In Matthew chapter 9, Jesus sat down to eat with some people. When the Pharisees saw this, they condemned him for eating with tax collectors and sinners.
This immediately raises some obvious questions. How did the Pharisees know that the people with Jesus were sinners? How did the Pharisees themselves come to be classified as the righteous?
These questions are all the more pertinent because it was these so-called righteous Pharisees who conspired to have Jesus killed.
The sinners and the righteous
The sinners then were the Gentiles. They were sinners because they were not Jews and did not participate in the Temple sacrificial system. Therefore, their sins were not washed procedurally by the blood of bulls and goats. Thus, Paul said to Peter: “You and I are Jews by birth, not ‘sinners’ like the Gentiles.” (Galatians 2:15).
Jesus was from Nazareth. Nazareth is in Galilee, referred to as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” (Isaiah 9:1).
The righteous, on the other hand, are the Israelites: “To whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises.” (Romans 9:4). They practiced Judaism, believed in one God, worshipped in one Temple in Jerusalem, circumcised their male children, observed the Sabbath, sacrificed to cleanse their sins, and did not eat anything deemed ritually unclean but only ate “kosher” meals.
So, when Jesus talks of the righteous, he is often referring to those who are righteous according to the Law of Moses. Thus, he spoke of “prophets and righteous men.” (Matthew 13:17).
He also spoke of those who were righteous under the law of Noah: “That on you may come all the righteous bloodshed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” (Matthew 23:35).
Law of Moses
In the Old Testament, God gave a set of laws; the Ten Commandments and Moses gave another set of laws; the Law of Moses. The one should be differentiated from the other.
Moses says God gave him the latitude to establish laws for Israel: “The LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might observe them in the land which you cross over to possess.” (Deuteronomy 4:13-14). These statutes and judgments are known as the Law of Moses. However, they are different and distinct from the law of God.
God himself highlights the distinction. He admonished the Israelites: “To do according to all that I have commanded them, and according to all the law that my servant Moses commanded them.” (2 Kings 21:8).
Thus, the sacrificial laws belong to the Law of Moses and not to the law of God. Accordingly, God says in Jeremiah: “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat meat. For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 7:22-23).
Samuel also made this point to Saul: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22).
According to Moses, God himself wrote the law of God on “two stone tablets” (Deuteronomy 4:13). But Moses, and not God, wrote the Law of Moses, and he wrote it in a book. (Exodus 31:8).
Under the Law of Moses, you don’t have to be perfect or sinless to be righteous. All that is required is that you atone for your sins by sacrifice. But under God’s law, the righteous must be perfectly sinless.
Law of Christ
Since Jesus was a prophet under the Old Testament, he operated under the Law of Moses. Therefore, he acknowledged those who were righteous according to the law. Nevertheless, he was at pains to point out that the sacrifices of bulls and goats are not “the sacrifices of righteousness.” (Psalm 51:19). In order to attain the righteousness of God, we have to obey God from the heart and repent of sin.
This was also the message of his forerunner, John the Baptist: “When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father. For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.’” (Matthew 3:7-9).
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Therefore, when some people asked Jesus why God did not protect some Galileans who were offering sacrifices from being massacred by Pilate, Jesus said to them: “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2-3).
According to the Law of Christ: “if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Galatians 6:2). Therefore, “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others. Jesus spoke a parable of the self-righteous Pharisee and the repentant tax collector: (Luke 18:9-14).
He tells us that keeping the Law of Moses does not make a man righteous in the eyes of God. In order to be righteous, we must keep God’s laws.
“For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. Therefore, when he came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you had no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come- in the volume of the book it is written of me- to do your will, O God.'” He takes away the first that he may establish the second.” Hebrew 10:4-9).
“The Law of Moses does not make a man righteous in the eyes of God.”
So, in response to those who queried him for eating with Gentile sinners, Jesus says: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” (Matthew 9:13).
The Law of Moses accommodates the hardness in the hearts of men. It does not make any attempt to contradict it. It merely provides an external code of conduct for men. Therefore, it could not make men truly righteous.
But the Law of Christ deals with the hearts of men. It requires heartfelt obedience to God and not just outward obedience. Therefore, Jesus berated the Pharisees, who claimed to be righteous under the law:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. (Matthew 23:27-28).
He then warns us: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20).