You know what I’m talking about. The "Jesus Juke" has been perfected round the world by super-holy folks who take an otherwise benign comment and make people feel all guilty for not being more spiritual. “I love watching Tom Brady throw that pigskin on Sunday afternoons,” you say. “Well, would Jesus have spent his Sunday afternoon watching Tom Brady—arrogant person that he is—play football? No, Jesus would be communing with his Father in heaven.”
You’ve been Jesus Juked.
In Matthew 5, Jesus is up on some mountain teaching his disciples about being blessed and salt and light and all that. Then he moves on to the Law of Moses, saying that he came to earth to fulfill the law, not abolish it. “Okay, yeah. That’s good,” the disciples are likely saying. “We’ve been hoping you’d do that, and we really like that stuff you said about being blessed. Amen, Jesus!” Then, out of nowhere, Jesus pulls a perfect Jesus Juke: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20 ESV).
That escalated quickly.
I’m not a New Testament scholar, but I suspect much ink has been spilt on this verse. A common interpretation is that Jesus is pointing to imputed righteousness. You know, we are in Christ, who fully obeyed the Mosaic Law, and so our “righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.” That’s fair enough. And ultimately it’s not wrong. We are in Christ. And we do have his righteousness. That’s the beauty of the gospel, y’all! But I’m not sure that’s what’s going on here.
Another way to understand this verse is as a reinterpretation of the Law. If we keep reading, Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that they “have heard that it was said to those of old” not to murder, not commit adultery, that it’s okay to divorce (in some circumstances), to pay their vows, not to take revenge, and to love their friends. For each of these topics, Jesus takes it a step further: “But I say to you” don’t be angry or call your brother a fool, don’t lust, don’t get a divorce at all, don’t take any vows, throw out the lex talionis, and love even your enemies.
So, is Jesus reinterpreting the Mosaic Law for his disciples and, consequently, for us today? Is he saying that before all you had to do was avoid murder, but now you gotta even avoid being angry? Before you could go ahead and lust after women, so long as you don’t have sex with them, but now you have to have a pure heart? Is he saying that the folks in the Old Testament could hate their enemies, so long as they loved their friends? In short, is Jesus simply reinterpreting the law for new-covenant believers? That this righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” is a new kind of righteousness that comes from reinterpreting the law? I don’t think that’s what’s happening either.
I think Jesus is doing what Jesus always does—rightly interpreting the true intent of the Old Testament. If you read your Old Testament, then you know that God’s people have this pernicious problem they can’t seem to shake. They’re always missing the point. God says, “Here are some laws that you have to keep because I’m a holy God, and if you come near me without being holy, you’re dead.” So the people think, “Okay, keep some laws, make God happy, don’t die. Got it.” They go through the motions of obedience, making sacrifices and avoiding murder, all the while ignoring the true intent of the law—a heart devoted to the Lord. They think they’ve kept the law, but they’ve missed the whole point. God makes this plain so many times:
- For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)
- 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 listen than the fat of rams. (1 Sam 15:22)
- The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)
- To do righteousness and justice Is desired by the Lord more than sacrifice. (Proverbs 21:3)
So, in this original Jesus Juke, our Lord is not really reinterpreting the law or even pointing to our deep need for imputed righteousness. Rather, he’s calling out the Pharisees, scribes. and disciples on their own misinterpretation of the law. God doesn’t want us just not to murder; he wants us to have a pure heart toward our brother. He doesn’t want us just not commit adultery; he wants holiness in our inmost desires. He doesn’t want us just to love our neighbors; he wants us to love our enemies too. And he always has. That’s how our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees—in our obeying the true intent of the law. Now, that obedience happens only in a right relationship with God and that right relationship comes only through the shed blood of Christ. Thanks be to God!