WHAT DOES RESPECT MEAN?

 

Week of October 28, 2007

 

Bible Verses:  Matthew 5:33-48.

 

Biblical Truth: Jesus taught believers to practice honesty, exceed the expected, and love their enemies.

 

Honesty is the Best Policy:  Matthew 5:33-37.

 

[33]  “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ [34]  But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, [35]  or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. [36]  Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. [37]  But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.”  [NASU]

 

If the rabbis tended to be permissive in their attitude to divorce, they were permissive also in their teaching about oaths. It is another example of their devious treatment of Old Testament Scripture, in order to make it more amenable to obedience. Even a superficial reading of the various commandments of Moses on oaths indicates plainly their intention. They prohibit false swearing or perjury, that is, making a vow and then breaking it. But the Pharisees shifted people’s attention away from the vow itself and the need to keep it to the formula used in making it. So they developed elaborate rules for the taking of vows. They listed which formulae were permissible, and they added that only those formulae which included the divine name made the vow binding. Jesus expressed His contempt for this kind of sophistry.

 

Jesus begins by arguing that the question of the formula used in making vows is a total irrelevance, and in particular that the Pharisees’ distinction between formulae which mention God and those which do not is entirely artificial. However hard you try, Jesus said, you cannot avoid some reference to God, for the whole world is God’s world and you cannot eliminate Him from any of it. If you vow by ‘heaven’, it is God’s throne; if by ‘earth’ it is His footstool; if by ‘Jerusalem’ it is His city. If you swear by your head, it is indeed yours in the sense that it is nobody else’s, and yet it is God’s creation and under God’s control. So if the precise wording of a vow-formula is irrelevant, then a preoccupation with formulae was not the point of the law at all. A vow is binding irrespective of its accompanying formula. That being so, the real implication of the law is that we must keep our promises and be people of our word. Then vows become unnecessary.

 

If divorce is due to human hard-heartedness, swearing is due to human untruthfulness. Both were permitted by the law; neither was commanded, neither should be necessary. Two questions may arise in our minds at this point. First, if swearing is forbidden, why has God Himself used oaths in Scripture (Gen. 22:16,17; Heb. 6:13-18). To this we must answer that the purpose of the divine oaths was not to increase His credibility, but to elicit and confirm our faith. The fault which made God condescend to this human level lay not in any untrustworthiness of His but in our unbelief. Secondly, if swearing is forbidden, is the prohibition absolute? For example, should Christians, in order to be consistent in their obedience, decline to swear an affidavit for any purpose or give evidence on oath in a court of law. It needs to be noticed that the Old Testament does permit men to take oaths, even oaths in God’s name [Deut. 10:20]. Even in the New Testament, Paul regularly swears by God’s name [Rom. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:23; 1 Thess. 2:5,10].  What Jesus emphasized in His teaching was that honest men do not need to resort to oaths; it was not that they should refuse to take an oath if required by some external authority to do so.

 

The modern application is not far to seek, for the teaching of Jesus is timeless. Swearing or oath-taking is really a pathetic confession of our own dishonesty. Why do we find it necessary to introduce our promises by some tremendous formula. The only reason is that we know our simple word is not likely to be trusted. So we try to induce people to believe us by adding a solemn oath. Christians should say what they mean and mean what they say. Our unadorned word should be enough. For the follower of Jesus, it is best simply to say ‘Yes’ and mean yes, to say ‘No’ and mean no. Christians claim to have the truth, and to follow Him who is the Truth. In our conversations, therefore, truth must be our watchword.

 

Beyond the Call of Duty:  Matthew 5:38-42.

 

[38]  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ [39]  But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. [40]  If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. [41]  Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. [42]  Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”   [NASU]

 

The context of this saying [38] in the Old Testament makes it clear beyond question that this was an instruction to the judges of Israel [Deut. 19:17ff.]. It expressed the principle of an exact retribution, whose purpose was both to lay the foundation of justice, specifying the punishment which a wrong-doer deserved, and to limit the compensation of his victim to an exact equivalent and no more. It thus had the double effect of defining justice and restraining revenge. It also prohibited the taking of the law into one’s own hands by the ghastly vengeance of the family feud. It is almost certain that by the time of Jesus literal retaliation for damage had been replaced in Jewish legal practice by money penalties or damages. But the scribes and Pharisees evidently extended this principle of just retribution from the law courts (where it belongs) to the realm of personal relationships (where it does not belong). They tried to use it to justify personal revenge, although the law explicitly forbade this [Lev. 19:18].

 

In His reply Jesus did not contradict the principle of retribution, for it is a true and just principle. What Jesus affirmed in the antithesis was rather that this principle, though it pertains to the law courts and to the judgment of God, is not applicable to our personal relationships. These are based on love, not justice. Our duty to individuals who wrong us is not retaliation, but the acceptance of injustice without revenge or redress. But what exactly is the meaning of this call to non-resistance? The Greek verb is plain: it is to resist, oppose, withstand or set oneself against someone or something. So whom or what are we forbidden to resist? Perhaps the other uses of the verb in the New Testament will help to set the context for our thinking. According to its major negative use, we are above all not to resist God, His will, His truth or His authority [Rom 9:19; 2 Tim. 3:8; 4:15; Luke 21:15; Acts 6:10; 13:8; Rom. 13:2]. We are constantly urged, however, to resist the devil [Eph. 6:13; 1 Pet. 5:9; James 4:7].

 

So how is it possible that Jesus told us not to resist evil? We cannot possibly interpret His command as an invitation to compromise with sin or Satan. No, the first clue to a correct understanding of His teaching is to recognize that the words an evil person are here masculine not neuter. What we are forbidden to resist is not evil as such, evil in the abstract, nor ‘the evil one’ meaning the devil, but an evil person. What Jesus does not allow is that we retaliate. The four mini-illustrations which follow all apply the principle of Christian non-retaliation, and indicate the lengths to which it must go. Each introduces a person (in the context a person who in some sense is ‘evil’) who seeks to do us an injury. In each of the four situations, Jesus said, our Christian duty is so completely to forbear revenge that we even allow the ‘evil’ person to double the injury. Jesus’ illustrations and personal example depict not the weakling who offers no resistance. They depict rather the strong man whose control of himself and love for others are so powerful that he rejects absolutely every conceivable form of retaliation. The four illustrations are given not as detailed regulations but as illustrations of a principle. That principle is love, the selfless love of a person who, when injured, refuses to satisfy himself by taking revenge, but studies instead the highest welfare of the other person and of society, and determines his reactions accordingly. Thus the only limit to the Christian’s generosity will be a limit which love itself may impose. Similarly, Christ’s illustrations are not to be taken as the charter for any unscrupulous tyrant, ruffian, beggar or thug. His purpose was to forbid revenge, not to encourage injustice, dishonesty or vice.

 

How can those who seek as their first priority the extension of God’s righteous rule at the same time contribute to the spread of unrighteousness? True love, caring for both the individual and society, takes action to deter evil and to promote good. Christ teaches not the irresponsibility which encourages evil but the forbearance which renounces revenge. Authentic Christian non-resistance is non-retaliation. The individual’s responsibility towards a wrongdoer was laid down by Paul in Romans 12:17-21. It will be seen that Paul’s prohibition of vengeance is not because retribution is in itself wrong, but because it is the prerogative of God, not man. This difference of God-given function between two servants of God – the state to punish the evildoer, the individual Christian not to repay evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good – is bound to create a painful tension in all of us, specially because all of us in different degrees are both individuals and citizens of the state, and therefore share in both functions.

 

To sum up the teaching of this antithesis, Jesus was not prohibiting the administration of justice, but rather forbidding us to take the law into our own hands. In personal life we must be rid not only of all retaliation in word and deed, but of all animosity of spirit. We can and must commit our cause to the good and righteous Judge, as Jesus Himself did, but it is not for us to seek or to desire any personal revenge. So the command of Jesus not to resist evil should not properly be used to justify either temperamental weakness or moral compromise or political anarchy or even total pacifism. Instead, what Jesus here demands of all His followers is a personal attitude to evildoers which is prompted by mercy not justice, which renounces retaliation so completely as to risk further costly suffering, which is governed never by the desire to cause them harm but always by the determination to serve their highest good. Personal self-sacrifice displaces personal retaliation.

 

Love Your Enemies:  Matthew 5:43-48.

 

[43]  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ [44]  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, [45]  so that you may be sons of your Father who is 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 do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? [47]  If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? [48]  Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”   [NASU]

 

The instruction, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, is a blatant perversion of the law because of what it omits from the commandment and adds to it. It deliberately narrows both the standard of love (leaving out the crucial words ‘as yourself’, which pitch the standard very high) and its objects (qualifying the category of neighbor by specifically excluding enemies from it and adding the command to hate them instead). The perversion is blatant because it is totally lacking in justification, and yet the rabbis would have defended it as a legitimate interpretation. Since the command is to love only my neighbor, it must be taken as a permission, even an injunction, to hate my enemy.

 

Jesus contradicted their addition as a gross distortion of the law. Our neighbor in the vocabulary of God includes our enemy. What constitutes him our neighbor is simply that he is a fellow human being in need, whose need we know and are in a position in some measure to relieve. Our love for our neighbor will be expressed in our deeds, our words and our prayers. True love is not sentiment so much as service. Words can also express our love, however, both by words addressed to our enemies themselves and words addressed to God on their behalf. It is impossible to truly pray for someone without loving him, and impossible to go on praying for him without discovering that our love for him grows and matures.

 

We Christians are specifically called to love our enemies (in which love there is no self-interest), and this is impossible without the supernatural grace of God. The life of the old (fallen) humanity is based on rough justice, avenging injuries and returning favors. The life of the new (redeemed) humanity is based on divine love, refusing to take revenge but overcoming evil with good.

 

Only the kingdom of God can provide sufficiently strong motives to help us love our enemies: He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. This is what Jesus means when He tells us to be perfect like the Father. He is not assuming we can reach moral perfection in this life. Rather, He is reflecting on the way in which the love of the Father is demonstrated in its perfection in the way He loves his enemies. The mark of ‘perfection’ in the Christian is just this: his love is not determined by the loveliness or the attractiveness he finds in the object. No, his love is controlled by the knowledge that when he was God’s enemy and a sinner, the Father first loved him.

 

Looking back over all six antitheses, it has become clear what the greater righteousness is to which Christians are summoned. It is a deep inward righteousness of the heart where the Holy Spirit has written God’s law. It is new fruit exhibiting the newness of the tree, new life burgeoning from a new nature. What is characteristic of Christians is a keen appetite for righteousness, hungering and thirsting after it continuously. And this righteousness, whether expressed in purity, honesty or charity, will show to whom we belong.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.      The Pharisees shifted people’s attention away from the vow itself and the need to keep it to the formula used in making it. How did Jesus respond to this attempt by the Pharisees? Where did Jesus say our focus should be?

 

2.      In verses 38-42, what principle is Jesus teaching? In the context of this principle, what does Jesus mean when He instructs His followers to not resist evil?

 

3.      What was wrong with the saying you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy?  How did Jesus correct this error? Who are our enemies and how can we show love to them?

 

4.      How does God expect us to reflect the spiritual life he has given us in Christ? How is relationship emphasized in verses 45, 48? How can our relationship with God as Father help make verse 48 true in our lives? How does having a heavenly Father influence your view of self? Of others? Of holiness?

 

 

References:

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount , D.A. Carson, Global Christian Publishers.

The Sermon on the Mount, Sinclair Ferguson, Banner of Truth.

Christian Counter-Culture, John Stott, Inter-Varsity Press.