Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, addresses the believer’s relationship to the law. When we look at Scripture, it is vital to keep in mind that context is king. In Matthew 5:21-30, Jesus addresses two problems present in many of His listeners. Those who listened to him had heard different things from the Old Testament, but not all had been taught correctly. There were also those who limited Old Testament commandments to external actions, not inward righteousness. Jesus reveals the true intention of the law as it regards to the heart.
Jesus begins this portion of His sermon, in Matthew 5:21-22, by clarifying the deeper meaning of the Old Testament command against murder. Christ teaches that not only is the act of murder forbidden, but the angry spirit that leads to it is wrong. We all understand that human courts punish obvious crimes. But, to few understand that God judges the hidden sins. Thus, we discover this verse in Proverbs, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit” (Prov 16:2).
It is important to note that not all anger is evil. This is evident when we see in the Bible God’s wrath, which is always holy and pure. There is such a thing as righteous anger, which should be slow to rise and quick to die down. Paul writes to the Ephesian church, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26). Jesus was angered by sin (Mk 3:1-6; Matt 21:12-13; 23:16-17). It is proper to be angry at sin but not at the sinner. We need to remember to be friendly to the person but hostile to the sin.
You may be asking, “What do I do when I feel bitterness rising or know someone is holding something against me?” Jesus answers this question as He continues in Matthew 5:23-26, moving from his lesson on anger to a fitting one on reconciliation. Christ begins by presenting an example where you are presenting an offering at the altar and are reminded of an unreconciled issue between yourself and another. Jesus says, stop what you are doing and go reconcile with that person. Then, He gives another example where you have a conflict with an adversary. He says, do not delay; reconcile quickly. Here’s the biblical principle, if we are to obey the moral law of God, we must not only avoid the negatives but also pursue the positives by living reconciled with others. John Stott summarizes this a bit for us when he writes, “If we want to avoid committing murder in God’s sight, we must take every possible positive step to live in peace and love with all.”
Then, Jesus continues, in Matthew 5:27-28, by clarifying the real meaning of lust. The culture Jesus spoke to is not much different than our very own. We find it all too easy to narrowly define sexual sin and conveniently broadly define sexual purity. Christ teaches that not only is the act of adultery forbidden, but the lust that leads to it is wrong. Most people understand that adultery is a sin, but so is inward lust.
It is important to be clear here. There is a difference between looking and lusting; there is a difference between glancing and gazing. The temptation to commit adultery develops not only from exposer to a desirable person but from a person’s inner lustful self. We need to remember that deeds of shame are proceeded by fantasies of shame. Jesus urged disciplined thoughts so that weaknesses might not lead to sin.
Clearly, the question arises, “How do we deal with sin?” Christ concludes this portion of His sermon in Matthew 5:29-30 answering this question. He emphasizes the seriousness of sin by using hyperbole. He uses a graphic image of mutilation but does so to explain that mortification is the path to holiness. Mortification is taking up the cross to follow Christ; it’s rejecting sinful practices so resolutely that we die to them or put them to death. Here is the biblical principle, we deal with sin by getting rid of anything that causes us to sin.
In this portion of His sermon, Jesus is continuing His teaching on the believer’s righteousness, which is found in Christ. We learn that Christ’s followers are to avoid anger, be quick to reconcile, and avoid lust. Our culture has so much to offer us. Technology is amazing but can be dangerous. Therefore, it is better to accept some denial of what the culture provides than fall into sin. Such thinking is countercultural. The world says be open-minded and live life to the fullest. But, it is essential to remember, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death (Prov 14:12).
The biblical ethic understands that eternity is more important than temporary happiness. Sin promises you the world, but in the end, it corrupts your soul. Satan would like to use sin to distance you from God; the Spirit would like to give you the power to overcome sin, the humility to ask God for forgiveness when you fall, to bring you closer to the Lord. John Stott rightly challenges us with these words, “We have to decide, quite simply, whether to live for this world or the next, whether to follow the crowd or Jesus Christ; live for self or for our Savior.” There are three crucial questions we all must answer to Christ’s teaching in Matthew 5:21-30. What is my response? What is my next step? Am I willing to take it with Jesus? Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)!