The strengthening of the law

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If Jesus came to release us from the law and set us free to live by the Spirit instead, then why did he say so much about the law in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7?

Jesus was speaking to people who knew the law, and who depended on it as a means of righteousness. The law is meant to lead us to Jesus (Galatians 3:24) by showing us that our own righteousness is just “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6) compared to his standard of perfection.

So to drive the point home that we are in desperate need of a saviour, he raised the standard of the law – or rather, he explained that true righteousness is not just on the outside but is a matter of the heart. Adulterous glances and judgemental anger are on the level of adultery and murder, because God looks on the heart, not just outward appearances (1 Sam 16:7).

But didn’t Jesus really intend us to do the things he said in the Sermon on the Mount – loving our enemies, giving to those who ask us for things and not being anxious about anything? Yes, but not as a law.

Jesus did not come as another lawgiver like Moses. “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). He came to give us grace – acceptance despite not living up to a standard, and power to live up to that standard without the threat of punishment and condemnation when we fail.

The difference between living under law and living under grace – apart from the fact that grace empowers you and the law does nothing to help you obey it – is that there is no pressure on you at all, and no threat of punishment hanging over your head if you mess up. If you know that you are free to try and fail, and if you stumble you can just get up and keep going again – then you’ll try.

For reflection:

Jesus often answered people by pointing to the law. When the rich young ruler asked him how to get eternal life, Jesus gave a strange answer – he didn’t say, “believe in me.” Instead, he said, “You know the commandments – ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal ...’” (Luke 18:20). He left out the commandment, “Do not covet”, which was the man’s real problem, as he soon discovered.

The reason Jesus talked to so many people this way was not because we really are under the law after all, as some people seem to think, but because he wanted the law they were already under to do its work and make them aware that they needed to be saved by him:

“The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ so that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Galatians 3:24-25)

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