But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of one letter of the Law to fail. Luke 16:17
I was talking to my dad on the phone this past Saturday and he asked me what the message was going to be about on Sunday. I told him that we were going to talk about Jesus' confrontation with the Pharisees in which He addressed their manipulation of the Law of God. I went on to say that that is exactly why people don't like lawyers today, they can use technicalities and loopholes to get guilty people off. My father, who has been a lawyer for most of his life said, "Yeah, that is why people hate lawyers and they don't like them until they need one." That, my dear father, will preach. You see the same thing is true about people and their view of the Law of God. No one likes it or wants to have anything to do with it until they see what its true purpose is.
In Luke 16:14-18 Jesus "lays down the Law" for the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the time. There are a couple of keys that help unlock the untold beauty of this passage and I want to address them first before we get to the really good stuff.
Key #1: In verse 15 Jesus has this to say to the Pharisees; You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for what is highly esteemed among men is detestable to God. It is clear from the behavior of the religious elite at the time that they were far more concerned about what people thought of them than what God thought. These were the ones who made a grand show of their prayers and gave with all kinds of fanfare. Influence and reputation among men were their primary objectives and up to this point they were doing a stellar job of achieving them. Then Jesus stepped onto the scene. He let everyone know, Pharisee or layman, that God was primarily concerned with the hearts of men because it is from the heart that the actions flow.
Key #2: The second key to this passage is the statement that Jesus makes which is quoted at the top of this post. He didn't come to do away with the Law and the prophets. Rather He came to fulfill them. Despite the fact that the Kingdom of God was being preached and people were "forcing" their way in (see verse 16) there was still a use for the Law that God had set forth long ago. The great question, which I will attempt to answer in this post, is "What is that purpose?"
Key #3: Verse 18 can be troubling in our day in time because Jesus makes a bold statement about divorce. Now, at the outset this verse looks kind of random or out of place. In some Bibles verse 18 may have its own sub-heading that says something like "Jesus teaches about divorce." This is one of the problems with having sub-headings in our Bibles because they sometimes create false divisions and cause us to miss out on the greater lesson. Let me say two things here; Jesus is making a statement about divorce, and it is also inextricably linked to the rest of the passage. In Jesus' time the Pharisees and other religious leaders wanted to be able to divorce someone for any reason they could cook up (sound familiar?). They also knew what the Law said which was that the only acceptable reason for divorce was infidelity. Thus, rather than adjusting their behavior to match up with the Law the Pharisees amended, or reinterpreted, God's Law so that they could feel justified and, if we consider verse 15, be justified in the eyes of men. Jesus looks at them and their monkeying with God's Law and says, "Leave it alone! Unhand the Law and let it be!"
You see, when we begin to modify, or reinterpret, God's Law to suit our own desires we also strip the Law of its power and purpose. What is that purpose? Did God create His Law so that it would keep people out of heaven? Did God create His Law so that only those who were good enough could get into heaven? Did God create His Law so that Christians would be the most miserable, boring people on the face of the earth who are not allowed to have any fun?
If we look at Galatians 3 we will find Paul's explanation of the purpose of the Law. Now, Paul was a man who was intimately familiar with the Law. He was the self-proclaimed "Pharisee of Pharisees" and was on the fast track to success in Judaism. He knew all about the Law. In Galatians 3:23 Paul writes;
But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.
We were in "custody" to the Law. This is something we can easily understand in our modern life. If we break the law of the land and get caught we get thrown in prison and are held in the custody of the county/state/nation under the law. What we need to realize is that we are all guilty under the Law of God. If we just take the ten commandments we will soon see how guilty we are. How many of us have told a lie, even the little, white variety? That is called "bearing false witness" and we've all done that. How many of us have taken something that doesn't belong to us? That is called theft or stealing and we're all guilty of that to one degree or another. That's only 20% of the Law and we're already guilty...let's not look at the other eight commandments. You see, God has a case against us and when we stand in the divine courtroom we will find that we don't need a theologian to reinterpret things for us, we don't need and academic to take a deeper look at the original languages, we don't need a preacher to tell us we're going to be okay and we don't need a lawyer to try and get us off the hook. What we do need is something entirely different.
Paul continues in verse 24;
Therefore the Law has become our tutor...
Now, we're starting to get somewhere in our quest for the purpose of the Law. What does a tutor do? In school if we weren't doing well in a subject or were having trouble with a concept we went to the tutor in the hopes that they could help us gain some understanding. The Law acts in the same manner but what understanding does it help us gain? The understanding that we're guilty! That, of course, still leaves us in a mess but Paul finishes the statement;
to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.
"To lead us to Christ;" that is the express purpose of God's Law. When we leave God's Law alone to do its work it will show us that we are guilty before God and His perfect standard but it doesn't leave us there; it takes us to the only person who can really do anything about the guilt. That statement alone should cast the Law in an entirely new light for us because without the Law we will never see the glory of the cross and salvation from our sin. We can try to reinterpret the Law so that we feel less guilty but in the end the guilt and sin remain unless they are given to the One who can make us clean and forgive us.
The other week my wife and I were working on building a kitchen island. We bought a cabinet, put it on castors and added a particle board top to it. Before we painted the top we made some cookies and placed them on a sheet of wax paper on the island. What we didn't realize was that the oils from the cookies were soaking down into the wood. Having moved the cookies we were left with about a dozen little circles of oil. "No problem," I thought, "I'll just paint over them and you'll never know." After two coats of paint you could still see the oil circles. We next decided to put some primer over the circles, still you could see them. All said and done there were four coats of paint and two coats of primer and the circles were still visible through them all. Now, what should I have done to begin with? I should have sanded the wood down until I got past the oil and then painted. We do the exact same thing when we try to interpret or modify our way out from the custody of God's Law. We might feel a little better and look a little better but in the end the sin is still there. The only solution is to admit the problem and take it the cross where it can be dealt with perfectly.
In this passage Jesus is making the clear statement that, yes, divorce is wrong and the Pharisees had tried to interpret their way out of their guilt. We do the same thing with any number of sins and, eventually, if we do this enough we'll find ourselves in a place where we don't think we need a savior. We'll think that there is really nothing that we need forgiving of. When we find ourselves in a place where we don't think we need a savior...we don't have one. However, if we allow God's Law to fulfill its purpose we will find ourselves in a place where nothing but a savior can help and that is exactly where God intended to lead us and precisely where He will meet us.
The parable of the Prodigal Son offers us the perfect example of this. The younger son took his father's money, ran off to a far off land and blew it all on wild living. Finally he found himself at the bottom of the barrel and Jesus tells us it was at that point that he "came to his senses." He realized he had sinned against his father and heaven and decided to return and admit his guilt. When the father saw his son coming from a distance he ran out, wrapped his arms around his neck and as the son started in on his speech the father cut him off and offered him total forgiveness and restoration. When we allow the Law to take us to a place of humility and contrition then God is ready and waiting to forgive us and, praise God, there is grace enough to cover all our sins and shame.
The table is now set and we have to make the hard decision. Will we try to justify ourselves by amending and modifying God's Law, or will we allow the Law to be the Law and find us guilty? If we choose the latter we will see the magnificent grace of God and wondrous glory of His Law that leads us to Christ. Unhand the Law, free the Law, cease your legal maneuvers and let it be your tutor on the way to the cross of Jesus Christ!