Just as the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai to receive the law from the Lord, so the disciples have gathered at a mountain to receive the law from the Lord Jesus Christ. And as their Lawgiver, he’s able to teach his people how to live here on earth as members of his heavenly kingdom.
The Sermon on the Mount began with the Beatitudes in which the Lord Jesus pronounced blessings on his people. Most of the blessings are for the future, but the blessing of belonging to his kingdom is for the present, because whoever repents and believes the good news is added to his kingdom right now in this life. And the members of his kingdom are described as being poor in spirit. That means they are the ones who are relying on the Lord to deliver them from their sin and misery. And the members of his kingdom are also described as being persecuted because of righteousness, because Christ’s people face opposition and oppression from the Devil and from those who belong to the Devil’s kingdom of darkness.
And the Lord went on to describe the members of his kingdom as being salt and light. Just as salt is useful and good, so his people are useful and good, because he has sent us into the world to perform good deeds and to love and serve the people around us. And the good deeds we do, in obedience to his will, cannot be hidden, but will shine in the world and will be seen by others in the hope that they too will praise our Father in heaven.
Today’s brief passage comprises four sayings. Firstly, the Lord Jesus has not come to abolish the Law and Prophets, but to fulfil them. Secondly, God’s law will endure until the end. Thirdly, whoever breaks and teaches others to break God’s law will be called least in his kingdom. Fourthly, entrance into his kingdom is barred to those whose righteousness does not surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. And so, the Lawgiver is teaching us about the place of God’s law in our lives.
In verse 17 he says that we must not think that he has come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, because he has not come to abolish them, but to fulfil them. The phrase ‘the Law and the Prophets’ refers to the whole of the Old Testament. So, do not think that he has come to abolish the Old Testament. Perhaps people were beginning to say that about him. Or perhaps he wanted to make clear up front that this was not his intention. He had not come to do away with the Old Testament and to introduce a completely new religion and a completely new way of living. He had not come as an anarchist to destroy the law; and he had not come as a revolutionary to overthrow society. That was not his intention at all. In fact, his teaching was the fulfilment of what had gone before. He had not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil them.
But what did he mean by fulfilling the law? There are several options. One is that he fulfils the Law and the Prophets by obeying the law completely. God has given us the law and has been waiting for someone to do all that is required by the law. And finally the Lord Jesus has come and has kept it perfectly. Another option is that he fulfils the Law and the Prophets by fulfilling the prophecies in the Old Testament. The prophets foretold the coming of a great king and they spoke about a suffering servant who was to come to be pierced for our transgressions. And the Old Testament is full of promises and ceremonies and types and ordinances which foreshadowed the Christ who was to come. And the Lord Jesus is the fulfilment of all those promises because he is the one who was to come. But then another option is that he fulfils the Law and Prophets in the sense that he is able to explain how to interpret the Old Testament properly. And sure enough, he goes on to explain to his people what God is looking for from them. For instance, look down to verse 21: ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago…. But I tell you….’ He’s comparing what they thought the law meant with what the law really means. What God is looking for is not outward conformity to the law, but inward conformity. And so, he has come to make that clear.
But I think we also need to add that he not only makes that clear, but he also makes it possible. In the past God, through the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, God promised to renew our hearts by his Spirit so that we would be able to love him like never before and to obey him like never before. And Christ had come not only to teach us that we’re to obey God in thought and word and deed, but he had come to make that possible, because after he ascended to heaven, he received the Spirit whom he has now poured out on us. And the Spirit gives us a new heart to love God and he helps us to obey God more and more. And so, Christ has come to fulfil God’s promises to his people about keeping his law inwardly as well as outwardly.
In verse 18, he teaches that God’s law will endure until the end. The phrases ‘until heaven and earth disappear’ and ‘until everything is accomplished’ mean the same thing, because heaven and earth will disappear whenever everything is accomplished. In other words, when God’s plan for the world is finished, then this heaven and earth will come to an end and the new heaven and earth will appear. And until that time comes, God’s law will endure.
Now, when we think about God’s law in the Old Testament, we normally distinguish between the civil law, the ceremonial law and the moral law. The civil law was for the people of Israel to govern them as a nation in Old Testament times. The ceremonial law contained all the rules and regulations for the people of Israel about the festivals they were to keep and the sacrifices they were to offer. Those were all fulfilled by the coming of Christ and are now discontinued. But the moral law of God is for all people at all times and concerns our duty to God and to our neighbour and it’s summarised by the Ten Commandments. This is the law which endures forever.
Now, on the basis of Romans 6:14 — where Paul says ‘you are not under law, but under grace’ — some well-meaning believers say the law has no place in the life of the believer, because Christ has come to deliver us from the the law. However, Christ himself makes clear in this verse that God’s law is for all time. And when he refers to the smallest letter and the least stroke, he means that none of God’s moral law will pass away. We are bound by all of it, even the smallest details of the law. Sometimes we come across rules and regulations and we distinguish between the really important ones and the ones that aren’t really important. But all of God’s moral law is important and we cannot disregard any of it.
In verse 19 the Lord announces that whoever breaks even the least of the commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, whereas those who practice and teach these commandments will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. So, he’s referring to people who are already members of his kingdom. But he’s saying that the members of his kingdom will be graded according to their attitude to God’s commandments.
We should note carefully, however, that he’s referring to our attitude to the commandments: to what we practice and teach. He’s not referring to the person who inadvertently disobeys God’s commandment, but to the person who believes God’s commandment does not matter and teaches this belief to others. And so, perhaps this is a warning to those within the church who have a teaching role. However, perhaps it applies to all of us, because all of us teach others by what we do and don’t do. We can teach others by example. By what we do and don’t do, we teach other people what we think is important and what we think is unimportant. And people may follow our example and they might be emboldened to disobey God’s laws or they might be encouraged to keep God’s laws.
And according to what our Lord says here, those with the wrong attitude to God’s commandments will receive a lowly position in God’s heavenly kingdom, whereas those with a proper attitude to God’s commandments will receive an honourable position in God’s heavenly kingdom. John Murray, a Scottish theologian who died in 1975, says in his book Principles of Conduct that our Lord’s teaching here warns us against the injustice of a judgment that is too widespread within the church. Too often the person filled with meticulous concern for the ordinances of God and conscientious regard for the minutiae of God’s commandments is regarded as a legalist, while the person who is not bothered by details is regarded as exemplifying the liberty of the gospel. But the criterion of our standing in the kingdom of God and of reward in the age to come is nothing else than meticulous observance of the commandments of God.
And so, we come to verse 20 where the Lord tells us that unless our righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, we will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. This verse puzzles us because the Pharisees and teachers of the law were well-known for their scrupulous observance of God’s law and of the traditions surrounding it. How can we become more obedient than them? And this verse puzzles us for another reason, because don’t we enter God’s heavenly kingdom through faith in Jesus Christ and not by keeping the law? Salvation is by grace through faith and not by obedience to the law. So, what can the Lord mean?
John Murray is once again helpful, because he draws to our attention that the emphasis here is on exclusion from the kingdom, not entrance into it. The Lord is saying what will keep us from his kingdom. And what will keep us from his kingdom? Having the same righteousness as the Pharisees and teachers of the law. You see, they were only concerned with outward obedience to the law instead of inward conformity to it. And to make matters worse, they nullified the word of God by their traditions. That was one of the Lord’s complaints about them. Instead of keeping to God’s law, they kept to their own rules. And having that kind of righteousness will keep you from God’s kingdom.
And then John Stott is helpful here, because he makes the point that when the Lord talks about surpassing their righteousness, he’s not talking about surpassing it in degree but in kind. In other words, the Lord is not telling us to do more than the Pharisees did. He is looking for a different kind of obedience from his people. He wants our obedience to be deeper than their obedience. Their obedience was outward only, but the Lord wants our obedience to be inward too, obedience from their heart, an inward righteousness of mind and motive. And we can only obey the Lord like that if we have received a new heart from the Lord so that we can love him like never before and if we have received the Holy Spirit from the Lord to help us to obey him like never before.
And that’s why the Lord Jesus came into the world. He came to die on the cross to pay for our sins with his life so that by believing in him we may be justified: pardoned by God and accepted. And by faith in Christ we receive his Spirit who works in us inwardly to renew our hearts and minds and to enable us more and more to obey his commandments, which is his will for us. And so, we enter his kingdom through faith. But as members of his kingdom, we have his Spirit to help us obey God’s commandments outwardly and inwardly, in thought and word and deed. And the good deeds we do in obedience to his commandments will shine in the world and be seen by others in the hope that they took will praise our Father in heaven.