Squeezing the Heat out of Jesus’ Sayings

The Sermon on the Mount is laced together with strong statements by Jesus.

How do you read the strong statements of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount? Pick one below and give it your best shot. How does the follower of Jesus’ ethical posture exceed the Pharisees? Is anger the same as murder with you? Lust? Divorce always wrong? (Or almost always?) Etc.

I’ll stick to Matthew 5 alone in this post just to make these strong statements clear:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all.

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Readers of Jesus’ words have been doing their best to follow them and live them and often enough by minimizing, softening, adjusting, assigning to the personal vs. public realms, etc. One strategy has been to soften the words, or contextualize the words, by noting their hyperbolic or exaggerated sides by comparing them to other words in the NT (or OT) where such a command seems not to be followed. Thus … these sorts of moves are made by Augustine and Chrysostom and Luther and Calvin (and by many today).

Thus, when Jesus says don’t call someone a fool we have to look at Galatians 3:1 where Paul did just that.

Or Jesus’ demand to turn the cheek to someone is not quite the way he responds in John 18:22-23.

The demand to love your enemies — well, we’ve got some strong comments about enemies in the Bible.

We are not to judge yet everyone in the NT does some of that (cf. James 4:1-6).


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  • We have certainly succeeded at taking more heat out of them than did the early Christians, cf C. John Cadoux’s classic, The early Christian Attitude to War or the application of it in http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Pacifism-Fruit-Narrow-ebook/dp/B005RIKH62/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1

  • Here are my thoughts about the underlying principles, based on reading Matthew 5 and thinking about Colonel Gaddafi. http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/2011/03/thought-blessing-or-curse.html

    Perhaps this is all about cause and effect. It’s clear that Yahshua was ready to forgive adultery (‘Has nobody condemned you? Neither do I.) But to meet the standard of the kingdom of heaven we must achieve the impossible and not even glance at someone in the wrong way.

    The whole point is that grace is required, I cannot point to my own worthiness for I have none. Mercy had been shown to me. I should therefore show mercy to others. See http://jesus.scilla.org.uk/2011/12/be-like-your-father.html

  • Val

    Maybe Jesus should trump Paul? – when the two contradict, assume Paul is talking about some local specific and Jesus is talking to you?

    The fool one – if I took it literally, 1) I would be a nicer person 2) I would watch my words more carefully. I would have to say things like: “I don’t agree with that person” or “their statement is problematic”, while steam hisses out my ears.

    Oh man, just in time for New Years. I am terrible at thinking someone else is a fool (expressing my sentiment) and getting ticked off with their comments/ideas. Especially certain celeb pastors.

  • Yes. I think Jesus is saying that this is to be our general characteristic, or character in life. But I really hesitate to say there can be exceptions.

    These are literal, but in the play of life you are going to have other factors added in, in life’s complexity. While still maintaining the basic posture of Jesus’ hard words.

    Did Jesus really abandon this ethic at his trial when he challenged those who were wrongly smiting him? I think not. He simply spoke the truth, but he remained under the punishment, when arguably, even according to his words elsewhere, he could have asked the Father, or called for a legion of angels to rescue him. In that context it was all about the Father’s will.

    I don’t think we do well at all to water down Jesus’ words. How we live them out will have to be through the Spirit, but by and large the correlation between Jesus’ words and our acts should be clear.

  • RJS

    The sermon on the mount is transforming – if we actually read it, listen to it, and believe it (i.e. stop trying to rationalize it away). But then … Paul is too if we stop sound biting him and actually read the force of his arguments.

    I think Jesus uses overstatement in these – but it is overstatement for emphasis. The point remains, and its transforming power should remain. But the sayings should bring us to follow, not to quake in a legalistic fear. (The disciples failed many times, and Jesus didn’t send them packing.)

  • I was strongly influenced by George Ladd’s “Gospel of the Kingdom,” in which Ladd says that Jesus meant what he taught–that these things truly are “the righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees” and without which “you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Even more than OT Law, the Sermon on the Mount shows, first, our need for a Savior and, second, the holiness to which we’re called. Diminish these teachings and you diminish God’s holiness while establishing a righteousness that isn’t God’s (Ladd relates “these commandments” in Mt. 5:19 specifically to the Sermon and not the OT Law). I do think there’s something to the idea of different realms–not “personal vs. public” so much as civil vs. Church. A civil government has the duty to keep order while the Church has the duty of proclaiming mercy and repentance.

    As to what’s hyperbole, I’d say only that the command to literally mutilate the body is. The rest–on lust, oath-taking, anxiety, judging others, anger, reconciliation–I feel safe in thinking Jesus meant me to take literally. As to how to take “do not judge,” the answer has to include the obligation to preach this very kind of righteousness while acknowledging myself to be accountable. After all, there’s a lot in the Sermon itself that is harsh and “judgmental.” If “judge not” means that we cannot call anyone out on sin, then it means we can’t preach the Sermon itself. I tend to take it as “preach with mercy, grace, and humility.”

  • Ben

    I wonder if this is somehow connected to Jesus’ later criticism of the Pharisees for emphasizing lesser regulations at the expense of the “more important matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23-24). All the commands in Matt 5 seem to boil down to “love your neighbor” (except maybe the one about swearing oaths…not sure about that). The Pharisees excelled at the lesser matters, so maybe the only way to exceed their righteousness is to go back to the “weightier matters.”

  • T

    I think we often fail to see how seriously God seeks to reconcile people, not only to himself, but to others. He wants not only to redeem the divine relationships, but also the relations among people. As Ben mentioned above, all of these quotes are about actually loving our neighbors the way that God loves. (Even the oath taking is to break down a pattern of loopholes for ‘legal’ lying.) Just as any earthly father wants his own children to truly love each other the way he loves them, Jesus is getting into the gritty details of that here. His love just goes much, much farther than we’d like it to–for others; and he wants us to love others like he does. These quotes are like the “who is my neighbor?” discourse and the “how many times should I forgive?” discussion. There are more besides, but what they all have in common is that God is calling us to his kind of love for other people. This is the “new” command of Christ that John emphasizes, and thing that Jesus says will make it clear we are his disciples.

  • T

    I meant to add by way of contrast, these commands are not about achieving some ridiculous measure of piety or holiness for ourselves, they are about being a part of the solution (God’s redemptive love) instead of continuing to be part of the problem (self-centered sin). If one was going to create a reconciling, healing, redemptive people, then these are the commands that would draw the picture of that people.

  • Susan N.

    I retrieved a highly-valued book from my bookshelf, ‘But I Tell You: Jesus Introduces a Better Way to Live’ by Karen Oberst, in response to this post. Pondering your questions…

    Would it be true to say that what Jesus taught had a corrective as well as subversive intent? [The Gospel of Matthew (Jewish audience) contrasted with the Gospel of Luke (Gentile audience)]

    The question of whether or not it is even possible for fallible humans to live up to these teachings and “be perfect” reminds me of the recent post about your (Scot’s) grandma 🙂

    No way on earth (literally!) perfection, as measured against God’s perfection, will happen. The moment that status is claimed, there goes the “poor in spirit” blessing!

    Karen Oberst writes, “The word translated ‘perfect’ is from the Greek teleios, a word that indicates such qualities as full-grown, fulfilled, mature, and adult…this verse [Matt. 5:48] is the very heart of the sermon. The word from Jesus is to ‘Act like adults,’ or even more simply, ‘Grow up!’ Though we are to be childlike in our faith [vertical relationship with God], we are to be adult in our [horizontal] relationships.” (p. 112)

    As I sought to learn about (United) Methodist history and doctrine, the question came up regarding the command to be perfect: Do we believe that it is attainable? One wise (retired professor) in the room suggested, “It is an ideal that we are constantly and actively moving toward. If we are not moving toward perfection, then what are we moving toward?”

    I thought that was pretty wise. Jesus calls us to go deeper in our faith, keep on keepin’ on.

    “Raca” flew from my thoughts to my fingers in a comment last week; perhaps I am doomed to the fires of hell already. On the other hand, with another brother I have been able to “walk the extra mile” to gain understanding and reconciliation. You win some, you lose some… God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner!

    One last thought, from reading ‘Between Heaven and Mirth’ about the Apostle Peter. When Jesus nicknamed him, “The Rock,” was it because he was such a solid foundation for the Church…or because he was so hard-headed? I thought that was funny 🙂

  • If we take salvation off the table by assuming “kingdom of heaven” here does not mean “eternal salvation after you die”, then it all begins to make a lot of sense. The way that our righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees is by being transformed at the level of heart desire–lust, anger, pride, covetousness, etc. Sin and purity are not merely matters of behavior, as Jesus says time and again, because sin and purity are internally rooted. Those who have been transformed by Jesus on the inside–at the deep levels of what our hearts desire–are the ones who are seeing the kingdom of heaven; that is, who are extending God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. And there’s simply no way that we can do the things Jesus demands of us in the Sermon on the Mount unless he changes us from within. To paraphrase him, Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks and the body acts.

  • Bill

    I think we immediately get off track when we begin with an interpretation of Mt 5:17 as meaning that Jesus came to show us how to exalt Law by being perfectly obedient to all Law, rather than being the One to whom the Law pointed. As mentioned, what precedes in the ‘beats’ give context to what follows. Clearly Jesus often used hyperbole. Rather than upholding the Law as the guide to life, Jesus is dissing the Law in preference to the Spirit-led life of faith in God’s grace. Thus, Susan’s comments seem right on target. We are to grow up towards (Eph 4:15) the ideal, confident in His grace. The extreme statements are double-edged, extrapolating life-by-law to its foolish end, while awakening the reader to ‘something much better’ – the life of the Spirit-led life.

  • I think when it comes to the Bride and protecting her, then our speech may appear harsh, as in Paul’s or even Jesus’ words to a “brood of vipers” and “white-washed” Pharisees. If we are lead by the Spirit to warn others of harm,then I’m reminded of the scripture: “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” Mathew 11:12 It’s not that we are violent, because we don’t fight against men, but against rulers of darkness. Bu our speech may not sound loving to men, but instead love may come looking more violent. Jesus’ love was radical and apparent to those who loved Him, but to those who didn’t (primarily His abusers), it looked harsh. I feel, we mustn’t be afraid of radically standing up for His people.

  • DRT

    I believe these statements mark the seminal difference that Jesus is trying to make in the world. They contrast the action oriented/outcome oriented view of humans with the judgment based on intentiality of god. Add to that the idea that we must not judge others and we have the complete concept. As Paul says, god is the heart searcher, the one who can judge intentions. We cannot. But, we can impact our own intentions and that is what this is about.

    To elaborate, the Law was about the specific actions of the Pharisees. They could be thinking other things in their heart but their behavior could be considered holy prior to Jesus.

    The next couple ( anger, lust, judging to be a fool) clearly make the standard of god your intention and not your action. But I notice that it, again, applies to me personally and not others. I cannot judge the intentions of others, only god can do that. But, man can judge actions (Raca).

    Likewise the oath. Your yes states your intention and that is what is judged.

    Giving more than asked again shows intention, not required action.

    Loving enemies is a great example of how my intention to the person [love] can be at odds with the action I take.

    Summary – Jesus has moved us from a world where we are judged by what we do to a godly world where we are judged by our intentions. That is also why, in my view, we are saved by faith and not works. Our truest intentions are what god uses to judge us in the end and for different people it will show up in different types of works. Jesus gave us an orientation, not a rule book.

  • DRT

    I see Andy Holt#11 is saying the same thing as I was trying to say.

  • Sherman Nobles

    I think there are several things that hinder believers from being open to the fire in the Sermon on the Mount.
    1) Not understanding what attitudes, doctrines, and practices of the Pharisees that Jesus was oppossing.
    2) Equating “enterning the kingdom of heaven” with eventually some day going to heaven. I believe the focus is much more about the present reality of the kingdom of God, “today” as opposed to “someday”.
    3) Reading “Hell/ECT” “someday” into the judgment and punishment of sin as oppossed to the present consequences of sin “today”.

    And 4) it’s helpful to understand that Matthew’s record of the Sermon on the Mount was likely a scentence outline of what Jesus taught that day. How one fleshes out that outline is key.

    For example, their was an argument between the Pharisees, between that Shammaites and the Hillelites concerning “No-fault (any-reason) divorce”, Hillelites for, Shammaites against. Jesus was helping them get past that argument by reminding everyone why Moses was inspired by God to legislatively enact under civil law the bill of divorce – to stop the practice of men expelling their wives causing them to commit adultery and anyone who married such an expelled wife (an Agunah) to commit adultery. The bill of divorce stopped this evil sadistic practice by legally ending such a marriage and freeing the expelled wife to marry again. Of course, if one reads Jesus’ statement concerning divorce without understanding the cultural context one would completely misunderstand Matthew’s scentence outline statement concerning that discussion.

  • Mark Brown

    Scot, here is where your soterian and your Lordship constructions meet.

    In most of these the Lord is laying out His law, at full strength. And it crushes. You only have one option. Lord have mercy. With this Lord there is forgiveness. (Psa 130:4) We live not by the law, but by the grace of the Lord.

    You can fall back to Paul saying that the law is the teacher. This is what it teaches. That God is Lord and that the Lord is merciful.

  • I do not think Jesus is “dissing” the law. He did not come to destroy (or dis) the Law but to fulfill it. But the requirement of the kingdom is more than the Law can deliver. However, Jesus does not dis the Law, He goes beyond it to what is required for “heaven on earth,” the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. The Law, even with all the “fencing” of the Pharisees, could not produce that; something greater was needed.

    The life of the kingdom of heaven on earth requires a different basis, a “perfection” (maturity or completeness) that comes from the Father. It is not just about outward action, there is also the disposition of the heart. We might not commit murder or adultery by our actions, but we can still do it in our hearts. Simply refraining from the outward action does not address the real problem.

    Ultimately, I understand what Jesus requires in us to be fulfilled through being accounted as righteous in Jesus the Messiah, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, producing in us what the Law never could: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).

  • John W Frye

    The hard sayings within the whole tough Sermon on the Mount startle us because Jesus dares to put himself and his teachings at the heart of the faith (“whoever hears these words of *mine* and puts them into practice is like…”). I think Jesus envisioned one response to every word in this Sermon: obedience. The Sermon is a description of life in another (new) realm–the kingdom of God marked by the love of God as Father made possible by the Spirit. The Sermon is a flammable material to the one carrying his/her cross and passionate for the fire of the Spirit. The religious leaders/teachers made the Law ‘workable’ with their incessant legal shenanigans and, sadly, as Scot notes, contemporary religious pontificates fire extinquish the gripping, compelling, world-changing words of Jesus.

  • Sherman Nobles

    A key to understanding the Sermon on the Mount is understanding that Jesus is countering the attitudes, doctrine, and practices of the Pharisees. For example, when Matthew records Jesus saying “you’ve heard it said”, this is an idiomatic phrase referencing the doctrine of the Pharisees concerning a specific passage of the Law. Jesus did not disagree with the Law, but with the doctrine of the Pharisees concerning that Law. Jesus fully affirmed the Law, specifically saying that He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, and that not one jot or tittle would pass from the Law until all is fulfilled.

    Matthew, being written to the Jews by a Jew about what happened amoung the Jews can only be rightly understood through a Jewish perspective.

  • TimHeebner

    Andy #11 and DRT #14, 15 reflect my perspective on this too, which was heavily influences by Dallas Willard, the Divine Conspiracy. The righteousness God requires (which is what kingdom of heaven living consists of) is one of a heart of love, penetrating deep into our lives, not in outward actions of following a set of laws. This is why this type of righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees. When we truly learn to live with a heart of love, His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven – His eternal kingdom.

  • scotmcknight


    This Sermon does not end with “therefore repent” but “do what I say.” The repentance model of the Sermon, or the Moses to the full power approach to the Sermon just doesn’t work because there’s not one word of that approach in either Matt 5-7 or Luke 6. Not sure how else to say this. We can add to this that the early Christians didn’t read the Sermon your way; they saw it as commands to be followed (even if they modified them at times). (Including Augustine.)

    The approach you have was not really even Luther’s view, who cut this Sermon (tragically) into public (where it didn’t apply) and Christian life (where it did, with some modifications, hyperbole). For Luther the whole was run through his two realms theory, but not through the repentance model.

    Nor did Calvin read the Sermon as Law on top of Law in order to crush the sinner.

  • DerekMc

    One of the most helpful perspectives on the tough sayings in the sermon on the mount is Glenn Stassen’s claim that they contain transforming initiatives. They are not ideals to strive for but practices to be lived.

    Check out his link for more info:


  • We must be careful about turning the sermon of the mount into another set of rules that become a burden. That is the way of the Pharisees.

    Jesus was describing the way that people with renewed heart and mind, who are walking in the Holy Spirit will live. He was not giving rules that we must try to implement. As we love him more and walk in his Spirit, we will find ourselves fulfilling Jesus vision. How far we go depends on our love and our willingness to walk in the Spirit.

  • Hearing Jesus’ extreme statements in their wider rabbinic context sheds a lot of light on how they should be understood. It was common practice to use exaggeration and overstatement to emphasize a point. Likening a small sin to a great one (anger=murder, etc) was a classic way of doing this.

    Consider rabbinic quotes like:

    “When three eat at one table and words of Scripture are not spoken there, it is as if they ate at the altars of the dead… but when three eat at one table and bring up words of Scripture, it is as if they ate from the table of God!” (Mishnah, Avot 3:2-3)

    “The pain of humiliation is more bitter than death. Therefore, one should rather fling himself into a fiery furnace than humiliate someone in public.” (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a)

    These are overstatements meant to drive home a point. They really mean, “its very important to talk about the Scriptures at mealtime,” and “never, never publically humiliate another person.” Jesus’ commands about “hating your mother and father” and “plucking out your eye” fit right in to this hyperbolic teaching style.

    Obviously, knowing that other rabbis taught this way doesn’t give us license to minimize Jesus’ commands. But it does provide some perspective on how his original listeners would have heard his words.

    In my book, “Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus” (Zondervan, 2009, with Ann Spangler), I discuss this issue, as well as the Sermon on the Mount (pp 163-174).

    There I go on to suggest that Jesus’ overall message here was that we should strive to go beyond what God’s law requires in every possible way. Don’t settle for the minimum, saying things like, “as long as I don’t commit adultery, it’s fine to lust.” Rather, do more than what the finest interpreters of the law say you must do. Aim to show the love of your heavenly Father in every possible way.

  • Heart, heart, heart.

    Jesus is a virtue ethicist.

    Proper function (“be perfect as you Father is perfect”) is about the inner life.

  • Pastorm

    120 young preachers are dealing with The Sermon on the Mount at The Festival of Young Preachers sponsored by the Academy of Preachers in Louisville. Those whom I have heard have really had some wonderful insights.

  • DRT

    Hey Pastorm, is that anything like the Mars Hill preaching contest?

  • Pastorm

    DRT–I doubt it. See academyofpreachers.net for more.