’ (Mounce). Jesus is about to teach us to pray, ‘Forgive us our sins’, Mt 6:12.
Such, then is to be the goal of all Christ’s disciples. No Christian will attain it in this life, but all should set it before them as their ultimate aim.
Matthew Henry allows for either a general meaning (‘desire, and aim at, and press toward a perfection in grace and holiness’) or a specific meaning (i.e. do good to our enemies; cf. Lk 6:36).