Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sermon: Matthew 5: 17-20

If I ask you to think of the word law, what words or thoughts or images come into your head? It might be a judge in a curly wig, or a traffic cop pulling you over for speeding. You might think of rules, punishment, fear, obedience. The tendency is probably to associate the word law with negative images; of broken laws.

So when we come to think of God’s law, there’s a possibility that you’ll continue to bring those negative images. Perhaps it’ll be even worse, thinking of sin, guilt, strictness, and some branches of Protestantism which are particularly hardline. you might ask yourself, then, why we’re bothering with a series on the Ten Commandments. After all, it’s part of the Law, found in the Old Testament. What has that got to do with us?

You might be like the rich young ruler that Jesus encounters who replies quickly ‘All these I have kept from my youth.’ (Mark 10:20). Yes, I know what the law says, and I’ve done it. I’m good, I obey (at least some of) the Commandments. You want to leave the law behind as something old and unnecessary. We’re New Testament Christians, not Old Testament Jews - why do we need to bother with the law?

To kick off our Ten Commandments series, rather than launching into number 1 straight away, I thought it would be good to consider what Jesus says here in Matthew 5, on how Jesus relates to the law and the prophets (the Old Testament), and then what that means for us. And as we do so, we’ll find that Jesus speaks of the fixed law, and the fulfilled law.

The context of our passage is that Jesus is near the start of his ministry, and has just began the Sermon on the Mount. Look back to 5:1. Jesus is up on the mountain, and his disciples have come to him. And Jesus opens his mouth and teaches. The Beatitudes (as we know them) turn the world’s values on their head and sets out the things that are valued in God’s kingdom. There’s a kind of echo of Exodus 19-20, where God’s people have come to Mount Sinai, the covenant people of God gathered around God, hearing his teaching, the Law. So as Jesus establishes his kingdom, he sets out the standards of his kingdom.

The natural question, then, is how does all this fit with the Old Testament? What does it mean for the follower of Jesus in relation to the law? Is Jesus abolishing the law and setting something else in its place?

Our first point is that the law is fixed. Look at verse 17. Jesus says that he has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. The Law is fixed, as verses 18-19 set out. ‘Not an iota, not a dot will pass from the Law’. These are the smallest possible markings in the writing of the day - little markings that could distinguish between letters, and Jesus says that not even one of these is going to be removed. And how long will the law last?

Sometimes there are time limits on laws, they’re only in place for a certain length of time, they’re easily changed - just look at how quickly the new coalition government have been changing some of the laws Labour had brought in. Here in the passage, we’re given a time frame in two ways - until heaven and earth pass away; until all is accomplished. Look around - is the earth still here? Then the law still stands. Has all been accomplished, every promise of the Old Testament? No, then the law still stands.

Therefore, for anyone to meddle with the law, to relax any of the commandments is a serious business. Instead, Jesus calls us to do them and teach them - as a way to being great in the kingdom. In this sense, are we good citizens upholding the law, or are we bad citizens, working against it?

The fixed law is unchanging in its demands. And that’s where our problem lies. The law is clear, setting out God’s standards, his requirements of each one of us, but none of us can meet the standard. If I were to read out the Ten Commandments, we wouldn’t even make it to number two before we would all have failed. You shall have no other gods before me? That’s me out. And, I suspect, that’s you out too.

Faced with the terrifying demands of God’s law, we might be seriously scared and disillusioned when we read what Jesus says next, in verse 20. ‘For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Houston, we’ve got a problem. The scribes and the Pharisees - these were the guys who were serious scripture students; they were like the SAS of the Jewish religious scene.

They not only had the law, but they had rules about the rules, to make sure you were keeping the rules. For example, if the law said that you were not to work on the Sabbath then they had an encyclopedia of rules about this rule to define what work was, what you could or couldn’t do. Think of Matthew 12. Jesus and the disciples are walking through a grainfield, and the disciples pluck some heads of grain to eat. That’s work, according to the Pharisees, and they complain to Jesus.

Their righteousness (on the outside) was extremely strict. You remember Paul’s description of himself in Philippians 3? ‘as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless.’ (Phil 3:6). And Jesus is saying that his disciples’ righteousness has to exceed the Pharisees’ in order for them to enter the kingdom of heaven? I’m out, and I suspect you are too. None of us can do this by ourselves.

But the great good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to do what we could not do for ourselves. The law stands over us in judgement. We have broken it and deserve punishment. But Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. This isn’t just that Jesus fulfilled every prophecy written about him - born in Bethlehem, seeking refuge in Egypt, the son of David, who healed people, carried our sickness, entered Jerusalem on a donkey, was betrayed, beaten, crucified, buried in a rich man’s tomb, and was raised. It’s not just this, but also that Jesus fulfilled the law’s demands. He was perfectly obedient in every moment of his life to the will of his father; never thought wrong thoughts, never said wrong words, never did wrong things; never dishonoured his parents, never murdered or stole or swore.

Jesus fulfilled the law, obeyed it, so that he has the perfect righteousness of perfect relationship with God the Father. And as we trust in Christ, we receive what Luther called the great exchange: Not just that Jesus takes away our sin by bearing it in his body on the cross; but also that he gives us his righteousness; it is imputed to us, counted as ours - we are counted as justified - just as if I’d never sinned. We see this in lots of places in Scripture, but turn with me to 2 Corinthians 5:21. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ Jesus takes out sin and gives us his righteousness. This is how we enter the kingdom; this is how our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

So if we have this righteousness given to us by Christ; if we are not under condemnation if we are in Christ (Rom 8:1), then why do we need to bother with the law? Why do we need to think about the Ten Commandments over this term? What benefit is there?

The Ten Commandments (the law) show us how to please God; they point us to the perfect obedience of the Lord Jesus. So out of love and honour for God, we want to obey more and more (falteringly, because we haven’t fully gotten rid of sin yet). We’re looking at the Ten Commandments, seeking to obey them, not in order to get God to love us, but because he already does; not for God’s acceptance, but from God’s acceptance. We don’t do these things in order to be saved, but because we already are.

Just think of Exodus 20. How does the passage with the Ten Commandments start? The older people may know this better through the old style catechism training - ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall have no other gods before me.’ The children of Israel weren’t given the ten commandments as a way for God to like them, and if they obeyed then God would rescue them. No, God has already rescued them; and here’s how to live in God’s covenant with him. Do you see the difference? Tim’s strapline for the series gets to the heart of it - fleeing legalism; pursuing holiness.

These sermons will be challenging - the way of holiness is not easy; sin and the devil will seek to prevent us; yet because we have been saved, we must push on to become more like Jesus; to be conformed to the likeness of him. And that means heart obedience, not outward conformity. You see, our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees because it comes from the new heart working out, rather than just outward conformity. Look at the rest of chapter 5 - Jesus doesn’t lower the bar but raises it - it’s not enough to avoid murdering someone if you’re doing it in your heart; it’s not enough to avoid sex with someone who isn’t your spouse on the physical realm if you’re already thinking about it.

The law of God is fixed - how do you stand in relation to it? Condemned or acquitted? All of us are condemned; but Jesus has fulfilled the Law - are you receiving the benefit of that?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 5th September 2010.

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