Jesus' Parables for Disciples
3. The Spirit of the Law and Reconciliation (Matthew 5:17-26)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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James J. Tissot, "Jesus Teaching in the Synagogue" (1886-1896), watercolor.
17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 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." (5:17-20)
How does the New Testament relate to the Old? How do Spirit-filled Christians relate to the Old Testament saints?
Many Christians are quick to throw out the Old Testament. "The God of the Old Testament," they say, "is an angry, vengeful God. So different from Jesus." Most Christians today are unfamiliar with the Old Testament. If anything, they bring only a New Testament to church, and act like the Old Testament no longer has any authority.
Others define it in terms of Law versus Grace, following St. Paul's lead. "I am not under the Old Testament law," they say. "I'm now under the grace of God." True, but just what does that mean?
What did Jesus intend to accomplish? Did Jesus come to do away with the Old Testament?
This very question is at the heart of Jesus' controversy with the Pharisees.
(See Excursus 2, "Introduction to the Religion of the Pharisees," above). Jesus doesn't seem concerned to follow the meticulous legal observance of the Pharisees. He heals on the Sabbath. His disciples nibble at grain plucked on the Sabbath. They don't even wash their hands in the prescribed manner! What kind of religion is Jesus propagating? Doesn't he care about the Law?
Jesus states his position very clearly:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." (5:17)
What did he mean? First we need to define some of the phrases he uses.
"The Law" refers especially the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. "The Prophets" include both the writings of the Prophets (what we call the major and minor prophets) as well as Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles (what we call the historical books). Jesus' phrase "The Law and the Prophets" refers to the whole of the Old Testament Scripture.
He contrasts two words: "abolish" and "fulfill."
The word translated "abolish" (NIV) or "destroy" (KJV) is Greek kataluō, which means, "destroy, demolish, dismantle," here, ""to end the effect of something" so that it is no longer in force, "do away with, abolish, annul, make invalid, repeal."1 This is a strong word, used, for example, of the destruction of the temple in Matthew 24:2; 26:61; 27:40. So with it Jesus emphatically denies coming to destroy the law.
Rather he has a very positive view of the law. He speaks in verse 17 like he is on a mission: "I have come ...." He has a very deliberate task before him, to fulfill the law and the prophets. The word translated "fulfill" is Greek plēroō, which has the basic meaning of "to make full, fill (full)." It can also mean "bring something to completion, finish something already begun." Or "to bring to a designed end, fulfill" a prophecy, an obligation, a promise, a law, a request, a desire, a hope, a duty, a fate, a destiny, etc. Or "to bring to completion an activity in which one has been involved from its beginning, complete, finish."2 The precise meaning of this common word must be determined by its context.
Certainly Jesus came to make the law itself full. The Pharisees, in their attempt to obey legalistic minutiae had prescribed and limited the application of the law. Jesus wants his followers to see what the law really implies -- which is far beyond the Pharisees' safe interpretations. For example, when the law said, "Thou shalt not kill," explains Jesus, it means more than the act of murder, but the anger and lack of respect for a person that motivate the act (5:21-26). Jesus gives the same sort of reinterpretation to popular concepts of adultery (5:27-30), divorce (5:31-32), oath-taking (5:33-37), retaliation (5:38-42), and love for enemies (5:43-48). Helping people to understand the full depth and spirit of the law is certainly part of his mission. But, as we'll see in a moment, there was more to his mission of fulfilling the law.
First, we need to see how emphatically Jesus spoke these words. He wanted everyone to see how deeply he honored and believed the words of the Law and the Prophets.
He begins with the phrase, "Verily I say unto you ...." It is used as a preface or solemn formula of affirmation to some of Jesus' most definitive statements, and means "truly," and is literally the word "amen." Next he said,
"Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." (5:18, KJV)
The NIV translates it:
"... Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (5:18)
Just what is a jot or a tittle?
The English word "jot" is Greek iota, a letter of the Greek alphabet that corresponds to our letter "i". Evidently it was also the equivalent of the Aramaic and Hebrew letter yod, which is written like our apostrophe ('), just a small stroke of the pen.
A "tittle" (rhythms with "little") is Greek keraia, and means "literally 'horn,' 'projection, hook' as part of a letter, a 'serif'."3 You can see how a tiny part of a letter is important when you compare the lower case letter "l" with the number "1". The difference is in merely a "tittle."
The emphasis in these two words is on tiny, small, minute. The NIV captures the sense well: "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." In other words, Jesus didn't just come to round out the big themes of the Bible, but to fulfill or accomplish even the tiny prophecies and verses. The sentence is an emphatic one.
But it is followed by an even stronger sentence:
"Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (5:19)
This should set us on our heels. If we think that we can ignore the teachings of the Old Testament, we'd better think again. Jesus holds us responsible to both practice and teach to our children the commandments of the Lord. We hear a lot of talk about grace, but Jesus speaks pretty clearly here and elsewhere of commandments and obedience. (See, for example, John 14:15; 15:10; 1 John 2:3; 3:22, 24; 5:3.) A disciple's life is one of learning and following his master.
We see this kind of comparison of least and greatest two other times in Matthew:
"I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." (11:11)
"Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (18:4)
It doesn't seem that salvation, or entrance into the kingdom, is the issue, but one's standing among the other citizens of the kingdom.
Jesus also makes it clear that he isn't talking about a new legalism. The Pharisees were devotees of rigorous law-keeping of the minutiae of the law as it had been passed down to them in an oral tradition called "the tradition of the elders." Tithing herbs from the garden and dribbling water on the tips of one's fingers and allowing it to run down to the wrist were part of this scrupulous observance.
Among the common people, the Pharisees were considered in some ways as the holiest of people. If they weren't keeping the law adequately, how could anyone keep it? So Jesus' next statement must have shocked his hearers and angered the Pharisees:
"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." (5:20)
How could anyone's righteousness surpass that of the most righteous people in the land? In the remainder of the chapter, Jesus begins to explain how a right observance of the law is not a superficial fulfillment of the exterior, but a living out of the very spirit of the law. And he explains what he means by contrasting with the true spirit of the law what was the popular view of certain commands -- murder, adultery, divorce, oath-taking, retaliation, and hating enemies.
While our text doesn't spell out the ways that Jesus fulfilled the law, it might be helpful to review them briefly. One way to view the Law is as:
- The civil law that governed the nation Israel,
- The religious law that detailed the sacrifices and temple ceremonies required for the forgiveness of sin, and
- The moral law, such as that found in the Ten Commandments.
Jesus fulfilled the civil law that described property rights, civil liability, and inheritance. These were designed to govern Israel as a theocracy, that is, a nation with God as their king. The theocracy of Israel finally passed away when the last king of Judah was deposed and the nation was taken into exile. Never again was Israel an independent nation. When the people returned, they did so as vassals of the Persians, later the Greeks, and still later the Romans. Only for brief periods did Israel exist as an independently governed nation. The Kingdom of God had seemingly come to an end.
But that Kingdom was fulfilled in Jesus himself. (See Excursus 1 above, "What Is the Kingdom of Heaven?") When the Jewish leaders rejected King Jesus, the kingdom was removed from Israel. Jesus said,
"Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit." (Matthew 21:43)
The Gentiles now had an opportunity to be subjects of the King as the gospel went global.
Exodus and Leviticus describe in great detail the construction of a tabernacle (later, the temple) and the sacrifices required to atone for sin. "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins," we are reminded in Hebrews 9:22b. But the New Testament describes how Jesus, as "the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), poured out his blood for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28), once for all and for all time (Hebrews 10:10). The Letter to the Hebrews explains how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law. So in himself, Jesus fulfilled the religious or ceremonial law.
The final kind of law is what we might call the moral law, those moral principles that endure from one age to another. We find them, for example, in the Ten Commandments. "Thou shalt not kill ... thou shalt not commit adultery ... thou shalt not steal ... thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor ...." In the Shema we read,
"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
"Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).
Jesus came to fulfill the Kingdom his Father had established, to fulfill the Law his Father had instituted, and to live out in his life the quality of life to which the Law aspired. "I didn't come to abolish the Law and the Prophets," Jesus said, "but to fulfill them."
Q1. (Matthew 5:17-20) Can you see any tendencies in the church today to effectively "abolish" the Old Testament from our Christian faith? What does a "Christian" legalism look like in a church? What does it look like in a church where there are no moral standards and no obedience expected of Christians?
The Spirit of Reconciliation (5:21-26)
James J. Tissot, "Sermon on the Mount: Jesus Exhorting His Disciples" (1886-1896), watercolor.
21 "You have heard 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 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.
23 Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
25 Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.
26 I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny." (5:21-26)
Jesus is perturbed that the Pharisees have so defined the Law in their own terms that they have missed the point. And so he begins to expound the Law as it pertains to six subjects: murder, adultery, divorce, oath-taking, retaliation, and love for one's enemy. Instead of a litany of commandments, Jesus looks to the spirit of the Law.
Each of these subjects begins with an interesting phrase, "You have heard that it was said ... but I tell you ..." (5:21-22, 27-28, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44). Each of these formulas contain the Greek word errethē (Aorist Passive of legō). This is not the word Jesus uses to quote the Old Testament. It becomes obvious by the time you come to the quotation in 5:43, that he is quoting the oral tradition, the "tradition of the elders," not the scripture directly. (5:43 reads, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor' and hate your enemy' ..."). Yes, the Pharisees quoted the Pentateuch, but they went beyond it with their own interpretation, limiting and circumscribing its meaning. Jesus is explaining the actual spirit of the Law, as only God Himself can expound it.
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'" (5:21)
The Sixth Commandment is "Thou shalt not kill" (KJV, Exodus 20:13). Certainly those who murder will be subject to judgment. The "tradition of the elders" would agree.
But Jesus goes to the heart of the Law as he expounds the motivation behind murder -- anger.
"But I tell you 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." (5:22)
Let's examine the Greek words used in verses 21-22:
- phoneuō - "murder, kill."4
- orgizō - "be angry."5
- rhaka - "a term of abuse / put-down relating to lack of intelligence, numskull, fool (in effect verbal bullying)," derived from the Aramaic word meaning "empty one," found in the Talmud, "empty-head."6
- mōros - "foolish, stupid," from which we get our word "moron."7
- sunedrion - "a governing board, council," then "the high council in Jerusalem, Sanhedrin."8
- geenna - Gehenna, "'Valley of the Sons of Hinnom,' a ravine south of Jerusalem. There, according to later Jewish popular belief, God's final judgment was to take place. In the gospels it is the place of punishment in the next life, 'hell.'"9
A.B. Bruce distinguishes between the word "Raca" and "fool" in this way: "Raca expresses contempt for a man's head -- you stupid! [The Greek word] mōre expresses contempt for his heart and character -- you scoundrel!"10
This ought to scare us. Who hasn't been angry and insulted someone? Of course, we can get legalistic and say that we haven't used the exact word "Raca" or "fool." But that is the same kind of word gymnastics for which Jesus condemned the Pharisees. Jesus is saying that we are guilty before God for a heart that lashes out in anger and venom. Whether or not a person's life is terminated as a result is not the point.
When I was a boy, we would parrot this saying to someone who called us a name:
"Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words can never hurt me."
Unfortunately, this children's chant is false. Words do hurt. Names injure us -- sometimes for life. How many of you or your friends have spent years struggling with what your father or mother said to you -- plagued by it, your self-confidence destroyed. Anger, and the vile venom it inspires, kill the spirit. And those who spew this acid on those about them are not free from judgment. The God who condemns murder also condemns angry insult, for they both come from the same root.
Q2. (Matthew 5:21-22) Why does Jesus treat calling someone a fool in the same classification as murder? Does this mean that murder is no worse than an angry insult in God's eyes? How would we act differently if we actually believed that angry attitudes towards others are viewed by God as murder?
Man looks on the exterior, the action, but God examines the heart. And in the heart is the root of murder. Legalism is an exterior thing, but the life of a follower of Jesus begins in the heart.
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." (Matthew 23:25-28)
No, Jesus didn't come to abolish the law, but to bring out its fullness, to fulfill it.
So what of the upstanding moral people who never kill, who drive the speed limit, who never break the law? What of them? Are they to be consigned to the fires of hell for hatred in their hearts? (See Excursus 3 below, "Did Jesus Believe in Hell?") The answer we must come to is: Yes!
Sometimes we labor under the ancient myth that we can earn heaven by our good deeds. No, Jesus would say, we must repent! Jesus taught,
"But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean'" (Matthew 15:18-20).
The argument in the passage just quoted was part of Jesus' running discussion with the Pharisees about externals versus internals. And with us, too, Jesus carries on this continuing discussion. Cleanse the heart, and then the exterior actions will follow.
So often when someone from a rough lifestyle becomes a Christian, we church people are quick to get him to conform to our standards of speech, dress, and morals. But you don't learn how to "walk the walk" from learning to "talk the talk." That's backwards. It is the Holy Spirit of God that cleanses us, and he works from the inside out, in an ever-broadening cycle -- conviction, repentance, and change; conviction, repentance, and change. Don't feel you have to do God's cleansing work for him when someone becomes a Christian. Love them. Support them. Pray for them. You expect to change a few diapers with a newborn. "God catches his fish before he cleans them."
Can we live so circumspectly that we do not break the law of the pure heart? Can we live in such a way that we need no forgiveness? No. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" (RSV, Jeremiah 17:9). Why did Jesus die on the cross? Because there was no other way to atone for our sins. "This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins," said Jesus (Matthew 26:28). The Law, the Apostle Paul observes, is not intended to bring salvation but "that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful" (Romans 7:13).
So if we are frightened by Jesus' stern condemnation of anger and insult and we see the flickering flames of hell licking at us for our heart wickedness, then we've gotten the point that Jesus intended. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near," was Jesus' message (Matthew 4:17) and that of his cousin John the Baptist (Matthew 3:2). People flocked to them and were baptized, washing away their sins, because they became aware of their heart wickedness and need for cleansing.
"All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus' words, acknowledged that God's way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John" (Luke 7:29-30).
Which is your heart most like? A repentant tax collector or a self-justifying Pharisee?
23 "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." (5:23-24)
So if anger, murder, and insult are condemned by the Law as expounded by Jesus, what is approved by the law? What is the positive command we are to fulfill? "Be reconciled to your brother" (5:24).
How do we fulfill this law? If we are worshipping and remember that our brother has something against us, we are to leave our gift behind and first be reconciled to our brother. After we have done that, we can come back and resume our worship.
Does this sound a bit radical to your ears? It sounded radical to First Century ears, as well. Jesus sometimes rammed home his points through hyperbole, over-statement, so they would be unforgettable. Is this hyperbole? Perhaps.
But Jesus' clear point is that worship -- seeking to honor God by bringing an offering -- is a mockery if we don't first repent of our sins and carry out that repentance to its logical conclusion. That point isn't radical. It is taught throughout the Scripture in such passages as:
"Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22).
"Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God..." (Joel 2:13).
"You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise" (Psalm 51:16-17).
We need to say, however, that Jesus' words, "First, go and be reconciled to your brother," imply that you have offended your brother and need to make amends. There may well be estrangement that we have little to do with and cannot change. The willingness to reconcile must be shared by the other party. Don't beat yourself up over this. But make sure that you have made right what you need to, and that your anger and insult and self-righteousness about it have been replaced by humility and a willingness to reconcile.
Sometimes we have hurt someone deeply and it is fully our fault, but when we go to humble ourselves and seek forgiveness we are snubbed. We may be snubbed, but we must still go and seek reconciliation.
Lest we think we are in the clear about this, be aware that elsewhere Jesus spoke about another aspect of reconciliation -- our willingness to forgive those who have offended us.
"And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." (Mark 11:25)
Reconciliation may be possible if we will humble ourselves. And even if it is not possible, we must make a sincere attempt if we would seek to fulfill the spirit of the Law. After all, the Law is not really about murder and stealing. It is about love and reconciliation. That is the spirit of the Law.
Q3. (Matthew 5:23-24) What's wrong with worshipping while a brother has
something against us (or us against a brother, Mark 11:25)? What is the appropriate action for us to take? How far should we go to bring about reconciliation with someone whom we have offended? Are there any situations that we shouldn't try to resolve? Or that we can't resolve?
Jesus concludes this teaching on reconciliation with an example from a mini-parable.
"Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny" (5:25-26)
The parable assumes that you owe your accuser a debt of some kind, and to collect on it he is taking you to small claims court. Jesus is saying: Don't wait until you get to court to work out some kind of deal; settle out of court. Because if the court has to decide the matter, you will be thrown into debtor's prison and won't get out until every last cent is paid.
We don't have debtor's prisons today, but they were common in Western jurisprudence until recently. On the surface they seem stupid: If a person is in prison he can't work to repay his debt. But what happened when you are thrown into debtor's prison, was that your family and friends would come up with the money in order to get you out. Then you have to live the rest of your life with your family glowering at you, and never letting you forget the hardship you have caused them.
So in this mini-parable, Jesus is saying, settle quickly, before you get to court. Settle quickly or you'll be stuck for every last cent that is due.
What is the point of the parable in this context? Jesus is teaching his hearers to reconcile quickly with those they have wronged and not to put it off. The implication is that if they wait for God to settle the matter at his bar of justice, that judgment will exacting and harsh punishment.
You remember that this teaching on murder began with the concepts of accountability and justice: "... subject to judgment ... answerable to the Council ... in danger of the fire of hell." Jesus' mini-parable is only a thinly-veiled picture of us having to stand before God for every one of our sins unless we repent now.
Q4. (Matthew 5:25-26) What is the point of Jesus' parable of settling out of court? Who are we supposed to settle with, according to this parable? What does "settling" entail? What are the reasons that we should settle?
In a sense, the Law "Thou shalt not kill" is an outpost to regulate the limits of our behavior, but the Golden Center is something else. Is God seeking non-murderers? No. He is seeking those who do not let anger and hatred live in their hearts at all. He is seeking those who will show mercy, those who will forgive, those who will, in a word, love.
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"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"
Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:36-40).
And so what seemed complex to the legalists becomes much simpler to grasp. "Love your neighbor as yourself." That is the aim of the whole law, straight from the mouth of God himself in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Q5. (Matthew 5:21-26) Verses 21-22 are about murder, anger, and insult. Verses 23-24 discuss some fault against one's brother. Verses 25-26 discuss settling a civil suit before going to court. What is the overarching theme of Jesus' teaching in our entire passage, verses 21-26?
Father, when you examine our hearts and our attitudes, we are sinners. No, we aren't literal murderers, but you couldn't tell that from our hearts. Forgive us. Cleanse us. And infuse us with the kind of love you have that can love and redeem us in all our conflicted rebellion. Transform us by your Spirit, we pray, in Jesus' name. Amen.
- Kataluō, BDAG 521-522, 3.a.
- Plēroō, BDAG 827-828.
- Keraia, BDAG 540.
- Phoneuō, BDAG 1063.
- Orgizō, BDAG 721.
- Rhaka, BDAG 903.
- Mōros, BDAG 663.
- Sunedrion, BDAG 967.
- Gehenna, BDAG 190-191.
- A.B. Bruce, Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels in The Expositor's Greek Testament (1897), p. 107.
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