Matthew 5:17-48

The Principles of the Kingdom in Connection with the Law
Matthew 5:17-48
Fulfilling the Law. In this section (vv.17-48) the Lord Jesus establishes the authority of the law, which the Jews ought to have kept until the kingdom was introduced. They should have kept, not only the law, but also the words of the prophets given to stir up their consciences while they waited for the Messiah. In this chapter Christ speaks, not as in the kingdom, but as announcing it to be near at hand. His purpose was to explain the moral things that should characterize the remnant who would enter the kingdom, and mark out those who would be excluded. A mere outward conformance to the “letter” of the law will not do for the glorious kingdom, and it won’t do for Christians either. The righteousness that should be in His disciples must exceed that which was given by Moses in the law. Accordingly, the Lord gives six moral expansions of the law in vv.21-48. Each of these moral expansions takes something the law said man ought to do (actions), and the Lord expands it to tell man what he ought to be (character). The six expansions relate to:
  1. The sixth commandment (murder) – Exo. 20:13
  2. The seventh commandment (adultery) – Exo. 20:14
  3. The law as to divorce – Deut. 24:1
  4. The law as to oaths – Lev. 19:12
  5. The law as to retribution – Exo. 21:24
  6. The law as to hatred towards enemies – Deut. 23:6.

Introduction: Christ come to Fulfill the Law (5:17-20)

 17 Think not that I am come to make void the law or the prophets; I am not come to make void, but to fulfil. v.17 The Lord had not come “to destroy” the law. The kingdom would not set aside the righteous requirement of the law, in fact Christ was come “to fulfil” or, to illustrate the law practically to its fullest extent. He would accomplish this, whether in His righteous life, or in His death which was the most solemn sanction the law ever could receive. However, we Christians are not under the law (Rom. 6:14), but we should exceed the righteousness of the law, as the Lord desired.
18 For verily I say unto you, Until the heaven and the earth pass away, one iota or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all come to pass. v.18 Christ vindicates the law. A “jot” (iota) is the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet; it is the smallest letter. A “tittle” is not even a character, rather it is a tiny extension added to a letter in the Hebrew writing system, similar to the tail that distinguishes an English “Q” from an “O”. The point is, every minute detail of the law will be fulfilled. It will “all come to pass”, because it is the Word of God, and as such, it is surely to be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever then shall do away with one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of the heavens; but whosoever shall practise and teach them, “he” shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. v.19 The expression “these least commandments” is a reference to the second group of commandments. The first four commandments had to do with fidelity toward God, summarized by the Lord as “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy understanding” (Deut. 6:5). The last six have to do with conduct toward our fellow man, and the Lord summarized them as “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Lev. 19:18). Read Matt. 22:36-40; Rom. 13:8-10. Both these “summaries” are a form of love, so Paul says “therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10; Gal. 5:14). Man’s responsibility toward God is greater than his responsibility toward his fellow man (a principle often denied today), and therefore the second group of six commands was called “these least commandments”. Not only would the Lord not take away a commandment, He would demote and promote subjects of His kingdom based on their faithfulness in the smallest ones!
20 For I say unto you, that unless your righteousness surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of the heavens. v.20 The “righteousness” mentioned here has nothing to do with justification, but rather practical righteousness; walking consistently in relations toward God and men. But since fruit-bearing is the proof of divine life, those who have truly received the good seed will bear fruit. They will display deep, internal, practical righteousness according to the holy, loving nature of God… not like the showy pretended righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
Making a law out of these moral extensions. One might try to legally imitate the outward acts described by the Lord and the result would be a more fiery law than was given from mount Sinai. Sadly, this is what many Christians do. We need to realize that these are the characteristics of the divine nature that the believer already has. They will be the automatic fruit of walking in the Spirit.

1st Moral Expansion of the Law: Regarding Hatred and Murder (5:21-26)

 21 Ye have heard that it was said to the ancients, “Thou shalt not kill;” [Exodus 20:13] but whosoever shall kill shall be subject to the judgment. v.21 “It was said to the ancients”, that is, the law said certain things to the Israelites. The law refuted murder, which is the most extreme form of violence. But the Lord gives added dimensions to it. You might not murder someone, but you might be full of hatred toward them in your heart. The Lord is concerned with what is inward.
22 But “I” say unto you, that every one that is lightly angry with his brother shall be subject to the judgment; but whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be subject to be called before the sanhedrim; but whosoever shall say, Fool, shall be subject to the penalty of the hell of fire. v.22 The Lord is now bringing hatred under the same category with murder. In the sight of God, every kind of violence, feeling of contempt, hatred, or any putting down of another it is all from the same source. The expression “lightly angry” is not so much the idea of “angry without a cause”. Rather it means “just a little bit angry.” There are three judgments here, all can be seen in the millennium:
  1. Capital Punishment (Psa. 101). The consequence for being “lightly angry”, is to be “subject to the judgment”.
  2. Corporal Punishment (Micah 5:5). The consequence for saying “Raca” is to be brought “before the sanhedrin”.
  3. Eternal Punishment (Matt. 25:46). The consequence for saying “Fool” is to be cast into “the hell of fire”.
“Raca” or “vain fellow” is an expression that encompasses malice and hatred. To call someone a “fool” is not the same as saying a person is acting foolish. It means to harbor such ill feelings toward a person that we consider them utterly worthless
Two Practical Exhortations. In vv.23-26 He gives two practical exhortations that show the importance of the principle just laid down.
23 If therefore thou shouldest offer thy gift at the altar, and there shouldest remember that thy brother has something against thee, 24 leave there thy gift before the altar, and first go, be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. vv.23-24 If you have offended your brother. When we realize that we have offended someone, we are responsible to try to make it right. If a disciple was going to offer some sacrifice to God on the altar in the temple, and they remembered an offense, they should immediately go and be reconciled to their brother. They should not give outward expression (by sacrifice) to pleasing God, while leaving their brother offended. Note that this “altar” is part of the Judaistic system of worship. The Lord isn’t bringing out the proper Christian position in this sermon on the mount, although the principles still apply to Christians. The altar has no reference to the Lord’s table. The point is that God is so opposed to hatred, malice, etc. that He would have us do everything in our power to resolve offenses with our brethren before we worship the Lord. We find from Matt. 18 that if someone has offended us we are to go to them. Here it is the other way around, but the instruction is the same; if we know they have something against us, again we are to go to them. The onus is always on us! The word “reconciled” in v.24 is a different word than is used for our reconciliation to God (Rom. 5:11). Here it has to do with a need on the part of both persons… but there is no need on God’s part. Read more…
25 Make friends with thine adverse party quickly, whilst thou art in the way with him; (1) lest some time the adverse party deliver thee to the judge, (2) and the judge deliver thee to the officer, (3) and thou be cast into prison. 26 Verily I say to thee, (4) Thou shalt in no wise come out thence till thou hast paid the last farthing. vv.25-26 When you have committed a crime against someone. The Lord now deals with a stubborn spirit among the Pharisees. There was a murderous feeling in their heart against Jesus. The nation refused to befriend the Lord, and thus made the Lord their “adversary”. It provides a dispensational picture:
  1. adversary deliver thee to the judge – The rejected Messiah (“the adversary”) delivered Israel to the government of God (“the judge”), who in response to the cross disowned Israel as His people.
  2. the judge deliver thee to the officer – God gave up the Jewish people to be trodden down by the cruel Roman empire (“the officer”).
  3. thou be cast into prison – The Jews would go into a state of diaspora (“the prison”), like the manslayer in the city of refuge, and not be restored until…
  4. thou hast paid the last farthing – The Jews will remain in that condition until they suffer untold sorrows in the great tribulation (“the uttermost farthing”), and the fruits of repentance are manifest in a faithful remnant.
We can also see a gospel illustration in this verse. The sinner needs to realize that the time to come to God is limited. At any moment the adversary might find them, and the window of opportunity would be closed (Rev. 22:11).

2nd Moral Expansion of the Law: Regarding Lust and Adultery (5:27-30)

 27 Ye have heard that it has been said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” [Exodus 20:14] 28 But “I” say unto you, that every one who looks upon a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. vv.27-28 If the first expansion dealt with the violence of man’s heart, the second expansion deals with the corruption of his heart; i.e. lust. The law forbade the physical act of adultery. However, under the law a person could outwardly appear acceptable (not even touch a woman), but inwardly be full of corrupt thoughts. The law did not address the desires of the heart. Where we “look” is what our heart is occupied with. But here we find that the subjects of the kingdom need to have not only righteous acts, but righteous thoughts and motives (Psa. 51:6). To entertain sin in the heart (i.e. sexual fantasy, see Job 31:1) is the same as doing it in practice. Christ is not unfolding the subject of deliverance from sin, as in Romans 5 – 8. He is simply giving us what ought to characterize subjects of the kingdom.
29 But if thy right eye be a snare to thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell. 30 And if thy right hand be a snare to thee, cut it off and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell. vv.29-30 A practical exhortation showing the importance of the principle. The exhortation is to have an attitude of self-judgment. We are to “cut off” whatever might tend to entangle our hearts with lustful thoughts (1 Kings 8:38). The point is, no sacrifice is too great if it will lead to a deliverance from the “hell” that lies at the end. You think you can’t live without your right eye or right hand? It is a worthwhile sacrifice. We are to be ruthless against ourselves in the matter of practical holiness. What are we to “cut off” or judge:
  1. The right eye – our desires; the eye sees what it wants to see.
  2. The right hand – our habits; the hand does what it wants to do.
We are to mentally disown those corrupt desires and habits; “cast it from thee”. Who is to do the cutting? We are to judge ourselves. The Lord is not recommending corporal mortification as the radical Catholic sects do. He is describing the level of conviction required to truly judge these things. The book of Romans teaches us that fleshly energy will never succeed in repressing evil desires. When we think it hard to deny our fleshly lusts, we ought to consider how much harder it will be for those without faith who will lie for ever in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone; “cast into gehenna”.

3rd Moral Expansion of the Law: Regarding Divorce and Remarriage (5:31-32)

 31 It has been said too, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a letter of divorce.” [Deut. 24:1] 32 But “I” say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except for cause of fornication, makes her commit adultery, and whosoever marries one that is put away commits adultery. vv.31-32 This issue of divorce follows on the course of lust in v.28. The pharisees were known for putting away a wife for “every cause” (Matt. 19:3). In putting aside the license allowed under law, the Lord gives us God’s thoughts. It is important to understand that civil divorce does not break a marriage bond in the sight of God. The only two things that can break a marriage are fornication and death (Rom. 7:1-3). To divorce a wife without just cause is to make the woman (or set her up to) commit adultery if she ever remarries, and to make the one she marries to commit adultery also. In Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18 we find the same principle from the husband’s perspective; the man who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery also. But we need to remember that in the case of adultery there is a higher road than divorce (although not the subject here)… forgiveness and redeeming love. Forgiveness is the “more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). See notes on Matt. 19:1-12.

4th Moral Expansion of the Law: Regarding Honesty and Oaths (5:33-37)

 33 Again, ye have heard that it has been said to the ancients, “Thou shalt not forswear thyself” [Lev. 19:12], but “shalt render to the Lord what thou hast sworn.” [Psa. 50:14] v.33 The law did not forbid oaths, but only insisted that oaths be fulfilled. The moral expansion given by the Lord shows that, for a Christian, swearing is not a right practice at all.
34 But “I” say unto you, Do not swear at all; (1) neither by the heaven, because it is the throne of God; 35 (2) nor by the earth, because it is the footstool of his feet; (3) nor by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 36 (4) Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. vv.34-36 Four Examples of Common Oaths and Why They Shouldn’t Be Made. When a Jew’s word was questioned by his fellow-man, they had a habit of using oaths; such as we hear today, “I swear to God.” This practice is predicated on the fact that their ordinary word couldn’t be trusted. The New Testament expressly forbids common oaths (James 5:12). Some have taken these verses to mean that we should never take an oath administered by a magistrate such as “swearing on a bible” for court testimony. These verses do not absolve our obligation to take a judicial oath. The matter in context relates to communication man-to-man. Some examples of Jewish oaths are:
  1. Swearing by heaven – invoking the throne of God (the greatest authority) isn’t going to make your word any better than it is… it can only bring down the government of God on you when you renege on your vow (c.p. Heb. 5:15-16).
  2. Swearing by earth – even though the earth is less stable and solid than heaven, it is still far more consistent than your word.
  3. Swearing by Jerusalem – coming lower, an earthly city is still more consistent than the word of man, because it is owned by Messiah the King.
  4. Swearing by your head – coming even lower, our own body, which is still more consistent than man’s word…. because it is under the control of God, who makes “one hair white or black.”
See also Matt. 23:16; 18 where the Pharisees swore by the temple and the altar.
37 But let your word be Yea, yea; Nay, nay; but what is more than these is from evil. v.37 A man’s word should be unequivocal and binding (“Yea, yea; Nay, nay”), such that taking strong oaths, by this or that, is not needed. The man who backs nearly every statement with an oath is a man whose word cannot be trusted.

5th Moral Expansion of the Law: Regarding Rights and Retaliation (5:38-42)

A turning point. There is a turning with the fifth and sixth moral expansions. Up until v.38 the Lord has been digging into the issues of internal righteousness, which answer to the character of “salt”:
  • The 1st & 2nd expansions strengthen the righteousness of the law, demanding internal righteousness.
  • The 3rd and 4th expansions deal with the inward license that was allowed under the law.
But now the Lord goes deeper into the issue of grace, which answers to the character of “light”, and He presses this point, reaching the climax of this part of the discourse.
  • The 5th and 6th expansions reveal the need to be gracious when injured, and to show love toward your enemies. Grace is a principle of the kingdom that the Lord perfectly displayed in His own life, and one He requires of the Christian.
 38 Ye have heard that it has been said, “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.” [Exodus 21:24] 39a But “I” say unto you, not to resist evil; vv.38-39a “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is perfectly righteous, but the Lord explains that we ought to be much more than righteous… we ought to be gracious. This far exceeded the righteousness of the law! It is possible to cling to righteous retribution and totally miss the heart of God. We can outwardly cling to righteousness, but inwardly be harsh and churlish. It is clear that the exhortation “resist not evil” is not referring to moral temptation, but rather it is injuries done to us personally. We are to overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21).
39b but (1) whoever shall strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other; 40 and (2) to him that would go to law with thee and take thy body coat, leave him thy cloak also. 41 And (3) whoever will compel thee to go one mile, go with him two. 42 (4) To him that asks of thee give, and from him that desires to borrow of thee turn not away. vv.39b-42 Four Exhortations Showing the Importance of the Principle. The Lord gives four examples of injuries that could be done to us, and how we should respond.
  1. Abuse of our body (violence against us). Under the law, Jews could seek retribution. But such a thing could never be done under grace (e.g. see Isa. 50:6; Micah. 5:1, c.p. Acts 23:3-4).
  2. Abuse of our estate (claims against us in a court of law). Let’s say a man lays a claim, perhaps falsely, to something that we own, such as part of our clothing. They have no right to it according to the law, but according to the gospel we should yield our possessions freely (Heb. 10:34).
  3. Abuse of our hospitality (freeriding). In those days the Roman officials were known to require service by the Jews, and even the use of their beasts, to run errands of excessive lengths. We should not grudge at it, but go even farther, willing to be imposed upon.
  4. Abuse of our generosity (freeloading). If someone is imposing on our Christian kindness, we should still be willing to give. However, with all these exhortations we have other scriptures to give us direction about special cases, such as with those who are known to be busybodies (2 Thess. 3:10). v.42 is a summary of the previous three verses.

6th Moral Expansion of the Law: Regarding Love and Hatred (5:43-48)

 43 Ye have heard that it has been said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor” [Lev. 19:18] and hate thine enemy. v.43 The law called for one to love his neighbor, but it also permitted the hatred of an enemy. This commandment from Leviticus encompassed the whole manward side of the law (see Matt. 22:40). Therefore, the following principle is very broad in application.
44 But “I” say unto you, Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who insult you and persecute you, v.44 Four Exhortations that Illustrate the Principle. The Lord gives four examples of ill-treatment by our enemies, and how we ought to respond.
  1. Love your enemies – We are to love our enemies with the ‘agapo’ love of a settled disposition, or unconditional love. It is a selfless love; it gives and expects nothing in return.
  2. Bless them that curse you – We are to genuinely speak well of those who speak ill of us.
  3. Do good to them that hate you – We are to act benevolently toward those who act malevolently toward us.
  4. Pray for those who insult you and persecute you – If we can bring these thoughts of grace (1,2, and 3) before the Lord, the work is deep. Sometimes praying for an enemy is one of the hardest things to do, but it is what God expects of Christians. It is often when we pray for our enemies that the Lord grants us deliverance from hard feelings toward them.
45 that ye may be the sons of your Father who is in the heavens; for he makes his sun rise on evil and good, and sends rain on just and unjust. 46 For if ye should love those who love you, what reward have ye? Do not also the tax-gatherers the same? 47 And if ye should salute your brethren only, what do ye extraordinary? Do not also the Gentiles the same? 48 Be “ye” therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. vv.45-48 The Father as the Example for Us to Follow. Our Father is the perfect pattern in His ways with His enemies now… He makes the sun to rise, etc. on those that insult Him, curse Him, and hate Him. If we want to be called “sons” of God, we need to have this same character. Note that the term “sons of God” in Matthew is not the Pauline truth of adoption. Sons of God in Matthew are those that bear the resemblance of God’s nature. The spirit of grace and love to our enemies is what will really set the disciples of Christ apart from the world. To love those who love you, where is the exercise of grace? To “salute” only those in our inner circle, where is the grace in that? It is only by reaching out to those who are our enemies that grace can be displayed, and the true character of the remnant shine forth (light) to the world around. Christ calls upon us to be “perfect” or thorough, consistent, and unbiased, with that same grace and love in which our Father deals.