21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
In another stunning turn of events, Jesus turned the tables on those who would follow the letter of the law on the outside, but refused to change on the inside. The Pharisees were notorious for following the letter of the law without allowing the law to change their hearts; and in doing so, they broke the spirit of the law. Jesus makes it clear here that God wants us to follow both the letter and the spirit of the law.
In just this one chapter of scripture (Matthew 5:27-48) , there are no less than five additional places where Jesus provided clarification regarding the letter of the law and the spirit of the law:
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
[Eye for an eye]
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
[Love for enemies]
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
In each case, Jesus show how we should act when the law is brought into account. Our sin nature desires what benefits itself most. It is natural, in our old nature, to merely outwardly obey what the law requires. We can easily overlook the deeper nature of what is required of us when we just seek to be justified in our perceived fulfillment through a minimalist attitude regarding obedience to the law.
Jesus was so upset with this from the religiously pious leaders that he called them white-washed tombs with dead men’s bones inside. That is an interesting analogy! What an insult that must have been to the pious leaders – that they were tombs, places where physically (but in this analogy, spiritually) dead people were placed. And, appearing squeaky-clean on the outside, giving an appearance of cleanliness and holiness, they were instead filled with the rotting (spiritually dead) corpses that if touched, would make one ritualistically unclean for worshiping God.
Another example of this is a man who claims to know God. He is a very nice guy to all that he encounters, and appears to be of good moral character. Due to a workplace accident, he is on disability. He works as many side jobs as possible (perfectly OK), and asks for cash only when performing the work (still perfectly OK). However, he doesn’t report the additional income he earns from these side jobs to the government so that his benefits are not reduced. And while we all chafe at egregious taxation, he fails to take into account what Paul said in Romans 13:1-2,6-7:
1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
We can easily deceive ourselves into making a righteous justification for just about everything we do that is counter to the Word of God in the name of “circumstantial difficulty”. This is where moral relativism creeps into our lives. And once we start down that path, we can then justify everything we do, and then fail to realize just how far short of the glory of God we are becoming.
So let’s ask ourselves the question: Am I following the letter of the law, or the spirit of the law?
A short prayer of preparation:
Father in Heaven, our hearts are filled with deceit, and we deceive ourselves when we merely follow the letter of the law. Father, cleanse me now of all unrighteousness. Show me where I have this attitude in my heart, and bring it into the light so that the light would dispel the darkness. If this is rooted in bitterness of spirit from an experience of my past, please remove it, no matter how painful it is. Help me to heal, and to avoid this attitude in my life. Guard my heart, and keep it until the great and terrible day that Your Son, Jesus Christ, returns in Glory to claim what is His, and bring judgement on all that refused Him in life. Bless not only me, but all who struggle with this issue. This I ask in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.
Want more? Why not try A. B. Simpson or A. W. Tozer?