Matthew 5:17-32, Fulfilling the Law

[June 1, 2008] We read the gospels for us to remember Christ. This remembering, by the Holy Spirit, makes Him really and personally present among us. This morning He is present among us speaking these words (Matthew 5:17-32) personally to us, to you and me. When we are addressed personally, we cannot leave it to someone else to understand what He means. We alone are responsible be­fore Him and to Him. Since our memories are weak but we can read, when we leave this place, we need to go through these words and chew on them.

In Matthew, after the Father proclaims Jesus as His beloved Son in whom He has found His delight, Jesus emerges from the wilderness and proclaims that the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near to Israel in the sphere of His own Person. At once He calls disciples who drop whatever they are doing to follow Him. When He heals people everywhere He goes, these are signs that the kingdom is present in Him, and the crowds—which long for this king­dom—flock to Him. But though the crowds long for the kingdom, they are not yet willing to let go of what they have to follow Him. They are still only at the stage of admiring Him. They do not yet love Him.

He takes His disciples aside to a mountain, perhaps within the hearing of the crowds, and describes to them the blessed sphere in which He finds Him­self and into which He has brought them. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.” In the Old Testament God invited Israel into His blessing, but they never got there and in the end Israel is left waiting for the Messiah who alone would bring it. Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of Luke begins differently but with the same meaning. Jesus reads from Isaiah where the prophet speaks of the Messiah fulfilling the type (think: symbol) of the Year of Jubilee, and then Jesus says, “This Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Those hearing those words did not be­lieve Him. Here however Jesus speaks to His disciples. He says in verse 11, “Blessed are YOU … You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world.”

Here He sets them apart from the crowd, who merely admire Him, and from those who do not believe. Together, because they adhere to Him with loyalty and fidelity and have thus entered into a personal (I-Thou) relationship with Him and come within the sphere of His Personhood (the kingdom of the heavens), He sets them apart from the world in the same way that He is. They become brothers and sisters in Him, but because of their allegiance and faith­fulness to Him, the world persecutes them. Rejoice, He says, and do not hide. This is as it should be, for only if you are inwardly apart from the world and the world can see you—and hear your confession of Me—can you be the salt that preserves the world for God’s mercy and be light for its darkness.

Free Grace versus the Kingdom’s Requirements

So already, we can discern in Jesus’ words a twofold structure that will help us understand what follows. If we take what Jesus says out of context and do not understand what He means by the kingdom, we can get the im­pression that salvation is only given to those who can live up to the standard that Jesus lays out here. In other words, Paul preaches grace apart from works, but Jesus preaches salvation by works. That is probably why Protestants traditionally prefer Paul over Jesus, but that is very unfortunate.

When Jesus calls His disciples, that is grace. By His selection and by the power of His word, they enter into a personal connection to Him, the sphere of His Person. Their faith in Him is not their own doing. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in the heavens” (16:17). They do not understand yet what they have gotten into. All they know is that they have dropped everything and are clinging to Him. But by God’s grace they are already there because of their personal adherence to Him. In view of the res­urrection, they are on the ground of the church—they are there, though the church is not yet a reality. So Jesus begins by describing the blessedness of this place, even though He is really only describing Himself at this point.

However, when He speaks of the kingdom, everything is obviously condi­tional. Only the poor in spirit and the persecuted, and those whose righteous­ness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, can enter into the kingdom of the heavens. This is so obvious and repetitious that we are fooling ourselves if we try to explain it away. The key to understanding this is to realize that Jesus is speaking to those who already are His disciples, who are already in the place or sphere of grace. If you belong to Him, you already are forgiven, you already have a child’s relationship to the Father, and grace—and the life of the Holy Spirit in you—is already at work in you. Your failure as a disciple does not take you away from this place. Nothing can take you away from this place be­cause you did not get yourself there in the first place. It was God’s selection of you, His calling and grabbing you and picking you up.

But in that place of grace, where everything is of grace and by grace, you are accountable and will be judged. Our mistake is to think that there is only one judgment. Everyone will be judged together at once, we think. Since there are several kinds of judgment, to jumble them together like this can only confuse the picture. If we have a relationship with the Father, we are constantly under His government and therefore under His judgment. When Christ returns, He judges His believers—whom He resurrects—to discern who is ready to participate in the manifestation of His kingdom and the restoration of all things. Then Israel and the nations of the world are judged. After the restoration of the creation, the rest of the dead are judged before the beginning of the new heaven and new earth.

So believers, who are on the ground of grace—which is alone the basis of the church—are also under the government of the kingdom of the heavens and their lives will be judged at the Lord’s coming to decide whether we are qualified to enter the manifested kingdom of the heavens. The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to believers who are secure in their relationship to Christ to make them aware of the government of God that they are now under. (For the believers’ judgment before Christ, see 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10, 12; 1 Corinthians 4:4-5; 3:13-15; Matthew 16:27; Revelation 22:12; Hebrews 10:27, 30, and so on).

Fulfilling the Torah

What does Jesus mean when He says He came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law (or Torah) and the prophets? Jesus does not dismiss the Old Testa­ment, obviously, for He says that not even the smallest letter of the Scriptures will pass away until the end of creation.

It is true that Jesus fulfills the types and pictures in the Old Testament—for example, He is the Passover and the Temple. He also fulfills what is left unfinished—for example the promises and the kingship of David. He thus ful­fills the prophets. He also fulfilled the Torah by His perfect obedience to its commands and intentions. Paul says Christ is the goal of the Torah, and that He puts the Torah on a firmer footing.

Here, however, the context requires that we follow the rabbis’ usage. They spoke of “abolishing” the Torah by misinterpreting it or giving it a false application. To “fulfill” the Torah is to understand it correctly and give it a true interpretation. That is the direct meaning here (the others are more or less la­tent). He says that He does not diminish the Old Testament but is giving it its true interpretation. He would not annul the least of the commandments but practices and teaches them correctly—and so must His disciples.

This is confusing because we are not Jews. Here Paul helps us understand. First of all, the Torah does not justify even the Jew. Only God does that, and to give the Torah that role is to abolish it by misapplying it. The Torah must be obeyed without any attempt at self-justification but out of pure love. Second­ly, the Torah does not apply to the Gentile unless the Gentile becomes a Jew (by circumcision, etc.), and the Gentile who is saved in Christ should not be­come a Jew. As Gentiles they are a unique sign to Israel of the Messiah’s com­ing. The Torah that applies to them, called the Noachic covenant, is that they disassociate from idolatrous practices and live by the moral standard of the Torah. This is what fulfilling the Torah means for the Gentile.

Jesus says, however, that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees if we would enter the kingdom of the heavens. So here it is not about Jesus obeying the Torah but about us. Righteousness here does not refer to the objective righteousness we have in Christ, that is, our justifi­cation with God (1 Corinthians 1:30; Romans 3:26). It refers to our subjective righteousness, the righteousness that we live out. This righteousness is our wedding garment (Matthew 22:11-12) and it qualifies us to participate in the wedding feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7-8).

How can it exceed the scrupulous righteousness of the scribes and Phar­isees? The scribes refer to the scribes of the Pharisees. The Pharisees—like everyone else—tended to rationalize. That is, they interpreted the Torah to suit themselves: sometimes it was to avoid persecution and get along with the Gentiles, sometimes it was for their own gain (Matthew 15:1-9). Sometimes they were scrupulous about details but missed the intention (23:24). Jesus says pay attention to the intention of the Torah (as when He spoke on mar­riage in chapter 19), not its legal loopholes and excuses. By paying excessive attention to details, one can abolish the Torah. “You strain out the gnat but swallow the camel!” It is God who matters, not others looking and judging you.

Actually, in the Torah and the prophets, God is always after the heart. When Jesus says that the Torah can only be fulfilled from the inside out, He gives it the correct interpretation. Outward observance is not entirely unim­portant, but it is worthless if the inside is rotten. This is what Jesus means.

We cannot produce this kind of righteousness on our own. It cannot be self-righteousness. It can only come as a gift of grace. Jesus is really speaking here only to His own, to us who call God our Father and who live by grace. It is only by the Holy Spirit that the fruit of the Spirit can be produced. The world cannot be held to this standard, though Jesus does hold Israel to it because they have the gift of the Word and the covenant.

Examples

Today we will lightly touch on the first three examples that Jesus gives: do not murder, no not commit adultery, and permission to divorce. I give you the perspective, the angle of approach. You must chew on the details.

Murder is the result, but anger is the cause. Anger itself is not wrong nor can it always be avoided, but it makes you liable to the judgment, and so one must be exceedingly careful. This is spelled out in chapter 18. Among disci­ples, in the church, there can be nothing between us, nothing dividing us. Deal with it at once because it is intolerable. Verses 25-26 says that if we do not deal with it while we still have time, while we still have a lease on life, we will be accountable at the Lord’s coming and will be punished—down to the last penny. Just as in chapter 18 Jesus spares no words—He means it!

Adultery is the result, but lust is the cause. Again, lust may be unavoid­able, it is biological, but what Jesus addresses is “looking in order to lust.” This is not the first but the second look. Again, it is intolerable that we look upon each other, men and women, with this reduction of the other’s personhood. We judge others for how they dress and act, but that judgmental look is also a lustful one, even though we deny it by setting ourselves up as judges.

Divorce in chapter 19 has to do with applying our fidelity to each other in the church to our home lives. Here Jesus addresses the fact that women did not have the right of divorce, and were limited in the means of self-support, making them victims.

In the church, because Christ has brought us into the sphere of His own Personhood (we are literally in Him), and He is in us through the Holy Spirit, and all this is by God’s grace and is His gracious gift, we are highly accountable to God and come under His government. We need to pay attention to what Jesus expects of His disciples. We will continue next week.

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