Matthew 5:21-32: Mind and Heart
January 12, 2021
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
As we enter into this middle section of the Sermon on the Mount, before we come to the particularities of exactly what it is that Jesus is commanding, it is important to notice and reflect upon the basic repeated structure and refrain. Jesus begins by saying in verse 21, “You have heard that it was said.” After their hearing what has been said, he then develops his argument with an authoritative statement: “But I say to you” (5:22). That statement, that structure, that repeated refrain, occurs again in the next section (5:27-28), and in one form or another runs through this middle section of the Sermon on the Mount.
Now it is important we grasp clearly what it is that Jesus is saying by this repeated refrain and structure. It is impossible that he is denying or undermining or countermanding all the Old Testament Scriptures. Why is that impossible? It is impossible because Jesus has just made it very clear that not one little bit, not one little part, of the Scriptures will be removed at all, but rather he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (5:17-18). So whatever else it is that Jesus is saying by means of this repeated refrain, he cannot be saying, “The Old Testament no longer is viable at all; it is gone in its entirety; here is my new law.” He cannot be saying that because, as a very careful teacher must, before he comes to this section when he is referring to various laws, he has made it clear that he cannot be taking parts of the law away—for not one jot or tittle will be removed.
So what is he saying? Well the most obvious answer is that when saying “you have heard that it was said,” he is referring not to the Scriptures themselves but to those who were teaching the Scriptures, or commenting on the Scriptures—the oral tradition that even then was developing around the Scriptures, the rabbinic teaching, and in particular the Pharisees, who he has already said their righteousness must surpass. Jesus is saying that the Pharisees have got it all wrong. In fact, their whole approach is wrong. They misunderstand things at the very core, and he has come to explain the truth.
Once we see that, we can see both his authority and his clarity. It is quite possible, isn’t it, to talk a lot about the Bible and miss its meaning entirely. We must listen to Jesus, as he authoritatively interprets the Bible, and be guided by him in our approach to the Law and the Prophets.
There is one other general observation which is that these commands are about the internal life. Jesus’ point is that simply not committing murder or not committing adultery, in the physical, external sense, is not sufficient. Our righteousness must come from inside. It is matter of what we think, what we feel, a matter of the heart. Hate, because it is in its essential nature the seed from which murder derives, is in essence the same as murder. Lust, because it is in its essential nature the seed from which adultery in its physical sense derives, is the same as committing adultery.
Now, of course, this is a great challenge, and anyone who has honestly faced up to these words of Jesus has immediately felt undone. Who among us is perfect in this definition of righteousness? Let him or her who is without sin pick up the first stone (John 8:7). There is none who is righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10). So the work of the Sermon on the Mount is beginning to be done, which is to lead us to Christ and to find our righteousness in him. But it is also to urge us, in the power of Christ and his Spirit, to begin to be more and more like these standards that he is laying before us.
The questions that these two passages ask of us are obvious but nonetheless compelling and convicting:
1) Would you, instead of harboring anger against someone else, take time now to forgive that person and seek reconciliation (5:24)? It could begin with an email for coffee or a meal. It could mean that you are able to become firm and fast friends again. It could mean that, for a while at least, there are still some barriers and boundaries that are necessarily in place for your own safety. But at least you are in spirit on the road towards reconciliation.
2) Would you also take time now to repent of “looking…with lustful intent” (5:28), and do the hard work? Jesus’ metaphor of cutting off a hand or tearing out an eye (5:29-30) is not meant by any means to be taken literally—but of cutting off patterns and behaviors, circumstances and opportunities, that may give rise to such temptation. The after-office party may be good for networking, but is it leading you down a path that is unwise and damaging eternally to your soul? Surfing on the Internet with Covenant Eyes software, or the equivalent accountability protocols, may slow down some of what you could otherwise do, or be less than ideal in terms of Internet interaction, but without it, are you leaving yourself exposed to temptations that could, unaddressed and un-repented of, lead you to a place of eternal damage to your soul?
These are hard questions and difficult matters, but as ever, Jesus is straightforward and direct in his teaching. Come to him and receive from him his righteousness and his power that you might be forgiven—for he promises to receive all who come to him and never cast them away. And then in his power take fresh courage and conviction to follow him, not just in the outward manifestation of moral respectability, but in the inner life of the mind and heart.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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