by Peter Ditzel
But I Say
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.” 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, 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 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.” All of this can be perplexing.
Why did Jesus say, “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” (Matthew 5:20)? We might possibly imagine ourselves doing that, but what about what Jesus says after telling us to love even our enemies? “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (verse 48). How can be possibly attain God’s perfection? The answer is that with our works, we cannot. 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 real 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. Our only hope is to trust in Jesus to pay for our sins and to keep the law—even God’s perfect standards—for us and have His righteousness imputed to us. Further reading: “Why Did Jesus Say, ‘But I Tell You?’”
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 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. Jesus did not destroy 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 that 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? 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 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, and that is the only way to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. 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. 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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