Did Jesus “Raise the Bar” in the Sermon on the Mount? – Law 2

In my last post, I began talking about Jesus’ teachings on the Law (the Old Testament Law of Moses, not necessarily Roman or other statutes).  As I stated there, it appears from the context and his statements that he is speaking primarily to the “teachers of the Law,” who were seemingly obsessed with who was or wasn’t doing what. But Jesus is also talking to those “poor in spirit” that he mentioned at the beginning of Matthew 5, those who were burdened under the religious teaching of the day.

Obviously, Jesus drew some attention from both sides, with both leaders and common-folk seeing Jesus as one of many revolutionaries that came and went. Jesus is quick to clarify that he is not anti-law; in fact, he supports the entirety of the Law, and that he doesn’t want one iota taken from the Law until it is “accomplished.”

Furthermore, he makes it clear that “ordinary” righteousness is not enough, and neither is that of the scribes and Pharisees. Connecting the dots between Jesus’ statements, he is saying that to be “poor in spirit” (theirs is the Kingdom) is to be more righteous than those who claim to keep the law.

Matthew 5:21-48

Now he starts giving examples, the “You have heard it said … but I say …” series of statements found in Chapter 5 verses 21-48 (quote from the ESV):


21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.


27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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. 30 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.


31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.


33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.


38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 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. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

Love Your Enemies

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 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. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This, of course, presents an interesting twist on the teaching of the Law. Up until this point, presumably, the thinking was that literal keeping of the Law was what mattered. After all, you can only regulate behavior, not intent or emotion. Unless, of course, you’re God who can see into the hearts of men.

Let’s take anger as an example. There are laws about killing and intentionally causing bodily injury to one another, but no one would even conceive of a law against hate. Sure there are “hate crime” laws, but even so, these laws apply a presumed intent after the fact of an actual injury. If you hate but do nothing about it, there’s really nothing anyone can do, and you’ve broken no laws.

Obviously, when Jesus taught this, he didn’t realize the stresses of driving in traffic, or he would have made some allowance for momentary urges to kill. Is anyone out there not guilty of at least wanting to inflict some sort of pain on someone else?  And what’s more, now we’re supposed to love them, not just avoid hating them.

Jesus seems to be making a couple of things clear. First, even if you could do a cursory job of keeping the written Law, these internal laws are beyond the realm of possibility. Find someone who claims to be free from all evil intent, and I’ll show you a liar or a sociopath. Second, righteousness is not a matter of the written Law; we’ve moved beyond the reach of Law into an area that no one has yet considered.

Chances are, everyone in the crowd is thinking the same thing we are: We’re toast. If God—who can see into our hearts—expects us to really be perfect (as He is perfect), we’re all dead men walking. (And yes, this is precisely the point Paul will make a few years later.)


What if there was a means to righteousness that was beyond keeping the law? If the sin is beyond reach of the Law, then it logically follows that the righteousness is also beyond the Law.

New Laws, anyone?

It has been suggested that Jesus brought a new, much more stringent law than that which came through Moses, and there is some support for this thought; certainly he is talking about a higher standard. However, thinking of this standard in the same vein as the Law of Moses doesn’t mesh with the discussion of the New Covenant Law in Jeremiah 31, the goal of which is not to create a higher standard for sin:

31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”  (ESV)

So trying once again to connect the dots, we have:

  1. The Law of Moses, which is to remain in force until such time as it is fully “accomplished.”
  2. A new standard for righteousness that is even more unattainable, except to be “poor in spirit.”
  3. A new covenant law, written on our hearts, by which we will know God (as opposed to knowing rules) and which brings forgiveness where God will no longer remember our sin.

Are not hating, not lusting, and loving our enemies the heart of God?  Of course. Jesus makes it quite clear, that the goal is for us to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And if unattainable by keeping rules, then how?

That, of course, is where Jesus is taking this discussion.

About this study

While I have a certain understanding of what is called “Law and Gospel” in Lutheran circles, I have no agenda here but to work my way through some key passages discussing the Law and how we are to see it from a New Covenant perspective. This is really my own personal Bible Study, worked out as I write.

Feel free to jump in with comments and questions, as long as they are in the spirit of Bible study.


New Covenant Law – 1

This is hopefully the first in a series of posts talking about a New Covenant perspective of the Law; that is to say, what the New Testament and Paul in particular say about the Law. When I talk about the Law, I’m talking about the Law of Moses, that which the Jewish people were expected to keep up until the time of Christ.  I’m not talking about speed laws, anti-trust regulations or taxation. These two concepts get confused by many people, but they really shouldn’t.  There are rules put in place by men, with penalties established by men. Then there are rules given by God and… well, you get the idea. To keep things clearer, I will try to always capitalize when talking about the Law of Moses.

Matthew 5

Now, while I was specifically planning on looking at Paul’s view of the Law, I really should start with Jesus, since that’s what I always tell other people to do.  The first—and perhaps the most crucial—teaching of Jesus on the Law is found in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew Chapter 5, starting with verse 17:

17 “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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Wow… and this is just the beginning. But let’s take a look at what Jesus is saying.

The SOTM (Sermon On The Mount)  begins with the Beatitudes (aka the “blesseds”), then the “salt and light” teaching. So far, Jesus seems to be addressing two groups of people: First, there are those, the poor and the persecuted, who need the Kingdom of God. Then, Jesus turns to Israel and Jerusalem in particular (the city set on a hill), who have failed to be the conduit for the blessings of God to the rest of the world. This was Israel’s assignment as the Chosen People—to be the means through which God would bless the whole world. But, rather than be that, the Jewish leadership has tried to keep the blessings to themselves, missing the point about why they were chosen. And, it seems from the comments throughout the Gospels that the Jewish establishment is trying to keep the blessings for those who keep the Law.

So, Jesus now seems to be addressing those who may be seeing Jesus as a counter-establishment revolutionary, who dares to ignore the Law (an accusation made a few times throughout the Gospels). He makes it clear that he is no such radical. He has not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it—to bring it to completion, to see it all “accomplished.” To do away with the Law undermines what Jesus has come to do. He has not come to fulfill any less than the absolute entirety of the Law, every iota, dot and tittle. And get this, the Pharisees aren’t doing it good enough.

But then he lays it out: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Is this really a mandate to keep the whole Old Testament Law (and just wait for what’s coming next)? There are, in fact, those claiming to be Christians who teach just that. Is Paul in disagreement with Jesus when he said it was impossible to be saved through the Law (Gal 2:16)? Was Peter merely dreaming when he had the vision telling him he could eat pork? Or, is Jesus trying to make a different point here?

We need to keep in mind exactly what we are talking about. If, in fact, Jesus means that righteousness depends upon keeping every iota of the law, then no Christian is doing it, no matter how legalistic they may be, and I mean no one. For one thing, Paul assures us that law makes sin increase, by design, so the Law is in fact self-defeating. It’s got failure built right into it.  Jesus’ words seem to be dooming us to failure, and the next section (the “You have heard it said, but…” teachings) makes it more clear. So what is Jesus actually saying in these verses?

Stay tuned, and we’ll look into this further next time.



Uses of the Law

Although I spent the first 20+ years of my life as a Lutheran and have continued to hold true to many Lutheran ideals (including the benefits of folk music, beer, and the love of a good woman), I’ve only recently become aware of the dispute about the valid uses of the Law (that would be the old Jewish Law of Moses, including all 10 commandments and whichever other laws people tend to think are important at the time).

Lutheran (Formula of Concord)

The Lutheran document “The Formula of Concord” enumerates three uses in Article VI, saying that the “Law was given to men for three reasons…”  These are that:

1. “thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men”

2. “men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins”

and the infamous 3rd use:

3. “after they are regenerate … they might … have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life.”

Now, the Formula of Concord was developed several years after Luther died, at the direction of Elector August of Saxony. Luther himself never taught 3 uses of the law, and probably would have thrown a fit over number three, which is clearly outside of and contrary to anything Paul taught about the law (the law causes sin to increase, the written code kills, yada, yada).   But, we’ll come back to this.


Calvin, who in my opinion tried as best as he could to undo the essence of the Lutheran reformation, also taught 3 uses of the law, pedagogical, civil, and didactic.  His three uses, however, seem to misconstrue the essence of Paul.  His first use, pedagogical or “to tutor,” is of course straight from Paul, but he seems to miss the point. The civil use, to keep people from sinning, also shows a clear misunderstanding of Paul, who as I’ve already pointed out clearly said that the law causes sin to increase. By the 3rd use, didactic, Calvin meant that the Mosaic law can be used to teach and provoke people to good works. This concept, of course, is not found in the New Testament either.  So, I’ll just ignore Calvin for the remainder of my thinking about uses of the law (it is my blog, after all).

 Back to Luther(an)

While most Lutherans (especially those liberal ones) only recognize the first two uses of the law as found in the “Formula,” some such as the Missouri Synod are champions of the 3rd use of the law, at times seemingly in preference to the other two. Now I’d be happy for some wise MS Lutheran to show me I’m wrong on this, but this is what I’ve seemed to find among the Concordia crowd.

The Real  3rd Use of the Law

Now, I’m going to get a touch sarcastic here, but I really don’t mean to offend anyone. I’m just trying to raise an issue and make a point.  It seems to me that among some 3rd Users, the real 3rd use of the law is to be able to hammer it over the head of someone else.  Seriously, I’ve seen some of the most vile, judgmental, and downright mean comments on the internet coming from these nice, grace-loving Lutherans who just love to be able to say “I’m not as sinful as you.”

What’s up with that?

I’ve thought about this for months, and keep seeing it again and again, and it really, really bothers me.  This kind of attitude is no different than what Jesus talked about in Luke 18:10-14. Is grace just for us, or should we perhaps spread it around just a bit?  Or is grace only good for polite or socially-acceptable sins?

It is, okay, by the way, to disagree with other Christians, even to say, “I’m sorry, but I believe you’re a heretic.” Paul himself set an example for this. However, ad hominem, dehumanizing attacks are a different story. As the great doctor once said, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

What Paul Didn’t Teach

Paul never taught that the Law was an acceptable tool to use to pronounce judgment on others, and Jesus certainly didn’t.  Paul also didn’t teach that being justified by grace made us better than anyone else.

So What Did Paul Teach About the Law?

That’s a very good question.  In my mind (an often scary place), neither of the above lists really hits the mark. For one thing, I don’t think Paul ever meant for there to be such a list. Paul used examples to make points, like Jesus did with his parables and sayings. One day Jesus would say, “The Kingdom is like this” and another day he would say, “the kingdom is like that.”  They aren’t competing ideas, and they aren’t mutually exclusive or definitive. They’re examples. I don’t think Paul ever intended his letters to be seen as an exhaustive, definitive analysis of the law; however, taken as a whole, I think we can come up with a pretty good picture of Paul’s thinking.

My Plan

So, I am seriously considering going through Paul’s letters and discussing his various comments about the law. I may get sidetracked or bushwhacked, but at the moment this is my plan.  It could be interesting. Really.