Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Matthew 5:21-37
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus introduces six…what are called…”antitheses”. They are called that because they are presented in such a way as to seem to contradict the laws given to Moses. In each of the six Jesus uses some form of the phrasing…”You have heard it said…but I say.”
Jesus was not contradicting the laws as they were given to Moses at all. He might have been contradicting some of the petty rules the scribes and Pharisees had cooked up to seem to show outward obedience to the rules. He was also clarifying the laws…and most importantly he was saying that it’s not just your outward actions that matter. It’s what’s in your heart.
Let’s look at four of these antitheses this morning.
The longer I live…the more I value my relationships. When I was younger I had little idea of how important they are. I took them for granted. I did not fully understand that human relationships greatly affect our heavenly relationship.
Jesus made a strong statement in the first antithesis. It clearly claims that those guilty of contemptuous anger are guilty enough to go to Hell. Jesus says in effect, “The Old Testament Law condemns murder, but I say that contemptuous anger will get you a fiery Hell just as surely. Jesus means what he says. Let that sink in.
However…we must not think that he forbids all anger with other people. Jesus himself was angry when he cleared the Temple. He was angry with those who criticized him for healing on the Sabbath. He called the Pharisees “blind fools.” So…we can conclude there is a place for anger. Jesus was angry at sin and injustice…but he never became angry at personal insult or affront. Truly righteous anger…in fact…brings pleasure to God.
But in the Sermon on the Mount…Jesus is speaking of unrighteous anger…and his words leave no doubt about what he means. Most of us are quick to get angry at personal affront…at name calling…at insults…but slow to become angry with sin and injustice. Instead we need to take our Lord’s word to heart.
Jesus is saying that we must not think ourselves innocent because we have not shed blood. We are guilty enough to receive punishment if we have felt anger or contempt. In essence…He says…”You may think you are removed from murder morally. But you are wrong. Have you ever wished someone were dead? Then your heart has known murder!” In view of this, we cannot escape the truth that many of us have murdered others in our mind or heart.
The radical righteousness that Jesus demands is not merely a refraining from outward sin…it is on the inside. And…He makes us see that our only hope is Jesus Christ…who fulfilled all righteousness and offers it to us as a free gift. Jesus’ radical demand is meant to drive us to him for grace. He welcomes murderers…those who have blood on their hands and those who don’t.
What this means for us believers is that we must rid ourselves of any thought of spiritual superiority. It is true that a long association with Christ and his Word and his church can make us feel spiritually superior. This kind of smugness makes the words…”fool, nitwit and idiot” roll off our tongues as naturally as breathing. Believers must get rid of any thought of superiority. Furthermore…we must never devalue others. No one is worthless. God created…and God loves everyone…including the sinner.
We need to be positive about others…not condoning their sin…but remembering that God loves them as well as us. It was said of Alexander Whyte….the great preacher from Edinburgh, Scotland…that “all his geese become swans.” He had a way of seeing the best in people and bringing it out. This is the way of the righteous in his or her relationships. What can be better than going through life seeing all the geese as swans?
Let’s begin our thoughts on the second antithesis with a question. How does one live in purity in an age of sensuality? Is that possible? If so, how? Jesus built his thoughts on the seventh commandment which prohibits adultery,
Jesus said…”You have heard it said…you shall not commit adultery.” Moses and the scribes and Pharisees emphasized the outward demonstration of adultery…which for many became a conveniently narrow definition of sexual sin. That made it clear. You were either an adulterer or you were not. How convenient.
But…Jesus knows our hearts and he’s not buying this idea. Instead he is communicating a radically new standard of sexual purity…in line with the Old Testament…but it completes and supersedes the earlier teaching.
To understand what Jesus means let us first see what he does not mean. Jesus does not mean it is wrong to look at another person and admire that man or woman…but it is wrong to do so lustfully. He does not forbid the natural…normal attraction that is part of our humanity. What he forbids is deep seated lust that consumes the inner person. It is not the first glance that is sin…but the second that swells with lust and feeds on the person. This occurs in the heart…the center of a person’s being. Mental infidelity makes a person completely guilty.
Few male and female believers have not crossed the line from attraction to lust at one time. We could all be adulterers by this standard. President Jimmy Carter even confessed to this sin. Knowing this should deliver us from all thoughts of judgment toward those who have fallen into adultery. It should also create in some a poverty of spirit and a humility that realizes we are spiritually bankrupt to a degree and it should make us amazed that God loves us as he does.
There is another truth in Jesus’s statement as well. Sensual fantasies come before sensual sins. That was exactly the case with King David on that warm spring night in Palestine when he could not sleep and strode onto the rooftop garden for some cool evening air to look at his city.
Our imagination is one of God’s gifts that distinguishes us from animals. Through it we dream great dreams and create many great works. Without it there would be no great works of art or great achievements of science. But…as with any of God’s gifts it must be used responsibly. When abused, the imagination spawns great evil.
In the beginning…divorce was inconceivable and impossible. In his third antitheses Jesus used words from Genesis to make two points. First is the intimacy of the marriage relationship…the two shall become one…there is no other intimacy like it. It is deeper than a person’s relationship to their own children. Marriage is the deepest human relationship.
After intimacy…Jesus’ emphasis is on permanence. God’s ideal was…and is…monogamous…intimate…enduring marriage. This is what he approves of. Anything less is a departure from the divine model.
Malachi told us that “God hates divorce. Malachi believed divorce was simply not meant to be.
Jesus corrected the Pharisees by telling them that Moses only permitted divorce…he didn’t command it. What Moses did command was the granting of a divorce certificate for the woman’s protection. The reason God allowed divorce was the hardness of heart that had taken over the men of Israel. It was a concession from God to human weakness…reluctant permission at best.
Jesus said…”Whoever divorces his wife…except for sexual immorality…and marries another…commits adultery.” That is…divorce is allowed if your mate is guilty of marital unfaithfulness. But…if you divorce for any other reason and remarry…it is you who commits adultery. Our Lord Jesus Christ permitted divorce and remarriage on one ground and one ground only…marital unfaithfulness.
Do notice that he permitted it and did not command it. If you learn that your mate has been having an adulterous affair…it does not follow that the only correct path is to seek a divorce. Too often men and women eagerly pounce on the infidelity of their mates as the opportunity to get out of a relationship they wanted to end anyway. Many look for a way out instead of a way through their challenges.
To consider the fourth antithesis…consider this statement…today there is a truth shortage. There was a time when western culture was distinguished from other cultures by at least an outward sense of obligation to tell the truth. But…now there is a strong indifference to truth-telling. This has not only infected day-to-day conversation. It has affected the most solemn pledges of life. Perjury under oath is common. The sacred vows of marriage are broken often. God’s name is invoked by blatant liars who purport to be Christian witnesses to the truth.
There is a spreading epidemic…but we must not make the mistake of thinking it occurs only out there because it happens among believers, too. It is difficult for many to always tell the truth. Do you find yourself speaking to someone then suddenly realizing that what you are saying is not the complete truth? It’s something in us and in the culture in which we live. And…it’s becoming more common and more acceptable. What are “alternative facts” anyway?
In Jesus’ time the traditional Biblical teaching had come under massive abuse. Somewhere along the line some rabbis…but not all of them…began to teach that an oath was not binding if it did not include God’s name or imply it. Therefore…if you swore by your own or someone else’s life or the life of the king…or by some object…but did not mention or allude to the name of God you were not bound. The swearing of oaths had degenerated into a system of rules as to when you could lie and when you could not. The results were incredible. It became common practice to attempt to convince another that you were telling the truth…while lying…by bringing some other person or eminent object into reference. The deception was very subtle. Everyone was what we today call a “spin doctor”.
Jesus ruled out making vows using references to people or objects as backup. The reason was…God stands behind everything. All of creation belongs to God. You cannot refer to a part of it without referring ultimately to him.
Our Lord said that the radically righteous people living in God’s kingdom…do not need to swear that they are telling the truth and in fact should refrain from using oaths and vows. The radically righteous do not need oaths. Their word simply is the truth!
How does this translate into life today? What conclusion can we make concerning our speech? Oath-taking is permitted in some cases….but it is not encouraged. In civil life oath-taking…as in court proceedings…is permitted…and when a person does so it is not a sin against Christ’s teachings. Also…on rare occasions it may be necessary as it was for Paul. However…oaths are not to be a normal part of our everyday conversation. In normal relations oaths should never fall from our lips. People living in God’s kingdom do not need such devices. Their commitment to truthfulness should be evident to all.
Christ calls us to a life of profound truthfulness. Our problem is that we live in a radically deceptive world…a world that has deeply rooted deceitfulness. We are awash in a sea of media deception. Men are told that if they dye the gray out…they will be handsome and virile and attractive to women everywhere. Rivers of hyperbole and exaggeration flow through advertising…political campaigns…and much more. Language has changed to the extent that we do not know what the other person is saying. Clever and creative double meanings are the order of the day.
It is not easy to be totally truthful…but it is necessary for the church and the world. More than ever our world longs for freedom from dishonesty. Sure…it cultivates deception and promotes it…but deep down people long to escape the show and pretense. Many look eagerly to believers to display the honesty and integrity for which they so desperately long. Our integrity as followers of Christ can make all the difference in our struggling world. When people know that you do not lie…your testimony will have more effect than all the theology you could study…learn…and attempt to push on them. What a difference a truth-filled life can make.
What can we do to personally promote Jesus’ call to radical truthfulness? Remember that for Jesus words were sacred…they were an outward sign of an inward condition. We need a truthful spirit that brings forth truthful speech. We also need to remember that our Lord hears every word…and that we will be called to give an accounting for those words. Our words are a part of the path to eternity. We would do well to take this seriously.
Four of Jesus’ antitheses for us to consider this morning…and as we go forth into God’s world. We’ll look at others next week.
In the meantime…consider what would happen if you and I read the Sermon on the Mount…Matthew, chapters 5, 6 and 7… once every week…and asked ourselves the same question that former New York City mayor Ed Koch often asked people he encountered. That question…”How am I doing?”