By Pastor Glenn Pease
Misunderstanding is a part of life, and much of the laughter of life is due to it. One little guy surprised his whole family one evening at the supper table by asking which virgin was Jesus' mother? Was it the Mary virgin, or the King James Virgin? He had misunderstood one word and was confused. Much humor is based on misunderstanding another's meaning. The judge, for example, asked the accused: "Have you ever been up before me?" The accused responded, "I don't know judge. When do you usually get up?"
If misunderstanding is limited to jokes, it would be an enjoyable aspect of life. Unfortunately, it is not limited to jokes. Even when it leads to something funny it can be terribly embarrassing for the one who misunderstands. Like the newly elected secretary of the youth group, who was told it was her duty to keep a record of the minutes of the meetings. The next time they met she announced the last meeting had been 20 minutes and 36 seconds. She had misunderstood the meaning of minutes.
This is a major problem in communication, because words can have more than one meaning. It is so easy to take words literally that are not meant that way. A mother asked her little boy if he thanked the neighbor lady for the party. "I was going to," he said, "But when the little girl ahead of me did, the lady said not to mention it. So I didn't." He took her words literally. One of the major problems of marriage is mates who do not grasp what the other is really saying. One of the major problems of any organization is communication breakdown that leads to misunderstanding. During World War I American soldiers whistled when the French Premiere came on the screen. The French soldiers rushed at them in anger, but before they came to blows, someone was able to explain the American behavior. To whistle in our culture was to express approval, but to the French it expressed disapproval. It was all a matter of misunderstanding.
One of the major problems that Jesus had in living the life of a man was in being misunderstood. His own disciples did not understand He was going through agony in His final hours, and they slept while He wept in Gethsemane. They did not grasp much of what He tried to teach them, and in their misunderstanding they even tried to stop Him from going to the cross. The Pharisees misunderstood Him completely. They thought He was a law breaker, and one who was defying the God of Israel. They did not see His love and compassion for the sinner as good news. They saw His association with sinners, and His violation of the Sabbath by healing then, as the action of a rebel rather than a redeemer. They totally misunderstood Jesus and His mission.
Amiel in his Journel says it was one of the greatest wounds men inflicted upon Jesus. He was the great misunderstood, and the least comprehended. Jesus says to His disciples, "Beware the leaven of the Pharisees," and they debate about bread. He says, "I have meat to eat ye know not of," and again they wonder where He got bread. "Destroy this temple and in 3 days I will raise it up," He said, and the leaders of Israel wondered how He could build what took decades to construct in only 3 days. On and on it goes, and even the intelligent leader Nicodemus asked, "How can I go back into my mother's womb and be born again?"
Everybody kept misunderstanding Jesus, and taking His word so literally they came to strange conclusions. This is still a major problem today, and it will be one of the struggles we face in going through the Sermon on the Mount. We will have to spend a great deal of time and effort in explaining what Jesus did not mean. So many take the words of Jesus in a literal sense that leads to deep misunderstanding, and some have even cut off their hands to try and prevent sinning. It bothered me as I studied this sermon, that so much of what Jesus says has to be explained again and again to prevent wrong conceptions. But as I focused on verse 17, I realized this was the very thing Jesus had to do Himself in giving the sermon.
"Think not I have come to destroy the law," Jesus said. In so saying, He acknowledges that He knows He has already been misunderstood, or that He will be. He is trying to clarify His position and avoid misunderstanding. I realize that if Jesus had to do this, then it is just an inevitable part of life, and the process of communication. There is no way to be effective in communicating if you do not remain constantly aware of the reality of misunderstanding. Rudyard Kipling said, "We are like islands and we shout to each other across seas of misunderstanding."
Not understood. How many breasts are aching
For lack of sympathy. Ah, day by day,
How many cheerless, lonely hearts are breaking,
How many noble spirits pass away-not understood.
O God! That men would see a little clearer,
Or judge less harshly when they cannot see!
O God! That men would draw a little nearer
To one another! They'd be nearer Thee,
It is one of life's biggest battles to be understood, and one of life's greatest virtues is to be one who strives to understand. Misunderstanding, and being misunderstood, is one of life's greatest trials, and Jesus experienced it to its depths. In our text we are focusing on one of His attempts to overcome misunderstanding.
"Think not," he says, and some go no further than this, and think they obey because they think not. What Jesus is saying is, do not jump to conclusions and end up with a false impression of my goals. Jesus knew that His opposition to the leaders of Israel, and His violation of their interpretation of the law, would cause many to assume He was anti-law, and that His goal would be to overthrow the old and begin a whole new system. This is how the Pharisees saw Jesus. He was a threat to Judaism, and a rebel who sought to overthrow the law of Moses. In fact, Jesus wanted just the reverse. He wanted to restore Judaism from its flat and tasteless state to what God intended it to be. He was the salt to bring out the fullness of its flavor, and bring it to its full potential, and fulfill it.
Let us learn from this conflict of Jesus and the Pharisees never to judge a person's motives on the basis of what seems, or on the testimony of their enemies. The only way you can avoid misunderstanding and bad judgments is to listen to the clear statements of the person in question. It is not what you think, or what the critics think, but what does the person say himself. Jesus gives us His own clear statement on a major issue of conflict, and He doubles the certainty of our not misunderstanding Him by dispelling a negative, and declaring a positive in verse 17.
I. A NEGATIVE DISPELLED.
Only twice did Jesus use these words to try and dispel misconceptions. Here and in Matt. 10:35 where He says, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on the earth, I have come not to bring peace but a sword." Jesus was so loving, and such a peacemaker that people could easily jump to the conclusion that following Him would lead to a life free from all conflict. Unfortunately, Jesus had to drive this misconception from people's minds, or they would not be prepared for the shock of conflict and persecution that was ahead for those who followed Him.
One of the major tasks of Christian teaching is to set the record straight, and scatter the misconceptions that people have about God and Christ, and the Christian life. Will Rogers was right, all of us are ignorant just in different subjects. All of us have misconceptions and misunderstandings that need to be dispelled by clearer light. Christian education is the process of pushing back the darkness of misunderstanding with the light of true conception. One of the biggest issues of Christian history is the one Jesus deals with in this verse. It is the issue of the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament, or to Christianity. This is a complex issue that has led to much misunderstanding through history.
Jesus first makes it clear that the negative idea that He came to destroy the law and the prophets is to be cast to the wind. It is false view of His mission, and is not to be a part of Christian thinking. Jesus abolishes the idea that He has come to abolish the law. Jesus does not come to build a kingdom from scratch. He builds on what has been the plan of God in history. There is clear continuity of the old and the new. Jesus is no superficial revolutionary who assumes all values start today, and so the past can be rejected. There are always permanent values of the past, and no future can be bright without preserving these values.
The idea that Jesus came to overthrow the law is based on a misunderstanding of His opposition to the leaders of Israel. Jesus was opposed to their perversion of the law, and not the god ordained purpose of the law. They made the Sabbath a curse rather than a blessing. Jesus violated their conception of the law, but not its purpose. The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath, and so Jesus used the Sabbath to heal, help, lift, and minister to people's needs. The Pharisees hated Him for this. They considered Him a law breaker, for their legalistic minds saw the rules and regulations as of more value than the people. Jesus came to destroy this perversion of values.
There is a valuable lesson in this for us all. It is possible to be against what you are for when what you are for is being abused. It is possible for a Christian to oppose his church or denomination and be in the will of God if the reason is, not to hurt the cause, but to overcome abuse. The Christian can be opposed to his government, and not be opposed to democracy, or to any of the principles for which the nation stands, but because he is opposed to the perversion of those principles. Prophets were opposed to Judaism because it was going astray.
What this means is that being opposed to something does not mean you are the enemy. The fact is, you may be the best friend of what you oppose because you are the one most concerned about its purity of purpose. So it was with Jesus. He was opposed to Judaism, not because He was anti-semitic, but because He was anti-polution and perversion. He wanted to see Judaism cleansed of its man made burdens, and lifted to the level where it was meant to be, as a light to all the world, that through the seed of Abraham all the families of the earth would be blest. Jesus did not destroy Judaism or the law. He fulfilled them and accomplished the purpose for their being in God's plan.
Get the idea out of your head that He came to destroy or downgrade the law and render it obsolete. It is true that the New Testament is superior and holds first place in the Christian heart, but it is folly to despise the foundation because you enjoy the walls and ceiling better. It is foolish to despise the baby because you admire the mature man, or reject the sapling because you prefer the fruit bearing tree. The Old Testament was God's best for the time, and just because Jesus has come to be God's final word, and finished work, does not mean we should have any negative attitudes toward the bud from which the full flower has opened to our view.
If you cut a flower from its root, you will have a flower that soon wilts. Christianity grows out of the roots of the Old Testament. Those root principles that God gave His Old Testament people are not passing but permanent truths. Jesus did not come to eliminate them, but to incorporate them into the Christian system. That is why it is called the Judeo-Christian tradition; the Judeo-Christian ethics, the Judeo-Christian morality. Judaism and Christianity have so much in common because they both build on the revelation of God in the Old Testament. Those who reject the Old Testament reject the mind of Christ, for He came not to destroy the Old Testament, but to fulfill it, and preserve all of its permanent values.
The meaning of the whole is greater than the meaning of any part. The Old Testament gives us insight into the whole sacrificial system, and the New Testament sees it fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ. The covenant with Noah is not abolished by the New Covenant in Christ. God put the bow in the clouds that we might ever remember that God's method of dealing with sin will never again be all out destruction of the world. The covenant with Abraham, that through his seed all the families of the earth should be blessed, is not abolished, but fulfilled. The covenant with Moses was, obey and do the will of God, and you will inherit the promises of God. The specifics have changed, but the principles are the same in the New Covenant. God always expects obedience from His children as a prerequisite for His blessing. So the idea of rejecting the Old Testament is absurd. It is like picturing the Godhead as divided rather than one. Robert Capon illustrates the folly of this picture.
God the Father plays the first half of the game all by himself. The Son and Holy Spirit are on the sidelines from the dawn of creation to the end of the Old Testament. Then in the fullness of time God the Father puts himself on the heavenly bench, and sends in the Son for the third quarter. By the end of that quarter He feels he has a good enough lead to risk using the rookies, and so He sends in the Holy Spirit and the Church to finish the game. This compartmentalizing conception of God's working in history causes us to lose the sense of oneness in the Godhead, and the awareness that all three Persons of the Godhead have been working together from creation. Each is highlighted, to be sure, for their special role, but there is a unity and continuity in all they do. For Jesus to abolish the Old Testament would be for Him to write off His own work, for the law and the prophets were as much His doing as that of the Father. The Old Testament covenants are not promises from some other deity. They are His promises, and He intends to keep them. The New Testament is just the completing of all He has been doing all along. Next we look at-
II. A POSITIVE DECLARED.
Jesus says, "I did not come to destroy or abolish the law and prophets, but to fulfill them." Progress does not mean abandonment of the old. Progress uses the old to climb higher. When you go from high school to college they do not tell you to abandon all you learned in high school. They build on it. College may be a radical change from high school, but it is not opposed to high school. Jesus is not saying He did not come to make radical change, for He did, but none of the changes are a forsaking of the old, but rather, a fulfilling of the old.
There can be change, and yet stability when the change has continuity with what has been. A river is constantly changing, and yet it is always the same river. The ancient philosopher was right when he said, you can't step into the same river twice, for the water is ever flowing, and so the second time you are really stepping into new water you never touched before. It is ever new, and yet always the same because it maintains its identity. So it is with us. We have all new molecules from what we had 7 years ago, but we are still the same. That is what Jesus did with the law and prophets. He did not say He will leave them as they are to be always what they have been. He changes them, but the changes do not destroy or abolish, but bring forth the fullness of the potential of the Old Testament principles.
Jesus says, nothing of value that God intended to convey to man in the Old Testament will be lost in the New Testament. It will, in fact, be made more clear and available than it was in the Old Testament. Just as college will hopefully make what we learned in high school more clear and more applicable, so Christians will do for the Old Testament. Jesus puts His full stamp of approval on the Old Testament as the Word of God, and that is why the Christian Bible includes the Bible of Judaism. It did not cease to be God's Word when God gave His full and final word in His Son. It is still a vital part of God's revelation to man. "The new is in the old concealed; the old is in the new revealed." You need both to have the root and fruit.
Christianity is an Old Testament and New Testament faith, and without this combination you do not have what Jesus came to give. Any theology that focuses on the one to the neglect of the other becomes a perversion. We can't get into this now, but if you examine the cults in detail you will discover that they all have something in common. They take either the Old or the New Testament and build their doctrine on one or the other. If you take the Old Testament without the New, you build on what is just a partial view of God's light. If you take the New without the Old, you build without a foundation. Jesus made the Old a permanent treasure for God's people by these positive words. His mission was not destructive but constructive. He did not come to abolish Judaism, but to fulfill it.
The purpose of Jesus was always to be positive and not negative. God is not willing that any shall perish, but all come to repentance, and, therefore, all that He does in history is for the positive purpose of making progress toward that goal. Judgment must fall, but that is never the goal. That is the consequence of man's not cooperating with God in reaching the goal. Jesus is the perfect combination of the conservative and progressive. He preserves all that is good of the past, but is ever pressing on and improving it for the benefit of the future. The stairway Jesus climbs is always up from good, to better, to the best. The Old Testament kingdom was good, the New Testament kingdom is better, the eternal kingdom is best.
As we go on to study the Sermon on the Mount, we will hear Jesus say, "You have heard it said of old, but now I say this." He changes the old way of seeing things, and this sounds like He is abolishing the old, but not so, He is improving the old. The old Ford Model A was never abolished even though you seldom to never see one. Nobody destroyed it, but they did improve it, and kept changing it until there is no comparison of the old and the new. Yet, the new has direct continuity with the old. In this Sermon on the Mount we see Jesus making changes in the Old Testament law, but change does not mean to abolish, or make of none effect. Change can mean to add to, to improve, and to bring out the best in. This is what Jesus does with the Old Testament law. He lifts it to a level where it will be compatible with grace, and be a tool for prevention rather than punishment.
With Jesus love became the fulfilling of the law. The law in the hands of the Pharisees was a tool of legalistic pride. Their main purpose was to punish violations of the law. This gave them a sense of pride and self-righteousness because they did not violate the law. The main motive toward the sinner was to make them pay. Jesus says that the law is good in spite of their sadistic application of it, for law is vital to all order and freedom. However, with Jesus the primary purpose of the law is not to punish and make the sinner pay, but to help the sinner escape the need to pay.
Love's motive is to help people understand the intention of the law, and that it is designed to be a warning of where we are weak. It points out where we are most likely to fall in order to prepare us so we can take evasive action to prevent the fall. The goal of love is deliverance, and not damnation. The Pharisees gloried in imposing the penalty of the law. Jesus gloried in preventing the penalty. The Pharisees wanted to pounce on the man who got angry and killed his neighbor. Jesus instructs the man on how to avoid the murder by controlling it at the point of anger, and so preventing the need for judgment.
Love fulfills the law because it helps to achieve the primary purpose of the law which is, not to punish, but to prevent. Love is into prevention, rescue, deliverance, and escape. These are all forms of salvation, and that is what Jesus came to do. He came to save men by His death on the cross, but He also came to teach us how to prevent sin from dominating our lives in this Sermon on the Mount. He fulfills the law in His own life, and teaches us how to fulfill it in ours. The choice for the Christian is not the law or the Lord, but the law and the Lord.
Wilhelm Vischer says, for the Christian to abandon the Old Testament is to abandon the Christian faith, for we can only know what it means to be the Christ, or the Messiah, by the Old Testament. He writes, "The two main words of the Christian confession "Jesus is the Christ"...correspond to the two parts of the Holy Scriptures: The New and the Old Testament. The Old Testament tells us what Christ is; the New, who He is."
Christ was the event toward which the whole history of the Old Testament moved. Without the Old Testament we cannot know what it was that He fulfilled, and, therefore, the Old Testament is a vital part of the Christian faith. To ignore it is to cease to be Christian, for a Savior not seen as a fulfiller of the Old Testament promise and hope is not the New Testament Savior.