Matthew 5:17-20 (ESV)
“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.”
“Living The Law”
In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), Jesus has been focusing His teaching on the character and attitude of those who live out the kingdom of heaven, as well as God’s blessings to us. He also tells us in Matthew 5:13-16 who we are in our relationship to the world (salt and light). Then in a sudden shift, Jesus changes course as if there were murmurings or questions about his teaching in the middle of His message.
Of course, Jesus didn’t need to hear audible murmuring to know what was in people’s minds and hearts:
In Matthew 9:1-4 we read, “And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. 2 And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.’ 3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’ 4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts?'”
Matthew 12:22-26 says, “Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, ‘Can this be the Son of David?’ 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.’ 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?'”
Then in Mark 1:21-28 we read, “And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. 22 And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. 23 And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.’ 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28 And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.”
No wonder the scribes and Pharisees opposed Him!
Jesus taught with authority and His fame spread quickly. The religious leaders in Jesus’ day had a “head knowledge” about God and His Law but they did not teach with authority that changed people from the inside out. How could they when they were not changed on the inside?
Jesus says to them in Matthew 23:25, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.”
Their focus was on outward behavior and obedience that made them feel special in the eyes of God and before others. In contrast, Jesus taught only those who are poor in spirit, who mourn over sin, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, are merciful, are pure in heart, are peacemakers and who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, will be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, blessed by God and enter the kingdom of heaven.
To the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus’ teaching was blasphemy and contradicted everything they lived and taught to others. They were blind to the motives, intentions, attitudes and character revealed in God’s Law and they missed the revelation of Jesus in the Prophets. Jesus was going to let them and everyone else know that in their zeal to follow God, they missed Him completely!
Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, “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 is one of the most profound statements ever made by Jesus. Jesus tells his hearers that He is not going to do away with the Law and the Prophets but rather He has come to fulfillment them. To the scribes and Pharisees, this uneducated son of a carpenter threatened their religion, influence, status, income and everything they had worked so hard to achieve.
But what does Jesus mean that He came to fulfill the Law? What is the Law?
The Mosaic Law as revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures include the ceremonial laws, judicial/civil laws and moral laws (including the Ten Commandments). There were a total of 613 commands: 248 were “positive commandments” to perform an act (matching the total number of bones and organs in the male body), and 365 were “negative commandments” to abstain from certain acts (one for each day of the solar year). While the Bible does not separate the Mosaic Law into different categories, it helps to understand them in the proper context.
The ceremonial laws (Lev 1:1-13) are called “hukkim” or “chuqqah” in Hebrew, which means “custom of the nation.” They governed the worship of the people of Israel and included burnt offerings, ceremonies regarding uncleanness, feasts and festivals, dietary and clothing restrictions, circumcision, the Sabbath, the Passover, etc.
The ceremonial laws were a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ and became obsolete with the coming of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:11-14; Hebrews 10:1-10).
The judicial/civil laws were specific for the Jewish government of that time and were designed to set God’s chosen people apart from the world. These laws dealt primarily with disputes between people including neighbors (Deuteronomy 22:1-4), rebellious children (Deuteronomy 22:18-21), murder (Deuteronomy 21:1-4) etc., but also included laws regarding the eating of meat with blood in it, tattoos, hair styles, selling your daughters into prostitution and breaking the Sabbath (Leviticus 19:26-30).
The moral laws, or “mishpatim” are based on God’s holy nature and character and include the Ten Commandments. This law is written on the hearts and minds of everyone – even those who do not believe.
Romans 1:18-21 says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
The Apostle Paul also says in Romans 2:15, “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”
This law reveals the sinfulness of mankind both in actions and desires. Without the law, sin would not even be known to us (Romans 7:7).
In Jesus’ death on the cross, He satisfied the wrath of God against those who have broken even one of His Commandments, but who have put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Jesus fulfilled the demands of the Law in Himself for all those who believe.
Because God’s moral law reflects His nature and character (and are not for a particular people at a specific time as the ceremonial and civil laws were), His moral law established in the Ten Commandments will not only be fulfilled in those of us who follow Christ, but will be used to judge the world who reject Christ.
Romans 8:1-4 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
So did Jesus fulfill the Law, or are the righteous requirements of the Law fulfilled in us?
Jesus fulfilled the law for our salvation and His law is fulfilled in us because of our salvation.
As we are being sanctified (becoming more like Christ), it is God’s nature and character that is being developed in us through the work of the Holy Spirit. This work is expressed in the character of those Jesus spoke about in the Beatitudes and is the essence of what it means to live out the kingdom of heaven as salt and light in this world.
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:5-10, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
Jesus said in Matthew 5:20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Their righteousness was void of the nature and character of God and created self-righteousness in themselves and those they taught.
It was behavior without the Savior!
How does our righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? LOVE!
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40, “‘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.'”
So why does Jesus say, “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” in Matthew 5:19?
How does someone relax these commandments and teach others to do the same?
There are many people who claim to follow Christ but their lives reveal a self-centered “faith” void of loving God with ALL their hearts, souls and minds and loving others. They are satisfied with “grace” but bring disgrace to the teachings of Christ and destruction to themselves.
Jesus said in Matthew 25:31-46, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This is so tragic because the goats think they are sheep. They are people who thought they knew the Lord but He didn’t know them. Jesus is clear why they are goats: they didn’t love Him. If they had, they would have been living out His love by loving others.
At the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”
As followers of Christ, our love for God is reflected in our love for others.
Near the end of His earthly ministry, after Jesus washes the feet of His disciples, He tells them, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This love is not a feeling or aspiration, it’s an action. People will know us by our love for one another. When we love like this, it shows.
Jesus says, “whoever does them [His Commandments] and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” This can be done in multiple ways:
One way is to lead by example. Be the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13). Let our light shine and bring glory to God (Matthew 5:16).
Our love displays the work of God in our lives even to those who may never open a Bible or go to church.
Another way we can teach others is to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). As Christians, if we only live out this love for others in our good deeds but never share the reason for this hope, who gets the glory?
How do we really love others if we don’t love them enough to tell them about Jesus Christ?
Jesus said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
As we continue on in the Sermon on the Mount, may the teachings of Jesus Christ transform our thinking and equip us to make disciples and teach others to obey everything He has commanded us!
Father, thank you for my salvation. Without Jesus, I would be guilty on the day of judgment. But because of your love for me, you provided a way for me to be reconciled to you and be in your presence forever. There’s nothing I can do except praise you for your mercy and grace towards me. I give you all the glory! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Thank you for reading my Daily Bible Journal!
Reading, reflecting and writing from the Bible has so radically impacted my life in Christ, it’s as if I’ve been on auto-pilot when reading the Bible in the past. There’s something about “sitting with the text” and through prayerful reflection, sharing what comes to mind. Because I’m posting online for others to read, I consider my words carefully and try to be clear and accurate.
This daily process enhances my understanding of God’s Word and embeds it into my conscience. It literally gets “hidden in my heart!”
I hope this encourages others to be in God’s Word every day.
For God’s Glory,