Question: Please comment on Matthew 5:47.
Answer: Matthew 5:47 reads thus: “And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?” Now let us break this verse up a little. The first phrase is “If ye salute your brethren only.” The 20th Century New Testament says “if ye show courtesy to your brethren only.” Goodspeed’s translation says “and if you are polite to your brothers and no one else.” Phillip’s translation says “and if you exchange greetings only with your own circle.” All of these together “salute,” “show courtesy,” “you are polite,” “exchange greetings” cover the whole scope of our general association with our fellows. Adam Clarke comments at this place that “brethren in this text would be properly rendered “friends.” Then the whole scope of our association and attitude with our immediate circle of friends is comprehended here and it is altogether congenial.
The second phrase is, “What do ye more than others?” Rotheram’s translation renders this “What more than common are you doing?” Waymouth’s translation says “Are you doing anything remarkable?” Olaf Norlie’s translation says, “Does that give you any special distinction?”
The last phrase says, “Do not even the publicans so?” Rotheram’s translation uses the term “the nations” instead of “the publicans.” The James Moffatt translation says, “Do not the very pagans do as much?” The Centenary translation by Helen Montgomery says, “Even the Gentiles do that, do they not?” Beck’s translation inserts “the people of the world” in place of “the publicans.”
This seems to me to cover the whole scope of the direct meaning of this text. If we are courteous, polite, exchange greetings, and are congenial and friendly with our friends and brethren only, that in no way distinguishes us from the worldly crowd; because they all do the same. Matthew 5:47 is in a context with a number of verses which begin with verse 43 and continue through verse 48. So let us backtrack a little and consider the whole context and see how verse 47 fits in with the overall discussion of these verses.
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48.
In these verses is described the attitude of God, our heavenly Father, and His generous mercies toward all mankind; both the good and the evil, and how He gives rain and causes the sun to shine on all of them alike. Paul referred to this same disposition of the living God (Acts 14:15) when speaking to the heathens at Lystra in Acts 14:17 where he said that “…He did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” This, then, is the attitude and disposition of God toward humankind generous and merciful. He has certain mercies that He dispenses to both the good and the evil. Of course, we understand that He has a special package of mercies which He reserves for His own (the righteous children of God). He enjoins upon us, His children, to be the same. In Galatians 6:10 we read, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” The law standard said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” However, Jesus came to offer the sacrifice of Himself for sin and to save us from our sins and establish the New Covenant with mankind that demanded a much higher standard of life than the law of Moses afforded. Jesus requires that we love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and pray for those who despitefully use us and persecute us. (Matthew 5:44.) He said we would have to be like this in order to be the children of our Father in heaven. (Verse 45.) The salvation which Jesus established and provided is to make us partakers of the divine nature of God (II Peter 1:4) which makes us a partaker of the attitude and disposition toward humankind as is described to us in this group of verses (Matthew 5:43-48). Verse 47 has its setting in this context and teaches us that we must have a generous, kind, benevolent, considerate and courteous attitude and disposition toward all humankind, friend or foe. It forever obliterates clannishness from the hearts and lives of the children of God. To be perfect before God, we must be like this.
The exact same thing is taught in the group of verses immediately preceding this group of verses we have just been studying (Matthew 5:39-42) where it says, “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. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”
Now let us realize that all Scripture must be interpreted in its proper context. Therefore, the last verse of this group of verses (verse 42) which says, “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away,” must be interpreted in context with the entire group of verses with which it is connected. These verses (38-41) teach us what attitude we should have toward our adversaries, of whatever dimension they are, and how we should respond to those who would oppress us, treat us unjustly and persecute us. We should go all out, even beyond reasonable and required bounds, to give satisfaction to the claims of anyone with whom we become involved. Then the general thought concludes with this 42nd verse which says, “Give to him that asketh thee,…” In other words; if one of your adversaries one who has smitten you on your cheek, sued you in the court and gained a judgment against you (justly or unjustly) or has taken undue advantage of you and compelled you to do something he had no right to require of you needs help and comes to you and asks a gift or help or asks you to loan him something to enable him to meet an emergency, grant him the favor just as you would a friend. Never refuse him a favor just because he has mistreated you. This is exactly the same truth that is taught in Matthew 5:47 and its related verses. God is looking for people who can meet their problems in a different way than the man of the world meets his.