You have heard that it was said to those of old … But I say to you … [Matthew 5:21-22 ESV]
In a world where God is viewed as negligible, absent or non-existent anything imagined is considered possible and viable. Nothing is objectionable. Everything is permissible.
In Genesis 6:5 God sees the wickedness of the thinking of the hearts of all people, evil thinking and feeling only all of the time. Unfettered and undisciplined imagination and actions breed contempt for God and for His person. Even when we carry the attributes and characteristics which help us know Him, the image of God, we train ourselves to view Him as something He is not.
It is His person which establishes and defines creation. Those who allow themselves, even give themselves permission to ignore God, will imagine and believe their imaginations true. Even those who recognize the corruption of sin will try to make what they have imagined true. Just because we want something to be true does not make it true. We do not make truth.
In the next section of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 Jesus uses an expression, a couplet of opposite phrases, to show the lies people tell themselves which have become accepted tradition. “You have heard … but I say to you.” You have been taught something by the legalists, the scribes and teachers of the Law, which is not true.
Jesus is transitioning from the previous, foundational statements to illustrations of what He has taught. Adhering to manmade religious traditions, lies covered with the skin of a truth, will make no one righteous. Obeying these opinions and traditions may make you feel righteous, as if you are obeying God’s will, but accomplish nothing of eternal value. Though you dearly hold to your traditions as truth they may be only partly true. It is the part which is not true which captures just as sin captures and claims ownership. These traditions only claim truth as their foundation but spring from the imaginations of a people corrupted by sin, having rejected God.
Let me tell you the truth, Jesus says. He stresses the truth of His statements, backed by the evidence of His life. Ultimately, it is His resurrection which corroborates His words and teaching. But those who listened to Him and watched Him and experienced His healing powers had not yet known His resurrection.
In the context of the current setting His statements “you have heard it said … but I tell you …” are audacious and authoritative. His words and the implications of His words demand careful examination and application. Ignore them at the risk of eternal separation from God.
With these verses, beginning with Matthew 5:21, Jesus begins illustrating all He has been saying. He has succinctly described the citizen of the kingdom of God. Those who are not His hate those who are. Yet, what they think does not eternally matter. But we are conflicted, tugged and pulled by the world in such a way we are tempted to compromise and fail. When our eyes are fixed upon what is in the world, even the smallest part of the world, we are tempted to imagine something other than what is true. Citizens of God’s kingdom cannot become non-citizens but they can temporarily act motivated by their imaginations as citizens of the world. Our lives must revolve around Him and not anything opposed to Him.
Jesus, in the rest of Matthew 5, illustrates the nine points given in verses 1-20. Seven of these illustrations are of the seven characteristics of the citizen of the kingdom of heaven. Once the citizen is defined by the characteristic given, and the illustration meant to drive His point home, Jesus tells how the world will react to the citizen and then how the citizen is to act toward and within the world. He illustrates both the violent reaction of the world and the benevolent action of God through those who are His when facing violence. Finally, Jesus shows the foundation in a way which cannot be denied.
Matthew 5:21-48 are illustrations supporting the teaching of the Son of God in 5:3-20. Do not lift these verses out of their context and make them stand alone. Jesus does not mean for them to stand alone.
God has purposefully included imagination in the image of God. He has also given us vibrant and living information about Himself, His Son, and His Holy Spirit which He uses to prepare us for eternity. We are citizens of the kingdom of God not of the world in which we live. We are here as witnesses of God to the world. His words, the Scripture given, and His Spirit are meant to teach us and change us into the likeness of Christ. Let us diligently seek Him so we will find Him.