International Sunday School LessonStudy Notes
Lesson Text: Matthew 5:17-26Lesson Title: Forgiving as God’s People
The Bible is clear about the fact that when humans interact, there is conflict. That conflict and strain is because of sin. Our sinfulness affects all of our relationships and our attitudes and actions toward one another. The world studies our personality traits, family history, how a person was raised and a host of other things in an attempt to explain human behavior. Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it” (Jeremiah 17:9). The first and most important relationship in life is our relationship to God. Only a right relationship with Jesus Christ through salvation will give us a foundation for building proper relationships to others.
The Sermon on the Mount is about human relationships. It teaches how followers of Christ’s kingdom ought to live. Matthew 5, verses 1–16, gives an overview, then verses 17–48 go into specifics about kingdom living. The initial overview lists qualities and actions that God will bless, including being poor in spirit, hungering for righteousness, showing mercy, making peace, and being persecuted for the sake of godliness. The metaphors of salt and light are the climax of the Beatitudes, and the bottom line is that our obedient good deeds are all for the glory of God (Matthew 5:16).
The remainder of Matthew 5 consists of six mini-sermons that go into more detail about kingdom living. Though the principles given here contrast with legalistic traditions, it’s important to point out that Jesus was not opposing the Law. In fact, Jesus said He came to fulfill it. That means, He was probing its moral and spiritual essence in order to arrive at higher and greater truths (Matthew 5:17–20, 48). It is only when we understand Jesus’ teaching that we are able to forgive as God’s people and relate biblically to our fellow man.
The Permanence of the Scripture’s Teaching (Matthew 5:17-20)
One reason that many Jews opposed Jesus was that they feared He was going to destroy the Law that Moses received at Sinai. But Christ declared, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” The “law” and the “prophets” represent what we now call the Old Testament, the only written Scripture at the time Jesus preached. First, Christ gives a word of prevention when He said, “Think not.” He doesn’t want his listeners to mistake what He is about to teach and do. Second, Christ gives a word of purpose. He had not “come to destroy the law, or the prophets…but to fulfill.” “Destroy” is used twice in this verse and means “abolish.” If Christ had come to “destroy” or do away with the “law,” that would prevent the “fulfilling” of the law. To the contrary, He came “to fulfill.” The word “fulfill” means “to make full, complete.”
Through Christ’s incarnation in human flesh, the work of His Holy Spirit through the church, and His promised return, Jesus will “fulfill” the law. Jesus “fulfilled” the law by being the fulfillment! Jesus brought the law into reality in His own Person. This means that the Law could only do what it was intended to do in the life of Jesus. He was and is everything the law demanded. The judicial law and the ceremonial law of the Old Testament was set aside and fulfilled when Christ died on the cross. But the moral law fulfilled by Christ is still being fulfilled through His disciples.
Because Christ fulfilled the law, so can those who belong to Him. The Apostle Paul said, "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Romans 8:3-4). When we walk in the Spirit we fulfill the righteousness of the law, because Christ in us fulfills it with His own righteousness which He has given to us.
“For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” “Verily” means “truly.” Christ’s teaching was absolute. It was also lasting. “Till heaven and earth pass…” represents the end of time as we know it. God’s Word, “the law” will outlast the world. The immutability (not subject to change) of the Word of God is asserted in the Old Testament. Psalm 119:89 says, “For ever, O LORD, they word is settled in heaven.”
The term “jot” refers to the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. It looks something like our apostrophe. “Tittle” was the little “horn” or projecting point in some of the Hebrew letters. In reading Hebrew the reader must give close attention to the “jot” and “tittle” if he is going to distinguish accurately between the letters. For us today it would be like the dotting of an i or the crossing of a t. The point Jesus was making is that the Law was given by Divine revelation and could not fail in any way.
“…Till all be fulfilled” means that not even the smallest and seemingly most insignificant part of God’s Word will be changed or removed until everything has been accomplished that is written therein. As stated in verse 17, Jesus has already “fulfilled” many aspects of the law. But there are many other prophecies, promises, types and shadows yet to be fulfilled. Rest assured, Christ will fulfill them! In fact, He will be “fulfilling” them in verses 21-26 of our lesson text.
“Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven…” The “least commandments” is referring not only to the Law given in the Old Testament, but also to the law of God as Jesus teaches it. Jesus is issuing a warning here against those who fail to obey what has been written in Scripture and what He is about to teach about the written Word. It may seem odd that Jesus would talk about “whosoever” or one who broke a seemingly insignificant commandment and taught others it was okay to break them, as being “least in the kingdom of heaven.” How could such a person be in the “kingdom of heaven” at all? One possible answer is that the word “in” may be thought of as “in relation to.” This would mean that the offender and the one teaching others to “break” the commandments is not actually in the Kingdom, but that in relation to it, he is on the very lowest level. Another possible answer is that if this “one” is actually in the Kingdom, he is “least” or held in low esteem by the Lord. It is certainly God’s prerogative to determine who is and who isn’t in His Kingdom and to determine their rank (Matthew 20:23).
How people view the Word of God and how they handle truth reveals much about their relationship to Jesus Christ. To question even the smallest part of God’s Word is to question all of it. To ignore or reject the least of God’s law is to cheapen all of it. How many of us pick and choose which parts we want to obey?
“…But whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Christ pronounces a special blessing on the one who obeys the Law and teaches it to others. Christ is challenging his listeners, and us as well, to listen to His Word. After listening to Him we are to teach it to others. Not just in a formal classroom setting, but in life. If we are to be “great in the kingdom of heaven” we must “do” and “teach” in areas such as anger, forgiveness, and honesty that we will study in our lesson text (1 Thessalonians 2:10-12). Greatness is not determined by popularity, reputation, or the size of our ministry, but by our view of Scripture as revealed in Jesus’ life and teaching.
Question: How many of us believe the Bible we carry is God’s Infallible Word, yet we fail to obey it in daily practice?
“For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” This is often referred to as the key verse of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus wanted His listeners to understand that He wasn’t dismissing the divine requirement of “righteousness.” In fact, He declared that one must have a “righteousness” superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees. “Shall exceed” means “go beyond, above.” The word was used in Jesus’ day to refer to a river overflowing its banks which emphasized things were above normal.
“Righteousness” speaks of being “right with God.” ” The “righteousness” spoken of here refers to the self-righteousness taught and exemplified by the “scribes and Pharisees.” The Bible is unmistakably clear that the sort of righteousness claimed by the “scribes and Pharisees” was not sufficient to gain entrance into God’s heaven. “Scribes” were those who studied, recorded, and often interpreted Jewish law. How could those who spent most of their lives studying the law, misinterpret it and fail to miss the spiritual truth therein? It reminds us of what James said, “For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed” (James 1:23-25).
The “Pharisees” were religious men who whole heartedly believed that God was obligated to honor them for their strict living, much like legalist’s do today. They are so self-righteous, especially when compared to others! Speaking about Pharisees, Jesus said, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity” (Matthew 23:25-28).
What is the difference between Pharisaic righteousness and Christian righteousness? Pharisaic righteousness was outward, Christian righteousness is inward. Pharisaic righteousness was formal, Christian righteousness is spiritual. Pharisaic righteousness was legalistic, Christian righteousness is love; love for Christ and God’s Holy Word.
Jesus’ teaching was clear. If you don’t possess something that exceeds what the religious hypocrites have, you will not be a part of God’s Kingdom. Although the “scribes” and “Pharisees” were masters (in their own opinion) at studying and interpreting scripture, it is obvious they never understood what Jesus demanded. Christ's Kingdom is not just about what man sees; it is mainly about that part of man that only God sees; the heart.
The Preeminence of the Savior’s Teaching (Matthew 5:21-26)
In verse 18 and verse 20, Jesus had already said, “For verily I say…” and “For I say unto you…” Again, no less than six times in Matthew 5:21-48, the words “Ye have heard” (Matthew 5: 21, 27, 33, 38, 43) or “It hath been said” (Matthew 5:31) are spoken by our Lord. “Ye have heard” and “It hath been said” refers to the human teaching of the religious teachers of Christ’s day. It is the opinion and conclusions that man had reached based on their study of Old Testament Law. What Christ’s audience had “heard” and “what had been said” was not a proper interpretation of Scripture. It didn’t go far enough. Therefore, Jesus responded to each “Ye have heard” and “It hath been said” with the words “But I say” (Matthew 5:22, 26, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). His teaching and His words are preeminent!
The Law was at least 1,250 years old at the time Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. But he saw more in it than any prophet, scribe or Pharisee had ever seen. He applied the Law to life and human relationships in a way no one had ever done. After establishing the permanence of truth in verses 17-20, Jesus proceeds to illustrate through His teaching the difference between attitudes and actions. In six specific areas of moral conduct Jesus extended the meaning of the law, murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and the proper treatment of enemies. Our lesson focuses on murder in Matthew 5:21-26. As you study these verses, remember that Jesus begins each example and illustration with the words, “Ye have heard.” He does not say, “It is written.” What they have “heard” is the interpretation of God’s Law by the “scribes and Pharisees.” What they need to hear is “But I say,” or, the preeminent teaching of Jesus.
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time…” is a reference to the people who heard Moses give the Law and then came to a conclusion about what was taught. Originally it came from Exodus 20:14 when God said, “Thou shalt not kill.” Again, it is important to understand that Jesus is not making a contrast between His teaching and the Law of Moses, but between His teaching and what others taught or practiced concerning the Law of Moses. It is the interpretation of the law, not the law itself, with which Jesus makes a contrast.
When the Pharisees heard Jesus’ words, “Thou shalt not kill…” they knew they were not guilty of murder. They would have said Amen to Jesus words. That’s one reason the Pharisees thought they were righteous. They didn’t commit murder. The Pharisees were also aware of the penalty for murder which was “danger of the judgment.” That meant a murderer was in danger of being dealt with in the inferior human courts of man (Deuteronomy 16:18). The punishment for murder in man’s court was less severe that the Law of Moses which required capital punishment for murder.
Note: Life is man’s most precious possession. Life is a sacred gift from God that must not be destroyed or taken by another. The Jews of Jesus day looked at all breaking of the law in light of what they had “heard” from man instead of considering what God had originally said. Now they are about to hear what Jesus said.
“But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment…” “What Jesus says in this verse is not that the Law of Moses is wrong to condemn murder. Rather, what is seriously wrong is thinking that merely avoiding murder guarantees that one is righteous. Since God rules over everything in His kingdom, then He rules over both what can be seen (murder, violence, etc.) and over what cannot be seen (attitudes of the heart, like anger and hatred).” (Standard Lesson Commentary 2011-2012).
Jesus taught that there are three ways to break the sixth commandment without actually killing someone. First, “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause” is guilty of breaking the sixth commandment. Most people who are angry believe they have “a cause” but that is usually not the case. It is possible for a person who has never lifted his hand against his fellow man to have such resentment, selfish anger, and bitterness in his heart that he is more guilty than a serial killer. “Brother” is a reference to any person, not just a relative. Jesus says the individual guilty of holding resentment in his heart against someone “shall be in danger of the judgment.” The “judgment” spoken of here is a reference to the lower court, the council of three in a local synagogue who had jurisdiction over lesser offenses.
Second, “whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council.” “Raca” is a malicious term that meant “brainless idiot, worthless person.” It is a verbal expression of slander. It is a word directed toward a person’s looks, intelligence, or even their personality. Jesus is saying that what you feel inside of you about another person is enough to put you in “danger of the council.” The “council” is a reference to the Jewish religious council called the Sanhedrin, which compared to our courts today, would be the Supreme Court.
Third, “…but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” To call someone a “fool” in Jesus’ day was to imply that the person is ignorant of God (Psalm 14:1). That was a very serious charge. We all know there are “fools” in the world. But Jesus prohibits us calling them “fools” out of slander. To do so is the same as murder and makes us guilty enough to “be in danger of hell fire.” “Hell” is the Greek word geenna and referred to Gehenna, the valley just south of Jerusalem which was used as a city dump. It is a reference in Scripture to eternal punishment. “So Jesus took three common phases of Jewish legal procedure—the lower court, the supreme court, and the fires of Hinnom—and invested them with deeper significance. In terms of the new spiritual significance, Jesus was saying that if we become angry, we are instantly in peril. We are not yet haled to judgment, but we are in danger of it; we are on the path that leads there. If we use a term of contempt in speaking of another person, we will have to deal with a higher court. If we utter the ultimate insult, we are in danger of the ultimate punishment: being cast out of the kingdom to the place where refuse is burned. Jesus stressed that we are in danger.” (The John Phillips Commentary Series).
“Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” “Therefore” means “since you now know that God is concerned with the things going on in your heart,” you should not only deal with angry but you should also deal with forgiveness.
Here is Jesus’ teaching. If you “bring thy gift to the altar” or, if you are sacrificing to God, and you “remember” that “thy brother” has something against you, you are to “leave there thy gift” and go “be reconciled to thy brother” and then come back to sacrifice and worship.” If someone has something against us, that means that we are the offender and our brother is the offendee. If our brother has something against us we are to go to him and attempt to make it right. The Bible teaches that if a brother has something against you, you are to go to him and ask forgiveness. Don’t wait on him to come to you. Whether you are the offender or the offended, go make it right (Matthew 5:23-24; 18:15). If you’ve been offended, go to that person who offended you and bring about “reconciliation.” If you are the offender, go to the person you offended and ask for forgiveness. The key is “go.” Don’t wait on others. God holds us accountable.
“Leave there thy gift…and then come and offer thy gift” speaks volumes. God is more concerned about reconciliation and forgiveness than sacrifice! God is more concerned about us being right with each than our church services!
Jesus continued his teaching by reminding them that even if “thine adversary” (an opponent at law) disagrees with you; it is to your advantage to reconcile with him before he “deliver thee to the judge.” “Quickly” means reconciliation and forgiveness is urgent. There is no time to waste. Go get it right. That moment your waiting on, or that right opportunity may never come. Go get it settled.
Many people make the mistake of assuming that because they think they are right in a given situation, God will vindicate them. But Jesus’ teaching is urging us to go out of our way to avoid legal conflicts before human judges (Matthew 5:40). If you fail to deal with it, it is possible the “judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.”
Debtor’s prison is what our Lord is referring too. The purpose of Debtor’s prison was to hold the person in custody until his debt is paid. But it is obviously difficult to earn even a little money while in prison! So working one’s way out of debt is often impossible. Jesus here, is saying settle it out of court, reconcile before it's severe judgment and you can't reconcile at all.
“Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.” “Verily” means “truly, or so be it.” Jesus is saying if you refuse to settle this issue between you and your fellow man and the case comes before the judge, there is no way of escape until the full price has been paid. The “uttermost farthing” means “the exact price, or the last penny.” A “farthing” was about two-fifths of a penny.
The scribes and Pharisees were depending upon their self-righteousness to make them right before God. Because they were not guilty of actual murder, they felt superior to others. But Jesus had a word for them. Just because they hadn’t committed murder they thought they were holy. Jesus said, "If you're angry, if you've ever said a cruel word about somebody's character, if you've ever cursed anyone, then you're like a murderer. If you've ever come to an altar to worship God and had something against your brother you are in danger of such judgment. Such hypocrisy would be enacted in your worship that you are to leave that gift and run to make it right. And when you get into a conflict with somebody, immediately, as fast as you can, resolve that issue because you too are in danger of hell." The point He's telling them is this: You've got grudges that you've never settled, you worship in hypocrisy, you curse, you call people fools, you're angry and the same judgment comes upon you for that. Death and hell are what you deserve.
Before we judge the scribes and Pharisees too quickly, let’s be honest about ourselves. We have all done the same things they were doing. You deserve death, I deserve death, you deserve hell, I deserve hell, we're all murderers. And murder is just one of sins. There are many others. So, what do we do? We come to Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins. And by His grace Hi,s righteousness is given to us when we place our faith in Him.
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