Seven Vital Lessons
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:21-48
When I say that something is vital, I mean that it is vital. Here are seven things we must learn. We must each personally learn them, or we cannot live before God. These things are vital. In the passage before us we have a picture of Christianity as it ought to be. No child of God can read these verses without painful feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, and deep conviction. None of us measures up to the standard that is here set before us. In these twenty-eight verses our Lord Jesus Christ shows us that grace experienced in the heart makes people gracious. These verses deserve our closest attention. A proper understanding of the lessons they contain lies at the very root of all true Christianity.
First, our Lord here teaches us the spirituality of God’s holy law. In verses 17and 18 he declared that he came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it; and fulfill it he did. What a blessed thing it is to know that Christ is both our law-surety, and our law-fulfiller. As such he has become the Lord our Righteousness, and “is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom. 10:4).
Here he explains that his gospel does nothing to lower the standard of God’s law, but only magnifies and honors the law. To the Jews of his day and to the religious of our day the law of God is nothing more than a standard of moral conduct, a regulatory rule of life and behavior. So our Lord selected three of the commandments regarding murder, adultery, and taking God’s name in vain and expounded them to show us that the law requires more than outward conformity. The law of God requires inward, spiritual perfection, perfection in heart, in thought, and in mind, as well as outward perfection.
“Thou shalt not kill” (vv. 21-22) requires more than not committing murder. It forbids all unjustified anger, all malice, ill-will, and cruel, mean-spirited speech. Many who would cringe at the thought of wringing a chicken’s neck are mass murders at heart, for they slay thousands with their angry words. Worse by indescribable measure is unbelief. Unbelief, rebellion, and sin are nothing less than the outworking of man’s heart enmity against God, nothing less than the murder of God himself in the heart of man.
The word “Raca” was used by the Jews to imply utter abhorrence and contempt. To say to another, “Raca,” was to call him a graceless wretch. The word “Fool”, as our Lord uses it here, was even worse. The word is sometimes used to refer to someone who lacks understanding (Luke 24:25; 1 Cor. 15:36; Gal. 3:1; James 2:20). That is not a good thing to say. But, as our Lord uses it here, the word “Fool” implies one who is in a state of reprobation, predestinated to everlasting misery, a child of hell (Matt. 23:33; Jude 4). The Son of God, the great Searcher of hearts, who knows the heart, who knows them that are his and knows all things, did say to some of his day that they were of the generation of vipers, and who could not escape the damnation of hell. But no mere mortal has the right or ability to make such judgment. We ought never to imagine that we know the state of a man’s soul before God, much less declare that we do.
“If thou bring thy gift to the altar…first be reconciled to thy brother” (vv. 23-24). — Here our Savior teaches us that grace does what law can never do. Grace actually causes people to love each other. The law requires that we love one another, but it can never produce love. In fact, as the Pharisees attested by their conduct, those who claim to live by the law commonly manifest the judgmental hatred our Lord has just condemned. Those who give up all hopes of law righteousness and trust Christ alone for righteousness are taught by the grace they experience to love one another (Gal. 5:22-23).
In this gospel age we have no carnal, material altar. But “we have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle” (Heb. 13:10). Christ is our Altar. We have no other and will bow before no other. As we bring our gifts and sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to our God by Christ Jesus and recall some offence we have given to a brother, believers (men and women who walk in the Spirit and so fulfil the law of Christ) seek to be reconciled to the one they have offended. There is a true, sweet union in Christ. All who are in Christ are one with Christ and one with one another. When we come to him in adoration, love, and worship, we come with all our brethren (Heb. 12:22-24). As Robert Hawker put it, “His members come to him as the Head and bring with us, by faith, the whole body in our arms to the Lord (John 17:21. 1 Cor. 12:25-27).”
Still, I think the context points our thoughts in another, higher, more profitable direction. Our Savior is, in this entire chapter, showing us the demands of God’s holy law and our complete inability to meet those demands. Is he not here telling us that we cannot come to God except upon that one Altar he has made (Ex. 20:24-26; 25:22), which is Christ? The Brother we have offended above all others is God our Savior. He is that Brother with whom we have been angry without a cause. Unbelief is despising him, saying to him “Raca,” “thou fool” (1 Cor. 1:18-25; 1 John 5:10). There is no coming to God until we are reconciled to him in and by Christ, reconciled to Christ as our only God and Savior, our only atonement for sin, our only righteousness, and our only redemption. Once we are reconciled to Christ our Brother, once we trust him alone for acceptance with God, we may and can and do come to God upon the merits of Christ, and he accepts us, and our gifts, by the merits of his dear Son (1 Pet. 2:5).
“Agree with thine adversary quickly” (vv. 25-26). — “These are sweet verses,” writes Hawker, “if referred to that lawsuit we all have, by reason of sin and transgression, with God.” Yes, our adversary, the devil, seeks to destroy us (1 Pet. 5:8); and many are in league with him as adversaries to our souls. It is good to try to quiet them and live peaceably, as much as is possible, with such men (Rom. 12:18). But it is utterly impossible for us to agree with such adversaries or persuade them to agree with us. Our Lord must, therefore, be speaking of something else and of someone else.
An adversary is not always one who is intent upon hurting or ruining us. In Exodus 23:22 the Lord our God declares, “I will be an adversary to thine adversaries.” In Lamentations 2:4 he is represented as an adversary to us in the day of our sorrow. As an adversary, the Lord God has a controversy and a lawsuit with his people by reason of sin. Here our blessed Savior and Advocate, the Lord Jesus, tells us to make up the breach quickly while we are in the way. That is to say, “Be reconciled to God quickly by Christ, who is himself the Way, the only way of reconciliation.” Christ is our peace. It is written, “This man shall be the peace” (Micah 5:5). — “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). — “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). But to those who live and die in enmity against God, Christ will soon come as the Judge. Into his hands the ungodly shall be delivered (John 5:22). Christ the great Judge shall send his angels to execute his wrath against his enemies (Matt. 13:41-42). And the prison into which they shall be cast forever is the place of everlasting darkness, torment, and separation from God called “Hell” and “the lake of fire” (2 Pet. 2:4; Rev. 20:15).
Adultery and Faith
“Thou shalt not commit adultery” (vv. 27-33) requires much more than marital fidelity. Adultery and fornication are horrible crimes against God and against man. One of the saddest indications of God’s judgment upon our society is the freedom of conscience, with which men and women commit licentious deeds of immorality. These are abominable evils that ought never be named among God’s saints. But the God with whom we have to do looks beyond actions to thoughts, attitudes, and looks! Multitudes who march in protest against pornography run a constant porno shop in their own evil minds. Yet, should I ask, “Who is not guilty?” No one could, with honesty, claim innocence, neither the reader nor the writer of these lines.
The law of God looks beyond words and deeds. It looks to the depths of our hearts, and requires perfection there, in the inward parts, in the very core of our being. All the actions of the body are but the outworkings of the heart. It matters not whether our continually evil imagination break out in actual deeds. Before God’s holy, piercing eyes, the imagination is the deed and renders us guilty before his holy law. In other words, every human being is by nature “guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19). The silliest thing on earth is the notion of fallen men that exemption from certain acts of evil constitutes righteousness before God. All are not alike evil in their deeds. God providentially restrains many, as he did Abimelech (Gen. 20:6), from performing much of the evil that is in their hearts. But at heart, in the core and essence of our being, all are alike, sinful before God. The debased harlot and the devoted housewife, the murderer and the minister, the obedient child and the rebel are all alike at heart. — “They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:12).
In the law God gave to Israel provision was made for a man to divorce his wife in specific circumstances (Deut. 24). The Lord Jesus tells us that this provision was made because of the hardness of man’s heart, but from the beginning it was not so (Mark 10:5-7). We who believe are married to Christ and he to us. Painful as it is to acknowledge, we are constantly an adulterous, fornicating wife, ever sinning against our utterly devoted Husband. Yet, such is his love for and devotion to us that he will never put us away, but ever calls for us to return to him; and graciously forces us to do so (Isa. 54:5; Jer. 3:1; Hos. 2:19-20). How we ought to love, adore, and praise him, “for he hateth putting away” (Mal. 2:14-16); and he will never allow us to leave him (Hos. 2:7; Jer. 32:38-40). May he give us grace to willingly part with that which we consider dearest and most needful to us (even the right eye and right hand), by which we are tempted to abandon him.
God’s Name and Faith
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord Thy God in vain” (vv. 33-37) requires much more than not using God’s name in an oath. It forbids all vain, light thoughts and words about God and his work. It compels simple honestly. Honest men do not have to take an oath before people who know them.
Our Lord is not here forbidding us to take a lawful oath, as one might be required to do in a court of law. He is forbidding the rash use of God’s name in common speech, which reveals a lack of reverence for and contempt of God. Believers reverence God upon his throne and, reverencing him as God, walk before him and their fellow mortals upon the earth in honesty. If I believe God, I have no reason to be dishonest before men; and if I am honest before God, I am honest before men. As John Gill stated, “A righteous man’s yea, is yea, and his no, is no; his word is sufficient.” The common use of an oath to reinforce a simple “yes” or “no” “cometh of evil.” Such oaths arise from an evil and dishonest heart.
The second thing taught by our Savior in this passage is the fact that the law of God is spiritual. — “The law is spiritual” (Rom. 7:14). — “The Lord looketh upon the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). He requires “truth in the inward parts” (Ps. 51:6). God did not punish Adam for eating an apple, but for the rebellion and treason of his heart. Sin is not an outward problem, but an inward problem, a heart problem.
Third, our Lord’s words in this portion of Holy Scripture demonstrate the complete ignorance of man regarding spiritual things (2 Cor. 2:11-14). The natural man, no matter how devotedly religious, is completely ignorant of God’s character, his own character, and the requirements of God’s holy law. Most professing Christians, I fear, know no more about God’s law and true holiness than the spiritually ignorant Scribes and Pharisees of our Lord’s day. They know the letter of the law, and try to live by it. Because they are not outwardly immoral, they presume, like the rich young ruler, that they have kept God’s law (Mt. 19:20), and see nothing terribly obnoxious and sinful about themselves. That is the reason for man’s natural pride, self-righteousness, and easy contentment with an outward form of godliness.
That person who knows the proper place of the law and the glory of God’s free grace, the person who can rest in Christ alone for all that the law requires and all that justice demands, knows the gospel. But that person who mixes law and grace, in any measure whatsoever, as a matter of acceptance before God has not yet learned the gospel.
There are no two things in the world more completely opposed to one another than law and grace. They are as opposite as light and darkness. They can no more agree than fire and water. Like oil and water, law and grace simply will not mix. The Scriptures are explicitly clear (Rom. 11:5-6).
Yet, there is an amazingly well-established opinion in the distorted minds of men that law and grace will mix! Though law and grace are diametrically opposed to one another, the depraved human mind is so void of spiritual understanding and so thoroughly turned away from God that the most difficult thing for man to do is to discriminate between law and grace. Man insists on mixing that which God has positively put asunder. Because of his foolish ignorance, man wants to find some legal standing before God. This is the thing which Paul opposes throughout all of his epistles. He expends every effort to destroy every remnant of legalism among God’s people.
“Ye are not under the law, but under grace...We are not under the law, but under grace?...Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God...For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit...For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom. 6:14-15; 7:4; 8:3-4; 10:4). — “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:24-25). — “But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully; Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient “ (1 Tim. 1:8-9).
Do those assertions mean that Paul was opposed to the law; or that he thought the law was an evil thing? Certainly not. In his seventh chapter of Romans the apostle shows us the believer’s attitude toward God’s holy law. The true believer recognizes the purpose of the law, delights in the law, and reverences the law. It is his desire to live in perfect compliance with the law. And recognizing the law’s perfection, he refuses to seek acceptance with God on the basis of legal obedience. The only way sinners can honor, fulfil, and establish the law is by faith in Christ (Rom. 3:31).
Fourth, our Savior’s object in these verses is to teach us the absolute necessity of a divine, sin-atoning Savior. God requires perfect righteousness, a righteousness we can never produce (v. 20). He requires complete satisfaction for sin, a satisfaction we can never give. But, blessed be his name, all that God requires, God provides in the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:21).
God requires eye for eye and tooth for tooth (vv. 38-42). And his righteous and just requirements have been perfectly met in Christ as our Surety, who, having fulfilled all the law’s requirements for us, died under the penalty of the law, suffering all the fury of God’s holy wrath to the full satisfaction of justice, when he was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Thus, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth” (Rom. 10:4).
We know that we can never meet God’s demands. We trust Christ alone as our Savior (1 Cor. 1:30). But that does not make us indifferent to sin. The fifth thing our Lord teaches us throughout this passage is the importance of constant watchfulness and diligence over our lives (Eph. 4:17-32). It is your responsibility and mine to put on Christ Jesus and be renewed in the inward man day by day, to make no provision for the flesh, and walk not as other Gentiles walk in the vanity of their minds. Let men call us straight-laced, puritanical, and peculiar if they please; but if we want to walk with God and glorify Christ, we must labor to crucify the flesh and mortify our members. We must walk in the Spirit, ever looking to Christ alone for righteousness and acceptance with our God, so that we do not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.
Grace and Love
Sixth, in verses 38-47 the Lord Jesus teaches us the blessedness of grace and love. J.C. Ryle wrote, “He that would know how he ought to feel and act towards his fellow-man, should often study these verses.” We must always be ready to make up quarrels and disagreements. Our Savior forbids everything like retaliation, revenge, malice, and an unforgiving spirit (vv. 38-42). Our God and Savior shows us that we who claim to be his disciples are to practice indiscriminate, universal love toward our brethren (vv. 43-47). We are to put away malice. When cursed, we are to bless. When we receive evil, we are to return good. We are not to love in word only, but in deed. We are to deny ourselves and take the trouble to be kind and courteous. We are to put up with much and bear much, rather than hurt another, or give offence. Unfailing courtesy, kindness, tenderness, and thoughtful consideration of others are things that all men can understand, even if they cannot understand our doctrine. Rudeness, roughness, bluntness, and incivility are not spiritual graces, but reflect the absence of spiritual grace. (Eph. 4:32-5:1).
Our Lord uses two very weighty arguments to enforce these principles of grace and love. First, it is the character of God to be merciful and kind (v. 45). If God is my Father, I will reflect his character. Second, it is the character of worldlings to be selfish, self-serving, and self-centered. ¾ If that is my character, I am yet of the world! (vv. 46-47).
In a word, our Lord tells us to walk in love, to love our neighbor as ourselves, even to love our enemies. That is what the law requires and what grace teaches. And that which he requires he has done, and done for us. And that which he has done for us as our Surety and Substitute, we have done in him perfectly. None but Christ ever truly loved his neighbor as himself. None but Christ ever loved his enemies, or could love his enemies (Rom. 5:5-8). Try as we may, want to as we may, we simply cannot love our neighbor as ourselves and love our enemies. Thanks be unto our God, we have a Substitute who has fulfilled the law for us, in and by whom we fulfill the law.
The seventh lesson in the passage is one that needs to be constantly brought before our minds. — God demands perfection. — “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (v. 48).
Throughout this chapter our Lord has been teaching us that God demands perfection. In this last verse he states it plainly. By all means, let us ever strive to live in perfection, in perfect holiness and obedience to the will of God and for the glory of God. We cannot settle for less than absolute perfection. We cannot attain it here. But we must strive to attain it. Let us ever seek total commitment to Christ, total conformity to Christ, and total communion with Christ. But we must never imagine that we can attain perfection in this world, or ever make the slightest progress toward doing so.
There is no such thing as partial holiness, partial righteousness, or partial perfection. “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” If we would be perfect, we must trust Christ. There is no perfection in this world except that which he is and he gives. Men may call sincerity perfection, improved behavior righteousness, and religious devotion holiness, but God never will. — “That which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:5).
Yet, as the members of the body possess all that belongs to the head, so the members of Christ’s body are perfect in him. And when our Savior says, “Be ye perfect,” his meaning is, “Be ye perfect in me.” And all who know him gladly acknowledge, “In the Lord have I righteousness” (Isa. 45:24). We glory in him “who of God is made unto us Wisdom, and Righteousness, and Sanctification, and Redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30), rejoicing in the perfection that is ours in him (Col. 1:28), and anxiously looking for that day when he shall present us “faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 1:24).