I’ve been journeying through the sermon on the mount (Matthew chapters 5 through 7) over the last couple weeks and there seems to be a common phrase that Jesus used.
You have heard it said…but I say…
Jesus makes use of this phrase in verses 21, 27, 33, 38, and 43 of chapter 5. If He felt compelled to use it so often in such a condensed portion of scripture it must be important. But what was He trying to say? I think it’s easy to fall into a trap here. There are prominent misconceptions about this that are easy to believe, but are false regardless of their believably. People can sometimes take them out of context (which is never a good idea) and that leads them to make faulty conclusions. I’ve done that too. Who hasn’t?
Lets start with what Jesus is NOT saying. He is not saying that the law is void and null. Jesus is not rewriting the law of God because to do so would be to rewrite the character of God. How do we know that Jesus isn’t saying this? Because Jesus is the exact imprint of God and Jesus lived out the law. If the law wasn’t important, then the life of Jesus didn’t matter. I would fear for anyone who believed that. We also know that Jesus isn’t abolishing the law because of His own words. The following verses preceded His statement above.
“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. 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. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:17-20 (ESV) [my emphasis]
Jesus was the embodiment of the law. He lived it perfectly. He reflected God perfectly. So would He say that none of that is important any longer? Absolutely not! That would be like Jesus saying, “follow me, except don’t do all that stuff that I did when I was on earth.” We also know that Jesus was not making corrections to the law. To think that would mean that God made mistakes in the past and Jesus was His editor. Malachi 3:6 says that God does not change. Since God does not change, His word does not change.
For a long time I felt bad for people of the Old Testament. They had a strict law code and system to adhere to. It seemed so heavy to carry. But then I started to see exactly what the coming of Christ did and I began to see how He didn’t remove that godly standard, but actually raised the bar for everyone. When Jesus says, “you have heard…but I say…” He’s doing a few things. One, He’s removing false conceptions about what it means to follow the law of God. Humanity has always distorted truth. Second, He’s clarify the heart of the law and therefore, the heart of God in His purity. Third, Jesus is calling humanity to go way deeper. Below are some examples:
#1- Instead of just not murdering someone, you shouldn’t be angry with a person and withhold grace and forgiveness. The life of the Christian in these terms should reflect Christ, hanging on the cross, wrongfully convicted, suffering for others, and doing so that many would come to grace and find forgiveness in God. The Christian heart should not be an angry heart. The Christian heart should never want God’s full judgement for anyone because they’ve been saved from it themselves by what Jesus has done. Instead, the Christian should do what they can to extend love and grace, not wrath, even to those who abuse and exploit us.
#2-Instead of just keeping yourself from sleeping with another besides your spouse, you shouldn’t even long for another. That means you shouldn’t desire to undress others with your eyes, or seek out a fantasy world through books, articles, videos, pictures, and any other source. Your whole heart should be for your spouse. If you’re not married, the rules still apply. In addition to that, longing for anything more than God amounts to adultery towards God himself. Placing material objects, comfort, people, money, or anything else at the highest level of importance in our lives demotes God. When we do that, our heart betrays us worse more than ever.
Prior to the arrival of Jesus on planet earth, humanity had a standard by which to measure themselves and to know the heart of God. But it was still lived out by imperfect people. Even the greatest figures in the bible messed up and fell short of the mark. But when Jesus arrived, humanity saw it all displayed. And that removed any ounce of deniability. They could not longer say that they didn’t know what God meant or how it should look to live for Him. When I give my students and assignment with verbal instructions, I understand that some of them will not get it right. But when I give them the instructions and then demonstrate them over and over, they won’t be able to say that they don’t know what’s expected. Jesus demonstrated God’s heart, God’s character, God’s law, and God’s love. Then He looked out at humanity and said the following words:
I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.
John 14:6 (NASB)
Jesus raised the bar for everyone because He showed us what a life lived for God really looks like. After centuries of men, women, and kings getting it wrong, humanity had perfection revealed. God himself, clothed in humanity, out of grace and love, said, “let me show you how.” He now bids us to come and do the same. We won’t be perfect as he was perfect, but that should never deter us. The life of the Christians is aimed at Christ’s life, surrendered in Christ’s death, and empowered by Christ’s Spirit. There is no higher standard than that.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.
Ephesians 5:1-2 (NASB)
To imitate perfection is a very intimidating notion. But we aren’t on our own in this endeavor. God’s Holy Spirit is within us, God’s children surround us, and God’s grace covers us.