Why Did Jesus Say, “But I Tell You”?

A photo of the Sea of Galilee from the Mount of Beatitudes. Photo by Itamar Grinberg for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.
Why did Jesus refer to the Old Testament and then say, “But I tell you”? Was He giving us new laws to obey, or was He making an entirely different point? The Sea of Galilee from the Mount of Beatitudes. Photo by Itamar Grinberg for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus cites six laws and precepts from the Old Testament. After each, Jesus says, “But I tell you.” He then teaches an even stricter moral principle. Is Jesus contradicting the Old Testament? Is He correcting the Pharisees’ interpretation? Is He giving a higher law for Christians?

There are many opinions, but I want to show you from the Bible the plain and simple answer to why Jesus said, “But I tell you.”

Is Jesus Contradicting the Old Testament?

Was Jesus refuting or correcting Old Testament laws? (See, for example, “Jesus Refuted Old Testament Laws” and “6 Times Jesus Contradicted the Old Testament.”)

Were the Old Testament and the Law of Moses wrong and in need of correction? Not at all. The Old Testament is part of the Word of God, which is inerrant and infallible. The Law of Moses was precisely the law God intended for the Old Covenant. It served its purpose under that shadowy dispensation. The Old Covenant was a covenant of works and physical promises. The Law of Moses was a foreshadow of God’s righteousness, and keeping it resulted in physical blessings.

God is a perfectly righteous God. His standards are perfect and are absolutes. Under the Old Covenant, God gave laws that were shadows of His righteous standard. The people agreed and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8). Many of the people tried, but most failed to keep the law. God’s purpose was to teach that people are inherently sinful and cannot live up to even the shadows of His righteous standards. Sinners need a Savior. Many of the Jews, especially the leaders, never understood that lesson. In keeping, or trying to keep, the law, which was only a shadow of God’s true standards, they became self-righteous.

When Jesus came, He dealt with that self-righteousness by revealing some of God’s true standards. In the Sermon on the Mount, He said, “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” It was as if He were saying, So, you think you are righteous by keeping the Mosaic shadows? You are not. To really be righteous, you would have to be perfect in all your actions and even in all your thoughts.

In John 10:35, Jesus said, “Scripture cannot be broken.” Jesus did not contradict the Old Testament or say it was wrong. He was only pointing out that it had a limited use—it pointed to Him—and that use was ending because He was going to fulfill the law and end it. (Matt. 5:17; Luke 24:44; Romans 10:4) Entering the kingdom of heaven required, not the keeping of the shadow, but meeting God’s perfect standards of righteousness.

Jesus never intended that we earn our own righteousness, however. Instead of our having to keep the law or the perfect standards to be righteous, we could just trust Him as our Savior. He would then rescue us from our hopeless situation. By paying the penalty for our sins and putting us into the New Covenant under which there is no condemnation (Romans 8:1), Jesus gives us the freedom to grow in love as He empowers us through the Holy Spirit. We don’t have to worry about failing because we cannot be condemned under the New Covenant. That way, we can keep trying and growing in love. Love perfectly expressed is God’s holy and righteous standard. We won’t reach that standard in this life. But we can have fun trying while we rest in the knowledge that Jesus has kept the standard for us.

Is Jesus Correcting the Pharisees’ Interpretation?

Was Jesus correcting misinterpretations of the scribes and Pharisees? (For example, see “How to Avoid the Folly of the Pharisees.”) Was this section of scripture inspired to correct misinterpretations that Pharisees were making? Were the Pharisees to do a better job of law-keeping? Certainly, they were hypocrites (e.g. Matthew 23). But is that what Jesus is addressing here?

The Law Saved No One

The Old Testament law never promised the Jewish people that by keeping the law, they would be spiritually saved. The rewards for law-keeping were always physical—physical life and physical blessings in the land (e.g. Deuteronomy 28).

In Leviticus 18:5, God said, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances; which if a man does, he shall live in them. I am the LORD.” But he was not referring to spiritual salvation. As John Gill says in his commentary on this verse, “he shall live in them” means,

live a long life in the land of Canaan, in great happiness and prosperity, see Deu 30:20; for as for eternal life, that was never intended to be had, nor was it possible it could be had and enjoyed by obedience to the law….

It is in the Old Testament that we first read, “the righteous will live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Thus, Paul quotes first from Habakkuk 2:4 and then from Leviticus 18:5 when he says,

Now that no man is justified by the law before God is evident, for, “The righteous will live by faith.” The law is not of faith, but, “The man who does them will live by them.”

Galatians 3:11-12

Someone could lose his or her life for breaking the Law, but no one could gain eternal life by keeping it. Even if someone kept the law perfectly, that person would not enter the kingdom of heaven. The law never promised the kingdom of heaven.

In Matthew 5:20, Jesus’ point was not that the scribes and Pharisees weren’t keeping the law perfectly (though He did expose their failings elsewhere). He was saying that even if they were keeping the law perfectly—even if they attained perfect righteousness according to the Old Testament standards—it would not be enough to attain the kingdom of heaven. The Old Covenant laws were merely shadows of God’s true standards of righteousness, and those who kept the law could only attain physical blessings which were only shadows of the spiritual blessings of the New Covenant. To attain the kingdom of heaven, one’s righteousness must exceed the righteousness possible under the Old Covenant.

If any Pharisee or legalist of any kind can read Matthew 5:21-48 and now see that no law keeping can ever save him, then Jesus’ words have served as correction.

Is Jesus Giving a Higher Law for Christians?

Perhaps Jesus was giving a new law with higher standards for Christians to obey. By adhering to this new law, our righteousness would exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. (See, “Did Christ Raise or Lower the Bar with Regards to Standards of Obeying the Laws of God?“)

A Prophet of Grace and Life

Centuries before the birth of Jesus, Moses prophesied of Jesus Christ.

The LORD your God will raise up to you a prophet from amongst you, of your brothers, like me. You shall listen to him. This is according to all that you desired of the LORD your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, “Let me not hear again the LORD my God’s voice, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I not die.” The LORD said to me, “They have well said that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a prophet from amongst their brothers, like you. I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him….”

Deuteronomy 18:15-18

Notice these points: God would raise up this prophet—Jesus Christ—in response to the terror the people expressed at the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. The people rightly associated the giving of the Law with death. The prophet God would send them was the remedy. The implication was that, instead of speaking the fierce words of the law and death, the prophet would tell them of the way that they could live.

Centuries later, when Jesus was transfigured in the presence of three of His disciples, Peter mistakenly offered to put Jesus on an equal level with Elijah and Moses (Matthew 17:4). But God said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). Moses and Elijah are not on an equal plain with Jesus. The apostle John quotes Peter as saying to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:48). Both the apostle John and the author of Hebrews contrasted Moses’ message with Jesus’ message: “For the law was given through Moses. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17), and, “For the law was given through Moses. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ…. Moses indeed was faithful in all his house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were afterward to be spoken, but Christ is faithful as a Son over his house; whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the glorying of our hope firm to the end” (Hebrews 3: 3, 5-6).

Jesus is the One we are to hear. Why would Jesus, who was that prophet, have spoken commands that are even harder to keep than the Ten Commandments? Why, for example, would He have said that merely being angry with your brother without cause put one in danger of the judgment? This wasn’t relief from law and death; it was a greater burden even than the Law of Moses! What was Jesus doing?

Jesus Gave Us Rest

In Matthew 11, we read that after telling of the condemnation that will come upon those who don’t repent, Jesus said,

Come to me, all you who labour and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden is light. But in Matthew 5:22, one is in danger of hellfire for being angry. In Matthew 5:28-29, one has committed adultery by looking at a woman with lust and should pluck out his eye. In Matthew 5:32, one who divorces and remarries is guilty of adultery. In Matthew 5:37, swearing or saying more than yes or no is from the evil one. Are commands that regulate and punish me for even my angry or lustful thoughts or for not demonstrating love for my enemy or for not allowing him to hurt me a light burden? Do they give me rest? No! They’re very burdensome. Yet, if this is a new law from Jesus that I must not fail to obey, how can I achieve this standard?

Some teach that Jesus was able to make these demands of us because they are based, these people say, entirely on grace instead of the Old Covenant law, and grace will empower us to keep these commands. But does grace have anything to do with law-keeping? 

Notice these Scriptures: “For he who has died has been freed from sin. But if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him…. Thus consider yourselves also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord…. For sin will not have dominion over you. For you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:7-8, 11, 14). Read the entire context for yourself. Paul is clearly drawing a dichotomy between law and grace. We are either under law and under the dominion of sin, or we are under grace and free from law and sin.

Romans 7 again clearly shows that Christians have been delivered from the law and that the commandment causes sin to become exceedingly sinful (Romans 7:13). In 1 Corinthians 15:56, Paul plainly states that “the power of sin is the law.” Christians are dead to the law (Romans 7:4). God has given us victory through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57); we can’t achieve victory by keeping laws. We earn death by our attempts to keep the law which results in sin (Romans 6:23). We are given eternal life as a gift of grace from God through Jesus Christ (Romans 6:23). So many religious people rely on law keeping and works and legalism; it may make them feel good about themselves but it results only in condemnation (2 Corinthians 3:7-17).

Read Galatians 3:21: “Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could make alive, most certainly righteousness would have been of the law.” The law wasn’t a mistake. It was part of God’s plan. But its purpose was not to create righteousness. I could cite dozens more verses, but the second half of Galatians 3:21 should settle the question. Paul directly states that if a law could give life, then righteousness would have been of the law. The implication is that it is impossible for a law to be given that would impart life and that it is impossible for any law to be given that would create righteousness.

The Law Is a Heavy Yoke

If, as some teach, Christ has laid commands upon us as a new law, it would be impossible for that new law to create righteousness in us. It would, in fact, only add to our knowledge of sin, excite the passions of our flesh, and further ensnare us in sin. To label a new law as being grace is nothing but confusion. To teach as a new law the revelations of God’s righteous standards that Jesus gave as warnings against law-keeping-to-achieve-righteousness is directly contrary to our Lord’s purposes.

Commands that increase the demands upon us make for a heavier yoke, not a lighter one. Even works that God empowers us to perform are still works and not grace. Grace and works are as far apart as east and west, and never the twain shall meet: “And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work” (Romans 11:6). Grace has nothing to do with the law of works.

Grace is free, unmerited favor. Paul taught, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God not of works, that no one would boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). No one will ever be able to boast that he or she was holier than someone else because all saved saints are saved in exactly the same way: through the death and atonement of Jesus Christ; all righteousness comes only through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. All other righteousness is unrighteousness.

Jesus was not following Rehoboam’s example. He did not say, “Now Moses burdened you with a heavy yoke, but I will add to your yoke. Moses chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions” (adapted from 1 Kings 12:11). Jesus gave His “But I tell you” demands as part of His loving, gracious plan that lifted our burdens and gave us rest. How?

Where did Jesus say the following? “Don’t you remember what I said in the Sermon on the Mount? Do you recall that I gave you plenty of new commandments? Now, obey them.” Nowhere! Jesus left those who believe in Him with this simple commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also love one another” (John 13:34). All we are to think of is loving one another. We are not to burden ourselves with lists of dos and don’ts.

Jesus Will Do It for You

When Jesus spoke those “But I tell you” commandments, He wasn’t giving us a new law that we have to obey. He wasn’t saying that under the New Covenant we would have to reach these standards by our works. He was warning us against trying to use our works to attain righteousness. Our Savior was giving us a glimpse of God’s true moral standard so we would see how impossible it is to achieve it with our works. We need to recognize this fact and quit trying to set rules and regulations (Colossians 2:20-23). But it was also as if He were saying, Don’t worry. I’ll do it for you; trust in me.

Why was Moses’ Law given? “Now the law came in to increase the trespass” (Romans 5:20a, English Standard Version). The law increased sin by defining it and by inciting temptation in our sinful flesh. By doing this, it displayed the desperate plight of all who are under law. Yet, of course, as we see in the Gospels, many Jews were so blinded that they self-righteously thought they were fully keeping the Law and, by doing so, meeting God’s righteous standards. They believed they were earning the kingdom of heaven by their law-keeping.

We Must Keep Our Eyes on Christ

There are many today who believe that Christians are obligated to keep Jesus’ higher standards of the law. The reasons they give include the notion that this is necessary for what they call our “progressive sanctification,” or because they believe we are under the law of Christ and that these standards are that law, or that this is how we earn rewards. All of this is as much of a legalistic mistake as the Pharisees made.

Sadly, many of these people think they are truly attaining God’s standard of righteousness. They apparently believe they are perfect even in their thinking. Others, perhaps the majority, realize that they are not attaining perfection. Yet, they still think that they are achieving much of their righteousness or sanctification and Jesus merely covers the parts where they fall short. This is far from the teaching of the Bible (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 1:30-31). These modern “Pharisees” and legalists are either resting in their own righteousness, which is “is as a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:10) or struggling to achieve righteousness by law-keeping (Romans 9:32; 10:3).

In Matthew 5:20, Jesus had said that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. But in verse 48, He sets an even higher standard: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). “Perfect” is from the Greek word teleios, which here means “nothing missing to make it complete.” If the common Jews who heard Jesus were shocked to hear that they had to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, imagine how they felt when Jesus told them they had to be as perfect as God. How is it possible for us to produce such perfection? It’s not! That’s why I say that we must not make the mistake of thinking that Jesus was giving us a law that we must actually keep by our works. It’s simply not possible for us to reach this standard! We can reach God’s perfection only by having the Son of God’s righteousness imputed to us. Period.

As an example of what can happen to our thinking when we take our eyes off of Christ and put them on ourselves and our works, I will quote theologian John Murray: “The criterion of our standing in the kingdom of God and of reward in the age to come is nothing else than meticulous observance of the commandments of God in the minutial details of their prescription and the earnest inculcation of such observance on the part of others,” (John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics) Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1957). Where does Christ’s substitutionary atonement and the imputation of His righteousness fit in with Murray’s belief that our standing in the kingdom of God is based on our meticulous observance of commandments? Murray’s claim is so contrary to the Bible’s teaching on grace that I find it utterly abhorrent. John Murray could be considered a modern-day Pharisee.

Trying to attain these standards by works is contrary to the Gospel. Don’t the basics of the Gospel include the message that Jesus died for our sins and that His righteousness is imputed to us because we sinners can’t keep the law? Of course. Then we must not distort the Gospel by saying that, under the New Covenant, Jesus raised the moral standards that we are to attain, albeit by being empowered by grace.

Ancient and modern Pharisees do stand in need of much correction, but that is not the sole purpose of Matthew 5:21-48. Pharisees and modern-day legalists are fundamentally wrong because they rely on their own works. They either wholly or partly depend on their own attempts at keeping precepts they consider to the law they are under.

Whether legalists take their precepts from the Old Testament or the New, seeing any commandments as stepping stones to righteousness is contrary to the Gospel. Righteousness cannot be obtained in any other way than as the free gift of imputation from Jesus Christ. Christians are under no law; Christians are under grace, the protection of the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ alone.

When legalists turn to law keeping to save themselves or to “progress” their sanctification any further than what Jesus already accomplished for them on the Cross, they in effect reject Christ’s atonement; they spurn His perfect, imputed righteousness as not quite good enough.

They might choose the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount as their new law, but none of these works can save them or add one iota to their sanctification. In fact, these people either were never converted, are still partly blinded, or have fallen from grace: “You are alienated from Christ, you who desire to be justified by the law. You have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4).

Further reading:
Seeing Men Walking as Trees

Jesus Didn’t Expect We Would Live Up to His But I Tell Yous

Jesus wasn’t raising any standards. He was revealing the true standards that God has had from eternity. He wasn’t saying that this is what we must now do. He was saying this is what must be done, but since we can’t do it, He will do it for us. Yes, as we live our Christian lives, we will, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, want to do these things, and we will, to one extent or another, do them from our hearts out of love, in our individual ways across time and space; this will look different in Christians of different times and different locations. That is, being branches abiding in the True Vine, we will produce fruit (John 15:4; see also Galatians 5:22-25). We will, however, never achieve God’s perfect standard in our thoughts and actions in this life. While we walk in this flesh, we will never live up to the standards Jesus gave when He said, “But I tell you.” He never expected that we would. He wants us to see the impossibility and turn to Him as our Savior.

Allow me to repeat that thought with these words: If we say that Jesus was raising the standard of how we are to live, we are missing Jesus’ real point in giving these “But I tell you” statements. Jesus wasn’t refuting Old Testament laws. Jesus wasn’t correcting Pharisaical misinterpretations of Moses’ Law. Jesus wasn’t giving us a new law to live by. He was giving us a sampling of God’s true standards of righteousness and showing us how impossible it is for us to achieve those standards by our works. He did this so that we would look to Him as our atoning sacrifice for sins (Romans 3:25-26), so that we would look to Him to be raised for our justification (Romans 4:25), so that we would look to Him as our righteousness and sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30).

We must not try to add to the perfect and complete righteousness Jesus has already given His saints. Viewing Jesus’ “But I tell you” revelation of God’s standard of righteousness as a new law that we are under and which we are obligated to obey is a sadly mistaken notion. It turns our attention from Jesus, who is our Righteousness. It puts our focus on ourselves as we attempt to keep this so-called “new law.” It engages us in a futile attempt to try to add to the righteousness Jesus has already given us. “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now completed in the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3).

In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely. This is his name by which he shall be called: the LORD our righteousness.

Jeremiah 23:6

“But I tell you, love . . .” (Matthew 5:48) and “believe” (1 John 3:23).

Rest in Christ alone.

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