The twenty-first-century church faces many challenges, not the least of which is widespread misunderstanding of the ethics of Jesus. Popular portrayals and understandings of Christ see Him in the mold of one who had a “live and let live” attitude, who made no real moral demands. According to these portrayals, Jesus certainly had nothing to say about human sexuality, and He never would have been so narrow-minded as to preach that salvation is available only for those who trust in Him.
Regrettably, these depictions of Jesus have shaped the thinking of too many Christians, leading them to believe that our Lord opposes law with love. Contributing to this problem has been misinterpretations of texts such as today’s passage. On our first reading, at least, Jesus appears to be correcting the law of God, which implies that the Mosaic legislation is not a sound guide to making ethical decisions.
Dr. R.C. Sproul often notes that we must read the text of Scripture carefully and give it the benefit of a second glance. When we do that with Matthew 5:21–26, we realize that Jesus was not “correcting” God’s law at all. Jesus introduced the principle He was correcting with the statement, “You have heard that it was said.” Why is this significant? First-century Jews prefaced their citations of Scripture with the phrase, “It is written.” Jesus Himself followed this practice (Matt. 4:4), and we also see it in the Apostles’ writings (Rom. 1:17; 1 Peter 1:16). “You have heard that it was said” identified the Pharisees’ oral tradition, the body of unwritten interpretations of Scripture that the rabbis passed down from one teacher to another. Matthew 5:21–26 records not Jesus’ correction of Scripture but His correction of the Pharisees’ misinterpretation of Scripture.
Our Lord, in truth, taught an ethic grounded firmly in God’s law. No one statement can say everything, so we understand that the commandments are elliptical statements. They include certain aspects that are tacitly understood. Every commandment has both negative and positive aspects, not all of which are stated explicitly. Negatively, the law against murder proscribes unjustfied killing and it also proscribes the unjustified anger at the root of every murder. Positively, the law against murder enjoins the safeguarding of innocent lives. Christ’s teaching in today’s passage reveals the depth of the commandment against murder, thereby emphasizing, not diminishing, the importance of God’s law for Christian ethics.