Every Iota and Dot
Saint Matthew 5:17-26
This morning’s Holy Gospel is a portion of our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, and the opening statement of the reading is quite telling. Either Jesus is responding to criticism made against Him, likely by the scribes and Pharisees, or He’s answering a false notion about Him that He perceives some in the congregation are thinking, based on what they’ve been taught by the scribes and Pharisees. In any case, Jesus tells them that He has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. And by the Law and the Prophets, Jesus means the written testimony of God’s Word that we know as the Old Testament.
To the Jews back then, the Old Testament Scriptures had essentially come to be understood as sacred writings that tell a person what he or she has to do in order to be saved. Which means that they look upon the will of God as being something that they can actually do—something that they can follow and obey, as God requires. This is what they had learned from the “teachers of Israel,” the scribes and Pharisees.
Now of course, as you know, dear friends, they’re completely wrong. First of all, what God requires is not just good or pretty good, but perfect. He says in Leviticus 20: “You must be holy because I, the LORD, am holy.” And holy means to be absolutely without any sin at all, which is impossible for people, born of Adam, like you and me. Saint Paul tells us that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And the Old Testament writer of Ecclesiastes says, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.”
Therefore, because of our sinful nature, our inability to do “good and never sin,” the Law of God is not set before us to show us how to be holy, as God requires. Rather, as Martin Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles, the Law of God is the “thunderbolt of God, by means of which he destroys both the open sinner and the false saint and allows no one to be right but drives the whole lot of them into terror and despair.” Now, you may ask, “Why would God want to terrorize anyone?” Is it because He’s a mean and angry God? No, dear friends, it’s just the opposite—it’s because, as the apostle John says, “God is love,” and in His love for sinners, He wants us to repent of our sin, trust in His mercy and grace, and be saved.
Luther, commenting about the ministry of John—the Baptist, not the apostle—says that John preached the Law “to convict them all and turn them into sinners, so that they would know how they stood before God and would recognize themselves as lost people. In this way they were to be prepared for the Lord to receive grace, to await and accept from him forgiveness of sins.” Without the Law, dear friends, people will not know that they are sinners. Sinful pride will not allow them to see this in themselves. And so, without the Law to show them their sins, they will not look to God for mercy and forgiveness. It, therefore, does not stand to reason that our Lord Jesus would want to abolish the Law, for the Law is necessary for our salvation.
Ironically, it was those who accused Jesus of trying to do away with the Law who were guilty of doing just that. The scribes and Pharisees did this by manipulating the Law, adding loopholes and exceptions to their understanding of it, in order to bring holiness into reach of their sinful nature. Of course, none of their twisting and contorting of the Law actually did anything to change it. The Word of the Lord always remains the same—always without change—not an iota or dot different. But they deceived themselves, and others, into thinking that the Law could mean what they wanted it to mean—not that that they wanted the Law to be easy to keep, for if the Law were easy, then anyone could do it. No, they kept the Law hard and rigorous, but still do-able for them, so that they could present themselves as being superior to all others. But by claiming that the Law of God can be kept as God requires, they had, in essence, abolished the true Law of God among themselves and the people, replacing it with a false version of their own making—a version that did nothing to help anyone in the way of salvation. Thus, when Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” He means that God expects and demands more than what the scribes and Pharisees were able to give. He means that perfect holiness and righteousness is required for heaven and eternal life.
After the destruction of the temple in AD 70, we don’t hear too much anymore of the scribes and Pharisees, although the Pharisees are considered to be the fathers of modern day Judaism. Their false teaching, that keeping the Law of God is within reach of sinful man, is not only retained by those of the Jewish faith, but also is to be found to a greater or lesser degree in the errant thinking of many Christians. It’s the mistaken idea that you’ll go to heaven if you’re a good person, meaning, essentially, if you are nice and treat others well and don’t do something horrible like commit a murder. This popular and quite prevalent way of thinking, dear friends, will not lead anyone to heaven, but will instead guarantee an eternity of death and damnation, for being a nice person just doesn’t cut it with God.
Our Lord Jesus is clear about this, when He talks in the second portion of our text about murder. He says that murder is committed not just with the taking of another person’s life, but also by having hatred in your heart toward your brother, by directing an insult toward another, or by holding a grudge. The sin of murder, like every other violation of God’s Commandments, may be committed in thought and word, as well as in deed. And unless there is repentance and forgiveness of sin, it will be as Jesus says: the offender will be thrown into prison and will remain there until the last penny has been paid, referring to hell and the full payment of sin’s penalty, a payment that no person, save one, can ever fully make. Therefore, the condemnation of hell’s torment is everlasting and without end.
Now, before continuing on, dear friends, let’s do a quick recap. God’s holy and righteous Law is in place, set before sinful man by God in Sacred Scripture. And we have this Law of God before us to show us that we are sinners, whose only hope for salvation is in the mercy and grace of God. But because we sinners are a prideful lot, we are inclined by our sinful nature to think that we really don’t need to trust in God, but may instead rely upon ourselves to do as God requires, thereby earning salvation for ourselves. The scribes and Pharisees exemplify this way of thinking, but it is not restricted to them only. We, too, can fall into this wrong and sinful way of thinking. The Law of God, is therefore, always needed to destroy our self-righteous notions and drive us to see with terror where our sins will lead us without God’s love and mercy, through our Lord Jesus Christ, to help and save us.
Which brings us back to the beginning of our text in which Jesus states that He has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. And by fulfill it, He means keep it perfectly on your behalf, in your place—to do for you what God requires and you are unable to do. His fulfilling the Law for you also means making atonement for all your sins. This Jesus has done for you with His innocent suffering and death on Calvary’s cross. He truly paid the “last penny” for you. And the benefit of all of our Lord’s work—all of His fulfilling the Law for you—is given to you in your baptism.
In the water and Word of Holy Baptism, all of the sin that you inherited from Adam and all of the sin that you committed before you were baptized was washed away in the crimson flood of the shed blood of Jesus. Your baptism also holds the promise of forgiveness for all of the sin that you continue to commit each and every day. All of your transgressions before the Lord are covered by the perfect righteousness of Christ, who comes here among us today to forgive you and renew you in your baptismal grace. It is the Word of Christ that you hear in this preaching; it is His true Body and Blood that you are given to eat and drink in the Sacrament of the Altar. And by these holy gifts He declares to you, even as He does right now: “Your sins are forgiven! You have life and salvation. The kingdom of heaven truly is yours.”
In the light of eternity this means that you will never taste death, not really. What you see with your eyes and call death and the grave have no hold upon the forgiven in Christ. Remaining in Jesus—in His forgiveness and salvation—your everlasting future is, therefore, secure and certain. And this, without question, cannot but bring peace to your heart and mind—confidence and assurance that cannot be taken away from you, even in the midst of the worst trouble and hardship. Oh, sure the trials and troubles of life may wear you out, beat you down, and leave you weary … so very weary. But the voice of Jesus can be heard through all of it. And He calls to you, saying, “‘Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest;’ come to Me, for I have done everything for you—all that My Father requires—all that is needed for your salvation. Come to Me and be forgiven.”
Surely, dear friends, it is as the Psalmist says, and as we proclaimed together this morning in the Introit: “The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.” In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.