The Gospel of Matthew
"Did Jesus Sustain the Law in Matthew 5?""

Roger D. Congdon[2]


Roger D. Congdon


"Did Jesus Sustain the Law in Matthew 5?"


In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) it appears that Jesus subtracted from the obligation which Jewish legalists owed to the Law of Moses.

Jesus, by His death on the cross, took away the requirement that Christians be subject to the Law of Moses.  But did He, during His life, teach that unsaved Jews were free from the obligation to obey the Mosaic law? What did Jesus really teach in His Sermon on the Mount?


According to many teachers, Jesus quoted six (or seven) passages from the Law, and then proceeded to deny or contradict these passages with new teachings.  Is this true?


It should be observed first that Jesus did not say in any of the six passages, "Ye have read what was written . . . ." Instead He said, "Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time," or some form of this phrase.  Though the quotations that follow this phrase are usually associated with the Old Testament, they are not always Scripture quotations.


The First and Second Comparisons (Matt. 5:21-22)

Matthew 5:21-22 includes two of the seven questioned quotations:

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment; But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."


The latter half of verse 21 ("Whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment") never appears in the Old Testament.  In the first part of verse 21 Jesus quoted Exodus 20:13 or Deuteronomy 5:17, but He evidently quoted Pharisaical tradition in the last part of Matthew 5:21.


Did He then comment on the quotation from the Law, or the statement of tradition, or both? It is striking that He made no comment on the Old Testament quotations; He commented only on the tradition! And yet He did not deny nor confirm the tradition.  Instead He augmented it! By His quoting the Old Testament law, Jesus confirmed it and He approved and augmented the tradition.  He did not contradict either in this case.


His augmentation of the tradition says that those who commit acts of murder may be in danger of facing a human court, but he who carries a hateful grudge in his heart is in danger of judgment before the court of Him who sees the thoughts of the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).


In this He did not oppose Old Testament teaching.  In fact, the Old Testament teaches the same general truth.  Leviticus 19:17 says, "Thou shalt not hate thy brethren in thine heart." And Leviticus 19:34 reads, "But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord, your God."


Jesus condemned hateful heart attitudes along with overt acts.  The Old Testament law does the same.  Both Jesus and the Old Testament condemn sinful attitudes as well as actions.


The comment Jesus made on the quotation of Jewish tradition in Matthew 5:21 concludes in the middle of verse 22 with the word "judgment."


The next two phrases, concerning saying "Raca" and "Thou fool," are considerably more difficult to understand.  It appears that Jesus spoke of a lesser sin with a lesser judgment (saying "Raca" with the danger of condemnation by the Sanhedrin), followed by a greater sin and greater judgment (saying, "Thou fool," with the danger of Gehenna fire).


It is unlikely that the Sanhedrin would even go so far as to cause a man to be whipped for saying, "Raca." The Sanhedrin would probably admonish and warn, and the guilty man would suffer embarrassment.  But Gehenna fire, as defined by New Testament usage, clearly refers to something more than a smoldering refuse heap in the Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem.  It refers to the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15), into which only God can cast the sinner (Matt. 10:28; 23:33; Mark 9:43; James 3:6).  To be cast into the lake of fire is infinitely worse than a reproof by the Sanhedrin.


Concerning the sins, it cannot be agreed that the second saying, ("Thou fool") constitutes any extreme advance over saying, "Raca." Both words mean approximately the same.  The first is Aramaic (aqyr) and the second is Greek (mwrev, similar in form to the English word moron).


Why did Jesus indicate such different judgments for almost equal offenses? And why did He warn any person to fear punishment by the Sanhedrin? Solutions to these problems in many commentaries seem inadequate.  But if these two phrases are taken as being in the same thought pattern as the preceding, they make sense.


Verse 21 includes a Jewish tradition (whoever kills is in danger of judgment before man's court) followed by Jesus' words ("but I say, 'Not just he who kills, but he who hates, is in danger of God's court'").  Then verse 22 includes a second reference to Jewish tradition (he who says the bad word, raca, may be reproved by the Jewish Sanhedrin), followed by Jesus' words (he who uses the common word, moron, is just as guilty, but will be arraigned before God's judgment throne, not man's).


It appears that Jews in Jesus' day considered the use of the old Aramaic word aqyr ("raca") as equal to cursing, a terrible sin, while the modern (to them) word of foreign derivation carried no such odium.  The same distinction is made today.  Many old Anglo-Saxon four-letter words are forbidden in decent, clean, moral American gossip, while equivalent words derived from the Romance languages may be used without embarrassment.  But in God's eyes, an evil word in Greek, Latin, or modern English is just as bad as an evil word in Anglo-Saxon.  Furthermore, the evil thought which God punishes will not be punished by a verbal reproof.  God's judgments are considerably more substantial, and more to be feared.


The Third Comparison (Matt. 5:27-29)

The third comparison reads,

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.  And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell" (Matt. 5:27-29).


In this comparison Jesus quoted only the law (Exod. 20:14).  Did He controvert the law, confirm it, or augment it?


He certainly did not controvert or deny it.  If anything, He confirmed it.  But most probably He augmented it by condemning lust in thoughts as well as in acts of adultery.


However, a study of the Old Testament proves that God condemns adulterous thought there also.  The record of David's lustful look (2 Sam. 11:2) is not described as a morally neutral act.  Lusting is seen as sin (cf.  Num. 11:4).  To lust after an evil woman "in thine, heart" is condemned and prohibited (Prov. 6:25).  Therefore, it cannot be said that Jesus changed the Old Testament revelation by His words.  He confirmed it.


The reason Jesus discussed the seventh commandment was evidently in order to condemn the Pharisaical habit of externalizing morality.  The condition of their hearts, which they doubtless wished to hide, is revealed in such passages as Matthew 12:39; 15:19; 16:4; Mark 7:21; 8:38; and Romans 2:22.


The Fourth Comparison (Matt. 5:31-32)

The fourth comparison reads,

"It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery" (Matt. 5:31-32).


Did Jesus here quote Scripture or tradition?


A comparison with Deuteronomy 24:1 shows that He may have quoted Scripture.  However, some versions correctly translate Deuteronomy 24:1-4 with the "if" clause carrying through three verses, with the answering clause in verse four.  The Septuagint (Deut. 24:3-6) approves this reading (Cf.  RSV, NEB, etc.). The thought of the verses probably should read, "If a man marries, divorces his wife, and she marries a second husband who divorces her or dies, then the woman may not be remarried to her first husband."

Rabbi Shammai taught that marriage was permanent and divorce wrong except for fornication.  In his opinion, the Hebrew hwru could not refer to small provocations.


In Deuteronomy 22:13-21 an impure newly wedded woman whose guilt as a fornicator is proven, should be stoned to death, thus freeing the husband to marry another woman.  In Jesus' day the non-virgin newly wedded woman could not be executed because Roman law did not permit it.  In Old Testament times execution of the wife would have terminated the wedding of the man who married a woman who had committed fornication.  In New Testament times impure Jewish women could be counted as dead even though Roman law did not permit Jews to carry out the harsh demands of their Deuteronomic code.


Rabbi Hillel accepted the idea of Deuteronomy 24:1 which is expressed by the Authorized Version.  He taught that a Jewish man could divorce a wife for any cause ("any unseemly thing").

Jesus in His interpretation of Deuteronomy 24 agreed more closely with Shammai than with Hillel.  Jesus knew what Deuteronomy intended to say.  He knew the thought of the Spirit who inspired it.  He knew that God intended marriage to be permanent through the united lives of the participants.  Therefore, Jesus did not quote the Old Testament as the basis of this discussion.  He repeated the misinterpretation of the passage as taught by Rabbi Hillel (who died about A.D. 7), as the basis of His comments.


Deuteronomy 24:1-4, according to Jesus, does not approve divorce.  It recognizes that divorce exists, without approving it, and gives a command to restrain some of the evil consequences of divorces.  Scripture testifies elsewhere that Moses "suffered" (permitted) divorce (Mark 10:4-5).


Similarly, Scripture recognizes the existence of slavery without approval (Philemon 16).  It recognizes that Jewish masters beat slaves almost to death, but if death did not result, the master was not punished.  Thus beating of slaves is recognized as an existing fact without approval (Exod. 21:20-21).  A number of other conditions of human society outside God's perfect plan are recognized as existing without scriptural approval, and without specific condemnation.


Jesus would say of all such cases that Scripture permitted ("suffered") it because of man's obduracy.  God did not prohibit it, even though it was inherently (in God's perfect plan) wrong (see Matt. 19:8; Mark 10:4-5).


Deuteronomy 24:1 cannot be a permit to divorce a wife for any cause (Matt. 19:3) because Jesus said this idea is wrong (19:9).  In fact, the Old Testament clearly indicated God's plan for the durability of marriage in Malachi 2:14-16.  God made the marriage bond to join two into one so that there might be godly seed.  Therefore, "let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.  For the Lord, the God of Israel saith that he hateth putting away." This Old Testament revelation harmonizes with Jesus' teaching.


Therefore, it is concluded that in Matthew 5:27-29 Jesus did not quote Deuteronomy 24:1, and that His correction of the then current error confirms Old Testament revelation.


The Fifth Comparison (Matt. 5:33-37)

The fifth comparison reads,

"Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth, for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.  But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil" (Matt. 5:33-37).


Did Jesus contradict, approve, or augment the Old Testament?


The Old Testament speaks of oaths many times, but usually the purpose of the laws about oaths is to control the misuse of oaths, not to require their use.  Even Deuteronomy 6:13 and 10:20 should be construed not as commands that all Jews devote themselves to swearing, but rather as instructions that if a Jew does at some time make an oath, it should be limited by the law.


If the Old Testament permits swearing and recognizes that oaths will be uttered by men and if Jesus prohibited oaths, then either of two conclusions must be reached: either God permitted oaths because of human obduracy in Old Testament times, even though such action was not His perfect plan (cf.  Jesus' comments in Matt. 19:8), or processes in the Jewish practice of swearing in Jesus' time had developed in a direction which demanded a stop.  In neither case would Jesus be contradicting the Old Testament, or permitting Old Testament laws to be disobeyed by contemporary Jews.


Other passages in the Gospels state that Pharisees and lawyers of Jesus' time had pronounced some oaths as binding (oaths involving the offerings or the Temple decorations), while other oaths were not binding (oaths involving the altar or the Temple building) (Matt. 23:16-22).  It appears that the lawyers were making picayunish obfuscations to force uninitiated common people to use the expensive services of the lawyers.  Jesus excoriated them for their childish and evidently avaricious chicanery.  As far as God was concerned, a yes was yes no matter what legalistic jargon accompanied it, and a no was no.  If simple positives and negatives are sufficient for God, and if men will be held responsible before God for such statements, then this is sufficient also for men.


Again it is observed that Jesus did not grant permission for the nation of Israel to forget the law.  He augmented the law by commanding His contemporaries to perform their promises even if they consisted of simple positive or negative assertions unaccompanied by oaths.


It is interesting to note that Jesus demanded a cessation of oaths "by heaven . . . earth . . . Jerusalem . . . your head." The Old Testament required that oaths be made only in God's name (Deut. 6:13; 10:20) and "to the Lord" (Num. 30).  Such vows do not appear to be the subject of Jesus' remarks.


The Sixth Comparison (Matt. 5:38-39)

The sixth discussion reads,

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:38-39).


Did Jesus quote the Old Testament?


Yes, He quoted either Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; or Deuteronomy 19:21.  However, the retaliation which appears to be given as a maxim for individual revenge does not remain so evident on further consideration.


For example, Paul quoted Deuteronomy 32:35 as teaching, "Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord" (Rom. 12:19).  If the Old Testament says, "Avenge not yourselves," and at the same time says, "Knock out an eye or tooth from any person who knocks out your eye or tooth," then it contains contradiction.  The problem then is not with Jesus' contradicting the Old Testament, but with the Old Testament contradicting itself.


On further study of the retaliation passages, it is found that they do not teach personal vengeance.  Exodus 21 gives instruction to judges concerning punishments for various acts of negligence, violence, or sin.  Leviticus 24:20 appears in the midst of a story of a man apprehended and imprisoned for cursing God.  Along with directions on the punishment of blasphemy, God indicates that punishments for various acts of violence are to be fitted to the crime.  Personal vengeance is not in view.  Likewise Deuteronomy 19:21 appears in a passage describing a trial of a false witness.  The guilty man and the person who suffered as the result of his lies "shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges" (Deut. 19:17).  The priests and judges shall make diligent inquiry before pronouncing judgment and applying punishment.  The eye for an eye in this passage cannot be literal, for the dispute described was verbal only.  Therefore, it must mean, at least in this passage, that judges should be most cautious to make punishment appropriate to the crime.


Therefore, none of the retaliation passages teaches personal vengeance.  Jesus was not controverting Old Testament instructions.  He confirmed the same truth that Paul quoted (Rom. 12:19; cf.  Lev. 19:18).


However, Jesus did correct an attitude which Jews evidently developed as a result of the Roman practice of requiring nationals to bear burdens at the whim of the soldiers of the occupation army (Matt. 5:41). Evidently the Jews had hoped that they could defeat the Romans and that they would then repay them for these indignities.  The attitude of personal vengeance, however, was neither scriptural nor sensible.  Why should one develop ulcers over a condition he cannot change? If a Roman soldier tells a Jew to carry his coat a mile, the latter should carry it two miles with a smile and be thankful to God for the healthy exercise!


Again, Jesus did not release the Jewish people from the law.  He confirmed the express teachings of the law.


The Seventh Comparison (Matt. 5:43-44)

The seventh passage which some people claim to be a general disannulling of the law before Calvary reads,

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.  But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matt. 5:43-44).


Did Jesus quote the Old Testament in His statement of that which "hath been said"?


Yes. For Leviticus 19:18 reads, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself," a phrase quoted in Matthew 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27 (along with several places in the Epistles).


But the second phrase, "hate thine enemy," never appears in the Old Testament nor elsewhere in the New Testament.  Jesus quoted a common saying of His day, which Jews had presumptuously attached to a familiar passage of Scripture to make it sound plausible.


Actually, Leviticus 19:18 begins, "Thou shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge" which, if applied to heart attitude, would prohibit hatred of an enemy.  How could a person hate without bearing a grudge against any? Later on in the same chapter, Jews are commanded concerning their attitude toward a stranger (Gentile): "Love him as thyself ; for ye were strangers in Egypt" (19:34).  Certainly an enemy relationship developed between Jews and Egyptians, yet this relationship is cited as a reason for loving strangers.

Paul teaches that believers should be kind to enemies (Rom. 12:20) in fulfillment of an injunction in the Torah (12:19).


For these reasons Jesus was not repealing the Old Testament during His ministry by His discussion on loving enemies.  Instead He was renouncing some unscriptural sayings which the Jews may have added as a means of stirring up a will to fight in their frequent violent attempts to gain independence from Rome.


Judas Maccabee provided a thrilling example of stalwart bravery in battle against enemies many times stronger.  After Pompey took Israel in 63 B.C. Zealot leaders arose almost yearly attempting to duplicate the glorious feats of the Maccabees.  Massive, and to some degree successful, rebellions occurred in 40-37 B.C., A.D. 64-70, and A.D. 132-134.  Each large rebellion overshadowed dozens of lesser attempts.


The constant stirring of the spirit of rebellion against Rome was encouraged by the antiscriptural "saying" which Jesus quoted, and which doubtless kept the fire of revolt burning: "Love your Jewish neighbors but hate your Roman enemies!"


If the Jewish people had followed their own Scriptures and the words of Jesus, they would have suffered much less loss of life.  They would have been happier, more content, and prosperous.  They would not have hated the Romans.  They would have loved their enemies.



In this examination of the series of passages in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, which have often been used to claim a pre-crucifixion abrogation of the Law for the Jewish people, it has been maintained

        (1) that Jesus abrogated some unscriptural traditions,

        (2) that He corrected some wrong interpretations, but

        (3) that He did not abrogate Old Testament legal injunctions. He confirmed them for the Jewish people living before Calvary.

[1] "Did Jesus Sustain the Law in Matthew 5?", Bibliotheca Sacra -- April-June 1978, p. 118-134, Dallas Theological Seminary, Used by Permission

[2] Congdon, Roger D. (1918-2009), Professor of Bible and Theology, Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary, Portland, Oregon