Friday, January 12, 2024

Spirit and the Letter (Matthew 5)

“Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees …” (Matt. 5:20).

We all know of the Pharisees in Scripture who labored to keep the letter of the law but were lax to keep the spirit of the law. What we might not realize is how often we are guilty of the same “legalistic” tendencies when we fail to observe the difference between the spirit and the letter of the law in our interpretation of Scripture.

There were different types of legalists in New Testament times. The first and most famous was the type that legislated rules and regulations beyond what God had commanded. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for making the traditions of the rabbis as authoritative as the Law of Moses. Another distortion of the law was when people sought to obey the spirit of the law but ignored the letter. This is a common problem in today’s churches. Letter and spirit are inseparably related. The legalist destroys the spirit and the antinomian (i.e., “anti-law”) destroys the letter.

Jesus’s discussion of the law in the Sermon on the Mount has been woefully abused by interpreters. Some people think Jesus was saying that anger is just as bad as murder, that lust is as grievous a sin as adultery. Some may even argue that since they have already lusted after another person, they may as well go ahead and commit adultery because they are already guilty of the crime in God’s eyes. This is not only a gross distortion of what Jesus said, but it compounds the felony of lust with the full measure of the sin of adultery. Nowhere in the Sermon on the Mount does Jesus say that anger is as bad as murder or that lust is as bad as adultery. What he does say is that if a person refrains from murder but hates his brother or insults his brother he has not fulfilled the full import of the law against murder. Murder is a sin, but so is hatred and slander.

The point of Jesus’s teaching is that the law has a wider application than its letter. If you murder someone you violate the letter of the law; if you hate someone you violate the spirit. With regard to adultery, Jesus says that when you lust, you commit adultery in your “heart.” The point is that there is more to sin than external acts, but that doesn’t mean that all sins are equal. God is concerned with the heart as well as with the act.

Read 1 Samuel 15:22–23; Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; 12:1–14. What do these verses tell you about what God desires? Is the letter any less important than the spirit? Is the spirit any less important than the letter? Think about how you approach Scripture. Do you simply look for a to-do list, or do you ignore the law for the sake of the spirit?