Christians and the Law (Old Testament)

Christians and the Law
Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

“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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Some of you may know that I grew up on the south coast of England. And one of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was to go to the Southsea Arcade. The Arcade was an outdoor theme park, of sorts, not too far from where we lived. 

If I think about it now, it was sort of more like a county fair than a theme park. You could get cotton candy and fish and chips. There were games that you could play if you bought tokens.

I used to love driving the “bumper cars” with my sister. Actually they were called “dodgems” or “dodgem cars” and my Dad used to remind me that this meant the point of the game was avoid people rather than hitting them as hard as you could, a lesson that I never learned. 

Somehow giving and getting whiplash seemed much more like fun to me than scraping through a near miss.

One of the other  attractions there was the house of mirrors. Perhaps you’ve been to one or heard of them.

One of the features of the attraction are mirrors that distort your reflection. The mirrors are either converse or concave and the shape of the mirror alters the reflection of yourself that you see. 

Part of the attraction is seeing yourself as unusual and confusing reflections–some humorous and others frightening.

Let’s face it, we all have an image of ourselves–what we think we look like, what we think we sound like, how we think we come across to others. 

That’s what makes it so hard to see a video of yourself or listen to an audio recording of your voice. Inevitably the camera will show you an angle on yourself that you’ve never seen before and you’ll think, do I really look like that? Or, you’ll hear a recording of your voice and think do I really sound like that?

In fact, it wasn’t until last year that I regularly saw video recordings of myself preaching. Before COVID I had precisely one video recording of a sermon, now I have more than 40! 

And it’s hard to get used to seeing yourself on video–it changes how you see yourself. As Jesus discusses the law here, we begin to see that the law, is among other things, a mirror that shows us who we are. 

Without the law–that is, without an objective standard of morality outside of ourselves–we often find ourselves standing in front of a mirror that makes us look good. And when we gaze on ourselves in this mirror we find ourselves thinking things like: 

“I’m not that bad.” 

“I’m not like so-and-so.” 

“There are worse sins.”   

In other words it’s a mirror that shows us only favorable comparisons and reduces the law to something manageable like not being a mass murderer.

We’re going to see that Jesus’ use of the law points us to the absolute grace of God in rescuing us from ourselves and also points to our powerlessness to keep the law in a way that pleases God.

The law is, in other words,

(1) a window that shows what God requires of us 

(2) it is a mirror that shows how short we fall, 

(2) a scale that distinguishes right from wrong, and 

(3) a compass that shows us how we ought to live.

There are two sections of the Scripture and I’d like to take them in reverse order:

So, we’ll begin by looking at verses 17-20 where Jesus talks about his relationship with the law. 

Then we’ll look at verses 13-16–where Jesus describes what a community that keeps the law looks like.

“The Law and the Prophets”

First, we need to explore what Jesus means when he describes his relationship to the law. Or, put another way, how do we relate to the law now that Jesus has come into the world?

Jesus is pretty direct when he says, “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.” 

Does this mean that things like observing the Sabbath on a Saturday or not eating a calf that has been boiled in its mother’s milk or shellfish, etc, are still binding on us as Christians today? Should we keep kosher? 

I don’t think it means that.

First, we see that Jesus spoke of “the Law and the Prophets” as not being abolished. What did he mean by this phrase? 

The “Law and the Prophets” was a regular expression Jews of Jesus’ day used to refer to the entire Old Testament. (See Matthew 7:12; 22:40; Acts 24:14; 28:23; Romans 3:21.) 

In Romans 3:21 the Apostle Paul writes, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—”

In defending himself against his accusers in Acts 24:14 Paul said: “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets…”

The Old Testament comprises the Holy Scriptures or the sacred writings of the Jewish faith. It was through these writings that Jews thought they could understand the will of God and have eternal life (John 5:39, 45).

What Jesus said, then, was the Old Testament as a body of “God-breathed” literature would not be set aside or abolished. His concern was not specifically the Sabbath or the Ten Commandments. It was the entire Old Testament.

The Old Testament is God-breathed and useful just as is the New Testament. And so when someone like Andy Stanley questions whether we need the Old Testament or not, you should take note. To say that the Old Testament is somehow deficient or out-of-date expressly disagrees with what Jesus himself said on the matter, as we have just noted.

Jesus says that he has not come to do away with the law and the prophets–the Old Testament–but, rather, to fulfill them.

We should notice that Jesus did not tell Christians to “fulfill” these Scriptures down to the smallest letter and least stroke of a pen. 

He said he came to fulfill the Holy Scriptures.

What did he mean by this? The Greek word for “fulfill” Gk., isplerosai

According to Greek scholars, the nuance and meaning of this word is difficult to express in English, and several possibilities have been offered. 

  1. Jesus came to accomplish or obey the Holy Scriptures,
  1. to bring out the full meaning of the Holy Scriptures,
  1. to bring those Scriptures to their intended completion,
  1. to emphasize that the Scriptures point to him as Messiah and are fulfilled in his salvation work.

The Expositor’s Commentary on Matthew concludes (143): 

“The best interpretation of these difficult verses says that Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets in that they point to him, and he is their fulfillment. The antithesis is not between ‘abolish’ and ‘keep’ but between ‘abolish’ and ‘fulfill.’”

It is certainly a proper understanding of Jesus’ intent to say that he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets in himself—in his life and salvation work, and that the Scriptures pointed to him.

Remember, the book of Matthew was written to prove from the Jewish Scriptures that Jesus fulfilled the requirements of messiahship. 

Matthew often said Jesus acted “to fulfill” what was said through one prophet or another (Matthew 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17, etc.). 

You can read through the book of Matthew and note all the times that a reference is made to the Old Testament as being fulfilled in Jesus.

Jesus said in Matthew 3:15 that “all righteousness” should be fulfilled in his actions.

 Luke 24:25-27, 44-45 and John 5:39-47 are also instructive on this point. 

These verses show that Jesus was interested in showing how the Hebrew Scriptures had himself as their object. He was the Messiah of whom all the Jewish holy writings had spoken of.

So the Law and the Prophets point to Jesus as the Messiah and as the one who fulfills all of the requirements of the law.

The law then becomes a mirror to show us who we are–both in Christ and apart from Christ.

The law shows us what God requires of us and it shows us that it is impossible, beyond our ability, to keep it perfectly. 

That’s why Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In other words, he takes as an example the group of people most commonly associated with keeping the law at the time: the pharisees. 

It’s like saying, “Unless your popularity surpasses the Kardashians” or “Unless your wealth surpasses Jeff Bezos” — it’s a way of showing just how impossible the task of keeping the law actually is. Take the people most thought of it as keeping the law and then exceed them and you’ll still fall short!

So, the law shows us the scope and the immensity of God’s holiness. And it also shows us how desperately short we fall in the attempt to fulfill it. 

It’s important to note that we don’t “keep” or “obey” the law in order to earn God’s favor or to make God like us. If we did, the would truly be the worst possible news because it would be a sentence handed down on us telling us that we could never be in fellowship with God.

Our attempts to live by the law are simply attempts–not to earn God’s favor–but to live the way of life that God has given to us. 

This is where the first part of the Scripture passage comes in:

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Keeping the law–in Jesus’ view–is a revolutionary way of life that marks us as Jesus’ disciples, the church. It is the outward evidence that points to an inward reality of grace in our lives. 

In her book Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, Carmen Imes puts it like this: 

“The law envisions a different kind of life, characterized by self-discipline and self-giving love. Imagine a community where every member actively worked to love and protect their neighbor!” 

In a sense, as Jesus points out, the law and the prophets can be summarized 

‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Mt 22.37-39). 

It is pithy and to the point. 

Classic Jesus.

Embracing the law of God helps us discover our true selves as the people of God. Deuteronomy says, “What does the Lord require of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you this day for your good?”  

Here we see that the law of God is a gift of  grace that is the foundation of human flourishing. 

It is not “busywork” assigned just to please the arbitrary whims of a capricious deity. The law of God simply shows us what human beings were built to do—to worship God alone, to love their neighbors as themselves, to tell the truth, keep their promises, forgive everything, act with justice.

When we move against these laws we move against our own natures and happiness. Disobedience to God sets up strains in the fabric of reality that can only lead to break down.

We can sum all of this up by saying that the law is a mirror, a window, a scale and a compass as I said at the start of our time together:

(1) a window that shows what God requires of us 

(2) it is a mirror that shows how short we fall, 

(2) a scale that distinguishes right from wrong, and 

(3) a compass that shows us how we ought to live.

And for those reasons it’s not something we can leave behind, but it is not something that we ultimately trust to deliver us from our sins.

Our deliverance comes from Christ alone.

Let’s pray.

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