The Savior demonstrated how to apply this teaching through six antitheses, each beginning with the statement, “Ye have heard it said.” Each antithesis reflects various codes of conduct found in the Law of Moses or practiced by the Jews in Christ’s day which the Lord intended His listener to apply at a higher level.
The first antithesis. “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment” (Matt. 5:21); i.e., those guilty of murder would face the punishment imposed by the local courts and eventually the punishment of God. The disciples of the Lord are asked to apply this law at a higher level. Such discipleship requires controlling the inner man. The Savior taught that when we exercise love towards others–therefore our first concern is for the welfare of others–we would not lose control of our anger towards another nor ever use language that would denigrate another in any way (vs. 22). Yet, even this is not enough. If others harbor ill-feelings toward us, we ought to rectify the relationship as soon as possible (vss. 23-26).
The disciples whom the Savior was addressing would be leaders with priesthood authority in the new church. They must exercise the priesthood they will be given with love and not with unrighteous dominion. H. Burke Peterson stated: “Exercising unrighteous dominion can follow many patterns. It may be relatively mild when expressed as criticism, anger, or feelings of severe frustration. In more extreme cases, however, unrighteous dominion may emerge as verbal, physical, or emotional abuse.”
Unrighteous dominion is unacceptable in the kingdom of God. It is born of selfishness. It must be combated by love of God and fellowman. Joseph Smith declared: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile. Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death” (D&C 121:41-44).
H. Burke Peterson explained that reproving with sharpness does not mean with uncontrolled anger: “Reproving with sharpness means reproving with clarity, with loving firmness, with serious intent. It does not mean reproving with sarcasm, or with bitterness, or with clenched teeth and raised voice. One who reproves as the Lord has directed deals in principles, not personalities. He does not attack character or demean an individual.”
The second antithesis. “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Adultery is the illegitimate use of God’s power to procreate. It is an act born of selfishness and not through pure, eternal love. Sexual impurity begins in the inner man. To live the law at the higher level requires control of mind as well as actions. The Savior said: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28).
To help control our thoughts, we must do all we can to control the influences that surround us. The Savior urged his disciples: “If they right eye offend (Gr. “cause to stumble”) thee, pluck it out” (vs. 29). That is to say, if there is anything in our surroundings that cause us to have immoral thoughts, we must “pluck it out.”
Our surroundings can either influence us for good or evil. Lehi exhorted his sons to “not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate” (2 Ne. 2:29; emphasis added). This statement teaches that the temptation to sin is inherent in the natural man and that one of Satan’s major strategies is to create an environment that stimulates and entices the sinful nature of man. It is imperative that if we are to overcome the sinful nature of the natural man that we must control those influences of the world that would bring us into the captivity of sin.
Satan often used media — a major aspect of our environment — to bring man into the captivity of sin. We must control what we watch, listen to, and read. The standard for entertainment has been given us by the First Presidency: “Do not attend, view, or participate in entertainment that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way. Do not participate in entertainment that in any way presents immorality or violent behavior as acceptable.” If there is anything in our TV watching, videos, DVDs, music, or literature that does not met this standard in anyway, we must “pluck it out” and get rid of it.
The third antithesis: “It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement” (vs. 31). Since there is no command to divorce in the law of Moses, this passage presupposes that “the practice of divorce” became a given among the Jews. In fact, the practice of divorce had become widespread among the Jews. Yet, divorce is unacceptable in the eyes of the Lord. But as the Savior later taught, “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:3-8).
The Savior confronted this abuse of the marriage covenant by laying down higher principles to guide His disciples. He warned: “Verily, verily, I say unto you that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery; and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, committeth adultery” (JST Matt. 5:32). The interpretation of this saying is not easy to discover. However, Mark’s record of a similar discussion is helpful: “And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery” (Mark 10:10-12). What is clear is the Savior was opposed to divorce with the possible exception for adutery.
Divorce is born of selfishness. President Spencer W. Kimball declared: “Every divorce is the result of selfishness on the part of one or the other or both parties to a marriage contract.” In view of this, President Hinckley once said: “The most burdensome responsibility I have is to make judgments on applications for cancellation of temple sealings following civil divorce. Each case is considered on its individual merits. I pray for wisdom, for the direction of the Lord in dealing with sacred covenants made in the most hallowed surroundings and of an eternal nature. The circumstances behind the divorce and behind the request for cancellation of a temple sealing contain a litany of selfishness, of greed, of behavior at times even sadistic in its nature, of abuse and heartache and tragedy.”
A successful marriage requires unselfishness.
This is accomplished when both marriage partners keep the first and second great commandments as priorities in their lives.
The fourth antithesis. “Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths” (vs. 33). This saying summarizes several related passages in the Law of Moses (Ex. 20:7; Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21-23). Oaths were given to insure the truthfulness and sincerity of one’s word. They were an important aspect of vows practiced in the Law of Moses.
Yet oaths are generally used by people of lesser integrity. They imply that one’s word cannot always be trusted unless “accompanied by some sort of verbal guarantee.” Therefore, such a person’s reliability must always be suspect. But true discipleship of the Lord Jesus Christ requires greater integrity than this. Therefore, the Savior declared: “But I say unto you, Swear not at all.” Rather, “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (5:34, 37). Likewise, James said: “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation ” (James 5:12).
If one’s word cannot always be trusted then he is often given to lying or deceit. Lying is born of selfishness. Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught: “A prominent feature of the natural man is selfishness the inordinate and excessive concern with self…. Selfishness is much more than an ordinary problem, because it activates all the cardinal sins. It is the detonator in the breaking of the Ten Commandments. By focusing on himself a person finds it naturally easier to bear false witness if it serves his purpose.”
But when one is governed by the first and second great commandments, he finds lying and dishonesty repugnant since it serves only self-interest and not others. When the love of God and others comes first, honesty overrides selfishness. Then what we say we will do or not do is perfectly reflected by our actions. President John Taylor taught: “We should be strictly honest, one with another, and with all men; let our word always be as good as our bond.”
The fifth antithesis: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (5:38). Equal retaliation is one of the oldest known recorded laws in the ancient world. It was instituted to restrict unlimited revenge. In this sense it is a higher law than that which governs the natural man, and, consequently, in earlier times was a social advance of great magnitude. It was always to be administered by the courts and never meant for individual retaliation. Thus it became part of the civil code of the Law of Moses (see Ex. 21:22; Lev. 24:19ff; Deut. 19:16-21).
But the Savior demands that His disciples practice an even higher private discipline regarding personal injury caused by others. He said: “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (5:39). In other words, do not seek revenge against one who has injured you. The phrase, “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek,” refers to a backhanded slap on the right cheek with the intent of drawing another into a fight. To “turn to him the other also” means to walk away from the insulting confrontation.
Sometimes such backhanded slaps are not intentional. In fact, we often are given a backhanded slap by a situation not intended to injure us. But it does! We should let the hurt go! If we give in to our natural desires, then we want the situation made right with vengeance exacted. But good never comes from such desires or actions.
Elder Boyd K. Packer recalled a man, John by name, who found himself in just such a situation. It was in an earlier time. The man lived in a small community with his young sweetheart. Their future looked bright as he had a good job and she was pregnant with their first child. As the time of birth grew near, there were complications. The only doctor was in the country attending others. As his wife’s conditioned worsened, the doctor was found and he immediately came and attended her. The baby was born and things seemed alright. But a few days later, the young mother died “from the very infection that the doctor had been treating at another home that night.
“John’s world was shattered. Everything was not right now; everything was all wrong. He had lost his wife. He had no way to tend both the baby and his work. As the weeks wore on, his grief festered.” Revenge, sometimes miscalled justice, is what he wanted. “Today, no doubt, he would have been pressed by many others to file a malpractice suit. And there are lawyers who would see in his pitiable condition only one ingredient–money!”
But one day, John’s stake president asked John to come and visit with him. “The counsel from that wise servant was simply, ‘John, leave it alone. Nothing you do about it will bring her back. Anything you do will make it worse. John, leave it alone.’”
But “how could he leave it alone? Right was right! A terrible wrong had been committed and somebody must pay for it. It was a clear case. But he struggled in agony to get hold of himself. And finally, he determined that whatever else the issues were, he should be obedient.” He told Elder Packer, “‘I was an old man before I understood! It was not until I was an old man that I could finally see a poor country doctor—overworked, underpaid, run ragged from patient to patient, with little medicine, no hospital, few instruments, struggling to save lives, and succeeding for the most part. He had come in a moment of crisis, when two lives hung in the balance, and had acted without delay.’ ‘I was an old man,’ he repeated, ‘before I finally understood! I would have ruined my life,’ he said, ‘and the lives of others.’”
Revenge is born of selfishness. It can only be truly overcome through love of God and fellowman.
The sixth antithesis: Related to the fifth antithesis is the sixth — “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy” (5:43). The command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is found in Leviticus 19:18. But no command to “hate thine enemy” is ever given in the Law of Moses. “Indeed, [the law of Moses] teaching about enemies is complex. There are certainly passages that inculcate a stern attitude to one’s foes (Exod. 34:12; Deut. 7:2; 23:6), and the Psalmist speaks of hating those who hate God (Ps. 139:21-22). B
ut other Old Testament passages extend love at least to the resident alien (Lev. 19:34) and call for an attitude of helpfulness that extends even to the ‘enemy’ (Exod. 23:4-5; Prov. 25:21-22).” It appears, then, that at the time of Christ there were many who oversimplified these legislations to mean “love your neighbor but hate your enemies”–an inaccurate teaching! This is probably why this antithesis does not read, “Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old” but rather, “Ye have heard that it hath been said.
To his disciples, the Savior said: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (5:44). Hating our enemies is easy. Indeed, the natural man enjoys such enmity. But such hatred distracts us from our goal attaining our divine potential.
“We are a warlike people,” President Spencer W. Kimball declared, “easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel — ships, planes, missiles, fortifications — and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become anti enemy instead of pro kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:44 45.)”
President Kimball asked, “Why does the Lord ask you to love your enemies and to return good for evil? That you might have the benefit of it. It does not injure him so much when you hate a person, especially if he is far removed and does not come in contact with you, but the hate and the bitterness canker your unforgiving heart.”
Hate is born of selfishness. The Savior would have love govern the emotions of our heart. When it does, we are more concerned with the welfare of our enemy than our own. Brigham Young said, “Do I say, Love your enemies? Yes, upon certain principles. But you are not required to love their wickedness; you are only required to love them so far as concerns a desire and effort to turn them from their evil ways, that they may be saved through obedience to the Gospel.”
The Savior concluded this teaching by saying, “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?” Hate is easy. Love requires work.
Be Ye Therefore Perfect
The six antitheses are demanding doctrines. To live up to them requires tremendous growth on our part. They give us guidance and direction on how to live all the Lord’s commandments at a higher level. Further, they show us our possibilities. The growth demanded by the Lord must be achieved if we are to reach the perfection of our divine potential. Therefore, the Savior commanded his disciples, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (5:48).
“Keeping this commandment,” Elder Russell M. Nelson taught, “can be a concern because each of us is far from perfect, both spiritually and temporally. . .When comparing one’s personal performance with the supreme standard of the Lord’s expectation, the reality of imperfection can at times be depressing.” But he added, “The moment [the Savior] uttered the words ‘even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,’ he raised our sights beyond the bounds of mortality. Our Heavenly Father has eternal perfection. This very fact merits a much broader perspective.”
This is implied in the Greek word teleios, translated perfect in Matthew 5:48. Teleios means ‘complete,’ ‘brought to an end,’ ‘finished,’ ‘full grown,’ or ‘mature.’ The Savior’s command to become perfect means that each commandment or law should be brought to full maturity in ourselves.
But such maturing will not be fully achieved in mortality. Joseph Smith declared: “When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the Gospel you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.”
So how is perfection achieved? Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained: “We do not work out our salvation in a moment; it doesn’t come to us in an instant, suddenly. Gaining salvation is a process.” Indeed, he said, “We have to become perfect to be saved in the celestial kingdom. But nobody becomes perfect in this life. Only the Lord Jesus attained that state, and he had an advantage that none of us has. He was the Son of God, and he came into this life with a spiritual capacity and a talent and an inheritance that exceeded beyond all comprehension what any of the rest of us was born with.”
But “We start out in the direction of eternal life when we join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We enter in at a gate, and the name of the gate is repentance and baptism. We thereby get on a path, and the name of the path is the straight and narrow path. And then if we endure to the end, meaning if we keep the commandments of God after baptism, we go up that straight and narrow path, and at its end is a reward that is named eternal life. All of this is available because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ.”
Perfection is attained, he added, by keeping “the commandments today, and we keep more of them tomorrow, and we go from grace to grace, up the steps of the ladder, and we thus improve and perfect our souls. We can become perfect in some minor things. We can be perfect in the payment of tithing. If we pay one-tenth of our interest annually into the tithing funds of the Church, if we do it year in and year out, and desire to do it, and have no intent to withhold, and if we would do it regardless of what arose in our lives, then in that thing we are perfect. And in that thing and to that extent we are living the law as well as Moroni or the angels from heaven could live it. And so, degree by degree and step by step we start out in the course to perfection with the objective of becoming perfect as God our Heavenly Father is perfect, in which eventuality we become inheritors of eternal life in his kingdom.”
He then promised, “As members of the Church, if we chart a course leading to eternal life; if we begin the process of spiritual rebirth, and are going in the right direction; if we chart a course of sanctifying our souls, and degree by degree are going in that direction; and if we chart a course of becoming perfect, and, step by step and phase by phase, are perfecting our souls by overcoming the world, then it is absolutely guaranteed — there is no question whatever about it — we shall gain eternal life.
Even though we have spiritual rebirth ahead of us, perfection ahead of us, the full degree of sanctification ahead of us, if we chart a course and follow it to the best of our ability in this life, then when we go out of this life we’ll continue in exactly that same course. We will no longer be subject to the passions and the appetites of the flesh. We will have passed successfully the tests of this mortal probation and in due course we’ll get the fulness of our Father’s kingdom–and that means eternal life in his everlasting presence.”
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