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
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
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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