Throughout my college and young adult years, I heard my share of testimonies from fellow young adults. It’s a popular time to come to faith, as many who eschewed their religious upbringings come back to Christ after unfruitful experiences on the other side. I would, however, often hear a similar theme in these stories that gave me some pause. It would go something like this: I used to think that the Christian faith was all about rules. Then Christ set me free. Now I know it’s about a relationship, not about the rules.
There is some truth to this statement. Our admittance into Heaven is not based on works or accomplishments. Jesus paid for our sins on the cross because he knows that we couldn’t earn eternal life on our own merit.
However, to say that the Christian life is about a relationship and not about rules throws the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Every relationship has rules, whether we realize it not. My wife and I don’t have a written contract with organized statues that governs the terms of our relationship. But if I don’t do anything for her birthday or forget our anniversary, you better believe I’ve broken a rule. All relationships are governed by rules and principles, so what Jesus is trying to do in Matthew 5:21-28 is to help his followers understand these rules and principles. They aren’t meant to burden us or to merely be boxes to check. These good and holy rules all point to worship, the worship of a holy God who created us in his image and wants us to live as his followers with love and purity.
In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus lays out a code of conduct of sorts for the believer. Jesus is most interested in a relationship with his people, but he clarifies how his rules factor into that relationship. He actually lays out rules that at least on paper appear to be more strict than the original Old Testament rules. He goes from “do not murder” to “anyone who says ‘you fool’ is subject to judgment.” He goes from “do not commit adultery” to “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He goes from “an eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth,” to “do no resist an evil person.” “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Jesus seems to be raising the bar to an impossible standard. On the first set of rules, we might think we pass with flying colors, but on the second? We fail miserably.
Helping Teenagers Understand “The Rules”
Teenagers are infamous for their angst and resistance, and few things get them more fired up than rules imposed upon them by an authority figure or institution. But Jesus wasn’t just trying to make stricter rules; he was trying to go behind the outward commands to address the underlying principles that reveal the heart of God. He gives a clearer explanation of this in Matthew 22:37-39 when he says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.” Then he comes full circle in verse 40: “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
These verses clarify why Jesus instigated these “new” rules. This wasn’t a strict teacher trying to browbeat his students. This was about getting people to understand the heart behind these commands, the heart of God. These are the “rules” of the relationship.
When we frame Jesus’ rules within his command in Matthew 22, teenagers will have a better sense of what it means to follow Jesus. Sure, they may rebel, they may talk out of turn, skip youth group for a party, or date an unbeliever. They are teenagers, and like us, they have a sin nature. But our goal is to help them understand how Jesus’ commands serve to point them back to a life of loving God and worshipping him.
He’s Not the Kill-Joy
Growing up, I heard many people say that God invents rules as a form of oppression, to be a “kill-joy” in the sky to make sure we are miserable. I was told that he is insecure about his position, and if we can make our own way, explore boundless sexuality, get even against those who disrespect us, and make lots of money, we will have a more fulfilling existence. But the older I get, the more I realize that the opposite is true. Real misery happens when we move away from Christ. When we dabble in sin, we become entangled and enslaved to it. But we find life, joy, and peace on the narrow path that Jesus invites us to walk upon.
Interestingly, the serpent tells the same lie in the Garden of Eden. He deceived Eve by attacking God’s motives: “You won’t surely die, God knows that you will be like him if you eat the fruit of the tree.” Satan was trying to convince Adam and Eve that God is insecure because he doesn’t want an equal, so he keeps them oppressed by inventing strict rules to break their spirits.
But Scripture tells us what is really true: God’s rules are for our good. We need a holy, pure God to direct us and conform us into his image because that is where we will find true fulfillment and life. The commands of Matthew 5:21-48 are a road map to that type of life that comes from God through his Son Jesus. When we place our faith in his death and resurrection on our behalf, we are granted this abundant life. The more we use these commands point our students to the heart of God, the more fruitful their lives will be.
Join us November 2-4 for Rooted 2023 in Nashville, where we’ll explore the Sermon on the Mount together. How can we find true human flourishing? The world we disciple our teenagers in today does not merely offer them an alternative way to live, but an alternative account of where true human flourishing is found. This competing vision encompasses all that we believe about ourselves, our bodies, justice, security, suffering, and meaning. In the most famous sermon in human history and the longest recorded teaching from Jesus’ ministry, our Lord gives us a wholistic vision of how we can live in a way that leads to our flourishing in every aspect of our lives. At the core, his teaching shows us that such flourishing is only found through faith in the God who created us and in Jesus Christ who is redeeming us. As we walk through the Sermon on the Mount together, our prayer is that the teachings of Jesus will invert and subvert the teachings of this world and compel our hearts to live in light of the Kingdom of God in faith.