Sermon Notes, Matthew 5:17-20

9 May

Here is a manuscript which reflects my study of Matthew 5:17-20 in preparation for a recent sermon.

Matthew 5:17-20

A Greater Righteousness

 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.

Two men were walking down a road. They were on a seven mile trip. Along the way they were joined by another man who walked up to them and asked them what they were talking about. I know in our culture this all seems strange (walking seven miles, having a stranger come up alongside and start talking) but 2000 years ago this was all very ordinary. The latest news didn’t come from CNN but by word of mouth. So this stranger asked the men what was new. Cleopas was astounded that anyone wouldn’t know the events of the last few days, where Jesus had been crucified and now how His body was no longer in the tomb. The men on the road to Emmaus were uncertain about what had happened to Jesus’ body. So the risen Jesus, who was the stranger on the road to Emmaus, His identity hidden from the men at this point, said these words, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things to enter into His glory?” Pretty strong words from a stranger, but not from the Lord. But what is even more powerful is what Luke says Jesus did next . . . “Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”

How many of you would have liked to have listened to that!?! Jesus recounting the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. And of course when Jesus said this the New Testament had not yet been written, so the Scriptures He is talking about is the Old Testament, the law and the Prophets. So as we come to Matthew chapter 5:17 this morning, we need to remember this conversation on the road to Emmaus, because it helps us understand what Jesus meant when He talked about fulfilling the law and the prophets.

In the Sermon on the Mount so far, we have seen the description of a Christian in the Beatitudes: one who is poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker, ready to endure persecution for the sake of Jesus. And this kind of person, having a heart transformed by the grace of Jesus, is salt of the earth and light of the world. People like this bring wisdom and blessing to the world. There is a familiar and I think true, cliché out there that goes, “Hurt people hurt people.” The flip side of this slogan is also true though, “People touched by the grace of Jesus spread that grace.”

          There was a group of people in the gospels who never understood grace: the religious leaders. They were people who valued the Scriptures, they were people who wanted to please God, they were the moral and cultural leaders of their society, they were highly respected. But they lived for self-glory rather than God’s glory and they tended to focus on external appearances rather than a heart of faith.

The words Jesus will share in the passage we’re going to look at today must be read in light of the religious leaders. The religious leaders were certainly in the minds of those who heard the Sermon, because they contrast at the end of the Sermon the powerful authoritative message of Jesus with the teachings of the religious leaders.

When Jesus mentioned good works in verse 16, his audience may have begun to think about how these good works were connected to the law of Moses. As Jesus laid out the Beatitudes, there was not a word about morality or obedience or the law of God. Was Jesus introducing a new word here? Was He doing away with the law of God? Was Jesus trying to do away with Moses?

The Pharisees thought Jesus was doing this. They didn’t like the fact that He did not have the religious training of sitting under a rabbi. They looked down on His humble and somewhat questionable beginnings. The religious leaders questioned by what authority Jesus said and did what He did. And in Jesus’ actual ministry, He seemed to treat the law differently than the Pharisees wanted. He healed on the Sabbath and ignored the traditions of the religious leaders. Finally, Jesus’ associations were questioned by the Pharisees. They didn’t like that Jesus spent time with tax collectors and sinners.

Warren Wiersbe says, “Pharisees were convinced they were the guardians of God’s law and the people were convinced too, yet it was the Pharisees who were destroying the Law. By their traditions, they robbed the people of the Word of God; and by their hypocritical lives, they disobeyed the very Law that they claimed to protect. The Pharisees thought they were conserving God’s Word, when in reality they were preserving God’s Word: embalming it so that it no longer had life! Their rejection of Christ when He came to earth proved that the inner truth of the Law had not penetrated their hearts.

Jesus made it clear that He had come to honor the Law and help God’s people love it, learn it, and live it. He would not accept the artificial righteousness of the religious leaders. Their righteousness was only an external masquerade. Their religion was a dead ritual, not a living relationship. It was artificial; it did not reproduce itself in others in a living way. It made them proud, not humble; it led to bondage, not liberty.”

So we need to keep this contrast between the way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisee in mind, not only in this week’s message but in most of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is not contrasting His message with the Old Testament, He is contrasting His message with the false message of the religious leaders of His day. And we will learn that the false message of the Pharisees was not limited to Jesus’ day. We can very easily fall into the same traps. The Sermon on the Mount helps us avoid these traps.

So let’s look at verses 17-20 . . .

 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.

Jesus is making it clear in verse 17 that He was not defying the law through His teaching. Jesus is not contradicting the law but at the same time He is not merely preserving it, keeping the status quo. He is instead fulfilling it, bringing it to its intended goal.

All of the Old Testament applies to us, but it is all interpreted through the person and work and teaching of Jesus Christ. Any righteousness of our own rests on Him and Him alone. He fulfills the law and the prophets through His perfectly obedient life and through the advancing of God’s plan His life and ministry brings. All the blessings of the Sermon on the Mount, from the Beatitudes to the heart of love for God that emerges in the rest of the Sermon flows from Christ and what He has done for us. Any other way of looking at the Sermon on the Mount just makes it a moral code and turns it into a system of works-righteousness, in which we will fail every time. Without understanding that Jesus has fulfilled the Scriptures, the Sermon on the Mount just makes us better Pharisees.

With this said, though, it is clear that some aspects of Jesus’ fulfilling of the Old Testament means that for us some aspects of the Old Testament are illustrative for us but no longer binding. The sacrificial system is a good example of this. We don’t offer sacrifices as atonement for sin anymore not because Jesus abolishes sacrifice. We don’t offer sacrifices because Jesus fulfilled the goal of the sacrifices by the once and for all totally effective sacrifice of Himself.

Some people think Jesus came to set aside the law, to obliterate it, to make it useless. This is not true. Think about it like an acorn. I can destroy an acorn by smashing it with a hammer. But I could instead put it in the ground and see its purpose fulfilled as it grows into a great oak tree. I want to propose to you that THIS is the way Jesus has fulfilled the law. He hasn’t smashed it to bits, His kingdom has emerged from the seed of the Old Testament which in the fullness of time has brought forth the fulfillment of God’s plan for the ages.

Nothing of that seed of the Old Testament Scriptures is wasted. Look at verse 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.

I could preach on just this verse for a long time, because it is one of the greatest verses affirming the full verbal inerrancy of Scripture. The absolute authority of Scripture is in view here. The smallest stroke of a letter will not pass away from the law. This word of God will endure. Aren’t you glad this morning? We have a trustworthy word. This is a great gift of God’s love. I have had a sense at times in my life of God’s internal leading. But I am always tempted to question these leadings. Was it really God? Was He leading me or was I just doing what I wanted? But when I come to the Word, I realize, yes, God has spoken and I can trust what He says absolutely. What a gift. It will not pass away until the end of time, until everything is accomplished. Again, we have here the language of fulfillment. The Old Testament will have enduring value until the end of time and it is to be interpreted on the basis of the one who fulfilled it: Jesus Christ. Since the Old Testament will not pass away until the end of time, we should take it very seriously. Look at verse 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.

Jesus couldn’t have made it much more clear how seriously He expects us to take the Old Testament. He tied our eternal rewards to how seriously we take the Scriptures. This is His answer to any of the religious leaders who might question His loyalty to the Word of God, any leaders who might charge Him with giving His followers freedom to sin. At the same time He is telling those sinners who are hearing Him and are attracted to His message that their obedience to God matters. Whoever relaxes 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. I think He is thinking here not of the Pharisees but of those who are His followers, because both those who relax the least of the commandments and those who do and teach the commandments are in the kingdom of heaven. The difference seems to be an issue of rewards. This is a very important truth for us to hear. God intends you to live according to His commands. Now this causes us who have been taught the grace of God to bristle. And on one level, this is right, because we know that we can’t obey God’s commands in our own strength. We must trust in God’s power for strength to obey. And we bristle too because some of things Paul teaches seem to tell us that we are not under the law any more. But Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And what are Jesus’ two great commandments? “Love God and love your neighbor.” And James says following these two commandments is the fulfillment of the law. So how does this all fit together? We are called to obey the commands of God. But, God has given us the provision of His Son who fulfilled the law and the prophets. And Jesus does two things for us. First, because He obeyed the law perfectly and died for our lawbreaking in His crucifixion, God counts all who trust in Jesus as being righteous in the sight of God on the basis of Jesus Christ. But that is not all that Jesus has done for us. Through His dying and rising and present reign fulfilling the Word of God Jesus intends to make us righteous in actual day-to-day living. And He does this as we trust in His power by leading us to a life of faithful obedience to His Word. This means, in light of the ways He has fulfilled the Old Testament, Jesus intends us to walk in conformity to the commands of the Old Testament and the New Testament, while keeping in mind the ways that Jesus Himself has fulfilled the Old Testament. So the Ten Commandments and the principles of God still apply to us but they are all interpreted through the lens of Christ and His work. We are free from the law on the level of depending on our own strength to keep it, but we are not free from the law in the sense that we can now go off and do whatever we want and just put our Jesus stamp on it. This is worth talking through because in our day there is a huge tendency in our culture toward doing our own thing, even among Christians. So I make a life of ignoring the clear commands of God and doing my own thing and then I wonder why I don’t feel close to God or why I am not growing spiritually. There is a temptation among some to say, “well, I trusted Jesus years ago and now I just kind of do what I want to do. I just kind of live based on what I want and I’m not under the law any more so I just kind of do what feels right.” This is how people who profess to be Christians end up in all kinds of horrible sin. We take grace as a license to ignore obedience to God. I even saw one preacher in Britain who was preaching that it was OK to shoplift if you took from a big store because it is just a big greedy corporation but it was wrong to steal from a small business, because they had very little margin. And I know that sounds crazy, but we are incredibly adept at shaping the commands of God to work around to what we really want to do. Jesus is going to make it abundantly clear that we can’t just have an outward obedience to the law. There must be a heart change. But when there is a heart change it will result in conformity to the Word of God, not a relaxing of God’s standards but a desire out of love to God to move into a deeper obedience, an obedience on the level of motivation and action. This life of deeper obedience, obedience flowing from a heart of love and faith, is the fundamental difference between the righteousness of the Pharisees and the righteousness of the citizens of Jesus’ kingdom. Look at verse 20 . . .

 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The Pharisees had a certain kind of righteousness but the disciples have an entirely different kind of righteousness. It is a righteousness that exceeds the Pharasaic righteousness. And I think the exceeding here is not a matter of quantity but of quality. The kingdom person has a quality of righteousness that is altogether different and better than the Pharisees. This verse would have been a shocker to Jesus’ Jewish hearers, who considered the religious leaders the epitome of righteousness. Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart. The Pharisees were the height of human righteousness, highly respected moral men. But their righteousness was insufficient because it was external. Jesus says they are like cups which are clean on the outside and filthy within. Jesus says they are like painted tombs full of dead men’s bones. There is in Jesus’ view of righteousness a necessary inward transformation which must come. And you might say exactly what the disciples would say at one point, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus’ reply? “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” True righteousness comes through the work of Christ. As Romans 3 says, “But now the righteousness of God has appeared apart from the law, although the law and prophets testified to it, even the righteousness of God through faith in Christ to all who believe.” The rest of the Sermon on the Mount is going to show, as the Beatitudes have, the reality of the heart transformed through faith in Christ. And the order is essential. Christ transforms the heart and then the heart lives in obedience a fruitful spiritual life. Obedience is the result of transformation not the way to transformation.

We have a Savior who is the fulfillment of the Scriptures. We have Scriptures which are entirely trustworthy. We are called to a life which does not minimize the Scriptures but seeks to live and teach them in light of the work of Christ. And through faith in Him we chart a course away from both man-made efforts at self-righteousness and the God-ignoring license to sin which so characterizes our culture. As I close today let me just ask you a question from Ligon Duncan. “Where is your heart? Is your heart with the Pharisees, grudgingly obeying God or is your heart, or with the followers of Christ, delighting in His law and wanting more than anything else to be conformed to His image and to be exalted not in ourselves but in His righteousness and in His sanctifying work in us that we might become like him. May God cause us to be the followers of Christ and not the Pharisees. Let us pray.”

One Response to “Sermon Notes, Matthew 5:17-20”

  1. creatorworship May 14, 2016 at 8:04 pm #

    “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth… For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:14,17) Jesus is God’s transforming truth given through God’s transforming grace. Grace and truth are inseparable. Grace has not been imparted if truth in thinking and acting has not come, and truth for living has not come apart from life giving grace. Thank you for this clear explanation of how the Law was and is fulfilled.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: