Matthew 5:17-20, “The Fulfillment of the Law”
There were those who thought that Jesus was a mere “teacher of novelties,” one trying to introduce a “new religion.” This is understandable from any who knew nothing but “outward religion,” nothing but the “form of godliness.” Or, it is understandable from those who hoped that he would abolish the “old religion,” and perhaps bring an easier way to heaven. But, our Lord refutes both. He says, “Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets; I have come, not to destroy, but to fulfill.”
What “law” is referred to here? It is not the ritual laws, containing countless injunctions and ordinances, which related to the old sacrifices and services of the temple. Jesus, like the prophets before him, denounced these laws. And when many early Christians, including Apostles, wanted to insist that Gentiles observe these laws, Paul won the day by arguing that this was “a yoke upon the necks of disciples that even our forbearers could not bear.” So, in this sermon, Jesus clearly speaks of another law. He speaks of the moral law of God, the eternal rule of God as affirmed by the Prophets, the law that it meant to be written, not on “tablets of stone,” but upon the heart. The purpose of all the ritual and relational ordinances, not unlike today, was to restrain evil among disobedient and “stiff-necked people.” They are temporal and conditional. This moral law of God is eternal.
Jesus came to “fulfill” this law. The word “fulfill” refers to more than his personal completion and obedience to this law. It is also a reference to making it “fully” visible, to declare its “full” importance to true religion. This law has been at the core of our relationship with God from the beginning. It is at the heart of the religion witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets, from generation to generation. It is not a “new religion.”
Therefore, there is no contradiction between the law and the gospel, as some suppose. The law doesn’t pass away in order for the gospel to be established. They are in perfect harmony with one another. At the heart of both is the love of God and love of neighbor. This law is true holiness, which we have consistently characterized by the virtues of patience, kindness, gentleness, temperance, and all temperaments that illuminate true love. As Jesus says, this love is the summary of the law and the promise of the gospel.
A key question for us is: How can we possibly fulfill this high and holy calling? As we answer this question, we remember that we are indeed “poor in spirit,” lacking the resources to do so. But then we see the promise of God’s heart-transforming love. With God it is possible for us to grow into the fullness of this calling, through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Hearing this we must question any who try to change the commandments of God, or claim a new direction of God’s Spirit. Such “new” revelations may be of the devil rather than of God. All such pretentions must be judged by the infallible rule of the great commandment, the true law of God that will not pass away.
Jesus says, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” The word “break” assumes more than a trespass or violation. It is a willful act. It is an attempt to “dissolve” or “untie.” The word “least of these commandments” points to the little things that we assume do no harm, those little things we easily justify in our own minds, or excuse because of our weakness. The standards of God will not be lowered for our convenience. There is no allowance for our “one darling lust.” God wants more for us.
The words, “or teach others to do the same” are worthy of our attention. We teach not only with words but primarily by example. An “open drunkard is a teacher of drunkenness.” A Sabbath-breaker is constantly teaching others to profane the Lord’s calling on our life. Those ordained to lead congregations need to be especially vigilant if they are to avoid being instruments of darkness and dragging others into the pit – by giving witness to a lust for power, by teaching cheap grace, or by overthrowing the deep moral law of God to promote conventions that serve to build up their vision or bless the status quo. As Jesus says, “to those who are given much, of much is required.” (Luke 12: 48).
Next we hear that these “shall be called least in the kingdom.” In other words, they will have little in God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Remember that the kingdom of God is love, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. That’s what we forsake by neglect of the law.
It is impossible to have too high esteem for the truth that we are saved by grace, not works, lest no one should boast. But, at the same time, we must declare that there is no faith that does not engage in works of love (Galatians 5:6). When we say, “Believe,” we do not mean that we shall step into heaven without holiness, without transformation of heart. There is no salvation without growth in the virtues of the kingdom. Teaching faith without holiness is to teach the way of destruction.
Jesus says that “unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribe and Pharisees, we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Scribes were those who were devoted to the laws of God, or, we might say, the preachers among the Jews. The Pharisees were a very ancient sect or body of men among the Jews. Their name signifies “to separate” or “divide.” They were distinguished from others by the strictness with which they approached life and their devotion to the law. Many Scribes were of the sect of the Pharisees. St. Paul, for example was a Pharisee educated to be a Scribe.
The righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees is characterized by Jesus as outward obedience and an external show of goodness. For a good example of this characterization, see the parable of the two men who went to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee prayed to himself, that he was not like others, and bragged about all his outward acts, like tithing and fasting. In another place, Jesus compares this type of external righteousness with a “white-washed tomb,” clean on the outside and full of dead bones on the inside (Matthew 23:27-28). True Religion is more than the so-called general rules of faith - to do no harm, to do good, and to attend to the ordinances of God. Such practices are blessed only as they spring from an inward disposition. It may be said that the Pharisees labored to present God with a good life; the Christian seeks to have a holy heart.
But this is not to judge the Pharisees and Scribes too harshly. Our first calling is to see that our righteousness does not “fall short” of these religious leaders. Their goodness is commendable. We each must give an account of our efforts to do no harm, do good, and attend to the ordinances of God. But by grace we do not stop here. The high and holy calling is to exceed the righteousness of these religious models. Go higher than this. Let your religion be a religion of the heart. Be poor in spirit, made rich by grace alone. Let your soul be filled with gentleness, patience, and love towards all. Exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees and you shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Amen.