The biggest cop out with Christians for their spiritual failure and the most common excuse for deliberate sinfulness are these words “I’m not under the law but under grace!” and with those eight words we seek to absolve ourselves of any spiritual responsibility we might have for our behaviour. And when we are confronted about our actions, we get all huffy and tell people to mind their own business. Actually, it’s more like “Don’t judge me, you know what the bible says about judging.”
So, is that reality? Does grace give us an eternal get out of jail free card? Does grace really trump the law? Somehow, we have gotten the notion that Jesus stamped the Old Testament with big red letters that say “Null and Void”. We have drawn the faulty conclusion that the Old Testament no longer matters, that it really doesn’t apply to us, it just a collection of historical books.
Well except for maybe the 10 Commandments and most people are now working on an abbreviated version of them, they’ve kind of narrowed it down to “thou shalt not kill.”
But as Jesus taught that morning on the shore of Galilee, he made this remarkable statement. Matthew 5:17 “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.”
But did he really mean it? Can those words really be coming from the mouth of Christ? The same Christ that Paul wrote about in the book of Romans where he said Romans 10:4 For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God.
Think about it, Jesus was executed for breaking the religious law, he didn’t follow the prescribed hand washing instructions, he healed the sick on the Sabbath, picked grain to eat on the holy day and claimed he was God. And yet here is the same Jesus speaking with reverence about the law of Moses. In the next verse Jesus tells us Matthew 5:18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.
Now the New King James Version waxes a little more poetic when it says Matthew 5:18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. It’s not as clear as the newer versions but it’s prettier. So what are jots and tittles? Glad you asked.
The Jot was the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet also known as an Iota. You ever wonder when you say “That doesn’t make one Iota of a difference to me”, what an iota actually is? An Iota looks like an apostrophe, here is a picture of an Iota.
The tittle on the other hand was like a serif, you know the squiggley bit on a letter that makes it different then another letter. Let me illustrate, this is an “O” this is a “Q” and the bit at the bottom is a tittle. And everybody goes “Ahhhhhh”.
And so, Christ was saying that not even something as small and insignificant as these two marks would be removed from the law by him.
Now there are those who say that sounds so unlike Christ that Jesus could not have possibly said it. Maybe Matthew simply invented this saying himself and attributed it to Jesus.
Well if he did then Luke must have as well because he said inLuke 16:17 But that doesn’t mean that the law has lost its force. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the smallest point of God’s law to be overturned.
Or in the New King James Luke 16:17 And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail.
Over the past couple of months we’ve been looking at the difference the word “but” can make in a statement. After the But comes the Truth. Because even though the word “but” only has three letters it is the hinge that can swing the meaning of a statement.
For example, Dennis Edwards wrote, “I had some good Alabama raising. You might do something wrong, but you wouldn’t do it but once.” After the but, comes the truth.
In the case of today’s scripture the “but” is what turns what Jesus said in Matthew 5:19 around, Matthew 5:19 So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
But why? Why do we need to obey God’s Law if we are under grace?
After the But, Comes God’s Law
Well in order to understand what Jesus was saying it would help if we knew what Jesus was saying.
So, what was the “Law”? The law can be broken down as 1) The Ten Commandments 2) The first five books of the Old Testament, what is often referred to a the Pentateuch or five scrolls. 3) The Law and the Prophets, was referring to what we now call the Old Testament.
And those three things are what Jesus said would not pass away. But there was also a fourth meaning of the “Law” and that was the Oral Law or Scribal Law.
And it was this last one that Christ and Paul attacked. In the Old Testament there are very few rules and regulations and many great principles. Well to the Rabbis that wasn’t enough, they would say that if it wasn’t there explicitly then it was there implicitly. And so, the Rabbis said that out of the law it must be possible to deduce a rule for everything.
For example: A great Old Testament principle is “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” That is a principle not a detailed commandment. So, the religious teachers asked “Ok, remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, how do we keep the Sabbath holy? Well by not working. So, what is work? Carrying a burden would be work. So, what is a burden? Glad you asked.” Here is a Rabbinical definition of a burden “Less then a burden is food equal to a dry fig, enough wine to fill a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put on a wound and enough oil to anoint a small member.” And so, if something doesn’t fall into those categories it would be against the scribal law to carry it on the Sabbath. An artificial limb, a broach or necklace, a wig or false teeth. Do you see the bondage that was created there?
The scribal law or the Mishnah is eight hundred pages long in its English translation. The Talmud or book of the law contains seventy-two volumes. That is not the law that Jesus was referring to. The Ten Commandments are a summation of the law of the Old Testament and those ten can be summed up by saying that they command us to repent and show reverence toward God and our fellow man. Christ said that he did not come to destroy the law but to fulfil it. The Greek word used here means to level up to the top or to complete something.
God had been speaking to his people through the law and prophets for 4000 years, he wasn’t suddenly about to say, “opps I changed my mind, let’s start over.”
And that’s why Jesus told us in Matthew 5:19 So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Christ wants us to know that he’s not changing the rules in the middle of the game.
So the first thing we need to understand is that the law is necessary and the second thing is that the Christ Follower is not exempt simply because he follows Christ. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:12 You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything.
We are able to do anything because Christ can forgive anything, but let’s not get into the mind set. The word of God says in Romans 6:1-2 Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?
Now keeping the law means keeping the laws of the land as well as the laws of God, and in the same way if you don’t agree with them you have every right to break those laws. And society has every right to punish you for breaking them. In the early days of the Wesleyan Church the founders of our denomination disagreed with slavery and the laws surrounding slavery.
Part of those laws said that it was illegal to help slaves escape, that would be on the same level today as someone who helped your car to escape. That’s called stealing now and it was called stealing then. But that didn’t prevent many Wesleyans from helping slaves escape to the Northern States and Canada.
And while they may have been able to justify what they were doing they were breaking the law and they were willing to accept the consequences of their actions if they got caught.
And a hundred and twenty years later Martin Luther King Jr. said “One who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
In a word the Christian preserves the world order against decay by keeping the laws of the land. If the laws are unjust, he may break them, but that doesn’t mean he is freed from paying the price for breaking them.
But the question remains: Why? Why are there rules? Cause, that’s why. Why are there rules today? Same reason, to protect you and to protect others. That is why you aren’t supposed to drive when you’ve been drinking, why you aren’t supposed to eat raw hamburger and why you aren’t supposed to sleep with everyone you meet.
Too often people look at the rules that God has put in place and decide that He does it because He’s a spoil sport, He doesn’t want us to have any fun, He just sits up there in Heaven snickering because of the rules He’s put in place. That couldn’t be any further from the truth. God put those laws in place for our benefit and for our protection
After the But, Comes God’s Love
Within God’s law there are laws that are laid down for people’s Physical Benefit: For example Leviticus 11:7 The pig has evenly split hooves but does not chew the cud, so it is unclean.
They were also told they couldn’t eat other animals or reptiles or fish, because most of those critters were yucky, the technical term was unclean, but it means the same thing. 3000 years ago, it was difficult to cook pork the right way to kill the parasites that live in it.
We know today that there are certain times of the year that you can eat shell fish and certain times that you can’t. We can read about it in the paper or on the interwebby thing but back then, it was just safer to say “Don’t eat this stuff.”
Other rules are set down for our Social Benefit: Leviticus 20:10 If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the man and the woman who have committed adultery must be put to death.
Sounds like Alabama raising. You might do something wrong, but you wouldn’t do it but once.”
Leviticus 19:11 Do not steal. Do not deceive or cheat one another.
It is rules that keep society from disintegrating. They keep family together they protect us from each other.
It was Edmund Burke who said “When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment, we have no compass to govern us, nor can we know distinctly to what port to steer.”
Other rules are for our Emotional Benefit: Exodus 20:17 “You must not covet your neighbor’s house. You must not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.”
There are issues like covetous, hatred and lack of forgiveness that will destroy us inside if we allow them to. And so, there are rules that deal with these issues.
There are also rules and regulations that are there for our Spiritual Benefit: There are rules against worshipping idols Leviticus 26:1 “Do not make idols or set up carved images, or sacred pillars, or sculptured stones in your land so you may worship them. I am the LORD your God.
There are rules against worshipping other gods Exodus 34:14 You must worship no other gods, for the LORD, whose very name is Jealous, is a God who is jealous about his relationship with you.
This particular section even deals with how much we are supposed to return to God Leviticus 27:30 “One tenth of the produce of the land, whether grain from the fields or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD and must be set apart to him as holy.
To be truthful we don’t know why God required some things, maybe for the same reason that we sometime require things as parents and so we have the Just Because Rules:
Leviticus 19:19 You must obey all my decrees. Do not mate two different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two different kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven from two different kinds of thread.
How come? Just because. There is a lesson there that is lost on us but it wasn’t lost on the Israelites. Parents are fond of quoting Leviticus 19:28 “Do not cut your bodies for the dead, and do not mark your skin with tattoos. I am the LORD.
But then they forget Leviticus 19:27 “Do not trim off the hair on your temples or trim your beards.
Some rules cross over into several areas, Leviticus 18 deals almost exclusively with sexual issues, things which we would say are governed for social good. Without regulations concerning marriage etc the family unit begins to fail, and we are starting to discover the results of that in Canada today.
However, they also fall in the emotional good category as can be attested by the devastation that is felt when you discover your spouse has been cheating on you, or even the damage done to yourself when you break your wedding vows. You understand that you will pay, Proverbs 6:27 Can a man scoop a flame into his lap and not have his clothes catch on fire?
By the way that verse deals specifically with the consequences of adultery, check it out for yourself.
But the rules governing sexual conduct are also there for our physical good.
The physical consequences of promiscuity cannot be ignored, whether it is unwanted pregnancies or sexual transmitted disease there are many things that could be eliminated by following the rules.
AIDS was spread primarily because people would not listen to God’s rules about sexuality. And regardless if society accepts them or not, or if we agree with them or not, God put those rules in place for a reason and if you ignore them there is often a price that has to be paid.
And you and I know that if people had of followed the rules that we wouldn’t have a problem with HIV and AIDS.
When Christ came and offered himself up as a sin offering for each of us, he made many of the laws in Leviticus concerning offerings and the priesthood irrelevant. But there are rules that govern our personal behaviour that still stand, and I don’t think I need to tell you which are which, I think you can figure that out on your own.
However simply being legal isn’t enough. The motive under which the scribes and Pharisees, that is the religious elite of Jesus’ day, lived was to satisfy the law. Everything was aimed at doing what was specified in the law. Theoretically a person could say “I have done all that is required by the law.”
After the But Comes, Our Love
The difference in the life of the Christ Follower is that the motive is not the law, it is love. We seek to satisfy God not so that we have fulfilled the law, but because we love God. For the religious leaders 2000 years ago, and for some people today, the aim is simply to satisfy the law of God, make sure that you have dotted all the i and crossed all the ts. But for the Christian, the Christ Follower the goal is to show our gratitude for God’s love and salvation.
Now for some it is summed up by the words of Augustine who supposedly said, “Love God and do as you please.” But that doesn’t work, because the truth is that when you truly love God you don’t do what you want you do what he wants. When we see the love that God sets before us the we seek to answer that love with reciprocal love. And that’s why Jesus said John 14:15 “If you love me, obey my commandments.”
He didn’t say if you respect me as a teacher, obey my commandments. Or if you acknowledge me as God, obey by commandments. Instead he said “You’ll obey me if you love me.” Respect and fear will only take you so far, it will be love that will take you the rest of the trip.
By the way, the entirety of Augustine’s quote is “Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.”
In verse 20 of chapter 5, Jesus says something that must have scared the snot out of his disciples. Matthew 5:20 “But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!
Now that’s a pretty heavy trip. If there was one thing that the Pharisees did right, it was keeping the law, no matter how minute.
Remember when Jesus told them Matthew 23:23 “. . . For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens,. . .” In order to keep the law on giving they were careful to give 10% of everything.
They would have tithed the coupons they clipped and the seventh coffee from Tims or McDonalds.
I would doubt very much if there are any of us here today that our outward righteousness would come even close to the righteousness of these guys. However, I trust that in motive that our righteousness will outshine even the Pharisees. You see again we need to go beyond the law and not just meet it but fulfill it and cram it full of our love for God.
I hope that we can see beyond the law to see people and I hope that we can see beyond our own righteousness to our reason for being righteous and that is our love for Christ. And so, Christ gives us examples of what he means. The law says you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, whoever divorces his wife let him give her a certificate of divorce, you shall not lie and you shall love your neighbour.
Each of these five statements in one way or another symbolizes the Jewish society in which Christ was raised. Each of these five statements was part of the Mosaic Law laid down to guide the people of Israel. There was behind each statement a purpose and that purpose was to hold together a civilization, to keep it from deterioration, to prevent it from dissolving into chaos, and to allow it to govern itself.
What these basic five laws as laid down here did was to act as salt for society. The Ten Commandments and Mosaic Law was not intended for a redeemed society it was to prevent an unredeemed society from tearing itself apart. Often, we think of the “Ten Commandments” as being Christian principles, but the same guidelines can be found in most civilizations around the world and throughout history.
Without these principles society and everyone in it would destroy themselves. And Christ is saying that when we have been touched by his love and his grace that even more is expected of us then what is expected of everyone else. That when we fulfill the law that we become salt and light to the world.