“You have heard it said… But I say to you…” – Jesus
To say Jesus of Nazareth was a controversial figure is a gross understatement. Loved by some, hated by others, but extremely hard to ignore … and considered by almost everyone to be one of the greatest teachers who has ever lived.
Jesus was famous for statements like the one above in the way He taught people who God really was. We see a number of them in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), for example, addressing issues ranging from anger to lust, divorce to serving the poor, murder to swearing oaths, and dozens of others. Jesus was forever pushing on and questioning the status quo and the traditions of the religious elite in His day. And those same religious leaders, who had staked so much on that same status quo, hated Him for it.
So, what was His deal?
In my view, there are at least two important points that fall out of Jesus’ penchant for controversy in his teaching style…
Jesus claims a radical authority
First, to really get Jesus and the reactions He invoked, we have to understand that His audience heard the things He said much differently than we do. In our world, centuries later, teachers and the teaching profession are cut from the Greco-Roman mold, blended with the radical wealth, individualism, and self-reliance of the modern Western world. We teach others by focusing on the future – primarily to hone a skill or gain some knowledge which we believe will advantage us toward greater production or the next big accomplishment. In Jesus’ day, however, Jewish rabbis (teachers) focused “backwards” on history and heritage. Their goal was to “protect a stream of tradition” – a phrase I first heard used by Dr. Dana Harris, who taught a New Testament survey class I attended last year – that gave their Jewish students a powerful sense of belonging to something greater than themselves… specifically, to God’s promise to make them a (His!) nation and family. The Jews believed that the authority to teach was passed down from rabbis to their disciples through the centuries, and could be traced in an unbroken line all the way back to Moses himself, who was the only rabbi in history to receive his authority to teach God’s Word directly from God at the burning bush (see Exodus 3). Therefore, the teachers of the law in Jesus’ day “sat in Moses’ seat” (see Matthew 23:2) and drew their authority from the line and tradition of the rabbis who “sat” before them.
In their eyes, Jesus was a total nobody. To them, he was the (probably illegitimate) son of a poor teenage peasant girl, and a local carpenter. Other than an uncanny knowledge of the Scriptures He demonstrated even as a child (see Luke 2:41-52), he had no authority. No formal education. No credentials. And certainly no right to contract the professionals. But that didn’t stop Him. Over and over again, Jesus stepped unapologetically into the carefully-protected and long-preserved rabbinical structure, and exerted Himself … even over the well-respected, even feared, Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus “not only behaves like a rabbi, but he [takes for Himself] disciples and extends his own authority to them. He even interprets the traditions, contrasting his own views with Moses [in interpreting the law].”  His repeated statements, “You have heard it said… But I tell you…” were extremely inflammatory and controversial to traditional, contemporary rabbis. But those “who had ears to hear” (Matthew 11:15) found their hearts opened in a way never before experienced by the Truth Jesus taught them with new sense of authority (c.f. Matthew 7:28-29, Mark 4:31-32, etc).
Jesus referred directly to what Moses (and the line of teachers descending directly from him) had taught, and overruled it. He instructs His disciples to “obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20), with no mention of the Law. He said, “Moses said this… But, I tell you that…”. He was overtly superseding centuries of tradition and placing Himself above even those ordained by God to teach God’s Word (Moses and the Levitical priestly line), not to mention displacing / nullifying their own personal authority in the process. No wonder the religious authorities of the day were utterly incensed (and threatened) by Jesus. Jesus claimed a higher, second-to-none authority that surpassed any earthly teacher. And of course, as the very Son of God, He had that authority, and the right to use it … in spades. But only the very Son of God would have such authority, and for those who couldn’t accept that truth, Jesus was consequently the ultimate blasphemer (which is why they executed Him). But for those whose eyes God has opened, Jesus is to be worshipped above any other and unequivocally obeyed as Lord and King.
Jesus demands a radical application
And that brings me to my second point…
When Jesus restated the law with new (actually, it was eternally ancient) authority, He always stepped up its intensity. Jesus never dialed down the level of expectation on His listeners. Whereas He loved and accepted people, no matter their circumstances, in his personally interactions with them, everywhere He went into teacher mode, people walked away burdened under the heavy weight of the unattainable expectation of a perfectly righteous God.
Modern Western Christians are fixated on Jesus’ easy burden and His light yoke (Matthew 11:30), and rightly so – for those who have been saved by grace and born again. But I think many jump to this passage a bit too early. (Plus, I think we’ve over-emphasized grace vs obedience in our extremely licentious and highly distracted culture.) Remember, we’re reading the story after its climax. Jesus’ listeners didn’t know what we know, as we look back on the empty tomb and the NT epistles, which explain to us what for them was yet to come. When they listened to the Sermon on the Mount, what they heard was Jesus’ calling them to an incredibly high standard — one that A) would have made the Mosaic law wholly unnecessary, B) was totally impossible for them to achieve, and C) was probably somewhat exasperating. And you thought the hundreds of crazy ceremonial rules of the Pharisees were bad!? Whatever hope anyone had, no matter how slim, of maintaining their standards (those of the Pharisees) … Jesus took things to a whole new level.
This is what Dr. Harris called “the internalization and radicalization of the law”.
Where the Pharisees focused on an external following of the rules with your hands and feet and mouth, Jesus focused on an internal unity with God in your mind and heart.
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders [with her hands] will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother [in her heart] will be liable to judgment. (Matthew 5:21-22a)
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery [with your body].” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent [in his mind] has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, “Do not resist the one who is evil.” But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39)
And on and on He went.
Don’t worry about cleaning the outside of the cup, if the inside isn’t clean. Don’t worry about beautifying the outside of the tomb by painting it and laying flowers on it. No amount of external beautification can address the reality of a rotting corpse inside the tomb. (c.f. Matthew 23:25-28)
So, I guess in Jesus’ economy, it doesn’t at all work to put lipstick on the pig, as it were.
And where the Pharisees focused on doing what it takes to “fool” the critical-but-flawed eyes of men as they imperfectly (but quite willingly) judge you, Jesus focused on assuaging the righteous fury of the God who judges perfectly and only by the standard of His own holiness.
No negotiation, rounding off, or grading on a curve. (Matthew 5:48)
No second chances once you’re standing before the throne of judgment. (Hebrews 9:27-28)
No claiming ignorance. (Romans 1:18-23)
No “close enough”, or “at least I didn’t do what she did”. No one to blame. No one to rescue. Just me and God and God’s measuring rod of absolute purity.
Jesus fulfills the Law
So, with the authority that only God could have, Jesus makes demands of His followers that no man could meet. Or woman. Then or now. Everyone in the same boat… utterly helpless before an utterly perfect God. And if the story stopped here, the “gospel” would be pretty bad news.
But God didn’t stop there. As He planned from before the foundation of the earth was laid, Jesus walked straight into the clutches of the very same Pharisees who ignorantly and arrogantly accused Him of blasphemy, and humbled Himself unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8). Like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). For our good and His glory.
So, God-sized authority and God-sized requirements for perfection met the God-sized capacity to fulfill those requirements in the God-man, Jesus Christ. Jesus not only re-interpreted (clarified? amplified?) the Law, He fulfilled it. The Law was and is still very much in effect, but its requirements have been wholly and completely satisfied by Jesus (Matthew 5:17). When Jesus talked about coming to fulfill the Law, which He did frequently, it reminds me of two things…
First is the CS Lewis classic, “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe“, in which Aslan angrily rebukes the white witch (who pretends to rule Narnia the way satan pretends to rule God’s world), “Do not quote the deep magic to me, witch. I was there when it was written.” And second, it reminds me of God’s rather sharp question to Job after a bit of a temper tantrum (on Job’s part) at not understanding what God was doing in his life (in Job 38:4), “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
You could say that Jesus was there when the Law was written or that He did lay the foundations of the earth. But really it’s more than that… Jesus doesn’t know the Word of God; Jesus is the Word of God. And not just the law, but its fulfillment. The Alpha and the Omega. Everything begins and ends with Jesus.
Our task isn’t to turn God’s Word into a bunch of externals we have to get right in order to earn our way into heaven. It’s the impossible standard that drives us to our knees in grateful, worshipful submission before the cross of Christ. It’s the way we understand how to even begin to relate to God. And it’s the measuring rod that shows us the best way to live, even if we can’t live up to it entirely.
Just walk with God
Anyone who rejects Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, stands condemned by a Law they cannot possibly fulfill. That person has by definition challenged God’s uncompromising authority and lost, badly, whether they realize it or not.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name … to those whom He gave the right to become children of God … the Law is not your judge. Jesus has fulfilled the Law in your place with His perfect life. And you are His.
Don’t let that become an excuse to sin or for careless living. What kind of lover whores around with worthless idols? Can that person really be in love? Hardly!
But neither can you make the Law into a burdensome set of rules by which you judge your cleanness before God and others. If the Law is your measuring stick, then there’s only one possible outcome of measurement: filthy and condemned. You will never be made clean by the Law. Period.
Instead, look directly into the radical, extreme, perfect, unattainable Law of God (the outward expression of His blinding purity and incomprehensible majesty), and see the cross and the blood and the victory of Christ … not rules to try to follow. Internalize that. Make it about your heart. Fix the eyes of your heart on Jesus. Love the Lord your God with everything (Deut 6:5). God is always at work. God is the author of the story. And it is God who will do the perfecting (Phil 1:6).
 Gary M. Burge, Lynn H. Cohick and Gene L. Green, The New Testament in Antiquity, (1st ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 150.