Text: Mt 5:17-48
The Sermon on the Mount is the most comprehensive and systematically arranged collection of Jesus’ teaching to have been passed down to us. It is also the most celebrated piece of public speaking of all time. Phrases and sayings from this sermon have become part of everyday speech for countless numbers of people, even though they may never have stepped inside a church or opened up a Bible: “Blessed are the meek” – “You are the salt of the earth” – “Casting pearls before swine” – “Turning the other cheek”, and so on.
The very familiarity of this sermon to us can hide the fact that it must have sounded very unfamiliar to those who first heard it. They were not used to hearing this kind of thing at all. Jesus seemed to be turning everything on its head.
How odd the Beatitudes, vv3-12 – those 8 pronouncements of blessing on those to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. Who would have thought that those regarded by the world as insignificant, pitiful, even – the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the persecuted – would be regarded by Jesus as the luckiest people in the world?
Who would have thought these same no-hopers would have a worldwide influence (vv13-16), serving not only as quiet preservatives, like salt, but also as beacons, shining before men and bringing glory to God?
Jesus’ teaching was so different to anything they had ever heard, that people must have wondered whether his intention was to sweep away everything that had gone before and make a completely new start. What about the scriptures – the law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets: were they to be thrown them into the waste bin? And what about those self-appointed custodians of the scriptures, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees?
In the passage before us, vv17-48, Jesus begins by answering this question about the Scriptures. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to destroy them, but to fulfill them.”
By ‘the law and prophets’ Jesus means of course, the Hebrew scriptures – what we call the OT. Now there have sometimes been those would rather like Jesus to have abolished the OT scriptures. In the early days of Christianity there was a heretic called Marcion, who took a penknife to his Bible, not only cutting out the OT entirely, but also those parts of the NT that refer to the OT. And there are those today who take the same view: one church leader wrote, not so long ago: ‘We should one day take a blue pencil and cross out whole chunks of (the Bible) like the violent imprecatory Psalms, and other passages which contradict the Christian spirit, the long genealogies, the incomprehensible parts of Isaiah and Ezekiel and Jeremiah, the worries of Paul about circumcision, his obsession with sin and guilt, and his Jewish emphasis on animal sacrifices.’ And what about us: when some awkward OT passage is read in church, and the reader says, ‘This is the word of the Lord,’ and we are expected to respond, ‘Thanks be to God,’ do we not squirm, ever so slightly?
But Jesus says, “I have come, not to destroy them, but to fulfill them.” His plan was not to abolish the OT scriptures, but to fulfill their true intention and purpose.
You can liken the OT to the sketch of a picture: Jesus didn’t come to rub it out, but to finish it. You can liken the OT to a partly-filled container: Jesus didn’t come to empty it, but to fill it up. You can liken the OT to a building under construction. Jesus didn’t come to demolish it, but to complete it.
He came to fulfil the OT scriptures. The messianic prophecies of the OT were fulfilled by his birth in Bethlehem’s manger. The rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices of the OT were fulfilled by his atoning death of the cross of Calvary. The moral law of the OT was fulfilled by his ushering in of the kingdom of God and his teaching about standards of righteousness that prevail in that kingdom.
We need to ask ourselves, do we share Christ’s view of the OT scriptures? We could debate endlessly the various problems and difficulties that we encounter when we read certain parts of the OT. We could discuss until the sheep come home all the different reasons why we accept these scriptures as the infallible word of God. But the best approach is also the simplest: we accept them because our Lord did.
But now Jesus turns his attention to those self-appointed experts in the scriptures, the scribes and the Pharisees. And he has some more shocking news: “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus hearers would have been astounded to hear this. The teachers of the law (scribes) were the ones who devoted themselves to studying OT law. They had worked out that the OT contained 248 positive commands, and 365 negative prohibitions. That’s 613 rules and regulations. And the Pharisees (separated ones) prided themselves on obeying them – the whole lot. Let me give you an idea of their scrupulous attention to detail. Scripture said, ‘Don’t do any work on the Sabbath day.’ The scribes said, ‘First, we have to define what work is. Carrying a burden is one kind of work. So, now we have to define what a burden is. A burden is food equal in weight to a dried fig, or enough wine for mixing in a goblet, or enough milk for one mouthful, enough honey to put upon a wound, enough water to moisten an eye-dressing, enough paper to write a customs house notice upon, enough ink to write two letters of the alphabet, enough reed to make a pen’–and so on endlessly. These things to them were the essence of religion
And now Jesus is telling his disciples that they must surpass all of this. And his hearers must have wondered: if the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law wasn’t good enough, what hope is there for the rest of us?
However, we don’t need to look very far to discover the reason why the righteousness of the Pharisees and the scribes needed to be surpassed. Theirs was a righteousness that was dedicated, detailed, and dutiful but it was also superficial and heartless. Mt 23:1ff records Jesus’ withering verdict on the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. “They do not practice what they preach…everything is done for show.” He calls them ‘hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs.’ He says to them, “You tithe your spices – mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.”
How different the righteousness to which Jesus calls his disciples. In vv21ff he gives six examples of kingdom righteousness, the kind that surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. You will notice that there is a kind of refrain: “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” At first sight, Jesus seems to be repudiating the OT commandments after all. But a moment’s thought shows that he is not doing that at all. In each case, Jesus takes the command as it has been misquoted, misinterpreted or misapplied by the scribes, takes it back to its original intention and purpose, and then drives it home by insisting that it applies to the attitude of the heart as well as to outward behaviour.
Far from restricting the law, Jesus takes it even further. Thus, in the first example, v21, he does not say, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not murder’, but I say to you, ‘Go ahead, mothers-in-law and traffic wardens are fair game.'” No, he says, in effect, “Don’t limit this commandment against murder too tightly. You can break it simply by being angry with people.” It’s the same with adultery. You can break God’s command not only by an adultrous act, but also by a lustful look. And again with divorce, with the taking of oaths, with revenge, and with love. Kingdom righteousness is more demanding, more far-reaching, more radical than people have been led to believe. Why? Because it is about the total orientation of the heart and life and not just about individual bits of behaviour. Perhaps this is what Jesus is getting at when he says, v48 – “Be perfect…even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Of course, none of us will attain sinless perfection in this life. We will have to go back to the beatitudes and become poor in spirit all over again, mourning over our many shortcomings. We will have to go back again and again to the Lord’s Prayer – ‘forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ But we strive to be the best that we can be for the sake of Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, who is the atoning sacrifice for those sins. We obey him freely, from the heart, because we love him. Obedience born of love is an easy yoke and a light burden.
Follow Scripture. Follow after righteousness. But, most of all, follow Jesus.
During the past week, ‘Holiday at Home’ has focussed on that great text from Heb 13:8 – “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” This wonderful truth is confirmed in our passage this morning. There is back in v 17 a little phrase – you could almost miss it, but it is pregnant with meaning – “I have come.” He came as the promised Messiah, the consolation of Israel, and the hope of the nations. This is Jesus Christ yesterday. And he speaks in the very next verse of the time when “everything is accomplished.” Yes, this same Jesus will come again in glory, as king of kings and lord of lords. And he will usher a new heaven and new earth, the home of righteousness. And we shall live and reign with him. This is Jesus Christ forever. So what about today? Let me be his right now. His – by reason of Creation:/His, he paid the price for me./His, through the life-giving Spirit,/His because I want to be.
Lord Jesus, I give you my heart and my soul;
I know that without God I’d never be whole.
Saviour, you opened all the right doors,
and I thank you and praise you from earth’s humble shores;
Take me – I’m yours.