Before Jesus arrived on the scene, those who worshiped God did so by following a list of laws outlined in the Old Testament of the Bible. The religious leaders of the time had expanded these laws into 365 prohibitions and 248 commandments. No one could keep this law; as a result, everyone who wanted to please God had to continuously ask for His forgiveness through a series of elaborate rituals. Their goal was righteousness – to be right before God – however, these Old Testament laws would never be enough. Jesus came to change all of this.
All laws are to be understood on two different levels – the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. As an example, most cities have speed laws for motor vehicles. The letter of the law is to drive at a specific speed – maybe 35 miles per hour. But the spirit of the law is to drive at a safe speed. It’s possible to obey the letter of the law and break the spirit of the law if you continue to drive 35 miles per hour even though there are hazards in the road like construction, or school children crossing the street. In order to obey the spirit of the law – drive at a safe speed – you will sometimes need to go slower than 35 miles per hour. The Old Testament religious leaders were fixated on the letter of God’s law and Jesus came to redirect everyone to the spirit of God’s law.
Jesus taught that the spirit of the law that prohibits murder goes much deeper than the letter of that law. Jesus said that if you become angry with your brother or sister, you have broken the spirit of the law against murder. The action is not the crime – the crime is the intent of the heart. Similarly, Jesus taught that you only have to look at someone with lust in your heart to break the spirit of the law of adultery. As you can see, righteousness before God requires a much higher standard and the letter of the law is only a starting point. The spirit of the law holds the deeper intent that we all need to achieve to please God. Of course, this level of perfection is well beyond the abilities of mortal men – this is why Jesus came into the world – to save us from our inability to achieve righteousness in our own power.
Jesus didn’t come to add another list of prohibitions and commandments that are more difficult to achieve than those already on the books. Jesus came to point us away from the letter of the law and inspire us to embrace the spirit of the law. Only Jesus can provide the kind of transformation that will make an individual acceptable to God. When we place our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are instantly made righteous before God, and we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to see God’s law in a new light – we become one with the spirit of God. The Old Testament law demonstrated our need for a Savior, and Jesus came to fulfill that need. When we trust Jesus, we have fulfilled the law and we become permanent members of the family of God.