A Heart for God's Law
Matthew 3:1, 2
Scott F. Hunter
The Old Testament concludes with a kingdom under judgment; a blessed nation set apart by God to be a kingdom of priestsGod's own possession from among all the peoples and yet a nation so entirely devoted to sin and iniquity that she would not follow God.
The history of the kingdom of Israel is as puzzling at its conclusion as it was dazzling at its inception. Founded on the sure Word of God, supported by his victorious, royal right hand, we watch the formation of the kingdom of Israel in amazement. The exodus, the wilderness, Jericho, AiGod leads his people into the land of promise. There God leads them in victory over thirty-one kings and he gives them the land. A land possessed not by their might or power but by the power of Godnot by their works. It was indeed a display of amazing grace!
And oh what a beautiful land a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of grapes and pomegranates and figs, a land of hills and valleys, a land that drinks water from the rain of heaven. And Israel loved the land. She loved its milk and honey. She loved its grapes and figs. She loved the pomegranates and the water from the rain of heaven. She loved the Asherahs and the Baals which dotted its hills and valleysidols from the nations she was to remove. Israel loved the land; she did not love the kingdom of heaven.
Not love the kingdom of heaven? But she was zealous for the law! Indeed Israel did have a great zeal for the law. Twice a day the shema would be recited, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God . . . and you shall talk of these (commandments) when you lie down and when you rise up" (Dt. 6:4-7). Twice a day the people of Israel would recite this creed reaffirming their devotion to the law. But this zeal was fueled only by a desire to pursue a righteousness of their own, not a righteousness from God which comes by faith. As a result, their interest in the law was self-centered; it was but a means to an end. This man-centered perspective on the law was satisfied with a mere external adherence to the law's precepts. Israel reduced the law to "busy work."
Overcome by her man-centered perspective, Israel desired a king "like all the nations" and God granted her request in a most painful and literal way! In her disobedience, Israel was granted kings like the other nations. For kings raised from among her own sons would so resemble the pagan leaders surrounding her that one could hardly distinguish between the Canaanite king and the ruler of Israel. Her subsequent spiritual decline would ultimately lead to exile. There the likes of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser and the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar ruled over her, just as Pharaoh had many years before. She would ultimately have kings like the other nations because she would serve as slaves in those other nations. Because of her sin, Israel was removed from the beautiful land and cast into the darkness of exile. She was forced into a culture hostile to her own, forced to learn the ways of her captors. Her desire for the treasures of this world brought her to the brink of forfeiting the treasures of the world to come.
Yet, even under foreign rule, she had the promise of a new kingdom: the throne of David would be established forever. The prophet Isaiah said:
The God of heaven will some day set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed. But in the meantime Israel was called to wait . . .
And generations of waiting gave way to a lone voice in the wilderness saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt. 3:2).
A Son of David called Immanuel ("God with us") was born. This Immanuel, Jesus, came to usher in the new kingdom.
Did you hear the words of the Baptist? The kingdom of heaven has come! And for many, these words meant that God was about to free Israel from foreign rule and establish his sovereign dominion among them for all nations to see. They would once again rule in the land of Palestine; once again boast in their law and in the vast dominion of their great kingdom; once again pound their chests with national pride.
Did you hear the words of the Baptist? The Kingdom of heaven has come! But Israel was not greeted with the open arms of an earthly king. Rather she was told of the impending wrath against her if she did not repent"Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance . . . the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Mt. 3:8,10).
This call to repentance was at the same time a declaration of Israel's apostasy! The language of impending judgment was to be a signal to her that she was not right before God. Israel was called to bring forth the fruit of repentance or face the ultimate, eternal exile in the place reserved for the ultimate enemy and his followers. She must repent. She must change her perspective on the law. She must get a new heart! But how? A new king is needed who can lead in ultimate victory, one who can soften Israel's heart, one who can take away the sting of sin and death and replace it with the abundance of everlasting life. A mighty warrior is needed who can take on the great enemy and establish a lasting, heavenly kingdom.
A new King named Jesus came proclaiming the Good News of the coming kingdom, healing every kind of disease and pain. He healed lepers, the blind, the lame, and even raised the dead. What kind of King is this? How far does his dominion stretch that he can heal disease, even raise the dead, and bring everlasting joy into a fallen world? Who is he that can bring good news to the afflicted, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners? He is one whose throne is in heaven and whose dominion is everlasting.
Jesus transformed the cries of despair and sorrow into joyous melodies of hope and renewal, a foretaste of the world to come. In his miraculous healings, this world was momentarily taken captive by a culture hostile to its own; this world was exiled and forced to learn the ways of heaven!
Christ's miracles remind us that the blessings of his kingdom come by grace through the work of God. He healed the sick, remedying conditions beyond the control of man, pointing to God's ultimate healing of our dead souls. He fed multitudes providing food well beyond human means, teaching that the bread from heaven abundantly satisfies and is freely given. He cast out demons declaring that the kingdom of God has come upon us and that God alone binds the strong man.
Could there have been a more clear expression of the kingdom of heaven in our world? Yet those whose eyes were trained on this world, those who were looking for an earthly, political kingdom based on their own deeds could not see it. With these living pictures of Paradise all around them, they blindly continued in their earthly gaze.
But this was not the agenda of Jesus"foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head" (Mt. 8:20). He did not come to establish the kingdom of man nor the kingdom of this world. No! in fact, all the kingdoms of this earth and all their glory could not tempt him away from the pursuit of his agenda.
His mission was to fulfill the promise of Immanuel. He came to establish the kingdom of heaven. He came to draw sinners unto God in covenant union. Jesus did not do this through a mere formal, external adherence to the law. Rather he loved his Father with all his heart, and soul, and might, fulfilling the law in thought, word and deed. He showed himself to be the true man after God's own heart, submitting himself to the law at every point, refusing even to withhold his own life when called to place it on the altar of the cross. "My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Thy will be done" (Mt. 26:42).
The law for Christ was not merely a means to an end. He delighted in the law. It was a glorious expression of the kingdom of heaven. His obedience flowed from the loving union he enjoyed with the Father. His obedience was the expression of a heart entirely focused on the blessing of glorifying and enjoying God forever.
This is the same obedience he requires of his subjects. This must be at the heart of our repentance. No Pharisaical righteousness will do, for "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 5:20).
You cannot gain access to his kingdom through some external adherence to a set of laws. You must first and foremost love the King. He leaves no room for misinterpretation. He demands our heart. "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it" (Mt. 10:37-39).
The children of the kingdom of heaven understand its value. It is "like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field" (Mt. 13:44). A true child of the King would not trade his place in the kingdom of heaven for all the kingdoms of this world and all their glory, for he seeks first God's kingdom and His righteousness.
But where is the good news? How is this any better than the legalism under which Israel operated? It seems as though the burden is even greater. Not only must we adhere to God's law in deed, but we must also adhere from the heart. In truth, this was always the requirement; even in the shema (that creed calling out devotion to the law), Israel was called to love the Lord with all their heart.
No, the burden is not greater. The difference is this: Israel pursued the law for self-justification. Israel pursued the law for self ! For them, the law was a burden; it was their prerequisite for blessing. For believers, justification has been completed in Christ. The law's precepts do not/cannot lecture us regarding prerequisites for self-justification, but rather sing to us of the sanctification of glory. The law, in describing the character of God, becomes for us part of the Immanuel blessing itself. It is the fruit of our salvation in Christ and it anticipates our consummate, eschatological life.
The final manifestation of the kingdom will be the complete enjoyment of what we already have. Says Geerhardus Vos, " . . . the reward bears an organic relation to the conduct it is intended to crown" (The Kingdom of God and the Church, 67). Put chronologically, the behavior to be crowned bears an organic relation to the reward. The demands of the law are at one point the basis for blessing, and at the same time, prophetic of our blessed, heavenly state. Jesus said "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Mt. 5:6). The righteousness which the law requires, the righteousness which we hunger for, pursue and make progress toward in this world, is the righteousness we will be rewarded with in full in heaven. What a blessed stateno more struggle with sinno more hindrance to a complete enjoyment of our Godnaked before him with nothing to hide! Do you see what a blessing the law is for us? When we, as believers, strive to conform our life to the law, we are striving for a greater comprehension now of what we will have in glory. As such our obedience to the law becomes a reward in itself.
The call to repentance is a call to a godly, heavenly life. It is a call to enjoy God now and forever. In Matthew 10, Jesus commanded the disciples to go throughout all Israel and proclaim the Good News that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. In Matthew 28, the church is commanded to go out into all the world with that same message. We are to exhort sinners to turn from their ways, to forsake all in this world, to follow Christ, for the kingdom of heaven has come. As we do this, we carry with us the ultimate blessing of the Immanuel promise, for Jesus says to the church "and lo, I am with you always till the close of the age" (Mt. 28:20). Might our lives reflect a heart that has been changed, that seeks first his kingdom and his righteousnessa heart that revels in the blessing of glorifying and enjoying God forever.
Israel loved the land; she did not love the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the true Israel love the Lamb; and in loving the Lamb, love the kingdom of heaven; and in loving the kingdom of heaven, love the law of God.