What is the Purpose of the Law for Christians? Doing Matthew 5:21-37

Before reading this post on doing Matthew 5:21-37, please make sure to read our post on hearing Matthew 5:21-37. You can also see a quick overview of our DOTW Bible study method.

What action does God take in Matthew 5:21-37?

Matthew 5:21-37 is a part of Jesus’ most famous sermon, The Sermon on the Mount. Christ’s action throughout the whole passage is teaching, although this is not directly mentioned in these verses.

What action does God call me to take toward God? Toward others?

There are several direct actions that God calls us to take:

Vs. 23 – Remember that your brother has something against you.

Vs. 24 – Leave your gift before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Vs. 25 – Come to terms quickly with your accuser

Vs. 29 – If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.

Vs. 30 – If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.

There are also several indirect actions that Jesus calls us to take in this passage of Scripture. For example, Jesus says that whoever divorces his wife makes her commit adultery (vs. 31-32). This indicates (although never given as a direct command) that a man shouldn’t divorce his wife. Similar conclusions could be made with regard to anger and lust.

What actions did I take? Or, what actions will I take?

Jesus’ instructions in verses 23-24 are often skipped over in light of the more astonishing revelation that the command not to murder applies not only to outward acts, but also to inward anger.

The remembering and reconciliation that Jesus commands us to undertake is embedded within the setting of “offering your gift at the altar”. This gives us a picture of a formal religious ceremony whereby one offers a lamb or a pair of doves, given to God at the temple in Jerusalem.

As New Testament believers, this passage can remind us of Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 11:27 against eating the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” and the need to examine oneself before eating the bread and drinking of the cup.

However, Augustine suggests that we can interpret this in a spiritual manner as well by saying,

And so we may interpret the altar spiritually, as being faith itself in the inner temple of God, whose emblem is the visible altar. For whatever we present to God, whether prophecy, or   teaching, or prayer, or a psalm, or a hymn, and whatever other such like spiritual gifts occurs to the mind, it cannot be acceptable to God, unless it be sustained by sincerity of faith, and, as it were, placed on that fixedly and immoveably, so that what we utter may remain whole and uninjured. (On the Sermon on the Mount, Book I, Augustine)

The implications of Christ’s command is that before one can meaningfully worship God, one must reconcile with a brother/sister in Christ. This would not only apply to formal worship within a church, but also our daily worship that takes place anywhere and everywhere. Worship that emphasizes praying and Bible reading would not be more important or effective than worship that is a reconciliation between two brothers in Christ. In fact, our praying and Bible reading could be hindered if we don’t remember and reconcile with our brother or sister in Christ.

Augustine also suggests that timing of reconciliation is of the utmost importance in these verses. Verse 22 shows a progression towards greater levels of punishment with regard to anger, thus making it important to deal with any anger or bitterness right away!

How do we fulfill Christ’s commands in Matthew 5:22-23? By taking every opportunity to remember our relationships with each other and by taking every step necessary to reconcile with each other.

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How Can We Know God?

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John 3:1-17

Often, we treat John 3:1-15 like a candy wrapper. John 3:16 and 17 are the candy and all of the other verses are the candy wrapper: we eat the “candy” and throw away the “wrapper”.

Many of us know John 3:16: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Even the Nicene Creed quotes this verse, saying that Jesus is “eternally begotten of the Father.”

But read alone, John 3:16 and 17 raise more questions than they answer. For example, why would they need to emphasize that God loved the world? Who would argue against that? And why would they need to say that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world?” These questions can be answered by reading the whole passage in context, beginning with John 2.

In John 2, we see Jesus enter the temple during Passover. The temple is crowded—people are hawking oxen, sheep, and pigeons. Others offer to convert foreign money to local currency. John 2:15 tells us that Jesus made “a whip of cords” and used it to “drive [the hawkers] all out of the temple with the sheep and the oxen.”  Then Jesus “poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.”

Because of this, many Jews confront Jesus.

They ask, “what sign do you show us for doing these things?”

“Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and in three days I will raise it up.”

The Jews are shocked.

The author of John explains to us that Jesus was not talking about the temple building. He was “speaking about the temple of his body.” He was telling the Jewish people, “destroy my body and I will raise it up in three days.” But the Jews did not understand what he was saying.

To them, Jesus was a blasphemous, violent man who had chased salesmen from the temple (with a whip), upturned tables, and insisted that he would rebuild the temple in three days if it was destroyed.

From their perspective, the Son was violent. He did hate men and was eager to condemn them.

But John 3:16 asserts that precisely the opposite is true. Our own knowledge—based on sight, tradition, and reason—can completely deceive us.

Ultimately, John 3:1-17 is about more than a loving God or a Son who came to redeem humanity; it is about knowledge—the limits of human knowledge, and how one can overcome those limits.

After Jesus has caused commotion at the temple, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus during the night. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a very important person and a very powerful person. Yet he humbles himself before Jesus.

“Teacher,” Nicodemus says, “we know you come from God, for no one can do the things you do unless God is with him.”

But Jesus rebukes him, saying, “Truly, I say to you, unless anyone is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.

At first glance, this response seems to be beside the point. After all, Nicodemus is asserting that God must be behind Jesus’ actions. How does Jesus’ response relate to Nicodemus’ statement?

Jesus is responding to Nicodemus’ claim that he “knows” Jesus came from God.

Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, you could not possibly know where I come from. The only one who can know anything about the Kingdom of God is the person who has been born again.”

We are born into a fallen Creation. We are fallen and our eyes are blinded from the Truth. To combat our fallen nature, we use our reason to discover truth. Reason can show us many things about the world, but like us, reason is fallen. When we try to rationalize the character of God, for example, we will become very confused. This is why Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be born again.

The character of God is not something that we can figure out on our own. Even if we read the entire Bible, we would be unable to understand God’s character. We lack the proper faculties. Reason, although a gift, is not enough to bridge the gap of our understanding. If we, like Nicodemus, said to Jesus, “I have read the entire Bible and have concluded that you must be the son of God,” Jesus would rebuke us too!

Almost as if to prove Jesus’ point, Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus’ admonition.

“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asks. “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

But if everything born into creation is fallen, then even a mother’s womb is fallen!

So Jesus must correct Nicodemus’ understanding. He explains that this new birth must happen through water and the Spirit—not through a mother’s womb. Water and the Spirit hearken back to Genesis 1: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

All was born from water and the spirit. But humans fell into sin and dragged all of creation down with them. All of Creation has been groaning since this moment, awaiting restoration.

Then came Christ, the restorer.

How does he restore? Through water and the Spirit, the same materials through which all was created.

You may remember our study of the Baptism of Jesus.

Many sinners came to John to repent of their wrongdoings. Despite being without sin, Jesus joined these people in line. When his turn came, Jesus walked up to John and requested to be baptized. John was shocked.

“I need to be baptized by you!” John said. “Why do you ask to be baptized by me?”

“John, baptize me,” Jesus replied. “For my baptism is an important step in the process of fulfilling all righteousness.”

Jesus descends into the water. When he ascends from it, we see water and spirit for the second time in scripture: the Holy Spirit descends upon Christ. In this occurrence, the Spirit isn’t hovering over all of creation; it hovers on Christ alone. This is an important distinction: The redemption of creation happens in Christ himself. Reborn, then, means to be born a second time—through baptism—in Christ.

Only through Christ can we know God, for Christ is the only one who “knows” heaven because he descended from it.

After explaining all of this to Nicodemus, Jesus references a story from the Old Testament: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

When the Israelites were readying themselves to cross the desert, God directed them on a rather counterintuitive route. Frustrated, the Israelites spoke out against Moses and God.

“Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” They cried.

When they complained, God sent venomous snakes among the people. The snakes bit and killed many of those who had complained. As a result, the Israelites came before Moses and admitted they had sinned. They pleaded with Moses, “Please pray to the Lord, that he will take the serpents away from us!”

But God did not take the serpents away.

Instead, God says to Moses, “Make the image of a serpent and place it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”

And that is precisely where John 3:1-17 brings us: To the recognition that the world is so completely fallen, so snake-bitten, that our instincts to navigate through it successfully (even religiously) will certainly leave us dead. We plead with God to remove the sin. But the problem is deeper than the sin-snakes that surround us: Something must happen to us—in us—in order for us to be saved. That something is a second birth, through the baptism of water and the Holy Spirit. Only in this way can we know God and be saved by him.

Anything less leaves us stumbling around in the night.

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Salt, Light, and Human Beings: Doing Matthew 5:13-20

Before reading this post on doing Matthew 5:13-20, please make sure to read our post on hearing Matthew 5:13-20. You can also see a quick overview of our DOTW Bible study method.

What action does God take in Matthew 5:13-20?

In verse 17, Jesus explains his own action of incarnation by saying,

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.

Jesus came to this earth in order to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. The fact that Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law has great significance on what actions we are to take.

What action does God call me to take toward God? Toward others?

In verses 13 and 14, when Jesus says you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, Jesus doesn’t give us commands as much as he describes already present realities in our lives.

The first command we see from Jesus occurs in verse 16, which says,

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Later in verse 19, Jesus gives a warning to not relax any of the commandments, but instead we should be doing them and teaching them.

What actions did I take? Or, what actions will I take?

Our saltiness and light stand in juxtaposition to the sinful decay and darkness that surrounds us. As far as we are concerned, the answer to this decay and darkness is not to increase the demands of the law as the Pharisees did, nor is it to decrease the significance of the law as did the Gnostics.

What is it then?

In exegeting 2 Corinthians 3:18, John Chrysostom said,

For as soon as we are baptized, the soul beameth even more than the sun, being cleansed by the Spirit; and not only do we behold the glory of God, but from it also receive a sort of splendor. Just as if pure silver be turned towards the sun’s rays, it will itself also shoot forth rays, not from its own natural property merely but also from the solar lustre; so also doth the soul being cleansed and made brighter than silver, receive a ray from the glory of the Spirit, and send it back. 

In other words, when Christ commands us to let our light shine, we understand that our light comes from Christ alone and any light we possess is merely a reflection of Christ. And this is exactly our purpose as human beings!  We are to be a mirror that reflects Christ into the world.

After Jesus says to “let your light shine,” he says so that “they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” We cannot mirror Christ into the world if we are only hearing God’s word. We must be doing the same word that we hear (Matthew 7:24-27), and we must do it in such a way that it causes people to give glory to God.

It’s clearly not the case that God wants us to cease doing his word and to cease following his commandments.

However, if our good works cause people to praise us . . . then we are not letting our light shine before others.

One of the practical ways that I’ve done this is to clearly share with people how my motivations were wrong . . . even though the final result of what I did was praiseworthy.

A few years ago while traveling to a different country, I was given a hotel room that was nicely warm. Although the room didn’t have central heat, I had a portable heater that made the room comfortable. Consequently, there was a neighboring room (with a guest), that didn’t have a portable heater.  I found this out after I had gotten in bed, and although I didn’t mind being a little chilly, I had no desire to get out of bed and go down the hall and offer my heater. After struggling with my selfishness for a little while, I decided to get out of bed, get changed, go down the hall and give the heater to my neighbor.

When I did that, my neighbor was very pleased and thanked me profusely. I could have accepted the praise and allowed my neighbor to think that I was a pretty good guy. Instead, I admitted that I didn’t want to give him the heater, but the Lord prompted my heart to do it, so I was simply obeying the Lord.

This gave me the opportunity to tell him that all thanks should truly go to God, because my intentions were not righteous.

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