Seminarian Bryan Stecker, Vicar
+ In the Name of Jesus +
In our Gospel reading Jesus tells us that, “The law is of the utmost importance.” He tells us that “Until Heaven and Earth pass away; nothing in God’s law will change.” And this teaching of Jesus is important for us to understand. Few things in the Church’s history have caused more controversy and error than the understanding of how the Old Testament and the law relate to the person of Jesus Christ.
There are two common ways the law is misunderstood. The first is called “Antinomianism.” The word antinomianism comes from two Greek words, anti, meaning "against"; and nomos, meaning "law." Antinomianism means “against the law.” In brief, this belief holds that because of Christ’s work for our salvation, God no longer expects Christians to obey or give attentiveness to any law. In other words, this belief holds that the law of God is no longer important- it’s been abolished.
The second misunderstanding is the one which Luther fought against in His fight against the church in Rome. The Roman view was that we are still expected to fulfill our debt to God, by following enough of the law in order to obtain salvation. In other words, this belief holds that the law is important, but that Christ has not fulfilled the demands of the law.
Now the correct understanding of the law is found in opposition to both of these views, and in our reading today, Jesus explains to us how the law is to be properly understood. And the proper understanding rests upon Jesus’ words “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.”
Now before we deal with the antinomian and roman errors, let’s first define what the Law is. In short, the law is “the revelation of God’s good and gracious will.” It is “The way God ordered His creation.”
To unpack this, let’s use a biological example. And I want you to appreciate my bravery of using a biological example with Dr. Fitzgerald sitting here. Your body is ordered in a specific way, so that each individual cell serves a specific purpose. And if all of these cells are working together perfectly, then your organs, your digestive system, your eyes, ears, and all of your senses- everything- will work perfectly. And thus, you will have a well-functioning body. And the reason each one of these cells works in its unique and special way, is that each cell is controlled and directed by something called DNA. DNA holds a unique set of directions- for each and every individual cell-, which designs and guides each cell to fulfill its specific purpose.
Now what happens if any of these cells start to operate in a way which goes against the very specific directions of the DNA? Brokenness. The body no longer operates the way that it is supposed to. And that disorder then spreads within the body like a disease. This is exactly what happened to God’s creation.
God ordered all of creation in a very specific way- just like He did the body. And as long as every living thing lived according to its purpose; which is according to God’s good and gracious will. Then everything would be perfect. This is how it was in the Garden of Eden. However, when man rejected God’s directions, and operated His life contrary to the way He was designed to live, the result was sin and brokenness. The world experienced chaos, and disorder. Sin changed and destroyed the good order of God’s creation in the same way that a disease destroys the good order of our created bodies.
So what is God’s law? God’s law is the thing by which everything in creation was built to abide by. It was the blueprint, the DNA which governed God’s creation. But now that we have fallen into sin, and thrown the world into utter chaos; the law now works as a diagnosis and a prescription for our disease ridden lives. It is a diagnosis because the law shows us what is wrong with us, and it is a prescription, because it shows us what our lives would have to look like in order for us to be cured.
So the law is the proper ordering of life and of all God’s creation- the proper life that you and I should abide by. And Jesus tells us that by His coming, this is fulfilled. He tells us that God’s good and gracious will -the law itself- will be fulfilled by what He does. But what does He mean by “fulfilled?” Understanding this word is fundamental to understanding what Jesus tells us about himself and about the law.
There is a wrong understanding, of what “fulfilling” means. This thought is very much like a man paying His taxes. Once he has fulfilled the demanded payment, He can get back to spending his money however he wants. Fulfilling then means putting an end to some demand. This is the way antinomianism is viewing the law. “God has fulfilled the law, and thus we give him thanks, but we now no longer have to worry about that ‘old hat’- that old way of doing things.” This idea may be tempting to our sinful and selfish desires, but this way is wrong because this is abolishing the law- and Christ himself says “That is not what I have come to do.”
Instead, fulfilling means giving a deeper meaning and purpose to something. For example, the first time we find this word is back in Genesis 1:22. God “fills” the water with living creatures. By doing so, he gives the water a deeper meaning and purpose- water now provides life.
Do you see? When Christ fulfills the law, he completes the purpose of the law, but in a way which gives it a deeper and richer meaning. Jesus is telling us, “The law is of the utmost importance, it represents and shows us God’s good and gracious will, it shows us how we are supposed to behave and live our lives; and I am going to bring God’s good and gracious will of perfection to completion, and when I do this, you will have a deeper understanding and appreciation for what the law is, and what it means for you.”
And then Jesus goes on to say something which sounds absolutely frightening. He has just said that the law is not abolished, and then He goes on to say, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Does your righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees? Jesus himself says, if it doesn’t- even if it’s the same- you won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven; not a chance.
But he doesn’t stop there. See, at this point I am sure the listeners are trying to think through the commandments. “Do I obey my parents’ more-so than the Pharisees? Do I honor my spouse? Well, I haven’t killed… And then Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire”
What’s Jesus saying here? He’s telling us that the law is important- God’s good and gracious will must be fulfilled- but it won’t be fulfilled by you. The point is that there is a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees, but it’s fundamentally different. Jesus is saying that their righteousness (which is the same idea of righteousness which the church in Rome taught), is only a surface and external form of righteousness. Go to church, give to the right causes, don’t kill, etc. But Jesus shows them and us, that even below the external righteousness, is a man who stands condemned by the law. “If anyone is angry or looks down on His brother- even He stands condemned by God.”
See, the only one who fulfills the law is the one whose righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees. And Jesus tell us that the only one who is righteous, innocent, and holy enough is Himself- it’s Jesus. Jesus says, “It’s not about you and your righteousness- that way will never work.” It’s about me. I am the only one who will fulfill the law; I am the only one who can heal the disease of sin and bring you out of this broken world into Heaven.”
Listen. On the night before Jesus went to the cross- He prayed to His father in Heaven in the garden of Gethsemane. Drops of blood dripped from his pores, as He looked forward to the cross and suffering He was about to endure. And as He looked forward to the cosmic pain and torment He was about to endure –unimaginable suffering-, He prayed, “Father, not my will, buy Thy will be done.” And God’s will was done.
Do you see what God’s good and gracious will is? It’s for His own beloved son, whose righteousness exceeded that of the Pharisees. His own beloved Son who had never disobeyed Him, to go to the cross and bear the punishment for the world’s sins. God’s good and gracious will is for the brokenness and sickness of this world, and of your heart to be absorbed and thus healed by Jesus on the cross. Look, look and see. This, the cross, Christs’ death for your sake, this is what the fulfilling of the law looks like. And how foolish do your feeble attempts look next to that?
And this is how you are made righteous. This is how your broken and sin-torn life is restored to perfection. The law- God’s good and gracious will- is restored in your life by Christ’s body and blood- by His death for your sake. And, Jesus himself says “Whoever believes in me will be made right, and will be given the gift of eternal life.” The fulfilling of the law looks like Christ on the cross, but it also looks like an empty grave. When Jesus says, “I have come to fulfill the law” He is saying “I have come to pay the price of your sins, but because of this “bliss and happiness shall be yours. Come with me, and taste heavenly blessings.”
Do you see what the proper understanding of the law is? The law is good because it shows us our need for a savior- it shows us that the Pharisaical and Roman view of fulfilling the law on our own is feeble. It makes us cling to Christ and Christ alone. And then the law shows us how our loving God wishes us to live our life- it gives us a guidebook by which we can now strive to live our lives.
And God gives us both His law and His forgiveness here at church. And He does this so that we can live in peace and harmony with each other as we all receive forgiveness and love from Christ and turn around and share it with one another. We receive Christ’s righteousness, and then strive to live our life according to God’s good and gracious will for each other’s well-being.
And this is the beauty of what Church is, and this is why I have been here this past year. Not merely so that I can lift things for Pastor, or give Dr. Davis a miracle case study for her vocal instruction ability.
I’ve been here this past year so that, as part of my study, I may live in and experience what Christ’s fulfilling of the law means in your lives. So, I can see how Christ gives you His righteousness- makes you righteous through His body and blood- and how that fulfilling of the law for your sakes, allows you to love each other in this wonderful church setting. I am thankful for Christs’ accomplishments for our sake, and I am thankful that God’s good and gracious guidance is alive and well here at Immanuel. And I pray that God’s grace and instruction will continue to strengthen and deepen each and every one of your lives. Amen.