January 28, 2018 “The Law That Sets You Free”

(James 1:22-25, Luke 16:14-17—Valley Covenant)
January 28, 2018
Mike Fargo

It’s good to be back.  I am so impressed that you are all reading through the entire Old Testament.  That’s no easy journey.  I was told that you’ve just read chapters 1-24 of Exodus, and that I could preach on anything I want from within that section, which made me think, ”Man, if I can’t get a sermon out of 24 chapters of scripture, then I’d better just stay home!”

The real problem, however, is that there are too many things to preach on in this section, so I tried to settle on some core theme.  And the focus that kept creeping into my mind was the Torah, or law of God that Moses introduces in chapter 20 beginning with the Ten Commandments.  If I were to pick one area that Christians struggle with today, it would be this whole question of how do Christians relate to Old Testament law?

In our secular world today we hear so many different comments about the Old Testament law.  From those who have only the faintest connection to the Judeo-Christian faith, we often hear people say, “You know, to be honest, the law of Moses is really weird.  I mean, killing people for working on the Sabbath, keeping women out of the temple just because they were having their period, clothing that had to be one kind of fabric—I mean, wow, that’s really nuts.  Yes, there may some valid insights here and there, but to tell you the truth, I get better advice from my friends than I do from Moses.” 

What’s more, there is a similar message that we sometimes hear from those who’ve actually been raised within a Christian church and want to maintain come kind of connection to it.  From this group I sometimes hear people say, “To be honest, Mike, the law is really obscure to me.  And frankly, it’s irrelevant to my spiritual life. It’s also very embarrassing when my nonreligious friends point out all its flaws.  So I’m in full agreement with the apostle Paul when he said we are not under the law but under Christ.  Christ is my only source for moral insight.” 

Now for Jesus and the apostles, both of these attitudes would have been completely incomprehensible.  The law may sound weird to someone living in the 21st century, but not to anyone in first century Palestine, and certainly not to most Christians at most times and places throughout history.  Rather, Psalm 19 that we recited earlier has been for most Christians the most enduring attitude over the centuries, especially when the psalmist says:

The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

But having said that, I also realize our relationship to the Mosaic law has been, and probably always will be, one of the most difficult topics in theology.  Frequently in the history of the church, there has been this propensity for some people to adopt a very legalistic, rigid use of Old Testament law.  At the other extreme, others have ignored it altogether as something sub-Christian and no longer applicable.  The first group seeks hard and fast rules that control all external behavior, much like the Pharisees did in Jesus day.  The second group wants all moral and ethical decisions to be personal, relative, and largely subjective.

Jesus rejects both extremes.  In chapters 5-7 of Matthew, Jesus spends a great deal of time in the Sermon on the Mount demonstrating that his moral compass is built on everything that has been revealed in the law and the prophets, but that they go much deeper than mere external behavior.   And so early in the sermon he declares:

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.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.  Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Now this passage really disturbs some people, so listen carefully to what he’s saying.  The key word in this whole paragraph is the word “fulfill” in verse 17.  The underlying Greek word literally means “to fill up,” but it’s used in various ways in the New Testament.  For example, it can mean “to obey or do what something requires,” or “to bring out the fuller meaning of something.”   What we will discover with Jesus is that both aspects of this word apply.   So in spite of what some Christians may think, a follower of Christ will take the law very seriously, but do so from Jesus’ perspective.

So when Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, he means that our application of the law goes beyond a mere legalistic understanding.  The Scribes and Pharisees were people who dedicated their entire life to the interpretation and application of the law.  They weren’t satisfied with some vague, subjective application.  Instead they developed a very detailed, often complex application of the law that applied to every aspect of human life—from the moment you got up in the morning to when you went to sleep at night.  Their interpretations have been carefully preserved in the Jewish Talmud, where it’s clear they sought to define the law in such a way that made it specific and “do-able.”  By doing so they thought they were doing something positive and helpful.

But for Jesus, they had missed the whole point of the law.  Yes, the law was to provide us a moral compass, but it was meant to shape our inner moral paradigm (or to use a favorite metaphor of Jesus, it was meant to shape our “heart”).  Or as the apostle Paul put it, the law was a “guardian” that trains us during our spiritual immaturity as it teaches us how to make moral decisions.  But only in Christ do we reach our maturity and freedom from mere external rules to the deeper internalizing of the law as Christ does.

To explain his meaning more fully in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives six examples from the law.  He shows how the Pharisees interpreted a particular law and then how he himself interprets it.  His first two examples are the sixth and seventh of the Ten Commandments, so I thought I would use them today as a way to help all of you read the law, something which you are going to be doing a lot over the never several months as you work through the Old Testament.

And so, continuing from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’”  Jesus launches into his discussion of how to interpret all Old Testament law by citing the sixth commandment, a moral norm that can be found in virtually every religion and culture throughout history.  Murder—the killing of someone other than in self-defense or the defense of another—has been almost universally seen as wrong.  Obedience to this law is fairly simple.  You refrain from taking another person’s life.  What more can be said, right?  Well, for Jesus, such a definition is much too shallow, for it misses the underlying point of the law.  So he continues:

“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ [which is probably an Aramaic statement of derision] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Now you might be thinking, “What does any of this have to do with murder?”  Well, one of the consistent teachings of Jesus is that the origin of all external behavior begins with what is going on inside of us.  Later in this same gospel he says to the Pharisees:

You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?  For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.  The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”

Then later in Matthew, when Jesus is criticized for not observing various ritual washings before eating, he tells his disciples:

Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?  But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.


In other words, all our external actions are merely the final expression of what has previously been going on inside of us.  To speak ill of someone is evidence that we have already begun to push them away, to treat them as an object of scorn and not someone God loves and for whom Christ died.  In essence, an abiding anger toward another person cuts that person out of our life, making them as good as dead to us.  This is why Jesus says that anger toward another person, by itself, is grounds for God’s judgment, since it’s the internal equivalent of murder, regardless of whether it ever matures into the actual taking of someone’s life.   Tragically, anger often does mature into physical murder, which only proves Jesus’ point.

Next he uses the seventh commandment as an example, when he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’”  The underlying Greek word is very specific.  By adultery Jesus is referring to having sex with someone other than your own spouse.  There were other words employed by Jesus to describe sexual promiscuity in general, which would include sex between unmarried people, and so forth.  But here Jesus once again picks a command that is very clear in its intent and almost universally recognized for its wrongness.

And yet, like the sixth commandment regarding murder, Jesus goes on to show that the act itself is actually the consummation of something that has been going on in the heart, as he points out next:  “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The sin of adultery, as terrible as it is, is merely the fruit of a lustful heart.  To “look at a woman lustfully” is to desire someone in our imagination, to allow our thoughts to go places they should not go.  Jesus is not talking about admiring someone for their intelligence, looks, or overall attractiveness per se.  What’s more, Jesus knows that sexual attraction is normal and natural and can suddenly appear completely uninvited.  But this natural inclination can also become the basis for what we call “temptation.”  The key is what we do with such temptations.  Do we invite them in and give them space, or do alarms go off that tell us to slam the doors on them?

My hope this morning is that by using Jesus’ approach, suddenly all the rest of the ten commandments take on a whole new depth.  When the fifth commandment tells us to “honor our father and mother,” do we join the Pharisees and assume that means to be respectful and nice to them, or do we join Jesus when he rails at the Pharisees for actually withholding material support to their parents and not caring for them in practical ways.

And when we are told to not give false witness, we usually think of a courtroom and someone putting us under oath.  We think to ourselves, “Well of course I would be a truthful witness in court.”  But how about when we are standing around in a social group and someone brings up the name of someone we have a dislike for, and we make an oh-so-subtle comment, something suggestive and yet slightly derogatory.  Have we born a false witness?  Have we committed what the New Testament so often calls slander?

I could go on and on through the whole law of Moses this way, but I hope you get a feel for how wonderfully instructive the law can be when viewed this way.  But please be aware!  We can also abuse the law in the opposite direction.  For example, on the issue of sexual behavior, I’ve had people say to me, “Mike, based on what Jesus is saying, the New Testament doesn’t give us rigid rules for sexual behavior but it merely tells us how to be loving, faithful disciples on the inside.”  Such people completely misunderstand what Jesus is trying to say.

What he is saying is that by making the law internal—by going deep—we are actually raising the behavioral bar, not lowering it.  By saying that anger constituted murder, Jesus was not saying that physically killing a person was permissible, as long as you weren’t angry at him!   Mass murderers usually kill people they have never met!  When Jesus says that adultery is actually lust in the heart, he’s not saying it’s okay to sleep with someone as long as you keep your lust under control.  This is a distinction we should never forget.

I should also address another common but false argument that some people make.  We’ve all heard people say, “But didn’t Jesus say that all food is clean or that temple worship was no longer required?  Hasn’t he abrogated the obvious, practical application of these laws?  Doesn’t that mean we are free to do the same with other Old Testament laws?”

I hope you can see why the obvious answer should be “no.”  To not commit murder touches on a universal truth that is not conditioned by time or place like the dietary, sanitary or ceremonial laws were.  The reason Jesus and the apostles kept hammering on certain specific sins (especially greed, violence, sexual immorality, hatred, etc) is because these touch on our most powerful drives, drives that can cripple us and reduce us to something less than human.   It’s sophistry to say, “Well, if the dietary laws don’t apply in precisely the same way, then it’s out with sexual standards too.”  Christians aren’t members of a geo-political nation-state like Israel, but we are still sexual creatures who would rather exercise our sexuality in ways God never intended.

As Paul reminds us in the seventh chapter of Romans, we wouldn’t even know what sin was were it not for the law.  Our human capacity for self-justification and moral sophistry is boundless and would provide a cover for most of our behaviors were it not for the law of God constantly tweaking our conscience.   There is virtually no evil we humans can’t defend as good if we put our minds to it.  People who claim Paul sees no connection between the law and the Christian conscience often forget this.

Whenever Jesus or Paul were confronted with moral issues, they most frequently quoted from God’s law.  After the resurrection we read about Jesus opening the minds of the apostles so they could understand both the law and the prophets.  Paul tells his fellow pastor, Timothy, [and I quote] “all scripture (and by that he meant the whole Hebrew bible) is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”  Not just some of it.  Not just the parts we like or which make us comfortable.  All of it.

Finally, and this is crucial, our compliance with the law does not save us.  Both Jesus and Paul make that abundantly clear.  Only the cross of Christ saves usThis is what Paul intended whenever he described the law in negative termsIt can never be the basis for our relationship with God because all it can do is condemn our sinful behavior.  When Paul calls the law “the ministry of death” or “the ministry of condemnation,” that’s what he’s referring to.  We can never justify ourselves before God based on the law, because we always fall short of truly living it out perfectly.

But even after making these negative statements, Paul still turns right around and emphatically declares [and I quote], “the law is holy, and righteous, and good.”  Because we are now fully accepted by God based on his merciful and redeeming work in Christ, we are set free to hear the law in a new way, as a way of becoming conformed to the image of Christ.  Thus the law continues to offer us the best moral compass the world has ever known, and thus worthy of our obedience.

And so, may God bless you all as you journey through the Old Testament.  May it truly bring life to your soulsMay it become, as the apostle James puts it, “the law that sets us free.”  Amen.