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Fulfill the Law

Date: Nov. 8, 2015

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Matthew 5:17-48

Key Verse: Matthew 5:17

“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.”

About 4000 years ago, Hammurabi was king of the Babylonian Empire. Now this wasn’t the Neo-Babylonian Empire that conquered Judah and Jerusalem that we saw in our study of 2 Kings. This was the original Babylonian Empire. Hammurabi ruled from 1792-1750 BC. When he started his rule, his empire was just 50 square miles in size. As a comparison, the city of Chicago is 234 square miles or nearly five times the size of Hammurabi’s empire. During his rule, though, Hammurabi began to expand his empire and he united all of Mesopotamia. Because he united all the city-states under his rule, he wanted to make sure there was unity among the people, so he instituted what would become one of the oldest recorded written laws, Hammurabi’s Code. The most famous of these laws is “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” This was a very progressive law that stated people could not be punished greater than their offense. So a person wouldn’t be killed just because they had knocked out a tooth. The law brought order to the people and gave them the ability to know what proper behavior was. God also gave his people a law through his servant Moses about 300 years later. Just like Hammurabi’s Code, God’s law was intended to show his people how to live in line with God…to see what the right and wrong way to live is. As time went on, the laws needed clarification to practically follow them. To that end, the teachers of the law created a whole other set of rules that was intended to supplement and enhance God’s law. For example, God’s law stated that his people shouldn’t work on the Sabbath. This was to give God’s people a day to rest and focus on their relationship with him, but the people wondered what the definition of work was. What were they allowed and not allowed to do? The teachers of the law came up with some guidelines to define what work was. What they came up with was limits on what they could carry or how far they could travel, after all, they weren’t supposed to stay in bed all day on the Sabbath. They were to worship God and that required travelling a little. All the laws were treated this way, and as you could imagine, it started to get a little burdensome to remember all the little things that needed to be done in order to follow the law. The people were wanting relief from the facets of the law, and the thought the found it in Jesus.

Last week, Jesus was still in the early portion of his ministry. People had started to follow him and he had a few disciples. He had been teaching and preaching around Galilee and at that time a crowd of people was following him. Jesus went up on a mountainside, sat down and began to teach his disciples in full hearing of the crowd. What Jesus taught sounded revolutionary to their ears. Jesus started, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (3) Prior to this time, the people thought that the kingdom of heaven belonged to those who were righteous and followed the law to the letter like the Pharisees and teachers of the law. But now, Jesus was saying that you needed to be poor in spirit to gain God’s kingdom. What Jesus was saying had never been heard before. It seemed so new and so fresh; perhaps, Jesus came to shake things up. Maybe Jesus came to start something new. Just maybe, the old way of doing things was going to get washed away and a new order would take its place. Then Jesus has to go and burst their bubble. “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.” (17) Well, that throws a little cold water on their optimism.

Jesus must have gotten an inkling of what the people were thinking about while listening to him so he wanted to set them straight. He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill him. Now, we can kind of understand what he means by fulfilling the Prophets. This could very well mean that he came to fulfill prophecy and in the past few weeks since we started the book of Matthew, we’ve seen many times that Jesus is fulfilling prophecy that was written hundreds of years before he walked the earth. That is easier to see, but what does it mean that Jesus came to fulfill the law? That one seems a little trickier. When Jesus said that he came to fulfill the Law, he meant that he came to bring the law to its intended goal. So, the law has a purpose and Jesus is the fulfillment of that purpose. Many people think that the purpose of the law is to tell us how to be righteous, but that is not the case. The goal of the law is to point people to Jesus and show us how much we need to be saved.

There are many people that think, that since they have been saved because they believe in Jesus, the law no longer pertains to them. They think that none of the law matters. I knew someone in college who thought that way. They would go out drinking and sinning and not care about it because they had Jesus. But, to that, Jesus says, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (18) Not only has Jesus not come to abolish the Law, he said that not even the smallest letter would disappear from the Law. We don’t have any excuse to not follow the Law. The grace that Jesus gives to us is not a blank check to sin. Even the smallest of letters is extremely important. Jesus continues in the next verse, “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (19) The law isn’t something that should be taken lightly. We can’t even set aside the least of them. The Jews had a hierarchical structure that gave some laws greater importance than others. If two laws were to come into conflict, then a person is supposed to follow the greater law. For example, one such conflict could happen between following the Sabbath and circumcision. The law states that the people were not to do any work on the Sabbath, but it also required that a boy be circumcised on the eighth day, not a day before or after. What would happen if the eighth day happened to fall on a Sabbath? It was work to circumcise, so one of the two laws would have to be broken. However, what Jesus is saying that if two laws were to come into conflict, you still have to follow both laws. It seems crazy. If things are in conflict, then how can you follow both? It is a conundrum. It seems like an impossible scenario.

Jesus knew how impossible it sounded because he said, “For 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.” (20) The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were considered to be the best examples of following the law that society could produce. There were people who could follow every single letter of the law to the point that they even gave a tenth of their spices as a part of their tithe. I’m not sure how I would feel if someone started putting salt and pepper packets in the offering. I guess we would be spicing up our lunch. At any rate, the Pharisees were the best at keeping the law, but Jesus said that a person would need to be better than that to enter God’s kingdom. You have to be better than the best to get into heaven. There are a lot of people out there that do a lot of good things. There are so many people who have such mental and physical discipline that they can follow any rule to the letter. Self-discipline gets people to win gold medals in the Olympics and run marathons. Self-discipline gets people to become musical prodigies and successful businessmen. If they took their self-discipline and put it towards righteousness, I am certain that they would be able to follow the letter of the law. They would find a way to do everything right, but Jesus says that is not even good enough. We have to be better than that. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6) The best of what we can do is still just like a filthy rag. We like to compare ourselves to each other, but even our best is nothing when compared to God. The largest ant is still an ant.

Jesus explains it further through a series of legal examples. He starts with murder. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’” (21) I am 90% certain that no one in this room has ever murdered anyone, but there are a few that I am not entirely sure of. You think that we might be able to check this law off the lists. In fact, this happens to be one of the laws that we like to point to in order to show that we are good. Someone might ask, “Are you a good person?” To which someone else would answer, “At least I haven’t murdered someone.” Well, my friend who has not murdered someone, Jesus has some news for you. “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (22) Not only do you have to not murder someone, but also you can’t be angry with them either. The word “Raca” is a word of contempt that could mean empty headed. It’s similar to “You fool!” or calling someone an idiot or something even more colorful or giving someone the one-finger salute. Jesus just made the law go deeper. I find it funny that the people might have been wondering if Jesus was going to get rid of the law and instead shows that the law is deeper that we expect. That means that anyone who has driven on Lake Shore Drive and gotten upset with their fellow drivers falls in this category. You might not have murdered someone, but I am certain that you have gotten angry with someone and had a bit of contempt in your heart because of it.

Jesus then moves on to adultery. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (27-28) Again, not committing adultery is not all that hard, but Jesus extends adultery to lustful looks. This is not a fleeting glance at a person or merely thinking that someone is attractive. It is a lustful longing to have that person. Jesus says, “anyone that looks at a woman lustfully”. Jesus was speaking to primarily men and men more than women are attracted to someone via sight. This has been changing recently, thought, but what Jesus says still pertains to both men and women. Jesus even connects divorce to adultery. During the time of Moses, Moses gave a rule about giving a certificate of divorce to a woman who was divorced. This would have been proof that the husband had divorced his wife, and it would allow the woman to remarry in a legal way. Unfortunately, this law was twisted and husbands were divorcing their wives over trivial matters. It was a lot like today where many marriages are dissolved because of irreconcilable differences. However, Jesus said that if anyone divorces for any reason except sexual immorality makes her a victim of adultery. It is a deeper meaning that his harder to keep.

Form there Jesus moves on to oaths. “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’” (33) You might think that oaths and vows would be a good thing, but to make an oath or vow you have to swear by something to give it that power. “I swear by heaven that I will do X.” But there is a problem; we do not have any control over what we swear by. If we swear by heaven, we put responsibility on God to act if we fail our vow. We test God when invoke things that we don’t have power over, because when we fail our vow, we force God to act and it might not be time for your hair to turn white or fall out. Instead, Jesus says, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (37) We must do all that we can to keep our word, but we don’t need to invoke anything else than a simple “Yes” or “No”, anything else is trying to put yourself in God’s place.

Next, Jesus talks about revenge. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’” (38) This is a quote from Exodus and Deuteronomy, but it is nearly identical to the one in Hammurabi’s Code. Like in Hammurabi’s Code, this law was given so that fair punishment would be given concerning a crime. So nobody would be killed because of knocking out a tooth. Way, way back in the book of Genesis there was a man named Lamech and he boasted to his wives, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me.” (Genesis 4:23) Wanting to fight back is a natural motivation, but Lamech killed a man for hurting him. God’s law was to protect against that sort of retaliation, but Jesus show something higher. “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (39-42) What Jesus is saying isn’t that we should be pushovers. He is not advocating that we lie down and take our punches. Instead, Jesus is calling for believers to not seek revenge for the actions committed against them. It requires of Christians to be more generous than the letter of the law. In a legal sense, the punishment was to fit the crime, but for Christians we have to quell our sense for revenge and that is something that is not easy to do.

Jesus goes even deeper than that, though. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” (43) The law required for people to love their neighbor, but this led to the question about who our neighbor is. People came to take that neighbor meant people that you liked, which means that you could hate your enemy because they are not your neighbor. Yet Jesus takes it a step further and tells us to love your enemies, too. He says that we should do that because God is our Father and God sends rain to people regardless of their righteous state. God loves everyone, whether they love him or not, and we should follow his example. Jesus makes the case that loving the people you like is no different than tax collectors and pagans. It is no different than people who do not know God. We are called to be perfect because our heavenly Father is perfect. (48) That is no easy task.

When you look at all the laws the Jesus talks about, it can be very hard to follow all of them. It can be downright impossible. Is anybody here guilty of the greater meaning the Jesus provides? Have you broken the law in this sense? I know that I have. There are many times that my heart and mouth are not right when I am driving to work. I am unable to fulfill the law because I have already fallen short of it. The law tells you where you fall short. It tells you that you have failed and there is no hope for us to fulfill it. We can try by our strongest might to follow the law, but the spirit of the law is even a higher standard than the letter of the law. What about those who have already had a divorce? Would there be no hope for them or would they forever be branded as an adulterer? That’s the trouble. By the time we find out what the law actually says and means, we would have already broken it many times over. It seems hopeless and looks like we stand condemned. But, remember, the point of the law is not to make us righteous; it is to point us to Jesus.

Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law. He is the goal of the law because he is the only one to actually obey all of it both in letter and in spirit. If you look at all that Jesus talked about in this passage, he kept all of it perfectly and not only what Jesus talked about in this passage, but the entire law. Only Jesus fulfilled the entire requirements of the law because only Jesus is without sin. That doesn’t mean that only Jesus gets a gold star and the rest of us get told “Sorry”. Jesus came to fulfill the law and not just keep the law. Jesus is the ultimate end for the law. There was a man named Paul who wrote about this. He wrote, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” (Romans 3:20) Through the law, we can see that we are sinners, that we have a deficiency in our righteousness. We feel bad when we read the law because the law was made to make us feel bad. If we were not sinners than we would not need the law because we would have already done everything right. However, we are sinners in need of salvation and the law makes sure that we understand that. Because of our sins, the law is supposed to push us to Jesus.

Paul continues, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-26) Jesus’ righteousness is so great that it can overflow and justify us. This all happens because he redeemed us through his blood shed on the cross for our sins. The righteous took the punishment of the unrighteous to make the unrighteous right before God. We don’t have to fulfill the law because Jesus fulfills the law.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can neglect the law. We have to follow Jesus’ example, but our own righteousness is not enough to do so. Instead, by Jesus’ blood, we can be changed. When we try to follow the law on our own, we do so for our own edification. We try because we want to be better or because we want to escape punishment, but we try to follow the law for our own benefit. Then, we fail. However, when through Jesus and his redemption, we begin to be changed. We no longer begin to do things for our own selfish gain. We start doing things because we want to be more like God and please him. Our selfish desires get burned away and replaced with God’s will. It is not necessarily something that happens overnight. It is a process of sanctification. For some it is more noticeable than others, but by accepting what Jesus did for us on the cross, our desire to know him more grows, so we read the Bible to find out more about him. The more we find out, the more we see what Jesus does and how he does it. On our own, we can’t fulfill the law. We are not meant to; Jesus is. He keeps it and is the goal of the law.

Keeping the law is hard. There are so many pieces to keep in mind, and quite honestly we fail at keeping the law multiple times a day. The law doesn’t make us righteous; it only tells us that we suck. Satan likes to use the law to get us to doubt God’s love and make us feel horrible. “You’re not good enough,” he likes to whisper. Satan’s right, though, we are not good enough, but Jesus is. Jesus is the fulfillment of the law. He kept every bit of it in letter and spirit, and the righteousness that he has overflows to us because of his sacrifice on the cross. We are not good enough, because we need Jesus. There is not a person on this planet that does not need Jesus. By his grace, by his love, we can be changed and made righteous.

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