I remember, as a child, going to school to pick up my mother. She was a teacher and I would go and wait at the end of the corridor and watch the big high school kids pour out of the classrooms and then finally Mum would come out the door and I’d go and meet her. I was little and I thought it was kind of special going to a big school and feeling like I had a right to be there because my Mum was there. I remember thinking it would be neat to be in my Mum’s class (but since I was in primary school that wasn’t likely to happen) as I figured I would be special because I knew the teacher in a special way.
One day (I don’t remember the circumstances) Mum put me straight about one thing – if I ever did get into her class there would be no special treatment, no bending the rules, no playing favourites. I would be just one of the class. Worse, Mum reckoned that precisely because I was her child I would have to be extra good so it never looked like I was getting favoured treatment. The bottom line was that having Mum as my teacher meant no slackness, no special favours, no advantages. The funny thing was that even as a child I no longer was keen to ever get into Mum’s class.
It’s a common way of the world. Know someone personally who has power and authority and there is the hope that you don’t have to play by all the rules when dealing with them. It’s not what you know but who you know.
And there were some disciples nearly 2,000 years ago who knew their Rabbi (their teacher) to be very close to God. This Rabbi taught with authority and instead of quoting ‘Rabbi this’ or ‘Scribe that’ to support his teaching of God’s law, he just said, ‘But I say to you’. And what He said and did certainly sent religious eyebrows heavenward!
Instead of enforcing the Sabbath laws Jesus emphasised helping and healing if needed. Instead of accepting Moses’ legislation on divorce, Jesus emphasised God’s intention for marriage. Instead of being fussy about the cleanliness of one’s hands Jesus spoke about the cleanness of one’s heart. And so it seemed that Jesus de-emphasised God’s law and was setting up a kingdom in which God loved and accepted everyone and people could do what they liked.
That’s the trouble with sinner’s ears. They can’t wait to take advantage of every situation. They can’t wait to make life easier for themselves. And maybe even the disciples were tempted to think that by knowing Jesus they would be freed more and more from all the laws of God – ultimately to live as they pleased – but always (of course!) giving lip service to God.
Jesus brings them and us clearly into the picture about how we should live as His followers when he said: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20 ESV)
There is no lightening of things here for the Law and the Prophets are not abolished but Jesus has come precisely to fulfil them. And they will stand for his followers as well until he comes again and heaven and earth disappear. More than that, Jesus expects the righteousness of his disciples to far exceed that of the Pharisees (who sought God’s righteousness through obedience to the law and were very respectable men).
Talk about turning up the heat! Jesus is not the path to easy living, a relaxing of the rules for conduct and behaviour, or a way to personal freedom in which ‘I can do my own thing’. Life with Jesus is in fact the opposite of what our sinful ears want to hear.
And then the responses come: How can we be more righteous than Mr Super Righteous Pharisees? Have you honestly read all the laws of God – down to the tiniest Hebrew dot? (I think I would have been certainly stoned long before now!) How can we live and teach God’s law in today’s society in which people want more freedoms to do what they wish? The Church has been seen as legalistic hypocrites for so long by so many that if we emphasise these words surely our mission will go down the gurgler. Why can’t we just concentrate on God’s love and forget the rest?
Jesus’ words today do make us stop and think. How have I honestly been living? Are my thoughts and words clearly reflecting God’s will? If we each got a report card from God for the past week how did we measure up against his holy standard?
We all got an ‘F’! (And if you think you did better than that then you either don’t know God’s holy standard too well – and you get an ‘F’ for that – or you’re full of pride – and you still get an ‘F’!)
The fact remains that whenever we read God’s Law or the Prophets or for that matter anything Jesus tells us to do, none of us can claim to be righteous in God’s sight. None of us is perfect.
But Jesus is! In fact Jesus is righteous! And he said that he came to fulfil the Law and Prophets – precisely because we could not (people keep on getting a ‘F’!). And this fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets meant that Jesus obeyed God rather than people. Jesus cut through all the so called righteous additions that people had put up around God’s will. Jesus cut through these barnacles (all the extra Sabbath details, all the concern over religious externals, all the things in God’s name that spelt selfishness rather than love, and all the rationalisations made that God’s Word is too hard to understand today when we know very well what God says, we just don’t like the message) and obeyed God’s will. Where people had turned the Law into their god (fulfil it and you will be saved), Jesus revealed the One who had sent him, the Father.
And this fulfilment took Jesus to the cross because the world accused him of blasphemy. The world’s god is ourselves, our pride – and Jesus challenged that. And so the world condemned Jesus for fulfilling the Law by hanging him up on a cross. And in doing so Jesus actually showed where God’s Law ends up with sinners. People turn God’s law into a god to be worshipped (do the right thing or at least try and you will get to heaven) but instead God’s law condemns people and sends them off to eternal punishment.
That is what happened to Jesus – he fulfilled the Law in his life and he showed the fulfilment of the Law in his death when Jesus died as a sinner, condemned by God. And that means that God’s law will always finally condemn sinners.
But Jesus won’t – even today.
That’s important to know since Jesus is alive again, alive today! He fulfilled the Law and did what we could not by his righteous life. He is the Righteous One and he can tell us that our righteousness must exceed all the works righteousness of this world because he gives us his own righteousness through faith. The righteousness of the Christian is a gift and not earned by our good deeds. And that is how we enter God’s kingdom by having Jesus’ righteousness over us. And this reality of faith is very real but rarely experienced because we still live in our proud, selfish bodies.
And so Jesus calls his disciples, his followers, his Church to follow him. This means living as he wants us to live. It means he wants us to love as he loves. And the best guide we have is God’s law – notably those Ten Words which speak to how to live among others. Christians do not live as they choose because they know Jesus. It is wrong to think that a Christian can live as he/she wishes winking at Jesus to turn a blind eye. Jesus’ gift of righteousness is not our licence to live as we wish, say what we want, think what we like. Then God’s law becomes a mirror and shows us what we’re really like and condemns us.
It is also dangerous to slip into thinking that Jesus’ righteousness comes to us because we are at least trying to follow Jesus. To think or behave like that ignores Jesus’ gift to us of salvation; of our new life with him. He saved us precisely because we can’t save ourselves. But we are so easily deceived by our clinging pride into thinking that we must be doing something right to earn our own righteousness. And once again God’s law becomes a mirror and clearly reveals what we are underneath our ‘nice’ exterior – and it is anything but righteous! And again God’s law condemns us.
And where God’s law condemns there is no earthly escape, no way to dodge its searing judgement, no hope. And so we flee again to Jesus crying out, like Peter who one moment was walking on the water and the next almost swallowed up, ‘Save me, Lord!’. In repentance, condemned by the Law, the proud and the despairing call out for help and Jesus comes and helps.
‘I forgive you. Now get up and follow Me.’
That is the lifestyle for people who know Jesus: fulfilling God’s law of love in each circumstance because Jesus has first loved and forgiven us. We follow Jesus and live as he wants us to not because of the fear of the big stick called hell but because of the love shown to us by Jesus on the stick called a cross. It is a message and a lifestyle that the world needs to hear. It is a way of living not a way of talking
- Matthew 5:20