Jesus and the law (Epiphany 6A, 16 February 2014)

Matthew 5.17–37


What are we meant to do with the Old Testament?

Is it relevant in 2014?

Does the Old Testament still matter now that we have the New?

Has Jesus done away with it? Isn’t it all outdated? I mean Jesus says,

You have heard that it was said by those in ancient times… But I say to you…

And not just once! He says it six times.

Sounds like Jesus is a bit of a radical, turning over the current order, upsetting the status quo, teaching new things.

So does Jesus want to get rid of the Old Testament? Is it ‘old hat’? Has it passed its used-by date?

Christians sometimes speak that way. They talk about the ‘Old Testament God’ as though the ‘New Testament God’ is different. They sometimes assume they are indeed different gods. To them, the Old Testament—and its God—is passé.

So, what do they do with these words of Jesus, which seem to pull in the opposite direction:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.

The ‘law and the prophets’ are the two most important parts of the Old Testament. They teach us how to live in covenant with the God of justice and mercy. Jesus says he’s not on about abolishing them. Sounds like Jesus hadn’t given up on the Old Testament. And he hasn’t given up on the God who the Old Testament witnesses to.

But much more than that, Jesus says

truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks 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.

There are 613 commandments in the Old Testament. It’s really easy to break them: anyone here with polyester-cotton clothes is a lawbreaker. Anyone who eats prawns or stroganoff is a lawbreaker. And anyone—like me—who teaches that it’s ok to do such things is a lawbreaker.

Jesus is setting high standards here. Very high standards. So are we hopelessly compromised every time we eat seafood in our best polyester-cotton gear?

Do you see what has just happened? We started off saying how Jesus upset the status quo—saying what they’d heard before is not enough—only to turn around and say he supports every bit of the law.

How does that work?

Well, it’s as Jesus says:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.

Jesus fulfils the law and the prophets. He fills the law full right to the top

  • by keeping it,
  • by showing us what it means to keep it, and
  • by showing us mercy when we fail to keep it.

Jesus keeps the law.

‘You shall not murder.’ That’s one of the Big Ten; it’s the Sixth Commandment. Jesus didn’t murder anyone, so he kept it. But that’s far from the end of the story.

But the Old Testament says much more about the Commandments than that. God had spoken these words through the prophet Jeremiah:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

God was promising to write the law on their hearts. And through the gift of the Spirit, God’s law is on our hearts. That brings us to the next point—

Jesus shows what it means to keep the law.

You might think keeping the law is about keeping the rules. I don’t speed, I don’t steal, I stick to the rules. But for Jesus, Jeremiah had it right: keeping the law is a matter of the heart.

Jeremiah is not saying that when the law is ‘on our hearts’, then we will never fail to keep it. And neither is Jesus.

Jesus says,

if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Jesus’ standards are very high. Have you met them? I haven’t. I have been angry, I’ve called people names. I stand under God’s judgement.

But Jesus shows us what to do when—not if—we’re angry.

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him…

Be reconciled. Forgive one another. Make peace. Give up some of your rights for the sake of good relationships.

The Apostle Paul says,

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger… (Ephesians 4.26)

Make it right! Don’t let it build up!

Some people have a real problem with anger in our relationships. The best thing we can do if we’re in that situation is get some help. See someone who is skilled at helping you to understand yourself so that anger doesn’t control us. Psychologists, counsellors and psychiatrists can be very helpful people.

God has promised through the Spirit of Jesus that the law is on our hearts. It is still hard work sometimes, as we overcome the parts of our nature that are me-centred and just downright selfish. And so we come to the third and final point—

Jesus shows us mercy when we fail to keep the law.

Jesus kept the law; he could say that we should keep it too. Jesus’ standards are high. But he has stooped low, low enough to make the cross his throne and the grave his bed. And in rising out of death, Jesus shows God’s restoring and reconciling justice by forgiving those who fail.

And this is God’s restoring and reconciling justice. It’s not Jesus against God, it’s not Jesus satisfying an angry God. It is God through Christ reconciling the world to himself. (2 Corinthians 5.19)

It is the God of the Old Testament revealing his purposes to reconcile the whole world by calling Israel to serve him and then by coming as one of us in Jesus the Son.

What do we do with the Old Testament? We follow the Jesus way of filling it full of meaning and life. We don’t just steer clear of murder, we attend to the anger that murders relationships.

We have God’s justice, which lovingly seeks our hearts. And thank God we have a Saviour—we need a Saviour, because we are not so good at being disciples.

As you read the Sermon on the Mount—and I sincerely hope you are reading it—keep these three things in mind:

Jesus fulfils the law and the prophets. He fills the law full right to the top

  • by keeping it,
  • by showing us what it means to keep it, and
  • by showing us mercy when we fail to keep it.



Filed under church year, RCL, sermon

2 responses to “Jesus and the law (Epiphany 6A, 16 February 2014)

  1. Paul, I like this. I hope you don’t mind me adding my own thoughts on this from over the years.

    Matt 5-7 are a unit, a discourse on the Law and the prophets for us as disciples.

    Re: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them.” (NetBible)
    I was brought up being told this meant we had to obey the laws, but now I think that the emphasis is on fulfilment of the promises of the Tanakh. I see references to “The Law” “The Law and The Prophets” as short forms for the Tanakh. Jesus’ mission is the fulfillment of the their promises.

    And Matt 7:12 In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets.(NetBible) gives us a summarry what it means for us to fulfil the law and the prophets that is expanded by examples in 5:21-7:27.

    And I agree with you about Jeremiah. It is not a matter of legalism, but a matter of the heart.

    Well, I’ve indulged myself enough.


  2. Thanks John, for your comments.

    Feel free to ‘indulge’ any time!

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