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Strive for Godly Perfection - Matthew 5:20-26; 38-48

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Background Passage

Matthew 4:17-7:29

Lesson Passages

Matthew 5:20-26,38-48

Lesson Passages Outline

  1. The Standard to Exceed (Matt. 5:20)
  2. Behavior Toward Friends (Matt. 5:21-26)
  3. Behavior Toward Difficult People (Matt. 5:38-42)
  4. Behavior Toward Enemies (Matt. 5:43-47)
  5. The Standard to Seek (Matt. 5:48)

Biblical Truth

Christians who strive for godly perfection will seek to exhibit genuine righteousness in all their behavior.

Life Impact

To help you strive for godly perfection


"As long as I get into heaven, I don't care if the gates catch my robes when they close." The statement stunned me to say the least. The man seemingly did not want the best of heaven. Instead, he would be satisfied to miss out on that and have just the least bit of heaven.

I wondered if he realized what else he was saying. Didn't he recognize genuine salvation leads to godly behavior? Did his life exhibit any signs of right living, have any evidence of salvation? I also wondered if he ever gave any thought to living for God and if that had any place in his life.

Do you demonstrate genuine righteousness in your behavior? What motivates you to do your best in expressing your faith?

Many polls reveal non-Christians and Christians have nearly the same kinds of behaviors. In other words faith does not seem to provide an impetus to righteous living.

Some people give up on the notion of godly perfection because they already have decided they cannot achieve it. However, the Bible specifically teaches us to be holy just as God is holy (Lev. 19:2, 1 Pet. 1:15-16). This lesson will help people understand the standard of behavior Jesus taught and to examine their lives and decide where they still lack godly perfection.

As you study Jesus' teaching about godly perfection, focus on ways you can encourage adult learners to experience the Life Impact of this lesson of striving for godly perfection. Toward that end, you will want to lead them to identify one new area to work toward this perfection.

As you continue your personal Bible study, prayerfully read the Background Passage and respond to the Study Questions as well as to the questions in the margins for the September 16 lesson in Explore the Bible: Adult Learner Guide.

The Bible in Context (Matt. 4:17-7:29)

After His baptism and temptations in the wilderness, Jesus began His public ministry by proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 4:17). He also gathered disciples, taught, healed, and cast out demons (Matt. 4:18-25). He performed these tasks in Galilee (northern Israel), though people from throughout Israel followed Him.

Matthew's Gospel provides a large block of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1-7:29). The sermon has instructions on how citizens of the kingdom of heaven should conduct themselves. It can be divided into five sections.

The first section focuses on what God wants to give citizens of the kingdom (Matt. 5:1-16). The Beatitudes are the blessings God gives to people who cultivate certain spiritual attributes. They emphasize the inner motive rather than mere outward conformity.

The second section focuses on behavior. The remainder of chapter 5 is often called "the antitheses" (Matt. 5:17-48). Each group of these verses follows the same pattern of Jesus' quoting a familiar law and then illustrating how the right behavior is connected to the motive. Religious behavior (giving, praying, and fasting) is the focus of the remainder of this section (Matt. 6:1-18).

The third section looks at our priorities (Matt. 6:19-34). Jesus was particularly concerned to show how anxiety or worry can prevent us from receiving the full benefit of God's blessing.

Relationships are the focus of the fourth section (Matt. 7:1-12). We are not to be judgmental and condemning of others. The loving relationship we enjoy with God sets the standard for our relationships with others.

The concluding section (Matt. 7:13-29) presents a challenge to choose wisely. Our decisions have eternal consequences.

The Standard to Exceed (Matt. 5:20)

20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter  the kingdom of heaven.

Verse 20. This verse has caused many Christians undue confusion. Several important points should clear up this confusion.

First, Jesus intended this verse as a rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees. [See Exploration: "Scribes and Pharisees," p. 42.] Jesus opposed them throughout His ministry (see Matt. 23). He would not have held them up as a positive role model. Their righteousness was not genuine.

Second, Jesus gave this teaching to rebuke those who might believe Christianity is unconcerned with behavior. The church has always faced the challenge of "grace abusers" or people who view grace as an opportunity to engage in sin, knowing they will be forgiven. Here and in Matthew 5:17-19, Jesus clearly indicated the law is an important standard of behavior and will be fulfilled. Behavior matters. Standards are important.

Third, Jesus did not intend this passage to define a means of salvation. Under no circumstances should we present the gospel in terms of obeying more laws than the Pharisees. To become kingdom citizens we do not need to wash our hands more often, or more severely limit activities on the Sabbath, or engage in more of the activities that characterized scribes and Pharisees.

And Today. We certainly do not need more Pharisees in the church today! They might all tithe. They might attend every service, even Sunday night. They might fill every committee. If our churches were full of Pharisees, however, everything would look good from the outside; but something would be radically wrong on the inside.

The law had become the focus for the scribes and Pharisees. They obeyed the law and ignored basic human needs. Christianity is couched in love and grace, founded on a relationship with Jesus Christ. Rules define the scribes and Pharisees. Relationship defines the Christian.

We must remember how we are approaching this study of Matthew. This Gospel provides answers to questions of Christians, especially new believers. One such question concerns the law in particular and behavior in general. Each lesson title answers a question that is likely to be asked by these Christians. Concerning behavior and the law we must continue to strive for godly perfection. Behavior matters. We are not to try and "out Pharisee the Pharisees" but rather have a relationship with Christ that impels us to live in a way that honors Him. We are to express genuine righteousness.

Behavior Toward Friends (Matt. 5:21-26)

21 "You have heard that it was said to our ancestors,  Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Fool!' will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, 'You moron!' will be subject to hellfire. 23 So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.  25 Reach a settlement quickly with your adversary while you're on the way with him, or your adversary will hand you over to the judge, the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I assure you: You will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!

Have you ever lowered the standard of behavior for which Jesus taught us to strive? Why?

Verse 21. Jesus explained the previous verse with six illustrations often called "the antitheses." Jesus quoted a law and then showed how the behavior of a Christian is to exceed the letter of that law. In each illustration Jesus focused on the believer's motive and heart.

You shall not murder is the Sixth Commandment. It had been said to our ancestors and was rightly accepted as a standard of behavior. It was the rule, but would it meet the test for a follower of Jesus?

Verse 22. Jesus traced the act of murder to its motive. Anger refers to a long simmering anger that devalues its object, as opposed to a flare up of anger. Though both are "temporary insanity," Jesus had simmering anger in mind here because of its potential long-term destruction.

Brother is clearly a fellow Christian, though this verse does not allow anger at non-Christians. The phrase "without cause" appears in the KJV but not in the Holman CSB because they follow different manuscripts at this point. Subject to judgment envisions a courtroom scene where the accused is judged. Transgression leads to judgment.

Specific examples of anger include calling another believer a fool or a moron. The former word is a harsh sounding Aramaic word and difficult to translate. It is akin to a curse that calls into question a person's mental capacity. "Empty headed" is a basic meaning. The second word focuses more on a person's moral character.

Both words express extreme contempt, and that is the emphasis here. All anger is dangerous, though some is justified. But no one should carry or nurture anger or allow it to fester or to devalue another person.

The judgment that follows each expression of anger is serious. The Sanhedrin was the ruling council of the Jews. Why did Jesus say people would be brought before this body because of anger? He used this familiar image to point to God's judgment of sinners. He made the same point with hellfire, or literally "the fire of Gehenna," a term derived from the name for the valley of Hinnom southwest of Jerusalem. This smoldering garbage dump served as an apt illustration of hell.

Verses 23-24. These verses are the key to understanding the standard of righteousness that should characterize a believer. Offering your gift at the altar refers to the literal handing of the sacrifice to the priest. This important ritual, however, was not more important than a relationship with a fellow believer. Be reconciled with your brother underscores the truth that relationship is more important than ritual. Remember, no one could outdo the Pharisees in ritual and law keeping. Christianity, however, is all about relationships.

Verse 25. A second example of the need for reconciliation concerns a civil matter where the two parties reach a settlement before going to the judge. It also emphasizes the importance of right relationships.

Verse 26. The last penny refers to the second smallest Roman coin. Judgment is sure for believers who harbor anger toward another Christian. Any time we put others outside the realm of our grace we open ourselves to God's judgment. The examples in verses 23-26 underscore the need for decisive action in dealing with ongoing anger.

Behavior Toward Difficult People (Matt. 5:38-42)

38 "You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I tell you, don't resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.

40 As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and don't turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Do you maintain an ongoing anger at a brother or sister in Christ? What can you do to rectify that situation?

Three examples of the higher standard of righteousness are omitted here (vv. 27-37) due to space limitations. They concern adultery and divorce (which will be discussed in the November 11 lesson) and oaths.

Verse 38. Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth is an expression of one of the oldest recorded laws, appearing in Babylonian law as well as in the Old Testament (Ex. 21:23-25, Lev. 24:19-21, Deut. 19:21). As harsh as it sounds, this law was actually a first step toward mercy because it limited revenge. For example, if you lost one eye in a dispute you were not allowed to completely blind your adversary.

Verse 39. Although the KJV has a literal translation, Don't resist the evildoer almost certainly expresses the idea of Jesus' words. Not resisting an evildoer emphasizes not trying to put other people in the wrong or point out their faults. As Christians, our first concern is not for our rights or to complain about  how we have been wronged.

The first illustration of this selfless attitude concerns turning the other cheek. An open-handed slap was extremely insulting. To be slapped on the right cheek implies a right-handed person giving a back-handed slap, which was even more insulting. The old law provided for a slap in return and in kind. But Jesus said a Christian should not be concerned for personal rights in general or for revenge in particular.

Verse 40. The shirt was a long undergarment. The coat was the outer garment and was also used for a wrap at night, particularly by the poor. By Jewish law a person could be deprived of a shirt but not a coat. A Christian, once again, must not rely on civil rights but must provide an example of extravagant generosity. Only such action will initiate a grace-filled relationship and point the accuser toward God.

Verse 41. A Roman soldier could compel anyone to carry a burden up to one mile. Imagine the surprise of a soldier when a Christian kept carrying a burden for a second mile! The second mile is the mile of witness and service in which a Christian most clearly demonstrates the importance of relationships over rules.

Verse 42. Giving was an important part of Jewish faith. Like every aspect of that society, giving was governed by extensive rules, some of which limited it. Instead of looking for limits, Christians are to look for opportunities. We give when we see a need, not just when it is a legal requirement. We don't turn away those who would borrow from us.

And Today. This passage portrays undeserving, difficult, and demanding people and guides us in relating to them. We do not have the option of automatically writing off difficult people. We are to look for ways to establish and deepen relationships that lead them closer to God. Merit is not the governing principle in our relationships. Mercy is.

Jesus was certainly not advising the indiscriminate forfeiture of all possessions in any circumstance where they are demanded. We must beware of enabling someone's addiction, for example, by constantly giving and allowing them to drain all our resources. We should not give if it could result in harm. The principle of stewardship and wisdom should govern our generosity, but limits are not our first option. We look first for opportunities to help difficult people.

Behavior Toward Enemies (Matt. 5:43-47)

43 "You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  46 For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don't even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don't even the Gentiles do the same?

In what way can you help a difficult person this week?

Verse 43. The first part of this statement is given in the law. Love your neighbor appears in Leviticus 19:18 and is presupposed in the entire Old Testament. The second half of the "old saying" is not clearly stated, but most people think they are to hate an enemy.

And Today. Hatred of an enemy is quite natural and easily justified. But not for Christians. Our relationships should have redemptive goals. We are to lead others to God. To put anyone, even an enemy, beyond our realm of grace is, in effect, to say they are beyond God's grace.

Verse 44. Two actions are mandated when we face someone who is obviously opposed to us. Love your enemies is the first demand. The second mandate is to pray for those who persecute you. The differences between the readings here in the KJV and Holman CSB are due to different manuscripts being followed in each version.

And Today. As Jesus did on the cross, I can love people who obviously do not have my best interest at heart. Love may mean desiring good for them. That is an appropriate expression of love. Also, prayer can defuse hurt and resentment. I may not be able to solve every issue someone has against me, but I can pray for and ask God to bless that person. I also can ask Him to take care of situations beyond my ability to solve.

Verse 45. Jesus grounded the exhortation to desire good for enemies in God's example of blessing those who are undeserving. God does not dispense blessings according to merit but according to mercy.

Verse 46-47. In these two verses Jesus contrasted the standard of behavior of Christians to unbelievers. Tax collectors and Gentiles reward and greet those who are friendly to them. Implied also is that they treat with enmity those who are enemies.

And Today. We have moved from difficult people in the previous section to hostile people in this section. Christians are to extend blessings and grace to all, even to those who oppose to us. The standard of grace applies equally. Prayers for blessing and forgiveness do not always mean a restoration of a relationship. Forgiveness can be a bit ragged at times, but genuine prayers and love for an enemy relieve us of the burden of resentment and pave the way for God to bless and heal. We are not given the option of changing our behavior to suit our tastes. Genuine righteousness means giving grace to all.

The Standard to Seek (Matt. 5:48)

48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

How can you show grace to someone this week who has caused you physical or emotional harm?

Verse 48. Recall that this lesson seeks to answer the question concerning a Christian's standard of behavior. The first part of the answer emphasized the continuation of a solid standard, for Jesus did not abolish the law. The second part of the answer (the antitheses) concerns how our behavior as Christians is to exceed a standard based solely on rules. The motive or heart of a Christian is vitally important. Real Christian faith must be lived from the inside out.

The third part of the answer is in this verse, and it serves as a succinct summary of Jesus' main point. Be perfect is an imperative. At first it seems like an impossibly high standard, but on reflection we must remember that we are called to be holy as our heavenly Father is holy (Lev. 19:2, 1 Pet. 1:15-16). His standard becomes our standard, so we cannot casually dismiss it.

And Today. The word for perfect means "whole" or "mature." Some interpreters have tried to use these translations to lessen the force of Jesus' command and thus make it more attainable. Nothing in the Sermon on the Mount or in the rest of Jesus' teaching, however, permits that kind of retreat. 

That we cannot attain this standard does not relieve us from the responsibility to try. The word perfect implies "goal" or "aim" and our obvious aim in life is to live as God wants. Without question this high standard reminds us God is both merciful and gracious, but we must never use this fact as an excuse to sin. Rather, God's character and love for us should be a motive to love and serve Him. We are not to aim for the least acceptable but for the most that is possible.

Biblical Truths for Spiritual Transformation

  1. We are to live in ways that express genuine righteousness.
  2. We exhibit genuine righteousness by refusing to be angry with or express contempt for other Christians and by seeking reconciliation in broken relationships.
  3. We exhibit genuine righteousness by being generous to difficult or demanding people instead of treating them as they deserve.
  4. We exhibit genuine righteousness by loving those who cause us physical or emotional harm.
  5. We are to strive for godly perfection, which is the highest form of genuine righteousness.

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