This week we are jumping right back into the middle of a section where Jesus is addressing how He and His ministry relate to the Law and the Prophets. We spent our entire time on this last week and we discovered that Jesus did not come to abolish the law and the prophets but rather He came to fulfill them. He didn’t come to throw down the law but to uphold it, to teach us the true and deeper meaning of it, to fulfill its prophecies and to execute its demands with perfect obedience.
So, If Jesus came to fulfill the law and to establish a new covenant community upon His fulfillment, then what does that mean for the citizens of this new community? If Christ came to fulfill the law then in what way does the law affect my life as a believer?
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.
I. The Permanence of the Law (v. 18)
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.
First, I want us to recognize the significance of the phrase, “Truly I say to you.” Jesus uses this phrase all the time and when He does He is drawing our attention to His authority as a teacher. Do you remember the phrase that the Old Testament prophets used? When they spoke a word of prophecy to the people they would introduce it with the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord” and this drew attention to the fact that they weren’t speaking on their own authority, but they were speaking on the authority of God. God was speaking through them.
But Jesus uses a different phrase, “Truly, I say to you…” He is speaking on His own authority as the Son of God. He uses this phrase 28 times in Matthew, 25 times in John, 19 times in Luke and Mark combined; and each time He is asserting Himself as a faithful witness to the truth of God because He is God in the flesh. He doesn’t simply speak for God, He speaks as God. It seems like a subtle thing but in the overall picture, Jesus is declaring to us the very Word of the Lord.
But what does the Son of God say to us about the Law in this verse? He is stressing the fact that the law of God is permanent and that it will not be brought to an end until heaven and earth are brought to an end.
“Until Heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass…”
Now what does this mean? The passing away of Heaven and earth represents the end of time as we know it. It is a reference to the time to come when Christ will return to this earth to judge the world and when He comes it will set off what the Scriptures call, The Great Day of the Lord.
2 Peter 3:10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
On that day, Jesus will return to judge and to make war. Heaven will open and Christ will come forth on the white war horse of Heaven and He will come to “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (Rev 19:11f).” On that day Christ will step into His role as Conqueror and He will Captain the armies of Heaven to bring judgment upon Satan and the sin of mankind.
Now, that day has not yet come and until it does, Jesus wants us to know that the Law of God will stand. Not even the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until that day until all is accomplished.
But that brings up another question: If Jesus has come to fulfill the law (V. 17) then how is it still functioning? What part does it still play in our lives today?
Remember last week when we talked about the 3 parts of the law (Judicial, Ceremonial and Moral)? The Judicial law that governed Israel as a nation has been set aside. Israel rejected and crucified her Messiah, the temple was destroyed and the nation under God’s Old Covenant came to an end. In that sense, Jesus’ coming fulfilled that portion of the law.
The Ceremonial law that governed Israel’s worship has also been fulfilled and brought to an end. Christ was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices and to make this fulfillment clear, the temple of God, where the sacrifices were made, was destroyed in 70 AD. When Christ was upon the cross the veil of the temple was torn in two which means that by His sacrifice all who believe in Him have access to God in the Spirit. Jesus fulfilled the Ceremonial law.
But what about the Moral law the 10 Commandments? Jesus fulfilled the Moral law, not by adding to it or even by simplifying it, but by keeping it. Jesus fully obeyed the moral law of God and when we turn from our sin and receive Christ, the righteousness He earned through obedience to God’s law is credited to our account before God.
We call this Justification, an act of God’s grace where He pardons our sin and accepts us as righteous in His sight, not based on the works we do, but based on the perfect obedience of Christ that is credited to us by faith.
2 Cor 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
But Christ has done more than to obey the law for us. As Christians, we are no longer under the penalty of the law but we are still guided by the law in our pursuit of righteousness. The moral law of God still functions in our lives, not to condemn us for our sins, but to direct us in our obedience to Christ.
Now, we love to talk about how the law cannot save us and that it was never intended to save us. We are bold in our rejection of salvation by works and of the legalism that reminds us of the Pharisees, and we are right to do both. But from these verses Jesus wants us to learn that the moral law of God still has a purpose in our lives today.
One of the reasons that we know this to be true is from the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. In this Sermon, Jesus is giving us a deeper explanation of the 10 Commandments or the moral law. He teaches us to reject the corrupt teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees and then He expounds on them to give us the true and deeper meaning of each one. Jesus wants us to know that the law is permanently bound to heaven and earth but He also wants us to know the role of the commandments within His Kingdom.
II. The Commandments and the Kingdom (V. 19)
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.
Notice the shift in Jesus’ language from the term law to commandments and that it is not subtle at all. I think this is a shift from the law in a general sense to a more specific focus on the 10 commandments or the moral law. Also, notice the term therefore at the beginning of verse 19. It is there to show that there is a connection between the law of God and the Kingdom of God.
Follow the logic of these verses with me…Because Jesus has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and because not a single stroke of the law will pass away until all is accomplished, therefore greatness in the Kingdom of God is going to in some way be measured by our faithfulness to the law. If we relax the law because of God’s grace then we will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven.
For many of us this can be confusing. We know that we are not saved by our keeping of the law but rather that we are saved by believing the gospel and within reformed theology (Lutheran theology) there is often a sharp distinction made between the law and the gospel. In Luther’s view, there should be no law in the gospel and no gospel in the law but on this point, I don’t think Luther was right.
We do need to be careful not to confuse God’s moral demands with His saving grace, but I think it is more faithful to Scripture to understand that the law is a gift of God’s grace intended to function in our lives in very particular ways.
First, the law has a civil function within society in that it serves to limit and restrain evil (Roman 13:3-4). Second, the law has an evangelical function in that it shows us our sin and drives us to Christ (Gal 3:10). Third, the law functions to guide us as believers to know the will of God and to live a faithful Christian life.
I John 2: 3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
In His book, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, Puritan Samuel Bolton wrote:
The law is abolished as a covenant for our justification, but it remains a rule for obedience. We are not under the curses, but we are under the commands of it. We are not under the law for justice, but we are under the law for conduct. The law no longer has the power to condemn us, but it still has the power to humble us and to build us up for our greater good.
As we continue to study this SotM, Jesus is going to help us understand how we obey the law from the heart. He is going to teach us how to grow to be more like Him. He is going to show us how to be doers of the Word as well as hearers.
Now, look back to verse 19, where I want you to see that there is a connection between the word “abolish” and the term “relax.” The root word in both of these is the idea of casting something aside or throwing it down. And since Jesus has not come to cast the law aside and neither shall we, His disciples. If we relax or cast aside the law then we aren’t treating the law the way Jesus did and Jesus gives some really strong warnings about this.
Matt 18: 1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin (break the moral law), it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
Jesus is not soft on the law. He is completely opposed to the legalism of the Pharisees but He is equally opposed to the type of antinomianism that would relax the law of God or seek to overthrow it altogether.
What does it mean to be called least in the Kingdom? If we relax one of God’s laws it’s like we are saying that this law really doesn’t matter. We are treating it like it is the smallest of the laws and Jesus says that our title in the Kingdom will be, “Really doesn’t matter.” Our status in the Kingdom of Christ will be consistent with the status we gave to the law in our lives and in our teaching.
But if we learn the proper purpose and value of the law and we are faithful to teach it and to do it, then we will have an honorable name in the Kingdom. Our name will be Megas or Great.
First, Jesus wants us to know that the law is permanent. Second, He wants us to understand that the law of God still functions within His Kingdom. Finally, He wants us to know that our obedience to the law had better be greater than that of the Scribes and Pharisees.
III. The Christian and the Law (v. 20)
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
It’s no secret that Jesus didn’t get along with the Scribes and Pharisees and a huge part of their disagreement had to do with the law. Jesus rebuked them over and over for their corruption of the law, for the fact that they added to the law and even made their human traditions more important than the law of God.
They were supposed to be experts in the law and the Jews had a saying, “If only two people go to heaven, one will be a scribe and the other a Pharisee.” They were revered in their day for their thorough knowledge of the law and for their rigorous adherence to it, but there were some big problems with their views on the law.
Their law was entirely external –
Matt 23:25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
They were only concerned with external conformity and not to the real heart change that Jesus came to bring. They didn’t care about their motives or the condition of their heart. Which means that they could lust all they wanted so long as they didn’t act on it. They could hate all they wanted as long as they didn’t go through with an act of murder.
They thought that external obedience was enough to earn the righteousness of God and by believing this they reckoned that God’s holiness was cheap. But Jesus teaches us that God looks on the heart and that true religion flows from a new heart.
Their law was hypocritical –
Matt 23: 27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
8 different times in Matthew, Jesus directly calls them hypocrites. Their religion was nothing but an act, a hypocritical external wrapping that hid the reality of spiritual death. Of course, they couldn’t see that this was true. They believed that they were right and so they kept spreading their teaching as far as they could and the result was that they were actually spreading falsehood, not truth.
Their law was a Corruption of God’s Word –
These guys were serious about the law, so serious that they gradually added their own interpretations to the law in order to expand on it. Instead of the 10 commandments that God gave on Mt. Sinai, they expanded the law to contain 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions. Let me give you an example of how they corrupted the law of God.
Take the Sabbath. What began as a command to rest from your work and enjoy the provision of God became an absurd attempt to regulate everything from how far you could walk to how much you could carry in your pockets. Here is a list of rules on the Sabbath from a section of the Talmud called the Mishna; and remember, according to the Pharisees and Scribes your entry into heaven depends on this.
You could travel no more than 3,000 feet from home. Unless on Friday before the Sabbath you had planted food at the 3,000 foot point and then you could go 3,000 more because you constituted that point as a home because your food was there. Now if you lived down a long narrow street and you might have been a few hundred feet down from the end of the street or the end of the alley, you could take a piece of wood and put it across the end of the street or alley or you could take a piece of rope and put it across the end of the alley, or you could take a piece of wire and string it across the end of the alley and that would, in the eyes of God, turn it into a doorway and you could consider that the front door of your house so you could go 3,000 feet from there.
You couldn't carry anything on your person that weighed more than a dried fig. But you could carry half a fig two times on the Sabbath.
You couldn't eat any forbidden food larger than an olive. And if you put an olive in your mouth and spit it out because it was bad, the Talmud said you couldn't replace it with a good one because your palate had tasted the flavor of the first one.
If you threw an object in the air, you could catch it with the hand that you threw it with, but if you caught it with the other hand, it was sin because there's less work in doing that than...that.
If you were in one place and your arm stretched to reach for food and the Sabbath overtook you, you had to drop the food rather than bring back your arm or you had carried the burden and sinned.
A tailor couldn't carry his needle. A scribe couldn't carry his pen. A pupil couldn't carry his books. No fire could be lit. No fire could be put out. Cold water could be poured on warm, but warm couldn't be poured on cold. An egg couldn't be boiled even if you buried it in the hot sand, which is how they would boil an egg in the desert. You couldn't take a bath for fear that the water would flow off you and wash the floor. You couldn't move a chair since it might make a rut and that would be too much like plowing. Women could not look in a mirror or put on any jewelry. If she were to find a white hair, she had to resist the temptation to pull it out.
And the list goes on and on for 24 chapters. Today if you go into Jerusalem on the Sabbath you will encounter something called the Shabat elevator which is an elevator that automatically goes up and down stopping on every floor so that Jews will not break the Sabbath by pushing the button. What started as a gracious command of God has been corrupted and turned into a terrifying day where the slightest mishap might doom you to Hell.
Remember that Jesus said that our righteousness must exceed theirs if we hope to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Does this mean that we must keep all of the 240 commandments and 365 prohibitions? No! Christian righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees in type not in degree. The righteousness that is pleasing to God is the inward righteousness that begins in the heart and then faithfully seeks to live out the law in life.
We call this sanctification and it is an ongoing work of God’s grace where God’s people are, over the course of their lives, transformed more and more into the image of Christ. God enables us by His Spirit and His Word to grow in faithfulness more and more and to turn from sin more and more. This process starts when we are born again and it continues throughout our lives as a fulfillment of the promise that God made in Ezekiel 37.
Eze 37:26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
If you are a born-again believer in Christ then you have the Spirit of God within you, but that doesn’t mean that you can dispense with the law, because the work of the Spirit is to give us new hearts, to write God’s law on those new hearts, and to enable us to walk in obedience to God.
Jesus is not interested in empty, superficial, hypocritical religious practice. Religion is a word that has the ability to conjure up both positive and negative ideas when it is used. The term religion, when used in a negative sense, refers to the empty religious rituals and formalities that are devised by man and are sadly so prevalent in the church. Behind the negative use of the term is the belief that religious practices are sufficient for us to earn the favor of God. Religion says, “I obey the rules so that God will accept me” and when this idea is full blown it teaches people that in order to be saved we must simply keep all the rules.
But this is a lie and this is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel says that “God accepts me on the basis of Jesus ‘works and in response to this grace, I obey (Eph 2:8-10).”
Here in the Sermon on the Mount we see Jesus does not give us a new law but boldly claims that He has come to fulfill the law and on the cross, that is what He did. But He has also come to faithfully expound on the law that was already given.
The people’s view of the law had been obscured by the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, but Jesus has come to make it clear and to call His disciples to understand it’s ongoing function, not to save us, but to guide us as we follow Him.
 Beeke and Jones A Puritan Theology (Pg. 562).
 List of items extracted from John MacArthur sermon titled Jesus the Divine Truth Teller. This list was originally taken from Alfred Edersheim’s book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah which details the Talmudic traditions of Jesus day.