Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 5:17-22,43-45
Jesus calls His followers to live by a much higher standard than the rest of the world. He cares about what’s on the inside, not just the outside. One example of that is valuing all human life. That means loving our enemies. It also means standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.
But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Matthew 5:21
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Sanctity of Human Life Sunday
[Ed note: this Bible study coincided with SoHL Sunday 2016.] Americans have recognized the third Sunday in January as “Sanctity of Human Life Day” ever since Ronald Reagan declared the first such day on the 11th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in 1984. This is a very, very important matter, and I want you to find a way to talk about it in your class (even the kids!). BUT you have be very sensitive how you address it (especially with kids). To illustrate how hard it is, here’s one mom’s conversation with her 11-yr-old:
Yikes! Here’s how one Christian pastor recommended his friends to talk to their kids. It’s much more general, focuses on the value of people, and leaves it more along the lines that people who don’t know God or how much God loves us make bad decisions about how to treat others:
I’ll talk more about Sanctity of Human Life on the next page. First, one more idea for an icebreaker:
“That Was Pretty Dumb”.
Now that social media captures just about everybody’s bad decisions and puts it on the internet, we have instant access to stupidity. Statements like “What were you thinking?” and “That’s not going to end well” and “You’re an idiot” resonate with most of us because we’ve seen some pretty stupid behavior. Sometimes, in the case of the kid stealing gas from a police car and photoing it, we just shake our head. Sometimes, in the case of the car going the wrong way, we get angry because it’s dangerous and puts other at risk. Sometimes, in the case of the young man who tattooed his entire face, we just don't understand the why. And then there are the people who are just being reckless. You know your class. Show some pictures of behavior that your class would find pretty dumb. Rile ‘em up! Then make this transition: “There’s a difference between reacting to yourself, ‘That was dumb,’ and saying out loud, ‘You idiot!’ Jesus confronts us with our judgments of others."
Let me give you an example that is close to my heart. If you don’t recognize this young man’s picture, Google “affluenza” and read the news. As a drunk 16-yr-old, he killed a youth pastor acquaintance of mine and 3 others on the road I travelled every day to my church. Using the “affluenza” defense, his wealthy parents’ lawyers were able to reduce his sentence to probation. Later, his mom spirited him to Mexico when a video surfaced of him violating his parole. This picture is apparently from Mexico.
When I see this picture, I think very negative things. It’s natural to get upset with people when they do dumb, hurtful, or evil things. But we have to be very careful; there’s a fine line to observe. You will routinely hear me call myself a moron when I have done something foolish; watching the news or behind the wheel, though, you will also hear me call other people morons (or the like), and not jokingly. It is a value judgment, and I may as well be saying, “This world would be better off if they weren’t in it.” Well, Jesus calls me out on that horrible attitude. We use insults to say that someone is less than us, and that’s something a Christian should never think in the first place, let alone say out loud. In this passage, Jesus cuts right to our attitude toward other people—do we truly believe they are equal to us in dignity and value? If not, we should. If so, we should act like it. That’s what we want to keep in mind throughout this lesson . . .
This Week's Big Idea: Sanctity of Human Life Sunday
Through the proclamations of Ronald Reagan and both Bushs (but not Clinton), Christians have adopted the third Sunday of January as a day to talk about the sanctity of human life. Originally, the focus was purely on abortion. Today, we also emphasize the right to life of the elderly, the sick, and those who cannot care for themselves.
On a positive note, the abortion rate has been decreasing in our country; there are now less than 1,000,000 abortions performed each year (down 360,000 in 20 years). But let’s be honest—that’s still unconscionable. The secret videos from the Planned Parenthood director will certainly elevate the rhetoric this year, and perhaps that’s what needs to happen. Too many people in country don’t seem to care that a million babies were aborted in 2015. Take any time at all to read about the procedures used for abortions; they’ll make you angry. Read the statistics about how abortion is now being used as a “gender-balancing service” and you’ll get sick. Read how the same lawmakers who say that the government shouldn’t have the right to tell a woman what she can do to her baby also say that the government has the right to tell Christians what we can do, and you’ll be shocked.
The answer is not to hate those in the industry, and it’s certainly not to vilify those women who have had abortions. But we CANNOT back down on this issue. We MUST do everything we can to help these babies. Jesus got extremely zealous about specific issues; I have to think this would be one of them.
Part 1: Look to the Scriptures (Matthew 5:17-20)
Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
As I pointed out in the introduction, the emphasis of the lesson is the value of human life. But the broader teaching is even more difficult: we are to value everything that is valued in the Old Testament law. When it comes to understanding and applying the Old Testament, this passage is key, and it’s also controversial. But remember what I said about the structure of the Sermon last week:
Kingdom Perspective I. “Blessed are you” 5:2-12 – The right kingdom perspective . . . II. “You are the” 5:13-16 – . . . leads to the right kingdom purpose . . . III. “Do not think” 5:17-20 – . . . which fulfills everything God expects of us.
Kingdom Ethic (a “for example”) IV. “You have heard” 5:21-48 – Our social “goodness” is about what’s inside; V. “Whenever you” 6:1-18 – Our spiritual “goodness” is about what’s inside; VI. “Do not” 6:19-7:6 – And it demands the right perspective on what’s important.
Kingdom Challenge VII. “Ask / seek / knock” 7:7-12 – Does my teaching sound hard? VIII. “Enter through” 7:13-27 – It’s harder than you will ever know.
When a new rabbi introduces a “new” teaching, everybody wants to know how it relates to what has already been said. But Jesus says something totally unexpected: He is not coming to un-do or re-do God’s Law, He’s coming to do it. God doesn’t have to change any of His commands; man was just never intended (or able) fully to keep them. Jesus will fulfill all of them and then leave us with a new “summary emphasis” if you would. Have your class read Matt 22:37-40:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
Note the consistent reference to “Law and Prophets” which for the Jews would have been the Old Testament minus Psalms-Song (the word TaNaK is an acronym for the three parts of their Bible: Law, Prophets, Writings).
(Also John 13:34-35 would be good.) When they wanted to learn the “rules” for righteous behavior, that’s where they went. So, how can someone’s righteousness surpass that of the men who spend all their time studying and applying the Scriptures? By realizing why God gave the laws. Not to make people perfect, but to prove that they were not perfect. An imperfect person should, out of gratitude for God’s patience with his imperfection, be characterized by humility, forgiveness, and love. It really is that simple. The rest of this section of the Sermon is a series of illustrations what that means. We’re focusing on the love/hate ones.
Aside: Jot and Tittle
The KJV famously has Jesus saying that not a jot or tittle will pass away from the law until all is accomplished. NIV says “smallest letter or least stroke of a pen”. Jesus literally said, “Not one iota or one hook of a letter.” This actually leads to a bit of a debate because Jesus was most likely speaking Aramaic here, not Greek, which means “iota” (which is the smallest Greek letter and equivalent of an I) is probably Matthew’s translation of the letter Jesus actually said. Most scholars believe Jesus said “yod” (which was transliterated to “jot”) which is the smallest Hebrew letter and looks a lot like an apostrophe. Later Aramaic alphabets include this letter, so that very well could be accurate. We know for certain that Jesus was not talking about the various dots (vowels) and diacritical markings you see in modern Hebrew Bibles because those were not added to the text until long after Jesus had returned to heaven. One way or another, we know exactly what Jesus means. Here are some Greek and English letters:
ΑΔ ΓΤ ΥΨ ΑΛ ΠΗ
GC OQ EF BP PR IT
(Those are random pairs; there is no order to them!) You can see that these letters are distinguished by very, very small pen strokes. If an author missed one such stroke, the entire word would be different! (GROW vs. CROW anyone? EAR vs. FAR? OUCH vs. QUCH? No?) Jesus was making it clear that He was not going to change the law in even the smallest way; He was going to fulfill it.
Bonus Aside: Jews and the Law
I’ve talked about Pharisees and Sadducees a few times this quarter. The Pharisees had become known as the conservative law-keeping party. They believed that Israel’s troubles were all rooted in their disobedience, so if they “put a fence” around the law (i.e. more strict laws) they could protect their country from disaster. It was a righteous motive, and we believe that many Pharisees were truly virtuous men.
The problem with trying to demonstrate to people how to keep the law, however, is you have to make a show of it. People have to know what you’re doing and why, and some Pharisees got lost in appearances. For example, some Pharisees would (1) tell someone to “wait here” while they performed a good deed, (2) walk with eyes closed so as to avoid seeing a woman, (3) walk with head down so as not to view a temptation, (4) count good deeds to weigh them against the bad.
That’s why the people were shocked to hear that their righteousness had to surpass that of the Pharisees. Those guys were the most visibly righteous people in Israel. But that was exactly Jesus’ point: keeping the law (being truly righteous) isn’t just a matter of action but also of motive. Some Pharisees had begun to treat the law as a status symbol. That might fool the people, but it could never fool God. God did not give the law for appearances (although even grudging obedience would still be good for society!); He gave the law so the people would realize their need for a Savior. The Pharisees missed that point so badly that they believed they were right with God.
Part 2: Value Human Life (Matthew 5:21-22)
“You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.
This passage always bothered me because I couldn’t figure out the difference between “fool” and “moron.” “Fool” comes from raca and basically means “empty-headed” (think “airhead” or “numbskull”); “moron” comes from moros and also means “empty-headed” (although some have argued that it means “empty of morality”). Why did “fool” send somebody in for judgment and “moron” send somebody for hell? It turns out that I was simply proving Jesus’ point. I was trying to figure out why one was “okay” and the other not, I guess so that I would use the one and not the other. The point is that none of it is okay. Whether you call somebody a fool or a moron, you are judging their humanity in a hateful way. You are setting yourself above that person, looking down on them. That’s a big problem. All of the world’s philosophers have said something about this, but it comes back to Jesus. Violence begins in the heart with hatred or anger. If we really want to keep the law and be righteous, we need to get to the heart of the matter.
We can also approach this from a different direction. If you think about it, it’s pretty easy not to murder somebody (forgive me for sounding so trite). You just don’t do it. When the rich young ruler asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life, he really thought that he had fully kept the commands. Again, it’s easy not to murder somebody. It’s hard not to hate somebody. Setting the bar at “do not murder” is a low bar indeed. But God wants more than that. He wants us not to hate, and that’s impossible without a heart-change from the help of Jesus.
Some scholars have tried to argue that the structure of these teachings (“you have heard / but I say”) is standard fare for a new rabbi, but that’s simply not true. Jesus’ variations in that formula are too calculated, and this sermon is not in the context of rabbinical dispute. Jews have their Mishnah (which is a compilation of laws explaining/expanding the Torah—think of it as “case law”) and their Midrash (which is a compilation of what various rabbis said interpreting the Torah and the Mishnah—think of it as “majority decisions”). Christians have the same (we have commentaries and compilations of commentaries). That’s not what Jesus is doing here. With authority, Jesus is giving us a new (and true) understanding of God’s command, something no one else had done before.
Let’s clarify some things. Jesus does not say “do not kill” (see my aside), and He does not say that we cannot be angry. Jesus got angry (Matt 21), and He even called some people “fools” (Matt 23:17). As David said when preaching this last year, Jesus was not substituting a law for a law (i.e. the Lord’s Prayer is not some magic formula); He was explaining the heart of the law. There is a time to kill. There is a time to be angry. But those times are rare. Anger leads to hate and hate leads to violence.
What’s the application? Yes, there is a place for righteous anger, but our anger is usually a lot more selfish than that. Challenge your class not to call people names. For our younger classes, you can talk about bullying. Have you been bullied? What do you do about bullying? How do you stop bullying? For our older classes, you can talk about the fear that comes with the loss of self-sufficiency (or the fear that people think of you as less than what you were). Your perspective on human life will be a little different than that of kids. But the application will be the same. Don’t call people (or yourself) names. If you are about to do that, STOP AND THINK. Why are you doing it? What do you think about that person? Instead of insulting that person (even quietly in your head!), stop and pray for that person. Whoa!
Aside: What Is Murder?
Jesus is clearly appealing to the sixth commandment (Ex 20:13) “You shall not kill.” But that clearly does not mean all taking of life because the rest of the law outlines plenty of capital offenses and sets lawful killing in self-defense, in time of just war, and also makes room for accidents. Rather, for the Hebrew, the concept of murder meant the unlawful taking of human life. Deliberately and unlawfully taking someone’s life usurps the authority of God (because God gave the law). A person who accidentally kills another can run for a city of refuge. There is no mercy for someone who intentionally and unlawfully takes another’s life.
Hellfire and Gehenna
The word for hellfire refers to the Valley of Hinnom, which your leader guide describes. Some scholars try to separate Gehenna (eternal hell) from Hades (the intermediate state), but in most usage of the day the two words are interchangeable.
Part 3: Love Beyond Expectations (Matthew 5:43-45)
You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
The Bible never says to hate your enemy, but there are some Jewish writings that do. The Bible does say to love your neighbor (Lev 19:18) which includes non-Jews (even the Jews got the point of the Good Samaritan parable). But as with murder, the Jews had reduced the law to a check-box. Have I not murdered somebody? Good. Have I loved my next-door neighbor? Good. How easy can it be! Jesus tells them they misunderstand the whole point of the law. EVERYBODY is your neighbor, including your enemies. Don’t judge yourself by how well you love the easiest people to love; judge yourself by how well you love the hardest people to love.
Jesus’ illustration is brilliant. God could wipe out His enemies very easily, but He doesn’t. He could miraculously withhold sunlight from his enemies (as in Egypt) or miraculously withhold rain (as in Elijah’s day), but He doesn’t. Why? Because He’s giving His people a chance to make a difference. We make a difference in two ways: we love and we pray. “Love” is the agape-type love. It is an active, selfless, sacrificing love, not a warm fuzzy feeling. In other words, we don’t have to like our enemies. But we do have to love them. And we pray. Pray what? Jesus’ teaching on prayer comes next, but I think it applies here. We pray that God would give them their daily bread and forgive them of their trespasses. And do not say that Jesus doesn’t know “how hard that is for me”! Jesus forgave the very men who tortured Him to death. If we can do that, we’re taking our steps to being more like Jesus.
Summary and application. Jesus is giving a radical dignity to all human life. Every class is different, so lead your class through identifying those people they have a hard time with. Maybe it’s people of a different skin color, people who dress very different than you, people who look scary to you (whatever that means to you), people much older or much younger than you, people who are in the process of doing something pretty dumb. Jesus wants you to love them just as much as your closest friends! Take a specific person that you need to show love to this week and write a plan.
And also, remember to stand up for the people who cannot stand up for themselves. The very young (and unborn), the very old, the very sick, we need to defend their dignity! Legally pursue a pro-life policy. Visit a shut-in. Visit the hospital. Befriend someone who the rest of the world would consider “the least of these.” Do it as a class, do it as a family—value human life.
Closing Thought: When Does Life Begin?
Very, very few Americans say that we should kill babies. (Sadly, we’ve been so desensitized to this issue that too many Americans don’t even think about it any more.) That’s why late-term abortions have been fairly off limits even to the most pro-choice individuals; 80% of babies born at 26 weeks survive now, so they cannot be called “unviable” or “not-a-person.” The question then becomes, “When does a baby become a baby?” That’s why, as in the diagram below, you’ll see a line drawn between an “embryo” and a “fetus” (around 10 weeks). In other words, the diagram implies that "life begins" around 10 weeks. It’s a major ethical question: when does a blob of tissue become a human? Is it when the fingerprints start forming at 12 weeks? Normal brain activity at 8 weeks? Heart beating at 5 weeks? When the embryo divides? When the egg is fertilized? When is it? In truth, they’re simply asking, “When is no longer okay to abort?”
You know that I am very conservative, but I think the answer to this question is very simple. Is it the same baby at 26 weeks? at 12 weeks? at 4 weeks? at conception? Is the baby in the womb the same baby after birth? Of course. Another way to ask this: am I more myself now than I was at conception? No. Ergo, life begins at conception.