A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5: 19-20. A Christian’s Righteousness.

2. The Christian and the Law.

Secondly, there is the introductory formula, beginning *you have heard that it was said to men of old* (21,33), or *you have heard that it was said* (27,38,43), or more briefly still, *it was also said* (31). The words common to these formulae are *it was said*, which represent the single Greek verb *errethe*. Now this is not the word that Jesus used when quoting Scripture. When he introduced a biblical quotation, both verb and tense were different, namely *gegraptai* (perfect, ‘it stands written’), not *errethe* (aorist, ‘it was said’). So in the six antitheses what Jesus was contradicting was not Scripture but tradition, not God’s word which they had ‘read’ (cf.12:3,5; 19:4; 21:16,42; 22:31) but the oral instruction which was given ‘to the men of old’ and which they too had ‘heard’ since the scribes continued to give it in the synagogues.

Professor David Daube confirms this from his comprehensive knowledge of rabbinics. The verb ‘hear’ is associated, he says, with ‘the superficial, literal meaning of Scripture’. So in the two parts of the introductory formula, ‘the first gives a scriptural rule narrowly interpreted, the second a wider demand made by Jesus’. Again, ‘These declarations “Ye have heard – But I say unto you” are intended to prove Jesus the Law’s upholder, not destroyer…it is the revelation of a fuller meaning for a new age. The second member unfolds rather than sweeps away the first.’ One might sum it up by saying that in relation to scribal distortions of the law, the term ‘antithesis’ rightly describes the teaching of Jesus, whereas in relation to the law itself ‘exegesis’ would be a more accurate word. His quarrel was not over the law, for both the Jewish leaders and he accepted its divine authority, but over its true interpretation.

Thirdly, there is the immediate context. We have already seen that in the verses preceding and introducing the antitheses (17-20) Jesus affirmed in a quite unequivocal way what his own attitude to the law was and what his disciples’ ought to be. This was ‘fulfilment’ in this case and ‘obedience’ in theirs. Not a dot or iota would pass away; all must be fulfilled. Not one of the least commandments might be disregarded; all must be obeyed. Are we now seriously to suppose that Jesus contradicted himself, that he proceeded at once in his teaching to do what he had just categorically said he had not come to do and they must not do? For this is the dilemma: if in the antitheses Jesus was contradicting Moses, he was thereby contradicting himself. ‘Commentators have exhausted their ingenuity’ writes W.C.Allen, ‘in attempts to explain away this passage.’ He goes on to exercise his own ingenuity by supposing that verses 18 and 19 ‘did not originally belong to the Sermon, but have been placed here by the editor’. His reason is that in his view ‘the attitude to the law here described is inconsistent with the general tenor of the Sermon’. But this is an entirely subjective judgement, and moreover it does not solve the dilemma. All it succeeds in doing is to remove the supposed discrepancy from the teaching of Jesus and attribute it instead either to the first evangelist or through him to some early Christian community. The better way is to accept the statements of verses 17 to 20 as genuine and to demonstrate that they are consistent not only with the Sermon as a whole but with the rest of Jesus’ recorded teaching. This brings us to the last argument.
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.