Theological Thursday: Letter v. Spirit, Outward v. Inward

I’ve been studying the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount on and off now for a few weeks, and although I am struck by a few overall principles which I’ll discuss below, I am also struck by how much is really in this Sermon.  Hence, I am committing to reading Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 everyday until Christmas.  I figure this is a great way to anticipate the birth of my Lord and Savior.  Will you commit to reading this foundational sermon everyday for the next six weeks as well?  The links above are from the NIV, but BibleGateway has many different versions to choose from.  I am going to try to read from a variety of translations along the way.

Reading this Scripture each day will undoubtedly lead to some detailed lessons, but for today let’s begin with the overarching themes.   First is Jesus’ emphasis on catching the spirit of the law, instead of following the letter.  Jesus says you’ve heard it said, “do not murder” but I’m telling you having contempt for someone is just the same.  You’ve heard it said, “do not commit adultery,” but I’m telling you lusting is just as bad.  Jesus is adamant that obedience is vital in the life of the believer, and he uses extreme examples to illustrate his point.  Checking the box of obedience in a technical way is obviously not what He’s looking for.  He requires much, much more!

How odd is it then that our culture sometimes uses the dichotomy of spirit versus letter to justify breaking the letter of the law?  Certainly, the laws of mere mortals are not the Mosaic Law, but I fear this kind of rationalization may blur our thinking.  May we not forget that Jesus’ call to obedience is absolutely radical.  In fact, that is a really great word for this whole sermon, isn’t it?  Radical.

The second major tenet of Jesus’ sermon is that God looks at the heart.  Hardly a surprise, given that the Old Testament heralds the great importance of the heart throughout (Deuteronomy 6:5, Samuel 16:7, Psalm 19:14).  Yet somehow we continue to fall away from this truth.  It’s as if we have a default mode that keeps popping up telling us that outward behavior is enough.  But Jesus couldn’t  be clearer: our hearts must be pure.   All that ugly stuff in my heart like bitterness, unforgiveness, selfish ambition, materialism that I’ve kicked under the bed like a child “cleaning” his room?  Jesus says that stuff matters.  It needs to be addressed, cleaned up, wiped out.

The great news is that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to help us, because living by the spirit of the law and not just the letter would be impossible on our own.  And cleaning out the heart, purifying the inward so the outward is pure too?  Yes, the Holy Spirit is there to help with that too.

Yes, the call is radical, but our Counselor is divine.

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