Matthew 5:21-32 (focal: vv21-22)
We learned last week that Jesus came not to destroy the law but to fulfil and complete it. Jesus fulfilled the moral teaching of the OT by drawing out its radical implications or by deepening it or by pointing out the depths of it, which the scribes and the Pharisees had never noticed. This is clear in the immediate context because Jesus goes on to point out six examples in the passages to follow, each of which is introduced by the phrase (or something similar), ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you’.
We must clear, however, as we think on this matter. Jesus was not contradicting the Old Testament. We know this because whenever Jesus refers to the OT he does not say, what was said but ‘what was written.’ When he says, ‘You have heard it was said by men of old…,’ he was not talking about the Scriptures; he’s talking about the oral traditions, the scribal misinterpretations and distortions of the OT. It was with those which Jesus disagreed and not with the teachings of Moses himself.
So, in the place of the traditions of the elders, the distorted scribal teachings Jesus drew out the true, the full, the radical, the revolutionary implications of the teaching of the law. Here then is Jesus’ own attitude to the OT. He didn’t come to do away with it or abolish it, he treated it with the utmost respect. He knew that it was the divine preparation for his own coming, but he would fulfill in himself its predictions and develop himself the radical implications of the law. None of it would pass until it found its fulfilment in him.
What, then, were the scribes and Pharisees doing? What were the ‘tortuous methods’, as Calvin called them, by which they debased the law? In general, they were trying to reduce the challenge of the law, to ‘relax’ (19) the commandments of God, and so make his moral demands more manageable and less exacting.
What the scribes and Pharisees were doing, in order to make obedience more readily attainable, was to restrict the commandments and extend the permissions of the law. They made the law’s demands less demanding and the law’s permissions more permissive. What Jesus did was to reverse both tendencies. He insisted instead that the full implications of God’s commandments must be accepted without imposing any artificial limits, whereas the limits which God had set to his permissions must also be accepted and not arbitrarily increased.
The scribes and Pharisees were evidently restricting the biblical prohibitions of murder and adultery to the act alone; Jesus extended them to include angry thoughts, insulting words, and lustful looks. They restricted the command about swearing to certain oaths only (those involving the divine name) and the command about neighbor-love to certain people only (those of the same race and religion); Jesus said all promises must be kept and all people must be loved, without limitations.
But the scribes and Pharisees were not content merely to restrict the commands of the law to suit their convenience; they sought to serve their convenience still further by extending its permissions. Thus, they attempted to widen the permission of divorce beyond the single ground of ‘some indecency’ to include a husband’s every whim, and to widen the permission of retribution beyond the law courts to include personal revenge. Jesus, however, reaffirmed the original restrictions. He called divorce on other grounds ‘adultery’ and insisted in personal relationships on the renunciation of all revenge.
This preliminary look at the contrasts has shown us that Jesus did not contradict the law of Moses. On the contrary, this is in effect what the Pharisees were doing. What Jesus did was rather to explain the true meaning of the moral law with all its uncomfortable implications. He extended the commands which they were restricting and restricted the permissions which they were extending.
It is no accident, therefore, that these contrasts are set in the context of Jesus as the fulfilment of the Exodus: he is the Son God has called out of Egypt (2:15); he passes through the waters in his baptism (3:13-17); he is tested in the wilderness (4:1-11); he expounds the law of God in the mountainous region (5:1). Rather than displace the teaching God had given through Moses, Jesus’ whole ministry is identified by Matthew as the fulfilment of God’s teaching.
If then, Jesus is to be heard here as the True Teacher of God’s Word, what is his teaching? Join us this week as we see the meaning of God’s law for our lives.