Skin Deep? (Matthew 5:17-48)

“It doesn’t apply to me though.”  That seems to be the general attitude of British people to laws we don’t like. If you need to pop up to Durham for a few days and the lockdown rules say no, then you can probably find an exception. Rules about unnecessary journeys don’t apply to me if I’m off for a walk in the peak district and you can be sure that over the coming weeks, a lot of people will discover that the rules on wearing face masks were clearly designed for other, less responsible or more vulnerable people but not for them.

What about the Old Testament Law? We spent quite a bit of time last year working through the book of Deuteronomy. Was it just a waste of time? Surely all of those rules no longer apply to us? In fact, we don’t apply all of them do we? We don’t stone adulterers, we tend to be okay with tattoos, mixed fibre denim is in and when do you last refuse to eat shell-fish?   So why do we keep some rules and not others.

Some people will have heard Jesus’ radical teaching and thought he was turning up to abolish all the commandments. At times it looked like it. Indeed if a new regime, new kingdom, new authority was coming in, then you could expect a new treaty, a new covenant and therefore new rules.

So, Jesus pre-empts that thinking.

He has come to fulfil the law and so we should pursue righteousness. This reminds me again of that old question the Puritans used to ask: What is the chief end of man? And the response

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

John Piper says that this is in fact one end or goal, we glorify God by enjoying him forever. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. I think it works the other way round, we enjoy God by glorifying him. We are most satisfied in him when he is most glorified in us.

Let’s have a look at the passage and see why we can say this. But first, a word about what I mean by “pursue righteousness.”

  1. We know that we are justified by faith alone. Being righteous is about being right with God.  This is only possible by grace alone.
  2. We grow in holiness, we become more and more like Christ – this is sometimes called “sanctification.”

Pursue Righteousness because Christ came to fulfil the law

Jesus is adamant that he has not come to abolish the law and replace it with something new. Rather, he has come to fulfil it. We have already seen that Jesus fulfils the Old Testament by showing that it all points to him. So, one way in which Jesus fulfils the law is by showing that he is the one it points to, the one who fully and completely obeys it.  He is also the one who fulfils its purpose because the Law is there in order that we might be able to live in God’s presence. Jesus will make that possible.

This means that the commandments in the law stand until

  • Heaven and earth pass away
  • Everything is complete

The first phrase has the idea of “until hell freezes over.” The second phrase makes the point that the Law will fulfil its purpose. It is not that God has had to give up on it and change his plan. This reminds us that Jesus enables us not to pursue but to know righteousness in the first sense. As the righteous, obedient son, he fulfilled the law, meeting its requirements.  He was  obedient in life and death and so this means that not only does Jesus take our sin on himself but he gives us his righteousness. It is just as though we had kept God’s law perfectly.

However, Jesus goes on to insist that we are both to observe the requirements of the law, exceeding the Pharisees in their righteousness.  He refers to the smallest symbols in the Hebrew language, not one jot, not one dot can be removed from the law. In other words, every comma, every semi-colon, every full-stop and every umlaut matters.  I am reminded of the poster that says

“Let’s eat Grandma”

“Let’s eat, Grandma”

Punctuation saves lives!

So, this is not just about justification but about sanctification too. We are called to live for Jesus and live like Jesus.  There should be a change of heart, a desire to love God and put him first then to love our neighbours, friends, family, even our enemies.  We do these things not because we need to in order to earn our salvation. Rather we do this

  • In gratitude for salvation
  • Motivated by the hope we are looking forward to
  • As an act of worship, finding enjoyment in glorifying God.

Pursue Righteousness by allowing the Holy Spirit to transform your heart

Jesus then goes on to pick up on a number of commandments and teachings including from the Ten Commandments, do not murder and do not commit adultery but also restrictions on divorce, instructions on how to make oaths, limitations on retaliation and  the call to love your neigbour and pushes them far further so that heart motives and thoughts are included.

It is not just that you are commanded not to kill, but hateful thoughts will be judged the same. This is why you should settle disputes quickly and not harbour bitterness because the consequences of broken friendship and fellowship are terrible.

It is not just about the physical act of adultery but rather about lustful thoughts. Jesus says we would do better to tear our eyes than to commit sexual immorality in this way, but of course even blind people can still allow their imaginations to run wild.

Moses allowed for divorce in the Law, later, Jesus will say that this was a permission because of hard hearted men. However, Jesus is clear that marriage is permanent, and divorce forbidden. There is one exception and that is where there has been sexual immorality.

Whenever you are asked to be a witness in court, you are usually asked to swear the oath to tell the truth with the option of swearing on sacred scripture or simply taking an oath. When I went to the magistrates court as a witness, I had decided in the end to stick with the Bible because choosing not to might have caused some uncertainty given my profession. However, Jesus is very clear that we shouldn’t be making oaths on other things. People should be able to trust our word.

The “eye for an eye” rule was meant to restrict vengeance but believers are ready face persecution, to forgo their right to retaliation and even to accept further harm, to go the extra mile and to give up more than is expected.

Love your neighbour was seen as excluding opponents but Jesus says “no, it includes enemies too.” Jesus as the one who prayed “Father forgive” has the right to ask this of us as well.

This is about a change of heart. We no-longer look at what is the minimum we can get away with. We realise that sin and righteousness is not about outward actions but heart motives. This means that we need God the Holy Spirit to work in our lives to change us from the inside out.


These are scary commands. They remind me that there is no way that I could come even close to obeying them perfectly.  I am for ever grateful to Christ that he has saved me and given me his righteousness.

However, we should also be challenged. Our repentance should lead to a radical reorientation of our lives. We no longer should want to do the minimum but rather to love God with our whole heart and our neighbours as ourselves.

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