In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is setting up the parameters for belonging to his kingdom. Jesus is telling us how we can have a blessed life. The first picture of the blessed life is to live countercultural. The blessed life is being poor in spirit, mourning over sins, being meek, hungering for righteousness, being merciful, being pure in heart, being peacemakers, and being persecuted for the sake of righteousness. The second picture Jesus gave is regarding our life purpose. We are here to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We must fulfill our purpose so that God is glorified. But now in Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus addresses a misconception that people might have regarding his purpose. In the process of explaining what he is doing Jesus will show us one of our worst problems as we stand before God. If we do not understand what Jesus says in this paragraph about our standing before God and our perception of him, then we will never be able to belong to Jesus and his kingdom.
Jesus’ Purpose (5:17-18)
After telling us about our purpose, Jesus reveals his purpose. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. This is important as Jesus begins his ministry. Jesus is not going to tell people not to obey God’s law. Jesus is not going to tell people as he is preaching that they no longer need to do God’s will or follow what the scriptures say because he has arrived. Now we can struggle with this idea because we read in the New Testament teachings that sound contrary to what Jesus is saying. The apostle Paul says that Jesus set aside the record of debt that stood against us and nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:14). That record of debt would certainly include the Law and the Prophets. The writer of Hebrews also states that Jesus came and took away the first covenant and established the second by God’s will (Hebrews 10:9-10). So what does Jesus mean that he is not abolishing the Law and the Prophets?
What Jesus says in the rest of verse 17 helps us understand what he means. Jesus did not come to abolish but to fulfill. So when the New Testament authors tell us that Jesus established a new covenant and the prior covenant was set aside, Jesus did not do that by voiding the first law. To say this another way, Jesus did not come and tell everyone to stop following the Law and the Prophets and just listen to what he has to say. That is not how Jesus brought in his new covenant. Rather, Jesus brought in his new covenant and set aside the old because he was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. No one was supposed to look at Jesus as a radical defiant who broke all the rules because he came to establish his own rules. The people were supposed to see that Jesus fulfilled all of it. Do not think I came to be a law breaker. Do not think I came to blow up the Law and the Prophets. I came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. I came to accomplish everything the law said. Please notice that this is what Jesus says in verse 18. Every word that was said in the Law and the Prophets would be accomplished. Jesus did not destroy it. Jesus was the way that every word was fulfilled. What the New Testament writers are trying to show us is that since Jesus fulfilled and accomplished the purpose of the Law and the Prophets, then there is no more need for it. It was set aside through the cross because Jesus completed its intention.
Our Problem (5:19)
Jesus draws an important conclusion from his purpose that shows us our problem. Jesus says, “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.” I believe the word “relax” or “loosen” is the best understanding of this Greek word. The problem was not that the scribes and the Pharisees went around telling people to directly break the law. They did not tell people to ignore the law. But what we see them doing that Jesus repeatedly addresses is that they relaxed the law. This is what you see Jesus saying in the rest of chapter 5. The scribes and the Pharisees had an amazing way of relaxing God’s laws.
But it is important to consider that Jesus brings up this issue right now at the start of his sermon. Jesus is talking about how to belong to his kingdom and enjoy the blessed life. Yet he does not take long to start talking about what appears to be our biggest problem: we relax God’s laws. This is such an important lens to have as you listen to how Jesus interacts with the people who come up to him to follow him as well as how he interacts with the scribes and Pharisees. The reason people think they are keeping God’s law is because they are relaxing God’s laws. They are lowering the standard that God originally set.
A great example of this is when Jesus told a parable about a good Samaritan in Luke 10. A person asks what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by asking what does God’s law say. The person answers to love the Lord your God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says that he answered correctly. “Do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28). An honest person realizes that this answer is a problem. So we are told that the reason why the person next asks, “Who is my neighbor” is because the man was trying to justify himself. In other words, he feels the need to relax the law. That command to love my neighbor can’t mean what it says. So who is my neighbor? I need to justify myself.
This is our temptation. This is the temptation of every human. We take God’s commands and we relax the ones that do not work for us. We lower the standard so that we can feel like we are succeeding. Please think about how many laws we try to relax. We try to relax sexual sins because we have desires and needs and so it must be acceptable. We try to relax divorce. You don’t understand what my spouse has done or the terrible person he or she is. We try to relax having affairs because of the same reasoning. Husbands do not really need to love their wives like Christ loved the church because you just don’t understand who I am married to. Wives do not need to submit to their husbands either because you do not understand what an ogre he is. We do not need to love each other and sacrifice for each other because surely God didn’t mean that we would have to give our lives and desires for our spouse. We try to relax our need for fellowship and worship together because we are busy, we are tired, and life is hard. We try to relax our need to spend time in God’s word because we need down time and can’t possibly be asked to be in God’s word every day. We try to relax the command to have the attitude of Christ and put the interests of others ahead of ourselves. We read that it easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God and we decide that it cannot mean that. We must relax that statement somehow so that we as rich people can enter.
Please realize that everyone does this. Unbelievers say that they do not need to believe in Jesus. Marginal followers say that they do not need to take up the cross to follow him. Everyone justifies themselves and what they are doing, relaxing what God actually said to think and do. Please listen to what Jesus said about this in verse 19. Anyone who relaxes even what we would consider to be the least of his commands and tells others to do the same will be called least in Christ’s kingdom. There are no laws that we must never break and some laws that are acceptable to break. Do not relax any of God’s laws.
Exceeding Righteousness (5:20)
Now Jesus pushes this further in verse 20. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. The Jewish people of Jerusalem, Judea, and Galilee would have consider the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees as the pinnacle. It would have been considered an impossibility to exceed their righteousness. They were the righteous elite. They were the holy ones, the pious ones. The Pharisees were considered the ones who were meticulous at keeping the law. The problem that Jesus is putting a light on is that these religious people were certainly meticulous at keeping various laws, they also relaxed many laws (which Jesus will explain in the rest of Matthew 5). They tithed the mint but neglected mercy.
So they were doing what we often try to do. We try to relax all the laws except the ones that we do not think affect us. When it comes to the laws that we think we are keeping, then we will uphold God’s high standard. But if it is a command that we know we are not keeping, then we look for ways to relax the command. We cannot change or relax what God is saying simply because it does not work with how we are living our lives. No command can be taken lightly. No word in God’s word can be relaxed.
Setting the Standard
So what is the standard and why is this standard so important? Jesus tells us what the standard is that cannot be relaxed. The standard is given by Jesus at the end of this section of his discourse. Look at Matthew 5:48 where Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is the standard for all people. The demand is absolute holiness. Why is it so important to see that this is the standard? Why does Jesus set forward the impossible standard to be perfect just like our Father in heaven is perfect?
The reason this must be the standard is because the only way we will have the blessed life is through this understanding. Here is what I mean. We will never be poor in spirit until we see the standard God set is to be perfect. If we relax the laws, then we are not poor in spirit because we think we are not doing too badly. The only way we will mourn over our sins is when we see how many sins we have committed. We are not doing well at keeping the law at all. We only think so because we lower the standard. The only way we will be meek and humble is when we see our lives before the perfect standard and how we have nothing to proclaim of ourselves. We will not seek righteousness, be merciful, be pure in heart, be peacemakers, or endure persecution so long as we keep lowering God’s laws so that we think we are doing pretty good. It is only when we hold the standard that God laid down for us as to be like him will we now understand how far we are from obedience to God. Until we understand that we are so far from God’s standard that we cannot reach it, then we will never have the blessed life and we will never live as the light of the world.
We must stop relaxing God’s law. Instead we need to be ruined by God’s law. We need to be utterly eviscerated in our souls when we see the righteousness of God and our own unrighteousness. The point of God’s law is to show us that our only hope is to stop hoping in ourselves. We need to live under the severity and gravity of God’s law so that we will seek grace and mercy every day. There is no one who is righteous. Everyone has turned away. No one does good, not even one. No one fears God (Romans 3:10-18). We are spiritual disasters. We are not supposed to give up when we finally see this. When we realize that we are complete failures, only then does God have us right where he wants us. Go back to Matthew 5:17-18. We cannot fulfill the Law. But Jesus can and he did. Christ did not come to relax the laws that stand against us. Rather, he did what we could not do so that we could find our new life in him. These words are to move our hope off of ourselves and on to Jesus so that we will seek his ways and take up our cross to follow him. You can never be what God wants you to be in Christ as long as you think that you are not doing too badly.