[I'm personally using the paraphrase of Eugene Peterson, The Message, as the primary text for this series of posts designed to look at Jesus with fresh eyes. The translated cited on the link above is from the New Revised Standard Version.]
An easy--and inaccurate--way of looking at the Old and New Testaments, the two great components of the Bible as recognized by Christians, is to see them as distinctly different. According to this caricature, the Old Testament sees God as vengeful, demanding law-giver and the New Testament sees God, as revealed in Jesus, as an indulgent grace-giver. As Jesus speaks in the balance of Matthew 5 and on into chapters 6 and 7, we see that this way of portraying the Bible is simply not true.
God's demands for holiness, as embodied in the Ten Commandments, remain the same in both the Old and New Testaments, as surely as Jesus Christ, God enfleshed, is, as the New Testament book of Hebrews points out "the same yesterday, today, and forever."
But neither portion of the Bible asserts that any human being, afflicted as we are by the condition of sin (Psalm 51:5), is capable of keeping God's laws. In the Old Testament, we're told that a compassionate God looks upon sinful humanity and remembers that we are dust, finite creatures whose whole race has fallen into the snare of sin. That's why the Old Testament says that God "is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" toward the human race.
In the Old Testament, an imperfect man named Abraham became the patriarch of God's chosen people, the Jews, not because he possessed some special virtues. Instead, Genesis says that Abraham believed in God and His promises and God "reckoned" that belief as "righteousness." In other words, Abraham moved from the natural inborn human state of enmity toward God to being a friend of God, one who was in a right relationship with God, by faith in God.
When the Old Testament's promised Savior came into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ, He extended this divine modus operandi beyond just the Jews to include all people. "For God so loved the world," Jesus told a respected teacher of the Old Testament, Nicodemus, "that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life." (John 3:16) In other words, the whole human race may move from our natural inborn state of enmity toward God to being friends of God, people who have a right relationship with God, by faith in God as revealed to all of us in Jesus.
In this section of Matthew, Jesus does three things:
(1) Emphasizes the utterly subversive way of life to which God calls all followers of Jesus, a way of life that is foreign to a world bound and determined to exult the human ego, rather than God;
(2) Underscores the continuities between the Old Testament views of both law and grace, showing that Jesus is the fulfillment and perfecter of all that the Old Testament teaches and points toward;
(3) Focuses less on the letter of God's law than its underlying meaning. Jesus excoriates the religious legalists who always want to confine the working of God's power to certain rules over which they can preside. God's law is meant to be a road map, not manacles. This is why Jesus says:
"Don't suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures--either God's Law or the Prophets [writings that appear in the Old Testament]. I'm not here to demolish but complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God's law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after the stars burn out and earth wears out, God's Law will be alive and working."Jesus lived a life in perfect conformity to God's Law and then, in history's greatest irony, died under punishment for everybody else's inability and unwillingness to obey that law. By doing so, He won the right to give rightness with God to all who simply believe in--or, trust--Him.
But this is no license to ignore God's law. That would be contemptuous of Christ and His cross. Rather, it's the freedom to rely on God's power to live in "daily repentance and renewal," daily turning to Christ for the capacity to live as human beings were meant to live, right with God. This is the way of life Jesus talks about in these chapters of Matthew. A little bit about what the Christ-life is like:
*We're to be salt. Salt was used in ritual sacrifice in Old Testament times. It was also a preservative. It was also a seasoning. Jesus no doubt had all these meanings in mind. We're to give ourselves in service to God and neighbor, to preserve what's good and holy, and we're to be the seasoning that calls attention not to ourselves, but to the God we follow and serve.
*We're to be light, letting others see the goodness and greatness of God.
*We're to be life-givers. Murder starts in our hearts when we hate or disdain others or when we fail to forgive. We give life when love, forgive, and speak well of others, even those with whom we disagree.
*Adultery begins in the mind. We need to ask God to first keep our thoughts pure.
*Oath-taking may be the first sign of insincerity. If our word is true, we don't need to prop it up with vows. Just say yes and no and don't adorn it with any crutches.
*Most subversively of all, Jesus tells us, "Love your enemies."
"In a word," Jesus tells us, "what I'm saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you."
[For the next installment, you might want to read Matthew 6.]
Here are links to the first seven installments of this series:
Scholars from the East
The Freedom to Be Weird
This is a Test
Trusting What You Can't See
The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression