Jean’s Gospel: A Higher Righteousness
“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.” (Matt 5:17)
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed the question of his relationship to the Old Testament Scriptures. People noticed that Jesus taught “as one who had authority” (Matt 7:29), but was it Jesus’ intention to abolish the existing Law, or to add to it, amend it or intensify it? This question is important because his relationship to the Old Testament Scriptures will, in turn, determine our relationship to them. Jesus defined his relationship to the Old Testament Scriptures in terms of fulfillment.
Jesus did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them. The meaning of fulfillment is multifaceted. Jesus’ genealogy reveals that his advent, as David’s royal heir, the Christ (Matt 1:1, 16), fulfills God’s plans for Israel. The seven fulfillment quotations, which precede the Sermon, reveal that that Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophesy (Matt: 1:22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18, 23; 3:3; and 4:14-16). At his baptism by John, we learn that Jesus’ vocation was to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15), being born under the Law. In the main body of the Sermon, we learn that that Jesus fulfills the Law by rightly interpreting the Law (e.g., Matt 5:21-48).
Most importantly, Jesus’ promise to fulfill the Law and the Prophets includes the promise to submit to their authority requiring his atoning death: “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him” (Matt 26:24); and again: “For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’ ” (Matt 26:31); see also Matt 26:53-54 and Luke 24:25-26. Jesus affirmed what the angel told Joseph in his dream: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt 1:21)
“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.” (Matt 5:18-19)
Jesus fulfilled the Law (or Torah) in such a way that its words remain in place; however, it is now completed (or accomplished) in Jesus. Jesus is the telos (or end) of the Law for righteousness. The references to commandments are to the commandments as fulfilled Scripture. In other words, the commandments are now fulfilled by Jesus and preserved in his words. Therefore, the Father commands all people to listen to Jesus: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matt 17:5). Within the concluding portion of the Sermon Jesus says: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man….” (Matt 7:24). And at the end of the Gospel, Jesus commands his disciples to make disciples of all nations “…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:20)
Jesus also spoke of this to his disciples after his resurrection: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27). What this means in terms of fulfillment is that the Old Testament Scriptures find their ultimate meaning in Jesus. He is the lens through which Christians read and interpret the Old Testament Scriptures.
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:20)
Jesus proclaims that our righteousness must exceed (or surpass) that of the scribes and Pharisees. In Jesus’ day, the scribes and Pharisees were the most righteous Jews around. They were held in high esteem by the common people. Jesus is not trying to make better scribes and Pharisees out of his disciples. He is not using the word “exceeds” in terms of quantity, but in terms of quality. To enter the kingdom of heaven, one must have a righteousness which exceeds in quality the highest righteousness that man can produce in himself.
To be a disciple of Jesus, one must be free, that is: debt free. John the Baptist warned the Pharisees and Sadducees: “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” (Matt 3:9) True children of Abraham are children of the promise, who are not captive to the Law and slaves to sin. Jesus’ genealogy specifically identifies him as “the son of Abraham.” (Matt 1:1)
The scribes and Pharisees were not wicked or evil people. But they, like all fallen men, were captives of the Law and slaves to sin. No amount of self-willed righteousness could free them from the debt of sin.
Disciples of Jesus, on the other hand, are like a servant who has had an enormous, impossible-to-repay, debt forgiven by his Master. Because of this debt forgiveness received by the servant, he, in turn, joyfully forgives the small debts owed him by his fellow servants. But, in order for the servant to joyfully forgive, he must first experience forgiveness for himself. Therefore, the Master must first set him free. If the servant refuses to forgive his fellow servant, he demonstrates in that refusal that he has not truly accepted his Master’s forgiveness of him.
Jesus defined his own atoning death as “a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). He referred to his own blood as: “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt 26:28) Jesus fulfilled all righteousness in his atoning death, and he alone provides the ransom which is sufficient to set mankind free from the debt caused by our sins. By virtue of his atoning sacrifice for us, Jesus alone is able to confer the righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.
John the Baptist was quite right: “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” (Matt 3:9) We are born spiritually lifeless stones, heavy from sin. It is the work of God who breaths spiritual life into us.
But how do we acquire the higher righteousness that God requires? Answer: By faith in Jesus. This is confirmed in the healing of the paralytic, following the Sermon: “And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.’ ” (Matt 9:2)
Jesus said: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt 9:13) Through the words of the Gospel Jesus calls us. Give him your burdens and take his yoke upon yourself; it is the yoke of freedom. Hear his words and keep them. In this way, the seed of the Gospel, which confers the higher righteousness which God both requires and freely gives for the sake of Jesus, who came and died to fulfill all righteousness for you, will take root in the good soil of your heart, and produce fruit for the kingdom of heaven. Amen.