A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:19-20. The Christian and the law (continued).
It was a new heart-righteousness which the prophets foresaw as one of the blessings of the Messianic age. ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts,’ God promised through Jeremiah (31:33). How would he do it? He told Ezekiel: ‘I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes’ (36:27). Thus God’s two promises to put his law within us and to put his Spirit within us coincide. We must not imagine (as some do today) that when we have the Spirit we can dispense with the law, for what the Spirit does in our hearts is, precisely, to write God’s law there. So ‘Spirit’, ‘law’, ‘righteousness’ and ‘heart’ all belong together. The Pharisees thought an external conformity to the law would be righteousness enough. The ‘Teacher of Righteousness’ who figures in the Dead Sea scrolls was stricter, for he ‘defined the demands of the Law more exhaustively and more stringently than did even the Pharisees, and urged upon the Sect (sc. the Essenes of Qumran) radical obedience to them *all*. Yet Jesus was more radical still, for if the Essenes asked for ‘more and more obedience’, he asked for ‘deeper and deeper obedience’. Now it is this deep obedience which is a righteousness of the heart and is possible only in those whom the Holy Spirit has regenerated and now indwells. This is why entry into God’s kingdom is impossible without a righteousness greater (i.e. deeper) than that of the Pharisees. It is because such a righteousness is evidence of the new birth, and no-one enters the kingdom without being born again (Jn.3:3, 5).
The rest of Matthew 5 contains examples of this greater, or rather deeper, righteousness. It consists of six parallel paragraphs which illustrate the principle Jesus has just propounded in verses 17 and 20 of the perpetuity of the moral law, of his coming to fulfil it and of the disciples’ responsibility to obey it more completely than the scribes and Pharisees were doing. Each paragraph contains a contrast or ‘antithesis’ introduced by the same formula (with minor variations): *You have heard that it was said to the men of old…But I say unto you…*(21,22).
What is this antithesis? It is clear who the authoritative *ego* is. But with whom is Jesus contrasting himself? It is essential to consider this question now before, in the next three chapters, we look in greater detail at the six antitheses themselves. Many commentators have maintained that in these paragraphs Jesus is setting himself against Moses; that he is here deliberately inaugurating a new morality, and is contradicting and repudiating the old; and that his introductory formula could be paraphrased ‘you know what the Old Testament taught…But I teach something quite different.’ Popular as this interpretation is, I do not hesitate to say that it is mistaken. It is more than mistaken; it is untenable. What Jesus is contradicting is not the law itself, but certain perversions of the law of which the scribes and Pharisees were guilty. Far from contradicting the law, Jesus endorses it, insists on its authority and supplies its true interpretation. Four arguments will be sufficient to prove that this is so.
First, there is the substance of the antithesis themselves. At first sight in each instance what Jesus quotes appears to come from the Mosaic law. All six examples either consist of or include some echo of it, e.g. *You shall not kill (21), You shall not commit adultery (27), Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce* (31). Not until we come to the sixth and last antithesis do we see clearly that something is amiss. For this reads: *You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy* (43). Now the first half of this sentence is a clear command of the law (Lv.19:18), although even this is a truncated commandment, omitting the vital words which set the standard of our neighbour-love, namely ‘as yourself’. The second half of the sentence, however, is not in the law at all. It comes neither in Leviticus 19:18, nor anywhere else. So here was a contemporary addition to the law, which was intended to interpret it, but in fact distorted it. When we look more closely at the other five antitheses (as we shall in the following chapters), it becomes plain that a similar distortion is implied. It is these distortions of the law which Jesus rejected, not the law itself. After all, the first two antitheses do not read ‘It was said “you shall not commit murder or adultery”, but I say you may’. Rather, ‘but I say you shall not even have angry or lustful thoughts’.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5: 19, 20. The Christian and the law (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.