Bonhoeffer :: The Righteousness of Christ

Matt 5:17-18 17 "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.

Jesus starts out by telling the Disciples that they must not think he has come to destroy the Law and the Prophets. Clearly, if this reassurance was necessary, the Disciples must have at least suspected that he meant to destroy the Law. After all, Jesus transgressed the Law by healing on the Sabbath and gathering grain with his disciples on the Sabbath. He ignored the Laws of the clean and unclean by putting his hand on the Leper. When questioned about his actions he said things like "Man was not made for the sabbath, but the sabbath for man."

Clearly the disciples might be pardoned for thinking that perhaps Jesus was about to do away with the Law. No Law! We can do whatever we want! Instead Jesus says that he comes to fullfill the Law. The disciples must have been confused. What could he mean? How will he fullfill the Law?

It is in the person of Jesus that the intent of the Law was fullfilled. Jesus is the Author, remember, he is the word incarnate, and for the first time in history a man could stand in judgement of the Law instead of the Law judging man. When Jesus seemed to contradict the law, He was actually revealing its intention as the only one who could do so. For mere man to say, "God doesn’t really care if we pick some grain on the sabbath" might be presumptuous, but for Jesus to say so is just an editorial comment by the Author.

As the Author he also had the authority to identify the moral center of the Law: Love. This center Jesus fullfilled beyond wildest expectations of man: sinless himself he would take on the sins of all and die so as to extend God’s love and mercy to them. Only in his death and resurrection would the Law be fullfilled, would God’s requirements be satisfied.

Now some Christians disagree exactly about the role of the Law in the life of a Christian today. Don’t the dictates of the law still apply to us in some way? Isn’t Jesus here trying to teach us that he doesn’t mean to do away with the law?

For me, at least, the answer is clear: a contract fullfilled no longer has any force. Jesus didn’t come to rip up the contract of the Law, that would be to oppose God. Instead he came to fullfill all of its demands, and now it has no force, its requirements have been met. The NT is very clear on this point in many places:

Gal 3:13-25 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree"*), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

The law was our schoolmaster before Christ came, but since he has come the Law has no role but condemnation. It has been utterly fullfilled in the person and by the authority of Jesus Christ.

Well this all sounds good. Now we no longer have any requirements for our behavior! Now we can do whatever we want! "Not so fast" says Jesus.

19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven

Jesus may have done away with the Mosaic Law, but that does not mean God no longer expects anything of us. In fact, Jesus says our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, the noted interpreters and keepers of the law.

If Mt Sinai was the site of the giving of the old Law, this anonymous hillside out beyond the Jordan is the site of the giving of the New Law: The Law of Love. Jesus indicated by his words and actions what the heart of the Old had been: to Love God and Love man. Here sitting on the hillside with his disciples around him, he explains what he expects of his disciples. "You have heard it said" ... "But I say to you". With each word he shows that God expects self sacrificing love from his followers. Instead of loosening the even handed justice of the Old Law, he raises the bar: it is not enough to treat others fairly, not enough to love your friends and hate your enemies, not enough restrain your impurity to thoughts only, instead God wants a people so trancendant with Love for him and their neighbors that they live in an entirely different way.

The disciples must have been flabbergasted in a way. Jesus is doing away with the legal obligation of the law while telling them they must live in a way that is humanly impossible. This of course is grace, as God’s grace alone can enable us to live in such a way. From a human standpoint, isn’t the old Law easier?

I will issue one challenge from all this to close. This difference, between the Old Law and New still, I think, befuddles us and confuses us today. When we see a problem, as a Church, as denomination, too often our response has been to make a law. It is easier, much easier, to demand that everyone wear the same clothes than it is to talk frankly and honestly about how modesty and simplicity might influence what we wear. It is easier to simply issue a list of do’s and don’ts in regards to how our culture affects us through tv, the internet, sports and fashion, news and politics, than it is to wrestle together with what God’s will might be for each one of us.

My point is not that it is always wrong to make a rule. But sometimes it is a cop-out; the easier way. God calls us, not to a life of regulation as under the law, but to a life that is actively dedicated to seeking his will and living by his enabling grace. Next time, as we continue in the Sermon on the Mount, we will look in more detail at what such a grace filled life will look like.