As we consider the Sermon on the Mount (and Matthew 5:21-48, particularly), we come to understand why we need Jesus’ righteousness…and can’t survive on our own. Jesus takes six important Old Testament laws and interprets them for His people in light of the new life He has come to give. He deals not simply with external actions, but with the attitudes and intents of the heart. The Pharisees would say that righteousness consists of performing certain actions…Jesus says “no,” it is a matter of the heart. So also, sin, comes from an attitude of the heart. Jesus does not say that unholy anger leads to murder, He says it is murder...of the spirit. There is a holy anger against sin (Ephesians 4:26), but the unholy anger that Jesus speaks of is an unsettled malice against others…this is sin that must be confessed. If we sin against a brother or sister, we must go and get the matter settled quickly -- forgiveness is essential! As one person has said it, "he who refuses to forgive destroys the bridge over which he himself must walk."
Jesus also affirms God’s law of purity, revealing the sanctity of sexuality and the sinfulness of the human heart. Sexuality within marriage should be and is pure, right and good, but outside of marriage, it is immorality – sin that can destroy the soul. God gave us His standard in Genesis (2:1ff)…one man and one woman for life. Divorce is not a part of God’s plan…but, it happens. Jesus deals with this more fully in Matthew 19, as well as Paul in 1 Corinthians 7. All who have experienced divorce need the love of God, as it is shared through His people. Jesus talks about “swearing” next, but He is not referring to “cursing"... it is the sin of taking oaths to affirm that what is said is true. The Pharisees used all manner of tricks in order to sidestep the truth, and taking oaths was among some of them. Jesus teaches that our conversation should be honest and our character true so that we do not need “crutches” in order to get people to believe us. Words depend on character, and oaths cannot make up for poor character…so we must let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no.”
The original law of retaliation was a fair one; it kept people from forcing the offender to pay a greater price for an offense than was deserved. It also prevented people from taking personal revenge. Jesus says – be willing to suffer loss yourself rather than cause another to suffer…this requires both faith and love. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Law did not teach hatred for one’s enemies. Exodus 23:4-5 indicates just the opposite. So, the phrase “you have heard” would indicate that this was a concept in some Pharisaical or cultural circles. Jesus defines our enemies as those who curse us, hate us and exploit us selfishly. Since Christian love is an act of the will, and not an emotion, Jesus has the right to tell us to love our enemies – after all, He loved us while we were still enemies, and He died for us (Romans 5:10). We can do good to and pray for our enemies, which may not change them…although it is possible. But, it makes it easier for us to love them, and it takes the poison out of our attitude. Love is a mark of maturity (1 Corinthians 13)…it is God-like. God is love, and his love shining through us is a testimony to others. God expects for us to live on a much higher plane than those who are lost in the world. We live, learn and grow in Him…this is what it means to be living witnesses for Him. The following story illustrates this point.
Three years before his death, John Newton, the author of the classic song, Amazing Grace, had breakfast with a Christian brother. As was their custom, they would read the Word of God following meal time. Newton would make a few short remarks on the passage and follow it up with a prayer. That day, however, there was silence after the words of scripture – “by the grace of God, I am what I am.” Finally…after several minutes…Newton spoke, “I am not what I ought to be! How imperfect and deficient I am! I am not what I wish to be, although I abhor that which is evil and cling to that which is good. I am not what I hope to be, but soon I shall be out of mortality, and with it, all sin and imperfection. Though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor yet what I hope to be, I can truly say that I am not what I once was…a slave to sin and Satan. I can heartily join with the Apostle and acknowledge…by the grace of God, I am what I am.” Then after a pause, he said…“Now, let us pray.”
A saint is -- one who is beloved by the Lord, not perfect or sinless, but blameless. As we walk with the Lord, we may make mistakes, but if we confess our sins, we are forgiven. Growth may require some pain and some struggle…turning loose of sin that can destroy us. If we are able to surrender, we will be on the path toward maturity and a beautiful life. And how we walk with the Lord profoundly impacts our relationships with others…particularly, concerning how I treat others. Jesus makes it very clear that the application (5:21-48) walks hand in hand with the doctrine (5:1-20). If we are going to be like Jesus, we are going to live differently – not according to the Law (OT), but according to Jesus’ words (NT) -- it is about grace and truth…as He lives and shares with His audience on that anonymous mountain.