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21. The Fatal Failures of Religion: #2 Legalism (Matthew 5:17-48)


This week I was reminded of the story of a little girl who went to visit her grandparents. It seems as though they held Sunday as the Lord’s day, and holy. They thought it should be a day of quietness, to walk, not run in it, and that the Bible was the only book that should be read. The granddaughter could not swing nor gather the flowers that grew in the pasture. While grandpa was taking his nap, she asked for permission to walk to the gate, and received it. Along the fence she stopped to watch the old mule, standing with his head bowed and his eyes closed. Reaching through the fence, she said, “Poor old fellow, have you got religion, too?”

I fear that is how many view Christianity. They are completely turned off by the legalism which has crept in unawares. Worst of all, perhaps, is the fact that we Christians are guilty of thinking of it as a virtue, rather than a vice. It is this evil of legalism that our Lord attacked in the remaining portion of Matthew chapter five.

History knows none to be better masters in the art of legalism than the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. The scribes were the professionals, the clergymen who worked out the various rules and regulations binding on all devout Jews. The Pharisees as a rule were a rather select group of laymen committed to the keeping of these “laws.”

Although the expression, “the law” was used of the five books of Moses, of the Ten Commandments, and of the entire Old Testament, it came especially to be equated with the interpretations and traditions of the scribes. In the third century A.D., a written compilation of these oral traditions was completed known as the Mishnah, which contained 63 tractates on various subjects of the Law. In English it makes a book of about 800 pages.241 Later Judaism set itself to the task of interpreting these interpretations. These commentaries on the Mishnah are called Talmuds. “Of the Jerusalem Talmud there are 12 printed volumes; and of the Babylonian Talmud there are 60 printed volumes.”242

“The Law lays it down that the Sabbath Day is to be kept holy, and that on it no work is to be done. That is a great principle. But these Jewish legalists had a passion for definition. So they asked: What is work? All kinds of things were classified as work. For instance, to carry a burden on the Sabbath Day is to work. But next a burden has to be defined. So the Scribal Law lays it down that a burden is ‘food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, paper enough to write a customs house notice upon, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, reed enough to make a pen’—and so on endlessly. So they spent endless hours arguing whether a man could or could not lift a lamp from one place to another on the Sabbath, whether a tailor committed a sin if he went out with a needle in his robe, whether a woman might wear a brooch or false hair, even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth or an artificial limb, if a man might lift his child on the Sabbath Day. These things to them were the essence of religion. Their religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations.”243

Our Lord persistently and publicly chose to violate these traditions and to preach against them (cf. Mark 7:1-13). As a result of His refusal to comply to scribal regulations and traditions, the Lord Jesus earned the reputation of one who had no regard for the Law. In fact He was accused of setting aside the Law in deference to His own (new) teachings. The scribes and Pharisees who were regarded (at least among their own ranks) as the guardians of the Law were condemned by Jesus as hypocrites (Matthew 6:1,2,5,16; cf. 15:1-9; chapter 23). It was necessary for our Lord to make His attitude toward the Old Testament very clear, and this He did as recorded by Matthew in verses 17-20.

Our Lord’s Position on the
Old Testament Law: Orthodoxy Versus Hypocrisy

Our Lord’s position on the Old Testament Scriptures is even more orthodox and uncompromising than that of the scribes. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).

Our Lord never intended to set aside the Old Testament Scriptures; He came to fulfill them. This fulfillment occurred in several ways. He came to fulfill those prophecies and types which promised His first coming to the earth as the Lamb of God, the Sin-bearer. He fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures by living a life completely conformed to their requirements. Finally, He fulfilled the Old Testament writings by bringing their teachings and doctrines into clear focus. As Chrysostom expressed it: “His (Christ’s) sayings were no repeal of the former, but a drawing out and filling up of them.”244

Not even the most insignificant change in the sacred Scriptures was permissible, according to the Savior. The Hebrew ‘jot’ (in Greek it is the iota) was the smallest Hebrew letter. The ‘tittle’ was the small projection on the stroke of a letter which distinguished one Hebrew letter from another. Here is reflected our Lord’s view of Scripture. It was the Word of God, inspired, inerrant, infallible. Whatever He might be accused of, it could not be an irreverence for the Old Testament Scriptures.

Turning the tables on those who would challenge Him on this point, Jesus brings our focus upon His critics. Could they make the same claims as He? “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the Kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shalt be called great in the Kingdom of heaven” (verse 19).

The stage is now being set for the contrast Jesus made between Himself and the scribes and Pharisees. The real culprits were the scribes and Pharisees. They did not regard the Old Testament Law highly enough. They had set it aside, preferring their own rules, regulations and traditions (Mark 7:7-9). The one who was truly great in the Kingdom was he who would both teach the Old Testament faithfully (without watering it down), and who would live in accordance with this teaching. In the remaining verses, Jesus demonstrated how it was the scribes and Pharisees who failed to take the Law far enough, thus loosening and lowering its requirements. Worse still, they did not practice what they preached. “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the Kingdom of heaven” (verse 20).

It is almost impossible to convey the force of what our Lord has said here. He virtually has thrown a bomb into the laps of his opponents (though they are not present here in my estimation). How this charge must have stunned His audience. You see, the scribes and Pharisees were viewed as the very pillars of Jewish society and religion. They were considered the most moral, upright, influential people of their day. As one of my seminary professors once said, they were the kind of person you would want your daughter to marry. They were Israel’s best, the cream of the crop. But Jesus said their righteousness wasn’t satisfactory to God. His listeners would have to do better than them if they wanted to enter into God’s Kingdom.

Let me digress for a moment and simply remind you that if the best within Judaism could not merit entrance into God’s heaven, neither can you or I. Legalism seeks to win God’s heaven by the keeping of some code of conduct. If the scribes and Pharisees failed, my friend, so must you and I. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not lower the requirements of Judaism (which were thought to enable Israel to enter into the Kingdom). He showed them to be infinitely higher. The Old Testament Law was given to men as a standard of holiness. By its keeping, none of us would ever enter into eternal life, for it only condemns us. But by failing to keep it, we are drawn to depend upon the righteousness which God has provided in His Son, Jesus Christ.

The Errors of Jewish Interpretation Exposed
(Six Specific Examples)

What our Lord charged in the preceding verses, He now proceeds to demonstrate in the remaining verses of chapter five. Here He gave six specific instances in which the scribal interpretations departed from the Old Testament Scriptures.

Before we begin to expound these verses we must be careful to avoid an error common in Christianity today. It is the error of thinking that Jesus was giving to men a ‘new law,’ opposed to that of the Old Testament. This is especially tempting to dispensationalists, who emphasize the distinctions between the dispensation of law and that of grace. This error stems, in part, from the formula: “You have heard that the ancients were told … But I say” (verses 21-22; 27-28; 31-32; 33-34; 38-39; 43-44). Some believe that ‘You have heard’ refers to the Old Testament teaching, and that ‘But I say’ introduces the ‘new’ teaching of our Lord which supercedes the old. Such is not the case. ‘You have heard’ introduces the erroneous or incomplete teaching of scribalism, while ‘But I say’ is followed by the true teaching of the Old Testament, which is also that of our Lord.245

First Example: The Old Testament Law and Murder (21-26)

While the scribes went to senseless extremes on the matter of the Sabbath, they did not go nearly far enough with the prohibition of murder.

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).

Within Jewish orthodoxy, one would keep the sixth commandment so long as he did not commit murder. Jesus went beyond the prohibition of the act of murder to the attitude of anger which prompts it. To hold a bitter resentment toward another is to be guilty of violating God’s prohibition of murder. We sometimes say, “If looks could kill, I’d be dead.” We mean that the anger (which can result in murder) is written on one’s face. That slow-burning, long-harbored anger is sin, and so is that explosive anger which has a hair-trigger.246

The expression ‘Raca,’247 (verse 22) is probably of Aramaic origin and one which reflects on the intelligence of the one so called. It could mean something like ‘blockhead’ or ‘empty-head.’ In our idiom, it might come out ‘idiot,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘lame brain,’ or some similar expression. These are the kind of outbursts which you or I (I don’t know about you, but I am certain of myself) could come up with as we are driving along and someone makes a foolish decision that affects (and angers) us. ‘You fool’ does not belittle a man’s intelligence so much as it challenges his moral character. Such a fool was described in Psalm 14:1: He is the kind of man who says, “There is no God.”

Having established the principle that anger is as much a sin as murder, the one being the source and the other the symptom, Jesus gave two very practical applications relevant to nearly everyone.

“If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:23-24).

If anger is sin, and if sin affects one’s relationship with God, then one cannot truly worship God while harboring anger in his heart. The one who remembers a grievance between himself and another should deal with it immediately, even before his acts of worship and devotion. What is interesting in this passage is that the assumption is that someone else has a grievance with us. Even though we may harbor no ill feelings toward this brother, he has hard feelings against me. If I am to take the initiative in healing this situation, surely I must act to bring reconciliation and restoration in situations where I am the one who feels wronged.

A second application is made in the area of civil law. If there is a legal dispute pending against us, we should make every effort to, as we say, settle out of court. Again the emphasis falls upon dealing with anger quickly and decisively. The longer anger is allowed to go untended, it will grow. Legalism looks to the law to settle disputes; our Lord says that love should arbitrate our differences. When we choose to reconcile in love, we remain friends, and the matter is settled much more simply. When we rely on the Law to arbitrate, we are subject to the severest penalties. I have never seen a dispute between two parties settled in the law courts where they left as friends and they felt as though they had come out ahead.

Second Example: The Old Testament Law and Adultery (27-30)

The Jewish interpretation of the seventh commandment was that one was guilty of adultery only if he or she had committed the physical act. This was a very narrow and external interpretation of the Law and ignored the clear teaching of the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or female servant or his ox or his donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17).

Adultery is an act conceived in the heart, before it is culminated in the bedroom. It is sin to look at a woman with the intention of contemplating her potential as a sexual partner.

In a day when sex is exploited to sell toothpaste and toilet paper, candy bars and cars, it is hard not to fall into this particular sin. Movies and television deliberately appeal to the lusts of the eye. Outright pornography is not in a dark corner anymore; it is at the checkout stand at the grocery store. We virtually cannot avoid it.

The Lord Jesus spoke very strongly on this particular sin, for He instructed us that “… if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out …” (Matthew 5:29a). These are very stern words. Are we to take them literally? Very few would say “Yes.” Although we should take them seriously, we need not take them literally we are told. Several observations must be noted here.

(1) It is not just our right eye, or our right hand which causes us to fall into this sin. If we were to remove one eye, the other would carry on very well. This might inform us that it is not just one eye, one member, that is the problem.

(2) Ultimately, the sin begins in the heart, and it cannot be plucked out.

The point of this teaching is that we must deal quickly, decisively, and severely with this temptation. It is no small matter. It has been the cause of countless divorces; the lives of many have been wrecked because of it. Legalism condemned the outward symptom, but failed to deal with the source. Our Lord’s position was clear and decisive.

In this confrontation between legalism and our Lord, I find an interesting insight into the difference between legalism and responsible Christian liberty. Legalism draws a line and then tries to get as close to the line as possible. Because of this, it doesn’t work. John Warwick Montgomery has written, “The fundamentalist church in the town in which I grew up, by effectively keeping its young people from all forms of mixed entertainment, succeeded in having the highest illegitimate birth rate of any church in the community.”248 Christian liberty discerns what is offensive to God and stays as far away as possible.

I am not certain that Christians have taken the words of verses 29 and 30 seriously enough. Is there never an occasion where a sincere Christian man might undergo surgery to become a eunuch for the sake of the Gospel? When, then, did our Lord tell His disciples, “… there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven …” (Matthew 19:12). It may not be often that a Christian would need to consider surgery, but I would not dare to say that such a time could never come.

Getting to the heart of the matter, I believe what our Lord is saying here is that unless we view the sin of adultery (including immoral thoughts) so offensive to God that we would be willing to undergo sexual surgery to solve the problem (if it would), we do not see this sin from our Lord’s perspective. I personally feel that much of the immorality within the Christian community can be directly related to a casual attitude toward sexual sin.

Third Example: The Old Testament Law and Divorce (31-32)

Closely related to the prohibition of adultery is the biblical position on divorce. The scribes and Pharisees assumed that divorce was a biblical option. They only quibbled over the grounds for divorce. Some felt a man could divorce his wife for virtually any reason; others only for marital impurity.249 Their interest was entirely procedural. But Jesus refused to speak on this issue. Instead, He went back to the divine intention for marriage. Granted, God had permitted divorce (not commanded it, as the scribes maintained, Matthew 19:7-8), but He did so only due to the hardness of men’s hearts (Matthew 19:8). The divine purpose, as described in Genesis was that one man and one woman should be permanently united until separated by death. In the light of this purpose, our Lord made a statement which was designed to discourage any divorce: “But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32).

One must recognize by the brevity of our Lord’s teaching on the subject of divorce here, that this is not the full revelation on divorce. Because the scribes had focused on the exception (some ‘indecency,’ Deuteronomy 24:1, which varied in Jewish interpretation from adultery to burning the breakfast eggs) and made it the rule, Jesus here refused to expound on the exception, only to mention it. He stressed the principle, God’s attitude toward all (unbiblical) divorce. Unbiblical divorce leads to the sin of adultery on the part of the initiator of it (usually the husband in Jesus’ day, Matthew 19:9), it puts the ‘innocent,’ or at least passive party in a position where she will seek marriage to another, thereby committing adultery (Matthew 5:32).250

Here is yet another insight into the matter of legalism. Legalism looks only at the rules, Christian liberty at the reason behind the rules. While the Law permitted divorce, God hates it, and we should avoid it at all costs (cf. Malachi 2:16).

I may say to one of my children who asks to go to the store with their friend, Sally, “No, I don’t want you to go to the store with Sally.” Being the legalist and literalist that all children are, they would probably call up another friend and go with her. When called on the carpet, my child would probably respond, “But you said not to go with Sally, and I went with Jane.”

If they knew my intention was that they should not go to the store with any child, then this disobedience could have been avoided. Such is the danger of legalism—it lends itself to stark literalism.

Fourth Example: The Old Testament Law and Oaths (33-37)

The Old Testament has much to say about the taking of oaths:

“You shall not swear by My name falsely” (Leviticus 19:12).

“When a man makes a vow to Jehovah or swears an oath … he shall not break his word” (Numbers 30:2).

“When you shall make a vow to Jehovah your God, you shall not be slack to pay it” (Deuteronomy 23:21).

God had not forbidden the taking of an oath, but had cautioned the one who makes a vow to keep his word.

There were two abuses of the oath in the days of our Lord.251 One might be called frivolous swearing. It was common practice to dress up an ordinary statement by attaching some kind of oath, such as “By thy Life,” or, “May I never see the comfort of Israel if …” The same practice is common today, particularly in the use of profanity. Men use oaths (or profanity) in order to give emphasis to their words—words of no real consequence. This is the kind of oath-taking forbidden by the Old Testament commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain …” (Exodus 20:7). Technically speaking, profanity is the common or indiscriminate use of God’s name. And this God has forbidden.

The second abuse of an oath was more deliberate and malicious. It was the use of evasive swearing. Here the emphasis of the Old Testament revelation was shifted from what might be called substantive righteousness to procedural or technical righteousness. God had said, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” They shifted the emphasis: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” There is a substantial difference. An oath was not so much a matter of keeping your word, but of phrasing your vow in such a way that you evaded your commitment. Any vow which included the name of God was considered a solemn oath which must be kept. But any vow which carefully avoided the name of God was not technically binding. One could thus swear by heaven, or Jerusalem, or the temple, or his head, and not feel bound to his oath. The effect was that people would be deceived in taking a man at his word (or vow), but the man himself felt no obligation to live by his word.

Later in the Gospel of Matthew our Lord had scathing words of rebuke for those who practiced this kind of casuistry:

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’ You fools and blind men; which is more important? the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering upon it, he is obligated.’ You blind men, which is more important, the offering or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore he who swears, swears both by the attar and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And he who swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it” (Matthew 23:16-22).

Jesus is saying that no matter what I do as a Christian, I make God a partner in my actions and commitments (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:12-20). Whether I vow using God’s name, or some part of God’s creation (my head, Jerusalem, etc.), I have still involved God in my oath. It is shallow thinking to suppose that the avoidance of the name of God divorces Him from an interest in my commitments.

Our Lord’s interpretation of the Old Testament revelation restored proper emphasis in this matter. When you give your word, keep it. Vows are only needed when one’s integrity is in question. Live an honest and reputable life and avoid having to emphasize the truthfulness of your statements or commitments. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Does this mean that a Christian should never take an oath of any kind? I think not, although there are many sincere Christians who would disagree with me. God Himself used oaths in Scripture (e.g. Genesis 22:16,17; cf. Hebrews 6:13-18). Likewise, our Lord took an oath at His trial (Matthew 26:63-64). Although honest men should not need to take oaths, we live in a dishonest society where we may have to do so anyway, especially if required of us.

From this example of legalism as revealed in the matter of oaths, I arrive at two more insights into the evils of legalism. First of all, legalism often places the emphasis upon form rather than substance. It ‘focuses upon the individual trees and overlooks the forest’. When I was in college, I very much enjoyed the study of constitutional law. I recall the fact that in the matter of racial equality (as in other matters), the Supreme Court insisted upon substantive justice as well as procedural justice. We may follow the rules with absolute meticulousness, and yet the outcome may be grossly unjust. So legalism looks mainly at keeping the right forms, while overlooking the major issues. In the words of our Lord, the legalists “strained gnats and swallowed camels” (Matthew 23:23-24).

Second, there is in legalism the particular tendency toward compartmentalization. They sought to distinguish between secular and spiritual. Their oaths reflected this bent. Our Lord swept away these distinctions as arbitrary and evil. All too often Christians continue to make these distinctions. They have business ethics and biblical ethics, but they are not the same.

Fifth Example: The Old Testament and Retaliation (38-42)

Perhaps no standard of justice is better known than this one: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). Jewish interpretation took this instruction as biblical support for retaliation and revenge. If someone says something against me, I have every right to do so against him. If you hit me in the face, you’d better expect the same from me.

Jesus reminded His listeners that this was never intended as a proof-text for revenge, but as a principle of justice. This is especially clear in the passage in Deuteronomy (19:16-18). This is an administration principle of justice, given as a guideline for the judges who arbitrate a dispute or a claim. The very purpose of this system was to avoid personal revenge and vigilante law. Whenever we begin to retaliate we always do so to a greater degree than we were injured. No one has put this more plainly than Nikita Krushchev:

“We Communists have many things in common with the teachings of Christ. My sole difference with Christ is that when someone hits me on the right cheek, I hit him on the left so hard that his head falls off.”252

The principle of both the Old and New Testaments is that we are not to retaliate against those who wrongfully use us, instead we are to go beyond the minimum required of us, and in a cheerful spirit (Leviticus 19:18; Proverbs 25:21; 24:29; Lamentations 3:30). Four specific examples of our response to distasteful situations are given.

The first comes out of a direct personal insult. What is described is not a right cross, or fatal knife wound. It is an insulting slap on the right cheek, given by the back of the hand. It was not so much an attempt to do bodily harm, but a deliberate effort to insult, and perhaps provoke retaliation. To such an encounter, we should ‘go the extra mile’ by giving opportunity to strike the other cheek. Here is a willingness to accept insult without revenge.

The second comes from the law courts. If someone should sue you for your shirt, you should be willing to go beyond this demand and give your outer garment as well. This is very interesting because the Old Testament forbade the keeping of one’s outer garment overnight since it was that person’s source of warmth and protection (Exodus 22:26,27; Deuteronomy 24:12,13; etc.). It was, in effect, his blanket. What a man had every right to keep, he was to willingly give up in order to maintain harmony and unity (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, esp. verse 7).

The third illustration comes from the context of an occupied territory, under the military rule of Rome. Under such conditions, one might expect to find himself impressed into service (cf. Matthew 27:32). In such a case service ought to be rendered with an attitude of willingness to do even beyond what was demanded. A spirit of cooperation is evidenced rather than one of begrudging service and rebellion.

Fourth, we are not to turn aside one who asks to borrow from us (verse 42). True Christian charity cheerfully responds to the needs of others. This was taught in the Old Testament Law (Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Proverbs 19:17; 28:27; 31:20, etc.). Generous, cheerful giving to the one in need was God’s way for His people.

Does this mean that we should ‘give a dime (now 30 cents) for a cup of coffee’ to a skid road beggar? Not if he will use it to buy a drink and thereby dig his own grave. But it may mean that we should actually buy him a breakfast. What about the man who wants a handout? The Scriptures say that if one will not work he should not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). It is my personal conviction that we as a church should always have a few odd jobs to do around the building, and if a man is willing to work, he should be paid on the spot before he goes his way.

In the Old Testament the poor were provided for by gleaning from the fields. I am not in favor of the kind of welfare which does all the work for the needy and robs them of their dignity and incentive (Proverbs 16:26).

While the Bible instructs us not to retaliate, I do not believe that it teaches pacifism. I believe that God would not be pleased if I were to stand idly by while my family were mistreated or injured. I see a difference between what is called self-defense and revenge. It is revenge that the Bible condemns.

Legalism has a decided inclination toward one’s ‘standing on his rights.’ That is what our Lord is getting at here. We are not to be those who demand our rights. So often marriage is conducted on this level. The husband and the wife think only of their rights, but Paul speaks only of responsibilities (cf. Ephesians 5:22ff.). Christians are those who have surrendered all their rights to the Savior.

There is one final word which must be said. There is a great deal of difference between standing up for our rights and standing up for what is right. While we may (and should) be willing to suffer innocently for the cause of Christ, we have a responsibility as Christian citizens to stand up for law and order and justice. This is the reason, I believe, that Paul refused to be quietly let out of jail and sent out of town (Acts 16:35-39). Had he allowed this injustice to have gone unchallenged, the entire Christian community would have been subject to the continual illegal harassment of the legal authorities. May God help us to differentiate between our rights and what is right.

Sixth Example: Who Is My Neighbor? (43-48)

Nowhere is the abuse of the Old Testament Scripture by the scribes more evident that it is here: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy”’ (Matthew 5:43). Here is a statement which finds no support in the Scriptures at all. The narrowness and sectarianism of Judaism looked only within the ranks of their own to find their neighbor. It was no accident that the lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). This was a crucial question to the Jews.

The Jews could easily proof-text their hatred of the Gentiles. After all, God ordered Israel to kill all the Canaanites. The Psalmist prayed for the downfall of the wicked, who were his enemies. God brought death and destruction to the Egyptians at the Exodus. Should not the Jew show love toward his fellow-Jews (the upstanding ones) and hate toward the rest?

The Old Testament instructed the Israelites to show kindness toward the foreigner, and even to their enemies (Exodus 23:4,5; Proverbs 25:21-22). One’s neighbor, as Jesus clearly taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan, was anyone in need. It was not enough to cease from retaliation. Christianity goes even further than this—we are to return good for evil. This is the distinctiveness of true believers.

In any group of people they will tend to respond warmly to their own kind. Gentiles love Gentiles; Jews love Jews. The kind of love we must reflect is love for our enemies. In common grace, God gives blessings (rain and sun) to all men without distinction. If we are to reflect Him, we must be indiscriminate in our acts of goodness also.

Narrowness is often one of the criticisms against Christians. Oftentimes this criticism is justified. According to God’s Word, it has no place among Christians.


Our Lord has demonstrated in these six specific areas that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is of a different (and inferior) kind, than that which He offers, and which God requires to enter into His heaven. My friend, this righteousness can never be produced by human effort—only by the spirit of God living out the life of Jesus Christ in the true believer. Do you have His righteousness? You must, if you would be in His heaven.

Having spent considerable time on this danger of legalism, let me give you my definition of it. Legalism is an attitude which equates righteousness with external compliance with a code of conduct. This code may be correct or incorrect. Our conduct may or may not measure up to the standard. The reasons why it is so devastating are:

  • it ignores or underestimates the role of inner attitude and motivation;
  • it focuses upon self-effort rather than on divine enablement;
  • it encourages pride rather than humble dependence upon God;
  • it tends to ‘use’ the Scriptures to reinforce our own preconceived ideas and preferences;
  • it tends to conceive of our acceptance with God as performance oriented;
  • it arouses the flesh and incites us to sin, rather than the avoidance of sin;
  • it tends to impose one’s personal convictions on others, and to condemn them if they fail to live up to our rules.

Legalism cannot save you, my friend, and neither can it sanctify. Praise God!

241 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1963), I, p. 126.

242 Ibid.

243 Ibid., pp. 124-125. Barclay goes into considerable detail here, which would prove interesting reading for the searching student.

244 Chrysostom (p. 229). as quoted by John R. W. Stott, Christian Counter Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), p. 71.

245 For a more thorough study of this matter, consult John R. W. Stott, Christian Counter Culture, pp. 70-73, or William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), pp. 295-297.

246 The anger here described is obviously not ‘righteous indignation.’ There is a place and a time for it (cf. John 2:14-17), but we too seldom discern it. Barclay explains the anger here condemned by the Lord:

“There is first the man who is angry with his brother. The verb here used is orgizesthai. In Greek there are two words for anger. There is thumos, which was described as being like the flames which come from dried straw. It is the anger which quickly blazes up and which just as quickly dies down. It is an anger which rises speedily and which just as speedily passes. There is orge, which was described as anger become inveterate. It is the long-lived anger; it is the anger of the man who nurses his wrath to keep it warm; it is the anger over which a person broods, and which he will not allow to die.” Barclay, p. 135.

247 Barclay illustrates the ancient use of this term:

“There is a Rabbinic tale of a certain Rabbi, Simon ben Eleazar. He was coming from his teacher’s house, and he was feeling uplifted at the thought of his own scholarship and erudition and goodness. A very ill-favoured passer-by gave him a greeting. The Rabbi did not return the greeting, but said, ‘You Racca! How ugly you are! Are all the men of your town as ugly as you?’ ‘That,’ said the passer-by, ‘I do not know. Go and tell the Maker who created me how ugly is the creature He has made.’ So there the sin of contempt was rebuked.” Barclay, Matthew, I, pp. 136-137.

248 John Warwick Montgomery, Principalities and Powers, p. 170.

249 “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 Deuteronomy 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. If we can trust the Jewish historian Josephus, this was the common attitude, for he applied the Mosiac provision to a man who ‘desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever.’ Similarly 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 enamoured of some other more beautiful woman, these things were ‘unseemly’ and justified him in divorcing her.” Stott, p. 93.

250 I hesitate to spend much time on the subject of divorce here, but my comments on verses 31 and 32 almost necessitate a brief summary of my understanding on the subject. (1) Divorce is inconsistent with the divine purpose and design for marriage (Genesis 2), and therefore He hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). (2) Unbiblical divorce is sin, and as such, God hates it. Nevertheless, God has made provision for man’s sinfulness. The bill of divorce was given as a protection for the innocent or passive party, thereby enabling them to remarry (cf. Deuteronomy 24:1ff.). According to Barclay, the Jewish bill of divorce simply ran: “Let this be from me thy writ of divorce and letter of dismissal and deed of liberation, that thou mayest marry whatsoever man thou wilt.” Barclay, Matthew, I, p. 149. (3) God permitted divorce, but never is it commanded (cf. Matthew 19:7-8). (4) Only in the case of sexual immorality is divorce permitted, and, even here, it is not commanded or encouraged. Forgiveness and a desire for reconciliation should be the attitude of the offended party. The Old Testament example of Hosea and Gomer and the New Testament model of Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:22f.) should be our pattern when our partner has been unfaithful. (5) The ‘innocent’ or ‘non-aggressive’ partner is not encouraged to initiate a divorce, but when the other party does seek divorce, Christians are not to legally resist this action, for we are ‘called to peace’ (1 Corinthians 7:10ff., especially verse 15). (6) If a person has been divorced by their partner on unbiblical grounds, it would seem best that they not remarry until after the initiator of the divorce has done so. This leaves the door open for reconciliation and keeps the innocent party from sexual involvement before the first marriage has been broken by the sexual immorality of the initiator. When the initiating party has remarried, not only has the previous marriage been terminated by adultery, but the Old Testament forbids the first wife to be rejoined to her first husband anyway (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). (7) Anyone whose marriage has been biblically terminated is free to remarry without moral blame (cf. Matthew 5:31; 1 Corinthians 7:15, 27-28). (8) Desertion (by an unbeliever) is also grounds for divorce (1 Corinthians 7:15). According to Matthew 18:15-17, especially verse 17, I would gather that a ‘professed Christian’ who refused to repent or to reconcile with his mate would then be treated as an unbeliever. In such a case, 1 Corinthians 7:15ff would apply to him as the unbelieving husband (or wife).

251 Cf. Barclay, Matthew, I, pp. 156-157.

252 Nikita Krushchev, as quoted by David W. Augsburger, Seventy Times Seven, The Freedom of Forgiveness (Chicago: Moody, 1970), p. 118.

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