A New Standard (Matthew 5:21-37)


This text is making me feel a lot like I’m walking a tightrope. As we hear what Jesus teaches about anger, adultery, divorce and making oaths, it is easy on the one hand to understand them legalistically. We can hear Jesus’ teachings as hard and fast rules that we need to try to keep, and if we fail we are going to be judged. A legalistic understanding of Jesus’ teachings usually ends up with people being burdened with guilt or thinking that we are better people than others who do not keep the rules as well as we do.

The opposite danger we can fall into is thinking that Jesus’ teachings don’t apply to us. We can think that we are now under grace so we don’t need to listen to the way Jesus wants us to live. This is often called ‘cheap grace’ and is really no grace at all. Or we can think that Jesus gave these teachings so long ago that society has changed and we don’t need to listen to them. Whatever our reason might be, however, Jesus has already warned us that ‘if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 5:19a NLT).

So how do we listen to Jesus’ teachings as his followers and take them seriously while we walk the fine line between legalism and cheap grace?

To begin, we need to listen to what Jesus is saying and realize that we need God’s grace. Jesus sets a new ethical and moral standard. He teaches that the righteousness God is looking for goes much deeper than our behaviours. He is looking for pure hearts, as Jesus has already said in the Beatitudes (v8). My concern is that some will listen to Jesus’ words and think that he is pointing an accusing finger specifically at them, when really we are all the same. As the Apostle Paul says, we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). If you are feeling uncomfortable with what Jesus is saying here, please believe me when I say that I am right there with you.

Jesus shows us the state of our hearts to show us grace and mercy. As Paul says in Galatians 3:24, “the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith” (NIV). Jesus is pointing to himself as the one who makes us right by giving us his own righteousness through faith. It is only when we see the stark reality of our flawed existence before God that we begin to look for a righteousness outside of ourselves. As I said last week, we find a righteousness that is “better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees” (v20) when we begin to rely on God grace. In this grace, God not only forgives us for the times we have been wrong. In this grace, God also gives to us the righteousness of Jesus. His perfect life, innocent death and death-defeating resurrection is God’s free gift to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. If you’re reading Jesus’ teachings in this passage and feeling as uncomfortable as I do, Christ Jesus is calling you to himself to remove our guilt, cleanse our hearts, and give us new lives as his holy and righteous people.

In the freedom that God’s grace gives, we can now hear Jesus’ teachings in a new, relational way. They show us how to live in ways that extend God’s grace to the people around us. It is impossible for us to be angry with others when we trust that God wants to show them forgiveness. It is impossible for us to call someone an idiot when God calls that person his child whom he loves. When we believe in the extreme lengths God went to in Jesus to reconcile himself with us, we will also do whatever we can to reconcile with those whom we have wronged. When we see others as people whom God has created and for whom Christ has given his life, how can we objectify them by looking at them with desire and lust? I know that relationships breakdown for a lot of complicated reasons, but when we trust in God’s faithfulness to us, we will do whatever we can to be faithful to our promises to each other. And when we trust in what God says to us through his word, we won’t need to make oaths to try to get people to believe what we are saying. We will be able to say simply yes or no because people will trust what we are saying to them.

What we end up with are two ways we can hear Jesus’ teachings. On the one hand, they do show us something about ourselves that we would often prefer not to see. We need to be clear, though, that Jesus’ purpose is not to burden us with guilt, but instead to draw us to himself where we can find forgiveness and new life through faith in his death and resurrection for us. We can then return to Jesus’ teachings with a new heart and hear them as instructions on how to live out the righteousness he gives us in our relationships with others.

As we continue to explore discipleship, then, based on these words of Jesus I am thinking that…

Discipleship is … recognizing that we need God’s grace & living by a different set of standards in the grace that Jesus gives us

Jesus isn’t giving us an impossible set of standards that we need to keep by ourselves. When we listen to Jesus and take his instruction seriously, two things happen: we find grace in his gift of a righteous life to us and we begin see others through God’s eyes.

More to think about:

  • As you listen to what Jesus is teaching his followers in Matthew 5:21-37, which section is challenging you most – being angry, the need to reconcile, adultery, divorce or taking oaths? What do you find challenging about it?
  • Do you think Jesus’ teachings still apply to his followers today? Explain why/why not.
  • How do Jesus’ teachings sound different if we understand them relationally (how to live in relationship with other people) instead of legalistically (a set of rules to follow)?
  • How might your life be different if, in the grace God supplies, you were able to live as Jesus teaches?
  • Based on Jesus’ teachings, and as a person who has been made right through Christ, what is something that you might need to make right in your own life this week?

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