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The gospel of Matthew opens with a statement that lacks a verb, so it is most likely serving as the title of the book: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Here in a nutshell is what this book is all about. It is the story of Jesus Christ. It takes us from the time of His birth in the line of Abraham and David (Matt. 1) to the time when He stands on a mountain in Galilee, with all authority in heaven and on earth given to Him (Matt. 28:16–20). From the beginning to the end, Jesus is presented as the King: first as the promised son of Abraham and David “who has been born king of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2), “a ruler who will shepherd [God’s] people Israel” (Matt. 2:6); and then as the King who has triumphed over sin and death and now commands that disciples be made of all the nations and taught to observe all that He has commanded (Matt. 28:19–20).

The first of the five large teaching collections of Jesus contained in Matthew (Matt. 5–7; 10; 13; 18; 23–25) serves both as a manifesto of His kingdom’s law and as a forceful rejection of the teaching given by the scribes and Pharisees. Because of the prevalent distortions of the law of God that the scribes and Pharisees fostered, it was necessary for Jesus to make clear just how His teaching stands in relation to the Scriptures. He emphatically declares that He has come not to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). Indeed, so far is He from abolishing them that He puts special emphasis on the point with the first of His many “truly” statements (more than thirty are present in Matthew): “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” (Matt. 5:18).

Jesus’ teaching stands in the sharpest contrast to that of the scribes and the Pharisees, and it calls for a righteousness that far exceeds their own (Matt. 5:20). We see this same focus in the final block of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew (Matt. 23–25), a kind of parallel column matching the first that helps us better understand each by comparing it to the other. There, in seven “woes” of condemnation (which contrast to the Beatitudes that began the first block), Jesus again exposes the errors of the scribes and Pharisees, whom He repeatedly calls “hypocrites” and who have laid heavy burdens on the people without lifting a finger to help them (Matt. 23:4).

In Matthew 5:17–48, Jesus takes up six examples of distortions and errors of the law that were taught by the scribes and Pharisees. Each one is introduced by what the people have heard, followed by what Jesus says (Matt. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). Here Jesus is not taking issue with the Scriptures, with what is written. No, the issue is what the scribes and Pharisees have said. Jesus will show that He stands by what is written (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10; Matt. 11:10; 21:13; Matt. 26:24, 31).

Jesus’ teaching stands in the sharpest contrast to that of the scribes and the Pharisees, and it calls for a righteousness that far exceeds their own.

We can perhaps see more clearly what is going on if we begin with the last in the series (Matt. 5:43–48) and work our way backward: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ ” This is not a quotation from Scripture, though the unsuspecting or naive could easily think that it is. The first half of the sentence is from Scripture (Lev. 19:18), but the second half is not, and nothing close to it is found in God’s Word. Yet this statement is what the people have heard from the scribes and Pharisees as if it were the teaching of Scripture. It is, however, a serious distortion of the law, limiting the obligation to love only to one’s neighbors and legitimizing (or even demanding) the hatred of one’s enemies. In keeping with the Law and the Prophets, Jesus calls for something entirely different: to love one’s enemies and to pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:44–45). This is what the Old Testament teaches. For example, Proverbs 25:21 calls for giving your enemy bread if he is hungry and drink if he is thirsty. The scribes and the Pharisees were making void the Word of God (Matt. 15:6).

Similarly, the scribes and Pharisees perverted the fundamental principle of public justice, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Matt. 5:38). This principle appears three times in the Law (Ex. 21:23–25; Lev. 24:17–23; Deut. 19:15–21). It is a principle stating that the punishment for a crime must be proportionate to the severity of the crime. In each case, these are laws concerning public justice, where the fitting punishment is specified for particular crimes. The principle also limits the punishment so that greater punishments are not applied to lesser offenses. But the scribes and Pharisees had turned this principle of public justice into a rule for vindictiveness toward others in interpersonal conflicts. They left no room for freely forgiving others as they had been forgiven. They were not acting like sons of the Father in heaven.

Next, we find that the scribes and Pharisees had little regard for the sacredness of oaths and vows—that is, for the fact that they are made to God, even when they involve promises made to others. The fuller treatment of this matter in Matthew 23:16–22 shows that the scribes and the Pharisees had developed a rather complicated and deceitful scheme of qualifying oaths and vows, so that one might easily escape from the duties that had been promised, thus turning the original promise into a lie. They were neither children of the truth nor children of the God of truth.

So also with the issue of divorce (Matt. 5:31–32). More on this subject is found later in Matthew (Matt. 19:1–11), but here we are given only the short antithesis that Jesus offers to the position of the scribes and Pharisees. Perhaps in this form, though, the contrast is sharpest. For the scribes and Pharisees, whoever divorces his wife gives her a certificate of divorce—as if that were all there was to the matter. Their teaching greatly condenses a rather long and complicated statement in the law of Moses (Deut. 24:1–4) and seriously distorts it. Though there was debate among the rabbis about just what offenses could justify a divorce as indicated in this passage, the practice that prevailed generally gave wide permission to husbands to divorce their wives. It became a matter of simply giving her a certificate of divorce. Jesus warned that this would frequently lead to subsequent adultery in a second marriage (unless the grounds of the divorce had been sexual immorality). The position showed a careless disregard for God’s foundational purpose for marriage as stated in Genesis 2:24 (see Matt. 19:4–6). The scribes and Pharisees were mainly concerned about how much freedom a man could have in divorcing a wife, but Jesus told them that they must first be concerned about what he could do to cleave to his wife and preserve the marriage.

We come finally to the first two antitheses with which Jesus began. They deal with two of the Ten Commandments, the first with murder and the second with adultery. In each, Jesus expounds the commandment not just with its surface meaning concerning physical murders and adulteries but also with the thoughts and intentions of the heart, with angry words and designs, and also sinful lusts, that lead to murder and adultery. Given the views of the scribes and Pharisees on vengeance and divorce, it is easy to see that they focused only on the outward acts and not the thoughts and intentions that might lead to such acts. They focused only on the outside of the cup, not on what was inside (Matt. 23:25). They did all their deeds to be seen by other people (Matt. 23:5), but Jesus calls for a life that is coram Deo, before the face of God, who looks on the heart as well as the outward person.

Jesus calls for a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. But what He demands, He also fulfills. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:3), He practices what He preaches, and He does so perfectly. He calls us to this same righteousness, so that we may be perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect. But because we are dead in our trespasses and sins, it is not within our power. So in His grace and love, He saves us from our sins (Matt. 1:21). He bestows His own righteousness on us, imputing it to us that we might be justified before God. And then by His Holy Spirit given to us, He begins to transform us into His own image, so that His righteousness will one day appear in us. Then His word of command will become the fulfillment of His promise: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48, NASB).

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From the March 2023 Issue
Mar 2023 Issue