Matthew 5:17-20 — The Old Testament Law & Jesus Christ — It’s Not Either, Or — It’s a Both Thing!

Posted: October 2, 2015 in Gospel of Matthew

Matthew 5:17-20
The Fulfillment of the Law
In continuing the Sermon on the Mount at Matthew 5: 17-20, Jesus says, “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. 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. 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. 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.” Whoa! What a powerful statement for the time in which Jesus was on earth as well such a powerful statement for today. Many Christians and particularly non-believers want to ignore the law altogether. Many want to forget the Old Testament exists, specifically the Old Testament law. Many confuse Paul’s New Testament comments that we are no longer under the law with the fact that Paul was really saying that we are no longer under the penalty of the law through Jesus Christ. So, Jesus’ comments here are in contrast to our new age sensibilities about the Bible – the trend of only accepting the parts that we agree with. Jesus says, “Hold on a minute!”

Jesus is saying three things in this section of Scripture. First, he is saying that the Old Testament is still valid through his fulfillment of its law and its prophecies. Second, the commands of the Old Testament are to be practiced and taught. And third, that the “laws of the prophets”, the Old Testament, requires perfection of us. From this, we see that the Bible is cohesive throughout and that Jesus ties it all together and that it is only through him that we have any chance to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

First, in this section of Scripture, Jesus says, ““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.” Jesus makes it clear here that He is not some anti-establishment rebel who wants to overthrow everything that came before Him. He is here to complete and improve what has already been established. He through his teachings reminds us that what has been established was intended to be good but that He has come to remind us that it should be better. This statement also indicates to the Jewish establishment that Jesus is not here to get rid of Judaism but rather to fulfill the purpose of the Jews being God’s chosen people. They were chosen because it is from them that the Messiah would rise. Jesus is saying, I am that guy! Jesus was a very Jewish guy! Remember him weeping as he saw Jerusalem in the distance. His sadness was from what the Jews had become – observers of the letter of the law but not its spirit. He wanted more from his chosen people and it saddened him. Jesus is saying here that the law is still valid and that everything that came before him was pointing to him. He IS the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. He is not a departure from all that came before him but the completion of it.

Then, Jesus says, “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.” Jesus, with this statement, makes it clear that he is not here to tear down the established Jewish religious system. He is here to (1) in the immediate sense, get the Jewish people and particularly its religious establishment, to realize what the Law and the prophecies were all about. And, in that same vein, he speaks to all of us Christians throughout the ages that it’s not about appearances. It’s about keeping the commands of God because it is in our heart to please Him. Jesus wants us to understand that being a follower of Jesus doesn’t mean that it’s all free-form, do what ya feel. It’s not relativism where what’s good for me may not be good for you but I will support your doing what’s good for you even if it’s not good for me. Being a follower of Jesus means that we combine the wonderful past of the Old Testament with the promise of the New Coventant as revealed in Jesus as testified in the New Testament. It means that the Old Testament points to him and by his life, his teachings, his death, his resurrection, and his return he completes the Old Testament—he makes it happen, he brings it into reality. Jesus is not setting it aside and starting over with something different. He’s finishing the incomplete masterpiece that was begun in the Old Testament. Basically, he’s using two expressions to say that no part of the Old Testament, no matter how small, no part can be set aside without being fulfilled, as it is being fulfilled right now in the life and teachings of Christ.

Next, Jesus says, “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. 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.” Lewis B. Bell III explains this well in his sermon series, “The Kingdom Code”. He says in Lesson 1 that “What Jesus is saying here is that the one who is really fulfilling his role as a citizen of God’s kingdom is one who follows God’s commands and teaches others to do so too. They will be recognized as the great ones in the kingdom. The Pharisees were theological conservatives. They believed God. They believed his word. They wanted to live lives that demonstrated their devotion to God. So they were very careful about their behavior. They went to great extremes to make sure they were not disobeying God’s law. To the people of the day, there was no one more righteous than the Pharisees. But Jesus says, “If you aren’t better than them—the most righteous people you know—then, in essence, what that means is that no one is good enough to enter the kingdom of heaven. How good is good enough? Perfect. 100%. Better than you are. More righteousness than you have. Even the most righteous people are not qualified to enter the kingdom. If you’re thinking that when you’re standing at the entrance to heaven, you’ll be hoping that you’ve been good enough to get in, then Jesus says here in these verses that you’re in for a big disappointment. No matter how good you are, it’s not good enough. That leaves us all in a tough spot. It means that no one is qualified to enter God’s kingdom. The only way that we qualify is through placing our trust in Jesus as the Savior of our soul.

That is the point of the law. It is to point us for our need for Jesus. Without the law, we do not know of our need for Jesus. Without the indictment of our souls, we are not in need of a Savior. Without the law, Jesus is a take it or leave it kind of thing. Without the Law, we can make Jesus into just a really nice guy. Without the law, we can make Him one of many options. Without the law, we can make Him into a self-help guru. We can make Him into a great philosopher and a radical rebel against the establishment. With the law, we are convicted of our inability to keep it. The law requires perfection from us. It requires a perfection of us that we do not have in us because of our sin nature inherited generation to generation all the way back to Adam. It is only through the perfection of Jesus Christ that we have a chance. He was the only one who was perfect. He was the only one who kept the 100% of the time throughout 100% of His earthly life. That is why His sacrifice on the cross was the completion of the Old Testament sacrificial system. He was the perfect and complete sacrifice. He was perfection. He lived perfection. And He accepted His mission as being our substitute for the entire wrath of God for all sin for all time on the cross. He took our penalty. We are free from the penalty. Through accepting Jesus Christ into our heart as the Lord over our lives and the Savior of our souls, then (and only then) we become blameless and spotless before the God and through his intercession do we qualify for entrance into the Kingdom.

So, what does all this mean for our daily lives? First, we must recognize that the Old Testament is still valid to us. It reveals the character of God and the righteous heart will keep the commands of the Old Testament as pleasing to God. We do not disregard it. Timothy said in 2 Timothy that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Notice it says all scripture not some but all! Also, 1 John 5:3 says, “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.” This section of Scripture also reminds us that we are to be genuine in our pursuit of righteousness that we strive for. Otherwise, it IS burdensome and just for show. Through keeping God’s commands as established in the Old Testament in a manner that is genuine, it will then lead us to realize how desperately that we need Jesus Christ as our Savior so that we can stand before God on our judgment day without blame or blemish.

But what about all that old ceremonial law? Certainly, we are not expected to observe all those weird things today. Yes, you are right, we cannot in a modern, mostly urban society execute those laws in the same specific way as was required of a nomadic, agrarian society but that does not take away from the spirit of those laws. Those laws were about having reverence for God in worship and not taking worship of Him lightly. That has not gone away. Coming before a perfect and holy God should be something that we do not take lightly today. We are to worship God in preparation. We are to prepare our hearts to worship God. Worshiping God is a daily thing. It is a thoughtful thing. It is not just a checklist thing that you do not even put your mind too. It is not I go to church on Sunday cause it’s a Southern thing that you must do. No, you worship God reverently and daily. He is holy and He is mighty. Let us treat God with the reverence that the ceremonial parts of the law calls for.

But what about the civil laws? Sure there was some stuff there that is strange to us today because of how radically different urban life is to the much simpler culture of that day. However, again, as with all Scripture, we must see the law in light of the context it was given to its original audience and find out what that meant to them. Then, we take that meaning and apply it to our lives today. So, too, with the civil laws of the Old Testament, we must look at their intent singly and as a whole. We do not throw away God’s law because it was written in a different and seems odd and weird to us. We learn from what it mean to the people then and apply those lessons to our lives today. So, the spirit of the civil law of the Old Testament lives on today.

But what about the moral laws? That’s the easiest thing to say, yes, that it still applies. The moral aspects of the law is straightforward and easy to understand. Yes, they definitely still apply. But you know, we still have to go with the spirit of the law here too, not just the letter of it. Jesus said so Himself. For example, the command is not to murder, but we are called to not just that behavior but rather also to not let our relationships get to the point where murder is even a consideration. The command is not to commit adultery (and by implication, all sexual sin) but rather we are also called to not get to the point that the physical act of committing sexual sin is a decision that we have to make. Jesus says sexual sin begins long before the act takes place. Again, the spirit of the law is as important as any of the odd specifics.

The law has not gone away. Not one iota of it. Let us not get caught up in the specifics of the law and learn what the spirit of the law is calling us to do in our day. Let us remember too that the law’s purpose is not to give us rules and things to avoid, it is to call us to our knees because of our inability to keep the spirit and nature of the law 100% of our lives 100% of the time. It calls us to our need for Jesus. It calls us to our knees in humbleness before a perfect and righteous judge who should and rightfully could condemn to hell unless we call on the name of Jesus Christ as Savior!

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