These studies look at the overwhelming goodness of the Triune God. Depicted by Andrei Rublev's icon of The Holy Trinity.
 

Matthew 5:17-20

17 "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall 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."

Jesus is teaching His followers about the Kingdom of God. What is it like where God's rule is done? What is God like? What is His will? What Jesus has been proclaiming is wonderful news for those who have felt out of step with the world they live in. Instead of being endowed with the characteristics that this world admires such as wealth of spirit, being willing to do whatever to get what you want, making sure your own needs are met ahead of the needs of others, etc., these people find themselves mourning, longing for righteousness, and only too painfully aware of their own poverty of spirit. But Jesus tells his listeners that it is these very qualities that indicate that they are the blessed ones. They are blessed by God because in His Kingdom, they will receive from God Himself what they are deeply longing for. They are blessed in their ability to recognize the brokenness, evil, and suffering in this world and in their desire that their present circumstances not be the last word but that God would have the final say.

What amazing good news this must have been to those who were listening to Jesus! He goes on to tell His followers that they have a special relationship with the world. They are not just a part of all that is around them. This earth does not feel like home to them because it is not their home. They are salt and light in this world. They remain present in the world to benefit it by their presence. Jesus, of course, is The Salt and Light of this earth, just as he is the One who mourns, is meek, hungers and thirsts for righteousness, makes peace, etc. All that Jesus has said so far about those who are in the Kingdom applies first and foremost to Him. It is true of us only because it is first true of Him. He is the One who is blessed and who is salt and light. To most understand what it means to belong to the Kingdom of God, we first look at Jesus.

Jesus' listeners must have been listening to His words with astonishment. Was this a new teaching? How does it connect to all they have known before? It would appear that some were tempted to believe that Jesus was somehow replacing the law of God with His teaching. What happens to obedience to God's will? Is Jesus, with His preaching about the blessed poor in spirit, doing away with the purpose and will of God? So now Jesus goes on to speak of how He is connected to the law of God that they have already received. "Think not," Jesus warns, "that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." The phrase "the law (Torah) and the prophets" was how teachers in Jesus' day referred to the whole teaching they had received in the scriptures, about God's character and purposes presented in what we call the Old Testament. Jesus is clear. What he has to say is strongly connected to the whole message of the Old Testament. The particular regulations are included in God's Torah, but do not form the center or foundation of it. In fact, this may be the very mistake that the Pharisees have made. They have reduced the will and purpose of God to conformity to legal regulations. Jesus' teaching in the passages that follow this one seem to bear this out.

Sometimes we struggle with this verse because we start thinking of all the laws in the Old Testament that we do not observe today, such as the dietary or sacrificial laws and ask why we don't follow all of them. But Jesus is not thinking primarily of this or that particular regulation, but of the whole will and ways of God (Torah): what God is up to, what He is accomplishing. Later in this passage, Jesus refers to the whole will and way of God as righteousness. Jesus indicates in no uncertain terms that his teaching has everything to do with true righteousness as revealed in the whole of the Old Testament. In fact, says Jesus, his teaching on true righteousness will so far exceed what the Pharisees understood as righteousness that it will look as if they have all but forgotten what true righteousness is by comparison! Jesus calls us all to rethink what true righteousness is about. A legal definition will not do.

So Jesus is saying here, all that God wills about us being His people and Him being our God is not being done away with. He is not onto a brand new plan that replaces the old one. It is the same God and He has the same will. What Jesus taught in the previous verses was not a new teaching that abolishes the old. And, Jesus Himself is not here to get rid of obedience to God's whole law.

In fact, Jesus says, He is here to fulfill the law and the prophets. And this is the key. He is here to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus fulfils or completes the law. This means that Jesus alone shows us what true righteousness is and therefore what the whole Old Testament was about. Jesus challenges the Pharisees to stop judging Him by their own understanding of God's Torah, and instead to interpret the Old Testament and the very character and purpose of God in terms of Him and His teaching. They need to put the legal requirements contained in the law and prophets into the whole larger and deeper context of Jesus' own relationship to God and His teaching about a God who blesses and makes us citizens in His Kingdom.

Jesus has a unique relationship with the law of God. You could say that He is the law, He embodies the righteousness of God. He comes as the one human who is able to live in a perfect relationship with God. Jesus fills up the will of God. He is therefore the one person who is fully human for He lives out the destined purpose of all humans. To see Jesus is to see what human beings are created to be.

So, if we begin with Jesus, we see that following the God of the Old Testament means first of all being in right and trusting relationship with God just as Jesus was as the blessed Son of God. Recognizing Jesus as the revelation and embodiment of the righteousness of God, i.e. right relationship with God as the Son of God, is the only place to begin. To be righteous, then, is to be in trusting, loving, full relationship with God for which we were created, to know Him as our Father and to live as His beloved and blessed children just as Jesus did! Being in right relationship with God and knowing who God is and who we are in relationship with God is the foundation, then, for any obedience to particular directives contained in God's written word.

Furthermore, the law, the will and purposes of God, Jesus says, are not temporary. All that God sets out to accomplish will remain until it is accomplished. This makes sense. Why would God's rule be abolished? God's purpose remains. In fact, it is fulfilled in Christ. Jesus brings the ultimate will of God to fruition, namely reconciling the world to Himself in Christ so that we may know the Father truly and put our trust in Him wholly and exclusively for true blessing and life in His Kingdom.

So how are we to regard the law (Torah) of God? Jesus tells His listeners to love it, obey it, and teach others to do the same. To love and trust God as Jesus does is to love and trust in his ways and His will.

However, if we have an attitude of looking to relax the Torah of God, then we do not love His ways and do not really know and trust God. We don't really affirm Jesus as the embodiment of the right relationship with God. Rather, we are looking for ways to get around God's will, to compromise. When this is the case, then we do not see the good and right purposes of God's will, that His desire is for our abundant life. So we want to figure out how to not take His law seriously. We reduce the Torah of right totally trusting relationship with God fulfilled in Jesus to mere legal requirements with its rewards for conforming and penalties for disregarding them. We make a covenantal relation of love with God into a mere contractual relationship where we earn merits by "obedience" and calculate de-merits when we prefer to disobey. There will be no honor for an attitude like this. The Torah (law and prophets teaching), the purposes of God, in that case has become merely a duty to be obeyed just enough to get by. Relationship with God fulfilled in Jesus has little to do with it.

To obey the law and teach others to do so, on the other hand, is to love, as Jesus did, where God's Torah is taking us, even if at times when obeying is difficult or even painful. This person does not see God's rule as a duty to be avoided when possible, but as the very source of real life, life in God's blessed Kingdom with Jesus as our elder brother. God's purposes are always for our good, for our abundant life. God is completely and always for us. To live under His rule is to recognize the good and gracious nature and purposes of His will for His children, starting with Jesus and ending with us.

Finally, Jesus makes a statement that must have been, at first hearing, truly astonishing to those listening: "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." The scribes and the Pharisees were the ones who loved the law, were they not? They followed the law better than anyone, didn't they? Who could hope to have a righteousness that exceeded theirs? Well, Jesus could. Jesus fulfils the law, He is the Righteous One. Jesus perfectly expressed a righteous relationship with God.

Okay, so Jesus' righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees. That is great for Him, but where does that leave us? And what does all this have to do with the previous section? What does being blessed as one who is poor in spirit have to do with having a righteousness that exceeds the scribes and Pharisees?

The only way we can have a righteousness that goes beyond the righteousness of the Pharisees is to have the righteousness of Jesus in us. We need to be able to receive a share in His trusting relationship with His Father, His obedience to God's rule. Somehow we need to participate in His right relationship with all of creation. And I believe that this is exactly what Jesus is pointing to. Jesus' own righteousness is rooted in His receiving from His Father. That is because righteousness is not a static state of being. One is righteous when he/she is in the proper giving and receiving relationship with everything else. Jesus lives perfectly as the Son of His Father. He is always receiving the love, joy, and glory of the Father. In the gospel of John, Jesus tells His listeners that He receives His very words and actions from the Father. And Jesus is always giving His Father His complete devotion and glory.

We receive God's righteousness when we are poor in spirit. Our recognition that we cannot give ourselves life is the beginning of our receiving the life that only God can give. To be righteous with God begins with realizing that we must count on God to make us righteous though Jesus, His Son. We obey out of our poverty in spirit--trusting that God will be faithful to work by His Spirit in our lives. The righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees too often did not proceed out of a dependence on God, but on their own efforts. So they had a certain sort of righteousness, a certain right standing in respect to the legal conformity to certain parts of the whole "law and prophets." But they were tempted to think they were rich in spirit, that they had a righteousness to offer God. Apparently, this kind of righteousness is not a ticket into heaven. This is because the kingdom of God can only be received, not earned or bought.

Jesus comes to fulfill God's will and purposes on our behalf. As the Son of God, He lives the truly righteous life as the Son of Man. But Jesus does not do this merely to set an example for us to try and follow. Jesus fulfils the law and the prophets, the whole will of God for us to receive and participate in His righteousness. Now we enter the kingdom of God, by receiving Jesus, His person and His actions done on our behalf. We always obey counting on God's Spirit to be at work in us sharing with us the very right relationship with God that Jesus had. We act out of hope in God's faithfulness and goodness coming to us through Jesus and in the power of the Spirit.

The whole message of the Old Testament "law and prophets" (Torah) was to prepare us to see Jesus, the Son of God, as the fulfillment of all of God's ways for us. It is only through His reconciling life culminating in His atoning work on the cross that we can have any hope of being truly righteous. It is only by His Spirit that we can share in His right relationship to God as the children of God and so follow in His ways each and every day. And that's a righteousness that surely exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees and which will never pass away.

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