A Study of Matthew 5:21-48
Introduction: A man in south Florida ordered a Christmas tree from the Christmas tree capital of the world—western North Carolina. It was a 9-foot blue spruce, and it was beautiful. It arrived quickly, and he put it up as straight as an arrow. He and his family and pulled their beautiful ornaments, collected from around the world, along with golden beads, tinsel, a thousand lights. It was the most beautiful Christmas tree in the neighborhood.
Outside the window in the back yard were other trees. They didn’t have any lights or ornaments or tinsel, but they had something better. It had roots and sap and life—and it had oranges and tangerines and grapefruit that kept coming season after season, year after year. No one had to hang any fruit those trees. The tree produced them from within. They came from the inside out.
Those two trees represents two different views the Christian life in particular.
A lot of people in this world call themselves Christians, but they’re not really rooted and grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They have no fruit that comes through the sap-like action of the Holy Spirit. They hang a lot of ornaments and tinsel and lights on their limbs and on their lives, and they make an impression. But they are living from the outside in.
The other kind of person is like a tree planted by rivers of water that brings forth its fruit in season. Their leaves also shall not wither, and whatever they do shall prosper.
One view of religion is from the outside in; the other is from the inside out. I believe the Lord gave us the Sermon on the Mount to show us the difference between those two approaches to spirituality.
Background (Matthew 5:17-20): We sometimes call the “Sermon on the Mount” our Lord’s Inaugural Address. He introduced it with what we call the Beatitudes (the Beautiful Attitudes) in Matthew 5, the statements that begin, “Blessed are….”
And then in Matthew 5:17-20, we have our Lord’s thesis—the theme of the entire sermon—and the key sentence is Matthew 5:20: I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
This sermon is all about righteousness. What is righteousness? It is living exactly the way God wants us to live. It is a life that corresponds to His holiness and perfection and sinlessness and love and purity. It is right living from God’s of view—right-living-ness, righteousness.
Now the people who appeared to live that way in the days of Jesus were the Pharisees, a Jewish group that had very strict and high standards. Everyone thought they were the holiest people around. But Jesus said in effect, “No, they’re not! Their righteousness is only on the outside. It is only on the surface. They are like Christmas trees, bedecked with righteous ornamentation, but inwardly dead. Let Me tell you what genuine righteousness and godliness is all about”—and He preached this Sermon on the Mount.
I believe Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount of three reasons:
First, to define and describe true righteousness and godliness as God sees it.
Second, to preview for us the kind of life He Himself was about to live. He described for us in advance what the world would see over the three years. The death of Jesus Christ would have been worthless and wasted had He not been sinless, or righteous. He had to offer Himself as a sinless, pure, perfect sacrifice. So Jesus came to demonstrate what a truly sinless, righteous, perfect personal person is like. He told us in Matthew 5-7, and then He showed us in Matthew 8-28.
But there is a third reason Jesus gave us the Sermon on the Mount. To show us the kind of life He wants to form within us by the Holy Spirit. It isn’t a righteousness that is from the outside in—that’s legalism. It’s the growing righteousness formed within us from the inside out by the Holy Spirit.
That’s the theme and the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus introduces the sermon with the Beatitudes, and then states His theme.
Now beginning in Matthew 5:21, the Lord brings it down to right where we live and shows us how this works out in the various applications of life. In the remainder of chapter 5, for example, He shows us how this works in four different areas of life.
1. It’s Not Enough to Avoid Murder on the Outside. You Must Avoid Hate on the Inside (Matthew 5:21-26)
Verse 21 says: You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.”
Murder is an outward act. Over the years I’ve performed the funerals for a number of murder victims, and in each one of them a person had been robbed of the most precious possession they owned—their own life. But Jesus said, in effect, “Even if you don’t physically murder someone, you are still breaking the commandments and requirements of God if you carry around hatred for them in your heart. God sees your hatred just as He sees every act of murder.”
Verse 22 says: But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca” (which was an Aramaic term of contempt, like we would say, “Idiot!”) is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.
You can go through your whole life without murdering anyone, and yet be guilty of murder in your heart because of your hatred for another person. Hatred is akin to murdering someone in your heart.
Of course, we all get mad at other people occasionally. Even my wife, Katrina, and I have gotten angry at each other on occasion. But when that anger turned into hatred, it becomes a venom that poisons the one who has it. So what should you do?
Verse 23 says: Therefore, if you are offering your gift on the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
If you’re getting ready to put your offering envelop in the collection plate or go online and make a gift to some ministry, but you remember you’ve got a bitter heart toward another person, than your gift to God isn’t going to do much good. Now, don’t take that money and spend it instead. Leave it there, and go get your heart right toward that other person. If you can reconcile with them, do so. It may involve a legal case.
Verse 25 says: Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
In other words, if you pursue your anger and hated and bitterness toward somebody, it will double back and cost you more than you want to pay. Try to avoid law suits and taking your neighbor to court.
We live in a complicated world, and Jesus is speaking in simple terms. It’s not easy to navigate every particular situation, but in general He is telling us that it’s not enough to refrain from murder. The heart of a righteous person has Teflon as it relates to hatred and bitterness. Those attitudes just cannot stick to us, because we have the coating of the love of Christ within us.
Now, for me this is not an easy process. I remember once when someone who was a very good friend betrayed me and did something that hurt me deeply. I felt an incredible amount of anger. I felt rage, and tremendous hurt. Some of you know that kind of feeling; perhaps we all do.
Now, today, I feel no anger, no rage, no bitterness. And I think, how did that happened.
- First, I had to pray my way through it. I was so upset I’d go for long walks, thinking through it, praying through it, and trying to ask God to help me with my emotions.
- Second, I had to come to a point of truly putting it in God’s hands. Now, I’ll be very honest with you. This is one of the hardest things I ever have to do. When I have a painful situation, to bring it and give it the Lord—I don’t know why that is so hard for me. But I cannot turn the corner in my own emotions until I do that.
- And then I had to give it time. Healing takes time.
- And then I had to see if it was appropriate to try to reconcile with that person. It’s not always appropriate, for it depends on the other person. If they are abusive or unrepentant or unwilling to change, sometimes you just have to walk away. But if there is humility there, you have to seek to restore your friendship.
And that happened with me. It’s happened with a lot of people.
2. It’s Not Enough to Avoid Immorality on the Outside: You Must Maintain Purity on the Inside (Matthew 5:27-31)
The second area Jesus brings us is sexual purity. Look at verse 27:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
In other words, righteousness is not just a matter of the way you act on the outside; it’s what’s going on in your mind and heart. The truly righteous person is righteous from the inside out. Jesus said, “It’s not enough to keep yourself from premarital or extramarital sex. You’ve got to train your mind and heart and eyes to maintain purity.
In fact, you have to go to great lengths to do that. Look at verse 29:
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut if off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Let me paraphrase that for you. You’ll notice that all the way through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses hyperbole to make His point. Here is what I think He is saying. If your smartphone keeps getting you into moral trouble, give it up. People lived for thousands of years without smartphones, and it’s better to be without your smartphone than to have your whole life and mind and eyes constantly corrupted.
3. It’s Not Enough to Avoid Divorce On the Outside; You Must Nurture Your Marriage on the Inside (Matthew 5:31-32)
Now, Jesus is going to say something similar about marriage in verse 31: It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who married a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Let me paraphrase it for you. In the Old Testament, people could get divorced easily. But God don’t want divorce. Sexual immorality can destroy your marriage, but it does damage. God wants you to have a happy home, a happy marriage. It’s not enough to avoid divorce on the outside; you’ve got to nurture your marriage from the inside out.
In other words, it’s not enough just to seek to have biblical and moral and legal justification for divorce. You’ve got to learn to love one another from the heart, and, if possible, never think about divorce.
The other day, I read the story of a man named Warren Rausch, who lives near Minneapolis, and his story illustrates this perfectly.
I’d like to share about my near divorce experience. I remember the day my wife and kids left our apartment. I remember not caring if I ever saw them again or if they came back. The week goes by and I’m denying that there is anything wrong, that pornography or selfishness is a problem for me and causing this division and darkness, not understanding why she and the kids had left me. I wondered how I could pay the rent bills, and give them money. And then I would think of leaving it all behind and moving out of the country so that I wouldn’t have to pay child support if we got divorced. There was such a spiritual battle going on, I claimed Christianity, but wasn’t living it. There was a pull of wanting to be single and live the single lifestyle. Going to the strip club and the pornography did nothing to fill the void I was feeling. My pregnant wife and two kids weren’t even filling that void that I had had. I had his overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair. I was really depressed, I wondered why God was doing this to me, why He let sex and porn have such a strong pull on me, why He had let my wife and kids leave. A few months after my family had left me, and after so much emotional rollercoaster of feelings I decided I wanted to end it all. I think I had sent my wife an email to the sort of me wanting to take my life. That night I sat in the living room with a 9mm handgun in my hand asking God to take my life, to end this despair and hopelessness I felt. I cried for what seemed like forever, exhausted and emotionally drained I ended up putting the gun away, and falling asleep. I woke up the next morning, with a new sense of hope. I knew it was Jesus who had taken away the desire to pull the trigger that night. I felt like God had heard me, like he cared for and about me. I decided to dedicate my life to Him, not knowing if I had really done it before. I had a new sense of appreciation and understanding of God’s love, mercy, and grace. I had head knowledge of this, but had never experienced it on the emotional and spiritual level like I had through this. So, combined with a rededication to Christ, and a determination to restore our broken, deteriorating marriage, I started reading books on defeating pornography, I got hooked up with an accountability partner, and started going to counseling, going by myself, and then as a couple. I took the initiative to ask forgiveness from my wife and her family for how I had treated her, I took full responsibility for my actions. Prayer was huge in helping restore our relationship. A couple months later and after lots of Godly counseling my wife and kids moved back in, and we continue to grow as a couple, with Christ leading our family.
It isn’t enough to avoid divorce on the outside; you have to nurture your marriage from the inside out.
Now, in the remainder of the chapter, Jesus goes on to describe area after area in which this true.
- In verses 33-37, He said, “It’s not enough just to tell the truth when you’re under oath; you must practice integrity from the inside out.
- In verses 38-42, He said, “It’s not enough to go the first mile; you have to be willing to go the second mile from the inside out.”
- In verses 43-48, He said, “It’s not enough to love your neighbors, you have to love your enemies from the inside out.”
This is righteousness. It’s not a Christmas tree with external ornaments; it’s a fruit true planted by the river, rooted in Christ, and bearing the fruit of the Spirit. This is true righteousness; this is the life that Jesus came to demonstrate; and this is the life He wants to replicate in us.
As I studied all this, my mind kept going to a phrase that I want to end with from the book of Galatians, chapter 4, verse 19: …until Christ is formed in you.
The apostle Paul was worried about the Christians in Galatia because they had a lot of external ornaments and some internal confusion. And he said that he was suffering pain like a woman in childbirth “until Christ is formed in you.” Let me tell you, that is the best and only definition of right living that I know. Christ must be formed in us. That involves a process. Trees don’t grow to maturity overnight. We have to abide in Christ and let God form His personality within us—and that’s a lifelong effort.
When Jesus healed the blind man, the man said, “I see people like trees walking.” That’s the way God sees us too. That’s righteousness.
And the righteous
fill flourish like a palm tree. They will grow like the cedar of Lebanon. Planted
in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courtyard of our God. They
will still bear fruit in old age; they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The
Lord is upright. He is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in Him” (Psalm