Notes Matthew chapter 5
© copyright 1997 drs Gijs van den Brink
The Beatitudes 5:1-12
5:1. A mountainside. The hill was apparently close to Capernaum. Matthew writes of a hill, but Luke writes about a plain (Luke 6:17). We will have to think of a plain in the mountains. This area can be regarded as a plain or a hill, depending on the writer’s viewpoint.
The crowds are the large crowds of 4:25. The word disciples (mathtai) appears here for the first time. It connotes a firm long-standing relationship with the Master.
And sat down. The teacher delivers his discourse seated (24:3; 26:55; Acts 16:13).
His disciples came to him. In the teaching which follows (5:3 – 7:27) Jesus directs Himself primarily towards His disciples (v. 2, them), towards those who have already joined Him, while the people listened at a distance (7:28).
2. And he began. Literally ‘and he opened his mouth’. The expression ‘ emphasises the importance of what is said (cf. Job 3:1; 33:2; Dan 10:16; Acts 8:35; 10:34). The Greek indicates a formal statement, such as an oracular message, for example.
The Sermon on the Mount has the same importance for the New Covenant as the Law given on Mount Sinai for the Old, being the basic principles of the Kingdom of Heaven (see commentary on vv.17 and 18).
3. Blessed is the antonym of ‘woe’ (cf. Luke 6:20-26) and means ‘consider fortunate’, ‘happy’. It is the joy, the happiness possessed by those who take part in God’s salvation.
The poor are those who are so poor that they have to beg. Yet the poverty is not primarily material but spiritual (as is emphasised by ‘in spirit’). It is the uneducated, the ignorant, the normal humble people (in contrast to the Pharisees and the scribes) who stand as beggars before God, and know themselves totally dependent on His help (see references on Matt 11:5).
Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Verses 3 and 10 indicate the same reward – the Kingdom of Heaven, in other words, the Kingly Rule of the Messiah, promised by God (Dan 2:44, among others) and preached by John and Jesus (3:2; 4:17). We conclude that verses 3-10 (8 Beatitudes) form a whole.
4. V.3 is closely related to Isa 61:1 and v.4 to Isa 61:2. In this way the second beatitude is closely linked to the first.
Those who mourn are the poor in spirit of v.3, who are sad and who cry out at the power of evil in the world, which oppresses believers, and who mourn their sins and their spiritual poverty (cf. 2 Cor 7:10; James 4:9). The Greek word translated here by mourn (penthe) is one of the stronger expressions of sadness, and is used e.g. about loss through death. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) it is used e.g. in Gen 37:34: and Jacob mourned for his son many days.
They will be comforted: i.e. by God, with the gift of the Kingdom of Heaven (vv. 3 and 10; cf. John 14:16,17,26).
5. Verse 5 quotes Ps 37:11a.
The meek. The Greek word (praus) means at the same time ‘humble’ and ‘modest’ (in contrast to ‘quick-tempered’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘proud’). The meek person surrenders everything to the Lord and takes nothing under his own control. He bears every injustice patiently and without becoming bitter (cf. Titus 3:1-7). He can only learn such meekness from Christ Himself (Matt 11:29) and it belongs to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22).
They will inherit the earth. The Greek word for earth (G) also means ‘land’, but it is not limited here to the country of Palestine. It refers to the earth renewed at the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven (Rev 21, cf. 1 Cor 3:22; 6:2).
6. Those who hunger and thirst. Hunger and thirst express a deep longing. Righteousness is the divine order, divine law. It is the distinguishing mark of the Messianic Kingdom (Isa 11:1-5). This beatitude is concerned with personally sharing in this righteousness, hence with personal righteousness, responding to the will of God.
They will be filled: i.e., they will obtain what they long for (cf. Ps 107:4-9; 132:13-18; Prov 21:21; Rev 7:16).
7. The merciful. The Greek word for ‘mercy’ (eleos) means ‘compassion’, ‘sympathy’, ‘loving help’. This does not mean outward sympathy, but complete identification with one’s neighbour’s situation. In this way God showed mercy when he came to earth in the person of His son Jesus Christ.
They will be shown mercy: i.e., from God both for today (cf. Luke 1:77,78; 1 Peter 1:3) and on the Day of Judgement (cf. James 2:13). Cf. Ps 41:2, Prov 21:13.
Compare Jesus’ words on conditional mercy in Matt 6:12-15 and 18:33-35.
8. Pure in heart does not mean (in connection with v.6) ‘without sin’, but ‘upright’ and ‘whole’ (Ps 24:4). The pure in heart do not try to serve God and the world at the same time. They have fastened their hearts on the Only True One (Ps 86:11), and are upright (Prov 21:8) in will, emotions and deeds. In the Bible, ‘heart’ means a man’s inmost being, the centre of his personality (cf. Prov 4:23).
They will see God: face to face (1 Cor 13:12; 1 John 3:2; Rev 22:4). This is the perfection of heavenly reality.
9. The peacemakers. The distinguishing feature of a child of God is being a peacemaker in this world. The Greek word for ‘peacemaker’ does not simply mean that one is peaceable and refrains from quarrel and argument, but also, indeed in the first place, that one brings peace and salvation (cf. Col 1:20).
Will be called sons of God. ‘Will be called’ here means ‘receive the name of’, that is ‘receive the nature of’. The disciples are children of God already, i.e., they have the status, but at the coming of the Kingdom of God they will be revealed before men as children of God in actuality (cf. Matt 13:43; Rom 8:19; Col 3:4). And this promise has already been partly fulfilled (cf. vv. 14-16,45).
10. In the verses 10-12 Jesus begins to teach his disciples about the persecution to which believers will be exposed for the righteousness that they long for (cf. 1 Peter 3:14). He will often emphasise this later, but now that He mentions it for the first time, He underlines the blessing (‘blessed’, see v.3) of such suffering.
11. This blessing may be regarded as an explanation of the foregoing. Jesus applies the general principle to his disciples in concrete terms (‘blessed are you’) and introduces Himself (‘because of me’) as divine righteousness in person. He is the fulfilment of the OT (v.17).
12. The disciples are encouraged to rejoice, not despite the persecution but because of it. For this proves that they are servants of God, like the prophets before them, who were also persecuted (cf. 1 Peter 4:14).
Great is your reward. This reward is not payment for good works, but compensation for the sufferings experienced, and hence is the reality of God’s requital.
In heaven does not refer to the time and place of payment but to the place where the reward is even now available (cf. Matt 6:20). Nobody will suffer in vain, for the Lord will remember everything done or suffered for Him on earth (cf. Acts 10:4), and the account will be settled (cf. Matt 10:42).
The Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World 5:13-16
13. You are the salt of the earth. Salt is used to preserve foodstuffs and to impart taste to food. Hence it is an image of durability (Num 18:19) and value (cf. Col 4:6). Jesus is speaking here about His disciples’ being, i.e., their status (‘you are’), and not primarily about certain deeds that have to be done (cf. v.16). Jesus’ followers form the taste and the means of preservation for the world, i.e., in a sense they protect mankind from becoming tasteless food and from becoming a body given over to decomposition (judgement, cf. Gen 18:22-33).
If the salt loses its saltiness: literally, ‘if the salt becomes foolish’. Pure salt cannot lose its savour, but we are dealing here with Dead Sea salt obtained by evaporation from the Dead Sea. This salt was composed of different constituents. Through the decomposition of the compound a part of the salt (impurities such as gypsum) became bitter and unusuable.
Thrown out: throwing it into the street was (and is) the usual Eastern way of disposing of household refuse.
14. You are the light of the world. It was not prophesied of the Messiah alone that He should be a light for the Gentiles (Isa 42:6; 49:6; cf. John 8:12), but also of Israel, the children of Jerusalem (Isa 60:3 ‘Nations will come to your light’). Light is an image of salvation and life (cf. Isa 30:26) and just as indispensible as salt (v.13). The ‘light of the world’ combined with ‘a city on an hill’ remind us of the prophecies over Jerusalem in Isa 2:2-5; 60. These prophesies find their first fulfilment in the Christian church.
15. Light a lamp and … put it on its stand. The Greek word for ‘bowl’ (modios) means a meal-tub amounting to 8.7 litres, the size of a bucket. A lamp is lit to give light to the house. Only a fool puts it under a bushel. The Greek word used here (luchnia) means a candelabrum, a candlestick. The only other time the word is used literally in the New Testament, the seven-branched candlestick in the Temple is meant (Heb 9:2; cf. Exod 25:30 ff). In Rev 1:12,13,20 and 2:1 the seven candlesticks are an image of the Seven Churches.
16. Let your light shine before men. The disciples must allow the light they are (v.14) and possess (v.15) to shine in their good works. ‘Deeds’ (erga) are not simply differentiated from words, but refers to the total behaviour. The victory of the Kingdom of God must become visible in the disciples’ lives.
Praise your Father. The purpose of our deeds is not to be noticed by other people (cf. Matt 6:1) for their praise. The prime fundamental purpose for action must be to glorify the Father (cf. 1 Cor 10:31).
Jesus Fulfils the Law 5:17-20
17. Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law. There was no contradiction between Jesus and His teachings on the one hand and the Old Testament (the Law and the Prophets) on the other. He did not come to destroy the Law but to obey its true intention fully and completely; nor did He declare the books of the prophets invalid, but let prophecies become reality.
But to fulfill. With the coming of Jesus, Who is the promised prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15,18), the times of fulfilment have dawned, the Messianic era the prophets had foretold (among others, Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 11:19-20). Thus although there is no question of doing away with the authority of the Old Testament, it is true that God’s laws and will appear in a new guise and that the promises and demands of the Kingdom of God surpass those of the old covenant (cf. vv.21-48). The Law retains its validity, not so much in itself as in its fulfilment, in the demands of the Kingdom of God (cf. v.18).
18. I tell you the truth: literally ‘amen I tell you’. Jesus uses ‘amen’ (‘verily’, ’truly’) as a reinforcement of His own words, in contrast to Judaism, where it is a reinforcement of the words of another person. It is an expression of trustworthiness and believability: safe and sure.
The smallest letter. The jod (Gk. ita) was the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The least stroke of a pen (Gk. keraia) was a little stroke on some Hebrew letters which served either to differentiate them from other letters or to decorate them. In the light of v.17, ‘law’ here means the entire Old Testament (cf. John 10:34-35). By ‘smallest letter’ and ‘least stroke’ Jesus is emphasing that the Law retains its force, unabridged and to the smallest details. Until… The repetition of ‘until’ shows that He is speaking of the duration of its validity: ‘until heaven and earth disappear’, i.e., until the end of this world (Rev 20:11;21:1), ‘until everything is accomplished’, i.e., until all that stands written in the Scriptures has found its fulfilment (v.17). The first ‘until’ deals with the period over which the saying is valid, the second with the goal to be achieved. In this time in which the gospel is preached until the end of this world not a single part of the Law or of the Scriptures shall go unfulfilled. The partial fulfilment of prophecy, in the current coming of the Kingdom of God, has partly abolished the law of the old covenant.
19. Anyone who breaks one of … these commandments. The Pharisees taught a distinction between various commandments. They had divided the Law into 248 commandments and 365 restrictions, and held vehement discussions as to which commandment was the greatest. Here Jesus reacts to the idea that the Old Testament, the Law in particular, is a collection of unrelated commandments, any part of which can be considered as more or less applicable than another part. He teaches His disciples that the Scriptures are indivisible, even to their smallest details.
Least … and … great in the Kingdom of heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven does not consist of an undifferentiated holiness, without any shading. There are classifications and an order of merit (cf. 5:12; 6:20; 10:41-42). Faithfulness and unfaithfulness to the Scriptures in teaching and practice form one yard-stick (not the only one, see Matt 5:11-12 among others) for the reward one receives.
20. For refers back to v.17. The proposition in v.17 has two foundations: 1. vv.18-19; 2. v.20.
Teachers of the law. The ’teachers of the law’ or ‘scribes’ were the scholars who interpreted the Law and applied it, specially in court (Pharisees, see commentary on Matt 3:7).
Unless your righteousness surpasses. Without righteousness, i.e., conformity to the divine norm (see commentary on v.6), no man can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The difference between proper and improper righteouness will become clear when we study Matt 5:16 and 6:1- 4.
Death and Wrath 5:21-26
21. You have heard. Jesus does not say ‘you have read’ but ‘you have heard’. He was speaking to common people, of whom many could not read and were therefore given over to the traditions and explanations of the scribes.
To the people long ago (litt. ‘To the men of old’), i.e., to the generation which Moses gave the Law.
Will be subject to judgment. The Greek word for ‘judgment’ (krisis) does not here mean the judgement of God or the sentence of a judge, but a local court (cf. v.22). Jesus meant: you have heard from the scribes. They taught that whoever committed murder should be handed over to the court (cf. Exod 21:12; Lev 24:17; Num 35:16-34), while inward hate and implacability went unpunished (cf. vv.22-24).
Apart from the Supreme Court in Jerusalem the 71-strong Sanhedrin (see commentary on 2:4), there were smaller courts, of 23 members, in all the larger towns with more than 120 male inhabitants (see Matt 10:17).
22. Raca (Aramaic) and the Greek word for ‘you fool’ (more) are synonyms meaning ‘idiotic’, ‘mad’, ‘foolish’. This verse is not concerned with three different sins but with one single sin: being angry, reviling one’s brother (here in the Old Testament meaning of fellow-countryman, neighbour – see Bauer, adelphos, 4). For this reason it is obvious that the gradual sequence of the punishment (local court, sanhedrin, hell) does not mean that a different punishment is attached to different abusive words (at one time a human court, at another, God’s!). Indeed, what court would take this case seriously! Jesus is making use of the form of rabbinical instruction (climax and casuistry). But the content of his teaching is quite different: the death penalty, hell-fire (= ’the lake of fire’, Rev 20:14) is deserved not only for murder, but also for every abusive term.
It should be noted that there are circumstances in which wrath and harshness are permitted, even necessary (cf. Mark 3:5; Matt 23:17). The majority text shows this in our text with the reading ‘without a cause’ (KJV).
23. Remember that your brother has something against you. Jesus is not refering to those situations in which someone has caused us harm, causing us to hold something against him (Mark 11:25). He is referring to those occasions when we have mistreated someone and hurt him, so that he holds something against us, and we have not yet put it to rights.
The altar was the place where sins were forgiven and relationships between God and man were set right.
Brother, see commentary on v.22.
24. First go and be reconciled to your brother. Jesus teaches us that we may not come before God with a prayer for forgiveness (the sacrifice) if we have not confessed to a brother (= neighbour, see commentary on v.22) whom we have mistreated and asked his forgiveness. It is not possible to be reconciled with God, that is to say, to have a good relationship with the Lord, if we do not reconcile ourselves with our neighbour. It is not a matter of ‘one good turn deserving another’, but of a spiritual circulation that can be interrupted (cf. Mark 11:25; Matt 6:14-15; 18:35).
25. In Roman law, anyone who had a quarrel with someone else had the right to bring this person before a judge if they could not settle their differences together. If the other refused, one could bring a witness, and compel the defendant in this way to appear before the judge. If they could reconcile their differences while on the way to the court, the case was set aside.
Verses 25-26 are more colourful than 23-24. We may call this a parable. The opponent is to compare with the brother of v.23. He has a legitimate complaint against the ‘addressed person’. ‘On the way’ is the course of life. The court is God’s judgement.
Jesus calls on his disciples to hasten to settle the debt and to be reconciled with their accuser. Otherwise he will be able to bear witness against them at the Last Judgement, at the resurrection of the dead (cf. Matt 12:27; 12:41-42).
Our relationship with our neighbour has consequences for our relationship with the Lord and His everlasting judgement.
26. Here Jesus gives a serious warning not to live our lives so that we appear before God as people who are not reconciled with Him. For on that day He will be our Accuser and our Judge. Luke 12:57-59 puts the words together in a still more explicit way.
The prison is an image of Gehenna (v.22), ’the lake of fire’ (Rev 20:14).
Penny: the Roman quadrans, which was the smallest Roman copper coin.
The penalty will be paid to the uttermost. But our guilt is so great it deserves eternal punishment (cf. Matt 18:23-35, esp. v.34).
27-28. Do not commit adultery. Jesus quotes the Sixth Commandment (Exod 20:14; Deut 5:17), but gives an explanation totally different from the scribes. They began by Deut 24:1 (see v.31), with the tolerated rules for a situation that had got out of hand. Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully. In contrast Jesus puts the emphasis on the Sixth Commandment, on God’s positive will and explains it in terms of the Tenth Commandment (Exod 20:17; Deut 5:21). God makes demands of the whole man, hence of his disposition. In this way Jesus explains that sinful desires are the same as sinful actions. This passage is not concerned with natural love for one’s spouse or a beloved person in general. It is not concerned with looking at a woman in general. But it is concerned with the lustful look of a married man at a strange woman, or of an unmarried man at a married woman.
29-30. Jesus continues to concentrate on the seriousness of sinful thought.
Causes you to sin. The verb comes from the Greek noun skandalon, that literally means ‘a bait in a trap’, and more generally ’trap’, ‘stumbling block’.
Hell, in Greek Ge-enna. Gehenna is not the place of punishment before the resurrection of the dead (=Hades) but the ‘lake of fire’, to which all unbelievers will be condemned at the Last Judgement (Rev 20:14-15).
Right eye and right hand. The eye is a member of the body that receives, and the hand a member that acts. A man may sin both in receiving as in giving. To lose something as valuable as the right eye or the right hand (cf. Exod 29:20) is nothing in comparison with loss in the eternal judgement.
What Jesus says here is obviously not meant to be put literally into practice. He wants to show, through a drastic example, that temptation and sinful thoughts have to be dealt with in a radical way, so that they are not converted into actions, which is a proof of a conscious opting for sin and against God, leading to condemnation to hell.
31. Anyone who divorces his wife. Among the Jews, only the men might sue for divorce. Opinions were divided on the reasons for divorce. The school of Shammai declared that the words of Deut 24:1 ‘because he finds something indecent about her’ refer to unchastity, whereas the school of Hillel interpreted the words to include everything the man disapproved of, such as burning the food. Hence the Pharisees’ question in Matt 19:3. They apparently belonged to the stricter school of Shammai: ‘Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?’ Rabbi Akiba pointed to the phrase ‘a woman who becomes displeasing to him’ (Deut 24:1) and taught that if the man no longer loved his wife and had found another woman whom he found more attractive than her, he might divorce her. In Jesus’ time it was extremely easy for a man to divorce.
Must give her a certificate of divorce. A bill of divorcement read in general terms: ‘May this be my bill of divorce to you. You are free to marry who you will.’ He had to give the bill, signed by two witnesses, to his wife, and then the divorce was a fact (see further SB I, 303-312).
Jesus here quotes Deut 24:1 freely, and in the sense with which the scribes made use of it. In fact, they had turned the description of a certain (degenerate!) situation (‘If a man … writes’) into a commandment (‘let him give her …’), while Deut 24:1 contained only one positive command: in v.4 a man is forbidden to remarry the woman he has divorced, because she is unclean.
It must be concluded from the fact that Jesus does not quote the accepted reason for divorce that he does not wish to involve Himself in the discussion between Hillel and Shammai.
32. Jesus’ answer is closely related to the Sixth Commandment (Exod 20:14). Jesus returns to God’s original purpose, as we read it is in the Sixth Commandment and gather it from the creation ordinance (Gen 1:27; 2:24; also compare Matt 19:3-9; Eph 5:31-32; Heb 13:4). He declares that three people are guilty of adultery in a divorce followed by a second marriage: the woman, the first husband and the second husband.
Marital unfaithfulness. The first marriage is binding except in the case of immorality. The Greek word for ‘marital unfaithfulness’ (porneia) has wider connotations than adultery. It has to do with unlawful and extramarital sexual relations of every sort. Adultery carried the death penalty (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22). What must happen in every case of immorality is not in fact stated here. But it is clear that in this case divorce, although not necessary, is certainly permitted.
33. Keep the oaths you have made to the Lord. The Pharisees had interpreted Exod 20:7 and Lev 19:12 (cf. Num 30:3; Deut 23:22) in such a way as to make a distinction between swearing by the name of God and swearing by created things (cf. Matt 23:16-22). The first was binding, while the nature of the second was such as to permit of withdrawal. But God is Lord over all His creation. Therefore every perjury is an insult to His Name.
34-35. Do not swear at all. This does not refer primarily to the oath taken in a court of law, but primarily to the frequency of swearing in everyday speech (see vv. 34b-35) to ensure the trustworthiness the words used (cf. Matt 23:16- 22). Jesus orders not to swear at all, because a disciple must be so trustworthy that a simple expression from him is sufficient (v.37). The passage is not concerned with swearing in itself but with the disciples’ unconditional trustworthiness. Moreover we read that God swears by Himself (Gen 22:16; Ps 110:4; Isa 45:23) and Jesus too does not reject swearing before a court (Matt 26:63-64).
In vv.34b-35 some examples of the less binding forms of everyday oaths are given. Swearing by heaven or earth is in fact swearing by God as well (cf. v.33), for the heavens are God’s throne and the earth His footstool (Isa 66:1). Jerusalem is the city of the great King (Ps 48:3) and He is God. Swearing by something other than God is swearing by God Himself, for nothing can exist outside of Him. Everything is dependant on God.
36-37. More examples. Further, swearing by the head, in other words, by life, over which only God has power, is indirectly swearing by God. In this way Jesus proclaims that all swearing is swearing by God and therefore indissoluble. Above all, swearing is a sign of the untrustworthiness of words, by which there is no swearing. Jesus really wants His disciples to be completely trustworthy, and their yes to be yes and their no to be no. For this reason He forbids all swearing (v.34; cf. Jas 5:12).
Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’, and your ‘No’, ‘No’. The double ‘yes yes, no no’ (semitism) can best be translated ‘let your yes always be yes and your no always no’. What goes beyond that, that is swearing, springs from evil (neuter), i.e., is a consequence of the evil present in the world.
38. Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. The Law, to be found in Exod 21:23-25 and Lev 24:18-20, was instituted to prevent someone avenging himself and taking the Law into his own hands. This law of retribution (the lex talionis) consisted of the principle that a particular infringement resulted in a comparable requital.
39. Do not resist an evil person. In contrast to an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth i.e., the way of the Law, Jesus commands His disciples to offer no resistance, i.e., not to proceed against injustice done to them, but rather to suffer for their discipleship’s sake. Jesus is not here demanding a better legal principle, but an attitude towards one’s neighbour which, if carried out consistently, would make all administration of justice superfluous.
Some examples are given in vv.39b-42.
If someone strikes you on the right cheek. If a person wishes to strike someone on the right cheek, it must be done with the back of the hand. Such a blow was considered the greatest possible insult by the Jews and is so considered in the East today. Seeing that these words are not a legal verdict and that Jesus is not declaring a new legal principle, there is no contradiction between Jesus’ words here and His attitude in John 18:22-23. Indeed, there is no contradiction in general between not demanding one’s rights according to the law, and yet recognizing and upholding the law as such, for society’s sake (cp. Rom 13:1-7 with 1 Cor 6:1-10).
40. If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic. According to the Law, a moneylender had no right to keep the debtor’s cloak, his outer garment, as pledge. He had to return it before sunset (Exod 22:25-26). The difference between v.40 and v.25 is that the former was concerned with a justified complaint, while here is obviously a matter of robbery in the form of a lawsuit.
Let him have your cloak as well. A disciple must demonstrate his preparedness to avoid a lawsuit by giving his opponent not only what was demanded but even giving more than that voluntarily.
41. If someone forces you. The word ‘force’, ‘compel’ (Gk. aggareu) is derived from the Greek noun aggareus, a Persian loanword, which means ‘courier’. These Persian couriers had the right of compelling anyone to work for them. They could requisition horses and compel the owners to assist them. The Romans adopted this from the Persians and gradually the usage developed into principally military requisitioning of men and livestock, which could be done by every high- ranking Roman. The thought here is that of carrying materials over a specified distance. We see an example of this in Matt 27:32.
To go one mile. ‘Mile’ (Gk. milion) is a Latin loanword. A Roman mile was 1478.5 m. Here too (cf. v.40) Jesus is asking the disciples to give willingly more than was required of them.
42. Lending is interest-free, of course (Exod 22:25). This last example is the most generally applicable, and demonstrates yet again with great emphasis Jesus’ requirement that the disciples must not let themselves be guided by the customary legality as a norm for their behaviour towards their neighbour, but by love and benevolence.
Loving one’s Enemies 5:43-48
43. Love your neighbour and hate your enemy. Jesus quotes a shortened form of Lev 19:18. Here the neighbour is a brother, i.e., a compatriot (vv.16-18). The core of Lev 19:18 is linked to a consequence that had taken root by Jesus’ time: thou shalt hate thy enemy. It was not merely permissible to hate one’s neighbour, it was even demanded in certain circumstances, i.e., when God’s enemies were involved.
Jesus is not concerned here (v.43b vv.) with the point of whom one should love, in other words who one’s neighbour is (for this, see Luke 10:25-37 and parallel passages), but how strongly one must love, and hence with the quality of love.
44. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Jesus Himself is the best example of the fulfilment of these words. He healed His enemy (Luke 22:51), prayed for His enemies (Luke 23:34) and died for them (Rom 5:10).
Loving one’s enemy had already been mentioned in the Law: Lev 19:18, where one is commanded to love one’s enemy instead of taking vengeance on him (cf. Exod 23:4-5). Jesus stresses this and explains it clearly: if our enemy behaves with hostility towards us, for example curses, hates, threatens or persecutes us, we must still love him. Yet love for our enemies has a character different from that for those whom we hold dear. Where a beloved person is involved, a natural love is under discussion, a love born in our hearts, while will and action play a more important part in loving our enemies. This is apparent from Jesus’ other commandments given here, according to the majority of Greek manuscripts: ‘bless those who curse you’ and ‘do good to those who hate you’. Blessing those who curse us and praying for those who persecute us also presupposes that we have forgiven them and thus speaks of our disposition to love our enemies.
45. That you may be sons of your Father in heaven. One becomes a child of God by rebirth (Matt 18:3; cf. John 3:3,5), which comes through belief in and submission to Jesus Christ the Son of God, and not by good works. This is why Jesus does not speak here about becoming a child of God (the disciples were such already, see v.16) but about showing themselves to be children of the Father by doing those works which are a fruit of repentance. Here we see the difference between our status (in the sight of God) and the reality of our daily life (in the eyes of mankind, v.16), cf. 2 Pet 1:10. It can be seen that someone is a child of his father by similarities in appearance and character (cf. John 8:39-44; 1 Cor 4:14-17). For this reason the disciples also must love their enemies as much as their Father, who demonstrates His goodness to good and bad alike (cf. Ps 145:9).
46-47. The Jews despised tax-collectors and pagans, for the tax-collectors worked for the enemy, i.e., they collected the tax-money for the Romans, and the pagans were outside God’s plan.
Because the disciples have to demonstrate that they are children of the Father in heaven (v.45) much more is asked of them than friendliness based on reciprocity, which the tax-collectors and the pagans also had. Perfect love loves its enemies too.
‘Greet’ meant ’to wish someone peace’ (cf. Matt 10:12-13).
‘Reward’, see Matt 5:12,19; 6:20; 10:41.
48. Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect. The Greek word used here for perfection (teleios) is a translation of the Hebrew tammin (See LXX Deut 18:13) which means both ripeness and maturity in trust and surrender to the Lord. Teleios can be used of people who in certain respects are completely developed, completely educated (hence perfect). If the heavenly Father is presented here as an example, it is not to point out His sinlessness, but His goodness and love (see v.45b). ‘Be perfect’, then, does not mean ‘be without sin’ here, but ‘stand completely in the leading of the Holy Spirit, and love other people as God loves us’. This love is in fact only possible through an intervention from the Lord because His love is poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5).