Throughout the intertestamental period there was no temple, so Judaism became significantly decentralized from Jerusalem and came to be practiced more folkishly with prayers and Scripture readings in local country synagogues. But with the rebuilding of Herod’s temple and the rise of the Pharisees and scribes, Judaism’s religious leaders sought to develop a more precise devotion to the Law. As time passed and different rabbinical schools of thought developed, various codes and traditions were added in an effort to map out righteous responses to every possible scenario one might encounter in life. What resulted was a system so complex, the context and contents of some codes and traditions began to overlap and overrule those of others, nullifying or cancelling out their holy purposes; other traditions were even added as a way to “get around” mandates deemed inconvenient. Adherences to this system gradually created a tendency to exactingly, yet deficiently fixate on the efficiency of external rule-keeping, consequently reframing their understanding of righteousness to be perceived within this system structure. Sadly, this reinforced the tendency to emphasize the appearance of righteousness through external rule-keeping, while the internal spirit of holiness through glad, faithful obedience went severely neglected. Ultimately, this significantly normalized hypocritical living. It is ironic that in their exacting attempts to keep the Law they affected an abolishing effect on the Law. It was an irony Jesus would deal with in accordance with the kingdom reality he was putting in place.
Addressing this prevalent situation directly, Jesus told his disciples “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.”
Jesus had no intention of tolerating a system which diminished holiness with hypocrisy. On the contrary, Jesus would fully embody the kind of personhood the Law had always meant to frame. The Law, ordained by angels, could not be nullified by man’s traditions, no matter how small the edit; a “living and active” truth, it could not be abolished by checklists of codes and clauses. The Law has to be lived. Living it forms God’s people to be wholly holy before him. Jesus would show them how, filling fully the Law’s framework of holy personhood.
Having esteemed the value of lawful living, Jesus then issues a clear warning to his disciples: “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.”
I once heard a preacher suggest the words Jesus spoke prior to his death bordered on irrelevant because they were spoken under the old covenant; that’s painting the concept of “new covenant” in a dangerously one-dimensional light. Jesus’ life, words, death, and resurrection would gradually impact the implications of the Law, not by way of abolishing, but fulfilling. Jesus does not discard the Law, but embraces, embodies, and enacts its fullest essence; he expects his followers to do the same, to live lives that greatly reach for God’s character. God’s original vision for kingdom community is rooted in the Law; discarding it, ignoring it, exploiting buzz words like “grace” or “love” to shrug it off, and teaching others to do the same is to hinder, like these codes and traditions did, that which helps give form to kingdom living. Such deluded devotion demotes us to the “least in the kingdom of heaven.”
Therefore Jesus states “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Kingdom living requires a certain kind of righteousness. Not the kind demonstrated by the Pharisees and scribes in their hypocritical performance-based traditions, but a righteousness that was in accordance to the character of Christ. Kingdom living must reflect the righteousness of its king. Jesus said “I came…to fulfill.” Jesus is the embodiment of the Law’s holy essence, the personification of the righteousness it prescribes.
At some point we believers must honestly ask ourselves “Do we actually want to follow Jesus, or do we just want to look like we are following Jesus?”
The difference between followers of Jesus and those who engage in godtalk is the response to the holy character of Jesus. Do we wonder what we can get away with or do we go with what God has commanded us? Do we negotiate his holy essence or do we welcome it? Do we compromise his character or do we commit to it? Let’s not avoid the hard thoughts here: being a follower of Jesus means embodying and exemplifying a righteous standard of living that goes the distance. When Jesus talks about “surpassing” the scribes and Pharisees, he’s not prescribing a righteousness that tries to compete with others, but a righteousness that endures to keep up with Jesus.
As we continue navigating through the “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus will reveal a kingdom kind of righteousness he calls his followers to embrace; it is a righteousness that fulfills what the Law always aimed to frame, a righteousness that reflects the holy character of the King, and a righteousness that, when embodied and enacted, will display the reality of God’s kingdom and its redemption into which Christ longs for the whole world to enter.