Jesus and Paul Emphasize the Law's Correct Focus
By the time of Jesus and Paul, some Jewish religious leaders had distorted the focus of God's law. They were trying to impress God with their righteousness by paying more attention to the smallest details of the physical aspects of the law than to its spiritual purpose.
Paul pinpointed their problem: "Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God" (Romans 10:1-3).
Jesus emphasized the law's original purpose and spiritual intent (Matthew 5:17-48). This irritated many Jewish religious leaders. They had fallen into the habit of measuring righteousness according to outward appearance. They emphasized physical details and ceremonial cleanliness to the neglect of the "weightier matters" of God's law, such as justice, mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23-25).
Jesus sternly criticized this misplaced emphasis: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (verses 27-28, NRSV).
Their distorted emphasis stripped away the real intent and purpose for God's law. In contrast, Christ upheld the real intent of the law. And Paul simply continued Christ's correct emphasis—including the fact that the law's ceremonies and rituals served only as temporary reminders of better things to come.
Both Jesus and Paul always upheld the law's teachings that affect our heart, mind and behavior. These aspects of the law remain eternally applicable. They reveal not only what is sinful but also the true righteousness God desires to write in our hearts and minds. Christians are directed to rightly understand and willingly apply the true focus of the law to their own lives.
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