Headlines from First Thoughts

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Holiness that Exceeds Expectations
Matthew 5:17-48

John and Julie arrive at the office for premarital counseling. John has never been married; Julie has two children by a previous marriage. With a wedding date imminent, we discuss the basics of healthy relationships with them. At the end of the conversation, Julie says, “Pastor, I need to ask a question. John and I love each other, but we are not sure if this relationship is going to last. We would like to ‘play the field’ a bit more just to make sure that we are meant to be together. Do you think it would be all right if we continued to see other people while we are engaged?”
No counselor would agree to this arrangement. Once a couple is engaged, they expect loyalty and commitment. If they have not done so, couples will spend more time with one another, get to know each other, and take inventory of their lives so that their marriage can begin on the right foot. A counselor expects to see evidence of extravagant devotion to one another leading up to the wedding.
In the same way, our relationships with the Lord are a long engagement between a man and woman. We are the bride of Christ (Rev. 19:7-9). We commit our lives to Christ as his bride, pledging faithfulness and loyalty knowing that one day we will be with him forever. As Jesus said, once the kingdom comes, we will celebrate as if we are at a wedding feast (Matt. 25:1-13). As we await the banquet, we commit to him and grow in our relationship with him.
Like most relationships today, we can be motivated to be in this relationship for a variety of reasons. Some people are motivated out of fear of religious leadership, pressure from their families, or misperceptions of God’s law. Christ points us to a lifestyle that exceeds expectations of the individual or others. He shows that complete devotion or “perfection” (Matt. 5:48) involves heart attitudes, boundaries, and obedience so that we will be better prepared for the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. According to Jesus, this obedience is shown coincidentally in our most intimate relationships with others.

The Boundaries of a Relationship with God (5:17-20)
Jesus does not discard God’s law. He deletes the Pharisees’ prescribed oral traditions. He says the law should be used as a guide to lead toward pure heart attitudes. He disarms the crowd with a tongue-in-cheek comment about the Pharisees’ behavior (5:20). Later, he illustrates the folly of taking the Pharisees’ orally requirements too literally by humorously describing the “one-eyed” or “one-hand” method of obedience (5:28-30). Believers need a different standard, one that shows a relational approach to God.

Obedience through Relationships (5:21-48)
The Pharisees lived by a system of situational oral traditions to handle areas not specifically covered in Mosaic Law. People naturally missed the reason the law was given. Jesus points them back to these matters of the heart as it affects devotion to the Lord and to one another. These heart attitudes affect relationships between people, spouses, and enemies.
One way a Christian shows his devotion to the Lord is through his attitudes toward others (5:21-26). Rather than harboring revenge, a believer goes out of his way to see the other person as a brother or sister, seeking reconciliation even before giving an offering (5:22-24). He preempts bitterness by making friends with those who file lawsuits (5:25).
By avoiding the seed of contempt in one’s heart, he does not plant a seed for adultery (5:27-32). As Dallas Willard notes, adultery often begins with contempt for one’s spouse over petty things in a relationship (The Divine Conspiracy, 163-164). Through love and reconciliation, we prevent adultery. Jesus dismisses the ancient Jewish practice of no-fault divorce. He says that as long as the spouse is faithful, believers demonstrate faithfulness to Christ by remaining faithful to their spouse.

Another important characteristic of faithful relationships to God and others is honesty (5:33-37). Because God sees the matters of the heart, the standard for integrity is measured outside of a court of law. A believer does not need to swear to prove veracity (5:34). A believer would be so trustworthy that people know that she can keep her word (5:37).
Believers find ways not to retaliate (5:38-42). They disarm opponents by turning vengeful acts into opportunities for service (5:39, 42). They do not keep a mental scoreboard of the ways people have treated them. They do not play the victim in office disputes, courts of law, or family squabbles. As people in love with Christ, believers intentionally behave above the normal expectations.

Enemies are to be treated with the same respect and forgiveness as fellow believers (5:43-48). Jesus reminds the crowd that a person’s belief in God is not a crutch for right conduct. Average citizens follow a basic moral code. Instead conduct must flow from love for Christ and must show greater love than the average person. Exclusive devotion to Christ is the basic arrangement between the heavenly Father and the believer, because the Father has demonstrated this devotion to the individual (5:48).

Motivation from Relationship
If Jesus based his discussion of Christian conduct using relational metaphors, standards of Christian obedience in today’s society would follow suit. Donald Miller has noted that Shakespeare gives just a glimpse of the devotion that God has for us, and we in turn can reciprocate (Searching for God Knows What, 226). In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet invites Romeo, “Romeo, doff thy name, And for that name, which is no part of thee, Take all myself.” Pledging commitment, Romeo says, “I take thee at thy word. Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptiz’d; Henceforth I never will be Romeo.” Such faithfulness can only come from the heart of relationship.


Boring, M. Eugene. “Matthew.” In vol. 8, New Interpreter’s Bible, 176-207. Nashville: Abingdon, 1997.
Garland, David E. Reading Matthew: a Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel. New York: Crossroad, 1993.
Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 1-13. Vol. 33a, Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word Books, 1993.
McLaren, Brian D. "Emerging values: the next generation is redefining spiritual formation, community, and mission. (Emerging Leaders)." Leadership (Carol Stream, IL) 24.3 (Summer 2003): 34(6). Religion & Philosophy Database. Thomson Gale. Knox County Public Library. 30 December 2005.
Miller, Donald. Searching for God Knows What. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004.
Stassen, Glen H. and Gushee, David. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downers Grove: IVP, 2003.
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. New York: HarperCollins 1998.

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