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The Spirit of the Law Trumps the Letter of the Law

By: LaDair Wright
SHPC Member
 

Jesus told the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount:

“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…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 5:17,20)
 
What exactly did He mean by this? The Pharisees were certainly teaching the Laws of Moses, so how was their righteousness lacking?
 

I think Jesus meant several things by this scripture. Obviously, He had come to fulfill the ancient prophesies regarding the coming of the Son of God. On a deeper level, He had come to explain the rationale behind the Laws of Moses and help us understand their deeper meanings. He pointed out that, while the Pharisees were teaching the letter of the Law, they were not always grasping the more important Spirit of the Law.

Scripture is full of examples in which Jesus essentially said, “The Laws are valid, but you are not looking beyond the words to determine their essence – the real reasons each of them was prescribed. You are not examining the context of the Laws, nor the logic for keeping them sacred.”

A prime example of this is the story of Jesus healing the man at the Pool of Bethesda who had been invalid for 38 years. The Pharisees chastised both the man and Jesus for working on the Sabbath – first the man for carrying his mat, and then Jesus for healing him. The Law said that the Sabbath must be kept holy, a commandment based on the creation story in which God rested on the Sabbath after six days of hard work. The letter of the law (resting on the Sabbath) was logical – one should follow God’s example and use the Sabbath as a day to praise God and to rest one’s body and soul for the work to be done the following week.

But the fallacy in the Law rested upon one’s definition of “work”. Work for personal gain was contrary to the Law, but work for God’s glory was in complete accord with the Law. Working for the glory of God entails praising and worshiping God and doing Godly deeds.
 
In response to the Pharisees scolding, Jesus told them: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” (John 5:17) 
 
We must not only consider the letter of God’s Laws, but their deeper meanings – the Spirit of the Laws – when deciding how to live our lives. Have you considered that the phrase “Spirit of the law” may refer to the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is our counselor, our advocate – the presence of God that Jesus left behind to guide us when He ascended into Heaven. We must listen to the Holy Spirit and be guided on how to obey God’s Laws, and not blindly follow the directives of others who interpret the Laws for us.
 
Our righteousness must “surpass the Pharisees and teachers of the law” if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. May it be so for you, and may you dare to examine the Spirit of the Law, and not just the letter of the Law.