Matthew 5:38-42: Overcoming Evil With Good

Read: Matthew 5:38-42

The phrase, and “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” most often portrays the idea of vengeance or retribution in most peoples mind. This phrase appeared in the ancient Code of Hammurabi which predates the Old Testament Law which was engraved on a stele. The stele contains this phrase too then outlines a number of scaled punishment that were supposed to be fitting for the crime committed. The Old Testament too in a number of conditions and repayments for various crimes that attempts to capture the essence of the phrase such as repayment for an ox that falls into a pit or a life for a life whenever a life was taken (Exodus 21:12-36, Leviticus 24:17-21) . At the same time though, the Law also describes how accusations and cases were to be settled. Innocence was presumed, so it required the testimony of witnesses in order for one to be declared guilty and a sentence carried out (Deuteronomy 19:15-21).

What happened though was that the people of Jesus’ day had forgotten that the Law was not to be interpreted and applied by one individual upon another. It was the role and responsibility of the government to be the arbiter of justice and Paul affirms this view in the New Testament context (Romans 13:1-7). Interestingly, Paul had just finished giving a discourse in Romans 12:9-21 similar to what Jesus was saying in the Sermon on the Mount about not repaying evil with evil and overcoming evil with good. Jesus was correcting the twisted version of how the people had come to understand law that was to be applied by government as a justification for personal retaliation.

In the same breath, Jesus gives one of his most famous admonitions to “turn the other cheek”. The implication of turning the other cheek was not telling people to lay down and be trampled, rather to endure the persecution and in effect “fight back” with good as Paul says in Romans 12:21 rather than seek to retaliate. This sort of fight shows strength of character that overcomes the evil while retaliation shows weakness of character on the part of the one who really wants revenge.

Christians today still live under the same principles that ancient cultures lived under. Punishment for crimes ought to reflect to the best degree possible the severity of the the crime. But at the same time, the agency of justice ought to be government and innocence should be presumed rather than guilt. And likewise, it is not the place of the Christian to seek retribution, even when one is wronged. Rather one should over come evil with good and in doing so one can win over another through his or her strength of character.

Lord, help me to overcome evil with good!

Matthew 5:33-37: “Let Your Yes Be Yes”

Read: Matthew 5:33-37

Israel had the temple in Jerusalem, and they would make offerings there to God and make vows before God. There offerings were made here too. Leviticus 27 and Numbers 23:16-21 enumerate several conditions on how vows were to be fulfilled and covers an assortment of vows people could make before the Lord. A person could dedicate himself, an animal, his house, a field among many other things to the Lord. These items were deemed “holy” and became property of the priests for the purposes of the priests. The person would make a vow to dedicate such items then the priest would determine its value. These acts were not compulsory, rather they were completely voluntary. There was no law prescribing how much or how little the Israelites should give or if they should give at all.

The nature of vows had become by Jesus’ day and probably long before then a means of displaying one’s piety in public for all to see. The Pharisees took these laws and ran with them, and in typical fashion made laws upon laws so that they would be sure to fulfill the original law to the letter by having even more strict and grandiose schemes. With vows it was no different whereby they would swear upon the gold in the temple to affirm a vow more so than the vow taken upon the temple itself. Some were apparently swearing upon anything number of things from the temple to the footstool of God as if the level of whatever they were swearing undergirded the fecundity of the vow. (Matthew 23:16-21). Jesus says that one should not swear on anything at all, rather just in a manner of simplicity, one should fulfill his or her vow, rather than make grandiose promises among other things. James in his letter affirms this simple truth (James 5:12). Even the Preacher in Ecclesiastes saw the absurdity of this, and said it better not to make vows at all in many respects so one doesn’t become a liar, and if one does make a vow one should fulfill it quickly (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7).

This principle certainly still applies: don’t make hasty or elaborate vows before God. One should consider the cost of what he or she is doing. When one does make a vow, one should, as Jesus taught, let his “yes” be yes and “no” be no. Vows can be a rich act of worship, acting on one’s own initiative before the Lord in a voluntary manner rather than a compulsory manner as one would do in following commandments. The blessing of a vow is not the display of piety, rather the satisfaction of knowing that one has been faithful in an act of worship to God. In the end, God wants the faithfulness of his people rather than the grandeur of promises.

Lord, let my words be few and my “yes” be yes!

Matthew 5:31-32: “Let No One Separate”

Read: Matthew 5:31-32

When God created marriage, he put one man and one woman together (Genesis 2:24) and said, “What God has joined together, let no man separate.” (Matthew 19:6) This line is often quoted in wedding ceremonies after a man and woman have taken vows before a congregation and God to affirm their lifetime commitment to form a new family and live together in spite of anything that may happen. When God gave the law though, he did allow for the dissolution marriages because as Jesus says, the “hardness of the hearts” of the people. This, however, wasn’t the way in the beginning when God created marriage (Matthew 19:8). Malachi 2:16 in some translations declares that “God hates divorce”. Jesus raises the bar over that which was written in the law concerning what God intended for marriage. The Pharisees in Jesus day were fairly strict on ceremonial law, but in many cases were rather loose on moral laws, particularly divorce. They would issue a certificate of divorce for something as trivial as burning dinner. God’s standard though is much higher.

The Bible uses marriage and divorce often times as a metaphor to describe the undying relationship that God has with Israel. The book of Hosea uses Hosea’s life in the same way. The story goes where Hosea takes a harlot as a wife who has children who’s father is not Hosea. In all this though Hosea redeems her when he has every right to put her away. The metaphor not only shows God’s undying devotion to his people even when they don’t deserve it, it also shows God’s attitude toward marriage. Divorce is one of those things that is permissible, but not necessarily right. The higher road is to stay married and not even consider divorce. In most cases, divorce is the symptom of a problem that started long before one started to consider a divorce.

God’s high standard of marriage is still in effect even in modern cultures. Studies upon studies have shown the positive affects of children raised in families with one mother and one father while showing the negative affects of broken families, single parents, and other non-biblical unions. While cultures have time and again attempted to redefine marriage, the long-lasting standard that God created in Genesis is still in affect and will outlast any culture’s view of marriage. Christians should not let the cultural definitions or norms concerning marriage influence their view of marriage, rather should cling to and strive for what God intended for marriage. Marriage requires a selfless, sacrificial commitment to another person. Paul uses marriage to describe Christs love for the church who sacrificed his life for her so she could be blameless and pure (Ephesians 5:21-32). In the same way, a married Christian should reflect this sort of selflessness toward his or her spouse. In doing so, divorce will be the furthest thing from one’s thoughts.

Lord, help me love my spouse as Christ loved the church!

Matthew 5:27-30: It’s The Thought That Counts

Read: Matthew 5:27-30

Concerning adultery, Jesus doesn’t play. He says the thought of lust is as bad as the act itself. And for men especially, lust with the eyes is a powerful temptations. In Jesus’ day, the common thought was that it was okay to look and have lustful thoughts so long as one did not act upon these impulses. Jesus says however that the mere thought is the same as the actual act concerning adultery. He makes some rather repugnant remarks about how one should handle lust when he says that one should gouge an eye out or lop of a hand to keep oneself from sinning. Jesus is not literally encouraging one to maim himself, rather he’s using hyperbole here to make a strong point: that one should utterly remove himself from from situations and purify his or her thoughts so that he or she doesn’t even think about sin.

No one person is immune to temptations. James 1:13-15 explains that everyone struggles with it temptations because everyone has desires. The nature the particular temptation is going to manifest itself in different ways in an individuals life. For some, it’s substance abuse like drugs and alcohol. For others, it’s gossip. And yet for others it’s behavioral temptations like lust or gambling. When temptation is manifested, it leads to sin and brings death. So many of the temptations result in lifestyles of addiction or other destructive behaviors that ruin families, marriages, jobs, ministries, and so many other things. Concerning lust, Proverbs 5:7-23 speaks to the nature of lust, and verse 15 summarily offers sound advice: “drink from your own cistern” and don’t share. In other words, delight in the marriage God has given and find satisfaction there, not in other people.

The principle of the matter is simple: understand the proper time and place for certain things and and don’t exceed these boundaries. For some people though, it is better to not even entertain certain behaviors even if others don’t have the same struggle. For instance, for those that struggle with gluttony it is best not to even have the certain foods that tempt one to eat around so that temptation isn’t even possible. For other believers though that don’t struggle with certain temptations, they should encourage their brothers and sisters on the matter and not be a stumbling block for them – in fact to do so is sin too (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). God is glorified when the body is strengthened rather than weakened by those would cause others to stumble.

Lord, help my thoughts and actions to be pure!

Matthew 5:21-25: Murder in the Heart

Read: Matthew 5:21-25

Jesus’ concern for holiness started at the heart. Many of the teachings that he gives concerning spend more time addressing one’s inner condition than it did addressing the acts forbade by the law themselves. Jesus doesn’t pull any punches when he’s addressing something as heinous as murder either. He says that even the act of calling one a fool makes puts one in contempt of the fires of hell as much as murder itself. The reason Jesus does this is because so often times pent up anger leads one to enact vengeance against another, sometimes even going as far as killing that person.

To protect people from the wrath of accusers, the Law set up a number of refuge cities where those who had been accused of murder could flee to to avoid the wrath of others. The purpose of these cities was not to harbor criminals, rather to protect the innocents of the accused and prevent the accuser from seeking revenge rather than justice (Number 35).

One shouldn’t use this passage to trivialize murder though. One might be tempted to say that God is not fair in that he treats a name caller the same way that he treats a murderer. This view, however, doesn’t make a distinction between God’s standards and human standards. In God’s economy, a sin no matter how great ore small is what makes one unholy before a perfect and righteous judge, and anything less than perfect is what makes one guilty. Human law judges more quantitatively, seeking to make reparations relatively to crime committed, such as restitution under theft or a life for a life in the case of murder. In many ways, God’s standard is much higher, and one ought to be thankful that human standards don’t judge the same way this side of heaven. And if that wasn’t enough, it is not fair that Jesus himself died on the sinner’s behalf so they didn’t have to. Furthermore, this ought to give one pause before even thinking about uttering a harsh word towards another, which is what Jesus was getting at concerning calling. God in his mercy wanted to reconcile the human race, and he did so rather than carrying out the sentence that was due to them.

An attitude of gratitude compels one towards mercy, and in this vein, this Jesus offers sound advice: be reconciled to others quickly to prevent pent up anger from building up in ones life. Paul makes a similar appeal, telling believers to not let anger take up residence in one’s heart, rather be angry, but get over it quickly and be angry without sinning so the devil doesn’t get a foothold in one’s life (Ephesians 4:25-32). In the way that Christ forgives the believer, Christians ought to forgive and be forgiven so that anger doesn’t grow and become something much worse!

Lord, help me expel anger to take up mercy!

Matthew 5:17-20: The Law Fulfilled

Read: Matthew 5:17-20

Jesus explicitly proclaims that he did not come to abolish the law, so why is it that Christians are required to give sacrifices at the temple and follow a myriad of other such laws relating to sacrifices, what rituals one should follow to be ceremonially clean, and how the priests were suppose to act? In the same breath, Jesus says that he also came to “fulfill the law”.

So what did Jesus actually fulfill? There aren’t pat answers that can be given to answer this question, but it can be generally addressed by seeing the all the laws in the Old Testament were seen as falling into one or two categories: ceremonially laws and moral laws. Ceremonially laws were seen as those which related to all the ceremonially practices and requirements related to sacrifice, the priesthood, who is and isn’t ceremonially clean, clean and unclean foods, the process for becoming ceremonially clean for various conditions, among many others. The moral laws were those that related to the do’s and don’ts, such as not stealing, not lying, not murdering, and giving the poor, taking care of widows, and being kind for foreigners. All these laws were either dealing with practical and civil relationships between various people or matters of personal holiness. While these two categories exist, there were still some questions lingering in the minds of new believers even after Jesus ascended into heaven. Many new Christians that came out of Judaism, for instance, wanted to maintain portions of the Old Testament law such as circumcision. Large sections of the New Testament, such as much of Galatians, are dedicate to Paul and the other apostles addressing this very issue.

The book of Hebrews unpacks how Jesus fulfills the ceremonially laws by becoming the high priest (Hebrews 7) and being the sacrifice (Hebrews 10:1-18). It also explains how the temple and the tabernacle were “copies” of things in heaven that pointed to the perfect temple and what it contained. Jesus himself is both the priest forever and one and for all sacrifice, so there is no need for daily and yearly sacrifices, priests to offer them, or temple with its altar to offer them on. In doing so, Jesus fulfills the ceremonially law for all times so Christians don’t have to offer sacrifices anymore. With this being fulfilled, what’s left is the moral laws, and the New Testament has many lists of what one might consider moral right or wrong. Even with much of the New Testament dedicated to helping Christians understand what is and isn’t fulfilled in Jesus in the Bible, it’s not always as crystal clear as one would like to it to be. For instance, some Christians object to tattoos on moral grounds while others do not, claiming that the Law forbade tattoos because of the ceremonially law. Some Christians think that others shouldn’t celebrate Christmas because it is rooted in pagan traditions while other Christians don’t have a problem with it. Paul in light of this gives practical advice concerning this conflict in Romans 14, with what has become known as the “principle of conscience”. Paul says to this matter that one should not become a stumbling block to another by trying to impose such morality that isn’t otherwise explicitly addressed on another as being morally binding.

One thing is clear: righteousness does not come from following the law, rather righteousness comes by faith in Jesus. The Pharisees, however, believed that righteousness could come through following the law and made painstaking efforts to abide by the ceremonial law. Their problem was that they were not following the moral laws. Righteousness comes from faith in Jesus, believing that he is the once and for all sacrifice for sin. When one is made clean by Jesus, he or she is freed up to live a life free from the bondage of the Law and bondage to sin and can pursue holiness not as means to obtain righteousness, rather as response to the great love that God has lavished on it all believers. In doing so believers obey the moral laws and love God at the same time!

Lord, you fulfilled the law for me when I could not! All I can do is love your in return!

Matthew 5:14-16: Light of the World

Read: Matthew 5:14-16

The use of light to describe truth and righteousness in is a common thought among virtually all ancient cultures. For his hearers, Jesus is declaring that they were the light bearers that bring light to the world. He uses two metaphors to describe the positions of such people, one being a light on a stand in the middle of the room and one being a city on a hill. Lamps were placed on lamp stands in the middle of a room or house to illuminate the whole room, as most houses in that day and time were one room homes, one lamp was sufficient for the entire home. Likewise, a city was placed on a hill usually because it was easier to defend from an attack, but also gave it high visibility. In ancient Israel, building were made from white limestone that was highly reflective. A city could be seen from miles away even at night because of this. Both of these communicate the idea of high visibility.

Throughout the Old Testament, God wanted to bless Israel so that they would be the light bearers on earth. His purpose was to use Israel to draw all nations to himself. Deuteronomy 28:1 declares that if Israel would obey God’s law, that they would be set high above the nations of the earth. Psalm 67, often times called the “Missionary Psalm”, makes a similar declaration where God would shine on Israel so that the nations would know the ways and salvation of God. This theme is also found in the prophets too. Isaiah on multiple occasions uses the same metaphor of light to talk about God’s salvation being brought to the earth (Isaiah 42:6, Isaiah 49:6, Isaiah 60:3). Ezekiel 36:16-37 describes how God wanted to bless Israel so that his name would be made known among the nations.

For the Christian, the same is true. God wants to use Christians a way of making himself known among the nations. Jesus also calls himself the light of the world (John 8:12). While Christians are not the Christ, they are like him in that they bear his image and spread his truth. The call to actions is twofold then: Christians are not to hide rather to be seen by the world. This is not for the purpose of self-promotion, rather for pointing people to God. Jesus says that the purpose of good deeds was so that people would praise God in heaven, not the man performing the deeds. By doing what is right and good, the world can see God and give him the praise for it.

Lord, help my light shine before all men!

Matthew 5:13: Salt of the Earth

Read: Matthew 5:13

Salt had many uses in the ancient world. It was used to purify food, as a catalyst in fire, as a preservative for food, for the processing of leather, mummification, smelting metals, medicines, and as a way to make food more savory. While salt was a highly useful commodity, it was also hard to come by in some parts of the world so it also made it a valuable commodity. Interestingly, the word salt in English comes from the Latin word for money that was used to pay soldiers, which was salt. The phrase “worth his salt” has its origins in the practice of paying soldiers in salt. It was often widely traded from parts of the world that had a more abundant supply of salt with areas of the world that did not have as much salt. Israel with its proximity to the Dead Sea made it a supplier of salt, where it can literally be picked up off the ground.

The Old Testament underscores the use of salt as a preserving and purifying agent too. The Law prescribed it as an ingredient in sacrifices made to God as symbols of purity (Leviticus 2:13 , Exodus 30:34-38, Ezekiel 43:18-27). Elisha also used salt as an agent in his miracle when he purified water (2 Kings 2:19-22). The Old Testament on a few occasions mentions a “covenant of salt” (Leviticus 2:13, Numbers 18:19, 2 Chronicles 13:5). Given that salt was used daily in food preparation, in sacrifices, and also as a preservative, these covenants of salt were by implication enduring and perpetual covenants that God had made.

When Jesus declares that his hearers are the salt of the earth, it is hard to know to exactly what Jesus was referring. But against the backdrop of the Old Testament he was probably talking about the useful, preserving nature of salt. Jesus adds to this, saying that when salt loses its saltiness, it it is thrown out and trampled in. Salt ancient times had a number of other minerals mixed with it, and when the actual salt was dissolved by water, it would leave a chalky residue, which as the salt without its saltiness. It was discarded because it wasn’t good for anything.

Jesus is saying that people that live according to his ways are like salt in that they have an enduring, purifying, preserving effect on the world, but those that reject his ways are of no use. Christians in light of this are called to be preserving and purifying agents in the cultures in which they live. Often times Christians want to retreat because of the evil around them and isolate themselves from the world, but the call is to be in the world proclaiming the good news of Jesus, doing good deeds (this is the point of the parable concerning light!) , and shaping the culture to reflect Christian values.

Lord, help me to be the salt of the earth where I live!

Matthew 5:2-12: The Pursuit of Happiness (Part 3)

Continued from Part 2

  • Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Looking on God meant one thing to the hearers of this beatitude: death. Nevertheless, here Jesus says that the ones who are pure in heart will be able to see God. Moses asked God to see his glory, but God tells him that no one can look on God and live (Exodus 33:18-23). The ability to be pure in heart is not something at man can do on his own accord, rather requires the forgiveness of God. Isaiah recognized this when he encountered God (Isaiah 6:1-8). He recognized his sin and repented, and it was at this point that the angel touched his lips with a coal that symbolically purged him. In the same way, when one comes to God in a repentant heart, he or she can also see God because God makes the heart pure. This idea is like a hand in glove along with meekness before God, because both require one to be humble and pure for God to exalt them (James 4:7-10).
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. If there ever was an ultimate peacemaker, it is God himself. Psalm 46 describe God as being the one who will put an end to wars and conflicts on the earth even though they are in uproar. In a manner of speaking, those that do the same on a less cosmic scale are like God in that respect when they make help broker peace. James describes selfishness as the cause of strife, yet righteousness begets peace (James 3:16-18). Righteousness comes when one comes to the end of oneself and find God there waiting with arms wide open to with forgiveness to those that will receive it by faith, and peace is made with God (Romans 5:1). When one becomes a Christian, he or she becomes Christlike, who is the Son of God, and help broker peace among men and peace between God and men.
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The psalmist in Psalm 140 though feels the expresses great angst because of the wickedness that is being inflicted upon. Yet while he feels this angst, he also understands that God is his strength and refuge. There are a few things in the Bible that are assured, and persecution is one of them. Paul summarily says that all that desire to live a godly life will be persecuted, plain and simple (2 Timothy 3:12). While persecution isn’t easy, there is a reward, and Jesus promises this. James 1:2-5 opens his epistle with a supplication to encourage his readers to press on, because persecution does bring about perfection. While persecution is guaranteed for Christians, it is far better to know Christ and endure for his sake it than to not know Christ. The rewards for it may not be seen this side of heaven, but the benefits can be when one is strengthened in his or her character and ultimately can praise God for it.

Lord, help me to pursue you so I can find happiness!

Matthew 5:2-12: The Pursuit of Happiness (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

  • Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. “Meek” is not a common word in modern language, and usually it has the connotation of weak and submissive. Meekness in the context of the kingdom of God though goes right back to the first beatitude about being poor in spirit. This beatitude makes a reference to Psalm 37:11 which contains a very similar phrase. In the context of Psalm 37, the psalmist lays out a contrast between the wicked and the righteous. While the former plots against the righteous, the Lord laughs at them because they are no match for the and the Lord will fight on behalf of the righteous and deliver them. James 1:20-12 has a similar contrast between meekness and wickedness. He says put away wickedness and take on “with meekness” the implanted word, which was made known through Jesus. James injects this quality because meekness stands in contrast to wickedness, which is prideful and selfish. Submission to the will and word of God requires meekness, and these will be the ones who will inherit the “earth” which is a metaphor taken from the psalm as an allusion to the inheritance that was promised Israel but is made available to all those who believe.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Psalm 42 and Psalm 63 describe one who desires to be in the presence of the Lord like one who is dying of thirst in a dry land. They feels as if they are living in a place where God’s presence is removed and and they long to be where it is. Such is the way one who follows God ought to. Righteousness though on one’s own is impossible, and this is what the Christian is clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. While is is sufficient for justification before God, one ought to put away sin and desire righteousness as one contends with the two natures this side of heaven, knowing that one day the desire for righteousness will be filled in the kingdom of God.
  • Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Hosea’s life is a picture of God’s story of redemption for his people. Hosea takes a wife, but she has an affair that brings children. One of those children is named “No Mercy”. Yet in this, God gives mercy to the one who was called “No Mercy”. God in his righteousness has every right to condemn sinners for being unfaithful to him, but he chooses to give mercy to those that don’t deserve it. Later in the sermon, Jesus speaks to this same truth and applies to those who who forgive others (Matthew 6:14-16). The truth of the matter is that every person owes God more than any single person owes another. Matthew illustrates this with a parable in Matthew 18:21-25, where Jesus describes one with a servant who owed an insurmountable debt that his master forgives, but who is unwilling to forgive a debt that is substantially less to another servant. God wants Christians to model his own mercy, being quick to forgive before condemnation.

To Be Continued…

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