It’s the Spirit of the Law, Not the Letter, that Matters Most By Tim Gilman

The Sermon we call the Sermon on the Mount is the best sermon ever preached, and it was preached by the best preacher who ever lived. Jesus was Jewish to the core. We could say that He was the model Jewish man. As such, we would expect Him to offer some kind of authoritative commentary on the Law of Moses. In Matthew 5:17-48, that is exactly what we find. But we also find something completely unexpected.
In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus makes another of His truly astonishing claims. He claims that He Himself, has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. In other words, He claims that He is the central focus of all of Scripture. Listen to His words.


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. 18 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 fulfilled.


Why would Jesus say this? People knew that Jesus was something special. They knew that He was no ordinary man. They knew that He loved and served God with passion. However, He was in the habit of doing things that would have been interpreted as violations of the Law. He commonly healed people on the Sabbath Day. He spent a lot of time feasting with notorious sinners. He engaged in other activities with His disciples that were considered to be violations of the Law. People may have gotten the impression that according to Him, the Law was a thing of the past. Jesus was crystal-clear that this was not the case.
There are a couple of ways to approach God’s Law. There is what we might call the legalistic way. A legalistic person would be very strict in his interpretation and application of the Law. We would seek to apply it to every single aspect of life without exception. The Pharisees were like this. Among Jesus’ followers, Simon the Zealot would have held to a very strict interpretation of the Law. Then there is a “looser” approach to the Law, one that we might call a minimalistic approach. This person would be far less strict in his interpretation application of the Law. Among Jesus’ followers, Matthew, the former tax collector would have been a minimalist.
Where would Jesus fall on this spectrum? We gather from Jesus’ claim to be fulfilling the Law and the Prophets, that keeping the Law mattered to Jesus—a lot! From Matthew 5:20, we learn that Jesus expected His disciples to be righteous people:
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
These words would have shocked Jesus’ disciples. The scribes and Pharisees were thought to be the most righteous of all Jews. They would not have been able to imagine that they could be more righteous than Pharisees. We can understand what Jesus meant when we understand that for Jesus, righteousness was not merely a matter of outward performance. True righteousness is a matter of the heart. A person can seem to be highly righteous on the outside, but but quite unrighteous on the inside.
Permit me to use a typical iceberg as an illustration. If we were to see an iceberg floating in the Arctic Ocean, we would be seeing only one-third of its mass above the surface of the water. Two-thirds of the iceberg’s mass would be beneath the surface. The righteousness and unrighteousness and sin are somewhat like that. We can look quite clean terms of what people see on the surface and be quite unclean in terms of what lies under the surface.

Obedience to the Law, the Ten Commandments for example, matters to Jesus. But for Jesus, obedience to the Law is first and foremost a matter of the heart. As we think about these things, we must remember that Jesus sees the condition of our hearts with crystal-like clarity. He knows the thoughts, intents, and motives of our hearts intimately. Jesus will confront those who are sitting before him—all of them— as people who are not obeying the Law from the heart. He had come to heal and transform their hearts from the inside out.


We tend to be in the habit of presenting ourselves in the best light possible. We present an image of strength in terms of morality and spirituality. We’re painfully aware of the weakness and sickness within, and we’re ashamed of it, so, we try to hide it. If we persist in trying to hide our true selves, we can actually begin to deceive ourselves into thinking that we really are the person that we present to others.

As I am growing older, I am becoming more and more aware of my capacity for self-deception. It’s astonishing, really. I’ve learned that its far easier to be religious than it is to be surrendered to God. It is even possible to know the Law by heart, as many of the Pharisees did, and still not know the heart of the Law. But this is what God wants: Men and women who are surrendered to Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.


The good news is that God invites us to come to Him, even though we are spiritually sick, weak, and sinful. Through Jesus, we can come to God with all of our weaknesses, flaws and sins, with the confidence that He will receive us. Jesus is God’s guarantee that. When we meet God in our spiritual sickness, when we meet God in our weakness and vulnerability, it is then that we will truly recognize the depth of his love for us. Pastor Tim Keller has put it something like this: “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

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