Summary: Getting into the heart of the law with Jesus.


Matthew 5:21-26.

I. In His recent wilderness struggles with the enemy, Jesus used the formula ‘It stands written’ in reply to each temptation (Matthew 4:4-10). The Word of God is its own authority against the wiles of the devil. Furthermore, when the devil quoted a passage out of context (Matthew 4:6; cf. Psalm 91:11-12), Jesus went on to tread upon the head of the serpent (Psalm 91:13) by quoting yet another Scripture (Matthew 4:7).

II. In the Sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus uses quite another formula. “You have heard that it was said…” (Matthew 5:21). Jesus was not about to correct Scripture, which He held in such high esteem (Matthew 5:17-18) - but rather scribal misunderstandings of Scripture (Matthew 5:20). He now introduced the formula, “but I say unto you…” (Matthew 5:22) - and ‘when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at His teaching: for He taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes’ (Matthew 7:28-29).

The scribes used to love quoting one another, and in the process lost sight of the original writings. On top of this, they hedged the law around with additions (Matthew 5:43) and ‘applications’ which made the rules less sharp, and the permissions easier. So whilst our first observation would be that Jesus is quoting Scripture in each of the six examples provided in this chapter, He is not thereby rewriting the Book, but getting back to the heart of what it really means.

III. The first of these six examples is familiar enough, coming as it does from the ten commandments (Matthew 5:21). It is the universal law against murder. But the scribes were limiting even this, when they spoke only of physical murder and earthly judiciaries.

Jesus widens this out to embrace unjust anger - which cannot be tried in an earthly court of law, but is known in heaven (Matthew 5:22; cf. 1 John 3:15). This traces the roots of murder to its origin in evil thoughts, then its expression in words unadvisedly spoken. All this is known to God, and will be judged by Him.

[‘Raca’ (Aramaic) derides a man’s intelligence, calling him empty-headed. This could be dealt with by the council, much as in our civil cases whereby one party accuses another of slander. The Greek word translated ‘fool’ is meant here in a religious sense, whereby the self-righteous accuse people of being fit only for hell-fire - and thereby seal their own fate in the court of heaven!]

IV. Two test cases follow. One concerns a Christian “brother” (Matthew 5:23-24), the other an “adversary” (Matthew 5:25-26). One falls into the context of worship, the other is a civil case in a court of law.

1. The context of the first of these obviously refers to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem: there is reference to an “altar” (Matthew 5:23), and therefore a sacrifice. We can update this to our own situation by way of reference to the ‘sacrifice of praise’ in Christian worship (Hebrews 13:15). How can we truly worship God while we harbour unresolved sin in our lives?

If you are on the way to worship and suddenly remember that someone has something against you, it is vitally important that you seek to be reconciled to that person. Unresolved issues of this nature fester away, and will go from bad to worse!

Incidentally, it is not ‘if you have something against your brother’ but “if your brother has anything against you” (Matthew 5:23). It is you who is at fault. This is not about accusing your brother, which is to do the devil’s work for him (Revelation 12:10) - but confessing to your brother (James 5:16), and thereby seeking peace and reconciliation.

2. The second test case concerns an “adversary” (Matthew 5:25-26). It has something to do with debt, and is best resolved out-of-court. Come to an agreement, or things will get worse!

V. Getting back to the subject of unjust anger: ‘let not the sun go down on your wrath’ (Ephesians 4:26). As far as it depends upon you, ‘live peaceably with all men’ (Romans 12:18). To do otherwise is to commit murder in the heart!

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