"The Sermon on the Mount" - Part 3
"The Sermon on the Mount" (16)
by Arend Remmers
Divorce and Remarriage
In the "Sermon on the Mount" the Lord Jesus addresses many subjects which are of as much interest now as they were then. This also applies to the subject of divorce, a problem with which even true Christians are being confronted more and more.
In Matthew 5:27-30 He had spoken about the sin of adultery and also condemned carnal coveting. Verses 31 and 32, in which He speaks about divorce and remarriage, stand in close connection with this passage. Not only adultery and the preceding carnal coveting are contrary to God's thoughts concerning marriage, but also divorce. The common main thought-the relationship between man and woman-and the fact that adultery is mentioned twice in verse 32, indicates a connection. On the other hand the introductory words, "It was said" and, "But I say unto you," show that the Lord here again confronts the old traditions with His Word and will (cf. verses 21, 27, 33, 38, 43). And yet, some view verses 31 and 32 as a kind of appendix to the previous passage.
The writing of divorcement
The Lord Jesus does not refer to a commandment from the Old Testament, but to a habit of the Jews which was likely to have existed before the giving of the law at Sinai-that of the writing of a letter of divorce. "It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement."
It is said in Deuteronomy 24:1-4: "When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her; then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife, Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD."
The commandment in these verses is therefore that a woman who remarried following a divorce from her first husband, could under no circumstances return to him. But the fact that a writing of divorcement is mentioned twice does in no way mean that God commanded divorce or even approved of it. In Matthew 19:8 the Lord Jesus explains to the Pharisees that Moses only allowed them to put away their wives because of their hardness of heart. He adds, "But from the beginning (i.e. according to the creatorial order) it was not so." When the people of Israel received the law at Sinai, the habit of divorce by a writing of divorcement obviously already existed. Moses left it like that, perhaps even for the protection of the wife from a hard-hearted and malicious husband who could cause great harm to her if they continued to live together.
Yet from this allowance in Deuteronomy 24 the Jews had derived a permission for divorce and a commandment for giving a writing of divorcement. We can see this from the Pharisees' question in Matthew 19:7: "Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?" The only disagreement among them was about the reasons for divorce. One school of rabbis taught that "uncleanness" in Deuteronomy 24:1 was adultery or some other form of immoral behaviour, while other rabbis accepted anything a husband did not like about his wife as a reason for divorce. In Matthew 19:3 the Pharisees seem to refer to these disagreements among their teachers, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?"
Marriage is a covenant for life
It is with the following serious words that the Lord Jesus opposes this thoughtlessness concerning divorce, thoughtlessness among the Jews then and within Christendom today: "But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, committeth adultery" (v. 32).
First we must note that these words do not only apply to the man, but also to the woman. In Mark 10:11-12 the Lord expressly mentions the woman in the same context. "Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery."
According to God's will marriage is indissoluble. The Lord Jesus says this clearly in Matthew 19:6: "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." This not only applies to marriages made "in the Lord," but to every marriage. Already in the Old Testament God had said to the Jews who were divorced from their wives, "For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that He hateth putting away" (Mal. 2:16).
According to the creatorial order of God every marriage, not only that of Christians, is for life. Divorce is in every case a result of sin and a departure from the divine standard. In our times, when between a quarter and a third of marriages end in divorce, the godlessness of the world becomes apparent in this area as well. Divorce among Christians is therefore an especially sad evidence of conformity to the world.
I therefore put forward some very serious advice for young believers. Through prayer and searching the Word of God seek first to be sure whether your intended marriage can really be entered into "in the Lord," i.e. in accordance with His will (1 Cor. 7:39). A marriage entered into without much thought is just as valid before God as any other marriage and must be honoured by both partners. "Let marriage be held every way in honour, and the bed be undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers will God judge" (Heb. 13:4, J.N.D. Trans.).
Divorce leads to adultery
With one sentence the Lord sweeps to one side the subtle explanations of the scribes: "Whosoever shall put away his wife,... causeth her to commit adultery." Whatever the faults and weaknesses of the wife may be, he who puts her away, i.e. divorces her, exposes her to the danger of being bound to another husband afterwards. The Lord here calls such a relationship adultery. This implies that the first marriage is still valid before God. The marriage entered into before God and man is not violated merely by a divorce carried out before men (i.e. at a court), but by the sexual union with another partner afterwards-even when this takes place in a new marriage! It hardly needs to be said that this also applies to the spouse who "puts away" the other, i.e. divorces him/her.
It becomes evident from the last part of His explanations that the Lord does not only speak about extra-marital relations after divorce: "and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, committeth adultery." According to God's thoughts he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery because he violates a marriage existing before Him. In agreement with these words of the Lord, the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, "And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband. But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife" (1 Cor. 7:10-11).
The only exception
So far we have left out of our consideration the fact that the Lord Jesus here gives room for one exception, which clearly excludes any other exception: "Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication..." Yet this one and only exception is missing in Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 does not mention it either. We only find it again in Matthew 19:9, albeit in a slightly different wording ("except it be for fornication"). The Lord does not say that divorce is unavoidable in the case of one partner committing fornication, but only that in such a case the remarriage of the other partner after a divorce is not adultery.
According to Scripture, the sin of fornication not only refers to prostitution, but to any pre- or extramarital intercourse. We saw this earlier when we considered verses 27-30. Fornication is also adultery when at least one of the persons involved is married. Here the general term, "fornication," is used, although the verse deals especially with adultery. It seems rather far-fetched to interpret "fornication" here as implying immoral behaviour before the marriage, of which the husband learns only after the wedding.
According to the law, adulterers were to be put to death (Lev. 20:10; Dent. 22:22; John 8:4-5). When adultery was merely suspected there was another way, involving "Bitter water that causeth the curse" (Num. 5:11-31). Yet in practice the Jews had got into the habit of putting away where adultery was not proven but only suspected (cf. Matt. 1:19). When the Pharisees and Scribes once confronted the Lord with an adulteress, He in His grace did not condemn the obviously repenting woman, but said to her, "Go, and sin no more" (John 8:11).
Here we see again that the Lord Jesus in His kingdom does not demand the literal fulfilling of the law of Sinai, but rather seeks that His own might follow Him genuinely and in a wholehearted way. For that reason He does not speak about the death penalty for the woman who had committed fornication, or more precisely, adultery. He warns His disciples about divorce and the sins caused by it. At the same time He in His grace makes room for the possible exception, that a marriage can be dissolved before God when it has been attacked in its spiritual, mental and physical unity by the terrible sin of adultery. The latter is not a commandment, but an exception by which God meets the defrauded partner in his spiritual or emotional weakness. However, it should not be forgotten that the sin of adultery can and should be forgiven if an honest confession has been made, and does not necessarily have to lead to divorce.
How serious and clear are the words of our Lord with regard to behaviour in His kingdom! The apostle Paul also writes that fornicators and adulterers will have no part in the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5). Could it be any other way than that His revealed will is done in His kingdom? Though the world under Satan's dominion rebels against the blessed commandments of God, it should still be the deep desire of all true disciples of Jesus not only to know His will, but also to do it.
"The Sermon on the Mount" (17)
To Take an Oath
In the time and society in which we live, swearing, i.e. taking an oath, is uncommon. It is only in a court of law or in other very limited circumstances that an oath is required. In our everyday lives taking an oath is not something many of us encounter.
But in the "Sermon on the Mount," His first great discourse in Matthew's Gospel, the Lord Jesus mentions this subject. He does so again later, in more detail, in chapter 23:16-22. There must be a reason for this. The Lord has a certain aim for all His words. He says in chapter 12:36 that, in the day of judgment, men shall give account before God for every idle word. If we keep this in mind while considering this passage, the words of the Lord Jesus on this point will have something to say to us too.
The law and swearing
The Lord begins this fourth passage in the series of His examples (vv. 21-26; 27-30; 31-32; 33-37) with the words: "Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths." As in the previous example concerning divorce, this passage does not deal with an express commandment of God, but with one of the traditions of the elders and scribes, most of which arose after the Babylonian captivity. Although these were meant to explain the divine commandments, some, in the course of time, became more important to the Jews than the Word of God itself. Therefore the Lord had to say to them: "For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men," and, "Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition" (Mark 7:8-9).
The third commandment, "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain," and also the ninth commandment, "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour," contained the moral basis for the command not to swear falsely, i.e. to commit perjury. But there are other passages in the Old Testament in which the people of Israel are warned of thoughtless swearing. Leviticus 19:12 says: "And ye shall not swear by My name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God" (cf. Num. 30:3-4; Deut. 23:22; Zech. 8:17).
On the other hand there were several occasions where, according to the law, an oath had to be taken and in such cases God required of His people that they swear by His name (Deut. 6:13; cf. Ex. 22:11; Lev. 5:1; Num. 5:19-21). The oath then not only served as confirmation of the truth, but was also a solemn vow in the knowledge of the presence of Jehovah, who had once Himself taken an oath before Abraham (Gen. 22:16; Heb. 6:13-20).
All this is summarised in the declaration, "Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths."
The Jews loved to swear on all possible occasions in order to emphasise their words, and in this connection they used all kinds of impressive phrases. They swore by heaven, by the earth, by Jerusalem, by the temple, etc. Obviously, the scribes thought that only such oaths in which the name of God was expressly mentioned were "real" oaths and therefore binding for the swearer. In addition they made further distinctions between the temple and the gold of the temple, the altar and the gift on the altar (Matt. 23:16-22). The thoughtless swearing of oaths, vows and promises, which were not kept, was hardly considered sin by the Jews, as long as the name of God was not mentioned.
As we look into our own hearts do we not see there the "divers weights" of which we read in Proverbs (Prov. 20:10, 23)? Do we not sometimes distinguish between "everyday" conversation, (as if this did not require the weighing of every single word), so-called "white lies" (which nevertheless are lies), and those occasions which are particularly serious, when we have to give our "word of honour" as we say? How many promises and declarations made, even by Christians, would be left unsaid if we kept in mind that we must give account of every idle word we speak.
"Swear not at all"
Human doctrines, such as those of the scribes, will in some way or other always be welcome to the flesh. Here something is taken away, there something is added to, the Word of God. This not only deprives it of its sharpness and power, but hinders the direct, personal application to the soul of this word of grace. The Lord Jesus opposes such human teaching with His divine, "But I say unto you, Swear not at all."
The disciples of the Lord Jesus must learn that it is not the torrent of words and excessive affirmations and repetitions which give weight to their words, but that God delights in "truth in the inward parts" (Psa. 51:6), as well as outwardly. Paul writes to the Ephesians, "Wherefore putting away lying (i.e. everything that is false and untrue), speak every man truth with his neighbour" (Eph. 4:25).
In the words that follow the Lord refers to the various phrases the Jews used to confirm their many oaths. "Swear not at all: neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is His footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black." It was a wrong idea to think one could happily use these substitute phrases, as long as one did not mention the name of God. Heaven is God's throne, the earth is God's footstool (Isa. 66:1) and Jerusalem is the city of God and of His King (Psa. 48:1-2). He who swore by his head, i.e. wanted to deposit his life as security against his oath, ought well to remember that God alone is Lord over life and death, and that he himself does not even have the power to change the colour of one hair of his head.
"But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these, cometh of evil." If our words are honest and true, they need no other confirmation than "yes" or "no." The sense of this double mention of yes and no becomes clear from a very similar passage in James 5:12: "Yes" should really mean "Yes," and "No" should really mean "No." All that is more than that is only a sign that one generally does not take the truth too seriously, and therefore "cometh of evil."
Is a Christian allowed to swear?
Many of the old church fathers like Justin, Irenaeus, Origen and Jerome, understood the Lord's words, "swear not at all," to mean that a Christian ought not to take an oath under any circumstances. In addition many sects like the Quakers and Jehovah's Witnesses reject the taking of any kind of oath. It is therefore understandable that children of God repeatedly ask, "Is a Christian allowed to swear?"
If the oath only serves as confirmation of ones own words, because one fears that they are not believed, it is not allowed. As children of God, we should always speak the truth (Eph. 4:25). This should not need any additional confirmation.
If an oath is required by the government or before a court, it is different. In the world, lying is nearly the order of the day. It is therefore very understandable if, for example in court, evidence is given under oath. This underlines in a serious way the search for the truth. Even if the government does not acknowledge God, the Christian ought to respect the powers that be as coming from God (Rom. 13:1ff). In such a case a Christian may take an oath.
A vow, which civil servants or soldiers may have to make, should be considered in the same way. When our Lord stood before the council, He did not reply to any of the false accusations made against Him. But when the High Priest put Him under oath with the words, "I adjure Thee by the living God," He was no longer silent, but submitted to the authorities ordained by God and testified of the truth, "Thou hast said" (Matt. 26:63ff; cf. Lev. 5:1).
An Eye for an Eye
The "law of requital" is the fifth of those the Lord Jesus refers to from the law and the traditions of those of old. "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). This well known expression of requital is often considered as characteristic of the law of Moses. However, this is too simple a way of looking at the law which had been given by God Himself on Mount Sinai, and which Paul considers not only just, but also holy and good (Rom. 7:12).
This law contained moral directions for the life of each Israelite, ceremonial directions (i.e. the laws of the offerings) for the children of Israel to serve God and also legal directions to regulate the daily life of the people. The principle of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" belongs to the latter group. It is not a principle for the conscience of a particular individual but a legal direction for the authorities and judges of Israel. This is clear from Exodus 21:22 and Deuteronomy 19:18 where the judges are expressly mentioned. The direction was based on the principle of absolute fairness in requiting the deed and was to be a warning and deterrent to the people (Deut. 19:20).
That the principle, "an eye for an eye," was only valid before the judges in Israel is also seen in the fact that vengeance was not permitted to the Jew. "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Lev. 19:18). It is not correct to suppose the Lord Jesus was referring to it because the Pharisees might have allowed it.
Grace and Mercy
The Lord Jesus does not speak against a false exposition of this part of the law, but He sets it against a totally different principle: "But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away."
The Lord Jesus in His grace does not speak of a less harsh requital or renunciation of requital. He teaches the exact opposite of requital: not to recompense evil for evil but to overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:17-21). In this world which is full of injustice, the disciples of the Lord Jesus are to exhibit the same attitude of grace and mercy which their Lord, the rejected King, has shown in His life. We have already seen this in the Beatitudes which show us the features of those who have entered the Kingdom of God by new birth.
Nothing could show more clearly than these words of our Lord that the "Sermon on the Mount" was never intended to be a programme for governing authorities in the world. What chaos would arise if, in a society which consists mostly of sinners, grace instead of justice were to rule! But the Lord Jesus did not at all intend to do away with justice in this world. Romans 13:1, 4 tell us that "the powers that be are ordained of God" and that "he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil."
The natural man, that is, one who is not born again, cannot live his life by these guidelines. It is true that we find philosophical schools of thought down through history (i.e. the Stoics in Greece) which demanded of men a certain attitude of calmness. But this was often linked with arrogance and pride and in reality cannot be attained by human efforts.
Some Christians would like to take away a little of the sharpness (for the flesh) of these words of the Lord Jesus and to practice them only in certain circumstances. They seek to prove their view from John 18:22-23, saying that the Lord Jesus rebuked the officer but did not turn the other cheek to him. They add that on certain occasions in the Book of Acts Paul claimed his rights as a Roman (Acts 16:35-40; 25:11). But the Lord Jesus put His justified rebuke in the form of a mere question, and bore all other abuses silently (Matt. 27:27-31; John 19:1-3). It also remains to be seen if the attitude of the apostle Paul in Philippi and before Festus was according to the will of the Lord. Some argue that a Christian ought to report injustice done to him in order to prevent criminality. But as Christians in this present evil world, from which we have been delivered according to Galatians 1:4, we are not called to seek justice for ourselves. Of course, we must not renounce our duty in relation to others if the authorities so demand it (i.e. as a witness in court, etc.) We must submit ourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, as Peter writes in his epistle (1 Peter 2:13).
Nevertheless the Lord says: "Resist not evil." The word used for "evil" here (Greek: poneros) does not mean Satan (as in Matt. 13:19; Eph. 6:16; 1 John 2:13), but it is not very clear whether the correct translation is "evil," that is sin (Luke 3:19; 1 Thess. 5:22), or "the evil," that is the offender (Luke 6:35; 1 Cor. 5:13). As everywhere in the New Testament we are told here too not to resist and not to seek justice for ourselves when evil is done to us by men of the world. We are, by grace, able and called to follow in the steps of our Lord "who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously" (1 Peter 2:23; compare also 1 Peter 2:19; 3:14, 17; 4:13). As to our attitude to believers Paul's words to the Corinthians are still valid (1 Cor. 6:7): "Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?"
How is it with us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus? Do we not have to confess how little we practise this mind and attitude of suffering and love when we are wronged? Yet our God desires humility, meekness, long-suffering, grace and mercy to be reflected in the lives of those He has redeemed and who profess to follow His Son as Lord. He wants to and will give us the strength to learn of Him, who says, "learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart" (Matt. 11:29).
The Lord Jesus uses four examples to make His words clear to us. The first one is: "But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." At that time a slap in the face was deeply insulting and was even more humiliating if it was given with the back of the hand and therefore landed on the right cheek. According to the Jewish Talmud this offence "weighed double" compared to an ordinary slap. The disciples of the Lord Jesus ought not to look for reparation before men but to suffer offences (cf. 1 Peter 2:20). We are reminded of the words Isaiah spoke prophetically concerning our Lord: "I gave My back to the smiters, and My cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not My face from shame and spitting" (Isa. 50:6).
"And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also." In this second example we see that the Lord does not allow different guidelines for public life and life in the personal sphere. Under the law it was forbidden to take as pledge a poor debtor's cloke overnight. The debtor had to have his cloke returned so that he might have a covering for the night (Ex. 22:26; Deut. 24:12-13). This is probably that to which the Lord Jesus was referring. He instructs His disciples not to resist and to give even more than what is demanded. This is grace. In the parallel reference in Luke 6:29 we find the sequence is reversed-first the cloke is mentioned and then the coat: "and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also." The taking away mentioned there may be by an act of robbery.
The Lord then gives the third example: "And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain." The word used for "compel" (greek: angareuo) means originally to requisition for a service. It is thus that Simon of Cyrene was compelled to bear the cross of the Lord Jesus. So even if a service is undesired and unpleasant, the disciple should not only fulfil it willingly, but do even more than what is required.
The last example shows once more that the Lord Jesus is speaking to the hearts of His disciples: "Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away." Even under the law the Jew was forbidden to lend anything to his brother upon usury (Lev. 25:35ff; Deut. 23:19); rather, he was to open his hand wide to him (Deut. 15:7-8). The Lord Jesus here makes no restrictions regarding giving and lending. For God, the great Giver, has not spared His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all. He, who with Him, freely gives us all things, loves a cheerful giver (Rom. 8:32; 2 Cor. 9:7).
Love your Enemies
The Lord starts the last of His six examples from the law again with the words: "Ye have heard that it hath been said..." He does not once say: "It is written," not even when He quotes a commandment of the Old Testament such as in verses 27 and 38. The Lord Jesus did not want to put aside the inspired commandments of God with His sixfold reply, "But I say unto you." Rather, He intended to bring to light and judge the false interpretations and distortions of the scribes and "the tradition of the elders" (Mark 7:3) which they esteemed so highly. Above all the Lord Jesus showed His disciples the inner attitude and outward behaviour which pleases God.
The commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour" (Lev. 19:18), is the verse from the Old Testament most quoted in the New Testament (see Matt. 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). The law of Mount Sinai which is called holy, just and good in Romans 7:12 culminates in the two commandments to love God and your neighbour (see Matt. 22:35-40). These two commandments have therefore not wrongly been called the quintessence of the Ten Commandments.
Distortion of the Word of God
The question of the scribe in Luke 10:29, "And who is my neighbour?" shows that the Jews had restricted the meaning of this commandment. They did not want to see a neighbour in every fellow-man, as God had intended, but only considered their own people (the Jews) as their neighbours. In this way the Gentiles, the "uncircumcised," were excluded from their love. The strict scribes and Pharisees went even further than that and did not want to consider the simple Jews as their neighbours. They considered them cursed because they did not know the law (John 7:49). Finally they also excluded personal enemies from this commandment so that only a very few "privileged" remained to be considered and treated as "neighbours."
In addition to this false restriction upon loving one's neighbour the Rabbis even concluded that if the neighbour was to be loved, the enemies, that is all other men (the nations, the unlearned Jews and also personal enemies) were to be hated. To support this they referred to passages such as Deuteronomy 7:2 where God forbids the people of Israel to join with the Canaanites and commands them not to show any mercy to them but to destroy them. This led to the conclusion "... and hate thine enemy" (which is not found in the Talmud, but is here referred to as a Jewish-made commandment by the Lord). Out of the commandment of love, which is the fulfilling of the law according to Romans 13:10, men had made the exact opposite. One only had to love the very few who shared the same views and could meet all others with arrogance, contempt and hatred.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies
But the Jews deliberately overlooked that God had also commanded them in the law to love their enemies (see Ex. 23:4-5; Lev. 19:33-34). By continuing, "But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you," the Lord Jesus does not give new commandments to His disciples but judges the fleshly restriction of the old commandment and the human addition. According to God's thoughts every fellow human being with whom we have to do is our neighbour, even if he or she turns out to be our personal enemy. The Lord Jesus demands, not an emotional love, nor a friendly affection for enemies, but rather the much higher divine love (Greek: agapao).
The Lord Jesus was the revelation of this love of God: "But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him" (Rom. 5:8-10). While He hung on the cross He prayed for His tormentors: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Our Lord therefore is also the perfect example for His commandment, "Love your enemies... and pray for them which. persecute you."
"That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven" (the J.N.D. Translation gives "sons" rather than "children"). The Lord here presents a high standard. As we have already seen in our study of verses 9 and 16 the word "son" in the "Sermon on the Mount" has a practical meaning. The Lord Jesus is not speaking of the gospel here or how to become a child or son of God. Rather, He shows His disciples, who were already born again, how they could be imitators of their Father in heaven by loving their enemies and therefore practically demonstrate that they were His sons. The proper sonship of the New Testament was only revealed after the redemptive work of Christ had been accomplished (Rom. 8:14-15; Gal. 4:5-7; Eph. 1:5).
The Lord Jesus first of all directs His disciples to love their enemies. By doing so they would demonstrate that they are sons of their Father in heaven. He then reminds them of the attitude of the Creator towards all men's attitude towards men. "He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." It is true that the love of God to His creatures found its highest expression in giving His beloved Son (John 3:16). But everyone who wants to can recognise His undiscriminating love towards all in that He makes His sun to rise both on the evil and the good every morning and sends the vital rain on both the just and the unjust. He has the right to condemn the evil and the unjust. Instead of doing so He shows them His goodness during their life on earth in the same way that He does to the good and the just. The love of the eternal Creator-God for His enemies could not be manifested more touchingly. The disciples of Jesus ought to follow this example. To prevent any misunderstanding let it be mentioned however that God does not show His love without distinction. God is a Saviour (JND: Preserver) of all men, specially of those that believe (1 Tim. 4:10). Believers too are invited to love one another (to have brotherly love) and to love all men (to have love for their fellow-men) (1 Thess. 3:12; Gal. 6:10). And the moment will come when those who despised the goodness of God which was meant to lead them to repentance, will receive eternal punishment.
"Be ye therefore perfect"
The Lord Jesus then mentions two examples in verses 46 and 47 which show that the practice of loving one's neighbour according to the Pharisees did not at all differ from the behaviour of the world. Even the Publicans, those despised people who enriched themselves at the expense of their own people (being willing servants of the Romans), knew how to love their friends. And the Gentiles (J.N.D.) also saluted their brethren, that is all those they knew well. There was nothing about this behaviour that would lead to the expectation of a reward. Neither the practice referred to in such examples nor the teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees could be authoritative to the disciples of Jesus. They need and do have a much higher example.
This higher example is mentioned in the last verse of this paragraph, in which the Lord Jesus spoke of the false righteousness of the Pharisees and the more excellent practical righteousness of His true disciples. "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." God is the perfect example of true love for one's enemies. As the heavenly Father He is not only our example in this but in all things. In the parallel reference in Luke 6:36 we read: "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful," and in 1 Peter 1:16 we find the reference to Leviticus 19:2: "Be ye holy; for I am holy." God is love and He is light (1 John 4:8, 16; 1:5). Mercy is an expression of love, and holiness is a characteristic of light. In our verse both are linked together in the words, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."
The word "perfect" (Greek: teleios) in the Gospels only appears here and in chapter 19:21. It is stated of God in this verse in Matthew 5. It is no difficulty for the believer to see that God is perfect in every respect. But how can weak and by nature sinful men be as perfect as He is? The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us the wonderful fact that the Lord Jesus by one offering has perfected for ever every believer (Heb. 10:14). But this perfection which is based on the completed redemptive work of Christ is not talked about here. Neither is the perfection of growing faith considered (as we find it in 1 Corinthians 2:6 or in a different way in Philippians 3:15).
Surely Old Testament men of faith are already called "perfect," such as Noah (Gen. 6:9) and Job (Job 1:1); Abram was encouraged by God to "walk before Me, and be. perfect" (Gen. 17:1). And yet these men were not "perfect." They had their weak points and sinned, but they had the deep desire in their hearts to live honestly and blamelessly before God and men. This practical perfection is talked about here. It is only possible through the complete deliverance of faith. The Lord Jesus here presents His disciples such a life of deliverance as the aim of His practical teachings. In this the apostle Paul later followed Him by writing to the Corinthians: "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ," and to the Ephesians: "Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children" (1 Cor. 11:1; Eph. 5:1).
In Matthew 6:1-18 the Lord Jesus refers back to the practical righteousness already mentioned in chapter 5:20. There we read: "For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." The Pharisees and Scribes are often depicted in the New Testament as men whose religious activities were for a pretence only (Mark 12:40), and carried out before men. They loved and sought the praise of men more than the praise of God (John 5:44; 12:43). In Matthew 23 the Lord Jesus calls them hypocrites several times. Hypocrisy is the endeavour to appear better than one (really) is. Hypocrisy was the great sin of the Pharisees. This is why the Lord Jesus speaks of the leaven of the Pharisees as of something totally evil (Luke 12:1). Their righteousness was only an outward one and had no value before God.
The Lord Jesus refers to the righteousness which is more excellent than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, in three examples at the beginning of chapter 6. This is true practical righteousness: alms, prayer and fasting. As every detail in Scripture is inspired of the Holy Spirit it is not without meaning that these three paragraphs show a similar structure:
1. In every example the Lord Jesus first of all mentions what His disciples ought not to do. In this way He warns them against the detestable doings of the hypocrites who only looked for the glory of men.
2. The same judgment follows in every case: "Verily I say unto you, They have their reward."
3. Then the Lord Jesus gives His positive instruction which starts with direct speech and the words, "But Thou" (see J.N.D. Trans., vv. 3, 6, 17).
4. Finally, each of the three examples ends with the same encouraging words: "And thy Father, which seeth in secret, Himself shall reward thee."
The similar structure of these teachings of our Lord gives them a special character and particular importance.
The first verse is as it were the general heading: "Take heed not to do your righteousness before men to be seen of them, otherwise ye have no reward with your Father who is in the heavens" (see footnote in J.N.D. Trans.). The Lord Jesus calls on His disciples to consider their motives. If they do their righteous deeds before men to be seen of them they are only seeking human recognition. This would be their "reward." Furthermore, the Lord affirms that those who seek the praise of men receive no reward of the Father which is in heaven. On the other hand, those who look for His reward (see Heb. 11:26) do not seek human recognition.
This is not contradicted by the earlier words of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 5:16: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." There He was speaking to His disciples who ought to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. If their good works were seen, God would be glorified by them, and not men. In our paragraph in Matthew 6 the result is just the reverse.
We sometimes find it difficult to judge whether we really do a thing for the Lord's sake or as seeking the praise of men, because our motives are often mixed. It is true that we would like to do something for the Lord but we like men to see us doing it! The world has a saying: "Do good and do speak of it!" As our verse shows, such an attitude does not become a faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus. We therefore need to examine and judge ourselves continuously.
Alms: Mercy towards the needy
The Lord Jesus now explains the warning of verse 1 by three examples. The first of these speaks of giving alms. "Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward." The word "alms" is derived from the biblical-Greek word eleemosyne, which in turn comes from the word for "mercy." It is used in the New Testament only in the sense of a good deed or deed of mercy. In Scripture it never has the lesser meaning of a small gift to a beggar as it has in today's language. On the contrary, not only are Dorcas' alms-deeds mentioned with her good works (Acts 9:36), but it is also said that the many alms which the Roman centurion, Cornelius, gave to the poor of the Jews, came up for a memorial before God (Acts 10:2, 4).
Help in material need was a much greater necessity in former times when there were no social benefits, no unemployment benefits, no pensions, etc. But how much need is there still today, if we only open our eyes and hearts to it! How much good can be done even today, if only we are prepared to put our hands in our pockets! (see Gal. 2:10; Eph. 4:28; James 2:15-17; 1 John 3:17).
The Lord Jesus however does not say, "Ye shall do good to the poor," but: "when thou doest alms..." He does not give a commandment. As He mentions alms first of all He wants to tell us that He cares for the needy. Therefore we too ought to have open hearts for them.
God Looks at the Heart
If we do good deeds we ought to do them as He desires, without even mentioning them. Those who sound a trumpet before them (v. 2) to have glory of men the Lord Jesus calls hypocrites. This is a severe word which shows how detestable such insincerity is.
But one might say, "If someone does good to others the results will remain, even if everybody sees it!" This nobody can deny, but it is not in question here at all. The Lord Jesus speaks of men who pretend to do something for God, but in reality look for recognition and glory from men (as their reward) for their alms. So the Lord Jesus says if they are admired for it by men they do have their reward. They shall not receive any reward from God. God does not primarily honour the results-even if they are most blessed-but the motives of our actions. He desires so much our love for Him (and for our needy fellow-men) to be the motive for our deeds.
In sharp contrast to this hypocritical attitude stands the attitude to which the Lord Jesus encourages every single disciple (vv. 3 and 4): "But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, himself shall reward thee openly." Everyone is called to see how and where he may help. As we said earlier, the Lord does not command the giving of alms. But if we do give alms, it is to be done in secret and without being noticed. For this the Lord Jesus uses an expression which seems to say something humanly impossible: "Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth." If my left hand is not to know what my right hand does how much less ought my brethren and fellow-men to know it!
But there is someone who knows my secret doings and the attitude of my heart. "Thy Father, which seeth in secret, Himself shall reward thee (KJV: openly)." As in chapter 5:16 and 45 the Lord Jesus places His disciples in their new relationship to God as their Father. Though they could not yet understand the full depth of its significance, He told them that Jehovah of the Old Testament had now become their loving, good, but also just Father, who takes notice of every deed and thought of His sons with fatherly interest. He will also reward every one in a day to come.
"The Sermon on the Mount" (21)
In Matthew 6:1-18 the Lord Jesus speaks about the practical righteousness of His people. Practical righteousness is the correct behaviour of the disciples of Jesus in the daily life of faith. The Lord Jesus first of all mentions the giving of alms (Matt. 6:2-4), which shows our attitude towards people in need. He then speaks about prayer (vv. 5-15), which reveals our relationship to God. Finally He mentions fasting (vv. 16-18), which concerns everybody personally. In each of these areas danger is lurking. It does not come from outside but from within, from our fallen nature. It is the danger of hypocrisy, and it is against this the Lord Jesus is warning us.
"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward" (Matt. 6:5).
Prayer has been called "the breathing of the soul." Through prayer we may thank God, our Father, for His kindness and His blessings (Col. 1:12). By it we may bring Him our requests and sorrows (Phil. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:7), and may also pray with supplication for ourselves, for all saints, and even for all men (Eph. 6:18; 1 Tim. 2:1). Our total dependence on God, and at the same time our fellowship with Him, is manifested in our prayers. Prayer is therefore as important for our life of faith as breathing is for the body.
But prayer can become a mere religious exercise or show. This danger arises especially in public prayer-in the family circle, but especially in the assembly. A child once said to his father: "You always pray in a different manner when we have visitors!" Some prayers in the gatherings-uttered in a sanctimonious tone or a gushing flood of words-raise the question if they are not rather directed to those present than to God.
The Lord refers to such dangers when He speaks to His disciples about the hypocrites who loved to pray publicly in order to be seen of men and to be admired for their piety. The Jews of that time had the habit of praying at certain fixed times of the day (Acts 3:1). This generally took place in the temple or in the synagogue but if this was not possible they were allowed to pray just wherever they might be. The Lord Jesus is probably primarily referring to this. Yet His words do not mean that He judged every public prayer as hypocrisy. Various references in the New Testament show that the Lord Jesus Himself prayed in public (Matt. 14:19; 15:36). It was the practice of the first Christians to pray in public too (Acts 12:5; 20:36; 27:35; 1 Tim. 2:8). The Lord Jesus therefore does not refer to the place but to our inward attitude and the motive for prayer. For God knows our hearts through and through. "For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, Thou knowest it altogether" (Psa. 139:4). Knowing that we cannot pretend anything before God we should not try to do so with our listeners either. They will, however, always be able to say a hearty "amen" to a simple, heartfelt prayer.
"But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and, when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly" (v. 6). Let us repeat that the Lord Jesus does not want to judge public prayer as such. He does not only approve of secret prayer. He rather contrasts the danger of hypocrisy in public prayer with the prayer where there are no witnesses. In the privacy of our closet we are alone with our Father where we may pray straight from our hearts. We are aware that even our hidden thoughts, our needs and sorrows, are known to Him. Now we should show the same sincerity in public prayer, though we won't be able to utter in public all that we utter in our closet. This difference between private and public prayer is at times overlooked or misunderstood. But sincerity and simplicity should characterise both.
Prayer in Abundance of Words
"But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him" (vv. 7-8).
If the Lord had to accuse the Jews of hypocrisy, He had to judge the heathen nations for their vain repetitions and much speaking in prayer (see 1 Kings 18:26-29). Beyond that He also warns His disciples of senseless prayers. He knew beforehand what would develop in Christianity. The vain repetition of "pre-formulated" prayers is not only known in heathen religions but is also practised in Christian churches.
This, however, does not mean that we are not allowed to repeat certain requests in our prayers which are a real burden on our hearts. We have to make a distinction between vain repetition of constantly repeated "formulas," and the intensive fervent prayer of a believer who in his trouble constantly repeats his request. Did not the Lord Jesus Himself present the parable of the widow to His disciples, that they ought always to pray, and not to faint? He then explicitly said: "shall not God avenge His own elect, which cry day and night unto Him, though He bear long with them?" (Luke 18:1-8; Acts 12:5; Rom. 12:12; Eph. 6:18).
"Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him." That our Father knows what we have need of is one side; the other side is that He wants us to constantly realise our own weakness and dependence on Him, and wants to maintain us in the enjoyment of communion with Him. Nothing helps the furtherance of this more than personal, confidential prayer.
The "Lord's Prayer"
"After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread: And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" (KJV adds: "For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen"). After warning His disciples against hypocritical and vain prayer the Lord Jesus tells them how they ought to pray. According to Luke 11:2-4 He answered their request, "Lord, teach us to pray," similarly, but with a slightly different wording and in a shorter form. Although it is a prayer out of the mouth of the Son of God and is therefore perfect, these differences ought to be a warning not to make a "fixed form of prayer" out of it. And yet the so-called "Lord's Prayer" has become the most repeated prayer in Christendom. The Catholic Church uses the wording of Luke 11 and the Protestant Church the one of Matthew 6! As many Greek manuscripts of the New Testament show the copyists soon added a doxology to give it a worthy end ("For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen").
We must not forget at what time the Lord Jesus said this to His disciples. Messiah had come but the law of Sinai was still valid. The remnant of Israel was expecting the kingdom, but Christ had not yet fulfilled His work of redemption on the cross and the Holy Spirit had not yet come down. It was during this time the Lord Jesus taught His disciples to pray. The prayer therefore answers their situation at that time. It is true that the Lord's Supper and Baptism were also instituted during His life on earth, but there is an enormous difference between these two institutions and the "Lord's Prayer." The former are in relation to His work of redemption which is not even mentioned in the "Lord's Prayer."
As Christians we are now allowed to pray to God, our Father in Christ, by the power and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 6:18; Jude 20). By the Spirit we have boldness to let our requests be made known unto God by prayer and supplication (Phil. 4:6). In Matthew 6 the disciples did not yet know this privilege.
The most important teaching of the "Lord's Prayer" for us today is in its structure. In the first three requests God, the Father, is the centre (compare with 5:16, 45, 48): His Name, His kingdom and His will are in the foreground. Only after this do the four requests follow which are related to our needs: our food, our debts, our temptations, our deliverance. Often our prayers are so different to this! How little thought we give to the honour and glory of our Lord and our God, and how much we think about our needs! Let us give more importance to bringing Him honour and worship in our personal as well as in our collective prayers.
The Spirit of Forgiveness
"For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (vv. 14-15). In these verses the Lord Jesus refers to the fifth request of the "Lord's Prayer." The Father in heaven in His governmental ways with His children cannot suffer a heart which is not ready to forgive. What difficulty we often have in wholeheartedly forgiving others' trespasses (which we might exaggerate or even imagine). And yet this might make us feel very miserable. But even more our Father in heaven cannot forgive His children if they are not ready to forgive men their trespasses.
What a wonderful and perfect forgiveness we once received, as sinners, from God! Did we confess to Him all our trespasses upon our conversion? That is impossible. And yet God has forgiven all our sins in Christ for ever, because He saw our hearts and our sincere repentance.
This perfect and eternal forgiveness by God (see Heb. 10:17-18) is later presented by Paul to the Ephesians as an example for them to follow in their walk with one another: "be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32). Here the Lord Jesus could not speak of this divine, eternal forgiveness, because He had not yet accomplished His work. But He exhorts His disciples-and therefore us too-to always be ready to forgive, so that our Father in heaven can also forgive us, in order to restore our practical fellowship with Him.
"The Sermon on the Mount" (22)
No Commandment to Fast
Fasting means to abstain from eating and drinking for a certain time. It is mentioned several times in Scripture and is known until now in many parts of Christendom. Yet when we open our Bibles we will not find a commandment for it either in the Old or in the New Testament. Nor does the Lord Jesus command His disciples to fast in Matthew 6:16-18, just as He did not command the giving of alms in verses 2-4. But He presupposes simply that His disciples are doing it.
Nowadays we hardly know what biblical fasting means. Most of us probably have to confess that we do not give it much thought. Yet let us not make light of it but ask ourselves what this short passage in the "Sermon on the Mount" has to tell us today.
Fasting in the Old Testament
We read in Exodus 34:28 that Moses did not eat bread or drink water for forty days when he was on the mountain of God. This is the first occasion in Scripture where fasting is mentioned. The Lord Jesus too began His ministry on earth with fasting for forty days and forty nights (Matt. 4:2). As a nation, the people of Israel fasted for the first time before they went to war with their brethren, the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20:26).
We also read in different passages that an Israelite or the whole people fasted in connection with earnest prayer (Neh. 1:4; Dan. 9:3), but also to humble themselves in mourning and repentance (1 Sam. 7:6; 1 Kings 21:27; 2 Chron. 20:3; Ezra 8:21). After the Babylonian captivity several yearly fastings were appointed to remember the captivity of Judah (Zech. 7:5; 8:19).
The significance of fasting is most clearly seen in Psalm 35:13: "But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting." So we see that the fasting which pleased God in the Old Testament was the expression of an inward humbling. Although it is not said explicitly the Jews take the words, "afflict your souls," in Leviticus 16:29 as a commandment of God to fast on the great day of atonement.
But already Isaiah the prophet had to reprove in God's Name hypocritical fasting, and call for real fasting and true repentance (Isa. 58:1-7). The Israelites fasted and practised the most horrible sins at the same time. Such hypocritical and wicked conduct could not please God. The Lord Jesus also condemned it.
Fasting in the New Testament
We find the habit of fasting with the Jews in the New Testament too. The prophetess Anna served God with fastings and prayers night and day (Luke 2:37). In contrast to the disciples of the Lord Jesus the disciples of John and the Pharisees fasted often (Matt. 9:14).
The Lord Jesus, in His parable of the Pharisee and the publican in the temple, lets the former speak self-complacent words: "God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican: I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess" (Luke 18:11-12). From this we see that in New Testament times too fasting as a religious "exercise" was a tradition, as it still is today in certain Christian churches and various religions (in Islam for instance).
"Moreover, when ye fast,..."
As already mentioned, the Lord Jesus neither gives a commandment to fast, nor does He forbid it here. He leaves fasting as a personal exercise of the heart but gives the warning not to do it in a hypocritical manner (as with giving alms and praying). The hypocrites are of sad countenance in order to appear as pious as possible (cp. Luke 24:17), and to make people see how earnest they are. But as we have already seen in verses 2 and 5, our God and Father won't give us any reward if we seek to obtain it through the mere appearance of piety, and recognition by men.
The real source of strength in faith lies in the hidden relationship with our God and Father. Someone once said: "We cannot confess the Lord publicly if we have not been in secret communion with Him on our knees." This is why the Lord judges so sharply our tendency to give our brethren and fellow-men an impression which does not at all agree with our heart and soul's true condition.
At one time God had to say to Samuel: "for it is not as man seeth; for man looketh upon the outward appearance, but Jehovah looketh upon the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7, J.N.D. Trans.). This is why the Lord Jesus says: "But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly." The Lord Jesus does not mention when and how the Father will reward, but we know that God is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him (Heb. 11:6).
Fasting for today?
Before closing let us mention something about fasting today. The fact that in certain circles of Christendom fasting has become a mere religious exercise must not turn away our eyes from the first Christians who fasted with great earnestness (see 2 Cor. 6:5). Before Paul and Barnabas set off on their first missionary journey the brethren fasted and prayed (Acts 13:3). And when these two, on their journey back, had ordained elders in the various assemblies of Asia Minor, they prayed with fasting and commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed (Acts 14:23).
We may also learn much from the words of the Lord Jesus about prayer and fasting in Matthew 17:21. A French brother wrote as to this in the "Messager Evangélique 1864":
"Fasting means a conscious taking of distance from earthly and natural things so that the heart can be engaged in prayer with spiritual and heavenly things. Fasting is a means to interrupt the link between our natural being and the world which surrounds us; prayer is the means to maintain the link between our spirit and heaven. The former is the holy negation of natural man, the latter the expression of full dependence of the renewed man. But we ought to be on our guard against a monkish, ascetic and lawful spirit which tends to exalt the flesh."
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