When our son was little, he seemed to want to “push the envelope,” to see how close he could come to breaking a rule without quite doing so. One of the rules was, “Don’t play in the street.” I remember him standing with one foot on the curb and the other dangling over the street. When he was called on this, he’d say, “I’m not playing in the street!”
This is not just a problem with little boys. We all, to some degree, try to see how close we can come to breaking a rule without quite doing so, don’t we? Sometimes we break the rule, but just barely!
For instance, how fast can we go in a 70 mph speed zone? 69? 70? After all, my cruise control varies a little. If I set it on 70, it could creep up to 72. That’s not my fault, is it? The police won’t stop me if I go 72, will they? 73? In fact, there seems to be something within us that reacts to rules. I think it’s called sin.
Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, took a different approach to the way rules are to be regarded. He seemed to be saying that the external rules are not even the real issue; that we need to begin with our thought life! (Matthew 5:17-48)
A little background: Jesus was speaking to His disciples as well as a great crowd of mostly Jewish people. These were people who lived their lives under the Mosaic Law, or at least made some effort to. This was a God-given set of rules, but though it expressed God’s desire for His people, they were unable to keep it. Peter, one of Jesus’ inner-circle, probably expressed this best when he later called the Law “ … a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). Perhaps they were looking for someone to free them from this burden as seemed to be promised in the prophets (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Or perhaps they suspected Jesus of being some sort of anarchist, planning to destroy their Law.
If this is what they were expecting, they were probably startled to hear Jesus say, “Don’t suppose that I came to abolish the Law and the Prophets! I didn’t come to abolish but to fulfill!” (Matthew 5:17)
In later epistles we learn that by fulfilling its demands, He removed its hold on us.
He took its penalty on Himself: “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law to perform them.’ Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’ However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Galatians 3:10-13).
He nullified its penalty: “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace” (Ephesians 2:14, 15).
But that hadn’t happened yet. His hearers were still under the Law – its requirements and its penalties.
And Jesus seemed at first to be making it a little harder to keep:
“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother (Some later texts have “without cause” here.) 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 gehanna of fire” (Matthew 5:22).
“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 lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27, 28).
I believe what He’s telling us is that it is relatively easy to keep the commandments of God – externally. I can honestly say that I have never actually committed the act of murder. Nor have I ever committed the act of adultery. I think most of us could say the same thing.
But sin doesn’t consist of the action only. It begins within – in the heart (the inner-person, which includes the thoughts and emotions). And sin of the heart is real sin.
Well, I could say that I’ve never really had thoughts of killing anyone. Nor have I really ever wanted to have sex with a woman other than my wife. At least, I don’t think I have.
However, Jesus goes deeper than that. He doesn’t say that I have to want to murder or commit adultery. He uses words that don’t seem that harsh.
He says if I’m angry with my brother I am guilty. Not plotting or scheming his demise – just angry! Perhaps the words “without cause” which are found in some later manuscripts were added by some scribe to take the edge off. After all don’t I sometimes have a right to be angry?
He says if I look at a woman with lust, I have already committed adultery in my heart. I don’t even need to be thinking about sex with her. The word translated “lust,” is elsewhere simply translated “desire.” In Luke 22:15, Jesus speaks of His own “desire” to eat the Passover.
We’ve all had these feelings! And most of us still do!
Why does He do this to us? Probably for a number of reasons:
-- To show us how deep in sin we are, and how deep sin is in our lives.
-- To show us that we can’t be saved by keeping God’s Law, because we don’t – and can’t – keep it.
-- To take away our idea that just because we don’t do certain things that we are somehow better than those who do.
-- To show us that God’s standards are perfect and are thus higher than any human standards. Compare 5:20, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” with 5:48, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
-- To force us to rely totally on Him by faith for our righteousness.