DUNCAN/God’s law vs. human tradition: Part I
Turn in your Bible to Matthew 5:21-26 as we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus makes it clear in verses 17-20 that the law is authoritative for His people. He reminds us that believers who are united to Him become those who are conformed to the beautiful image of God displayed in the law of God. In relation, Jesus begins to provide an explanation of the principles he previously addressed in verses 17-20. Specifically, in this passage, Jesus tells us that it is possible to break the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not murder,” in more ways than taking the life of another human being. It is important to note that Jesus has at least two audiences in mind. As Jesus speaks these words, He has in mind both the self-righteous, those who were the Pharisees in His own day. He also has in mind His disciples, those who trust in Him. And he wants those two groups and us to understand at least three things. First, Jesus wants us to understand that the law is a pattern for what we are to become. Secondly, He wants us to understand that the law of God is spiritual. And thirdly, Jesus wants us to understand that God’s law applies to our relationships.
I. The Law Is a Pattern for What We Are to Become.
In verse 21, Jesus wants the Pharisees to understand that they are not the law keepers of Israel; He is the law-keeper of Israel. Though they think they have such a high view of the law, Jesus wants them to understand that they haven’t even begun to have a high view of the law. He also wants them to understand that a person can break the law in more ways than just taking the life of another unlawfully. Thus, Jesus provides a diagnostic tool by which we can check our own hearts in His exposition of the law. Friends, our attitude to God’s law is an index to our attitude to God. If we think that God’s law is something that He put into life to ruin it then that reveals what we really think about God. But if we can say with the psalmist, “How I love thy law, O Lord” and if we can be perfectly realistic and realize that we do not fulfill the law in this life then we are on our way to understanding the law, understanding our God, and understanding the freedom that the Christian has. The freedom given to a Christian is not freedom from obedience, it is freedom to obedience. It frees us from the slavish fear of condemnation and it frees us to the loving and willing obedience of children to the Father’s instruction. The Pharisees didn’t understand this and the Lord Jesus is going to remind them of that several times in this passage.
II. The Law of God Is Spiritual.
In verse 22, Jesus teaches us that the law is spiritual. He says, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” He is telling us that we can break the law without anyone knowing that we’ve broken the law around us. The law deals with matters of the heart, and He gives us two examples of that in the passage. First of all, He shows how the command not to murder relates to anger. Jesus is telling the Pharisees that they have broken the sixth commandment if they have engaged in unrighteous anger. He says that kind of anger is “heart murder” and a violation of the law. Then He says that if a person has used destructive speech toward others that they are guilty of “tongue murder.” Jesus is reminding us here that these sins are a symptom of something that needs to be changed in the heart. His point in this passage is to drive us into His arms again in prayer and dependence upon Him that the Spirit might work the work of mortification in our life. We need the grace of Christ to free us from it. And so examination according to the law drives us back to Christ that we might depend upon Him and the work of the Spirit in our lives and that we might be conformed again according to the pattern of God’s perfect law. Only the grace of God can conquer that kind of indwelling sin.
III. God’s Law Applies to Our Relationships.
In verses 23-26, Jesus teaches us that our relationship to God is reflected in our human relations. For the law to be fulfilled, Jesus makes it clear that the heart must at all times be filled with love toward God and man and not filled with hatred and anger. The law requires that type of heart love. Jesus is saying that if you have the love of God in your heart then you are going to have a heart for being right with your brothers and sisters. If you have the love of God in your heart, you are going to have a heart which shows concern for the best interest of others. In contrast, a lack of concern about reconciliation is an index of a lost and a dead heart.
If my attitude of heart is hateful towards others, then it is an indication that there is something wrong. What about my tongue? In the midst of pressure do I speak words that destroy others? If I do, that tells me about the state of my heart. And finally, what is my attitude towards my brothers? Am I so concerned for my brother and sister’s good that I desire to show the love of God in my heart by being reconciled to them, or do I not care? If I don’t care, Jesus says, that tells us that there is an absence of gospel love in my heart. To believers, this law serves as a tool to examine ourselves and to drive us back to Christ so that we might put to death this sin in us. To the self-righteous, it reminds us that this law cannot be kept externally and we certainly can’t justify ourselves by it.
Only God can work these things in us and He only does it by his grace and through the work of the Spirit. So when we see these things in ourselves, He wants us to come back to Christ, avail ourselves afresh of the blessings of the indwelling of the Spirit and to determine again in newness of life to walk in the way of truth. The law shows us what God will make us one day and may we desire now to become what one day we shall be by God’s grace.
The Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. He can be reached at 601-923-1600 or by email at email@example.com.