The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is probably the best known teaching of Jesus. It’s a sermon that sets forth a high standard for believers, and was intended to reveal the depth of man’s sin in much the same way as the Old Testament Law (Romans 3:20).
But what’s fascinating about this sermon are the six, “You’ve heard it said … but I say” statements made by Jesus. At first, it seems as if Jesus is setting aside the Old Testament law in favor of a new teaching. But to fully understand what Jesus is doing here, we need to understand the teaching customs of Jesus’ day—especially with regards to the scribes.
The scribes would usually begin a teaching with, “You’ve heard it said,” and then quote from the Torah or from some famous rabbi to make their point. So when Jesus began with, “You’ve heard it said,” everyone was expecting him to start quoting another authority. But instead Jesus says, “But I say …” This was amazing because Jesus was claiming the right to interpret the law as one with sole authority.
And not only was his claim of authority amazing, Jesus offered the people a way to actually practice obedience to the law—a way that was in direct contrast to what the Pharisees offered. While the Pharisees were more into keeping up with outside appearances, Jesus teaches the opposite. He teaches people to look past their external life and to look internally toward the source of their actions—namely, the condition of their hearts.
So he starts with, “You’ve heard it said do not murder.” But it wasn’t the act of murder Jesus was confronting; it was the appearance of keeping the law while violating it constantly. But the Pharisees looked at the law differently; their way of keeping the law hinged on outward appearances. For example, if a person wasn’t guilty of committing murder then he hasn’t violated this commandment and was safe from judgment.
But Jesus looks beyond outward appearances and teaches that it’s the internal heart of a person that matters. Just because a person hasn’t committed the physical act of murder doesn’t mean they aren’t guilty of harboring hate and anger inside. And it’s only a matter of time before those kinds of feelings find their way out into the open. It’s the internal heart that needs to be transformed so that the love of God can flow from it naturally to those we come in contact with.
This same pattern of thinking applies to the next “You’ve heard it said, don’t commit adultery.” It’s not about whether or not a person actually commits the physical act; it about fantasizing and having the desire in our hearts. If the desire isn’t dealt with (the internal heart), it can make its way out into our external lives and cause pain and devastation to those we love.
Jesus also tackles divorce, oaths, and revenge in much the same way. He doesn’t just want us to know what is right and to do what is right; he wants our hearts to be different. He wants us to change—to transform—from the inside out.
We’re all aware that thoughts, especially sinful thoughts, can be strong and powerful. And if we linger on these kinds of thoughts, we run the risk of having them take root and grow—something that can negatively impact our faith as well as our lives.
Jesus uses these six “but I say” statements to challenge the way we think and the way we behave. His words cause us to focus exactly where he wants us to focus—on our hearts. He wants us to realize that in order to live a life of love we must change our hearts and minds.
So it doesn’t only matter what we do, it also matters what we think because thoughts and behaviors cannot really be separated at all.
Donna Hughey is an award-winning Christian author and columnist. She lives in Crescent City.