God gave the sacrificial system to the Israelites. In Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy we are introduced to what Paul would later call “the tutor.” (Galatians 3:24). The Law was intended to lead us to Christ, to teach about the necessity of sacrifice, and to anticipate the “fullness of time” when Christ’s sacrifice would ultimately fulfil the Law once and for all (Romans 6:10; 1 Peter 3:18; Hebrews 9:12 and 10:10). So far so good, as a favourite “tutor” of mine liked to say. As long as there was sacrifice at the Temple, there was atonement. As long as there was atonement, there was forgiveness of sins.
But at key periods in Israel’s history, the Temple was “closed for business.” Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. The second Temple, overseen by Nehemiah and Ezra was violated and desecrated in 167 BC and remained unusable for several years. Pharisaism was born out of such times. The way of the Pharisees answers the question – “how do we remain in favour with God, when we cannot make sacrifices to atone for our sins?” Their answer was to not sin in the first place. Simple.
If you can, by a system of rule-keeping, live such a righteous life that you don’t violate God’s Law, then you don’t need a sacrifice. But how righteous is righteous enough to do the job? Jesus answers that question in the Sermon on the Mount, and opening with the Beatitudes, He proceeds to dismantle the Pharisees’ misconception that righteousness can be achieved outside of sacrifice. Christ had come in order to be the final sacrifice that secures righteousness for all who believe (Matthew 26:28) and so He had to argue strongly for the necessity of sacrifice, which put Him at odds with the Pharisees.
Righteousness in the Sermon has more to do with attitude than it has to do with actions. The Pharisees thought that if they didn’t do wrong, then they were above judgment. But Jesus revealed the flaw in their thinking. What if you act well, but want to act badly? What if your public face is whitewash clean, but your private heart is slagheap grey?
It is the heart condition of every man, woman and child that betrays the system of the Pharisees. We cannot be made fit for God’s Kingdom by our own works. As the Book of Hebrews would phrase it decades after Jesus spoke at Galilee: Without the shedding of blood, there can be no remission of sins (Hebrews 9:22). What I constantly need to do, and perhaps you also, dear reader, is to remember the lesson of the Sermon. I am not righteous in my own strength, I cannot stand clean before God through my own works, and I must never be seduced into the prideful way of the Pharisees.