His kindness overwhelmed them from the start: the way he chose his students, hearts that yearned for meaning beyond fishing nets or taxes; welcoming the seventy, both genders, to his company— the way he broke the rules that kept the stranger snubbed and minimized, and crushed the prejudice that said a woman should not learn, sitting at his feet— the way he took a trip and waited by a well to meet an outcast woman to let her know that she could thrive by drinking living water, accepted and forgiven— the way he fed the hungry lingering crowd, rewrote a young girl’s lifeline, let children climb into his lap and touched untouchables, his purity the remedy. His goodness split the confines of their box. And with his kindness came God’s truth: the word that let the rich man know that following the rules would never bring him life, the only way to freely sail was to haul in his anchors— the word that fired his makeshift whip to chase the rottenness of greed and selfishness out of the place reserved for penitence and praise— the word that turned their eyes away from temporary gluttony, the food that spoils, the search for yet more thrills instead of treasure— the word that showed them who God is: forgiving Father, rescuing Son, Spirit bringing birth to spirit— new creation, life begun! His goodness split the confines of their box.
Lots of us have discovered a safe box to live in, one that convinces us we are living Christian life appropriately. We may go to church at least once a week, donate to the offering, stay out of bars, avoid X-rated movies, claim the identity “Christian.” Our clothing is modest, our Bible ready to pick up to take to church but rarely opened at home. We are doing fine, staying on the straight and narrow. We are good people, law-abiding citizens.
But we are not desperately thirsty for righteousness. We do not take time to self-examine and to mourn our spiritual condition, confessing the times we stray. When a neighbor needs help that we could give, we decide we are too busy to be merciful and instead spend the night watching television. When there is conflict, we practice avoidance or we insult the one who revolts us.
If we truly understood what Jesus was saying in his Sermon on the Mount, if he were to apply it to us, we would be astonished. If we were to see him living visibly in our times, we would be disturbed by his preference for spending time with prostitutes and swindlers, just like the “righteous” were disturbed during his ministry in Israel.
Jesus was indeed radical. He was doing miracles, yes, but the most troubling thing to the religious leaders was the way that he lived. He seemed to be breaking the rules that had been put in place to help the Jews put into practice the commands that God had given them. He let his disciples feed themselves by picking grain on the Day of Rest. He touched a man who was “unclean” due to his serious skin disease. Weren’t these actions (and many others) contrary to the meticulous laws put in place in the Old Testament?
Jesus had just turned their world upside down via his list of the kind of people who are truly blessed by God, people given true well-being because their hearts and actions line up with his heart. The qualities that he underlined were counter-cultural and seemed to strip away the value of the restrictions that were supposed to insure the keeping of rules.
And rule-keeping is the backbone of religious systems, right?
Recently a friend (not a believer) was asking me questions about why a Nyarafolo, a West African, would leave their traditional religion to become a Christian. So I described the requirements that their religion has on them, so many sacrifices needed to keep the gods happy or to reach out to ancestors for help. “When they come to Jesus,” I said, “they say that they have been freed from slavery, that their chains are gone.”
“Oh, well,” she commented. “They leave one list of rules and take on another one.”
I was silent for a moment. What could I say? Finally, I just underlined the new believers’ sense of freedom: “If you were there, that is what you would hear.”
Those converts know freedom in Jesus. Yes, there are new truths to learn, new ways to live in order to follow Jesus. But not frantic repeated sacrifices just to have a decent life. Not days lived in fear.
Often Christianity is perceived to be just legalistic, even by certain Christians. You need to fit in the box, live the acceptable life, and all will be fine. The Jewish leaders were teaching that approach and Jesus was ripping their box apart. So was he against the laws and traditions that had been handed down since Old Testament times? His conduct and teaching seemed to be in conflict with them.
Jesus was challenging their assumptions about what was sin and what was right conduct. He was ushering in a new kingdom, and this kingdom emphasized transformation. A true citizen of this kingdom of heaven would need to put into practice a much deeper understanding of God’s criteria for doing what is right than anyone had imagined. He said:
“17Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:17-20 NET)
How could this be? The people who were considered the best informed about the Law of God, those who copied it and studied it as their life’s work, as well as the Pharisees, who were passionate about observing the Law and every regulation that had its source there, both these groups were being rebuked by Jesus. They were meticulous about many details that were covering up the true force of God’s intentions, Jesus was saying. In fact, in the following part of his sermon he was going to make his accusations shockingly specific!
So what on earth did he mean when he said he was not tearing down the Law or the predictions of the prophets – the entire Old Testament – but was fulfilling it? He was referring here to his mission as the Messiah, the one who would bring in the kingdom of heaven and “fill in” the truths underlying the commandments they thought they were already following. Their approach was to make lists of rules. His teaching was to show that the heart had to be in line with God’s heart. As Donald Hagner says:
“Since in [Matthew] 5:21–48 Jesus defines righteousness by expounding the true meaning of the law as opposed to wrong or shallow understandings, it is best to understand πληρῶσαι here as “fulfill” in the sense of “bring to its intended meaning”—that is, to present a definitive interpretation of the law, something now possible because of the presence of the Messiah and his kingdom. Far from destroying the law, Jesus’ teachings—despite their occasionally strange sound—penetrate to the divinely intended (i.e., the teleological) meaning of the law. Because the law and the prophets pointed to him and he is their goal, he is able now to reveal their true meaning and so to bring them to “fulfillment.”
Jesus was now going to take the boxes they had constructed as the only right way to live, and split them open. Outward appearance and list-observing was not what God was after. He wanted his people to understand that what happens within them, in their hearts and minds, is what really matters and has consequences in how they live. As Paul explained later,
“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:22-24 NIV)
Jesus even emphasizes the ongoing validity of the Old Testament Law by saying that not even the tiniest letter or stroke of the pen will be lost until the consummation of all things. But his teaching explained the true meaning of the Mosaic law. As the final interpreter of that law, “the law as he teaches it is valid for all time, and thus in effect the law is upheld.”.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Matt. 24:35 NIV)
The word “Torah,” the Jews’ name for the books of the Law, means “revealed instruction.” The sacrifices outlined there each had meaning to those who did them. Then Jesus’ death was the “once for all” sacrifice (Heb. 9.12) that eliminated the need for all of those former ones. “They were but a ‘shadow’ of what was to come; the ‘substance’ belonged to Christ.”
Citizens of this kingdom would no longer need to make sure to practice the fastidious details set in place by religious experts who had been interpreting the correct way to follow the Law. To be more righteous than them did not connote adding more laws, but to be personally changed, to take on the mindset of God himself. Jesus was fulfilling the prophecies about the coming kingdom.
“It was a new heart-righteousness which the prophets foresaw as one of the blessings of the Messianic age. ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts,’ God promised through Jeremiah (31:33) . . . [and] Ezekiel: ‘I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes’ (36:27).
This would be a righteous way of life beyond what the Pharisees and scribes could attain, something only God can produce in his true followers. For us, this requires not just living inside some proper “box” of rules for a Christian lifestyle, but letting our Lord actually change us.
“One must aim to become the kind of person from whom the deeds of the law naturally flow. The apple tree naturally and easily produces apples because of its inner nature. This is the most crucial thing to remember if we would understand Jesus’ picture of the kingdom heart given in the Sermon on the Mount.”
Let us hunger and thirst for this kind of radical, God-sensitive and constantly increasing righteousness! Jesus promised that if we do this, we will indeed be filled (Mat. 5:6).
 Ibid., 108.
 John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 71–72.
 Ibid., 75.
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997), 142-143.