Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Sermon fragment Matt. 5.17-20

The following is the last half of a sermon I gave in the Fall of 1999 Matthew 5.17-20.

Most people think of the Ten Commandments as God's guilt-trip-rules imposed on people, but they are missing the point. Wherever there are nations, there are laws. Wherever there are kingdoms and governments, there are laws defining what it means to be a citizen. Laws express the character and beliefs of an assembled people. So God wasn't imposing anything. Rather he was creating a people for himself. The Law at Sinai defines for the remainder of the Old Testament what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Salvation is being a citizen of that Kingdom, and so salvation was of the Jews, for the Jews were the receivers of God's Law.

Applying this knowledge to the Sermon on the Mount, the parallels with Sinai are obvious. The people are assembled. The disciples have come up the mountain. And the Messiah, the second Adam and very God of very God, is seated. The Kingdom is on his mouth and is flowing down the mountain like rivers of milk and honey. How can we not expect him to talk about the Law? The Law defines the nation or kingdom, and the Kingdom is what is on his mind--the new Kingdom which he has come to proclaim to all the world. To be its citizen is to be saved from the coming wrath. To be outside it is to pass away and be destroyed.

Let us quickly, then, examine our text. Again, what is our relationship as Christians today to the Law and the Prophets?

[17]Don't ever think [you see how that is like "Thou Shalt Not", very strong language] that I came to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.

Now, what does fulfill mean? It is quite obvious what abolish means. Jesus was the Messiah, and it was generally believed by all Israel that the Messiah was going to alter the Law in some way or other. But, especially if you think of Sinai, no one expected the word "fulfill" to be a part of it! Can you see the shock on their faces, their mouths dropping open as they are hearing this. "This wasn't like at Sinai!" they're saying. And, no it wasn't. Back then, you either obeyed or your were cursed. But now, Jesus is saying something about fulfillment. What does he mean by "fulfil?" Is he imposing a new command on us?

But follow: Jesus continues and says the word "for." Some of your translations don't have this little word at the beginning of verse 18, but it is extremely important. How we read that little word says everything about our own relationship to the Law and the Prophets. Let's go further.

[18]For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke of a pen will ever disappear from the Law until everything might come to pass.

Nothing new here. Jesus' audience knew this already. The Law was here to stay until the new heavens and earth should swallow up the present ones when the Kingdom of Heaven would come. Until then, even the smallest most obscure commandment--like one hidden perhaps in one of the Minor Prophets that no one can find when they need to--remains in effect. What that means for us is that we are just as shackled to the commands as they were. The Law at Sinai and you and me are all chained together like prisoners at the hands and feet. Wherever we go, it is there with us and we can't get away.

But Jesus is not done. He keeps talking.

[19] Therefore, [before that time] whoever should relax one of the least of these commands and teach others to do the same will be called "least" in the Kingdom of Heaven [for that is what they will be] but whoever should practice and teach these commands will be called "greatest" in the Kingdom of Heaven [and rightfully so].

According to the United States Immigration & Naturalization Service, there are several requirements for persons wishing to become U.S. citizens. You must be at least eighteen years of age and be living in the United States. You must have a good moral character, have some knowledge of how the government works. Let me read this: "An applicant must show that he or she is attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States." Requirements for citizenship. Obedience to the supreme law of the land. Is this any different from what we find in verse 19?

You can't get away from Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven. The words of his first recorded sermon are "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!" Now he's talking about obeying or disobeying the Law as proof of citizenship in that very Kingdom. Want to be a good citizen in the coming Kingdom? Practice and teach these commands. Want to be a US citizen? Obey the Constitution. As a matter of fact, that's part of the oath required of new citizens, that they promise to, "support the Constitution and obey the laws of the United States." Incidentally, notice the contrast he makes between people who disobey or relax one of the least of these commands and those who obey. One is called "least" and the other "greatest." You should know that Jesus is using a figure of speech. It may look like even the disobedient get a place at the table--after all, least is better than none, right? However, it is a figure of speech. Least is just a nice way of saying not at all. If you don't practice and teach the Laws of the Kingdom, then you are no citizen.

Is it becoming clear now why Jesus started out this whole section by saying, "Don’t you ever even think I came to abolish the law"? Don't ever think it, because your and my obedience to the Law determines whether we are saved into the new Kingdom. To be mistaken on this point is a matter of life and death!

An influential and important group of people in Jesus' day strongly believed this. We know them as the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the religious Hercules of their day, and Jesus' words would naturally have made his audience think of them. The Pharisees were the most law-abiding people they knew. Surely, if the Messiah's new Kingdom requires obedience to the Law, then the Pharisees are in the front of the line for citizenship.

That said, we are set up for the next verse:

[20] For I say to you, [there's the oath language again] unless your righteousness greatly surpasses the Scribes and Pharisees, under no circumstances will you enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Surpasses the Scribes and Pharisees! Doesn't Jesus realize just how nutty for obedience those people are? This is an impossibility.

But Jesus is clear: unless you surpass, you cannot enter. He has made immigration and naturalization into the Kingdom of Heaven impossible. The border is effectively closed. We are lost.

See, we cannot go down the mountain to the crowds; they are as lost as we are. We cannot go any higher; the King himself is before us. In despair, caught between the doomed world of the now and the holy righteousness required by the one to come, we can only hurl ourselves at his feet and cry, "Please, please, oh Lord, let us in! We will try, we will try! Please! Have mercy on us!" And that's when we hear the most curious thing.

"It is I who have come to fulfill, not you."

What? We feel a ray of sunlight on our darkened faces. We blink in confusion and amazement. Jesus' voice runs like sweet aloe into our ears. "What made you think," he says, "what made you think, weak as you are with sin, that you could meet the divine requirements for citizenship in my Kingdom? It is I who have come to fulfill, not you."

Why didn’t we see it before? We thought he was talking about us. But he was talking about himself. He is the one whose righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees. He is the one who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. It is his obedience to the Father, even to the cross, that will bring everything to pass, that will last after heaven and earth are passed away, and will fulfill even the smallest letter and the least stroke of a pen.

Suddenly everything is different. We ask again, what is our relationship as Christians to the Law of God? And now we can answer, he is our Lord. We know him and love him. Jesus, after all, is himself the Law, not the Law, Jesus. Jesus is, as it were, living righteousness, and as we read the gospel and read of his death for us, we see that fact acted out time after time, verse after verse, until all that was spoken by the Law and the Prophets of old is fulfilled and Jesus cries out, "It is finished!" With Peter we can only say, "Where else can we go? Only you, Lord, have the words of life."

You might object, "But that doesn't answer the question. The question is about relationship." Okay, fine. Then think of it this way. He is our husband and we, the church, his bride. What is his is ours, what is ours his. In the covenant of love that binds us together, sealed in his blood and assured in the will of God before the creation of the world, he takes upon himself our sinfulness and goes to the cross. And, further, he gives to his bride the whole measure of his perfect and spotless obedience.

We hear a lot about the former, about how our guilt is wiped clean by the atoning and willing sacrifice of Christ upon a Roman gibbet. Now fill in that empty place where our sin was with the fullness of his perfect and divine obedience.

Can you contemplate that? Can you see that? If I ended the sermon here, that would be enough. But let's go furtehr and see how they apply to us.

First, Christ's obedience is better than yours. Stop trying to earn his favor. You have it. God isn't like man that you should earn his favor. Stop kicking yourself for the little ways you fall down day by day. Stop harassing your spirit to death with guilt because you aren't so regular in your devotional life, because you are so timid a witness to your co-workers or friends, or because your marriage isn't what you wish it would be. Stop telling yourself it is up to you to be the best Christian you can be. There is only one good Christian, and that is Christ himself. Don't you ever, don’t you ever, don't you ever forget that Christ came to fulfill the Law for you. Put on the breastplate of his righteousness and do not be afraid.

Second, obey the law. "Wait a minute," you say, "what about the temple and the sacrifices? Do we need to start sacrificing young lambs to celebrate Passover?" Ah! You are sharp! Look at what comes after our section today (vv. 21ff). See how Christ asserts the moral but not the ceremonial and civil demands of the Law. It is not obvious, but implied, so listen carefully. Our husband, Christ, has done it, but now he reasserts the moral part of the Law. And this makes sense, because the Law is just a reflection of the character of the Godhead. Want to look in face of Christ? Look at the Law and the Prophets which describe him. So, obey the moral demands of the law.

I challenge you, teenagers, kids, adults, heads of families. Memorize the Ten Commandments in the coming week. Memorize them and pray over them. Talk about them in your goings out and your comings in and with your families and friends. Bind them upon the door posts of your house, so to speak, and write them deep on the tablet of your heart. Christ has told us that whoever should practice and teach these commands will be called great. Let us aspire to greatness.

Third, a word to those outside of Christ. The law is in effect. The simple fact that we live on this earth under this heaven proves it so. Doesn’t your conscience prick your heart with guilt at your willful life? I don't care how good you are. And what does ignorance matter? Ignorance of a speed limit doesn't keep the nice police officer from giving you a ticket. Don't try and disappear into the crowd. Don't struggle up the mountain to try and find another god, either in some abstract heaven above or some mysterious chamber of your soul. There is only Jesus before you. The Kingdom is near. Repent and believe in Jesus' life and death for you, and become a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Isn't it wonderful what happens when we put our whole confidence in Christ! We ourselves become the true law-keepers and the true law-teachers. In placing our faith, body and soul in life and in death, in the King of the Kingdom, we are true citizens of his true Kingdom and fall into no error.

The Pharisee obeyed the law but forgot God, others, in our own day, forget God and obey their lusts, but we are Christ's and he is ours forever.

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