In the first lesson, we looked at what it means to be “poor of spirit” – to be empty of self and full of Christ. Prior to that, we examined Jesus’ meaning in saying that He came to “fulfill the law.” He summed up and accomplished all that the Old Testament pointed to. From here, Jesus sets a higher standard of righteousness for God’s people, and he contrasts several accepted truths of the time and contrasts them with God’s desire.
Matthew 5:20 specifically speaks of becoming more righteous than the spiritual leaders of the time period in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven. The Scribes and the Pharisees were highly respected in the religious community, but Jesus condemns their grandstanding on ceremony and their hedging of God’s law. Matthew 23 sets as a good example of Jesus’ view of these leaders: they teach good things, but their examples should not be emulated.
In the eyes of many of those listening to Jesus, this may have seemed an impossible task. However, to achieve this level of righteousness, Jesus emphasizes the role of the heart in achieving this level of spiritual purity.
Going the Next Step
Murder & Anger. Beginning in Matthew 5:21, Jesus brings anger into the spotlight. There is more to our relationship with others than our physical actions. If we harbor feelings of anger or hatred, then we are guilty before God as if we had murdered that individual. Avoiding reconciliation will only bring pain. There is no justification for animosity. Romans 12:18 tells us to be as peaceful as possible. (See also the story of the wayward son – specifically the actions of the older brother.)
Adultery & Lust. Again, the heart is the focus here, and Jesus offers an extreme example of just to what lengths we should be willing to go through to remove obstacles between us and our relationship with God. James 1:14-15 says that lusts and enticements draw us away into sin. Once we accept those thoughts in our heart, we have sinned.
Marriage & Divorce. Jesus says that it is not justifiable to sever the marriage vows for any reason. In fact, Jesus goes on to say that there is to be no divorce at all. Yes, one provision is maintained – that of unfaithfulness – but the principal is that divorce equals adultery. This is elaborated in Matthew 19:3 when Jesus appeals to the Creation as the cornerstone of God’s view on the topic. Yes, in Matthew 19:10, people recognize this as a difficult concept, but difficulty does not invalidate God’s law.
Vows & Oaths. During the time period, it was not uncommon for people to swear by different objects to demonstrate the validity of one’s word. Jesus merely tells us that we should merely keep our word. If our heart is right, we will keep those promises we make, and we won’t look for ways to wriggle out of those commitments we make. Christians do not look for loopholes.
Eye for an Eye. Retribution was provided for under the Old Law, but Jesus advises His followers not to seek such retribution or for vengeance. This is where we get the sayings, “Turn the other cheek” and “Go the extra mile.” There will be times that we have to endure hardship and accept the fact that everything is not all about “me.”
Neighbors & Enemies. Jesus advocates blessing and praying for one’s adversaries. This point really sums up the previous five. Jesus asks what reward there is in merely being kind to those who are kind to you. Such an attitude provides no differentiation from worldliness. Instead, our hearts and attitudes emulate God.
All of this comes back to God wanting His followers to follow His example. If God wanted an eye for an eye; if He hated his enemies; if He did not keep His promises, where would we be? These attitudes are qualities that God has demonstrated and continues to demonstrate toward us, and Jesus tells us to take that level of righteousness and live it. It begins with the heart, and that starting place will determine our thoughts, our attitudes, and our actions.
lesson by Tim Smelser