Jesus and the Law
The Sermon On The Mount Series
Jesus believed in a kingdom that was "not of this world" and established a kingdom that would eventually fill the world and bring to an end "the kingdoms of this world". His agenda was distinctly anti-the-system and it was this that brought Him scourging, crucifixion and death. Jesus created no systems and left no bureaucracy. It has been argued by some theologians that man was designed to be a totally free, Spirit-indwelt agent. Certainly Jesus gave a strong hint to this in John's gospel where He says "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (John 3:8)
It is the thesis of this writer that we were made to be God-indwelt beings of great beauty, wisdom and intelligence, full of a Spirit empowered reality. All people were to be "in the image of God" , bits of eternity expressed through human flesh. This original intention for mankind is being fulfilled through the church, the glorious bride of Christ and Holy Spirit indwelt believers. This Spirit-filled state is not one that fits into the ordinary patterns of life. It has an order - but an order that makes sense only when eternity is taken into account.
For instance, if God had intended Spirit indwelt beings to be legalistic, ordered, judicial and to seek redress in this world by legal means then He would never have instructed us to ignore our rights, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile or to love our enemies. When a society falls in love with legal process every slighting, every wrong, every injury, is brought to court and "justice must be done". Instead God has destined His church to be unjustly treated in this world in order that it might participate in the sufferings of Christ and have eternal glory. We are meant to be a persecuted people, a people who suffer wrongs gladly in the name of Christ knowing that the temporary sufferings of this age will be compensated for by our receiving an overwhelming weight of glory.
Jesus calls His people to be people who do not quickly resort to law. He has called us to be people who call upon the Spirit and upon their God. Neither Jesus or any of the apostles took anyone to court - even though they were most unfairly treated. As Christians we are to turn off the tape in our head that says "I'll take them to court for that...." and replace it with a Christlike ability to suffer well. I must confess this has been one of life's great challenge's for me as I have often wanted to take a certain so-and-so to court, or to sue a doctor for malpractice. Yet despite the reasonableness of it, despite the fact that God has not taken away my rights to justice, I know inside myself that there is a better course. I know, clearly, that seeking legal solutions is as expensive spiritually as it is economically. Somehow it does not cure the bitterness or sooth the soul.
Jesus has called us to leave behind the worlds way of legal thinking "the leaven of the scribes and the Pharisees". His inveighing against "the teachers of the law" was not because the law of Moses was evil but because it was interpreted in a cruel and oppressive way. The law was being interpreted by the flesh not the Spirit. Jesus often quoted the saying "I desire mercy rather than sacrifice", telling the scribes and Pharisees to go and learn what mercy and true spiritual values meant before they constructed laws about tithes, the Sabbath and a thousand other things. Spiritual values underlay legal requirements. Without these under-girding spiritual values of mercy, justice, and charity the superstructure of commandments and regulations collapses and becomes a tool for oppression.
Galatians 5:19 lists the works of the "flesh" or god-less nature of man as being "sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like..". It is the central group from hatred to envy that I want to bring your attention to. What happens when this god-less nature, this "flesh", gets hold of a bunch of laws, any laws, from the rules of bridge to the Constitution of England. We quickly see people hating one another in court, using the law as a weapon, we see discord produced, we we see jealousy and fits of rage, we see the law twisted to further selfish ambition and interpreted so as to cause dissensions, promote factions and serve the cause of envy. The flesh loves the law, under the rubric of "justice" the flesh aims to achieve its own divisive way.
Law without the Spirit is a dreadful thing. Do not get me wrong, law is not bad, it is just twisted and misused. There is a true Christian love of law that is a deep reverence for the ways and values of God. There is a Spirit-filled law-abiding. We will see more of that later. But be certain of this - true Spirit-filled Christianity is not of the letter. True Spirit-filled Christianity both transcends the letter of the law and penetrates to the spiritual values underneath. A trained and Spirit-filled Christian conscience in living communion with its Savior knows what is right and true without having to consult a thousand law books and a myriad regulations. Christians must give up drawing lines to live behind and find Jesus in their conscience instead. Legalism and the love of the letter of the law is not for the Christian.
How did Jesus deal with His incredibly law-loving culture? How does the Sermon on the Mount prove or disprove all I have just said? Surely it, above all, is a collection of laws? As I showed in chapter one, it is not, and cannot be, a new law code. I am sorry that my fellow preachers and commentators have treated it as such. There are those who use the beautiful Sermon on the Mount as a club to beat young people into line and damage many a sensitive conscience on the way. How many young men struggling with new-found surges of lust and unbreakable habits have been utterly condemned by some preacher saying that such lust is adultery and wicked? They crawl out condemned, beaten, discouraged, feel total failures as Christians and sometimes even leave the faith as a result. Of such interpreters it can be truly said that they "lay huge burdens on men's shoulders and do not lift a finger to shift them". We cannot stand by and tolerate the spiritual carnage that results when Christianity is turned into a set of laws to be fulfilled "don't smoke, don't drink, don't dance, don't associate with those kind of people etc.."
There are many many people who have said to me "I just can't be a Christian any more..." utterly crushed and dejected by the failure they feel at living up to "Christian expectations". Surely this is not the intended outcome of the Sermon on the Mount. Surely this outpouring of God's grace is there to help and not to hinder?
Jesus does two things with the law in the Sermon on the Mount. Firstly he sets it right. It had been monstrously twisted by the spirit of legalism and the ease of the flesh. Jesus puts it back on plumb center showing us the spiritual values underlying the letters of each law He addresses. Secondly He breaks the "spirit of legalism" forever and teaches a higher ethic than the lex talonis. He teaches us to suffer well, to be meek and to love in a radical new way that penetrates to the core of life.
When Jesus says "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you." He spoke as one who would be crucified. He spoke as the one who prayed "Forgive them Father for they know not what they do." He spoke as one who would shortly have to live out His words. How then, can we, who know all this, and who possess the indwelling Holy Spirit, act in high dudgeon and drag our enemies off to court? If that next door neighbor irritates you with their barking dog do you call the Council, full of wrath and demanding "justice" or do you pray for them? Do you do good to them, build a friendship, and find out the dog is not so bad after all? These daily nuisances are when I find people least lovable and where I must find some spiritual resources to change my impatient nature.
Now I must say that I have not been held hostage by terrorists or brutally assaulted. The great criminal injustices of life have escaped me by and large. These are, perhaps, in a somewhat different category. Terrorism cannot just be politely ignored. There is a time and a place for the proper exercise of criminal justice in order to protect society. The Sermon on the Mount does not invalidate the hanging of terrorists or the jailing or rapists - but it does invalidate your and my temper tantrums over our small and even moderately large injustices. Just how to treat the criminally inclined is a whole different topic. Some people have forgiven completely and never sought the help of the police, others forgive and see the person jailed. I see nothing inconsistent with the second approach. Loving our enemies does not mean taking away from them the consequences of their behavior. God loves His enemies but allows us all to make our mistakes and suffer our consequences. I think the Christian heart should be reluctant to GlobalChristians.Orgbrace the law. It should be an awful last resort not a first expedient.
Yet Jesus was not law-less. He believed utterly that God had standards that human lives should be ordered by. When Jesus taught that marriage was ordained ideally to last forever and was not a disposable commodity He meant it with every fibre of His being. When He taught us that greed was not good and that Mammon was not God, He could not have been more in earnest. What then are we to make of the standards taught in the Sermon on the Mount if they are not a "law code". The first thing we must note is that they are incomplete. The Sermon on the Mount does not touch on many things - the proper conduct of worship, idolatry, theft, much is left out. As a law code it is terribly inadequate. What it does address is the spirituality underlying Pharisaism. Judging others, twisting the law, hypocrisy, the love of money, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, boastfulness and spiritual superiority.
If the Sermon on the Mount is a law code it is a law code for lawyers! It condemns those who used their understanding of the law to justify themselves and to condemn others. All of us are clearly shown to be in need of grace. So then - it is no law code but an unleashing of grace. The standards of the Sermon on the Mount are not laws we must live up to in order to be pronounced good - that has happened when we believed in Christ. Rather they are standards that call us to a life of grace. They are the goal of our walk not the perimeters of our disobedience.
Can we use the Sermon on the Mount to judge our fellow Christians - or unbelievers for that matter? Certainly not! The whole aim of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount was to end such judging. The Sermon on the Mount is to be used to show each of us where we need God's grace. It is a manual for prayer so that in its light we can approach God and ask Him to change us. It is a call to sanctity and right practice in life. It calls us to live worthy noble and extraordinary lives as saints of the Most High God.
Deep down inside each of us, in "the flesh", there lives what I picture as a little green leprechaun with a shillelagh who is itching to get out and whack someone on the head. One day at some point we let him out - it is an issue of justice or doctrine or morals. The little green man has a grand old time and many people are hurt - some forever. There is no issue worth letting that little green man out for. The Sermon on the Mount is like a dose of cyanide to this law-loving leprechaun. It takes away his right to ever use his shillelagh. It says to him that there is nothing worth brawling over. It says it is better to lose than to brawl and fight and accuse. It is better to suffer injury than to judge one another; it is better to weep than to say that we alone are righteous. Jesus did not come to give fuel to that little green man. He did not come to feed him more laws to stoke his fires of "righteous indignation" and to create a legalistic, defensive monster. He came to put that little green man behind bars forever - in fact to crucify him, to take the commandments that were hostile to us out of the way through the cross (Colossians 2:15) and to create a race of gracious grace-filled people.
The Sermon on the Mount tells us how gracious grace-filled people behave. The Sermon on the Mount gives us a calling worth living up to and a direction to grow in. That young man struggling with his lusts can now be told - we do not judge or condemn you, here is the direction Jesus is calling you to grow in, we want to help you get there and we are here for you every step of the way and we know it will take some time. We can invite him to join the brotherhood of the weak - of those who need grace and we can be understanding for we ourselves are tempted and weak. I believe far more people would stay Christians if they were treated with that sort of gracious understanding. The standards of the Sermon on the Mount cannot be relegated to the Millennium or turned into a law code. They are God's callings for grace-filled souls. They are the end of the little green man, they are the condemnation of the Pharisee, they are the death sentence for the legalistic mind set. They require a new way of thinking about life - not by the letter of the law but through the lens of the Spirit who wrote the laws and engraves them on the heart of all who believe.
We can no longer hide our inner beings from the gaze of God while outwardly conforming to a law code. The Sermon on the Mount demands our inner beings as well. It claims God's rulership of the heart. Jesus brought heaven's laws to human hearts through the Holy Spirit and here displays heaven's teachings so that those who are of God may rejoice and those who hide from Him may repent.
The Sermon on the Mount shows us that the inner laws of the heart - the knowing of God in the inner being and the living out of His life through us is paramount. We are not allowed to hide from God - not even miracles, prophecy, exorcism , almsgiving or prayer are allowed as hiding places. We may not hide our being behind our doing. It must come out into the light. We must be known by God for who we are - for being loving , humble, meek , and seeking after God. Jesus does not allow us to use the law as a mask any longer. We cannot say "I am OK with God, in fact he really likes how I live.." such pompous prattle is gone. The law cannot protect our hearts from the gaze of God. Jesus takes away the law as our shelter from God. Jesus finishes legalistic self-righteusness as a comfort zone forever. We are really only left with three choices - to deny or distort the truth of the Sermon on the Mount, to ignore it, or to start out on the life of grace.
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