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July 7 lesson: Jesus Teaches about Fulfilling the Law

June 21, 2019

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Jesus Teaches about Fulfilling the Law

Summer Quarter: Living in Covenant 
Unit 2: A Heartfelt Covenant

Sunday school lesson for the week of July 7, 2019 
By Ashley Randall

Lesson Scripture: Matthew 5:13-20
Key Verse: Matthew 5:16

Purpose: To heed Jesus’ call to be a model of faith to those around us.

Let Your Light Shine

I worked at a summer camp in North Carolina while I was in college. It was a residential camp for children ages six to 16. The camp had capacity for about 200 campers and most campers stayed for one of the two four-week sessions, although quite a few of the campers stayed the whole summer. High school juniors and seniors could register as “counselors-in-training” (CITs).

The camp offered lots of activities: archery, arts and crafts, swimming, canoeing, water skiing, golf, horseback riding, camp craft, and riflery. We served three meals a day, family-style, on china, in the dining hall. We had a library and someone who could help kids so they didn’t fall further behind over the summer break. In addition to being a cabin counselor, I also taught swimming, waterskiing, and canoeing. The summer after I graduated from college, I was the CIT Director.

There was some kind of special program after dinner every night. Sometimes it would be a local musician or storyteller. We had talent shows featuring the campers and counselors. We would show movies. We had a caller come in and teach the kids how to square dance.

After the evening program it was time for the campers to go to bed. The cabins were pretty rustic – a wood-frame building with a front porch, a shed roof, screen windows on both sides. The kids slept on metal bunk beds and kept all their clothes and gear in the trunks they brought with them to camp. There was no plumbing in the cabins. The boy’s bathhouse was at one end of the cabin area and the girl’s bathhouse was on the other end.

Taps was played around 9:30 p.m. and the kids were all expected to be in their beds with the lights out then. The cabin counselors had the responsibility of making sure that the kids in their cabin had bathed, brushed their teeth, and were otherwise ready to call it a day. Once their kids were settled down, the counselors had permission to take some time for themselves. Once a week or so, I made a trip to the laundromat to wash my clothes. Other nights I would go back to the gym and shoot hoops or hang out in the counselor’s lounge and play backgammon or Crazy 8s. All the counselors had to be back in their cabins by midnight.

About once a week I had “night duty.” Three or four counselors would be assigned to stay on the hill overlooking cabin row and keep an eye on the area while the other counselors were decompressing from the day. It was their job to make sure the kids were safe and that they stayed in their cabins until their counselor returned at midnight. 

Since it was an assigned responsibility, you were expected to complain about having “night duty.” The truth is, it was usually great. On a moonless night you could see the Milky Way. You got to sit out under the stars with a couple of friends and swap stories, plan your next day off, or discuss your plans for the next year or two. Of course, you also had to keep an eye on the cabins.

The essential tool for this job was a heavy-duty, hand-held lantern. EVEREADY® still sells a variation of this item almost 40 years later. It works like a hand-held spotlight, throwing a beam 30 or 40 yards that is bright enough to illuminate a person’s face and body. If you aim it at a person’s feet, it will light their path; but if you shine it in their eyes, it will stop them in their tracks. Depending on who was holding it and what their intentions were, it was either an instrument of intimidation or encouragement.

What other items do you think could be used either as an instrument of intimidation or encouragement?

Salting, Shining, and Standing Out

Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth.” 

“You are the light of the world.”

The first thing we should be clear about is who is “YOU.” It would be a mistake to think that Jesus has shifted his focus from those whom he has been describing in the opening of his message. “YOU” are the ones who are favored by God – the “blessed” – the “happy.” Those who are hopeless, humble, hungry. Those who grieve, show mercy, make peace. Those who have pure hearts and suffer harassment because of their commitment to follow God’s design for relationships. This is the community that Jesus is establishing through the new covenant.

This covenant community is encouraged to embrace their distinctiveness in the world. They are salt and light. As covenant people, their relationships with the world will be transforming – as long as they are informed by God’s principles.

In his sermon, “Upon Our Lord's Sermon On The Mount: Discourse Four (Sermon 24),” John Wesley describes the influence of the faith community’s “saltiness” this way:

It is your very nature to season whatever is round about you. It is the nature of the divine savior, which is in you, to spread to whatsoever you touch; to diffuse itself, on every side, to all those among whom you are. This is the great reason why the providence of God has so mingled you together with other men, that whatever grace you have received of God may through you be communicated to others; that every holy temper, and word, and work of yours, may have an influence on them also. 

And what is the light we bring? According to Wesley:

Your lowliness of heart; your gentleness and meekness of wisdom; your serious, weighty concern for the things of eternity and sorrow for the sins and miseries of men; your earnest desire of universal holiness and full happiness in God; your tender good-will to all mankind; and fervent love to your supreme Benefactor.

As Wesley says, when you live like this, “Your holiness makes you as conspicuous as the sun in the midst of heaven.” That’s what leads Wesley to assert:

“… that a secret, unobserved religion, cannot be the religion of Jesus Christ. Whatever religion can be concealed, is not Christianity. If a Christian could be hid, he could not be compared to a city set upon an hill; to the light of the world, the sun shining from heaven, and seen by all the world below.”

Wesley is most interested in making the case “that Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it.” For Wesley, this is just another way of saying, “there is no holiness apart from social holiness.” 

Be this your one ultimate end in all things. With this view, be plain, open, undisguised. Let your love be without dissimulation. Why should you hide fair, disinterested love? Let there be no guile found in your mouth. Let your words be the genuine picture of your heart. Let there be no darkness or reservedness in your conversation, no disguise in your behaviour. Leave this to those who have other designs in view; designs which will not bear the light. Be ye artless and simple to all mankind; that all may see the grace of God which is in you. And although some will harden their hearts, yet others will take knowledge that ye have been with Jesus, and, by returning themselves to the great Bishop of their souls, “glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

What are some ways that God’s people are impacting the world with whatever grace they have received from God? How does your light help people see the truth about ourselves and our need for God?

To Abolish or Fulfill

Mathew 5:17-20

It is still early in his message, but Jesus seems to recognize some anxiety developing in his audience. “What is this new thing…this new covenant…this new community?”

It was a complaint Jesus encountered with some regularity. Sometimes people challenged his authority. Sometimes they questioned his teaching. Sometimes they didn’t like who and how and when he helped. As Wesley describes their “reproach,” they claimed Jesus “was a teacher of novelties, an introducer of a new religion.” It was always an anxious response to Jesus’ challenge to the status quo.

“Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).

So is Jesus saying that all of the laws and ordinances contained in the Law and the Prophets are still in force? On the face of it that is what Jesus seems to be saying. In fact, Jesus goes on to be even more explicit: “neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen” can be ignored or dismissed.

In his sermon on this passage, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon On The Mount: Discourse Five (Sermon 25),” Wesley makes the distinction between the “ritual or ceremonial law” and the “moral law.” In regards to the “ritual or ceremonial law delivered by Moses to the children of Israel, containing all the injunctions and ordinances which related to the old sacrifices and service of the temple, our Lord indeed did come to destroy, to dissolve, and utterly abolish.” Wesley then makes quick reference to the decision of Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and the rest of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem: “The Holy Spirit has led us to the decision that no burden should be placed on you other than these essentials: refuse food offered to idols, blood, the meat from strangled animals, and sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid such things. Farewell” (Acts 15:28-29). 

That leaves the “moral law.” This is what Wesley says about it:

“But the moral law, contained in the Ten Commandments, and enforced by the prophets, He did not take away. It was not the design of His coming to revoke any part of this. This is a law which never can be broken, which stands fast as the faithful witness in heaven.” 

Every part of this law must remain in force, upon all mankind, and in all ages, as not depending either on time or place, or any other circumstances liable to change, but on the nature of God and the nature of man, and their unchangeable relation to each other.

Even though this distinction might remove many of the 613 commandments contained in the Hebrew Scriptures, that still leaves a lot of commands (unless you think the four prohibitions of the Jerusalem Council is the complete list). And it still leaves the question about what Jesus has done to establish the new covenant. What about Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel?

Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God. (Ephesians 2:14-16) 

Wesley claims that our distinction between the Law and the Gospel is a false dichotomy:

“There is no contrariety at all between the law and the gospel; that there is no need for the law to pass away, in order to the establishing of the gospel. Indeed neither of them supersedes the other, but they agree perfectly well together. Yea, the very same words, considered in different respects, are parts both of the law and of the gospel. If they are considered as commandments, they are parts of the law: if as promises, of the gospel. Thus, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,’ when considered as a commandment, is a branch of the law; when regarded as a promise, is an essential part of the gospel; - the gospel being no other than the commands of the law proposed by way of promises. Accordingly, poverty of spirit, purity of heart, and whatever else is enjoined in the holy law of God, are no other, when viewed in a gospel light, than so many great and precious promises.

“There is, therefore, the closest connection that can be conceived between the law and the gospel. On the one hand, the law continually makes way for, and points us to the gospel; on the other, the gospel continually leads us to a more exact fulfilling of the law. The law, for instance, requires us to love God, to love our neighbor, to be meek, humble, or holy. We feel that we are not sufficient for these things; yea, that ‘with man this is impossible.’ But we see a promise of God, to give us that love, and to make us humble, meek, and holy: We lay hold of this gospel, of these glad tidings; it is done unto us according to our faith; and ‘the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us,’ through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”

Notice that Wesley returns to the bedrock claim that “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him” (Romans 3:22). But then Wesley goes on to remind us that Jesus calls us to a righteousness that is “greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees.”

We might be tempted to disparage their righteousness. Wesley does not. He admits that some of them may have been hypocrites. Some of them may have even been openly opposed to God’s plan and purposes. Nevertheless, “It may be, indeed, that some of the scribes and Pharisees endeavored to keep all the commandments, and consequently were, as touching the righteousness of the law, that is, according to the letter of it, blameless.”

So what does it mean to fulfill the Law? Wesley describes it this way:

Thus, to do no harm, to do good, to attend the ordinances of God (the righteousness of a Pharisee,) are all external; whereas, on the contrary, poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst after righteousness, the love of our neighbour, and purity of heart, (the righteousness of a Christian,) are all internal. And even peace-making (or doing good,) and suffering for righteousness’ sake, stand entitled to the blessings annexed to them, only as they imply these inward dispositions, as they spring from, exercise, and confirm them. So that whereas the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees was external only, it may be said in some sense that the righteousness of a Christian is internal only: All his actions and sufferings being as nothing in themselves, being estimated before God only by the tempers from which they spring.

Notice how Wesley goes back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount to describe this righteousness. “YOU” are those who are “blessed,” “happy,” “favored by God.”

Perhaps Paul puts it more succinctly when he says, “All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14).

If “love is what fulfills the Law” (Romans 13:10b), what would the people in your circle of influence learn about God from what you say and do?

Rev. Ashley Randall is pastor of Garden City United Methodist Church. He is working with a group of religious leaders across Chatham County to establish a congregation-based justice ministry. 

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