It is clear that there are many members of the Body of Christ who are having an increasingly heavy and uncomfortable yoke placed on their shoulder, most of which is the baggage of traditions and and teachings which are often personal opinion rather than what Scripture reveals.
For quite a long time I have sensed a compulsion to read Matthew 5, over and over again. I'm writing this because of that sense of compulsion.
Matthew's Gospel has been in the minds of others as well, such as (the most recent at The Assembling of the Church , and at A Better Covenant ).
The picture I see at the beginning of Matthew 5 is a very big crowd of people in the general vicinity of Jesus, but closer to Him are the disciples. This is the scene in which Jesus teaches, what have been called, The Beatitudes.
Many, if not most, of those gathered near Jesus would have, at least heard of, with possibly most, actually hearing, knowing and trusting, the teaching of the leaders of the prevailing religion of the day .
What Jesus was saying in the Beatitudes was not to declare an ideal to labour under with much personal effort, but the very opposite of the legalistic, performance oriented, example set by the practitioners of the prevailing religion of the day.
What Jesus then tells His listeners, which accords with His call to repentance, is that one is blessed if marked by characteristics such as , having a realistically humble understanding of oneself as a sinner having no inherent righteousness of our own, having genuine sorrow leading to repentance regarding sin (2Cor 7:10), having an attitude of meekness, patient forbearance under difficulties instead of being reactive when goaded, and so on. He intimates that living in this way will cause real personal difficulties, never-the-less, the rewards are great.
As Jesus continues, He uses two very stark, and irrefutable examples of how powerful these characteristics are: they are like salt, which once applied cannot be reversed; and light, which, when allowed to shine cannot be negated by darkness.
The Old Covenant Law, given to Israel, were professed as a religious code by the religious of Jesus day, especially the leaders who were extremely proud of their external adherence to it, and very concerned about this upstart who seemed to be upstaging them. Jesus sought to allay their fears by declaring that He hadn't come to destroy that law, but to fulfill it.
Even as Jesus is seeking to put religions minds at rest, they have no idea of where He is going with this. He told them that nothing of these laws will cease to exist until “everything has been accomplished”. The accompishment of the “everything” Jesus mentioned is the same as His earlier declaration that He came “to fulfil” the law.
In the face of deep dyed self-righteous thinking and behaviour, Jesus fires a missile, “....unless your righteousness SURPASSES that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Can you imagine the indignant gasps of those who followed codes and rules to the nth degree, as well as those who thought their leaders were the epitomy of what God required of them? “How can we function in a way that outperforms the righteous practices of our religious leaders?”
What about the religious leaders response? What did they, who were so certain of their performance, think about Jesus words? Do you think their response might have been similar to another man, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” (Luke 18:21)
Many of these religious people were like so many today, who fail to realise that their religious leaders are tarred with the same brush as themselves. Many of those hearing Jesus' words were like many people today who hang on every word that comes from their religious leaders, who jump when told to jump, and then fall into great guilt when they can't perform as demanded!
Now! They are hearing Jesus raise the bar to impossible levels!
Jesus summarises the law, using examples, commenting on the teaching of, and the approach of, the religionists had towards it, “you have heard..., BUT I SAY”.
He is confronting them with the fact of that His own authority is greater than theirs. The affront of this fellow! Who is He to speak thus to these people, who, even today, believe that they have the last word on matters of faith and practice, and Jesus says, “No! I do!”
The shock of what He said must have been profound in such company. What Jesus had done was to confront His listeners with the utter impossiblity of any human being keeping God's laws in such a way that they are not a personal offence to the righteousness of God. He had made it plain that even an attitude of heart and mind in which law breaking was entertained, was no different to actual deed!
What a great dilemma for religious people who have been legalists for many years, possibly a lifetime. Jesus was confronting the very counterpart of much of what we see today, ”Here we are, attending church every Sunday and all the announced meetings, doing devotions at the right time every day, praying long prayers, even quoting Scripture. We don't drink, don't swear or curse, we avoid the riff-raff, we won't allow ourselves be seen in the company of those frowned upon by the church leaders. We consciensciously avoid those who are of beliefs different to ours. We read the right books, watch the right movies, and shudder every time an unbeliever acts like an unbeliever, not to mention when an unbeliever does the same. We have subscribed to the heavenly insurance policy which was presented to us, and we have been paying our prescribed performance dues year in and year out, even trying to improve our payments. Now this fellow is trying to tell us that all of our effort and good work ,to please God, is worthless!”
Then as if to heavily emphasise what He has been saying, He says, “ Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
“As perfect as God?”
“Then who is equal to that task?”
Only the One whose words they are listening to, the Lord Jesus Christ! During His perfect life He fulfilled EVERYTHING the law required. He did it on behalf of all who come to Him in repentance and faith. And as His cry on the cross declared for all to hear, He ACCOMPLISHED everything of what He came to do,. That's exactly what He was saying,“It is finished” (John 19:30), “It is accomplished, paid in full”.
Knowing that the Pharisees of today, who sail under a Christian flag, stand up, and say, "It is necessary to observe the Law of Moses, and do all these things to prove yourself to God. He needs your performance of duties to seal the deal."
There was a lot of arguing as the Senior Pastors, Junior Pastors and their Yes Men looked in to the matter, and Peter stood up and rebuked his opponents,"Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are."(15:10)
Why do these leaders risk the displeasure of God by attempting to impose upon His people, whom He has called to Himself, rites, rules, and laws which simply weigh them down with misery? Why do they belittle the work of our Saviour by preaching the guilt and misery of Judaizers?
God provided His sacrificial Lamb as a perfect, unblemished sacrifice, by which He is propitiated regarding their sinfulness.
Why insult His great free gift of saving grace upon those who receive it?
Why attempt to shackle God's people to the religious idol of a denomination, system, building, or leader to fulfill requirements which, in effect, shut these precious brethren away from the joy of God's acceptance of them in His Son?
This is the “yoke of slavery (bondage)” of which Paul speaks.
Those who claim to be these elder brethren are the prodigal son's brother spoken about by Tim Keller in The Prodigal God:
“We see that the elder brother ”became angry.” All of his words are dripping with resentment. The first sign you have an elder brother spirit is that when your life doesn't go as you want, you aren't just sorrowful but deeply angry and bitter. Elder brothers believe that if they live a good life they should get a good life, that God owes them a smooth road if they try to live up to standards.
"What happens, then, if you are an elder brother and things go wrong in your life? If you feel you have been living up to your moral standards, you will be furious with God. You don't deserve this, you will think, after how hard you've worked to be a decent person!...Elder brothers' inability to handle suffering arises from the fact that their moral observance is results-oriented. The good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment.
The yoke of the elder brother generally represents slavery, heavy bondage, affliction, punishment, oppressive and burdensome ceremonies, as was true of the situation in which the Galatian believers found themselves. Judaizers were seeking to add the yoke of slavery to the consciences of God's people, a yoke by the way, which, in their ignorance, they apply to themselves, often reaping the whirlwind as a result..
As Jesus said, They tie up burdens that are heavy and unbearable and lay them on people's shoulders, but they refuse to lift a finger to remove them. They do all their actions to be seen by people. They increase the size of their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love to have the places of honor at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, to be greeted in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by people.
There is a yoke which we can wear, which Jesus desribes in Mt 11:29,30, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
The Lord Jesus Christ was determined to accept all who would come to Him without rites, rules, and authoritarian leadership, all of which He had shown were now abolished through His own perfection, and final sacrifice.
Whether a leader or not it is an affront to our Sovereign God when anyone seeks to add performance (a yoke of slavery) to the finished work of Christ, such additions are what Isaiah called “filthy rags” (stinking menstrual clothes).