Have you ever been to see a film in 3D? I went once about 10 years ago with Valentina to watch the Disney/Pixar film 'Up' in 3D. What was interesting were the 3D Glasses… when I got bored, I just sat there taking my glasses on and off… Without the 3D Glasses on, I could make out more or less what going on, but things seemed fuzzy, out of proportion and the film didn't flow. With the 3D Glasses on, all was clear. Crystal clear.
Well, this week we're in week 3 of our series on the Sermon on the Mount. We're starting a longer section all about Christian ethics which will take us to the end of Matthew chapter 5. And these verses (v.17-20) are the 3D Glasses through which we can clearly understand verses 21-48. They are absolutely crucial for our understanding of the rest of the chapter. But while putting on a pair of 3D Glasses is easy, verses 17-20 are very meaty! But, friends, if we put in the hard work now, it will pay dividends in the weeks to come! Before we get to work, let's pray!
Father God, please teach us today how to correctly understand and apply the moral commands in Scripture. In Jesus' name, Amen.
My first point is this:
1. Jesus Has Not Come to Throw Out the Old Testament Moral Law and Replace It (v.17-18)
As he teaches on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is speaking to his disciples, with a crowd listening. But before opening up the rest of Matthew chapter 5, Jesus senses that his listeners will not understand his teaching unless he first corrects a fundamental misunderstanding they have. Verse 17:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets [the whole Old Testament]; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them…."
The question is: what misunderstanding is Jesus anticipating and correcting here? Well, Jesus is just about to go on and say….
- "You have heard that it was said to those of old…" (v.21) "But I say to you…" (v.22)
- "You have heard that it was said…" (v.27) "But I say to you…" (v.28)
- "It was also said…" (v.31) "But I say to you…" (v.32)
- "Again you have heard it was said to those of old…" (v.34) "But I say to you…" (v.34)
- "You have heard that it was said…" (v.38) "But I say to you…" (v.39)
- "You have heard that it was said…" (v.43) "But I tell you…" (v.44)
You can see how people could easily get the wrong end of the stick here. If Jesus didn't first pause to clarify his relationship to God's Word in the Old Testament here, it would be understandable for the listeners to leap to the conclusion that Jesus had come to abolish God's Old Testament Law – to bring in a brand new 'Christian morality' – 'Moses said X, but I tell you Y'. But no! Jesus has not come to abolish God's law! Look at verse 18:
"For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota [the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet], not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished."
In his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, has Jesus come to do away with God's moral law? No! Quite the opposite! In fact Jesus has come to live it out perfectly for all to see. He has come to die to take God's punishment for all the time we fall short of the standards of God's Law. He has come to teach us his moral law. And he has come to ensure that in the new heavens and the new earth, we (if we're trusting in Christ) will really be living like this. That's when God's plan for his people is complete! And until then, not the smallest detail in Old Testament God's Law will disappear! So Jesus is saying that his teaching in the rest of Matthew 5 will certainly not be in opposition to the Old Testament, but in complete harmony with it.
However, Christians still get confused on this point. In particular, the error of driving a wedge between Jesus' teaching and the Old Testament has continued to plague the church down the centuries. In 144 AD the early church heretic Marcion separated from the Church because he couldn't reconcile the Old Testament and the New. For him, the Old Testament was far too strict – and the New Testament was all about grace – and the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of the New Testament. He actually went through the New Testament disregarding any sections which had clear links to the Old. (Unsurprisingly, his final version of the New Testament was very thin!)
Not many of us would go that far (I can't see anyone tearing out pages from their Bible at the moment - good!), but is it not fair to say that many Christians regard the Old Testament as functionally obsolete? Some say: 'God is portrayed differently in the Old Testament to in the New. In the Old, you see his justice. In the New, you see his love'. But in the Old you see his love as well as his justice… and in the New you see his justice as well as his love. Others say: 'Yes, the Old Testament is technically God's Word, but it's not very accessible and it's pretty irrelevant to us now Christ has come. Christians should read the New Testament. The Old Testament is an optional extra if you've got extra time.' Jesus says no! All the Bible is God's Word! All the Bible points us to Jesus, who is the same God yesterday, today and forever. If you like, the Old Testament is the flower in the bud, the New Testament is the Gospel in full flower and we appreciate the final flower more if we see it growing slowly into bloom.
So, brothers and sisters, don't hide from the Old Testament! It can be tricky, but read through it with perseverance! See how it points forward to Jesus Christ! And don't ignore the moral commands. God's moral commands for God's people in the Old Testament, like the 10 commandments, are for us too.
So we've seen that it's definitely not Jesus vs. Moses in Matthew 5, but who then is Jesus speaking against? Let's move on and find out! My second point is this:
2. Jesus Warns Us Not to Lower the Standards of God's Moral Law to Make It Easier to Keep (v.19-20)
"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."
These words would have been an enormous shock to Jesus' disciples! Because the Pharisees were legendary in their single-minded commitment to God - committed in religious duties, morally upright. So when Jesus said verse 20, his disciples would have thought, 'What?! But that's impossible! If even the Pharisees are not in God's Kingdom and we have to be better than them, then what hope have we got of getting into heaven?' It would have been like saying to prospective university students: 'If your IQ does not surpass that of the great academic minds down the centuries from Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking, then you will certainly not enter university!' 'What?! But that's impossible! If that's true our UK universities will be empty!' Similarly, for us, Jesus expects Christians to have higher moral standards than the most moral people around us. Verse 20:
"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
'What?! But that's impossible! If that's the case, then heaven must be empty.' Hold your horses! Here's the shock for Jesus' disciples, the crowd and us: If we look ahead to rest of chapter 5, we see that it's the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (the trusted, honoured, revered religious teachers of the day) – it's they who are the ones in Jesus' line of fire in verse 19 – it is they who are lowering the standards of God's moral law to make it easier to keep.
So the rest of chapter 5… 'You have heard it said X' … 'But I tell you Y' … is not Jesus (New Testament moral teaching) vs. Moses (Old Testament moral teaching). No! It's Jesus' moral teaching vs. the Pharisees' moral teaching. Now I'm conscious that I don't want to tread on the toes of those preaching in the coming weeks (!), so I'll move quickly… But by way of illustration, here are three tactics the Pharisees used to make God's commands easier to keep.
Tactic 1 – Limit The Application of God's Word
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.'" (v.21)
The Pharisees felt that they were keeping this command, as long as they did not actually commit murder. But while the Pharisees tried to limit God's Law to make it easier to keep, Jesus brings out the full application of the heart of this law. He says that getting wrongly angry, or verbally abusing someone is extremely serious. In fact, we should be peacemakers.
Tactic 2 – Take God's Word Out of Context
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'" (v.38)
The intention of this law was to ensure justice was done in public crimes. The Pharisees' took this out of context to justify taking revenge on individuals. But Jesus then insists that Christians mustn't retaliate, but be generous to those who hurt them
Tactic 3 – Change The Content of God's Word
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.'" (v.43)
Do you like Bible quizzes? I don't! Here's a two-question Old Testament quiz. It's fairly simple! You should all get 100%!
- Question 1: Had God commanded his people to love their neighbour?
Answer: Yes! Leviticus 19.18 gets you a bonus point!
- Question 2: Had God commanded his people to hate their enemies?
Again the Pharisees were trying to make it easier to feel like they were keeping God's commands. Their logic was that 'loving neighbours' = 'loving friends', so then we're free to hate our enemies. But Jesus insists that Christians must love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them.
So the Pharisees lowered the bar of God's moral law to make it easier to keep. It's the same for us today. That's what lots of people around us do today. And Jesus expects Christians to have higher moral standards than them. In the modern secular UK today, we don't meet many religious Pharisees, but we do meet secular Pharisees! They don't claim to follow God, but they do claim to keep to high moral standards – and they let other people know all about it!
I think of the secular Pharisee who says: 'I don't tell racist jokes – I'm not racist! I believe in equal racial opportunities, racial diversity.' Jesus would probe deeper: 'Friend, do you love people from different cultures? Do you include them in conversation? Invite them round to your home and share a meal with them? Do you go out of your way to show kindness to them? Or are you just content with other people thinking you're not racist?'
To the secular Pharisee who says: 'I don't judge anybody. I think each person is free to make his/her way in life. It's not my place to impose my moral views on others.' It sounds very noble, doesn't it? Shania Twain would say: 'That don't impress me much!' And Jesus would want to push further: 'Do you love people enough to get involved in their messy broken lives to try and help them – and persuade them, on occasion, not to make foolish moral decisions which will destroy their lives – or are you more interested in enjoying a nice quiet life and letting people think you're a nice friendly person?'
No, the morality of the secular Pharisee is just as empty as the morality of the religious Pharisees in Jesus' day. Both sets of Pharisees are just keeping their moral standards low enough so that they can keep them and feel good about themselves. Both sets of Pharisees think morality is all about human actions – 'dos & don'ts'. But Jesus says Christian morality is about our hearts being transformed by God – and hungering to honour God more and more wholeheartedly in everything. That's the Pharisees… what about us? Jesus says in verse 19:
"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."
Can I ask you: what is your attitude to God's moral commands? The answer is that we'll find out over the next few weeks… As you listen to this sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount week by week, remember your 3D glasses – will you be like the Pharisees and relax God's commands to make them easier to keep (and lead others astray), or will you put God's commands into practice and teach others to do so? It's our choice.
The Sermon on the Mount has four important purposes:
- It shows us the character of God – what he is like, what he loves & hates
- It shows us our sin – the moral bar is set extremely high and that's the point; rather than wasting our time petitioning God to lower the bar so we can get over it (as the Pharisees did), we should weep over how far short we fall.
- It points us to the Cross – as we feel more and more how far short we fall, we should be more and more thankful that Jesus died on the Cross to take the punishment for our failure to obey God.
- It encourages us to aspire to live like Jesus – with the Holy Spirit's help, we feel a new desire welling up in our hearts to not be content with where we are spiritually, but to press on and practise Jesus' commands – and teach others.
Brothers and sisters, if we see God's moral law in this way, if we put his commands into practice, then two things will happen:
- The world around us will sit up and take notice
- King Jesus will honour us when he returns
Because Jesus says: "…whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." Let's pray.
Father, forgive us for lowering your standards to make them more easy for us to keep. As we listen to the rest of the series in the Sermon on the Mount, please help us to put into practice your commands – and to teach others to do so. In Jesus' name, Amen.