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The Rev. David W. Hall (PhD, Whitefield Theological Seminary) is married to Ann, and they are parents of three grown children. He has served as the Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) since 2003. After completion of his undergraduate studies, Pastor Hall studied at Swiss L’Abri and then enrolled at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, graduating in 1980. In addition to pastoring, David Hall is the author or editor of over 20 books and numerous essays.

Column: First Truths from the First Gospel by David Hall

Extraordinary Christianity

January 7, 2015 •

Read Matthew 5:38-48

In these verses, we consider the last two illustrations in Jesus’ sermon, returning the Law to its original meaning. He is in the process of stripping away the Scribe’s and Pharisee’s oral tradition which had nearly squelched the Law. We’ve already seen examples of how the true Law should be applied to anger, sexuality, and our speech. In what follows we’ll finish chapter 5 by examining how Christ says we should treat other human beings.

In both of the illustrations in this passage, Jesus teaches that the child of God, because he is God’s offspring—as characterized by the Beatitudes—will be observed as loving those around him—even if those neighbors reject him—in an extraordinary way. There is, make no mistake, something EXTRAordinary about Christianity. Those who are recreated after the image of Jesus love those around them in a different quality and to a greater degree. Christians, simply put, have a love greater than they should have.

In both these paragraphs, the true Christian is depicted as having a love for our adversaries that exceeds the type of love that unbelievers have. The central theme is going beyond, the extraordinary as Bonhoeffer noted, or the greater love that God gives, which is above and beyond our natural propensity to love.

Jesus singles this theme out as the climax to his teaching on the Law. From this strategic and climactic location of this theme, we can conclude that for Jesus the Law did not lead to a lack of love for our human neighbor. Far from that, the Law called on believers to be greater in their love toward non-believers. This extraordinary love, which can only come from God, is what Francis Schaeffer called, The Mark of the Christian.” So let us be challenged by this passage, which asserts that the true believer will love even his/her enemies and thus as a result be children of God. But first he must die to self.

This is another of those passages that Christians frequently wish to dodge, avoid, lessen or rationalize. It does confront us, pastors included, with our shortcomings. I am tempted to proceed to chapter six and skip this. Yet we must not shrink from this passage lest we become like the Scribes and Pharisees. No hearer should seek to justify him/herself, but rather let us be changed by God’s Law.

Let’s look at the first paragraph (38-42), which is Jesus’ fifth illustration of how the true Law works. In this first paragraph Jesus teaches us that we are not to be persons who seek to exact our own vengeance on others. Instead of retaliation, as the Scribes recommended, we are to be giving people. That is the principle taught by Jesus with several subsequent examples to reinforce.

The Scribes’ teaching is quoted in v. 38. They upheld the Old Testament standard called “Lex Talionis” (Law of Retribution), which is found in several places in Torah (Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:20 & Dt. 19:21). This “eye for an eye” provision was given by God to the Jewish society as a limitation on punishment or vengeance. Some people misunderstand the original intent of this part of God’s law. Some think this was designed to mandate retaliation; however, that was not the earliest intent. The “eye for an eye” law was given to prevent one victim from over-compensating or for over-retaliating (in anger) toward the criminal. If one person lost an eye in an incident, then just repayment was not to poke out both of the offenders’ eyes. Only an eye for an eye was justified. Lex Talionis limited a response of anger. If a victim had a tooth knocked out, he could not demand the death sentence for the criminal; only a tooth for a tooth. This was the Lex Talionis. The principle is: if a man has inflicted an injury on another, an equivalent injury shall be inflicted on him as punishment. This law was given to prevent excess and to provide justice. It provided a measurable limit to retaliation, not so much a requirement to gouge as much as one had been gouged. This law did not preclude mercy.

But the Scribes had perverted this original intent and stressed the full amount of punishment that was legal. That is, they taught that if one was victimized that person should retaliate legally as much as possible. They lived in a litigious society (like we do) that taught that whenever one was wronged, that person had not only the right but also the moral responsibility to sue to the hilt or take the person to the cleaners legally.

They also tended to ignore entirely the fact that this teaching in Old Testament context was for the judges only. They made it a matter for personal application and personal vengeance. In their legalistic outlook, which thought only of its rights, they were therefore guilty of two main errors. They were turning a negative (limiting) injunction into a positive (mandatory provision); furthermore, they were interpreting it and carrying it out themselves or taking justice into their own hands. Judges had been assigned a civil role that was not necessarily given to individual citizens.

Take mob violence or lynching, for example. “The lyncher usurps all the functions of government. He makes himself witness, sheriff, judge, jury, and executioner. He stands prepared to strike down all resistance to his usurpations and to kill such officers or deputies as stand in his way. He takes his victims out of the hands of the courts, batters down the bars and bolts with which the state protects the criminal, and in so doing overrides the power and authority of the state. . . . Substitute lynch law and the earth becomes hell.”[1]

However, Jesus teaches differently. He said his followers were not to follow this type of scribal standard. Rather than always trying to get even, Jesus’ disciples are to be willing to lose or give something in order to love their neighbors. Thus we will fulfill the Old Testament Law. God’s Law, as originally given, intended for believers to be giving and loving—not resisting, getting even, and suing. Jesus counters the Scribes’ legalistic, hard-hearted approach by giving four examples of how his disciple was to deal with an enemy if the disciple was victimized. Don’t overlook that Jesus did expect his disciples to be victimized, sued, slapped and stolen from. He knew they would live in an imperfect world. But in the face of these, the disciple is to love his neighbor and not seek to extract an eye from the eye of the offender in all cases. Can you hear Jesus saying: “Our Christian duty is so completely to forbear revenge that we even allow the evil person to double the injury.”[2]

Christianity exudes the extraordinary—both from its Master and from his call to his disciples.

[1] J. B. Shearer, The Sermon on the Mount: A Study (1906; rpr Greenville, SC: GPTS Press, 1994), 76-77.

[2] John Stott, Christian Counter-Culture (Wheaton, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1978), 98.


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