The Pharisees and Adultery

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:27-32)

Jesus is contrasting the righteousness of His own teaching that upholds the same righteousness found in the Law of Moses with the scaled-down righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt.5:20). If you have not read Part 1 of this series, please do so now before beginning this part of the series. The groundwork was laid in Part 1, and now we are proceeding to show that when Jesus quotes a standard of righteousness upheld by the scribes and Pharisees, sometimes it is a correct quotation of the Law, but that is not the problem. The problem is that while they spoke about one aspect of the Law, they would conveniently forget about a related issue, or they would take a verse out of context and misapply it. Jesus shows that He upholds the righteousness of the Law, while the scribes and Pharisees were twisting and destroying the righteousness of the Law.

Who was really seeking righteousness? (Matthew 5:27-32). In this part of Jesus' great Sermon on the Mount, we see the contrasts between Jesus and the Pharisees. Is Jesus the one destroying the Law? The Pharisees ignored the Law on how to treat your neighbor (Matthew 5:21-26), how to reconcile quickly, and here we see that the Pharisees were selective on the issue of adultery. They talked about "committing adultery" and the people have heard them of old on that topic, and yes, the Law of Moses was against the act of adultery. But, the issue here is more on what they didn't speak about. They failed to talk about coveting your neighbor's wife, another part of Moses' righteous Law. They did not mind "causing people to commit adultery" by their loose views on divorce. Fair handling of the Law would show the danger of looking to lust (Psalms 101:3). The writer says "I will set nothing wicked before my eyes." This is a person seeking righteousness by avoiding the lust of the eyes. Again, the contrast is not that the Law of Moses said not to commit adultery and now the New Testament is going to demand a look at the heart. The contrast is between the righteousness that Jesus upholds that is found in the Law of Moses and the lesser standard of pick and choose engaged by the scribes and Pharisees.

The Old Testament spoke about the importance of keeping the heart (Proverbs 4:23), the danger of "regarding iniquity in my heart" (Psalms 66:18). It told of the bad example of Potiphar's wife, the bad example of David with Bathsheba. So, there was much in the Law of Moses that addressed lust in the heart, and it is not the case that Jesus is now going to invent a higher level of righteousness not found in the Law.

Jesus talked about the issue of "looking to lust", the "causes" of sin, and the seriousness of sin, but all of these things are in agreement with the Law. So, which one "fulfills" the Law? And which actually "destroys" the Law? Jesus? or the Pharisees?

The Pharisees looked for loopholes to make divorce and remarriage acceptable (Matthew 5:31) and thought of the certificate of divorce as a righteous thing to do for your ex-spouse. It was like the Law said nothing else and it said all they wanted it to say once they focused on the allowance made in Deuteronomy 24.

The Reason for Divorce

Because two become one flesh in marriage, divorce always potentially causes adultery with one exception. If and only if adultery was the reason you put away your spouse can you say that you did not cause them to commit adultery when you put them away. The certificate of divorce does not forgive sins leading up to the breaking of the vows and dismissal. The certificate of divorce does not prevent adultery in the second union even though it is socially and civilly allowed. The certificate of divorce does not make a new marriage acceptable and righteous. So, the case-law of Deuteronomy 24 and the judgment given was not a command to divorce and was not a statement that all you had to be concerned about was giving the certificate of divorce. It was an allowance made due to hardness of heart, and hardness of heart is not a matter of righteousness.  On the civil level of a hardened society, allowances were made and those were regulated with rules for those hardened heart cases. One would not go to regulated judgments in the Law for a social condition that was not good but regulated if you are interested in "righteousness."

Jesus taught that we should avoid sin at all costs like it was a plague or contaminating disease. A righteous person takes precautions to avoid sin. Sin is worse than losing a hand or an eye. A righteous person looks to avoid sin, to quit sinning, to refrain from "causing" sin in self and sin in others. Righteousness is sensitive to sin. But, what of those who would put a spouse in a position to be defiled or to commit adultery? Is that what the righteousness of the Law demands?  When you look for loopholes to put away, you are not looking for ways to avoid causing sin in yourself and others.  The Law of Moses did not set forth the idea that it is alright to cause sin in self and in others.

Do not cause others to sin. All who would enter the kingdom must have a higher standard of righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees. They wanted to advance the right of divorce for any and every cause as long as you gave a certificate of divorce. The righteousness of the Law was not in tolerated and suffered judgments in the law for hardened hearts. It was in the parts that called for a person not to set wickedness or sin before one's eyes and intentions. It was in the parts that called for a personal commitment not to sin and to do what was right for all concerned.  Thus, once again the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was not what the righteousness of the Law called for in God's righteous people.  Jesus upheld the righteous requirements of the Law and expects that of His kingdom citizens (Romans 8:4; 13:8-10; Ephesians 6:1-3; II Timothy 3:16-17).

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