Jesus continues His manifesto. I have a lot to learn here. Jesus is being clear, as He always is. This isn’t what I was thinking He would say.
Jesus begins this section by telling the disciples not for one moment to imagine that he had come to abolish the law and the prophets, i.e. the whole Old Testament or any part of it. The way in which Jesus phrases this negative statement suggests that some had indeed been thinking the very thought which he now contradicts.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the religious elites (scribes and Pharisees), you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” | Matthew 5:17-20
The word ‘therefore’ introduces the deduction which Jesus now draws for his disciples from the enduring validity of the law and his own attitude with respect to it. It reveals a vital connection between the law of God and the kingdom of God. Because he has come not to abolish but to fulfil, and because not an iota or dot will pass from the law until all has been fulfilled, therefore greatness in the kingdom of God will be measured by conformity to it.
Nor is personal obedience enough; the disciples of the Messiah must also teach to others the permanently binding nature of the law’s commandments. True, not all the commandments are equally ‘weighty’. Yet even one of the least of these commandments, precisely because it is a commandment of Jesus the King, is important.
To relax it — i.e. to loosen its hold on our conscience and its authority in our life — is an offence to God whose law it is. To disregard a ‘least’ commandment in the law (in either obedience or instruction) is to demote oneself into a ‘least’ subject in the kingdom; greatness in the kingdom belongs to those who are faithful in doing and teaching the whole moral law. ‘The peerage of the Messiah’s kingdom’, wrote Spurgeon, ‘is ordered according to obedience.’
Jesus now goes further still. Not only is greatness in the kingdom assessed by a righteousness which conforms to the law, but entry into the kingdom is impossible without a conformity better (much better: the Greek expression is very emphatic) than that of the scribes and Pharisees, for God’s kingdom is a kingdom of righteousness.
But surely, someone will protest, the religious elites and theologians (scribes and Pharisees) were famous for their righteousness? Was not obedience to God’s law the master-passion of their lives? Did they not calculate that the law contains 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, and did they not aspire to keeping them all?
How then can the disciple’s righteousness actually exceed pharisaic righteousness, and how can this superior the disciple’s righteousness be made a condition of entering God’s kingdom? Does this not teach a doctrine of salvation by good works and so contradict the first beatitude which says the kingdom belongs to ‘the poor in spirit’ who have nothing, not even righteousness, to plead?
Our Master and King’s statement must certainly have astonished his first hearers as it astonishes us today. But the answer to these questions is not far to seek. the disciple’s righteousness far surpasses pharisaic righteousness in kind rather than in degree.
It is not so much that the disciple succeeds in keeping some 240 commandments when the best Pharisees may only have scored 230. No. the disciple’s righteousness is greater than pharisaic righteousness because it is deeper, being a righteousness of the heart.
There has been much talk since Freud of ‘depth-psychology’; the concern of Jesus was for a ‘depth-morality’. Pharisees were content with an external and formal obedience, a rigid conformity to the letter of the law; Jesus teaches us that God’s demands are far more radical than this.
The righteousness which is pleasing to him is an inward righteousness of mind and motive. For ‘The Master looks on the heart’.
It was a new heart-righteousness which the prophets foresaw as one of the blessings of the Messianic age. ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts,’ God promised through Jeremiah (31:33).
How would he do it? He told Ezekiel: ‘I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes’ (36:27). Thus God’s two promises to put his law within us and to put his Spirit within us coincide.
We must not imagine (as some do today) that when we have the Spirit we can dispense with the law, for what the Spirit does in our hearts is, precisely, to write God’s law there.
So ‘Spirit’, ‘law’, ‘righteousness’ and ‘heart’ all belong together. The Pharisees thought an external conformity to the law would be righteousness enough. The ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ who figures in the Dead Sea scrolls was stricter, for he ‘defined the demands of the Law more exhaustively and more stringently than did even the Pharisees, and urged upon the Sect (the Essenes of Qumran) radical obedience to them all’.
Yet Jesus was more radical still, for if the Essenes asked for ‘more and more obedience’, he asked for ‘deeper and deeper obedience’.
Now it is this deep obedience which is a righteousness of the heart and is possible only in those whom the Holy Spirit has regenerated and now indwells. This is why entry into God’s kingdom is impossible without a righteousness greater (i.e., deeper) than that of the Pharisees. It is because such a righteousness is evidence of the new birth, and no-one enters the kingdom without being born again.
The rest of Matthew 5 contains examples of this greater, or rather deeper, righteousness. It consists of six parallel paragraphs which illustrate the principle Jesus has just propounded in verses 17 to 20 of the perpetuity of the moral law, of his coming to fulfil it and of his disciples’ responsibility to obey it more completely than the scribes and Pharisees were doing. Each paragraph contains a contrast or ‘antithesis’ introduced by the same formula (with minor variations): You have heard that it was said to the men of old … But I say to you … (21, 22).
What is this antithesis? It is clear who the authoritative egō is. But with whom is Jesus contrasting himself? It is essential to consider this question now.
Many commentators have maintained that in these paragraphs Jesus is setting himself against Moses; that he is here deliberately inaugurating a new morality, and is contradicting and repudiating the old; and that his introductory formula could be paraphrased ‘you know what the Old Testament taught … But I teach something quite different.’
Popular as this interpretation is, I do not hesitate to say that it is mistaken. It is more than mistaken; it is untenable.
What Jesus is contradicting is not the law itself, but certain perversions of the law of which the scribes and Pharisees were guilty. Far from contradicting the law, Jesus endorses it, insists on its authority and supplies its true interpretation.
There is the substance of the antitheses themselves. At first sight in each instance what Jesus quotes appears to come from the Mosaic law. All six examples either consist of or include some echo of it, e.g., You shall not kill (21), You shall not commit adultery (27), Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce (31). Not until we come to the sixth and last antithesis do we see clearly that something is amiss. For this reads: You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy (43). Now the first half of this sentence is a clear command of the law (Lv. 19:18), although even this is a truncated commandment, omitting the vital words which set the standard of our neighbour-love, namely ‘as yourself’. The second half of the sentence, however, is not in the law at all. It comes neither in Leviticus 19:18, nor anywhere else.
So here was a contemporary addition to the law, which was intended to interpret it, but in fact distorted it. When we look more closely at the other five antitheses, it becomes plain that a similar distortion is implied. It is these distortions of the law which Jesus rejected, not the law itself. After all, the first two antitheses do not read ‘It was said “you shall not commit murder and adultery”, but I say you may’. Rather, ‘but I say you shall not even have angry or lustful thoughts’.
There is the introductory formula, beginning you have heard that it was said to the men of old (21, 33), or you have heard that it was said (27, 38, 43), or more briefly still, it was also said (31).
The words common to these formulae are “it was said”, which represent the single Greek verb errethē. Now this was not the word which Jesus used when quoting Scripture. When he introduced a biblical quotation, both verb and tense were different, namely gegraptai (perfect, ‘it stands written’), not errethē (aorist, ‘it was said’).
So in the six antitheses what Jesus was contradicting was not Scripture but tradition, not God’s word which they had ‘read’ but the oral instruction which was given ‘to the men of old’ and which they too had ‘heard’ since the scribes continued to give it in the synagogues.
Jesus’ quarrel was not over the law, for both the Jewish leaders and he accepted its divine authority, but over its true interpretation.
Consider the immediate context. Jesus affirmed in a quite unequivocal way what his own attitude to the law was and what his disciples’ ought to be. This was ‘fulfilment’ in his case and ‘obedience’ in theirs. Not a dot or iota would pass away; all must be fulfilled.
Not one of the least commandments might be disregarded; all must be obeyed. Are we now seriously to suppose that Jesus contradicted himself, that he proceeded at once in his teaching to do what he had just categorically said he had not come to do and they must not do? For this is the dilemma: if in the antitheses Jesus was contradicting Moses, he was thereby contradicting himself.
There is the Messiah’s known attitude to the Old Testament. In the previous chapter Matthew has given an account of his temptations during forty gruelling days in the Judean desert. Each subtle enticement of the devil was countered by an appropriate quotation from Old Testament Scripture.
Jesus had no need to debate or argue with the devil. Each issue was settled from the start by a simple appeal to what stood written (gegraptai). And this reverent submission of the incarnate Word to the written word continued throughout his life, not only in his personal behaviour but also in his mission.
Jesus was resolved to fulfil what was written of him, and could not be deflected from the path which Scripture had laid down for him. So his declaration in Matthew 5:17 that he had come not to abolish but to fulfil the law and the prophets is wholly consistent with his attitude to Scripture elsewhere.
What, then, were the religious elites (scribes and Pharisees) doing? In general, they were trying to reduce the challenge of the law, to ‘relax’ the commandments of God, and so make his moral demands more manageable and less exacting.
They found Torah both a yoke and a burden (indeed they called it such), and wanted to make the yoke easier and the burden lighter. How they did it varied according to the form each law took, and in particular whether it was a commandment (either precept or
What the religious elites (scribes and Pharisees) were doing, in order to make obedience more readily attainable, was to restrict the commandments and extend the permissions of the law. They made the law’s demands less demanding and the law’s permissions more permissive.
What Jesus did was to reverse both tendencies. He insisted instead that the full implications of God’s commandments must be accepted without imposing any artificial limits, whereas the limits which God had set to his permissions must also be accepted and not arbitrarily increased. It may be helpful to see the application of these principles to the antitheses in summary before considering them in detail.
The religious elites (scribes and Pharisees) were evidently restricting the biblical prohibitions of murder and adultery to the act alone; Jesus extended them to include angry thoughts, insulting words and lustful looks.
They restricted the command about swearing to certain oaths only (those involving the divine name) and the command about neighbour-love to certain people only (those of the same race and religion); Jesus said all promises must be kept and all people must be loved, without limitations.
But the religious elites were not content merely to restrict the commands of the law to suit their convenience; they sought to serve their convenience still further by extending its permissions. Thus, they attempted to widen the permission of divorce beyond the single ground of ‘some indecency’ to include a husband’s every whim, and to widen the permission of retribution beyond the law courts to include personal revenge.
King Jesus, however, reaffirmed the original restrictions. He called divorce on other grounds ‘adultery’ and insisted in personal relationships on the renunciation of all revenge.
This preliminary look at the antitheses has shown us that Jesus did not contradict the law of Moses. On the contrary, this is in effect what the Pharisees were doing.
What Jesus did was rather to explain the true meaning of the moral law with all its uncomfortable implications. He extended the commands which they were restricting and restricted the permissions which they were extending.
To him Moses’ law was God’s law, whose validity was permanent and whose authority must be accepted. In the Jesus Manifesto, as Calvin correctly expressed it, we see Jesus not ‘as a new legislator, but as the faithful expounder of a law which had been already given’. The religious elites and theologians had ‘obscured’ the law; Jesus ‘restored it to its integrity’.
And in this matter the disciples must follow the Messiah, not the elites. We have no liberty to try to lower the law’s standards and make it easier to obey. That is the casuistry of elites, not the disciples. The disciples righteousness must exceed pharisaic righteousness.
Yet the advocates of the ‘new morality’ or ‘situational ethic’ are in principle trying to do exactly what the elites (Pharisees) were doing. True, they claim to take the Messiah’s part against the elites, but they resemble the elites in their dislike of the law.
They regard the law as rigid and authoritarian, and (just like the Pharisees) they attempt to ‘relax’ its authority, to loosen its hold. So they declare the category of law abolished (which Jesus said he had not come to abolish) and they set law and love at variance with each other (in a way in which Jesus never did). No.
Jesus disagreed with the Pharisees’ interpretation of the law; he never disagreed with their acceptance of its authority. Rather the reverse.
In the strongest possible terms he asserted its authority as God’s Word written, and called his disciples to accept its true and deeply exacting interpretation.