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But I Say

Matthew 5:21-48

Lesson audio

One of the ideas most commonly omitted from a study on the Sermon on the Mount is that this is an example of Christ’s claim to authority – indeed, the authority of God. Throughout the Old Testament the prophets proclaimed, “Thus saith the Lord.” Christ comes, saying, “But I say…”

To some this causes confusion. How is it that Christ can overrule the Law? Simply put, He does not. He extends it. He takes it from the legal form (“thus far and no further”) and extends it to right living. The One who crafted the Law now reveals the Will behind it.

Thought, word and action

"You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. "Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. "Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. "Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.

(Mat 5:21-26 NASB)

The power of thought, word and action

(It should be noted that “angry” is “angry without cause” in the King James. Most modern scholars consider this a late addition.)

It is one of the simplest of paradigms. You think; you open your mouth before having thought well enough and soon actions to match your words are required. This is often enough the source of sin in our lives – some words more than others. Christ speaks here of “the court” then “the supreme court” and finally hell itself.[1]

In prior years, until his death, my wife and I visited a convict in prison. He was mentally ill, and the psychologists working with him would tell him he needed to stop his “stinkin’ thinkin’.” That’s easy to say and hard to do, as we shall see. But it points out that the root of the problem is in the mind. If you can stop it there, it’s a lot easier to deal with. So how, then, do we deal with this source of the problem?

How do I do that?

Paul put it this way:

We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.

(2Co 10:5-6 NASB)

We train our thoughts by bringing them to Christ. Indeed, James tells us[2] that we can’t tame the tongue by ourselves. So we should do what any sensible Christian would do when in over your head: we ask Christ to do it for us. We tame animals by our superior intelligence and will; God will do the same for us, if we will but ask.

There is a curious effect in this. Those who are “right-living” find that their circumstances change imperceptibly. They no longer get the chance to foul their mouths, because those around them expect that they won’t. If you hang around Christ long enough, you begin to act like him.


One modern author remarked upon the difference between the church of 1900 and the church of 2000. He said that we go to church to get something out of it. They went to church to give thanks for it. Perhaps this explains the weakness of the church today. But think of it: why should God accept the worship of one who nurses a grudge? Since Cain and Abel there has been a difference between acceptable worship and non-acceptable worship.

Want an example of how powerful this is? Richard the Lionheart did not take Communion for several years because he knew he would have to reconcile with Phillip, King of France. Only when he knew he was about to die did the priest get the call.

Is this restricted to our brothers? No indeed. It is clear that this also applies to our enemies as well. Indeed, the mere fact that there is conflict is sufficient to cause the Christian to seek reconciliation.

Vows, Marital and Otherwise

"You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. "If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. "If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. "It was said, 'WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE'; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. "Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.' "But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING. "Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. "But let your statement be, 'Yes, yes' or 'No, no'; anything beyond these is of evil.

(Mat 5:27-37 NASB)

One of the common reactions to teaching about divorce is, “You can’t be serious.” That’s why Christ includes the verses about eye and hand. It is that serious. The eye signifies contemplation; the hand, action. This life is the proving ground for the next. It is His intent that His children will come home to Him whole – but if you have to cut off the opportunity for sin, then cut it off. You’d be better off without it.

Christ is deadly serious here; there have been Christians who have actually done this.[3]


To be brief about it, here is the classical understanding of Christ’s teaching on divorce:

  • Lust, à la Jimmy Carter, is a sin. If you haven’t made a pact with your eyes on this, it’s best you should.
  • Divorce is permitted only for the cause of adultery. (Separation is an option with much wider possibilities.) That means what it says: no other reason allowed.
  • This is so, even though the Old Testament appears to make divorce (by the man at least) easy. (There was a rabbinical debate on this at the time, and Christ didn’t straddle positions.) As He explains, that was given as a better option from being able simply to pronounce her as divorced.

That last one brings up a point we should clearly understand: any system of law is inherently flawed. The law may forbid this and allow that – but the will of God is still your goal, even if the law can’t express it that way.

Do not think this only for men:

If you permit yourself to gaze often on fair countenances you will assuredly be taken, even though you may be able to command your mind twice or thrice. For you are not exalted above nature and the strength of humanity. She too who dresses and adorns herself for the purpose of attracting men’s eyes to her, though her endeavor should fail, yet shall she be punished hereafter; seeing she mixed the poison and offered the cup, though none was found who would drink thereof. For what the Lord seems to speak only to the man, is of equal application to the woman; inasmuch as when He speaks to the head, the warning is meant for the whole body.


I leave you with one last thought on this: adultery is essentially dishonesty of the worst sort. When you marry, you take a wedding vow. If you commit adultery, you have betrayed your spouse and crushed your sworn word.

No oath at all

The oath, then as now, was taken as a sort of guaranty that the man talking was telling the truth. Men would swear by various holy objects (the Temple, for instance)that what they were telling others was indeed true. It did not take long for the lawyers to come up with fine haired distinctions about which oaths are binding. It was held that God would hold you to such an oath, as long as the formula was followed correctly. You can see the difficulty in court.[4]

One ancient saint put it this way:

They who live in the simplicity of the faith have not need to swear, with them ever, what is is, what is not is not; by this their life and their conversation are ever preserved in truth.

There exists no law which tells us what to do other than the law of love. All other forms merely point out our sins.

Be perfect[5]

"You have heard that it was said, 'AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.' "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. "If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. "Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. "Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. "You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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. "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? "If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

(Mat 5:38-48 NASB)

Things material

This passage is often interpreted to mean that it doesn’t mean what it says. But it does. In this Christ tells His followers that they are to go beyond the Law – as God does. God the merciful should inspire us the merciful. Indeed, the usual object is that I needed that coat and why should I walk that mile? One must ask: is your God so weak (or so untried) that you think He will not provide? Or is it that you don’t trust Him to provide?

See what he puts before us by command! In the things material we are to conform our actions (including our wallets) to God’s way, not ours. The half-hearted need not apply.


We understand about loving those who love us – it’s polite, at least. But may we take it step by step?

  • Sometimes even our friends cross us, and we begin to treat them as enemies.
  • How about competitors? In the modern capitalist realm of social Darwinism, aren’t they to be crushed and destroyed?
  • Often enough, in the worry and fray of friends and competitors, we can’t even name our enemies – we’re too busy making them.

What matters, though, is that we deal with our enemies using the weapons of God, and not those of Satan. It is no accident that anger is a sin; likewise envy.

So then, we must pick up the weapons of God. Chief among the is the willingness of the Christian to suffer for God’s sake. Go the extra mile? Think of how this baffles people who do not know Christ![6]

Love your enemies

It sounds so strange, love your enemies. But it is exactly what God does. As Christ points out, the weather isn’t different for the good and the evil. Indeed, were God to make following Christ a sure path to riches in this world, we would be overwhelmed with new Christians. Christ’s point is that now you know what is right, you should follow God in doing it.

That’s not natural. Indeed, we are called to do things that are supernatural, in that sense. We are to turn our impulses to obedience, and be greater than the animal nature in us.

Christ commands us to the possible and the impossible. If we will but dare, He will make all things possible.


Walk away with these two things:

  • The authority of Christ displayed here brings to His followers tasks possible and impossible. But with the task comes His aid. Be obedient – and dare.
  • The goal of the Christian is not simply to “pass,” but to be perfect.

[1] The NIV is a bit more explanatory: judgment, the Sanhedrin and hell. The first could put a criminal to death by strangulation or beheading; the Sanhedrin had the power to stone someone to death; and hell is to be interpreted here as hell, not a Christless eternity.

[2] James 1:26

[3] Origen, for example, castrated himself. Which does seem a bit extreme, but….

[4] The temptation to refer to Bill Clinton in this context is almost overwhelming.

[5] I hope this does not refer to typing.

[6] For a Biblical example, see David and Saul

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