Last week the five guys within our larger group were working through sharing a 'lightbulb' moment that God gave each of us as we read Matthew 5. As we did so, God opened my eyes to something I had never before seen.
Jesus, in the wisdom that typified his every parable and pericope, is teaching at 2 levels here and we'd do well to pay attention at both levels. Jesus speaks to his disciples many high ethical standards for them to live out or embody - but (lightbulb!) he speaks of himself doing just one thing.
Level 1: Jesus speaks - high heart standards. "And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying" (v.2) is how Jesus begins and this continues for 9 Beatitudes (happy promises), 2 lofty embodiments (salt of the earth & light of the world), and 6 of the loftiest moral standards I've ever heard - all of which begin with the formula: "You have heard that it was said...but I say to you." As we discussed anger tantamount to murder, living through unhappy marriages, looking at a woman that second time with the wrong intent, loving those you feel you should probably just avoid because they press all your buttons - the consensus amongst these 5 men in our little group: "They must have shook their heads in defeat as Jesus went through each of these one by one." On the one hand, each of these ratcheted-up standards are for our good. For example, When we allow anger to fester and grow at the heart level, the other person becomes, in effect, dead to us (Mt. 5:21-22) so it is worth leaving even a worship service to do the hard and humbling work of reconciliation (Mt. 5:23-24). On the other hand, the further Jesus goes up the list, the more one feels his/her inability - not striking back when struck, given more than what a mooch might ask for, love and pray for those who wish you ill?!
Then the kicker - Jesus teaches we are to do and not relax any of these commandments (Mt. 5:19), our righteousness must exceed a group of persons who had spent their lives and quit their jobs (in some cases) to dedicate themselves to meticulous obedience to every law and every possible way to obey it (Mt. 5:20), and he concludes: "You therefore must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48). Jesus means for us at this point, I believe, to feel our utter inability.
So to re-cap so far, Level 1: Each of these individual "doing what's right" would serve us and others well - while brining great glory to God. The bridge: We are meant to feel the impossibility of actually doing them.
Level 2: Jesus does. Did you ever notice that for all the speaking, teaching, and "but I say to you's" from Jesus in Matthew 5, there is only 1 thing he says he will do? And it's the one thing we absolutely need! "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets (ie. the entire Old Testament); I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished" (Mt. 5:17-18).
The word translated "fulfill" (pleroo) really does give a sense of "fills full." Imagine the Old Testament as a large bucket not yet filled to the brim. Jesus fills full the entire Old Testament where it lacks: (a) All the Messianic prophecies that are left open; (b) All the types of leaders/deliverers who didn't quite live up to God's standard (Moses, David, Aaron, Joshua, and every prophet-priest-king); (c) All of the Law and commandments -- moral law: Jesus does it; ceremonial law: Jesus becomes the sacrifice; civil law: Jesus is exalted as the ruling king worth submitting to.
For our immediate purposes, Jesus perfect living fills full the bucket of where we fall woefully short (cf. Matthew 3:15). So he offers to credit to us his filled-full righteousness by simple trust in Him.
To the one who works [to be perfect & fill full his own bucket of right-living], his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts in Jesus who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Romans 4:4-5).So here in Matthew 5, Jesus is giving us a high-heart ethical standard that is meant to be lived out for our good and the good of our neighbor; yet, he's also purposely set the standard so high that we are meant to feel our inability - so he hints here at one thing he will do: Fill full all righteousness and right-living that we could not - including willingly becoming the right sacrifice to fulfill the Law and becoming our rightful king by way of resurrection to fulfill the Law.
Jesus Level 2 fulfillment then empowers us to live out his Level 1 standard. When we trust in Him, He causes us to be born again (John 3:7-8), giving us a new and tender heart that wishes to please our Father (Ezekiel 36:26), so tender that the high-heart standards will be permanently etched onto our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). The great 20th century German theologian (and martyr) Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it well in The Cost of Discipleship in which he examines Jesus' sermon on the mount. He says with respect to chapter 5 of Matthew's gospel:
God is the [the Law's] giver and its Lord, and only in personal communion with God is the law fulfilled. There is no fulfillment of the law apart from communion with God, and no communion with God apart from the fulfillment of the law. To forget the first condition was the mistake of the Jews, and to forget the second the temptation of the disciples. Jesus, the Son of God, who alone lives in perfect communion with him, vindicates the law of the old covenant by coming to fulfill it...It is Jesus himself who comes between the disciples and the law, not the law which comes between Jesus and the disciples. They find their way to the law through the cross of Christ. Thus by pointing his disciples to the law which he alone fulfills, he forges a further bond between himself and them.If on your own or with a group, you are studying Jesus' wise and lofty teaching on this mount and finish feeling defeated. Do not worry yourself further: You are meant to! Look to Him who fills full the life you cannot on your own. He bonds you to himself through a relationship of simple trust and He will walk you through each step of obedience.