It is tempting to come to Matthew 5:17-20 and consider this section of the Sermon on the Mount to be a departure from the theme thus far about describing who belongs in God’s kingdom. This paragraph is not a defense of himself (though certainly the text does defend what Jesus is teaching) but teaches us about the kingdom of God. The first sixteen verses of the Sermon on the Mount (the Beatitudes, salt and light teachings) were the preamble to this discourse about the kingdom. Recall that we saw in Matthew 4:23 that Jesus was going through Galilee “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.” The Sermon on the Mount is the contents of this gospel proclamation of the kingdom. What we are going to see is that Matthew 5:17-20 is the hub of the whole sermon. What Jesus teaches here is the critical foundational teaching of the gospel of the kingdom upon which the rest of the sermon (all the way through chapter 7) hang. Without understanding this paragraph we will be apt to misunderstand the rest of Jesus’ teaching in this sermon. In this paragraph, Jesus makes two important declarations that we will look at today.
Upholding the Authority of the Scriptures (5:17-18)
Jesus begins by upholding the authority of the scriptures. We should consider the gravity of the words in verse 17. Jesus did not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets. The phrase, “the Law and the Prophets” would be the way they would say “the Scriptures.” The Law and the Prophets are the sum of the Old Testament and that was all the scriptures that existed when Jesus walked the earth. Jesus has come but the Law and the Prophets were not to be ignored and counted as irrelevant. I think we must stop and think about this for a moment because for far too long Christians have had this very attitude toward the Law and the Prophets. They will assert that all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable to make us complete for every good work. They understand that Genesis through Malachi is the revelation of God. But how often Christians have not studied the Old Testament! How often studies have remained in the New Testament as if the other 39 books were of less value. How often preaching has remained in the New Testament! Jesus is clear that he did not nullify the scriptures. Rather, Jesus fulfills the scriptures. Matthew’s gospel has been showing that the shadows and prophecies of scripture are fulfilled in Christ in the first four chapters. Jesus has brought what the Old Testament was looking forward to. Consider that if Jesus came to abolish the Law and the Prophets, then we truly would only want to read the New Testament and should not carry the Old Testament as scripture. But the Old Testament was all about Jesus. Jesus brought what the Old Testament looked forward to. Therefore we read the Law and the Prophets looking at how these things point to and were fulfilled in Christ. Listen to what Jesus says as recorded at the end of Luke’s gospel.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44 ESV)
So we do not ignore the Old Testament or consider it useless or irrelevant. We have an incomplete understanding of Jesus if we do not read and learn from the Old Testament. Remember that for most of the first century these were the scriptures that those Christians had, studied, and taught others to become Christians by. Jesus fulfills what the scripture anticipated, predicted, and taught.
This is the thrust of verse 18. Every tick and stroke of the Old Testament scriptures will be fulfilled. Jesus affirms that every word that was uttered would come to pass. The Law and the Prophets remained valid until its intended culmination. All prophecy in scripture must take place. Not a dot will fail in its fulfillment. We do not look at the Law and consider that they were abolished but have been realized in Christ (cf. Galatians 3:19,22,24). In Romans 3 the apostle Paul describes the relationship of Christ and the Law. Listen to what the apostle Paul said regarding the Law.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:21–25 ESV)
Now listen to how Paul concludes this paragraph:
Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:31 ESV).
Consider the conclusion Paul draws in Romans 10.
Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4 NIV)
No one was preaching the destruction of the Law and the Prophets but their fulfillment. Galatians 3:24 tells us that the Law as given as a babysitter/guardian until Christ came. The reason the writer of Hebrews says the Old Testament was obsolete is not because the Law was destroyed but because everything in it was about Jesus and Jesus has now come. Jesus is telling us how to read the scriptures. It is all about him. As long as the present world persists, nothing from the Law would be loosened. All would be accomplished.
Greater Righteousness (5:19-20)
This is the significance of verse 19. Since all of the Law is to be accomplished, no one is allowed to relax even one of the commandments. God’s laws are not to be relaxed. True disciples do and teach all of God’s commands. God’s law must be observed. Anyone who tries to relax any aspect of the scriptures is least in the kingdom of heaven. Being least does not mean that you are still in the kingdom, which we see in verse 20: “You will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Being last or least means that you are excluded in the scriptures (cf. Matthew 7:21-23; 8:11-12). Now we are getting to the heart of what Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount. What do we like to do with God’s laws? We like to lessen God’s laws so that we think we have obeyed them. By doing this we think we have some sort of righteousness before God. We lower the high requirement of God’s law so that we feel good about our supposed obedience.
This is exactly what the Pharisees and scribes were doing which Jesus declares in verse 20. Listen to this powerful second declaration. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!” This was shocking because the Pharisees were known for their piety, devotion, and righteousness. They were the righteous. Remember what Paul said about himself as a Pharisee: “As to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:6). By looking at the rest of Matthew 5 we can see what the Pharisees were doing. Jesus begins each paragraph with, “You have heard it was said…but I say to you.” The Pharisees were relaxing the Law so that they had achieved righteousness and obedience. But Jesus says that you cannot take God’s laws, lower them to a level that you think you can do, and think that are in the kingdom of heaven. Your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. The Pharisees’ system of righteousness is inadequate to enter the kingdom. Remember that the scriptures teach that the purpose of the Law was to show sin and increase sin. Attempting obedience to God’s law was to cause a person to sense their great need for God’s help to attain righteousness. Rather than facing their own inadequacy before the law, they chopped down the law to their own measure. What Jesus will do in the rest of Matthew 5 is reveal how inadequate they truly are before the Law. In fact, Jesus will press this so hard that he will conclude this section with the declaration: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This was supposed to be the weight of the scriptures. You were supposed to look at perfect law of God, see your complete failure, and cry out to God for mercy. Those are the people who are in the kingdom of heaven. This is how the poverty of spirit, meekness, and thirst for righteousness is generated, as we read in the Beatitudes.
But how easy it is for us to make the same error as the Pharisees and scribes. Do we lower the God’s law? Do we define faithfulness to God as going to church on Sunday? Do we define our righteousness as being baptized? Do we lower God’s high and holy standards to just being more moral and not as bad as the rest of the world? You see that we often try to make ourselves feel good by comparing our righteousness with the lost in the world or even to other Christians. The Pharisees saw themselves as blameless because they were certainly better than the Gentiles and they were far more pious and righteous than the rest of the Jewish nation. The word “Pharisee” means “the separated.” They were better than everyone else. Yet Jesus teaches you need a righteousness that exceeds their righteousness if you are to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is what we will see in Matthew 5:21-48 — our complete failure before God’s high and righteous demands. We have completely subverted God’s requirements when we boil down being a Christian to being baptized, going to church, and being a pretty good person. Why is the Bible so big if this is all that is demanded of us? God’s law was never intended for us to think that we are doing well but to show us how terrible we are doing and that we need a Savior. This is why Jesus is preaching repentance and the gospel of the kingdom. The gospel is that our righteousness can never measure up but a Savior was sent to make atonement for our complete moral failure.
Jesus goes to war on our definition of righteousness. Do not relax God’s law so that you think by your activities that you are righteous in the sight of God. Your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. The demand of exceeding righteousness deflates all our moral pride and righteous arrogance so that we humbly approach God, begging for mercy because our righteous has not been and cannot be what God’s law demands. Stop trying to justify yourself. Stop trying to vindicate yourself. We have no righteousness to present before that can acquit us of sin. God’s law puts us in prison (Galatians 3:23) and Jesus did not come to relax any aspect of God’s law. Jesus did not lessen the load or lighten the demand. Rather, Jesus fulfilled the law so that we can be set free from our enslavement to sin through faith in Jesus.
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:22–26 ESV)
We cannot think we are being successful in keeping the laws of God if we are going to appreciate Jesus and come to him. If we think we are doing good, then we will not see our need for Jesus. We must see our complete failure before God’s law and turn in faith to Jesus to save us.