One of the most perplexing issues surrounding Christian ethics has to do with the relationship between Jesus' teachings and the Old Testament law. In Matt. 5:21-48 Jesus presents six antitheses in which He seems to be breaking with Jewish tradition ("You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . ."). Yet in the immediately preceding verses Jesus appears to be saying the exact opposite. He seems to be arguing for the permanence of the law.
To understand what Jesus is saying it is necessary to understand the nature of the "Torah" or the Old Testament law. Ancient Israel was unique. It did have a code of civil laws much like most other nations in the ancient Near East, but what made Israel different was its distinctive worldview. Unlike the polytheism of the surrounding nations, the national creed of Israel posited a single, eternal, self-existent and all-powerful Deity, Who created everything else out of nothing. Israel was God's chosen people, bound to Him by a covenant. This means that the Torah was much more than just a civil law code; it was also a theological statement defining the relationship between Israel and God.
By Jesus' time, however, there was the natural human tendency to think of morality in sociological terms. People's sense of right and wrong was largely determined by the mores of society. In the case of First Century Judaism the determining factor was often the Sanhedrin, a court that sat in Jerusalem and heard cases under Jewish law. The inevitable tendency of such a court was to focus on the civil aspects of the Torah. One was guilty ("liable to punishment") if he did thus and so, and was innocent if he did not. The determinations of the Sanhedrin were eventually codified in a Second Century called the Mishnah. The Mishnah, in turn, forms the basis for modern day rabbinical Judaism.
What was all too easily forgotten in the midst of all the judicial activity were man's moral and religious obligations toward God. And it is at this point that Jesus enters the picture. Standing squarely in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets,, Jesus issued a ringing call for righteousness as a right attitude of heart before God. It is a call for justice and humanity in all our dealings with our fellow human beings. It is also a terrifying indictment of human society as it currently exists.
Jesus made it very clear that His intent was not to set aside the law, but rather to fulfill it (v. 17). The law is a reflection of God's own righteous and holy character. As such it is permanent; it will never change. What Jesus did was to keep the law perfectly Himself, and to offer Himself up as a sacrifice for sins so that we could be forgiven even as He upholds the majesty of the divine law. The death of Christ was a demonstration of mercy combined with perfect justice. But His final aim was to promote holiness, not provide an escape from it.
Jesus concludes the section by saying, "For I say, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (v. 20; NKJV). The Pharisees were a First Century sect of the Jews who were known for their strict interpretation of the law. But even they fell short of God's perfect standard of righteousness.
The passage says a lot about our modern day, comfortable, middle-class Christianity. We often think and act as if the chief end of God is to make us happy. God is a kind of doting Father in the sky Who understands and forgives our weaknesses and failures. He simply accepts us the way we are, with unconditional love. But that is not what the Bible says at all. The mission of Jesus when He came into the world was to save us from both the guilt and the power of sin, and the end result should be lives transformed by God's grace. Anything less is a pious fraud, and a dangerous self-delusion. If we wish to enter the kingdom of heaven we will do well to take careful heed to what Jesus says.