You Must Be This Tall

Jesus v. Paul: Round 2 (Round 1 here)

Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. — Jesus Christ (Matt 5:20 NASB)

Justin, my seven-year-old son, is often frustrated by the freedom his older siblings enjoy. Being the middle child is notoriously difficult. He wants to know why Deborah (13) and Jonathan (11) get to go outside by themselves, or stay home by themselves. He wants to know why Deborah can have a cell-phone.  Why does she get to go to a special weekly church activity for girls her age, but he has to stay home? (That one’s easy. There’s no activity for his age group that night.)

No ride for you!

He’s like the kid at the carnival who’s too short for the biggest ride. It’s easy to look at that roller coaster you can’t ride and forget all the other activities you’re free to enjoy.

I try to remind him that he has far more freedom than Judah (1.5 years old). Judah has to be watched constantly. Judah needs a car seat. Judah has to hold our hands while walking just about anywhere. Judah doesn’t get to go play outside with his friends unless we go with him.

The rules change depending on the both the situation and the child in said situation.

The question was raised: Do Paul’s statements about the Law conflict with Jesus’ teachings?

The verse at the top is early on in the most famous sermon Jesus ever preached, the “Sermon on the Mount” found in Matthew 5-7.

Jesus is preaching to His disciples, but there are multitudes of listeners present, and these listeners are Jews. They’ve been brought up to follow the Law of Moses. They’ve been instructed in the Law by the scribes and the Pharisees. Their entire culture was based on their status as God’s special chosen people, and part of that deal was that they were given 613 commandments to follow. These ranged from the common no-brainers we often hear today:

(Do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery)

to some stranger rules for obscure situations that seem like nit-picking to modern eyes:

(Do not sew clothes with two kinds of fabrics, do not mix crops in your field, do not permit people with a wide range of physical conditions into the place of worship)

Remember that the Law was given to Moses, thousands of years prior to Christ’s birth. People were to be cast out from the community or even killed for breaking a variety of commandments. This was serious business, and the rest of the Old Testament shows a people who go back and forth, straying from God’s commandments, then repenting and returning to obedience, lather, rinse, repeat.

Along the way, the religious leaders developed interpretations of exactly how the Law applied. They turned these into traditions and created additional standards that weren’t “God’s Word” per se, but were treated as authoritative. The traditions as taught by the religious leaders became a sort of cushion… as long as you didn’t break the tradition, you weren’t breaking the Law, and you’d be considered “righteous” or right with God.

The Pharisees and scribes were quite good at “righteous” living, and they didn’t mind letting you know where you were going wrong.

They set up a sign: “You must be this obedient to be righteous.”

So along comes Jesus, and He tells this audience that He’s not getting rid of the Law. Instead, He’s there to fulfill it. And not one tiny letter will change in the Law until the end of the world. Oh, and by the way, you need to do better than those Pharisees, or you’re screwed.

Yet the Old Testament makes it clear that “no one is righteous, not even one.”  The Prophets remind us that “we all have gone astray like sheep, each of us going our own way.” Even the good deeds we do are considered like “filthy rags” compared to the righteous standard God expects.

But by the time Jesus was preaching, the people were being told that yes, you actually COULD be righteous, and not everyone goes astray, and some people’s good deeds were good enough to earn them God’s acceptance. If you followed the strict tradition and the standards of the scribes and Pharisees, then you’re deemed pure and righteous… at least by the scribes and Pharisees.

Paul says this about his early life as a Pharisee.

4 If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh (in the good deeds he or she has done), I far more: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.  (Philippians 3:4-6 NASB)

By all religious accounts, Paul had it all together.

But he says he equates all of that to poop compared to knowing Christ and being found ” in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” (v. 9)

The religious righteousness of the Pharisees, the right-standing with God based on following the Law–that meant nothing. It was of no value.

So, wait, is Jesus wrong?

No, not at all. Jesus said pretty much the same thing Himself.

How did Jesus define the righteousness of the Pharisees?

In Matthew 23, Jesus points out that “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; 3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.” (v.2-3 NASB)

They’ve taken a position of authority, so they have to be obeyed. But Jesus hardly points to them as an example of righteousness. Note what He says about them immediately after this:

They do not enter the kingdom of God, and they keep others out.

They make new converts “sons of hell” just like they are themselves.

They make traditions more important than the sacred.

They focus on the letter of the law (tithing even their herbs and spices) instead of the spirit (justice, mercy, faithfulness) –straining a gnat and swallowing a camel.

They are clean on the outside and full of selfishness on the inside.

On the outside they look righteous. On the inside they are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

He ends by saying to them that they are serpents, a brood of vipers, and He asks how they think they will escape judgment.

Hardly the picture of “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

Jesus confronted the religious leaders before, and challenged their understanding and passion for the Law. He told them they missed the point. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; 40 and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40 NASB)

Life and righteousness don’t come from following the Law. That wasn’t the point of the Law. The point of it was to testify about Christ.

Paul agrees with this and expounds on it. “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law…  24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Galatians 3:21, 24-25 NASB)

Jesus, speaking to a Jewish audience under the authority of the Law of Moses, told His listeners that no part of the Law was going away. He also told them that He had come to fulfill or complete that Law.

When He died on the cross, His final cry was “tetelestai” in Greek — “It is finished!”

“The debt is paid.”

“It is fulfilled.”

Paul, with the benefit of hindsight, looks at what Christ accomplished and thus is able to explain more clearly the point of the Law. The Law was not given as a system by which we could attain righteousness. It was given to point us to our inability, so that we would be willing to come to Christ and find life.

Our righteousness is not based on the deeds we do. Our righteousness is Christ’s righteousness imparted to us. Paul explains to us that Jesus doesn’t hold up a new sign with a much higher arrow for us to measure up to. “No really, you must be THIS obedient to be righteous.”

That’s what the Law did. That’s what the Pharisees tried to do.

That’s not what Jesus does.

He smashes the sign and extends the offer to “whosoever will come.”

Next: The MSNBC Bible

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