As our congregation continues to work through Jesus’ sermon on the mount during our evening services, we come this week the following where Jesus lays the foundation of most of the sermon:
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. 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 accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt. 5:17-20)
Without sorting out all the questions related to this passage, it seems that this particular portion of Jesus’ teaching has much to say to help us wade through the current controversy about what role the law plays in the life of the believer. As Barry recently pointed out, there’s a new form of a very old antinomianism (anti-law-ism) being promoted in the name of freeing Christians from guilt and shame.
So how can this passage help? In one word: simplicity. Personally, I tend toward easy and simple answers. While there are many very godly and very intelligent authors who have already addressed this issue at length, perhaps for the rest of us, a simple answer will suffice. Specifically, if anyone’s teaching relaxes the demands of the law, Jesus calls them “least in the kingdom of heaven.” If the result of someone’s teaching is that Christians value the law less, if someone’s writings cause Christians to be less passionate about obedience, if their guidance gives the church any extra wiggle room when it comes to the law, then they’re wrong. It really does seem to be that simple, according to Jesus.
While many Christians may not have the time or background to perfectly sort through all the current theological debates, here is a Cliff’s notes version we can keep in our back pocket: God’s law and obedience to it are good; anyone who leads me away from it or gives me any excuse for relaxed obedience is wrong, no matter how good their arguments sound.
More broadly, as He does throughout His sermon, Jesus is working here to totally rewrite the way we evaluate teachers and other Christians. Contrary to the Pharisees’ (ancient and modern) way of seeing the world, Jesus calls us to recognize what true greatness really is. True greatness is obedience. In this kingdom, those who obey the most and help others do the same are truly great. Regardless of titles or positions or the number of books written, we’ve been given a different way to value people.
So let’s be on our guard against false teaching, using Jesus’ simple test to protect ourselves. Let’s let Jesus rewrite the way we evaluate people, understanding that obedience is true greatness. Let’s love obedience more and walk alongside each other toward that end. Let’s run – not walk, crawl, stand still or move backwards – in the path of God’s commandments! (Ps. 119:32)
Two qualifications: by quoting Jesus’ words “least in the kingdom,” it isn’t my intent to call names or unnecessarily deride. They’re strong words, but they’re Jesus’ words, after all.
Also, expecting teachers to teach obedience to God’s law most definitely isn’t the same thing as allowing anyone to teach salvation by obedience to the law. See again Bolton’s quote from Barry’s post: “The law sends us to the gospel that we may be justified; the gospel sends us to the law again to inquire what is our duty as those who are justified.”