Jesus on the Sins of Our Age
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., resides in Dallas, Texas, and is a teaching elder at Believers Chapel.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:21-32
If one were to single out the peculiar sins of our age, the latter half of the twentieth century, looming large in any listing would be the sins mentioned by our Lord in Matthew 5:21-32, the sins of murder, adultery, and divorce. In fact, they form a kind of epitome of the morality of our age, an abridgement of the worst form of the denial of the biblical ethic. It is the special sin of the New Morality that it makes these sins respectable in the eyes of its adherents.
The New Morality, the term given to the ethics of men such as Bishop John Robinson of Honest to God fame, Joseph Fletcher, the Lutheran Martin Marty, the Baptist Harvey Cox, and the Presbyterian Robert Wood Lynn, has taught with varying emphases and qualifications that right and wrong cannot be legislated — even by God — in a once-for-all code that fits every situation. God, according to this body of theologians, has not issued such a code; He has called for LOVE. What this simple law demands in each particular situation is right. Hence, the New Morality has sometimes been given the name of Situation Ethics. According to this “code” adultery and other sins may, if the situation is right, be acceptable. The popularity of the New Morality is illustrated by the phenomenal success of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy enterprises, which have, until just recently, grossed millions catering to the hedonistic appetite of the United States. In fact, the sexual revolution of this country has been immeasurably aided by the ethics of the New Morality.
The presuppositions of the New Morality have been defined by Joseph Fletcher as including pragmatism, relativism, and personalism. All of these principles, particularly as interpreted by the eminent theologoian are utterly opposed to the biblical presuppositions of the Christian, who rests his case upon the principle of the verbally and plenarily inspired revelation of God in the Holy Scriptures. Further, the New Morality errs in these specific ways. First, it is antinomian, at least according to Fletcher’s variety (the same cannot really be said for Bishop Robinson’s variety). Second, it fails in that it does not define love in a Christian way, as involving redemption and the cross of Christ. Third, it is pelagian (an ancient British monk who believed man, despite sin, could discern and do God’s will with just trifling assistance from the Spirit of God), because its concept of sin is weak and erroneous. And, finally, the result is an ethics that is sub-Christian and an insult to a holy God.
In the section of the Sermon on the Mount before us we have a sure word from our Lord Jesus Christ, and it is diametrically opposed to the pagan principles of modern society’s ethics. In the opening section of the instructional division of the Sermon (5:17-20). Jesus had emphasized that He was not a Lawbreaker, but a Law-fulfiller, and that the Law and the Prophets were the abidingly authoritative and inspired Word of God. Every part of them, even to the jots and titles, shall have its complete fulfilment. And then He had stressed that, in order to enter the Kingdom of heaven, one must possess a righteousness that exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees. That could only come as a gift from God through faith in Him. Thus, the Lord Jesus completely vindicated the Scriptural tradition.
The same, however, cannot be said for the Pharisaic and scribal tradition (5:21-48). He does not hesitate to disapprove of it and correct it, although there may be portions of it that have remained essentialy biblical. Of the latter He approves. In order to express His criticism of the tradition He sets forth six antitheses between the Pharisaic tradition and the true view of the Law. The antitheses not only correct misinterpretation, they also deepen and sharpen the true view. The six are in two pairs of three each, separated by the “again” of verse thirty-three. The characteristic expression that occurs six times here is, “but I say unto you” (cf. vv. 22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). The first three pertain to the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, while the last three pertain to the Pentateuch. The great impression that steals over me is similar to that expressed by another student, “JESUS UNDERSTANDS THE OLD TESTAMENT BETTER THAN THE OLD TESTAMENT ITSELF.”1 That’s not strictly accurate for really what He does is give the real force of the Old Testament, but it seems to be true because of the traditional distortions that gained such currency in the minds of many through the years.
The Question Of Murder
The Law (5:21). The first antithesis is contained in verses twenty-one through twenty-six. It concerns murder. The tradition says, “No murder,” but I say, “No anger.”
The basis of the tradition to which Jesus refers is the sixth commandment (cf. Exod. 20:13; 21:12; Lev. 24:17). Since He uses the word “heard,” it seems clear that He is referring to the oral teaching of the rabbis. They read and taught the commandments orally in synagogues. The words, “by them,” may be more accurately rendered by to them. The remaining words of the verse confirm that our Lord is referring to Jewish tradition primarily. The introductory words of the verse, then, may mean simply, “It is an old tradition which has obtained for many ages.”2
The Lawgiver’s interpretation (5:22-26). The essence of His reply is that the commandments go beyond the overt act. They touch the inner man. For years and years the rabbis had taught that one kept the sixth commandment by avoiding murder, but our Lord probes deeper and says that one keeps it only if he both avoids murder and anger! Anger, like murder, is a crime to Him. It is possible that John’s words reflect this teaching, “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer, and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15). The words are to be understood within the context of the nation, it would seem, for in Jewish thought a brother was an Israelite by nation and blood, and a neighbor was an Israelite in religion and worship, that is, a proselyte.3 The word “Rata” was an Aramaic word for utter contempt, being equivalent to our bonehead, blockhead, or knucklehead. The text may be rendered, then, “whosoever shall say to his brother, ‘you knucklehead, you’!” For such the danger of hell must become real.
There is some difference of interpretation over the statements of verses twenty-one and twenty-two. Perhaps the sense is something like this: The rabbis say that murder is liable to judgment, but I say that anger is liable to divine judgment. And the rabbis say that abusive language such as rata is punishable by the local court, but I say that abusive language is punishable by the fire of Gehenna.4
Two things emerge from these opening words. In the first place, ALL UNLOVE stands condemned by the Saviour and the Law of Moses. And, in the second place, our Lord Jesus believed in hell. It is one of the striking facts of the biblical revelation that He, who spoke most penetratingly of the love of God and is often referred to by liberals as “the meek and gentle Jesus,” spoke of hell more than any other New Testament figure. If hell-fire and damnation messages are wrong (they are not, of course), then His should be condemned, but the very idea is ridiculous, as the common Christian consciousness knows.
There follow two illustrations of the principle (vv. 23-26). In the first one the point is that to obey the law of love is better than sacrifice. Therefore, postpone sacrifice rather than postpone reconciliation. Incidentally, the illustration proves that the situation the Lord has in mind occurs under the Law period when sacrifices are made. The Sermon is for those who live during the period of time while Jesus is offering the Messianic Kingdom to the nation Israel.
In the second illustration there is a reference to some contention over money matters, as the last clause of verse twenty-six indicates. Although some Romanists have emphasized the words of verse twenty-six, “paid the uttermost farthing,” referring them to purgatory, it should be obvious to the careful student that it has nothing to do with that mythical place and process.
What is the cure for this anger that Jesus points out is really murder? Looking over the section we may conclude that it is found in these things: (1) admitting that we do get angry; (2) correcting injustices (vv. 23-24); (3) do it quickly (vv. 25-26); (4) relying upon the grace of God, for it is only by His enabling grace that these things could be done.
The Question Of Adultery
The Law (5:27). The second antithesis concerns adultery, which is referred to in the seventh commandment of the Decalogue (cf. Exod. 20:14). The tradition says, “No adultery,” but I say, “No lustful thought.” The rabbis legislated only for actions, not for one’s thoughts, but the Mosaic Law in its real meaning included the latter. In the enumeration of the 613 precepts of the Law there is attached to the seventh commandment these words, “This is the thirty-fifth precept of the law, namely, That no man lie with another man’s wife.” It is clear that the rabbis interpreted it of the act alone, and that with a married woman. Perhaps this gloss was in our Lord’s mind as He interprets the meaning of the law for the heart.
The Lawgiver’s interpretation (5:28-30). The words, “to lust after her,” express the purpose of the look. It can hardly be called sin to have involuntary desire; it is sin to look in order to lust. Guy King has written, “When, on one occasion, I asked a children’s meeting, ‘What is the difference between Temptation and Sin?’ a boy replied, ‘Please, temptation’s when you’re asked to do it, and sin’s when you’ve done it.’ Old Martin Luther had another way of putting it: ‘We cannot prevent the birds flying over our heads, but we can prevent their making nests in our hair’,”6
The words of our Lord have the most serious significance and relevance for our today. Hardly ever in the history of our western world has there existed such a challenge to the Christian conception of chastity before marriage and faithfulness afterward. Unbridled passions dominate our society, urged on by the mass media and professional purveyors of hedonism. James Montgomery Boice has put it this way, “The Christian ethic of faithful and monogamous marriage is also threatened in our day, perhaps even more seriously than by the mass media, by a new hedonism symbolized by the so-called ‘playboy philosophy.’ Hedonism is the philosophy that makes pleasure the chief goal in life; and it is as evident in the pursuit of the second home, the third car, and the right and proper friends, as it is in adultery and pre-marital sex experimentation. In fact, in the playboy philosophy the two go hand in hand. Thus, the pages of the magazine seem to imply that choosing the right kind of wine or the right stereo is almost as important as finding the right playmate, the kind of girl whom Mort Sahl identifies as folding in two places and wearing a staple in her navel.”7
The final verses of the second antithesis (vv. 29-30) merely point out that, if one uses the excuse that a member is the cause of the sin, then the member is to be cut off. One does this with a physical ailment, like cancer. The purpose of our Lord is to lead the man to see that the trouble is not in the member, but in the heart. A fallacious excuse is met with a fallacious reply to show the falsity of the excuse and lead to the true reason for lust.8 The usual symbolical interpretation of the verses is to the effect that the offending member’s excision represents severe self-abnegation for the sake of purity. Both ultimately point to the need for a new heart, as well as new principles of action. “A lizard,” King points out, “when you grasp it, if it suspects nefarious design in you, will unhesitantly leave its tail in your hand, and bolt out of sight … ‘better lose my tail than my life,’ it seems to say … You chess players will know what a Gambit is — the sacrificing of a pawn, or other piece, for the sake of the game: you may lose even your Queen, but it will be worth it if you beat your opponent.”9
It is evident now that the Lord Jesus interprets the Old Testament in depth in contrast to the superficialities of the rabbinic tradition. He deepens and sharpens its obvious and outward sense. As He says, He “fulfills” it.
And, further, it is clear that Jesus concurred in the invalidity of tradition as a measure of truth, although it might contain truth. He may deepen it, as here, or revoke it, as elsewhere (cf. 15:4-6). For Him the sole final authority is the inviolable Word of God.
What is the solution to the problem that our Lord has expounded here? One thing is true, first of all. The times require a clear recognition that the appetite for sex in our day is “enormously out of proportion to its function.”10 And there is another thing that must be borne in mind. For the Christian there are times when the apostolic injunction, “Flee fornication” (1 Cor. 6:18), is the wisest advice that heaven can give. In this respect Joseph is our great example, while David is an example of the negative type. And, finally, total victory requires a philosophy of life that sees marriage as ordained by God, and also as that for which one awaits in purity and to which one remains faithful afterward.
The Question Of Divorce
The Law (5:31). The third antithesis concerns divorce. The tradition says, “Conditional divorce,” but I say, “no divorce at all, with one exception.”11 The passage in question is Deuteronomy 24:1, and it contains a problem of interpretation. What is an “unseemly thing”? One of the famous rabbis, Shammai, with his disciples took it to mean some grave offence like adultery. On the other hand, another rabbi, the well-known Hillel, with his followers held that a man could divorce his wife for no more serious a misdemeanor than letting his food burn!
The Lawgiver’s interpretation (5:32). Now, if the exceptive clausell is genuine, and I think it is, then the Lord is laying down a law that divorce is only possible for one reason. If the clause is not genuine, then our Lord is stating the original ideal, mentioned in Genesis 2:23-24 (cf. Mark 10:2-12). In both cases the teaching of our Lord is deeper than that of Moses. But, let us remember that these things cannot be applied to unbelievers. They apply to those within the kingdom of God.
There is a question about the nature of the sin referred to. Does verse thirty-two refer to the sin of the one who puts away his wife, and then to the sin of the one who has been put away? The verse should probably be rendered in this way, “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to be stigmatized as adulterous (or, exposes her to adultery12), and anyone who marries a woman so divorced commits adultery.” Thus, the sin is only that of the person who puts away his wife (cf. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:20, 24).
It is very evident, then, that our Lord entertained very strict principles regarding divorce, and His words have the greatest importance for our adulterous society today. It would not be so much the concern of the Christian church were it not for the fact that the actions of the world, because of their excesses, have so influenced the church. The rise of adultery and divorce in the world is matched by a similar rise of them in the life of God’s people, and the resultant problem is one of epidemic proportions at this very moment. If the Church of Jesus Christ is to fulfill His will and please God in her service, she must listen to the expression of His will in this matter.
One of the first things that begins to appear as we listen to this Sermon comes before us again here. These sublime utterances often tend to create a sense of unworthiness in those who read them. That is not a bad thing. The Law of Moses was designed to bring “the knowledge of sin” (cf. Rom. 3:20). Is it any wonder that the new law of the King should also bring us to conviction and humility?
There are several applications of this passage to the believer who lives in the present age. In the first place, the words regarding murder find their application in 1 John 3:15, the text we have already cited. Hate for one’s Christian brother is thoroughly out of harmony with the possession of true Christian life.
The second antithesis regarding adultery and lust suggests the need for “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5; Rom. 13:14; 1 Cor. 6:9, 18).
The third antithesis reminds us of 1 Corinthians 7:20, 24 where the apostle writes, “Let every man abide in the same calling (he is speaking of marriage) in which he was called,” and, “Brethren, let every man, in whatever state he is called, there abide with God.” May God help all the saints so to abide!
1 Hunter, p. 44
2 John Lightfoot, Horae Hebraicae et Talmudicae (Oxford, 1859), II, 107.
3 Ibid., II 107-8
4 M’Neile, p. 62.
5 Lightfoot, II, 115.
6 King, p. 45.
7 Boice, p. 113.
8 Lenski, p. 227-29.
9 King, p. 48.
10 Boice, p. 115.
11 Many students have questioned the genuineness of the so-called exceptive clause,” which reads, “saving for the clause of fornication” (AV), but I see no convincing reason for doubting its genuineness. The text is supported by the weightiest of authority.
12 Hendriksen, p. 304.