Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Sixth Sunday after Trinity + July 28, 2019
Text: Matthew 5:20-26
How different Judaism was from Christianity! Of course, there’s the main difference: believing that Jesus is the promised Messiah (Christ). But when you accept Christ, all of Scripture suddenly must be reexamined through the cross. Jesus says to the Jews of His day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” (John 5:39)
To give you an example from our Vacation Bible School this past week, we first talked about God’s way with Adam and Eve in the Garden. There were two trees in the Garden—the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They were free to eat of any tree—including the Tree of Life—but not the other tree. We know what happened, that they turned their hearts away from God’s Word and disobeyed that one simple prohibition. When God is shoving them out the door, He says, “Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Genesis 3:22) That living tree with its life-giving fruit was barred for man, so that he would not avoid the consequence of his sin—death.
But when we read this as Christians, we see the promised deliverance. The Son of the Living God was lifted up on the cross—an instrument of death penalty, made from dead wood—and by that He gave life to the world. 1 Peter 2:24 explains, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” Death was borne by the Living God, and the very instrument of His dying brought life to dying men and women. So in John’s Revelation at the end, the Tree reappears in full leaf, bearing constant fruit, “The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev. 22:2)
I have to say, however, one of the most difficult things to resolve between the Old and New Testament is what to do about the Law once the Gospel has been revealed. Jesus takes up this question in His debut sermon:
“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 an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 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.
There are two extreme approaches to the Law that Christians have taken:
- First, there’s no more need for the Law because Jesus fulfilled it all. The Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world, and we are new creations in Christ, so what good are the Ten Commandments to us?
“This one party taught and held that the regenerated do not learn the new obedience (that is, in what good works they should walk) from the law; nor should this doctrine in any way be urged on the basis of the law, since they have been liberated by the Son of God, have become his Spirit’s temple, and hence are free, so that just as the sun spontaneously completes its regular course without any outside impulse, they, too, through the inspiration and impulse of the Holy Spirit spontaneously do what God requires of them.” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, VI 2)
That would be great, if it weren’t for the sinful flesh we still live with. But it’s that flesh and the devil around us that—even for genuine believers—causes us to disobey and despise God’s Word. We still need the Law to show us our sin, because we still need our sin to be put to death.
This is what you see in many progressive churches that embrace immoral behavior in the name of “love.” They will say the Law (and most of the Old Testament) is obsolete. A favorite verse of this approach is Galatians 3:25-28: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian [the Law], for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” With this “liberation” from the Law in mind, this passage is used to justify everything from women’s ordination to transgenderism.
There’s a milder (but no less dangerous) version of this that considers the Gospel a watered-down Law. Sure, God was serious when He commanded these things, but Jesus has given us a pass to make mistakes. “All you have to do is believe in Jesus, and then you’re good!” The way this shows is when we tell ourselves, “Ah, I live a pretty good life. I’ve done enough.” When your walk with the Lord is about doing the minimum to “get into heaven”—I come to church now and then, I take communion when I really need it so it feels more special, I read my Bible when I have time (aka rarely).
- Second, the other extreme is when the words of Jesus, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” are taken as a call to action, a personal challenge. You could call this works righteousness, or a holiness movement.
The fallout from this approach is people despairing that they’re “not good enough” to be a Christian because they struggle with sins and have a messy past. If Jesus is commanding us to obey the Law even stricter, then what hope is there for those who have been divorced? What of those whose criminal records remind them daily of their unworthiness? If you take it to extremes, can those who smoke and drink even be saved?
- But neither of these extremes is correct, because both of them have no need for Christ. If Christ negated the Law for us, then maybe God was unjust for putting people to death before? If Christ came to ramp up the requirements for personal holiness, then what good was His all-atoning sacrifice on the cross?
- “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 an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” The Law and the Prophets expose our sin, our uncleanness, the reason we die, and most of all our need for them to be fulfilled for us. They lead us right to the manger, the preaching of the Kingdom of God, Calvary, and the empty tomb. Our sins do alienate us from God and from one another, but Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets brings reconciliation.
- In Him, our errors—which are many—are not overlooked, but atoned for. That’s why we are baptized into His death and resurrection. It’s life for every sinner who believes! Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
- How does this change our lives? Jesus uses several Commandments as an example, starting with the Fifth:
- “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 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.”
- God is not very interested in outward appearances because He looks at the thoughts and intentions of the heart. The sinful man looks at the command, “You shall not murder” and thinks he’s avoided it because he doesn’t have criminal penalties. But God goes deeper to the place where murder starts—in a cold heart toward a fellow human being. This is where we need the real work.
- So, God doesn’t just work an outward, civil righteousness, but works change in the heart. If you are prone to angry outbursts, God works to give you a forgiving, reconciling heart toward those who offend you. If you’re an alcoholic, God gives you a heart that leans on Him rather than the escape of a buzz. If you delight in checking out fine women in summer clothing or fantasize about how another man would treat you, God is at work to give you eyes and a devotion only for your spouse.
This is God’s will and God’s work for you in Christ, to daily drown your old sinful nature, and to rise to live to God not just with your outward actions, but from a heart that is being renewed after the image of your Creator (Col. 3:10) Amen.