The Ethics of Jesus

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you …” (Matt. 5:21–22).

- Matthew 5:21–26

Reformed theology typically adheres to the hermeneutic (science of interpretation) found in the Westminster Confession of Faith. In 1.6 of this confession we read that all things necessary for obedience to God in faith and life are either expressly written in Scripture or can be deduced by “good and necessary consequence” from it. The Bible’s implicit teachings are as binding as its explicit ones.

This summary of biblical interpretation reflects the approach to Scripture in the teaching of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount in particular reveals how we are to use the law in ethical decisions.

Rightly understanding how Christ applies the Bible requires us to clarify the meaning of two phrases He uses in His ministry. “You have heard that it was said” alludes to the oral interpretation of the Mosaic law given by the Pharisees and codified in the Talmud. “It is written,” on the other hand, signals a quotation from the Bible.

This distinction is vital, for otherwise we might think Jesus abrogates the moral law in the Sermon on the Mount. But this cannot be true given His view of the Law’s inviolability (Matt. 5:17–20). Instead, Christ gives the true meaning of Moses in His sermon, showing how incomplete the Pharisaic hermeneutic really was. Calvin writes in his Institutes that Jesus did not overturn or add to the Law; He restored “its integrity,” cleansing “it when it had been obscured by the falsehoods and defiled by the leaven of the Pharisees” (2.8.7).

Today’s passage exemplifies this. Jesus’ statement, “You shall not murder,” is found in the Old Testament (Ex. 20:13). But the preface, “You have heard that it was said,” demonstrates what Christ condemns is the oral tradition of the Pharisees, which said obedience requires us only to refrain from homicide. But this approach was not enough, as this commandment puts such a high value on life that it also forbids all things that might lead to physical murder, such as unjust anger (Matt. 5:22). Moreover, life is so sacred that we must also strive to promote our neighbor’s well-being. We cannot then harm another emotionally with slander. Jesus shows us that if we do not obey these good and necessary consequences, we do not obey the Law.

Coram Deo

While Jesus reveals the thoroughness that is required for true obedience to God’s law, He does not say anger and homicide are equally deserving of capital punishment. While both can cut us off from God, murder carries with it more severe consequences both in this world and in the next. Consider today how you live according to God’s holy standard. Do you obey Him freely in the Spirit? Speak well of another person and thus fulfill the lesson of today’s passage.

Passages for Further Study

1 Sam. 12:24
Matt. 23:23
Gal. 5:13–15
James 1:22–25

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