John Newton, the author of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace,’ was an outstandingly wise correspondent with many of his contemporaries who sought his spiritual counsel. In one of his letters he wrote, ‘Ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most of our religious mistakes.’ That is still true today. Perhaps more Christians are confused or uncertain about the role that God’s law plays in their lives than about most things. That is why Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-20 are so important. Here he explains to us the place the law should have in the Christian life.
What is the law? The first five books of the Old Testament are known collectively as ‘the law’ in distinction from ‘the prophets.’ More generally in Scripture, the words for law can mean a wide variety of things – commandment, principle, instruction, and so on. The meaning of the word law, therefore, can be determined only by examining its use in each context.
What, then, does Jesus mean when he speaks about the law in the Sermon on the Mount? He uses the common distinction between the law and the prophets (v17). He also speaks about the law in terms of its commandments and commands (v19). Here he is referring particularly to the idea of the law as the specific commandments God has given to his people to regulate the whole of their lives – moral, religious, social, and political. What he goes on to say in 5:21-48 emphasizes that when he speaks about the place of the law, he is thinking of the commandments God gave to his people through the ministry of Moses.
By this point in his sermon, Jesus has made it very clear what belonging to the Kingdom of God means. What he has said is startling enough. But in some ways, what he has not said is even more startling. He has said nothing about the law and the importance of keeping it. He has said nothing about the traditional interpretations of the law, and the importance of observing them. No statement has issued from his lips encouraging reverence for the scribes and the Pharisees.
Did this mean that Jesus was overthrowing the law? He certainly was teaching that the way of salvation and entry into God’s Kingdom was not by merit gained through obedience to the law. Rather than feeling that they had achieved merit, Jesus’ followers were poor in spirit, mourned for their sins, and received comfort and the Kingdom of God. To the listening scribes and Pharisees, this must have sounded for all the world like the abolition of religion and of everything they stood for. So far, Jesus had said people could enter God’s Kingdom by God’s grace; he had made not one single mention of the law!
The fear the Pharisees had has been shared by others since that day. Their concern was this: take away the law as the means of earning merit, and no one will make any effort to keep it. The law will lose its teeth, and no longer ‘hold’ people. They will live as they please, as the following ditty suggests:
“Free from the law, O blessed condition! I can sin as I please,
And still have remission.”
But nothing could be further from the teaching of Jesus, as the rest of his sermon shows. Christians are not antinomians (law-less), living morally loose lives. They hunger and thirst for righteousness, for a righteousness surpassing that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (5:20).
Paul summarizes the teaching of the gospel when he encounters the same objection Jesus faces to his teaching of salvation by grace: ‘Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law’ (Romans 3:31). Later in Romans Paul expresses the same point even more fully when he tells us:
3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4)
In this passage, Jesus explains the place the law is to occupy in the Kingdom of God. In this passage we will learn what is Jesus Christ’s relationship to the law and what is the Christian’s relationship to the law. I hope you can join us for this most important lesson on the role of the law in the Christian’s life.