Most cities have speed laws for motor vehicles. The letter of the law is to maintain a certain speed when driving. The spirit of the law is to drive at a safe speed so as not to endanger anyone. If the speed limit is 45 mph, and you see a large group of school children walking along the sidewalk on both sides of the street, you would not be violating the law to continue driving at 45 mph; however, slowing down to maintain safety would fulfill the spirit of the law. When Jesus delivered His Sermon on the Mount, he made it clear that the spirit of the law was far more important than the letter of the law.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Matthew 5:17 (NIV)
On the other hand, the Jewish religious leaders known as the Pharisees were so fixated on the letter of the law, they had codified them into 365 prohibitions and 248 commandments. Followers of the Pharisees were shackled to a list of laws that intruded on every aspect of their lives. Their goal was righteousness; however, Jesus demonstrated that a critical ingredient was missing from their laws – the spirit of the law was being neglected.
“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.” Matthew 5:20 (NIV)
The Pharisees believed that as long as one did not take another man’s life, he was innocent of breaking the law that states “do not murder.” Jesus focused on the spirit of the law by explaining the action is not the crime – the crime is the intent of the heart.
“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Matthew 5:22 (NIV)
Essentially, the “do not murder” law is fundamentally a reflection of God’s command to love one another. If the heart is focused on love, it is impossible to murder. Jesus tells us that once we have become angry we have already stepped beyond the spirit of the law and committed an offense. As a result, the Pharisaic interpretation of the law of murder does not fulfill the righteousness of God.
Jesus made a similar distinction in the case of adultery.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28 (NIV)
Jesus also punctuated the spirit of the divorce laws.
“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Matthew 5:32 (NIV)
Jesus taught that one is not to stand on the letter of the law but that righteousness will compel someone to go well beyond what the law requires.
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” Matthew 5:41 (NIV)
Jesus taught that true righteousness will be exemplified by having love for your enemies.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:43-45 (NIV)
If we love only those who love in return, we are being selfish and are not fulfilling the demands of the holiness of God. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus demonstrated that the Pharisaic interpretation of the law was lacking a true understanding of the spirit of the law. God is concerned most with the attitude of the heart.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 (NIV)
Our human frailty is not capable of achieving these high standards. We cannot in our own power achieve perfection. The point Jesus is making in His Sermon on the Mount is not that we need to add another list of prohibitions and commandments – the point He is making is that the only way to be acceptable to God is by placing your faith in Jesus Christ. Only Jesus can provide the kind of transformation that will make an individual acceptable to God. Turn from your sin and follow Jesus, is the message.
“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” Acts 3:19 (NIV)
Answer each question as though you were speaking privately to Jesus. Don’t just answer yes or no, explain your answer completely to yourself and to the Lord.
Do you understand the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law?
Have you ever broken any of the Ten Commandments in fact or in spirit?
Do you understand it is impossible to achieve righteousness without Jesus?
Do you pray for those who persecute you?
Have you been transformed by Jesus?
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