17 “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.”
Quick! Without looking, without opening your Bible and without peeking at an online Bible, answer this question: What were the first words Jesus spoke in a sermon? I will tell you in a minute, but for now, let’s discuss what people THINK He said. You see, with the popularity of the Beatitudes, many people think that the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) was Jesus’ first sermon. And when pressed, some people may quote other, later lessons–e.g. “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12)–believing that the passage they remember best is probably the first and most important one. For many, the core of Jesus’ message is about loving one another, about bearing with one another’s faults and sins, learning to love and care for each other–all supposedly in the hope of ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth. Yes, loving one another certainly is important, but to Jesus it is the SECOND most important commandment. You do remember the FIRST most important commandment, don’t you?
36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
38 “This is the first and great commandment.
39 “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
40 “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
Love of God comes first, and these commandments to love God and love each other are foundational to “all the Law and the Prophets”–which, as we see from today’s verses, Jesus Christ came to fulfill, to make complete, to bring to fruition. According to Jesus, this love of God is how we ourselves fulfill the requirements of the law, and it is this love of God that allowed the prophets to hear and speak the Word of God. And without love… Well, you can read 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 on your own sometime, but the gist is that no amount of caring for others or trying to prophecy will amount to anything without love–love of God first, and love of our fellow men second.
So, have you remembered what Jesus’ first sermon was? Here it is:
From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
14 Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God,
15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Jesus’ first message was not that we should love each other, not that God loves us, not even that we will be comforted by the Holy Spirit. His first message was that we need to REPENT. We might assume that, since these were the first words Jesus preached publicly, they are the most important part of His message. Yes, we ought to love one another, and we had better love and fear the Lord our God, and yes, the kingdom of God is within us, and we can certainly expect that the Holy Spirit will have some effect on our lives. But NONE of that means anything, none of that is even possible, unless we change the way we think and feel and live. “Repent,” He said, instructing us to turn away from what we once held true and cleaving unto the gospel of the kingdom of God.
And what does all this have to do with Jesus not destroying the Law or the Prophets? If Jesus came to fulfill the law, and if the gospel of Christ is that He paid the price for our sins to bring us salvation, then when we repent–when we literally “think again” or “change thinking,” when we turn away from our pride and rebellion, when we once again become obedient sons and daughters of God–then we ourselves are fulfilling the law and the prophets. Our natural inclination is to love ourselves first, but such selfishness could never bring us to righteousness, never bring us peace with God. And so Jesus showed us a better way: love God first and others next, and all the rest falls into place. When we truly love God, then we naturally put God’s laws and commandments first in our lives. His priorities become our priorities, and the things He finds abhorrent, we find abhorrent. When we love God first and accept His Son as Savior and Lord, then we have “washed the inside of the cup” and thus fulfilled God’s will for us in the law. You see, righteousness does not come from following the letter of the law, following the law comes from the righteousness we receive from Christ Jesus and His redemption of our souls.
If Jesus was telling us first to repent, then that means that the way we have been living our lives–being tolerant of others’ faults, keeping hidden our own secret sins, indulging our pride, withholding our love–is not acceptable in the kingdom of God. The command to repent is Jesus’ way of pointing us back to the law and the prophets–wherein we constantly read about the need for repentance and for loving and fearing God.
Today, the temptation in many churches is to “fudge” the law, to say that the love of others trumps the need to love God and follow His law. Many denominations have allowed the law to slip quietly away as they focus on what they see as “justice” and “inclusion” and “tolerance” and “equality,” and they have forgotten that the law still has value in instructing us about sin and our need for repentance. It is not that the law saves us from sin, but that our salvation through Christ should lead us to following the law of our own accord. When we love God first, then sin becomes abhorrent to us, and the things that are an abomination to the Lord become abominations to us. And yet, in the name of trying to fill the pews, many churches in America have forgotten the things that God feels are wrong, the things that God has said cause us to defile ourselves. The command from God was not “Make up your own measure of holiness and I’ll go along with that.” The command from God was “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)
Since Jesus came to fulfill the law, and since the first words He spoke to us are to repent and believe in the gospel, then it naturally follows that we should seek guidance from God’s holy Word, that we should turn to the Bible “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) We cannot simply ignore some parts of Scripture, saying that the “gospel”–or whatever some say is the “gospel”–overshadows and overrules those “old laws” about abominations to the Lord. We cannot simply say that if we are expressing our love for and tolerance of our fellow man, then we are fulfilling God’s will for us, that we are following Jesus. If we are to follow Jesus to the fullest, we must first do as He commanded: Repent!
Today, let us look closely at our lives and attitudes. And let us look closely at God’s Word to see if our lives truly line up with God’s will for us in Christ. The true gospel of Christ is that He died for our sins and rose again on the third day to bring us eternal life. But peace with God is fleeting if we do not repent and truly allow Christ to become Lord of our lives. If we hold onto sin–sin as defined by God Himself in His Word–then we have not truly repented, and we cannot truly be said to believe in the gospel.
Therefore, let us turn to God’s Word for instruction so we know what it is we are to repent, and let us turn to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, and allow Him to lead us to true righteousness that enables us to follow God’s laws as no mere man is able to do on his own. Let us not destroy the law in the interest of tolerance, inclusion, or political correctness, but let us rather fulfill the law by loving God so much that we naturally follow His will and His Word.
Holy Father God, You alone are good and holy and righteous, and yet You have chosen in Your mercy to share Your grace and righteousness with us through Christ Jesus, Your Son. Thank You for the gift of Jesus, the living Word, and thank You, too, for Your written Word–to which I shall turn time and again for instruction and correction and encouragement and hope. Guide my heart into YOUR righteousness, Lord God, so that I find myself wrapped in Your love and Your presence. Help me to repent from what I once thought was acceptable, and help me to truly learn to love You with all my heart, with all my mind, and with all my soul. Amen.