Now, it's one thing to be angry or irritated with the things someone else is saying, and to yell out in frustration, "Shut your trap!" But it's quite another thing to be standing there calmly listening to someone's self-justified, self-righteous talk, and to have a clever exchange with them that in the end makes them shut their self-righteous trap without even telling them to do it! Jesus was very good at shutting self-righteous traps.
How did He do it? Very often He used the very thing that people were using to justify themselves to show them that they weren't as justified as they thought they were! I'll give some examples, but first let me back up - or really look ahead - to something that Paul said years after Jesus' death and resurrection, that for me made the light go on in regards to all this.
Rom 3:19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
Over a decade ago, I spent quite a bit of time with the first part of that verse. "Whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law." One day those words jumped off the page at me, and I literally camped out on those words for the next 6 to 12 months. It so fascinated me that up until that time I had completely missed what was in those words that I set up a tent, gathered up a bunch of firewood, brought along a bunch of marshmallows, chocolate bars and graham crackers and I invited everyone I knew to the party! I mean, I was so focused on those words that whoever I talked with during that time got an earful from me!
Whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law. Period. That's as far as I got. As I look back it's really what I needed at that time in my growing process. I needed to truly understand that God's law was not speaking to Christians, but only to those who were under it. Christians (and all Gentiles, for that matter) are not under it. Well anyway, as time went on I eventually saw the second half of the verse as well. Why does the law speak to those who are under the law? "(So) that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God."
The law was not meant as a guide for living. It was meant to stop mouths. It was meant to shut people's self-righteous traps! Paul also called the law "the ministry of death" and "the ministry of condemnation." It was not meant to help people justify themselves, but to show them just how 'unjustified' they are! But nevertheless, through the years countless people have tried to use it to justify themselves. That may work in front of some other people. But don't try it in front of Jesus!
-The "rich young ruler" boasted to Jesus how he had kept God's laws since his youth. Jesus' reply was that even if that was true (as if), the man was still lacking something, and He gave the man more stuff to do. "You really think you're justified? How about you go sell all you have and give to the poor." The man went away sad, with his self-righteous ego utterly deflated. Trap shut.
-Another time, a woman was caught in the act of adultery. The people wanted to stone her to death, according to what the law said. Surely they hadn't ever sinned like that, so they were justified, right? Jesus remained silent and calm throughout this whole ordeal, and when He finally spoke He simply said, "He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone." Stones dropped. Traps shut.
-Jesus spoke a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector "to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous" (Luke 18:9-14). The self-righteous Pharisee thanked God for how "good" he was, and how he wasn't like that rotten tax collector or other sinners. The tax collector couldn't even raise his eyes toward heaven, but he said, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" Which one went away justified? Jesus said it was the tax collector. More self-righteous traps shut.
-When I read Jesus' words in "the Sermon on the Mount" I see a whole bunch of traps shutting! Some say His words here are teachings for Christians to live by. But look, He is speaking to those who are under the law and He is not only telling them what the law says, but He is magnifying what the law says - showing its true depth and meaning! In general He says, "You've heard that the law says this... but I tell you it's not quite as easy as it looks!"
"It's not just 'you shall not murder,' but 'whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment!' It's not just 'you shall not commit adultery,' but it's 'if you look at someone with lust you have committed adultery in your heart!' 'Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven!' 'Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect!'"
Ouch! If I think I'm a pretty good and decent person, what can I say to all that! Trap shut! (And I've never even been under the law!)
Surely there's a purpose to all this trap shutting (stopping of mouths), though, isn't there? Yes. After Paul says that the law was given to stop mouths and make the whole world guilty before God, he continues:
Rom 3:20-24 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus...
After our self-righteous traps are shut (when we realize that we can no longer go on trying to justify ourselves by how "good" we think we are or by how well we've kept rules and commandments, etc), the hope is that we'll come to the place in which we see that the only way to truly be justified and made righteous is "apart from the law." It can never be by us earning righteousness, or apprehending it by anything we do. It's only given as a gift. We're "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." For so many of us (even those who have never been under the law), we've had to have our mouths shut as we've seen the futility of trying to measure up to God, before we've been able to truly comprehend and accept the free gift provided through His grace alone.