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Jesus and the Law

June 13, 2021 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Sermon on the Mount

Topic: Expository Passage: Matthew 5:17-20


(Read vv. 17–20) The passage we just read is really important to the Sermon, because it introduces the first major section of the body. Verses 21–48 follow with six paragraphs, where Jesus quotes a statement in the Mosaic Law and then gives his own authoritative instruction. It’s a powerful section, and vv. 17–20 tell us why Jesus has the authority to teach with the same authority as the Law.

As such, this passage is also very important, not just to the Sermon but more broadly, to how we understand the relationship of the OT to the NT and especially our relationship as Christians to the Law of Moses.

That may sound like a stuffy, nerdy topic, but it’s actually quite practical. Imagine how different our lives would be if God required us to obey the entire OT Law. We’d be meeting on Saturday instead of Sunday, and our clothes would all be sinful, since they have mixed fabrics. Your diet would be very different, and your calendar would be built around OT feasts. These are big differences. And this passage is a big piece of that puzzle.

But while this passage is very important, it’s also very hard to understand. This is in part, because it addresses one of the most complicated issues of NT interpretation—the relationship of the OT Law to NT grace. Of course, we can’t fully unpack the subject today, but we must understand what Jesus is truly saying and how it fits within the Sermon and the broader doctrine of Scripture. So, put on your thinking cap, and let’s work to understand our Savior. If you do, you’ll come away with a better understanding of God’s Word and of his will for you. First, Jesus tells us in v. 17...

I.  Christ fulfilled the Law (v. 17).

Jesus begins with a strong denial. “I did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets,” speaking of the entire OT. The background to this denial is that…

Skeptics accused Jesus of rejecting the Law. The Gospels tell us that Israel’s religious leaders were repeatedly angry at Jesus for not following their traditions regarding the Sabbath and other things. As well, a cynic could easily view vv. 21–48 as undermining the Law.

Therefore, Jesus prefaces the section by explicitly stating, “I did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.” On the contrary, Jesus says…

“I came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.” The controversy around this passage begins with that little verb “fulfill.” Scholars have long debated exactly what Jesus means, because this verb has massive implications for how we relate to God. There are 3 basic views on what Jesus means.

Christ perfectly obeyed the Law. Of course, that’s true, right? Jesus didn’t obey all the traditions that the Pharisees added to the Law, but Galatians 4:4 states that Jesus submitted to the Law during his life on earth.

However, this verb, pleroo, doesn’t mean obey. Rather, throughout Matthew it normally refers the fulfillment of prophecy. And vv. 21–48 build off this statement in a very different direction. A 2nd view…

Christ fully explained the Law. According to this view, in vv. 21–48 Jesus fully explains ideas that were always imbedded in the Law but that people never fully understood. So, in v. 17 fulfill means that Jesus brought out a new depth to the Law.

However, it’s pretty clear that vv. 21–48 go well beyond explaining ideas already in the Law. For example, vv. 31–32 give new instructions about divorce and remarriage. You have to be pretty creative to think that Jesus’ instructions are already present in the passage he cites from the Law. No, Jesus is saying new things, which is why Jesus’ audience reacts as they do at the end of the Sermon (7:28–29). Therefore, the best view is that…

Christ is the end of the law and has introduced a new era. I found it interesting that the verb for fulfill, pleroo, is used 15 times in Matthew, and in 10 of those uses, it refers to ways that Jesus fulfilled OT prophecies or to ways that the OT pointed to him. And this idea of prophetic fulfillment makes good sense in v. 17.

So, Jesus is saying that the entire OT, including all of its the laws, prophecies, and even the struggles and victories of Israel and its heroes point to Christ and are fulfilled in him. He is the center of it all.

Luke 24:27 tells us that Jesus saw the OT this way. He is on the Road to Emmaus, with 2 disciples, and the verse states, “And beginning at Moses andall the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” The OT is a prophecy about Christ.

Now, I want to be clear that the OT is NOT solely about Christ. Spurgeon is famous for saying we should “make a beeline to the cross” in every passage, as if all Scripture is about the cross. I don’t think that’s true or helpful, because there’s a lot more than the cross in many passages.

Rather, Jesus is saying that one of the unifying themes of the OT is that it shows us our sin, our inability to save ourselves, and our inability to create a just, peaceful kingdom. And it promises that a Savior will come who will save us from our sin and establish a perfect kingdom. And Jesus is saying that he is that Savior who has come to fulfill the Law and introduce a new era.

And this fact has massive implications for how we use OT today. Romans 10:4 states, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

The idea is that through is perfect life, death, and resurrection, Christ has ended our obligation to obey the Law. And most importantly, we no longer need to relate to God through the rituals and sacrifices the Law required. Instead, we come to God through Christ!

On a similar note, “You also have becomedead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God” (Rom 7:4).

The idea in context, is that the Law died with Christ on the cross. Now, it is like a dead spouse. Therefore, we are no longer bound to it. Instead, we are free to marry a new husband, namely, Christ.

That’s why we are no longer obligated to observe the Sabbath, offer sacrifices, obey Mosaic food laws, or circumcise babies. It’s all because Christ fulfilled the fundamental purpose of those demands.

So, Jesus makes quite the claim in our text, especially among a Jewish audience. He says that Israel’s sacred text is fundamentally about him and is fulfilled in him. Again, that’s not all it does. The OT is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, forinstruction in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). The OT is filled with important history and theology, practical wisdom, and necessary warnings. But fundamentally, it tells us that we are sinners who need a Savior and that a Savior is coming.

As such, it’s important that we read the OT in this light. David didn’t kill Goliath to show you how to kill your giants. No, there are several important lessons in that story, but chief among them is the fact God had provided Israel with a deliver, and someday, he will provide the chief deliverer.

I could give many other similar examples, but hopefully you get the point. God never intended for the OT Law to remain in effect forever. Rather, it is fulfilled in Christ. Therefore, we live in a new era that is built on Christ. So, v. 17, makes a bold, important claim. Christ fulfilled the Law. Then vv. 18–19 build on this by affirming that...

II.  The Law remains God’s inspired, profitable revelation (vv. 18–19).

Again, in context, Jesus is preparing the way for the instructions in vv. 21–48 by answering the charge that he intends to abolish the Law. He first answers in v. 17 by denying the idea that the Law is insignificant. Quite the opposite, his whole ministry is focused on fulfilling the Law. Now, he follows in vv. 18–19 by affirming the Law’s continued value.

Notice the assertion Jesus makes in v. 18. When Jesus mentions jots and tittles, he’s talking about the smallest details of the OT. The jot refers to the smallest letter in Hebrew script, the yod. And the tittle is a reference to a very small stroke that distinguishes letters. It would be very similar to the small difference between our capital C and capital G. A tiny stroke is all that distinguishes these letters.

Therefore, Jesus is making a very strong assertion about the inspiration of the entire OT. That’s important, because lots of people want to believe that some portions of the Bible are more inspired than others or that certain portions are outdated and false.

Others claim that the God of the OT is mean and vindictive, while the God of the NT is kind and generous; therefore, they throw out the OT. But Jesus won’t have any of it. He says that all of it is God’s inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word. The Bible sits in judgment over us, not us over the Bible.

And Jesus says that OT will continue to have this kind of authority “till all is fulfilled.” That’s a disappointing translation, because this is a different verb from v. 17. The idea is rather, “until all is accomplished.” Or, as he says earlier in the verse, “till heaven and earth pass away.”

So, the OT will remain God’s authoritative Word until the establishment of the eternal state. That’s a long time. Jesus is very clear that he is no radical who is out to undermine God’s sacred Word. Yes, Jesus will speak in vv. 21–48 as an equal authority to the OT and add to what it says, but he wants to be clear that this in no way diminishes the value of the OT.

Therefore, notice the implication of this truth in v. 19. Jesus uses a strong contrast to make a strong point. First, if you disregard even the most insignificant OT Law, you will be “called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Whereas, if you practice and teach every detail, you will be “called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

In other words, your status in the Millennial Kingdom (and probably extending into the eternal state) is directly tied to your faithfulness to the OT. It’s pretty clear that Jesus had a much higher view of the OT than many today who cherry pick which portions of the OT to honor and rarely preach or teach from it. We need to preach the whole counsel of God.

But while this is so, v. 19 also raises some really complicated questions. We can sum them all up with this, “Aren’t we under grace, not law?” Romans 6:14 states, “You are not under law but under grace.” And neither the apostles in the early church nor any part of the church since has actually attempted to obey every demand of the OT Law.

Just to give one example, how do we reconcile v. 19 with God’s command for Peter regarding animals that the Law declared unclean, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” (Acts 10:13). God clearly states that we no longer must obey OT food laws. Therefore, v. 19 cannot mean that Christians must obey every jot and tittle of the Law. I’d like to answer this question with 3 statements.

Christians are not bound to the OT Law. “Thereforethe law was ourtutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal 3:24–25). Paul couldn’t be clearer that we are no longer obligated to obey the “tutor” of the Law.

“For the priesthood being changed (speaking of Christ being our new high priest), of necessity there is also a change of law” (Heb 7:12). Again, God is clear that Christ has freed us from the Law. And the early church confirms this with how they lived. Yes, Peter, Paul and others often honored the Law, but they did not feel obligated to obey every mandate, and they definitely didn’t expect Gentile believers to obey the Law.

Therefore, the apostles clearly didn’t understand Jesus to mean that Christ’s disciples must obey very detail of the OT Law until the end of time. Rather, they believed that Christ has freed us from the law. But does this mean that we aren’t under any law all? No! 2nd

Christians are bound to the law of Christ. “For though I amfree from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under thelaw, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but underlaw toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law” (1 Cor 9:19–21).

Paul says that when he is with Gentiles, he adapts to them and doesn’t follow every detail of the Law, but then he quickly clarifies that he doesn’t mean that he is under no law at all. Rather, he is under the law of Christ.

You’re wondering, “What is that?” It’s pretty clearly the ethic of the NT as reflected in the teaching and example of Jesus and the apostles. So, our standard of conduct is rooted in the NT. And I want to be clear that the fact that we are under grace does not mean that we are under no law at all. Paul says that we must live out the ethic of the NT. But if that’s the case, then what does Jesus mean in v. 19?

The OT Law remains a vital resource for understanding God’s Law. Yes, the NT introduces some big changes to the laws of the OT. But it’s also true that the Law of Christ is fundamentally rooted in the OT. In fact, you can’t truly understand the NT ethic without the OT one. There is a lot of continuity between them.

For example, the NT never commands us to observe the Sabbath, but it does call Sunday, “the Lord’s Day.” We would be foolish to think that there isn’t a lot we can learn about how we should view Sundays from OT instruction about the Sabbath. As well, 1 Peter 1:16 repeats the OT commands, “Be holy, for I am holy.” I don’t fulfill the command by observing food laws, like Israel did. But I can learn a lot about, for example, sexual purity by reading the detailed laws of the OT. The same goes for what it practically means to love my neighbor or pursue justice.

And Jesus will set a perfect example of what he means by this in vv. 21–48. He doesn’t blow up the OT ethic and start over; rather he uses it as a vital foundation to build a new ethic for life after the coming of Christ.

So, that means that if you want to know God and know his will, you need to know your OT. Sometimes, we can read through Leviticus and think we are wasting our time, but you aren’t. Jesus says that Leviticus, and all the OT, is essential to knowing God and knowing his will. I can say from experience that the more you read it and understand it, the more you will benefit.

So, keep plugging and take advantage of the rich foundation the OT provides. And do so remembering Jesus’ promise that the one who loves the OT, practices its principles, and teaches them to others, “Shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Finally, Jesus asserts in v. 20…

III.  The Law of Christ demands more, not less (v. 20).

Verse 20 makes quite the clarification, especially for the crowd of NT believers who view grace as license to indulge the flesh. Jesus says that he demands more of us, not less. I’d like to make 3 points from v. 20.

Jesus is describing genuine righteousness. This point is important, because it’s pretty common to view v. 20 as saying that it’s impossible for us to save ourselves, because we can never be righteous enough to earn heaven. While that’s obviously true, it’s not what Jesus means.

I say this because Jesus follows by urging us to pursue genuine righteousness, and notice how he closes in v. 48. We ought to understand v. 20 and v. 48 as essentially saying the same thing. God demands that we pursue true righteousness. This brings me to my 2nd

Genuine righteousness is never skin-deep. Of course, v. 20 would have been a shocking statement for a Jewish audience to hear. They saw the scribes and Pharisees as the standard of righteousness. They revered and respected them. So, for Jesus to say that he demands a superior righteousness would have been shocking to hear.

What does Jesus mean? Well, the answer comes in the rest of the chapter. For example, notice what Jesus says in vv. 21–22. First, Jesus cites one of the 10 Commandments. The Law forbade murder. But Jesus says that he demands something far more difficult. He condemns anger toward your brother.

That’s tough, because I’ve never come remotely close to murdering someone, but I’ve been angry at people many times. It’s a whole lot easier not to murder than to not be angry. And the next 5 paragraphs all make similar demands, as do several other sections in chapters 6–7.

This is a big part of why the Sermon is so powerful. Most religions are built on external conformity and external rituals. You’re good if you don’t murder people, you are kind to your neighbor, and you do a bunch of religious stuff. Yeah, you don’t celebrate something like anger, but who doesn’t struggle with anger or something like lust?

But throughout the Sermon, Jesus demands that we address these heart issues. He isn’t satisfied with righteousness that is only skin-deep. That’s his point in v. 20. The external righteousness of the Pharisees is not enough.

Of course, that’s bad news for anyone who thinks that they are righteous enough to earn eternal life. This is because most people who think they are good enough to go to heaven base that confidence on the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. It’s about what they do.

But Jesus says point blank that external righteousness will not get you into the kingdom of heaven. If that’s what you have been trusting, I want to urge you to see that it’s not enough. And then see that is Christ is the only answer. You need the salvation that he alone provided when he died on the cross for our sin. His salvation can be yours, if you will admit that you have sinned against God and put your faith in the Christ alone. I hope that you will do that today. But after we are saved, how do we still not despair over the demand for heart righteousness in v. 20? The final point, I’d like to make from v. 20 is…

Genuine righteousness is only possible through the new birth. Jesus can make these sorts of demands of his disciples, because he alone gives us the power to genuinely pursue them. The Law failed because it was nothing more than an external standard of conduct. It couldn’t change the heart.

But a big part of how Christ is the fulfillment of the Law is that he actually writes the law on our hearts. He doesn’t just tell us what is righteous, he gives his children the desire for righteousness and the power to pursue it.

So, are we going to live up to the Sermon perfectly? Of course not. But through Christ, we have hope to make genuine progress.

So, let’s rejoice that Messiah has come, and he has fulfilled the Law. Let’s continue to revere the OT, to study it, and to learn God’s will from it. Finally, and most importantly, Pursue genuine righteousness through the law of Christ and in the power of Christ.

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