“You Have Heard…But I Say”—Jesus’ Six Counterpoints: Moral Upgrade or Moral Reclamation?

by David Servant

No doubt you’ve heard of Mennonites. Perhaps also of the Amish. Maybe even the Brethren and Hutterites. All fall under the heading of “Anabaptists,” who trace their roots to 16th century Germany and Switzerland. Their predecessors were part of what is known as the Radical Reformation, a response to perceived corruption in both Roman Catholicism and the expanding Magisterial (state-wedded) Protestant movement led by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others.

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The early Anabaptists, like the early Christians, were pejoratively named by their persecutors, but in their case because of their distinct doctrine of re-baptizing adults who had already been baptized as babies. The word anabaptist means “one who baptizes again.” Anabaptists noticed that infant baptism, practiced by both Roman Catholics and the Protestants of their day, wasn’t found in the New Testament, and that the apostles seemed to baptize only those who were old enough to understand the gospel, repent of their sins and follow Christ.

Anabaptists also believed that authentic moral transformation was the mark of the true Christian, recognizing that “faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:26) and that Jesus and the apostles espoused certain standards of righteousness upon which salvation hinged. For example, Jesus said in His most famous sermon, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20), and then He continued by elaborating on specific standards that were certainly not being attained by the average scribe or Pharisee.

The original Anabaptist leaders were highly-educated, Spirit-filled, courageous men full of missionary zeal. Some expressions of early Anabaptism were characterized by charismatic gifts such as prophecy, speaking in other tongues, and healings.

Early Anabaptists often suffered greatly for their faith. While Protestants were persecuted by Catholics, Anabaptists were persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants acting in conjunction with the state. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured, drowned, beheaded, or burnt at the stake. One, Michael Sattler, tried and convicted as a heretic in 1527 by Roman Catholic authorities, first had his tongue cut out, after which red-hot tongs were used to tear twelve pieces of flesh from his body en route to his execution—where he then was burnt alive.

Suffering violently for so many years at the hands of professing Christians, it is not difficult to understand why Anabaptists have been committed to nonviolence from their earliest days, even apart from their convictions about the application of Jesus’ words regarding “turning the other cheek.” They will not serve as police or in the military, but during times of war have distinguished themselves in public service as conscientious objectors.

Nor is it difficult to understand why modern Anabaptists have strong convictions about the separation of church and state. There are two very separate and distinct kingdoms in Anabaptist thinking, one that belongs to “Caesar,” and one that belongs to Christ. There is no overlap. Unlike most Christians who would endeavor to serve Christ through their God-given opportunities to participate in governments (that Scripture says are established by God; Rom. 13:1-7), Anabaptists don’t participate in civil government, either by holding office or voting. Yet they do obey civil authorities so far as those authorities do not demand allegiance that requires disobedience to Christ.

European persecutions ultimately led to the mass emigrations by Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites to North and Latin America in subsequent centuries. Many settled in my home state of Pennsylvania under the original invitation of William Penn, and some of their descendants, fine Amish people, are personal friends of mine.

It is impossible not to respect the legacy of the Anabaptist movement, but it hasn’t been without its flaws. Like just about all other Christian groups, Anabaptists have a history of splitting among themselves over doctrinal and lifestyle disagreements. For example, the Amish, who split from the Mennonites over the issue of shunning wayward members, have split themselves many times. One of the most conservative splits of Old Order Amish, known as the Swartzentruber Amish, split into three new groups in the 1990s.

Anabaptist Doctrinal Pillars

While Martin Luther believed Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was impossible to obey, and some modern theologians think it is a moral code only for the future Millennium, Anabaptists view it as the blueprint for everyday Christian life. They take it as literal as possible. (They aren’t ripping out an eye or cutting off a hand when they stumble, however.)

Anabaptist groups do differ on the application of Jesus’ most famous sermon. For example, regarding Jesus’ forbidding the laying up of earthly treasures, some, like the Hutterites and Bruderhof (who split from each other), literally share all their possessions and live communally in an attempt to imitate Acts 2:44-45. In contrast, the Amish don’t live communally, but they look out for each other, and they shun many modern conveniences. They don’t own automobiles, for example, although they regularly ride as paying passengers in automobiles driven by non-Amish people when their horse-drawn buggies are inadequate for their transportation needs. On the other hand, most Mennonites do own automobiles, yet one group restricts the color to black. Legalism always lurks in the shadows of those who are trying to live in the light.

Before I begin to offer any doctrinal critique of Anabapist theology, I should tell you that I think I have just as much respect for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as any Anabaptist. It is a blueprint for daily life. I also believe that faith without works is dead, and I’ve written several books that would make many Anabaptists squirm with conviction, such as, The Great Gospel Deception: Exposing the False Promise of Heaven Without Holiness, and Through the Needle’s Eye: An Impossible Journey Made Possible Through God. Moreover, I’ve been trying to practice what I preach. I founded and direct a ministry called Heaven’s Family that, through a devoted staff of 20 saints and thousands of financial partners, has invested tens of millions of dollars in advancing Jesus’ kingdom and serving people whom He labeled the “least of these” in more than 40 of the world’s poorest nations. And I have laid up some treasure in heaven myself. And for those reasons, when some Anabaptists condescendingly tell me that I “just don’t want to pay the price to truly follow Jesus,” which is why I’ve “reasoned away His commandments,” or that they don’t want to waste their time on “foolish and ignorant speculations” (2 Tim. 2:23), I turn the other cheek.

Anabaptists generally believe that, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus introduced new laws for the new covenant, laws that uphold a higher moral standard than what is found in the Law of Moses. The primary basis of that premise is Jesus’ six statements that begin with either, “You have heard that it was said,” or “You have heard that the ancients were told” (Matt. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43), after which Jesus mentions a law or teaching derived from the Mosaic Law that is followed by His words, “But I say to you” (Matt. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). For brevity’s sake, from now on I will refer to them as “Jesus’ six statements.”

The purpose of this teaching is to examine the premise that Jesus introduced new laws for the new covenant that reflect a higher moral standard than what is found in the Mosaic Law. It is not only Anabaptists who hold to this premise, but also for others within certain “holiness” circles who disclaim the Anabaptist label.

The Examination

First, we should not automatically assume—just because Jesus referenced a law or teaching derived from the Mosaic Law that was followed by the words, “But I say to you”—that He was altering or upgrading part of the Mosaic Law. It is possible that Jesus could have been explaining that what His disciples had heard was incorrect or incomplete, and thus He was about to correct or complete their misunderstanding. For example, imagine a police officer saying to you, “You have heard that robbing a bank is illegal, but I say to you that stealing anything that belongs to another person is illegal.” You would not assume the officer was informing you about recently-enacted laws that conveyed a higher moral standard. Rather, you would understand that he was elaborating on the theme of theft, helping you to understand that robbing a bank is not the only example.

Here is an example, taken from later in Matthew’s Gospel, of Jesus’ using the phrase “but I say to you” to communicate to His disciples that their understanding regarding a certain topic was correct, yet incomplete:

And His disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” And He answered and said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished.” (Matt. 17:10-12, emphasis added).

We see that Jesus fully affirmed what His disciples had heard the scribes teach about the coming of Elijah, but He then revealed something the scribes had missed, namely that Malachi’s prophecy that God would send “Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Mal. 4:5) was partially fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptist.

As we read Jesus’ six statements, we would be foolish to rule out the possibility that He was, in fact, not introducing new laws with higher standards, but rather elaborating on old laws found in the Mosaic Law. And that is especially true since Jesus introduced His six statements with these words:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-20).

Although those introductory words don’t preclude the possibility that Jesus established standards that exceeded those found in the Law and Prophets, we should certainly reject outright any interpretation of Jesus’ six statements that has Him contradicting the Law of Moses or any of the Prophets. To contradict what is found in the Law and Prophets is equivalent to abolishing what Jesus said He would not abolish. Beyond that, if Jesus contradicted anything found in the Law and Prophets, He contradicted Himself, as He, being God, was the divine author behind both. Additionally, for God to contradict Himself or change His view on fundamental moral principles would require that God’s essential character change, which is impossible. Allow me to illustrate:

Let’s imagine someone suggesting that, during the old covenant, God wanted His people to always tell the truth, but that under the new covenant, He only expects them to tell the truth when they swear on a Bible. In all other instances, lying is acceptable. Such a suggestion would obviously amount to a divine moral downgrade. Of course, no one would accept such a suggestion as being valid, as it would imply a fundamental moral character change in God Himself. God cannot lie (Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Thus lying (and particularly when used to gain advantage over or harm someone) cannot be morally acceptable to Him.

The same would be true if anyone suggested a reversal of the above example, such as teaching that under the old covenant God only expected His people to tell the truth when they swore on the Bible, but that under the new covenant, He expects them to always tell the truth, a divine moral upgrade. Such a teaching would imply that, at one time, some lying was acceptable to God, which would imply that God Himself has undergone moral improvement, now that lying, unlike previously, is always unacceptable to Him. For the same reason that we would reject the suggestion of a divine moral downgrade, we should also reject the suggestion of a divine moral upgrade.

Understanding this, Steve Gregg writes regarding Jesus’ six statements:

Since all morality is merely a reflection of the character of God, which cannot change, it is impossible for morality to change. The unchanging God cannot abhor today what He found respectable in the past. Jesus came to shed light on aspects and dimensions of the law which had been obscured by rabbinic tradition. Therefore, when Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old time, ‘You shall not murder,'” He did not finish the statement by saying, “but I say to you, ‘Murder!'” Rather, he explained that there are other ways by which one may become a “murderer” in God’s sight without actually killing someone. He did not say, “You have heard that it was said to those of old time, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, ‘Commit adultery!'” Rather, He explained that there are ways to become guilty of this sin without actually touching a woman, but by merely looking at a woman to lust after her. In saying these things, he was not creating a new ethic (Job had known this truth thousands of years earlier—Job 31:1). Jesus never changed one moral issue from the law. He merely expounded on the deeper implications of the law that had been neglected by His hearers and their teachers.[1]

As we consider Jesus’ six statements with these thoughts in mind—thoughts which are based on what is revealed in the entirety of Scripture—we are better able to correctly interpret them. We should be highly suspicious of any interpretation that has Jesus altering fundamental morality, effectively pitting Him against the Mosaic Law, His Father, and Himself.

Regarding each of the six statements, we will ask two questions.

First, when Jesus’ referenced something from the Law of Moses, did He accurately quote a specific commandment, or was He referencing what the scribes and Pharisees taught? Take note that in none of the six cases do we find Jesus saying, “The Law of Moses says…” Rather, we find Jesus saying, “You have heard…” So what His audience had heard may or may not have been an accurate reflection of what was taught in the Mosaic Law. Thus the reason for our question. And obviously, if Jesus was “raising the standard,” we would expect that He would correctly reference the old standard before revealing the contrasting “new standard.”

The second question we will ask concerning each of Jesus’ six statements is this: Was the alleged “new standard” Jesus introduced actually a new standard that cannot be found in the Mosaic Law? If a standard Jesus advocated can be found in the Mosaic Law, then it was not a new standard.

Jesus’ First Statement

Let’s begin with the first of Jesus’ six statements:

You have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not commit murder” and “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, “You good-for-nothing,” shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, “You fool,” shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering (Matt. 5:21-24).

Did Jesus accurately cite the Law of Moses?

Yes and no. “You shall not commit murder” is found in Ten Commandments, but “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court” is not found in the Mosaic Law anywhere. It must have been something Jesus’ audience heard from the scribes and Pharisees, and in light of Jesus’ counterpoint, it seems their teaching focused only on deterring murder while ignoring those things that lead to murder and that are, in themselves, lesser forms of murder. Jesus contrasted the appraisal of a human court with the appraisal of God’s court, a much stricter court that sometimes sentences the guilty to hell.

Was the standard Jesus prescribed a new standard that cannot be found in the Mosaic Law?

Consider this: No one would ever think God’s original prohibition in the Mosaic Law against murder was a divine allowance to strangle someone, as long as one released his chokehold in just enough time for his victim to gasp for air and just barely survive. And if that chain of logic is traced to its logical beginning, we realize God’s prohibition of murder included a prohibition of the anger and hatred that can lead to murder, as well as venomous words that often precede murder. God doesn’t want anyone in the “murder groove.” His original prohibition against murder was a prohibition of hatred.

Moreover, God has never wanted anyone to be in the murder groove because He has not changed and neither have His fundamental moral standards. There was never a time prior to the Sermon on the Mount when God would have approved of an Israelite bringing an offering to the temple who had a broken relationship that could be repaired. The second greatest commandment was to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18), so it obviously superseded any obligation regarding temple offerings.

To claim that in Matthew 5:21-24 Jesus was raising the standard is to claim that the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself is not found in the Mosaic Law and that during the old covenant, hating one’s neighbor was acceptable to God. Yet we specifically read in the Law of Moses: “You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him” (Lev. 19:17).

Thus it is safe to conclude that Jesus was not, in His first of six statements, raising the moral standard. He was simply elaborating on the existing standard, something any honest person will have to admit.

Jesus’ Second Statement

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell (Matt. 5:27-30).

Did Jesus accurately cite the Mosaic Law’s standard?

Yes. However, as was the case with the first statement, He elaborated on the implications of that standard. No one would ever think that God’s prohibition against adultery was a divine allowance to engage in a sexual relationship with your neighbor’s wife just as long as it didn’t go as far as intercourse. And if we trace that logic to its beginning, it is obvious that God’s prohibition of adultery included a prohibition of what always precedes adultery, namely, lust.

God does not want anyone in the “adultery groove,” and He has never wanted anyone in that groove because He has not changed and neither have His fundamental moral standards. There was never a time prior to the Sermon on the Mount when God would have approved of an Israelite man lusting after a woman. In fact, lust was prohibited in the Tenth Commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Ex. 20:17). And Job, who it is thought lived long before the Mosaic Law and who thus lived only under the law of his God-given conscience said, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1).

Lust, like murder, is also a violation of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself, a commandment found in the Mosaic Law. Lust was a sin under the old covenant.

To claim that Jesus was raising the standard in Matthew 5:27-30 is to claim that lust was acceptable to God under the Mosaic Law, an absurd idea. Thus it is safe to conclude that Jesus was not, in the second of His six statements, raising the moral standard, as any honest person will admit.

Jesus’ Third Statement

It was said, “Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce”; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matt. 5:31-32).

Of course, the topic of divorce and remarriage is hotly debated within Christian circles. But my purpose in this teaching is to determine if the standards Jesus set in His six statements were a moral upgrade to the Mosaic Law. So we will simply ask our two questions regarding Jesus’ third statement.

Did Jesus accurately cite the Law of Moses?

No. “Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce” cannot be found anywhere in the Mosaic Law. Jesus’ counterpoint leads us to think that He was actually citing the lax teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, who apparently emphasized the importance of divorce certificates while ignoring the sin of illegitimate divorce. We know for a fact that the majority of Pharisees in Jesus’ time believed that a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all, as indicated by their questioning Jesus over that very issue (Matt. 19:3), as well as by the historical evidence for the rabbinic debate at the time regarding what constituted an “indecency” for which the Mosaic Law allowed divorce (Deut. 24:1-4).

Was the standard Jesus prescribed a new standard?

If we conclude that it was, we must assume that Jesus’ decree—”Everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery”—would not have been true under the Law of Moses. That is, under the old covenant, God allegedly found no fault with the man who divorced his wife for reasons other than unchastity, and in no way was such a man guilty of making his ex-wife “commit adultery” when she remarried.

Such a view obviously raises questions about the alleged new view of fundamental morality by God, whom the Bible says “does not change” (Mal. 3:6) and “with whom [there] is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (Jas 1:17).

Of course, we know that under the Mosaic Law, God did find fault with the man who divorced his wife for reasons other than unchastity. We read in Malachi:

“This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit…. Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously” (Mal. 2:13-16).

In this case, God referred to divorce as “treachery,” due to the fact that Israelite men were breaking their marriage vows when they divorced “the wives of their youth,” apparently to marry younger women. To claim that Jesus was establishing a new, higher standard, now making divorce lawful only for unchastity whereas it was formerly lawful for any reason, is to claim that God did not speak through the prophet Malachi.

All of this is to say that Jesus was not establishing a new standard regarding lawful divorce, but was rather elaborating on the existing standard established in the Mosaic Law (not to mention the Law of Conscience). This is further proven by the fact that, in every other instance when Jesus equated divorce and remarriage to adultery, the Law of Moses was clearly in view, just as it is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-20).

For example, when the Pharisees questioned Jesus about the lawfulness of divorcing one’s wife for any cause (Matt. 19:3-9), they were asking if, according to the Mosaic Law, it was lawful to divorce for any cause. They even cited the Mosaic Law’s provision for divorce in their later argument. The entire conversation was framed within the Mosaic Law, and took place during the era of the old covenant when the Mosaic Law was still in force. When Jesus said to them, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery,” none of them thought to themselves that He was establishing a new, higher standard. Rather, they all naturally assumed He was elaborating on the true standard of the Mosaic Law.

This is perhaps even more obvious in Luke’s record of one of the incidents when Jesus equated divorce and remarriage to adultery:

The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail. Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery (Luke 16:16-18).

Clearly, the third sentence in that passage is an illustration of the concept presented in the first two sentences. Prior to John’s preaching that the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand, anyone who was preaching was preaching from the Law and Prophets. John, however, had an exciting new message that became very popular, so much so that it overshadowed the Law and Prophets in many peoples’ minds, making the Law and Prophets irrelevant. Jesus experienced the same misconception regarding His own preaching (Matt. 5:17), one that is analogous to what happens in modern evangelical circles when people excitedly “accept Jesus as their personal Savior” but then ignore Jesus’ commandments.

Jesus, however, strongly condemned such a view, saying that, in spite of what anyone might think, it was easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail. The Law and Prophets were still very relevant. Adultery was still a sin. So is breaking a marriage covenant. Thus, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.”

This is just one more proof that Jesus’ third statement in the Sermon on the Mount was not the establishing of a new, upgraded moral standard, but a simple elaboration on the old standard found in the Law of Moses.

Jesus’ Fourth Statement

Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, “Yes, yes” or “No, no”; anything beyond these is of evil” (Matt. 5:33-37).

Did Jesus accurately cite what the Mosaic Law had to say about making false vows?

Yes. Although He may not have quoted it verbatim, He certainly expressed the spirit of the Mosaic Law regarding vows (see Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21, 23). God expected the people of Israel to keep their vows.

Was Jesus establishing a new standard that can’t be found in the Mosaic Law?

Some say yes because of Jesus’ words, “But I say to you, make no oath at all.” And if that was what Jesus said, that would be a new and different standard. However, that is not what Jesus said. He said:

But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, “Yes, yes” or “No, no”; anything beyond these is of evil.

Jesus was not, of course, forbidding the making of vows and oaths, which are nothing more than promises or declarations of what one will do. What could be evil about those things? Was Paul sinning when he wrote to the Corinthians, “I will come to you after I go through Macedonia…. But I will remain in Ephesus until Pentecost” (1 Cor. 16:5, 8)? Was he sinning when he promised Philemon that he would repay any debts incurred by his new convert, Onesimus (Philem. 18-19)? Are marriage vows displeasing to God? Are salvation vows forbidden by God, when a repentant sinner tells God he is turning from his sin?

Jesus was clearly forbidding the practice of making oaths by “swearing” by something, such as heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or one’s head. That was, indisputably, the practice of the scribes and Pharisees, as revealed by Jesus’ own words about them recorded in Matthew 23:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…. blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.” You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, “Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.” You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it” (Matt. 23:15-22).

Pathetically, Israel’s spiritual leaders had concocted a means that made lying lawful. All one had to do was know the pharisaic intricacies of the rules governing oath-swearing.

So again, in this fourth statement, was Jesus establishing a new and higher standard?

To claim that He was would be to claim that, under the Mosaic Law, lying was sometimes acceptable to God, an annulling not only of the Ninth Commandment, but scores of other scriptures that clearly establish God’s expectation for truthfulness. Numbers 30:2 would have to be interpreted to actually mean, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth, except when he does so by swearing on the temple, the alter, or heaven. In those cases, lying is acceptable.

Moreover, although we are told in Revelation 21:8 that all liars will be cast into the lake of fire, if you were a liar under the Law of Moses, you were lucky that God’s standard was different back then! Additionally, the guilt felt in the consciences of every person who lied prior to the Sermon on the Mount was actually false guilt which had no origin in God!

Jesus’ Fifth Statement

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you (Matt. 5:38-42).

Did Jesus accurately cite the Mosaic Law?

Yes, the words, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” are found three times in the Mosaic Law (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21).

Was Jesus’ counterpoint a moral upgrade?

At first glance, one might think so. Note, however, that in each instance where the phrase “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is found in the Mosaic Law, it is contained within instructions related to Israel’s civil law. More specifically, they are found within instructions that regulated Israel’s court system. God expected Israel’s judges to administer justice.

The most obvious example of this is found in Deuteronomy 19, and below I have italicized sections that verify the judicatory context:

single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed. If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days. The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you. The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you. Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot (Deut. 19:15-21).

In none of the three cases when “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is found in the Mosaic Law could it be rightly interpreted as a command for individual Israelites to exact revenge for offenses committed against them. In fact, the Mosaic Law clearly forbade taking any personal revenge (which is one reason God established a court system in Israel):

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord (Lev. 19:18).

Vengeance is Mine, and retribution (Deut. 32:35).

So let’s recap:

Jesus first quoted a civil statute from the Mosaic Law that charged court judges to administrate justice, a statute that specifically referenced non-trivial offenses (“life for life, eye for eye…”). Within that same Mosaic Law was a prohibition against individual Israelites taking personal revenge, so there is no way the “eye for an eye” passages could be considered to be instructions for individual Israelites to take revenge. And finally, Jesus told His followers to not take revenge for offenses that were trivial by comparison to those listed in the “eye for an eye” passages. Moreover, He told them to offer their petty offenders an opportunity to do twice the harm they intended.

So we have a choice of interpretation. We can conclude that Jesus did not know that the “eye for an eye” instructions in the Mosaic Law had no application to His followers outside of Israel’s civil law, and that He was unaware that same Law forbade His followers from taking personal revenge, and because of His ignorance regarding these matters, thought it was time to correct the low moral standard of the Mosaic Law (of which He was the divine author). So in a grand, divine moral flip-flop, He abolished the alleged law that required individual Israelites to exact personal revenge for major offenses, and from the Sermon on the Mount going forward, He would expect His followers to never do what the Mosaic Law allegedly required them to do, taking no revenge, and even for petty offenses.

Or we can conclude that Jesus was alluding to the perverse teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, just as He had done in his previous four statements, correcting their twisted teaching that apparently justified, by misapplying the “eye for an eye” passages in the Mosaic Law, revenge, even for petty offenses. We might also conclude that Jesus was affirming that, while Israel’s divinely-established court system was designed for non-trivial offenses (such as murder and maiming), God expected trivial offenses, such as cheek-slapping, to be met with mercy that shames the offender.

The second of those two interpretations would seem to be most plausible, especially in light of the fact that the concept of mercy-shaming one’s offenders is an Old Testament ethic:

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
You will heap burning coals on his head,
And the Lord will reward you (Prov. 25:21-22).

Mercy-shaming one’s enemies is also contained in the Mosaic Law:

If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him (Ex. 23:4-5).

Honest readers of this passage who lived under the Mosaic Law would extrapolate the moral principle there and find application to other situations where they might “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). Pity the pathetic Israelite who saw his enemy’s horse lying helpless under its load and saying to himself, “Glad that isn’t a donkey, or I’d have to do something.”

All of this is to say that, the claim that Jesus was, by His fifth statement, introducing a moral upgrade to the Mosaic Law is simply not true. Jesus was only correcting the perverse twisting of the Mosaic Law by the scribes and Pharisees while affirming the ethic found in the Law.

By the way, Paul would agree that the ethics of not taking one’s own revenge and mercy-shaming one’s offenders have not changed from old to new covenant. To prove that claim, here are his own words to new covenant believers:

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. But “if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink, for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:19-21).

You probably noticed that Paul quoted two passages in what I’ve just quoted, found in Deuteronomy 32:35 and Proverbs 25:21-22. It is indisputable Paul believed that the new covenant ethic was identical to the old covenant ethic. There was no upgrade. In His fifth statement, Jesus was not introducing a higher ethic.

The Sixth Statement

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:43-48).

Did Jesus accurately cite the Law of Moses?

Yes and no. If your New Testament translation capitalizes Old Testament quotes, Matthew 5:43 looks like this: “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.” The Mosaic Law certainly instructed the Israelites to love their neighbors, but it certainly did not instruct them to hate their enemies. In fact, as we have already seen, it instructed them to love their enemies in certain situations, shaming their enemies by showing them underserved mercy, returning good for evil.

So, once again, there is no doubt that Jesus was citing, not the Mosaic Law, but what His audience had heard from their teachers, the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus’ counterpoint seems to indicate the scribes and Pharisees not only taught their students to hate their enemies, but that their “neighbors” whom the Law commanded them to love were only those people who loved them.

And it is clear that Jesus was not establishing a higher moral standard, but rather affirming the old standard, a standard that God not only revealed in the Mosaic Law, but one that He has been teaching all the earth’s inhabitants through His own example. Long before the giving of the Mosaic Law, God had been causing His sun to rise on the evil and good and sending crop-growing rain on the righteous and unrighteous, two examples of loving His enemies. And this “natural revelation” is yet another reason it is so absurd to claim that “loving one’s enemies” is a new, higher moral standard introduced by Jesus. God has expected people to love their enemies from the very beginning, and He included that standard in the Mosaic Law.

New Covenant Sins That Were Not Old Covenant Sins?

To make the claim that Jesus was introducing new, higher moral standards in His six statements is to claim that prior to the Sermon on the Mount, all of the following were acceptable to God: (1) spewing venomous, hateful words against one’s brothers, (2) elevating ceremonial laws above moral laws, as exemplified by the act of presenting a sacrifice at the altar even when one knew he had a broken relationship, (3) lustfully looking at women, (4) divorce for any reason, just as long as one gave his wife a divorce certificate, (5) lying, (6) taking personal revenge for even minor offenses, and (7) hating those who have caused offense.

Just a cursory reading of the Mosaic Law would be enough for any reader to realize the grave error of such a conclusion. All seven items in my list above would be violations of God’s commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself, an old covenant law. Thus none of them could have been acceptable to God even prior to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And thus Jesus could not have been introducing new, higher moral standards.

Beyond this, one would expect—if Jesus did morally upgrade the Mosaic Law—that the apostolic authors of the New Testament epistles would have made mention of such an important theological and moral fact. However, not only do they never mention it, but they actually refute it, affirming old covenant ethics—just as they were originally written—as binding upon their new covenant readers.

For example, I’ve already cited a New Testament passage in which Paul quoted two Old Testament passages to support his prohibition of revenge and his admonition to love one’s enemies. Paul indisputably believed both ethics predated the Sermon on the Mount, and for good reason: because they did!

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, and I will repay” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:19-21).

Another example is the Old Testament commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself, a commandment that Jesus said is the second greatest. It must be the greatest social commandment—that is, the greatest commandment regarding relationships with others—of the old covenant. It is a law that was carried over from the Law of Moses to the Law of Christ, as proven by its endorsement by Christ (who told His disciples to teach their disciples all that He commanded them), and by the apostles Paul and James in their epistles to new covenant believers. The Old Testament commandment that Jesus said is the second greatest in the Mosaic Law is superseded by no higher ethic in the new covenant, again conclusively proving that there has been no moral upgrade.

James wrote:

If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well (Jas. 2:8).

Take note that James referred to the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself as the “royal law,” clearly elevating it above all other laws, and informing his new covenant readers that they were “doing well” if they were fulfilling it. He did not charge them with keeping a higher social or moral standard than what was found in the Mosaic Law.

The apostle Paul similarly believed the new covenant believer who loves his neighbor as himself “does well,” as he fulfills all the other social commandments of the Mosaic Law. Paul, just like James, did not hold his readers to any higher social or moral standard than what was found in the Mosaic Law. To the Roman Christians he wrote:

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8-10).

To the Galatian Christians Paul similarly wrote:

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:13-14).

If Paul or James believed God had radically altered or upgraded the moral ethics revealed in the Mosaic Law (as Anabaptists and their counterparts want us to believe), why did they both hold up the summarizing ethic of the Mosaic Law as the standard their readers should strive to attain? Why did they, along with all the other authors of the New Testament epistles, never mention that the moral standards of the new covenant were higher than those of the old covenant?

To buttress their argument regarding the alleged higher standards of the Sermon on the Mount, some Anabaptists appeal to scriptures in the New Testament epistles that speak of the passing of the Mosaic Law with the demise of the old covenant and the inauguration of the new covenant. As we have just seen, however, although it can rightly be said that the Law of Moses has ceased to be binding on any descendant of Israel, it cannot be rightly said that the moral and social ethics found in the Law of Moses have ceased to be binding on any human being, as those ethics predate the Law of Moses (being found in every human conscience), and those ethics were clearly carried over into the Law of Christ.

Thus, when we read favorite Anabaptist verses such as Hebrews 7:12, “For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also,” we can be sure that the author is speaking of changes in the laws regarding the Levitical priesthood, and not of fundamental ethics and morality. Naturally, under the new covenant, none of the laws that regulated the Levitical priests are relevant, as the Levitical priesthood has ceased. We have a new High Priest after the order of Melchizedek (see Heb. 7).

One Final Argument

But what about the “new commandment” that Christ gave to His apostles, a commandment to love one another, even as He loved them (John 13:34-35)? Was Jesus not establishing a higher ethic with a higher standard than what was found in the Mosaic Law?

“New,” of course, does not necessarily mean “superior” or even “different.” It just means “new,” as in not existing before. Up until that point, Jesus had not told any of His followers to love each other as He loved them. He had only told them (through the Mosaic Law) to love their neighbors as themselves (and to love their enemies). But think about it. How did Jesus love His disciples? He loved them perfectly according to the standard He had given in the Mosaic Law, loving them as He loved Himself. Jesus’ new commandment was a re-phrasing of an old commandment. Instead of phrasing it, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “Treat others just as you want to be treated,” Jesus said, “Just imitate Me.” And this commandment was slightly different in that it specifically addressed how His followers should treat, not their “neighbors” or “others,” but one another.

Jesus repeated the same new commandment to His apostles a short time after He first spoke it, further elucidating His meaning:

This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends (John 15:12-13).

John referenced this in his first epistle:

We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1 John 3:16-17).

So we see that “laying down our lives for the brethren” does not necessarily refer to literally dying on their behalf, but rather refers to making sacrifices on their behalf, an ethic that certainly existed prior to Jesus’ words in John 13 and 15. The Mosaic Law was chock full of requirements for the people of Israel to make sacrifices on behalf of their fellow Israelites, and particularly on behalf of the poor, whom John also highlighted.

The Irony

What is perhaps most ironic about those who believe Jesus upgraded moral standards by His six statements is that their interpretations of those alleged higher moral standards sometimes requires the transgression of what allegedly must be “lower standards.” For example, Anabaptism’s unique theology of nonresistance, based on Jesus’ words regarding not resisting an evil person, requires Anabaptists not to use any force to stop evil people from harming others. This “act of love” towards perpetrators requires an act of hatred for the victims, a violation of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself (a “lower” moral standard?). They likewise unwittingly denigrate those who have dedicated their lives, and in some cases given their lives, protecting and delivering others, including Anabaptists, from evildoers.

Similarly, the bizarre theology of some Anabaptists regarding divorce and remarriage, based on their interpretation of Jesus’ words in which He equated divorce and remarriage to adultery, requires new Anabaptist converts to divorce their spouses and break up their families if they have previously been married and divorced—hardly an act of love towards their current spouses and common children, and one that requires them to break their marriage vows, repeating their previous sin.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was spoken by Him during the time that the old covenant was still in force, several years prior to the inauguration of the new covenant at His death and resurrection. If His most famous sermon was a revelation of new laws for the new covenant, laws that reflect a higher moral standard than what is found in the Mosaic Law, did Jesus actually not expect His audience to obey His commandments until after His death and resurrection? Or was He expecting them to live up to standards that are unique to the new covenant while still living under the old covenant? Did people in His audience who were living up to the old covenant standards and thus righteous before God suddenly become unrighteous when the standards were upgraded that day? Were people who were on the path to heaven suddenly on the path to destruction? These are all questions for which Anabaptists and their spiritual counterparts have no answer.

In conclusion, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was not an abrupt upending of the morality and ethics God had been teaching every person since Adam, strangely making unacceptable what had been acceptable to Him for millennia. It was not the New Testament equivalent of King Rehoboam’s ratcheting-up of Solomon’s standards, who told the people of Israel, “Whereas my father loaded you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions!” (1 Kin. 12:11).

In contrast, Jesus placed on His disciples a yoke that is easy (alternately translated “comfortable” or “pleasant”) and a burden that is light (Matt. 11:30) by focusing their energies on simply loving God and neighbor, and by empowering them through His indwelling Holy Spirit. His Sermon on the Mount was a re-revelation of what God had already revealed from the beginning, through every rain shower and sunrise (Matt. 5:44-45), through the voice of every man’s conscience (Rom. 2:14-16), and through what Jesus referred to as “the weightier provisions” of the Mosaic Law, namely “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). Any interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount that contradicts God’s revelation through creation, conscience, and the crucial moral elements of the Mosaic Law ought to be rejected. — David

[1] https://www.thenarrowpath.com/ta_divorce.php