It’s not the most encouraging thing when you are preaching on a passage in scripture to have the first commentator you read start by saying “these are some of the hardest verses in scripture to understand”. So I was pleased the next person I read started with a story, a sports story at that. He told the story of his baseball coach arguing with an umpire over the interpretation of one of the rules of the game. It got rather heated and finally the umpire reached into his back pocket, never a good sign in this country if you’re on a sports field right, and pulled out the rule book and turned to the appropriate rule. He read it out. The coach still wanted to argue and suggested that the umpire’s interpretation of the rule was wrong in this case. However what the umpire said next changed everything. “No my interpretation is correct… I’m the guy who wrote the rule book”. The coach shut up walked back to the dugout saying “ Get a hold of that Guy, he wrote the rules.” That’s the sort of situation we have in the passage we had read today from Jesus Sermon on the Mount. We find Jesus stating his relationship with the law and the prophets and starting to deal with and how they apply to his disciples.
That might seem a trivial way of staring to talk about a passage that deals with such big questions as how Christianity connects with its Jewish roots? How are we as followers of Jesus to understand the scriptures of the Old Testament? How do the mosaic laws apply to us? Is it salvation by grace or by obeying the law? Does being a follower of Jesus imply some sort of legalism? These are questions that have been part of the Christian faith right from its start. If you read through Acts and some of Paul’s letters you see a group called the Judizers who wanting gentile followers of Jesus to live by a strict interpretation of the Mosaic Law. The first ever general assembly of the Church, in Acts 15, dealt with that very issue. What eventually caused the church to get together and decide what they would consider as their sacred writings was in response to a man called Marcian, who saw Christianity as a total break from its Jewish past, so he ended up with only small parts of the gospels mainly Luke as the scripture he saw as God inspired. Even today, as we wrestle with some of our most pressing moral and ethical issues how we apply scripture from the Old and New Testament is often at the centre. Some people want us to be biblical literalists, they are modern day legalists, others simply say Jesus replaced the law with an ethic of love, they ignore Jesus own Jewish heritage.
Let’s look at Jesus and the Law. Jesus had started his sermon on the mount by using the third person, blessed are the, a great invitation to come into the Kingdom in the beatitudes, then he moved to address his disciples in the second person, you are salt and light, now he moves to the first person and talks of who he is and his mission.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
If we were to put Jesus first phrase into a modern vernacular we might say ‘Don’t think for one minute” there is a real sense that Jesus is aware of the impact his revolution of grace it had caused his listeners to wonder if this meant that all that had gone before no longer applied. The prevailing religious understanding of the day was that you needed to keep all the laws to please God. Jesus puts that understanding on its head. But Jesus is quick to point out that he hadn’t come to do away with the law and the prophets rather he had come to fulfil them. When we think of the law and the prophets we often simply think of the law of Moses of the rules and regulations, we forget that this was a short hand way of referring to all the books of the Old Testament. The Torah or the law is the first five books, that tells of God’s calling Israel to be his people, the prophets refers to the written prophets and history books of the Old Testament, interpreting their history in the light of that covenant and applying into the various contexts they found themselves in. It was also used to cover the wisdom books and poetry as well.
How did Jesus fulfil This?
Firstly, as we saw in the video called the thread there is a story running through the whole of scripture, about God’s relationship with God’s creation. A relationship that was broken by sin and that God has been at work to repair. Through Abraham God calls a people to be his own, he saves them from slavery in Egypt. He gives them his law, so they will live in a way that reflects the just nature of God who has saved them. In this they were to be a light to the nations, calling them to come and know and worship God. Jesus is the fulfilment of this. This revelation of God’s nature and purpose is fulfilled in Christ. God’s new creation is made possible in Christ.
Secondly, his sacrifice on the cross can only be understood in the context of the Old Testament sacrificial laws, Jesus fulfilled their purpose of providing a sacrifice, once and for all, for the forgiveness of sin. Right from the start the Church did not carry on the practise of animal sacrifice, they knew that its purpose and reason had been fulfilled in Christ.
Thirdly, as Martin Luther says ‘the only thing Jesus added to the Mosaic Laws was that he kept them”. We see that Jesus showed us what a human being who kept the law was like. To be a disciple, to be salt and light in the world is to be Christ like, which is what the word Christian means. If you want to know what it means to live a God centred life … “get a hold of this guy… he wrote the rule book’…
The law will not pass away because its purpose is still being worked out in the world. We’ve been bought into a relationship with God, in Christ and we need to know how to live that out in our lives and to teach others to do the same. But as we go through the rest of the Sermon on the Mount we see Jesus as the one who wrote the book, exercise the authority to interpret it correctly. In a series of case studies Jesus corrects misunderstanding of various laws of the Old Testament and in doing so helps us to grasp their true meaning.
Now Jesus turns to look at our relationship with the Law and prophets.
Firstly, greatness in the kingdom of heaven say John Stott comes through living it out. There is an ethical element to our faith. Keeping Christ’s commandments however is not how we get in the kingdom that is by God’s grace it’s how we are to live out the kingdom.
Secondly, Jesus call to us is to live that out in a different way than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees. To have a better righteousness, let’s face it in Jesus day the Pharisees were the spiritual superstars they were about keeping the law, they were good, but Jesus says they were not good enough. Perhaps to best understand this we should look at Jesus summery of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23. Jesus says the Pharisees had got so caught up in the observing the law, in the most minuscule of ways, in trivial matters, like arguing over tithing herbs, that they had forgotten the weightier matters of the law, what was at its heart, Justice Mercy and Faithfulness. It was an external, legalistic keeping of the law and Jesus here is calling his disciples to have a deeper righteousness, that not only our actions but our attitudes would be changed.
It is a right way of living that comes from a changed heart. In Jeremiah 31:33 we see a looking forward to the coming of the messiah, that God would write his laws on our hearts, In Ezekiel 36:21 we see a looking forward to a time when God would place his spirit in people and cause them to walk in God’s ways. It’s a better righteousness because it comes from God’s changing our hearts, it’s about relationship not regulations.
In the rest of Matthew Chapter 5, in a teaching technique that has become very popular again, Jesus gives case studies to help us see what this different righteousness means. In a series of ‘You’ve heard it said” but I say sayings Jesus takes the way the law had been misunderstood and provides his right interpretation, a deeper and more transformed way of living it out. It’s not simply thou shall not kill, says Jesus, but not harbouring anger towards others , not denigrating them not even, and boy is this challenging putting them down. Thou shall not kill is a law designed to limit evil, but Jesus says God’s way demands that we treat others with love and respect, we value life. He will do the same thing with thou shall not commit adultery, by challenging his disciples to see it’s not only the act of adultery as wrong but how we view other human beings, to use a modern phrase that we don’t objectify them. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were arguing about what constituted grounds for divorce, and Jesus puts the focus back on not looking for offence but on working on those relationships. The Pharisees had wrestled over what is a binding oath, if you swear one by this its binding, if you swear it by that we’ll it dosen’t count. Sort of Like “ aha it doesn’t count I had my fingers crossed” or Pinky swear to make it binding, Jesus says hey guys its rather that we should be people whose word can be trusted. A simple yes or no is sufficient, just be straight and people of integrity. The most famous of these case studies is Jesus call not just to love your neighbours and friends, but people who do you wrong , and whom you find impossible to love, to love your enemies. Later in chapter six Jesus will look at more religious laws, giving prayer and fasting and again look towards actions reflecting a kingdom attitude. Alms giving is not about giving the right amount , the tithing law was so in the ace of our greed and selfishness the poor would be cared for, but kingdom of heaven righteousness is a call to generosity, of sharing what we have so that there will be no needs, trusting in God to take care of us. Over the next few weeks we are going to look at these case studies. Today has been rather theoretical but just as Jesus does it’s going to get real practical.
In saying our righteousness should be better than the Pharisees and teachers of the law Jesus is calling his disciples to not just to adhere to a set of rules, but rather that our lives should reflect a changed heart.
I want to finish off today by making some what I hope are practical applications.
Firstly, It shows us that the Old Testament is important and worthy of our study. I read a portion of the Old Testament each day as well as the new and a psalm and proverbs. It’s useful both for its positive examples but also its negatives. The prophets help us understand how the word of God is applied to different contexts. It also important not to simply project it forward but to view it through the lens of Christ, we are not people of the you’ve heard it said… we are the people of but I say.
Secondly, following Jesus is not just following a set of regulations; it’s about working out this relationship with others and the world at large in the light of that central relationship with God. By using case studies and not simply giving a list of do’s and don’t Jesus is helping train us in working out how to be light and salt in all of the situations we find ourselves in, by living and acting from a changed heart. Can I say that that means down through the ages Christians have found themselves on different sides of the ethical debates of their age. Slavery is a great example of that. I guess it’s the same today with the debates over some of our ethical questions , homosexuality is one of the most prominent. We don’t always get it right, we are going to find ourselves wrestling between legalism and grace. The hope is that God has placed his spirit within us, to bring to mind what Jesus has said, to lead us into all truth. To enable us in how we live and what we say to witness to Jesus Christ and to produce Christ like fruit in our lives.