Jesus Lays Down the Law
Click here to listen to this sermon.
Jesus lays down the Law. He pulls no punches, setting forth in no uncertain terms the holy, righteous will of God. Do you remember how our Gospel ended last week? In the verse immediately preceding our text, Jesus warns His disciples: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
In our text for today, Matthew 5:21-37, Jesus begins to describe what such righteousness looks like. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is His footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
Jesus goes on from there, and we’ll get to hear more of it next week. But this should be enough to get the gist of what He is saying. Jesus is contrasting His teaching with the teaching that the people have been receiving: “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you…” He does this six times in the rest of this chapter. We have four of them today. Obviously, this must be important.
So, is Jesus contrasting His teaching with the Law of Moses? Does Jesus bring a new Law, a higher Law, a better Law? No, the Law of Moses is God’s Word. God’s Word like God Himself is holy; it does not change. It is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And when Jesus directly quotes the Old Testament at other times in Matthew’s Gospel, He never introduces the citation with “It was said.” Instead, He uses expressions such as “It is written” or “God said” or “Have you not read?” No, Jesus is contrasting His authoritative interpretation of the Law of Moses with the current scribal interpretations of the same. What Jesus offers to His disciples as they seek to do and teach the commandments of God (Matthew 5:19) is the proper, authoritative interpretation of the Law. Thus the Formula of Concord explains that in Matthew 5:21-48, “Christ takes the Law into His hands and interprets it spiritually” (Epitome V 8 [thesis 7].
Jesus lays down the Law. He first takes aim at a limited understanding of the Fifth Commandment that His disciples had “heard” from some of their Jewish teachers. Murder makes one liable to judgment. Not many people will disagree with that. But the Fifth Commandment entails more, and Jesus reveals the fullness of God’s intention in giving the commandment. You can “murder” someone in your heart or with your words. Bitter insults partake of the same poisonous roots as murder itself, and there is no essential difference in the sight of God; murder, anger, and bitter insults all can lead down the road to eternal damnation.
It is an especially grievous matter when a disciple treats a fellow Christian, a “brother,” in this way. Don’t approach God in prayer or in worship with anger in your heart. If you have wronged someone, go to that person and attempt to be reconciled with him or her. Unrepented sin is a barrier to any kind of God-pleasing worship, and these words of Jesus are appropriately applied to our preparation for receiving the Lord’s Supper. Genuine repentance will always lead to a sincere effort to undo the wrong of which one has been guilty, and to seek reconciliation.
It may not seem as dramatic as murder, but Jesus also deals with the swearing of oaths. An oath is a serious matter. A person taking an oath calls upon God as his witness that he is telling the truth and that he will keep his promise. That means he also asks God to punish him if he is not true to his word.
The scribes and Pharisees have devised a system of oaths in which some oaths are considered more binding than others. They imagine that they decrease their responsibility if they do not directly use the Lord’s name in an oath. So they will swear by heaven or earth or by Jerusalem or by the temple or even their own heads. But Jesus points out that God is still present as their witness, no matter what formula they might recite. It is nonsense to say, as they do, “If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath” (Matthew 23:16).
The whole concept of such oaths is offensive to God. They are “weasel words.” It is a way for someone to avoid telling the whole truth or being bound by their word, the very opposite of what a God-pleasing oath is intended to be. So Jesus tells His disciples simply to say “Yes” or “No.” Anything beyond that is inspired by the devil himself, who is a liar and the father of lies.
Jesus goes on to speak of another oath, a marital vow, offering His own authoritative interpretation of the Law regarding divorce. Much like our own day, when it came to divorce in the first century Israel, divorce itself was assumed to be an available and acceptable option for most any reason. Divorce itself was not in question; the really important thing was to divorce in the right way.
Against this, the Lord’s voice thunders! Divorce is sin! Divorcing your spouse shatters a sacred union that God intends to be permanent. Even in the case of a spouse’s sexual unfaithfulness, Jesus allows, but does not command divorce. Those who think that the goal is how to divorce and then “still be friends” or have an “amicable divorce” have strayed far from God’s will in the Law. Jesus simply says, “Do not divorce.” To do so is, in the sight of God, is as terrible a sin as adultery itself. Instead, let your light shine in the presence of other people; be faithful to your marriage vows, and so bring honor to your Father in heaven.
In a similar manner, Jesus deals with the Sixth Commandment. The religious teachers of the Jews rightly condemn the act of adultery, but Jesus points out that sexual lust, the desire for sexual involvement with anyone other than one’s wife or husband, is also a violation of this commandment in God’s sight. Someone will respond, “Surely, it doesn’t hurt to look, as long as I don’t touch, right? It’s only normal and natural. I can’t help it if desires are aroused in my heart at the sight of a person of the opposite (and some would include the “same”) sex. That may be true, but that does not make it right. It only shows the depth of depravity that what God and His holy Word call “sin” seems normal and natural—even desirable!
Jesus’ comments on this matter are often regarded as figurative language. Hyperbole. Does Jesus really mean to say that we should gouge out an eye or chop off a hand? Yes, He means exactly that! If it is really the fault of your eye or your hand that you commit sin that could condemn you to hell, wouldn’t you really want to rid yourself of that offending part of your body rather than have your whole body cast into hell? You would not hesitate to have a cancerous part of your body removed before cancer destroys your whole body, would you? People do that all the time. It is radical surgery, but they do it in order to save their life. So, also removing a treacherous member of your body would be small price to pay to save your soul and body from the eternal torments of hell. It would be the reasonable thing to do—the “lesser of two evils,” if you will.
The point Jesus wants to make, however, is that such maiming of one’s body would not be the real solution, for the sin of lust or for any sin. If your right eye and your right hand cause you to sin and you get rid of them, would not the left eye and left hand still cause you the same problem? If a person amputated all of his limbs and gouged out both of his eyes and stopped up both of his ears, would he then be able to keep himself perfectly pure? Is it not more likely that his heart and mind would then constantly dwell upon acts that had become physically impossible for him? Would it not, in fact, increase the sin?
Avoiding sin is not easy; it’s impossible! Yet, like the scribes and Pharisees, you want to see yourself as a “Law-keeper,” comparing yourself to scoundrels to feel a bit better in comparison. But it doesn’t change the cold, hard facts. You don’t and can’t keep the Law as you should and must. According to God’s Law, you are indeed a poor, miserable sinner. You’ve called people names. You’ve made promises you have not kept. You’re lusted for others. You’ve failed to uphold the sanctity of marriage—yours or someone else’s. You sit in judgment of others, so you now stand condemned.
This problem of sin is a whole lot bigger than you thought! It consumes you. You sin a lot, everyday. You do what you want, not even considering if God has a different plan, or if other people in your life have needs. You might want to think that your sins are just small idiosyncrasies, “mistakes,” or minor lapses in judgment compared to other people. But God sees your sin differently. He sees it as a scandal, as a death-trap into which you have fallen, and you can’t get yourself out. As a pit you have dug yourself that leads to the very pit of hell!
And that is why Jesus lays down the Law. He wants you to realize the wretchedness and hopelessness of your condition. The Law cannot save you; it condemns you! The chief purpose of the Law is to reveal mankind’s total corruption because of sin; and having seen your own sin in the mirror of God’s holy Law, to drive you to seek salvation that is available only in Christ. While the Law does hold gross outbursts of sin in check, its chief purpose is to get you to realize the damning consequence of original sin, and to show you the depth of depravity within you, a problem that will take something worse than radical surgery or chemotherapy to cure.
No, the problem of sin is much worse than an eye or a hand or any other body part problem—it’s a heart problem. You and I need a new heart. We need our stony sin-hardened heart removed and replaced with a heart of flesh. A clean heart.
But notice Jesus doesn’t tell you to cut out your own heart. That wouldn’t work very well would it? None of us is a heart surgeon. And heart surgeons who have themselves as patients are truly fools. But Jesus is the great Physician. He can perform the one and only heart transplant that you need.
Guess what! He has already done it. Jesus has performed a circumcision of your heart at your Baptism. He cut out your old sin-sick heart and removed it from you at the font. It, with all of your sins is nailed to Jesus on the cross where He bears your sin and its punishment on the cursed tree.
But Jesus doesn’t leave you heart-less. Having kept the Law for you with His own perfect obedience and holy life, and suffering the punishment the Law justly demands for your sin, Jesus creates in you a clean heart, and puts a right spirit, His own Holy Spirit, within it! This new heart transplanted in you is none other than the heart of Jesus Himself. His holy, righteous, pure, and sin-free heart is given to you in trade for your old evil heart.
Jesus lays down the Law with His own perfect life, obedient suffering and atoning death. Jesus takes your heart as His own, bearing the shame, guilt, and punishment you deserved for your sin. He gives you His sinless heart as your own, a clean place for the Spirit to dwell so that you might begin to keep the Law. So that you might begin to fear, love, and trust God above all things. So that you might begin to fear and love God so that you do not hurt or harm your neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need. So that you begin to fear and love God so that you lead a sexually pure and decent life in what you say and do, and love and honor your spouse.
So that when you fail to keep these commandments, or any of the rest of the Law, you would repent. That is, that you would confess your sins to God the Father almighty, and that you would hear and believe this Good News: Sin no longer has dominion over you; for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.