Matthew 5: The Law of Love

Introduction

I’ve been worrying about some stuff.
I’ve lost a lot of sleep, so I’m thinking maybe you guys can help me out.
What I wanna know is,
Do Christians have to be circumcised? Ouch!
Do Christians have to grow their beards? So I’m sweet!
Do I have to fast, tithe, read the bible, go to church, obey the 10 commandments?
 
And, are Christians allowed to eat all kinds of meat?
Are Christians allowed to trim their beards? Or am I in trouble?
Am I allowed to work on Sunday, listen to rock music, play cards, marry, smoke, drink, dance, …
 
It’s very perplexing.
All these questions have been seriously asked in the past, sadly many have split Christians
 
They all come down to: how do Christians relate to lists of moral rules?
Especially those in the Old Testament.
By the end of tonight, you’ll know how to answer all these questions and many more!
 
A good place to start, is how did Jesus relate to the Old Testament rules?
 
Today’s passage from the Sermon on Mount addresses this.
shortly after the famous beatitudes, “blessed are the …”
 
Matthew 5.17-20
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
Therefore, whoever breaks 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.
 
“I have come not to abolish but to fulfil the law and the prophets”
The more I’ve thought about it, the more ways I’ve understood this
I’ve scribbled pages of notes, then scrapped them – too much for a half hour max sermon!
 
To make matters worse, one commentary called these “the most controversial verses in Matthew”
Martin Luther said:
“The wicked devil has managed so cleverly to twist and pervert especially the 5th chapter of Matthew, making it teach the exact opposite of what it means… the infernal Satan has not found a single text in the Scriptures that he has more shamefully distorted…”
 
Hopefully I’ll avoid either drowning in detail, or devilish distortion!
 
“I have come not to abolish but to fulfil the law and the prophets”
“Law and prophets” is a Jewish way of saying the whole Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament
Jesus fulfils the whole Old Testament, the entire history of Israel – but we’ve no time for that now.
Jesus fulfils the predictions of the prophets:
Matthew has over 60 Old Testament quotations, and over 10 times , writes “this fulfils the prophet”
 
But in spite of this fulfilling, Jesus says “Do not think I have come to abolish/destroy the law”
– someone must think he did.
Why would we think Jesus came to destroy?
1.      Look at the Gospels Gospels: Jesus often clashed with Pharisees over keeping the law. Jesus worked on the Sabbath, he didn’t wash his hands properly, he hung out with lawless people
2.      consider the epistles: Paul writes “Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and regulations” Ephesians 2.15
A bit of a clash! Early heretics said Matthew got it wrong. Jesus really said: “I did not come to fulfil but to destroy”
3.      Today, we all know we’re saved by faith not works.
Nothing I do can make God love me more or less, so it mustn’t matter what I do or how I live.
So is it true that no rules apply to me now?
 
We need to ask how Christ and we Christians relate to the lists of rules in the Bible.
 
The Law: the first 5 books of Old Testament, written by Moses, contain 613 commands – “thou shalt (not)”s
613 commands in 2 groups:
1. moral/ethical – telling me how to please God. How to be righteous and good.
2. Religious/ritual – what to do when I fail. how to make things right with God. How to deal to with sin.
 
The Old Testament ritual laws had lotsa details about priests and sacrifices in the temple.
The New Testament book of Hebrews says Jesus is the reality to which they all pointed.
Jesus fulfilled the ritual law for us, so we don’t need to
but we’ve also no time for that here, so we’ll focus on the moral/ethical law.
 

Jesus fulfils the law for us

How does Moses’ law relate to Christians?
 
Most of the first Christians were Jewish converts.
Many thought Gentile Christians, like us, must be circumcised and obey the law of Moses – see the big debate in Acts 15
 
Having just read what Jesus said, you can’t blame them!
Not one letter, stroke of a letter, dot or comma, “jot or tittle” from the law will pass away until the end of time.
Break/relax/slacken off on the least of law’s commands, and you’re in trouble, you’ll be least in kingdom of heaven
Sounds like the Jewish Christians are justified!
Does Jesus support them?
 
 
To get some clarification,
Let’s see what Jesus replied when a young man asked him:
Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life? (Matt 19.16)
What a classic evangelistic opening! Screaming out for a Gospel presentation:
Any budding young evangelist’d reach into pocket, whip out his favourite tract…
4 spiritual laws, bridge to life, steps to peace with God, knowing God personally…
if you wanna be saved, young man, your works won’t work, only one work works
– It’s the work to end all works: the cross of Christ.
 
But what does Jesus reply?
“If you want to enter life, keep the commandments”
Expel him from evangelism school, 0 in the witnessing exam, kick him out of the Contagious Christian course!
To rub it in: “if you want to be perfect” (Matt 19.21)
Keep the commands, be perfect
Bizarre – opposite of what we Christians would say.
 
But Jesus must know what he’s doing, so
Ok, who keeps the commandments then?
If anyone is righteous, good, if anyone checks them all off, it’s the scribes and Pharisees.
But Jesus says to enter life, to enter the kingdom of heaven, we need to be more righteous than them (5.20)
 
The demands of Moses were tough, but maybe you could keep all 613 commands if you tried really hard.
One Pharisee in the Bible claimed to – said he was blameless under Moses’ law.
 
But now, all of Matthew 5 makes the laws harder.
It culminates in “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” – “be perfect like God”
Luther called this “mossisimus Moses” – Moses to the Max!
To pass the entrance exam to heaven you need a score of 100%. Even 99% won’t do.
 
Who could achieve this perfect righteousness?
That same Pharisee, who reckoned his own legalistic righteousness was faultless,
told us exactly who: no one
“no one is righteous, not even one” (Rom 3.10)
 
You’ve probably guessed this Pharisee is Paul.
 
Paul looked back on his own faultless achievements under the law:
“I consider them rubbish, so that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one which is through faith in Christ ­– the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” Phil 3.8-9
 
Paul had discovered that, no, the righteousness, the goodness of the Pharisee wasn’t perfect.
But he didn’t despair. He found a new hope:
the righteousness and goodness of Jesus Christ is perfect.
 
Jesus embodied the whole Old Testament law on our behalf.
He fulfilled the moral law by living a sinless life. He alone scored 100%.
 
He fulfilled the ritual law by dying for us on the Cross.
 
God the judge condemned me as guilty for breaking the law. The penalty was terrible.
But the judge then removes his wig, cast off his robe, steps down, joins me in the dock and takes my penalty himself.
 
It’s a bit like Christ writes his name on my failed exam paper, my name on his 100% exam paper,
so I pass and he flunks.
He paid the penalty I owed.
He sets me free from the law’s demands.
 
Paul found that if we are, by faith, united with Christ, we share his righteousness.
so God sees me “just-as-if” I never sinned, like Jesus.
Only in Christ can we enter life, enter the kingdom of heaven.
 
It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, what we do, what we will do, because
“Christ is the end of the law – Greek end = the goal, the accomplishment, the perfection, the fulfilment of the law –
so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” Rom 10.4
 
We can never fulfil the law. But Christ fulfils the law for us, to set us free.
What a wonderful freedom!
Amen
 

Problems

This is the message we often hear.
But I struggle with it.
This exam paper swapping, the judge in my place…
If this is the whole story, the gospel is kind of good news, but it’s not all that great.
In fact I’d say it’s a bit disappointing. It doesn’t solve my real problem.
 
Sin isn’t just breaking an external rule, like getting a speeding ticket – oops, I went over 50kph
Sin pollutes my own heart, sin makes me ugly, sin spoils the image of God in me.
Sin isn’t just things I do out there. Sin is who I am in here.
 
Swapping exam papers etc doesn’t change me.
You can cheat in a maths exam. Your teacher gives you a pass, though you don’t have a clue.
Maybe it doesn’t matter, if you’ll never use maths in life.
But to fake a pass in the holiness/righteousness exam, and we don’t have it ourselves?
Nothing could matter more. Life without holiness is death.[1]
 
This sort of gospel covers some symptoms, removes the penalty, but doesn’t cure me.
The heavenly register may record me as sinless and righteous.
But I know I’m not.
I’m still a slave to sin.
 
The gospel as often preached seems a heavenly legal loophole, a celestial fiddling the books, a divine self-deception.
 
Anyone else sometimes felt like that? – Thank you Sir, I see that hand! Hallelujah!
 
I’m coming to understand that the gospel doesn’t mean
God pretends it’s ‘just-as-if’ David never sinned.
God looks at me as he planned me from all eternity past.
He looks at me how I one day will be, when he has finished with me, for all eternity future.
He says: that is the true David. There is no sin in him.
No legal loopholing.
Standing outside time, God simply sees me and names me as I truly, eternally am.
 
To put it in medical terms,
We are all invalids, with a terminal disease.
The divine doctor is able to fully heal us.
If we stop trying to heal ourselves and trust his care, he will.
In which case, we’re as good as cured now.
It takes time, so it’s not always visible yet.
But when this doctor says, we are safe, and he will cure us, we are and he will, don’t worry.[2]
 
To put it in theological terms,
We often distinguish between
justification – God declares us righteous once-for-all – the doctor says we’re safe, cured
sanctification – God makes us righteous – an ongoing process – the doctor is healing us
But they’re really 2 sides of same coin, the same thing from different perspectives.
Justification states what we will be when sanctification is complete.
 
“Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.” (Jonathan Edwards)
 
The law plays a role in both.
The law is our schoolmaster.
It can’t make us perfect, but teaches us our helplessness and sends us to Christ for our justification.
We’ve just seen this.
Christ fulfils the law for us, to set us free.
 
But Christ then uses the law to guide us in sanctification, to make us holy.
 

Jesus fulfils the law in us

So back to the text, is all Jesus’ “jot and tittle”, “be perfect like God”, etc
no more than a back-handed justification by faith, doesn’t matter what we do?
 
Christ fulfils the law for us, so we don’t have to fulfil the law – is this the whole story?
 
No! That’s just the start of the good news!
Christ fulfils the law for us, so that one day, we too will fulfil the law!
 
Jesus is speaking literally:
I will not be fully saved, enter God’s presence in heaven,
until I am more righteous than the best of the scribes and Pharisees.
Until the Sermon on the Mount describes me
Until I can score 100% myself,
Until I am a saint, as perfect as God.
 
CS Lewis: “The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command… If we let Him – for we can prevent Him, if we choose – He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly His own boundless power and delight and goodness.” Mere Christianity
 
This is good news!
This heals my real problem!
 
Christ does not just fulfil the law for me, but in me.
He does not just set me free, but makes me holy.
Christ has fulfilled the law; one day we will fulfil the law in him
 
Dallas Willard: “A time will come in human history when human beings will follow the Ten Commandments and so on as regularly as they now fall to the ground when they step off a roof.”
 
We’re not there yet.
CS Lewis went on to say
“The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for.
Nothing less. He meant what He said.”
Perfect holiness.
One day the disciple will be like the teacher (Matt 10.24)
One day we’ll fulfil God’s true moral law as perfectly as Jesus.
 
 
How is this possible?
if you want to keep all 613 commands, to become righteous,
there are 2 big ways:
 

1. Pharisees: more laws

To make sure we keep the commands, we gotta specify exactly what they mean
Eg no work on Sabbath – what is work?
We need to specify exactly how far you can walk, how much you can carry.
The Pharisees did this:
they expanded Moses’ 613 rules to 1000s.
You gotta give it to them – It was an impressive attempt to keep God’s law
 
But, problem:
What do you do in a new situation and you don’t know what rules apply?
Scared of breaking the rules and being punished, you panic,
Until you make new rules, and can relax
 
rule on rule, law on law,
before you know it, a labyrinthine proliferation of jurisdiction – like our legal system
 
It doesn’t really work,
it just breeds arrogant self-righteousness in some, and in most, who can’t even remember all rules, despair
 
 
That’s why Luther was so angry:
people were making Christ’s teaching, the gospel, into a new law, a new set of rules, another moral checklist
 
Jesus said not it’s good enough – we need a better righteousness, a totally different kind of goodness
 

2. Jesus: go deeper

Many Pharisees looked at external conduct, and build a Babel’s tower of rules
 
But Jesus said
Out of the heart comes evil, ugliness, deceit.
Out of the heart comes goodness, beauty, truth.
 
In the rest of Matthew 5,
Jesus looks at the heart,
He digs deeper to the root principles of the commands.
In Luther’s words, the Pharisees focus on the shells and husks, Jesus shows the real kernel
 
For example,
if your heart has no hate, bitterness, anger, resentment, contempt, scorn
– of course you’ll never kill:
You don’t need to look up the rulebook to find ‘thou shalt not murder’
 
 
If you are a lover of truth and purity,
Of course you won’t betray your spouse
– you won’t need to consult a list of instructions to learn ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’
 
Legalism is the enemy of both freedom and holiness.[3]
 
In Christ, the law is not engraved on external rulebooks or cold tablets of stone like Moses had,
but written by the Spirit of God in warm, living human hearts:
God said through the prophet Jeremiah,
“The days are coming when I will make a new covenant… – not like the old one,
I will put my laws in their minds,
And write them on their hearts” Jeremiah 31.33
 
 
The righteousness of God does not consist in obeying this or that law. Not even the keeping of every law, so that no hair’s-breadth did we run counter to one of them, would be righteousness. To be righteous is to be such a heart, soul, mind, and will, as, without regard to law, would recoil with horror from the lightest possible breach of any law. It is to be so in love with what is fair and right as to make it impossible to do anything that is less than absolutely righteous.
George MacDonald
 
The Pharisees make more rules. Jesus makes less.
Later in the Sermon on the Mount, he takes all the Old Testament law, all these principles.
He boils them down to one golden rule to measure our conduct:
In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.
For this is the law and the prophets.
Matthew 7.12
 
Paul wrote:
The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Romans 13.9-10
 
 
My actions, what I do, flow from my character, who I am.
So you’ll never keep the commands, by focussing on the commands themselves.
You’ve gotta go deeper, to the heart, to love your neighbour.
But sometimes my neighbour isn’t that loveable.
To really love your neighbour, you gotta go deeper than the golden rule.
 
Love your neighbour, said Jesus, is only the second command.
The greatest commandment in the law of Moses, the first of all, is this:
Love the Lord your God
with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength
 
“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” Matthew 22.40
 
 
Only when I love God with my whole being can I love my neighbour.
Only when I love my neighbour as myself, can I fulfil the commands of the law.
 
 
Fulfilling the law can’t be separated from communion with God.
With self-discipline, I can partly control my external actions.
But I can’t change my heart, my nature
– only God can do the real work in us, change us deeply.
 
God is love.
God’s laws are his nature in action.
So once his nature of love becomes our nature,
we too will naturally fulfill his laws.
 
Christ fulfils the law for us, to set us free. What a freedom!
Christ fulfils the law in us, to make us holy. Perfect holiness!
 
Freedom. Holiness. They hang together.
I’ll never be holy, until I’m free.
I’ll never be free, until I’m holy.
 
The purpose of the law, the meaning of life,
is that we learn to love as God loves, in holy freedom.
 

Case Study: Paul

So let’s finish with a case-study of the law of love.
 
I started by asking do Christians have to be circumcised?
Are Christians allowed to eat all kinds of meat?
 
These questions may not keep you awake at night, but both divided Christians in the Bible.
St Paul answered them, using the law of love, something like this.
 
In one sense, nothing is forbidden to Christians, everything is permissible.
In Christ, we are free, we are bound by no religious rules.
 
But – some things are not helpful.
We mustn’t use our freedom to sin, but to serve each other in love,
to build others up, to draw them to Christ, to unite God’s people.
 
 
So all foods are good, given by God, none are unclean.
But says Paul, I won’t eat meat if it causes my brother or sister to fall into sin.
That wouldn’t be acting from love.
 
Circumcision was the external sign of being a Jew.
Early Jewish Christians wanted to impose it on all believers.
 
But Paul said neither physical circumcision nor uncircumcision mean anything,
what counts is inside: faith working through love (Gal 5.6)
Moses the lawgiver, Jeremiah the prophet, and Paul all called this circumcision of the heart.
 
In Galatians, Paul is passionate that Christians must never, never be circumcised,
if it’s trying to earn their own righteousness by keeping Moses’ law.
This rejects Christ’s work, it returns to the failed righteousness of the Pharisees,
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5.1) cries Paul.
 
But in Acts, Paul circumcised Timothy to please Jewish Christians.
 
What a hypocrite!
At best, a confusing contradiction?
 
Yes, for the Pharisee, who needs a written rule to tell him what is right.
Not for the disciple of Christ,
whose mind and heart are transformed so she knows what is right and acts from love.
 
When we hit questions that do cost us sleep,
It’s a bit harder, but
like Jesus, look to the deeper principles. Like Paul, apply the law of love.
 

Conclusion: The Law of Love

So, to wrap it all up, what have we learnt tonight?
 
Jesus does not destroy, cancel, abolish or replace the laws of Moses.
He shows that love fulfils their meaning and purpose.
Love is the perfect law.
 
So whoever loves has fulfilled the law. Romans 13.8
In Augustine’s famous, perhaps infamous words:
“Love God, and do what you want”
Love God above all else, and you’ll freely do what pleases God,
freely fulfil the law, freely delight in holiness.
 
 
The law can be kept only by those who need no law.
High love needs no letter to guide it. George MacDonald
 
Christ fulfils the law for us, to set us free.
Christ fulfils the law in us, to make us holy.
 
To sum it all up in 2 words,
The law of love is freedom and holiness.
 


[1] “Whoever does not love remains in death.” 1 John 3.14.
[2] Martin Luther’s analogy. He famously said the Christian is “simul justus et peccator”, simultaneously justified and a sinner.
[3] One writer observed, “‘Holiness’ for Wesley meant being consumed by and transformed into the love of God. So how did it come to denote staying away from ‘beer and chew and dates who do’?”

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