Legalistic Limbo: “Jesus Said to Keep the Law!”
“When Jesus is speaking to his disciples, it means he is also speaking to us.” This common misunderstanding has done more to misinterpret the gospel than almost anything else. The entire 3 chapters of the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM) is just one example that has caused believers to create inconsistent Christian doctrines built around a myriad of false assumptions.
When it comes to the SOTM and many of the teachings of Jesus, we should begin to look through a different set of lenses than what religion has handed down to us. During the SOTM, Jesus wasn’t providing a new Christian teaching for future generations by adding revised regulations and new twists that would make it even harder and more challenging than the existing commands that nobody had ever kept.
Jesus often ministered the old law as a way to help the Jewish people realize their hopeless position at trying to attain life or righteousness through this law of works. It was meant to bring them into anguish and despair so they could come to the end of themselves and believe in something new and better … the good news of simply trusting Jesus to get the job done where everyone else fell short.
Legalistic types from Church Incorporated fail to realize that the law which was provided to Israel through Moses was never meant for those of us Gentiles who were not Jewish. We were never invited into that testament. By tangling together two very different covenants into one—meaning the Old and the New—they have advocated that the old container of commandments is still in place and are meant to be applied as a guide for us to embrace and interact with in order to attain God’s acceptance and a higher level of sanctified morality. Here is a passage they like to tout from the Mount:
“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 5:19-20 ESV).
“See!” The legal eagles will say we’re to continue the tradition of law keeping in order to avoid lawlessness. In reality, the way to avoid lawlessness is to be delivered from a law that requires it all be done perfectly and instead, be empowered from the Spirit in a covenant where sins will no longer be remembered by God or be counted against us. We’re not reconciled by law, but by grace.
So let’s expose the hypocrisy. Which commandments was Jesus referring to? This is where we have to stop spacing-off as if we were listening to a sermon from our weekly church building and begin to put on our spiritual thinking caps. Jesus was referring to the entire law package of 613 commandments, rules and statutes—from the least to the greatest. All of them—the whole ball of wax—from dietary guidelines to sacrificial and clothing requirements, plus everything in-between. All of them. And yet we’re barely familiar with a small fraction of them.
In other words, the Christian religion has done what God declared could not be allowed when it comes to that old law … we pick and choose which ones we think are applicable for us today. Jesus said if you’re going to live by that system, you’ll have to live by all of it. The Apostle Paul said if you try to abide by one command, you’ll be obligated to keep the entire bundle. James said if you’ve broken one, you’re guilty of having broken the entire law … because it was all one package deal. It all has to still be in place … or it all had to come to an end, but there is no in-between. Thankfully for all of us, it was brought to a conclusion with the death of Jesus—he became the end of the law for righteousness to all who would believe (see Romans 10:4).
When Jesus said not to relax a single commandment, he meant it … for those who were actually still under the law. To relax is also interpreted in English Bibles as: abolish, break, set aside. In the Greek, it means to loosen or dissolve. We may find it interesting Jesus ended up doing what they were told not to do. Here is what Paul said Jesus did to bring Jew and Gentile together:
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16).
The Greek word for broken down is the same word spoken in Matthew 5 when Jesus said not to relax, break, abolish or set aside any of the commandments. Yet, he did it because it was a barrier keeping Jews from righteousness and it left us Gentiles with no hope and without a covenant at all.
Jesus began overwhelming his Jewish audience in this sermon with the impossible standard of the Mosaic law in a way they had never heard it before, despite being familiar with the writings. He paused to summarize his teaching with this: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Good luck with that. The writer of Hebrews brings this revelation:
“For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God” (Hebrews 7:18-19).
Righteousness is the goal … the end game for all of humankind. That is, to be right with God or in a state or condition approved by God. Jesus told his disciples their righteousness would need to exceed that of the Pharisees who were seeking it through the works of the law and falling short of keeping it perfectly. The law was holy, righteous and good. Perfection is our requirement and yet the law could make nothing perfect because it was weak and useless—powerless to do so. The blood of Jesus has gifted us with what was needed.
A covenant of rules and requirements will cause sin to increase. Jesus came to redeem the Jews from this ministry of death, condemnation and bondage, while opening the gate to the rest of the world to experience life by believing in Him and what he fulfilled on our behalf.
For more on avoiding the trap of religious bondage inside of a new and better covenant, and also gaining a better understanding of the teachings of Jesus, get the book: Clash of the Covenants: Escaping Religious Bondage Through The Grace Guarantee.
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