Introduction to the six intensifications (antitheses).
Today we continue our long journey through the sermon on the mount. The sermon on the hill, if you will.
We’re still in Matthew chapter 5 if you want to go ahead and find your place there now.
To give you a quick reminder of where we are, this is the first section of teaching in Matthew’s gospel account. We know this particular sermon and this location is NOT the first time Jesus taught, but it’s the first place where Matthew actually gives us a transcript, a compilation of teachings and sayings from Jesus.
Remember, Matthew alternates throughout the entire book in a pattern, going from story to teaching, back and forth. This is the first section of teaching, and it’s the longest, stretching three whole chapters.
The first little part of the teaching is what we refer to as “The Beatitudes,” or the “blessing sayings” and we looked at those a couple weeks ago.
After that, Jesus moves on to talking about salt and light. He says to his crowd of disciples that THEY are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And Mike walked us through what those mean and their significance in light of the Old Testament.
I don’t know about you, but I especially found all the references to salt in the Old Testament fascinating! And I had never thought about the “covenant of salt” at all before, especially not in relation to the sermon on the mount, so I thought that was pretty cool.
That brought us through verse 16, which is where we left off last week.
In verse 17 Jesus is going to continue referencing the Old Testament, and make some important statements, crucial claims about himself and what he is here to do, and how he relates to the Old Testament.
Let’s read together, beginning in verse 17. And I’m going to go ahead and read to the end of the chapter so you can get the big picture of what he’s saying here, and tuck it away in the back of your head. We won’t be covering the entire rest of the chapter in detail today, but I want to read through it anyway.
Starting in verse 17:
Matthew 5:17–48 CSB
17 “Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.
21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire. 23 So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Reach a settlement quickly with your adversary while you’re on the way with him to the court, or your adversary will hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. 28 But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 “It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce. 32 But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord. 34 But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, because it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 36 Do not swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one.
38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
OK, let’s summarize this whole section.
First, Jesus says that he didn’t come to get rid of the Law or the Prophets, the Old Testament. He didn’t come to make the Old Testament, irrelevant, of course he didn’t! Everything he’s said so far has ties back to the Old Testament! He’s relying on the Old Testament and basing all of his claims on the Old Testament! And even his teachings about morality and justice are rooted in the Old Testament!
For Jesus, a Jewish man, the Hebrew scriptures are extremely important to him!
And it’s important to him that his followers understand that. We’ll get to that a bit more in just a minute, but I want to finish summarizing the rest of it first.
Jesus says that he didn’t come to abolish the Old Testament, but to fulfill it. And he says that everything written in the Old Testament is still relevant, BUT also implies that, in many ways, the law and the prophets have been misunderstood, misinterpreted.
He then goes on to give several examples of how the law really should be interpreted and followed when understood correctly.
Like the so-called “Beatitudes,” this section, beginning in verse 21, has a traditional title, a traditional term that you may have heard or that you may see in commentaries.
They’ve become known as the “Six Antitheses.”
What’s an antithesis?
antithesis - noun
OK, on one hand I guess that kind of makes sense, because all of these statements, these teachings begin with “You have heard this thing, BUT I tell you this thing, and in a way there is a contrast happening.
It’s a contrast between legalistically following the letter of the law...and actually understanding the true spirit, the purpose of the law.
BUT, at the same time, I don’t really like the term antithesis, because it implies that Jesus is making statements against, in opposition to, contrary to the law, when he clearly stated just the opposite immediately BEFORE launching into these 6 examples.
I think a better way to think of them is as six clarifications, or even as six intensifications of the law. He’s not abolishing the law, or going against the law, he’s doing the opposite, he’s actually making the law more demanding, more difficult to follow by interpreting it properly.
We’ll be looking at each one of these individually over the next couple weeks. But I wanted to set them up with a bit of an introduction first, and to get the big picture before unpacking and dissecting each one.
But first, I want to back up to verse 17, and the fact that Jesus prefaced these six “antitheses” or “intensifications” with almost a caveat. He wanted to correct people’s thinking even before they had the thought.
Perhaps he has already been accused of defying the law. We know that he will be later in Matthew, we’ll see the scribes and pharisees levy charges against him of blasphemy, and taking issue with his association with sinners, and accusing him of breaking the Sabbath, multiple times, and of not paying the temple tax, and he was quizzed and questioned on various points of the law on various occasions, often to try to trip him up and find fault with him.
So Jesus wants to set the record straight here, and especially right before making a bunch of statements which might come across as having a tone that’s contradictory to the law. He’s making it clear that everything he teaches and says, it might contradict YOUR understanding of the law, but it doesn’t contradict or overturn any part of the law itself, down to the tiniest detail.
He says that in verse 18:
Matthew 5:18 CSB
18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished.
Depending on your translation, you may see the words “iota or dot” instead of smallest letter or one stroke of a letter. If you’re familiar with the KJV then you’ve probably heard the phrase “a jot or a tittle” which has become synonymous with “every tiniest detail”
A jot or an iotta refers to the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet, which is the language Matthew is written in. A tittle was a small dot used in medieval Latin, similar to an apostrophe in English. Other translations might reference the Hebrew letter yod, which, again looks a lot like an apostrophe, it’s just a tiny little stroke, but it’s one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and it’s an important one…in fact, it’s what we would call the letter Y, and it’s one of the 4 consonants in the name of God - YHWH - the name of God starts with yod!
But whatever letters you reference to use as an example here, the point he’s making is clear…even the smallest details of the law are important.
Jesus specifically brings up the tiny details of the law, and then calls out the people who were famous for their attention to those details, the scribes and pharisees, and says that THEY, the most detailed, most dedicated to the law, are not righteous enough to enter the kingdom of heaven!
That’s a strong statement, in verse 20!
Matthew 5:20 CSB
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.
By making that statement, he’s on one hand recognizing their obsession and dedication to the law, which honestly started out with good intentions! But he’s also implying that their version of righteousness, their version of religion misses the mark.
He’s NOT saying that what they’re doing is necessarily wrong, he’s just saying it’s not enough.
Jesus certainly is not endorsing the Scribes and Pharisees, here, but he’s also not actually criticizing their strict observance of the law. What he criticizes over and over again is their outward conformance with rotten inner motives and attitudes. They focus on external displays of “righteousness” while missing the real intent of the law, and compromising it, twisting it to their own advantage, rather than internalizing and truly living by the heart of the law. That was their failure.
I think, if we’re honest, we often have that same struggle, whether it’s in various denominations of Christianity, or individual churches, or even just in families, at home, many well-meaning people, in an effort to please God, have created religions that miss the mark of what God intended. That’s something we should always be checking ourselves on.
In Luke 16:17 Jesus makes a similar statement about the law:
Luke 16:17 CSB
17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter in the law to drop out.
And then, later on, in Matthew chapter 24, Jesus says this:
Matthew 24:35 CSB
35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
It’s another, similar statement, but this time about his own words! And he’s putting his own words at the level of scripture, equating his words with the words of God, because he is, in fact God!
And he’s bringing a new word, a new teaching, a new way of understanding righteousness and the concepts which were introduced by the Old Testament.
Jesus introduces a new kind of righteousness, and it’s a kind of righteousness that’s only possible through HIM, not through following a whole bunch of rules. Just as Jesus is greater than Moses, greater than David, greater than the Temple, greater than Jonah, so his righteousness and the righteousness of his followers must be greater than that of the religious “elite” of the day. That righteousness would include good works, it results in good works, but it’s not accomplished by good works.
In the verses that follow, Jesus restores the true nature of God’s law as demanding total and radical holiness. And Jesus is talking about an even deeper obedience of God’s commands, not disregard for them!
But the problem is that nobody, even the scribes and pharisees, has been able to actually achieve that level of holiness! And that’s why it’s so important that Jesus says he himself is the one who will accomplish that, on behalf of all humanity.
I want to pause here for a minute, though, and talk a little bit more about this concept of “the law.”
ASK: When you hear or see the word “Law,” what does that make you think of?
I want to talk a little more about this idea of “the law.” It’s a term that has already gotten thrown around a lot, and we’ll continue to use it, so I want to make sure to clarify what we’re talking about when we talk about “the law” in a Biblical context.
Actually, here Jesus mentions both the “law” AND the “prophets.”
Together, this is a shortcut way of saying “all of scripture.” The Hebrew scripture, which we call the “Old Testament” was the only testament, the only scripture, the only inspired word of God written yet at that time.
But the word translated as “law” throughout the Bible is usually referring to the Hebrew word “torah” and that simply refers to the first 5 books of the bible. They’re also called the “books of Moses” and today we have a fancy word “Pentateuch” because there are five of them, it’s the “Pentateuch.”
But any other time we use the word “law” in our society, we’re thinking of something much different than the contents of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
Here’s an Oxford definition of the word law:
The system of rules which a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and which it may enforce by the imposition of penalties.
Ok, does that definition apply to some of the content of those books?
Absolutely! Especially in Leviticus, where a system is established which regulates the actions of this newly formed nation of Israel, and defines them as a community.
However, those sections exist within the context of a larger story, the whole narrative from Creation to the Fall to Abraham to Joseph, to Moses! So, the word Torah refers to much more than just a system of rules.
In fact, I would say this about the entire Bible, that to view it as a “rule book” is NOT an accurate perspective of what it is and why it exists. And because the word torah refers to everything in those first 5 books, including the stories and poetry, I think a better translation, which you’ll find in some places, is the word “teaching.” It’s educational, it’s historical, it teaches the story of Israel, and it teaches wisdom and morality and most importantly it teaches about who God is, and who we are, and the story of all creation, and his relationship with humanity.
It’s certainly more than what WE think of as “law.”
In fact, even when looking at those specific sections in which systems and rules are being established, in Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the approach to those rules and systems is much different than the approach we have today to laws and legal systems.
That is to say, even in the passages where laws are being presented, the method, framework, and application of law is totally different from our modern legal system!
ASK: who knows how many laws are in the Old Testament?
**This is actually a subject of debate that goes back thousands of years! But the most common tradition is that there are 613 individual, identifiable laws given in the torah. And the difference that’s debated is only a difference of one or two.
That might sound like a lot of laws. Over 600 laws! Does that sound like a lot of laws to you?
Well, it would be a lot to try to memorize, granted, and they did actually memorize it.
But for the entire constitution of a nation, the way law is approached in modern times, that’s really not very many laws at all. In fact, that is an incredibly minimal size if you think in terms of a legal document to govern a whole country.
ASK: How many laws do you think we have here in the US, just on a Federal level, let alone the state, and county, and city, and village level?
I got this from the Library of Congress website, this is from the people who curate the federal laws of this country:
At the reference desk, we are frequently asked to estimate the number of federal laws in force. However, trying to tally this number is nearly impossible.
If you think the answer to this question can be found in the volumes of the Statutes at Large, you are partially correct. The Statutes at Large is a compendium that includes all the federal laws passed by the U.S. Congress. However, a total count of laws passed does not account for the fact that some laws are completely new; some are passed to amend existing laws; and others completely repeal old laws. Moreover, this set does not include any case law or regulatory provisions that have the force of law.
In a conversation about this topic, a friend asked me, “What about the United States Code?” The current Code has 51 titles in multiple volumes. It would be very time consuming to go page by page to count each federal law, and it also does not include case law or regulatory provisions.
Here’s another statistic I found:
Congress has enacted approximately 200–600 statutes during each of its 115 biennial terms so that more than 30,000 statutes have been enacted since 1789.
That is incredible! As many as the entire collection of Levitical laws passed in just one or two years of additions to federal regulations in the US, every year for over 200 years!
613 laws in total really doesn’t sound like that much once you put it in that perspective.
And that’s because of a fundamental difference in how law codification was approached back then in that part of the world, compared to how we approach it now.
For one thing, it wasn’t printed on sheets of copy paper and stored on servers in databases to be referenced in courts and offices throughout the country.
No, the best way of recording and preserving law, and making it visible to the community, was to inscribe it in stone, and place it in a prominent place.
Think about it, in Exodus the Ten Commandments were inscribed in stone, the famous stone tablets. But Israel actually wasn’t unique in this approach. Have you ever heard of the Code of Hammurabi?
The Code of Hammurabi is a Babylonian legal text composed around 1750 BC.
It’s not the only other reference we have to ancient near Eastern law, but it’s the most well known.
It is the longest, best-organised, and best-preserved legal text from that area of the world. From Israel’s neighbors.
It is written in the Old Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, purportedly by Hammurabi, the sixth king of the First Dynasty of Babylon.
It’s inscribed on a stone slab that’s over 7 feet tall - 7” 41/2” - with an image carved into the top, and then text throughout the rest of the stone. Over 4,000 lines of text written in cuneiform. And, much like the torah, that text was copied and studied by Mesopotamian scribes for over a thousand years!
And, like the torah, this “code” was more than just a list of statutes. It includes narrative and poetry, giving a context for the law, and claiming divine authority.
It doesn’t start with a preamble with dozens of “whereas” clauses. It starts with a narrative prologue!
The scope of the law itself includes criminal law, family law, property law, and commercial law! It’s broad, covering every major aspect of life! And you might find that some of the specific laws sound somewhat familiar.
For example, there’s a law against bearing false witness. Against stealing. Against unfair debt collection and fraud. Against assault and murder. In fact, there’s a law that essentially says “an eye for an eye” just like there is in Exodus.
There’s even a law about what to do when an ox gores someone to death in the street:
If an ox gores to death a man while it is passing through the streets, that case has no basis for a claim.
Relatable, right? Apparently that was a thing back then, because there’s a very similar law in Exodus:
Exodus 21:28 CSB
28 “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox must be stoned, and its meat may not be eaten, but the ox’s owner is innocent.
Apparently, this was a situation that had to be dealt with frequently enough that they had laws about it. This one might not make much sense to us now, but it made sense back then and in both cases it was about making sure there was a system of justice in place when there was potential for a dispute.
Here’s another example from the Hammurabi text:
If a builder constructs a house for a man but does not make it conform to specifications so that a wall then buckles, that builder shall make that wall sound using his own silver.
OK, that one is a little bit more relatable, and I think it makes a lot of sense! It holds builders accountable to their own work. If they build something and it falls apart, they’re responsible to fix it on their own dime. That seems fair, right?
I think it’s really fun to look at stuff like this and see the similarities and differences in the Old Testament compared to other literature from that time period and area of the world - it can be a deep rabbit hole! The code of Hammurabi is historically and widely regarded with respect for its overall sense of justice, though it does have some questionable content as well, and there are some significant, and important differences in Mosaic law which actually make it much more progressive and in some ways radical compared to that of surrounding cultures.
But we’re not going to go there today. What I really want to point out for now is how the code of Hammurabi, and Mosaic law, and other laws from those cultures, were similar. They were similar in that each law was meant to be representative rather than exhaustive.
Ancient near-eastern law, including Mosaic law, was meant to be representative, rather than exhaustive.
What do I mean by that?
Well, in the case of the builder, if he builds a wall and it collapses, he has to fix it, right? Ok, well what if he builds a staircase and it crumbles? Do you think the same principle would apply? Of course it would!
In modern, Western culture, we approach law with the intention of putting statutes in writing for every possible scenario, every possible situation. If there’s no written law for any given situation, then no legal action can be taken, or a new law has to be made. Hence, we’ve been making hundreds of new laws every year for hundreds of years!
But that approach just wasn’t possible when you had to carve each law into a stone pillar or a tablet! So there would not have been the same expectation for “laws” to be totally comprehensive. Rather, you would have one example, with an underlying principle, which can then be extrapolated to cover other examples. So a law about a wall could also apply to a staircase. Or a law about a sheep might also apply to a goat, and so on.
The same is true in Mosaic law. 613 laws are simply not enough to cover every situation that’s going to come up. But they DO teach underlying principles of spirituality and morality and justice. I would say that’s especially true of the laws relating to community and society.
Here’s one good example from Exodus:
Exodus 20:12 CSB
12 Honor your father and your mother so that you may have a long life in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
The command is simply to “honor your father and your mother.” It doesn’t explain how to do that! I think part of the answer can be found in the context of the rest of scripture, and the values of humility, honesty, kindness, etc…you can find lots of wisdom regarding parent child relationships in Proverbs.
However, that’s just part of the answer. What it looks like to honor your father and mother looks different for different people in different cultures, at different ages, in different situations. You couldn’t possibly codify that into laws, because it’s a principle which adapts to various context. And our personal context should shape our interpretation of that principle, as long as it also corresponds with the context of the rest of scripture. And it’s exactly because the command is not specific that is IS relatable even thousands of years later.
That said, sometimes it CAN be challenging to know how to apply certain principles, and I think it’s a natural human tendency to want to come up with a system that accounts for every possible scenario. And that’s exactly what the scribes and pharisees were trying to do! Again, with good intentions! They wanted to follow God’s law! That’s a good thing! They wanted to honor the Sabbath! And God gave them a handful of specific rules about how to do that, but left a lot of other details out, so they had to extrapolate and came up with a whole bunch of supplementary laws, which told the people how to follow the laws of the torah.
Again, the intention of that is not bad - to know and understand the principles of the law, and be able to apply them to every part of life even if God didn’t give us the written details for every situation. Unfortunately though, their approach resulted in legalism and hypocrisy.
God DID get very specific and detailed when it came to the tabernacle/temple, and offering sacrifices, and ritual purification when it came to making sure people were ready for God’s presence. But even those can be traced back to the underlying commandment to Love God. Because of humanity’s broken relationship with God, our spiritual communion with him is not always intuitive. When establishing his covenant with Israel, he he wanted to be with them, among them. But that meant that they needed to be holy, set apart from the other nations around them, not to exclude other people groups, but SO THAT they could then spread God’s presence and his blessing throughout the rest of the world. And he created a way for them to do that.
Of course, we know that even though Israel failed to uphold their end of the covenant, God remained faithful to them throughout many generations.
And we know that Jesus came to bring a NEW covenant, but from the beginning, and Matthew makes sure to include this early on, that Jesus is very clear in saying that this new covenant does not annul the law, it fulfills the law.
That through him the marriage covenant between God and Israel, and by extension the marriage, the reunion of God and all humanity, would be consummated, fulfilled, accomplished.
And that through him God’s kingdom would be established, and that he would be placed in authority over everything in heaven and earth, as the king of that kingdom.
And that at the core of all this, the core values and mindset of that kingdom, are the same core values and mindset, the same principles of spirituality, and morality, and sexual purity, and social justice, which were at the core of Old Testament teachings.
All of which, to be understood properly, stem from the twofold core teaching to 1: Love God and 2: Love others.
Everything else God has commanded or will command anyone to do stems from those two things! The 613 laws in the Old Testament all trace back to the 10 core commandments, and all 10 of those can be distilled even further into those 2 basic, core commands: Love God. Love Others.
Jesus himself says it later on in Matthew:
Matthew 22:37–40 CSB
37 He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and most important command. 39 The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
And Paul picks up on it in Romans, in the context of our relationships with each other:
Romans 13:8–10 CSB
8 Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet; and any other commandment, are summed up by this commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.
And in Galatians:
Galatians 5:13–14 CSB
13 For you were called to be free, brothers and sisters; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.
So, if following God and following scripture doesn’t help us do those things, or help us better understand what love is, or better understand who God is, or how to love him, or how to love the people around us better, then we’re missing the mark.
We must be careful NOT to misinterpret the law to our own advantage, whether it’s to justify sinful behavior, or to replace true religion with a system of legalism which fills us pride and self-righteousness and judgement towards others, rather than filling us with the spirit of God and with love and humility and self-sacrifice.
And no matter what situation we’re in, no matter what scripture we’re interpreting, no matter what decision we’re making, at home, at work, at the grocery store, let us constantly ask ourselves: how, in this moment, can I Love God more, and love the people around me better?
As long as we start there, then by the grace of God and the power and direction of the Spirit, we will bring glory to Him, while fulfilling our true purpose in life, and bringing love and healing and peace, and unity, and justice - hallmarks of God’s kingdom, into the world around us.
Of course, as we’ve said often recently, that’s NOT a promise that everything will go will for us, or that it will be easy, because those values will at many times be in conflict with the fallen world we live in, poisoned by sin.
And exactly where to draw the line and what to do in any given situation, the decisions we make are not always easy. Sometimes we have obvious black and white decisions to make. Other times it’s not as clear how to apply these core values.
As we continue through these six examples, six case studies that Jesus provided, Lord willing we’ll be able to explore those nuances a bit more as we go.
But I do believe that as long as we are truly striving to meet those two core objectives, to love God and love others, and as long as we are faithful to pray and seek God’s direction, that He is faithful to reveal the path of righteousness to us, even if it’s only one step at a time.