Jesus and The Law

Jesus and The Law

September 11, 2023

Series: New Testament

Book: Matthew

Bible Passage: Matthew 5:17-20

One of the greatest kings in the history of Israel was King Solomon. It was his father King David who defeated the neighboring enemies and secured peace for Israel. But it was King Solomon the son who made Israel into a great nation. Of course to make a nation great always comes with a huge cost and it’s always the people who pays the cost. So when King Solomon died his son Rehoboam took his throne and the leaders of Israel came to Rehoboam with one request they said your father made our yoke heavy so therefore now lighten the hard service of your father and this heavy yoke on us and we will serve you. Before answering the people, King Rehoboam discussed a matter with his counselors. The older counselor said to the king: you should be a servant to the people, you should speak kindly to them and they will in turn serve you for their lives. But the king’s childhood friends said to the king: no thus you shall say to them my little finger is thicker than my father’s thighs and now whereas my father Solomon laid on you a heavy yoke I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips but I would discipline you with whips with hooks. King Rehoboam forsook the advance of the older counselors and he answered the people of Israel according to his friends’ poor advice and the people of Israel upon hearing this were greatly disappointed. His father, King Solomon, demands were hard enough for the people and for many years they were at the edge of quitting already; so upon hearing the words of King Rehoboam the nation collapsed. Ten out of twelve tribes of Israel turned their backs on King Rehoboam and formed a separate nation.

The challenge that the Israelites faced back in rehoboam’s time has now returned to the Jews in Jesus time but in a different way. About a century before the birth of Jesus there was a religious revival among the Jews, many of them threw away their idols and left the Pagan religions. As they all returned to the Jewish religion they were asking themselves: so what should we do now? The religious leaders gave them a simple answer: we must do what the law of God says. These Jews were zealous about God’s law, they went through all the religious texts and they listed out all the commands of God. Not only that, the religious leaders also wrote many commentaries to explain and to describe how to carry out all these commands and also how not to break these commands. Soon these leaders expanded the commands of God into thousands of rules and this marks the beginning of a way of life called Pharisaism. The scribes are those who study the law Explain the law and expand the law and the Pharisees are the ones who practice the law according to the scribes’ explanation. Do you know what is a deep motivation behind a pharisaic way of life: it is to favor and blessings of God. Their hope is by following the law perfectly they would finally be able to win God’s favor and earn God’s blessings. Maybe someone among them might have said: you know nobody in the history of Israel has ever accomplished this before, are we really trying to do the impossible? A Pharisee would say don’t bring me down to your level; I am disciplined, I am committed and I shall prove that the impossible is indeed possible. So the list of a thousand rules became a heavy burden that they laid on themselves, as well as on the Jewish population who set under their teaching. But of course problems soon arise, the more they practice the law, the more they fail to practice the law. The more they knew about the law the more conscious they were about the desire to break the law. They knew that. Perhaps they were thinking maybe I am just not good enough but there were those who are on top of the religious hierarchy they must be doing a much better job than I am. But that was also false, it was an Open Secret among the top ranking Pharisees that none of them could follow the law perfectly. The pharisaic way of life was not just a heavy burden, it was a house of cards at the brink of a collapse. Because how do you maintain a religion when the teachers could not follow it? But the problem is the show must go on. All eyes were on the Pharisees and so they put on a show, they kept their failures private and pretended that their spiritual journey is characterized by daily successes. When the common Jewish people faced spiritual failures daily they looked to the Pharisees who seemed to glow and glitter in holy light and there they found courage to try again and again and again.

For at least a century everyone in Israel was trying and failing and trying and failing. When they looked at the blessings and curses written in the Law, they knew that they could not earn the blessings. Instead, every curse written on the law will one day fall on them and their greatest hope was sadly just to try again tomorrow. The Pharisees tried really hard to maintain this house of cards. One of the ways they did this was to find ways to tweak the law. Well of course the Pharisees wouldn’t actually tweak the law, after all the Pharisees were faithful to the word of God. But they could not follow the word of God and they desperately needed a solution. So they got the scribes to tweak their explanation of the law of God in order to make it more achievable. But once again this proved to be an unsuccessful attempt because it’s not the explanation of the law that made it difficult; it is the law itself that is difficult. Soon the religious Jews came up with yet another creative solution. They open the scripture and they go to the Book of Jeremiah chapter 31 verse 31 and it says behold the days are coming declares the Lord when I will make a New Covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. That is the “aha” moment, they said to themselves perhaps one day God will send one of his servants to us and this servant will have the authority to make a New Covenant with us and perhaps the New Covenant will have less rules perhaps, it won’t be as difficult to follow as the Old Covenant. So when Jesus came preaching and teaching of course they remember Jeremiah 31 31, and they had their hopes up because when Jesus came he spoke with authority and his authority was unlike any other religious teachers. The other teachers always quoted the commentaries of the scribes, they always quoted the teachings of older Pharisees. When Jesus taught, Jesus spoke with His own authority He simply quoted the scripture and explained it and his own explanation was far better than the rest of the teachers.

Other than His authoritative teaching there was yet another thing that gave them hope that Jesus would make a New Covenant that’s more achievable. That is the fact that Jesus often stood against the Pharisees because Jesus’s teachings were clearly a rejection of pharisaism. Whenever Jesus taught his teachings didn’t sound like the law it sounded kinder, more forgiving, more loving. It gave them hope and peace. Just look at the Beatitudes: what does it require of the people who would come to God for a blessing, what does it require of them to mourn for your sins, to repent of your sins, to admit that you are unable to follow the law perfectly, to simply desire good. On the other hand, the scribes and the Pharisees expanded the law, they taught the law and they were very serious about doing everything the law says and they condemned everyone who could not follow the law. Because of that the Jewish people had often equated a law of God with pharisaism. So if the scribes and the Pharisees were so pro-law, Jesus, the one who is always standing against the scribes and the Pharisees, would he be anti law? Has Jesus come to abolish the law? It must have been so shocking for the audiences when Jesus finally arrived at this point of the sermon. He said do not think that I’ve come to abolish the law or the prophets. What does the law and the prophets mean? Simply put it refers to the Old Testament which is the first 39 books of the Bible that are commonly known by the Jews as Tanakh. Tanakh is an acronym formed by three alphabets T, N and K. The “T” refers to Torah in other words the law it points to the first five books of Moses. The “N” refers to Nevi’im or the prophets, it points to all the prophetic books. The “K” refers to ketoving or the writings it contains songs, wisdom sayings and stories about God’s people. All together they formed the 39 books of the Old Testament.

Of course in Jesus’ time, they wouldn’t refer to all these books as the Old Testament because after all there was not yet a new testament. So the Jews would call the entire Old Testament properly as the law, the prophets and the writings. But sometimes they will just drop the writings and call it the law and the prophets. Even so, why did Jesus say do not think that I’ve come to abolish the law or the prophets, why not just say specifically do not think I’ve come to abolish the law.  The reason is fairly straightforward because there is something special about the entire Old Testament that makes it impossible to be abolished and that reason applies not only to the law but also to the prophets. The reason is this: the word of God is eternal it shall stand forever, just as the Lord said in Isaiah 55 my word shall not return to me empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and shall succeed in the very thing for which I sent it. This is the exact point that Jesus is making in our passage. Jesus says that even if this entire world Heaven and Earth should pass away not even a stroke or a DOT of the Old Testament will perish.  In verse 19 again Jesus says that whoever relaxes one of these Commandments even if it’s the smallest Commandments and teaches others to do the same he will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. All these sayings of Jesus can be summarized in four words: the law shall stand. The law shall stand, in other words all the statements of blessings shall stand for those who perform the law perfectly likewise all the statements of curses shall also stand to condemn those who fail to follow the law. To seal the deal Jesus closes this passage with this sentence for I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. I suppose this must have been the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The Pharisees were seen as the most righteous Jews of their time.

It is true that they have relaxed some parts of the law but they did so precisely because they were trying their best to do it perfectly. They were highly disciplined and committed. Nobody could deny that but Jesus looked upon them and said: not good enough. The Pharisees  lowered the bars to make it more achievable but Jesus brought it right back up where it used to be. Jesus condemned the Pharisees to be unrighteous according to the law. It was an Open Secret that the Pharisees could not perform what the law demands. The Jewish people have been hoping for an authoritative servant of God to come and make a new covenant that’s more achievable. That is the only way they could think of to earn God’s blessings to them. If Jesus would not abolish the law then Jesus could bring no hope, then their relationship with the holy God would only be defined by curses and condemnation because no one is righteous before God. I suppose this teaching must have been very confusing even for the followers of Jesus. When Jesus called his followers Jesus’ message was characterized by repentance. To repent begins with acknowledging that you have broken God’s law. Jesus also calls those who are meek and meekness begins with knowing that God does not owe you any blessings. So standing before God as a broken and evil sinner we have no bargaining power. It is precisely the broken and evil sinners that Jesus calls to himself, and for those who would admit their sins and ask for forgiveness Jesus promised him that they would get forgiveness. Hence the Beatitudes can be summarized in four words: sinners shall be blessed. Blessing is the very thing that Jews were seeking for, they wanted a relationship with their gods that is characterized by blessing. So in the teachings of Jesus, the Jews have come to a crossroad. On one hand, Jesus affirms that the Law shall be eternally binding and it is summarized with these four words: the law shall stand. On the other hand Jesus promises that those who are condemned by the Law can come to Him and be forgiven and it is summarized yet again with these four words sinners shall be blessed.

How could these two teachings be true at the same time? if the Law shall stand then sinners shall be cursed likewise if sinners shall be blessed what about the law that defines what is sin and condemns all sinners? Everything that Jesus does and teaches would make absolutely no sense until we discover this little word that is hidden at the end of verse 17: do you not think I’ve come to abolish the Law or the prophets I’ve not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. The word is “fulfilled”. The Old Testament is like a hundred piece puzzle that you’re only given 99 pieces of it,  and the missing piece is the messiah. Because you see the Old Testament religion is a religion that looks forward to the Messiah from the very beginning. As soon as mankind broke the Commandment of God a savior was promised to mankind. In a violent act of display, God slaughtered an animal, skin the animal and clothed Adam and Eve in that skin. God also promised that one day a Son of woman will crush evil for the people of God and that is why the curses did not fall on Adam and Eve. Because a solution is provided in the form of a human baby who will come in the future. From that point on, throughout the entire Old Testament this human Son is mentioned again and again. To Abraham it was told that someone among his descendants shall rise and become a blessing to all families on earth. To Moses, he was told to wait and Moses told his people to wait for a prophet greater than himself. King David was told that one of his sons will sit on his throne and rule the world forever. The Psalms also tell us that a great high priest will reunite us with God forever. Prophet Isaiah also told us that the suffering servant of God will bring us forgiveness and salvation. 

Do you see now that the missing piece of the puzzle is the Messiah? Jesus proclaims himself to be the missing piece, He is the fulfillment. What about the law God gave his people? The law of whom Moses and God commanded the people to obey, not only that God himself promised that if someone is able to fulfill the Law, to do the law perfectly, he will be considered righteous in the eyes of God and earn himself blessings.  it seems so straightforward to interpret the law the way a Pharisee would interpret it.  God tells me to obey the law so I do it, God says if I obey the Law perfectly then I’ll be righteous and earn blessings, so I try to do the law perfectly in order that I would be called righteous and earn blessings. How is the Pharisee interpretation of the law wrong? The answer might shock you because you are meant to fail, you heard that right. When God gave the law, He knew all of us would fail. The law is perfect in Holiness and righteousness and if this kind of God makes a law his law will demand perfect Holiness and righteousness as well. How could an imperfect, unholy and unrighteous person such as you and I ever meet its demands? You are meant to fail, the law was not meant for your comforts, the law was meant for your condemnation. It was given to enhance our understanding of our own brokenness, the Law declares us all guilty, evil and deserving of death. If we stop at this point, there is no hope for us. It is the 99 pieces of the puzzle, it will make no sense until you find the missing piece. A missing piece appeared two thousand years ago as a baby born in a manger in the town of Bethlehem. The missing piece made Himself known to the world when He proclaimed I have come to fulfill the Law. What does it mean to fulfill? Are the laws written to be followed, not to be fulfilled? Fulfillment applies only to promises. Are you telling me that the law of God is also a promise? That is correct.

God’s law is also a promise when God gave his Law to his people, a huge part of the Law is about one thing: how to get forgiveness from God. God had already made provisions for when His people break the Law, God gave them sacrificial laws for the forgiveness of sins. It says if you sin you can bring an animal before God and sacrifice it and the animal will pay for your sins instead, and you will be forgiven on behalf of the animal’s death. Not only that, God also gave them purification Laws to cleanse them from impurity, they can perform ceremonies to rid themselves from the stain of sin. Moreover God also gave them laws regarding priests, these priests will act as the middle man between God and man, so if you are a sinful man and you cannot approach God, these middlemen or so-called priests will allow sinners to approach God with gifts and apologies. So by doing that, it makes reconciliation possible. Do you see what is going on here? The law never assumed that God’s people would be perfect, instead the Law of God promises forgiveness. But these laws that provide forgiveness never made perfect sense. How could an animal’s death replace a human death, it is not of the same weight. How could water wash sins away, the stain of sin is immaterial hidden deep inside our hearts. How could priests mediate between God and sinners, aren’t the priests sinners themselves. The Old Testament does not make perfect sense because there is a missing piece, Jesus is the true Lamb of God, the sacrifice who will take away the sins of the world. Jesus is the one who shall purify the hearts of mankind, not by water but by the spirit, and Jesus Christ shall stand forever as our great high priest because in Him there is no sin. The Pharisees were right that the Law is good and that the Law is to be obeyed but they are so very wrong on one thing: they thought they could be justified by their own obedience. But the truth is, they would never achieve it, not with their broken and imperfect obedience. If the Law could not be achieved, why was it given to us in the first place? The law was given for these three reasons: 

Firstly it was given to reveal our own evil and hopelessness, it’s like going up against Michael Jordan and his prime years. I don’t think any of us would say to Michael Jordan on the basketball court, you know Mike I’m pretty good at basketball myself. No, because that match will humble you and put you in your place in the same way the law of God helps us to understand how we compare to God. The Lord declares that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Secondly the law was given so that we would wait for its fulfillment. One day the Lamb of God would truly come and clear our sins. The great high priest would reunite us with God forever. And lastly the law was given so that we know what God wants of us. The law describes perfection, even though we cannot achieve it. In this life, we know the direction, we know what God wants, we know what is good and bad, what is true and false, and we shall try to do our best to obey it. Because we love God and we know that God loves us. We want to be more like Him, we want to live for Him, we want to please Him. We do not obey for fear, because we have been forgiven and it was given freely to all who would come to Jesus. Instead we obey out of thanksgiving because we want to be closer to Him. Throughout history, Jesus is the only one who could obey the Law perfectly, and He is the only one who could earn the blessings in the Covenant and upon earning all the blessings he gives it freely to all who come to him. That changes the rules of the King. I remember one time when I was having a party at one of my relatives’ homes, there was a food truck that stopped right outside. Not only, you have to pay for the food truck, but I was told secretly by my uncle that everything was free and I was very overjoyed and so I ate as much as I could. But the rules of the game have changed because later I found out that my uncle paid for everything that was eaten that night. Similarly Jesus changed the rules of the game but not by abolishing the Law, but by fulfilling it, He paid the price, He earned the blessings and because He has earned the blessings and because He has the authority to give the blessings, rules have been changed and because of that He is now made a New Covenant with us.

That Covenant does not abolish the Law, it fulfills the Law, and upon earning all blessings He’s now giving it freely to all who would come to Him. His call is simply this: repent of your sins and put your hope in Him. Indeed Jesus is the only way to salvation, that is why heaven is open for those who come to Jesus, not simply those who are good morally. Because the law condemns everyone, but Jesus can save anyone. So would you come to Jesus and say thank you for fulfilling the Law I could not keep and joyfully I shall obey.