Read Matthew 5:18-25
As we approach Christmas, we are asking: Why did Jesus come? In a number of places the scriptures tell us explicitly that Jesus came for such-and-such a reason.
Today’s statement comes from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said,
Matt 5:17-18 17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil 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.
“The Law and the Prophets” was a way to refer to the Old Testament scriptures and all that they contain. The Law: the Ten Commandments plus the huge number of other commandments. The Prophets: the numerous prophecies of the Messiah but also the constant calls for the people to turn back to God and to do what the law required.
Here’s the question: What are we to make of the Old Testament now? Has Jesus’ coming changed the situation or does it all still apply? What about all those laws; are we obliged to still keep them?
Here is the first half of the answer. Jesus clearly had the highest regard for the Old Testament. He said, “Until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will disappear from the law. Hebrew is made up of lots of little squiggles and dots and strokes – little details. This is the Hebrew of Joshua 1:1. It is made up of the letters surrounded by dots and dashes (called “Pointing”). Here are the letters and the pointings. But Jesus says every last dot; every minor detail, remains.
He went further, “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 practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Even the least important command remains in force. Don’t break it and don’t teach others to ignore it. Break even the least important and you have broken the law.
This is a bit of a worry isn’t it? Do we have to obey every last little detailed law from the Old Testament?
Matthew 5:20 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.
That’s a bit scary too. The Pharisees were punctilious! They were fastidious about obeying the law. They went to great lengths to ensure that they couldn’t possibly, even accidentally, break any aspect of the law. And we have to be more righteous than they? Really? How many people here are that focused on obeying every single aspect of the law? Well then, Jesus says you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven!
Then Jesus talked about murder. “The Law of Moses says ‘Do not murder or you will be judged’ but I say to you if you are angry with someone, you will be judged. If you call someone a rude name you will be brought before the courts. If you call someone a fool, you are in danger of the fires of hell.”
This is all bad news, is it not? The Law remains. It requires detailed obedience.
Then Jesus said, “The law says ‘Do not commit adultery’. I say that if you have looked at a woman lustfully, you have committed adultery in your heart. If you eye causes you to sin, gauge it out. Take this very, very seriously. It is better to lose an eye than to enter hell whole.”
When Jesus said He hadn’t come to abolish the Law, He meant the Law stands! Every last detail stands! This is what God requires. Break it at your peril! Jesus said the Law is right and good! In fact, He strengthened it. It doesn’t involve just the physical acts, it includes the motivations of the heart.
Who can possibly live up to this standard? Who can possibly enter God’s Kingdom? The Law stands and Jesus raises the bar even higher. He did not come to abolish the Law. This is God’s Law. This is what God requires. Every last detail will remain in place until the end of the world.
However – and this is the second half of the answer – Jesus also said that He had come to fulfil the Law and the Prophets. There are two main things that means.
- The whole of the Old Testament looked towards Jesus
Do you remember the incident on the road to Emmaus, on the day of the resurrection? Two disciples trudged along, dispirited because they had thought that Jesus was to be the Messiah but He had been killed. Then Jesus joined them and walked with them but they didn’t recognise Him. Luke says “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” “Moses and the Prophets” is the same as “the Law and the Prophets”. Jesus went through the Old Testament scriptures showing that they were about Him.
Or, another example:
John 5:39, 46 39 You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me… 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.
The Old Testament is about Jesus. All of it is about Jesus. Even Moses wrote about Jesus.
How is the Old Testament about Jesus? Think of the prophecies. So many of them pointed to the Messiah. Jesus fulfilled all of those prophecies (or will fulfil those that are still in the future.) Often in the gospels we read something like, “This happened to fulfil what had been written by the prophets.”
Think of all the things that were kind of shadows of Jesus. The animal sacrifices were a kind of temporary strategy in place only until the real sacrifice would be made – Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The system of priests was in place only until Jesus came as the true Priest. All of those provisions were really waiting for Jesus, waiting for the fulfilment.
We have all sorts of pictures of Jesus in the Old Testament. Abraham sacrificing his only son is a picture pointing forward to God sacrificing His Son. The exile from Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land is a picture of the Christian’s deliverance from the slavery to sin and living a new life. The Passover Lamb was a picture of Jesus, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, Who was also sacrificed during the Passover feast. There are all sorts of pictures of Jesus in the Old Testament that are hints of the reality that was to come. They were just hints. Jesus was the fulfilment. The whole of the Old Testament came into focus in Jesus.
Jesus didn’t abolish it; He fulfilled it! But perhaps the more important answer in this context is that…
- Jesus kept the Law in every detail
This is what makes all the difference for us. Jesus fulfilled the Law in that He did everything required of Him by the Law. He fulfilled its requirements. He was completely obedient to His Father.
Hebrews 4:15 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.
Philippians 2:8 says that Jesus was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus wrestled with the prospect of death. He didn’t want to die. He pleaded with His Father not to have to die but He balanced that by saying “Yet, not my will but Yours be done.” Even death was not enough to cause Jesus to be disobedient. He was obedient to the nth degree.
In that way, He fulfilled the Law.
Here is the good news: the demands of the Law have been met. Ultimately, God’s Law requires death. The wages of sin is death. Rebellion against God is a crime punishable by death. But even that requirement of the Law has been met. Jesus died. The Law has been fulfilled.
Imagine that you were convicted of a crime and ordered to pay a fine. When you go to pay it, the clerk looks through his big book of debtors but when he comes to your name it says, “Paid”. You, being an honest person and wanting to fulfil your obligations to society, keep trying to pay but he says, “No, it has been paid. You cannot pay a fine twice. Once it is paid, it is paid.” The demands of the Law have been fulfilled on our behalf. Jesus has paid on our behalf. It hasn’t been abolished but it has been fulfilled.
Is this clear? Jesus fulfilled the Law when He met its demands on our behalf. That means that the Law no longer can demand anything of us? The power of the Law over us is brought to an end.
So, is everybody in the world now forgiven and free? Jesus died for everybody but we receive forgiveness when we believe and we repent – we believe that He died for us and therefore we don’t need to die and we choose to live God’s way not our own.
So, our question was: What is the status of the Old Testament now that Jesus has come? Is the Law still in effect? It depends whether you are a Christian or not. For the Christian, Jesus fulfilled the Law and thus brought it to an end. The requirements of the Law have been satisfied. The account is closed. You cannot pay it again. The Law cannot ask for any more. It is finished. Christians are no longer under the Law.
But that applies to those who have put their faith in Jesus.
For those who aren’t Christians, the Law still sets out God’s requirements. The Law still applies. Jesus didn’t abolish it. He upheld it and strengthened it. It will remain unchanged until the end of the world. Anyone who takes it seriously realises that it is a heavy obligation – all those requirements; a righteousness even greater than that of the Pharisees; punctiliousness; perfection. The Law is just too demanding. And so what the Law does is that it makes us aware of our failure and it points us to Jesus. It still applies. Not one detail will disappear, but it has a very positive effect if it makes us realise we are without hope of ever fulfilling it and it points us to Jesus who has fulfilled it on our behalf.
Remember what Jesus said we have to have a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees? The Pharisees were punctilious. They were right up there but they could never meet all of the demands of God’s holiness. On various occasions Jesus pointed out to them how far short they were falling. They simply could never do it.
But for the person who is in Christ, the Law has been fulfilled completely. Jesus took our sin and we receive Christ’s righteousness. We receive the righteousness of Jesus. That is far greater than the righteousness of the Pharisees. We can’t do it but Christ has done it for us.
Last week we said that Jesus came was to save sinners. That is the really big reason. This one is closely related to that big one. He didn’t abolish God’s Law but He saves us by fulfilling that Law.