After being introduced to the character of the Kingdom’s citizens in Matthew 5:1-12, we now are shown the conduct of the Kingdom’s citizens. The beatitudes are not intended to be lovely qualities privately held or discussed among believers – they are to be lived out in a corrupt and dark society. Matthew 5:17-7:12 contains the body of the Sermon on the Mount. In this first section (5:13-48) the particular attention in on the believer’s conduct in relation to the law of God.
Jesus is the Fulfillment of the Law 5:17-20
The reference to the “Law” and “Prophets” is another way of describing the OT Scriptures. The teaching of Jesus does not replace or “abolish” this, but rather fulfills them. This fulfillment occurred because they foreshadowed Him, described Him and prophesied concerning Him (5:17). Jesus went on to affirm the authority and permanence of the OT Scriptures (5:18-19). He concludes by speaking of a kind of “righteousness” that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” in order to enter the Kingdom (5:20). In what way could one’s righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? In Matt. 5:21-48, in contrast to the religious leaders who merely externalized righteous behaviour, Jesus provides six examples where obedience to God’s law begins on the inside and is then manifested externally. These six examples provide a correct understanding and application of God’s law. Each of these examples begins with “You have heard that it was said” (vv. 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). Here Jesus is correcting the wrong interpretation of the Scripture that limited the application.
Murder and Anger 5:21-26
Murder is prohibited by the 6th commandment (Ex. 20:23; Duet. 5:17). However, many limit their understanding to the external act. Jesus reveals that at the root, this law is prohibiting an attitude of anger and hatred, which can lead to the act of murder. In place of anger and hatred, Jesus teaches the importance and urgency of reconciliation (5:23-26)
Adultery and Lust 5:27-30
By quoting the 7th commandment (Ex. 20:14; Duet. 5:18), Jesus reveals that the prohibition like the previous command is not limited to the external act. Jesus goes right to the heart of the problem when it comes to adultery. This wicked act is sourced in lustful intent that takes place in the heart (5:28). Jesus provides the remedy of radical spiritual surgery (5:29-30).
Divorce and Remarriage 5:31-32
“God hates divorce” (Mal. 2:16), yet due to man’s rebellion God provided a process in which divorce could be regulated, thus providing protection of the woman being divorced. Sadly, people were getting divorced for trivial and unscriptural reasons. Jesus reveals the devastation of getting divorced on unbiblical grounds (5:32). Later on in this gospel (19:3-9), Jesus offers further teaching on this topic.
Oaths and Truth 5:33-37
In this example of obedience, Jesus discusses the matter of being truthful. In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders had constructed a way in which one could make an oath and be truth or be deceitful. Jesus made it clear that citizens of His kingdom don’t need an oath to be believed; their “yes” or “no” ought to be sufficient.
Retaliation and Restraint 5:38-42
So as to uphold justice, the Lord provided laws that allowed for limited retaliation in civil cases – the lex talionis. Despite the fact that the purpose of this law was to restrain and regulate retaliation, people abused it. Getting to heart of the matter Jesus says, don’t retaliate to insults with insults (5:39), hold loosely earthly things (5:40), go beyond our call of duty (5:41), and give to genuine needs (5:42).
Enemies and Love 5:43-48
The religious leaders had provided a distorted application the straightforward command, “You shall love your neighbor” (Lev. 19:18) by saying, “hate your enemy”. Jesus demolished this distortion by teaching that one’s neighbor includes their enemy (5:44). He provides the example of God’s common grace in which He “sends rain on the just and the unjust” (5:45).
Jesus concludes this section by calling His people to emulate the perfections of the Father by rightly adhering to God’s Word (5:48).