Jesus and the Law of God Matthew 5:17-37
Word association: What comes into your head when you hear those words “Old Testament”?
Old=boring, old=out of date? And you might dislike the violence of some of the stories there. You might think surely we have Jesus and the New Testament and that’s enough, and you mightn’t be sure why we still have the 39 books in the Bible anyway.
That’s not the view of Jesus, as we see in Matthew 5. Jesus has been setting out the way of life in God’s new Kingdom, where Jesus rules and the Holy Spirit lives in a person’s life. Such people are poor in spirit, relying on him and not themselves, they mourn and grieve their sin and the state of a world without God, and so on, as we saw last week. This is radical and new, not least for those who first heard it, so much so that people might well have wondered how this all fits with the past. How does Jesus’ new agenda sit with what has gone before, the Law of Moses, and the other books of the Old Testament generally? Is he setting it all aside, telling people to forget about the Ten Commandments and the other laws from God, and to follow his teaching instead? Or does this message come as a kind of supplement, an add-on to the Law of Moses?
Jesus anticipates and answers these queries in Matthew 5:17. He has not come to abolish, but to fulfil. He comes in answer to the unfulfilled promises, he comes to complete the ceremonies, he comes to obey the laws. And so the Old Testament does matter, and should still matter to the followers of Jesus today. It identifies the character and perfect obedience of Jesus, it shows how God had planned salvation through Jesus for centuries beforehand, and it outlines the moral standard God expects of his people. Not the smallest pen-stroke or letter can be set aside, for he has come to obey and fulfil it to the nth degree.
Some people view the beatitudes at the start of this chapter as the entry requirements of God’s kingdom, but they describe the character of someone who is already a member. The entry requirements are in verses 19-20: Obey (and teach) every commandment and be more righteous than the Pharisees.
That’s a tall order – surely I can’t mean that. I’m not going to break even the least commandment, and I’m not teaching others to do the same (19). I do mean it; that is the standard. Be as obedient as the Lord Jesus at keeping the Law of God and be more righteous than the Pharisees (and they had high standards!) We used to the Pharisees being like the panto villains in the Gospel stories, but there were general seen as holy people, meticulous about understanding the Bible and keeping it.
Martin Luther: “I was an earnest monk, lived strictly and chastely, would not have taken a penny without the knowledge of the prior, prayed diligently day and night.
“I kept vigil night by night, fasted, prayed, chastised and mortified my body, was obedient, and lived chastely.”
“It is true that I have been a pious monk, and followed my rules so strictly that I may say, if ever a monk could have gained heaven through monkery, I should certainly have got there.”
Feel the full weight of what Jesus is saying – only perfect obedience qualifies. If you break one part, you are condemned; if you are not better than the holy guys you are condemned. Only one obedient human life secures your place: the question is, whose? Do you think your obedience will be that good, or will you recognise that only Jesus lives up to this standard? Do you rely on your obedience to God’s law, or on Jesus’ obedience, who even obeyed God in going to the cross, to pay the penalty for all the times sinful people broke God’s law.
There is the relief the gospel brings. The Law has been kept fully, just not by you or me. Jesus has been perfect and obedient on behalf of his people, and offers his perfect, obedient life in exchange for theirs.
The poor in spirit are not people who think, Hey, I’m not so bad. I’m better than most, I’ll do my best. They are people who compare themselves to Jesus’ obedience, and to God’s standards in the Old Testament. They rely on him and not themselves. “Do your best” is an impossible weight that will crush you on the day of judgement.
Jesus doesn’t take away the Old Testament laws; he takes them seriously, and he applies them deeply. That how the righteousness (the right living and moral standards) of his kingdom is greater than those of the Pharisees. For the Pharisee (then and today) what counted was being good on the outside, keeping the rules. For Jesus, the laws are a matter of the heart. Like the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass, Jesus takes the Laws and focuses them and magnifies them to burn deeply into the heart.
For example, do you keep then sixth commandment? The Pharisee says, Yes, I’ve never killed, and besides what do you mean by ‘murder’, manslaughter? not war? But I’ve kept it, and I’ve been good. Minimum requirement (what’s the least I can do and get away with it?), rather than maximum application (how does this apply in every area of my life?).
Jesus (and the follower in Jesus’ kingdom) says what’s the attitude behind this commandment? What’s the motivation of the heart? Anger. Ever been angry, not in the righteous sense(!) Even if you don’t use the exact words ‘You fool’ or ‘Raca’, is your heart full of the same malice, hatred or disdain that is contained in those words?
23-26 show the new standards in the kingdom of heaven, the standards of people who are meek (their power under control), who are peacemakers, who show mercy because they know the mercy of God. Does that seem to you to be an impossible standard, unrealistic? Yes it is, unless you are a member of this kingdom, unless you have the Holy Spirit living in you.
If you find you can’t do it, recognise it, admit it, cry out to God, come to Jesus for forgiveness and the Holy Spirit.
Another example, do you keep the seventh commandment? The Pharisee says, Yes, I’ve never been unfaithful. Beside you can only commit adultery if you are married, if one or both of us is not, I’m ok! Minimum requirement, rather than maximum application.
Jesus (and the person in his kingdom) says, What’s going on in the heart? What’s in the imagination? What’s in the internet history? Whatever it is, do not put yourself in temptation’s way. Be ruthless, cut it out (29-30) – a powerful image of what to do with a wrong habit, or liaison, or flight of fancy. Not literal cutting – such a practice was banned at the Council of Nicaea in 325 – besides if the problem is the heart (28), how can you cut that out? Look how much God values marriage, sexual immorality is the only grounds for breaking it. (31-32)
Unrealistic? Too high a standard? Well, I’m not going to lift the demands. I don’t want to drive anyone to despair, I want to drive you to Christ.
We have to decide who is good enough for heaven. Do we think it’s ourselves, or do we rely on Jesus Christ? We have to decide if we are going to live for this world alone, or also for the next? That would mean cutting out what is not compatible with his kingdom and not standing on our rights and privileges over other people. We can only make such a sacrifice if we appreciate the sacrifice Jesus made for us, and if we live in his kingdom and his Spirit lives in us.