This week's "thought" comes to you from what has become a Christian Classic for many people. It was written by the World War II pastor, theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- a German citizen who was killed for his outspoken opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime. It's called "The Cost of Discipleship."Though the entire book is good, I chose this particular selection because it helps clarify a portion of Scripture that has tended to confuse many people.
There are probably few issues more difficult to explain completely than the New Testament believers relationship to the Old Testament law. One example (which is incorrect) was actually stated like this in an online post: "And if you ignore the laws of the Old Testament, which is what we are supposed to do since Jesus died..." Another common way of saying it is: "In Jesus the OT law was done away with completely and has no place in the believers life." Such statements abound in our day, making it clear how important it is to correctly understand Jesus words here.
In this selection Bonhoeffer seeks to explain Jesus' statement from Matthew 5:17-20: "Do not think I came to abolish the law or the prophets, I did not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter or stroke of a pen will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks the least of these commandments or teachers others to do so, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 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."
Bonhoeffer does an admirable job explaining it. I have had to shorten it drastically, and thus leave out some important sections of his argument. Therefore, reading chapter 8 of his book is advised. After all, it wouldn't hurt to have a copy of such a classic on your bookshelf for easy reference! Enjoy.
Speaking of the above cited passage from Matthew 5, Bonhoeffer states: "How is this to be understood? We know that Jesus is speaking to his own followers, to men who owe an exclusive allegiance to himself... Discipleship means adherence to Jesus Christ alone, and immediately. But now comes the surprise -- the disciples are also bound to the Old Testament law. This has a double significance. First, it means that adherence to the law is something quite different from the following of Christ, and secondly, it means that any adherence to his person that disregards the law is equally removed from the following of him. Jesus himself points to the law those whom he has granted his whole promise and his whole fellowship. And because it is their Lord who does this, they are bound to acknowledge the law.... To abandon the law would be to separate ourselves from him... Every letter of it, every jot and tittle, must remain in force and be observed until the end of the world.
But there is a "better righteousness" which is expected of Christians. Without it none can enter into the kingdom of heaven, for it is the indisputable condition of discipleship. None can have this better righteousness but those to whom Christ is speaking here, those whom he has called. The call of Christ, in fact Christ himself, is the sine qua non of this better righteousness [He is the necessary condition without which it is impossible]. This is why up until now Jesus has said nothing about himself in the Sermon on the Mount. Between the disciples and the better righteousness demanded of them stands the Person of Christ, who came to fulfill the law of the old covenant. This is the fundamental proposition of the whole Sermon on the Mount. Jesus manifests his perfect union with the will of God as revealed in the Old Testament law and prophets. He has, in fact, nothing to add to the commandments of God, except this, that he keeps them. He fulfills the law... down to the last iota.... He alone understands the true nature of the law as God's law. The law is not itself God, nor is God the law. It was the error of Israel put the law in God's place, making the law their God, and their God a law. The disciples were confronted with the opposite danger -- of divorcing God from his law. Both [are] errors....
Jesus, the Son of God, who alone lives in perfect communion with [God], vindicates the law of the old covenant by coming to fulfill it. He was the only Man who ever fulfilled the law, and therefore he alone can teach the law and its fulfillment aright... By pointing his disciples to the law which he alone fulfills, he forges a further bond between himself and them. He rejects the notion that men can cleave to him and be free from the law, for that spells enthusiasm, and far from leading to adherence to Jesus, means libertarianism... (ie: the idea that the Christian can live any way he or she wants, or that Jesus fulfilled the law for us so that we could justify our sin, go on living immoral lives, and then get heaven thrown in on top of it all).
Now we must ask, how exactly does the righteousness of the Pharisees differ from that of the disciples?... The Pharisees idea of righteousness was a direct, literal and practical fulfillment of the commandment. Their ideal was to model their behavior exactly on the demands of the law. Of course they knew they could never realize that ideal, there was bound to be an excess which needed forgiveness of sins to cover it. Their obedience was never more than imperfect.... But the disciples [whose own righteous efforts could only take the form of obedience to the law as well] had an advantage over the Pharisee in that his doing of the law is in fact perfect.
How is such a thing possible? Because between the disciples and the law stands one who has perfectly fulfilled it,, one with whom they live in communion. They are not faced with a law which has never yet been fulfilled, but with one whose demands have already been satisfied. The righteousness it demands is already there -- the righteousness of Jesus... This righteousness is therefore not a duty owed, but a perfect and truly personal communion with God, and Jesus not only possesses this righteousness, but is himself the personal embodiment of it. He is the righteousness of the disciples. By calling them he has admitted them to partnership with himself, and made them partakers of his righteousness in its fullness. That is what Jesus means when he prefaces his teaching on the "better righteousness" with reference to his own fulfillment of the law.
Of course the righteousness of the disciples can never be a personal achievement. It is always a gift, which they received when they were called to follow him. In fact, their righteousness consists precisely in following him, and in the beatitudes the reward of the kingdom of heaven has been promised to it. It is a righteousness under the cross. It belongs only to the poor, the tempted, the hungry, the meek, the peacemakers, the persecuted -- who endure their lot for the sake of Jesus. It is the visible righteousness of those who for the sake of Jesus are the light of the world and the city set on the hill. This is where the righteousness of the disciple exceeds that of the Pharisees -- it is grounded solely upon the call to fellowship with him who alone fulfills the law.... In a word (the better righteousness) means following Christ. It is the real and active faith in the righteousness of Christ. It is the new law, the law of Christ."
In the modern day Church there are some who still do as the Pharisees did and essentially make the law a god, and their god the law. They set it before people's eyes and suggest that obedience to it can save or put one right with God (what we call legalism). It's an error the faithful need always oppose. Yet far more commonly the contemporary Church has -- as Bonhoeffer says of the early disciples -- divorced or separated God from his law, often using Christ's fulfillment of it as the justification for doing exactly what it forbids. This understanding is an equally distressing error, and in light of this passage, something Jesus would never advocate.
God is not the law and the law is not God. Obedience to it cannot save us, nor earn us God's favor. Neither does it have the power to condemn those who are in Christ Jesus. But what we often fail to realize is that in growing in sanctification, or maturing in godliness, or Christ-likeness, we are coming to fulfill the law -- for what is the life of Jesus but a life lived in perfect obedience to it? And the whole time that the fruit of spiritual growth is maturing in us, our shortcomings are covered by the righteousness of the One who perfectly fulfilled it in our place.
Yours in the Joy of Following Jesus, Pastor Jeff