This new instalment of Breaking the Mould comes with the heading “Renovation from the Heart.” Dallas Willard’s book of the same title is about spiritual formation and it explores some key practices associated with the transformation of our hearts. He begins with the importance of our hearts in how we live out our lives and how we approach the world around us.
“We live from our heart. The part of us that drives and organises our life is not the physical. You have a spirit within you and it has been formed. It has taken on a specific character. I have a spirit and it has been formed. The spirit within us takes on whatever character it has from the experiences we have lived through and the choices we have made. That is what it means for it to be formed. How we live in the world now and in the future, is almost totally a result of what we have become in the depths of our being – in our spirit, will or heart. That is where we understand our world and interpret reality. From there we make our choices, act and react, try to change the world. We live from our depths – and we understand little of what is there…What is in our heart matters more than anything else for who we become and what becomes of us.”Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, pg. 1-3, © 2002
The Bible frequently uses this word heart and it’s clear that it concerns far more than the ‘physical’. Proverbs 4:23 warns us to guard our hearts above all else because “it is the wellspring of life.” The Bible’s concept of heart cuts to the very core of our being and who we are. Jeremiah 17:9-10 says that “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” God alone knows and understands our hearts because He searches and examines them. We have a heart problem which are powerless to resolve. In Matthew 15:17-19 religious leaders ask Jesus why His disciples were breaking the tradition of the elders regarding washing their hands before eating. Jesus responds saying that we are defiled not by what we eat, but by what comes out of our hearts. From there come “evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”
There is also good news about our hearts. Ezekiel prophecies that God would give us a new heart and a new spirit. This is the solution to our heart-problem. Our hearts must be changed (Psalm 51:10) and God promises that He will move us to follow His laws. From these new hearts come transformed thoughts, desires, wisdom and so on.
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”Ezekiel 36:26-27
This is the message of the gospel of grace. By nature we fall short of what God requires of us, because in our hearts we are in rebellion against Him. This means we are naturally ‘me’ focused and defiant towards our creator and there is massive impact on the people around us also. For those who love Jesus, the work of renovating our hearts is well underway but we are still a work-in-progress and this side of Heaven there is still a constant battle between our old self and our new self (Ephesians 4 / Colossians 3).
Our focus here is Matthew 5:17-6:18 which is a major chunk of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. It is interesting however, that the word heart is actually only used once in this passage. Despite having so few mentions here, I do think that we will see that it is still the heart of the matter!
1. Fulfilling the Law (5:17-20):
The section begins with a very tricky section about the the Law and the Prophets. Jesus wants to make clear that He had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. On one level Jesus is clearly speaking about His high view of the Old Testament and that He had not come to do away with even the smallest letter or stroke of the pen. But on another level, there is a question about what Jesus mean’t when He said that He would fulfil it. Elsewhere, Jesus apparently does away with the food laws (declaring all things clean in Matt 15) and later there is an insistence that the sacrificial system was no longer necessary (in Hebrews 8:13, 10:18).
17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 5:17-20
Many pages have been written on v17-18 but the detail is beyond the scope of this blog! Some try to divide up the law into component parts, of which remain and some of which have been superseded. For me this is hard to square with the totality of what Jesus says. Others try to define fulfilment as a kind of confirmation worked out in the life of Jesus and all who follow Him. Again this doesn’t seem to quite fit with the gist of what Jesus says here. Instead, I think that the best explanation is that Jesus means fulfilment in a broad sense. By that I mean that He saw the whole Old Testament (including both the law and the prophets) as pointing to Him. This seems to fit with what Jesus tells the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27) and the Jewish leaders (John 5:39). Don Carson has written extensively on this and writes:
“Jesus does not conceive of His life & ministry in terms of opposition to the OT, but in terms of bringing to fruition that to which it points.”D.A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, pg. 39
So while some of the Old Testament has been superseded, that is not the same as been abolished, because the continuity comes through the arrival of that to which it pointed, namely Jesus Himself. Then in v19-20 Jesus says that the legalism of the Pharisees is inadequate to get us into the Kingdom of Heaven. The law demonstrates that by simply observing the law, we can never be saved. The rest of chapter 5 spells out the true meaning of the law by pointing us back to its intent. Jesus Himself preaches righteousness by faith not by works. Jesus led a perfect life and fulfilled the law. He died in our place, taking the punishment we deserved, so we could receive Jesus’ righteousness.
2. Case studies – Cutting to the heart of the matter (5:20-48):
This long section contains six case studies and He often begins these case studies with the line “You have heard that it was said”. Jesus is touching on things that were being taught in His day. Religious practice had strayed from the original purpose of what God had commanded. Jesus brings them back to the intention for why the laws were given. He has Heart change in focus and He wants them to go above and beyond rather than just ticking off certain actions or activities. In this respect Jesus complete smashes the mould! Take for example Murder:
21 ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.Matthew 5:21-22
The teaching of the day said that murder was subject to judgment and I am sure we would have no issue with that. However, Jesus extends the place of judgment to anger. In actual fact, anger is the root of the problem. Of course it is necessarily wrong to be angry, after all Jesus Himself got angry. However, it is wrong to be angry without a good cause and I think if we are honest we know that the majority of our anger however is unjustified and often involves double standards. Jesus’ application is that God is looking not mere at our actions (external) but also at what is going on in our hearts. Jesus makes a similar point about Adultery:
27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.Matthew 5:27-30
In this example Jesus goes further in warning us to take our sin seriously and do all that we can to avoid falling into it. He says that it’s better to lose part of our body than to fall into sin and better to go to heaven with a bit missing than to go to hell intact. Where the heart isn’t right, drastic action is needed to correct it before it results in outward sin.
The other four case studies involve certain misunderstandings regarding God’s law. In the case of divorce (v31-33) it seemed that they were applying God’s provision for cases of unfaithfulness, to some quite trivial situations. God (and by implication His law) is charactered by faithfulness. However, Rabbis were teaching taught that divorce was permissible in cases where wives had simply displeased their husbands. In the case of oaths there was a clear prohibition against breaking oaths made in the name of God. However they were getting around this by making oaths on other things allowing them to get around God’s commands. By nature God is a God of truth and so Jesus points them towards a lives of honesty. God commanded them that when wronged they should retaliate no further than an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. His intent was to put limits on their desire to act in vengeance. However, Jesus demonstrates that actually we should go much further and turn the other cheek. Rather than clinging to our rights we should take the position of a servant. After all Jesus Himself did not retaliate. Going the extra mile means we should do the unexpected, wining people through love. Then in the last case study it seems that they had taken God’s command to love their neighbour as a licence to hate their enemy. The law was intended to restrain hatred not to justify hatred against our enemies.
In all these ways Jesus points them back to the real intent of the law – an intent that is born out of the character of God who is loving, faithful, truthful and servant-like. Jesus then ends this section by saying that we should be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. I don’t know how you respond to a command like that but Jesus knows that in and of ourselves we can never be perfect – only He can. We should strive to live that way as a loving response to His grace. With His help we can begin to see the renovation of our hearts. He is describing a totally radical change of mindset – one that completely broke mould and still does today!
3. Avoiding Hypocracy (v1-18):
Jesus begins this next section by stating the key principle and following it up with examples. He writes: “Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven (v1).” Notice that Jesus gives a clear command (don’t practice righteousness to be seen by others) followed by a warning (we will have no reward from God if we do so). Again the heart question here is about our motivations: who are we trying to please? If our hearts are focused on earning the favour of the people around us then that will be our only reward. In all the examples here Jesus praises what is done in secret – i.e. the things that we do to praise God alone. This is the heart of hypocrisy which might be defined as:
“Hypocrisy is defined as the condition of a person pretending to be something he is not, especially in the area of morals or religion; a false presentation of belief or feeling”.The Free Dictionary
The three examples concern Giving to the Needy (v2-4), Prayer (v5-14) and Fasting (v15-18). In each of these Jesus focuses on practices which has huge potential for growth. Done right, these practices can really help to renovate our hearts. Done wrong however, and the focus shifts to being earning the praise of others. With regards to our giving, Jesus urges us to not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. God is the only audience we need and He sees everything, both what we do and the motivations and thought processes behind it. We don’t need to be legalistic about this, but for the most part our giving should not be apparent to others.
2 ‘So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.Matthew 6:2-4
Likewise with prayer Jesus condemns those who (1) pray to be seen, (2) who praying as if they are encountering men , (3) who pray longwinded prayers and (4) who babble away without structure or direction. Of course their is still a place for praying with others, but Jesus is talking here about our personal prayer lives and really challenging our motivations. Our focus is to be God Himself rather than trying to impress the people around us.
“When you pray” not “If you pray.” Simply, praying is to Christian living, what breathing is to human existence! 5 ‘And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
In the final example Jesus takes as a given that we will fast. It seems that people were going to some lengths to make the effects of their fasting visible to others. Jesus tells them to go completely the other way and make every effort so that it will no be visible.
16 ‘When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.Matthew 6:16-18
Fasting is about denying ourselves, and may not necessarily be about food. It could also apply to aspects of technology or some other key element of our lives. As we abstain from such things there is greater space / encouragement to engage deeply with God.
As we finish I wonder what impressions this passage leaves you with? Jesus was breaking the mould by challenging the status quo. He was directing people back to the original intent of God’s commands and He was pushing at motivation and the danger of using spiritual practices as a means for impressing other people rather than engaging with God. My inclination is that these are actually some of the practices which will most help us with the case studies on how we are to fulfil the law from chapter 5.
Jesus wants us to look to God’s ultimate rewards and look to please Him rather than anyone else. It is impossible to put all of this into practice without God’s help. We need God to work in us to bring about renovation of our hearts, our motives and our wills. We need God to continue the process of changing us from the inside out! But there is also a responsibility on our part – we don’t just sit back passively waiting for God to act. No, God acts to transform us and renovate our hearts, as we step out in obedience. Paul puts this very succinctly…
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.Philippians 2:12-13
See other posts in this series: Breaking the Mould