We are ending our series on God’s law with the second pair of three. A series of three’s are learning methods used by the Jews to help with memorization. Last week we learned about the first pair of three’s. They were specific prohibition from the law of God about murder, adultery, and divorce. We heard how these laws were faithfully expounded by Jesus so his disciples can follow them as members of God’s kingdom.
Now the last three topics of this section about the law of God deals with oaths, retaliation, and loving your enemies. So far, It is the most difficult section in our discussion about the Sermon on the Mount. This is not because it is hard to understand but because it is hard to follow and apply in the Christian life. Later on we will find out when we are in the section about retaliation and loving your enemies.
Again when talking about the law of God, it is important to remember how Jesus did not abolished them rather he fulfilled them. As Christians, it illustrates for us how we can exceed the righteousness of the Pharisee. It is only by the imputed righteousness of Christ and by the righteousness wrought in us by the Spirit.
With that in mind, let us hear God’s Word preached this morning with the following topics: 1) Oaths; 2) Retaliation; and 3) Loving your Enemies.
Before we proceed, let us pray…
verses 33-37: “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
Again, this section still follows the pattern set by the first pair of three. Compared to them, these specific topics about God’s law are expositions made by Jesus bearing his own authority not as new bearer like Moses but as the mediator of a new covenant. He corrects the misinterpreted views of the the teachers of his time (verse 33).
The first topic deals with swearing before a court. To swear means to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. Even today, we are required by any court of law to do the same. At the same time, taking an oath means to fulfill a promise made in the future. It does not also deal with the truthfulness of our words but also looks at the consistency of our actions. When we say we will do something, we do it as part of the promise. Our word is our bond.
Legally, we are to honor every oath we take. Jesus did say in verse 34, “Do not take an oath at all”. However when consult the whole of Scripture, it is clear that God does not forbid the lawful use of oaths. Jesus took an oath before the Sanhedrin by affirming to them that He is indeed the Son of God (Matthew 26:64).
However during Jesus’ time, an elaborate theology of oaths was developed according to Dr. Ferguson. As a way to establish credibility, the Jews swear before God. Similar to what we read in our Old Testament reading today in Deuteronomy, taking a oath was meant to prohibit us from bearing false witness. However to avoid the trouble to actually doing what they promised to do, they swear to other thing than God. The teachers of the law during their time taught to swear before created things like heaven, earth, even by Jerusalem itself, or by the hairs of your head (verse 34-36). These people were thinking that by swearing to things lower than God, absolves them with the level of commitment required if done before God.
Again, Jesus warns his disciples against the sin of hypocrisy. God is present everywhere and every word or promises are made before Him. As Christians, what we say bears weight. We cannot engage or even tolerate loose speech either with ourselves and the company we keep. Our word is our bond because what we say are always spoken before God. We cannot use it as an excuse to live as if He will not give an account to everything we say and do. Rather, we live with integrity before God and men. Integrity means our words and actions are consistent or integral. We live by every promises we make. We say yes when we mean yes and do it. We say no when we mean no and do it (verse 37). There is no midway. This the Christian ethics God calls us to follow.
verses 38-42: “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. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
We come now to the most difficult part. It deals with the prohibition against retaliation or revenge. In law courts, it is called “lex talionis” in Latin. It is also called retributive justice. Stated positively, it gives appropriate punishment for the crime committed. It is the equivalent of the Old Testament law we read in Deuteronomy 19 where it says: “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” It was directly quoted by Jesus in verse 38 of our text. Now the term and its usage is comparable to our modern understanding of the law. Because of this, it is often hard to relate them to its ancient context and how it properly applies today.
God establishes a common law shared by believers and unbelievers alike. God governs the world using a common order of civil duty for any society and government. He enforces such law using retributive justice and implements it by use of force and sword. Reformers calls this the kingdom of God in the common sphere of providence restored in covenant with Noah. In Genesis 8:22, God promises Noah that he will temporarily retain the seasons and conditions for live to continue. And in Genesis 9: 5, God gave Noah the instruction on how government must govern its citizens. He gave him the rationale for capital punishment. Now in Romans 13, Paul have this in mind when he instructed the new covenant members of the church to honor the government because God uses it to temporarily rule over the nations. Just like Jesus said, we give to Caesar what is due to him. We worship God as our Creator and follow the government because it is God’s servant. And as servants under God, we follow God and his appointed means to rule over us.
Given this theology background, we come to our text with certain distinctions.
As Christians, we are live under God’s two kingdom. We are temporary citizens of the state we belong to and at the same time but in a different sense, we are also members of the eternal kingdom of God in heaven. We are obligated to follow both of them individually depending on the situation we are in or the circumstance that we are brought into.
In relation to our civic duty, we follow God’s order in his civil kingdom. We are called to participate in measure of the government to preserve life. Chaos must be discouraged and as Christians, we follow the government when they implement God’s natural law revealed to us in Scripture. Just like in situation today, we are called to stay at home to protect the lives of neighbors. We follow the government even to a point temporarily suspending our weekly public assembly. Let us pray God in his providence once more allow us to go back to it soon.
In the same way, fairness and justice must prevail in order for any society to prosper under God’s order. Specifically, retributive justice is also part of it therefore when called by the state to uphold them, it is our duty as Christians to follow. We report crime when commitment and even appear in court when called upon to stand as witness. We protect ourselves against any harm from any evil doer; We preserve life by protecting it. As private citizens of this world, we are encouraged to do so.
On the other hand, God rules his visible church not by force, coercion, or even by the sword like any government. Rather, he governs his people by his Word and Spirit. Retributive justice ends here. Instead of imprisonment, penalty and punishment, the church enforces discipline only by denying communion and membership. Jesus gave his church the instruction to go beyond the extra ordinary measure of inviting everyone to his heavenly kingdom here on earth with a call to repentance and a promise of forgiveness. In verse 39 of our text, Jesus commands us “Do not resist the one who is evil”. He illustrates this by giving four examples.
First, Jesus calls his disciples to offer the left cheek when slapped in the right cheek. Slapping someone in the right cheek means getting slapped by the high hand which the back of the right hand. Jesus instructed his people to withhold any retribution and revenge rather he wants them to offer grace and peace instead.
Second, Jesus commands his hearers to offer their cloak as well when someone sue them for their tunic, to walk another mile when commanded to walk one mile, to give money when begged (verses 40-42). Jesus instructs them to simply extend themselves by serving their oppressors instead of retaliating.
Now, we will deal with the individual application of this command on our third point of loving your enemies but for our sermon point, let us focus on its application to the visible church. Again, these illustrations from Jesus fits well the state of the visible church during this period of “already-not-yet”. As an embassy of God’s grace, we are called to set aside of legal rights and offer ourselves sacrificially to other in order for others to see the light of God’s grace in our lives.
I remember when FRC Management decided to prematurely cancel our monthly rental contract with them and forces us to move immediately with no where place to go. We are at the losing end of that imposed decision because we invested already to improve the place. We suffered the stress of finding a new place in a very short notice. I was worried but as the same time angry, I wanted to assert our civil rights as a church and even contemplated of taking it to court but I was reminded of our Christian ethics and eventually decides to forgo our rights and focused on encouraging our members to find a new place and adopt. By providence, God led us to Lotus Mall and he blessed with steady flow of visitors and some of them are regular attenders now and some are even in the process of being members. God truly takes care of his people.
I know being away from each other and because we are unable to gather makes us worry and think about the future of our church. Our spot in Lotus Mall because of the pandemic may even become uncertain as well. So we need to remind ourselves how God moves us from one place to another according to his good pleasure. Let us humble follow his lead and trust his providence.
Love your enemy
verses 43-48: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
How can we then apply this non-retributive justice to our individual Christian lives? We end our teaching about God’s law with this: Loving your enemies.
As members of God’s heavenly kingdom here on earth, we are also called to live in the same way as the church when it comes to our individual relationships in relation to our identity as Christian. As Christians, some are called to vocations related to enforcing the law as a government official, either as a military, police, lawyers and etc. Also, as employees of our companies, we are called to uphold fairness and justice. We are called to follow these laws and honor our government. At the same time but in a different sense, we are called to demonstrate also the ethics of God’s kingdom. The individual iterations varies in a case to case basis so for uniformity and guidance, let us examine these principles:
- Loving your enemies deals specifically with those persecuting you not because you are simply a citizen of this country but because you adhere to specific kind of citizenship. They are mistreating you because your are a Christian and you are being persecuted because of your faith. It is deals with your personal relationships with other regardless where you are (home, school, or office). It is specifically applied in your situation and not a guideline to withdraw from seeking justice in our society.
- Loving your enemies means they are actively putting you down. Similar to a high slapping, they are actively mistreating you. The abuse comes from those who mocks you because of your faith and adherence to God’s laws. And when called to a similar situation, we are called to follow Christ’s example of suffering under the hand of our oppressors. To what specific purpose?
- The specific goal is to bring them personally to a saving knowledge of God. These are people related to us who are enemies of God who are under God’s wrath and we are praying for God to save as well. It is not so we will be exalted by and to gain anything from it.
- Rather, it is done in order to overcome evil with good and disarm them with any power over you. We repay evil with good (Romans 12:17-21 and 1 Peter 3:9)
This is hard. It will personally cost us because following Jesus is indeed path to suffering and afflictions. And when we hear this commands, we know we often fail and fall short in obeying them. But our motivation in obeying these commands does not come by the law but by faith. We understand by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered by God himself to love our enemies even to a point of humiliation. How? God provides us the Spirit of humility, gratitude and service. We love God because he first loves us and we extend his love to our neighbors and even to our enemies. God loves us when we were still sinners and we were enemies of God; we deserve punishment but we were given grace instead. We were forgiven and how God lives in us to empowers us to live according to his grace. This is our motivation to love your enemies. We do not obey by our natural inclination and disposition so let us pray for God’s power and wisdom.
ZCRC(Imus), God calls us to follow his commands to love our neighbor as well as our enemies. Let us continue to use God’s laws properly and pray for the empowerment from the Holy Spirit. May God bless us with his presence as we walk toward holiness. Amen.
Rev. Lance Filio is a minister of the Word and Sacraments at Zion Cornerstone Reformed Church (Imus). He finished his Bachelor Degree in Electronics Engineering at Mapua Institute of Technology and He is currently taking his Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS) at MINTS. He lives in Taguig City, Philippines with his wife and three children.