Jesus replaced legalism with the greater principle of love, and in doing so he destroyed the Law as it was understood in his day.
The scribes and Pharisees were known for meticulous observation of the detailed commandments found in the Old Testament, and they even followed the multitude of picky rules the scribes derived from those commandments.
The legalists considered themselves righteous before God for their disciplined attention to his rules, unlike the unrighteous common people (sinners) who were unable or unwilling to be as careful as they.
Jesus repeatedly takes the legalists to task for their arrogant self-righteousness and he sides with the common sinners the Father loves so much, accusing the legalists in one place, You load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
Jesus Came to Fulfill the Law
It seems that Jesus’ (and his followers’) attitude toward the Law was understood by critics as abandonment of the Law. Perhaps they thought Jesus advocated living without any restraint on behavior, but Matthew chapter 5 indicates they were mistaken.
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. For truly I tell you, 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.
Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly 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.
This is a very strong statement for the validity of the Law, but one should not conclude that Jesus promotes legalism. While he supports the purpose of the Law to guide correct behavior, he does not see the Law as a checklist of rules by which we can demonstrate our righteousness before God.
The key is in his statement:
I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
How Does Jesus Fulfill the Law?
What does Jesus mean by ‘fulfill them’? One suggestion is that he means he came to keep the Law perfectly as no one else was able to do; he was the perfect observer of the legalistic rules.
This is unlikely because we see that Jesus was constantly harassed for NOT observing the Law, especially the rules regarding the Sabbath. I don’t think any scribe or Pharisee of Jesus’ day would agree that Jesus observed the Law.
The meaning of the word ‘fulfill’ (πληρῶσαι) has many shades of meaning. It can mean confirm, validate, accomplish, or perform; it can mean complete, bring to its end, or finish. But based on everything else Jesus says about the law, the most appropriate meaning of the word as applied here seems to be ‘to set forth the true meaning of’.
Jesus did not come to repudiate the purpose of the Law but to explain what the Law was really all about at a time when its observance had decayed into legalism. He did not come to say ‘I can observe the Law perfectly and you can’t.’ Rather, he came to set forth the true meaning of the Law, and that true meaning can be summed up as ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
We are not to ignore our responsibility to observe proper behavior toward God and toward others, but we are not to reduce our responsibility to a list of legalistic rules, no matter how long the list might be. Instead we are to internalize the principle of loving others so that it can guide us in any conceivable situation.
How Does this Apply to Legalism Today?
Jesus concludes his statement with this observation:
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.
Of course, this does not mean we must be more legalistic than the Pharisees but that we should see our behavior on a completely different level—love for others.
Growing up as a legalist, I witnessed and experienced the burden of living by the Law. There were two options: one could convince himself that he was successful and become a self-righteous Pharisee, or he could recognize his failure to observe the rules consistently and live in defeat and embarrassment before God.
Another negative development was the constant judgment of each other and of outsiders (sinners). Judging others is a great burden and it hurts people, and those who feel they do a great job of judging are among the most unpleasant people in the world.
Jesus Demonstrates the Difference between Law and Principle
This might all seem somewhat theoretical, but fortunately Matthew reports Jesus’ elaborations on some of the major issues of the Law. They are quite informative and we will talk about them next time.
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