The teaching of Jesus we’ve been following in Matthew continues with this:
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 truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly 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. (Matthew 5:17-20)
At first, this looks like really bad news for us, but in fact, it is truly great news. The greatest news ever. Jesus is merely saying, “There’s nothing wrong with the law; the problem is with you. None of you can follow it. And the Pharisees are in the worst way because they think they can.”
If you want to be accepted by God on the basis of your behavior — if you want to be justified by the law — then you better make sure you obey it perfectly. If you’re going to base your spiritual life on being good, then you’d better be perfect. Otherwise, you’re not going to make it.
Well, that leaves us all out. Precisely. The law leaves us all out so that Christ can let us all in by His grace and mercy. The only ones who don’t get in are the ones who think they can earn their way in by following the law. This is why Jesus, in the next few verses, is going to make the law even harder — in fact impossible — to follow. He’s going to try and save them the trouble. He’s going to show how hatred in your heart is really murder, and lust in your mind is really adultery.
The law is good; we are not.
Now, as Jesus says, the law doesn’t go away. He didn’t abolish it; He fulfilled it, so that our only chance of approximating what God expects of us is through Christ in us. This is why, once you are a Christian, you can’t then go back to trying to be good without realizing your incompetence and relying on His power for everything. Believe me, I know about this, because I keep trying to pull off changes in my life and forgetting I can’t do it without relying on Him.
This is why the standards and expectations on our lives remain high — indeed impossible — so that only through Christ can they be realized. And it’s a continual realization: I can’t possibly do this; on the other hand, I can impossibly do this in Christ.
It’s going to take grace to save us; it’s going to take grace for us to follow.