by Peter Ditzel
But I Say
Now that we have established that the Sermon on the Mount is for Christians today, we must determine whether Jesus was giving us new laws or merely correcting misinterpretations of old laws. Many people believe that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was correcting the Pharisees’ wrong understanding of the Mosaic law, the law of the Old Covenant.
To answer this, I am going to cite some specific cases. 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 says, “But I say unto you.” Jesus was not correcting the Pharisees; He was introducing new law—His law, the law of the New Covenant. This is law that can only be obeyed by those who have the new heart God gives in regeneration and whose sins are forever forgiven by the blood of Jesus.
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 new commandment concerning adultery—one that does not merely regulate external actions, as the Old Covenant law does. Jesus’ commandment is a commandment of the heart.
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, this is a new law. 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 has given us a new command: “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.” Can there be any doubt that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was introducing new law?
Not Destroy, But Fulfill
What, then, did Jesus mean in Matthew 5:17-20, where He says, “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”?
Jesus says He did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. What Jesus means can be seen in 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. Jesus did not just destroy the law. He fulfilled the law in two ways. First, He lived under the law perfectly. He obeyed every bit of the law. And His perfect righteousness is imputed to us. Secondly, He paid our penal obligations under the law by dying in our stead. Because of our transgression of the law, because we have all sinned, our obligation under the law was to die and spend eternity in hell. Jesus fulfilled that obligation for us by what He went through on the cross. Jesus did not destroy the law, but by fulfilling the law, He removed us from under it.
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”? Most assume that he means the Ten Commandments. But He never says this. To properly understand, we must look to the context. And the context shows us that Jesus must be referring to the commandments He is about to give. The commandments of the New Covenant—commandments that, by the way, are continued through the rest of the New Covenant and are summed in one word, love. And love is something that only God works in us.
And how can our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? There is only one way. Jesus Christ was perfect. He embodied perfect righteousness. And His perfect righteousness is imputed to us if we believe on Him alone as our Savior. That is the only way to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. We know that in this life we do not perfectly keep Jesus’ commandments because our carnality does not allow us to perfectly and consistently love. But 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.” There is no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, as Romans 8:1 says. We always remain perfectly righteous when we are robed with the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. Beware of those who are now rising up who say that only Jesus’ death on the cross is imputed to us (His passive obedience, as they say), but not His righteous life or active obedience. This thinking will only draw you into an impossible attempt at a works salvation.
What does this 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.
Jesus Christ is your Righteousness and He said, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
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Copyright © 2005-2010 Peter Ditzel