17 “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. 18 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. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly 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. 20 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.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from Christ Jesus our Lord and Saviour.
Let us pray…Heavenly Father, your Word is a light unto our path and a lamp unto our feet. Give us ears to hear your Word of life and hearts to trust it. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
This week a report came out about the amount of cheating that goes on by students in university. As one student put it: “I know it’s wrong, but it’s kind of like driving down the QE II. You’re forced to go slightly faster than the speed limit by the pressure of everyone else around you.”
So what’s your take on the law or laws? Are they there to be followed literally or are they simply guidelines or are some just not applicable to you?
And what does the law mean to those of us who considers ourselves Christians – followers of Jesus Christ? Are laws like the Ten Commandments irrelevant since we are no longer saved by the law, but by grace?
Well Lutheran Christians have had mixed feelings about the law. Over and over again we have proclaimed that we are not saved by works of the law, but by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
However, Lutheran teaching does not throw the law out, but suggests that it has three uses. The first two of these uses were suggested by Luther himself, but later on the reformer Philip Melanchthon suggested a third and more positive use of the law.
The first use of the law is that it keeps sin in check. It’s kind of like a curb preventing believers and unbelievers from doing things that would bring harm to others. The laws produced by government and the judicial system involve this first use. Break the speed limit and you will be punished.
The second use of the law is intended to lead us to repentance. It’s kind of like a mirror that reveals the ugliness of our sin which then drives us to the love and grace of God since the wages of sin is eternal death. This second use of the law is primarily found within the church in its proclamation and teaching alongside the gospel. This is why we continue to teach the Ten Commandments and to encourage our members to daily reflect on these within practice of confession and absolution.
The third use of the law is much more positive than the first two. After a person has repented, been forgiven and set free to follow Christ it is the law that guides the Christian into the ways of God. For example, Jesus taught that we are to love God with our entire lives. In order to know how we are to do this we can look to the third commandment which says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” It is from here that we are guided to gather for worship so that we might hear and be fed on God’s Word and Sacrament. The law guides us in the ways we are to go.
These are three wonderful perspectives on the law and yet I know that by default we tend to flee from, avoid and look for loop holes every time we confront the law. How many people here really drive the speed limit? How many here have reported every source of income to Revenue Canada? How many here worship every Sunday? Some of us may confess our failure to keep the law and repent, but many others tend to instead, justify themselves and bring the law and God’s expectations down to the level of their own lives. We love to make the law fit how we live rather than how we are to live.
In Jesus’ time the Law was critically important. The Law not only included the Ten Commandments, but some 613 other manifestations of these commandments.
For example, God’s law in the Old Testament commanded his people to not travel on the Sabbath. This, however, led teachers of the law to ask, “Well, what constitutes travelling? Can you travel around your house? Can you travel to someone else’s house? And how far can you go? In response, these teachers developed a new law that said, “You can travel three thousand feet from your house on the Sabbath.”
There were 613 of these types of regulations and every faithful Jew was expected to obey them.
As Jesus began teaching and later on, as Christianity developed within Judaism, some people believed or thought Jesus favored getting rid of the law. Why do you need the law when Christ has set you free?
On the other hand, there were those who believed that Jesus and Christianity ought to continue to rigidly observe what God had commanded. This week I ran across a person who had belonged to a Christian church that kept many of the Jewish festivals and laws.
Do we keep the law or do we dump it? This was the debate in the time of Jesus, in the early church and even to this day. Have we been set free from the law or is God’s law still to be obeyed?
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus brings together these two black and white positions, not in a kind of gray answer, but in a vibrant, dynamic deep way.
In today’s reading we hear Jesus say that he has not come to lessen or abolish anything about God’s law. Instead, Jesus desires to take his followers deeper into the will of God and into the life of God’s kingdom.
For example, when you hear that command, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” what do you think? Many people hear that as “You better come to church on Sunday.” However, for those whose hearts have been transformed by the Holy Spirit this command leads them to want to gather joyfully to hear and experience their heavenly Father’s word in preaching and in the Sacraments. Not only that, worship becomes the life of these Christ followers as every day they take time to talk with and listen to their Master and then go out and serve him.
So Jesus is saying to us today…Far from wanting to set aside the law and the prophets, it is my role to bring about what these laws are pointing to: the kingdom of heaven. In following Jesus, we are being led through the law and the prophets into the kingdom of heaven right now.
Now as I said earlier, our temptation is to find loopholes with God’s laws or to lessen them or bring them down to our level of practice. However, Jesus warns us that the law is permanent; that no part can be dispensed with UNTIL two things happen.
First, UNTIL “heaven and hell pass away” or in our modern lingo we wold “until hell freezes over” which means NEVER. And then the second condition Jesus reports is UNTIL everything is accomplished, which means until the kingdom of heaven has fully arrived.
The goal of the law and of Christ and his mission is the complete establishment of God’s reign in your heart, in mine and in the heart of every person over all creation.
And so Jesus is saying to us today…The law, down to its smallest details, is as permanent as heaven and earth, and will never lose its significance; on the contrary, all that it points forward to will in fact become a reality.
So if the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ words are not going away then we had better take them seriously. In fact, Jesus points out that if I or anyone else avoids teaching these commands we will be considered quite pitiful in God’s eyes. On the other hand, to teach and practice God’s commands will result in being honored by God in His kingdom.
So those of us who would be disciples of Christ ought to delight in and learn from every word that God has written. As Jesus said, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4). In other words, don’t cherry pick what you like and ignore what you don’t like when it comes to God and his Word.
Now we come to the kicker…Jesus says to us, 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.
Put even me up alongside these Pharisees and teachers of the law and I would look pitiful. These people knew the law and devoted themselves to meticulously following every jot and tittle of it. To suggest that you or I can be more righteous than these righteousness experts sounds impossible and unrealistic.
However, Jesus is not telling us to try and beat them at their own game. Instead, Jesus is calling us to a different kind of righteousness.
Following Jesus isn’t about literally obeying a new set of rules and regulations. Instead, following Jesus and living under him in the kingdom of heaven is about being reborn from the inside out to live in the way, the truth and the life of Christ.
Jesus said to one of these religious legalists named Nicodemus, No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again…No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit (John 3:3,5). Nicodemus was confused and we might also ask, “So what does that mean?”
Well, the bottom line is this: it takes God to cleanse us from sin and set us back on his kingdom track and God does this by taking us, washing us in the waters of baptism, and then sending his Spirit into our lives to change our heart’s direction towards Christ and his kingdom. It is here that faith is born and we trust in Christ alone for our righteousness and our salvation.
It is then with this new heart that we begin to live in the kingdom of heaven HERE, recognizing Jesus as our King and it is HERE in this life, right now, that we begin to live as Jesus has taught us to live together.
So Jesus is saying to us today…
Do not suppose that I came to undermine the authority of the OT scriptures, and in particular the law of Moses. I did not come to set them aside but to bring into reality that to which they pointed forward. I tell you truly; the law, down to its smallest details, is as permanent as heaven and earth and will never lose its significance; on the contrary, all that it points forward to will in fact become a reality (and is now doing so wherever I am). So anyone who treats even the most insignificant of the commandments of the law as of no value and teaches other people to belittle them is an unworthy representative of the new kingdom, while anyone who takes them seriously in word and deed will be a true member of God’s kingdom.
But do not imagine that simply keeping all those rules will bring you salvation. For I tell you truly; it is only those whose righteousness of life goes far beyond the old way of literal rule keeping which the scribes and Pharisees represent who will prove to be God’s true people when the kingdom comes to fulfillment.
It is because God first loved us that Christ now calls and invite each person here into the fullness of life in his kingdom and under his reign.
However, this can only happen as the Holy Spirit works in our lives, calling us to repent of our sinful ways, that desire to be in control of our lives, to make God in our image and to interpret those laws in ways that justify us as we are rather than transform us. I encourage you to repent today of that and to daily repent of it.
It is only then that the Holy Spirit can begin to lead you into Christ who is the way, the truth and the life. As we by faith receive Christ as Lord we will desire to follow him: to grow in His commands; to share our faith with others and to serve God that his kingdom would come among us.
So wherever you are at allow me to pray for you.
Heavenly Father, for those here who continue to walk in their own ways and away from you, I pray that you would give them a heart of repentance and sorrow. Turn them from their disobedient ways and lead them into the fullness of life in your Word. To those who are truly repentant I pray that you would grant them forgiveness of sins and new birth.
Heavenly Father, for those of us who continue to seek you and your kingdom I pray like Paul did for the church in Ephesus (3:16-19): that according to the riches of his glory God may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.
Walk with us Lord Jesus as we seek to live joyfully in your commands and in your Word. In your name we pray. Amen.