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John Calvin Commentary on Matthew 5:21-26

Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, John Calvin, 1558:

Matthew 5:23-26/Luke 12:58-59

MATTHEW 5:20-22

Matthew 5:20-22

20. For I say to you, That, unless your righteousness shall be more abundant 387387 "Si votre justice n'outrepasse;" — "if your righteousness does not go beyond." than that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter 388388 "Vous n'entrerez nullement, ou, jamais;" — "you shall not at all enter, or, you shall never enter." into the kingdom of heaven. 21. You have heard that it was said to the ancients, 389389 "Aux anciens." Thou shalt not kill: and he who shall kill shall be liable to judgment. 390390 "Sera digne d'estre puni par jugement;" — "shall be worthy of being punished by judgment." 22. But I say to you, That every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment: and he who shall say to his brother, Racha, shall be liable to the council: and he who shall say, Fool, shall be liable to the hell of fire. 391391 "Sera digne d'estre puni par la gehenne du feu;" — "shall be worthy of being punished by the gehenna of fire."

Matthew 5:20. Unless your righteousness shall be more abundant. He takes a passing notice of the Scribes, who were laboring to throw a stain on the doctrine of the Gospel, as if it were the ruin of the Law. True, he does not reason on this subject, but only points out briefly, that nothing has less influence over their minds than zeal for the law. "They pretend, that their hostility to me arises from their strong desire, that the law should not be violated. But their life makes it evident, how coldly they observe the law, — nay more, how unconcerned they are about mocking God,392392 "Comme ils se moquent de Dieu sans en faire conscience." — "How they mock God, without making conscience of it." while they boast before men of an assumed and hypocritical righteousness." This is the view which the most of commentators give of the passage.

But it deserves inquiry, whether he does not rather blame the corrupted manner of teaching, which the Pharisees and Scribes followed in instructing the people. By confining the law of God to outward duties only, they trained their disciples, like apes, to hypocrisy.393393 "Ils accoustumoyent leurs disc p es k ne hypocrisle, et en faisoyent des singes." — "They accustomed their disciples to a hypocrisy, and made apes of them." They lived, I readily admit, as ill as they taught, and even worse: and therefore, along with their corrupted doctrine, I willingly include their hypocritical parade of false righteousness. The principal charge brought by Christ against their doctrine may be easily learned from what follows in the discourse, where he removes from the law their false and wicked interpretations, and restores it to its purity. In short, the objection which, as we have already said, was unjustly brought against him by the Scribes, is powerfully thrown back on themselves.

We must bear in mind, what we have mentioned elsewhere, that the Pharisees are added to the Scribes by way of enlarging on what he had said: for that sect had, above all others, obtained a reputation for sanctity. It is a mistake, however, to suppose, that they were called Pharisees on account of division,394394 "De division, ou separation;" — "of division, or separation." because they separated themselves from the ordinary class, and claimed a rank peculiar to themselves. They were called פרושים, that is, Expounders,395395 Among a host of opinions as to the origin of the name Pharisees, there is room to doubt if Calvin has hit upon the true etymology. There are two roots: פרׂש (paras,) to spread out, with Sin for the final letter, — and פרׁש (parash,). to explain, to separate, with Schin. Both have been pressed into the service. The former is chiefly quoted in support of an allusion to our Lord's description of them, that they make broad their phylacteries, (Matthew 23:5.) But the latter root has been more fertile in suggestions. John Alberti, no mean authority, in his Glossarium Grcecurn, (under Luke 11:38,) defines Φαρισαῖος, to be διακεχωρισμένος, separated, and quotes the Septuagint as employing that participle (Ezekiel 34:12) for, נפרׁשות the principhal participle of פרׁש, (parash.) From Hesychius he gives synonyms of like import, — Φαρισαῖος, ἀφωρισμένος, μεμερισμένος, καθαρός As to the last of those terms, καθαρός, the learned Vitringa, to whom Alberti also refers, has copiously illustrated its meaning in a passage, which has been often quoted as embodying the proud challenge of the Pharisee, Stand by: for I am holier than thou, (Isaiah 65:5 ) — Suidas unhesitatingly defends the same idea of separation. His definition is as follows: Φαρισαῖοι οἱ ἑρμηνευόμενοι ἀφωρισμένοι, παρὰ τὸ μερίζειν καὶ ἀφορίζειν ἑαυτοὺς τῶν ἄλλων ἁπάντων, εἴς τε τὸ καθαρώτατον τοῦ βίου, καὶ ἀκριβέστατον, καὶ εἰς τὰ τοῦ νόμου ἐντάλματα. "Pharisees, — which means separated, on account of their dividing and separating themselves from all others, to the greatest purity and strictness of life, and to the prescriptions of the law." — Calvin's derivation is from the same root, and is certainly ingenious. That sect, we know, boasted of a rigid adherence to the law, though it may be questioned whether profound skill in exposition was claimed by all its members. Many of them might think that this belonged to the Scribes as a professional matter. — Ed. because they were not satisfied with the bare letter, but boasted of being in possession of a key to open up hidden meanings. Hence arose an immense mass of errors, when they assumed magisterial authority, and ventured, according to their wicked fancy and their equally wicked pride, to thrust forward their own inventions in place of Scripture.

21. You have heard that it was said. This sentence, and those which immediately follow, are connected with what we have just considered: for our Lord explains more fully, by minute instances, by what tortuous methods396396 "Comment les Phariseens avoyent deprave la Loy par leurs expositions tortues;" — "how the Pharisees had debased the law by their crooked expositions." the Pharisees debase the law, so that their righteousness is mere filth. It is a mistake, however, to suppose that this is an ἐπανόρθωσις, or correction 397397 "Une correction ou amplification de la Loy;" — "a correction or enlargement of the Law." of the Law, and that Christ raises his disciples to a higher degree of perfection, than Christ could raise a gross and carnal nation, which was scarcely able to learn first principles. It has been a prevailing opinion, that the beginning of righteousness was laid down in the ancient law, but that the perfection of it is pointed out in the Gospel. But nothing was farther from the design of Christ, than to alter or innovate any thing in the commandments of the law. There God has once fixed the rule of life which he will never retract. But as the law had been corrupted by false expositions, and turned to a profane meaning, Christ vindicates it against such corruptions, and points out its true meaning, from which the Jews had departed.

That the doctrine of the law not only commences, but brings to perfection, a holy life, may be inferred from a single fact, that it requires a perfect love of God and of our neighbor, (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18.) He who possesses such a love wants nothing of the highest perfection. So far as respects the rules of a holy life, the law conducts men to the goal, or farthest point, of righteousness. Accordingly, Paul declares the law to be weak, not in itself, but in our flesh, (Romans 8:3.) But if Moses had given nothing more than the first lessons of true righteousness, how ridiculous would have been that appeal!

"I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that ye may live," (Deuteronomy 30:19.)

Again,

"And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, and to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul?" (Deuteronomy 10:12.)

Vain and deceitful, also, would have been that promise, "The man that doeth them shall live in them," (Leviticus 18:5; Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:12.)

That Christ, on the other hand, intended to make no correction in the precepts of the law, is very clear from other passages: for to those who desire to enter into life by their good works, he gives no other injunction, than to, keep the commandments of the law, (Matthew 19:17.) From no other source do the Apostles, as well as Christ himself, draw the rules for a devout and holy life. It is doing a grievous injury to God, the author of the Law, to imagine that the eyes, and hands, and feet alone, are trained by it to a hypocritical appearance of good works, and that it is only in the Gospel that we are taught to love God with the heart. Away, then, with that error, "The deficiencies of the law are here supplied by Christ." We must not imagine Christ to be a new legislator, who adds any thing to the eternal righteousness of his Father. We must listen to him as a faithful expounder, that we may know what is the nature of the law, what is its object, and what is its extent.

It now remains for us to see, what Christ condemns in the Pharisees, and in what respect his interpretation of it differs from their glosses. The amount of it is, that they had changed the doctrine of the law into a political order, and had made obedience to it to consist entirely in the performance of outward duties. Hence it came, that he who had not slain a man with his hand was pronounced to be free from the guilt of murder, and he who had not polluted his body by adultery was supposed to be pure and chaste before God. This was an intolerable profanation of the law: for it is certain, that Moses everywhere demands the spiritual worship of God. From the very nature of the law we must conclude, that God, who gave it by the hand of Moses, spoke to the hearts, as well as to the hands and to the eyes. True, our Lord quotes the very words of the law; but he does so in accommodation to the view which was generally taken of them by the people. "Till now, the scribes have given you a literal interpretation of the law, that it is enough, if a man keep his hands from murder and from acts of violence. But I warn you, that you must ascend much higher. Love is the fulfilling of the law, (Romans 13:10;)and I say that your neighbor is injured, when you act towards him otherwise than as a friend." The latter clause which he quotes, he who kills shall be liable to the judgment, confirms what I said a little before, that Christ charges them with turning into a political scheme the law of God, which had been given for the government of the heart.


22. But I say to you His reply is not opposed to the command of Moses, (Exodus 20:13; Leviticus 24:21; Numbers 35:16;) but to the interpretation usually put upon it by the scribes. Now, as the Pharisees boasted of antiquity, (for it is always the custom to plead the prescription of a long period in defense of errors,)398398 "Pour maintenir et defendre les erreurs ou abus en la matiere de la religion;" — "to maintain and defend errors or abuses in matters of religion." Christ reminds the people of his authority, to which all antiquity ought justly to give way. Hence we conclude, that truth is of greater weight than custom or the number of years.

He who shall say to his brother Christ assigns three degrees of condemnation besides the violence of the hands; which implies, that this precept of the law restrains not only the hands, but all affections that are opposed to brotherly love. "Those who shall only be angry with their brethren, or treat them with haughty disdain, or injure them by any reproach, are murderers." Now, as it is certain that the word Racha occupies an intermediate place between anger and openly reproachful language, I have no doubt that it is an interjection of contempt or disdain. Though Christ adjudges to the hell of fire none but those who break out into open reproach, we must not suppose, that he declares anger to be free from a similar punishment; but, alluding to earthly judgments, he assures them that God will judge and punish even concealed anger.399399 "L'indignation secrette qu'on aura eue en son coeur contre le frere;" —"the secret indignation which they shall have had in their heart against their brother." But, as he who manifests his indignation by bitter language goes farther than this, Christ says, that that man will be held guilty by the whole heavenly council, that he may receive severer punishment.

Those, again, who break out into reproaches are adjudged to the hell of fire: which implies, that hatred, and every thing that is contrary to love, is enough to expose them to eternal death, though they may have committed no acts of violence. Γἔεννα (hell) is, beyond all question, a foreign word. גיא (Ge) is the Hebrew word for a valley. Now, "the valley of Hin-nom" was infamous for the detestable superstition which was committed in it, because there they sacrificed their children to idols, (2 Chronicles 33:6.) The consequence was, that holy men, in order to excite stronger hatred of that wicked ungodliness, used it as the name for hell, that the very name might be dreaded by the people as shocking and alarming. It would appear that, in the time of Christ, this was a received way of speaking, and that hell was then called by no other name than gehenna, (γέεννα,) the word being slightly altered from the true pronunciation.
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MATTHEW 5:23-26; LUKE 12:58-59

Matthew 5:23-26

23. Therefore, if thou shalt bring thy gift to the altar, and there shalt remember that thy brother hath anything against thee, 24. Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go away: first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer 400400 "Veniens offer;" — "coming offer." — "Lors vien et presente ton oblation;" — "then come and present thy oblation." thy gift. 25. Be agreed with thy adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him: lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be thrown into prison. 26. Verily I say to thee, Thou shalt not depart thence, till thou shalt have paid the last farthing.

Luke 12:58-59

58. Now, when thou goest with thy adversary to the magistrate, do thy endeavor, while thou art in the way, to be delivered from him: lest perhaps he drag thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer throw thee into prison. 59. I say to thee, Thou shalt no depart thence, until thou pay even the last mite.

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Matthew 5:23. Therefore, if thou shalt bring thy gift This clause confirms, and at the same time explains, the preceding doctrine. It amounts to this, that the precept of the law, which forbids murder, (Exodus 20:13,) is obeyed, when we maintain agreement and brotherly kindness, with our neighbor. To impress this more strongly upon us, Christ declares, that even the duties of religion are displeasing to God, and are rejected by him, if we are at variance with each other. When he commands those who have injured any of their brethren, to be reconciled to him, before they offer their gift, his meaning is, that, so long as a difference with our neighbor is kept up by our fault, we have no access to God. But if the worship, which men render to God, is polluted and corrupted by their resentments, this enables us to conclude, in what estimation he holds mutual agreement among ourselves.

Here a question may be put. Is it not absurd, that the duties of charity should be esteemed more highly than the worship of God? We shall then be forced to say, that the order of the law is improper, or that the first table of the law must be preferred to the second. The answer is easy: for the words of Christ mean nothing more than this, that it is a false and empty profession of worshipping God, which is made by those who, after acting unjustly towards their brethren, treat them with haughty disdain. By a synecdoche he takes a single class to express the outward exercises of divine worship, which in many men are rather the pretenses, than the true expressions, of godliness. It ought to be observed that Christ, adapting his discourse to that age, speaks of sacrifices. Our condition is now different: but the doctrine remains the same, that whatever we offer to God is polluted, unless, at least as much as lieth in us, (Romans 12:18,) we are at peace with our brethren. Alms are called in Scripture sacrifices of a sweet smell, (Philippians 4:18;) and we learn from the mouth of Paul, that he who

"spends all his substance on the poor, if he have not charity, is nothing," (1 Corinthians 13:3.)

Lastly, God does not receive and acknowledge, as his sons, any who do not, in their turn, show themselves to be brethren to each other. Although it is only to those who have injured their brethren that these words are addressed, enjoining them to do their endeavor to be reconciled to them, yet under one class he points out, how highly the harmony of brethren is esteemed by God. When he commands them to leave the gift before the altar, he expresses much more than if he had said, that it is to no purpose for men to go to the temple, or offer sacrifices to God, so long as they live in discord with their neighbors.

25. Be agreed with thy adversary Christ appears to go farther, and to exhort to reconciliation not only those who have injured their brethren, but those also who are unjustly treated.401401 "Mais aussi ceux qui sont assaillis et provoquez les premiers;" — "but also those who are first attacked and provoked." But I interpret the words as having been spoken with another view, to take away occasion for hatred and resentment, and to point out the method of cherishing good-will. For whence come all injuries, but from this, that each person is too tenacious of his own rights, that is, each is too much disposed to consult his own convenience to the disadvantage of others? Almost all are so blinded by a wicked love of themselves, that, even in the worst causes, they flatter themselves that they are in the right. To meet all hatred, enmity, debates, and acts of injustice, Christ reproves that obstinacy, which is the source of these evils, and enjoins his own people to cultivate moderation and justice, and to make some abatement from the highest rigor, that, by such an act of justice, they may purchase for themselves peace and friendship.402402 "Afin que ne prenans pas les choses a la rigueur, ils rachetent paix et amite en se monstrans ainsi traitables." — "That, not taking things to the rigor, they may purchase peace and friendship, by showing themselves so tractable." It were to be wished, indeed, that no controversy of any kind should ever arise among us; and undoubtedly men would never break out into abuse or quarrelling, if they possessed a due share of meekness. But, as it is scarcely possible but that differences will sometimes happen, Christ points out the remedy, by which they may be immediately settled; and that is, to put a restraint on our desires, and rather to act to our own disadvantage, than follow up our rights with unflinching rigor. That Christ frequently gave this exhortation is evident from the twelfth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, where he does not relate the sermon on the mount, but gives an abridgment of various passages in our Lord’s discourses.

Lest the adversary deliver thee to the judge This part is explained by some in a metaphorical sense, that the Heavenly Judge will act toward us with the utmost rigor, so as to forgive us nothing, if we do not labor to settle those differences which we have with our neighbors. But I view it more simply, as an admonition that, even among men, it is usually advantageous for us to come to an early agreement with adversaries, because, with quarrelsome persons, their obstinacy often costs them dear. At the same time, I admit, that the comparison is justly applied to God; for he will exercise judgment without mercy (James 2:13) to him who is implacable to his brethren, or pursues his contentiousness to the utmost. But it is highly ridiculous in the Papists, to construct their purgatory out of a continued allegory on this passage. Nothing is more evident than that the subject of Christ’s discourse is the cultivation of friendship among men. They have no shame, or conscientious scruple, to pervert his words, and to torture them into a widely different meaning, provided they can impose on the unlearned. But as they do not deserve a lengthened refutation, I shall only point out, in a single word, their shameful ignorance. The adversary is supposed by them to be the devil. But Christ enjoins those who believe on him to be agreed with the adversary Therefore, in order that the Papists may find their purgatory here, they must first become the friends and brethren of devils. A farthing is well known to be the fourth part of a penny: but here, as is evident from Luke, it denotes a mite, or any small piece of money. Now, if we were disposed to cavilling,403403 "Qui voudroit user de cavillation et chippoter sur chacun mot." — "One who would cavil and higgle about every word." we might here obtain another exposure of the absurdity of the Papists. For, if he who has once entered Purgatory will never leave it, till he has paid the last farthing, it follows, that the suffrages (as they call them) of the living for the dead are of no avail. For Christ makes no allowance, that others may free a debtor by satisfying for him, but expressly demands from each person the payment of what he owes.404404 "Mais il requiert nommement qu'un chacun satisface pour soy, et paye ce qu'il doit." — "But he requires expressly that each satisfy for himself and pay what he owes." Now, if Moses and other satisfactions are useless, however warm the fire of Purgatory may be, yet the kitchens of priests and monks, for the sake of which they are so anxious to maintain it, will be cool enough.


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400 "Veniens offer;" — "coming offer." — "Lors vien et presente ton oblation;" — "then come and present thy oblation." 401 "Mais aussi ceux qui sont assaillis et provoquez les premiers;" — "but also those who are first attacked and provoked." 402 "Afin que ne prenans pas les choses a la rigueur, ils rachetent paix et amite en se monstrans ainsi traitables." — "That, not taking things to the rigor, they may purchase peace and friendship, by showing themselves so tractable." 403 "Qui voudroit user de cavillation et chippoter sur chacun mot." — "One who would cavil and higgle about every word." 404 "Mais il requiert nommement qu'un chacun satisface pour soy, et paye ce qu'il doit." — "But he requires expressly that each satisfy for himself and pay what he owes." 

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