38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus taught that authentic faith should shape how Christians relate to the people around them. Living according to the Laws of their king will put them out of step with the world. It is out of the ordinary to tell the truth, go the extra mile, and love your enemies. God demands that his creation live this way, and to do so with perfection.
1. Instructions for Perfection
2. The Model of Perfection
3. Only the Perfect are Rewarded
The Sermon on the Mount was Jesus’s instruction to both his disciples and the gathered crowd. The sermon accomplishes one overarching purpose for both distinct groups. Jesus clearly portrayed God’s standard for all people. And all who hear Jesus’s words know that they have not met the standard. For those who were trusting in Christ, this message caused them to cling to Christ all the more for grace and transformation. For those who were not trusting in Christ, this message revealed to them their spiritual bankruptcy and their need for a Rescuer.
The person and work of Christ is the key that unlocks the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount. For Christians, Christ is the one who made a way for them to live a life that is pleasing to God. He is also the one who gives them the spiritual power to do it. Finally, he is the one who continues to advocate on behalf of Christians when they do fall short of God’s standard. For non-Christians, Christ is the only shelter they can run to when they are confronted with their woeful shortcoming in comparison with the perfection that God deserves and demands.
The kind of living that Jesus described in these verses is foolishness to unbelievers. It makes no sense to the world. Many souls have been drawn to Christ through the humble meekness and servanthood of faithful followers of Jesus. When the message of Jesus is undergirded by a life that looks like Jesus, it is like dynamite in the hands of a missionary God.
Mark was a missionary in Afghanistan for almost 10 years. We would assume that an assignment in Afghanistan would be difficult. Difficult, however, is an understatement. A large amount of Mark’s time was spent negotiating hostage situations. Yet, in the midst of chaos and violence, many Aghan families turned to Christ through his witness. After several years Mark asked one of the first Afghan converts about what had originally made him consider the claims of Christianity. The man told Mark that the first time that he and his family visited Mark’s house something happened that completely changed the way they saw the missionaries and their message. The whole group was watching something together on television. Suddenly, Mark’s small daughter spilled a bowl of popcorn. Much to the Afghan man’s surprise, Mark didn’t yell at her or ignore it and wait for his wife to do something. Mark got down on his hands and knees and helped his daughter pick up the popcorn piece by piece. The Afghan man had never seen anything like that. It was crazy to him. A man stooping down on the ground to help a child is something he would have never done. He couldn’t stop thinking about what he witnessed or the message of Jesus that he shared.
So far, in the Sermon on the Mount, we have seen how believers are blessed now despite the difficulties of living for God in a fallen world because their future hope is good and assured (5:1–12). Next, Jesus used God’s Law and applies it to the heart in order to give Christians a blueprint to follow and to give non-Christians a clear picture of their depravity (5:13–37). In our text in this session, we will see how Jesus emphasized to his hearers (both Christians and non-Christians) that God doesn’t simply expect a valiant effort, but a life of perfect obedience to and imitation of God himself. This simultaneously pushes Christians to cling to Christ for grace and transformation and non-Christians to call out for mercy or reject the Way.
1. Instructions for Perfection (Matthew 5:38–44)
In the first section of our passage, Jesus expanded on two verses from the Old Testament. The first is found in Exodus 21:23–25 which says, “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The second reference, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” is found in Leviticus 19:18, which says “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
What is the essence of Jesus’s teaching in verses 38–44? What was Jesus commanding his listeners to do?
The Sermon on the Mount is full of surprising statements, but these few verses are probably the most controversial and, for some, infuriating words that Jesus spoke in this sermon. Think about what Jesus was saying. Let’s consider these statements:
- Don’t resist an evildoer
- If anyone slaps you on the cheek, let him slap the other also
- If anyone sues you, give them more than they are seeking
- If anyone manipulates you to serve them, serve them even more
- Don’t turn anyone away
- Love your enemy
- Pray for your persecutors
This counsel is ludicrous. How do we even make sense of it? In these verses, Jesus commanded his hearers to go against every fiber of their beings. He was asking them to do something that seems completely foolish and even dangerous.
How are these commands different than the commands that came before in the Sermon on the Mount?
Before this section, Jesus warned his audience about anger, lust, divorce, and oaths. All of those commands may seem somewhat manageable. Or at the very least it seems like we have control over those situations. We decide if we will become angry or if we will allow ourselves to think lustful thoughts. These commands, however, are different. We are asked to give up control and place ourselves at the mercy of those who hate us and desire to hurt us. We are asked to abandon a perspective of self-preservation and respond to whatever curse comes our way, not with passivity, but with blessing!
What do we learn about ourselves when we truly examine our lives against this standard?
These commands are frightening and frustrating. Did Jesus really expect people to live like this? What was he getting at? What did he mean? We don’t like it and we look for some sort of alternate interpretation because if we are honest we will have to admit that we don’t measure up to this standard. In fact, we may even have to say that it seems crazy to even try to. Do we really want to live like that?
How these commands make us feel is a barometer of our spiritual state. They are a barometer because the way a person responds to them will show what their relationship to Christ is. Those who are outside of Christ and are righteous in their own eyes will reject these commandments as being weak, unrealistic, or just plain stupid. Those who are in Christ will recognize that Jesus is describing exactly what he did for them. Further, the person who is in Christ because they have heard and responded to the gospel with faith is given new spiritual life and the desire to obey these commands. A true Christian won’t reject these hard teachings but will cling to Christ all the more tightly for both their forgiveness of sin and power to obey.
Application Question: How does your heart respond to Jesus’s commands in these verses?
2. The Model of Perfection (Matthew 5:45)
Jesus commanded his listeners to “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48). That verse is a bookend to all of the commands that Jesus clarified beginning in verse 21. In verse 20 he said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So, those two verses helped his listeners see both the consequence and the standard. The standard is perfection and the consequence is eternal.
Must we perfectly and perpetually keep Jesus’s commands in Matthew 5 in order to inherit the Kingdom of God?
Yes. Jesus said that our righteousness must exceed the scribes and the Pharisees else we shall never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Further, Jesus said that we must be perfect as God is perfect. He didn’t leave it to our imaginations what it meant to meet that standard. He laid it out quite clearly in verses 21–47.
The problem is that no one’s righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees. No one is able to keep Jesus’s word perfectly and perpetually and be perfectly righteous as God is perfectly righteous, and in this way earn entrance into the Kingdom of God. All have sinned and fall short of God’s standard (Rom 3:23). There are none who are righteous, not even one (Rom 3:10).
How then might we become more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees so that we might enter heaven? How might we become perfect like God?
A dead fish would sooner swim upstream than we could make ourselves perfect as God is perfect. We can’t do this of our own strength, because we are helpless. We can never be righteous by obeying the Law. We’ve already broken it. We are already guilty. Our hearts are bent toward sin from birth and as soon as we are able to break God’s Law we do, and then we keep doing it.
But Jesus was, though he was like us, was different. Jesus was fully God and fully human. He was tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) Jesus’s righteousness was greater than the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus did live a perfect life in perfect obedience to the Word of God. He pleased God in every way. He was perfect as his Father in heaven was perfect.
What does that have to do with us? Well, it has everything to do with us because Jesus’s righteousness was credited to our account when we believed on him. In other words, Jesus’s didn’t just die a sinner’s death in our place, but he also lived a righteous life on our behalf. Not only was our sin reckoned to Jesus’s account. But Jesus’s righteousness was reckoned to our account.
So, if you are in Christ, then you do have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. In Christ, you are perfect. But this, dear friend, is all of grace and it is only through the finished work of Chris on the cross.
Why are these last two commands especially poignant in terms of Jesus’s perfectly obedient life?
Jesus never became sinfully angry. He didn’t lust. He didn’t divorce. He never made careless promises that he broke. Jesus practiced what he preached. The commandments that we are focusing on today, however, are especially meaningful in relation to Jesus’s perfect obedience. Let’s be careful not to miss this. Jesus didn’t resist the evildoer, he turned the other cheek, he gave to his accusers, he served his persecutors, he loved his enemies, and he prayed for his attackers. Jesus did all of this in obedience to the Father as payment for your sin. Furthermore, some of the enemies that Jesus loved as he hung on the cross are sitting in this room. It may take a moment to understand this, but allow it to sink in. When Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, he commanded his listeners to be like God by loving their enemies. All the while Jesus knew that he would himself obey that command by going to the cross in love for enemies who were standing before him listening to his sermon. He knew that he would obey that command by shedding his blood for those reading these very words. Oh, the infinite wisdom and grace and mercy of God our Father through Christ Jesus!
Application Question: Does your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? Why or why not?
3. Only the Perfect are Rewarded (Matthew 5:46–48)
Jesus told his listeners to be perfect as God in heaven is perfect. In order to be perfect and righteous they would have to obey the set of Laws that he laid out for them. The standard was much higher than anyone in his hearing probably would have imagined, but that was the point. In order for people to seek salvation in Christ, they must first understand that they have fallen short of the mark and are in need of rescue. Furthermore, if Christians are going to walk in a manner pleasing to God, they must cling to Christ, both for salvation and sanctification. They have to understand that apart from him, they can do nothing (Jn 15:5).
What did Jesus say that those who obey will have?
Only those who live according to these standards will be rewarded. The ultimate reward is eternal life. Those who live this kind of selfless life do so because of the power of Christ working in them. We should be careful not to think that Jesus is saying to non-Christians that if they can somehow start to live in this way they will earn passage to heaven. First of all, a person cannot simply start to live this way by their own strength and according to their own will. Secondly, even if they could somehow turn their way of living to perfect obedience to God’s word, they have already been found guilty of transgression. No amount of good deeds can erase that stain.
Is there also a reward for Christians who obey these commands?
Christians have the promise of heaven. An eternity with God in heaven is a Christian’s sure and anticipated hope through Christ. But, there are also rewards and blessings for Christians when they obey God’s commands. We must be careful not to drift into a prosperity theology that espouses that God must bless a Christian materially or financially if they have faith and follow God’s commands. But at the same time, we should recognize and enjoy the biblical rewards and gifts that God gives his children when they walk in obedience to him. For example, God promises to give his children peace that passes understanding when they offer their anxieties to him through prayer.
How can Christians obey the commands found in this passage?
Christians still battle the flesh and still fall short of perfection. However, a true Christian will desire to obey God’s commands and rejoice in them. A true Christian will hate sin and grieve over sin when they transgress God’s Law. Over time Christians are conformed more and more to the image of Christ, and less and less to the ways of this world.
When Christians remember and rehearse the gospel of Christ, then they are more able and willing to live according to these commands. Milton Vincent puts it this way: “Doing good and showing love to those who have wronged me is always the opposite of what my sinful flesh wants me to do. Nonetheless, when I remind myself of my sins against God and of His forgiving and generous grace toward me, I give the gospel an opportunity to reshape my perspective and to put me in a frame of mind wherein I actually desire to give this same grace to those who have wrong me.”
The commands that Jesus delivered in this passage set the bar too high for us. We can’t live up to it. But Jesus did. Further, he obeyed these commands as he was suffering and dying for sinners. Jesus loved his enemies by bearing their sin on Calvary.
Christians now strive to obey these commands because they want to please their heavenly Father and they have the power to do so because of Jesus’s work on their behalf, both in his righteous living and his dying a sinner’s death. Nevertheless, the standard is so high that Christians would never try to obey in their own strength. And they are continually driven back to Christ for healing.
Those who are not followers of Christ are urged to look to Christ to take away their sins and to make them righteous. Apart from Christ, there is no hope.
- What is your reaction to the commands of Jesus in this section?
- Do you think you have the ability to keep them?
- How did Jesus himself keep these commands?
- How should Christians respond to these commands?
Prayer of Response
Begin your prayer by recognizing the goodness and glory of God. Adore him because he is worthy and thank him for the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. Pray also for a heart that is humble before him. Confess your inability without his intervention to save yourself or sanctify yourself. Pray that you would love your enemies and pray for your persecutors just as Christ did.
 Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer, 25.