Throughout the ministry of Jesus there was no shortage of controversies, accusations, questions and even objections to His identity, His message and His mission. At the forefront of most of these controversies stood two religious groups, the Pharisees and the Scribes.
The Pharisees were the separatists and they were called this because their specific observance of the Law of Moses separated them from the mainstream religious teachers. They were the religious fundamentalists of their day who sought to practice their brand of religion in a very particular and demanding way. But the real force behind the Pharisees were the Scribes
The Scribes were the leading experts in the law of Moses. They were the legal scholars who wrote the books and the Pharisees took their teaching and put it into practice. These two groups were among the most influential religious leaders in Jesus’ day and from the very beginning of our Lord’s ministry He had their attention.
Why? Because, by all accounts Jesus was an unusual man. Ok, maybe Jesus wasn’t as unusual as John the Baptist who lived in the woods and ate bugs; but Jesus stood out for other reasons. The first thirty years of His life were mostly private. His mother and father would have remembered the miraculous events surrounding His birth, but it’s unlikely they shared any of that with others until much later. He grew up in Nazareth as the son of a carpenter but when He came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, that’s when things changed.
At that point, He began to teach but He had not been formally trained. He had no formal education. He also didn’t join the Scribes, Pharisees or Sadducees, which was very unusual for that day; He was unaffiliated at a time when affiliations were key. He did not come into His position as a teacher in the customary way. Normally, a person would go through an education process, then they would become a disciple to a well-known rabbi and somewhere down the road they might get their start. Jesus skipped that whole process and instead began teaching in the synagogues and in the marketplaces, all on His own.
He was calling disciples to follow Him. He was training them on an understanding of the Kingdom of God that no one had ever heard before. He knew the Scriptures, better than anyone else, but He interpreted them on His own which wasn’t common for that day. Most teachers relied on the oral tradition of old rabbi’s known today as the Talmud, but Jesus relied on no authority but His own. This made people very suspicious of Him.
Then there was the fact that He was healing people, casting demons out of people, and telling people that their sins were forgiven. The stories of His works were spreading all over the place and causing people to try and learn more about Him. When they got close to Him they realized something else that was a bit concerning. He spent most of His time with the kind of people that other religious groups had a tendency to reject.
Jesus had called a group of uneducated laborers to be His disciples. His disciples consisted of fisherman and even a tax-collector (Matthew). Then when He wasn’t teaching He was spending His time with social outcasts. His audiences consisted of the crippled, sick and poor; even those known to be living in sin. He ate with tax-collectors and even went to parties in their houses. His larger group of disciples consisted of a few former prostitutes who contributed money to His ministry. He spent most of His time teaching the gospel and the Kingdom of God to societies prodigals.
This last bit alone was enough to make the religious people of that day stand up and take notice. But it also caused them to wonder about Jesus’s view on certain things like the law. Did He believe the Old Testament? Did He follow the law of Moses? Did He come to do away with the traditions of the elders? These were the questions on people’s minds and here in Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus is going to address those questions head-on.
And these questions are important for us today as well. How has Jesus’ ministry affected our relationship to the law of God? What role does the law play in the lives of those who follow Jesus? Let’s see what Jesus has to say about it.
Matt 5:17 “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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Up to this point Jesus has been declaring to us the character of His kingdom in the beatitudes. Then He talked to us about how the world was going to react to His kingdom with persecutions and how we should respond. Last week, we looked at the influence that Jesus’ Kingdom is to have in the world. But today we are going to learn what is the relationship of Christ’s Kingdom to the law of God? What role does righteousness play in the Christian life?
I want to break this up into two parts: I. Jesus and the law and II. The Christian and the law.
I. Christ and the Law (v. 17-18)
Matt 5:17 “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.
Notice that the way Jesus begins this statement suggests that He is responding to a common concern about Him. The people are talking and forming their opinions but Jesus comes right out and says, “Don’t believe what you are hearing. Don’t think that I have come to abolish the law or the Prophets…” Now, that phrase “law or the prophets” is important and it is referring to basically the whole of the Old Testament.
Jesus upholds the law…
The use of the term law generally refers to the writings of Moses but more specifically it refers to the law of God that was given through Moses. This is a reference to the 10 Commandments or the Moral law. We also understand that this phrase would cover the other aspects of the law, like the Judicial law which contains the specific laws that governed Israel as a nation. This also included the Ceremonial law that dealt with the sacrifices and rituals that governed Israel’s worship.
The reference to the prophets would include all the prophetic books in the OT. In other words, Jesus is affirming his commitment to all of the Old Testament. The people were wondering of Jesus was going to try to do away with the law and the prophets, but He makes clear that He has no intention of abolishing God’s Word. In fact, He will take better care of God’s Word than Moses did
There is something interesting about Jesus’ use of the term abolish. It can be translated as “throw down” or “to turn loose” and I think this is a subtle reference to Moses. When God gave Moses the 10 Commandments He carved the words by His own finger on two stone tablets and then gave them to Moses.
Moses then took those tablets down the mountain and when he came to the bottom he saw God’s people worshipping a golden calf. When Moses saw their sin, he became angry and threw the tablets down onto the ground. At the sight of the people’s sin Moses threw down the law and at the sight of the people’s sin Jesus fulfilled the law on their behalf. Jesus is saying I have no intentions of throwing down the law. Jesus is saying that He will take even better care of the law than did Moses.
Jesus reveals the depth of the law…
Jesus doesn’t abolish the law, instead He reveals a depth to the law that the Pharisees and Scribes never dreamed of and that is saying something. The Pharisees and Scribes were supposed to be the experts in the law. They knew it front and back, they followed it with painful accuracy and they taught the people how to follow it as well…but their whole view of righteousness and the law was flawed.
Their view of righteousness and the law is illustrated in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18. In the parable, the Pharisees are described as those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. They looked at the law and assumed that by following it they could earn the righteousness needed to be at peace with God. In other words, they believed that through their good works they could earn salvation.
Now, it’s crazy that they believed this because more than 2000 years of Biblical history proved the opposite. Every generation of God’s people have proven that it is impossible for man to achieve the righteousness of God through obedience to the law. Moses himself pointed out at the end of his life that the people weren’t able to obey God in the law because the problem was their corrupt and sinful hearts. The law can’t change the heart.
In time, other prophets would point out the same problem. No man can please God by keeping the law because the heart of man is so corrupt that it is not possible. This is why God promised Ezekiel and Jeremiah that He was going to establish a New Covenant. He was going to send His spirit to change men’s hearts and write God’s law on their hearts. That’s what Jesus has come to do and that is why He can say,
18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
While heaven and earth stand, the law will remain. He hasn’t come to do away with the law and the prophets, He has come to uphold them. This means that the Old Testament is just as true, trustworthy and important for us today as it was to Jesus. This also lets us know the permanence of the law. Jesus’ ministry and His cross have not nullified the law. (we will look at this in more detail next week.)
Jesus fulfills the law…
But let’s go back to what Jesus said in verse 17 that He has come to fulfill the law and the Prophets. This is a huge claim. How do you fulfill the whole of the Old Testament? For starters, He has come to complete the law, to carry it out because, unlike us, Jesus can actually obey the law. His heart hasn’t been corrupted by our sin. He is sinless, tempted in every way that we are but He is without sin.
Jesus has come to carry out everything that is required in the law and everything that has been stated in the prophets.
J. C. Ryle summed it up like this: “The Old Testament is the Gospel in the bud, the New Testament is the Gospel in full flower. The Old Testament is the Gospel in the blade; the New Testament is the Gospel in full ear.”
At the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, just after His resurrection, Jesus came and spent some time with His disciples and on that night, He reminded them of something He told them years earlier.
Luke 24:44 He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,
This might be hard for us to grasp but ultimately, the Bible is not about you and me; it’s about Jesus. The point of all Scripture is to direct us to Jesus as the fulfillment of the law, the perfect atoning sacrifice and the Savior that brings us to God. If we don’t understand this then the Bible will crush us. It will crush us because we might assume that we must fulfill the law in order to be saved. But when we come to understand that the entire Bible is not about us fulfilling the law, but Jesus fulfilling the law for us, that’s when we’ve grasped that the Gospel is Good News.
Jesus is the thread holding the entire Bible together. Jesus is the main theme of all Scripture. He is the hero in all the stories. He is the fulfillment of all the prophecies. He is the substance, the reality behind all the mysteries.
The Bible is not simply a collection of moral stories aimed to help you live a better life so that God will love you and accept you. The Bible is the story of God’s plan to love a people who are completely unlovable. The Bible is the story of How God will draw sinful people into a relationship with Him, into His very family, not because of the wonderful things they do, but because of the wonderful work of Jesus on the cross.
The whole Bible is about Jesus and the work that He accomplished as the Son of God and the Savior of the World. Every promise finds it’s fulfillment in this; that God became a man and humbled himself to the point of death even death on a cross in order to settle our debts in the eyes of the Father. Where imperfect men have failed to rise to the standard of Holiness that God demands, Christ came to succeed
Jesus is the skull crusher from Genesis 3 who has come to put an end to Satan’s reign.
Adam failed in the Garden and his corruption and guilt were credited to us, but Jesus is the true and better Adam who passed the test in the garden and whose obedience is credited to our account.
Abraham obeyed God leaving the comfort and familiarity of home to become the father of God’s people, but Jesus is the true and better Abraham who answered the call of God to leave the glory of Heaven and come down into the brokenness of earth to create a new people of God.
Isaac was the child of promise who was offered up and nearly sacrificed on the altar in obedience to God’s command, but Jesus is the true and better Isaac who was not just offered up by his father on the mount but was truly sacrificed for us.
Jacob wrestled with God and was wounded but Jesus is the true and better Jacob who wrestled and took the blow of Divine justice that we deserved, so we, could receive grace to wake us up and guide our lives.
Jesus is the true and better Joseph who, at the right hand of the king, forgives those who betrayed and sold him and uses his new power to save them.
Jesus is the true and better Moses who stands in the gap between the people and the Lord and who mediates a new covenant.
Jesus is the true and better Job, the truly innocent sufferer, who then intercedes for and saves his stupid friends.
Jesus is the true and better David who did more than win a victory for Israel’s army; He became our victory for all eternity, and we never lifted a stone to accomplish it ourselves.
Jesus is the true and better Jonah who was cast out into the storm so that we could be brought in.
Jesus is the real Passover Lamb, innocent, perfect, helpless, slain so the angel of death will pass over us. He’s the true temple, the true prophet, the true priest, the true king, the true sacrifice, the true lamb, the true light, the true bread.
The Bible’s really not about you—it’s about him.
The overwhelming trajectory of Biblical and world history concerns a movement by God towards man. The Father sent the Son. The Word became flesh. To save us, God did not come in the fullness of His glory, but rather he came in the humility of a man who would be condemned to die as a criminal upon a cross. Jesus hid his glory, shouldered our burden and walked to the cross in our place.
Jesus took the form of a slave. He became one with us, sharing in our limitations, our sorrows and bearing our burdens. He experienced the temptations that we know too well, only he remained sinless to the day of his death. And in his death, he atoned for us, paid the price for our sins and unites us to God.
Then to show that His work was finished and complete, God raised Him from the dead. Jesus Christ lives today never to die again and He holds out the promise that all who trust in Him, who believe in His name, they are given the right to be called the Sons of God.
This is the climax of world history. This is the hinge upon which eternity hangs and this is what Christ has come to do. He hasn’t come to throw down the law, like Moses, in the face of the people’s sin; He has come to uphold the law, to fulfill it so that we can be freed from our sin and truly have peace with God.
The people want to know what Jesus will do with the Law of Moses. They want to know what His coming into the world will mean in light of all that the Prophets have written. They want to know if Jesus has come to tear down the Old or to uphold it. He has actually come to do even more, He has come to fulfill it all.
1. What does God want us to understand/think?
He wants us to understand that Jesus did not come to do away with the law of God. He did not come to remove it from existence, not to remove it completely from our lives. He came to fulfill the law on our behalf. Jesus lived a lived a life of perfect obedience to God and to the moral law. He also perfectly fulfilled the promises made about Him in the prophets. We have all fallen short of God’s glorious standard, but Jesus upheld it and fulfilled in our place.
And this is great news for us. He has become our peace. He has secured our place in Heaven with God. He and He alone has accomplished our redemption.
2. What does God want us to believe?
God wants us to believe that Jesus is focal point and climax of redemptive history. There is salvation in no other name than the name of Jesus. Before Him all heaven and earth will bow down to declare that He is Lord. There is no other prophet, there is no other way, there is no other hope than Jesus. This too is good news!
3. What does God want you to do?
God has supplied what our souls need most, a savior. Have you received Him? Have you confessed your sin to Him and asked for His forgiveness? Have you turned from your sin and surrendered to Him as Lord?
 Adapted from Tim Keller, from class lectures on Preaching Christ in a Post-Modern World.