(Matthew Chapter 5, Verses 31-48)
Continuing on from the previous post, we see verse 31-32 continues the theme of the previous section where Jesus is teaching the elements of the higher call under the New Covenant. In this section he speaks of divorce and it is evident that this is not something to be taken lightly. Unchastity, that is, sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner, is clear grounds for divorce. However he likens divorce for other reasons as being like adultery. Adultery under the old covenant law was punishable by death, so it is clear that the Lord had a dim view of divorce. Elsewhere the bible shows that if a couple are to separate then they should either be reconciled if possible, or remain single. Divorce was certainly accepted under the law, & even in this section it talks about a certificate of divorce being given. In some cases divorce may be a necessary option to gain freedom from a violent or destructive relationship, but it is not carte blanche to run off and marry someone else if a person is just tired or bored in the relationship as happens too often in today’s society.
Verse 33-37 looks also at the practice of giving an oath. In many things today and especially in courts of law, people are required to give an oath as witness to the truth of their testimony. Jesus however is teaching that we should not give oaths at all. His desire is that we will stand by our words without oaths. That we will always be honest, truthful and upright in what we say. Today it is a common expression for people to say they, “Swear on a stack of bibles,” to the truth of a matter. But Jesus did not seek this. He wants us to speak with integrity so that only the truth comes from our mouth.
The principle of turning the other cheek is shown in verses 38-42 and this is one of the Christian practices that is much maligned by people who do not understand what this means. Jesus is not looking for his people to be violent and aggressive. He is not looking for his people to retaliate. At the very end of the bible in Revelation 22:11 he says, “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right and the holy still be holy.” All mankind will receive the recompense for what they have done on the Day of Judgement. It is not for us to seek revenge if we are struck, nor to fight with others who oppose us. We are to be gentle and lowly of spirit, and contrary to what many believe, this requires strength. It is harder to be meek and mild than to fight back when struck. The Lord has said, “…never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19) As Christians we are to do good to all for by so doing we may even overcome their evil with our good.
In a similar way in verses 43-48 we see that Jesus teaches we are to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. Again this requires great strength of heart for it is not natural to mankind to do such a thing. But this what the Lord did and it is the higher standard being set for his people.
What he is teaching in this whole section, and indeed in the whole of the sermon on the mount, is what the standard of perfection in Christ should look like. The final verse in this chapter shows this and also the reason why we are to aspire to and attain this higher standard. It says in vs. 48 that, “You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Christians are being called to perfection, which was not attainable under the Old Covenant law, but which can be achieved under the New Covenant. How this can be achieved is rolled out methodically in later books, specifically in Romans and Galatians, but here we are seeing what that perfection will or should look like.