Today, we continue to look at Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. So far, we’ve covered what it means to be blessed by God, and what it looks like for believers to be salt and light to the world around them. Next, we’ll examine the relationship Christ, and His followers, have with the law of God.
“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.”–Matt. 5:17-20
Go into any Christian bookstore and you’ll likely find a coffee mug (or any other object that can be engraved) with the words, “God is love” written on it. We like to talk a lot about the love of God, and rightly so, for the truth that God loves sinful man changes everything.
But do we understand God’s love in light of God’s holiness? Do we believe sometimes that God simply forgot about the commands of the law and forgave us out of His “love?” Is there a tendency, I wonder, to think that God lowered the standard of the law so that we could be forgiven of our sin and be declared right before Him?
Jesus demolishes that thought with His words in these few verses. Jesus fulfills the law of God perfectly. Instead of God lowering the standards of the law, He sent His Son to obey the law perfectly in our place, as the promised Messiah, who fulfills the Old Testament prophets. In the life of Christ, God makes it clear that no one is right before Him, no one is entering heaven without being perfect, without a blemish on their record. But praise God that when we cannot do this on our own, He provided a Savior in whom we could place our faith to be made perfect before God.
The law of God does not “pass away” when Jesus comes–it gets fulfilled, and all those who trust in the perfection of Christ to be declared perfect before the Father are, by God’s grace, declared perfect by the Father. This is good news! We get Christ’s record because He got ours.
So what then is our relationship to the law as followers of Christ? Do we simply not care about it, because we’ve been saved? Do we get to continue on in sin? Are we, as Paul says, to “go on in sin that grace may abound?” Let me echo Paul’s answer to that question: “By no means!”
Now, having been declared righteous in Christ, and brought under His Lordship, forgiven of our sins and adopted as children of God, we are to be who we are in Christ–holy, perfect and godly. If we’ve been made alive in Christ, why would we go back to that which brought death? That would be foolish! Jesus tells us that as citizens of the kingdom, as followers of the King, as believers in the gospel, we are to observe His commandments and teach them. In other words, we are to obey the Savior.
The rabbis of the day distinguished between “light” commandments and “weighty” commandments. Jesus makes it clear in Matt. 23:23-24 that He is against those who neglect the “weightier” matters of the law while thinking that their keeping of the “light” commandments will make up for their ugly hypocrisy. However, Jesus makes it clear that obedience to Him is 100%. He calls out those who would cherry-pick commands to obey or not obey. While some are weightier than others, the commands of Christ are all worthy to be observed and kept.
The last verse can be somewhat confusing if read out of context: Why is Jesus telling His followers that they have to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees? They don’t seem terribly righteous when they shout, “Crucify Him!” So is Jesus telling us that we don’t have to be too terribly righteous? Or is He actually affirming that they’re pretty righteous, and we need to one-up them in order to be right with God? Didn’t He make it clear that we’re declared righteous through faith, not works?
Jesus here is calling for a different kind of righteousness. The Pharisees and scribes had an external righteousness that didn’t arise out of a heart that trusted and loved God. They were like the older brother in Luke 15 who obeyed grudgingly and when he wasn’t awarded for his obedience, grumbled about how his dad was really stupid and unfair.
As Christ followers, we understand that when we came into a relationship with Jesus, we were declared righteous. We were adopted as children of God, and God loves us as He loves Christ. We now trust Him as our God, and desire to be who we are in Christ. Our righteousness is not a fake, self-righteous external morality, but an internal, God-given righteousness that comes from the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit. We obey because it is who we are in Christ, because obedience is now our joy, and we hate our sin.
Praise God for this gospel that changes everything.
Lord, may we trust in your righteousness, and hold fast to your cross. May we walk righteous because that’s who we are in you, Jesus. May we share this gospel until you call us home or come back to get us. May you be glorified forever.