Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 5: 17-26 Fulfilling the Law

The other day we were driving through a town in County Down when we saw a sort of church that we hadn’t heard of before. It was a New Testament Pentecostal Church. It got us wondering if they don’t use the Old Testament at all, only focusing on the New Testament. I’m still not sure, having looked at their website. The thing is, though, that many of us can be New Testament believers, because we only really tend to read the New Testament and think about the New Testament.

We’re maybe more familiar with the New Testament; and so apart from the well known Sunday School stories and the much beloved Psalms, we feel out of our depth in the Old Testament; we find it harder to understand. After all, it’s in the Old Testament that you find all the wars and killing of entire nations; and you find all the wrath; and you find all the Laws that we don’t really know what to do with these days - you know the ones that are quoted when people are arguing that Christians are hypocrites: things like not eating shellfish, and not wearing clothes of mixed fibres. Isn’t it much easier just to stay in the safeness of the New Testament? Do we really need all those Old Testament Laws now that Jesus has come?

Tonight, we’ll start to see what Jesus thinks of the Old Testament as he continues to preach his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has gathered his disciples to him (with the crowds listening in) up on a mountainside, and he is giving them his manifesto - what it will look like to live in his kingdom. And there are echoes of Moses going up the mountain, Mount Sinai, to receive the Law, including the Ten Commandments in Exodus 19. So can we just forget about the Old Testament now that Jesus have arrived? Should we just follow and live out the Sermon on the Mount, and rip out the Old Testament from our Bibles?

Well, no. Before we do any violence to the pew Bibles, it’s important to hear what Jesus says about the Old Testament. He hasn’t come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. He isn’t coming in like a wrecking ball to knock them down. Rather, Jesus says that the Law is fixed. Look at verse 18: ‘I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will be any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.’

The Law is fixed. It’s permanent - as permanent as earth and heaven. So have a look around; look down at the ground. If the earth is still there, then God’s Law is still fixed. And every part of it is fixed as well - even the smallest letter, the least stroke of a pen - the jot and tittle, every mark of a pen is fixed.

And the fixed Law is unchanging in its demands. And that’s where our problems begin. In the summer term at school, we had to do athletics. Alongside the running races were the field events. And we all had to try the high jump. Being short, I wasn’t really able to get very far off the ground. I couldn’t make it over the bar. Some of the guys were far more athletic, and the bar went higher and higher for them, but even they struggled eventually. But the Law is the ultimate high jump - the bar is so high that none of us can clear it.

And that’s the case when we read the Ten Commandments. We wouldn’t even make it to number 2 before we have all failed. No other gods before me? That’s me out, and that’s you out too. Now that’s enough of a problem, but Jesus seems to magnify the problem even more. In verse 2- he says: ‘For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (20)

The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were the super-religious people of the day. They were like the SAS of the religious. They didn’t just obey the rules; they had rules about the rules, to make sure they were keeping the rules. Their righteousness was strict, something they worked hard at. And Jesus says that our righteousness needs to surpass theirs? That we need a better righteousness? It’s beyond us. I’m out, and you are too. The fixed law stands broken.

But the 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 did you see what else Jesus says about the Law? It’s not just fixed; it will also be fulfilled:

‘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.’ (17)

Jesus hasn’t come to destroy the law; he has come to fulfil it - to perfectly meet its demands. Just think of the way in which Jesus fulfils the prophets - the location of his birth; his mother’s virginity; his tribe of birth; his ministry; his miracles; his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion; his rising again to new life. Over 300 prophecies all fulfilled in his life, death and resurrection.

But more than that, Jesus has also fulfilled the law’s demands. He was perfectly obedient in every moment of his life to the will of God. You know the confession we use at Communion? Jesus would say the opposite to what we say. He could say: ‘I have not sinned in thought and word and deed, or in what I left undone.’ Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law and Prophets, so that he has that perfect righteousness of a perfect relationship with God the Father.

As we trust in him, we receive the great exchange. Jesus takes away our sin, and he gives us his righteousness. It is by trusting in Jesus that we enter the kingdom of heaven; and this is how our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.

So why do we need to worry about the law? Why would we still need the Ten Commandments? The law points us to the perfect obedience of Jesus; and Jesus calls us to obey him - not in order to gain acceptance from God (because we already have it!), but because we have been accepted. Jesus calls us to walk in his way, obeying the law from heart obedience, in grateful thanks; not out of a desire to earn our way.

And as you can see in the rest of chapter 5, Jesus teaches us what it really looks like to obey the Law. At the start of each section he says something like ‘You have heard it said’ or ‘It has been said’ - and then he gives his authoritative teaching on what it really means. Over the next few weeks we’ll work through them in turn, but for the few moments that remain, let’s focus on his first example - that of murder.

You see, when you read the Ten Commandments and hear ‘do not murder’ you can think to yourself, I’m good on that one. I’ve never murdered anyone. But Jesus is saying here that you can commit murder in the heart without murdering with hands. You see, the same judgement awaits the person who is angry with his brother as it does the person who is a murderer.

Murder can be an internal attitude, even if it never appears on the outside. And so the God who knows our hearts knows what’s going on in the inside. Anger without cause is as guilty as murder.

A while back I was visiting a harbour, and the warning sign on the wall was meant to read ‘Danger: Slipway.’ As you know, slipways can be dangerous; with water or seaweed or algae they can be very slippery; and there was the tragedy in Buncrana three years ago. Danger Slipway. Except on the sign, the ‘D’ had fallen off. And the sign read: ‘Anger Slipway.’

Our anger can be a slipway, so gradual, so justified in our own eyes that we don’t realise where it is taking us - to judgement; to the fire of hell. [Notice that all the wrath and hellfire isn’t just found in the Old Testament - Jesus speaks of hell more than anyone else in the Bible].

Think of those times when anger rises within us. Behind the wheel - where do you think you’re going?! In a queue - could you be any slower?! On social media - You fool! It can seem so right, but if it’s unrighteous anger, without cause, then it can be very wrong - even murderous in its intentions.

So what do we do about it? Jesus tells us to be reconciled, and to sort it out quickly. In verse 23, he brings us to the temple, to the altar, and just about to bring an offering. And in that moment, we remember ‘that your brother has something against you.’ The thing to do is to leave the gift; be reconciled; and then offer the gift. He’s not saying if you have a problem with someone else... he says if someone has a problem with you, then be reconciled.

And we need to do it quickly. ‘Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court...’ (25) Better to sort things out before you get to court, or you may indeed be found liable, guilty, and end up in prison.

Suddenly, as we listen to Jesus, the bar of ‘do not murder’ has become even higher; the standard is higher than we would have imagined. Our guilt may well be increased. And yet we can take heart tonight that the guiltless one stood condemned in our place, that Jesus fulfilled the fullest requirements of this law on our behalf, and through him we can go free, can be assured of heaven, and a perfect righteousness. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 15th September 2019.

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