In Matthew 5:33–48, Jesus tells us how we are to fulfill the law — not legalistically, but in a spirit of Christ-like love. The goal is that we might strive to obey His final admonition in verse 48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (kjv). This Christ-like perfection is nothing less than God’s purpose for us, that we “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).
When have you last heard someone casually say, “I swear,” or “I promise with all my heart”? Such words are illustrations of what Christ is warning against here. The Pharisees were flippantly swearing oaths but not keeping them. They also claimed to find loopholes in the Old Testament law concerning oaths. Christ seeks to restore the Old Testament provision for making promises to God, saying, “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” (Matt. 5:33; see Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21).
The Pharisees would swear by heaven, earth, the temple, the altar, even their own heads, but not by God. They would swear an oath for the smallest occasions, and that only lent an aura of uncertainty and mistrust to their oaths.
What are you doing when you give your word? Do you do so lightly, or is your speech that of a righteous man whose yes means yes, and whose no means no (James 5:12)? Much distrust and miscommunication today stems from people not living up to their promises. Christ calls us to be honest in our words to others and in our vows to him. Such “sound speech…cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:8).
Jesus emphasizes truthfulness in our conversation, which comes from our inward parts, from the heart (Pss. 15:2; 24:4; 51:6). Truth in the heart comes out of a living, vital relationship with Christ, who is the Truth. Through His righteousness alone, we are enabled to live righteously in this world.
The second issue that Jesus addresses in Matthew 5:33–48 is retribution, or taking vengeance on others. Again He appeals to the Old Testament laws that the Pharisees had misapplied (Ex. 21:24–25; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). This law was not intended for the average Israelite but for the magistrates who were to deal justly in criminal matters, exacting punishment in proportion to the crime committed. We must not take the law into our own hands.
In our daily walk with the Lord and with others, do we turn the other cheek, exemplifying the law of kindness? Or do we demand vengeance, “rendering evil for evil” (1 Peter 3:9)? How do we relate to our spouses, children, parents, and friends? It is impossible for us to obey this law perfectly, but Christ provides the righteous example that we are to follow (1 Peter 2:11). He showed how to turn the cheek to those who plucked out His hair and to turn His back to those who scourged Him. He hid not His face from shame and spitting (Isa. 50), so that He might free those who are captive to the bondage of the Law and give them freedom in Himself.
The final misconception that Jesus corrects relates to the Old Testament concept of loving one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18). The phrase, “and hate thine enemy,” was appended to this law in the interpretation given by the Pharisees. Jesus deleted this addition, and defined “thy neighbor” to include “thine enemy.” Rather than hating those who abuse us or persecute us, we are to love them, bless them, do good to them, and pray for them. Why? Because that is what our Father does. Our Father makes the sun rise and rain fall upon the just and the unjust. In these natural cycles, God does not make a distinction between His neighbors and enemies but rather blesses them all. He doesn’t operate in terms of “you love me and I’ll love you back.” Rather, the Father gave His Son, and the Son gave Himself for His enemies (Rom. 5:10). That is the wonder of the cross. Embracing and reflecting that wonder, we can love even our enemies. Through the Holy Spirit applying the righteousness of Christ to us, we are able to live before God and our neighbor as we should.
Jesus does not just give us ethical standards by which to live; He graciously teaches us the true meaning of the law of God. Obedience to this law does not focus on petty rules, but on walking in Christ and abiding in His love and righteousness. Christ lived perfectly in this sinful world so that He might present us perfect before the Father. That is why He told us, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
Holiness, then, is not merely obeying a list of rules, but a lifestyle of being increasingly conformed to Jesus Christ in a life of obedience. Such holiness must impact all our thoughts, words, and actions.