The Law and the Prophets—Part 2

April 22, 2024

By Peter Amsterdam

Audio length: 9:03
Download Audio (8.2MB)

When Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment’” (Matthew 5:21), He was referring to the various Old Testament verses regarding murder, the procedures for determining guilt, and the penalty.1 The Mosaic Law was clear about not committing murder, but Jesus taught us to go deeper than what was prescribed by the Law, to what was behind the act of murder. “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” (Matthew 5:22).

The principle Jesus was teaching is that committing murder is the outward manifestation of an inward attitude. He speaks of anger and insults, saying that those who demean others with insulting words will be judged by God. Murder is an act which proceeds from the intent of one’s heart. Hatred, anger, or contempt generally precede such an act.

Jesus makes the point that people might feel they are in right standing with God because they haven’t committed murder, but to correctly understand and interpret the meaning of this commandment, we have to go to the root of the intent. He’s causing the hearers to face questions such as, have they ever been unjustly angry with someone, hated them, or held them in contempt, verbally abused or degraded them, or committed character assassination? Have they ever wished someone were dead? If they have, then they are guilty of sinning against God and others, even though they did not go as far as the actual act of murder. His point is that it’s not enough to simply obey the written code of the Law; what’s in the heart and mind matters as well.

The second example Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount covers purity of heart and thought. Jesus begins by repeating what Scripture says, and then introduces further teaching on the topic. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27–28).

Those listening to Jesus as He gave the Sermon on the Mount knew that adultery was forbidden, as it was the seventh of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:14). Just as He had previously quoted the sixth commandment about not murdering, here He quotes the seventh commandment, confirming that adultery is wrong and a sin; but He goes further, pointing out the danger of a lustful look and where that can ultimately lead. Rather than merely prohibiting the outward deed, Jesus delves into the inner state of the heart which can lead to sinful action.2

Jesus linked the seventh commandment to the tenth commandment, which says: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). The Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament) uses the same word for both lusting after and covet. A man was not to covet or desire another man’s wife.

Contrary to the attitude of the Pharisees, who were focused on literal Law-keeping, Jesus was making the point that keeping oneself from the act of adultery didn’t make one right with God. Just as anger could be murder in the heart, so looking on a member of the opposite sex with the intention of illicit sex could be adultery in the heart.

As Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, life within the kingdom of God is about more than rule keeping; it’s about working toward the transformation of our heart, attitudes, thought life, and actions by bringing them into alignment with God’s Word and will. Jesus followed up with: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29–30).

In exaggerated hyperbolic language, Jesus was making a point here about the importance of avoiding temptation to sin. Jesus was not advocating the literal tearing out of one’s eye or cutting off their hand (or foot). He was saying that if your eye causes you to sin because temptation comes to you through your eyes (what you see), or through your hands (things you do), or your feet (places you visit), then behave as if you had cut them off or plucked them out. If your eye causes you to sin, don’t look; if your foot causes you to sin, don’t go; and if your hand causes you to sin, don’t do it.

The phrase causes you to sin is also translated as offend thee (KJV) and makes you stumble (NAS). It comes from the Greek skandalizō, which is used a number of times in Matthew’s Gospel to denote something catastrophic, a stumbling which deflects a person from the path of God’s will and salvation, and also as a person or thing which gets in the way of God’s saving purpose.3

Even though we are saved by Jesus’ sacrifice for us, sin is still serious, as it damages our relationship with God. As members of the kingdom of God, as God’s children, we should strive to not sin. Of course, it’s impossible for us to avoid ever sinning, but when we find ourselves regularly succumbing to sin, we are in a dangerous position—at risk of relationally distancing ourselves from God.

How one’s eye, hand, or foot causes them to sin varies from person to person. We’re not all tempted to sin in the same ways. For example, someone’s eye might lead them toward pornography; meanwhile someone else’s eye leads them to envy, when they see what others have and are resentful. We each need to guard ourselves from sin in our life, and the way sin arises will differ for each of us. We need to be self-aware as to the ways we are personally tempted to sin, and do what we can to counteract them.

To obey this commandment of Jesus, we may have to do some “plucking out” or “cutting off.” We may need to eliminate certain things from our lives, which while they may be innocent in themselves either are, or could easily become, sources of temptation. This may also include our relationship with individuals who tend to lead us to sin.4

As Jesus said, it’s better to go through this life with some things of this world “plucked out” or “cut off” from our lives, to forgo some experiences, in order to be true to Jesus’ teachings, to live as the people of the kingdom of God. How we live now plays a role in our eternity. Knowing that Jesus said it is better to enter the life to come with some things “cut off” rather than indulge them should cause us to think and pray about things we allow or invite into our lives which are not in alignment with His nature, character, will, and Word, and to take definite action to remove them.

The core of Jesus’ message throughout this passage of the Sermon on the Mount is that pleasing God is not merely about rule keeping, as the Pharisees emphasized; but rather, what God is after is a rewiring of the motives and intents of our hearts. Jesus uses these examples to help us, as members of the kingdom of God, learn how to become new creations who are intentional about living the intent of what Scripture teaches.

Originally published January 2016. Adapted and republished April 2024. Read by Jon Marc.

1 See Exodus 20:13, Numbers 35:30–34, Deuteronomy 17:7–13, 19:1–13.

2 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 117.

3 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 205.

4 John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 91.

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