“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”Matthew 5:17-20
In order for a Kingdom to exist, there must be a King. In order for a King to have any authority, there must be laws that undergird that authority. Otherwise there is chaos and anarchy, with every man for themselves. And if every person is a law unto themselves, then what happens when you have mutually exclusive, opposing moral compasses? How then would we know who is “right” and who is “wrong”? By necessity, that would require a standard that is external to ourselves in order for it to be equally applied to everyone.
Unfortunately, there are many within the Kingdom that ascribe to the idea that because we are under grace, that somehow the Old Testament law has been done away with – that somehow, the Law of Moses is no longer valid. As Jesus said Himself, He did not come to abolish or do away with the law, but rather to fulfill the law. The word here for fulfill literally means to make it complete.
The Old Testament law required payment or sacrifice for breaking the law. There was a prescribed punishment or offering required depending on what the law was that was broken. Typically the sacrifice was of apparent equal value to that which was lost as a result of the sin. If you stole from your neighbor, then restitution would be required. This would also mean that if you commit murder or a crime of violation against another of God’s image bearers, then often that would mean equal dismemberment or even death.
And Jesus said the standard of the law of Moses has not changed. His standard for our behavior is still the same. And the prescribed penalties are still in place, except with one difference. Jesus fulfilled this prescription. “For the death He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life He lives, He lives to God.” (Romans 6:10) The writer of Hebrews made a clear case for Christ as the substitutionary payment for the our sin of breaking God’s law in chapter 10: “First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all…Then he adds: Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more. And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.” (Hebrews 10:8-10, 17-18)
Now grace and forgiveness do not mean we are given free reign to go back and continue to live a life characterized by sin and not in keeping with God’s law. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is evident even as far back as the time of the prophet Samuel:
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,1 Samuel 15:22-23
as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
He has also rejected you [Saul] from being king.”
Contextually speaking, Saul had disobeyed God by taking spoils from the victory over the Amalekites, specifically against God’s orders. Saul then decided to take those spoils and offer them in sacrifice to God as an act of worship. Let me rephrase it like this: Saul offered the very act of disobedience as an act of worship on the altar of God. How much more blasphemous can one be? And the worst part about it is even when he was confronted with his sin, he blamed the people instead of taking responsibility for his own disobedience.
Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.”1 Samuel 15:24
Well, you might say, “I would never do such a thing.” But do we not? Do we harbor grudges against our brother/sister as we enter into worship? Have you ever wished harm to someone in the name of “justice” for the sake of our own self-righteousness? Do you judge the appearance of the person sitting in the pew next to you, or decide instead to sit on the other side of the sanctuary to avoid them? Do you sit in worship and ignore the sermon in favor of following your social media feed? Have I relegated my tithe to the end of my budget, giving God only a portion of what remains, instead of the first fruits of my harvest? Do you give your offerings expecting a blessing from Him in return, as opposed to expecting to be a blessing for the Kingdom? Have we ever done an actual honest assessment of our heart in the midst of our ritualism?
It’s not the sacrifice that God desires, even though the law prescribes it. It’s obedience. He desires our obedience to His word. But not obedience out of blind obligation. Not obedience out of ritualistic incantation. To do so reduces the name of Jesus to an act of witchcraft – which is blasphemy of the highest order.
Jesus wants our heart. He wants our devotion. We obey His word because we know that He loves us and He proved His love for us by taking the punishment that we deserve. That doesn’t mean that we escape consequences for our sin that we commit today, even though we are forgiven. Consequences are still inevitable.
The very idea that there is a moral concept of “right” and “wrong” is evidence of a natural, moral law that we are all bound to. If there is a natural or moral law, then by common reason there is a moral law giver. A law giver who has given us a guide by which we as His people are called to obey.
And Jesus challenges us in our obedience. Our righteousness must “exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.” These scribes and Pharisees were keepers of the law. They knew the letter of the law down to the smallest mark. And they followed it to the letter, but did not hide the spirit of the law within their hearts. They followed the law out of a spirit of ritualistic obligation rather than heartfelt devotion to the God who delivered Israel from the bondage of slavery to Egypt. But God desires our devotion – that we follow the law out of reverence and humility, as opposed to vanity and pride. Then and only then will our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees for it will be a righteousness that is imparted to us by Him through the Blood of Christ due to our faith in His word.