At a conference many years back, one of the speakers was talking about obedience, response, worship and the law. Actually, I can’t remember exactly what he was talking about but given the quote that I’ll share later, that’s what would make the most sense.
This week at The Big Table, we reached the part in ‘The Sermon’ where Jesus talks about the law and the prophets: a multi-millenia salvation history maintained by rigorous religious observance, processes, procedures and practices of periodic atonement. A long, long legal code. Tony mentioned that the Ten Commandments were among 613 laws in the Torah. In fact, the Hebrew word for law is ‘Torah’ and it turns out you can judge that book by its cover.
The broader definition of torah is ‘to teach or instruct’ and it’s here that we gain insight to one of the primary functions of the law: to point us towards the character and heart of God. The Psalmist writes that the ‘law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul’; that it is to be desired ‘more than gold’.
When Jesus moves out of the states of blessing that form the beatitudes and the values of his Kingdom, and on to salt and light, his next stop is the law. A bit of a downer, really. I’d imagine the disciples were feeling quite chuffed to be declared salt and light to the world yet only moments later, and it’s right on to the law. (“Jesus, can you talk a bit more about that part where we’re salt and light again?”)
Jesus is Good News. The Gospel is Jesus. And when Jesus begins to talk about the law, He steps into that legal code boots and all, with Himself; total commitment and sacrifice.
He tells us that he doesn’t come to abolish the law, for the moral, ethical legal codes of yesterday and today are for our good. What Jesus does do, is two-fold and greater. First, he emphatically fulfills the law code through being our righteousness, yet receiving the punishment for our unrighteousness. Jesus’ work on the cross atones for the crushing weight of the law. It doesn’t revoke or abolish the law, it fulfills its demands and goes further. Second, by his work on the cross, his action toward us and the very words of this Sermon, he not only fulfills the law but also the spirit of the law.
And here’s where the quote kicks in.
Some people don’t walk on the grass because the sign says ‘don’t walk on the grass’, others don’t walk on the grass because they care about the grass.
You can apply this to any law you know. The law is essentially a minimum performance standard to appropriately modify and point behaviour in the right direction. Where it points, is the spirit of the law: caring about the grass.
When Jesus talks about murder, for example, he lays down the letter of the law. The minimum performance standard (hardly dizzy) is “Don’t commit murder” yet the spirit of the law is connected with honouring another, the sanctity of life, our regard for others, and removing enmity in relationships. From a legal point of view, not committing murder may keep you ‘clean’, on the outside at least.
Superficial cleanness isn’t where Jesus is heading, though.
You can do untold damage to another person through your words (gossip, slander, division, accusation) and your actions (abuse, physical violence, financial manipulation, social ostracism) without even getting close to the ‘line’, and that’s where Jesus steps in.
To care about the grass is to go beyond the law to the spirit of the law. Most times, law-keeping is about us, spirit-of-law-keeping goes beyond ourselves to the people and the environment around us. The spirit of the life-preserving law is about life, love, and relationship. You can bust all those things while staying behind the ‘line’.
As I heard Ravi Zacharias say this morning: ‘The supreme ethic that God has placed on us is love.” That’s where all these laws head: love.
Jesus and this whole Sermon is about him not only fulfilling the legal obligations of the law, but announcing the values of his Kingdom where the spirit of those laws are also fulfilled.
When we discover where the spirit of the law heads, we realise that purity is far deeper than cut and dried meta-laws, and while entirely worthy of pursuit, impossible to maintain.
You may get away without murder, but have you ever been angry towards anyone, ever? Game over. You may have never committed adultery, but have you ever looked at another person or recalled another person with thoughts that were inappropiate? Game over.
Suddenly the good news of the Kingdom may not sound that good. Want entry into this Kingdom? It will not only take your fulfillment of the letter of the law but the spirit of the law as well. For the spirit of the law reflects the values of the Kingdom.
Think you can go through life without a harsh word, without unrighteous anger, without lust or inappropriate thoughts, without divorce or breaking any commitment you make, or without retaliating with anything other than love? You’re dreaming!
If you’re seeking to use the Sermon as cause for your disqualification from Jesus’ Kingdom because the bar just got unattainably high, you’re absolutely right. You will never qualify through your own efforts. That’s Jesus point: “But I say to you…think you can do it? Let me show you what that would look like”.
The good news again is that Jesus’ grace points us towards the spirit of the law while qualifying us for His Kingdom by his work, not our failure. And he calls us on to being continually sanctified by entering into his finished work – resurrection life – for our good and His glory.
That’s not only good news for a failure but good news for a future.