Skip to content
Feb 8 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

Sermon delivered at Holy Trinity Church – February 6, 2011

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. Matthew 5:17 

INTRO: This morning’s gospel reading was Matthew 5:13-20

It is a small patch of a much larger quilt, The Sermon On the Mount
– and for whatever we might say about it, the sermon is not a lovely philosophy of life or a useful outline for human behavior and interactions
– in fact, some of it is rather harsh (for example, if we fail to be the “salt” Jesus says we are to be, we are “no longer good for anything”)

The truth is, the Sermon is impossible to live
– if we read it any other way, we’ve missed the point
– what Jesus says in another context can be applied here: 

With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (Mt. 19:26) 

So before going any further, let’s be clear on something: 

  1. It is not Jesus’ intention to frustrate us or create anxiety and guilt over our life with God
    – just the opposite is true – he wants to relieve our anxiety and guilt
    – but he does not to this by relaxing God’s demands
  2. We cannot separate the words of the sermon from One who spoke them
    – in some way, Jesus inhabits his teaching and energizes it
    – whatever he requires, he makes possible
  3. The sermon is addressed first of all to the “poor in spirit” (5:3)
    – I won’t pause to define poor in spirit; simply take a look at the people around him (e.g., Mt. 9:11)
    – poor in spirit looks exactly like men and women who take the first step in Alcholics Anonymous
    “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable” – only, for “alcohol” write in your own compulsion

In our reading this morning, Jesus makes three shocking statements 

Verses 13-16, Shock #1: The world depends on our being what Jesus says we are 

The people described in the beatitudes do not seem like movers and shakers
– that’s because Jesus’ goal is not to make us become world leaders
– our role is more earthy – in the crowd, not in front of it
– we are more like flavor, healing, preservative, or antiseptic
– we do not lead the way, so much as shine a light on it 

We need to pay attention to the way Jesus phrases these statements 

The Law says: “You shall do this and not do that”
-its “ought” reveals the distance between where I am and where I am supposed to be
The Gospel says: “You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world”
– it defines who and what I am
The commandments of the Law are about doing whereas the message of Jesus is about being 

In my weekly prayers I am always asking God to make me a good person
 – I sometimes find that I am trying to turn myself into a good person by doing good deeds
– that’s not how it works; a good person naturally does good deeds without being conscious of doing anything special 

We’ll see how important this is a little further on 

Verses 17-19, Shock #2: Jesus does not abolish the Law 

This is surprising for several reasons 

  • More than once, Jesus is accused of doing what is not “lawful”
  • Jesus relativized certain commandments (e.g., Mt. 12:1-8)
  • It seems to contradict St. Paul’s teaching regarding the Law

What happens to the Law when we get a hold of it?
– we start looking for the minimum requirement  

“What is the least I can do and still be in covenant?”
“How close can I come to the edge before I’ve crossed over?”

This is how people can perform a ritual without putting their hearts into it

You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, “This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me” (Mt. 15:7-8) 

This is certainly not a creative way to live nor is it true spirituality 

“Fulfill” does not mean “obey the Law perfectly in every detail”
– it is to become the ideal person who stands in covenant with God
– to become the embodiment of everything intended by the Law 

Jesus, however, fulfills the Law in an even bigger way 

These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled (Lk. 24:44) 

The Law is incomplete – it is one-half of an agreement
– humans have never completed the other half
– the Law finds its completion in Jesus – it becomes what it was meant to be
In fulfilling the Law, Jesus changes the nature of the Law and he changes our relationship to it 

This comes out in the fact that Jesus does not present sharper implications of the law which are on the same level as the commandments themselves. Instead his radicalization with its “I say unto you” means removal from the level of the law altogether. For the “I say unto you” means: Now that the kingdom of God is among you (Luke 17:21), not that God gives himself wholly to you, you should give yourself wholly to God. I, Jesus, do not demand more from you quantitatively than Moses did. I expect from you what Moses’ law could seek only imperfectly and in a shadow, namely, your total dedication to him who totally dedicates himself to you in me.”
There thus arises a distinctive ambivalence in the term “to fulfill.” On the one hand Jesus fulfills what the law of Moses has in view. On the other hand he destroys the whole structure of the law and leads us into a new sphere of existence before God.

Helmut Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith (vol. 2, p. 241)

Verse 20, Shock #3: Our righteousness has to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees 

How can our righteousness possibly surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees?
(Surpass those fantatics who devoted their days to straining out gnats, measuring the tithe of their herbs, fasting, and engaged in all kinds of ritual purifications)? 

We have to read the Sermon carefully to understand what Jesus is saying
– he does not mean a greater quantity (like we had to give more obedience or keep more commandments)
– he does not mean a better quality either (like we had to do a better job)
Our righteousness will not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees because we can outperform them 

The righteousness that surpasses, is a different kind of righteousness
– the Law is already fulfilled in the One who embraces us
– this creates new possibilities for Jesus’ followers 

What does this surpassing righteousness look like?
– we see examples of it in the following passage, in which Jesus uses a pattern to introduce several themes with the words “You have heard . . . but I say to you. . .”
– Jesus is not clarifying the Law or giving a better definition of what it means
– he is moving the Law into a new dimension – he transforms the Law 

The goal in this new context is not to have us merely obeying old commands
Rather, now God asks for everything, for the whole person, for: 

  • our passions–anger, lust, greed, vengeance, love and hate (5:21-48)
  • our ego that uses religion to put on a show for others (6:1-18)
  • our treasure and our heart (6:19-21)
  • even our anxieties–which we feel we have a right to own (6:25-34)

God places his hand on all of these things and claims ownership of them
– Jesus gives us a new outlook in which we seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness 

So what is the surpassing righteousness?
– it is God moving in and taking over our inner life
– it is the transformation of the person 

To appreciate what this means, let’s look for a moment at the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees 

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Mt. 23:25-28) 

To start on the outside does not work; it does not transform the person
– the surpassing righteousness works from the inside out 

CONC: A few years ago I was introduced to contemplative spirituality 

Now that is nothing more than what we see people doing in scripture when, like the psalmists, the prophets, and the Lord Jesus, they purposefully step out of the ordinary busy-ness and distractions of the daily grind to bring themselves to God with all their heart, mind and soul 

Contemplative spirituality is: 

  • learning how to be with Jesus (to be present to him in this moment with all my attention on him)
  • learning to surrender to the work he is doing within me
  • bringing awareness to the changes he is making
  • moving from doing to being and then living out of that true inner self
  • having the Law written on my heart

The Sermon On the Mount is not about us struggling to be the best we can be
– it is about Jesus taking over the formation of our soul and in him becoming new peopleIt is absolutely crucial for us to realize the fact that this is a process!
– no one gets this instantly
– no one says a prayer one night and then wakes up the next morning living the Sermon On the Mount
It is a process 

that Jesus walks us through
that Jesus energizes and sustains
that takes us right now and right where we are and deepens us in God until he is first in all things
 – so that our lives shine with good works, without anxiety or despair, spreading his love in all directions, and all the while glorifying our Father who is in heaven

Leave a comment