************ Sermon on Matthew 5:21-48 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on July 29, 2001
2 Corinthians 3:6b
"The Letter and the Spirit"
Topic: RighteousnessHow relevant this is for Christianity. Living in a consumer society we tend to be more oriented to the "product" of our faith than the process. As American Christians, we tend to desire and demand products of righteousness, but give little attention to the process. Jesus tells us this evening that the process, the underlying principles, are more important than the product. For, if the process – we would say "the heart" – is right, then the rest of life falls into line.
Title: Quality Control
Joseph Stowell, President of Moody Bible Institute, writes this:
Some time ago, I was chatting with a man who consults with some of the largest U.S. companies about their quality control. Because ministry is a form of human quality control, I thought I'd ask him for some insights.
He said, "In quality control, we are not concerned about the product." I was surprised.
But then he went on to say, "We are concerned about the process. If the process is right, the product is guaranteed."
For the last number of weeks we have been looking at the Christian's relationship to the law. We have said that the law of God is still in force today. We have said that we as Christians must strive, by God's power, to keep that law in our lives. We have said that we must surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; their righteousness, remember, was not from the heart. Today, we look at the process, the underlying principles, that determine the Christian's relationship to the law.
I Not a New Law
A As we look at all of the Scripture reading in front of us, we see that our Lord makes six statements: "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder'" (vs 21); "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery'" (vs 27); "It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce'" (vs 31); "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord'" (vs 33); "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth'" (vs 38); "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy'" (vs 43).
After each and every statement the Lord says, "But I tell you ..."
We have a formula then: "It has been said ... But I tell you ..." Jesus is contrasting His explanation of the law with that of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus is contrasting truth with falsehood.
B It needs to be clear that our Lord, in no way or form, is setting up a new law or announcing a new code of ethics. Many people have fallen into the error of thinking the Old Testament teaches one thing and Jesus teaches another. But that is not what Jesus is doing. After all, He Himself said,
(Mt 5:17) "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them."
We can't say that anything in the passage in front of us is a new law. Nor can we say that it is a more detailed and up to date version of the law first given on Mount Sinai. We are wrong, in other words, if we make the Sermon on the Mount into a list of do's and don'ts.
There is a kind of Christianity that wants everything down in black and white, that wants everything cut and dried. Those with this kind of Christianity are unhappy if there is no definite list of what they can or cannot do.
Topic: Parental Duties
Subtopic: Instruction of Children
Title: Put Up the Fences
In his film series, "Focus on the Family," Dr. James Dobson reports the findings of an interesting study done on school children. A group of educators decided to remove the chain-like fences from around the school playgrounds. They believed the fences promoted feelings of confinement and restraint. The curious thing they noticed, however, that as soon as the fences were removed, the children huddled in the center of the playground to play. Conclusion: Children need boundaries.
Those Christians who turn the Sermon on the Mount into clear boundaries are being like children. They aren't being child-like; rather, they are being childish. These people view the Sermon on the Mount as a kind of law, as a list of things we can check off: this I have done, this I have broken, this I can do, this I cannot do ... These people fool themselves into thinking: this past week I didn't murder, I didn't hate my brother, I didn't have impure thoughts, I didn't commit adultery; therefore, I must be okay; therefore, I am all right. These people are like the Pharisees. These people are missing the Lord's point. The Sermon on the Mount is not a code of ethics, a kind of law, for God's people in the first or twenty-first centuries.
C What is the Sermon on the Mount then? Jesus intended it to be a description of the new life. It is a portrait of kingdom life. It illustrates the kind of life lived by those who belong to God. It shows us the behavior we can expect from those who are baptized – from those who are washed by Christ's blood and renewed by His Spirit.
Who are the redeemed? What is the new life like? According to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount they are those who are poor in spirit, who mourn over sin, who do not grab while the grabbing is good. They are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who show mercy, who strive for purity in heart, who work for peace. They are those who speak out against sin and strive to be a light in the place God has put them. The process, the underlying principles, of the Christian life is important to these people.
II The Underlying Principles
A As I already said, we have a formula in the passage in front of us: six times Jesus says, "It has been said ... But I tell you ..." As we look at the six instances as a whole, we are able to identify five important principles that guides the Christian's life and his/her relationship to the law.
First, the spirit of the law, the intent, is more important than the letter of the law. The whole trouble with the scribes and Pharisees is that they looked only at the letter of the law. It is possible to concentrate so much on the letter of the law that you lose its spirit. Take, for example, the question of murder. The Pharisees and scribes thought that as long as they did not actually murder a man they were keeping the sixth commandment. But they were missing the whole point and spirit of the law. As we all should know, it is not enough not to kill; we must also love and be patient and gentle. Or, consider theft. It is not enough not to steal. As we all should know, we must also share with those in need. The mere fact that you do not commit adultery or lie does not mean that you have kept the ninth or seventh commandments.
More important than the letter is the spirit. What counts is your attitude. What matters is your heart's desire.
In fact, those who look only to the letter delude themselves. Those who look only to the letter can so easily deny their sin and misery and Savior. The Pharisees did that. That's why Paul says in our text: "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."
I am not saying that the letter of the law does not matter. But it does mean that we must put the spirit of the law before the letter. And, we must interpret the letter of the law according to the spirit of the law.
B The second principle, closely related to the first, is that obedience to the law is more than action. Thoughts, motives, and desires are equally important. The law of God is as concerned with what leads to an action as with the action itself. In other words, it is not only the action that is important. God observes both the action and the inner condition and attitude. God knows what we do and He knows our heart.
The scribes and Pharisees were concerned only about the act of adultery or the act of murder. But our Lord emphasizes that the sin in the heart and mind is just as wrong in the sight of God. The root of murder – envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness – is just as wrong as murder (Q & A 106). And anything that leads to sexual immorality – whether it be actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires – is just as wrong as adultery, homosexuality, and pre-marital sex. It is the heart of man that matters. If the heart or process is right, then the rest will fall into place.
Topic: WorldlinessAgain, "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."
Title: What Counts is the Heart
Many well-meaning Christians think that sin consists only of certain practices. Smoking, dancing, drinking, gambling, theater-going, and sexual immorality are the "big six" that head their list. The implication is that if you don't do these things you're spiritual and your soul is okay.
Now, I'm not suggesting that these any of these things don't matter. Some of them are condemned by biblical principles, and indulging in others can lead to spiritual ruin. What I am saying is that sin is first of all a condition of the heart rather than a code of conduct. God looks at the heart as much as He looks at the life.
C The third principle is that the law is both negative and positive. The purpose of the law is not merely to keep us from doing wrong but also to lead us to do what is right and to love it.
The whole conception of the law under the scribes and Pharisees was negative: I must not murder, I must not steal, I must not worship any other God, I must not take God's name in vain, and so on. But Jesus tells us God wants us not only to avoid and hate evil but also and especially to do and love righteousness.
Some Christians are like the Pharisees; they emphasize the negative side of the law. When they think of the law all they can see is, "You shall NOT ..." Their emphasis falls on what you shall not do.
The Pharisees were extraordinary in how they kept the negative requirements of the law. No one since them have come close to their obedience. But, they were not so good in keeping the law's positive requirements. Maybe they did not murder or steal or commit adultery but they also did not love or share or keep their thoughts pure.
Again, "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."
D The fourth principle is that the law was not given to hinder us but to help us. The law was not meant to be oppressive; rather, it was meant to promote our freedom. This is vitally important. We must not think of the holy life, of living for Jesus, as something constraining and restraining and confining. Not at all. The whole purpose of the law, like the gospel, is to bring us to the glorious liberty of the children of God.
Topic: LibertyLike the prince and his party many view the law as being oppressive, as curtailing their fun. So they go past the fence to see what's on the other side. Perhaps they become curious to see how far they can sneak away from God and not suffer the consequences.
Subtopic: Limitations of
In early 1988 Prince Charles and some friends took a skiing trip to Switzerland. While he was there one of the prince's lifelong friends was killed and another seriously injured by an avalanche. It was a miracle that the prince himself was not killed or hurt.
What happened? A day or two later the press reported that the prince's group had chosen to ski out on slopes that were closed to the public. The avalanche warnings had been posted, but they had chosen to go beyond the fences because, as one of them observed, that's where the most fun and excitement were to be found. They thought those warning and "keep out" signs were oppressive and designed to spoil their fun. Actually, those signs were posted for their own good and protection and safety. The result? Several broken worlds.
Again, "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."
E This brings us to the fifth principle Jesus wants to teach us. The ultimate purpose of the law is so that you and I can come to know and serve and love God.
We need discipline in living the Christian life. We need discipline to flee sin and say no to temptation. We need discipline to keep the commandments. We need discipline to read the Bible and pray. We need discipline to come to church twice each Sunday. But the purpose of all this is not keeping the commandments, Bible-reading, prayer, or faithful worship attendance. Rather, the purpose is a deeper and sweeter and more personal relationship with God.
This means that at the end of each day the question to ask is NOT: Have I committed murder or adultery? In what way have I added to my sin and misery? What am I guilty of today? No, those are not the ultimate questions to ask. The one test which you must always apply to yourself is this: How was my relationship to God today? Did I please Him? Did I serve and love Him? Did I live for Him today?
At the end of each day, at the end of each year, and before we take the Lord's Supper we must examine ourselves not merely in terms of laws and rules and commandments but especially in terms of a Person. For, don't forget, "The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."
To be a quality Christian, dear people, it is not enough to just keep the law – whether in the Ten Commandments or as we find it in the Sermon on the Mount or elsewhere. To be a quality Christian, dear people, what we need is the right process – what we need is a new heart.
Are you a quality Christian?
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