Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Christians and The Law

Let us continue on in our study on the Sermon.  Today we are going to tackle a controversial subject as we are going to talk about the relationship between the Christian and the law.  Here is today's text.
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.  Matthew 5:17-20 NKJV
Jesus did not come to bring an end to the law, but to fulfill it.  Jesus fulfilled the law by paying the penalty for our sins.  Before His sacrifice, we were all doomed to failure.  There is no way any man except Jesus that could live up the the requirements of the law.  The law requires perfection, even in the sacrifices that paid for the sins of the people.  It was an impossible standard for any man to achieve, that is until Jesus came into the world.  Jesus fulfilled the law by living that perfect sinless life required of us then by becoming that perfect sacrifice required for payment of our sins.  There is nothing more perfect than Jesus and so there can be no greater sacrifice for our sins. 

The sacrifice of Jesus did not end the law, it fulfilled it.  That is an important distinction to make.  If his death on the cross ended the law, sin would be impossible.  Sin is a breaking of the law of God, and if there is no law of God there can be no sin.  In other words, you can not break a law if there is no law.  That would be like getting pulled over for speeding on a road where there is no speed limit.  The law still exists and it still remains God's righteous standard.  From that we can see that what Jesus did was to fulfill God's righteous standard, not change it.  As Christians, we are dead to the law but anyone outside of Christ still remains under its condemnation. 

So how does the Christian relate to the law.  So many seem to take one of two extremes.  Some take the approach that being that we are dead to the law, we should no longer be concerned about the law at all.  The other approach is that Christians should no longer sin at all, and some sort of "holiness" code is established.  Both are errors (though some views can even be considered heretical).  For example, if you take the view that the law no longer applies to Christians in any way then what can we say to those in the church who commit adultery or who are homosexuals?  If the law no longer applied at all to Christians, homosexuality and adultery would be perfectly fine.  On the other hand, if we take the extreme legalistic approach, what can we say about grace?  If our salvation was still dependent on how well we are at following the law, then was the point of Jesus even dying?  Paul addresses both of these errors.
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.  Romans 6:16-18 NKJV

I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.  Galatians 2:21 NKJV
So you see, as Christians, we are still called to righteousness, though we are not judged eternally by meeting those righteous standards.  This may sound confusing, but Jesus goes on to explain.

Jesus next tells us "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."  Note that Jesus is speaking of people in the kingdom of Heaven.  This has to apply to believers because only believers will even be in the kingdom of heaven.  Whether the least or the greatest, each case is in terms of the assumption that they are already in the kingdom.  While all in Christ are destined to eternal life in the kingdom of God, not all will have the same status there.  The Bible is clear that there are rewards and consequences to our status depending on how we live our lives.  That is not to say that there is any punishment in eternity for those in Christ (though for those with no fruit the Bible says they will experience some kind of "loss"), but there are even greater rewards for those who seek to live righteously.  Jesus gives us a contrast here.  One who is great in the kingdom is one who does and teaches the commandments of God.  One who is least is one who breaks and who teaches others to break the commandments of God.  Please note that Jesus raises the stakes in that our status is not only determined by our own actions, but on what we lead others to do.  The Bible tells us that there is a stricter judgment for teachers, and this is an expression of that principle.  Please note parents, husbands, pastors, teachers, and leaders, you will be held accountable for not just what you do, but what you teach others to do.  We are called as Christians to not just live righteously, but to teach righteousness.

Finally, Jesus says something very troubling. "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."  The scribes and the Pharisees were obsessed with following each and every aspect to the law, even adding provisions that God never intended.  They also imposed that interpretation onto everyone else.  That obsession with righteousness grew into self righteousness where they saw themselves above everyone else.  That said, Jesus tells us that we need to not only meet their draconian standards, but exceed them.  If we do not, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  That makes it seem as though there is no hope for any of us.  In fact, there is no hope for any of us except through Jesus.  You see, when we come to Christ, we are attributed the righteousness of Christ.  Remember, part of coming to God is the realization that we have no righteousness on our own and the subsequent promise that God will fill us as we mourn our inadequacy.  This is why the only hope is Jesus, because it is only Jesus who met those standards.  The Pharisees are not the highest model of righteousness for us to aspire to, it is Jesus.  If no one can meet the standards of the Pharisees, then certainly no one can reach the standards exemplified by our Lord.  So, without any hope of making it on our own, we put our faith in Jesus.  Then something amazing happens, God imputes righteousness upon us.  In other words, the righteousness of Christ is given to us so that His righteousness becomes our righteousness, thereby meeting that impossible standard.

We learn much from this passage.  We learn that the law still exists.  Jesus did not destroy the law, but fulfilled it in meeting the impossible requirements for us so that when we put our faith in Him, His righteousness is imputed upon us.  The law still sets the righteous standards of God and sin still must be paid for.  When we come to God for forgiveness, I think we think of it more like a modern presidential pardon than what it really means.  In a presidential pardon, a paper is signed and punishment is abated for breaking the law.  We have to think of forgiveness differently.  It would be more like the president signing a paper and someone else going to prison for us, paying for the crime in our place.  God does not just wave a magic wand and impart forgiveness upon us, but takes that sin and places it on Jesus at the cross.  Blood is still shed for each sin we commit, but now that sin is paid for by Jesus on the Cross. 

Jesus not only fulfills the law, but turns it on its head as we will see in the coming messages.  The law is a list of "do not"'s. but Jesus turns it into a list of "do"'s.  There is a very good reason for that and it has to do with the heart of obedience.  You see, outside of Christ, our relationship to God is that of Judge.  He is the Lawgiver and the One who determines how well that law was kept.  Obedience is out of a heart of compulsion.  One would follow he law because one has to follow the law and so we are given a list of restrictions.  After we come to Jesus, our relationship to God is that of Father.  Obedience is no longer out of a heart of compulsion but out of a heart of love.  We now follow the righteousness of God because we know that is what pleases Him.  It is no longer about what we are not supposed to do so we do not kindle His anger, but what we can do in order to please Him out of love. 

And that is where the law comes into our lives now.  We do not strive to meet an impossible standard out of fear of retribution, but we desire to express our love to God.  Anyone who makes any claim of being in Christ will say that he or she loves God, but are those merely words?  I will speak in terms of marriage as our relationship with Christ is likened unto marriage.  Can a husband say he loves his wife if he has no consideration for her feelings and makes decision based on his own desires?  Can a husband claim to love his wife if he commits adultery?  I mean a selfish, abusive, adulterous husband can claim to love all he wants, but it is obvious those are only words.  How about a wife?  Can a wife say she loves her husband if she constantly undermines his God-given authority and has no respect for him or his leadership?  Can a wife say she loves her husband if she commits adultery?  Can she say she is in love if she never acts in any way to please him?  Of course she can not.  A loving husband and wife love to please one another.  They also do not do things that will hurt one another.  They learn what pleases and hurts the other and strive to live in a way that pleases the other.  It is not about a wife obeying the commands of her husband.  That is law.  It is about a wife loving her husband and doing things that make him happy out of her love and desire to please him.  That is a healthy marriage and that is a healthy relationship with God.  What Jesus is about to share in the Sermon are those things that are pleasing and displeasing to God.  We are called the bride of Christ, and this is how we get to know our groom.  We should naturally, as Christians, want to please our Lord. We should naturally desire to learn about Him and what pleases and displeases Him.  We should desire to learn what hurts Him and what brings him joy.  It is not about following a law under fear of punishment, but desiring how to live in a way that is pleasing to the One we claim to love. Jesus summed this all up beautifully in a very few words.
If you love Me, keep My commandments.  John 14:15 NKJV
 I will use an example out of my own marriage to illustrate my point.  My wife loves me.  She has a desire to make me happy and does not want to hurt me.  I know what time I want to eat dinner and I know what I like to eat and do not like to eat.  Let us call that my "law."  Now if I were an overbearing husband and we did not share in a loving relationship, I could come home from work and command her to make me a specific meal at a specific time and threaten punishment if I do not get what I desire.  She works to obey out of fear.  That is how life is under the law.  In Christ, it is different.  I come home  from work and hug my wife and tell her that I love her.  She asks me what time I would like dinner and I tell her when I think I will be done with my work.  She loves me and has listened all those times we talked about what I like to do not like to eat and she prepares me a delicious meal with no new input from me and has it ready on time.  You see, the end result was the same.  I had a delicious meal of food I like prepared at a certain time.  The "law" of Ben was upheld.  Only this time it was done out of a motivation of loved.  She learned what pleased and displeased me in terms of food and not wanting to hurt me, she prepared a delicious meal.  She knows I have work to do when I get home and wanting to have dinner ready for when I was done, she asked when I would be ready to eat.  Now, if her love were only words as in those in the church who believe the law is entirely irrelevant to their lives, she would have given me a bowl of cold black olives (I hate olives) and had it waiting to be eaten long before I was done.  I would not punish her for that, but I would also not be pleased or happy at all.  Christians, please remember, the law is not an arbitrary list of "do"'s and "don't"'s, but it is what is pleasing and displeasing to God.  So if you truly love God, you will have that desire to follow His commandments because you are in that intimate loving relationship with your Father.  
'And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment.  Mark 12:30 NKJV

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