Humanity Recreated in Christ (Matthew 5:21-37)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany + February 12, 2017
Text: Matthew 5:21-37

Since Jesus said, “I have come not to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them,”[1] we are called as Christians to take a whole new look at the Old Testament because, since the Christ came, it’s no longer possible to rightly understand what God was saying unless we now see it through Jesus.
It’s enriching to look back on the Old Testament and see Christ foreshadowed—the true Passover Lamb being God’s own Son to save from death (1 Cor. 5:7), the serpent on a pole prefiguring Christ on the cross (John 3:14-15), or the flood imagery now fulfilled in the waters of Holy Baptism (1 Pet. 3:20-21).  It’s truly beautiful to see how God was at work in these places and others, and how in His Son the salvation wasn’t just for the Israelites, but for “everyone who believes in Him.” (John 3:15)  In the words of the Apostle in Colossians 2, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”[2]
But a more challenging task is to see how the Ten Commandments are fulfilled in Christ.  Nevertheless, the Law is exactly where our Lord takes us after this revolutionary statement about the Scriptures.
To be sure, there are some misguided attempts to reinterpret the Ten Commandments.  One is to say that, because the Law is fulfilled by Jesus, it gives us permission to be law-less.  “You have heard it was said you shall not commit adultery.”  But I say to you, God didn’t know how much same-sex couples love each other and have committed, monogamous relationships.  Now go love whomever you feel like.
Another attempt to understand Christ and the Law is to say that He intensified the severity of the Law so that we ought to go hacking off limbs and immediately excommunicating anyone who has been divorced.
No, to rightly understand Christ fulfilling the Law, we have to see Jesus alone as the Son of God, Jesus alone as the Son of Man, and Jesus alone as Israel.  Starting with Jesus Christ, God establishes a new ethic for mankind.
This is what the new ethic looks like:

  • Men should not have wrath toward each other. Instead, they should come together reconciled because God Himself reconciled even His enemies to Himself.
  • Adultery and divorce are unthinkable because marriage is a reflection of the faithful and everlasting union between God and His Church.
  • Oaths are unnecessary for people who reflect the God in whom there is no variation or deceit.[3] Besides, the future is fully in God’s hands, isn’t it?

This ethic is altogether good.  But it’s also beyond our reach.  The interpretation of the Law cannot be adapted to fit the sinful Old Man.  There’s no reform school or boot camp you can send Old Adam to make him into the person the Lord describes here.  He can only be dealt with by the jailer, the butcher, and the devil.[4]  In short, the best thing that can happen to the old nature is for it to die.
When the Law is reexamined through Christ, it is not merely about outward action; it requires a new heart.  This new heart begins in Jesus, the Man free of sin, who needed no Law to rebuke Him.  Yet, God also promised through the Prophet Ezekiel that this would happen not just for His Son, but for all His people:
19 And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.[5]
This is what happens in you through Baptism.  There in the font, God begins a transformation in you.  Think of it as a heart transplant that takes your whole life to complete.  When you are baptized into Christ, God takes away your old heart, the heart of stone that refuses to change, and it dies with Christ.  You are raised with Christ and given a new heart, a heart of flesh the way God always made flesh to be.  For the rest of your baptized, believing life, He is at work in you so that you are renewed after the image of your Creator—the image of Christ.
So, it’s not about changing our outlook or working harder to be more moral people.  We need more than a rulebook, as Paul points out in Galatians 3: “if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.”[6]  We need righteousness, and that comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The real difference is found in God’s work in everyone who is rooted in Christ by faith.
Now listen to these words as words that are fulfilled in Him and words that are fulfilled in you through faith:
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
To Christ, who is our righteousness, be all the praise and glory.  Amen.
[1] Matthew 5:17
[2] Colossians 2:17; said after Paul discusses the relationship between circumcision and Baptism, as well as food laws (vv. 11-16)
[3] Romans 5:9-10; Ephesians 5:31-32; James 1:17
[4] Verses 25, 29-30, 37 (see footnote on “evil”)
[5] Ezekiel 11:19-20
[6] Galatians 3:21

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