Sunday, August 14, 2016

Unabolished: Sermon on Matthew 5:17-20

I have to admit something. I've spent the week at a near-total loss as to what to say this morning. I think this – Matthew 5:17-20 may be one of the toughest passages in the entire Bible.  What are we supposed to make of words like, “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 a jot nor a tittle will pass from the Law until all is accomplished(Matthew 5:17-18)?

It doesn't surprise me that some of the earliest pagan critics of the Gospels, like the Emperor Julian the Apostate, latched onto these verses to claim that Christianity had gone astray. And it wasn't just them. For over a thousand years at least, Muslims have followed Julian's lead, finding an excuse in these verses for all the ways Islam retreats from the New Testament toward the Old. One medieval Muslim critic named Abd al-Jabbar used these verses to try to drive a wedge between Jesus and his later followers on issues like circumcision, Sabbath-keeping on Saturdays, fasting, ritual purity, matters of diet. Abd al-Jabbar said that “Christ only came to revive the Torah and establish it,” but after he “left the world,” Christ's companions “began to make changes, substitutions, and innovations in religion.” Abd al-Jabbar even paraphrased the passage as saying, “For with God, it is easier for the sky to drop to the earth than to permit something that Moses banned.”

And for a thousand years, that's been the way many Muslims have criticized our faith. Just two weeks ago today, ISIS released the latest issue of their magazine Dabiq and filled it with attacks on Christianity while defending their twisted misinterpretation of Islam. And in one article, they reviewed everything in the Old Testament that sounds violent – texts about the Israelites invading the Promised Land and destroying the Canaanites who didn't flee, texts about the death penalty in Israel – and used it to justify the way they behave. And then they said that we should have no objection, because this morning's passage supposedly means “everything that was mentioned from the Old Testament of war and enforcing laws was kept, unless specifically mentioned otherwise, in the Gospel of Jesus.” They go on to say that the only reason Christians believe in loving people instead of killing them is because we “cast aside such commandments and instead have followed papal decrees and the sermons of priests – showing that [our] love of men is greater than [our] love for the Creator of men.”

That's what they said, just two weeks ago. They used this passage as a pretext. That's what makes this such a challenging passage. But we're going to try this morning to find out what this passage really means, how it really applies to us. 

First, a recap. Jesus sketches the fact that we, the outcasts of the world and all its systems of power, are included in what God is doing. We the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, we hungry and thirsty and needy, are living the blessed life, being made ready for the kingdom to come in fullness. 

But the blessedness doesn't end with us. We're on a mission to season our community with Christ's flavor – because we're the salt of the earth – and to brighten out community with Christ's brilliance and truth and the presence of God – because we're the light of the world. And that's necessary to be part of the discipled community, the kingdom-ready people – that's what we're here for.

And now Jesus reminds us that to be God's people is to live as Israel, the true Israel, the new Israel. Remember, in sitting on the mountain to deliver these instructions, Jesus is presented by Matthew as a new Moses, the great Moses for our age. And actually, this is the first of five speeches that Jesus gives in Matthew, just like the Five Books of Moses. 

So now Jesus comes to the question: “How does the new Moses relate to the old Moses?” That was important to the Jewish believers in Matthew's audience, because long before ISIS and Abd al-Jabbar and Julian the Apostate got their hands on these verses, the Pharisees were accusing Jesus himself of trying to drive a wedge between his followers and Moses. They said that Jesus was abolishing the Law and teaching against it. Were they right? Do we get to throw out the Old Testament or stick it on the bottom shelf?

So what does Jesus say to answer them? Let's start with verse 17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them...” And in the next verse, he says that “until heaven and earth pass away, not a jot nor a tittle will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). Isn't that a weird phrase? Maybe you're wondering what a 'jot' is. And here's something I learned this week that just blew my mind. Well, I already knew that, where we read 'jot,' Jesus would have been talking about the Hebrew letter yodh – it's the tiniest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, looks like a bent-up apostrophe. 

That I knew. But I didn't know that the rabbis were telling a fun story to drive home a point. See, everybody loves the story of Abraham and his wife Sarah. But their names weren't always 'Abraham' and 'Sarah.' When you first meet them in the pages of Genesis, they're 'Abram' and 'Sarai.' And when Sarai gets her name changed to 'Sarah,' she loses a letter at the end – the letter yodh. And the story the rabbis told was that this yodh that dropped out of the Torah just kept complaining and protesting until it found its way back in, when Moses renamed a guy named Hoshea as Yehoshua – 'Joshua,' we call him. The yodh couldn't pass from the Law.

And Jesus is taking up that story and making a similar point. Not even that little letter can get left out; and how much less can we edit the Law or the Prophets to functionally delete a word, a verse, a chapter, or a whole book that we just don't want to deal with? How much less can we set the Old Testament aside; how much less can we abolish the Law or the Prophets? 

The point is that the Old Testament still matters – it will always matter, as long as heaven and earth stick around. The church had to fight this fight. A couple centuries after Jesus said this, a guy named Marcion said that the whole Old Testament needed to be ditched; he came up with a Bible that had just the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul – both edited to take out all the bits he didn't think were up to snuff. The church absolutely condemned him for it, because they knew how wrong it was.

But how often do we try to do something different? We sometimes treat the Law and the Prophets as less vital, as needing to be removed. I mean, you've seen these, right? {Holds up Gideon New Testament.} 

For a lot of us, this is what the Bible looks like: the New Testament, with maybe Psalms and Proverbs if we want to get adventurous. But the Old Testament isn't just for people who love history. It's essential for all Christians and for the whole church together. The Old Testament was what Paul had mainly in mind when he wrote about all scripture being “God-breathed” and how it's “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). And even Paul said that “the Law is holy” (Romans 7:12) and wrote, “Do we then overthrow the Law by this faith? No way! On the contrary, we uphold the Law” (Romans 3:31). Read this chunk of the Sermon on the Mount to Paul, and you'll hear a loud “Amen!”

See, the New Testament can't be understood without the Old Testament. It was never meant to be. That's why every New Testament book has so many quotes from the Old. And for basically any passage in the Gospels or in Paul's letters, there's probably one or two verses in the Old Testament that shed some light on it. And as for Revelation, it literally has more Old Testament references than it does verses in the whole book – somebody counted! There's a reason why, traditionally, church services always included an Old Testament reading every time, before readings from the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. You can't understand the New Testament without the Old, because we aren't meant to. The New Testament was written by people who studied the Old Testament, to people who'd been taught from the Old Testament.

What's more, the Old Testament is full of God's mercy and grace. It's amazing, but the Old Testament is totally full of beauty and profundity and truth. It's where God introduces himself as “the LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). It's where we first hear about loving the LORD with all we've got and loving our neighbor as ourselves (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). It's where the LORD introduces himself as “mighty to save” (Isaiah 63:1). It's where he tells us that his mercies are new every morning, and that “great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23). It's where the LORD meets the first killer, Cain, and offers to be his protector and avenger in spite of his unworthiness (Genesis 4:15). It's where the LORD himself provides the sheep for Abraham's sacrifice in Isaac's place. It's where we read of prophets, priests, kings, shepherds, and so much more; it's where we find the cast and crew of the Hall of Faith (Hebrews 11). And it's where God reveals his character in the guidelines he lays down for how Israel is supposed to live and witness.

And so Jesus says, “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” (Matthew 5:19). The rabbis actually talked about which commandments were greatest or heaviest, and which ones were lightest or least. And did you know they identified which of all the Law's commands was the least – the lightest, the easiest, the cheapest, the least consequential? It's this one from Deuteronomy: “If you come across a bird's nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young” (Deuteronomy 22:6). 

That's it. That's not hard to follow; that doesn't cost much. But it carries the same promise as the greatest commandments: a promise “that it may go well with you, and that you may live long” (Deuteronomy 22:7). To ignore this command about fairness and consideration to even the most common sparrow was to betray the Law as a whole – just like James said, “whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). Because the Law is not abolished. But we treat it that way. We neglect to read it. We ignore it. We recoil from it. We pretend it doesn't matter. We say, “Oh, that's just the Old Testament, don't bother me with that.” And friends, that isn't open to us.

Because our Lord himself said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them but” – what does he say? – “but to fulfill them(Matthew 5:17). Now, I think there are a few things that means. 

First of all, Jesus fulfills them as prophesy. He himself said, “All the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John” (Matthew 11:13). That was the time when they made their prophecies. And Jesus came and answered them, and he still is. That's a huge theme for Matthew. Matthew explains almost everything Jesus did by saying he did it so that the words of the prophet, or the words of Moses, would be fulfilled (e.g., Matthew 1:22; 2:17; 4:14; etc.). 

If we ignore the Old Testament, we're missing out on the story and breaking up the gospel. Because the whole Bible is telling us a big story, the biggest story every, and the whole story of the Old Testament leads up to and centers in Jesus Christ as “the goal of the Law” (Romans 10:4). And Paul himself says that “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to … the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22). 

Jesus didn't come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; he came to fulfill them, to bring the story to its closing chapter, to tie together the plot lines and themes and make sense out of them. He came to be the great, shocking conclusion they were all leading up to. Jesus is God's great plot twist, but the foreshadowing is on every page of what came before.

But to fulfill the Law is also to obey it, to keep it, to do and teach the commandments. And that's exactly what Jesus does and teaches us to do. But as the new Moses, he explains the Law, he completes it, he uncovers what it's really about. He strips away all the legal wrangling of the scribes and Pharisees, he tears down the fence, he shows us what the Law is for. The Law is meant to shape and guide the kind of community he's building. And he sees the Law as basically commentary on the twofold Greatest Commandment – to love the LORD with everything we have, and then to love any and every neighbor worldwide the way we love ourselves. 

Paul couldn't agree more: “The one who loves another has fulfilled the Law. For the commandments … are summed up in this word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13:8-10). “Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). And James is right there with Jesus and Paul on this one: to love your neighbor as yourself, and of course love God above all, is to “really fulfill the royal law” (James 2:8).

To have that kind of perspective, and to cherish the Law and the Prophets and read them that way, is exactly what Jesus is calling for, because it's what the Law calls for. Before, Israel kept flunking. So God promised that already in the Law that he would “circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). 

That's what it's all about: this is the way to live in love. And the prophets said that a new covenant would come, and when it did, God would give us new hearts and write the Law on our hearts, and he'd put his Spirit within us so that we could obey it, and he would forgive all our sin, and he would claim us as his people and he would be our God (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26-28). Even the rabbis suggested that when the kingdom of God showed up and the resurrection started a new era, the Law would be obeyed differently and more deeply under the Messiah's rule, because it had been fulfilled and we had been changed.

And now that we have that, now that we have hearts made tender in love and yearning to answer God's holiness and righteousness with our holiness and righteousness in Christ, well, can't we see love in all the commandments from the least to the greatest? Aren't our hearts tender enough to think of the little birds and be gentle to them? Why would we ever go another way? With the Spirit in us to write the Law on our new hearts, we aim to meet God's purposes for them all. 

And that's what Jesus spends the rest of Matthew 5 doing – he unveils God's purposes, God's intentions, in some laws of the Old Testament, showing how they were meant to train us and shape our character, not just by following them to the letter, but by synchronizing our hearts with God's heart as glimpsed there. We don't just blindly obey the 'what'; we behold the 'why' in light of the where and when. So we see how circumcision of the flesh points to circumcision of the heart, how the sabbath laws point to rest in God and the rhythm of a healthy life, how the dietary and purity laws point to wise living in holiness, how the war against the Canaanites points to spiritual warfare against our own sins and against demonic powers, how all the sacrifices and festivals showcase Christ. 

That's what critics like Julian and Abd al-Jabbar and ISIS get so wrong – they, like the Pharisees, misread the Law's role in God's plan, and so they think we've abolished the Law, when the healthy Christian life is actually one that fulfills it as it was meant to be. We may not be “under the Law,” as Paul tells us, but the Law is still prophecy and wisdom for our age as we're “led by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:18).

And that's the key to the last verse here. Verse 20 tells us, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). And that must have shocked the living daylights out of the crowd listening to Jesus that sunny day in Galilee. See, the scribes and the Pharisees had a reputation for being the epitome of righteousness. They were the best examples of piety, the near-perfect models for what it meant to live out the Law. This was maximal righteousness. And most people knew they couldn't do what the Pharisees did. Jesus saying this sounded to them like... like if he said to us that salvation was for people more charitable than Mother Teresa, more peaceful than Martin Luther King, more evangelistic than Billy Graham. That's how shocking Jesus sounded. And we're right to be shocked!

But let's not forget that while the Pharisees seemed Law-abiding, seemed Torah-observant, Jesus uncovered a startling truth about them. He said that they “leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men,” that they “have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish [their] tradition” (Mark 7:8-9). And for the sake of their tradition, all their legal wrangling and power plays and posturing, they had not just skipped over the least commandment; they had “neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). And so Jesus is exposing them as outside the kingdom. The scribes and Pharisees, as they are, are out; the crowds can be in – but they have to be the people of love, the people of higher righteousness.

And how do they – how do we – do that? It can't come from our flesh. We don't have that within us. But Paul tells us that “the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10), for “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). And how often does the Bible tell us to “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), whom we know we receive only under the new covenant? It's a major theme for Paul, and it gets to what Matthew's hearing from Jesus, too.

Imagine being in a race, and you're out in front. (I obviously don't speak from experience!) So you're out in front. But you don't know the way, exactly. That's what it's like to walk by the Spirit. We don't just walk by the Spirit; we run by the Spirit in pursuit of love – love of God and of our neighbors and neighborhoods. And that's the same goal where the Law is running. The Spirit makes us run faster than the Law. So before the Law can catch up and remind us not to murder, the Spirit's already at work curing anger in our hearts. Before the Law can catch up and tell us not to commit adultery, the Spirit's already fortifying us against lust. Before the Law can catch up and explain tithing, the Spirit's already stretching open our hands in generosity.

And to see that, you might think we don't need the Law. But even while racing ahead, we glance back, we check out the rear-view mirror, because the Law knows the way even when we don't. We look back at the Law to make sure we're on the right track and haven't gotten lost, haven't strayed. The Law isn't abolished. But we're not under it; we people of the new covenant live ahead of it, racing in the Spirit's power toward its goal, which is the love and life of God poured out in us and through us on account of Christ. And Christ died and rose again “in order that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). 

That's how to fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law: by following it from in front by the Spirit, trained to understand the Law this way through what Jesus taught and is teaching us even now, as the community of blessedness and salt and light. And that's the way to exceed the scribes and the Pharisees in righteousness. May we always walk, run, leap in the Spirit, and may we always live for the fulfillment of the Law – good, holy, unabolished. Amen.

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