"But I Say Unto You"
Having attempted to teach Greek grammar for many years, I am somewhat aware of the vernacular of the Greek New Testament and how some words and linked groups of words stand out in the vernacular. "For God so loved" (Greek, gar outos theos egapesen) is an expression known to about all men. Another group of words linked together to set forth a statement and concept is, "But I say unto you" (ego de lego umin). Jesus is the author of the expression, "But I say unto you" and he used it in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5: 21-48). The expression, "But I say unto you" is seen as important, due to the simple fact that out of the 107 verses comprising this renowned sermon, 28 verses are dedicated to the, "But I say unto you" circumstance.
The expression, "But I say unto you" occurs six times in the alluded to passage and is each time prompted by words to the effect, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time…" (cp. vs. 21, 22; 27, 28; 31, 32; 33, 34; 38, 39; 43, 44). The "But I say unto you" is used in contrast to the "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time…."
The common explanation of the contrast Jesus offers when he uses, "But I say unto you." First, consider the resident authority found in the, "But I say unto you" expression. Jesus is showing that something is spurious and false, based on what He is saying.
One may correctly conclude from considering all aspects of the sermon (Matthew chapters five, six, and seven) that Jesus was not the namby-pamby, soft spoken, "say nothing to offend" preacher that some envision, but he spoke as one who knew and loved the truth and hated all error (Heb. 1: 7, 8). Notice the impression the sermon had on the people who originally heard it:
"28: And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: 29: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matt. 7, cp. Tit. 2: 15).
The "I" in the expression, "But I say unto you" is the Son of God, the one who later said, "All authority is given unto me in heaven and in earth" (Matt. 28: 18). The One whom even the demon world acknowledged as the Son of God (Matt. 8: 29).
The position that Jesus is in his sermon colliding with the Law of Moses and refuting the teaching of the law as found in the Hebrew scriptures and while doing this is presenting the truth is fairly common in some circles. This position has many indefensible attendant problems. In the first place, Jesus said that he had not come to "destroy" the law (Matt. 5: 17). "Destroy" is from the Greek kataluo, which means to collide or destroy. If Jesus had contradicted the moral teaching of the Law, the Scribes and Pharisees would have immediately charged him with perverting the Law (see addendum 1). Rather than contradict the teaching of the Law, the Sermon on the Mount explained and applied this teaching as had never before been done. While the Pharisees and many of the religious teachers of His day sought to find loopholes around the teaching, Jesus applied its teaching, emphasizing the full spirit of the law.
If we do not understand the intent of the six instances of, "But I say unto you" and the thrust of the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, we cannot even begin to grasp the full meaning and intended truth. One wrote regarding these matters:
"Jesus gave the full meaning of the law and the prophets in regard to personal morality. The scribes and Pharisees had perverted the righteousness which God has always expected of His people (see Matthew 5: 20). Their representations as to the meaning of the divine ethics were misleading the people and Jesus set about to correct them. To consider the Sermon on the Mount as the charter of a new and different system of morality for God’s people is to ignore the obvious meaning and declaration by Jesus himself (Matt. 5: 17, dm). This analysis is confirmed by what Jesus said toward the end of the sermon: ‘Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets (Matt. 7: 12)" (War and Conscience, Allen Isbell, p. 142).
Rather than challenging what the Law actually taught, Jesus is refuting what they said the Law taught (see the expression, "…ye have heard it was said by them of old time…," not, "…you have read" or, "it is written," Matt. 5: 21, 27, 31 33, 38, 43, cp. Matt. 4: 4, 7, 10). Jesus, then, is referring to, challenging, and refuting their oral traditions, which perverted the true spirit of the Law. What Jesus was doing in his sermon is clearly seen in his statement: "Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies…" (Matt. 5: 43, 44). The Law never taught such hatred for others, but it appears some of the Jewish teachers had from such verses as Leviticus 19: 18 made such a faulty inference; thus, seriously distorting the teaching of the Law of Moses.
The Law of Moses contained many moral codes that were indigenously true (cp. Rom. 2: 14). Jesus does, though, lift or sublimate these codes. Arguing such matters as whether or not the "Golden Rule" applies today seems like a waste of time, I should think (Matt. 7: 12). It should be apparent to all Bible students that such teaching is applicable.
We shall now briefly focus on the six instances of, "But I say unto you" in an attempt to ascertain precisely what Jesus is challenging and, consequently, teaching.
The first instance of, "But I say unto you" (Matt. 5: 21-26). This first circumstance involved how the Jews often understood and taught Exodus 20: 13, the sixth of the Ten Commandments, the one prohibiting murder. The law itself was plain, the death penalty was to be activated in the case of such murder (Ex. 21: 12). It is apparent from Matthew 5: 22-26 that they were suppressing the spirit of the law against murder and attempting to mitigate the stated punishment. They would do many things just short of taking life, thinking that Exodus 20: 13 was being respected. Such practice and teaching was a perversion of the full intent and spirit of Exodus 20: 13.
The second condition of, "But I say unto you" (Matt. 5: 27-30). Again, commandment number seven was explicit (Ex. 20: 14). However, the scribes and Pharisees had decided that all manner of lust was allowable, just as long as the overt act of adultery was not committed. Jesus explains that the, "Thou shalt not commit adultery" prohibition also precluded such lusts. Hence, he spoke the famous: "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: 28). The position that, "Jesus is refuting the Law of Moses teaching that one could lust, just as long as they did not actually commit adultery," is totally false and spiritually objectionable in the extreme! Appreciate the fact that Jesus is applying his teaching in the present case (teaching under the Law of Moses, Gal. 4: 4). If he were teaching something radically different and contrary to the Law, the Pharisees would have then charged him with false doctrine, no doubt. Even they knew that Jesus was fully expounding the Law and, for that matter, universal truths that knew no dispensational limitation or circumvention.
The third case of, "But I say unto you" (Matt. 5: 31-32). God’s marriage law has always been, one man, one woman for life," the only exception for divorce and the allowance of marriage to another being fornication (cp. Gen. 2: 22-25, Matt. 19: 4f., cp. Jere. 3: 8). Due to the "hardness of their hearts," however, God made a concession, apparently to protect the women against whom they were sinning (Deut. 24: 1-4). By the time of Jesus, it appears that they were flippantly putting away their wives and only concerned with providing her with the "writing of divorcement." Again, they missed the spirit of the law. Jesus explained that to do thus was to, "causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery, " in that she would most often marry another (Matt. 5: 32). Such is God’s moral teaching then (under the Law of Moses, notice the present case application) and today.
The forth scenario of, "But I say unto you" (Matt. 5: 33-37). There was and is a proper place for oaths (Lev. 19: 12, cp. Ex. 20: 7, see addendum 2). However, just as in the case of the "writing of divorcement," many of the Jews were engaging in silly and trivial oaths, regarding all manner of things. Jesus fully explained such in his denunciation found in Matthew 23: 16-22. Jesus’ "Swear not at all" is not prohibiting all oaths, but is precluding the oaths under review and discussion by Him. They seemed to have also thought, practiced, and taught that if an oath did not reference "God," it was not necessarily binding. Again, Jesus’ refutation was not regarding what the Law of Moses actually taught, but what they (contemporary Jews) were teaching that the Law taught.
Circumstance number five of, "But I say unto you" (Matt. 5: 38-42). Involved in the system with which God provided Israel, there was the civil or theocratic protocol. In case of injury or violation, there was judicial protocol (Ex. 18: 21, 22, see a case in Deut. 19: 15-21). The "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth" meant that justice through that system was to be rendered. They had reduced the teaching to an opportunity for personal and direct vengeance, ignoring the civil procedure, involving proof and objective judgment. Jesus is also stressing the spirit of the law, a spirit that required effort to get along and be conciliatory in practice (cp. Matt. 5: 22-26).
The final instance of, "But I say unto you," the sixth (Matt. 5: 43-48). This sixth case clearly illustrates what Jesus is doing and having in contrast. The Law of Moses never taught, "Love they neighbor, and hate your enemy" (cp. Lev. 19: 18). They seemed to have extracted from Leviticus 19: 18 a perverted and not allowed inference that permitted them to hate and abuse those not considered to be their "neighbor."
All of these six cases of, "But I say unto you" must be understood in the proximity of Jesus’ statement:
"20: For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5, now notice 5: 21-48).
The Sermon on the Mount in which these six sayings, "But I say unto you" are found accomplished a number of things. First, this sermon contains the spiritual essence and sample of what, no doubt, Jesus was preaching (Matt. 5: 17, 23). Teaching that would be the core of his Kingdom, these universal truths that were indigenously true. The Sermon on the Mount also placed Him in a collision course with the Pharisees that would about two years later result in them, through Rome and the cowardly Jews, succeeding in crucifying Jesus.
Regarding the, "But I say unto you" pronounced by Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount itself, I again shall inject words from author Allen Isbell:
"…What is taught in the Sermon was genuinely contained in the Old Testament; that the several contrasts are between true morality and the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees which was predicated on perverted interpretations of the law and the prophets…The Sermon on the Mount demonstrates that there is a continuity of Biblical ethics which is frequently ignored by Biblical exegetes. It is this continuity which permits the New Testament writers to cite Old Testament scriptures when speaking of moral duty (see Romans 12: 19, 20, 13: 9, 10; James 2: 8, 11). There was a depth of spirituality within the morality of the law and the prophets which cannot be surpassed. Personal moral duties under both covenants are not wholly dissimilar" (War and Conscience, p. 154, see addendum 3).
Addendum 1: The position that all before Acts 2 is Law of Moses and cannot be bound on men today is not only shallow, but spiritually repulsive. Such a view would relegate Jesus’ breathtakingly marvelous sermon to a place of inapplicability. The sermon contains many indigenously correct statements, "moral laws," notwithstanding the fact that it was admittedly delivered in the canopy of the Law of Moses (Matt. 5: 23, 24, cp. Gal. 4: 4). Jesus’ teaching about divorcement and marriage to another, fornication being the only cause, restores the original moral law of Genesis 2 (see Matthew 19: 4f., Matt. 5: 31, 32, 19: 9). There is a marked difference between Jesus "fulfilling" (Greek, pleroma) the Law and destroying it. Jesus was "the end" (Greek, telos) to the Law in that he was the substance of the shadows and his New Covenant teaching provided all that the Law of Moses could not and was not designed to supply (cp. Rom. 10: 4, Matt. 5: 18, Heb. 7-10). Jesus lived under the Law and taught it in its purity (Gal. 4: 4). (Be sure to read, "The Sermon on the Mount" and, "A Study of Moral Law.")
Addendum 2: Hebrews 6: 16, 18 show that all oaths are not necessarily sinful and being band by Jesus. Paul took an oath, calling on God as his witness (1 Thes. 2: 10). Many believe that Jesus himself participated in an act of adjuration (Matt. 26: 63, 64). There can be a time and place for adjuration, such as in the civil setting.
Addendum 3: The book, War and Conscience was first published in 1966 by Biblical Research Press. Allen Isbell preached for churches of Christ and was very troubled over the carnal warfare issue. He thus began a serious study of the issue of warfare and obtained his Master’s Degree by preparing a thesis on the subject, much of his labors are reflected in his book, War and Conscience. The detailed study of warfare naturally resulted in Allen Isbell focusing much of his attention on the Sermon on the Mount, a text used by pacifists to claim all warfare is automatically wrong. Isbell’s studies resulted in him including an appendices in his book just pertaining to the Sermon on the Mount.