Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council, July 19, 2015
Titus 3:8-15; Matthew 5:14-19
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
I would like us to hear the short text of today’s Gospel again, because this is what we will speak on today. These are the words of the Lord Jesus to His disciples:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father Who is in heaven. Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not 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. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
At first blush, this passage would seem to be two almost unrelated themes. First, we have Jesus saying, “You are the light of the world,” and He enjoins His disciples to let the light of their good works “shine before men.” But then He says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” First, He encourages them not to hide the goodness of the works that bring glory to God, and then He seems to change the subject and starts to talk about the Law of Moses.
What’s going on here? How do these two things go together?
We need to back up a little bit to understand what’s happening. First, we have to note that these six verses from the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel are part of a much larger discourse called the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with chapter five and extends through chapter seven. It is the longest discourse from Jesus in the Scriptures, and it contains numerous familiar passages and sayings, such as the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” etc.) and most of the central tenets of Christian discipleship.
The Sermon on the Mount is all set against the backdrop of the opposition of the Pharisees to Jesus and His followers. And if you read it that way, it begins to make much more sense. The Pharisees were the arbiters of the Law of Moses in the time of Jesus. They were the experts on what it meant to live as a good Jew. If you opposed them, or if they opposed you, your credibility as a Jewish teacher was very much in question.
So when Jesus talks about good works, the good works that His disciples have to “let… shine before men,” this command from Him is a rebuke to the Pharisees. How so? It is because the Pharisees’ accusation against Jesus was that He was a sinner against the Law of Moses, that He wanted to get rid of the Law and was teaching others not to follow it.
So He emphasizes here that He is not in the least telling anyone not to do good works. Indeed, do them so that the whole world can see them. Do them as the “light of the world.” Do them as a “city set on a hill.” Right before today’s passage, He also tells His disciples that they are the “salt of the earth.” Light on a lampstand, a city on a hill, and the salt in one’s food—these are all images of things that are obvious and out in the forefront of our experience. So He is making it very clear that the good works of His disciples should be obvious to everyone.
But He also says that that obviousness is not for their glory, but so that the world “may see your good works and give glory to your Father Who is in heaven.” So, yes, good works should be accessible to the world, but they are for God’s glory, not their own. But He’s not telling them not to do good works. The Pharisees are wrong about that.
So that’s why what He says next makes perfect sense: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” He’s not coming to get rid of what Jewish tradition had received from God through Moses and all the prophets. And not only is He not getting rid of all that, but He is very clearly encouraging His disciples to do their good works out in front of everyone. So, no, Pharisees, He hasn’t come to abolish the Law and the prophets.
But He still has something up His sleeve. Here’s what He says next: “I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them.”
And with that one sentence, Jesus opens up the way not only to understand all the changes that are made from what it means to be a good Jew to what it means to be a good Christian, but He also sets up the basic dynamic of how Christians read the Old Testament.
Let’s talk about those changes first.
So Jesus says that He’s not abolishing the Law, yet nevertheless there are a lot of changes made by Jesus and His Apostles for Christians. Christians do not, for instance, keep the kosher laws. We also don’t follow the intricate system of ritual purity that Jews did. Nor do we observe the Jewish feast days. And so on.
But the changes are not just about things we don’t do, but they are also about things we’ve taken to another level. For instance, Christian morality is higher than Jewish—later on in this sermon, Jesus says, for instance, that it was previously forbidden to commit adultery, but He raises the moral stakes and says that you can’t even look upon someone with lust in your heart (Matt. 5:28). Ever heard anyone say, “You can look, but you can’t touch”? Well, Jesus says you shouldn’t even look, because the whole dynamic of looking without touching is about lust. And He says that the spiritual effect of lust in the heart is the same thing as touching.
And no longer do we circumcise. Instead, we baptize. And no longer do we offer up animal sacrifices in Jerusalem. But instead we offer up the one sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ on altars everywhere in the world. And we offer up our own bodies as a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). So there are lots of changes.
But what makes these changes make sense is what Jesus gives us in terms of how we read the Old Testament. If He has come not to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfill them, what does that say about the Law and the prophets? It says that the life and work of Jesus was the whole point of the Law and the prophets to begin with! Jesus is Himself the fulfillment of everything that came before Him.
So that means when we read the Old Testament, we look for Jesus. Even when we read all the complicated kosher and sacrificial laws in Leviticus and elsewhere in the Old Testament, all those things the Pharisees loved so much, we read them in the light of the coming of the Son of God into the world. He was the point all along.
That’s why the changes make sense—the Law was never an end unto itself. Its purpose was always to point us to Jesus Christ.
This is true for everything we experience, not just how we as Christians read the Old Testament. We read our own lives as Christians. We read our experiences in terms of how they direct us to Jesus Christ. Just as Christ did not come to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfill them, He did not come to abolish anything that has happened to you in your life but to fulfill it.
Even your pain and your suffering can be fulfilled in Christ, if He is the principle by which everything is interpreted. As Christians, everything that happens to us is for that one purpose. Everything is finally meaningful and beautiful in Christ. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father Who is in heaven.”
To our Lord Jesus Christ, the Fulfillment of all things, be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.