February 16, 2017

February 12, 2017 - Matthew 5:17-20

The Character of the Kingdom of Heaven
1. Broken by man, re-built by God
2. Many parts, one purpose
3. Small causes, big results

Our theme for today is about character. Not a surprising thing, after all we are using the Bible and we are in church. However, this character is not what you typically think of first. Usually when people talk about character they are speaking about a virtue of humanity; something that a person exhibits that sets him or her apart from others. Character, at least for today, is still generally regarded as a good thing in our society. When you think of your closest friendships, character is present with anyone whom you consider close.

Though it may seem like it, our text is not about human character. So much is made of the human spirit nowadays; but God’s not pushing that today. A character can also mean an individual within a story. Oftentimes a character is fictional, but not always. This is how our text speaks today. Jesus describes the Character of the Kingdom of Heaven. There is certainly an attitude of honor and integrity built into that, but only because of one individual; one character, Jesus Himself. Today we consider that Character as it pertains to God’s kingdom, both who He is, what He has done, and how He did it. From Matthew 5:17-20:

“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 "For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19 "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Part 1: Broken by man, re-built by God

The first element of the character of God’s kingdom is that although it was broken by mankind, it was re-built by God. The concepts of breaking down and building up are central to this text, but they come out to us in different terminology. Jesus speaks about the destruction of His Word and the breaking of His commandments. That’s straightforward enough. Those who sin against the law of God destroy it in their lives, and in the lives of others. Jesus’ warning is legitimate, “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”

This reminds us of the awesome responsibility we have as Christians. Our actions do not just affect our own lives, they reflect back on Christ and down to those who know little to nothing of His Word. In many cases, the Christian’s life serves as the witnessing tool to either bring someone closer to God or lead them further away. The side we’re on depends on how we use the Word. For the many times we misuse God’s Word, or ignore it, or break it; God is there to build us back up. He does that building up the Word. That’s the concept we get in the word “fulfill”.

To fulfill means to fill something in where it is lacking. A good picture is that of a cup. If the cup of our spiritual righteousness is lacking, as it is; God fills it to the brim and more. Think of King David, who wrote in Psalm 23, “my cup overflows.” But, fulfill also means to make complete. A filled cup is certainly complete in the sense that it is full, but simply being full of something says nothing about the quality of the contents. That’s where the idea of completeness takes up the flame. Fulfillment through Christ is also perfection through Christ, complete in every sense of the word; both in respect to quantity and quality. Christ not only filled in all the missing parts of your life; He did it the best way possible. Quite a gift that is, and it reminds of the secure nature of the kingdom of heaven. When sins and errors create holes in the structure, Christ re-builds it by fulfilling God’s promises.   

Part 2: Many parts, one purpose

The next thing Jesus describes about the kingdom’s nature gives us a glimpse into that fulfillment. He says, “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” In this verse, the “jot” is literally the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, iota (yoda). The “tittle” is the smallest marking in the Hebrew alphabet. Another translation clears through the confusion: “not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter (HCSB).”

The point of the statement is clear. Even the smallest part of God’s Word is abundantly important to Jesus. And not even the smallest part can be abolished. We rely on the Word of God in our lives and in our teaching. According to this verse, we are doing the right thing. Yet, it is this very point which is so often maligned by our opponents. We are accused of being literalists and fundamentalists, negative buzz words in our culture. Our teachings and applications are called archaic and irrelevant, because we put the Word above human opinion. Be assured that if you honestly attempt to follow what Jesus says here, you will be persecuted for it. 

There’s certainly ways in which faithfulness to the text can be taken to the extreme and become a dangerous thing. We have an example of that in the Bible, when Paul wrote; “But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter (Romans 7:6).” Focusing on the precise letters, at the expense of the meaning, is not the way God wants us to use His Word. Truth and attitude are both important to properly understanding the Bible and applying it.

However, the particular danger Jesus addresses with the verse in our text is much more prevalent in the world. It is the common religious practice of churches and Christians today to do exactly what Jesus says not to, to break His Word. Actually, very much like fulfillment, the literal Greek word is much more telling. The concept of “break” in verse 18 is actually “to loose or set something free.” One English translation says, “Whoever relaxes one of these commandments...” Jesus is describing the individual who systematically dismantles His Word. The activity is like a tennis shoe that is worn untied. The strings get looser and looser until eventually the entire shoe comes off. Jesus wants our laces to be tight. This goes back to the teaching that God inspired the Bible word for word. Psalm 119:160 reminds us: “The entirety of Your word is truth.” Proverbs 30:5 reads “Every word of God is true.” Jesus’ precept goes back to verbal inspiration, but it affects so much more.

The terminology of least and greatest reminds us of another example of the small and insignificant being important. “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. And if one member suffers all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it (1 Corinthians 12:27, 12, 26).” It would be quite a preposterous thing for us to say that one Christian is more important or less important than another. We are all members of the body of Christ, working together as one, though different as individuals. God treats His Word the very same way. Each letter; each marking, is important and necessary for the re-building that Christ does. “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Ephesians 4:16).” Let us not loose nor destroy that Word in our lives.

Part 3: Small causes, big results

The final point about the character of God’s kingdom is like the second. Just as many small parts have one main purpose, so too there are many small causes that lead to big results. This last point is really the direction that Jesus continues to go after preaching these words. He speaks of two examples of loosing or breaking the Word of God: murder and adultery. Certainly both of these sins clearly violate the commandments of God. However, Jesus digs even deeper by pointing out that they both begin in the heart. Jesus says, “Whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of judgment.” And “whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Jesus is leading us to understand that small causes in our hearts can lead to big results, whether positive or negative. It was also Jesus who compared faith to a mustard seed, which starts out barely visible to the naked eye yet grows large and produces hundreds of other seeds. These are hardly the only examples, even in the Bible. Our lives are living examples of these very truths. The divine service in church is the place where sinners meet God. We converse with Him and receive from Him, in all too common ways. Simple water at baptism. Ordinary bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. Common confessions of sin and absolution which have remained almost unchanged for 500 years. These are small causes which lead to big results; and results that we absolutely need to live with God.

But there’s even more than that. Like that mustard plant, the fruits keep on growing. The small cause of speaking a kind word to someone or asking how their week went, can lead to big results of encouragement and strength. The small cause of turning off the TV or computer when something vile comes up can lead to big results in avoiding repetitive behavior that builds itself up against the Word. The small, and often thankless, cause of coming to church every week and making it a priority can lead to the big result of stability and peace in your heart in the midst of a warring world. The small cause of one Christian voice that would defend God’s Word can lead to the mightiest of movements that topple godless hierarchies and institutions. These things have all happened before and can happen again. It’s part of the character of the kingdom of heaven.

Of course, just as these things all come back to the Word of God, as Jesus taught, that means they also come back to Jesus. He is the Word made flesh. But, as we also have seen today, He is the character of the kingdom of heaven. Without Him nothing works or makes sense. Take a brief look at the parts of our sermon theme. Each of three could be equally applied to Jesus the person, as they are applied to a godly attitude of faith. Jesus was broken on the cross, yet came back through the resurrection. Jesus works today through many small parts, believers like you and me, as His body, the Church. And Jesus made a life of small causes that led to big results; keeping God’s commandments, leading even His parents and instructing the scribes, comforting the downtrodden, healing the sick, defending the innocent and defending those in authority, and patiently molding the next generation of faithful disciples.      

Not one letter, or marking, of God’s Word makes sense without Jesus. He is the true character of the kingdom of heaven, both in attitude and in person. May our lives be filled and completed through the atonement of our Savior. May we seek to prioritize every word of God as rock-solid, indispensable truth for our lives. And may we be led by the Holy Spirit to produce the fruits of faith that would honor Jesus. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Chris Jesus. Amen. 

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