Living For God and Heart Obedience (Matt 5:17-26)

Bible Passage: Matthew 5:17-26

At this point in his sermon, Jesus begins a long section where he contrasts the lifestyle of his followers to the religious leaders of the day (the Pharisees). The key issue at stake was the Old Testament law. The Pharisees were meticulous in their attempts to obey the law, so much so that they would invent extra rules of their own so they didn’t even come close to breaking the laws given in Scripture. Jesus challenged the way they were coming at things, but his intent was not to lower the bar but to raise it, because for a follower of Jesus it is not merely about outward obedience but the heart. Jesus shows this idea at work through a number of case studies, the first of which is around the area of anger.

Jesus and the Law: In verse 17, Jesus explains that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. This may sound like an abstract idea but it is an important one. In the Old Testament, the law was given as a set of commands that could lead to the blessed life if kept, and this motivated the Pharisees and others to live as they did. In saying that the law is not abolished, Jesus is insisting that the moral standards are not being lowered and that they still reveal God’s heart for how we live. However, in saying that the law is fulfilled, Jesus is pointing to his own perfect obedience to the law. Whilst we fail to keep the law perfectly and so miss out on its blessings, in Jesus we can share in those blessings through faith. The righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees is both the righteousness of Jesus given to us as a gift and then new heart-obedience wrought in us by the Holy Spirit.

Obedience From the Heart: The first case study that Jesus gives of what the righteousness of the Kingdom looks like focusses on the command not to commit murder. For the Pharisees, this was an open and shut case. The law said not to physically commit murder, so in refraining from that action, they could consider themselves to be obeying the law. Jesus saw things at a deeper level and brought up the case where a person is angry with or insults a brother or sister. In these cases the same sentiment that leads to murder is present in the heart, and though it is not expressed in the same extreme manner it still reveals what is going on in the inside. The vision that Jesus has for his followers is not merely outward conformity to a set of rules, but authentic transformation from the inside.

Dealing With Anger: Though this issue of anger illustrates the big point that Jesus is exploring, it is also an important thing to consider in its own right. Jesus encourages relational conflict to be dealt with quickly and not to be allowed to fester. He uses the examples of somebody about to bring an offering to the altar and somebody on their way to court and encourages both to get things sorted straight away. It is worth noticing that Jesus even highlights the case where “your brother or sister has something against you.” It is not only that we should deal with our own resentment of others, but where possible should also seek to be reconciled when it is the other person bearing the grudge. The Bible acknowledges in Romans 12:18 that if the other person is not willing then reconciliation may not be possible (and pastorally there may be times where it is wise that dealing with anger and forgiving a person still should not lead to a reestablishment of relationship) but to the extent we are able to bring resolution and peace into a situation, this is what Jesus is calling us to do.

Potential Applications:

  • There is a very direct application here to resolve quickly any relational conflict between members of the community. Jesus’ point about pausing when offering a gift at the altar could also be applied to popping out of the worship service to get things dealt with straight away.
  • The passage is challenging for how we focus on discipleship. It can be easy to fall into the pattern of trying to avoid particular activities and thinking that is what is involved in following Jesus, all the while missing the emphasis on the heart.
  • The standard set here is something impossible to live up to by our own strength. We need the help of the Holy Spirit. You could offer a response time where you pray for people to be empowered and filled with the Spirit for the task.