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This scripture occurs immediately after Jesus’ discussion of the tragedy of unsalty salt and obstructed light which we discussed last week. As we learned, Christ does not use the image of salt to say that Christians are to be a kind of divine seasoning to give taste to a bland world. Instead, Christ uses the image of salt to describe how the law acts as a preservative to keep the world from the decay of sin. He talks about unsalty salt to convey the grievous absurdity of the law being used in ways that do not preserve the world from decay but instead bolster our own sense of righteousness while the world continues to rot. Similarly, lighting a lamp and quickly hiding it under a basket conveys the absurdity that human beings, who were created to mirror’s God’s image into the world, hide themselves–and thus God’s image–“because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). In other words, sin has reduced human beings and the law to the point of uselessness.
Does Christ propose to remedy the situation by doing away with the Law? No, he answers in Matthew 5:17. Does he propose to remedy the situation with either a new law or new insights into the old law? “Absolutely not!” the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 3:21. “For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.”
Christ does not do away with the Law or create a new Law. Instead, he fulfills the only one God ever created. He enables us to experience the Law as blessing, not curse.
To understand what this means, we must travel back in time. We must think about God before time. But how can we know what happened before time? We know because when scripture tells us (cf. John 1:1). Before all time, the Son submits to the Father (John 6:38; John 1:8) and the Father glorifies the Son (Matthew 3:17, John 13:32). This is the way it was, the way it is, and the way it always will be.
When we read scriptures like this, we might (wrongly) conclude that the Father must be greater than the Son. In our world, the weaker submits to the stronger and the lesser yields to the greater. But we think this way because our thinking has been warped by original sin. Scripture tells us that the Son is the power of the Father (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:24) and that submission in the Trinity is not based on weakness but on love.
Like Satan, fallen human beings think that the purpose of power is to control others. We think that the more power we have, the more we can get our own way and accomplish the things we want to accomplish. We think about power as something we have—or want to have. When Satan tempts Jesus in this wilderness, he does so according to this understanding of power.
“Transform these stones into loaves of bread,” he tells Christ. “Throw yourself down from this height.”
Satan even brings Christ to a great height where he can see all the kingdoms of the world. He gestures to them and tells Christ, “if you bow down and worship me, I will give you all of this.” Satan sees power—and the prizes of power—as something he has and can give. That is why Satan thinks himself to be powerful.
But Christ knows that all power comes from God. God’s power always ultimately accomplishes God’s purpose. God delegates power. He does not hoard power, nor does he use power to control others. Power radiates from him. Because this world is fallen, this power is often badly twisted by those to whom it radiates. Through Christ, we see the power of God as it is intended to be used: in submission to God, reflecting it back to him with humility. In this way, we show God that we know who he is and who we are.
Christ rejects Satan’s requests not by overpowering Satan but by submitting to the authority of his Father. He refuses to transform the stones or throw himself down because his Father has not told him to do so. Christ understands that “the Son can do nothing by himself” and so he “does only what he sees the Father doing.” Instead of using power according to his own understanding or in order to achieve his own ends, Christ uses it only as the Father directs.
With this understanding of power, we can see that Matthew 5:21-37 is not about the creation of the Law, or the destruction of the Law, or about the Law bringing us to despair. It is about freeing the Law from the control of fallen humans who use the Law for their own purpose, namely, to create a standard of righteousness that is reasonable to human beings and achievable by them.
But that is not the purpose of the Law. The purpose of the Law is to preserve the fallen world from further decay. But the fallen world cannot be preserved by lowering the standard of the Law through interpretations that make it easier to keep. That only makes us feel self-righteous while the world slips into further decay—and us, blindly, along with it.
For the Law to act as a preservative, it is necessary to submit to the Law fully. That means submitting not only to the actions prescribed by the Law (e.g., do not kill, do not commit adultery) but also to the attitudes required to keep the Law—not only in body, but in soul and spirit as well.
When we submit to the Law in body, soul, and spirit, we come to see that our thinking (which is how early church fathers understood Jesus’ reference to our “right eye”) and our will (which is how early church fathers understood Jesus’ reference to our “right hand”) do wrong even when they seem to control our body to do right. That is because we interpret the Law in a way that suits our thinking and our will. As a result, the Law cannot stop the decay of human sin. We may not kill, but our anger masters us. We may not commit adultery in a way that others can see, but we become enslaved to lust. We may feel we are righteous when we provide certificates of divorce, but we can’t escape plunging ourselves and our former spouse into adultery. Our oaths sound holy, but through them we become captive to our own lies.
So in reality, we are not submitting to the Law at all. We are seeking to control it. Just as Satan believes the kingdoms of this world are his to give, we act as if righteousness is ours to bestow: anyone who fulfills our interpretation of the Law is righteous. But our interpretations lead both the body and the soul to hell, because the decay of sin is not halted in us, nor in the world.
God designed our bodies to submit to our souls and our souls to submit to God. But we fell into sin. Sin deceives us into thinking that we are submitting to the Law, that our bodies are being reined in by our souls, and our souls are being reined in by God. But because we control the Law through our interpretations, our souls aren’t submitted to the Law, and as a result, our bodies aren’t being reined in at all.
This is why our bodies feel so much more powerful to us than our souls. They are, in our fallenness. Our bodies are inflamed with sin, which carries with it the peculiar power of death. Because our souls no longer submit to God, they are left weak and helpless—dead in sin, in fact—and they cannot rein in our bodies.
Think about the movie Ben-Hur.
At one point in the movie, Ben-Hur has escaped from slavery and is in the desert. He is taken in by a desert nomad whose camp races chariots for a living. One day in the desert when the camp is preparing for a future race, horses attached to a chariot become startled and run through the camp. The horses are out of control, and the empty chariot is being dragged behind them. The camp is destroyed by the rampaging horses and their chariot. Eventually, Ben-Hur leaps onto the chariot and subdues the horses.
Does Ben-Hur subdue the horses because he is stronger than them? By no means. Even a single horse is much stronger than him. But the horses submit to Ben-Hur because that is what chariot horses do: they submit to their driver, when the driver commands.
Our body is the horses, our soul is the chariot, and both are running wild. Christ enters into our soul at baptism, and the chariot is no longer just an empty, useless cart. Once he takes the reins and issues the command, our body knows to submit to him. Our soul does not control our body by effort; it is not strong enough. Christ does not need strength; the body knows its true master, even though it has been stirred up by sin. It submits to his command. Everything does. And he commands only and exactly what his Father gives him to command.
We are not saved by our submission to the Law. Our body is not able to keep it. Our thoughts and will can only distort it. We can only rampage around it. But neither is the Law given to drive us to despair, nor is a new Law given that can bring life.
Instead, we are saved because Christ enters us at baptism. He brings us, chariot and horses, into submission, just as he submits to the father. Our submission to him is his gracious gift to us. He fulfills the Law—not instead of us, but in us, by his very presence.