[Continued from Justification by Faith & Works? (Pt. 1)]
1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
5 Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him 6 and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9 and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
– Matthew 3:1-2; 5-12
The Least in the Kingdom of Heaven
John the Baptist’s preaching did not fail in attracting many people to come out to the Jordan to be baptized. However, while there were many who, no doubt, were truly repentant, there were many who wanted to be baptized for the wrong reasons. What John makes emphatic here is that true faith in his message was accompanied by true repentance that produced good fruit – and that was something that these who came out to him lacked. This is the broader context, I believe, of what we read in the Sermon on the Mount. It is true that the works of the Law do not justify a man; however, it is not true that a justified man will not produce good fruit – and this is what we encounter (explicitly) here and (implicitly) in Matthew 5:17-20. These men were upraided by the Lord Jesus for placing the authority of their own contrived doctrines above that of Scripture, and thereby “breaking the commandments” and “teaching others to do the same” (cf. Matt 15:1-9; 16:5-12). Concerning this, Calvin writes:
[…]Christ saw that the greater part of the Jews, though they professed to believe the Law, were profane and degenerate. The condition of the people was so decayed, every thing was filled with so many corruptions, and the negligence or malice of the priests had so completely extinguished the pure light of doctrine, that there no longer remained any reverence for the Law. But if a new kind of doctrine had been introduced, which would destroy the authority of the Law and the Prophets, religion would have sustained a dreadful injury. This appears to be the first reason, why Christ declared that he had not come to destroy the Law. Indeed, the context makes this abundantly clear: for he immediately adds, by way of confirmation, that it is impossible for even one point of the Law to fail, — and pronounces a curse on those teachers who do not faithfully labor to maintain its authority.
He goes on to say:
With respect to doctrine, we must not imagine that the coming of Christ has freed us from the authority of the law: for it is the eternal rule of a devout and holy life, and must, therefore, be as unchangeable, as the justice of God, which it embraced, is constant and uniform. With respect to ceremonies, there is some appearance of a change having taken place; but it was only the use of them that was abolished, for their meaning was more fully confirmed. The coming of Christ has taken nothing away even from ceremonies, but, on the contrary, confirms them by exhibiting the truth of shadows: for, when we see their full effect, we acknowledge that they are not vain or useless. Let us therefore learn to maintain inviolable this sacred tie between the law and the Gospel, which many improperly attempt to break. For it contributes not a little to confirm the authority of the Gospel, when we learn, that it is nothing else than a fulfillment of the law; so that both, with one consent, declare God to be their Author.
(Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke – Volume 1, source)
It is the Lord Jesus Christ who did and taught the Law because we could not (cf. Romans 5:18-21; 8:1-4). And it is He who has done the will of the Father perfectly because we could not (although we are commanded to, cf. Matt 7:21), as the writer of Hebrews tells us:
5 …when He came into the world, He said:
“ Sacrifice and offering You did not desire,
But a body You have prepared for Me.
6 In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin
You had no pleasure.
7 Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come—
In the volume of the book it is written of Me—
To do Your will, O God.’”
When we read the Sermon on the Mount, we are all being confronted with our own sins. For some, the sin consists in professing Christ in order to sin so that grace may abound (cf. Rom 6:15-23). For others, the sin consists in believing that they are righteous by means of their following the Law (cf. Mark 10:17-22 & James 2:10). And yet for others, their sins are all listed by our Lord; and as He teaches them, both by His Sermon and His perfect life, what God’s Law demands from man (perfect obedience) and will punish them with (the wrath of God) – as He fulfills the Law of God – acknowledge their bankruptcy, their utter need for mercy, and that their only hope is in Christ. It is to this last group that Christ says:
3 “ Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
To which class of people do you belong?