The Place of God’s Law
Law, Bible, Sermon on the Mount
As sinful human beings we naturally and persistently resist authority. It doesn’t matter where that authority lies. We don’t like to be told to clean our room by our parents (or our spouse!), we don’t like people telling us how fast we can drive on the roads. We resist teachers who tell us to study. We don’t like an employer who tells us we can’t talk to the person working next to us during working hours.
We would rather embrace something new than abide by what has been traditionally believed. We resist tradition. We believe new = better. Some people believed that as a society moved to more technological advancement they would no longer need religion. It would be irrelevant. And the Bible, as our authority, they concluded that was old fashioned.
Sadly, even in the church, even Pastors began to look at Scripture as a source of great moral stories rather than as the Word of God. They say they “believe in the Bible” but we need to ask: “What is it about the Bible that you believe in?” They will tell you that it contains “great teaching”. But what is it great for? Is it great for conversation, great as illustrations for wise living, or is it great as the authoritative Word of God?
Jesus confronts this kind of thinking in Matthew 5:17-19. He will teach us about the Law and this will impact how we view the teaching in the Old Testament. So, let’s look at what Jesus said,
17 “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the Law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. 19 So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
What Law is Jesus Talking About?
If you have ever tried to read the Old Testament you probably found much of it to be very tough going. There are all kinds of food laws, laws about what is considered clean or unclean, what foods you can eat, and there is endless talk about mold in your house, infectious skin diseases, and descriptions of numerous different kinds of sacrifices.
When Jesus talks about the danger of ignoring any of the Law we can’t help but ask, “Are we supposed to be doing all these very foreign things?”
Most people (including me) believe The Old Testament includes three categories of law: ceremonial, civil, and moral.
- The “ceremonial law” related specifically to Israel’s worship (like all the regulations about sacrifices and cleaning rituals.) The primary purpose of the ceremonial law was to point forward to Jesus Christ. Jesus fulfilled these laws. We no longer need these sacrifices and cleansing because Jesus offered the perfect and sufficient sacrifice and cleansed us fully through the shedding of His blood. Though we no longer need to follow these laws the principles behind them about how to love and worship a holy God are still important for us today.
- The “civil law” applied to daily living in Israel. Some are general civil laws (like city ordinances), some relate to health (like rules from the Surgeon General or the Center for Disease Control). These laws do not apply specifically to us (just as the laws of other countries do not apply to us even though our countries may have many similar laws.)Every community has laws on the books that are old and do not make sense to us but they had a purpose at the time. You can find hundreds of these laws on the Internet.However, not all the laws are obsolete. The law itself may no longer make sense but . . . the principle behind it may still be very much in force. For example, the Old Testament has a law that says don’t take someone’s coat as a pledge for a loan. No one would want someone’s coat today but the principle is: Don’t take what is vital for someone to live as a pledge for a loan. This is the same principle that leads utilities to not shut off power or heat in the winter. In other words we have to sift through these laws (like a prospector panning for gold) to find the “nuggets” of truth; principles that still apply.
The third category is the “moral law” (such as the Ten Commandments). These are direct commands from God. Since God does not change (because He does not “improve”) these laws are still binding. The moral law reveals the nature and will of God. Jesus obeyed the moral law completely and expects his followers to do the same. I believe this is the primary focus of what Jesus is teaching in this section of the Sermon on the Mount.
The Old Testament is not something we cast aside. It is something we study, meditate upon, and use to lead us into a deeper relationship with the Lord. In some laws we look for principles that are timeless. In others the principle is clear. To omit the Old Testament is to cut yourself off from great wisdom, guidance, and a context for all of Christianity.)
In our text it is likely that Jesus was being accused of trying to build a new religion. The religious leaders were saying He was some kind of a heretic. Jesus countered by affirming (in the strongest terms) the authority of God’s Word. He says He is not trying to overthrown God’s Word. He is seeking to honor and fulfill it.
Jesus tells us first, that God’s Word is Timeless in its relevance and power.
18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.
God does not change. His standards do not evolve (or devolve as in our case). He does not have to rethink, revise, or reinterpret what He said. What God says is right is always right.
In other words, if you want to learn how to have a relationship with God and if you want to experience His pleasure and enjoy His blessings, then you need to read, pay attention to, and obey God’s Word.
Second, Jesus tells us that God’s Word is Authoritative. Or you might say, God’s Word is the final arbiter on all things. When the Bible speaks there is nothing else to be said. The Creator of things has spoken. There is no legislature, court, or public opinion poll that negates that authority.
Once again, since we resist this notion of authority we ask “why should we submit to the authority of a Book that was written so long ago?” Many things (such as scientific and astronomical “facts”) have been “corrected” as we learned more. We assume the Bible is the same. However, God knows all things. Science and astronomy are disciplines of men. So is psychology, sociology, medicine, philosophy and so forth. As such they are flawed and need to be constantly revised. Though the Bible was written by men, they wrote as they were led along by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes (as in much of the moral Law) they recorded what God spoke to them directly. God said what He meant the first time.
Philip Yancey had an interesting insight about authority,
More recently, however, I have come to recognize that sometimes I submit gladly to authority. When my computer software acts up, I call technical support and scrupulously follow the technician’s orders. When I want to master a difficult sport, such as golf, I pay for lessons. And when I get hurt or sick, I see a doctor.
A doctor is probably the most helpful image for me to keep in mind while thinking about God and sin. Why should I seek out God’s view on how to live my life? For the same reason I seek my doctor’s opinion. I defer to my doctor, trusting that we share the same goal, my physical health, but that he brings to the process greater wisdom and expertise. And I am learning to view sins as spiritual dangers—much like carcinogens, bacteria, viruses, and injuries—that must be avoided. I am learning to trust that God wants the best life for me in this world, not some diminished, repressed life. (Yancey, Grace Notes July 9)
Obedience to God’s Word is Expected. It is not enough to KNOW the Word of God. We are also expected to do it. Jesus states clearly,
19 So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
We are to respect and obey God’s Law. Obeying God’s Law cannot get us into Heaven (only Jesus can do that) but it will show us how to walk with God. God expects us to respect Him. He expects us to trust Him enough to know that He knows what is best for us. You would trust the designer or engineer of a piece of equipment because they designed that equipment in a specific way for a specific purpose. They know how and what it can do well and what it cannot do well.
It is the same for us. God’s Word is not given simply so God can coerce us to do things as an exercise of His power. God gave us His Word so we could know Him and enjoy Him. He gave us His Word so we would know how we were designed to live. Transgressing these laws may not bring any immediate consequences, but you can’t keep using something in a way it was not intended to be used without problems developing. It is the same with us. If we ignore God’s commands we will be pushing things to the limit.
When we fail to obey we show not only that we don’t trust Him. We also choose something else over Him . . . which is idolatry. And if you have read the Bible at all you know that God really doesn’t like idolatry. Much like one partner really doesn’t like it when the other partner cheats on them.
Jesus tells us that we not only need to obey, we need to encourage others to do so as well.
Righteousness that is Greater than the Pharisees
20 “But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!
This would have been a startling statement to the people of Jesus day. The Pharisees would be considered the religious conservatives today. They believed the Word of God was to be obeyed. And they sought to obey it very carefully. The Pharisees even put together a number of laws that were designed to help you keep from disobeying the laws!
To demand that our righteousness was to be greater than theirs seemed impossible to the Jews. However Jesus was not saying that people needed to do more things than the Pharisees did. It may not have been possible to be more attentive to crossing T’s and dotting I’s than the Pharisees.
There are two ways to look at what Jesus is saying. He may be saying, “If you want to get to Heaven you will need a better righteousness than what the Pharisees can muster. And . . . that is why I am here.” Jesus makes it possible for you and me to be righteous because of Him. We call this “imputed” righteousness. It means it is credited to us because of what Jesus did.
That is a true statement and it is certainly the only kind of righteousness that can truly save, however, I don’t think that is what Jesus is referring to here. Why? Because of context . . . the first principle of biblical interpretation. I believe Jesus illustrates what he means with the next several statements in the Sermon on the Mount. In each illustration Jesus begins by quoting the Law. Then He says we must go beyond what the law requires.
- You know you shouldn’t kill; I’m saying you shouldn’t hate
- You know you shouldn’t commit adultery; I say you shouldn’t even lust.
- You know you shouldn’t swear falsely: I say don’t swear at all, just be honest
- You have heard you should punish someone in the same way they hurt you; I say turn the other cheek.
- You have heard that you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy; I say you should love your enemy.
So Jesus isn’t saying we need to do more stuff than the Pharisees, He is saying we need to obey DEEPER. It is about the heart and not just about actions.
But why does Jesus say this? Certainly He didn’t think we would be able to do this fully in our lives. So why command it? I can think of three reasons,
- Jesus wants to stimulate a more genuine worship in God’s people. God is not interested is the fact that we are merely going through the motions. He wants us to love Him, adore Him, and desire to serve Him. It would like saying, “I not only want a mate who comes home every night and doesn’t cheat, I want a mate who loves me and who will spend time with me and share their life with me. I think this is what God wants from us.
- Jesus may have said this so we would see how desperately we need a Savior. Once you start evaluating behavior and add thought and motivation to the evaluation you realize that even our best deeds are often motivated by wrong motives. The idea of having a righteousness greater that the Pharisees may shake us up enough that we will cry out to Jesus because we can’t do what we know we should be doing. We have to recognize our great need before we will search for and reach for a great Savior.
Do you know who the hardest people are to convert? It is the people who don’t think they need conversion. Life is good (at present) and they believe they don’t need God to get to where they are (or so they think).
The people however who realize what God’s standard really is all of a sudden will see how far short they fall from this standard. Seeing this, they are more open to the idea of a Savior.
There are two things I would suggest in conclusion. First, ask some tough questions. Examine your life to see if you are resisting God’s authority in your life. Are you dodging Him? Are you paying any attention to what He has commanded us to do? Are you giving the appearance of serving the Lord but are far from Him in your heart? If so, it is time to repent. It is time to run to Jesus and ask Him to save you and make you into a new creature in Christ.
Second, take action. Since the Bible is the Word of God it is time to read it, study it, and follow it. If you don’t currently have a daily Bible reading plan I encourage you to begin one. You could start with one of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) and get to know Jesus. (Mark is the shortest gospel). Read one chapter, or one paragraph a day. Develop the habit of reading and listening to the Word of God. Listen to the commands of Jesus. Pay attention to the insights given by the Apostles. Learn from the mistakes of the people in the Old Testament, Let your soul be lifted by the lyric beauty of the Psalms and the practical witticisms and advice of Proverbs.
Read a translation of the Bible that you can understand. Set a goal to read the entire Bible (in one year, two years, or three years). Recognize going in that there are going to be tough (ok let’s just say it, “boring”) parts in the Old Testament. However these too are teaching us something. And that’s what we should be looking for every time we open His book.
If you will do this you will come to see that we don’t need new gimmicks in our Christian life. What we need is to dig deep in the treasures that have always been here and . . . . always will.
 Bruce B. Barton, Matthew, Life Application Bible Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996), 89.