The purpose - Matthew 5:17-26
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
It was Mahatma Gandhi who once said, ‘We would all be Christians if it weren’t for the Christians.’ It was a wounding comment which was borne out of much of what he saw as passing for Christianity in India and South Africa. The credibility gap between what was professed and what was practiced was so great in Gandhi’s eyes that Christianity lost all credibility.
In many ways what Jesus is saying to his would-be followers in the passage we are looking at tonight is, ‘Mind the gap’-the credibility gap between what you say and what you do, between outward show and inner belief. For his disciples the gap should be wafer thin if there is to be a gap at all.
Now the way Jesus helps us not to fall into the gap is by drawing on a set of contrasts.
First there is the contrast between fulfilling the Old Testament and abolishing it- 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.’
Now the key word here is ‘fulfil.’ The contrast being made is between abolishing or ‘loosening’ the law and the prophets, which Jesus has not come to do, and fulfilling them, which is what he has come to do. Notice it is not just ‘the law’ but the law and the prophets bracketed together i.e. the whole of the OT Scriptures. In fact the same phrase, ‘law and the prophets’ is used towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount in 7:12 so it is a phrase which acts as two bookends, bracketing together the whole section so all that Jesus is about to talk about and illustrate in this sermon is to do with fulfilling the Old Testament. The fact that Jesus tries to head off the objection that somehow he has come to abolish the law and the prophets means that it might at least appear that is what he is going to do. And you can see why some might think that. Just take a look down at verse 21, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ That is taken from the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20- the Law; however, Jesus goes on to say, ‘But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subject to judgment.’ That might appear he is disputing the law, replacing that commandment with one of his own about not being angry. And so to counter that criticism before it is voiced Jesus says what he says.
What Jesus is doing at this point is Jesus is emphasising continuity between the former revelation of the Old Testament and his present ministry which is recorded here in the New Testament. But that doesn’t mean he is simply saying old things in new ways, there is something radically new going on, something very different as we shall see.
To help us understand what that new thing is there are a few points which need explaining.
First, the fact that Jesus uses term ‘prophets’ indicates that what Jesus has in mind is a wider extension and application of the law, the ‘spirit’ if you, like as well as the ‘letter’, because it was the function of the Old Testament prophets to correct the people’s misapplication and neglect of their covenantal obligations, to draw them back to keeping the law when they were going off the rails into idolatry. So the people may have claimed, ‘Well, we still worship at the Temple’- and they did, while at the same time cheating people of their rightful earnings. This aspect of the prophets’ ministry is summarised in 2 Kings 17:13: ‘The Lord warned Israel and Judah through all of his prophets and seers, ‘Turn from your evil ways. Observe my commands and decrees, in accordance with the entire Law that I commanded your fathers to obey and that I delivered to you through my servants the prophets.’ So even in the Old Testament the prophets were not just concerned with making sure people tickied moral boxes, but with the condition of the heart. In that sense Jesus is continuing their work and so in that sense fulfilling it in his own day.
Secondly, we have an example here of something Jesus says later in chapter 18 about what church leaders were meant to do in terms of disciplining church members. There he says to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ What does he mean? The rabbis at the time of Jesus often spoke of ‘binding’ or ‘loosing’ the law in the context of determining whether or not a commandment applied in such and such a situation. Now Jesus is going to show that the Pharisees consistently did this the wrong way- they made things easier- loosened up the law- so that they looked like they were keeping the law in order to appear righteous. But Jesus does more of the ‘binding’ as in verse 21. So Jesus ‘binds’ the commandment not to murder in such a way that it applies to anger. Elsewhere he ‘looses’ the commandment prohibiting work on a Sabbath so that his disciples can pluck the ears of corn to satisfy their hunger. Do you see? So there is nothing wrong with the law so long as it is rightly interpreted and applied. That is what Jesus is doing throughout the Sermon on the Mount.
So part of Jesus fulfilling the law and the prophets takes place by his right interpretation and application of the law.
But thirdly, he also ‘fulfils’ the law and the prophets in the sense that he and his new Kingdom community of disciples are the objects God’s great plan of salvation as revealed in the OT, its culmination. Jesus fulfils the law and the prophets in that he is the one to whom they all testify, for he is God’s promised Prophet, Priest and King- the anointed one- the Messiah- which Matthew has been at pains to show from verse 1 and chapter 1 of his Gospel. The Prophets spoke of a time when the Messiah would come and pour out God’s Spirit on his people, making a new covenant with them with the law written on their hearts (Ezekiel 36). Well, that is being fulfilled right here and now because the King has arrived. Just as Israel was gathered around Mount Sinai and Moses gave the law, so here is the New Israel represented by the 12 disciples gathered around Jesus who not only interprets the law but has the authority to apply the law deep into people’s hearts. The only thing left to be accomplished is Jesus’ return- that is when heaven and earth will pass away and v18 no longer applies because then everything will have been accomplished.
So what does v 19 refer to? ‘Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’ Is it referring back to the OT commandments or is it referring forward to Jesus commandments which he is about to give - ‘You heard it said, but I say to you...’? What is the focus of what Jesus is saying? Well, it is the kingdom of heaven and he is the King who is giving his new commands to his new people. In other words, the ‘these commandments’ is referring to his teaching which his disciples are meant to follow. Do you remember how Matthew’s Gospel ends? Mtt 28:19-20 ‘Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ So Jesus followers are meant to both teach and practice what Jesus himself taught and practiced.
It is interesting how within the church, as well as in the world, fashions come and go. I don’t mean what people wear but what people do. An earlier generation of evangelicals in the 1930’s through the fifties and late sixties really did take Jesus seriously at this point. There was a desire to bring the whole of life under his rule. The problem, however, was the tendency to lapse into a new form of legalism, so to be a ‘proper’ Christian meant that there was a whole list of things you didn’t do- you didn’t go to the cinema, you didn’t dance, you didn’t wear makeup (and that was just the girls), you didn’t drink or smoke and on and on the list went. Now while it may have been possible to argue that in some contexts some of these things may not have been wise, it was going beyond Scripture to imply that they were sinful. But it seems today that we have gone to the other extreme so that little, if any, thought goes into what we do-after all, it is said, ‘we are not under law but under grace.’ True, but that does not mean anything goes. If we want to please the Lord Jesus, then we have to seek to apply the whole of his teaching to the whole of our life having the wisdom to apply it- to loose or bind. So a Christian should give some consideration to how much it is appropriate to drink or whether in some cases it might be better not to drink at all. Thought should be given by men on how they should relate to women and women should think about how, for example they should dress, bearing in mind the flow of male hormones. The giving of a tenth of one’s income was taken as read at one time by Christians, but now if there is any thought to giving it tends to be an after-thought. The older generation may have taken things a little too far in the direction of legalism, but our generation may have taken things too far in the other direction of license so there is scarcely any observable difference between the Christian and non-Christian. No, we are to be counter cultural and be willing to pay the price- remember the final beatitude? ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
So what is it that Jesus’ followers are to do? Here is the shock of v20. Jesus is saying that the most religious, upright, and morally zealous are not even in the Kingdom of heaven. That is the implication. If Jesus’ followers way of life-righteousness- does not exceed that of the Pharisees, such that they will not enter the kingdom of heaven, that can only mean that the Pharisees are not even on the starting block. You can imagine Jesus disciples sitting there and thinking- ‘Well who on earth can enter God’s kingdom then? Because if the best of the best can’t get in, then we have no chance.’ So in what way is the righteousness of Christians to outstrip that of the most devout religious and moral animal ever to walk the face of the earth? How are Christians to be different?
This brings us to a way which lies between the extremes of legalism on the one hand and license on the other- the way of Christian liberty.
The rest of the sermon is an illustration of a principle which we must grasp if we want to enter into God’s kingdom. In the remaining chapter, Jesus gives 6 case studies which show the difference between the Pharisee way of doing things and the Jesus way. In each case a commandment is taken from the Old Testament and Jesus contrasts the way the religious handle them and the way his followers are to handle them and the contrast could not be greater.
Here then, is the second contrast, between two methods in morality. The Pharisaic method is the principle of minimum requirement whereas the Kingdom method is the principle of maximum application.
Let me use an illustration of Phillip Jensen to show the difference. It is what tends to happen to students. You are given a list of 10 essay topics and you are asked to choose one and write 1500 words on it. What do you do? You look for the one you are interested in, which is the easiest one to do and has the shortest bibliography. That is the one you choose. Then you go to the lecturer and ask, ‘This is the shortest bibliography isn’t it? Is there one book which covers everything else? And is there a summary of that book? And when you say 1500 words would 1450 be all right? is it 3 or 400 words either side of the number?’ Not that you ever intended to write 1800, but you never know your luck-maybe 1200 would do. Then with the modern Word Processor you put on your word count to make sure that you are well within the limit and the barest minimum has been done. That is because as a modern student what matters is not getting education as such but a qualification. The reason you are writing this stuff is because you have to in order to qualify. Yes, there are exceptions, those totally sold on the subject, but what we really have our eyes on is that piece of paper at the end of it all and not wasting too much time in getting it. That is minimum effort to get the maximum qualification. And I am sure you are all exceptions here tonight.
Now, the Pharisaic approach to the Bible is just like that. It is centres on the question: ‘What is the minimum I can do to be acceptable?’ Jesus talks about praying, what does that mean? Is it twice a day, three times, would a quick prayer over the washing up or on the way to work be OK? That is the Pharisee talking. Jesus talks about loving your enemies. But what is an enemy? Is it someone who has declared war on me? Is it the person I find an annoyance? When am I to forgive him and how many times- 7 or 70 times 7, so I can give up at 491? Jesus says you shouldn’t look upon a woman in order to lust after her and to get her to lust after you. What is a look? Is a quick glance alright? That is the Pharisee mentality. And there is a lot of it about in the church.
But the kingdom method is wholly different. It operates at the level of maximum application. Here you approach the word of God and ask ‘Where else in my life can I apply this?’ What other areas are there to which what I have just read can be worked out?’ You maximise the application in order to live out the Christian life, rather than minimise it in order to qualify for the Christian life. Do you see the difference? And when you do that, you will appear as different and as mad as the student who wants to write all ten essays. The world will look at you and think that you are from another planet. They will ask ‘What has happened to you? You are weird; you really do care about what God is saying. You are different.’ And that is because you are different, for you have been born again by the Holy Spirit. And so you are not interested in qualifying anymore, you are interested in serving.
And it could be that it is at this point you have been going wrong. You have been labouring under the mistaken impression that being a Christian is all a matter of ticking off the right boxes, doing the bare minimum to qualify and so it is proving a tedious business. What you need to do is to come to the King, giving over everything to him and saying take me as I am, enable me by your Spirit in joyful gratitude to take your teaching seriously and radically and change me. Because it is when that happens more and more, that our friends and family will begin to take notice and the real fishing for men and women will begin.
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