We will never ‘measure up’ to God’s standard of perfection. As Paul reminds us, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Though we can’t keep God’s Law perfectly, what is our obligation to it?
“I did not come to destroy the Law” – Jesus Christ in Matthew 5:17.
This might be the most extraordinary statement in the whole ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ Jesus is laying down the eternal character of the Law. Again and again Jesus broke what the Jews considered the law. He did not observe the hand washings that the Law laid down. He healed sick people on the Sabbath, although the Law prohibited such healings. He was, in fact, condemned and crucified as a law-breaker. Yet, here He seems to speak of the Law with a respect and reverence that no Pharisee or religious leader could match.
What was Jesus talking about? Are we to keep the Law? What about keeping the Jewish Law? Do we as believers have no Law but the Law of love?
The Law & Jesus.
Jesus did not destroy the Law, He fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17).
Most had a wrong conception about Jesus’ teaching. They thought He was anti-law. But Jesus was aware He had come into the world on a mission – to fulfill Scripture. ‘Fulfill’ means ‘to fill.’ The Law created a hole that Jesus Christ had to fill. Jesus filled the teaching about God, prophecies, and the righteous demands of the Law. Christ fulfilled the Moral Law by His holiness, the Civil Law by His death, and the Ceremonial Law by His sacrifice.
Jesus did not change the Law, but re-emphasized it (Matthew 5:18).
Even small changes of the letters (dotting an i or crossing a t) were prohibited by Jesus. Throughout the rest of the chapter, He will comment on the depth of the meaning of the Law.
The Law & the Religious Leaders
The Old Testament consisted of broad principles. The religious leaders (scribes) tried to make interpretive laws to apply the commands to every situation. These further rules and regulations were passed orally to each generation of Scribes until 300 A.D. They were written down to form the Mishna (800 pages). Later, Talmuds were written to explain the Mishna (The Jerusalem Talmud had 12 volumes. The Babylonian had 60 volumes). The Pharisees of Jesus’ day tried to keep all the laws and added laws. Often, the ‘traditions’ seemed to be harder to keep than the Law, but they actually made it easier because they reduced God’s Law to external obedience. God’s Law always requires inward as well as outward obedience. This led them to major on outward obedience and neglect inward obedience. They would major on the minors, and minor on the majors.
The Law & Salvation
No one is saved by keeping the Law (Gal. 3:24). If God’s Law (10 commandments) cannot make a person righteous, neither can any of man’s tradition. The purpose of the Law was to show that to please God and be worthy of citizenship in His kingdom, more righteousness is required than anyone can possibly have or accomplish by and in himself. We must receive the perfect righteousness of Jesus.
The Law and the Christian
“Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19-20)
We must keep and teach the Law. Negatively, we should not break the Law. We must not loose ourselves from its requirements and standards. Positively, we must obey the Law. Personal obedience is not enough. We must teach others to obey. This is discipleship.
Also, we must understand the difference between ‘least’ and ‘great’ commandments. Scripture makes clear that not all commandments are of equal value (Matt. 22:37-39), but none are to be disregarded.
We also must know the difference between ‘false’ and ‘true’ righteousness. The Pharisees’ righteousness was false: external, partial (Matt. 23:23), twisted, and self-centered. But God’s righteousness is true: inward, perfect, a gift. When a person trusts Christ as Savior, Jesus’ perfect sacrifice for sin is applied to his/her sin and God accounts Jesus’ perfect righteousness to their life. It’s a great trade.
We cannot keep the Law for salvation. But neither are we exempt from keeping the Law. We are to keep the Law, inside and out.
You can read my other Sermon on the Mount articles: Life Redefined: Sermons from The Sermon on the Mount.