“It Was Said . . . but I Say” (Mt. 5:17-48)

By Timothy Sparks


This brief study seeks to answer the question, “Who said the things the people heard in the ‘You have heard that it was said’ statements?” Some believe that Jesus refers to statements of God in Scripture. Others believe that Jesus refers to teachings of the scribes and Pharisees. 

As the table below shows, in English translations of Matthew 5, six times Jesus says, “it was said.” “It was said” occurs five of the six times within the phrase “You have heard that it was said.” 

  “It was said”

                                           “You have heard that it was said”

Mt. 5:21

                                            Mt. 5:21

Mt. 5:27

                                            Mt. 5:27

Mt. 5:31


Mt. 5:33

                                            Mt. 5:33

Mt. 5:38

                                           Mt. 5:38

Mt. 5:43

                                           Mt. 5:43

“It was said” translates ἐρρέθη (errethē) six times in Matthew 5. This particular word occurs nowhere else in the Book of Matthew.

As the following table shows, previous to the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:1ff), references to Scripture are clearly indicated by the “spoken by” and “it is written” statements:

  “Spoken by”

                                                              “It is written”

   Mt. 1:22-23

                                                           Mt. 2:5-6

   Mt. 2:15

                                                        Mt. 4:4

   Mt. 2:17-18

                                                        Mt. 4:7

   Mt. 2:23

                                                          Mt. 4:10

   Mt. 3:3


   Mt. 4:14-16


What Jesus taught the multitudes (Mt. 5:1-2) was not a teaching they were to wait to practice in the future. Jesus taught them what they were to do in their present time (Mt. 5:3-16). English translations properly state “blessed are” (Mt. 5:3-11), not “blessed will be.”1  Jesus did not give them “preparatory teaching” to be practiced in the future. We should understand that Jesus was teaching them the truth of God’s law during their present time.

Matthew 5:17-20 provides the context in which Jesus made the “it was said . . . but I say” statements. If we fail to understand Mt. 5:17-20, we may very well fail to understand Jesus.

The first “it was said . . . but I say” statement (Mt. 5:21-26) immediately follows Jesus’ warning about the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:20). Could the scribes and Pharisees quote Scripture and misapply it? Yes, and they did. Jesus contrasts the scribes’ and Pharisees’ standard of righteousness (Mt. 5:20)2 with the true standard of righteousness revealed in the law and the prophets (Mt. 5:17-19). As the table below shows, the context of “it was said” is not in reference to God’s Word but to the words of the scribes and Pharisees.

The Righteousness Taught by the Scribes and Pharisees Versus the True Righteousness Taught by the Law and the Prophets (Mt. 5:17-48)

“You have heard that it was said to the ancients”                   by past scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:21)

“But I say to you” (Mt. 5:22-26)

“You have heard that it was said”                                              by present scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:27)

“But I say to you” (Mt. 5:28-30)

“It was said”                                                                                  by present scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:31)

“But I say to you” (Mt. 5:32)

“You have heard that it was said to the ancients”                   by past scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:33)

“But I say to you” (Mt. 5:34-37)

“You have heard that it was said”                                              by present scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:38)

“But I say to you” (Mt. 5:39-42)

“You have heard that it was said”                                              by present scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:43)

“But I say to you” (Mt. 5:44-48)



         1The present active indicative ἐστε (“are”) occurs in Mt. 5:11.
           2Similarly, concerning physical Israel, Paul states, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:1-3, NKJV).

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