We were there for Zach’s graduation party, and an intense game of badminton started between the adults and the kids. It started with me and another guy against 4 kids...not small kids. We weren’t picking on anyone. Some were teens.
We soon learned that while there were strict rules for us there seemed to be no rules for the them. For instance...if one of the kids was unable to hit the birdie when it came close to them...it was considered out of bounds. We also learned that as long as the birdie was on our side of the net...it could land anywhere and still be in bounds...like in the neighbor’s yard, across the fence.
The rules always seemed to change to benefit them. There was no winning.
Aristotle said “At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.”We need laws. We need rules. They helps us know the boundaries. Without rules games are really no fun...because everything is allowed.
But rules also need interpretation. Yes, the rules say “No running at the pool.” But does that mean we can’t speed walk? What if one person is only walking and the other, much shorter person, is just trying to keep up?
Or does the speed limit really mean 55 miles per hour? Or, do we get about a 4 mile an hour leeway which means closer to sixty? The real question is at what speed is the officer going to give us the ticket?
We live under laws and rules every day of our lives!
For the Jew the Law or Torah is an important part of their culture. It is part of their identity as a people group.
The Law is a highly valued part of their spiritual heritage. After receiving the commandments from God and interpreting the implications they had for daily life, Moses tells the people, “See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” Deuteronomy 4:5-8
Jewish life is legislated by Halakhah. Halakhah is usually translated as “Jewish Law,” but is so much more than just a set of laws. It would better be translated as “the path one walks.” For the Jew, Law was more than just a set of requirements one obeyed...it was a life one lived because God had called you to live it.
At the heart of Halakhah are 613 Jewish Mitzvot or commandments found in the Torah. These are the rules and commandments found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These rules and regulations make up the core of what the Jewish faith believes.
But in addition to the Mitzvot and included in Halakhah are two other forms of laws: the teaching of the Rabbis and long-standing customs. Through the centuries Rabbis have interpreted the laws to help people better understand their meaning. These interpretations have then become part of Jewish law. Add in a few traditions that have developed and Judaism impacts every area of life.
A few years ago, A.J. Jacobs, an editor for Esquire magazine, wrote a great book called The Year of Living Biblically. He wrote about his attempt to live out the biblical laws literally over the course of a year. He was a non-practicing Jew, and also thought this would be a good way to reconnect with his spiritual heritage. As he studied the laws he interviewed many people about their beliefs and about his own Jewish heritage in particular. He had a specialist come over to help him sort through his clothing to make sure he had nothing of mixed fibers, because he was being obedient to Leviticus 19:19 which states that Israelites were not to wear clothing of mixed fibers.
Jacobs asked him, “Why obey all the rules that are seemingly trivial?”
The man responded, “This is the law that God gave us. We have to trust Him. He’s all-powerful. We’re like children. Sometimes parents have laws children don’t understand. Like when you tell a child not to touch fire, he doesn’t understand why, but it is good for him.”
This man understood that He wasn’t God, and no matter how absurd the Law seemed his response was obedience.
By Jesus’ day, obedience to the Law was of utmost importance. The Jews had spent many years in exile and they now lived under Roman rule because they had not been faithful to live out God’s laws. The prophets had warned them to repent and obey...and they did not. They had disobeyed, and God punished them; sending them into exile
So lawbreakers, called “Tax collectors and sinners” in the New Testament, were to be cleansed from the religious life of Israel. They were refused entry into the Temple and excluded from the religious life of the Jewish people. To the Pharisee’s and other religious leaders, these people, because of their continued disobedience, were to blame for God not restoring the land to His people.
So if Jesus is going to discuss the Law and how to understand it, people are going to want to know Is this a new law? What do we do with the Law given to Moses? Are you trying to replace what God has given through Moses? Are you reinterpreting it?
That is when Jesus responds, “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.”
He did not come to destroy or do away with the law. In fact, over the next few weeks as we look at how Jesus understands the Laws we see that His interpretation is way more strict than the Pharisee’s! His interpretation of the Law is tough.
Jesus is not doing away with the law, but, according to this verse, He is here to “fulfill” it. Another way to understand that word we translate as “fulfill” is “to make it abound.” His job isn’t to undermine, do away with, or even replace. He plans to fulfill God’s Law by being the only person to ever live it out flawlessly...without sin. He makes it about by interpreting what God actually meant in the Law and then providing a way for people to live the Law!
The Law is an important part of what Jesus is trying to accomplish. He expects the Law to be obeyed. Remember, Jesus is speaking to a gathered crowd on a hillside, but the He is especially talking to His disciples. He doesn’t want them to think they are freed from the Law of God.
For centuries the Jews had added one law on top of another to help people better understand and obey the laws. They called them gezeirah or “fence” laws. These are the laws that keep people from actually breaking one of the Laws. These laws keep building and building, and pretty soon you couldn’t obey all the laws. Laws had to be created to explain and protect other laws.
You quickly discover you just cannot create enough laws!
Jesus isn’t talking about all these laws...His intention is to help people get back to what God intended when He originally gave the Law to Moses on the mountain.
He goes on to tell them, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
They are not free to dismiss all that has gone before them, and all that God has commanded them. Not the least commandment in the Law is allowed to be dismissed or ignored.
He continues, “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. ”
They are not only to obey the law, but to teach these commands to others! Those who teach these and practice them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven!
In the church today, the role of the Law is often debated. People say things like:
- We are under the New Testament; not under the Old
- Jesus doesn’t expect us to live by the laws of the Old Testament
- We are under love not the Law!
But right here in the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus declaring the importance of the Law in what He intends to accomplish! We are not given permission to set it aside or to stop teaching it to others. He is not doing away with the Old Testament and it’s laws and requirements, but His mission and purpose IS much deeper than merely getting us to obey a set of laws and standards.
When reading this passage, I keep coming back to ask, Then what am I supposed to do with the Law as a 21st century Christian?
The answer, I believe, is found in verse 20.
"For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
To those listening that day this would have sounded ridiculous! It would be like us trying to out-evangelize Billy Graham. Or, out-compassion Mother Theresa. It sounded impossible to even suggest that someone could have a righteousness that surpassed the righteousness of the Pharisees!
Everyone knew the Pharisees obeyed every Law! They studied them, loved them, read them, meditated on them. They were meticulous...only taking the appropriate number of steps on a Sabbath, washing their hands as required by ritual...they obeyed the smallest letter and the least stroke of the pen.
But even while getting all the minutia of the Law correct...they were still unable to live out the spirit of the Law. Jesus isn’t making the point that His follower are to have more righteousness than the Pharisees, but in having something more in their righteousness than the Pharisees have. We are not called to do more righteous acts and be more obedient to Laws than the Pharisees.
Greg Boyd (Seeing is Believing, p. 13) says,
“Are we really going to change ourselves or others by proclaiming these oughts more loudly, with more anger, and with more frequency. This approach may indeed motivate people to change their behavior, at least temporarily, but it doesn’t usually result in a permanent change in heart or attitude. It doesn’t transform us in the core of our being.”That is what we need...a righteousness that results in a permanent change in our heart and attitudes...a righteousness that transforms us in the core of our being...that is the righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the pharisees...Not a righteousness enforced by a set or rules, regulations, and laws, but one that springs up from with out of a transformed heart!
Jeremiah 31:31-34 was a declaration of what the Messiah would accomplish
“The days are coming,” declares the LORD,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the LORD.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
after that time,” declares the LORD.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the LORD.”
For centuries, the Law was on the outside of God’s followers...now God wants to place His Law in our minds and write it on our hearts so that we follow it; not out of compulsion to an external law, but out of a transformed heart. Only an internal law could produce true righteousness...true holiness in God’s followers.
I came from a very legalistic, rules based religion. We had long lists of Do’s and Don’t’s, and I learned two very important things from that background:
The answer is not to do away with rules altogether!
Many people respond their legalistic background by getting rid of all or most rules and talk of the Law. They talk exclusively about grace and God’s love and acceptance.
And, yes, grace, love, and acceptance are all important. But if we are not careful we drift into what is called antinomianism or lawlessness. This is the belief that God loves us and accepts us and when we do wrong he just pats us on the head and says, “Oh, you!” It refuses to talk about sin because who knows what sin is...especially when there are no boundaries, no regulations and requirements, for our faith.
God is loving and grace-filled and accepting, but the answer to a legalistic background is not to swing to the other extreme and ignore God’s requirements of righteousness. The Sermon on the Mount is doing a great job of that. The Beatitudes swing wide the grace and acceptance of those left on the outside by the Law...the poor in spirit...the meek...the persecuted...but now Jesus turns and reminds us that we are not free to do as we please. There are still requirements. The difference is that fulfilling them will come from a different place.
We fulfill the righteousness of the Law by surpassing the righteousness of the Pharisees. We fulfill it because it will not come from a Law written down on stone tablets, but will come because God has transformed our hearts so that the Law is within us.
The sins you can’t see are often more dangerous to our spiritual lives than the sins you can see.
Rules, regulations, and Laws really only work on behaviors that can be seen. The problem is that often the sins on the inside of us are often more damaging to our spiritual lives and to those around us.
Jesus knew this. We can see if someone murder’s someone else, but we can’t see if someone is harboring anger. And anger eats away at us. We can see if someone commits adultery, but we can’t see if they are filled with lust.
We can’t see deceitfulness. We can’t see selfishness. We can’t see these things on the inside. Later in Matthew 15:11 Jesus says, “What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.'" Sin and unrighteousness comes from deep within...it comes from the core of our character, and until our character is transformed by God’s Holy Spirit, we remain the same, sin-filled people attempting to obey the Law under our own strength.
We are left in tight spot. We are to live by a Law that we can’t really keep. We can’t keep the Law because we are unable to really obey the Law. And, the Law is really unable to do anything about the real problem anyway!
And that is where Jesus steps. That is why repentance and forgiveness is going to be such an important part of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6.
But this is also where Jesus’ obedience to every aspect of the Law leading to His death on the cross opened the way not just for us to receive forgiveness for all the Laws we have broken, but so we could receive the Holy Spirit. If I had planned things a little better, this message would have been a great message for last week...being Pentecost Sunday.
Pentecost is the Jewish celebration of Moses coming down from Sinai with the Torah. The Christian celebration of Pentecost celebrates the arrival of the Holy Spirit into the hearts of God’s people. He came on Pentecost with a sound of a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire. The wind a symbol of empowerment and strength. The fire a symbol of cleansing and purity.
God sends His Holy Spirit into our hearts so our righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Through the Spirit, God puts His law in our minds and writes it on our hearts.
We don’t always get it perfect. But we are expected to try. Dallas Willard says, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”