Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentMatthew 5
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into the mountain: and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him.
The traditional site of this mountain is seven miles southwest of Capernaum; the place is known as The Horns of Hattin. Note the custom of sitting down to teach, a procedure that was long followed in the early church. Sitting to teach was an indication of authority. Dummelow noted that in the "early church, the preacher sat, and the congregation, including the emperor, stood." F1 Most of the cathedrals of Europe are still without pews or other seating facilities for the congregation. The reformer, Martin Luther, alluded to this custom when he said, objecting to the Pope's remaining seated to observe the Lord's Supper, "Let him stand up when he takes the communion, like any other stinking sinner." F2
And be opened his mouth and taught them saying ...
This indicates more than merely opening one's mouth in order to pronounce words. It denotes formal preparation and declaration of the cardinal principles set forth in the ensuing discourse, called the Sermon on the Mount.
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The word "blessed" means "happy" and is so translated by some. The "poor in spirit" is understood in two ways, both of which harmonize with the Holy Scriptures: (1) It is that quality of recognizing one's spiritual destitution in such a degree as to enable the sinner to approach God, not as the Pharisee, but as the publican, supplicating the Father for all necessary and desirable blessing. The poor in spirit are the opposite of the proud, conceited, arrogant and disdainful. Only the poor in spirit can enter God's kingdom. Others will never feel their need nor know their poverty until too late. (2) Another conception of the poor in spirit is seen in the account of this beatitude by Luke (Luke 6:20), "Blessed are ye poor." Dummelow expressed it thus, "A Christian, whether rich or poor, must have the spirit of poverty, i.e., he must possess his wealth as if he possessed it not, and be able to resign it at any moment without regret, and to say with Job, `The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord'." F3
Theirs is the kingdom of heaven
means that persons with the attitude of the poor in spirit shall have the privilege of becoming members of the kingdom, namely by entering it by means of the new birth.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
It is, of course, a paradox to say, "Happy are they that grieve!" but that is exactly what this beatitude means. The ministry of grief, mourning, and sorrow as affecting the development of Christian character is set forth in detail in the New Testament. Tribulation results in patience (Romans 5:3,4). It yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11). Godly sorrow leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). What a generous and merciful arrangement of Almighty God that even life's sorrows shall bless and reward his servants! "Sweet," indeed, "are the uses of adversity." Why should Christians mourn? They mourn for the world which lies in the darkness of sin. They mourn for the sins that mar their own lives. They mourn for loved ones and members of their families out of Christ. They mourn for the slain who have fallen in the encounter with the evil one. They mourn from those sorrows and bereavements which are the common lot of all men. How unspeakably blessed, therefore, is the promise of our Saviour, "THEY SHALL BE COMFORTED!"
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
This beatitude is mentioned in the Old Testament, although not in exactly the same words (Psalms 37:11). Meekness and lowliness are related terms (Matthew 11:29,30). Both Jesus Christ and the patriarch Moses are set forth in Scripture as being meek.
Inherit the earth ...
does not refer exclusively to the "new heaven and the new earth" (2 Peter 3:13), but to this present earth as well. This is not a mere prophecy that the Christians shall be the landed gentry; but it is a statement that their relationship to the earth and its possessions shall be such as to bring them the greatest possible benefit and enjoyment of it.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Alas, how many there are who manifest no hunger or thirst after the things of God; and what shall be said of this innumerable multitude? Why do they feel no hunger, no thirst? Like the absence of ordinary hunger, this spiritual lack of hunger is due to the awful cancer of sin gnawing out the heart of the victim. Others, already in the final throes of spiritual starvation, are past hunger and thirst. Some have perverted their desires and have no true hunger and thirst for spiritual things remaining. The ravages of disease, perversion, and starvation are thus able to destroy that eagerness of the soul that men should have with reference to the things of God. Particular attention should be given to the scriptural meaning of the term "righteousness." "Righteousness," in the Scriptural view, means keeping God's commandments (Luke 1:6); is revealed in the gospel (Romans 1:17); and may be obtained in only one way, namely, by obedience to God's commandments, all of which "are" righteousness (Psalms 119:172).
They shall be filled ...
The desire for righteousness is the only desire of man that can be truly and finally satisfied. Appetites of the flesh, all of them, can be satisfied only for the moment. The drunkard, for example, never satisfies his thirst, but must die, at last, still unsatisfied! Physical hunger, also, cannot be finally satisfied, except for the moment. Death always results, whatever the cause, when the hunger of body cells can no longer be met. It is literally true that "Solid joys and lasting treasure, none but Zion's children know!" F4
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
All types of unmerciful conduct are condemned by this verse. Cruel amusements, punishments, speeches, newspaper articles, letters - in short, ALL kinds of unmerciful and inhumane behavior are proscribed by the Son of God in this beatitude. Such things are forever excluded from the kingdom of heaven. Specific mention should also be made of cruel judgments of other people (Matthew 7:1) and cruel refusal to forgive those who sin against us (Matthew 6:15).
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from
Upon the place beneath. It is twice
It blesses him that gives and him that
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It
The throned monarch better than his
They shall obtain mercy ...
This is to say that those who are merciful toward others shall receive for themselves mercy from Almighty God.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
This refers not merely to those whose hearts are free from evil purpose and desire but particularly alludes to those whose hearts have been purified by faith (Acts 15:9) and obedience to the gospel (1 Peter 1:22). The "heart" in this passage is, of course, THE MIND. According to the Scriptures, it is "THE HEART" that imagines (Genesis 6:5), understands (Matthew 15:13), reasons (Mark 2:8), thinks (Luke 9:47), believes (Romans 10:9), and loves (1 Peter 1:22). These passages are more than enough to identify the Scriptural "heart" as the mind or seat of the intelligence.
They shall see God ...
This is true in two ways: (1) The pure in heart shall see God by faith, just as Moses endured, "as seeing him who is invisible" (Hebrews 11:27). (2) They shall see God and Christ Jesus in the eternal world (Revelation 22:4; 1 John 3:2).
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God.
Christ is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). How proper it is, therefore, that the citizens of his kingdom shall be peacemakers. Indeed, persons without this attitude need not apply. There are several ways in which God's children can serve as peacemakers: (1) Through spiritual instruction, they can bring peace to hearts that are troubled. (2) They can bring peace to their fellow men who are at strife between or among themselves. (3) They can bring men, through preaching God's word, or teaching it, to become reconciled to God, which is the greatest of all the achievements of the peacemaker. Definite procedures for the peacemakers are laid down in the Bible. A peacemaker conceals the transgression of others (see Proverbs 11:13); seeks a personal interview (Galatians 6:1); and tries to save "the face" of the wrongdoer (2 Timothy 2:22-26). Such shall be called the sons of God because they are most like God in his efforts to reconcile man unto himself. F6
Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Those whose righteousness is of such a quality that Satan will vent his wrath upon them are indeed blessed. Persecuted persons whose troubles arise from other causes, such as their own misconduct, are not included in this beatitude.
Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.
In Christ's teachings, there is often the pattern of proceeding from the general to the specific. The general class of the persecuted in the preceding verse gives way to the personal and individual cases envisioned in this verse. There is a similar progression from the general to the particular in the case of Christ's questions regarding his identity (Matthew 16:13-15). These verses give a glimpse of the hatred that must ever rest upon God's true people in whatever age they live. The faithful will be reproached for Christ's name. They will be persecuted for refusal to walk in ungodliness (1 Peter 4:16; 4:4).
Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you.
The apostles took to heart this admonition of the Saviour to rejoice in persecutions. James (James 1:2-4), Paul (1 Timothy 3:12; Colossians 1:24), and the Twelve (Acts 5:41) were happy in persecutions. In this passage, Christ firmly underscored the principle motive undergirding human submissiveness to God. There were, in fact, three of these: love, fear, and hope of reward. There is nothing dishonorable about any of these motives. If there had been, Christ would not have appealed to all three. His emphasis in this place is on the hope of heaven (see under Matthew 6:9).
So persecuted they the prophets that were before you ...
Christ in this place puts the same dignity upon the apostles as pertained to the prophets of the Old Testament, ranking them, in fact, higher, and showing that they also are to be heeded as inspired men. Dummelow said, "It is this possession of prophetical gifts by the first disciples which justifies the church in regarding the New Testament as the inspired word of God" F7 . (Also 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; 4:11, etc.).
There are also many other New Testament passages which indicate most emphatically that the New Testament is God's true word. Some of these are Jude 1:3; 2 Timothy 3:17; 2 Peter 3:2; John 12:48; 1 Corinthians 14:37; Hebrews 2:1-3; Galatians 1:6-9; Revelation 22:18,19, etc.
THE RELATION OF THE DISCIPLES TO THE WORLD
In the Beatitudes, Christ emphasized the inner character of Christians and gave the beatitudes as identification marks of his true followers. The importance of the inner life is seen in that this was the first thing outlined. Next, Christ turned his attention to the disciples' relation to the world.
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men.
Regarding the question of salt's losing its savor, Elmer W. Maurer, research chemist with the United States Department of Agriculture and a brilliant contemporary scientist, made this interesting reference to this portion of the Saviour's teachings:
Salt was accepted and collected as
taxes by the Romans from the people of
the Holy Land. One of the main
sources of salt for Palestinians, of
course, was the Dead Sea, or Salt Sea.
So oppressive were these taxes that
the people adulterated the salt with
sand or other earthy material (the
salt to begin with was not our nice
pure table salt). The government
purified the salt by spreading it in
big vats or tanks, filling them with
water and drawing off the concentrated
salt solution or brine. All that
remained was the earthy, insoluble
material. Indeed, the salt had lost
its savor because it was no longer
salt. It was fit to be trodden
And this was not the only way that
salt could lose its savor. The
surface waters of the Dead Sea, on
evaporation, have a chemical salts
content of about 31 percent sodium
chloride, 13 percent calcium chloride,
and 48 percent magnesium chloride,
together with other impurities. The
calcium and magnesium chlorides are
hygroscopic (take water out of the
air) and will thus literally dissolve
the sodium chloride. A bitter tasting
composition results. It was the
custom to store vast amounts of this
salt in houses that had earthen
floors. In time, the salt next to the
ground spoiled because of the
dampness. Since it would be harmful
to fertile land because of its salt
content, no man would allow it to be
thrown on his field. The only place
left was the street, where it was
trodden under foot of man. Thus the
Bible was proved scientifically
accurate, even in its many small
details - for this was just a lone
We might observe that accurate, scientific investigation of any of the so-called scientific errors in the teachings of Christ will always have the same result as that discovered by Maurer.
Salt keeps food from being insipid and preserves it from corruption. Both these functions are performed by Christians for society as a whole. A little more salt (true followers of God) would have preserved Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction (Genesis 18:32). The world at large little realizes the debt of gratitude that is owed by the whole race to that relatively small percentage who truly walk in the commandments and ordinances of the Lord.
Good for nothing ...
What a truly worthless state is that of the apostate Christian! The Saviour's estimate of him is that he is "good for nothing"! Another pertinent observation regarding salt is that it must come in contact with that which is to be benefited by it. So must Christians come in contact with the rest of mankind. Christ did not encourage monasticism or asceticism. It is also proper to observe that SALT IS INDISPENSABLE. So are Christians. Some people "pity believers; some have a patronizing air in their attitude; a few would abolish" F9 Christians; but, in this passage, Christ shows that Christians are truly indispensable to this world. THEY ARE THE SALT OF THE EARTH!
Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.
This is further testimony to the indispensable nature of God's children. The world would be in total darkness without them. Furthermore, there is no reason to suppose that God would allow a wicked world to stand if it were not for the faithful remnant remaining in it and remaining faithful to God. Christ also said, "I am the light of the world." That passage before us is not contradictory. It means that the light Christians give forth to others is truly derived from Christ (2 Peter 1:19). Just as all light, energy, and power on earth are derived from the sun, center of our solar system, just so, all moral and spiritual light are derived from the Sun of Righteousness, our Lord Jesus Christ (Malachi 4:2).
A city set on a hill cannot be hid.
Boles said of this, "The comparison (is) between a city on a hill and a group, or church, of his disciples. Their influence cannot be ignored in the world. There is no greater light for God than the church that is filling its mission in the community." F10
Verses 15, 16
Neither do men light a lamp and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so, let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
This passage sets forth instructions regarding the Christian's light, or influence, in the world: (1) Christ forbade hiding it under a bushel (Matthew 5:14), that is, permitting business and commerce to obscure one's influence for the truth. (2) He warned against hiding it under a vessel (Luke 8:16), that is, permitting cares, duties, and obligations of life to take precedence over faith. (3) He prohibited hiding it under the bed of licentiousness, laziness, or idleness (Luke 8:16). What then should be done with the light or influence of the Christian's life? It should be placed upon "THE STAND." And, pray tell, what can this be? It is nothing less than the church of Jesus Christ, namely, the local congregation. Revelation 1:20 identifies the lampstands as the churches.
Let your light shine ...
The command is to glorify God through an abundance of good works. As the noted Negro minister, Marshall Keeble, was often heard to say, "The Bible does not say to MAKE your light shine, but it says to LET it shine!" This, to be sure, forbids ostentation and boasting. Origen against Celsus quoted this place and referred to the light of Christians as a "brilliant and unfading wisdom, ... the very reflection of everlasting light," F11 and argued from this premise that Christians should not bow down before the sun, moon, or stars, seeing they themselves are light, and from the very same source!
Good works ...
It is noteworthy that Jesus never gave the slightest encouragement to the delusion that people are saved by faith "only"! Good works, from the very beginning, were considered to be a most necessary and primary requirement on the part of all who would truly follow Christ and would through him hope to have the abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom. See under Matt. 19:17.
Thus, Jesus concluded his analysis of the disciples' relationship to the world, making them to be both salt and light.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE DISCIPLES TO THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS
In this subdivision of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ spelled out his own authority as being superior in every way to the edicts of the Decalogue, noting at the same time that he was not destroying but fulfilling them.
Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy but to fulfill.
Of course, this touched on the great difficulty. The Jewish nation had long held the Law of Moses in the utmost respect and honor. Any change in the status of their law was sure to be received unfavorably by them. Therefore, Christ quite early in his ministry took pains to spell out for them his true and proper relationship to the Law of Moses. Nevertheless, the difference in "fulfilling" and "destroying" the Law of Moses was about the same as the difference between "paying off" a promissory note and "repudiating" it. In either case, it is effectively removed. Christ took the law out of the way (Colossians 2:14-16); and yet he did so, not by violating it, but by fulfilling it! Christ fulfilled the law (1) by his own unswerving obedience to it, (2) by his exact manifestation as its promised Messiah, and (3) by enlarging and expanding its teachings, lifting them to a higher and purer level, and by bringing all the Old Testament teachings to perfection in the perfect Law of Liberty.
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished.
Jots ... tittles ...
were the minutest markings and characters, forming parts of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Christ here expressed full confidence in the Old Testament with the strong warning that it should never be disparaged or set at naught. The New Testament teaches that all of the prophecies of the Old Testament shall indeed be fulfilled (Luke 24:44), that its narratives are "written for our example" (1 Corinthians 10:11), and for our admonition and learning (Romans 15:4).
Here is the principle that the New Testament is essentially an extension of the Old, minus its types and shadows, plus an elevation and perfection of all its latent spirituality. However, the changes in Christ are so radically beyond anything ever dreamed of by the Old Testament prophets that the true connection tends to be obscured. The law of sacrifice was fulfilled in Jesus' death. The law of circumcision was replaced by that "circumcision not made with hands" (Colossians 2:11). The Passover gave place to the Lord's Supper and the sabbath day to the Lord's Day.
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
In this verse, Christ plainly refers to his own commandments with the strong warning that men are under obligations to heed and observe the laws he gives. Today, there are some who speak of certain Scriptures as "mere command"! But Christ made his commandments to be of overwhelming importance and set forth the principle that "the least" of his commandments was to be received and honored with infinite respect and obedience.
For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.
The religion of the Pharisees, hence their righteousness, consisted of externals, ceremonials, rituals, liturgies, and formalities of many kinds, with little or no attention being paid to the condition of the heart. Christ flatly denounced such a concept and indicated that no one could be saved in such a state as that of the typical Pharisee of his day.
Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, THOU SHALT NOT KILL; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment.
THE REVISION OF THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT IN THE DECALOGUE
This is a clear reference to the Decalogue (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18). What Christ did at this point in his teachings is bold, daring, and sensational beyond anything one could imagine today. Here was the case of a prophet, yet relatively unknown, placing himself squarely on record as superior to the Law of Moses, even the Decalogue. Christ in this chapter mentioned several of the commandments, exposed their weakness, and specifically elevated his own will and teachings ABOVE them. He also laid bare, in the most painful manner for the ceremonialists, the awful weakness of the Decalogue, in that a person might indeed keep the letter of it without being in any sense at all truly righteous in the eyes of God! Of course, the Pharisees were the obvious and notorious examples of that very condition; they kept the commandments, but were children of the devil. Jesus opposed the Pharisees and their way of life as essentially sinful in spite of all punctilious observances of tithes, ceremonies, and formalities of the Mosaic religion, embellished, of course, with countless traditions of their own.
Thou shalt not kill ...
did not, however, prohibit HATE, the cause of killing. The Pharisee might indeed keep the command while at the same time hating his enemy, hoping that a wild beast would slay him, that lightning would strike him, or that a poisonous serpent would bite him! Christ exposed the weakness and sinfulness of such views. He made anger with a brother a sin equal to murder; and also, such derogatory statements as "Raca" and "thou fool," he made subject to the penalties of murder. It may well be doubted if the church as a whole, even today, has any adequate conception of Jesus' true meaning on this subject. When it is considered that a derogatory or uncomplimentary remark about a Christian brother is subject to punishment in the "hell of fire," and when it is considered that much of the journalism so widely received by "churches of Christ" is filled with cruel, uncomplimentary, and even false and vicious statements about brethren, the true follower of Christ must stand in awe of the penalties which divine justice shall certainly execute against evil doers. O God, be merciful to thy people!
But I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, `Raca,' shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, `Thou fool,' shall be in danger of the hell of fire.
is an Aramaic expression, according to Dummelow, and means "empty head"! F12 There are numerous epithets of similar import in constant use by many who fancy themselves to be Christians. Although there are definite gradations in the crimes and penalties here enumerated by Jesus, it would be a mistake to suppose greater or lesser blame for insults answering to "Raca" or "Thou fool." The expressions are essentially the same, and the plain teaching of our Lord in this context is that ALL insults of every kind are sinful and that all our derogatory and deprecatory expressions against one's fellow human beings are murderous. Those who resort to the use of such expressions are guilty in the eyes of the Lord. This is true because such expressions find their origin in a heart full of hatred and enmity. In the light of this, who could use such a term as "nigger" to set at naught a fellow creature, made like ourselves in the image of God?
The penalties arranged in precise order to correspond with the insults mentioned above are not to be understood as graduated penalties or punishments against crimes of more and more serious import; rather, they are to be understood as a three-fold reiteration of one overwhelming truth. They constitute three equivalent statements for the sake of emphasis, all of them dealing with a principle men find it very convenient to ignore. It is at this very juncture, relations with fellow humans, that the Christian is different from others. He is even denied by his Lord the right of worship, if his brother has anything against him!
If therefore thou art offering thy gift at the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee.
This means that if one's conscience is aware of sins committed against a brother, the first duty is to make it right with the brother, a duty more imperative, even, than that of worship, and which takes precedence over it.
Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
It is useless to offer worship to God when some brother has been wronged and insulted, until the would-be worshiper shall seek out the one wronged and make amends. Christ's plan of maintaining harmony and fellowship in his church is really quite simple. It is "Go!" Three definite situations are outlined in which it is imperative that the true follower of Christ "go" to his brother. These are: (1) when a brother has aught against such a one (this passage), (2) when such a one has been wronged by a brother (Matthew 18:15-17), and (3) when one shall observe that a brother has been overtaken in any fault (Galatians 6:1). Need it be said that this is the only procedure laid down in God's word for dealing with the sins of a brother? Furthermore, these divinely imposed procedures are applicable to all types of sins and errors brethren may commit. The artificial and unscriptural distinction as to "public" and "private" sins with an implied waiver of God's commanded procedure if the sins are said to be "public," is a gross and sinful perversion of our Lord's teaching. To distinguish sins as "private" or "public" and make the application of God's word depend on man's classification is every whit as sinful as the unwarranted division of faith into "historical" and "saving" varieties, or as the Roman classifications of "mortal" and "venial" sin!
Where is the Scripture that says Matt. 5:34; 18:15 and Gal. 6:1 do not apply to "public" sins? Christ commands his servants to "go" to the brother who is sinned against or who has himself sinned against us, or when the brother has been overtaken in any "fault"! If obeyed, the Scriptures here outlined would prevent the sinful and destructive practice of venting animosities, pronouncing anathemas, shouting corrections, and launching vicious criticisms against one's brothers in Christ through such media as gospel papers, radio programs, and circulatory letters. See more on this under Matt. 18:15.
Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art with him in the way; lest haply the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.
Settling disagreements and healing possible sources of friction should be the pressing business of every day. In that manner, hatreds and enmities would not be left to build up strength. An attitude of conciliation and fairness can pull the sting from many thorny human problems, provided it is manifested spontaneously and early enough at the first sign of disagreement or conflict.
Verify I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou have paid the last farthing.
As a matter of practical, everyday living, the teaching of Christ in this place is indeed light and wisdom. There are countless examples of human conflict ending in the most tragic results which could have been avoided altogether by the application of Christ's teaching.
Illustration: In a certain city of the Southwest, two men owned adjoining houses in an attractive subdivision, and the driveways were adjacent with a small strip of turf, about a foot wide, between the driveways. They quarreled over this trifling strip. One planted onions in it; the other pulled them up and set out tomatoes! After many words, each stepped to the back door of his residence, took a shotgun, stepped out on the back steps, and shot the other dead while their respective families were at church!
To "pay the last farthing" refers to reaping the last and bitterest fruit of a failure to handle problems in the manner here laid down by Christ.
Ye have heard that it was said,
THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,
THE REVISION OF THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT IN THE DECALOGUE
Once more, Christ selected as his target one of the great and highly respected words of the Decalogue, blasting it with his "BUT I SAY UNTO YOU!" No wonder Christ's teachings on this occasion resulted in astonishment and amazement among the people (Matthew 7:28,29).
Verses 27, 28
But I say unto you, that everyone that looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
Thus, Christ made the lustful thought as sinful as the overt act. In the light of this, who is innocent? In this commandment, just as in the case of the Fifth Commandment, Jesus was more concerned with antecedents than with overt sins. Adultery proceeds from impure thinking; and in this passage Christ's law appears far higher and more discerning than the Decalogue.
And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish and not thy whole body be cast into hell.
The location of this verse in the midst of Jesus' teaching on adultery makes the meaning clear. Christ expects his followers to avoid gross sin by keeping the fountain of the heart sweet and clean. That this requires exertion, self-denial, and determination of heroic proportions is seen in the implied comparison of plucking out the right eye. The comparison is valid and is so recognized in medicine which often amputates an offending member to save the entire physical body. The giving up of cherished sin is far more difficult but just as necessary for those who would truly enter into life. See under Matt. 18:8-9.
And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell.
This is the same thought as that in Matt. 5:29, repeated in a different figure for the sake of emphasis. Remember that Christ is still speaking of adultery; and the only proper meaning that can attach to these two verses (Matthew 5:29-30) must relate to that subject. It seems plain enough that Christians should strive, at whatever cost, to avoid lustful thoughts. See under Matt. 18:8-9.
Verses 31, 32
It was said also, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: but I say unto you that everyone that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery.
Thus Christ, improving on the Decalogue, attached guilt to lustful thoughts, and in this place makes marriages to divorced persons sinful, except in the case of the innocent party of a divorce for adultery (Matthew 19:9).
Interestingly enough, Jesus abolished the death penalty for adultery. At least, this can be deduced from his words addressed to the woman who was taken in the very act by the Pharisees, "Neither do I condemn thee, etc." (John 8:11).
Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths.
THE NINTH COMMANDMENT REVISED
In this passage, Christ does not quote verbatim from the Ninth Commandment, but rather deals with Pharisaical deductions, extensions, and exceptions on the Great Word which said, "THOU SHALT NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS," It was far more offensive to the priestly mentality for one to violate his oath, especially with reference to some gift to the temple, than to bear slanderous witness against an accused on trial in a court of law, which is one of the primary meanings in the Decalogue. As he frequently did, Christ referred the whole question to higher ground, making it a sin, under all circumstances, to utter an untruth, thus bypassing altogether the question of violating an oath!
Under the interpretation of the Pharisees, the divine prohibition was against "SWEARING" a lie. This, in practice, meant that as long as one had not been properly "sworn in," or as long as one refused to deliver a formal oath, the offender could tell as many lies as he would without incurring guilt under the Law! It goes without saying that THAT interpretation was not of God, but it was only of sinful men. The glory of Jesus Christ is that he stripped off those superficial and shallow devices for circumventing God's Law and made the truth to shine before all people. See under Matt. 23:22.
Verses 34, 35
But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be Yea, yea; Nay, nay: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one.
The obvious meaning is that a Christian's word is his bond. He does not need to reinforce his words with any oath or any appeal for heaven to witness, or by any other device to underscore the truth of his remarks. A Christian's speech is limited to "Yes" and "No" with regard to oath. The only possible exception, and there is no unanimity of opinion even on this, is that of a Christian's taking a judicial oath to assure proper and legal testimony in a court of law. Many courts allow the conscientious adherent to our Saviour's words in this place the privilege of "affirming under the penalties of perjury" instead of taking the customary oath. Those who insist that a Christian may take such oaths point out that Christ, in this place, was clearly not talking about judicial oaths and that Almighty God himself is represented as taking an oath in these words, "Wherein God, being minded to show more abundantly unto the heirs of the promise the immutability of his counsel, interposed with an oath" (Hebrews 6:17).
Speaking the truth in love is a badge of true discipleship. Falsehood, evil-speakings, slander, backbiting, gossip, and idle talk of all kinds - these are surely prohibited to the child of God. One cannot help observing that Christ's way is almost as novel, untried, and astonishing as it was to the generation that first heard these words!
Various references to heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and one's head, are only examples of oaths which people of that day commonly employed.
Ye have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.
THE OTHER TEACHINGS CONTRASTED WITH JEWISH LAW
Passages which contain this injunction are Exo. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; and Deut. 19:21. Harsh and demanding as such a principle appears to enlightened people of our day, it should be remembered that it was a tremendously significant advance above and beyond the primitive thinking of the untrained people who first heard it. The law of the jungle was far different: (1) If you kill my child, I will kill all your children, your wife, your brothers, your whole generation! (2) If you knock out my tooth (or eye), I will knock out ALL of yours and kill you also! Thus, the ancient Law of the Hebrews was a vast improvement in that it strictly limited punitive action to the extent of the original injury or loss that precipitated it.
But I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
The type of submissive meekness enjoined by Christ in these verses must appear very difficult to the people who have never tried it; but actually, this presents the most exciting and thrilling approach to life and its problems that can possibly be imagined. Those who have tried it unanimously affirm that it works.
Illustration: Colin Byrne Smith of Australia told of a missionary who called on a tribe of cannibals. Taking his life in his hands, he crossed the inlet in a small boat, and when confronted by the tribe, meekly endured every insult. Long afterwards, when he had succeeded in converting many and establishing a church among them, he asked, "Why did you not eat ME when I came to preach to you?" The old chief, then a Christian, said, "You see, none of us wanted to eat you, because the reason we eat people is to acquire their skills and bravery; but nobody wanted to be like YOU, taking all those insults, and patiently bearing every blow against you!"
When one strives honestly and faithfully to live up to Jesus' teaching in this matter, or any other, forces far beyond the knowledge of any man are working for the success of the obedient follower of the Lord.
Turning the other cheek ...
has taken the sport out of many an evil attack against the defenseless.
And if any man would go to law with thee and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.
This is exactly the same principle in another setting and is repeated for the sake of emphasis. Nor should too much be made of the fact that most of the losses in these verses seem rather trivial, a flick on the cheek, the loss of a coat, and going a mile. They do suggest, however, that there may be larger areas where the child of God may not use the "submissive response" enjoined in these passages. God does not say, "If one shall strike thy child, present the child's other cheek!"
Verses 41, 42
And whosoever shall compel thee to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
Does anyone live up to this? Certainly, one must agree that the Sermon on the Mount is still the Mount Everest of the Christian religion, namely, the highest peak of all and only rarely scaled. Did Christ mean that a Christian by lending to all comers should suffer the plundering of all his goods? Certainly, the apostolic church did not operate on any such premise. We can only conclude that Christ was teaching a basic truth in this place, namely, that it is better to invest in people by helping and befriending them, than it is to invest in hoarding treasures for one's self. Of that there can be no doubt.
Verses 43, 44
Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.
Leviticus 19:18 is the Old Testament passage which says, "Love thy neighbor." It does not, however, say, "Hate thine enemy." THAT was an addition to God's word by the scribes and Pharisees. Thus, the people of Jesus' day had fallen into the old and vicious habit of linking a sublime truth with a ridiculous error, thus "yoking the ox with the ass," to use an Old Testament figure of speech.
The principle of loving one's enemies is valid and binding upon all who would follow Christ. There is no room in the Christian heart, purged from sin and forgiven of all transgressions, to entertain such a stifling and chilling a thing as hatred for anyone. Love in this place does not necessarily refer to sentimental and affectionate love such as one has for members of his own family. The kind of love meant is the love manifested by God himself in that he sends rain on the just and unjust, etc. The implication is that the Christian shall treat his enemies with fairness and equity, doing unto them as he would desire people should do unto himself.
For if ye love them that love you, what reward have you? Do not even the publicans the same?
Underlying these verses is the challenge that men shall be "like their Father who is in heaven." That is what it is really all about, that men should be like the pure and holy God whom they are taught to worship through Christ. God loves sinners, even dying for them while they were yet in sin; so Christians should love all men, sinners included, even their own personal enemies! To live the other way is to be no better than a publican (the gatherer of the Roman taxes); and, in the Jewish lexicon, that was about as low as a man could get! Christ here enunciated a new and thrilling principle to take the place of the old proverb that "One rotten apple will spoil a barrel of good apples!" That is, "One good apple can heal a barrel of rotten apples!" Only Christ could have revealed such an exciting new and effective doctrine as this.
And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same?
This is one of the most interesting statements Jesus ever made, "What do ye more than others?" The implications of this are positively profound. Implicit in these words is the proclamation that Christians are different; they love more than others, will do more than others, and are in fact better in every way than others. Their righteousness is a matter of going beyond, giving the cloak also, going the second mile, turning the other cheek, loving enemies, praying for those who persecute them, and, in short, being "sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:45).
Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
No one can say that Christ did not set a high standard for man to follow! To be perfect as God is perfect, what a challenge this is! At the outset, every candid student of the Holy Scriptures should admit and understand that there is not the slightest possibility of his ever graduating from this school, "Magna cum Laude"! Nobody, but nobody is ever going to be perfect; and yet, it is the genius of the Christian religion that perfection is required of its adherents. A contradiction? No, only a paradox. The goal or ideal is necessary that man may continually know that he is unworthy of salvation, that he can never in a million years merit it, and that any real perfection he might eventually attain must be the free gift of Christ.
Illustration: In a measure of music, in ordinary 4/4 or quadruple time, a single half-note fills the measure half-full; a dot after that note brings it to 3/4 full, another dot 7/8 full, another to 15/16 full, another to 31/32 full, and so on and on. If one added a million dots, the measure would never be full, for each dot would add only half the value of the preceding dot. In a manner of speaking, this is the way it is with perfection. One may fill the measure half-full by obeying the gospel and by giving up all forms of vicious conduct; but there will always be some improvement to make; and a Christian can keep on and on improving until the end of a long life without ever attaining absolute perfection.
An apostle is our authority for saying that no man is above sin, actually. John said,
If we say that we have no sin, we
deceive ourselves, and the truth is
not in us. If we confess our sins, he
is faithful and righteous to forgive
us our sins and to cleanse us from all
unrighteousness (1 John 1:8,9).
Nevertheless, how boldly Christ flung down the challenge! PERFECTION, Sir, that's what is required. Even if one were found so foolish as to believe he had attained it, his blindness to any sin would constitute the biggest sin of all. This verse, as much as any other in the Bible, throws man upon his knees and bids him trust in Christ alone for eternal life.
Footnotes for Matthew 5
1: J. R. Dummelow, One Volume Commentary (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1931), p. 638.
2: John Bainton, Here I Stand (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950).
3: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 639.
4: John Newton, Hymn, "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken" (Chicago: Great Songs Press, 1960), Hymn No. 545.
5: Wiliam Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1.
6: J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew (Delight, Arkansas: Gospel Light Publishing Company), p. 51.
7: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 640.
8: Elmer W. Maurer, article in The Evidence of God in an Expanding Universe (New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1955), p. 205.
9: Doran's Minister's Manual (1947), p. 105.
10: H. Leo Boles, Commentary on Matthew (Nashville, Tennessee: The Gospel Advocate Company), p. 128.
11: Origen, from The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, p. 547.
12: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 642.
13: Roman Catholic Testament.
14: Revised Standard Version.
15: Emphatic Diaglott.
16: Goodspeed, New Testament in Modern Speech.
17: Williams, The New Testament.
18: Moffatt, The New Testament.
19: Paul Blanchard, American Freedom and Catholic Power (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press), pp. 138-139.
20: J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Nashville, Tennessee: The Gospel Advocate Company), p. 16.
21: Ibid., p. 16.
22: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Sermons, Volume 5 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company), p. 20.
23: Robert Milligan, Commentary on Hebrews (Nashville: World Vision Publishing Company), pp. 73-74.