The Sermon on the Mount

But I Say

Many teach that when Jesus says, “but I say,” that He is correcting Pharisaic misinterpretation of the law. Let’s see if this is true.

In Matthew 5:21, Jesus says, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment.” Is this a Pharisaic misinterpretation of the law? In Exodus 20:13, we read the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” It is exactly as Jesus said the people had heard. There is no misunderstanding. In Exodus 21:1, we read, “Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.” What follows are judgments transgressors would be in danger of. And, in verse 12, we read, “He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.” There is the judgment for someone who breaks the Sixth Commandment. Verses 13-15 give similar judgments.

Is Jesus stating a misinterpretation of the Pharisees? No. He is stating the law as God gave it to Moses. And then, in Matthew 5:22, He says, “But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” Notice carefully that Jesus states the Old Covenant law, and then He says, “But I say unto you.” Thus, Jesus was not correcting the Pharisees.

In Matthew 5:27, Jesus says, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Is “Thou shalt not commit adultery” a Pharisaic misunderstanding of the law? Of course not. Jesus has exactly quoted the Seventh Commandment as found in Exodus 20:14. In Matthew 5:28, Jesus continues, “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Again, Jesus has quoted the Old Covenant law and then says, “But I say unto you.” In verses 28-32, Jesus gives a standard that does not merely regulate external actions, as the Old Covenant law does. The standard Jesus gives requires perfect, sinless thoughts.

In Matthew 5:33, Jesus states, “Again, 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.” This is a paraphrase of Old Testament Scriptures, such as Numbers 30, verse 2:  “If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.” Obviously, Jesus was not stating a misunderstanding of the Scriptures. The Old Testament law clearly told the Israelites to perform their oaths. In Matthew 5:34, Jesus says, “But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne.” And He expounds on this in the next three verses. Clearly, Jesus is saying something new. There is quite a difference between telling people to perform what they swear and telling them not to swear at all. To get around this, proponents of the “correct the Pharisee” interpretation say that Jesus was not really forbidding all swearing, but only some swearing. But as a second witness to Jesus’ command, James writes in James 5:12, “But above all things, my brethren, swear not.” There is no getting around it. Jesus is telling us, “Swear not at all.”

In Matthew 5:38, Jesus said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” This is from Exodus 21:24, and is also found in Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. It is not a Pharisaic misunderstanding. It is Old Covenant law. In Matthew 5:39, Jesus says, “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,” and so on to verse 42.

The last example is in verse 43: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.” Some have criticized this because there is no command that says, “Hate thine enemy.” Granted, Jesus is doing some interpreting here. But it is valid. He is basing this statement on many Old Testament Scriptures where God tells the Israelites to utterly destroy their enemies. As just one of many possible examples, I’ll quote verses 2 and 16 from Deuteronomy 7: “And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them…. And thou shalt consume all the people which the LORD thy God shall deliver thee; thine eye shall have no pity upon them: neither shalt thou serve their gods; for that will be a snare unto thee.”

Then, in direct contrast, in Matthew 5:44, Jesus says, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Jesus then expounds this principle in the verses that follow, leading to Matthew 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Is Jesus asking for the impossible?

How can we possibly attain God’s perfection? The answer is that Jesus was teaching that the Old Covenant law was merely a shadow with standards of morality that were far below God’s true, righteous standards. Jesus’ “But I say unto you” statements were a sampling of God’s ultimate standards of righteousness. Jesus wanted us to see that even perfectly keeping the Old Testament laws wasn’t good enough to be saved, and that God’s true standards are beyond our ability.

But if we can’t meet God’s standards, are we without hope? No! As Paul states in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” This, I believe, is why Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes, in which He comforted the people with assurances: the poor will have the kingdom of heaven, those who mourn will be comforted, the meek will inherit the earth, and so forth.

Further reading
Why Did Jesus Say, ‘But I Tell You?’”

Let’s now examine in more detail a couple of passages from Matthew 5 so that we can better understand what Jesus said He would do to save people from their inability to live up to God’s standards of righteousness.

Not Destroy, But Fulfill

Look again at what Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-20.

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

What can Jesus mean when He says He did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it? To help us understand, let’s look at this illustration: If I have a debt and pay it off, I have fulfilled my obligation to my creditor. I didn’t destroy the obligation before paying it off. I fulfilled it. Similarly, Jesus did not come to destroy the law, but He fulfilled the law in two ways.

First, Jesus Lived Under the Law Perfectly

Jesus Christ obeyed every bit of the law. And God counts Christ’s faultless obedience as our righteousness that we receive through belief: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (Romans 5:19), and,

But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.

Romans 4:5-8

Secondly, Jesus Paid Our Penalties

In His suffering on the cross, Jesus paid our penal obligations under law by dying in our stead. Because of our transgression of law, because we have all sinned, our obligation under law was to die and spend eternity in hell. Jesus fulfilled that obligation for us by what He went through on the cross.

So, Jesus did not destroy the law, but by perfectly keeping it and by paying our penalties that were due for our transgressions, He removed the law from being over us (2 Corinthians 3:7-22; Galatians 2:16-21; 4:21-5:4), nailed it to His cross (Colossians 2:14), and put us under grace (Romans 6:14).

These Least Commandments

And what commandments did Jesus mean when He said, “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19)? Most assume that He’s referring to the Ten Commandments. But He never says this.

To properly understand, we should see that Jesus follows verse 19 by saying that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). He then begins expounding examples of God’s true, high standards of righteousness. This standard of God’s righteousness is the righteousness that is above that of the scribes and Pharisees, and it is the righteousness we must attain to enter the kingdom of heaven.

There Is Only One Way

Again I’ll ask, how can we keep these impossibly stringent commandments without, as Jesus cautions in Matthew 5:19, breaking even one of the least of them? And how can our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? How can we be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect? There is only one way.

Jesus Christ was perfect. He embodied perfect righteousness. And, as we’ve seen, His perfect righteousness is imputed to us if we believe on Him alone as our Savior. That is the only way to meet the demands of God’s perfect righteousness. Only in Jesus Christ can we exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. We must believe, trust, rely on only Jesus Christ.

We know that in this life we do not perfectly keep God’s standards because our carnality does not allow us to perfectly and consistently love. Yes, we tend to train our flesh and generally behave better from the time of our conversion onwards. But we will never be perfect in this life.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t teaching that once we have His righteousness through faith that we should then live profligate lives. The truth is that we can now live and try to reach our Father’s standards without fear of failure. We will find ourselves falling short. But we can rest in knowing that Jesus Christ has assured our salvation.

Further reading:
The Resting Place of Faith

Our eternal life lies in the fact that Jesus Christ is our righteousness, and, that being so, it is impossible for us to be condemned. As John says, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3:9). We cannot sin because sin is defined by the law (1 John 3:4), and Jesus has removed us from under the law and put us under grace. Thus, “There is, then, now no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus,” as Romans 8:1 says. We always remain perfectly righteous when we are robed with the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.

What Does The Sermon on the Mount Mean for You?

If you are Christ’s, then know that your righteousness is in Him. Never even begin to trust your own righteousness. You are under the New Covenant and not the Old. You do not have to keep the law or die. Christ has died for you, and you are dead to the law (Romans 7:4). You are now free to live by the principle of love for others without fear of being condemned by failure.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus plainly stated that He had come to fulfill the law. He also revealed the perfect righteousness God has always had, and He showed that the Mosaic Law was merely a shadow that typified that reality. That revelation showed us the impossibility of our ever attaining that perfection by our works. We are, instead, to rely upon Jesus Christ as our Righteousness (notice 1 Corinthians 1:30).

Although this article focuses on Matthew 5, I want to point out how Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount. In chapters 6 and 7, Jesus gives more instruction on behavior, especially in how we are to treat others. But in His conclusion, Jesus again places Himself as central and essential to our success as His followers.

In Matthew 7:24-27, Jesus teaches that those who hear and act upon His “sayings” (logos—”words,” especially as used in rational discourse) are like someone who builds his house upon a rock. No matter what may happen, that rock and the house built upon it will stand.

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