A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:19-20. The Christian and the law.
Fourthly, there is Christ’s known attitude to the Old Testament. In the previous chapter, Matthew has given an account of his temptations during forty gruelling days in the Judean desert. Each subtle enticement of the devil was countered by an appropriate quotation from the Old Testament Scripture. Jesus had no need to debate or argue with the devil. Each issue was settled from the start by a simple appeal to what stood written (*gegraptai*). And this reverent submission of the incarnate Word to the written word continued throughout his life, not only in his personal behaviour but also in his mission. He was resolved to fulfil what was written of him, and could not be deflected from the path which Scripture had laid down for him. So his declaration in Matthew 5:17 that he came not to abolish but to fulfil the law and the prophets is wholly consistent with his attitude to Scripture elsewhere.
From these four factors it is evident that the antitheses do not set in opposition to each other Christ and Moses, the New Testament and the Old Testament, the gospel and the law, but rather Christ’s true interpretation of the law and the scribal misinterpretations, and therefore Christian righteousness and pharisaic righteousness, as verse 19 anticipates.
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. They found Torah both a yoke and a burden (indeed they called it such), and wanted to make the yoke easier and the burden lighter. How they did it varied according to the form each law took, and in particular whether it was a commandment (either precept or prohibition) or a permission. Four of the six antitheses fall into the category of ‘commandment’, the first three of which were negative (forbidding murder, adultery and false swearing) and the last of which is positive (enjoining love for neighbour). These four are clear commands of God either to do or not to do something. The remaining two (the fourth and fifth antitheses) are best prescribed as ‘permissions’. They do not belong to the same category of moral command as the other four. Both lack the prescriptive words ‘You shall’ or ‘You shall not’. The fourth antitheses concerns divorce, which was never commanded but was permitted in certain circumstances and on certain conditions. The fifth concerns retribution (’an eye for an eye….’) which was permitted in the law courts and which restricted to an exact equivalent the penalties which Israelite judges might impose. Thus both these permissions were circumscribed by definite limits.
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 God had set to his permissions must also be accepted and not arbitrarily increased. It may be helpful to see the application of these principles to the antitheses in summary before considering them in detail.
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 neighbour-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 renunciation of all revenge.
This preliminary look at the antitheses 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. To him Moses’ law was God’s law, whose validity was permanent and whose authority must be accepted. In the Sermon on the Mount, as Calvin correctly expressed it, we see Jesus not ‘as a new legislator, but as the faithful expounder of a law which had been already given’. The Pharisees had ‘obscured’ the law; Jesus restored it to its integrity’.
And in this matter Christian disciples must follow Christ, not the Pharisees. We have no liberty to try to lower the law’s standards and make it easier to obey. That is the casuistry of Pharisees, not Christians. Christian righteousness must exceed pharisaic righteousness.
Yet the advocates of the ‘new morality’ or ‘situational ethic’ are in principle trying to do exactly what the Pharisees were doing. True, they claim to take Christ’s part against the Pharisees, but they resemble the Pharisees in their dislike of the law. They regard the law as rigid and authoritarian, and (just like the Pharisees) they attempt to ‘relax’ its authority, to loosen its hold. So they declare the category of law abolished (which Jesus said he had not come to abolish) and they set law and love at variance with each other (in a way in which Jesus never did). No. Jesus disagreed with he Pharisees’ *interpretation* of the law; he never disagreed with their acceptance of its *authority*. Rather the reverse. In the strongest possible terms he asserted its authority as God’s Word written, and called his disciples to accept its true and deeply exacting interpretation.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:21-30 A Christian’s righteousness: Avoiding anger and lust.
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.