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God's Law vs. Human Tradition: Part I

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 11, 1997

Matthew 5:21-26

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Turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 5 as we continue our study of the sermon on the mount. We are in a section from Matthew 5 verse 17 all the way down to verse 48 where the Lord Jesus sets forth the law of His kingdom, the righteousness of His kingdom. We knew what the Pharisees were teaching in the land of Israel in His own day. What was going to be the pattern of life amongst His followers, however? What was going to be their view of the moral law of God, and He sets it forth in this passage.

Last week we looked at verses 17 - 20 and their we saw the great principles of Jesus set forth with regards to the righteousness of His kingdom. Everything from verse 21 on to the end of the chapter is an illustration, an explanation, and an application of what He said in those verses (17 - 20). Remember that He taught us there that, first of all, He did not come to abolish the law. The Pharisees were saying He was coming to undermine the law of Moses and Jesus says in emphatic terms I am not undermining the law of Moses, in fact, I’ve come to fulfill it. And that’s the second thing that we learned last week, that He’s come to fulfill the law of Moses, not only in His own righteousness in life and death, but He’s come to show what it truly means and He’s come to see that law implanted in the heart’s of His followers. Do you remember the promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31? It was that God would write the law on our hearts that we might have it in us; that no longer would there be a need for someone to teach us these principles because it would be actually ingrained in our very being and the Lord Jesus said that I’ve come for that. I’ve come so that would be fulfilled in my followers that they would be, from the inside out, transformed, regenerated, and conformed to the image of God, restored in that image that was lost in Adam.

Jesus also makes it clear in verses 17 - 20 that the law is authoritative for His people. His believers will follow the moral law of the old covenant, in fact, He argues in verse 20, that His standards are much higher than the Pharisees. The Pharisees like to posture as if they were the ultimate law keepers. We’re going to see in this passage, and then the passages to follow, that Jesus is very clear that He is the ultimate law keeper and all His followers united to Him become those who are conformed to the beautiful image of God displayed in the law of God. So we’re going to look now at verse 21 and following. Let’s attend to the word of the living God where Jesus gives specific examples and application of those general principles. Hear God’s word in Matthew 5:21:

Matthew 5:21-26

Our Father we thank you for this, your word, it is a hard word, a piercing word from our Lord Jesus. It convicts us, O Lord. As it convicts us, O God, we pray that You would drive us into the arms of Christ to find strength, to look at ourselves realistically, and then to avail ourselves of the grace which is His that we might walk in accordance with His image. Give us wisdom, give us seeing eyes, and hearing ears, and willing hearts as we attend to this, your word, we give You the praise and the glory for we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Jesus, in this passage is telling us, in no uncertain terms, that it is possible to murder without knives. It is possible to break the sixth commandment, "Thou shalt not murder" in more ways than taking the life, physically, of another human being. Murder can be done without a gun and murder can be done without a physical weapon. There is more to the command of God in the sixth command than simple refraining from the unlawful taking of our neighbor’s life. Now I want you to understand, before we look at the passage itself, that Jesus has two audiences in mind when He speaks these words. There is, first, the audience of the self-righteous. Jesus knows that the Pharisees are there on the fringes, listening to what He has to say, and He knows that they have a reputation for being the great lovers of the law in Israel. He knows that they think that He is a vile Antinomian speaking against the laws of Moses, undercutting the moral fiber of Israel, and raising up revolutionary new ideas of behavior. So, the Lord Jesus wants to make clear to them their own incorrect assessment of Him, and their own incorrect assessment of themselves. As He speaks, He has in mind the self-righteous, those who were the Pharisees in His own day, and He wants them to understand at least a couple of things.  

I. The law is a pattern for what we are to become
   
The first thing that He wants them to understand is that they are not the law keepers of Israel; He is the law keeper of Israel, though they think they have such a high view of the law, Jesus want them to understand that they haven’t even begun to have a high view of the law. Though they think that they are the ones who exalt the law, perhaps in the midst of a pagan society, He wants them to understand that they have not even understood the law. Had they, they would have given an exposition of the law like He was about to give an exposition of law. He also wants them to understand that the law is more than external. If you look at the Pharisee’s description of the meaning of the sixth commandment in verse 21, it’s very clear that their application was merely political or civil or social. In other words, they upheld the command of God as long as it related to their societal commitment to justice in the courts and punishing those who had committed murder and such. But they saw no deeper spiritual significance to that commandment and Jesus wanted them to understand that this command is more than external; you can break it in more ways than just taking the life of you brother unlawfully. So those things Jesus wanted to get across to the Pharisees and He knew they were there on the fringes listening but remember Jesus is speaking these words to His disciples. He took them apart, they find a level place there somewhere on the mountain, and He sat down and began to teach them so His primary concern is to teach His disciples something. So His words are also applying to those who are humble, not just to the self-righteous and there applied to believers not just those who are spiritually deceived. He wants to teach them something too.

First of all, He wants, by His exposition of the law, to give us tools, diagnostic tools, by which we can check our own hearts, by which we can examine ourselves to see if somehow our hearts, which are given over to the Lord, are being gradually weaned away from Him, or perhaps are going in ways which are actually contradicted that which He wants to work in us, conformity to His image. The law, as He expounds it, will serve as a tool by which we can do self-examination. It also serves as a pattern by which He sets forth what He intends us to become. Understand that the law for Jesus is a beautiful thing because the law sets forth the character of God. As Jesus expounds this commandment, "you shall not murder," we are caused to give pause and praise the God who gave this commandment because as this God tells us, for instance, not to speak in ways that tear down humans made in His image, we realize that this is a God who, though creator of the world and awesome in power, though He could treat us with disdain does not. So He expects us not to treat each other with disdain. Though this God could bring forth all His wrath even in unrighteousness because of His power, yet because of His goodness of heart He never acts unrighteously in hatred towards another. So He expects us not to react with hatred towards another. You see that the law is beautiful exposition of who your God is and it is something to cause you to be drawn to Him and it is not something to fear. The Pharisees had turned it into something to fear and the Lord Jesus is hear to set them straight.

Notice two or three things that Jesus teaches in this passage. The first is this: Jesus contradicts the Pharisee’s interpretation of the law in verse 21 and He teaches that the law is not merely external. He says, "You have heard that the ancients were told, you shall not commit murder and whoever commits murder will be liable to the courts." Notice that Jesus is not pitting His teaching against the Old Testament, He is not pitting His teaching against Moses, and Jesus did not say it is written, but I say. He said, you have heard, but I say. What’s the difference? He is saying "I am not taking issue with Moses, I am taking issue with Moses’ interpreters." The Pharisees have set themselves up in Moses’ seat as the authoritative interpreter’s of Moses and they have told you what they thought Moses was saying and they’re wrong. "You have heard, but I say." I’m not taking issue with Moses, I’m saving Moses from these people.

The Lord Jesus is taking issue with a false interpretation, not with the law as set down by Moses. In fact, in verse 21, He is giving an illustration of precisely what He taught in verse 20. Look at that verse where He says, "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." What does Jesus say the Pharisees were teaching about the law in verse 21? Well, first of all, He said the Pharisees were teaching that the sixth commandment meant that you couldn’t murder. Well, fair enough. So far so good. Furthermore, they quoted from the passage we read earlier this morning in Deuteronomy and they reminded that those who did commit murder would be held liable by the court. But the Lord Jesus intimates that that’s as far as the Pharisees went. They saw the command’s external requirements, but they did not emphasize or realize the internal requirements of that command, and so they gave people the impression that they could keep that command even if their hearts were not right, as long as they obeyed the externals of that command. The Pharisees were scaling down the demands of the law. You can imagine them as a law and order party in Israel saying, "We need to get back to the good old days when we really believed the Ten Commandments and where we really practiced them in our courts. Why, these Romans are coming in and they’re just ruining everything, they’re bringing in relativism, and immorality and we need to get back to civic righteousness in this land. The best way to do it is to get back to the Ten Commandments." You can hear them saying that, very moral and very upstanding, apparently. The Lord Jesus says, really, for all the pomp and circumstance they haven’t understood the root of the law.

You see, the quintessential question of Phariseeism is not how overbearing and nitpicky can I be about the strict observance of the law. The quintessential question of Phariseeism is "When do I not have to obey God’s law?" The Pharisee wants to know what the minimum he has to do is before he has fulfilled what he secretly and perhaps unwittingly thinks is an unreasonable demand of God. You see the Pharisee wants to know the minimum to get by and that tells you something about his attitude towards God. If the law is God’s and the law is good and we only want to know what our minimum requirements are what does that say about what we think about our God and His goodness towards us. But the Pharisee is not one who is going too far in his obedience to the law, he is one who hasn’t even begun to obey the law.

There is a story of W. C. Fields, the comedian from the early part of the century, who was not a notoriously moral man. One evening a friend of his caught him in a hotel room reading a Gideon Bible. His friend was horrified, knowing the moral state of W. C. Fields, and said to him, "W. C. what are you doing reading that Bible?" Fields responded, "Looking for loopholes." That is exactly the spirit of the Pharisee. The Pharisee looks at God’s law and he sees it as something that will make his life less good. And so every loophole must be found to find out where we don't have to apply the law of God and where the law of God does not apply to our lives. You see, the Pharisees misunderstood the nature of the law, the purpose of the law, and they had no idea of the character of their God. They were committed to externalism, that is, they thought the law itself could be filled merely through external actions. All through Matthew 5 verses 21 through 48 Jesus makes it clear that the Pharisees reduce the law to it’s external meaning and never explored what it said about our hearts. So they allowed themselves to feel righteous and justified by that law when in fact they were not. On the other hand, the Pharisees were legalists, that is, they thought they were justified by the law, they thought by keeping the law externally they could earn their relationship with God. But the law cannot justify, it cannot put us in right relationship with God, and knowing what the law demands is the first step to realizing that the law can’t justify. The Pharisees were also legalist in the sense that they thought the law contained the power to enable them to obey it but only God the Holy Spirit can enable a person to keep he law of God. Only in union with Christ can we obey the law of God. Their service of the law was also grudging, it was not joyful, willing obedience that they rendered up to a loving heavenly father, it was grudging, minimal, half-hearted, external compliance to an unreasonable tyrant. That’s really what they thought in their hearts but if you said that to them in person they would have denied if altogether and told you that you were wrong. But the Lord Jesus is telling you that’s what their heart was. Jesus is telling this to the disciples because the lurking problem of Phariseeism is not very far away from any of us. All of us have an inherited tendency to go in that direction and Jesus puts this out as a warning to examine our hearts.

You see, our attitude to the law is an index to our attitude to God. If we think that God’s law is something that He put into life to ruin it then that really tells something about what we think about God. But if we can say with the psalmist, "How I love thy law, O Lord" and if we can be perfectly realistic and realize that we do not fulfill the law in this life then we are on our way both to understanding the law, understanding our God, and understanding the freedom that the Christian has. Because the freedom given to a Christian is not freedom from obedience, it is freedom to obedience. It is not freedom against the laws of God; it is freedom for obedience. It frees us from the slavish fear of condemnation and it frees us to the loving and willing obedience of children to the Father’s instruction. The Pharisees didn’t understand this and the Lord Jesus is going to remind them of that six times in this passage.

II. The law of God is spiritual.
   
The second thing I’d like to remind you we learn in this passage we find in verse 22. There, we see Jesus’ exposition of the true meaning of the law; He teaches us here that the law is spiritual. That’s the great lesson we learn. He says, "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, you empty head’ shall be guilty before the supreme court and whoever says you fool shall be guilty enough to go into fiery hell." You see there Jesus teaches that the law is spiritual, that is, it is of the spirit. The law deals with spiritual things, and it gets down to matters of the heart. It’s not just external, it’s not just political, it’s not just civil, it’s not just social, it has to do with our hearts. We can break the law without anyone knowing that we’ve broken the law around us. It’s spiritual, it deals with matters of the heart and He gives us two examples of it in the passage.

First of all, He shows how the sixth commandment, the command not to murder, relates to our anger. Now there is righteous anger and there is unrighteous anger, the Lord Jesus is referring to that unrighteous anger here and He says that that kind of anger is "heart murder." He says to these Pharisees who thought they could keep the law, if you have committed heart murder I tell you that you have broken the sixth commandment.

Then He moves on and speaks of another kind of breakage of that commandment. He applies the sixth commandment to our tongues and He says, If you have used distructive speech toward your brethren, you are guilty of tongue murder. You see there is more than physical murder that’s involved in this commandment, heart murder and tongue murder are both entailed. I point you in particular to the words Jesus uses. The first words, the New American Standard simple transliterates raca it means "you empty head." Now that’s not just a mean name that children are calling each other on the playground, that word is a proud word, it is a word which disdains, it accuses a man of spiritual ignorance. It is what you say to somebody who you are claiming has a lack of knowledge of the truth. The second word he uses is you fool. that’s a spiteful word, a word which comes from hatred and it is a word which you use when you accuse a man of having no grace in his life. In other words, you’re accusing a man of having no piety, no knowledge of God. You can surmise from this exchange that the Pharisees had likely accused Jesus and John the Baptist and their followers of being ignorant of the truth and having no true piety. The Lord Jesus is saying that when you speak destructively and when you speak disdainfully of one another you are committing tongue murder. This commandment is broken not only when we unlawfully take the lives of our brethren, but it’s taken and broken with tongue and heart sins and those sins must be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Notice Jesus’ words in the passage, He says you’ll be guilty of the supreme court and even of the fiery hell if you do these things. Jesus isn’t giving you a gradation, if you do this you get this, if you do this you get that, if you do this you get another. Jesus is simple stressing to you the seriousness of those sins even though no one else knows that you’ve done them, even only one or two other persons know that you’ve committed that sin, they’re serious in His sight. Perhaps you have experienced in the midst of great pressure heart sins of this sort even against those that you love, perhaps you have experienced in the midst of great pressures in a family context with your spouse or with your children, tongue murder like this. Jesus is saying, my friend, it is a symptom of something that needs to be changed in the heart. You see how the commandment is used as a diagnostic tool to give us self-examination? We think that we have our life under control, "Surely I’m not breaking the sixth commandment" and then in the midst of pressure that word comes against my spouse designed to destroy, designed to tear down. It is tongue murder. The Lord Jesus is saying that is a sign of a spiritual ailment.

So what is He saying to do? Just go out and obey the law and it will be fine? No, His point is to drive you into His arms again in prayer and dependence upon Him, that the Spirit might work the work of mortification in your life. You see, anyone who’s ever struggled with those kinds of sins knows that you can’t free yourself from it. You need the grace of Christ to free yourself from it, you need the grace of Christ in sanctification, and so examination according to the law drives us back to Christ that we might depend upon Him and the work of the Spirit in our lives and that we might be conformed again according to the pattern of God’s perfect law. Only the grace of God can conquer that kind of indwelling sin.

May I speak to the young people for a moment? There is perhaps not crueler age, with regard to the tongue, than the early years. The things that you can say to one another in the school, in the classroom, during breaks, it’s amazing, your minds are fruitful and intelligent. But how do we use them? We use them to injure human beings made in the image of God. Listen to Jesus’ words here. Do not say those words against your breathren, do not say those disdainful words because it is tongue murder. Jesus is giving us these things so that we might look at our hearts in light of the law and be changed and transformed.

III.  God’s law applies to our relationships.
   
We learn a third thing in this passage today. Jesus makes it clear that the law of God applies to our relationships. He set this forth in verses 23 through 26 where He teaches us that our relationship to God is reflected in our human relations. For the law to be fulfilled, Jesus makes it clear, the heart must at all times be filled with love toward God and man and not filled with hatred and anger. The law requires that type of heart love, that type of heart obedience. He tells the story of a man on his way to worship to give an offering according to the Old Testament system and, of course, as that man went to give that offering, if he were meditating properly, and Jesus gives us no reason to think that he was not, he would have been meditating about the goodness of God to him. And as he is on the way to offer that offering and meditating on the goodness of God to him he remembers that his brother has something against him. He has, actually, or, has been perceived to, committed some grievance against his brother and his brother has a problem with him. As this man thinks of the goodness of God to him he thinks that if God has been good to me ought not I be good to my brother. My brother and I are estranged, surely we should be reconciled.

Do you see what He is saying here? Jesus is saying that if you have the love of God in your heart then you are going to have a heart for being right with your brothers and sisters. If you have the love of God in your heart you are going to want to be reconciled with your brothers and sisters. If you have the love of God in your heart you are going to have a heart which shows concern for the best interest of others and a lack of concern about reconciliation is an index of a lost and a dead heart. So the Lord Jesus says those words to shake us out of our spiritual slumber. "Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there" and He means Gehenna, "until you have paid the last cent." If you do not care about your brother and if you do not want to be reconciled with your brother that is a spiritual sign that your heart is not right with God. Even if you make pretentious worship offerings to the Lord. You see what Jesus is doing for us here? He is giving us the law as a tool to examine ourselves as believers. That law reveals heart anger. What is my attitude of heart? If my attitude of heart is hateful towards others then it is an indication that there is something wrong. What about my tongue? In the midst of pressure or otherwise do I speak words that destroy others? If I do then that tells me about the state of my heart. And finally, what is my attitude towards my brothers? Am I concerned when I have offended others to initiate reconciliation rather than waiting for them to come to me. Am I so concerned for my brother and sister’s good that I desire to show the love of God in my heart by being reconciled to them or do I not care? If I don’t care, Jesus says, that tells us that there is an absence of gospel love in our heart and so to believers this law serves as a tool to examine ourselves and to drive us back to Christ so that we might put to death this sin in us. To the self-righteous, it reminds us that this law cannot be kept externally and we certainly can’t justify ourselves by it. Would you like to be justified according to that requirement? Who would be the first one to step forward?

The story is told of a preacher who is preaching at a conference one day and announced, "Praise God, I haven’t sinned in 21 years." Someone on the front row said, "I’d like to ask his wife." Who would like to be justified according to those standards. Never a word in hatred or anger and never a thought in hatred or anger. You see, these words explode the idea that we can make ourselves worthy of fellowship with God. Only God can work these things in us and He only does it by his grace and through the work of the Spirit. So when we see these things in ourselves, He wants us to come back to Christ, avail ourselves afresh of the blessings of the indwelling of the Spirit and to determine again in newness of life to walk in the way of truth. The law shows what God will make us one day and we ought to desire now to become what one day we shall be. May the Lord bless His word. Let’s look to Him in prayer.

Our Father we thank You for Your word and we ask that You would make it a reality in our experience by grace through faith. We ask it in Jesus name, Amen.

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