Going a Step Further

Matthew 5:17-24

 

It was a few weeks ago that I recounted my affinity for the comic strip, Calvin and HobbesIn fact, there is one cartoon in particular that I love.

I may have mentioned this one in a sermon before, but if I don’t remember doing so, then there’s a good chance you don’t remember either.  (Rehash cartoon.)

 

This particular cartoon has never been more real to me than since I became a parent.  I find that my words are taken literally quite more often than I like.

I mean, there’s taking my words seriously, and then there’s abusing the system.

When we start dissecting the rhetoric of certain statements or commands from superiors, word-for-word, bad things can happen.

The legal experts with their legal mumbo-jumbo come in, and before you know it we become the society that we have become.

 

Nowadays, many are afraid to say anything.  Even with my own children, I have to carefully choose my words.  My boys are good boys.

They’re also very clever boys.  Kelley and I can easily end up with two boys sitting in a bathtub, covered in dirt, with no water running.

You punish a child by sending him to his room, but if you don’t forbid playing with toys he just might start doing that.  After all, you didn’t say not to.

You punish a child by telling her that she cannot call that boy she wants to call.  So she starts texting.  After all, you didn’t forbid that.

We become overly focused on the letter of the law, all the while ignoring the spirit.

 

This tendency existed in Jesus’ time as well.  And He was well aware of that fact.

Often, these situations pertained to religion.  That was where one was sure to find a bevy of rules and regulations.

People looked for loopholes in God’s law—in His commands.  Even the religious people looked for loopholes.  You know what a loophole is, don’t you?

It’s this sort of attitude.  How can I make it appear that I’m obeying a rule, even though I’m still doing my own thing?

Furthermore, how can I make sure that I can’t be held liable for doing my own thing?

 

Interestingly, Jesus was often viewed as a “rule breaker”.  Think about the command to honor the Sabbath, for example.

Jesus was frequently accused of doing work on the Sabbath day.  He healed people on that day.  His disciples plucked grains of wheat on that day.

But, in truth, Jesus is quite the opposite.  In our passage today, we will learn that He has the utmost regard for God’s commands.

But He calls His followers and His listeners to see the truth behind the wording.

 

So let’s jump into our passage this morning.  It’s found in the fifth chapter of Matthew.  The context is most interesting.  Jesus is preaching a sermon.

You’ve probably heard of this particular sermon.  It’s known as the Sermon on the Mount—the best sermon ever delivered.  Usually I prefer to read this entire sermon.

But, today, I’ve picked out a small portion of it.  Our particular part begins with verse 17 of Matthew, chapter 5.  (Read Matthew 5:17-24.)

 

Before we take a closer look at this passage, I want to bring an image to your mind.

It’s my hope that this concept will stick with you throughout our exploration of this passage—perhaps even enlightening you as to what Jesus is getting at.

(Explain the sign pointing the way to Gulf Shores, as opposed to truly being there.)

As we get into this discussion of Jesus and His connection with God’s Law, I want you to do your best to hold that image in your mind.

 

Jesus says that He did not come to abolish the law or the prophets.  To put this in our terms, this essentially means the OT.

When Jesus refers to the prophets, He means not only those we consider prophets—such as Isaiah and Ezekiel—but also every book after Deuteronomy.

Now the “law” would refer to those first five books of the Bible—Genesis through Deuteronomy.  Now check this out.

According to commentator Leon Morris, there were 613 commandments in those books of the Bible.  About 60% of those are “negative”—meaning, “Don’t do that.”

 

Now, in every good sermon, the preacher ought to show how serious he or she is regarding the Word of God.  It ought to be taken and read seriously.

Jesus, while preaching this sermon, is surely aware of His reputation.  The religious elite believed He didn’t take the Law as seriously as they did.

So, in the context of this sermon, He makes it clear that He’s a supporter of God’s Law.  His ministry isn’t about throwing out the Law.

His ministry isn’t about dismissing all that God did or said in the past.  Instead, He said He came to fulfill all that was said in the OT.

 

Morris states that there are three ways of looking at Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.

Firstly, it could mean that He would do all that was laid out in those scriptures.

Secondly, it could mean that He would bring out the full meaning of those scriptures.

Finally, it could also mean that His ministry would bring Scripture to completion.

Whatever the meaning might be, it’s likely that Jesus meant He would fulfill scripture in multiple ways.

Remember that He lived a sinless life.  Regardless of what any Pharisee might say, He upheld the Law to a tee.

The Pharisees may have nitpicked His behavior on the Sabbath, but consider this.

They stewed over Him because He didn’t uphold the Sabbath the way they interpreted it.  But Jesus’ Father was the one who handed down the Law.

And Jesus was around from the very beginning.  So I would tend to favor His interpretation of the Law over even the most decorated religious scholar.

 

Moreover, Jesus fulfilled the scriptures in that, once you encounter Him and entrust your life to Him, the words become more alive, real, and understandable.

Ask a person who doesn’t have Jesus in his or her life to read through the book of Revelation.  It’s only through Jesus that we can find any meaning in those words.

Finally, Jesus brought certain OT scriptures to fruition by His ministry.  His miracles, His teachings, His betrayal, and His death were all foretold.

In Jesus, we truly do see that the Law will not disappear.  To put it in our way of thinking, not even the crosses on the “T’s” or the dots on the “I’s” will fade away.

All that’s in the Law and the Prophets will be accomplished.  Jesus said so, and He will bring it to pass.

 

Verse 19 shows us just how serious Jesus is about this whole upholding the Law idea.  He starts talking about the kingdom of heaven.

If you came to our Bible study on the parables of Jesus, you may recall that Jesus frequently taught about the kingdom of heaven or of God.

Jesus said that whoever sets aside—or annuls—even the smallest of the commandments will be called least in the kingdom.

Now, the language there does not refer to an isolated incident of breaking a rule.

Morris states that it’s more like “regarding the command as non-existent.”  It’s living as though that command isn’t real, doesn’t matter, or isn’t applicable.

 

There’s food for thought, wouldn’t you say?  Do you ever treat any of God’s commands as though they don’t exist?

I’m sure it’s not that way with murder.  I’m sure it’s not that way with adultery.  I’m sure it’s not that way with dishonoring your parents.

You know those exist.  You may break them, but you still know you’ve disobeyed.

Jesus is talking about living as though those commands don’t event exist.  And we all have commands we treat that way.

The skeptic might say, “Yeah, well what about all those food regulations?  I’ll bet you eat some of those forbidden things from the OT!”

Yes, I do.  Remember that Jesus fulfilled the scripture.  Both He and His Father declared all foods to be clean in the NT.

Apparently, those restrictions were applicable in a specific time and place.  But I don’t disregard those OT restrictions because I just don’t think they’re important.

I disregard them because Jesus ushered in a new era where those restrictions were no longer applicable.

 

The Bible—both OT and NT—is full of commands from God that we treat as non-existent or void.  Surely God didn’t mean we should always treat others as more important than ourselves.  What about our “me time”?

Wait a minute.  God actually told us not to complain?  And you’re saying I can’t have even a hint of sexual immorality?  “Look but don’t touch” doesn’t count?

Jesus says to cancel out the Law means the least position in the kingdom.  Not only that, to lead others down that path brings about the same consequence.

It’s one thing to disregard certain commands on your own, but to pass that along to others—to encourage them toward similar disobedience—is a weighty offense.

But to keep the Law and teach it to others gives a person a great position in the kingdom.  Interestingly, notice that both are in the kingdom.

But one group enters joyfully to the praise of their Father in heaven.  One group seems to get in by the skin of their teeth.

I could go deeper into these three verses—17 thru 19—but we must press on to one of the key verses of this passage.  I’m talking about verse 20.  Look at it again.

 

There are a couple of things I want us to notice with this verse.  First of all, look at it from our perspective—we who didn’t live in that age but can read about it.

We know the truth regarding the Pharisees.  They were know-it-alls.  They couldn’t enter certain rooms because their heads wouldn’t fit through the doors.

They did things for show.  They liked to be better than everyone else, and they wanted everyone else to recognize it.

Therefore, it appears that it wouldn’t take much to surpass their righteousness.

 

And yet, we cannot underestimate the shockwaves that likely went through the crowd that day as Jesus uttered these words.

These Pharisees were the paragons of religious performance and piety.  They not only knew the law, the scrupulously upheld it.

For goodness’ sake, they even tithed on their herbs.  I don’t see any of you folks with gardens bringing in one-tenth of your crop this morning.

According to Jesus, if a person’s righteousness doesn’t surpass that of the Pharisees, the kingdom was unavailable to them.

If Jesus is saying that their performance wasn’t good enough, then whose could be?

 

As usual, Jesus is inviting His listeners—and the readers of His word—to see things differently.  It’s not a greater amount of righteousness that we need.

It’s not as though the Pharisees’ righteousness was a 92.3 on the right-o-meter, and God will only accept a 95 or greater.  Don’t think amounts.  Think types.

We need a whole different form of righteousness.  The best of all human righteousness is still but filthy rags before the Lord.  We need something better.

 

At this point, beginning with verse 21, Jesus seems to move on to a different subject.

Or does He?  In truth, He appears to be giving the crowd a “for example”.

He addresses one of those aforementioned laws.  And notice the one He chooses:  murder.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t know any murderers.

I know they are out there, but it’s not as though 1 out of every 4 people I know are murderers.  Jesus chooses a command that the people are likely to obey.

On the surface, they would have no problem with this one.  “Let’s see, have a murdered anyone today?  Wait a minute.  I ran into Tim earlier.  Now, did I kill him?  No, that’s right!  We said goodbye and he drove off.  Let’s check off that one!”

 

But instead of treating it that lightly, Jesus challenges their notions.  He probes into the deeper meaning of the law.  He doesn’t just look at the words.

“Do…not…murder.”  He expands on it and gets to the heart of it.  Think about it like this.  The Dallas Cowboys are playing tonight.  Believe me.  I’m aware.

I’ve put the time down in my Bible study notes for tonight.  I had best be finished on time.  But let’s say that, for some reason, you just decide not to watch them.

Maybe you’re fed up with their inconsistency.  Maybe you just don’t have the time.

But, for whatever reason, you decide you are just going to get up in the morning and check the box score in the paper.  You’ll find out all you need to know tomorrow.

(Explain checking the box score for details, but missing the main point—the score.)

 

We don’t merely harp on the letters that form the words, “Do not murder.”  We look at the big picture.  What is God trying to tell us in this command?

Consider what Quincy did with our children this morning—turning the commandments upside down.  To murder is to show reckless disregard for life.

Therefore, since we are called not to murder, we are also called to show great regard for life and to bring life—real, abundant life—to others.

That’s why Jesus does what He does in verse 22.  He gets to the heart of all that the command entails.  He doesn’t limit it to “murder”.  He considers the spirit of the law.

 

First of all, we see that attitude plays an important role.  Jesus talks about anger.

I think there’s an important little word here.  Jesus says, “Anyone who is angry with his brother.”  That little word, “is”, indicates a state of being, I believe.

Just about everyone gets angry.  Jesus got angry in the Temple.  But some people would be described like this:  so-and-so is angry.  It’s a continuing state.

Oh, it may not continue throughout the rest of existence, but it’s not something that melted away in a matter of minutes, after gaining perspective.

Some of you in this room today simply are angry with someone else.  When they cross your mind, you inwardly sneer.

You cannot hear their name without a negative thought coming into your mind.  When you speak of this person, you always appear condescending or frustrated.

And you know who you are, whether you want to admit it or not.  Such an attitude, according to Jesus, is a violation of this command.

 

But it’s not merely attitude.  Words also play an important role within this command.  Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

What a load of bull.  I know for a fact that there are some things I have said to another person, and they would much rather have had me throw a stick at them.

Jesus mentions contemptuous terms that we might use in speaking to others, to their face, or about others, behind their back.

Jesus takes these attitudes and words as seriously as He takes the physical act of murder.  They are deserving of judgment.  How serious is Jesus?

To speak about a person in this way leaves on “in danger of the fire of hell.”

Yes, Jesus makes us reconsider how we take these commands of God.  That’s why He uses words such as, “You have heard, but I tell you.”

As we read these words, should we choose to take them seriously, we begin to see that our righteousness truly cannot measure up to any standard.

And then, in verses 23 and 24, Jesus brings a practical example to the discussion.

No more theories or greater meanings.  Let’s discuss a real-life example of how this command plays out.

How do we know this example ties into the previous command?  Jesus begins verse 23 with the word, “Therefore.”  So it must tie into the previous words.

Jesus tells the people to imagine that they have come to the altar to offer their gifts.

This puts us in the context of worship.  The people would presuppose the Temple.  We might presuppose church.  In that day, there was no worship without an offering.  You never showed up empty-handed before God.

So Jesus invites the hearers to picture themselves ready to worship God in His sanctuary.  And yet, they remember something.

You see, part of our problem is a lack of awareness.  This person, evidently, is unmindful of the fact that another person has something against him or her.

But apparently God brings that issue to mind.  He has a way of doing that—often, interestingly enough, in the context of worship.

 

Once the person coming to worship remembers that there is a flawed relationship in his or her midst, there is a three-part command to follow.

Jesus says that person is to put down the offering and leave, be reconciled to that other person, and then come back to worship—or make the offering.

And we might be tempted to say, “You mean He commanded people to interrupt a worship service?”  But we must remember this.

Over and over, God told his people—in the OT, no less—that He desired obedience over religious performance.  He desired love, justice, and humility more than sacrifice.  So, yes, being reconciled to another person is of greater significance.

 

If you have hurt, pain, and anger that exists between you and another person, you are doing yourself no favors by coming in here each and every Sunday—acting as though those issues don’t even exist.

Yes, you were checked off the SS roll.  Yes, you gave your tithe.  Yes, you greeted all the right people so that they might know that you were here.

But God is seeking something better—not “better-more”, but “better-different.”

Maybe you can sit here in worship and think to yourself, “God’s Word says, ‘Do not murder.’  At least I’ve got that one down!”

But if you have that hostility brimming between you and another, you most certainly do not have it down.  It’s a barrier between you and God.

 

And Jesus would continue with these practical examples throughout this sermon.

He would move on to adultery, divorce, and even love for enemies.  In His practical examples, He addresses human relationships.

It is at this point that we would do well to remember the way in which Jesus summed up God’s entire law.

The first and greatest command is to love the Lord, your God, with all your mind, heart, soul, and strength.

The second command, which Jesus says is like the first—just as important to be heeded—is to love your neighbor as yourself.

Even the Ten Commandments are divided in this way.  The first few deal with your relationship with God, while the latter ones deal with our relationships with each other.  We must move beyond the words—beyond the letter of the law.

We’ve got to probe deeper, getting into the heart of the matter—the spirit of the law.

But once we wade into those deep parts—once we are neck-deep in the enormity of God’s law—we see how helpless we are.

The Law, indeed, is good.  It is we who are not.  But, in the midst of our helplessness, we must also remember that Jesus came to fulfill that same Law.

But His work was not finished until He died on the cross.  At that point, He fulfilled every portion of the earthly mission given to Him by His Father.

At that point, He was fully and perfectly obedient.  At that point, He had lived the life we could never live—and died the death we dared not die.

 

And we must also remember that Jesus died, not only to reconcile us to God, but also to each other.  It’s a comprehensive salvation that Jesus offers.

It makes everything right—creation, humanity, our relationships to each other, and our relationships to God.

Go read this entire sermon sometime.  You may have done it before.  Do it again.

See how wonderfully deep and painfully personal God’s law can be.  See the life He has in store for those who trust in Jesus—and how far away from that life we actually are.

 

Remember that image I gave you toward the beginning of the sermon?  To spend our time caught up in the details of the Law and desperately searching for loopholes that leave us still “okay with God” is much like celebrating and hanging out at that road sign that says, “Gulf Shores”.

I know.  There’s a decent McDonald’s there and a nice Valero right by that sign.

But you don’t celebrate a sign that says, “Gulf Shores.”  You celebrate 40 miles down the road, when you get to Gulf Shores.

Similarly, when we examine God’s law, we ought to realize that it isn’t all there is.

It’s what the law points to.  We find life, joy, hope, and celebration in Jesus.

That’s who the Law points to.  So you go examine God’s law, and here’s what you’ll find.  Your only conclusion ought to be:  “Help me, Jesus.  I need You.”  (Pray.)