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Bailey Sadler Class



Study Theme:  Distinct: Living Above The Norm

What This Lesson Is About:

Week of:

Lesson Title:

This lesson focuses on how believers can reflect that “greater righteousness” in their relationships with others.


Jan. 24

Distinct in My Character


Jan.  31

Distinct in My Influence


Feb. 7

Distinct in My Approach To Conflict


Feb. 14

Distinct in My Relationships


Feb. 21

Distinct in My Reactions


Feb. 28

Distinct in My Love



Hold onto purity at all costs.


Matthew 5:27-32




Practice Purity In Your Conduct (Matthew 5:27-30)

Remain Faithfulness In Your Relationships (Matthew 5:31-32)


Jesus’ longest recorded sermon, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5—7), details now kingdom citizens, Christians, should live—we should be distinct, living above the norms of the world.  Jesus began this Sermon by listing actions and attitudes that are blessed by God and that cause us to be distinctive in our character (the Beatitudes, 5:3-12).  He continued by commanding His followers to make their influence count for what matters, making them distinct in their influence (vv. 13-20).  Jesus concluded this section by stressing that the “greater righteousness” of those who follow Him should surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (v. 20).

In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus explained that “greater righteousness” by citing six examples from the Law and showing what God intended those laws to do so that a person could “be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).  In the first of these examples, Jesus taught believers to take the lead in resolving conflict, making them distinct from the world by their approach to conflict (vv. 21-26).  This study deals with verse 27-32, in which Jesus commanded Christians to hold on to sexual and marriage purity at all costs so that they would be distinct in their relationships.

SOURCE: Holman Bible Handbook; General Editor David S. Dockery; Holman Bible Publishers; Nashville, Tennessee


We applaud the anniversaries of those who have been married for 25 years or longer. We rightly celebrate with them, but society often does with an added sense of amazement, as if it’s miraculous that two people have stayed committed to each other for so long. Faithfulness and purity have been a wonder to our culture, but it should be our norm. Jesus calls us to sexual purity, both physically and mentally.

SOURCE: The Herschel Hobbs Commentary; Family Bible Study; by Robert J. Dean; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; 1 LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.


Practice Purity In Your Conduct (Matthew 5:27-30)

27 “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. 28 But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell!








1.   To which commandment did Jesus refer in His discussion of this example of how to have a greater righteousness (v. 27)?

2.   More than the overt act of adultery, what did Jesus warn against (v. 28)?

3.   What is the relationship of lust to adultery (v. 28)?

4.   What do you think it means for a man to look at a woman to lust for her (v. 28)?

5.   How did Jesus illustrate the seriousness with which we are to consider His instruction in this matter (vv. 29-30)?

6.   In Jesus’ illustration, how are we to avoid list (vv. 29-30)?

7.   How are we to apply Jesus’ words in a figurative sense?

8.   Taken as whole, how would you explain the meaning of these four verses to a new believer?

9.   What do you think is the practical meaning of verses 29-30?

10.   How do you interpret the meaning of the last part of verse 30?

11.   How would you describe a pure lifestyle?

12.   Do you think it is possible for a believer to maintain an undefiled thought or a pure lifestyle?  Why, or why not?

13.   What are some things you think a believer would need to do to do that?

14.   What are the dividing lines between “pure” and “impure” in today’s world?

15.   How do you think Jesus raises the bar on what is right?

16.   How can we be ruthless in resisting impurity without being judgmental and condemning?


Lasting Lessons in Matthew 5:27-30:

1.   Jesus explained what He meant by a “greater righteousness” by citing a second example, one involving adultery and lust.

2.   God’s intent in forbidding adultery was not only to forbid the action but also to forbid sinful thoughts (lust) that lead to sinful actions (adultery).

3.   Christians must refuse to allow lust to enter their hearts and minds.

4.   God takes all our thoughts very seriously and commands us to very strong terms not to let our thoughts lead us into sin.



Remain Faithful In Your Relationships (Matthew 5:31-32)

31 “It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce. 32 But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

1.   Do you think these verses difficult to understand these verses?

2.   Why is it difficult to apply these verses to our lives today?

3.   How can we be both firm in upholding Jesus’ commands and loving to those involved in divorce?

4.   How had the law been distorted or abused as it related to divorce?

5.   How did Jesus challenge the practices that allowed for easy divorce?

6.   What was God’s plan for marriage?  (See Mark 10:5-9; Matt. 19:4-9.)

7.   What are some keys to faithfulness in marriage over many years?

8.   Do you think strong, faithful marriages benefit all people, whether single or married?  If so, why?

9.   How are we to love God and love others in a culture of divorce?

10.   What are some things we (believers) can do to help those who have been divorced or are going through a divorce?

11.   Do you think these 2 verses have a message for believers in their relationships with others now?

12.   If so, what do you think it would be?

13.   What role do you think we should play in a world where the biblical model for relationships between men and women is ignored at best and attacked at worst?

14.   What are some things we (believers) can do to promote godly living in today’s world?


Lasting Lessons in Matthew 5:31-32:

1.   God intends for one man and one woman to be married for life.

2.   God allowed for divorce because of the hardness of our hearts, but it is not His preference.

3.   Jesus’ words reflected the demand for “a greater righteousness” from His people more than anyone expected, a righteousness that leads to perfection.

4.   Jesus allowed for divorce but did not require it, and for only one reason, sexual immorality.

5.   According to Jesus, when people divorce for reasons other than sexual immorality, they are placed in a dangerous position in which both may commit adultery.



We live in the reality of a fallen world where human beings habitually fall short of God’s ideal both in our relationships with God and with other people.  Our sinful, selfish actions and attitudes often put a strain on the relationships we have with others, including our families.  We can learn from the Old Testament that as we maintain faithfulness and purity in our relationships, we present a picture of the loving relationship between God and His people.  When we are unfaithful in our relationships we pervert that image of the loving relationship between God and His people.  In the New Testament, Paul taught that as we live out God’s design in our relationships with others, we project an image of Christ’s love for the church.  Regrettably, as we break our relationships with others through our sinful, selfish actions and attitudes, we present a distorted image to the world of Christ’s love for the church.   In contrast to contemporary culture, let us passionately advocate for godly relationships as we strive for that “greater righteousness” at all costs.  As we do, we project an image to the world of God’s love and faithfulness to His people.

  So, where do you stand when it comes to godly distinction in your relationships with others?  Are you striving for that “greater righteousness” in all your relationships?  On a scale of 1 (very weak) to 10 (very strong), rate how well you are striving for that “greater righteousness” Jesus has been teaching us in our last four studies?  Do all your relationships reflect your rating?  If they are not as reflective that you are striving for that “greater righteousness,” what do you want God to help you with?

What are the implications of these truths for your life?  THE CHOICE IS YOURS, ISN’T IT!

REMEMBER, the safest place for a believer is in the center of God’s will.


Lesson Outline, Introduction, Discussion Questions, and Conclusion adapted from the following sources:

SOURCE: Life Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.

SOURCE: The Herschel Hobbs Commentary; Family Bible Study; by Robert J. Dean; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; 1 LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.



Focal Passage from three different translations of God’s Word:

New King James Version:  Matthew 5:27-32

27 "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.'  28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. 31 "Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.   (NKJV)


New American Standard Bible: Matthew 5:27-32

27 "You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 "If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 "If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 "It was said, 'WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE'; 32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.   (NASB)


New Living Translation:  Matthew 5:27-32

27 “You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 31 “You have heard the law that says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’ 32 But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery.   (NLT)


 (NOTE:  Commentary for the focal passage comes from four sources: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary New Testament,Believer's Bible Commentary,The Complete Biblical Library Commentary,” and “The College Press NIV Commentary,” and is provided for your study.)

Lesson Outline — Distinct in My Relationships” — Matthew 5:27-32



Practice Purity In Your Conduct (Matthew 5:27-30)

Remain Faithful In Your Relationships (Matthew 5:31-32)


The Expositor’s Bible Commentary New Testament:  Matthew 5:27-32

Adultery and purity (5:27-30)

5:27-28. The OT command not to commit adultery (Exod 20:14; Deut 5:18) is often treated in Jewish sources not so much as a function of purity as of theft: it was to steal another’s wife (references in Bonnard). Jesus insisted that the seventh commandment points in another direction—toward purity that refuses to lust (v. 28). The tenth commandment had already explicitly made the point; and gyne here more likely means “woman” than “wife.” “To interpret the law on the side of stringency is not to annul the Law, but to change it in accordance with its own intention” (cf. Job 31:1; Prov 6:25; 2 Peter 2:14).

Klaus Haacker has convincingly argued that the second auten (“[committed adultery] with her”) is contrary to the common interpretation of this verse. In Greek it is unnecessary, especially if the sin is entirely the man’s. But it is explainable if pros to epithymesai auten, commonly understood to mean “with a view to lusting for her,” is translated “so as to get her to lust.” The evidence for this interpretation is strong. The man is therefore looking at the woman with a view to enticing her to lust. Thus, so far as his intention goes, he is committing adultery with her, he makes her an adulteress. This does not weaken the force of Jesus’ teaching; the heart of the matter is still lust and intent.

5:29-30. The radical treatment of parts of the body that cause one to sin has led some to castrate themselves. But that is not radical enough, since lust is not thereby removed. The “eye” (v. 29) is the member of the body most commonly blamed for leading us astray, especially in sexual sins (cf. Num 15:39; Prov 21:4; Ezek 6:9; 18:12; 20:8; v. 11. Eccl 11:9); the “right eye” refers to one’s best eye. But why the “right hand” (v. 30) in a context dealing with lust? This may be merely illustrative or a way of saving that even lust is a kind of theft. More likely it is a euphemism for the male sexual organ (cf. yad, “hand,” most likely used in this way in Isa 57:8).

Cutting off or gouging out the offending part is a way of saying that Jesus’ disciples must deal radically with sin. Imagination is a God-given gift; but if it is fed dirt by the eye, it will be dirty. All sin, not least sexual sin, begins with the imagination. Therefore what feeds the imagination is of maximum importance in the pursuit of kingdom righteousness (compare Philippians 4:8). Not everyone reacts the same way to all objects. But if (vv. 28-29) your eye is causing you to sin, gouge it out; or at very least, don’t look! The alternative is sin and hell, sin’s reward. The point is so fundamental that Jesus doubtless repeated it on numerous occasions (cf. 18:8-9).

Divorce and remarriage (5:31-32)

5:31-32. The introductory formula “It has been said” is shorter than all the others in this chapter and is linked to the preceding by a connective de (“and”). Therefore, though these two verses are innately antithetical, they carry further the argument of the preceding pericope. The OT not only points toward insisting that lust is the moral equivalent of adultery (vv. 27-30) but that divorce is as well. This arises out of the fact that the divorced woman will in most circumstances remarry (esp. in first-century Palestine, where this would probably be her means of support). That new marriage, whether from the perspective of the divorcee or the one marrying her, is adulterous.

The OT passage to which Jesus refers (v. 31) is Deuteronomy 24:1-4, whose thrust is that if a man divorces his wife because of “something indecent” (not further defined) in her, he must give her a certificate of divorce, and if she then becomes another man’s wife and is divorced again, the first man cannot remarry her. This double restriction—the certificate and the prohibition of remarriage—discouraged hasty divorces. Here Jesus does not go into the force of “something indecent.” Instead he insists that the law was pointing to the sanctity of marriage.

The natural way to take the “except” clause is that divorce is wrong because it generates adultery except in the case of fornication. In that case, where sexual sin has already been committed, nothing is laid down, though it appears that divorce is then implicitly permitted, even if not mandated.

The numerous points for exegetical dispute (e.g., the meaning of porneia [“fornication,” or, in NIV, “marital unfaithfulness”], the force of the “except” clause, and the tradition history behind these verses and their relationship to 19:3-9, Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18) are treated more fully at 19:3-12. The one theory that must be rejected here (because it has no counterpart in 19:3-12) is that which takes the words “makes her an adulteress” to mean “stigmatizes her as an adulteress (even though it is not so).” The Greek uses the verb, not the noun (cf. NIV’s “causes her to become an adulteress”). The verbal construction disallows Powers’s paraphrase.

SOURCE: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary New Testament; Frank E. Gaebelein; General Editor; Zondervan Publishing House; A Division of Harper Collins Publishers


Believer's Bible Commentary:  Matthew 5:27-32

Jesus Condemns Adultery (5:27-30)

5:27, 28.  The Mosaic Law clearly prohibited adultery (Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:18). A person might be proud that he had never broken this commandment, and yet have his "eyes full of adultery" (2 Pet. 2:14). While outwardly respectable, his mind might be constantly wandering down labyrinths of impurity. So Jesus reminded His disciples that mere abstinence from the physical act was not enough—there must be inward purity. The law forbade the act of adultery; Jesus forbids the desire: Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. E. Stanley Jones caught the import of this verse when he wrote: "If you think or act adultery, you do not satisfy the sex urge; you pour oil on a fire to quench it." Sin begins in the mind, and if we nourish it, we eventually commit the act.

5:29, 30.  Maintaining an undefiled thought life demands strict self-discipline. Thus, Jesus taught that if any part of our body causes us to sin, it would be better to lose that member during life rather than to lose one's soul for eternity. Are we to take Jesus' words literally? Was He actually advocating self-mutilation? The words are literal to this extent: if it were necessary to lose a member rather than one's soul, then we should gladly part with the member. Fortunately it is never necessary, since the Holy Spirit empowers the believer to live a holy life. However, there must be cooperation and rigid discipline on the believer's part.

Jesus Censures Divorce (5:31, 32)

5:31.  Under OT law, divorce was permitted according to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. This passage was not concerned with the case of an adulterous wife (the penalty for adultery was death, see Deut. 22:22). Rather, it deals with divorce because of dislike or "incompatibility."

5:32.  However, in the kingdom of Christ, whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery. This does not mean that she automatically becomes an adulteress; it presupposes that, having no means of support, she is forced to live with another man. In so doing she becomes an adulteress. Not only is the former wife living in adultery, whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

The subject of divorce and remarriage is one of the most complicated topics in the Bible. It is virtually impossible to answer all the questions that arise, but it may be helpful to survey and summarize what we believe the Scriptures teach.

Excursus On Divorce and Remarriage:

Divorce was never God's intention for man. His ideal is that one man and one woman remain married until their union is broken by death (Rom. 7:2, 3). Jesus made this clear to the Pharisees by appealing to the divine order at creation (Matt. 19:4-6).

God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16), that is, unscriptural divorce. He does not hate all divorce because He speaks of Himself as having divorced Israel (Jer. 3:8). This was because the nation forsook Him to worship idols. Israel was unfaithful.

In Matthew 5:31, 32 and 19:9, Jesus taught that divorce was forbidden except when one of the partners had been guilty of sexual immorality. In Mark 10:11, 12 and Luke 16:18, the exception clause is omitted.

The discrepancy is probably best explained as that neither Mark nor Luke record the entire saying. Therefore, even though divorce is not the ideal, it is permitted in the case where one's partner has been unfaithful. Jesus allows divorce, but He does not command it.

Some scholars see 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 as teaching that divorce is acceptable when a believer is deserted by an unbeliever. Paul says that the remaining person is "not under bondage in such cases," i.e., he or she is free to obtain a divorce (for desertion). The present writer's opinion is that this case is the same exception granted in Matthew 5 and 19; namely, the unbeliever departs to live with someone else. Therefore, the believer can be granted a divorce on the scriptural grounds only if the other party commits adultery.

It is often contended that, although divorce is permitted in the NT, remarriage is never contemplated. However, this argument begs the question. Remarriage is not condemned for the innocent party in the NT only for the offending person. Also, one of the main purposes of a scriptural divorce is to permit remarriage; otherwise, separation would serve the purpose just as well.

In any discussion of this topic, the question inevitably arises, "What about people who were divorced before they were saved?" There should be no question that unlawful divorces and remarriages contracted before conversion are sins which have been fully forgiven (see, for example, 1 Cor. 6:11 where Paul includes adultery in the list of sins in which the Corinthian believers had formerly participated). Pre-conversion sins do not bar believers from full participation in the local church.

A more difficult question concerns Christians who have divorced for unscriptural reasons and then remarry. Can they be received back into the fellowship of the local church? The answer depends on whether adultery is the initial act of physical union or a continued state. If these people are living in a state of adultery, then they would not only have to confess their sin but also forsake their present partner. But God's solution for a problem is never one that creates worse problems. If, in order to untangle a marital snarl, men or women are driven into sin, or women and children are left homeless and penniless, the cure is worse than the disease.

In the writer's opinion, Christians who have been divorced unscripturally and then remarried can truly repent of their sin and be restored to the Lord and to the fellowship of the church. In the matter of divorce, it seems that almost every case is different. Therefore, the elders of a local church must investigate each case individually and judge it according to the Word of God. If at times, disciplinary action has to be taken, all concerned should submit to the decision of the elders.

SOURCE: Believer's Bible Commentary; by William MacDonald; Copyright © 1995, 1992, 1990, 1989 by William McDonald. Database © 2014 WORDsearch.


The Complete Biblical Library Commentary:  Matthew 5:27-32

5:27, 28. The old-time scribes quoted the seventh commandment (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18) and were satisfied to keep the letter of the Law. You could break up a family or destroy the love between a husband and wife, but as long as you did not commit the act of adultery you had not sinned. Jesus went deeper and gave an explanation totally different from the experts in the Law. Deuteronomy 24:1, concerning writing a bill of divorce, was their starting point (see verse 31). The problem of divorce was out of hand, and their solution was to tolerate it. In contrast Jesus emphasized the seventh commandment, concerning God's positive will. He proceeded to explain it in the light of the 10th commandment (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). God makes demands upon the whole person, including his or her attitudes. Thus Jesus explained that to allow sinful desires is just as much in violation of God's will as sinful actions. Believers should deal with sin at the earliest possible point.

This passage is not talking about natural desire and love of one's spouse, nor of friendship with another person in general. It does not discount a normal interest in women by men and vice versa; rather, it is concerned with continual, lustful desires by the married or unmarried person.

In other words, Jesus was not talking about a passing glance or temptation that the person rejects. But the person who keeps looking or lets the mind dwell on a forbidden sin or on a person who belongs to someone else, or on one for whom he or she has no honorable intentions, that person has sinned.

What we let our minds dwell on is important. (See Philippians 4:8, 9.) The Bible calls on us to fix our minds on that which is good, for if we allow our minds to dwell on anything that arouses lust or wrong desire, this is the first step to sin. James explains it this way: "Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death" (James 1:14, 15, NIV).

5:29, 30. Jesus warned further that if we would avoid the fires of eternal death, we must get rid of anything that offends in the sense that it keeps causing us to sin. Here, He was still focusing His teaching on the serious danger of the sinful heart and its sinful desires. The expression "offend" (skandalizei) literally means "a bait in a trap," and more generally it connotes a "trap" or a "stumbling" that keeps causing one to sin.

Gehenna here is not the place of punishment during the present age prior to the resurrection of the dead, which is ordinarily called hell but which is properly called Hades. Rather, it equals the "lake of fire," to which all unbelievers will be condemned at the Last Judgment (Revelation 20:14, 15). The name Gehenna is taken from the valley of the sons of Hinnom on the south side of Jerusalem. In New Testament times it was a place where fires for trash and rubbish were always burning. Popular Jewish tradition said the Last Judgment would take place there. But Jesus used it as a name for the final place of punishment. (See Matthew 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5.)

The eye serves as a "receptor" for the rest of the body; the hand acts. An individual can sin either in what he receives or in what he does. Even the loss of a hand or an eye does not compare with the value of the loss of the whole person in eternal judgment. The eye is especially important for it excites the mind and then the hand to action. Jesus recognized this when He said, "If therefore thine eye be single (clear, sound, healthy, generous, sincere, guileless), thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil (sick, bad, spoiled, evil-intentioned), thy whole body shall be full of darkness" (6:22, 23). Christians need to be careful lest any unwholesome thought or thing cloud their spiritual eyes and keep them from seeing clearly the exceeding sinfulness of sin.

Jesus' words obviously are not intended to be taken literally, but figuratively. A person could gouge out an eye or cut off a hand and keep on sinning. Using deliberate exaggeration, Jesus wanted to show that if a wrong desire or action becomes as important as an eye or a right hand, that desire or intent to act must be chopped off or cut out. Temptation and sinful thought have to be dealt with in a radical way before they are converted into deeds. God's call is for believers to yield themselves to God and their "members servants to righteousness unto holiness" (Romans 6:13, 19).

5:31.  Among the Jews only the man was permitted to divorce. Opinions of what were valid reasons for divorce were divided. The school of Shammai declared that the words of Deuteronomy 24:1, "because he finds something indecent about her" (NIV), refer to sexual impropriety. The school of Hillel, however, interpreted the words as applicable to anything a husband might disapprove, even something so minor as burning a meal.

The "bill of divorce" was very broad: "May this be my bill of divorce to you. You are free to marry who you will." The husband had to present the bill, signed by two witnesses, to his wife. Then the divorce was legal.

Jesus made an allusion to Deuteronomy 24:1, following somewhat the scribes' understanding. Actually, they had taken a less than desirable situation ("If a man... writes") and turned it into a commandment ("let him give her..."). Deuteronomy 24:1ff., however, contains only a single positive command: a man was forbidden to remarry the woman he divorced because she was unclean (verse 4). Because Jesus did not cite the accepted reason for divorce, it can be concluded He did not want to become involved in the debates between Hillel and Shammai.

5:32. Jesus' answer is closely related to the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:14). He directed His questioners' attention to what God originally intended by the sixth commandment and to how the creation account should affect one's understanding (Genesis 1:27; 2:24; also cf. Matthew 19:3-9; Ephesians 5:31, 32; Hebrews 13:4). He declared that three people become guilty of adultery in a divorce and remarriage situation: the woman, the first husband, and the second.

The first marriage is binding except for the case of sexual immorality. Porneias literally denotes "prostitution, habitual immorality," and it has a broader meaning than "adultery." It particularly concerns illegal extramarital sexual relations of any kind. Adultery carried the death penalty (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22), but what should happen in case of immorality is in fact not mentioned here. Nonetheless, it is clear that in this case divorce, although not mandatory, is certainly permitted.

SOURCE: The Complete Biblical Library Commentary - Matthew.  Copyright © 2009 WORDsearch Corp.; World Library Press, Inc.


The College Press NIV Commentary – Matthew 5:27-32

Adultery (5:27-30)

27“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (NIV)

5:27. Jesus once again goes to the core of Jewish Law, this time citing the seventh commandment of the Decalogue: Do not commit adultery (Exod 20:14; Deut 5:18). In the OT adultery was understood to involve sexual relations between a man (married or single) and another man’s wife, or a virgin betrothed to be married to someone else (Lev 18:20; 20:10; Deut 22:22). The primary concern in the injunction against adultery was the violation or defiling of another man’s wife. Hence, the seventh commandment (“you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”). The excessive desire for the wife of one’s neighbor (along with anything else that belonged to the man, v. 12, “house,” “manservant,” “maid servant,” “ox,” “donkey,” Exod 20:17; Deut 5:21), is viewed as a serious breach of a covenantal relationship and the “gateway to the violation of every other principle in the Decalogue.”

5:28.  Jesus radically internalizes the concept of adultery by tracing its root to a lustful look. The phrase, looks at a woman lustfully (πρός τὸ [pros to] + infinitive) describes a look that results in another’s spouse becoming the object of one’s sexual desire (cf. 2 Pet 2:14). Since Jesus intends the whole person to be captivated by the will of God, he places emphasis upon the inner disposition of the heart, not just the overt physical act. God would rule over his people from the inside out.

It should be observed that unlike some Jewish thinking, Jesus does not regard women as the sole or primary causal factor of male involvement in sexual sins. According to certain rabbis, men do not initiate a lustful look or an adulterous act but are merely enticed by the alluring look of a woman. Rather than demanding the seclusion of women, Jesus places the responsibility upon the male to exercise sexual restraint.

5:29-30.  Two hyperbolic illustrations now follow to dramatically reinforce the radical measures one must take to avoid succumbing to illicit desire. If the eye or hand cause one to sin, drastic action must be taken (gouge it out, cut it off) to avoid the snare of sin. Of course, the language is not to be taken literally, since lust cannot ultimately be controlled by maiming the body. The “eye” and “right hand” metaphorically illustrate valued possessions or desires that must be sacrificed for the sake of the kingdom of God. The alternative is the loss of the whole body in gehenna.

Obviously, such a standard of righteousness cannot be measured by a mere legal criteria. The entire person, including inner motivations must be radically transformed to reflect a righteousness commensurate with the very character of God. It should also be observed, as noted by Levison,

As in 5:21-26, the hearer must take initiative: there, to effect reconciliation, and here, to keep oneself from stumbling. Jesus makes no concession for various inner motivations or external causes. He calls his hearers to radical, responsible initiative, particularly in the light of the inevitable judgment of sin (cf. 7:24-27).

Divorce (5:31-32)

31“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

5:31. Jesus now counters popular Jewish notions concerning divorce which were based on a faulty reading of Deut 24:1-4. Jewish divorce laws grounded the authorization of a husband’s right to divorce his wife in Deut 24 by reading the language “he writes her a certificate of divorce” (24:1) as a legitimation of divorce. Since it was assumed that only the husband could initiate a divorce, rabbinic debate shifted to the precise meaning of the vague phrase, “he finds something indecent about her” (24:1). On the one hand, the rabbinic tradition represented by the school of Shammai interpreted the phrase as some form of immorality, while the school of Hillel understood the phrase to include virtually anything that her husband found displeasing (which could include something as trivial as burning his food). Later Rabbi Akiba emphasized the phrase “she finds no favor in his eyes,” and concluded that divorce was permitted when the husband was attracted to someone more beautiful than his wife (m. Gitten 9:10). It should be noted that originally Deut 24:1-4 was not intended to provide divine sanction for divorce, but was intended as a legal provision to protect the woman from a potentially abusive situation. Later Jesus will interpret the Mosaic legislation not as a command, but as a concession to the hardness of heart characterizing Jewish males (see 19:8-9).

5:32.  While the Mosaic Law implicitly upheld the sanctity of marriage, Jesus explicitly held males accountable for propagating adulterous unions if women are persistently discarded because of a husband’s frivolous displeasure. Jesus’ radical limitation on the right of divorce is later explained as an expression of God’s ideal will who places value and sanctity upon the marital state (cf. 19:3-9).

Jesus’ words are intended to drive home, especially to Jewish males (cf. Mark 10:11-12), the seriousness of initiating divorce proceedings against one’s wife. The husband, in effect, cannot divorce his wife, unless the “certificate of divorce” is intended to publicly announce that the wife has already severed the relationship through some form of illicit sexual activity (πορνεία, porneia, cf. 1:18-19). In that case the formal act of divorce is simply the legal ratification that the wife has dissolved the union by her infidelity. It follows that Matthew’s unique exception clause (cf. Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18) is not intended to introduce a new provision for divorce, but simply makes explicit what any Jewish reader would have taken for granted.

Precisely what is meant by the “exception clause” (except for marital unfaithfulness, παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας, parektos logou porneias) has not found unanimity of opinion. In general, proposals tend to gravitate either to a specifically restrictive meaning of porneia (e.g., premarital sex, incest, adultery), or to a much more inclusive meaning, referring to any form of illicit sexual conduct. Since there is no contextual reason in 5:32 (or 19:9) to limit porneia to some specific form of sexual immorality, it appears that the NIV rendering of “marital unfaithfulness” adequately communicates the broad range of sexual misconduct inherent in the term. While adultery (μοιχεία, moicheia) is not to be equated with porneia, it certainly falls within the broad semantic domain suggested by porneia. However, by the use of porneia rather than moicheia the Matthean “exception clause” would probably be understood by Jewish readers to include any form of indiscretion or illicit conduct undermining the marital covenant.

The husband who divorces his wife for reasons other than porneia is guilty of promoting subsequent adulterous unions. Two unstated assumptions seem to undergird Jesus’ perspective. First, the saying assumes a first century culture where a divorced woman would naturally remarry. Second, any remarriage of the divorced woman is viewed as adulterous because she is still the wife of her first husband. Hence, implicitly Jesus upholds the permanence of marriage in contrast to the legal maneuvering of Jewish males based on Deut 24. Certainly, calling a man who legally marries a divorced woman (not guilty of immorality) an adulterer would have struck Jewish hearers as overly rigid (cf. 19:10). However, the idealism of kingdom righteousness demands a return to God’s original intent for marriage.

It is doubtful that Jesus intended his words to be construed as case law demanding legal extrapolation to cover all circumstances leading to divorce. In fact, a survey of the divorce sayings within the Synoptic tradition (i.e., 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18), reveals a fluidity of interpretation and application of Jesus’ words. By far the clearest emendation of Jesus’ words is the notorious “Pauline privilege” (1 Cor 7:12-15) which seems to permit divorce and remarriage for reasons not explicitly stated in the Gospel tradition. It appears that the disconcerting realities of our fallen condition, to some extent, determine the application of God’s ideal will.

While Jesus assumes a prophetic spirit by articulating the timeless truth that God “hates divorce” (Mal 2:16), his disclosure of the heart of God also reveals a compassionate response to the particulars of the human condition (cf. 9:13; 12:7). It would seem that while we should never compromise our pursuit of the ideal, the hard reality of our persistent failures demands a redemptive response to those who fail. After all, the radical demands of the kingdom include statements about anger, lust, revenge, and loving our enemies, along with the prohibition of divorce. Interpreting Jesus’ words legalistically always fails to take seriously both the depth of God’s demand and the extent of human failure.

SOURCE: The College Press NIV Commentary: Matthew; by Larry Chouinard; New Testament Series Co-Editors: Jack Cottrell, Ph.D., Cincinnati Bible Seminar; Tony Ash, Ph.D., Abilene Christian University; College Press Publishing Company, Joplin, Missouri





A written notice of divorce (v. 31)—The Greek word translated here originally had the sense of abandonment of property, then in Jewish circles acquired the meaning of a certificate or notice of divorce given to a woman so she could remarry without charge of adultery.

SOURCE: Life Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.

DIVORCE:  The legal ending of a marriage. From early time provision was made for divorce among the Israelites (Deut. 24:1-4). Persumably prior to this decree, a wife could be put out of the home at the pleasure of the husband. Now he was required to write out “a bill of divorce” and give it to his wife as proof that he was divorcing her. This gave some dignity and protection to the divorced woman.

Divorce was common enough among the Jews in New Testament times to cause division among the rabbis as to the valid basis for divorce. The passage in Deuteronomy did not give clear guidelines. “Because he hath found some uncleanness in her” (Deut. 24:1) left room for interpretation. One group of rabbis insisted that divorce could be granted only if the wife was immoral. Another group argued that divorce could be secured by the husband if the wife displeased him in any way. Among the Jews, only the husband had the right to secure a divorce. The wife might leave her husband, but she could not divorce him. The situation was different in the Roman world. There the wife had equal rights with the husband in the matter of divorce.

The teachings of Jesus are the clearest to be found in the Bible concerning divorce. He refused to be drawn into the rabbinical controversy over the possible valid basis for divorce. When such an attempt was made (Matt. 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12), Jesus referred His questioners to the Old Testament law. They cited the permission granted in Deuteronomy 24. Jesus pointed out that this was not God’s original intent. Divorce was permitted only because of “the hardness of your heart” (Mark 10:5). Then Jesus went back to God’s original intent which was permanent monogamy, one man and one woman together for life. He supported this by referring back to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. God intended marriage to be permanent.

On another occasion as Jesus taught about divorce (Matt. 5:31-32), He referred to the passage in Deuteronomy 24 as common knowledge among His hearers. He did not give His approval to the practice of divorce. Rather, He showed the consequences of divorce in the lives of people. If a man divorced his wife, he made her an adulteress unless the basis of the divorce was her own immorality. This statement has been understood in various ways. One idea is that Jesus was giving here a justifiable ground for divorce. If the wife violated her marriage vows, the husband had the right to divorce her. However, another suggestion is that Jesus was not making a law. Instead, he was saying that the husband would make the wife become an adulteress unless she had already become one by her own action. A divorced woman in Palestine of that day had few choices. To survive she could remarry or become a prostitute. In either case she was guilty of adultery. In a few instances, the divorced wife might have been able to return to live with her parents. Whichever interpretation of Jesus’ statement is considered best, He indicated that God’s intention was permanent marriage.

On only one occasion did Paul deal with the matter of divorce in his writings. The church at Corinth asked him questions concerning marriage. In his response to their questions, he had to give advice in matters relating to the marriage of a Christian with another Christian and that of a Christian with a nonbeliever (1 Cor. 7:10-13). With regard to the marriage of two Christians, he cited the teaching of Jesus. The Christian man should not divorce his wife, and the Christian woman should not separate from her husband. In the matter of a Christian married to a nonbeliever, Paul did not have a specific teaching from Jesus. But he gave his advice under the guidance of God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 7:40). He stated that a Christian was not to take the initiative to divorce the nonbeliever. So long as the nonbeliever was willing to live in a proper marriage relationship, the Christian was to maintain that relationship.

Thus the intention of God from creation has been that man and woman live together in a permanent marriage relationship. Divorce was allowed in the Old Testament as a protection to the married partners and a means to salvage whatever good could be gained from a bad situation. But Jesus clearly taught that it was not the proper action for His people.

The Scripture does not give specific instructions as to what a divorced person should do. The nearest is Paul’s advice that the woman who separates from her husband should remain single or else be reconciled with her husband (1 Cor. 7:11). This advice was given in a context where Paul urged the single state for anyone who was not married.

SOURCE: Holman Bible Dictionary; General Editor, David S. Dockery; Holman Bible Publishers; Nashville, Tennessee.





By Gerald L. Stevens

Gerald L. Stevens is professor of New Testament and Greek, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, Louisiana


HE FIRST CENTURY was a Roman world.1   Jesus was born into this Roman world when it was ruled by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1).  Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14) founded a new order of peace and stability after centuries of political and social chaos during the Roman civil wars.  The Augustan age reaffirmed old values of the Republican age, including those of hearth and home.  To repopulate the empire after decimation by wars, Augustus encouraged marriage and regulated divorce.  The two basic forms of marriage were civil and common.  Roman law regulated civil marriages.


The reforms of Augustus dealt with civil marriage, which already had a long tradition in Roman law.  Initially only aristocrats could contract civil marriages.  Later, patrician and plebeian classes joined the ranks around 445 B.C.  Under Augustus, marriage contracts were expanded to freeborn and freed persons.  The slave never was allowed to execute a civil marriage contract.

The contractual power invested in a civil marriage was that of defining progeny and distributing authority.  Defining legitimate (legal) progeny was crucial to Roman society, because progeny inherited the social status of the father and the family wealth.  And distributing authority was important because it designated the proper legal authority of the individuals involved.

The civil marriage contract had two forms.  The first form was “with power.”  This “power” referred to legal authority over the wife’s property.  A civil marriage “with power’ transferred legal authority of the wife’s property from father to husband.  The “with power” form of civil marriage had practically disappeared, though, by the first century.

Augustus favored the second marriage form, “without power.”   In the second form, property was retained in the old traditional families.  “Without power” also allowed the wife to manage her own affairs.  A handsome dowry encouraged husbands to accept such arrangements.  Just how independent the wife could be in the administration of her own affairs was the subject of some debate.  Cicero, the famous Roman orator, seemed to favor the wife managing at least some of her own affairs independently, even of her father.2  In any case, by Paul’s day, most Roman civil marriages were this second form “without power,” in which the wife held some authority to manage her own affairs.  This authority gave the woman some financial security after divorce.


Common marriage was a second form of marriage.  Although this form lacked official legal status, Roman society at large generally recognized these arrangements as functional marriages.  One form, especially common among slaves, was “sharing the same roof.”  Another form was “concubinage” in which a man could take a concubine as a wife.  No dowry was exchanged, and the children were considered illegitimate legally and thus could not inherit property.  Roman soldiers were forbidden marriage during their 20 years of service.  They were required to divorce their wives if they were already married at the time of conscription.  For this reason, soldiers customarily maintained concubines local to their station during their military service.3


The presence of divorce in the first century is hard to put to specific numbers due to questions of how to read ancient authors on the matter.  Roman authors probably exaggerated problems about marriage and divorce.  The famous Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D. 17) himself entered into marriage unions three different times.4  In any case, divorce seems a common way of life in the Roman world of Paul and the early Christians.

At first only the husband could initiate divorce, but in the later Republic the wife could initiate the divorce from her husband.5  Divorce could be initiated unilaterally and required only that one party no longer consent to the marriage.  Remarriage was presumed in almost any divorce.

Augustus attempted to quell the rising tide of Roman divorce rates.  He put regulations on divorce.  Examples of his restrictions include:  (1) provision of official notification of divorce proceedings,6 (2) a required separation period prior to final legal action, (3) dowry reclamation to the wife’s family, (4) required child custody by the father, (5) required remarriages of divorcees between 20 to 50 years old when childless.

Adultery was the most common reason for divorce.  Adultery was made a statutory public crime when Augustus enacted the lex Julia de Adulteriis in 18 B.C.  A husband was forced by law to divorce an adulterous wife, and those guilty of adultery could face banishment or even death.7  In a remarkable example of how strictly the law was enforced, Emperor August personally banished his own daughter Julia after he learned of her indiscretions while she was married to Tiberius.8  Society’s rules for the husband, however, were quite different.  An adulterous husband might face no crime unless the woman with whom he was involved was married or of high social standing.9  Thus, in general, even pagan Roman society considered adultery wrong and shameful.10 

While adultery generally was condemned, and spouses could be jealous, the central Roman issue was legal status, not romantic commitment.  Establishing legitimate heirs was a core value in Roman law.  Adultery jeopardized the legal standing of progeny.  Any progeny that resulted by the husband’s indiscretions already was declared illegitimate by law.  Such progeny accrued no legal status and could make no claims whatsoever in a Roman court.  Inheritance issues were not conflicted.  Adultery of the wife, on the other hand, did conflict inheritance laws, because the Romans did not have the blood of DNA tests to establish claimed paternity in the case of pregnancy.

Besides the issue of adultery, another ground for Roman divorce was childlessness.  The issue in childlessness, as in adultery, again was inheritance law.  An entire family tradition of wealth and status could come to naught in a childless generation.  Other reasons for divorce would be the typical relational issues of money, in-laws, social status, and so forth.  In none of these situations, however, was sex outside the marriage actually a part of the equation.

In fact, sex outside of marriage for the male was common and expected in the Roman world.  Thus, a double standard clearly existed.  Four Greek terms describe four types of common sexual relationships.  The mistress (etaira, Greek) gave intellectual companionship.  The concubine (pallake, Greek) often was the slave in the household.  The harlot (porne, Greek) gave casual gratification.  The wife (gunaikos, Greek) secured legitimate heirs and household management.  Here is how Demosthenes characterized these relationships:  “Mistresses we keep for pleasure, concubines for daily attendance upon person, wives to bear us legitimate children and be our faithful housekeeper.”11

In sum, marriage was supported in the Roman world, but pagan mores condoned or at least allowed other types of sexual relationships outside of marriage.  Divorce was common in Roman life, easily initiated, and even commanded by law in particular cases.  As a result Christian converts would experience culture shock as they attempted to make the transition from their pagan lifestyle where sex outside of marriage was a given and divorce, a frequent course of action.  The high standards for marriage and general intolerance for divorce in the Christian world were great challenges for many new believers.                                                 Bi

[1] An excellent resource that covers much more in depth the issues treated in this article is Craig S. Keener, “Adultery, Divorce,” Dictionary of New Testament Background, Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, eds.  (Downers Grove, Leicester: InterVarsity Press: 2000), 6-16.

2 Ciero, The Speeches, Pro Flacco in The Loeb Classical Library, Louis E. Lord, trans.  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), 34-84 (p. 455).

3 Some soldiers would marry their concubines after completing their military service.  See Gaius, The Institutes of Gaius, Part 1, Francis De Zulueta, trans. (Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1946), 1.57 (p. 19).

4 Ovid, Tristia in The Loeb Classical Library, Arthur Leslie Wheeler, trans. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press , 1959), 4.10.69-74 (p. 203).

5  Gaius, 1.137a.

6  An example of a divorce contract is in The New Testament Background: Writings from Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire That Illuminate Christian Origins.  Revised Edition, C. K. Barrett, ed. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), 41-42.

7 Justinian’s Institutes, Peter Birks and Grant McLeon, trans. (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co., Ltd., 1987), 4.18.4 (p. 154).

8 L. Annaeus Seneca, On Benefits in Bohn’s Classical Library. Aubrey Stewart, trans. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1887), 6.32.1 (p. 186).

9  Cicero, Pro Caelio in The Loeb Classical Library, R. Gardner., trans. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 20.48-50 (p. 465-469).

10 Epictetus, Discourses in The Loeb Classical Library, W.A. Oldfather, trans. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 2.4 (p. 235-237); 2.10.18 (p. 279), 2.18.15 (p. 353).

11 The Orations of Demosthenes, Against Neaera in Bohn’s Classical Library, Charles Rann Kennedy, trans. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1884), 272

 SOURCE:  Biblical Illustrator, LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Vol. 34, No. 1;  Fall, 2007.


“You Have Heard It Said”.  Jewish Laws Behind Jesus’ Teachings

By John Polhill

John Polhill is a professor of New Testament, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

THE SIX INSTANCES in Matthew 5:32-48 where Jesus contrasted His own interpretation of the law with that of the Old Testament are often called the “antitheses,”  Strictly speaking, they are not antithetical to but a strengthening of the law.  Three of the Ten Commandments are addressed:  murder (v. 21), adultery (v. 27), and oaths (v.33).  The other three relate to other Old Testament laws.

                        In Jesus’ time the rabbis often discussed the Old Testament laws.  They used formulas similar to Jesus’ antitheses.  For example, they would state that a certain rabbi said thus and so, but another rabbi would differ would him by offering another interpretation:  “Rabbi X said ….but Rabbi Y said ….”  Jesus did something no rabbi would ever have done: He explained the Old Testament law with His own interpretation.  The “it was said” of the antitheses should probably be understood as a “divine passive” referring to God:  “God said,  ‘you shall not kill,’ but I say….”  As Son of God, Jesus provided His own radical interpretation of the divine law.  In the Sermon on the Mount, He prepared His listeners for this new interpretation by stating that He had not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it (vv. 17-20).  This “fulfillment” takes the form of a radical restatement of the law that went far beyond any understanding of Jesus’ contemporaries.

Murder (Matt. 5:32-26)

The prohibition of killing is one of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:13).  Other passages clearly indicate this referred to willful murder (21:12-14).  For cases of accidental killings, cities of refuge provided protection from any of the victims’ relatives who might want to see revenge (Num. 35:9-28).  No such provision was available for willful murder, and the penalty was death.

                        Jesus’ antithesis went to the root of the problem, forbidding the anger that can lead to killing.  The Old Testament speaks against hatred, anger, and vengeance (for example, Lev. 19:18, Prov. 15:1).  No source, however, equates anger with murder in the manner of Jesus’ antitheses.  Jesus was the only one to teach that the one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment (Matt. 5:22).

                        Readers should probably view verse 22 as stating the same principle three times.  The principle is that anger, like murder, is liable to judgment.  Anger in general is stated first, followed by two examples of anger expressed in name-calling.  The two words are virtually synonymous, one being Aramaic (raca, “fool” in HCSB), the other Greek (moe, “moron” in HCSB).  Both mean “fool, empty-head.”  The three expressions for judgment probably move from lesser to greater:  judgment (the local court), Sanhedrin  (the Supreme Court), Gehenna (divine judgment).  Since Jesus equated anger with murder, the death penalty for murder would apply for all three courts.

                        Verses 23-26 illustrate the basic principle Jesus emphasized—one must maintain good relationships with others.  One can avoid murder and hatred by overcoming the anger that leads to them.  The two illustrations about reconciliation emphasize this.  When anger arises, one must deal with it and be reconciled to one’s fellow human before that anger leads to something far worse.  Obviously, unlike murder, anger cannot be legislated.  Controlling it requires a change of the heart, a new relationship with God.  Nothing in the old law came close to such a radical view.

Adultery (Matt. 5:27-30)

The Ten Commandments likewise prohibit adultery (Ex. 20:14).  For both the Old Testament and Judaism contemporary with Jesus, adultery consisted of a man having relations with another’s wife.  The penalty was death for both parties (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22).  Interestingly, Jewish tradition did not consider it adultery for a married man to have relations with an unmarried woman.  The whole matter was viewed primarily from a male perspective.

                        Passages are common in the Jewish literature that warn against the lustful look.  For example, one Jewish source of the first century B.C. condemns the man whose “eyes are on every woman indiscriminately,” who “with his eyes he speaks to every woman of illicit affairs.”1  A second-century writing describes the righteous man as one who has not been “promiscuous by lustful look.:2  These statements, however, are vastly different from Jesus’ antithesis which equates lustful feelings with the actual adulterous act.  Jesus’ contemporaries would have viewed the woman as the seductress and would have warned the men against being aroused by womanly wiles and enticed into adultery.  Jesus, however, was concerned with both the woman and the man and right relationships between them.  Those who are among Jesus’ kingdom people, male and female, are to rise above the sensual level of unredeemed humanity and have an altogether different basis of relationships.  The hyperbolic statements of verses 29-30 are not intended literally but emphasize the need for one’s whole being to be in right relationship with God as evidenced in maintaining right relationships with others.

Divorce (Matt. 5:31-32)

The Old Testament does not expressly prohibit divorce.  Instead, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 lays down guidelines for a “proper” divorce.  Jesus rejected these altogether, considering divorce something God only tolerated because of humanity’s “hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8).  His basic teaching was that God does not accept divorce, considering the one-flesh relationship He ordained in Eden to be a permanent state (vv. 4-6; Mark 10:6-9; I Cor. 7:10).  Deuteronomy 24:1 establishes the proper grounds for divorce as being when a man finds “some indecency” (NASB) in his wife.  The rabbis debated what might constitute such an “indecency..”  The strict school of Shammai identified it as infidelity.  The more liberal school of Hillel maintained that it could be disrespect or some displeasuring act.  Rabbi Akiba (ca. A.D. 45-135) stated that if a husband no longer considered his wife attractive, then he had adequate grounds for divorce.  The traditions concerning divorce clearly tended to give the greatest share of the leniency and benefits to the husband.

                        Of the New Testament texts dealing with Jesus’ teaching on divorce, only Matthew provides the exception of immorality (5:32; 19:9), which is basically the position of Shammai.  Jesus’ teaching, however, was far more radical than any rabbi.  His concern for the woman was unparalleled, as expressed by His teaching that when a man divorced his wife, he caused her to commit adultery.  Jesus took marriage to a higher level—back to God’s intention in creation for the permanence of the one-flesh relationship.  This reaching removes the legalistic basis for marriage and raises marriage to a new level based on relationship to God.

Oaths (Matt. 5:33-37)

For the prohibition of swearing, Jesus quoted Leviticus 19:12 and Psalm 50:14, which are based on the Third Commandment about taking the name of the Lord in vain (Ex. 20:7).  The particular swearing is that of invoking name of the Lord when taking an other:  “By God, I will do so and so.”  Not to carry through on the oath was to take God’s name lightly.

                        Vows were generally considered to be binding (Num. 30:1-2); Deut. 23:21), but the rabbis often debated whether some forms of vows were nonbinding.  Matthew 5:34-36 provides three such examples of rabbinic casuistry.  The Mishnah, the first written collection of the rabbinic oral laws, provides examples of all three “exceptions.”  First, one’s oath was seen to be non-binding if one swore by heaven or by earth.3  Second, when swearing by Jerusalem, whether it was binding or not depended on the particular wording of the oath.4  Third, as for the head, swearing by “the life” of one’s head was considered to be binding by most rabbis, although others considered it nonbinding.5

                        Jesus rejected all such casuistry as well as all oath taking, insisting on one’s word being one’s bond, one’s “yes” being yes, and one’s “no” being no.  Jesus’ brother James echoed this same teaching in his own epistle (Jas. 5:12).  The radical nature of Jesus’ rejection of oaths is clear when you remember that in Jesus’ day only a few people wrote out contracts.  Agreements were usually by word of mouth and were assured by solemn oaths.  The insistence on absolute honesty again calls for a different sort of human relationship, a changed nature.

Retaliation (Matt. 5:38-42)

“An eye for an eye” is one of the most ancient legal principles known traceable as far back as the Code of Hammurabi in the 18th century B.C.  Three times the Pentateuch mentions the principle (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21).  Though seemingly cruel to us, its original purpose was to limit blood vengeance, to hold compensation to the actual injury inflicted and no more.  By Jesus’ day, compensation was generally made in monetary restitution, as often happens in lawsuits today.6

                        Jesus’ antithesis rejected any concept of retaliation or compensation for the injury.  He listed three examples, which emphasize nonretaliation in the most radical fashion.  Offering the left cheek involves a backhanded slap, which Jesus’ contemporaries considered particularly insulting.  They believe such an action warranted doubling the compensation someone would receive for an ordinary slap.7  For Jesus’ second example, He referred to the one thing that one could not sue a person for—his cloak, a loose-fitting garment that did double duty as a blanket at night.  The Old Testament required the return of the cloak by night when it had been taken in pledge (Ex. 22:26; Deut. 24:12-13).  Jesus’ third example involved persons being required to go with another one mile..  The principle behind this teaching was the Roman law that required private citizens to carry a soldier’s military equipment—as exemplified even in Simon’s being required to carry Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21).  The practice was particularly odious to the Jews, who resented the Roman presence and occupation of Israel in the first place.  To go a second mile was a totally new concept.

                        Completely denying one’s rights was a radical stance, but a stance Jesus’ antithesis demanded.   We again find Jesus going beyond the provisions of the law and demanding a completely new orientation.

Love and Hate (Matt. 5:43-48)

The command to love one’s neighbor comes from Leviticus 19:18.  It applied to fellow Israelites, but included resident aliens (sojourners) as well (vv. 33-34; Deut. 10:18-19).  In Jesus’ day, just whom “neighbor” included was debated.  As reflected in a lawyer’s question to Jesus (Luke 10:29).  Jesus replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan (vv. 30-37):  a neighbor is someone who cares enough to help.  In His antithesis, Jesus went further:  one’s neighbors include enemies, even persecutors (Matt. 5:44).  Nowhere in the Old Testament do we find a command to hate one’s enemies, although the monastic handbook of the Qumran community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls comes close when it said to “hate all the Children of Darkness.”8  To understand the command “to love one’s neighbor” as applying only to those of one’s own religious orientation would also include by implication the “non-love” of outsiders.  Qumran’s command to “love all the Children of Light” and to hate “all the Children of Darkness” is to be understood this way, as a rejection of those outside its community of faith.

                        The rabbis urged followers to love outsiders (humankind in general) in order to bring them to God’s law.9 But nowhere do we find Jesus’ contemporaries saying that people should pray for their persecutors (v. 44b).  Jesus even set the example for this in praying for His own persecutors (Luke 23:34), as did Stephen (Acts 7:60). 

Our Challenge—A New Way of Living

Matthew 5:45 in a sense provides the key to all of the antitheses: in loving even our enemies, we show ourselves to be children of God.  Normal human effort is incapable of fulfilling Jesus’ radical statement of God’s law—no anger, no lust, no infidelity, complete honesty, complete forgiveness, nondiscriminatory love.  These are only possible for children of God—for those guided by His Spirit.  These are not laws to make us God’s children.  They are rather the characteristics of those who are God’s children.  We are to live as God’s children, complete and whole in all our relationships, even as God is in His relationship to us.  Nothing in contemporary Judaism approximated such a radically new basis for living.  And this radical, new way of living is our challenge still today.                                Bi

1.“Psalms of Solomon” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, James H. Charlesworth, ed,. Vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 4:4-5 (p. 655).

2.“Testament of Issachar” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, James H. Charlesworth, ed,. Vol. 1 (New York:  Doubleday, 1983), 7:2 (p. 804).

3.The Mishnah, Herbert Danby, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), Shebuoth 4:13 (p. 415).

4.Ibid., Nedarim 1:3 (p. 264) 

5.Ibid, Sanhedrin 3:2 (p. 385).

6.Ibid, Baba Kamma 8:1 (p. 342).

7.Ibid. Baba Kamma 8:6 (p. 343).

8.The Dead Sea Scrolls, A New Translation, Michael Wise, Martin Abegg, Jr., and Edward Cook, trans. (New York; HarperSanFranscisco, 1996), 1QS 1:9-10 (p. 127).           9.The Mishnah, Aboth 1:12 (p. 447).

SOURCE:  Biblical Illustrators: LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Vol. 34 Number 1 Fall, 2007


Laws Behind Jesus’ Teaching

By Timothy John Turnham

Timothy John Turnham is Pastor, Luther Rice Memorial Baptist Church, Silver Spring, Maryland.


LASPHEMY!  This would have been the response to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:21-48—blasphemy!

Matthew used over 60 Old Testament quotations—double that of any other Gospel1—to show Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17).  As fulfiller of the law, Jesus is the authority in a new Israel, shaped by more radical morality.

Matthew 5:21-48 occurs in the Sermon on the Mount.  The sermon was unique to Matthew; as to the form of these verses—they are “antitheses.”

Antithese were a rabbinic tool for arguing points of law.  An opinion was quoted then refuted.  Unlike the rabbis, however, Jesus argued not against interpretations of the law but against the law itself!  Matthew then, intentionally recorded words that the Jews would considered sacrilegious.

The first antithesis begins “You have heard that it was said to the men of old . . . “ (RSV).  With this phrase Jesus stated He would refute some ancient authority.  Imagine the shock when He then quoted from the Ten Commandments!

The commandment against murder has been discussed for centuries.  Does it prohibit war?  Capital punishment?  Abortion?  The best view relates to community—the law prohibits an act of killing, whether it is premeditated or related to vengeance, the violates Yahweh’s standard of living.2

Jesus announced that this is not enough.  While earthly justice may punish killing, the justice of God’s kingdom prohibits anger, insults, and slander.  Further, peace with the community is more important than worship!  Even a sacrifice must be stopped in order to seek reconciliation.

People might say this is unreasonable—who can avoid anger?  Is it likely that a person could leave a sacrifice and seek out an accuser, holding up worship for hundreds of others?  Does saying “You fool!” result in eternal torment?  Of course not.  Jesus Himself became angry (Mark 3:5) and called Pharisees “fools” (Matt. 23:17)!

In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus dealt with standards of the kingdom, not practicality.  While people could boast they had never killed, under Jesus’ new teaching every person needed new commitment to God and each other.  Failure to pursue reconciliation is like being thrown in debtor’s prison.  Jewish leaders of the time condemned the Gentile practice in imprisoning debtors for trivial debts—even for a penny!  Jesus said God will hold us to a standard equally rigid.

The second antithesis uses a shorter introduction—“You have heard that it was said . . . “  Jesus confronted another commandment—adultery.  The law demanded capital punishment for the adulterer.  Stories involving Abraham and David suggest that all Jews did not follow the law.  Proverbs and the prophets condemned adultery.

Adultery did not mean to Israelites what it does to us today, however.  Jewish custom allowed men more than one wife and permitted dalliances outside of marriage.  Men are only condemned for an affair with a married woman, and then for violating her marriage.

Criticism of lustful looks has roots in Old Testament and rabbinic teachings.  Proverbs warns of enticing women.  The Tenth Commandment prohibits coveting another’s wife.  Jesus amplified this, declaring lust toward any woman a sin.  He broke with traditional censure of women for leading men astray.  Jesus said men must take responsibility for their actions—and attitudes—lest they be guilty of committing adultery in their hearts. 

The radical nature of Jesus’ demand is seen in steps taken to avoid lust—plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand.  (See Matt. 18:8-9; Mark 9:43-48).  Again, these demands seem unreasonable.  They are an inappropriate response to impure thoughts.  Such action would isolate a Jewish person from the traditional source for moral improvement—the temple.  Finally, lust is not a problem of eye or hand; it is a problem, as Jesus said, of the heart.  Earlier Scripture and rabbinic teachings agree—the heart leads one astray or draws one to God.

Though seeming unreasonable, these steps serve a function in Jesus’ argument.  We cannot presume that if we have not committed adultery we are righteous.  Indeed, the heart problem leads to lust, which leads to adultery.  The consequence is for “your whole body to go into hell.”  Avoiding that is worth any sacrifice.

The third antithesis—on divorce—builds on the second.  Again the introduction changes—“It was also said . . . .“

Similar teachings occur in Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; and Luke 16:18.  This antithesis does not relate to the Ten Commandments, but to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which allows divorce if a man finds in his wife a shameful thing.  The meaning here of “shameful thing,” is uncertain.

Rabbi Hillel understood it as “any shameful affair.”  He allowed all kinds of offenses as grounds for divorce.  For example, a husband could separate himself from his wife if she burned the food.  Rabbi Shammai, however, limited the concept and understood it as “a certain shameful matter.”3

Jesus’ teaching on divorce here is puzzling.  Mark and Luke have no provision for divorce.  This would echo the two previous antitheses by refuting current law and offering a more radical version.  Matthew, however, here and in chapter 19, records an exception—“on the ground of unchastity.”

Examining the underlying principles of the law and of Jesus’ teaching provides a solution.  In ancient times divorce had no regulation; the husband could send his wife away at any time.  The Deuteronomic law assumed that divorce was part of life and attempted to restrict the practice.  In Jesus’ day the man must have a reason for divorce, prepare a legal document stating his intentions, and present that document to some council to record the decree.

Jesus rejected this practice and the underlying assumption, recalling an earlier ideal—“the two shall become one flesh.”  His underlying principle was that divorce is never allowed.  If a man divorces his wife for any reason, he turns her into an adulteress; if a man marries a divorced woman—regardless of why she is divorced—he commits adultery.  The exception to this—recorded only by Matthew—is if the woman already has become an adulteress.  In that case the marriage is ended already, the ideal union between man and woman shattered.

The Fourth antithesis begins like the first—referring to hearing from men in ancient times.  Jesus addressed the swearing of oaths. (See Matt. 23:16-22).

Although no Scripture is quoted here, oaths are mentioned in several locations (see Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2-15; Deut. 23:21-23; Ps. 50:14), including the Third Commandment.  These laws deal largely with treating oaths seriously.  In ancient times oaths were invoked in the name of a god; if the swearer failed to fulfill the oath, he would incur the wrath of that god.  Later other objects of importance were used to bind oaths.  In ancient Near Eastern thought, spoken words—especially oaths—had life and power of their own.

Apparently in Jesus’ day unethical people would make vows based on items that in fact had no binding power at all!  That person to whom the oath was made would falsely assume that the  promise was valid.  The rabbis tried to define binding and non-binding oaths in order to prevent this behavior.  Generally the rabbis said that a binding oath had to contain the name of God or one of His attributes.

Rather than admonish His listeners to treat oaths seriously, as the law had done, and rather than define what was binding, and the rabbis did, Jesus declared that all oaths were of “the evil one” (NIV).  He demonstrated with four examples that the ultimate authority behind every oath is God.  If you swear by heaven, by earth, by Jerusalem, or by hair on you head—these are all under God’s control.  Because everything belongs to God, calling on the power of anything ultimately calls on God’s power.  This denies God’s sovereignty by reducing “God’s omnipotence to an object of human manipulation.”4 

The fifth antithesis reverts to the simpler introduction used in the second.  The subject here is retaliation.  The phrase “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” appears three times in the Old Testament, each regarding a different law (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:19-20; Deut. 19:21). 

The custom of retaliation required revenge.  Humiliation was met with physical violence, violence with death, death with slaughter—resulting in a pattern of escalating violence.

The Hebrew legal system provided protection for the accused in the form of sanctuary in the temple and cities of refuge.  More importantly, it short-circuited escalation of violence by calling for appropriate violence—the punishment must fit the crime.  Both the problem and this equitable solution were common in the ancient Near East.  Laws in Greek and Roman cultures, as well as the Code of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC ), reflect similar guidelines.

By Jesus’ day, blinding or amputation were not practiced; instead an elaborate system of monetary damages was used.  This is reasonable under the assumption that wrong must be punished.  Jesus, however, required the child of God to refrain form resisting evil altogether!

He offered four examples.  First, when slapped on the right cheek (indicating a slap with the back of the hand, a particularly humiliating insult) turn the other also!

The second example, of a coat and cloak, has a parallel in Luke’s sermon on the plain (Luke 6:29).  Matthew’s setting was a courtroom.  The victim is sued for the inner garment and should voluntarily surrender the outer garment too.

The third example reflects a Persian practice, continued by the Greeks and Romans, of allowing messengers to demand labor and escort service whenever needed.  In the kingdom of God this required services must be doubled voluntarily.

Finally, the child of God must give to everyone who begs, loan money to anyone who asks.  Hebrew law forbade charging interest on such loans—this was no moneymaking venture!

Rejecting a legal system based on due punishment, Jesus demanded total compliance to anyone who would hit us, sue us, press us into service, or ask anything of us.  Morality in the kingdom of God is measured by the standard of surrendering possessions, pride, and independence in service to others—regardless of who those others might be.

The final antithesis begins as the second and fifth, “You have heard it said . . .” (RSV), and relates to loving enemies.  Jesus mentioned two teachings: “love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  The first is a direct quote for Leviticus 19:18, which is also quoted in Matthew 19:19 and 22:39.

Hebrew Scripture does not include the second element—“hate your enemies”—but it can be inferred from several passages (see Ps. 139:21-22).  While these verses refer to political enemies of Israel, Matthew used a word that refers to a personal enemy.

The enemies in Jesus’ day did include national powers—Rome, for example; however, the most common enemy was the enemy of God’s truth, anyone who opposed the accepted teachings.  God’s people were encouraged to hate such people.  The Dead Sea Scrolls record instructions to members of the Qumran community to “love all the sons of light, . . . and to detest all the sons of darkness” (1QS 1:9-10).

Jesus rejected the belief that it is enough to love only our neighbor and the belief that the child of God is allowed—even required—to hate the enemy.  He issued a more radical command—love the enemy and pray for the persecutor!

The idea of loving all people was known to the world of Greek philosophers.  Both the Law and Wisdom literature of the Old Testament speak of helping the enemy at times (see Ex. 23:4; Prov. 25:21).  Some Jewish teachers had encouraged praying for one’s enemies, though this was specifically in order to have them converted.5

Jesus removed ulterior motives for loving the enemy.  The purpose is not to not to convert, or to “heap coals of fire on their heads’ as in Proverbs.  We are commanded to love our enemies because this is the only way in which we can live as the children of God.  “If you only love those who love you, what separates you from everyone else?”  Anyone can love a friend—only the person who has been transformed by the Spirit can live according to the kingdom ideal of loving the enemy.

The laws to which Jesus spoke grew out of specific problem.  People killed.  The committed adultery.  They divorced.  They swore false oaths.  The sought revenge and had trouble loving others.  Israel’s tradition tried to confront these realities and set limits.  Divorce msut have a reason.  Revenge must be reasonable.

Jesus rejected this for “zero tolerance” toward anything that undermined community.  The kingdom ethic was based not in reality by ideal, not in practicality, but a standard that gave evidence of God’s presence.  In short, they were based on nothing less than this—“You . . . must be perfect!”                  Bi

  1.  Hager, Matthew I—I3, vol. 33A in Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1993), liv.

  2.  Durham, Exodus, vol. 3 in Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, 1987), 293.

  3.  Strecker, The Sermon on the Mount, trans. Dean, Jr., (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988), 74.

  4.  Strecker, 79.

  5.  Strecker, 89.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Winter 1996.




(1.93)  What Is The Answer To & Where In The Bible Is This Week’s Trivia Question Found? (02/14/16) Who plotted to have the entire Hebrew nation completely exterminated in the kingdom of Ahasuerus?  Answer Next Week:

The answer to last week’s question:  (02/07/16) What wicked king of Judah confessed his sins when he was taken into captivity in Assyria?  Answer: Manasseh; 2 Chronicles 33:11-13.