This is hopefully the first in a series of posts talking about a New Covenant perspective of the Law; that is to say, what the New Testament and Paul in particular say about the Law. When I talk about the Law, I’m talking about the Law of Moses, that which the Jewish people were expected to keep up until the time of Christ. I’m not talking about speed laws, anti-trust regulations or taxation. These two concepts get confused by many people, but they really shouldn’t. There are rules put in place by men, with penalties established by men. Then there are rules given by God and… well, you get the idea. To keep things clearer, I will try to always capitalize when talking about the Law of Moses.
Now, while I was specifically planning on looking at Paul’s view of the Law, I really should start with Jesus, since that’s what I always tell other people to do. The first—and perhaps the most crucial—teaching of Jesus on the Law is found in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew Chapter 5, starting with verse 17:
17 “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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Wow… and this is just the beginning. But let’s take a look at what Jesus is saying.
The SOTM (Sermon On The Mount) begins with the Beatitudes (aka the “blesseds”), then the “salt and light” teaching. So far, Jesus seems to be addressing two groups of people: First, there are those, the poor and the persecuted, who need the Kingdom of God. Then, Jesus turns to Israel and Jerusalem in particular (the city set on a hill), who have failed to be the conduit for the blessings of God to the rest of the world. This was Israel’s assignment as the Chosen People—to be the means through which God would bless the whole world. But, rather than be that, the Jewish leadership has tried to keep the blessings to themselves, missing the point about why they were chosen. And, it seems from the comments throughout the Gospels that the Jewish establishment is trying to keep the blessings for those who keep the Law.
So, Jesus now seems to be addressing those who may be seeing Jesus as a counter-establishment revolutionary, who dares to ignore the Law (an accusation made a few times throughout the Gospels). He makes it clear that he is no such radical. He has not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it—to bring it to completion, to see it all “accomplished.” To do away with the Law undermines what Jesus has come to do. He has not come to fulfill any less than the absolute entirety of the Law, every iota, dot and tittle. And get this, the Pharisees aren’t doing it good enough.
But then he lays it out: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Is this really a mandate to keep the whole Old Testament Law (and just wait for what’s coming next)? There are, in fact, those claiming to be Christians who teach just that. Is Paul in disagreement with Jesus when he said it was impossible to be saved through the Law (Gal 2:16)? Was Peter merely dreaming when he had the vision telling him he could eat pork? Or, is Jesus trying to make a different point here?
We need to keep in mind exactly what we are talking about. If, in fact, Jesus means that righteousness depends upon keeping every iota of the law, then no Christian is doing it, no matter how legalistic they may be, and I mean no one. For one thing, Paul assures us that law makes sin increase, by design, so the Law is in fact self-defeating. It’s got failure built right into it. Jesus’ words seem to be dooming us to failure, and the next section (the “You have heard it said, but…” teachings) makes it more clear. So what is Jesus actually saying in these verses?
Stay tuned, and we’ll look into this further next time.