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Examining the Greek: Emphatic Negations in the Sermon on the Mount

[sws_grey_box box_size=”100%”]EDITOR’S NOTE:
Words matter.

When you’re penning a letter to someone, the words you use are chosen carefully to ensure that the right message gets across to your reader.

The same thing is true for the Biblical authors—those who were inspired by the Spirit of God to pen words that would then be preserved for thousands of years in the Biblical canon. These words were carefully chosen, inspired by God, and reveal eternal gospel truths that we can read today.

Last week, we introduced one such concept in which the Greek words used by an author may provide a fuller (not different) meaning to specific Biblical texts. In today’s post by contributor Justin Alfred, we will look at one of these “emphatic negations” in Matthew 5. [/sws_grey_box]

Matthew 5:17-20

17 Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. 18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away (οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ – ou mē parelthē) from the Law, until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter (οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε – ou mē eiselthēte) the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20, emphasis added).

What Jesus is saying in verse 18 is that nothing at all out of the whole of God’s Law (i.e., the whole of the Old Testament) “shall pass away (οὐ μὴ παρέλθῃ – ou mē parelthē) until all is accomplished,” and that “accomplishment” will be through His life, death, and resurrection!

Righteousness in Christ

Thus, in Christ, and in Him alone, is not only the “fullness of the Godhead dwelling” (Colossians 1:19), but in Christ is also the full completion of God’s righteousness through the Law completed and accomplished (Hebrews 10:1-10; Galatians 3:1-14). In addition, the word “accomplished” in the Greek is γένηται (genētai), which is an aorist subjunctive, and its basic meaning is “to come into being.” Thus, although the οὐ μή (ou mē) is not directly attached to γένηται (genētai), in the context of this passage, Jesus is saying that at His death and resurrection, when that occurs, all of the law’s demands for righteousness will be accomplished and have come into its final being at that moment, and those who receive Him by faith will be in that place of righteousness. This, in turn, brings us to the next usage of οὐ μή (ou mē) with the Aorist Subjunctive in verse 20:

“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter (οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε – ou mē eiselthēte) the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

A more amplified translation of this passage is as follows: “For I am continually saying to you, that unless your righteousness should excel to a greater degree that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no way at all enter the kingdom of heaven.”

What Jesus is saying, therefore, is that in the eyes of the Jews of that day and time, who, for the most part, were looking through the eyes of their blinded, works-based righteousness culture, the “scribes and Pharisees” were the personification of God on earth to the people. However, what was missing from their perspective, and which is missing from the perspective of all unregenerate people, is the absolute, unequivocal truth of man’s utter, complete, and total corruption to the core of his being.

No Righteousness of My Own

In Genesis 6:5, we read the following: “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” What is significant about this passage is the Hebrew word translated “intent,”  which is יֵצֶר (yēṣer – yester), and it means “the form of something, such as the form of a graven image; the form of man as made of the dust; and of what is framed in the mind.”5

In Biblical Hebrew, every noun is derived from some form of a verb; the verb from which this particular noun is derived is יָצַר (yāṣar – yatsar), and it means: “to form or fashion as a potter or creator forms and fashions that which he is creating.”6 Thus, what is being said in Genesis 6:5 is that before we can even recognize our fully developed thoughts in our minds, their very inception is evil because of our fallen and utterly corrupt natures. With reference to man’s righteousness, specifically, this all-important truth is even more graphically stated in Isaiah 64:6: “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” The words “filthy garment” come from the Hebrew words בֶּגֶד עִדִּים (beged ‘idîm – beged ‘idim), which literally means “garment of menstruations.”7 Thus, in God’s sight, “our righteous deeds” are like used, menstrual cloths, which for the Hebrews  was at the apex of uncleanliness for a woman—or for anyone else to touch (Leviticus 15:19-30).

Whose Righteousness?

Therefore, when Jesus says that “unless your righteousness should excel to a greater degree that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no way enter the kingdom of heaven,” He is actually pointing out the filthiness of the Pharisees” “righteousness,” which the people, from a blind and human perspective, saw as being the epitome of “goodness”, and He is saying that the “righteousness” through which one gains entrance into heaven must be greater than that! Consequently, the only righteousness that can enable us to enter into heaven is the righteousness of Christ:

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
(2 Corinthians 5:20-21)

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.
(Hebrews 4:14-16)

Thus, the use of the Subjunctive of Emphatic Negation in Matthew 5:20 is categorically stating that apart from the righteousness of Jesus, no one will enter the Kingdom of heaven. And here too, Jesus affirmed this very truth when speaking to Thomas: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me’” (John 14:6).

5 Francis Brown, The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979), 428.

6 Ibid., 427-428.
7 Ibid., 93-94, 723.