Jesus and the Law (Part II)
The Law and the Christian
(Click here to read Part I of Jesus and the Law)
“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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20 ESV1)
Those who wish to be great in the kingdom of heaven are not those who dismiss the law as unimportant, but those who recognize its great call and seek to live it out. Those who teach others to relax the commandments, perhaps because of something called grace or forgiveness, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. However, they are still in the kingdom of heaven.
According to the standard of doing and teaching the law, the Pharisees should have been great in the kingdom of heaven. However, Jesus points out that the righteousness of an individual must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. He must have had something other than keeping the law in mind when he used the word righteousness in the final verse. If Jesus said that people must keep the law even better than the Pharisees, it is probably because he was showing how impossible it was to keep the law without discounting its importance.
As Paul says later on in the New Testament, the law was given to show the impossibility of a person being made righteous by keeping it. No one had ever been called righteous by keeping the law.2 Perhaps this gives rise to the idea of “alien righteousness” by which a person is counted righteous on the basis of faith rather than works.3 The only way for a person to achieve a righteousness that exceeds that of keeping the law is through faith. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The purpose of the law is not to be kept, but to provide a standard by which the effect of this righteousness through faith can be measured. Rather than losing its significance in the face of grace, the law takes its rightful place as a sign of God’s character and a standard of measuring a person’s reflection of that in everyday life.
Those who wish to be great in the kingdom of heaven by doing and keeping the law will therefore find it imperative to pursue the building up of their faith demonstrated through love and inspired by hope that they will be conformed into the image of righteousness. “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). For without love, the effectiveness of faith is nullified and the individual is shown to have a foundation other than the righteousness of Jesus. Love is the fulfillment of the law.4 Those who do not love claim a pitiful righteousness that does not exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. They may cast out demons and call Jesus “Lord,” but unless they love, their lives are proof that they never knew Him.5
It is for this reason that Jesus continues the sermon on the mount by showing that false teachers will show their true nature by their fruit6, whether it is loving or not. Those that do not produce this kind of fruit have not received the righteousness, or having received it have found it to be stolen, withered, or choked out by cares of the world.7 Those who cultivate the soil of their hearts, receive the seed of the kingdom and bear good fruit.
Perhaps this is why Jesus says that the poor in spirit are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.8 These are the ones who recognize the law in all its splendor and realize how far short they come. In this humble position, they are free to embrace a gift of righteousness by faith rather than by achievement. “For consider your calling,” Paul says, “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:26b-28).
The cross is foolishness to those who do not recognize the significance of the law. Those who relax the law put themselves above its reality, those who strive to keep the law will probably not do better than the Pharisees at acquiring righteousness, but those who have received righteousness as a gift will begin to see their lives reflect the goodness of this law. This is both the proof and the result of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives.
Christian life is a process of growing by faith, hope, and love into the image of the One who kept the law and whose righteousness belongs to all men. Those who choose to believe that this is true begin the process of being transformed into people that keep the law in all its fullness. Their lives become marked by love as they walk in their identity as sons of God who keep the law. As it did for Jesus, the law becomes the standard by which their faith is demonstrated as having power. It continues to prove the impossibility of righteousness by works, but also the tremendous potential of grace to become the means by which God and man can be reunited in a relationship of love. This grace does not nullify the law, but rather puts it into perspective and gives it the royal duty of identifying those who truly know Jesus.
2 Romans 3:20
3 Romans 4:2-5
4 Romans 13:9-10
5 Matthew 7:21-23 and Matthew 25:31-46
6 Matthew 7:15-19
7 Matthew 13:1-23
8 Matthew 5:3
Image courtesy of W. Strachan.