Now, many years before Jesus, they had begun to pass down oral tradition, later recorded in the Talmud, which was a commentary or interpretation on the Tanakh, what we call the Old Testament. It was instructions on how to follow the commands in daily life. It set up a hedge around the law, so that people would not even get close to breaking God’s instruction in the Torah. A hedge in this sense is like a wall around a wall. For example, instead of not doing work for 24 hours on the Sabbath, they made it 25 hours to guard against breaking God’s law.
There were two different classes of Pharisees. Those that leaned toward a strict following of the Talmud, following Rabbi Shammai, and others who were lenient, following Rabbi Hillel.
Even though Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, Jesus was most likely himself a Pharisee, or at least in line with their thinking. He came from inside the group, so he wasn’t standing outside calling them snakes and white-washed tombs, he was telling his own group to straighten their ways. In reality, Jesus was a Jew, as I am a Christian, but in practice, as I am Church of Christ, so Jesus was a Pharisee. As the Jews set up a hedge around the law to keep people from breaking the law, so we in the church of Christ have set up a hedge around our New Testament laws to keep from breaking the law.
The sermon on the mount was meant to tell us how we are to live beyond the law in our lives. When Jesus says “You may have heard…, but I say…”, he is going beyond the law in our own lives, and telling us to have hedges to keep us from sinning. Instead of swearing to let people know you will fulfill your promises, tell the truth always. Instead of letting your anger drive you to murder, don’t be angry with your brother in the first place. Don’t love those who love you, love everyone, for we can all receive salvation if we choose it. He gets to the heart of God, as only God himself can, and tells us how we can implement true Godliness in our lives. Going beyond what the law says is personal, it is our decision to make. If we want a life that is lived to it’s fullest, we have to leave those things behind, but others cannot make those decisions for us.
Some of you may disagree, but I believe that a Capella music is a hedge around our singing in our beliefs. It is not directly forbidden, but we do it to follow the traditions of the first century, and to follow the commandment, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,” (Eph 5:19), we make sure that all can sing without being distracted by playing an instrument. We want people to sing and not just listen. In the same way, we don’t bring a praise team to the front, because if people always listen and never sing, we are not following the command to sing to the Lord. I do not plan to worship with instrumental music, but as it is never condemned by Jesus or the apostles, neither will I condemn it. I am not for the addition of instruments, just against teaching it as God’s law when it is not. We can teach it based on example, and historical context, just not as law, but let our primary focus be on biblical understanding and the heart of living a Christian life. This is just one of the many hedges we have.
Jesus condemned the Pharisees that enforced their own traditions above the law. We read in Matthew 15:1-9, about a tradition that allowed people devote their things to God, and not give to their parents because they gave to God instead. He condemns them for upholding a man-made law above the law of God to “Honor your father and mother”. He quotes from Isaiah 29:13:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
It is not wrong to have hedges around the instructions in God’s word, but when we focus on the hedges that we have, the man-made laws, and we forget about the instructions in God’s Word, and the life we are to live in Christ, our religion is in vain, and we have become blind guides who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel (Matthew 23:24). When we stumble on the greater things of God’s word, but fulfill the hedges that we have set up, do you think it will mean anything on judgment day? Will we receive mercy based on the fact that we follow our own rules? I only hope you can live up to your own Judgment of others, because God will be as strict to you in the final judgment as you are to others (Luke 6:37-38).
Further Reading: Matthew 23, Luke 18:9-14