Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil 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.
Jesus emphasises that he has come to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, not to abolish them. With his radical teaching, people could begin to think that he wanted to do away with what we know as the Old Testament, so he made sure that they understood what he was saying. The Old Testament wasn’t just a list of arbitrary rules, but was also intended to be a way of God’s people living a life radically different from the surrounding nations.
The Pharisees were a group of people who thought it was extremely important to keep God’s law, and they were right. Most of their teaching was centred on how to do that, but they had focussed their energy in their actions rather than their hearts. When Jesus said that our righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees, he was deliberately provoking his hearers to think about it in a different way.
Jesus fulfilled the law in two ways: he is the only person who ever lived who was without sin, so he kept the law fully, but also he was the person that the law was pointing to, so the law was fulfilled in him. Since the Pharisees were known for their painstaking keeping of the law, the idea that we could surpass them is impossible. So what did Jesus mean? Since he fulfilled the law, the only way for us to be more righteous would be in Christ. When we come to Jesus as our Saviour, we receive his righteousness.
Jesus was continually challenging people to rethink their assumptions. For example, over Sabbath observance.
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
The priests had to work on the Sabbath, offering the sacrifices, twice as many as a normal day. But they were serving God. David was chosen by God, and Jesus is the Son of God. These things are more important.
He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” – so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
The Pharisees hemmed every law about with details, and Jesus walked straight through them. It looked as if he was breaking the Sabbath by working, but it cannot be wrong to heal on any day.
So Jesus taught not new things, but new ways of thinking about old things. We need to open our minds to see what he really meant. His teachings were designed to provoke people into reconsidering their ideas, but many people, especially the Pharisees, were not open and resented his ideas. We need to allow Jesus to challenge our thinking today.
[Based on a sermon and Bible study by Pastor Tendai Mbasera]
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