Starting in v21-22, we have the first of six statements.
Statement #1: v21-22
21 “YOU HAVE HEARD [meaning, here is the wrong interpretation] that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 BUT I TELL YOU [here’s the correct interpretation] that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Statement #2: v27-28
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you [correct interpretation] that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Do you see what the scribes and Pharisees are doing? They are restricting the biblical prohibitions of murder and adultery to the act of murder and to the act of adultery alone. Jesus interprets the Law correctly by extending the Law to include angry thoughts, insulting words and lustful looks. At the core of murder is anger and insulting words. And at the core of adultery is lust. So the correct interpretation is that murder and anger and insulting words are the same thing. Adultery and lust are the same thing.
Statement #3: v31-32
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
The Jewish leaders took the Law at face value and lowered the bar so low that it fit the male-dominated context of the first century. Back then, women had no rights. If your wife burnt the manna toast for breakfast, the husband could go down to the local courts and have a certificate of divorce written up, no questions asked and the marriage would be over. Just like that. What does Jesus do? He elevates marriage. Husbands and wives, you may be at each other’s throats, but you have to stick it out. Because marriage is that important. God created man, male and female, He created them. From the beginning, you didn’t have two friends in the Garden. It was a man and a woman. Marriage is God’s design and we must uphold the sanctity of marriage. Jesus elevates marriage. Marriage must be preserved at all costs, but he gives some leeway–except in the case of marital unfaithfulness.
Statement #4: v33-34
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne.
The Jewish interpretation restricted the command about not breaking an oath in cases where you involved God’s name. Which means, if you made a promise to your coworker, hey, it’s not binding, I didn’t swear on the Bible or anything so I can let this promise slide. Jesus says, that’s nonsense. All promises–whether promises to God, or to coworkers, or friends, or kids–should be kept.
Statement #5: v38-39
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
When it comes to punishment, if someone wrongs you, the letter of the Law says you can wrong him back. An eye for an eye. Jesus reveals the true, underlying principle. If you are wronged, should you fight back? If you lost an eye in a fight, should you go after the guy who did it and take out his eye? This kind of tit for tat, eye for eye violence is a cycle that never ends. Instead, if someone strikes you on the cheek, why not give him your other cheek? This is not the kind of Law that you can simply grit your teeth and obey. The same goes for the sixth and final statement.
Statement #6: v43-44
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
This is the most obvious distortion. This is a misquotation from Lev 19:18, which says–
18 Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
It’s missing the phrase “as yourself.” Love your neighbor AS YOURSELF. You can limit love to mean calling someone once a year on their birthday and nothing more, but as soon as the standard of love is love AS YOURSELF, love in the same way that you love yourself, then calling once a year doesn’t cut it. Love is far more than that. And of course, nowhere in the Bible does it say to hate your enemy. The phrase “hate your enemy” has been added. Two distortions in one verse.
If you take these six statement as a whole, you realize a pattern when it comes to the Pharisees and the scribes and their interpretation of the Law. They restricted the portions of the commandments that are difficult to obey. In addition, they took the parts of the commandments that gave some leeway and they loosened those commandments so that they could get away with more than the law intended. In other words, they made the law’s demand on our lives less demanding and the law’s permissions more permissive.
What Jesus did was to reverse both tendencies. He insisted, on the one hand, that the full implications of God’s commandments must be accepted without imposing any artificial limits. In addition, the leeway that God gives in certain situations must be upheld and it must never devolve into a “do whatever you want, anything goes” kind of freedom.
What Jesus is doing here in these six commandments is showing his disciples two things. First, how not to do what the scribes and Pharisees were doing in their distorted, self-serving interpretations of the OT law. And second, Jesus was inviting the disciples to something different, something much deeper.
So when verse 20 says, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus was saying this. There is a way of life—there is an authentic, deep, unhypocritical way of life—that you must live if you want to arrive in heaven.
No distortion. No picking and choosing. No restricting the tough parts. No stretching out the areas where the law gives some leeway. No adding of phrases. Not the least stroke of a pen, not a letter, not a dot will pass away until they are fulfilled. All must be obeyed.
So how do you reconcile obedience to the Law with the offer of grace? Grace is a gift, right? If so, then why all this talk about the Law and keeping the Law down to the letter? I thought Christianity was all grace and not rules. It’s a relationship, not religion. And it’s a relationship with a God who is abounding in grace. Therefore, can’t I just come to God as I am? If you bind me to rules and there are expectations of commandments that I must follow, then where’s the grace in that?
Listen up. This is really important. God, in his infinite grace, does accept you as you are. Esp. at the moment of conversion. God can save the worst of sinners. None of us is righteous. No person can merit salvation. So we are accepted just as we are. But, God’s grace is not without effect. If you are truly converted, born of the Spirit and you abide with Christ and stay near him, you will change. You will bear fruit. Much fruit. So much in fact that the longer you are a Christ follower, the longer you stay near to Jesus, more and more your life will resemble that of our Lord. We become Christ-like. Our thoughts are Christ’s thoughts. Our actions are more in line with how Christ lived. Our values change. Our desires change. We are not the same person.
“Just as I am” definitely applies to the recent convert. You can be an addict, a prostitute, everyone is welcome to come to Jesus as they are. But I think there is a common misconception when it comes to grace. Grace is not a license to remain as you are. If you’ve been walking with Jesus for 5, 10, 20 years or more and you are still the exact same person you were when you first walked down the aisle and gave your life to the Lord, there is something wrong. Should a 80 year old who has been walking with Jesus most of his life, cling to the hymn, Just As I Am, to cover up the shame that he is just as selfish as he was when he first gave his life to Jesus? Grace is more than a blanket to cover over our sins. Grace is the power of God to transform lives.