The Pharisees were mired in an external religion because they did not understand the law. Their conception of duty under the law was faulty in two respects.
- They did not see how comprehensive the law was. They thought that it extended no farther than its specific requirements. They imagined that if they did not take the life of an enemy, they were satisfying the commandment against murder, the Sixth Commandment. But in their view, to curse an enemy was permissible. They honored the Fifth Commandment—"Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother"—by refraining from obvious disrespect. But they had no scruple against withholding financial help from needy parents. They justified their stinginess by declaring their own property "Corban"—that is, dedicated to the Lord (Mark 7:10-13). They preached against adultery, but they were notorious for repeatedly going through marriage and divorce.
In essence, they did not grasp that each law was intended only to forbid the worst violation of a positive duty. We should not merely be faithful to a spouse. We should give that spouse our complete devotion. We should not merely refrain from dishonoring our parents. We should give them utmost gratitude and, until we attain maturity, our utmost obedience. We should not merely let an enemy live. We should do him good.
- They did not grasp that the law sought inward righteousness as well as outward righteousness. For this blindness they had no excuse, since the final commandment—the commandment that serves as a synopsis of the several preceding commandments—prohibits coveting. Coveting is, of course, a flaw in one's heart.
As Jesus continued the Sermon on the Mount, He reinterpreted several provisions of the law in such a way as to show us that the law has much greater reach than the Pharisees imagined.
The Permanence of the Law
The Pharisees had accused Jesus of being a law breaker—in particular, of being a violator of the Sabbath law. So, lest anyone suppose that He meant to challenge the law, He opened His commentary on the Ten Commandments by stating clearly that His purpose in coming was not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. He meant that He, alone among all who have lived on the earth, would keep the law perfectly, and that by His spotless righteousness He would enable others to attain perfection also. They would become like Him as a result of receiving Him as their Savior from sin.
The claim that He came to fulfill the law contains a special message for those Pharisees who disliked His healings on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was given as a day of rest. Yet despite all their zeal to observe and protect the Sabbath, the Pharisees never found spiritual rest—that is, rest from their futile exertions to please God. A man never knows a truly lasting and satisfying rest until He finds it in Jesus. Jesus fulfilled the law of the Sabbath not as the Pharisees wanted, by keeping their man-made rules, but by being the rest-giver.
To show the indestructibility of the law, Jesus said that it would remain in force until heaven and earth passed away. They will indeed pass away, when God creates a new heaven and a new earth. Then, without sin and the curse, law will be irrelevant. There will be no need to legislate against motives and conduct that will be impossible anyway.
As long as heaven and earth remain, the law would be preserved down to the last jot and tittle. A "jot" is the Greek form ("iota") of the Hebrew letter "jod." A jod was a small letter, though not necessarily the smallest. It was, however, the one most expendable in the spelling of many Hebrew words. To include it or not was a matter of personal preference. The term "tittle" refers to any of the small dots or lines used to distinguish one Hebrew letter from another. The jots and tittles in the original text of the law were therefore the elements most easily lost. Jesus assured us that even these elements would be preserved intact.
Commentators agree that by "the law," Jesus meant the whole body of divine revelation—the entirety of Scripture. But it has been much debated whether Jesus was saying that the entirety would always be true and binding, or that the entirety would always be available for man's instruction. In other words, was He teaching the doctrine of immutability or the doctrine of preservation? To put it another way, was He affirming that the mind of God would never change, or that God would preserve a perfect text of His Word for every generation? The former is likely the correct interpretation, since many believers in many times and places have been deprived of a perfect Bible. Yet, the remarkable survival of the whole Bible from ancient times until our day is proof that God has preserved His Word.
"These commandments" in verse 19 is another synonym for the law and for Scripture in general. Jesus taught that our response to these commandments will determine our rank in heaven. There will be a ranking based on works. Failure to observe and teach even the least of these commandments will be considered grounds for demotion to the lowest rank. The highest rank will be granted only to those who observe and teach all the commandments.
But lest we give works the wrong place in God's economy, Jesus immediately stated the counterbalancing truth—that admission into the Kingdom is not determined by works. He said that if we depend on our own righteousness to gain entrance to the kingdom, we will fail. No one is good enough to get in, not even the Pharisees, who carried human righteousness as far as it could go. When He said, "unless your righteousness exceeds theirs," He plainly intended to set an impossible condition apart from the free grace of God that gives us the righteousness of Christ.
Jesus' Commentary on Specific Commandments
The Commandment against Murder
Now Jesus began to expound specific provisions of the law. He began with the first commandment on the second tablet, the tablet setting forth man's obligation to man. This commandment was the Sixth, the one forbidding murder.
Jesus pointed out that the commandment was originally given as a basis for judgment (v. 21). He was implying that the commandment limited the offense to murder (and, by extension, to violent acts that could cause injury and death) only because God wanted the commandment to be enforceable. In other words, this commandment represents the translation of a moral principle into a form useful for maintaining peace in society. We see here God's purpose in laying down the Ten Commandments. They were intended as an absolute framework for every legal code that man would devise and uphold through his systems of government.
The moral principle underlying the commandment is much more wide-sweeping and demanding than the commandment itself. It is clear from examining this passage that the underlying principle is the prohibition against hating our brother (1 John 3:15). There is a causal connection between hatred and murder. Hatred is the motive and murder is the outcome. Murder is the natural and even the inevitable consequence of hatred if all restraints are removed. Just because restraints exist and force us to hold our hand when we hate someone does not make us guiltless. We are guilty of whatever we would do without restraints—of whatever we would do if we did not fear getting caught and being punished.
Jesus singled out three particular expressions of hatred, describing all three as offenses against a "brother," a term implying a fellow servant of God. He did not condemn using the same expressions with reference to someone who is wicked. But as we will see, it is wrong to malign anyone, good or bad. Jesus taught that we should love our enemies as well as our friends. Why then do His comments on anger have a limited compass, restricted to offenses against a brother? Because it is likely that He is giving us a foreglimpse of the laws He will promulgate during His Millennial reign. It is probable that people during the Millennium will be required to view all fellow citizens as brothers, even though they might not have regenerate hearts.
The first of the three offenses that Jesus identified is anger, perhaps the most common motive for murder. He specifically condemned anger "without a cause." This phrase, omitted from the manuscripts favored by the modern critical text, is necessary for the sake of justice. It is right to be angry with a brother who has, for example, corrupted a child. There is such a thing as righteous anger, as distinct from reckless rage, although even this sort of anger must be tempered by forgiveness.
The second offense is calling a brother "Raca," Aramaic for a worthless person. Regarding a person in this way is also a motive for murder. The aborted fetus is seen as worthless. The old person eliminated by euthanasia is seen as worthless. The Jew, the feeble-minded, and the insane that Hitler slew in his mad scheme to build a perfect race were seen as worthless.
The third offense is saying to a brother, "Thou fool." For us, a fool is merely someone who is silly or stupid. But the term in Jesus' day was a deeply cutting insult with moral overtones. It pointed to someone who was not wise before God—to an evil person, a reprobate. To see a fellow human being as essentially evil can serve as a motive for killing him. The killings done by rioters caught up in genocide or civil insurrection fall under this heading.
The three offenses are scaled from least to most serious. To be angry is bad, but to consider a brother as Raca is worse. It is an insult to his Creator (James 3:9). And to characterize a true brother as wicked is worst of all, for this is an insult to the Holy Spirit who indwells him—an offense similar to the unforgivable sin, which is blasphemy of the Spirit (Matt. 12:31-2). Jesus declared the Pharisees guilty of this kind of blasphemy when they denied that His works were done by the power of the Spirit and instead attributed them to the power of Satan (Matt. 12:24).
Likewise, the penalties are graded from least to most severe— judgment, council, and hell fire. No commentator knows exactly what these refer to. Undoubtedly they belong to the Millennium, since nothing like them has ever existed during the present dispensation. We cannot exactly foresee the judicial system that Jesus will introduce when He reigns. But it is likely that the three penalties show us a hierarchy of courts, "judgment" representing a court dealing with minor offenses, "council" naming a court with jurisdiction over more serious crimes, and "hell fire" implying a court reserved for capital cases.
Hatred within the house of God drives brothers apart and creates division where God intended unity. To show how serious and damaging such division is, Jesus said that its removal should have top priority. A pious heart might be inclined to give first place to the faithful practice of worship. But Jesus rated reconciliation between estranged brothers as even more important than giving a gift to God (vs. 23-4). In fact, we cannot please God with a gift if we are refusing to give Him the thing He really wants, and what He really wants is love for our brother. This is "the royal law" (James 2:8), the second greatest commandment after the commandment to love God (Matt. 22:39). If we fail to love our brother whom we can see, how can we love God, whom we have not seen (1 John 4:20)?
Jesus placed the burden of reconciliation upon the offender. If the offended one is a brother, we should hurry to satisfy him if he "hath ought against thee," whether or not he is seeking satisfaction. In the spirit of forbearance, he may have decided to overlook the offense. Still, we should make things right.
The phrase "ought against thee" refers to real and not imagined offenses. We cannot be responsible for an offense that exists only in a brother's mind. How could we know about it except he tell us? If he comes to us with his grievance, we should do all in our power to correct the misunderstanding and assure him of our good will. If he then persists in falsely accusing us, he is the offender.
If we have an adversary, whether or not he is a brother, we must do everything we can to stop him from taking legal action against us. He may be entirely in the wrong. Yet before he can move forward with any legal complaint or suit, we must strive for a settlement out of court. Otherwise, he may succeed in doing us even more serious harm.
Here, Jesus was making it clear that He did not want His children to waste precious time and resources upon litigation even in a just cause. Our mandate is to invest as much of ourselves as possible in being salt and light.
The Commandment against Adultery
The next commandment Jesus took up was the Seventh. His famous teaching that lust is merely internalized adultery raises several critical questions. The first is, why did He treat lust as though it were only a male problem? Because women are inherently virtuous? No, the Bible is as scathing in its estimate of female virtue as in its estimate of male virtue (Prov. 31:10; Eccles. 7:27-9, where the one man in a thousand—a figure of speech signifying a man beyond compare—is Christ). The answer to the question is that Jesus viewed men as primarily responsible for upholding virtue in society.
This is contrary to what society believed in days past. Women were thought to be the guardians of virtue. But the Bible entrusts a girl's virtue to the safekeeping of her father, and a woman's virtue to the safekeeping of her husband. Behind every loose woman stands a father or husband who has failed to meet his responsibility.
Moreover, adultery can occur only by the consent of both a man and a woman, and according to Scripture, a man is the stronger vessel (1 Pet. 3:7). In discussing lust, Jesus therefore addresses men only, in recognition that they have the capacity to assume leadership in any relationship with a woman. They have not only a greater power to initiate a wrongful relationship, but also to prevent it.
Yet men like to think of themselves as helpless victims of feminine wiles. They imagine that they fall into sin only because women lure them into it—that lust overpowers them only because women refuse to hide their beauty and charm. The remedy for lust in male-dominated Muslim countries is to make women cover up from head to toe. Do such measures in fact eliminate lust? Of course not. A man can be attracted to a woman just by her eyes, or by her gracefulness and fragility, which her robes cannot conceal. Modesty is certainly important—extremely important—as a means of restraining lust. But the place where lust begins and where it is best restrained is in a man's heart.
Jesus' teaching on lust raises another critical question. What did He mean by the term "lust"? To apply His teaching we need a clear definition, showing exactly what lust is and what it is not.
- Lust is not noticing that a woman is attractive. A man cannot turn off the biological programming enabling him to recognize an attractive woman. Lust is not noticing the fact, but dwelling upon it and taking delight in it, particularly if that delight is linked to sexual pleasure.
- Lust is not looking with interest at a prospect for marriage.
- Lust is not looking with love at someone you intend to marry, provided you and the woman are both eligible.
- Lust is not looking with sexual desire at your wife. Some theologians and Bible teachers have, on the basis of Jesus' treating lust as equivalent to adultery, taught that it is possible to break the Seventh Commandment even within marriage. They are assuming that a man can lust after his wife. This misconception has been common among Catholics, but it is by no means restricted to them. Certainly, it is wrong to see a wife as merely a sex object. Yet the sin is this case is properly identified as lack of love rather than as lust. Those who ban lust from marriage generally mean that too much sexual desire is wrong. Yet the Bible gives marriage as the solution for raging passion (1 Cor. 7:9), and it states that the marriage bed (a clear allusion to sex within marriage) is undefiled (Heb. 13:4; the entire Song of Solomon).
We are now ready for a definition of lust. Lust is sexual desire for the wrong person, for someone God has not given as a wife.
The greater danger in our day is not that we will condemn ourselves for things innocent, but that we will persist without guilt in things impure. Our excuse may be that we cannot help ourselves. Jesus anticipated this excuse. To answer those who protest that they cannot keep their hands or their eyes from sexual transgression, Jesus used a form of argument that is known as reductio ad absurdum (vs. 29-30). From the premises, "I cannot control myself," and, "If I do not control myself, I will go to hell as an unrepentant sinner," Jesus drew a logical but absurd conclusion—"I must pluck out my eye or cut off my hand"—showing that since the second premise is true, the first must be absurd like the conclusion.
In other words, it is true that lust stands in the way of repentance and living for God—the marks of a man who is heaven-bound. It is true also that if we could not control ourselves, the only remedy would be to perform radical surgery on our bodies. But it is foolish to suppose that God requires us to dismember ourselves. Therefore, it must also be foolish to suppose that we cannot refrain from lust. We cannot defeat it in the power of the flesh, but we can in the power of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16).
The Pharisees imagined themselves righteous, but they tolerated divorce. Jesus exposed their hypocrisy by showing that divorce was a violation of the Seventh Commandment. In what way was it a violation? The answer He gave is that divorce leads to adulterous remarriages.
Few Christians dispute that divorce is wrong. Yet many draw from the teaching in Matthew 5 that it is justifiable under certain conditions. They believe that in saying, "saving for the cause of fornication," Jesus was stating legitimate grounds for divorce, and they call these words "the exception clause."
The issue of divorce and remarriage is exceedingly thorny, and I hesitate to deal with it except in detail (as I have done in other lessons at the Moorings). But I would not be fulfilling my responsibility as a teacher if I skimmed over anything controversial. Let me state at the outset that God has not made me anyone's judge. Nor has He given me the right to probe into anyone's past. I do not love anyone the less because he might disagree with me, or because he might have done something I believe is wrong. I can only say that if you have failed to meet God's standard, you will not have the full blessing of God in your life until you acknowledge your sin.
Having said all that, I must present what I strongly believe is the correct interpretation of Jesus' teaching on divorce. A proper consideration of the issue will require close reasoning. This is unavoidable because some of the passages on divorce are difficult to understand. God had good reasons for making them difficult. No doubt one reason is that He wanted to leave room for mercy on the Day of Judgment. He knew that if He clearly forbade divorce and remarriage without exception, simple justice would force Him to deal severely with everyone who knowingly violated His law. Thus, He preferred to leave us all a little confused so that He could be merciful in certain cases, especially to those who had divorced or remarried in consequence of a shattering betrayal. Yet He is willing to reveal His perfect will to anyone who seeks it (Rom. 12:2), and it is by pursuing His perfect will that we achieve the greatest blessing.
My position, which I reached many years ago only after long and careful study of the Scriptures, is that Jesus did not allow divorce or remarriage under any conditions. Let me offer four reasons for my position.
- The rule Jesus wanted us to follow is stated in several passages, most clearly in Matthew 19:3-6. The rule is, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." "Man" has the traditional generic sense inclusive of both sexes and refers to any human being, including either of the married parties themselves. Jesus clearly meant, "Let no one get a divorce." He said nothing to suggest that a cheated spouse is exempt.
- When Jesus taught that divorce breaks the Seventh Commandment, He did not mean that this is the sole reason it is wrong. It is wrong for many other reasons also. And all of these apply even when the divorcer can plead that his spouse has been unfaithful.
- For example, divorce breaks a solemn covenant forged at the wedding ceremony—a covenant including the promise to be faithful "for better, for worse . . . until death do us part." The wording "for worse" specifically sets aside any grounds for breaking the promise in the future. Adultery is horrible and devastating, but it still falls within the compass of "worse." There is no exception clause in the marriage vows.
- Divorce also tramples on the rights of children. It is best for children if their parents stay married even though the bond between them has been damaged by adultery.
- Jesus attached "the exception clause" to the case of a man who divorces his wife. In Matthew 19:9, He extends it to the case of a man who divorces His wife and then remarries. Yet in both passages He states without qualification that a man who marries a divorced woman is guilty of adultery. Notice that the "exception clause" is not transferable from the first man to the second. It would be absurd to say that it is wrong to marry a divorced woman unless she has committed fornication. So, if the "exception clause" is really what its name suggests, we come to a logical snarl. Supposedly it is all right for a man to divorce his wife and remarry if she has been unfaithful, but a divorced woman cannot marry under any circumstances. Fairness would demand that Jesus also give the right of remarriage to a woman divorced from an unfaithful husband. But He declined to do so. There is no exception clause in her case. Why? Have we unmasked a double standard? No. As we noted in our discussion of reductio ad absurdum, an absurd conclusion signals a false assumption. The mistake here is to suppose that the words "saving for the cause of fornication" constitute an exception clause.
- To call it an exception clause is simply a misnomer. A true exception clause would clearly grant permission for divorce. It might say, for example, "It is wrong to divorce a wife unless she has committed adultery."
What then did Jesus mean when He said "saving for the cause of fornication"? He was merely stating the precise conditions under which a man who has divorced his wife is guilty of causing her to commit adultery. He is guilty if she has been faithful to him. Then he is to blame for her adulterous remarriage. But he is not guilty if she has already committed adultery (or fornication). Then the blame for being an adulteress rests upon herself. What has been widely touted as an exception clause turns out to be just a technicality.
One great problem in Christian ministry today is that we are trying to reach a society where most adults have tangled marital histories. What, if anything, should we require of divorced and remarried people who wish to join the church? In answer to this question, the Bible is absolutely silent. The reason, I believe, is that God expected us to determine what is best on a case-by-case basis, relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The only right path for a new convert, a repentant backslider, or an applicant for church membership may be to rebuild a former marriage. But sometimes this is neither possible nor desirable. It is often true in life that we cannot return to the status quo before sin. As Pastor Bob Taylor has said, "You can't unscramble eggs." It is wrong to rebuild a former marriage if, for example, either party is now married to someone else. A new divorce is not an acceptable remedy for an old divorce. Two wrongs do not make a right. Yet simple justice may require a stronger effort to minimize any damage an old divorce may have done to someone's emotional or financial well-being.
In general, I recommend three steps for any divorced or divorced and remarried person who wants to be sure of God's approval on his family arrangements.
- Accept God's righteous standard and confess your sin. It does no good to quarrel with God. It is hard to say you have been wrong, but say it.
- Seek through His Word and wise counsel what God would have you do.
- Once you have made things as right as you can, start life over. God has forgiven your sins. Forgive yourself and, as much as possible, forget your past. Set your gaze forward and rejoice that God wants to use you in His service.
The Commandments against Vain Swearing and False Witness
Next, Jesus took up the Third Commandment ("Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain"). In Old Testament times it was permitted to certify words of promise or testimony by means of an oath. The primary meaning of the Third Commandment is that an oath in the name of the Lord must be honored. To break a solemn promise sealed with an oath or to give false testimony despite an oath is to take His name in vain.
The Third Commandment is similar to the Ninth ("Thou shalt not bear false witness"), since both prohibit false statements: the first, any statement backed by an oath; the second, any statement made to harm another or promote oneself. They converge in condemning a witness in a formal judicial proceeding who tells lies after he has sworn to tell the truth. The fact that two of the Ten Commandments deal with truthfulness shows how important it is to God.
In recalling the teaching of the Old Testament, Jesus chose not to quote the Third Commandment itself. Instead, He referred to the subsidiary laws intended to clarify and particularize this commandment. He melded several of these into one statement (Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21). The mere fact that He freely edited the wording of the law was a claim of high authority.
As in His treatment of the Sixth and Seventh Commandments, Jesus sought to illumine the moral principle underneath the Third. The principle is that we should be honest through and through. What God wants, Jesus implied, is truthfulness deeply lodged in the heart. Every small word we utter should be gold-plated truth. As Jesus said, our "yes" should mean "yes" and nothing else, and our "no" should mean "no" and nothing else. If our promises are well known to be absolutely dependable, an oath adds nothing to what we say. Indeed, an oath cannot give us credibility if we have a reputation for lying.
The way of truthfulness is often hard to follow, as it winds through many tricky dilemmas. For example, what if you give your word, then change your mind? To say one thing today and another tomorrow is a form of dishonesty, even though what you say today is sincere. To change your mind after giving your word turns your word into a lie. You should be willing to keep your word despite the cost (Psa. 15:4).
Are there circumstances permitting you to break a promise? Yes, if, for example, you learn that keeping the promise will require disobedience to God. But even then you avoid greater sin only by committing the lesser sin of reneging on your word. To protect yourself from any possibility of falsehood, you should never give a significant promise except with the qualification, "Lord willing" (James 4:15).
Jesus did not teach that we should shun oaths as a matter of preference. Rather, He forbade them outright. He said, "Swear not at all" (v. 34). He prohibited all swearing for two reasons.
- An oath in the form "by God" is presumptuous. It is essentially a plea that God will witness the oath and punish us if we do not keep our word. Children make the true meaning of their oaths explicit. They say, "Cross my heart and hope to die." But God does not want any man to ask for his own condemnation. We are to seek God's mercy. We must not allow the devil to trap us into sworn promises that we cannot fulfill, thus earning God's wrath. That is why Jesus said that anything more than "yes" or "no" comes "of evil;" that is, from the evil one.
- Jesus wanted us to distance ourselves from the Pharisees, who used oaths as a cover for lying. They taught that although failure to perform an oath in the name of God is a violation of the Third Commandment, disregarding an oath in the name of heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or one's head is not a violation. Jesus pointed out that all these things belong to God and are subject to His control. Therefore, to call upon one of these lesser things to enforce an oath is to call upon God Himself.
Some Christians concerned to obey the prohibition against oath-taking have decided that in good conscience they cannot give pledges, such as the Scout pledge, the Pledge of Allegiance, or a pledge of marriage. But a pledge does not invoke the name of God. It is merely a solemn promise that we should not make unless we intend to keep it.
Even more Christians historically have refused to do the swearing required in certain legal ceremonies, such as the induction of a witness or juror to a trial proceeding or the inauguration of a government official. But the traditional form of the oath taken on these occasions sets it apart from a real oath. It is not a promise "by God" but "so help me God." This is merely a prayer for God's assistance in performing the promise.
With a few broad strokes, Jesus created a complete psychology of sinful man. He showed that all the sins named in the Second Table of the Law—all sins against our neighbor—come from a few root vices. The three in particular that He exposed were hatred, lust, and untruthfulness. He offered no commentary on the Eighth Commandment—"Thou shalt not steal"—because He did not need to reveal the root vice that propels men to this kind of sin. That vice is coveting, which the Tenth Commandment had already named and condemned.
Jesus' commentary on the law is a mirror enabling us to see into our hearts. It enables us to find tendencies that will lead to outward sin if we do not resist and defeat them by divine grace. Let us therefore put this commentary to its intended use. Let us learn it by heart and meditate upon it so that we will be alert to temptation and vigilant against sin—so that lust and hatred and lying will not gain so much as a foothold in our souls.
© 2007, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.