Having the Right Expectations


Lesson Focus:  This lesson explores the high standards Jesus set for His followers – standards that are met not by mere outward conformity to rules but as a result of a Christ-changed heart.

Affirm Scripture’s Authority:  Matthew 5:17-19.

[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]  For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. [19]  Therefore whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  [ESV]

[17-19]  So far Jesus has spoken of a Christian’s character, and of the influence he will have in the world if he exhibits this character and if his character bears fruit in good works. He now proceeds to define further this character and these good works in terms of righteousness. He explains that the righteousness He has already mentioned twice as that for which His disciples hunger [6] and on account of which they suffer [10] is a conformity to God’s moral law and yet surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees [20]. This paragraph [17-20] is of great importance not only for its definition of Christian righteousness but also for the light it throws on the relation between the New Testament and the Old Testament, between the gospel and the law. It divides itself into two parts, first Christ and the law [17-18] and secondly the Christian and the law [19-20]. In verse 17 Jesus begins by emphasizing that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, i.e. the whole Old Testament. Jesus proclaims that He did not come to abolish but to fulfill the Old Testament scriptures. The verb translated to fulfill means literally ‘to fill’ and indicates that Jesus’ teaching was not a repeal of the Old Testament, but a drawing out and filling up of its meaning. Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament in the sense of bringing it to completion by His person, His teaching and His work. His purpose is not to change the law, still less to annul it, but to reveal the full depth of meaning that it was intended to hold. So then He fulfills it by declaring the radical demands of the righteousness of God. In verse 18 iota … dot refer to the smallest letter and marks in the Hebrew alphabet indicating that not even the smallest part of the Law will pass away or be discarded, until it has all been fulfilled. And this fulfillment will not be complete until the heaven and the earth themselves pass away. For one day they will pass away in an mighty rebirth of the universe [Matt. 24:35]. Then time as we know it will cease, and the written words of God’s law will be needed no longer, for all things in them will have been fulfilled. Thus the law is as enduring as the universe. Jesus could not have stated more clearly than this His own view of Old Testament Scripture. The word therefore [19] introduces the deduction which Jesus now draws for His disciples from the enduring validity of the law and His own attitude with respect to it. It reveals a vital connection between the law of God and the kingdom of God. Because Jesus has come not to abolish but to fulfill, and because not an iota or dot will pass from the law until all has been fulfilled, therefore greatness in the kingdom of God will be measured by conformity to it. Nor is personal obedience enough; Christian disciples must also teach to others the permanently binding nature of the law’s commandments. Relaxes means to loosen the law’s hold on our conscience and its authority in our life. To disregard a least commandment in the law (in either obedience or instruction) is to demote oneself into a least subject in the kingdom. Greatness in the kingdom belongs to those who are faithful in doing and teaching the whole moral law.

Rise Above Mediocrity:  Matthew 5:20, 48.

[20]  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [48]  You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  [ESV]

[20]  Jesus now goes further still. Not only is greatness in the kingdom assessed by a righteousness which conforms to the law, but entry into the kingdom is impossible without a conformity that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. But how can Christian righteousness actually exceed pharisaic righteousness, and how can this superior Christian righteousness be made a condition of entering God’s kingdom? Does this not teach a doctrine of salvation by good works and so contradict the first beatitude which says the kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit who have nothing, not even righteousness, to plead? The answer is that Christian righteousness far surpasses pharisaic righteousness in kind rather than in degree; it is deeper since it is a righteousness of the heart. Pharisees were content with an external and formal obedience, a rigid conformity to the letter of the law; Jesus teaches us that God’s demands are far more radical than this. The righteousness which is pleasing to Him is an inward righteousness of mind and motive. This deep obedience which is a righteousness of the heart is only possible in those whom the Holy Spirit has regenerated and now indwells. This is why entry into God’s kingdom is impossible without a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees. It is because such a righteousness is evidence of the new birth, and no one enters the kingdom without being born again.

[48]  Both the hunger for righteousness and the prayer for forgiveness, being continuous, are clear indications that Jesus did not expect His followers to become morally perfect in this life. The context shows that the perfection He means relates to love, that perfect love of God which is shown even to those who do not return it [43-47]. Our obedience will come from our hearts as the manifestation of our new nature. For we are the sons of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, and we can demonstrate whose sons we are only when we exhibit the family likeness.

Focus on God’s Intent:  Matthew 5:21-22,27-28,31-34,38-39,43-44.

[21]  "You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ [22]  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. [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 lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [31]  "It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ [32]  But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. [33]  "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ [34]  But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, [38]  "You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

[39]  But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. [43]  "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ [44]  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  [ESV]

[21-22]  The scribes and Pharisees were evidently seeking to restrict the application of the sixth commandment to the deed of murder alone. If they refrained from this, they considered that they had kept the commandment. And this apparently is what the rabbis taught the people. but Jesus disagreed with them. The true application of the prohibition was much wider, He maintained. 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. And even fallen human beings may sometimes feel righteous anger, although, being fallen, we should ensure that even this is slow to rise and quick to die down. The reference of Jesus in verse 22, then, is to unrighteous anger, the anger of pride, vanity, hatred, malice and revenge. Insults are mentioned at the end of verse 22. Jesus warns us against calling our brother either Raca (a term of abuse) or fool. Now angry thoughts and insulting words may never lead to the ultimate act of murder. Yet they are tantamount to murder in God’s sight. Anger and insult are ugly symptoms of a desire to get rid of somebody who stands in our way. The exact meaning of the different judgments has been much discussed, but at least it is clear that Jesus was issuing a solemn warning of divine judgment. Thus Jesus was extending the nature of the penalty as well as of the crime. Not only are anger and insult equivalent to murder, He said, but the punishment to which they render us liable is nothing less than the divine judgment of hell.


[27-28]  Jesus now turns from the sixth commandment to the seventh, from the prohibition against murder to the prohibition against adultery. Once again the rabbis were attempting to limit the scope of the commandment You shall not commit adultery. Although the sin of desiring another man’s wife is included in the tenth commandment against covetousness, they evidently found it more comfortable to ignore this. In their view they and their pupils kept the seventh commandment, provided that they avoided the act of adultery itself. They thus gave a conveniently narrow definition of sexual sin and a conveniently broad definition of sexual purity. But Jesus taught differently. He extended the implications of the divine prohibition. Rather, He 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. Jesus’ emphasis is that any and every sexual practice which is immoral in deed is immoral also in look and in thought. What is particularly important to grasp is His equation of looking lustfully at a woman and committing adultery with her in the heart. 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.


[31-32]  These two verses can hardly be thought to represent the sum total of our Lord’s instruction on the mountain about divorce. They seem to give an abbreviated summary of His teaching, of which Matthew records a fuller version in 19:3-9. Taking both passages together we see our Lord’s reply to the Pharisees’ question concerning divorce was in three parts. First, the Pharisees were preoccupied with the grounds for divorce; Jesus with the institution of marriage. Jesus refers back to Genesis for the biblical definition of marriage which implies that it is both exclusive and permanent. Marriage 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 become one flesh. Second, the Pharisees called Moses’ provision for divorce a command; Jesus called it a concession to the hardness of human hearts. Third, the Pharisees regarded divorce lightly; Jesus took it so seriously that, with only one exception, He called all remarriage after divorce adultery.


[33-34]  Jesus begins by arguing that the question of the formula used in making vows is a total irrelevance, and in particular that the Pharisees’ distinction between formulae which mention God and those which do not is entirely artificial. However hard you try, Jesus said, you cannot avoid some reference to God, for the whole world is God’s world and you cannot eliminate Him from any of it. If you vow by heaven, it is God’s throne; if by earth it is His footstool. So if the precise wording of a vow-formula is irrelevant, then a preoccupation with formulae was not the point of the law at all. Indeed, since anybody who makes a vow must keep it, strictly speaking all formulae are superfluous. For the formula does not add to the solemnity of the vow. A vow is binding irrespective of its accompanying formula. That being so, the real implication of the law is that we must keep our promises and be people of our word. Then vows become unnecessary. If divorce is due to human hard-heartedness, swearing is due to human untruthfulness. Both were permitted by the law; neither was commanded; neither should be necessary. Two questions may arise in our minds at this point. First, if swearing is forbidden, why has God Himself used oaths in Scripture. The purpose of divine oaths was not to increase His credibility, but to elicit and confirm our faith. The fault which made God condescend to this human level lay not in any untrustworthiness of His but in our unbelief. Secondly, if swearing is forbidden, is the prohibition absolute? For example, should Christians, in order to be consistent in their obedience, decline to swear an affidavit for any purpose before a notary and to give evidence on oath in a court of law? What Jesus emphasized in His teaching was that honest men do not need to resort to oaths; it was not that they should refuse to take an oath if required by some external authority to do so.


[38-39]  This quote from the oral teaching of the rabbis comes straight out of the Mosaic law. As we consider it, we need to remember that the law of Moses was a civil as well as a moral code. Exodus 21 to 23 contain a series of ordinances in which the standards of the ten commandments are applied to the young nation’s life. A wide variety of case-laws is given, with a particular emphasis on damage to person and property. It is in the course of this legislation that these words in verse 38 occur. The Old Testament context makes it clear beyond question that this was an instruction to the judges of Israel. This instruction expressed the principle of an exact retribution, whose purpose was both to lay the foundation of justice, specifying the punishment which a wrong-doer deserved, and to limit the compensation of his victim to an exact equivalent and no more. It thus had the double effect of defining justice and restraining revenge. It also prohibited the taking of the law into one’s own hands by the ghastly vengeance of the family feud. It is almost certain that by the time of Jesus literal retaliation for damage had been replaced in Jewish legal practice by money penalties or damages. But the scribes and Pharisees evidently extended this principle of just retribution from the law courts (where it belongs) to the realm of personal relationships (where it does not belong). They tried to use it to justify personal revenge, although the law explicitly forbade this. In His reply Jesus did not contradict the principle of retribution, for it is a true and just principle. What Jesus affirmed in the antithesis was rather that this principle, though it pertains to the law courts and to the judgment of God, is not applicable to our personal relationships. These are to be based on love, not justice. Our duty to individuals who wrong us is not retaliation, but the acceptance of injustice without revenge or redress [39]. We are not to resist the evil person who wrongs us. The four mini-illustrations which follow all apply the principle of Christian non-retaliation, and indicate the lengths to which it must go [39-42]. Jesus’ illustrations and personal example depict not the weakling who offers no resistance. They depict rather the strong man whose control of himself and love for others are so powerful that he rejects absolutely every conceivable form of retaliation.


[43-44]  The scribes and Pharisees sought to limit the command to love your neighbor by excluding enemies from the definition of a neighbor. Jesus showed in the parable of the good Samaritan that your neighbor is not necessarily a member of your own race, rank or religion. Neighbor in the vocabulary of God includes our enemy. What constitutes him our neighbor is simply that he is a fellow human being in need, whose need we know and are in a position in some measure to relieve. The point that Jesus is making is that true love is not sentiment so much as service – practical, humble, sacrificial service. Our enemy is seeking our harm; we must seek his good. For this is how God has treated us. If Jesus gave Himself for His enemies, we must give ourselves for ours. Jesus commands us to pray for those who persecute you. It is impossible to pray for someone without loving him, and impossible to go on praying for him without discovering that our love for him grows and matures. We must not, therefore, wait before praying for an enemy until we feel some love for him in our heart.


Questions for Discussion:

1.         How does Jesus fulfill the Law and the Prophets? What does verse 19 teach concerning the relationship between the Law of God and the Kingdom of God?

2.         What did Jesus teach concerning the following topics: murder, adultery, divorce, swearing oaths, vengeance, and loving your neighbor? Note the authority of Jesus’ teaching by the repeated use of the formula: You have heard … but I say to you.

3.         How can our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? From these verses, what is the key difference between Jesus’ understanding of obedience and that of the scribes and Pharisees?


The Gospel according to Matthew, Leon Morris, Pillar, Eerdmans.

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

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

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