Matthew 5:17-20, Psalm 40:6-8, Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:8, Matthew 11:28-30, John 14:23-26
I often wonder what I would have thought of Jesus had I met in Him in the flesh. Would I have wanted to follow Him? Would I have thought He was off His rocker? Would I have followed Him, though He was a dangerous demagogue?
My guess is I would have been tempted to side with the religious leaders of the day, those Pharisees who had been laboring with the approbation of tradition and Scripture to preach the law to those who rejected it. I think I would have been jealous of Jesus’ success and fame. So when I read that Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to uphold it, I receive this as a person who is well aware of his own proclivity toward legalism.
At that time, everyone would have heard Jesus’ teaching and watched His actions with some wonder. Of course, the Pharisees would have assumed that Jesus was abolishing the law and been upset at the prospect. And those on the fringe of Jewish society might have said, “Heck yes! Finally!” at the thought of someone overturning all the laws they didn’t like anyway.
Each of these groups could have looked at Jesus’ grace and mercy toward sinners and thought He was abolishing the law. But He informed them that He came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, saying, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). And with that, He demolished the expectations each of these groups had for Him.
The Pharisees believed Jesus had no regard for the law, but in fact, His standard for righteousness far surpassed that of the Pharisees. The rank and file thought they were very righteous, but Jesus knew they had murder in their hearts. That is what Jesus wanted everyone to see: righteousness of the heart must be greater than outward conformity to the law.
Jesus was upping the ante.
I wonder how those on the fringe—those who were often called “sinners” by the Pharisees— would have heard this. The woman at the well. Zacchaeus. I wonder how they would have heard Jesus’ words. Maybe they would have been put off or confused. Maybe they would have despaired.
But maybe that’s what Jesus was really after. Maybe He wanted everyone to see something we often miss: our sin problem is far bigger than we think it is. It is bigger than the Pharisees ever-growing lists of things required and forbidden. And our sin problem is bigger than what we, the sinners, think we’re really guilty of. I believe Jesus wants us, sinners and Pharisees alike, to despair of our righteousness, to feel hopeless in our own strength. I believe He wants us to see we need someone who can fulfill the law for us because we cannot do it for ourselves. This is where Jesus comes in.
These statements are truly the gospel in shadow. Here we see what we need—a righteousness that far surpasses all we think is righteousness—and we see what God supplies for us in Jesus: One who can fulfill the law’s demands for us. These are words that not only undo us, but graciously point us to Christ and His sufficiency.
Written by Matthew B. Redmond