Today on Pastor's Pen, we are going to consider Matthew 5:17-20. Where Jesus says, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 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. 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. For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." As we think about these verses, we are getting into the body of Jesus' sermon. I should note at this point what others have observed and that is that this portion points out how Jesus will deal with many of the teachings concerning the nature and practice of the kingdom that will follow in the rest of his message. Additionally, we notice that the body of the sermon is bracketed by the law and the prophets. Jesus introduces that here in 5:17, and then in chapter 7, verse 12, he concludes his treatment with "for this is the Law and the Prophets." Everything in between then is his explaining to us what the law and the prophets were getting at and how that is now seen in the arrival of the kingdom of God. So, what exactly is Jesus saying about fulfilling the law and the prophets, and how should we understand this section as it then relates to everything else he says in the rest of the sermon? Someone has rightly said, these are among the most difficult verses in the Bible, and of course, that doesn't make it easy to deal with in a short devotional like this.
Nevertheless, here are a few truths for us as we think about what Jesus is getting at here. 1) Jesus is saying, my teaching is not a setting aside of the Old Covenant. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill, he says. We should understand this to mean that Jesus isn't coming up with something new and different from what was already said in the Old Testament. He sees himself and his ministry through the lens of what God has been saying throughout Israel's history. Furthermore, his fulfilling of the law and prophets is more than just what satisfies the predictive prophecies of his coming. It is more than just that he confirms and satisfies the demands of the law by dying on the cross, it is those things for sure, but it is more; namely, his fulfilling is that the whole law and the prophets were all along pointing toward him. He embodies the instruction and reality of the Old Covenant in such a way that they find their completion in him. This is why in Luke 24 on the Emmaus Road, Jesus tells the two disciples about himself in all the Law, Prophets, and Psalms. He fulfills it because it's all about him. 2) Since he is the point of all that has been said, He qualifies as the sole interpreter of what it all means.
It is He who tells us what we must believe and do. It is He who will establish the kingdom that will last forever. Since that is true, Jesus adds that we cannot tamper with the commands of the kingdom. We should not and cannot relax them or add to them, and we must take them as Jesus gives them to us. This is why Jesus adds that whoever relaxes the commands of the kingdom will be called the least, while those who do them will be called great in the kingdom. With this in mind, we discover as we go through the sermon that the righteousness of the kingdom is far more invasive, demanding and comprehensive than we ever thought. Which brings us to the third observation. 3) Jesus concludes this section with the dire warning that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we can never enter the kingdom of heaven.
It might be easy to brush that off, but the scribes and Pharisees were fastidious about personal righteousness. We should remember that Jesus is saying that the righteousness of the kingdom is a real righteousness that penetrates the deepest parts of our lives, our motives, and our hearts. It is not mere external compliance but internal worship. For that, we need something more than willpower. We need both His righteousness in that He shall earn for us and also empowering grace which He shall give so that we can live out the righteousness of the kingdom of God. So much can and should be said but for now, let me remind us of these three ideas here:
The scriptures are about Jesus, his kingdom, and commands and lastly we will need daily grace for this new life he has provided.
Grace and Peace,