The Spirit of the Law Matthew 5:21-48

I’m so glad to be back with you this morning! It’s been a long time since I missed two weeks in a row, but I am thankful to have people like Dr. Kimble from Cedarville and Rich Porter to fill in for me. They both did a great job!

I can’t wait to tell you about our trip to Haiti last week, but rather than try to squeeze that into just a few minutes, we are going to use the sermon time on April 6th to tell you all about it. Suffice it to say, visiting a third-world country changes you. The nation of Haiti needs a lot of help and I look forward to considering how God might use us to reach out to some of the most needy among us.

But this morning I am excited to jump back into the Gospel of Matthew and pick up where Rich left off last week in chapter 5. This morning we will be looking at verses 21-48 and we will be considering several major topics like murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. So, I reject Rich’s complaint that I gave him too much to talk about last week – he only had 8 verses and two topics – I have 6 topics and 27 verses today!

Allow me to reorient you to where we are in this book. We are still in the midst of Jesus’ first sermon in the book of Matthew – the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus started off by speaking about the type of life that is blessed by God. As He spoke, He began mentioning things that were the opposite of what our world values. He said things like, “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek.” Then, as Rich explained last week, Jesus went on to teach that when we live according to kingdom values, rather than the values of this world, we make a difference. Our lives can serve as light and salt in a world of darkness and decay. God uses us to point others to Him. Jesus taught differently than any Jew had ever heard someone teach, and this led them to a very important question: what was Jesus’ view of the Law?

The Law meant everything to the Jews. The Law helped them to know whether they were in a right relationship with God or not. The Law was their rule of life. So, what did Jesus think about the Law? Rich helped us to see that Jesus had no desire to abolish the Law, in fact, He came to fulfill it. But He went on to teach that righteousness doesn’t come from obeying the Law, it comes from within (as He taught in the Beatitudes). Jesus cemented this idea at the end of last week’s passage in verse 20 by saying, “For 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.”

This was a shocking statement for Jesus to make to the Jews, because no one obeyed the law as good as the Pharisees and teachers of the law. So, if someone’s righteousness had to surpass that of the most religious people around in order to enter heaven, Jesus was basically telling them that righteousness was impossible to attain. And that is exactly what Jesus was trying to help the people to understand. In our own human power and might, righteousness is impossible to attain. The only way we can become righteous is to be made righteous by God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Romans 5:18-19 says, “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” 2 Corinthians 5:21 reiterates this by saying, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

But as the Jews began to wrestle with this idea that they could not be made righteous through obeying the Law, they were left asking, “How then are we to live? Are we not to obey the Law?” So, in today’s passage, Jesus takes six examples of the Law and uses them to illustrate and explain exactly how we are to relate to the Old Testament law.

What we are going to see in the following six examples is that Jesus made a fundamental change without altering God’s standards: He dealt with the attitudes and intents of the heart, not simply with external action. The Pharisees said that righteousness consisted of performing certain actions, but Jesus said it centered in the attitudes of the heart. We are going to move through all six topics very quickly this morning, but as we do I want you to catch this formula that Jesus uses to display His messianic authority. Six times over Jesus says, “You have heard it said…But I tell you.” He is asserting Himself as the one whom they should follow. Also notice that Jesus is not negating the Old Testament, but rather He is negating the people’s understanding and application of it.

Murder – Matthew 5:21-26

The word Jesus uses here for anger suggests “a settled anger, malice that is nursed inwardly.” Anger makes us destroyers instead of builders. It robs us of our freedom and makes us prisoners. When we do a heart check, hating someone is committing murder in our hearts. Although they are a creation of God, we devalue them in our minds. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should go ahead and murder someone we hate, since we have already sinned inwardly. Obviously sinful feelings are not excuses for sinful deeds. But we need to recognize that sinful anger robs us of fellowship with God. Therefore, we need to face our anger honestly and we must confess it to God as a sin, and the sooner the better, because the longer we wait, the worse our bondage becomes.

How are we to overcome anger? Jesus gives us the antidote in verses 24-25. We are to go and be reconciled. We are to settle matters quickly with our adversary. If you are struggling with sinful anger today, don’t simply continue thinking about this, take action. But I do have one word of caution and advice for you. Romans 12:17-18 says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Recognize that it is not in your ability to make someone forgive you or accept your apology. You cannot control the response of someone else, you are only responsible for yourself. But Scripture tells us that as far as it depends on us (and you and God both know your heart) you must live at peace with everyone.

ADULTERY – Matthew 5:27-30

Wow. How do you like that? People love to say that we are no longer under the Law, but take note that Jesus never lowers the bar – He always raises the bar when it comes to righteousness. Why is that? Because it’s not just about our external actions, it’s not just about rules, it’s about our hearts. It’s one thing to obey a rule, it’s another thing altogether to have the right motivation.

We talked about this concept this past week in our Growth group. If I were to buy Ashley flowers because it was a rule, that action may or may not be received well – it depends on my motivation and attitude. Likewise, God says over and over throughout Scripture that He doesn’t need or desire our sacrifices, He wants our hearts.

This is so important that Jesus uses hyperbole to make His point – He exaggerates to make His point by saying that if your eye or hand cause you to sin, get rid of them! Of course, Jesus is not really urging us to mutilate our bodies. Physical surgery can’t help us to live righteously. We don’t need physical surgery, we need spiritual surgery. We must purify the desires of our hearts because appetite leads to action. We must replace lust with a hunger and thirst for righteousness. Instead of dwelling on things that cause us to hunger for sin, we must feed ourselves spiritually so we hunger for God. A crucial understanding of overcoming sinful thoughts and patterns is that we cannot just will them away, we must replace them with something better. Lust begins in the heart, so allow God to change the desires of your heart by focusing on His beauty and majesty rather than the things of this world.

DIVORCE – Matthew 5:31-32

Again, Jesus raises the bar. Because divorce was a widespread phenomenon in the ancient world, God instituted a regulation through Moses that was designed to do three things: 1) protect the sanctity of marriage from “indecency” defiling the marital relationship; 2) protect the woman from a husband who might simply send her away without any cause; and 3) document her status as a legitimately divorced woman so that she was not thought to be a harlot or runaway adulteress. By Jesus’ day, the essence of the sanctity of marriage was being lost in religious circles as well. Those who were more conservative allowed divorce only for unchastity. Those who were more liberal allowed a man to divorce his wife if she simply spoiled his dinner.

So, Jesus returns to the original intention of both God’s institution of marriage and the Mosaic regulation. God’s intention was for marriage to be a permanent union of one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24). God “hates” divorce, because it tears apart what should be considered a permanent union (Mal. 2:16). Therefore, Jesus states categorically that divorce causes adultery, the despicable nature of which He has just declared, because an illicit divorce turns the woman into an adulteress when she remarries.

However, as Moses did, Jesus allows for an exception. Even though God sees marriage as permanent, sometimes the marriage bond has been violated to such a degree that a spouse has already torn apart the marriage union through marital unfaithfulness. Jesus states unequivocally the sacredness of marriage, but allows divorce to protect the non-offending partner and the institution of marriage from being a sham.

OATHS – Matthew 5:33-37

Notice that Jesus spoke about divorce in two verses and now when He speaks about oaths it requires 5 verses. This doesn’t take away from the seriousness of divorce, but it certainly helps us to see how important our character and our words are to God. The command doesn’t take long to explain, it’s not complicated, but it’s crucial. Jesus wants His disciples to be people of such integrity and truthfulness of heart that whatever they say is absolutely believable and dependable. We should need crutches to get people to believe us, we should have such integrity of character that if we say it, others can know that it’s truth.

RETALIATION – Matthew 5:38-42

In the Old Testament, the law of retaliation was established as a check for inappropriate punishment. Sometimes punishment was handed out without regard for individual cases and often the penalty exceeded the crime. So, the law was intended to bring about justice. But Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that when a society has governing authorities that judiciously administer justice, God’s people are liberated from the need to exact personal retribution and are enabled to pursue a higher ethical standard. This was not a new idea, God spoke about this in Leviticus 19:18 saying, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”

When we desire revenge, our desire is to take, not to give. Jesus wanted His disciples to reverse that. The evil person has attempted to take, Jesus’ disciples are to give to the offender by serving them. Jesus’ disciples are not to think first about retribution, even when they’re being abused. They must think of ways to advance the kingdom of heaven and its influence on earth. Our ultimate goal is to seek an opportunity for our enemies to be converted to the truth of God’s kingdom. So, Jesus teaches us to shock others with our generosity and grace. If someone hits you, let them. If someone tries to sue you, give them even more than they ask for. If someone demands that you serve them, do twice as much as they hoped for. Why on earth would we do this? We want to confound the world with God’s incredible and gracious love. We want to love and give recklessly because we understand that this world is not all there is, so to be mistreated here is no big deal. We put up with suffering because our number one priority is not our pride it is to shine God’s light.

LOVE FOR ENEMIES – Matthew 5:43-48

Again, Jesus teaches that we are not to love like this world loves. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? How does that shine Jesus’ light? Everybody loves those who are easy to love. We must be different! And since we know that Christian love is not just a feeling, but an act of the will, God has the right to command this of us. After all, Romans 5:8,10 tell us that “God demonstrate[d] his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us…[so] if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” God never asks us to do something that He has not done first. He loved us while we were sinning against Him, so we, in turn, must love others that they too might be reconciled to God.

What Jesus has to say promotes an inward concern with motive and attitude above the outward focus on the visible and quantifiable observance of rules. He is concerned more with the positive goal of discovering and following the will of God for His people rather than the negative goal of simply avoiding sin. In the kingdom of heaven, self-interest does not rule, and even our legal rights and legitimate expectations may have to give way to the interests of others. Jesus isn’t concerned about what is fair, He is challenging His followers to live up to their commitment by being different from other people so they can reflect His light.

BE PERFECT Matthew 5:48

Just in case all of this seems too easy for you, Jesus ends with a whammy, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Why would he say that?! Jesus set an unattainable standard for us which sums up what the law demanded. James 2:10 explains this further saying, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” Once again Jesus helps His Jewish audience to see where the Law leads. It leads to the recognition that we cannot be righteous in our own power. It leads to the recognition that we are slaves to sin and we need a rescuer, a redeemer. We have to understand that while the standard of the law is impossible to meet, God could not lower it without compromising His own perfection. He who is perfect could not set an imperfect standard of righteousness. But praise God, Jesus has met this standard of perfection on our behalf! 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us the incredibly good news that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Jesus lived a perfect life and then laid down His life as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. He took our sin upon Himself on the cross and paid the debt that we could never repay so that we would have the opportunity to be made righteous and enter into a relationship with a perfect God. But it’s crucial that you hear what I said – I said that He paid our debt so that we would have the opportunity to be made righteous. Through His death, Jesus made it possible for us to have forgiveness of our sins, but we must accept His sacrifice and lay down our lives in submission to God in order to receive His gift. How do we do this?

Romans 3:20-22 explains it all very clearly. It says, “…no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. 21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known…This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Romans 10:9-10 goes on to explain, “if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”

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