“For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Jesus, Matthew 5:20).
This is one of the scary sayings of Jesus. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees were seen as the holiest people in Judaism at the time. Their strict obedience to the Law of Moses was legendary. How could Jesus’ poor, ordinary disciples hope to have a righteousness greater than theirs?
Here’s how it works. The law of God is like scaffolding; it’s used to help construct a building. The building that’s being constructed is greater than the scaffolding. When the work of building construction is complete, the scaffolding can be taken down, because it’s no longer necessary.
What’s the building? Godly character. The purpose of the law of God is to help form that godly character in us. It’s one of the tools (just one of them) that the Holy Spirit uses to form us into Christlikeness.
But Christlikeness is about more than keeping rules. As Jesus goes on to explain, it’s not enough to obey the law not to murder and yet still be consumed with anger. It’s not enough to obey the law against adultery while you’re still full of lust. It’s not enough to be content with avoiding divorce while not going on to build a good marriage.
So Christians don’t stop at the law, because Jesus didn’t stop at the law. His interpretation of the law deepened it, and centred it on love. Love for God and love for neighbour became the centrepieces of his understanding of the law. That changes everything. It also means there is always room for growth. You may reach the point where you obey all the Ten Commandments (although that’s hard!), but when do you reach the point when you’ve genuinely loved God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself?
Personally, I’m not done with the scaffolding yet. My character is still not strong enough that I can do away with the law and trust that my desire will always be perfectly aligned with the love of God. One day, I hope to reach that point. Until then, I’ll continue to enlist the help of the scaffolding. But I hope I’ll never be content with it.
Tomorrow we’ll go on to think about what Paul calls ‘the Law of the Spirit’.