Jesus and the Law

“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” (Matthew 5:17). Why would Jesus say this, and what does it mean?

Chris Hutchison on December 27, 2020
Jesus and the Law
December 27, 2020

Jesus and the Law

Passage: Matthew 5:17-20
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Today we come to another well-known passage in the Sermon on the Mount. This is a key passage in the sermon which introduces and sets up what Jesus is going to talk about for at least the rest of the chapter. It’s also a key passage in understanding the mission of Jesus and what He came to do.

This is also a hard passage. It’s perhaps the most difficult passages in the Sermon and it’s just a really tough passage in general. How we understand this passage has major implications for our whole Christian lives. And what Jesus says in this passage is not immediately obvious. Anybody who thinks this passage is simple has not wrestled with it deeply or long enough.

This week I spent more hours in research and reading and conversation with others about this passage than I think I have on any sermon ever. I really, really wanted to make sure that I understood what Jesus was saying here and I really, really didn’t want to lead you astray.

And I’ve done my best to take the fruit of all of that research and present it to you in a way that will be clear and simple. But a fair warning: you will need to think this morning. You will need to engage your mind along with me.

And I don’t apologize for that. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Thinking hard is one of the ways that we can love God. Thinking hard about the words of Jesus can be an act of worship. So this morning we’re going to worship Jesus as we try to understand what He has said to us.

The way we’re going to approach this passage is by asking a series of questions. Rather than tell you at the beginning every step along the way, we’re just going to take it one question at a time and follow along like investigators. I want to invite you along on the process than I embarked on this week and I trust we’ll come to the end with a deeper understanding of what God is saying to us in this part of His word.

Why Is Jesus Talking About This?

Our first question is “Why Is Jesus Talking About This?” We know that this passage is about the law and the prophets and Jesus’ relationship with them. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17) Jesus says.

Something we need to know before we proceed is that “the Law and the Prophets” was common phrase that referred to Israel’s Bible—what we often call the Old Testament (Matthew 7:12, 11:13, 22:40, Acts 24:14, 28:23, Romans 3:2). And this word “abolish” has to do with destroying or tearing them down. It’s the word that was used for tearing down a building.

And what we want to ask is, why would Jesus say this? Why would people think that Jesus was going to abolish the Law or the Prophets? Why does he have to correct this idea?

We should appreciate just how big of a statement this is. The Law and the Prophets were everything to the Jewish people listening to Jesus. This is like me going to cross the border into the US and saying to one of the guards, “Don’t think that I’ve come to destroy your nation.” This is a big statement.

And I want to suggest that Jesus makes this statement because, just based off of what we’ve heard in the Sermon already, people were getting the idea that Jesus was trying to do away with the Law and the Prophets entirely.

After all, Jesus has been hammering away in the Beatitudes with this message of “your best life later.” And that does sound different from what Moses promised Israel. If you read through Exodus and Deuteronomy, Israel was promised that if they obeyed God they would flourish and do well, here in this life. It did sound like “your best life now,” and so it sounds like Jesus is changing things.

And Jesus’ message about the kingdom of heaven being given to the poor and humble and meek does sound different from what people were expecting based on how they had been reading the Old Testament Scriptures.

Here’s what we can say: the vision of the kingdom that Jesus has spelled out so far in the Sermon on the Mount is not what most Jewish people were expecting from their Messiah. And so it might be easy for them to think: “He’s trying to do something totally new. Up until now we’ve had the Law and the Prophets, and now Jesus wants to throw them away and do something totally different.”

And if that’s what anyone was thinking, Jesus says, in verse 17, that this is not what He is doing. He has come, yes, on a mission, yes, and His mission involves the Law and the Prophets. But His mission is not to abolish them.

So that’s our first question: “why is Jesus talking about this?” My answer is that the message of Jesus sounded so different from what the people were expecting that Jesus had to clarify that He wasn’t doing away with their Scriptures. Instead He had come to fulfill them.

What Does “Fulfill” mean?

Our next question has to do with this word “fulfill.” If Jesus had come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, then what does that mean? What does “fulfill” mean?

Many people, many teachers and scholars and readers, have made all kinds of suggestions about what this means. But what I want to point out is that “fulfill” is not a new word in Matthew’s gospel. We don’t have to guess at what it means because he’s used it six times already:

  • Matthew 1:22: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.”
  • Matthew 2:15: “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”
  • Matthew 2:17: “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah.”
  • Matthew 2:23: “And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.”
  • Matthew 3:15: “But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’”
  • Matthew 4:13–14: “And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum… so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.”

Do you see it? Six times we’ve been told that Jesus has “fulfilled” the Hebrew Scriptures. And what that means is that Jesus did what the Scriptures had been pointing to all along. And that’s because Jesus is who the Scriptures had been pointing to all along.

This is true, even the parts that don’t even seem like prophecy. “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1) was written about Israel, not Jesus. And yet it was written about Jesus, because Israel’s story had been pointing forward to Jesus all along.

And so all throughout Matthew we’ve seen Jesus doing what the Scriptures had been anticipating. Jesus has been answering their expectations. Completing their intended purpose. Being and doing everything that they had been pointing forward to.

And Jesus says that He has come to do this, not just for a few select prophecies here and there, but for the entire Scripture. The Law and the Prophets. This means that everything in the Old Testament Scripture was pointing forward to Jesus all along, even if people didn’t know it. The law of Moses, the story of Israel, the writings of the wise, and all of the prophets—none of these writings were designed to be the final word of God to man. They were all designed to expect and anticipate and prepare and point forward to Jesus. was They were all pointing forward to Jesus.

This is very much what Jesus said in Matthew 11:13: “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John” (Matthew 11:13). We would expect that the Prophets would prophecy. But Jesus says that the Law prophesied about Jesus.

Or think of Luke 24:27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25–27). Or verse 44 of that chapter: “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).

So no, Jesus has not come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. The opposite. He has come to do everything they promised. To be everything they had pointed forward to. To complete their intended purpose. To fulfill them.

What Does This Tell us about the Scriptures?

So here’s our next question: if Jesus has come to fulfill the Scriptures, then what does this tell us about the Scriptures? Perhaps that’s an obvious question to you, but we’re going to ask it anyways. If Jesus has come to fulfill the Scriptures, then this would suggest, would it not, that the Scriptures are really important and should not be taken lightly?

And this is exactly what Jesus tells us in verse 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” (Matthew 5:18).

When Jesus talks about the “Law” here He is not narrowing things down from “the Law and the Prophets.” Just like in other places, this word here is summing up the whole Old Testament Scriptures.

And if anyone was still wondering if Jesus intended to abolish or tear down any part of the Scriptures, Jesus could not be more clear. “Iota” and “dot” refer to the smallest strokes of the pen, and Jesus says that not even these smallest strokes of the pen will disappear from the Scriptures until they reach their intended purpose.

There’s some serious question about exactly how to understand these two “untils” that Jesus mentions here. Does “heaven and earth passing away” refer to the destruction of creation? Or does this refer to an event like the destruction of the temple? Apparently that was the way that some of the Jewish people thought and wrote, and could have understood these words of Jesus.

And what does “all is accomplished” refer to? Does “all” mean everything in all of history? Does it refer to everything in the law being accomplished in the life of Jesus? Does it speak to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus?

We could spend the rest of the day trying to nail down exactly what Jesus is saying here. But here’s what we can say for sure: whether Jesus is pointing to His own death and resurrection or the temple being destroyed or the whole creation being destroyed, what He’s telling us here is very much in line with what He said in verse 17.

He has not come to take scissors and white-out to the Bible. He has not come to abolish the Scriptures. Nothing gets removed from the Bible. Instead, it’s all going to be fulfilled by Him.

Does This Mean Christians Are Responsible for Obeying the OT Law?

So let’s ask our next question. It nothing gets whited out of the Old Testament, if nothing gets erased from the law, then are Christians today responsible for keeping the whole Old Testament, including the law of Moses?

This is a significant question that this passage makes us ask. It’s a question that I’ve been asked many times throughout the years. If the Hebrew Scriptures are important for us, if nothing gets erased from them, if Jesus didn’t come to tear them down, then doesn’t that mean that Christians today are responsible to obey it all? Including the Law of Moses? Including the laws about not mixing fabrics together (Leviticus 19:19) and not trimming the sides of your beard (Lev 21:5)?

That would seem to be suggested by what Jesus says next in verse 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” (Matthew 5:19).

It’s quite certain that “these commandments” refers to the commandments of the Hebrew Scriptures—including the law of Moses. Which would include not trimming the sides of your beard or not mixing two kinds of fabric together in one garment. Whoever looses one of the least of these commandments will be least in the kingdom, but whoever does them and teaches them will be great.

And this is what leads some people to say that Christians are supposed to keep the law of Moses, just like the Jews did.

And I just want to say that if this is what Jesus is saying, then we would do that. I sometimes get in conversations with people where they say “Well if that’s true, then we’d have to do this ridiculous thing.” And I say: “If that’s what obeying Jesus means, then so be it. Jesus told us to take up our crosses and follow him. Nothing is off limits. If Christians are supposed to obey Moses’ law then we’ll do it because Jesus is our king.”

But I know what some of you are thinking. “But wait! What about the rest of the New Testament? Doesn’t Paul write in Romans and Galatians that we’re free from the law? Didn’t they apostles decide in Acts that the Gentiles didn’t need to keep all of Moses’ law? Jesus can’t be contradicting them here, can he?”

How do you respond to verse 19? If someone came to you and read you verse 19 and asked, “Do you keep the least of the commandments of the Old Testament law?” how would you respond?

My answer would go like this: In this passage, Jesus is not saying that New Covenant Christians are required to keep all of the commandments of the law of Moses in the way that they did before Jesus came. But I come to that conclusion not by jumping over Jesus’ words to the writings of Paul. I come to this conclusion just by reading the rest of Matthew chapter 5.

If we keep reading, we see that in verse 21 and following, Jesus begins to talk about the Old Testament law. He brings up something that the law said, and then tells people what He is teaching them instead. The first instance has to do with murder and anger. Josh is going to be preaching on this passage next week.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5:21–22).

Verse 27: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27–28).

Notice Jesus contrasting what the law said with what He is saying. And in these first two instances, it could be argued that Jesus is showing us the true meaning of the law. He is showing us what it means to have the law written on our hearts, just like God promised would happen in the New Covenant.

But in the next four cases where He does this, Jesus goes way beyond this. Jesus’ teaching is quite different from what the law says. He gives His disciples commands that are substantially different from what they got from Moses.

Listen to verse 31: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31–32).

Under Moses, the people could get divorced quite easily, but Jesus gives a very different command. He actually says that if you were to just obey the law of Moses on this front, you could actually end up being an adulterer in His books.

Look at verse 33: “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all” (Matthew 5:33–34). Once again, Jesus saying something quite different than what the law said. The law said to keep your oaths. Jesus says not to make oaths in the first place.

Verse 38: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38–39).

The Law of Moses had this whole principle of eye for eye and tooth for tooth. It was actually designed to keep situations from escalating. If your neighbour attacked you and knocked out your tooth, the most that could happen to him was having his own tooth knocked out. You weren’t allowed to kill him, in other words.

But Jesus rejects this whole principle outright. He says not to do this anymore. He says to just let people hurt you. In other words, don’t do what Moses said. Do what Jesus said instead.

Finally, verse 43: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Matthew 5:43). Nowhere did Moses say to “hate your enemy.” But many of the Psalms definitely promote this idea.

“I hate the assembly of evildoers, and I will not sit with the wicked” (Psalm 26:5). “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies” (Psalm 139:21–22).

And Jesus says not to do this anymore. Don’t follow what David described right there in the Bible. Instead of hating your enemies, you are to love them.

So this whole chapter finds Jesus saying “Here’s what the Scripture say, here’s what Moses and David said, but I’m telling you to do something different.”

So if we go back to verse 19, when Jesus talks about doing “the least of these commandments,” what He is not saying is “my disciples must keep the law of Moses the way it’s written.” That can’t be what He’s saying because that doesn’t fit at all with what He says in the rest of the chapter.

So what is Jesus saying then? How do we make sense of this? And the answer is that we have to go back to verse 17 and remember the main point that Jesus is making in this message.

Jesus did not come to abolish the law or the prophets. He did not come to paint whiteout over the Old Testament Scriptures or to declare them worthless.

But the alternative isn’t just simply keeping the law like it had always been kept. Jesus did not say,  Jesus did not say, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; instead, I’ve come to just keep following them and teach others to follow them just like any other rabbi.”

Instead, Jesus came to fulfill them. He came to complete their intended purpose, to meet all of their expectations, to be everything that they had been pointing to. And now that Jesus has fulfilled the law, His disciples have a different relationship with the law than they did before. We don’t relate to the law and the prophets the way that the people of Israel did before. We now relate to the law and the prophets through Jesus.

Jesus fulfilled the law and now we approach the law through Him, as He fulfilled it and teaches us to follow it.

This is what Jesus does in the rest of the chapter, right? “You have heard it said…but I tell you.” Jesus is teaching us to understand the Scriptures through Him. To obey them as He interprets them for us.

That’s why the Great Commission says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20).

Now that Jesus has come and fulfilled the law, it’s His teaching that is our foundation. And this teaching started here in the Sermon on the Mount, where He tells us how we are to understand and appropriately obey the law.

And this continued in His apostles whom He filled with His Spirit and sent out to teach the church what it means to follow Jesus and keep the Scriptures now that Jesus has fulfilled them all.

And yes, what this means is that, in many instances, we don’t keep the law the way that Israel did before Jesus came. We don’t offer sacrifices. We don’t bring a tenth of our crop to the temple for the priests and the Levites to eat. Now that Jesus has fulfilled the law, we don’t keep the law the same way that they did before.

But this is very, very different from saying that the Law and Prophets have been abolished and we can just ignore them.

Example: The Passover

Let me give you an example of this. Let’s talk about the Passover. Are disciples of Jesus, New Covenant Christians, supposed to keep the Passover feast? Are we supposed to get rid of all of the yeast in our homes for seven days and then eat a meal of yeast-free bread like they did, and sacrifice a lamb, with all of the regulations God gave to Israel?

Be careful how you answer that question. If you say, “Of course we don’t have to. That’s Old Testament. It doesn’t mean anything for us anymore,” that would be the wrong answer. That would be a disastrously wrong answer. That would be doing what Jesus said not to do in verse 19: relaxing the commandments and teaching others to do the same. That’s how you get called “least” in the kingdom of heaven.

We dare not ignore the Passover because it’s in the law of Moses and Jesus did not come to abolish the law of Moses.

So, what am I saying? Am I saying that disciples of Jesus here in the New Covenant are supposed to throw their baker’s yeast and all of their bread in the dumpster once a year and keep the Passover just like Israel did?

Again, my answer is no. We do not keep the Passover like Israel did because Jesus has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. And now that Jesus has come, we properly understand the Passover. We understand that it was pointing to Jesus all along. We understand that it was a shadow and Christ is the reality.

So what does it look like for Christians today to keep the Passover feast in Christ? 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 tells us. Listen to these words: “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven [yeast] leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:6–8).

In Christ we understand that the Passover meal was a symbol. The passover lamb was Jesus. We do not need to offer a lamb again and again every year because Jesus is our lamb.

And the passover bread was a symbol for us. The yeast, the leaven, was a symbol for sin. Israel purging all of the yeast from their house once a year was a symbol of being purified from their sin.

Jesus has fulfilled that symbol by purifying us through His death. And today we keep the feast, we celebrate the festival, by purging evil from our midst. Do you remember what the exact situation was here in 1 Corinthians 5? A man was living in blatant sin, having taken his mother-in-law as his own wife. And Paul instructs them in verse 2 and verse 4 to remove that man from among them.

That man and his sin was the yeast. And the way that the church in Corinth kept the Passover was by practicing church discipline. By gathering together, like verse 4 and 5 describe, and formally removing that man from their community. So do New Covenant Christians keep the passover? Yes, and we call it church discipline.

True Righteousness

So to return to our previous question, must Christians keep the commandments of the law of Moses? Yes, if what we mean is keeping them as they are fulfilled in Christ and taught by Jesus and His apostles.

And that is what verse 19 is talking about. When Jesus says “who ever does the least of these commandments and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of Heaven,” He means, “whoever does these commandments as fulfilled in and taught by me.”

And that’s why we have the New Testament. The teachings of Jesus and the writings of the Apostles show us how to understand and keep the righteous requirement of the law now that the law has been fulfilled in Christ.

And because Jesus has fulfilled the law, disciples of Jesus can be truly righteous in a way that we never could be when all we had was the law of Moses. That’s what Jesus is pointing to in verse 20: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The scribes and the Pharisees looked so good. They seemed to keep all of the externals. But like we’ve already seen, on the inside they were ugly and full of death. “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. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (Matthew 23:25–26).

They did the little things, Jesus said, but ignored the big things. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).

Jesus is telling us here that we can’t be content with surface, external obedience. Jesus has come to fulfill the law and a part of that fulfillment includes the inner transformation of His disciples.

Disciples who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness. Disciples who know God and have God’s instruction written on our very hearts, like God promised through Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:33). This is what Jesus came to bring us.

For Us

So what does all of this mean for us this morning? I have three main suggestions.

The first is worship. We’re just two days past from Christmas and I want us to consider the significance again of the words in this passage: Jesus came. Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets. That’s what His coming and His birth was all about. Don’t stop celebrating that just because Dec 25 is in the past.

Never forget that the Bible is not about you. The Bible is about Jesus. He fulfills it all. And the more we get this the more we’ll be drawn to worship Jesus who shines forth in every page as the main character of the whole story.

Second, I encourage you to take the Old Testament seriously. Far too many Christians talk very poorly about the Law and the Prophets. “I tried reading through the Old Testament,” people say, “and then I got to Leviticus and I couldn’t go any further.” And we all nod knowingly as if Leviticus is some big bad book God put in there to punish us.

And this is a terrible way of thinking. Disciples of Jesus should read Leviticus and be filled with joy. Because this is a part of the law that Jesus fulfilled. And when we read the New Testament, we learn exactly how He did it.

That’s why I think a Bible reading plan that takes you back and forth between the Old and New Testaments can be such a good way to read through the Old Testament. Because you’ll be getting the reminders constantly of how Jesus fulfills this and how it applies to us here in the New Covenant.

And when you read parts like 1 Corinthians 5, you’ll actually understand the reference because you’ll have read the original passage that Paul is pointing to.

So, you know where I’m going with this, right? It’s almost 2020. January is a time when many of you will want to begin to read through the Bible. I’m going to post something on the blog this week about this, but I really encourage you to commit to read the Old Testament in 2021. Not necessarily the whole thing—you don’t need to do the Bible in a year (although that can be a good idea). But I’m going to encourage you not to ignore the Old Testament or act like Jesus abolished it.

Instead, let’s act like Jesus fulfilled it. Which means paying careful attention to it and learning about Christ from it.

My third encouragement is this. Disciples of Jesus do not keep the law of Moses as it was written and kept by Israel before Jesus came. But the alternative is not us doing whatever we want. The alternative is us being hungry and thirsty for righteousness. The alternative is realizing that not murdering isn’t enough and that we need to make war on our hate.

That’s the journey we’re going to go on in the next few weeks. Disciples of Jesus are a holy people, a righteous people. And so I encourage you to seek the Lord and prepare your heart for this teaching. Ask the Lord to make you hungry and thirsty for righteousness and ready to receive this teaching from him.