Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil 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. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 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.
The Sermon on the Mount is a wonderful collection of teachings! So much meat that repeated visits will always feed your soul and spirit in new ways.
In this study we have the first verses not specifically about a characteristic that should be developing in the Christian life. Instead, it is a challenge and an explanation to put aside doubts about the links between the New Covenant and the Old. Because one thing that Jesus was at pains to explain on more than one occasion was that the New Covenant is the fulfilment of the Old and NOT a replacement of it.
Be careful with this passage of scripture! So much very bad doctrine has entered the church because of wrong interpretations of it. As I have written about before, people have taught in a way that has led to believers being placed in chains of bondage.
Let me be clear – when the son of God sets you free, you are free indeed! But bad doctrine, and especially legalistic teaching, can rob you of this freedom and place you in new chains of bondage that are heavier and more restrictive than any chains you were set free from before. I am always clear that legalistic teachings leads to disputes and bondage. It destroys the soul instead of building power in the spirit of the believer through the strengthening by the Holy Spirit.
But does that mean that I teach contrary to the teaching of Jesus in this passage that is quoted above? Absolutely NOT!! And I hope you will understand why by the time you have read this study.
Perhaps it may also be worth reading what the apostle Paul says about himself with regard to these things, and that I have already quoted in previous studies. You can find all of that in the early part of Philippians chapter 3.
Paul, in several places, taught that we should not be placed again under bondage – and he was specifically referring to teaching of the law and of legalism. Was he contradicting Jesus? In no way! And a correct reading of the passage above easily reveals why.
First it can be seen that those who are in error are NOT automatically discounted from entering the kingdom of heaven. Jesus said that anyone who sets aside the least of the laws will be counted as the least in the kingdom (v.19).
You know, I have heard so many times that when one Christian has some perception about error in the doctrine of another Christian, then the curses and accusations fly… I do not mean in terms of bad language. Rather the words of saying that the other is on the way to hell fire…
That is not the attitude of Jesus. So dogma is not something that will impress Him on the day of judgement. Dogma is only impressive to one’s own pride, and it is a natural instinct, especially among men, to try to vaunt yourself above others. Where is humility and meekness in that? Of course it has flown out of the window…
Let’s be clear here in the same way that Jesus was clear. Not one of us, not you and not me, are called to be fulfillers of the law and the prophets. There is only one who was called to this, and His name is Jesus. It is there in black and white in the first verse we read (perhaps in your bible it is in red and white as these are the words of Jesus). He says clearly that He came to fulfil the law and the prophets.
At the same time he specifically referred to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. These studied the law and the prophets in scripture and thought that in doing these things would be their salvation. But Jesus was often at pains to try to explain the difference between being taught how to live right and being taught to love God and fellowship with Him. The first, the legalism, is a focus on self. It is downward looking. It is a trying to fly to heaven by pulling up on your own bootstraps. The second is a turning of your eyes upwards, to God and the kingdom, to the source of all inspiration and to the one we love and who loves us.
Before the rebellious years of the youth arrive, the young child mostly wishes to please his or her parents. Often parents will have taught don’t do this and don’t do that. They will also have taught to do other things in a certain way if you wish to do well. But the child does not worry over the individual details and has no notebooks full of these instructions. The child simply loves mum and dad and wishes to please them. So not every jot and tittle of this ‘law’ that has been taught by mum and dad will be followed to the letter.
In fact family life would become quite uncomfortable if the children turned to their parents and said that, for instance, no I can’t pick up my bags to leave with you early for the airport and our holiday because you taught me that I must first read my bible and do my study and say my prayers and then to have breakfast and then to have a shower. So now the family misses the bus to the airport, and so misses the flight, and misses the planned holiday, and all because of the ‘obedient’ child. This is the ridiculousness of the inflexibility that exists in legalism. How much better to simply love God and to hear Him, because you live your life in close communion with Him!
So none of us are called to be fulfillers of the law and prophets, but in Jesus we have the fulfilment of these things.
There is something more to push us to the right thinking about these things. Jesus said that unless our righteousness SURPASSES that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, we will will in no way enter the kingdom of heaven. Think about this for a while. Think about how carefully the Pharisees tried to fulfil all the requirements of every law in their lives. Think about how the teachers of the law were clear about every small detail of everything written in the law and the prophets. Yet we are supposed to surpass all of this to enter the kingdom of heaven.
One thing is very obvious to me about all of this: that the path of legalism will not get you into heaven. Nor will expecting others to fulfil all aspects of the law give you any leverage to open the gates of heaven for you. So your persecution of others for their sins or the pointing of the finger is an abomination that will do nothing for your spiritual life or the extension of the kingdom. It is only heaping problems upon problems.
There is another path and another way to follow good teaching. We have no righteousness of our own with which to enter heaven. We can’t work for it. We can’t pay for it. We can’t do anything of ourselves for it. But in Jesus all of these things are fulfilled. And so our lives and our very existence needs to be identified with the life of Jesus. He is the way and He is the fulfilment of all these things.
As we give our lives to Him and join with His body, so we will enter into the fruit of all the characteristics of the spiritual person – such as those we have already looked at in the previous studies. We will also learn that if there is one thing that we can teach from a legalistic perspective, it is that of the pathway of love. To love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. To love your neighbour as yourself. To love each other as He loved us.
And even in all these things we need to remember that we are a work in progress yet to be perfected.
So does Jesus tell us to be strict about the law and prophets? In no way! He taught that entering the kingdom of heaven is impossible in this way. But yet, for us, the law and the prophets are fulfilled – because we are in Jesus and all these things are fulfilled in Him. And because these things are completely fulfilled in Him, our righteousness before God is that which surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.
It certainly surpasses those who would criticize other Christians about their lack of fulfilment of this law or that law, whether about truthfulness, or homosexuality, or faithfulness – whatever. It is all the same before God because sin is sin. It is only human perceptions that adds degrees to these things. But there are no prizes in heaven for those who point out these sins or who teach legalism to try to take people out of sin.
In my experience of life, I have discovered that to try in my own strength to be free of certain behaviours will be doomed to failure. This leads to discouragement, to feeling that you are a ‘failure’ or a ‘loser.’ It leads to self-condemnation and finding it harder to come before the Lord in prayer… Brothers and sisters, I have to tell you that Satan loves it when you try to deal with sin in this way, because the result is that it becomes harder for you to fellowship with the Lord.
But in my life I have had another kind of experience also. When my focus has for a while not been on my own sins or good behaviour, but instead my focus has been on Jesus and on what I can learn from Him, what I can do for him (not in my own life, but in showing love in my family, my community and in my church), and in praising and worshipping on Him… When my focus has been right, then after some time I look at my own life and even wonder where is that sin I used to worry about? It has gone! There has been the chance for the Lord to do his work of purification in my life.
This is the Lord’s work in us! The trouble is that we try to do it ourselves and we fail. And others through legalism teach to do it in that way – even if that was not their original intention – and so many are bound in chains and feel like they are failures and ‘poor Christians.’
I want to declare before you and before God that you and I are not ‘poor Christians’, because we have all the resources and the power of heaven available to us. So let the Lord work in your life to achieve these things that you can’t achieve with your own strength. Because your own righteousness will in no way enable you to enter the kingdom of heaven. But through the Lord, the righteousness that is in Jesus, who fulfilled all the law and the prophets, becomes available to us. Hallelujah!