Read Matthew 5:17-20
I preached on this passage on 8 December 2013 so I thought that today we would just have a test!
Actually, I looked back on that sermon and I don’t think I got it right. When I read this passage again, I thought, “Just a minute! That doesn’t say what I thought it did.” As I have read, I have realised that I had misunderstood it. I am sorry for having misled you. Can I try again?
The big question here is: What is the relevance of the Old Testament – which Jesus refers to here using the phrase “the Law and the Prophets”? And that involves two questions: What does Jesus say about the Old Testament itself? What does Jesus say about the relevance of the Old Testament for Christians?
Most Christians read the New Testament far more than the Old Testament. In fact, some Christians read the Old Testament hardly at all as if it has been superseded by the New Testament. Given that we have the New Testament, how important is the Old? I couldn’t think of a good analogy but it might be something like this: We used to have a paddling pool but now we have a swimming pool that is far bigger and better. In contrast, the paddling pool looks very inadequate and we don’t use it any more.
Other Christians might just see the Old Testament as containing some of the best stories, but little more of value. And the apostle Paul tells us that we are no longer under the Law. It is obsolete. Isn’t it?
But look at what Jesus says! He could hardly have made it any clearer. He has been talking about righteousness – hungering for righteousness, being persecuted because of righteousness. He talked about godly character and godly actions and the impact when godly people lead godly lives. In these verses, he continues to talk about righteousness – a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law; a righteousness linked to obeying the Law contained in the Old Testament.
Is this surprising to you? Isn’t it your understanding that we are saved by grace, not by obeying the Law? But here Jesus says that we will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless our righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees.
This is where I made one of my mistakes when I last preached on this. I said that the greater righteousness that Jesus is talking about here is the righteousness we receive from Him when we put our faith in Him. We receive His perfect righteousness which obviously is greater than the righteousness of the Pharisees. But here Jesus is talking about a righteousness that involves obeying, and teaching others to obey, God’s commands in the Old Testament. Are we really required to obey the Old Testament Law?
Let’s start from the top. What does Jesus think of the Old Testament?
Well, it couldn’t be much clearer. Some people might have been questioning whether Jesus was abolishing the old Law. He healed people on the Sabbath. Did that indicate a disregard for the Law of Moses? He spoke with authority. People asked if this was a new teaching (Mk 1:27). Was the new replacing the old? The Scribes and the Pharisees quoted from the Law or from other authorities, but Jesus often said, “Truly, I tell you…” as if He had an authority that didn’t need the support of other authorities. Was He setting Himself up as an authority opposed to the sacred Law, the word of God?
The rest of Matthew 5 contains six examples of Old Testament teaching that Jesus reinterpreted. It appears that Jesus contradicts what has been taught. “You have heard that it was said… but I tell you….” So was Jesus contradicting the Law? Was He bringing it to an end?
His answer? “Absolutely not! I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. They will remain unchanged – not a single dot will disappear – until the end of time.”
There is no ambiguity there. Jesus holds the OT in the highest regard. This is the word of God. He is not abolishing it. On the contrary, He is fulfilling it.
That is where I made a second mistake. I thought that Jesus fulfilled the Law by keeping it perfectly and that because of His fulfilling it, we were set free from the obligations of the Law. But a) it seems we are still to keep it and b) it seems that Jesus’ fulfilling of the Law is much fuller than I had realised. It does mean that Jesus kept the Law but it means much more than that.
Fulfilling it means filling it out; making even more of it. Far from abolishing it, Jesus was bringing it to its fullness; He brings the bud to its full bloom. He wasn’t making less of it; He was making more of it.
In the Old Testament there is teaching, about God, about mankind, about salvation. But it is only a partial revelation. Jesus fulfilled it – gave it greater meaning – in His person, His teaching and His work. We know so much more because of Jesus. He gives the teaching a new fullness.
In the Old Testament there is prophecy – spoken prophecies of things that would happen and pre-enactments. For example, the priesthood and the sacrifices were a picture of Jesus’ dying as the Lamb of God for the sins of the world. There were the foreshadowings but Jesus was the reality; the fulfilment. Matthew, in particular, often says, “This happened in order to fulfil what had been written.”
In the Old Testament there are ethical teachings; commandments. Jesus fulfilled them in the sense of keeping them completely. Only Jesus has sinlessly done all that God asks. He satisfied the law.
But there is more to it than that. The Pharisees had a rather superficial view of what obedience meant but Jesus explained the fullness of what it meant. In fact, that is what He does with the six examples in the rest of the chapter. As one commentator has said, His purpose was not to change the law or abolish it but “to reveal the full depth of meaning that it was intended to hold” (McNeill quoted in Stott, p.72)
In short, rather than making the Law less important, Jesus was making it more important – giving it more meaning, more significance. This is God’s Law. It doesn’t pass away. It is the Law of His Kingdom. It will remain valid until heaven and earth pass away.
So, what is the relevance of the Old Testament and its laws and teachings for us?
v.19 starts “Therefore…”. Because the Law continues to be God’s law, the Law of His Kingdom, we are under obligation to show it the highest respect. And the highest respect is obedience. No actually, the highest respect is more than that. It is obedience and teaching God’s law to others.
Jesus says the Law still applies and therefore we are to obey it. God’s Law is for citizens of His Kingdom and our obedience to God’s Law will determine our greatness, or otherwise, in the Kingdom.
Moreover, this righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. Without an even greater righteousness, we will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
It is certainly surprising to hear that we are to have a righteousness greater than the Pharisees. They were experts in the law and were fastidious about observing it. They had developed 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions to describe all of the law. Are we to be more diligently obedient than that?
No. Jesus is describing a better, a deeper type of righteousness – a righteousness of the heart. The Pharisees were all about external and formal obedience, a rigid conformity to the letter of the law. But Jesus was to teach a righteousness that was far deeper – a righteousness of the heart – a righteousness that was more than just outward actions; that includes our thinking and our motivations.
Jesus called the Pharisees whitewashed tombs – lovely on the outside but rotten inside. The greater righteousness is the righteousness that is right inside as well.
I am sure you remember the teaching that comes immediately after this passage. The Pharisees rightly said that one shouldn’t murder. Jesus didn’t argue with that but He took it further and said that even anger or insults are wrong. The Pharisees rightly taught against adultery. Jesus didn’t argue with that but quite possibly those same Pharisees enjoyed looking lustfully at women or getting their sexual thrills in some way without actually committing adultery. Jesus’ deeper righteousness said that that was still adultery.
It was as if the Pharisees reduced the law – these are the things I absolutely must not do but how close can I get? What is the minimum I can get away with, without actually breaking the law? In other words, how close can I get to sin but still be OK? That is a terrible attitude.
Jesus’ righteousness is different. It is about purity that comes from the heart. It is not about how much I can get away with and still be saved. It is about loving God and wanting to please Him – about being godly people. It is not about doing the minimum but asking what more I can do to please my God.
Amazingly, that deeper righteousness is possible for the Christian because God enables us to do what we absolutely cannot do by ourselves. By ourselves it is impossible but we are not by ourselves.
God said through the prophet Jeremiah, “I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people.” (Jer 31:33)
And through Ezekiel, God said, “I will put my Spirit within you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ez 36:27)
Having the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean we can forget the law. The Holy Spirit is given to enable us to keep God’s law; to live as God wants us to.
Please note carefully: this righteousness is possible only once we have repented and believed in Jesus and received the Holy Spirit. It is not a righteousness by which we gain our salvation. We are not saved by obeying the Old Testament Law. We are saved by faith in Jesus. Salvation is a gift. This is the righteousness of saved people and is made possible by our salvation. Only born again people, filled with the Spirit of God, can live more righteously than the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. And born again people are expected to live more righteously than the Pharisees.
But there are all sorts of strange laws in the Old Testament. Are we meant to keep all of them?
People say that there are three types of law in the Old Testament. There are ceremonial laws – the laws about the priest and the sacrifices and the ceremonies. They no longer apply because Jesus has fulfilled them once and for all. Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice for us. We don’t have to repeat that.
There are also civil laws that applied to Israelite society. The principles are still valid even if the specific application is different. For example, the law said that when you were harvesting, you weren’t to go to the very edge of your field or to pick up the bits and pieces that were missed. They were to be left for the poor. Does that mean that farmers shouldn’t harvest to the edge of their fields now and shouldn’t use mechanical harvesters because they probably don’t leave behind so many missed bits? No, it means that whatever business we are in, we should make provision for the poor.
And there are moral laws. They still apply. In fact, as we have seen, Jesus widens them and deepens them.
All of the Law we are to take very seriously because even the ceremonial laws teach us about the gravity of sin and the need for forgiveness and they point us to Jesus.
Here is my summary. Jesus says, “Don’t diss the Old Testament because I don’t. In fact, I have come to make it even fuller. As born again people, with God’s law written on your heart and God’s Spirit within you, live to please your heavenly Father, by keeping His Word and teaching others to keep it,. Then, your righteousness will be even greater than that of the Pharisees. But, without that righteousness, you will not enter His Kingdom.”