Expounding of the Law

Expounding of the Law
Pictorial tablet of the Ten Commandments, in Danzig, Prussia, c. 1480

The Expounding of the Law is a highly structured ("Ye have heard ... But I say unto you") part of the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament. It follows the Beatitudes and the metaphors of salt and light.

The expounding is at the core of the argument about the relationship between the views attributed to Jesus (see also Gospel, Grace, New Covenant, New Commandment, Law of Christ), and those attributed to Moses or the Mosaic Law, and hence on the relationship between the New Testament and Old Testament.


Adherence to the Law

In Greek πληρῶσαι: [1] is interpreted as meaning any of the following: establish, confirm, validate, complete, actualise, properly explain, accomplish, or obey. In contrast, Marcion's version of Luke 23:2 states: "We found this fellow perverting the nation and destroying the law and the prophets."[2] See also Ephesians 2:15.[3]

Some argue that Jesus rejects some of the accepted tenets of Mosaic law, such as the understanding of Sabbath, divorce laws, dietary laws, and Biblical festival days (such as Passover), while accepting others, and presents a New Covenant, doing so particularly by the antitheses.

According to Augustine of Hippo, Jesus expanded the law but did not replace it. Others used analogy to explain this notion: Chrysostom used the analogy of a race saying that Jesus had added extra distance for the Christians to run, but the beginning remained the same; Theophylact of Bulgaria used the image of an artist colouring in an outline, and Thomas Aquinas saw it as how a tree still contains the seed. This view became the accepted Roman Catholic position, but was challenged in the Protestant reformation, with leading Protestants such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli rejecting the idea Jesus had added to the Law, and instead arguing that Jesus only illustrated the true Law that had always existed, but that the Law had been badly understood by the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. The Anabaptists took the opposite view and felt that Jesus had greatly reformed the Law, and rejected anything that the Bible doesn't mention him as having confirmed.[citation needed]

Matthew 5:18 states that "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled".[4] Jot is the King James Version's translation of iota, the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet, as the parallel letter yodh (י) is the smallest in the Aramaic alphabet. Tittle, the KJV translation of κερεία (a word which literally means horn), is a small mark of some sort, generally considered by scholars to refer to minor projections (horns) that differentiate certain letters, such as hooks in Aramaic - ב versus כ for example; the English word refers to the marks above the letters i and j. Hence the phrase refers to even the tiniest minutiae being unaltered,[5] and it is this meaning that not one iota, a common English phrase deriving from the statement, has taken.

Matthew 5:19 condemns those who preach the commandments but do not uphold them, i.e. hypocrites.[6] See also Cafeteria Christianity and discourse on judgementalism. Most Christians interpret commandments as obviously referring to the Mosaic law, Noahide laws, or to the Ethical decalogue, which are now meant to be viewed in principle, rather than rule (Matthew 5:21-48).

Paul did not object to the observance of the Mosaic Law, as long as it did not interfere with the liberty of the Gentiles. However, Messianic Jews (a Christian group) are of the mindset that Mosaic Law must be observed by all, including Gentiles.

Matthew 5:20 subtly condemns the Pharisees: only those who were more righteous than they would enter the "kingdom of heaven". Matthew generally condemns the manner in which the Pharisees adhere to the law,[7] portraying it as excessively legalistic, and here is no exception. This begins a pattern, repeated later in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Discourse on ostentation, where outward and public adherence to religious behaviour are condemned as being hollow, in favour of private and internal adherence.

Antithesis of the Law

This section of the sermon is sometimes called the Antithesis of the Law.[8] As applied to this section of Matthew, the phrase is used in different ways. Some writers use it to mean something like "statements affirming the Law but going beyond it".[9] Others mean something like "opposed to the false glosses of the Law".[10] Still others mean "directly contradicting the Law";[11] the second of the four basic tenets of Dispensationalism posits: "A radical distinction between the Law and Grace; that is, they are mutually exclusive ideas."

The 1577 Lutheran Formula of Concord in Article V states: "We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is to be maintained in the Church with great diligence. . ."[12] Martin Luther wrote: "Hence, whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture."[13][14]

Specialised focuses

As well as a more general discussion about adherence to the law, the expositions individually cover the following aspects in greater detail: Anger, Adultery, Divorce, Oaths, Retaliation and Love for Enemies.

Each of these sections begins with a scriptural quotation that indicates how the law officially regards each of these issues, and then goes on to, depending on one's interpretation, either extend the law's commandment to its most radical extent, or make a radical assertion opposing it.


The first exposition is on the subject of murder. Beginning by quoting the commandment thou shalt not murder[15] Matthew describes Jesus as going on to condemn the anger which led to it as being just as bad. This view is not particularly new to Jesus, appearing in the Old Testament at places such as Ecclesiastes and Sirach, as well as in the Slavonic Enoch, Pesahim, and Nedarim. Jesus is also described as condemning people who insult each other, specifically identifying the insult of calling someone a Raca.[16] Scholars seem divided on how grievous an insult it was - for example Hill feels it was very grievous while France thinks it minor.

The expositions finally culminate with what could easily be seen as very practical advice to reconcile with others quickly, before that person whom you consider to be your enemy causes the issue to be brought before a judge, since being placed into jail will require you to buy yourself out of jail, not even leaving you with a penny[17] and meaning spiritually broke for not recognizing that who you perceive as your enemy is another person who is just as important as you, or possibly this enemy is a reflection of yourself.


The second exposition is on the subject of adultery. Firstly it quotes the commandment in the ethical decalogue at Exodus 20:14[18] about adultery, and then goes on to state that looking at a woman in lust is equal to the act of adultery itself.

The discussion in Matthew continues with two now well known phrases that are also to a degree present in Mark 9:43[19] and Mark 9:47[20] and Matthew 18:8-9:[21]

  • If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out
  • If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off

Jesus is portrayed in Matthew as making these statements because he considers it better that one cut oneself off from sin so as not to condemn the remainder of oneself to Gehenna.


The third exposition, sometimes considered a continuation of the prior one about adultery, is on divorce, and is comparatively short. It begins with a reference to Deuteronomy 24:1, requiring a man who dismisses his wife for "some indecency" he finds in her to give her a formal written divorce certificate. However, the exposition describes Jesus as condemning anyone who, except in the event of porneia, divorces his wife and thus "makes her an adulteress", adding: "whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

Apostle Paul, writing in about the middle of the 1st century, likewise quotes Jesus as forbidding divorce without any exception: "To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband) — and that the husband should not divorce his wife".[22] However, "to the rest" Paul, on his own authority ("I say, not the Lord"), gives the rule (later referred to as the Pauline privilege) that someone who on becoming a Christian is abandoned by a non-Christian spouse is not tied to that spouse.[23]

From an early stage, the Roman Catholic Church clearly excluded divorce. Saint Augustine of Hippo stated "[T]he compact of marriage is not done away by divorce intervening; so that they continue wedded persons one to another, even after separation; and commit adultery with those with whom they shall be joined, even after their own divorce, either the woman with a man, or the man with a woman."[24]


The third/fourth exposition is about oaths. While Gundry believes that this follows the discussion of divorce since Deuteronomy discusses these things one after another, though in reverse order, other scholars[who?] believe that it is simply a natural progression, as one of the major legal issues of the day was over marriage vows.

The exposition opens with a quote from the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, which appears to come from Numbers 30:2. While the text literally condemns perjury, it can also mean break an oath, and some individuals translate it much less restrictively as do not make vows rashly.

According to Matthew, Jesus instructs people to only respond with yes, yes; no, no. The formula yes, yes; no, no also appears in 2 Cor 1:17.[25]


The penultimate exposition partly paralleled in Luke's Sermon on the Plain, is on the subject of punishment. It begins with a quote of the lex talionis - an eye for an eye - which is found in three of the law codes in the pentuateuch (in the Deuteronomic code, Holiness Code, and Covenant Code). Although this principle of retributive punishment dates back at least to the Code of Hammurabi, by the 1st century AD it had been superseded by a system of fines, and so several scholars here consider that it is the whole principle of retribution which Jesus is here meant to be discussing, rather than just the lex talionis.

Having made the quotation, Matthew goes on to describe Jesus as saying that one should instead turn the other cheek, and superficially appears to state that one should not resist evil at all, even going so far as to give someone your cloak as well when they sue you for your tunic, and when you are compelled to travel one mile one should go so far as to travel two. Though this dialogue may apparently advocate a radical degree of pacifism, many Christians reject this interpretation. According to France, the Greek words translated as don't resist have a far more restricted meaning, and should instead be translated as do not resist by legal means.

Love for enemies

The final exposition is on the subject of love. It begins by making a now famous quotation from Leviticus - love thy neighbour as thyself,[26] also known as the Great Commandment. [Jesus is asked later about who is considered a neighbour and replies with the parable of the good samaritan.] Matthew continues the quote to state that it includes "hate thine enemy", which is not actually part of the command in Leviticus. Joy over the death of the wicked is sometimes celebrated in some Old Testament verses such as Psalms 137:9[27] (see also Imprecatory Psalms), but judgement is always ultimately left to God in the Old Testament. Hatred for one's enemies can, however, be found in some of the rules of the Qumran community.[28] In the New Testament, passages such as Luke 14:26 [29] have sometimes been interpreted as support for hatred, but further exegesis shows this interpretation to be unsound. See also But to bring a sword.

God's attitude is contrasted with that of the tax collectors (τελῶναι — verse 46 — sometimes translated as publicans) and Gentiles (ἐθνικοί — verse 47 — but some manuscripts have τελῶναι again). The tax collectors referred to were Jews employed by the Romans to collect taxes on their behalf, sometimes even extorting further funds, and consequently were seen by other Jews as traitors, and criminals, much like debt collectors and some bailiffs are today. These were hence viewed as the lowest of the low, and being no better than them was considered a terrible insult, as was being put on the same level as non-Jews. The basic argument of the allegory is that, since even these despised individuals love their friends and family, then if you love only those who are close to you, you are no better than them, and so, in order to stay above them, one should love enemies.

This exposition, and the whole collection of expositions, culminates with the instruction Be perfect, just as God is perfect. This is literally the Imitatio Dei — the imitation of God — and also appears in Luke's Sermon on the Plain. It originates in the Holiness Code's fundamental command to be holy because God is holy. Some[who?] Christians see a parallel to the Imitation of Christ.

See also


  1. ^ Strong's G4137, Liddell & Scott
  3. ^ Ephesians 2:15
  4. ^ Matthew 5:18
  5. ^ See also Deut 4:2,12:32
  6. ^ Matthew 5:19
  7. ^ Matthew 23:1-3
  8. ^ On Antithesis see 1 Timothy 6:20-21, where it is translated "opposing arguments", Strong's G377.
  9. ^ Greg Bahnsen, John Murray
  10. ^ Adam Clarke, John Gill
  11. ^ Possibly Marcion of Sinope
  12. ^ Triglot Concordia, FC Epitome V, (II).1, p. 503ff
  13. ^ Martin Luther, Dr. Martin Luthers Sämmtliche Schriften, St. Louis ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), vol. 9, col. 802.
  14. ^ The Proper Distinction Between LAW AND GOSPEL: 39 Evening Lectures, W.H.T. Dau tr., 1897.
  15. ^ Deuteronomy 5:17
  16. ^ Raca
  17. ^ Luke 12:59
  18. ^ Exodus 20:14
  19. ^ Mark 9:43
  20. ^ Mark 9:47
  21. ^ Matthew 18:8-9
  22. ^ 1 Corinthians 7:10-11
  23. ^ 1 Corinthians 7:12-16
  24. ^ Of the Good of Marriage (§7)
  25. ^ 2 Cor 1:17
  26. ^ Leviticus 19:18)
  27. ^ Psalms 137:9
  28. ^ The Scholar's Version notes on Matthew 5:43: "It may be a reference to the Community Rule of Qumran: "They may love all that He has chosen and hate all that he has rejected.""
  29. ^ Luke 14:26


  • Albright, W.F. and C.S. Mann. "Matthew." The Anchor Bible Series. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971.
  • Barclay, William. The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1 Chapters 1-10. Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1975.
  • France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1985.
  • Fowler, Harold. The Gospel of Matthew: Volume One. Joplin: College Press, 1968
  • Halsall, Paul. Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Catholic Handbook. Matthew 5:22: Jesus on Gays and Homophobia, 1999. (from the Wayback machine)
  • Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981
  • Instone-Brewer, David. Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.
  • Gundry, Robert H. Matthew a Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982.
  • Johansson, Warren "Whosoever Shall Say To His Brother, Racha." Studies in Homosexuality, Vol XII: Homosexuality and Religion and Philosophy. Ed. Wayne Dynes & Stephen Donaldson. New York & London: Garland, 1992. pp. 212–214
  • Jones, Alexander. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1965.
  • Kissinger, Warren S. The Sermon on the Mount: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1975.
  • Levine, Amy-Jill. "Matthew." Women's Bible Commentary. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
  • Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 1-7: A Commentary. trans. Wilhlem C. Linss. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989.
  • McArthur, Harvey King. Understanding the Sermon on the Mount. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1978.
  • Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992.
  • Robinson, B. A. 1996-2005 What the Bible says about homosexuality. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
  • Sabourin, Leopold. The Gospel According to Matthew. Bombay: St. Paul Publications, 1983.
  • Schweizer, Eduard. The Good News According to Matthew. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975
Expounding of the Law
Preceded by
in the Sermon on the Mount
New Testament
Succeeded by
Discourse on Ostentation
in the Sermon on the Mount

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