In Jesus’ day, Israel was looking forward to the coming of their messiah. They expected God to send this anointed one to lead a liberation that would restore their political sovereignty and give them back full control of their land.
One sect called the Pharisees believed in the prophets and taught that the nation needed to turn from their sins for their messiah to come. Of course this was the basic and good message that Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist started with: “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2, Matthew 4:17)
However their fundamental flaw was that although they knew the scriptures, they knew nothing of the grace and power of God. Their futility was in trying to obey the law on their own terms and in their own power. In their righteous zeal they became harsh and brutal, twisting and adding to the law, making it a curse rather than a guide to life (Luke 11:46). Jesus famously and furiously called them out on this many times:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
In Jesus, God’s supreme example of holiness had come down to earth to live among us. The word of life that spoke through the scriptures they revered now walked among them (John 5:39-40). In typical fashion they asked Jesus what they needed to do in order to be made right with God:
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
They asked about works (plural), but Jesus gave them just one thing to do: to believe in him. Everything else flows from faith in Jesus. When that’s missing we’re just running against a wall.
Receiving Jesus in faith means receiving his yoke (Matthew 11:28-30), and that means identifying with him- his heart and his will. However this yoke is not burdensome like the yoke of a self-attempted righteousness, but light.
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.
1 John 5:3
While the Pharisees only respected appearances, this new law of love works from the inside out. Through faith, Jesus writes a new law on our hearts which compels us into his new way of life.
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
In a similar way Paul later urged the Ephesian Christians to show genuine Christian grace towards one another:
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
It’s easy to look down on the Pharisees for their blind-spots, but also easy for us to miss the point and become like them in our own way. Everything flows from true relationship with Jesus, and nothing makes sense without him, no matter how great we manage to look on the outside.
May we know Jesus, full of grace and truth, the founder and perfecter of our faith.