This morning we are going to take a critical look at the teachings of St. Paul. We all know him as the apostle to the gentiles – the subject of much of the Book of Acts and the author of no fewer than 13 of the Epistles included in the New Testament. We know that he made three and possibly four great missionary journeys and that he was one of the early martyrs of the Christian Church. But today we are going to look at St. Paul from a different perspective, focusing on the question as to whether Paul may have been a poor student – or perhaps just a bad teacher. Had Paul failed to grasp what Jesus was saying – especially the words recorded in this morning’s Gospel lesson – or did Paul simply disregard what Jesus taught when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians?
To the casual reader or hearer of today’s lessons, there seems to be a disconnect between what Jesus said and what Paul said. So listen again – very carefully. First, from our Gospel lesson, the words of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come 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. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? We can all agree with that, can’t we?
But do you remember what St. Paul wrote in our Epistle? First Corinthians 2:2: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Not anything except Jesus and the cross? What about every other iota and dot of the Law?
So what is it? Did Paul not understand what Jesus was talking about or was he just ignoring it? I think we can agree that we don’t like either of those options, so there’s got to be a better explanation. We also know that God’s Word never contradicts itself. So … what is the explanation? How can we reconcile the words of Jesus with the words of Paul? Is it every letter of the Law – or is it nothing but Christ crucified?
Let’s begin with Scriptural truth spoken by our Lord Himself: Jesus upholds every letter of the Law.
During the past few weeks you have been receiving all kinds of tax documents in the mail – W2s, 1099s, 1098s, SSA-1099s on your Social Security benefits – the list can go on and on. Which means you may have already started compiling deductions, exclusions, exemptions, et cetera, et cetera. It’s all very complicated. Back in 1996 and again in 2000, a billionaire businessman by the name of Steve Forbes was running for president, and his main claim to fame was his proposal for a flat income tax to replace the whole massive federal income tax bureaucracy. You simply took your income and paid a flat 17% tax on it – period. The problem, according to the critics, is that a flat tax is too simple and too simplistic to work … and, the critics claimed, it would never work at that low rate.
Today we still don’t have a simplified income tax but we do have a lot of people trying to simplify what God says. Some flat-out deny the teachings of Scripture, saying things like: “Creation didn’t happen in six days” or “The parting of the Red Sea is just a myth” or “Mary the mother of Jesus was not really a virgin.”
Others assert that certain teachings of Scripture just no longer apply. They claim that much of Scripture – and especially what St. Paul had to say about sexual morality – was specific to the Roman Empire of 2,000 years ago but is meaningless in our society today. More often, people simplify God’s Word by ignoring passages that seem a little too tough when temptation strikes. There’s even the great political cop-out that “I don’t condone such-and-such but I can’t expect others to live by what I believe about it.” People try to take God’s Word and make it all very simple – just like the flat income tax.
The problem, Jesus says, is that it won’t work and it especially won’t work at such a low rate. “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. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Anything that lowers God’s standards won’t cut it. Keeping the Law 17% of the time won’t work. Ninety-nine and 44/100’s percent won’t work, either. There’s no middle ground or in-between. It’s all or nothing.
In our Gospel lesson we heard Jesus tell the disciples: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world … Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” What Jesus says here is not optional – it is a command. We must be salt to season the world around us. We may not start tasting like the rest of the world. We must let our light shine – live like Christ, speak like Christ. We may not keep our beliefs to ourselves and just blend in with the crowd. We must obey every iota and every dot and every letter and word of the Law. Jesus does not give us even the slightest bit of leeway.
You know, if this weren’t the Son of God talking here we would probably think of this as the worst possible kind of legalism. Pay attention to every word – every letter – every teeny-tiny detail of the Law. Do it or else. It’s my way or the highway.
On the other hand, we have St. Paul who knows nothing except Christ crucified: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Paul says that the cross is the whole message. He says that the old, familiar, simple message of Jesus crucified is it – is all of it – and there’s nothing more. It’s the same thing that we say every Sunday. Jesus died on the cross to save sinners. Jesus died for you. Jesus’ death saves you and me. But is that really all we’re supposed to say every Sunday?
One of my Seminary professors told of the time that his 6-year-old daughter gave him a Bible trivia quiz. “I am thinking of two brothers in the Bible,” she said. “Name them,” she challenged. James and John? No. Peter and Andrew? No. Jacob and Esau? Cain and Able? No and no. Finally he told her that he gave up and she told him that the names were Jeroboam and Rehoboam. Does anyone here this morning know who Jeroboam and Rehoboam were? In the interest of full disclosure, they were two sons of King Solomon who had a bitter falling out after their father’s death. Israel was divided into two kingdoms, with Jeroboam becoming king of the Northern Kingdom and Rehoboam becoming king of Judah.
You can read more about Jeroboam and Rehoboam in 1st Kings chapters 12, 13, 14 and 15. It’s all right there in the Bible. But you know what? Knowing the complete history of Jeroboam and Rehoboam is hardly necessary knowledge to enter the kingdom of God.
But knowing that Jesus was crucified for you – really knowing it in faith – well, that is necessary for entering the kingdom of God. That’s really what Paul is saying, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. But is that what Jesus said? “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” It almost sounds like Paul is guilty of something we call gospel reductionism. Gospel reductionism happens when people reduce God’s Word to a few simple things or even just one thing – let’s say, the cross of Christ. But then it’s open season and anything else goes – do whatever you want, live however you want, deny any parts of the Bible that don’t suit you. Even deny that God’s Law is binding on Christians today.
The more you think about it, it sounds like Paul is contradicting Jesus, doesn’t it? How can these diametrically different teachings ever be reconciled? Well, actually, the answer is incredibly simple: Christ crucified is the fulfillment of every letter of the Law.
Think about what I just said: proclaiming Christ crucified proclaims every letter of the Law. The cross shows just how binding the Law really is. After all – that’s the Son of God hanging on those pieces of wood! That’s God the Father turning His own Son over to hell and damnation over one piece of fruit eaten in a garden a long, long time ago. Over one thoughtless or mean-spirited word spoken yesterday or already this morning. The cross shows that God’s standards can never be lowered. One hundred percent compliance and not an iota or dot less. No excuses and no letting off the hook and no grading on a curve. In Christ crucified we see that every transgression of every letter of the Law must and will be punished – punished to the full extent of the Law. Which – just in case you’ve forgotten – is death.
But … knowing Christ and Him crucified is also knowing that the whole Law has been fulfilled. Just as Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” The full extent of the Law has been executed! Jesus Christ has been crucified! The demands of every iota and dot have been met. Every letter of the Law has been fulfilled. Not by us – but for us.
You know, Jesus is no legalist. He is not driving us to keep the Law. In fact, He is promising to do it for us. And Paul was no Gospel reductionist. He wasn’t dismissing the importance of every other word of Scripture, including every demand of the Law. He was proclaiming them all when he spoke these two words: “Christ crucified.”
And it is the same for us. We do not … we must not … we cannot diminish the demands to let our lights shine, to be the salt of the earth. When we know Christ and Him crucified – really know Him – we will be fulfilling the Law, too. The more we know the one thing that Paul knew, the more we will love doing everything that the Law demands.
So St. Paul was neither a bad student nor a bad teacher. Quite the contrary. So beautifully did he learn the whole message of God that he was able to preach it all in that one phrase: Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Note: I must give credit where credit is due. This sermon is based on a sermon originally written by my former Homiletics professor, Rev. Dr. Carl C. Fickenscher II that was published in Concordia Pulpit Resources.