17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses
that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law,
you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
This passage (5:17-20) marks the beginning of a whole new section of Jesus’ SotM. But before we look at it in more detail, I want you to try to use your imagination for a moment, & try to put yourself in the picture here. Imagine that you were one of those privileged people who were actually there when Jesus first spoke these words. What kind of impact do you think his message might have had on you?
As we go through Jesus’ message over the next few weeks, you will find some of his words here to be very encouraging and inspiring, but there will also be parts of Jesus’s message that you will find to be quite challenging, even disturbing. That is no accident. Jesus intended this sermon to challenge many of the commonly held assumptions we may have about what it means to follow Jesus.
Matthew records for us the reaction of the people who were there that day, at the very end of the sermon in 7:28:
"When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law."
The people who listened to Jesus were simply astonished by what they heard from this man. Why? Because he taught with incredible authority. When people heard him speak, they knew that He was completely unlike anyone else they had ever met. Here was someone who was speaking not just from human wisdom, but with divine authority, as one who spoke from God.
But this may have also have raised some disturbing questions in their minds as well. You see the people listening to Jesus here had been taught all their lives by the Pharisees & their religious leaders, that the authority of God was centered in what they called the "Torah"- or the law. This was the law that Moses had received from God when he had gone up on Mt Sinai, & recorded in what we know as the 1st 5 books of the Bible:
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, & Deuteronomy.
But never in their lives had they heard anyone teach the way Jesus did. He wasn't like the other teachers of the law they had heard all their lives. In fact he was often very critical of the religious leaders and teachers, & how they obeyed the law. And so the people may have been asking themselves, “Where does Jeus stand in rel'ship to the OT law, the law of Moses?”
In teaching with this kind of authority, Is Jesus now throwing out the Old law, & establishing a new law? Does he not believe in the Torah, the other writings of scripture, what we know as the OT? These were questions in the minds of the people listening, & they are also questions that many people ask today.
And so Jesus begins here by very clearly defining his relationship to the the OT Law, and also what ours is to be as well.
And He begins with a very important statement:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17)
So what is Jesus saying here? He's saying 2 very important things:
1st of all, Jesus is affirming that he has not come to abolish the Law. I think it’s very evident that Jesus understood the whole of the OT to be the inspired, infallible word of God. As you read thru the gospels, you will find Jesus again & again quoting the OT scriptures, the law & prophets. (Over 70 times) They were the basis for his whole understanding of who He was. They gave direction to his life.
But the 2nd thing he's says: “I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them."
And that word "fulfill", is really the key to understanding Jesus’ rel'ship to the Law. Some translations say to “accomplish their purpose” or to “complete” them.
So what did Jesus mean, when he said he came to fulfill the law & the prophets? There are at least 3 ways in which Jesus fulfilled the OT scriptures:
1st of all, Jesus fulfilled all of the OT prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah. “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." (Luke 24:44) The entire OT was looking ahead towards Jesus’ coming into the world as the Messiah. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here, because we talked about this at length last year in our series on “Jesus in the OT”. (If you want to take a look, those messages are all on our church website)
But we see very clearly that in the circumstances surrounding his birth, his death & his resurrection, for eg, Jesus fulfilled lit. dozens of prophecies written hundreds of years earlier, foretelling the future coming of God's anointed one into the world.
But Jesus not only fulfilled the messianic prophecies, he says he came to fulfill the Law as well. And he did this in 2 ways:
2. Jesus was the only person in all of human history to ever completely fulfill, or carry out all of the requirements of the OT law.
He carefully observed & obeyed the law right down to it's last detail.
So that at the end of his life, the thief on the cross says accurately of him: "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." And so Jesus fulfilled the law by carrying it out perfectly & completely.
3. But he also fulfilled the requirements of the law, by receiving the punishment prescribed by the law for all those who broke the law, namely death. Although he himself did not deserve it, he died in our place on a cross at Calvary. And by doing so, he made took upon himself the penalty for our sin, thereby making it possible for us to escape the punishment under the law which we rightfully deserved.
As Paul writes in Galatians: "But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." (Gal 3:13)
In this way, Christ also brought to fulfillment the whole sacrificial system established under the OT law. The burnt offerings & the animal sacrifices described there, were all meant to be a foreshadowing of the final sacrifice made once and for all by Christ himself: the Lamb slain for the sins of the world.
And so if Christ completely fulfilled the law in this way, the next logical question then is: "What now is our rel'ship as Christians to the OT law?" And I know that this is sometimes a difficult question for us. Let me try to answer it this way:
1st of all we need to understand that if we are in Christ, we are no longer living under the OT law.
“For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” (Rom 6:14)
“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (Gal 5:18)
This means that under the New Covenant established by Jesus, we are no longer obligated to fulfill the requirements of the law ourselves, in order to be declared as righteous before God.
This is the whole point of Paul's letter to the Galatians and many of his other writings
Under the law of Moses, if you obeyed the law you received God's blessing, but if you disobeyed the law, you were under his curse.
It was as simple as that. The problem was that, human nature being what it is, no one was able to live up to the law's strict requirements. And therefore we were all under condemnation of death, & faced eternal separation from God.
But under the New Covenant, Jesus himself has fulfilled all of the law's requirements, by accepting the punishment required by the law & dying in our place. And so now by the grace of God, we are made righteous, not through obedience to the law, but as we receive Christ by faith into our hearts. We are no longer under the law, because we no longer face the judgment and condemnation that comes from breaking the law.
And so Jesus, in establishing his New covenant, has now brought to an end many of the OT regulations, such as the requirement of circumcision, the sacrificial system, the Levitical priesthood, the ceremonial and dietary laws that were so much a part of the OC.
Hebrews 9:10 tells us that these regulations “are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings-- external regulations applying until the time of the new order.” They were meant to be a type or a shadow pointing towards Jesus, who became the Passover lamb. And by fulfilling the law, He did away with the need for all these other rules and regulations
Now some of you may then ask, “If that is the case, what does Jesus mean in here in Matthew 5:19:
“Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Doesn’t this mean that we are still required to follow all of the regulations set out in the OT law? Well if that is the case, then Jesus is contradicting here what all of the other NT writers clearly teach, which is that many of the OT regulations, especially the sacrificial and ceremonial and dietary laws, are no longer in force under the NC.
If you believe that scripture is consistent and doesn’t contradict itself, then Jesus must have something else in mind here.
And I believe the key to understanding Jesus words in v 19, is to read them in the context of what he says in the very next verse:
“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
You see for the Pharisees, attaining righteousness simply meant adhering to the 613 regulations found in the Torah: no more, no less. But for Jesus, true obedience to the law meant much more than simply conforming to the external demands of the law. Obedience is something that happens first in our hearts. And so where they were primarily concerned with outward appearance, Jesus was more concerned about the inner obedience of the heart.
And, as we will see as we continue on in the SotM, Jesus is now radically redefining what it means to be obedient, not to the external letter of the law, but to the true spirit of the law. The rest of chap 5, Jesus gives 6 concrete examples of how this inner obedience of the heart, goes much deeper than the outward conformity to the law that the Pharisees & the teachers of the law practiced.
Make no mistake: Jesus expects his followers to live in obedience to him, completely surrendering ot him as Lord of our lives. But the difference is in our motivation in doing so. As those who have experienced God's grace & forgiveness, we no longer obey God out of fear, that we will be condemned if we break the law.
"There is no condemnation for those who are in CJ".
But instead, it is the grace of God that now enables us to live in obedience to his will. Because it is my experience of God's grace that brings me to love him, & if I truly love him, then I will desire to obey him. “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15)
In fact, God now expects a deeper obedience from those who have received his grace, and that’s what we will be looking at as we continue to work our way through the SotM.
But as we close this morning, I want to highlight 2 things, as we think about the OT law & what it means for us today:
1. The OT law was never meant to be an end in itself, it was always intended to point the way to Jesus, the One who fulfills and completes the Law. The ultimate purpose of the law is to lead us to Christ.
Because when we come to see our own complete inability to live up to the law's demands, we have no other choice then, but to come to God on the basis of Christ having fulfilled the law for us, & receive the grace & mercy offered to us.
2. It is only as we experience the grace of God, as we receive a new heart & a new attitude, that we are then able to learn to love God's law & to truly obey it. It is only as we receive his Holy Spirit, that he can empower us to walk according to his word.
True obedience comes from a heart that is right before God, that is empowered by his Spirit. May God grant us in the coming days & weeks a heart to love and obey him, as we seek to follow Hiim