The Twist in the Sermon on the Mount That You Probably Missed

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount amazed its original hearers; it subverted their expectations on multiple levels. It’s the meek who win the world. Believers are supposed to be happy when persecuted. And then this: Jesus, this new teacher with authority, came not to abolish but to fulfill the Old Testament.

His six famous “antitheses” (“You have heard . . . but I say to you . . . “) help explain what he means by “fulfilling” the law. But I think you, like me, may have missed something else unexpected in his comments—specifically those about anger.

But I say to you

Jesus opens this portion of his famous sermon with a quotation from the Old Testament:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ (Matt 5:21)

Many commentators assume that the Pharisees had “externalized” this sixth commandment, focusing on outward conformity to a relatively accessible moral standard (the great majority of people are not murderers). This is likely true, given Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees’ murderous hypocrisy later in Matthew 23. But earlier in Matthew 5, Jesus claimed that he came “not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” That’s his point in his comments on anger (and the following five “antitheses”). He’s illustrating what that fulfillment looks like.

When Jesus says, “But I say unto you…” he is not dispensing new truth; what he says is at least implicit in the Old Testament itself. As Calvin insists, the law of God “spoke to the hearts, as well as to the hands and to the eyes.” (284)

So this passage is an example of what it means for Jesus to “fulfill” the law. He both shows and is where the law points.

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. (Matt 5:22)

For any flesh-and-blood human being to quote a Bible verse to a bunch of Jewish listeners in the first century and then follow it up with, “But I say to you. . .” is remarkable, breathtaking. It would be like a lowly clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court standing out on the steps of the court building in Washington, D.C. to relay the justices’ decision to the reporters at a press conference. He reads the detailed, multi-page decision, and then adds, “That was a good opinion the justices gave, but I think. . .” That clerk has no authority to say what he thinks. No journalist holding an audio recorder cares what he thinks. Jesus’ six antitheses work in this passage only if he has the right not only to interpret but even to add to the law of God (as Jesus will do later in the passage with oaths). And who but God can do that?

Indeed.

No wonder Matthew follows up the Sermon on the Mount with a comment that the people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching: he wasn’t like their scribes, always quibbling and quoting; “he was teaching them as one who had authority” (Matt 7:29). Jesus is implicitly claiming to be the New Authority on the scene.

An unexpected twist in Jesus’ counsel

But so far, Jesus has not offered any counsel for diminishing human anger, only (frankly) threats of punishment for those who indulge in it. So the “So” at the beginning of the next portion of the paragraph stirs my hope, because I don’t want to be angry—and I don’t want to be liable to judgment. Lord Jesus, how can I stop being so angry? What’s your divine counsel for me, your erring sheep?

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

A quick right-click in Logos tells me that the “So” here is not an addition by the translators, an effort at smoothing out the thought-flow (as sometimes occurs); “so” here is the direct translation of one Greek logical connector, one often translated “therefore.” Jesus’ counsel is logically consequent upon his no-anger command. I noticed this, too, when I went through the exercise of diagramming the paragraph visually in Logos:

And here’s where the unexpected twist in Jesus’ counsel arises. He makes a radical shift: he’s no longer condemning my anger at others, he’s discussing others’ anger against me.

I expect Jesus to tell me what to do when I am angry, when I feel as if my rights have been violated. I expect him to tell me how to treat the people who betrayed and hurt me. Instead, he tells me what to do when others feel that I have betrayed or hurt them.

Why?

I’m about to make the greatest understatement of all time: Jesus is brilliant. By focusing my attention on my own sins, he not only helps me defuse others’ anger against me, he also defuses my anger against others. It is in remembering that I am a sinner, and a sometimes mean one, that I can have pity on others. It is in remembering that I am a forgiven sinner that I can find the strength to forgive other sinners—just like the parable of the unforgiving servant.

As revivalist Dr. Bob Jones Sr. was fond of saying, “No doubt the trouble is with you.”

D.A. Carson points out in his excellent commentary on Matthew,

We are more likely to remember when we have something against others than when we have done something to offend others. And if we are truly concerned about our anger and hate, we shall be no less concerned when we engender them in others. (REBC 9:183)

Christian morality is all interwoven: if you don’t love your neighbor, made in the image of God, you don’t love God. You might as well stop putting on the outward show of religiosity for the moment and go make things right with God’s image-bearer; then you can return to what truly is most important in life: the love of God.

Be reconciled; restore friendly relations as much as is in your power. As one ancient church father said, “You be the first to ask pardon.” (ACCS 100)

Leaving vengeance in God’s hands

There really are victims in this world, modern “Jobs” who did nothing to deserve the loss of their family and property. I won’t even begin to list the injustices out there: just pick up the paper. And Jesus is not counseling acceptance of injustice; to be a blessed “peacemaker” as he elsewhere in this sermon enjoins is to be an “active promoter” of peace. This is not quietism: protecting others from injustice is a Christian thing to do. But when someone hurts me individually, Jesus here and elsewhere in the sermon gives what you might call Don’t Stand Your Ground laws. “Don’t resist evil,” he says. And, famously, “Turn the other cheek.” Only someone with Christ’s authority could say such things to a crowd surely including some victims. Only someone who knows that he is about to bear the sins of the world could have told that crowd to leave vengeance in the hands of God.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).
 
 
 

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Comments

  1. John Randerson says:

    Great observations Mark. Thanks for blessing my day with those comments. Unfortunately, I probably now need to search my heart about those I have offended…

  2. David Wenkel says:

    excellent and thoughtful post Mark! thank you for this

  3. Good post.

  4. Wonderful! Here’s what I saw just regarding murder.
    https://biblearc.com/author/p1lgr1m.one/Murder_Revisited/

  5. Tony Osimo says:

    This is a great reminder of why the gospel not only saves the unbeliever but sanctifies the believer! Without Christ we can do nothing, we can’t even see our sin, let alone confess and renounce them. I like the clerk illustration, it reminds me of Jesus’ powerful statement when He says, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees, you can’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Who can fulfill that requirement, except our Great Mediator, Jesus Christ!

  6. Loved your insight into the Sermon on the Mount. I was really surprised when I saw your paragraph diagraming as a method of exegesis. I have tuned in to that in Logos as yet and need to learn how to do that. Thank you for sparking my interest.

  7. Only problem with your theses is in that there is no ‘law’ the Towrah is not a bunch of laws to obey. There is no word in scriptural Hebrew that is even akin to law. Yahowah created Adam and Chawah (not Eve) for the purpose of having a family. Abram was invited to use his free will to choose to enter into a covenant relationship the outward sign of which is circumcision.

    Yahowah has granted all mankind a freewill choice of a relationship with Him in covenant or a relationship with the world of man.
    There are no commandment as I am sure all who have spent anytime in study knows. There are simply 10 statements of which no apply to a man who choses a relationship with the world.

    I have always pondered how men who are seemly well educated men simply ignore the verses spoken by Yahowsha (errantly known as Jesus) in which he states when the Towrah is fulfilled the heavens and earth will also pass away. Have they done so? Then the inverse must also be true, the Towrah has not been completely fulfilled and as such remains unchanged.

    Just in case you believe I am suggesting the slaughter of animals upon an altar, your basic premise of some of Towrah being fulfilled with the coming of Yahowsha (means Yah is salvation) clearly shows us that some of the Towrah was fulfilled. The prophecy of the destruction of the temple is proof; How would the chosen continue to sacrifice with out the priests and the complete ability to do so without an altar.
    We are clearly directed to observe what can be, and the festival feasts and Shabat have not been hindered by the actions of man over time. The correct means of observing these is still clear in Deut and Exodus.

    In a family the things one must observe to continue in the relationship change over time but the foundational directions do not.

    • There’s a lot here… Just one thought: Jesus and Paul describe the Old Testament regularly with one word: νόμος (law). And Paul summarizes at least a portion of the Old Testament law with the words, “the law of commandments contained in ordinances” (τὸν νόμον τῶν ἐντολῶν ἐν δόγμασιν). I am not saying that the NT trumps the OT, only that if both have the same ultimate author they can be expected to harmonize.

      • Again you are confusing what Yahowsha might have stated in Hebrew with what is now presented to you in English. Oh, so very many revisions later. Yahowsha was always referring to towrah. It matters not what the meaning of the Greek nomos which does not only mean ‘law’ but in context has many meanings many of which are not ‘law’. Context is everything in understanding Paul was also referring to Towrah no matter if he used the Greek word ‘nomos’ as law. What is truly important is understanding what the Hebrew word towrah means. Towrah is the first five and possibly the first six books scribed by Moseh. The Hebrew word towrah means; teaching, instruction, and guidance but not law. Laws that must be obeyed negate free will. Entering into Yahowah’s covenant is a free will choice. Love cannot be compelled.

        Paul was also referring to the Towrah of which only he claimed had been done away with.

        I noticed you wisely side stepped the verses where Yahowsha clearly states Towrah has to be completely fulfilled as well as all that was written about him in the Prophets before the smallest part of the smallest letter could pass away. If the audience at that point still had any question as to veracity of Towrah, I believe adding the requirement for the heavens and the earth to passed away was a clear final answer.

        If one simply goes were the words lead there is no question, there never was nor could their ever be a new anything, that is unless you believer God a liar.

        As to Paul calling the Towrah law, well Paul claimed a lot of things that are in direct opposition to the words of God. Paul claimed to be an apostle sent by God and yet was in direct opposition to most of what God has revealed in Towrah.

  8. Dan Benitez says:

    Great article! Convicting.

    I have typically put divorce as a subheading under adultery because Matthew does not use the standard “You have heard…, but I say…”. Is there a good reason to separate these topics?

    • I can’t claim to have directly tackled that question, I admit. My initial thought would be that the formula (“you have heard that it was said to the ancients”) varies enough within the passage that Jesus would have to do more than shorten it at 5:31 to indicate to us that he was giving us a sub point and not another main point. But that is a great question to track down in the commentaries. Have you done that? (I wish I had time to do it right now!) I’m curious to see what they’d say.

  9. The precept of ‘murder’ and ‘hate’ as illustrated by Jesus in the Beatitude syncs with the 2nd Commandment – Love thy Neighbour as Thyself. In the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan is our Neighbour and to a Jew of that time an enemy. Jesus told the legal expert; Go and do the same; show mercy; show love.
    The lesson to draw is Jesus did not hate anyone. Even in accusing the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Jesus’ heart was broken just as he was with Judas.

    • Do you think Romans 9:13 and Psalm 11:5 are relevant? Is hatred a wholly unrighteous emotion in all its manifestations? How about Psalm 139:21–22?

      • The flaw with your thinking is in the idea of creating a narrative by taking verses out of the context they were scribed. None of the original Greek or Hebrew manuscripts included chapter and verse designations.

        The answer to your question is without hate there can be no love. One cannot have free will if love is the only choice. Hate is in fact a virtue, on equal standing as love. One is immoral if they claim to have no hate of anything or anyone. Yahowsha (errantly known as Jesus) in fact hated the Pharisees and Sadducees because they make a habit of leading souls away from Yahowah. Those men will be judged and according to Yahowah will spend eternity in She’owl.

        • Hate is not a virtue anymore than any other selfish ambition. Christ did not hate the Pharisees and Sadducee’s, He hated their SIN – there is a difference. God is Love, therefore no hate can reside in His being.

  10. insightful good post, keep up the work!

  11. Wayne Wilson says:

    Another point for the NASB, It already says “Therefore” instead of “So”.

  12. Nice visual representation of your study Roger, it makes understanding the passage a lot easier.

  13. Excellent post! The more I read from God’s word the more convicted I become, but instead of sending me into great dis-spare I can rejoice all the more for my redemption, forgiveness, justification, and reconciliation. Christ has done it all!