Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Tradition and God's Law

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

In Matthew 5:17–20 Jesus states that He did not come to abolish the law of God, but to fulfill it. He insists that whatever changes in application His work may bring to the Old Testament law, nevertheless God requires scrupulous study and obedience to His commandments. “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 19).

One of the reasons Jesus makes this point is that He is about to correct some misinterpretations of the Mosaic law that had become common among the Jews. He makes it clear at the outset that His battle is not with Moses, but with the misinterpretations fostered by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Many of these men were meticulous in outward observance to rules they had invented but overlooked the true meaning of God’s commandments.

“You have heard that it was said” is the way Jesus introduces His criticisms. Compare how Jesus quoted Scripture as He confronted Satan: “It is written.” It is crucial that we understand that Jesus was referring to the halakah, the oral traditions of the rabbis (written later in the Mishnah and Talmud). Jesus was at war with these traditions because they had displaced the Word of God.

How did Jesus confront these traditions? If I were to argue with a rabbi, I would have to go to the Old Testament text and discuss the grammar and syntax with him, and try to get him to see that his interpretation was in error. Jesus did not do that. Rather, He pitted His own authority against that of the tradition: “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …” (vv. 21, 22, etc.).

Liberal theologians sometimes say they don’t like the “Pauline” idea that Jesus is God, but they like the “teachings of Jesus.” Notice what Jesus teaches in this sermon, though: He teaches that He has all the authority of God.

In some circumstances traditions, when they are not prescribed in Scripture, can steal away our freedom in Christ. They may also limit our ability to respond to people’s needs and changing circumstances. Before binding yourself to traditions, investigate whether God’s law has precedence and offers more freedom.