The Heart of the Matter


Biblical Truth: Righteousness is as much a matter of one’s heart or attitude as one’s actions.

Know Your Heart:  Matthew 5:21-26.

[21]  “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ [22]  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. [23]  Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, [24]  leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. [25]  Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. [26]  Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.”     [NASU]

Jesus teaches that the law of God is an essential diagnostic tool. Whether we break it or keep it, and whether we encourage others to break it or keep it, is an indication of our true spiritual condition. It is the standard for evaluation in the kingdom of God, but not the standard for entrance into the kingdom which is based solely on God’s grace. The real contrast in this section is between the meaning of the law according to Jesus and the meaning of the law according to religious tradition and the ancient teachers.

The scribes and Pharisees were evidently seeking to restrict the application of the sixth commandment to the deed of murder alone. Jesus maintained that the true application was much wider. It included thoughts and words as well as deeds, anger and insult as well as murder. Not all anger is evil, as is evident from the wrath of God, which is always holy and pure. The reference of Jesus, then, is to unrighteous anger, the anger of pride, vanity, hatred, malice and revenge. In both cases Jesus was extending the nature of the penalty as well as of the crime. Not only are anger and insult equivalent to murder but the punishment to which they render us liable is nothing less than the divine judgment of hell. How seldom do we heed Christ’s call for immediacy of action. If murder is a horrible crime, malicious anger and insult are horrible too. And so is every deed, word, look or thought by which we hurt or offend a fellow human being. We need to be more sensitive about these evils.


Jesus provides two examples to give His point a cutting edge. The first concerns the person who comes to perform his religious duty but who has offended his brother. Jesus insists it is far more important that he be reconciled to his brother than that he discharge his religious duty. Forget the worship service and be reconciled to your brother; and only then worship God. Men love to substitute ceremony for integrity, purity, and love; but Jesus will have none of it. The second example again picks up a legal metaphor. What Jesus is stressing is the urgency of personal reconciliation. In both of these cases, it is personal animosity which He condemned. On His own authority Jesus is underscoring the purity to which such a law points. The principle is clear: right relationships with others are part of the meaning of the commandment not to murder. They are essential if our righteousness is to go down deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Guard Your Heart:  Matthew 5:27-30.

[27]  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; [28]  but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [29]  If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. [30]  If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.”  [NASU]

Jesus affirmed that the true meaning of God’s command was much wider than a mere prohibition of acts of sexual immorality. As the prohibition of murder included the angry thought and the insulting word, so the prohibition of adultery included the lustful look and imagination. His emphasis is that any and every sexual practice which is immoral in deed is immoral also in look and in thought. It is the relation between the eyes and the heart which leads Jesus in the next two verses to give some very practical instruction about how to maintain sexual purity. The argument is this: if to look lustfully is to commit adultery in the heart, in other words, if heart-adultery is the result of eye-adultery, then the only way to deal with the problem is at its beginning, which is our eyes. Deeds of shame are preceded by fantasies of shame, and the inflaming of the imagination by the indiscipline of the eyes.

All God’s gifts need to be used responsibly; they can readily be degraded and abused. This is certainly true of our imagination. The command to get rid of troublesome eyes, hands and feet is an example of our Lord’s use of dramatic figures of speech. What He was advocating was not a literal physical self-maiming, but a ruthless moral self-denial. Not mutilation but mortification is the path of holiness He taught, and mortification or taking up the cross to follow Christ means to reject sinful practices so resolutely that we die to them or put them to death. It is better to forgo some experiences this life offers in order to enter the life which is life indeed; it is better to accept some cultural amputation in this world than risk final destruction in the next. Of course this teaching runs completely counter to modern standards of permissiveness. It is based on the principle that eternity is more important than time and purity than culture, and that any sacrifice is worth while in this life if it is necessary to ensure our entry into the next. We have to decide, quite simply, whether to live for this world or the next, whether to follow the crowd or Jesus Christ.


How, then, can we keep our way pure? Jesus’ vivid illustrations suggest a number of important general principles. (1) Realize where yielding to sinful lusts will lead you. Jesus says that hell is the direction in which all sin leads. Fix that in your mind. (2) Deal with the real cause of your sin. Deal with that area of your life that is causing you to sin. (3) Act decisively, immediately, even if it must be painful. The drastic nature of the remedy is simply the index of the radical danger of the sin. It is not a situation for negotiation. Obedience cannot be negotiated. (4) Realize especially that your lust is not the whole of your life, and weight against its influence all that will be yours by abandoning it

Consider Your Actions:  Matthew 5:31-32.

[31]  “It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; [32] but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”   [NASU]

We should take verses 31-32 and 19:3-9 together and interpret the shorter in the light of the longer. We know that a current controversy about divorce was being conducted between the rival rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai. Rabbi Shammai took a rigorist line, and taught from Deut. 24:1 that the sole ground for divorce was some grave matrimonial offence, something evidently ‘unseemly’ or ‘indecent’. Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, held a very lax view. He applied the Mosaic provision to a man who desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever. Hillel, arguing that the ground for divorce was something ‘unseemly’, interpreted this term in the widest possible way to include a wife’s most trivial offences. If she proved to be an incompetent cook and burnt her husband’s food, or if he lost interest in her because of her plain looks and because he became enamored of some other more beautiful woman, these things were ‘unseemly’ and justified him in divorcing her. The Pharisees seem to have been attracted by Hillel’s laxity, which will explain the form their question took: ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ In other words, they wanted to know whose side Jesus was on in the contemporary debate, and whether he belonged to the school of rigorism or of laxity.

Our Lord’s reply to their question was in three parts. It is revealing to consider these separately and in the order in which He spoke them. In each He dissented from the Pharisees. (1) The Pharisees were preoccupied with the grounds for divorce; Jesus with the institution of marriage. Their question was so framed as to draw Jesus on what He considered to be legitimate grounds for divorce. Jesus declined to answer their question. Instead, He asked a counter-question about their reading of Scripture. He referred them back to Genesis, both to the creation of mankind as male and female and to the institution of marriage by which a man leaves his parents and cleaves to his wife and the two become one. This biblical definition implies that marriage is both exclusive and permanent. It is these two aspects of marriage which Jesus selects for emphasis in His comments which follow. Thus marriage, according to our Lord’s exposition of its origins, is a divine institution by which God makes permanently one two people who decisively and publicly leave their parents in order to form a new unit of society and then become one flesh.

(2) The Pharisees called Moses’ provision for divorce a command; Jesus called it a concession to the hardness of human hearts. The Pharisees laid their emphasis on the giving of a divorce certificate, as if this were the most important part of the Mosaic provision, and then referred to both the certificate and the divorce as ‘commands’ of Moses. A careful reading of Deut. 24:1-4 reveals something quite different. To begin with, the whole paragraph hinges on a long series of conditional clauses. The thrust of the passage is to prohibit the remarriage of one’s own divorced partner. For our purposes here it is enough to observe that this prohibition is the only command in the whole passage; there is certainly no command to a husband to divorce his wife, nor even any encouragement to do so. All there is, instead, is a reference to certain necessary procedures if a divorce takes place; and therefore at the very most a reluctant permission is implied and a current practice is tolerated. How, then, did Jesus respond to the Pharisees’ question about the regulation of Moses? He attributed it to the hardness of people’s hearts. In so doing He did not deny that the regulation was from God. He implied, however, that it was not a divine instruction, but only a divine concession to human weakness.

(3) The Pharisees regarded divorce lightly; Jesus took it so seriously that, with only one exception, he called all remarriage after divorce adultery. Since God instituted marriage as an exclusive and permanent union, a union which He makes and man must not break, Jesus draws the inevitable deduction that to divorce one’s partner and marry another, or to marry a divorced person, is to enter a forbidden, adulterous relationship. For the person who may have secured a divorce in the eyes of human law is still in the eyes of God married to his or her first partner. Only one exception is made in this passage: the marital unfaithfulness of one spouse. Only in the case of adultery would such a remarriage not be an act of adultery itself. Why is this? The explanation lies in the Old Testament law. The penalty for adultery in Jewish law was death [Lev. 20:10]. Obviously, when this penalty was exacted, the marriage came to an abrupt end, and the living partner was free to marry again. In Jesus’ time, this death penalty was not carried out. But Jesus’ teaching seems to suggest the rightness of acting as if the penalty had been carried out. In this case, the wronged partner would be free to marry again. There was no contradiction of the Old Testament law in this.

The Greek word for unchastity (porneia) is normally translated ‘fornication’, denoting the immorality of the unmarried, and is often distinguished from the Greek word translated ‘adultery’, the immorality of the married. For this reason some have argued that the exceptive clause permits divorce if some pre-marital sexual sin is later discovered. Some think that the ‘indecency’ of Deut. 24:1 had the same meaning. But the Greek word is not precise enough to be limited in this way. Porneia is derived from porne, a prostitute, without specifying whether she is married or unmarried. Further, it is used in the Septuagint for the unfaithfulness of Israel, Yahweh’s bride, as exemplified in Hosea’s wife Gomer. It seems, therefore, that porneia is a comprehensive word, including adultery, fornication and unnatural vice. At the same time we have no liberty to go to the opposite extreme and argue that porneia covers any and every offence which may be said in some vague sense to have a sexual basis. This would be virtually to equate porneia with incompatibility, and there is no etymological warrant for this. No, porneia means unchastity, some act of physical sexual immorality.

This reluctant permission of Jesus must still be seen for what it is, namely a continued accommodation to the hardness of human hearts. In addition, it must always be read both in its immediate context (Christ’s emphatic endorsement of the permanence of marriage in God’s purpose) and also in the wider context of the Sermon on the Mount and of the whole Bible which proclaim a gospel of reconciliation. So one must never begin a discussion on this subject by enquiring about the legitimacy of divorce. To be preoccupied with the grounds for divorce is to be guilty of the very pharisaism which Jesus condemned. His whole emphasis in debating with the rabbis was positive, namely on God’s original institution of marriage as an exclusive and permanent relationship, on God’s yoking of two people into a union which man must not break, and on His call to His followers to love and forgive one another, and to be peacemakers in every situation of strife and discord. From this divine ideal, purpose and call, divorce can be seen only as a tragic declension. It is only when a person has understood and accepted God’s view of marriage and God’s call to reconciliation that a possible context has been created within which one may regretfully go on to talk about divorce.

Questions for Discussion:

1.      Why is an act of worship worthless if we are harboring sin? Is Jesus saying we must be perfect before we can worship God? What does this tell us we must do before entering into worship?

2.      Note what vital, essential members of the body Jesus uses in His dramatic illustrations. What principle for a holy life does He give us in these verses? Give a practical example of how 29-30 might be put into action in your daily life.

3.      Compare 5:31-32 with the longer passage: 19:3-9. The Pharisees searched Scripture to find an excuse for breaking the moral command. Jesus went back to the reason the moral command was given [see Genesis 2:24]. The Pharisees approached the moral issue from the viewpoint of how can we get around the moral command. Jesus established the principle of looking at the basis or foundation for the moral command. Discuss how this important principle can be applied to all moral issues.


Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount , D.A. Carson, Global Christian Publishers.

The Sermon on the Mount, Sinclair Ferguson, Banner of Truth.

Christian Counter-Culture, John Stott, Inter-Varsity Press.

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