I did quite a bit of reflecting on this passage last year after Dr. Dan preached a sermon on it. Dan noted that numerous times in Matthew 5, Jesus said, “You have heard it said …” Then, he quoted Scripture and then followed up with the words, “But I say to you …” Jesus would then illuminate the Scripture for his listeners. Dan’s point was that the Bible can not be interpreted apart from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. If we do otherwise, we can easily become just like the Pharisees, and Scripture can then be twisted by Satan and used to “kill, steal, and destroy.” I think this is wise counsel, and as I continued to reflect on this sermon last year and in reading Matthew 5 again today, I am struck by another insight.
In every situation where Jesus quoted the Old Testament law, (“You have heard it said”), he offered a more restrictive interpretation of that law, (“But I say to you”). We see this in today’s reading on the subject of murder. We’ll see it tomorrow on the prickly issues of adultery and divorce. In fact, even before Jesus began offering examples, he said in verse 19, “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 …” (vs 17-20).
Once again, I believe that Jesus is laying the foundation to explain that man cannot possibly hope to achieve salvation and favor with God through his own efforts. Instead there must be a sacrifice, a substitution, to pay the penalty for our sin and lead us into right relationship with God. Rather than being a call to legalism, I believe that Matthew 5 is outlining the futility of legalism and again pointing to our need for a Savior.
Continuing along this grace versus law line, I think in our Western mind-set, we tend to think of the movement from the law to grace as a linear one. But perhaps in the paradox of the Holy Spirit, the movement is more circular.
- The Law brings condemnation and guilt. “Oh, wretched man that I am!” Paul said. (Romans 7:24).
- But “by grace we are saved through faith,” and with the help of the Holy Spirit we are both free from the law and yet empowered to live according to it. “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord,” Paul said in Romans 7:25.
- Once we achieve this freedom in Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to fulfill the law, “there is, therefore, no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1).
I think there is perhaps a “spiraling up,” if you will. While there is “no condemnation,” as we begin to fulfill the Law through the power of the Holy Spirit, He continues to convict us of sin – and the process of sanctification takes place – the movement from “glory to glory” described in 1 Corinthians. And as we continue this “stairway of faith” through the power and help of the Holy Spirit, we move closer and closer to becoming the people God wants us to be.