. . . But I Say

Lots of people teach the idea that Jesus did away with the Old Testament and taught the New Testament audience a new code of conduct in Matthew 5:21-48. When I point out that the immediately preceding verses negate that thought (“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets… until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law” Matthew 5:17-20), they usually mumble something about “Jesus didn’t do away with the Law, He fulfilled the Law. So we don’t have to pay any attention to the Law.” I suppose it’s just me, but for some reason, they never quite seem to understand that their conclusions are doing exactly what Jesus said we shouldn’t do.Moses Breaks Ten Commandments

I think there are several basic mistakes they make when reading this passage.

  1. They read into the passage their own biases and preconceived notions. We have to ask: Where did these biases come from? Why do their biases blind them from reading and understanding the text as it’s presented?
  2. They’re perfectly fine with morality changing from Old Testament to New Testament. This is not the same as regulations changing. Regulations tell us what clothes to wear, foods to eat, etc. Morality tells us what is right and what is wrong (lusting, hating, etc). Since morality flows from the character of God (“Be holy for I am holy” Lev 19:2, 20:7; 1 Peter 1:16), if someone believes Matt 5 introduces new morality, are they suggesting that the character of God has changed from Old Testament to New Testament? A bit alarming, to say the least.
  3. They they think that Jesus said “You have read it in the Scriptures…” when He says nothing of the sort. He said “You have heard it said…” Why do they conclude something that’s simply not there?
  4. They haven’t bothered to check the Old Testament to see if their view is correct.

The last point is the saddest, because it reflects a profound lack of understanding of Jesus’ methods of operation. Jesus’ second most-frequently used phrase is “Have you not read..?” Whether teaching His disciples or debating His foes, Jesus would frequently bring His audience back to a proper (often literal) understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures (Matt 12:3,5 [cf  Mark 2:25; Luke 6:3]; Matt 19:4; Matt 22:31; [cf Mark 12:26;]; Mark 12:10; Luke 10:26). Many of Jesus’ disciples and detractors were quite ignorant of what the Scriptures actually said and meant, and His instructions to them were always in accord with a careful reading of the Old Testament. Anyone suggesting Jesus was undermining (or seriously revamping) the Old Testament has an incredibly high burden of proof, because everywhere we look in the Gospels, Jesus – The Living Word – was always bringing His audience back to a literal interpretation of the Written Word.  Like Paul, Jesus taught His followers to be Bereans.

But I Tell You Again…

Each of the supposed “new teachings” of Jesus in Matt 5 can be found in the Old Testament. They’re not always given verbatim, and some of the passages require that you think (imagine that), but they’re all there.

1. Murder vs Anger Without Cause

 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother [without cause (KJV)] will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.   (Matt 5:21-22)
NOTE: Whether or not the phrase “without cause” is in the original, we know that it is certainly the context. Many of the Prophets, Apostles – and even Jesus and God – were angry and many of them called people ‘fool’. So clearly this needs to be understood as being “angry without cause,” and hurling insults (of all stripes) without cause.

 Does the Old Testament teach that it’s wrong to be angry with your brother without cause? Of course!

[+] Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret–it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.   (Ps 37:8-9 )

Time and time again, the Old Testament demonstrates that misplaced anger aimed at a brother leads to greater sin: Cain vs Abel in Gen 4:5-6; Eliab against David in 1 Sam 17:28-29; Saul against David in 1 Sam 18:8-9.

Does the Old Testament teach that it’s wrong to hurl insults without cause and that such people are headed for judgment? Of course! [+] A fool’s lips bring him strife, and his mouth invites a beating. A fool’s mouth is his undoing, and his lips are a snare to his soul.   (Prov 18:6-7 ) There is no shortage of verses in Psalms and Proverbs that talk about how a fool’s mouth gets him into trouble, saying things about people that aren’t true or aren’t warranted: Prov 13:10, Prov 14:16-18, Prov 16:28, Prov 17:14, Prov 19:19, Prov 20:3, Prov 27:3 and many more passages.

The key here is “unwarranted” and “without cause”. This cannot be overstated. When Jesus warns about calling people ‘fool’, is He prohibiting every use of the word? If so, then Jesus should never have called people ‘fool’ (something He did quite a bit: Matt 23:17, 25:2; Luke 10:40; 24:25). Paul’s definitely in trouble because he used the word a lot more than Jesus did (Rom 1:21-22; 1 Cor 3:18-19; 1 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 11-12 is riddled with the word; Gal 3:1-3 and more). Even James and Peter get in on the act (James 2:20; 1 Peter 2:15). And we wont’ bother with the Old Testament because it’s overrun with the word. So clearly Jesus is not prohibiting the use of the word, but rather, teaching that we shouldn’t use the word without cause.

There’s a second thing we need to realize: Only a dullard would believe He’s prohibiting only the word ‘fool’ and not prohibiting other negative expressions. This is common sense. Fools do many foolish things, including using the word “fool” without cause.  Both Jesus and Proverbs points out that the thoughts and behavior of fools mark him out for hardship and destruction.

2. Adultery vs Lusting

You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’   But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt 5:27-28)

Did the Old Testament teach that it was wrong to lust, and that lust was a sin against God? Of course!

[+] I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl. For what is man’s lot from God above, his heritage from the Almighty on high? Is it not ruin for the wicked, disaster for those who do wrong?   (Job 31:1-3)

What wisdom is this from the mouth of a man who lived approximately 500 years before Moses? Job continues the thought in Job 31:9-12, showing that lusting after a woman that is not his wife is a sin to be judged. This idea is hardly rare in the Old Testament. Even godless Abimelech knew it was wrong for him to see a married woman as available (Gen 20:9 – note that Abimelech never touched Sarah, yet he called it sin).

Let me pause at this point to ponder a curious thing Jesus says here: [+] If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.   (Matt 5:29) If we’re so gun-ho to preach that Jesus is teaching new ways for us to behave, why is it that nobody today obeys v29? Just a thought. Last time I heard of anyone trying to do this, her sisters were thrown in jail for helping her pluck out her eyes (Dallas, Texas – 1994.)

3. Casual Divorce vs Adulterous Divorce

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’   But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.    (Matt 5:31-32)

Did the Old Testament teach that casual divorce was not allowed? Of course!

[+]You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.  I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,” says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith. (Malachi 2:14-16)

This admonition in Malachi is given in the context of the people of Judah who have committed spiritual adultery: they’ve broken faith with their God so that they can pursue other gods. God compares their spiritual indifference to their marital indifference, and shows that the casual divorce of their wives was unwarranted, selfish and harmful.

It’s worth pointing out that there are very few passages that deal with divorce in the Old Testament:

  • Deut 24:1-4. This is where most Biblical teaching on divorce comes from. Here, Moses lays out the regulations for both divorce and remarriage. Regrettably, most people miss the fact that this passage is primarily focused on remarriage to the original spouse, an idea that would seem counter-intuitive to most Christians.
  • Lev 21 & Deut 22. Restrictions for priests and dishonest men. (Repeated in Eze 44:21-22).
  • Jeremiah 3. God divorces faithless Israel and warns that Judah is a worse offender.
  • Malachi 2:14-16. God states He hates divorce.

Taken as a whole, these do not teach that divorce is prohibited in every situation. Rather, they teach that divorce is not the original plan of God (Gen 2:23-24), God hates when divorce happens (Mal 2:16), because of sin, divorce is sometimes permitted by God (Deut 24:1-4). This is perfectly consistent with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 and Matthew 19.

4. Keeping Your Oaths vs Keeping Your Word

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’  But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne;  or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.  Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.    (Matt 5:33-37)

Did the Old Testament say that we are to keep our word? Of course!

[+] You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another.   (Lev 19:11)

Some people might think this verse doesn’t correspond to Jesus’ teaching, but let’s think about it: if we let our ‘yes’ be ‘yes’, we will be in perfect compliance with Lev 19:11. Likewise, if we’re complying with Lev 19:11, there will be no need to invoke super-oaths (swearing by God, heaven, etc), because our word will be sufficient.

It would appear to me that the practice of swearing by specific holy things was a way by which the 1st century Jew would present his word as authoritative. Jesus’ point here is that your common language should be just as binding and truthful as your super-oaths. If you speak truth all the time, there would be no need to invoke oaths of things you neither created nor controlled. Even for cultures where the practice of swearing “super-oaths” is not present, the undergirding truth that Jesus is teaching is not new: we should be men of our words. Our ‘yes’ should be ‘yes’, and our ‘no’ should be ‘no’. Anything beyond this practice opens the door for legal wrangling and looking for devils in the details.

5. Eye-for-Eye vs Turn The Other Cheek

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matt 5:38-42)

Does the Old Testament teach that we should turn the other cheek? Of course!

[+] The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. .. let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.    (Lam 3:25-26, Lam 3:30)

In this passage, Jeremiah is describing the one who waits on the Lord for his salvation. Instead of trusting in his own strength to rescue him from danger, he puts his faith in God, even turning the cheek to those who would slap him. As for going the 2nd mile and giving to those who would ask of you, all of this is covered in multiple places: Deut 15:7-14; Job 31:16-22; Ps 37:21-22; Ps 112:5-6; Prov 3:28; Isa 58:6-12 and many more.

6. Hate Your Enemies vs Pray For Your Enemies

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?   (Matt 5:43-47)

This section deserves special attention since it’s the one most frequently mis-quoted by Christians today. Many people believe that Jesus is expanding/revoking/nullifying Old Testament teaching in Matthew 5. But look at what He says in v34: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” We need to stop here for a sec: Jesus never said the Old Testament teaches us to hate our enemies. And don’t take my word for it – look through the Bible for yourself: Nowhere in the Old Testament are God’s people commanded to hate their enemies. So who is Jesus contradicting? Certainly not the Bible! He’s contradicting the common, incorrect interpretations of His day, not the Old Testament.

And does the Old Testament teach that we should love our enemies? Of course!

[+] If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to take it back to him. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him with it. (Exod 23:4-5) and [+] Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from him.   (Prov 24:17-18)

Even Job, who lived 500 years before the Mosaic law, knew that it was wrong to rejoice over the misfortune of his enemy or to curse his enemy without cause by asking for his life (Job 31:29-30). Some will say that these passages don’t teach to love our enemies, and although the command is not explicit, I would still argue that it’s teaching by way of example that we are indeed to love our enemies. One might then reply that imprecatory prayers are teaching us to hate our enemies, but the simple response to this goes back to the idea of “without cause”. I believe the only way to harmonize these passages is to see that the people of God are never to hate anyone without cause.  Once the person has crossed the line and engaged in actions that warrant hatred, then the people of God will indeed rightfully hate that person with a righteous hatred, and will pray for God to take His vengeance on them in His time (as opposed to taking matters into their own hands).

David echoes this sentiment in Ps 139:

16 your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. 17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.

19 If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! 20 They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. 21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord, and abhor those who rise up against you? 22 I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

I put a large portion of this Psalm here deliberately. How is it that modern Christians can love and affirm Ps 139:1-18, shriek in horror at v19-22, but turn right around and encourage kids to memorize v23-24? If we love the beginning and the end, but hate the middle of an inspired, Holy-Spirit-authorized, infallible Psalm, is this not a hint that maybe we don’t understand the whole Psalm? I should think so!

At the very least, we see this:

  • David is calling for the death of the wicked – not just his enemies
  • He qualifies “the wicked” as bloodthirsty, evil and profane people
  • The wicked hate God, and are therefore hated by God’s people

And David isn’t the only one who hates wicked people. God hates them too. [+] The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the Lord abhors. (Ps 5:5-6) See also Lev 20:23; Prov 6:6-19; Hos 9:15; Malachi 1:1-3. (Many people are fond of saying “Hate doesn’t mean ‘hate’ – it means ‘loved less’. This may be true for Rachel and Leah (Gen 29:31-35), but it’s not true for Hos 9:15, because God explicitly says that He hated them, and loved them “no more”. “No more” does not mean ‘less’ – it means ‘no more’.)

Again, the pivotal concept here is “without cause”. Even if someone is a national enemy, if they have not done anything malicious, they are not to be hated. When and where the opportunity arises, we are to bless them and feed them and pray for them, leaving vengeance to God, since He has promised that He will do so. This idea is also taught elsewhere in the New Testament:

 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”  (Rom 12:19-20)

Note that Paul is drawing from the Old Testament in 2 places to make his point. The first is Deuteronomy 34, where we see a blood-bath as God takes vengeance in the Day of Judgment. It is this promise of God that Paul leans on to say that we don’t need to take vengeance into our own hands. The second passage is Prov 25:21-22, quoted verbatim by Paul. A common –but erroneous- teaching for this passage is that Paul is telling us that if we pray for our enemies and do good for them, God will put their conscience in the wringer and they’ll feel miserable. I see no warrant for this interpretation, and it directly contradicts the point of quoting Deut 34. Nowhere in the Bible does “burning coals on his head” mean anything less than precisely and literally that.  Not in Romans 12:19-20; not in Prov 25:21-22; not in Matt 10:14-15; not in Matt 11:20-24 (where Matt 10:14-15 is practiced by Jesus). Not even in Gen 19:24-25. All these passages are speaking of literal fire and damnation.

What is Jesus’ teaching about how we should treat our enemies?

Love your enemies even if they mistreat you for My Name’s sake. If they mistreat you, don’t take matters into your own hands, but pray for them. Perhaps God will save them; perhaps He will destroy them. Either way, it’s His call and His decision.

Not only is this what the Old Testament teaches, but it’s what Paul teaches, and this is exactly what we see happening in Revelation:

A prayer/appeal to God for vengeance:

 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.   (Rev 6:10-11)

 God acting in vengeance in His own time:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.   (Rev 19:11-15)

 God’s people rejoicing to see justice prevail and enemies destroyed:

Rejoice over her, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.'”   (Rev 18:20) … After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” And again they shouted: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.” The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne. And they cried: “Amen, Hallelujah!” Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, both small and great!” Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.   (Rev 19:1-6)

Does the Old Testament teach that we should love our enemies? Of course. We are to treat them and their property with kindness, looking for opportunities to demonstrate mercy to them just as God has shown mercy to us. We are not to hate people without cause. And if they abuse us and mistreat us, we are to pray for them that God will repay them, and then leave it to God to do so.

Lastly, it needs to be pointed out that in Matthew 5, Jesus is talking about interpersonal relationships. He is not talking about how international relationships should be handled. The two are not the same, and we err if we think that Jesus is teaching that offended nations should “walk the 2nd mile” or that nations should “cut off an arm so they can get into heaven”. Such instructions make no sense, and are beyond the scope of both His teachings and this document.


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