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Bible: What Does Matthew 5:21-48 Teach Us About the Sermon on the Mount?

Updated on September 15, 2016

The Sermon on the Mount


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Matthew 5:21-48--The Sermon on the Mount

Attitudes of the Heart

In the next several sections, Jesus deals with attitudes of the heart with respect to various moral matters.

He prefaces the discussion of a traditional teaching with the statement, “You have heard that it was said to those of old” (vv. 21, 27, 33, 38, 43).

The Lord then offers His authoritative applications of the Old Testament commandments (“But I say to you . . . “ [vv. 22, 28, 34, 39, 44]), and finally provides hard-hitting examples that drive home how seriously His people should regard dealing with these offenses.

Jesus' Interpretation of Murder

For instance, after quoting the prohibition against murder (the sixth commandment) and its liability (judgment, condemnation) [v. 21], the Lord widens this sin’s application to include anger “with his brother without a cause”–NU (Nestle-Aland and United Bible Societies’ critical texts omit italicized words).

This latter one He illustrates by mentioning two verbal expressions of anger (Raca “empty head,” and “You fool”) and their possible punishments.

Altogether, the guilty party is in danger of the “judgment,” “the council” (the “Supreme Court,”NASB), and “hell fire” (gehenna) (v. 22).

[Whether Jesus meant these terms synonymously or to represent degrees of punishment is difficult to know.]

To aid His audience with their application of this teaching, Jesus relates two events that commonly happen.

The first illustration concerns a worshiper who is about to sacrifice his animal, but whose conscience suddenly reminds him that he needs to seek human forgiveness.

This individual must set that relationship right before offering his gift to God (vv. 23-24).

Jesus’ second illustration shows the necessity of owing up to wrongdoing quickly in order to avoid paying a heftier price for it later because one had refused to admit one’s guilt (vv. 25-26).


Jesus' Interpretation of Adultery

Second, the Lord reveals His “take” on adultery, giving His emphatic remedy for it, and shows its connection to divorce and remarriage (vv. 27-32).

After prefacing this topic as He had done with murder (v. 27; see 5:21), Jesus expands adultery’s sphere to include its spiritual origin.

This sin begins as inordinate desire (lust) for a woman in one’s heart (v. 28).

[He directs His comments here toward men, who are more prone to respond to visual stimuli than are women.

That is not to say that women do not commit adultery in this manner.]

The Lord’s solution seems “draconian,” but it means to emphasize the heinousness of the sin and the extreme measures men should consider taking (in a figurative sense) to avoid committing it.

[To believe that He literally meant men to mutilate themselves is ludicrous, but some “saints” in early Church years took His directive in this way.]

On the subject of divorce, Jesus cites Deuteronomy 24:1, a law His people abused during Moses’ time and were still abusing during the present day (v. 31).

His application of this commandment restores its strictness and narrowness, disallowing divorce except for a very few reasons.

Ryrie delineates what “sexual immorality (fornication)” means (New Testament Study Bible 14). Under Jesus’ infallible interpretation, marrying a divorcee is verboten (v. 32).

Jesus' View on Oath-Taking

Third, the Lord discusses the topic of oath-taking, once again employing the formulaic preface (“You have heard that it was said to those of old”) before borrowing thoughts from three verses in the Law that express the prohibition against swearing falsely (committing perjury) and the necessity of fulfilling one’s vows [v. 33; cf. Ex. 20:7; Lev.19:12; Deut.23:23].

Jesus does not permit the taking of oaths by using pat phraseology (“by heaven,” “by earth,” “by Jerusalem,” “by my head”).

[Jesus’ teaching here does not supersede the Law; it corrects the Jewish perversion that made oathtaking less than serious business.]

On the contrary, He maintains that one should merely say “Yes” or “No,” and stand by one’s word.

The Law of Retaliation

Fourth, the Lord addresses the lex talionis (the law of retaliation) as found in Leviticus 24:20.

[The seeming barbarity of this oft-criticized law offends Western sensibilities.

If not taken literally, it would accomplish perfect justice in “rewarding” an injured party with damages equal to those he suffered.

Assigning a reasonable monetary award to compensate for the loss of a member does seem a better solution than having a relative pluck out the offender’s eye.

Perhaps God allowed this law during Moses’ time of service because it suited Israel’s particular stage of societal development.]

Jesus does not negate the justice of the law; He applies it in a different way (vv. 39-42).

If an individual caused harm to another, the former should not resist the latter who, because of greed or hatred, would want to extract more payment from him than what was just.

Rather than fight back against the evil one simply to keep possession of a few temporal items, the believer must instead accept this ill-treatment with humility.

[NT believers must exercise special care when interpreting and applying teachings meant for a different dispensation; here, the stewardship is the Messianic kingdom.

One principle that believers today can take away from this teaching is our need to develop a healthy detachment from worldly possessions.]

The Good Samaritan


Loving One's Enemies

Finally, Jesus teaches another difficult practice—that of loving one’s enemies—though it contradicted the common wisdom of the day.

Again, He utters His now familiar preface, then repeats in tandem a legitimate Scripture with a false teaching that Jewish teachers of that day were fostering (v. 43).

[Oftentimes, truth and error lay side by side as though they belonged together; Jesus employs the truth to expose and discredit the error.]

One should show love toward others—“enemies” no less than “neighbors—by blessing them, doing good to them, and praying for them (v. 44).

The purpose clause (v. 45a) indicates that such goodness reveals one’s Parentage; the Lord does good to everyone despite his or her character (v. 45b).

This attitude of love for enemies distinguishes believers from unbelievers (here, tax collectors or Gentiles [NU]) [vv. 46-47].

While Jesus knows that His followers cannot achieve absolute perfection in this lifetime, He still expects them to be “perfect” (continually grow into spiritual and moral maturity), and begin to resemble their Heavenly Father’s character (v. 48).


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