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Matthew 5: Fulfilling the Law
Good morning, again, everyone. I praise God that he brought each and every one of you here, and most of all that he is among us here in this small church downtown. We’ve got a lot we’re trying to go over here as we continue our sermon series through the book of Matthew, so I’m going to skip my usual review and get straight to it. Today we are in chapter five, and I’ll give you just a second to get there; if you want a bible, just wave at  as she comes down the aisle.
If you will, please stand for the reading of our passage today. [Matthew 5:13-48] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
I want to begin this morning just by recognizing that this is a vast text, and we could really center the whole sermon on any one of the teachings here, and that would be worthwhile. The only reason I’m not doing that is that I want us to gather the larger picture, which is something I think we often miss about this particular passage because we do tend to pick it apart. I want us to remember this is a sermon, one which Matthew remembers well enough after however many years since he heard it as a much younger man, to write it down and preserve it for the rest of us. A remarkable moment, one Matthew rushes the first part of his record to get to. And as a sermon, this would have been spoken all at once and heard all at once.
So I want you to see what Jesus is doing as a whole in his sermon. Very simply, he is trying to explain what his life and ministry have to do with the law and the prophets—what we would call the Old Testament, but to them would have been the only testament, their only Bible, and they believed it as fervently, if not more so, than we do. Jesus is showing how he fits into that arc and the broader narrative of God’s work in the world. So here at the onset of my sermon, I want us to begin to ask that question of ourselves. How do we fit, each of us, into the broader arc of what God is doing in the world?
Of course what God is doing through Jesus’s life and what God is doing through your life are profoundly different. Jesus is God, incarnate, and Phil…well, Phil is just Phil. And yet, the whole point of Jesus’ incarnation was so that God could live and work in and through us just as he does through Christ, himself. Because of Jesus’ life and death, we do fit into the story of God’s salvation of humanity and creation. We are very much part of God saving the world—through Christ. It’s good to recognize how much lower we are than Jesus, and how unimportant we are in comparison. But it’s also good at the same time to remember how low Christ came in his time on earth, and how high he has lifted us up. We are deeply wretched, but we are also deeply beloved.
So ask yourself, where do you fit into the arc of God’s work in the world? Even as we look at what Jesus means to the fulfillment of the will and work of God in the world. We can start in vs. 13 and 14. Jesus tells the people gathered there, you are salt, you are light, and that really caught my attention when I read through this passage this week. After preaching two weeks ago on the beatitudes and imagining the crowd, I found myself thinking of the crowd for these few verses as well, and the crowd really makes these statements pretty startling.
This crowd is the salt of the earth? Really? In my life, I’ve always heard this phrase, the salt of the earth, spoken of the meek, humble church folks. You know, if you’re trying to say someone maybe doesn’t have an impressive title or job, but they’re really great people, you say they’re the salt of the earth. Have y’all heard that? I was hoping it wasn’t just a Tennessee thing. And usually we don’t go anywhere near calling anyone the light of the world. Anyone but Jesus, that is. But Jesus isn’t saying it about himself. He says it to this crowd, you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. And I think, incredibly, he actually means it.
If you remember back two weeks ago, the crowd is from all over—Gallillee, fisherman, builders, country folk; and Jerusalem, intellectuals, politicians, people who write for the New York Times. He’s talking to all types. Pharisees were there, so were lawyers. Sadducees, democrats, republicans, probably one or two folks who never shave and voted for Bernie Sanders.
You are the salt of the earth. You, Louis. Salt of the earth. You, Al, even you. You, Jake, you are the light of the world. Can you believe it? What an incredible statement about the worth and value of each and every person gathered that day. Some of them would have been believers, but not all. The only thing they all have in common is, for whatever reason, they wanted to hear what Jesus had to say.
What would it do to our society if we were able to look at the person who voted for Trump, or for Biden, or who slept outside of the church last night, or who landed on the news as a criminal in our very community, if we thought to ourselves when we see them, you are the salt of the earth. You, yes even you, are the light of the world. It would be easy to turn this into a fluffy message about the goodness of people, but that would also be a lie. People aren’t inherently good, that’s not what he’s saying.
Going back to the main point of the passage, Jesus trying to explain how he fits into the arc of God’s will and work in the world, and through him how we fit into it, what Jesus is saying in this is that salt and light are what we are meant to be, and salt and light are what he is forging in us as well. Through every prayer, every song we sing together, every tear we cry together. He is making us salty again. He is lighting up the world through us. Bringing us out from under whatever sin or insecurity we’re hiding behind.
I want you to recognize, too, that he’s joking in these verses. For some reason we never expect Jesus to be joking, and maybe for that reason, I love it when he does. Salt doesn’t lose it’s taste. That’s a joke. You need to realize, salt was wildly expensive at the time because they were still mining it, desalinization wasn’t a thing yet. Roman soldiers were oftentimes paid in salt, which is where we get the phrase “worth your salt.” Anyway, no one in their right minds would ever throw salt out onto the road; that’s a joke.
And you can’t put a lamp under a basket. Well, you could, but you would burn your house down. The lamps looked like this, and oil was also very expensive at the time, so you would never light your lamp unless you absolutely had to, and when it was lit, hiding it under a basket. To quote New Girl: Don’t do that. That would be insane.
So he’s joking with them, but every good joke has truth in it, and the truth here is that we have lost our saltiness. We humans are meant to be the ones flavoring each others life, preserving and nourishing one another, healing each other—everything salt was used for at the time. But we don’t always. So often we lose our saltiness, but there’s no one who can replace us in the lives of our families and friends. So if we lose our saltiness, are we just broken and that’s it?
And we don’t let our light shine, always. Sometimes we do burn our houses down, injure our families, by doing things we know we ought not to do. And every time we do, our light dims just a little bit in the world, whether or not people notice or can see it, we know it to be true. But, again, Jesus offers hope to us. He teaches, in him we can live lives of worth and give light, not chaos, to the people we love and who love us.
Then he begins to explain how. You should know that verses 17-20 here have volumes upon volumes written about them. Arguably, explaining this passage is what the Biblical books of Romans and Hebrews are mainly about. They are all asking the question, in what way does Jesus fulfill the law? And what is the right use of the law now that it has been fulfilled? For the theologians in the room, I’ll say I trend Wesleyan and New Pauline in my answer. For the non-theologians, let me explain.
One place we can start is just by understanding and all agreeing that part of Jesus fulfilling the law is simply that he practiced it. Jesus obeyed, he practiced the law. I fully believe Jesus lived a blameless life. Every time someone tries to say he’s made the wrong choice, or made a mistake—the Pharisees saying he should heal on the sabbath, for example—he’s able to answer them in truth and in wisdom that the only reason they believe he did something wrong is because their idea of what’s wrong with the world is off. Jesus lived blamelessly, he lived biblically, and so very simply one practical takeaway from this passage is, so should we. We should live biblically, obey the law. If we want to live like Jesus, which we should. Even if you don’t believe everything I do about him, Jesus lived an incredible life. That’s a good place to start in our understanding of this passage, and I want to stay with this idea for a minute.
One practical takeaway of Jesus living biblically is that you should see in his life: the law, itself, is good and perfect. If we, in our lives as Christians, are trying to live according to the law of God, and are not filled with joy, like Jesus, if the people we love aren’t filled with salt and light and life, like Jesus’ people are, it’s not the law that’s wrong, it’s us. We got it wrong somehow. Somehow, even though it never should have happened, and is kind of impossible, we lost some of our saltiness. We need to go back to the source of life to find it again.
I say this especially to the people in the room who are my age and younger. We love to doubt things. We are skeptical, we like to tear down, and we don’t care what’s built in its place so long as the thing that needed to be town down is never allowed to be rebuilt. So I’m pointing out that Jesus lived biblically—he kept Kosher, he obeyed the Sabbath, he never married, so he remained celibate. He’s not particularly type a about it, but with casual confidence, to the t, he follows the law. He allows the Bible to shape every part of his life, and his life is overflowing with joy, meaning, purpose, everything a life is meant to be.
So if you, like me, are one who tends to deconstruct, a plea: don’t tear the law of God out of your life. I know people may have used it to hurt you, they put the lamp under a basket and the whole household went up in flames, but the light is still good. Don’t sit in a dark room for the rest of your life because of your history. And don’t try to convince yourself that life is just as good without the salt in it. It’s not. When I see low sodium on a can, I always wonder why they would advertise that their product has no taste. And by that, what I mean to say is, the things you will find in the world to give your life shape and meaning apart of Christ will let you down and then devour you. I’ve seen it over and over again. Let the law of God shape you, instead. Not someone’s version of it, maybe, but the law itself, Christ, himself. Let him build you up. Because he is so good, and his life is overflowing enough that he can fill you, too.
So that’s one, just very basic, but very important understanding of how Jesus fulfilled the law. I’ll hit some other points I think are important, but then we’re going to move on because this is not a theology class. But another thing we should take from this passage is that, even though the law is good and still has a useful purpose in our lives, that law no longer rules over us. I don’t keep kosher. I don’t offer ritual sacrifices either at my home or anywhere else—and if you do, that’s very strange, and you should stop. That’s not the law I’m seeking to follow in my life. Again, without going too deep into this, Jesus gives both a new law and a new covenant to his followers. It’s not one that cancels or abrogates the old law, the new law is the old law transformed by Jesus’s fulfillment of it.
I’m gonna say it like this, borrowing an image from Paul: when you die, you’ll be buried or cremated, and everything that was you before will be gone. When you are raised again into Jesus’ resurrection, though, you will be completely you again, and yet also completely changed. Whatever it is that is the core of who you are, your heart, that will be exactly the same. You will be you the way you were always meant to be you, all of your saltiness restored, and your light shining out to illumine everyone you love.
This is just what Jesus does. Think about, when you are saved in Christ, everything changes. Your entire life. Your actions, even your desires are different. And yet, somehow, I’m more myself now than I ever was before I met him. Sin was holding me back, making me less, and free from sin I’m free to be me. And somehow the more like Christ I become, the more myself I become. This probably sounds like mad ramblings to the unsaved people here, but to everyone else who has known Christ, I’m sure you know what I mean. Jesus, in this passage is doing that same thing to the law. He’s changing everything about it, and yet, it is more itself than it was before.
If that doesn’t make sense, let’s get coffee, we’ll go deep, but what I’m trying to tell you is that what Jesus is doing here is beautiful, and if you let it it, will fill you with life and light. But your understanding of the way in which Jesus is fulfilling the law is going to color your understanding of everything he’s going to say next.
Jesus claims to be the fulfillment of the law, and then he starts giving the new law—Jesus, the new and better Moses, giving a new law and a new covenant on the mountain of the Lord. And everything he says next should do a couple things in your heart in mind.
It would be a disaster if you walked away from this passage thinking you are going to succeed in following the teachings of Jesus given in this passage. Just like it would be a disaster if you walk away from the Old Testament law of God thinking, like the Pharisees did, and like Jesus really hit hard with them, thinking that they had succeeded in every way in following that law. Again, v.48 says, “You must be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” It would be a disaster if you walked out of here today and put an item on your to-do list of, “today I’m going to be perfect just like God.” That’s not the right takeaway.
You will never check that box. You will never get there, and I say that having seen many people spend their entire lives trying in misery to be perfect and, when they can’t get to perfect, at least be perceived as perfect. But that’s not what Jesus wants. He’s trying to show you the perfection of God, to raise all of the bars out of our reach, so that we, like Isaiah, decide that if this is perfection, woe is me, for I am unclean, and I live among unclean people.
Seeing the perfection of God, seeing what humanity is meant to be, is meant to lead you towards confession and repentance. The law is a road leading you toward dependance upon Christ, just as it is good for a child to know, to her core, her dependence upon her parents while she is young. Jesus is showing us the perfection of God so that we might value his mercy more than we value any sacrifice we might make in our pursuit of him. Seeing the law for what it is, we are meant to see ourselves for what we are, the wretched men and women that we are. And hopefully we can see the salvation of God for what it is. The mercy of God is the only remedy for a problem none of us were ever going to be able to solve.
When I was teaching high school in the NOLA public schools, it was painfully obvious to everyone that our students were behind. I mean, they weren’t weeks behind in what they needed to know for their grade level and life, they were years behind. And the temptation as a teacher with a student who is behind is to lower lower the bar, to not teach the whole curriculum, to give up on the kid and take what you can get. Here, kid, do this coloring sheet. That’s what you’re able to do.
But the problem with lowering the bar is that it doesn’t change that student’s reality. Reality is, he’s going to graduate high school and not be able to read. You lowering the bar probably made him like you more, he probably enjoyed class more that day, but you failed him. Lowering the bar makes the kid feel better today, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem in his life as a whole.
What you do as a teacher is you keep the bar right where its at, and you scaffold, meaning whatever skill it is—let’s say it is reading—you go as a teacher and pick that skill apart into a thousand pieces, everything that goes into knowing how to read, and you start teaching one piece at a time until you get to the whole. And every time the child fails, you meet him right where he’s at in his understanding and let him know you’re not going to stop working with him until he really gets it.
And that’s the other side of what we need to understand in this passage. Just because the bar is unattainable doesn’t mean we lower the bar. That doesn’t suit reality. Reality is, for us to solve what’s wrong with the world, we do need to be perfect just like God is perfect. For us to be the parents we need to be, we really do need, not just to avoid murdering our kids, but to not even think to ourselves, “you fool.” For us to be the spouses we need to be, it’s not just not sleeping with anyone else, it’s not even looking at another woman lustfully, not even flirting with that other man, if we’re honest about what kind of love and trust we really want from our spouses.
Would Jesus help us by telling us, like we tell each other, oh, well, you know everyone does that stuff. No one’s perfect. What does that do besides accept the unacceptable? When people confess sin to me, I usually respond by telling them, you have done more damage and caused more suffering in the world than you could ever imagine, and you are more deeply loved and forgiven and welcomed by the father than you could dare to dream in this moment.
While it’s true that none of us are perfect, what’s also true is that we all need someone who is perfect. Someone who will know us and love us completely. Unconditionally. Someone who can forgive us completely for the things we know we’ve done wrong. We need someone to care for us when no one else seems to see or care that we’re drowning, someone who will sit with us when we are alone and ashamed. The reality is that we need someone to be perfect for the world to be ok. And so part of what this passage should teach us is that we need Jesus, who actually fulfilled the law and can actually save us from all of this misery we usually try to ignore.
And Jesus, like a good teacher keeps the bar right where it needs to be, but in his mercy he lets us know every time we fail, he’s going to meet us right where we are with some piece of what he’s trying to teach us that day, and he’s not going to stop his work in us until its complete.
I would invite you this morning to believe in a savior who fulfilled the beautiful and good law, who is able to fill us with life and who comes to us, wherever he finds us, just as we are, but he doesn’t leave us there. In grace he teaches us day by day what it means to be a saint, a life-giver, which is what the world really needs us to be. And this morning I would invite you not to grow weary in doing good, but instead have faith that he who has begun this work in you will complete it in his time.