Matthew 5:21-37


These days we seem to be inundated with legal issues. On our televisions and in our newspapers we hear and read stories of people taking others to court. Not that many years ago we had a Public Liability crisis, which crippled community events and put the future of many small businesses at risk. And whereas in the past, it seemed like this was all the stuff of the Americas, these days we could easily comment, “Haven’t we got to the point where we are just the same?”

However, whilst it’s all very well for us to lament the current situation, couldn’t it also be said that the mess that we find ourselves in today, is simply the result of the way we view the law in our society.

After all, as a country, don’t we have a reputation of looking for loopholes in legislation in order to gain an advantage? And don’t we have to increasingly create new legislation to fill the gaps? Aren’t people increasingly seeking financial compensation when they feel they have been wronged, rather than take a more gentle approach? And aren’t we increasingly being encouraged to do so? And as a consequence haven’t we become a society that puts more value on the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law?

Now you’re probably wondering where all this is going. And I can understand that. Except for the fact that what I’ve described is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, even in Jesus’s time there were experts who knew the law, but who also knew how to manipulate it to their own advantage. What is interesting, then, is Jesus’s response to that situation—one of which we find In Matthew chapter five. Because what Jesus had to say has serious implications for the way Christians should view the law today.


1. The Background (20)
Now the background to the passage is that Jesus had a group of people in mind—the Pharisees. Now they claimed to keep the commandments. But what they meant by that was they kept the strict letter of the law—and in particular God’s law. And in keeping the letter of the law they may well have been right. Except for the fact that Jesus was concerned that they really didn’t understand God’s laws at all. Indeed he implied that those who professed the faith, but were looking for loopholes, and manipulating the rules to suit their purposes, were living lives well short of the mark. And people who purported to have faith, needed to consider that they were accountable to God for their responses to his laws. Indeed more accountable than those who didn’t profess the faith at all.

So that’s the background. As a consequence Jesus’s remarks were directed fairly and squarely towards believers.

2. You Shall Not Kill
a). The Letter versus the Spirit (21-22)
And the first point that Jesus made was, that far from just keeping the letter of the law, believers were expected to uphold the spirit of the law too.

Indeed, using the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill,” Jesus equated anger towards a fellow believer as the equivalent of murder itself. As a consequence it deserved the same punishment. And treating a fellow believer with contempt was a crime that required an even harsher penalty still. Furthermore, making a negative judgement against a brother’s membership of the kingdom was a crime worthy of nothing less than condemnation by God himself.

The importance of the sanctity of human life to Jesus, then, was not simply a matter of not committing murder, but it went much further than that. Indeed, he expected all believers, not only to be non-judgemental, but to treat all fellow believers with respect.

b). The Implication for Believers (23)
Of course why Jesus took such a stand is not implicitly stated in the passage. The implication, however, is that the behaviour of one Christian to another is of vital importance. Because how we behave reflects on our attitude to God, on his principles for living, and on whether we care for our fellow believers or not. It also reflects on how others see God and his church too.

So if we only keep the letter of the law, and not the spirit of the law, our spiritual welfare is at stake. If we are angry with a fellow believer, we may not have physically killed them, nevertheless we are just as guilty as breaking the Spirit of God’s law as if we had. And failure to make things right with a brother in the church effectively falsifies any profession of faith.

c). Two Choices (24-26)
So if a worshipper is it odds with another, Jesus said they need to pursue reconciliation. And as far as Jesus was concerned it needed to be pursued speedily and urgently. The worshipper was to get his or her priorities right. The believer was to take whatever steps necessary to restore harmony. And only when that was achieved were they to come back and resume worship. Because the act of worship was not as important as the spirit in which it was done.

And if someone refused to be reconciled … That then meant that they must bear the penalty for not being reconciled. And what Jesus describes, was not just the continuing disharmony between two believers. No! He was talking about the rejection of the person by God, and all of the eternal consequences that that entailed.

3. Summary
Now do you feel that you’ve been suddenly hit with hammer? Because I do. Indeed, Jesus could not have been more explicit. It’s not the letter of the law that’s important, but the spirit of the law. And in a country that looks up to people who play on the edge that can be very difficult to accept.

But by using the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill,” Jesus has reminded us that God’s laws are serious, and that the whole welfare of society depends on having the correct attitude to the law. That is why the spirit of the law is so much more important than the letter of the law, particularly among people who profess to be believers.

So in the case of the Pharisees, by only keeping the letter of the law, they had demonstrated an unwillingness to obey God’s commands. And as a consequence it not only put them off-side with God, but it gave them plenty of scope for a good deal of ungodly behaviour.

4. You shall not Commit Adultery (27-30)
Now, as far as I am concerned, Jesus had made his point, and could quite easily have left the matter there. But he didn’t. He continued on with a second example to illustrate his point. This time with the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”

And whereas the strict letter of the law related to the act itself, Jesus expanded it out to include looking lustfully at someone else. He then provided an extraordinary suggestion of plucking one’s eyes out, and chopping off parts of one’s body in order to prevent a believer from sinning.

Nevertheless, the point is clear. The law is about the sanctity of marriage, not just adultery. And it is the principle behind the law, not the letter, that is important.

5. A Certificate of Divorce (31-32)
Then having said that, he did it all over again. But this time with the topic of divorce.

Now nowhere in the bible is there any law from God commanding people to get divorced. But there is a regulation which is intended to protect the wife from being driven from her home without good reason—and that was the point of the bill of divorce. And that was what Jesus was speaking to. People were not taking seriously the principle behind law (the safeguards for the woman), rather they were using the strict letter of the law (and simply issuing a piece of paper). They were not considering the greater consequences for the woman at all.

So again, the principle that the spirit of the law, not the letter, is made explicit.

6. Oaths
And then, Jesus did it all over again. And this time the issue was swearing oaths. That is, the solemn declaration that appeals to God in confirmation of what has been said.

Now this is at the heart of the principles of the spirit and the letter of the law. After all, in those days, it was not expected for people to be truthful all the time. So, when someone wanted to be taken seriously, they would follow up their statement by swearing a solemn oath in God’s name, to back up what they had said. Which, of course, in many instances, brought God’s name into disrepute.

And that is why Jesus’s expectation of his followers was that when they promised to do something they would fulfil that promise. That they were to restrict the use of solemn oaths to only promises made to God himself. And at all other times …. Well, they were to simply speak truthfully at all times.

In other words, the spirit of the law—being truthful at all times, was far more important than the letter of the law—swearing oaths. Because all swearing oaths did was to get oneself into trouble, and it didn’t reflect well on God either.

7. Summary
Now I think, with me, that you will agree that Jesus has made his point. But, had we read on, we would have found two further illustrations that Jesus made to illustrate his point—one on “Retaliation” (38-42) and the other on “Loving One’s Enemies” (43-48). Nevertheless Jesus is quite clear that keeping the spirit of the law is far more important for Christians than simply sticking to the strict letter of the law.


So how do we apply Jesus’s teaching for us today?

Well, firstly, as Christians, we should not be skirting the line between what is legal and not legal. Indeed we should not be engaged at all in looking for loopholes or ways around any law at all. Rather, whether it is God’s law or the State’s law, we should be looking for the principle behind the law. We should then uphold the principles of God’s laws, and we should uphold the principles of the State’s laws (in so far as they do not contradict God’s laws).

Secondly, we should understand that our motivation should not be what’s good for me, but rather what’s good for God and for the upkeep of a healthy community. Because it’s when we put ourselves first … That’s when we start to skirt the line between what is legal and what is not.

And, thirdly, we need to address, and to respond to the issues that Jesus raised:

In regards to the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill,” we need to take on board the principle of the sanctity of life. We need to care for others, and be actively involved in ensuring the quality of life for all people.

In regards to the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” we need to uphold the principle of the sanctity of marriage and the family. We need to recognise that the family is at the heart of the community. And if we tamper with that in anyway, the whole community will eventually come crashing down.

In regards to “Certificates of Divorce,” the lesson is that whatever we do, our actions have consequences—and often consequences for other people. So we need to think very carefully about the things that we do, and about how what we do affects others.

And in regards to oaths, we need to remember the importance of being truthful at all times, and that swearing oaths tend to reflect badly upon God. And, in any event, unless we are making a solemn promise to God, they should be totally unnecessary.

And if we can learn those lessons, we would be well on the way to applying Jesus’s principle of keeping to the spirit of the law, not just the letter.


Now, as I said at the beginning, in our country we see a lot of legal issues. We see them on the news and read them in the paper. We even see adverts encouraging us to pursue our rights. And much of this has been created because of the way we treat our laws—preferring the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. As a consequence we shouldn’t be surprised when we see people seeking legal remedies, rather than pursuing one of the many alternatives.

The letter of the law puts the individual before the community. It also puts the individual before God. As a consequence it doesn’t work. Because all it does is build distrust and broken relationships with other people, and with God. And it creates an environment where more laws are required to deal with the gaps and loopholes, in an ever increasing cycle. Only the spirit of the law takes seriously our relationship with God, God’s laws, and our relationship with other people.

In this passage from scripture we have just looked at, Jesus demonstrates the far better way. But is it one we are willing to embrace? After all, it does go against the grain of much of what our society admires.

Posted: 11th February 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis