Matthew 5:17-20

Matthew 5:17-20

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 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, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.


I used to have a bumper sticker (before I gave it away) with a saying on it by G.K. Chesterton:  “Break the Conventions, Keep the Commandments.”  I love that, because it draws a needed distinction between, on the one hand, the essence of actual right and wrong, and, on the other, the additional and often petty rules we add to this essence in our attempts to safeguard right and wrong.  The former are commandments.  The latter are conventions.  One can break the latter without breaking the former.  Jesus oftentimes did precisely that.  Jesus broke the conventions but never the commandments.

Some years ago I took a youth group to a summer camp.  On that trip was a young man who was known to be an atheist.  He was known to be that by the other kids, but also by me, for I taught him in a high school Bible class.  I had been wanting to talk to the young man for some time about his lack of belief and finally, one night at camp, it happened.  After the other kids left the room where we had had a group Bible study, the young man stayed and he and I talked.  We stayed and talked for about two hours.

He launched his many objections to the existence of God and to Christianity in general, and I, in turn, sought to respond to his objections and bear witness to the gospel.  I was particularly struck by one of his arguments in particular.  He argued that Jesus had at most violated and had at least changed the Old Testament Law that was given by God and thus could not be the Son of God.

I responded that Jesus had not broken the Law itself, but rather had violated the man-made additions to the Law that had attached themselves to the Law like barnacles to a ship.  He countered that, at the very least, I had to admit that Jesus had acted in a very non-traditional way concerning the application of the Law.  I admitted such immediately, as I do now, believing that that actually proves the point:  Jesus did not violate the Law, He violated the traditions that grew up around it.

What is more, I pressed the young man to consider the fact that Jesus, as the divine Son of God, actually wrote the Law.  As such, if His interpretations seemed odd or unorthodox, it was probably wiser for us to trust His interpretation to the extent of correcting our own rather than to force our own interpretation of the Law on Jesus in an accusatory manner.  In general, I pointed out, it is courteous to allow authors to interpret and explain their own work, no matter whether or not the author’s explanation fits our own.

I was intrigued by this young man’s appeal to Jesus’ unconventional approach to the Law.  For one thing, while wrong, it is at least a thoughtful argument that goes a little deeper than some arguments.  For another thing, it is a very old argument pointing to a very old question:  what exactly was Jesus’ relationship to the Law?

In our text this morning, Jesus addresses specifically this question.  The beginning of the text seems to suggest that some people, perhaps after hearing the Beatitudes, began to think that this Jesus had come to offer a new Law and had come to overthrow the old Law.  Jesus would have none of that idea, as we will see.

I. Jesus and the Law:  Reorientation, Fulfillment, Interpretation (v.17-18)

Jesus has just finished His amazing Beatitudes, these eight marks of Kingdom life.  The Beatitudes are spellbinding and provocative.  Perhaps they filled the people up with thoughts of something totally new, a new movement, a new religion, and maybe even, as we have said, a new Law.  What Jesus said next put an end to these thoughts and showed that Jesus was not inventing, He was reorienting, fulfilling, and interpreting.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

This, as they say, is plain as day.  Jesus has not come to do away with the Law or the Prophets.  The word for “do away” or “abolish” or “destroy” “means to ‘loosen down’ as of a house or tent.”[1]  No, He has not come to take the Law down and pack it up, He has come to fulfill the Law.

The Law Defended and Defined

There is a great deal of discussion about the meaning of the phrase “the Law or the Prophets.”  What, exactly, is the Law?  It seems that the term had come to be pretty fluid even within Judaism and was used in a number of different ways.  It could mean the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament.  It could mean the Ten Commandments.  It could, as some scholars suggest, refer to the four major collections of laws:  the Covenant Code (Exod 20:22-23:33), the Deuteronomic Code (Deut 12-26), the Holiness Code (Lev 17-26), and the Priestly Code (Exod 25-31, 34:29; parts of Numbers).[2]  Or it could mean, more generally, the whole apparatus of rules and conventions and traditions that had grown up around the Law.  Undoubtedly, some Jews used it in this last sense, though Jesus certainly did not include the customs of man in His use of the term.

Regardless of the precise definition, Jesus’ addition of the words “or the Prophets” to “the Law” would suggest that He was speaking of the entirety of God’s revelation in the Old Testament.  His use of the term “the Law” in particular would undoubtedly refer to all of God’s righteous commandments for His people.

The Eternal Nature of the Law

These commandments, Jesus said, are rooted in the character of God and cannot be dispensed with.  None of them can be discarded without the person discarding them disobeying Almighty God.  Jesus is quite specific about the truthfulness of all of the Law:

18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

An iota refers to the Hebrew yod, of which there are approximately 66,420 in the Old Testament.  The “dot” refers to the Hebrew serif which is basically a little mark on some Hebrew letters.[3]  So Jesus is saying that all 66,420 yods and all of the tiny little serifs will last forever as they come from the very heart of God.

Whatever else this might mean, it slams the door forever on the suggestion that Jesus came to start a new religion with a new Law.  On the contrary, whatever Jesus was doing, He saw His actions as ultimately faithful to the revealed Law of God.  Some Jews have seen this statement as a radical declaration of Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s Law.  For instance, Dale Allison quotes the Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide as saying:

…in all rabbinic literature I know of no more unequivocal, fiery acknowledgment of Israel’s holy scripture than this opening to the Instruction on the Mount.  Jesus is here more radical even than Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba and Rabbi Johanan, both of whom were prepared to renounce a letter – that is, a written character of the Torah if doing so would publicly sanctify the name of God.[4]

Jesus would not renounce a single letter of the Law.  This fact troubled me a bit when I received a phone call from a man whose mother I was going to bury in Georgia.  I had never met the deceased woman.  She was not a church member.  I had never met her son, who, if I recall, did not live in the state.  Regardless, when he called me to plan the funeral, he emphatically asserted, “The only thing I must ask of you is that you NOT read from the Old Testament.  My mother was a New Testament Christian.  I do NOT want the Old Testament read.”

What a strange and tragic idea.  It is a statement that Jesus never would have made.

The Perversion of the Law

Well, then, if Jesus declared the Law as good and holy, and if all His actions should be viewed as obedient actions, and if He did not come to create a new Law or abandon the old Law, then what, we might ask, was the problem?  Why did Jesus conflict with the scribes and Pharisees so often about the Law?  Furthermore, why did Jesus’ interpretation and application of the Law seem, frankly, so odd and unorthodox, as it certainly often did?

To understand this, we must understand the perversion of the Law that had taken place over the many years since the Lord God first gave the Law to His people.  Here I am using the term to refer to the commandments that God gave His people.  If you don’t get what the Jews had done with the Law, I think you won’t understand why Jesus had so much conflict with the religious elites of His day on precisely this question.  Furthermore, if you don’t get this, you won’t understand a lot of legalistic behavior in the Christian church today.

To get at this, I think we need to make a distinction between (1) God’s Law, (2) the rules that man created to help people (theoretically, anyway) keep the Law, and (3) the further explanation of those rules that ended up being another set of rules altogether.  God gave His people the Law, His commandments and prescripts.  Then, over time, a class or group of people grew up among the Jews who saw it as their job to create the rules that were intended to help the people not break the Laws.  These people were called scribes.  Those rules, however, needed further explanation themselves, so layer after layer of further rules were added, with each layer becoming more miniscule and more micromanagerial, to use our term.  The Pharisees were another group of people who grew up within Judaism.  These were the super-religious, the men who devoted their lives to the radical living out of the Law.  Thus, they immersed themselves in the rules and tried to live them out very deliberately.

The scribes had calculated that the Law contained 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions.[5]  They had counted them.  However, the rules they made ostensibly to keep people from breaking the Law were almost innumerable.  It was hard to know them all, though thankfully there was usually a professional rule-keeper around to help you out.  So when Jesus was incarnated upon the Earth, He was born into a system that had piled layer upon layer of rules, customs, traditions, and conventions on top of the core Law that God had pronouced.

To help you understand the extent of the problem, let us look at what the scribes had done with one particular commandment.  Now keep it mind that they did this kind of thing with all of the commandments, but this one illustration will be helpful.  Let us take, for instance, the fourth commandment, found in Exodus 20:

8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.

That is the Law:  “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”  The scribes and Pharisees accepted that and loved that.  However, in order to help people keep the Sabbath day holy, they felt they needed to create a number of rules, because, after all, there were numerous ways one might violate the Sabbath.  So, to pick three examples, the scribes said that carrying a burden violated the Sabbath, writing violated the Sabbath, and healing violated the Sabbath.  It is important to note that the Lord Himself did not say this.  Rather, it was the deduction of the scribes:  no carrying burdens, no writing, and no healing.

But of course that’s not sufficient, because it raises the questions, “What is writing?  What is a burden?  What is healing?”  Furthermore, life isn’t always simple.  There are lots of complicated situations in the world that defy simple definitions.  So the scribes and their interpreters got to work again, defining what a burden is, what writing is, and what healing is.  William Barclay has passed on these specific examples from the scribes.

The scribes defined a “burden” as:

…food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, paper enough to write a customs house notice upon, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, reed enough to make a pen…

They defined “writing” in this way:

He who writes two letters of the alphabet with his right or with his left hand, whether of one kind or of two kinds, if they are written with different inks or in different languages, is guilty.  Even if he should write two letters from forgetfulness, he is guilty, whether he has written them with ink or with pain, red chalk, vitriol, or anything which makes a permanent mark.  Also he that writes on two walls that form an angle, or on two tablets of his account book so that they can be read together is guilty…But, if anyone writes with dark fluid, with fruit juice, or in the dust of the road, or in sand, or in anything which does not make a permanent mark, he is not guilty…If he writes one letter on the ground, and one on the wall of the house, or on two pages of a book, so that they cannot be read together, he is not guilty.

Healing was not allowed on the Sabbath because that was considered work.  Concerning healing, Barclay says:

Healing was allowed when there was danger to life, and especially in troubles of the ear, nose and throat; but even then, steps could be taken only to keep the patient from becoming worse; no steps might be taken to make him get any better.  So a plain bandage might be put on a wound, but no ointment; plain wadding might be put into a sore ear, but no medicated wadding.[6]

Again, I repeat, God’s Word does not say this.  The Law that God delivered does not say this.  These were the man-made rules that grew up around the Law.  It is important to understand that the scribes and Pharisees were not pernicious, evil men.  They sincerely thought that the rules they were keeping were protecting the honor of God.  They loved the Law.

Theologian Randy Harris wrote about a friend of his who visited his child’s school one day.  He told Harris that in his child’s classroom there was a bulletin board dedicated to the many things the children of the class loved.  So on one piece of paper a child had written, “I love my dog.”  And, under those words was a picture of something that Randy Harris’ friend assumed was meant to be a dog.  He said he was looking at all the various things the children wrote when he noticed one that said something odd.  It said, in a child’s handwriting, “I love Torah!”[7]  The Torah refers to the first five books of the Old Testament.

That is very interesting.  It is a traditional, pious, Jewish thing to say:  “I love Torah!”  The scribes and Pharisees would have said the same.  Jesus would, I think, have said the same, as an observant Jew, though He would have meant something different by it.  The scribes and Pharisees would have meant by, “I love Torah!” that they loved the Law and the rules and the traditions.  Jesus would have said, “I love Torah!” in the sense that He loved the Lord God who had given His Word.

Here is where the main problem comes in.  Not only did the scribes add layer upon layer of petty rules over the Law, they set up a system whereby obedience was quantifiable and measurable.  Following God, then, became a matter of simply checking off the boxes:  I kept that rule, and that rule, and that rule!  It is just a short step from there to loving the Law for the Law’s sake.  Brothers and sisters, it is a tragic thing to love God’s Law more than you love God.  It is like being in love with the Bible.  The Bible was not given so that you can love the Bible.  It was given so that you can love God!

By making the Law almost bigger than God in their hearts, the scribes made an idol of it.  Most tragically, by fixating on keeping the rules instead of on reaching the ultimate destination of the Law – love of God Himself – the scribes and Pharisees were missing the whole point and were not actually moving toward God.  I love how Clarence Jordan put it when he said that the scribes and Pharisees “were treading water in an ethical sea.  The hope of reaching harbor had been replaced by an involuntary impulse just to keep their souls afloat.”[8]  In other words, they weren’t obeying the Law to journey to God.  They were simply dog-paddling in the rules.

There are Christians who do the exact same thing!  In all their rule keeping, they miss God.  In all their checked-off boxes, they never walk with Jesus.  In all their “do’s” and “don’ts,” they miss Jesus all together.

It is interesting to me that whereas the scribes made the Law bigger and bigger and bigger, Jesus simplified it dramatically. He did not violate it or cut it down.  Rather, in Matthew 22, He reminded the people of the simple core of what the Law was about.  Do you remember?

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Do you see?  Jesus came to reorient the Law back to the heart, where it belongs.  He came to remind us that God’s desire was not countless, unfathomable regulations, it was simple love of God and neighbor.  “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

This reorientation was not an effort to make the Law easier.  On the contrary, by reorienting the Law away from checked-boxes and back to the condition of the human heart, Jesus actually made it much more challenging.  After all, it is easy to keep little external rules.  It is much harder to become a true child of God internally.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”  So Jesus reorients the Law back to the human heart.  We will also see over the next number of weeks that He is the ultimate interpreter of the Law, as we consider His teaching on specific aspects of the Law.  But what is striking here is that Jesus said He came to fulfill the Law.

This likely means many things.  It means that Jesus fulfilled the demands of the Law by never violating it.  It means that when Jesus gave His life on the cross, He was fulfilling the Law in the sense of satisfying the demands of justice against all who had violated it.  It also means, more generally, that He came to fulfill the Law in the sense of fulfilling prophecy.  Meaning, the Law and prophets prophesied and spoke of and pointed to Jesus in everything they said.  In Matthew 11:13, Jesus says, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.”  All of the Old Testament pointed to Jesus’ coming.  He is the fulfillment of it.

II. The Christian and the Law: Surpassing Righteousness From the Heart (v.19-20)

If verses 17 and 18 speak of Jesus and the Law, verses 19 and 20 speak of our relationship to the Law.  Having spoken of His fulfillment of the Law, Jesus next says this:

19 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, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

This is a challenging teaching, to be sure.  Verse 19 is clear enough and seems to follow naturally from verses 17 and 18.  If Jesus valued the Law and did not abandon it, neither should we.  But in verse 20 He goes even further, saying, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Righteousness, here, would refer to true godliness, true obedience to the Law.  But how is the righteousness of the Christian to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees?  These were experts in the Law.  These were professional Law-keepers.

It is important to understand and remember that through perverting the Law into a mere list of external rules, the scribes and Pharisees were not actually practicing the true Law.  They were, once again, dog-paddling, not swimming.  So let us first recognize that when Jesus says this He is not asking us to out-legalize and out-minutia the scribes and Pharisees.  No, He was speaking of actual righteousness, the original intent of the Law.

But even this does not help us.  Why?  Because when we try to be righteous, try to follow the Law, try to do and be all that God has called us to do and be, we find we fall short.  Paul put it like this in Galatians 3:

10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”

The Law, then, curses us.  It curses us not because it is evil, but because it reveals the evil that is within us.  If you want to see how far you are from God, simply try following His Law perfectly.  The Law does not give us salvation.  The Law gives us condemnation by highlighting our lawlessness.

What, then, are we to do?  How is our righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees if the Law ultimately shows us our distance from God?  Here is where the gospel is good news.  Let us get at this by first considering something Paul says in Romans 1:

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

This is fascinating!  Paul preached something called “the gospel,” which we may summarize here as “the good news about Jesus.”  He says in this text (1) that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to believers and (2) that the gospel, the good news about Jesus, is the vehicle through which God’s righteousness is revealed from faith.  So Paul says that the righteousness we must have, the righteousness that Jesus called upon us to have in excess of that of the scribes and Pharisees, is communicated and revealed to us in the good news about Jesus when we trust in Him.  But more than that, He says, “The righteous shall live by faith.”  So there is a connection between what Jesus did for us on the cross, the faith we place in Him, the righteousness of God, and our lives.

In Romans 3 things become even clearer.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus

Ah, so the Law itself was given not as the means of creating righteousness (again, all it reveals in us is condemnation and judgment), but rather as a signpost from God pointing to the means of righteousness.  The Law and prophets (Paul is using Jesus’ phrase here) “bear witness to” the righteousness of God.  Ok, but where am I to find this righteousness?  In Jesus Christ!  And how am I to receive this righteousness I must have?  By faith!  Thus, when I trust in Jesus, repenting of my sins and giving Him my life, He somehow forgives me and covers me in His righteousness, justifying me by the gift of grace!

Could it be?  Could it be that my righteousness, the righteousness that Jesus said I must have in excess of the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, is given to me as a gift?

In Romans 10:4, Paul writes, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  “The end of the Law” does not mean “the abandonment of the Law” but rather “the fulfillment of the Law.”  What the Law was seeking to do, it accomplished in Jesus.  The whole road of the Law ends at the feet of the cross.

Does this mean that I am free from the righteousness that the Law demands?  Can I simply use Jesus, then, to abandon the Law’s demands on my life?  May it never be!  Of course not!  The Law ending in Jesus does not drive us to sin, it drives us to holiness!  Christ’s righteousness now takes up residence in our hearts!  We are not free from the need for righteous living.  We are rather free from the terrifying prospect of having to achieve this righteousness by our own efforts!  It is given to us as a gift by the Christ who lives within us and then empowers us to live it out in the world!

Paul says precisely this in Romans 5:17:

For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Adam gives us death, Jesus gives us life.  But notice that those who receive “the free gift of righteousness” are to “reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”  You were dead and ungodly, now you live and are free to follow the Lord God.  You were condemned and fearful, now you are liberated and empowered to do what God commands.

But let us not forget the most scandalous and shocking aspect of this great exchange:  that the righteousness Christ gives us was purchased by His taking on our unrighteousness on Calvary.  In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Christ becomes my unrighteousness (“He made Him to be sin”), taking with it the punishment due it, and gives me, in its place, His righteousness.

Paul used even more graphic imagery in Galatians 3:

13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Amazing!  Astounding!  Can this really be?  I am cursed by the Law, not because the Law is evil but because the Law reveals the evil that is within me.  So I am cursed by it, rightfully.  The Law tells me I am unrighteous.  The Law tells me I am unworthy.  The Law tells me I am condemned.  The Law tells me I am cursed.

It is devastating news, crushing news.  It tells me I am lost.  It tells me I will spend forever in Hell, separated from God.

But then I have a voice behind me, a voice I was not expecting to hear.  It is the voice of Jesus, the Jesus against whom I have rebelled.  And Jesus says, “Yes, what the Law says is true, for the Law itself is true.  Before the Law you are condemned.  Before the Law you are unrighteous.  Before the Law you are cursed.  It is all true!  But hear me brother:  I have taken your condemnation upon myself.  I have taken your unrighteousness upon myself.  I have taken your curse upon myself.  I took it upon myself on the cross.  I have met the just demands of the Law of my Father.  I have fulfilled them.  I have satisfied them.  I have abolished the curse.  So come to me!  Come to me and I will give you life!”



[1] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol.1. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.43.

[2] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard.  Introduction to Biblical Interpretation.  (Dallas:  Word Publishing, 1993), p.275.

[3] R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), p.94.

[4] Dale Allison, Jr., The Sermon on the Mount. Companions to the New Testament (New York: Herder & Herder, 1999), p.60.

[5] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978), p.74.

[6] William Barclay, Gospel of Matthew. Vol.1. The Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1968), p.124-126.

[7] Randy Harris, Living Jesus. (Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 1984), p.47.

[8] Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1952), p.31.


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