This is a continuation of sorts of what I started here, in so far as it is an attempt to address some popular parts of scripture that we either have drastically misinterpreted or have glossed over not giving enough thought to their meaning.
Today we are going to look at a key, but often overlooked part of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:17 we find a verse that we often like to read over without thinking about. I am going to start by isolating the verse and then make attempts to put it in proper context with what comes before and after. Here we have Christ explaining that he has not come to destroy the law of Moses. We should understand that ‘destroy’ here includes breaking the law and watering down the law. We should also understand that Christ, when referring to the law, is always referring to it as God intended, not as man had interpreted. Christ goes on to say that He has indeed come to fulfill the law. For a better explanation than I could give, let’s look at what John Wesley had to say in his Explanatory Notes:
Think not – Do not imagine, fear, hope, that I am come – Like your teachers, to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy – The moral law, but to fulfill – To establish, illustrate, and explain its highest meaning, both by my life and doctrine.
Now that we have indeed set the stage, let us examine the ways in which we are missing the point here.
For many, the entirety of the message of Jesus is contained in the Sermon on the Mount and/or the two Great commands of Jesus. Interestingly enough, the point that ends up missed is the same in both. As we examined in the first and greatest commandment, we are not in any way released from the moral teachings of the law or leading a holy life, we see here, before Christ even issues the two great commandments, that the same message is being given. It is interesting that it is delivered the first time near the beginning of His Earthly ministry and the next time as some of the final teachings to His disciples before the crucifixion. Almost as if it were an important concept for us to grasp. There is a popular idea that all we need do is emulate Jesus and we will be pleasing to God, but take note of what Wesley said above. Jesus’ goal was to illustrate by life AND doctrine. Not one or the other, but both. We can see from the frequency that Jesus quotes the OT and also from how He refers to it (The word of God, the wisdom of God,etc) that His doctrine was firmly rooted there. While many of us try to dismiss the OT, Jesus, yet again, points us back to it as the foundation to understand His teachings.
Let us briefly look at what comes immediately before this verse for just a moment though. We see that the popular salt and light passages are found here. We are given our first glimpses of the identity that we will be given through Christ in these passages and also instructed in important lessons on how to present ourselves and how to live. I do not find it coincidence that right after those instructions, specifically after being instructed to let our light shine before men so that we can glorify God, Jesus immediately goes to pointing us back to the OT and all of the ways it has given us to glorify God. It is almost as if Jesus is telling us remember, don’t hide and glorify your God, and by the way, here is how.
After this verse we have the assurance that the law will not disappear and also instructions on what should be taught. Let us look specifically at 5:19 for a brief moment. A casual reading would seem to not be a big deal really. OK if we are teaching wrong about this, we are the least in the kingdom of heaven, no big deal. The least in paradise is surely better than what we have here so we can live and let live without worry. Let us again look toward Wesley and what he had to say on the matter:
“One of the least – So accounted by men; and shall teach – Either by word or example; shall be the least – That is, shall have no part therein.”
Let that sink in. Wesley, the man we look to for grace and mercy said what? No part in the kingdom? Why that is mean, and harsh, and unforgiving, and unloving, and….Wesleyan. There are those who continually question why it is that some of us continually harp on right belief and teaching. Well, it is a part of the doctrine of Jesus, and also very much a part of the Wesleyan tradition that we claim to follow.
Jesus will go on in the next verse speaking of the righteousness expected from us. The scribes and pharisees were known to follow all of the outward rules, but not have an inward directed faith. We tend to think of the scribes and pharisees in terms of rules and they had to do this or that and that is correct. From that we tend to see anyone who is concerned with proper doctrine or proper expression as a pharisee and that is, again, where we have missed the point. The problem with the pharisees was not that they had the wrong rules so to speak, but they had the wrong inward spirit. They had a righteousness that showed on the outside, but was not reflected in their inward being. Surely there were pharisees and scribes who followed the law not because they had to, but because they loved God and wanted to please Him. We find the same instruction here from Jesus in regards to the moral law. We are in no way released from it, but follow it because we love and wish to please God. (If you think love is affection, please see the link earlier for proper understanding of how love is used here.) The result of the righteousness of the pharisees is being denied entrance into the kingdom of heaven. Yes, that seems harsh and contrary to how we often think of Jesus, but that is a part of the doctrine he came to teach us. It was part of what He taught so it should be a part of what we teach. There is a continual quest to reduce the bible to a pamphlet full of red letters as those are all that matter, but if we understand properly, we soon realize that all we need to do is look as those same red letters to realize not only the richness but the necessity of all the ones in black.