A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:19-20. The Christian and the law.
The word ‘therefore’ introduces the deduction which Jesus now draws for his disciples from the enduring validity of the law and his own attitude with respect to it. It reveals a vital connection between the law of God and the kingdom of God. Because he has come not to abolish but to fulfil, and because not an iota or dot will pass from the law until all has been fulfilled, *therefore* greatness in the kingdom of God will be measured by conformity to it. Nor is personal obedience enough; Christian disciples must also teach to others the permanent binding nature of the law’s commandments. True, not all the commandments are equally ‘weighty’ (cf. 23:23). Yet even *one of the least of these commandments*, precisely because it is a commandment of God the King, is important. To relax it – i.e. to loosen its hold on our conscience and its authority in our life – is an offence to God whose law it is. To disregard a ‘least’ commandment in the law (in either obedience or instruction) is to demote oneself into a ‘least’ subject in the kingdom; greatness in the kingdom belongs to those who are faithful in doing and teaching the whole moral law. ‘The peerage of Christ’s kingdom’, wrote Spurgeon, ‘is ordered according to obedience.’
Jesus now goes further still. Not only is greatness in the kingdom assessed by a righteousness which conforms to the law, but entry into the kingdom is impossible without a conformity better (much better: the Greek expression is very emphatic) than that of the scribes and Pharisees, for God’s kingdom is a kingdom of righteousness. But surely, someone will protest, the scribes and Pharisees were famous for their righteousness? Was not obedience to God’s law the master-passion of their lives? Did they not calculate that the law contains 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, and did they not aspire to keeping them all? How then can Christian righteousness actually *exceed* pharisaic righteousness, and how can this superior Christian righteousness be made a condition of entering the kingdom? Does this not teach a doctrine of salvation by good works and so contradict the first beatitude which says the kingdom belongs to ‘the poor in spirit’ who have nothing, not even righteousness, to plead?
Our Lord’s statement must certainly have astonished his first hearers as it astonishes us today. But the answer to these questions is not far to seek. Christian righteousness far surpasses pharisaic righteousness in kind rather than in degree. It is not so much, shall we say, that Christians succeed in keeping some 240 commandments when the best Pharisees may only have scored 230. No. Christian righteousness is greater than pharisaic righteousness because it is deeper, being a righteousness of the heart. There has been much talk since Freud of ‘depth-psychology; the concern of Jesus was for a ‘depth-morality’. Pharisees were content with an external and formal obedience, a rigid conformity to the letter of the law; Jesus teaches us that God’s demands are far more radical than this. The righteousness which is pleasing to him is an inward righteousness of mind and motive. For ‘The Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Sam.16:7; cf. Lk.16:15).
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:19-20. The Christian and the law (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.