Thursday, December 17, 2015, 1:00 p.m. – The Lord Jesus put in mind the song “No Less.” Speak, Lord, your words to my heart. I read Matthew 5:17-20 (NASB).
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I believe this passage of scripture can be confusing to us who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of our lives, because we know the New Testament teachings on the subject of Law and Grace. We learn in Romans 7, for instance, that we died to the law through the body of Christ so that we might belong to Christ, in order that we might bear fruit for God. We who are in Christ Jesus by faith have been released from the law so that we serve God in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code (See: Ro. 7:4-6).
So, what does this all mean? Does it mean we no longer have to obey the Ten Commandments? If this is so, then why would Jesus be teaching us that we must? Was this meant just for his disciples who, at that time, were still under the Law? I don’t believe so. What did it mean to be under the Law? Were people of that time actually saved by keeping the Law? No! That is real clear in the apostles’ teachings about Abraham where it says that Abraham was considered righteous before God because of his faith, but it was faith actualized through obedience to what God told him to do. It is also clear in what we read about the Israelites who were rescued from Egypt and who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, most of whom did not get to go into the Promised Land, that it was because of unbelief that they did not enter, and that unbelief was realized through their disobedience.
So, how do we reconcile Jesus’ words here against the teachings on Law and Grace? I think we have to first define “Law,” for it meant several things. The first five books of the Bible are considered to be the books of the Law. When the Law and the Prophets are mentioned, they are sometimes in reference to the books of the Bible considered to be such. The Law is also the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God to give to the people. As well, the Law is comprised of ceremonial laws, many of which were added to by the religious leaders. Clearly the teachings of the apostles tell us we don’t have to keep these O.T. ceremonial laws, i.e. that keeping them does not affect salvation. And, then there is the “Law of sin and death,” which we were rescued from through faith in Jesus Christ. This law of sin and death has to do with the controlling influence of sin and its subsequent condemnation and spiritual death – death which is required by the law for those who do not obey the law fully.
Ok, so what can we conclude from all this? For one, no one has ever been saved by keeping the law, because no one could keep it perfectly. People in the Old Testament and New Testament were both saved by faith in God/Jesus. The law was added because of people’s sins until Jesus Christ came, yet the law was powerless to impart life. The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ so we might be justified by faith, but no one was ever declared righteous by observing the law. Yet, we don’t nullify the law by our faith. Rather we uphold it (See: Rom. 3), which is what I believe Jesus is referring to here. Jesus often taught the spirit of the law over the letter of the law, yet not ever permitting us, though, to break God’s moral laws, i.e. it is never ok to murder, to commit adultery, to steal, etc.
In other words, the Law is good in that it makes us conscious of sin (it defines sin for us). The definition of moral sin (immorality) did not change with Jesus Christ, though here in Matthew 5 he more clearly defines sin as not just the act of murder or the act of committing of adultery, but that hatred is the same as murder, and lust is the same as adultery. Sin begins in our hearts and minds before it ever gets to our actions, in other words. Jesus and his NT apostles continued to teach the commandments of God for us to keep, only Jesus summarized them into two commandments: 1) To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and 2) To love your neighbor as yourself. He said that “the Law and the Prophets” hang on these two commandments (See: Matt. 22:37-40).
Jesus as the Fulfillment
Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but he came to fulfill them. The Law and the Prophets testified to Jesus Christ and to the righteousness that was to be ours through him and his blood shed on the cross for our sins. So, he literally is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. So, maybe the understanding of this passage has more to do with interpretation of the Law and the commandments. If Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law, perhaps the rest of this paragraph is to be understood in that context. In that case, this would be saying that all prophecy of scripture related to Jesus Christ must happen, and not a single component of what was written that looked forward to Jesus Christ would disappear until all things have reached their fulfillment. In other words, everything in scripture has its purpose, and those purposes which were realized in Jesus Christ will continue to be realized until all things have reached their completion.
So, what are these commandments we must obey and we must teach others to obey? If Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Law, and the Law’s purpose was to point to Jesus Christ until he came, then the commandments must be those of Jesus Christ. And, we obey them when we obey Christ’s teachings and those of his NT apostles who carried on his work on the earth in the power and strength of the Holy Spirit of God within them. We know these teachings as the New Testament Scriptures, although the Bible also teaches that “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (1 Tim. 3:16-17 NIV ’84). Yet, the teachings of the OT must always be taught in the context of the New Testament and our New Covenant relationship with God by faith in Jesus Christ.
So, how are we made righteous? It is not by keeping the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. We read in Romans 8 that the law was powerless to save us, because it was weakened by the sinful nature. So, God the Father sent his Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for our sins, and to condemn sin in sinful man, so that the righteous requirement of the law (sinless perfection) might be fulfilled in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit (Ro. 8:1-14). So, is this more confusion? I don’t think so. Faith in Jesus Christ does not mean we can now continue in sin without guilt or remorse. God’s grace teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives while we wait for Christ’s return (Tit. 2:11-14). Jesus died that we might die to sin and live to righteousness (1 Pet. 2:24). If we say we have fellowship with God, but we continue to conduct our lives in darkness (sin), we are liars (1 Jn. 1:6).
Yet, faith in Christ is not just following a set of rules we can check off. We are not made righteous in our own human strength and will-power. We don’t obey Jesus to try to earn our way into heaven. When we believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of our lives, the Holy Spirit of God, who has transformed us from death to life, comes into our lives to dwell within us (Christ within us). His job is to counsel, instruct, teach, encourage, convict, warn, correct, nurture, and comfort us; to direct us in the way we should go, and to empower and strengthen us to walk in Christ’s righteousness and holiness. Our job is to submit to his work of grace in our lives and to cooperate with him in his work of purifying our hearts and in making us holy vessels for God’s use. Obedience is not just keeping a set of rules. Obedience is a heart surrendered to God in full submission to him and to his word and will.
In other words, what Jesus said here (in Matthew 5) is that, although not one of us is made righteous by keeping the law, because not one of us could ever keep the law perfectly, it does not do away with God’s moral laws, which were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It is also saying that we can’t be made righteous by following a set of ritualistic ceremonial laws which the Jews, under the Old Covenant, were required to follow, and which many were teaching that righteousness could be attained through keeping them. The Pharisees thought that if they followed all the ritualistic requirements of the law that it made them better than other people, but it did not. The worst part of their hypocrisy, though, was that they lacked love and compassion and true obedience to God. They were clean on the outside, but were full of wickedness inside. So, if anything, this is teaching that the outward appearance (show) of following a set of rules is not what makes one righteous in God’s sight.
The other part of this, and this is really important that we understand this, is that faith in Jesus Christ does not nullify God’s commandments. If anything, faith in Jesus Christ and his Spirit within us is what gives us the ability and strength to obey. Obedience is a necessary component of genuine faith in Jesus Christ, for without it faith ceases to exist. Yet, since not one of us can keep the law perfectly, our obedience is not what saves us. It is the blood of Christ shed on the cross for our sins which has given us salvation. Through faith in Jesus Christ we are made righteous, i.e. Christ’s righteousness is credited to our accounts. Yet, the righteous requirement of the law is not fulfilled in those who merely claim to have faith, but in those whose faith is actualized by them walking no longer according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. Those who are led by the Spirit are the children of God. If Christ is in us, by faith, we will want to obey him. If we are truly set free from sin, sin will no longer have mastery over us. So, obedience to Christ’s commands is evidence that true faith exists. True faith in Christ results in obedience to Christ’s teachings, because we love him.
No Less / An Original Work / March 19, 2012
I can do no less than praise You,
Lord, for all You’ve done for me.
You died for my sins to save me,
So I would be set free.
I adore You! Lord, I praise You!
Jesus, Savior, King of kings!
You provided my redemption.
Your grace has pardoned me.
I can do no less than serve You.
Lord, Your witness I would be,
Telling others of Your love,
And why You died on that tree.
Tell of how You gave of Your life,
So from sin we’d be set free,
So we could worship You forever,
And live eternally.
I can do no less than love You,
Lord, for You have first loved me.
You gave of Your life so willing,
Because You cared for me.
Turn from my sin! Obey freely!
Live for You each passing day.
Read Your word, and follow Your lead,
Lord, as I humbly pray.