We are now in the fourth week of a section of Jesus’ sermon which addressed the Old Testament and whether Jesus had come to abolish it or not. These 4 verses lead into the rest of the sermon and have been hotly debated as to their meaning. I have included the verses below with today’s verse in bold.
“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)
Jesus here highlights to His worried listeners that He is not doing away with their history with God in the Old Testament, but He is fulfilling it. Everything that happened in the Old Testament pointed to Him. The prophecies were about Him, the sacrifices predicted His sacrifice and the regulations were a shadow of what He was going to achieve. The 10 commandments were written on stone, but these new commandments were going to be written on believer’s hearts. No longer a struggle to keep a whole host of rules and regulations but a new heart and desire to do what pleases Him.
It’s important we consider what I said last week about Christians having died to the law. Because we could be inclined to think that these new commands that Jesus is giving, which incidentally are even stronger than the Old Testament laws, are just replacing one set of laws for another. These commands that Jesus is giving are His standards for living and they are achievable precisely because we have a new heart.
What Jesus is saying in today’s passage is that our own righteousness is never enough. To say that their righteousness should exceed the Scribes and the Pharisee’s would have been truly shocking to His listeners because they were ‘super’ religious. Humanly speaking there isn’t anybody who could touch the piety of the Scribes and the Pharisee’s. They even tithed their spice rack for goodness sake! Can you imagine getting the dried herbs from your kitchen cupboards and measuring out 10%? The trouble was, they had created many extra laws than what God had decreed. God had said that you should not work on the Sabbath, but they had taken it to ridiculous extremes. Just for a laugh and actually it is really quite sad, here are some of the stipulations they put in place for the Sabbath:
- They taught that you should not look in a mirror on the Sabbath because you might be tempted to pluck out a grey hair and that would be reaping.
- They said that you could only eat an egg which had been laid on the Sabbath if you killed the chicken for Sabbath-breaking.
- If the lights were on when the Sabbath came (Sabbath began at sundown), you could not blow them out. If they had not been lit in time, then you could not light them.
- It was unlawful to wear any jewellery or ornaments on the Sabbath, since this might be construed as carrying a burden.
- It was not permitted to wear false teeth on the Sabbath.
- You were allowed to eat radishes on the Sabbath, but you were warned against dipping them into salt because you might leave them in the salt too long and pickle them and this was considered to be Sabbath-breaking. The Pharisees actually had discussions as to how long it took to pickle a radish.
- It was fine to spit on a rock on the Sabbath, but you could not spit on the ground, because that made mud and mud was mortar, and that was work.
There are many, many more besides these. No wonder Jesus got cross with them as they had missed the idea completely. Their piety was external and superficial and Jesus is looking for an inner attitude that is all about pleasing Him.
We can only exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisee’s because we are trusting in His righteousness. Our righteousness is His righteousness and I for one am jolly pleased about that!