Major theological traditions have all looked to the law of God, especially the Ten Commandments, as the basis for ethics. Creeds and catechisms devote much space to expositing the Ten Commandments and what they tell us to do and what not to do. This might strike some people as strange. A great deal of popular non-Christian thinking portrays Jesus as someone who told us only to “love one another,” allowing us to define love for ourselves. Yet, even Christians can miss the coherence between a law-based ethic and the teaching of Jesus. After all, some texts seem to indicate that Jesus opposed the law of God, at least on a cursory reading.
Today we will consider one text that might call into question our Savior’s commitment to the law of God. In Matthew 5:21–26, Jesus seems to contrast or even oppose the sixth commandment. It is almost as if He is willing to set aside the law against murder in favor of His teaching against hatred. “You have heard. . . . But I say . . .” (vv. 21–22) certainly seems as if it could be a contradiction.
However, as Dr. R.C. Sproul frequently cautioned us, we must be careful students of Scripture and not just surface-level readers of the text. Looking closely at the passage, we see that our Lord by no means was seeking to overturn the sixth commandment. Note that He opens His teaching with “you have heard that it was said,” not “it is written.” This indicates that our Lord is not actually quoting Scripture as Scripture. When Jesus and the Apostles do that, they say “it is written” or something like “in the Scriptures” (Matt. 4:4; 21:42; Rom. 1:17; 1 Peter 1:16). The more general, “you have heard that it was said,” points not to the actual biblical text but to what others have said about the text. In other words, Jesus is alluding to the interpretation of the passage, particularly the interpretation of the Pharisees. His goal is to show where the Pharisees’ oral tradition was wrong. Significantly, the Pharisees were content with a mere outward observance of the law. They believed that the law against murder had been kept as long as one did not actually kill someone else. But the law against murder forbids everything that tends toward murder, including unjust and uncontrolled anger. Jesus is not contradicting the sixth commandment but pointing out that keeping it involves more than just refraining from actual murder. He is saying that we keep the sixth commandment only if we also put hatred to death in our hearts.
Because Jesus is the incarnate God, He is the author of all Scripture. All Scripture, after all, is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). But if Jesus is ultimately the author of all Scripture, then He cannot contradict Scripture or else He would be contradicting Himself. If we read Jesus’ words as contradictions to the other parts of Scripture, we have erred in our interpretation.