Jesus did many things during his three years of ministry, not the least of which was demonstrating God's compassion as he healed the sick and disabled people who surrounded him. Many today still seek him for this same reason. Something else we all appreciate is how he revealed the Father's heart to us so that we can plainly see his love for us and the grace he extends to us. This is something we lean on heavily as we journey through each day. However, there was something else he showed us that we try to push aside in our preference to promote grace. Do not get me wrong here, without grace we would not have a leg to stand on in a relationship with our holy God, but that's just the point. Jesus took us to a greater understanding of the law and without this law we may forget our need of grace.
Imagine, if you will, that you studied all the highway laws. You knew that it was the law that everyone in the car had to wear a seat belt. You knew you had to use the turning indicators before switching lanes. You knew to check your mirrors before switching lanes. You knew to be courteous and polite to other drivers, allowing them to move in front of you in merging lanes. You knew it was the law not to talk on cellphones because they distract you from your purpose. You even knew that the underlying purpose was to keep you, your passengers and the other drivers safe. But what if you never understood the heart of the problem was that speed kills? What if you never knew that going faster than the speed limit made all these other rules useless because they would not protect you with excessive speed? Not a perfect illustration but it help somewhat to understand that Jesus came to teach us the deeper meaning of the law, not to remove it.
The law's purpose is to reveal to us the holiness and righteousness of God. It shows to us how far we have fallen from what God had created and why it needed to be fixed. On our own it is impossible for us to be reconciled with God. The law of sacrifices was a stop-gap, a band-aide solution. God had a great plan that would see us restored to him again but he needed to make sure we understood our predicament. This is the point where we are at in our reading through of the gospel of Matthew. Jesus gives us this preamble before launching into his revealing of the deeper parts of the law:
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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)
Do not misunderstand what Jesus was saying in this last part. The Pharisees were a very righteous group. They set an example of living the law for everyone in the community. They knew the law and even added further definitions of it, explaining it so no one would be able to misinterpret it. They dressed in such a way that everyone would recognize them and they were well respected among the Israelites. However, for them the law was all about appearance and performance. Jesus was saying that our righteousness would have to be a greater righteousness than that of performance.
From my limited viewpoint of the Church I see the danger we have fallen back into, that appearance is more important than substance. It is something I question in myself as well. We become overly concerned about a person's actions instead of their heart. We cannot see people transformed by insisting they conform to a bunch of rules that they have no real understanding of the purpose. Once we understand that the law reflects our God's righteousness then perhaps we can understand the importance but even then conformity will not help us.
Without dismissing the law Jesus is telling us that the righteousness we need goes beyond mere appearance. Through further teaching Jesus reveals that this righteousness is only possible as we allow God's plan (the blood of Jesus) and power (the Holy Spirit) to transform us into a new creation. But this transformation and the grace of God is not a license to break the law, instead they give us the power and ability to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees as we obey the law written on our heart. With the transformation the Holy Spirit takes the law off the page and writes it on our heart so that we obey from the inside instead of with mere appearances. It becomes our desire and purpose to please God in everything we think, say and do. When we fail in this our Father still covers us by his love with his grace but it is our desire not to fail.
Keep this in mind as we journey to the inner layers of the law over the next few days and discover the righteousness of our Holy and Perfect God. May he lead us into better heart understanding and a greater relationship with him.