A New Approach to the Law (Matthew 5:17–47)
Jesus wanted to make sure that his followers didn';t misunderstand why he had come and what his relationship to the Law of Moses was, so he told them, “Don';t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God';s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved” (Matthew 5:17–18).
He went on to encourage them to keep the law, telling them that those who obeyed the law would be rewarded in the afterlife. Where Jesus differed most from the religious authorities and teachers of his day, however, was in his approach to what obeying the law really meant.
Six times in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus used the phrase “But I say,” indicating that he wanted to make some changes in how the Jewish leadership of his time had taught and applied the Law of Moses. Five other times he used the phrase, “I tell you.” Those are good verses to underline and remember as you study the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus wanted his followers to understand that obeying God meant more than just doing the minimum and strictly adhering to a bunch of rules. In other words, it';s the spirit of the law that mattered more than the letter of the law. That is why he taught such radical ideas about the following subjects:
Murder is from the heart (Matthew 5:21–26). Jesus taught that sin started in the heart and then demonstrated itself in actions. That is why he said in the Sermon on the Mount concerning those who speak hateful words, do hateful deeds, and think hateful thoughts:
You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.'; But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell. (Matthew 5:21–22)
Obviously, Jesus wanted his disciples — then and now — to deal properly with their anger at or with one another. That is reflected even more directly in the following verses, where Jesus told them to make sure that they are reconciled with one another before they bother to come to God (Matthew 5:24–25) and to settle their differences with one another before going to court (Matthew 5:25–26).
Adultery isn';t just about the act (Matthew 5:27–30). Jesus';s teaching on adultery again reflected on the fact that he stressed to his followers the importance of focusing on what was in their hearts and minds. He cited the commandment against committing adultery, but then told the people that any man who looks lustfully at a woman who is not his own wife has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Don';t make promises you can';t keep (5:33–37). Jesus addressed the subject of making vows when he said, “I say, do not make any vows! Do not say, ‘By heaven!'; because heaven is God';s throne … Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,'; or ‘No, I won';t.'; Anything beyond this is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:34, 37). In other words, answer with a simple yes or no when someone asks you for something.
Revenge is a dish best served not at all (Matthew 5:38–42). The Law of Moses held that someone who had been wronged or injured by another had the legal right to seek retribution (“an eye for an eye”). But Jesus taught that while people have that right, it is better not to use it.
Love your friends but also your enemies (Matthew 5:43–48). The Law of Moses as outlined in the Old Testament stated that believers were to love their neighbors as themselves. But by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the meaning of that commandment had become muddled. Jesus wanted his followers to do something really radical — love those who hated and persecuted them: “I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much” (Matthew 5:44, 46).
What did Jesus come to do with the Law of Moses?
What was different about Jesus';s teachings on adultery?