All of us are familiar with the Ten Commandments: no other gods, do not murder, etc. But what I want us to consider here is how Jesus read the Commandments.
Matthew 5–7 records Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount.” A significant portion of that sermon (5:17–48) gives us Jesus’s view of the Law. Jesus begins by telling us that he has not “come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.” In fact, he offers a condemnation to anyone who “relaxes one of the least of these commandments.”
Too often, we have the idea that the Old Testament is full of rules, but that in the New Testament, God drops the rules in favor of grace. Careful attention to Jesus’s preaching should disabuse us of that notion.
The rest of Jesus’s sermon follows a pattern. He begins by citing an element of the Old Testament Law, using the phrase “You have heard that it was said.” He then pivots: “But I say to you.”
Now, are we supposed to think of Jesus as adjusting God’s Law? Is Jesus coming along and revising what God has said? This is very unlikely. Indeed, he has just told us that he didn’t come to set the Law aside.
Instead, Jesus is telling us what the Law meant all along. And when we read his sermon, we find that the actual requirements of the Law are harder than we ever imagined.
We know that the Law says that we are not to murder, and most of us feel confident that we’ve kept that Law. But not according to Jesus. Jesus tells us that hatred in our hearts is forbidden by the Law. Those moments in which someone has provoked us to the point that we would harm them (if we could get away with it), we have violated the Commandment.
The same is true with adultery: the standard is not merely physical fidelity to your spouse. Jesus condemns a lustful look as adultery of the heart. Our hearts make us lawbreakers.
What Jesus does here is no accident. He bookends his discussion of the law with two impossible statements. He says, “Unless you righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And then, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
That is Jesus’s understanding of the Law. And if we understand him rightly, this should terrify us. If perfect obedience to the Law is the standard, and the Law includes our hearts, we all fall short.
That is the point of Galatians 3:10–11: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
The Law exists, not so that we might keep it and earn God’s favor, but that we might see that we fall short and seek God’s mercy. And the mercy is found in Jesus Christ, who alone kept God’s Law, earning life, and took our punishment, that we might be forgiven.