" />

Jesus and the Law

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 4, 1997

Matthew 5:17-20

Download Audio

If you will turn in your Bibles to Matthew 5. We’ve been studying the Sermon on the Mount for the past few weeks and we’ve said so far that the Sermon on the Mount is our Lord’s word to us about what it means to be a Christian in the world in which He’s placed us. For us that means what it means to be a Christian in this pluralistic and secularistic society in which we live. We saw that He began with a series of blessings which He said belonged to all those who were followers of His, all those who were members of His kingdom. Last week we looked at His exhortation to us to be in the world but not of it, to be salt in light, to be an element of preservation, and of truth in a decaying and dying world that’s rejecting Him.

This week we turn to Jesus’ famous statement about the law. In this passage Jesus will tell us His view of the law in the Christian life. Let’s attend to God’s word beginning in Matthew 5 verse 17. "Do not think that I came to abolish the law or the prophets, I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I saw to you until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of the least commandments and so teaches others shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I saw to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven."

Thus ends the reading of God’s holy and inspired word may He add His blessing to it. Let’s look to Him in prayer. Our Lord we ask that You would give us the grace to understand and embrace our Lord’s teaching. It is hard not simply because our Lord has the capacity to say so much in so few words but it is hard because our wills, o Lord, are often not bent to obedience. We desire to rule ourselves rather than to be ruled by our benevolent King, the Lord Jesus. Make us willing to be ruled by Him and so to be a praise to Him. We ask it in Jesus name. Amen.

Jesus utters these words about the law in the kingdom in the context of many misunderstanding about the law in Israel. He is speaking to His disciples who surely had heard the teaching of the Pharisees and the Pharisees and scribes certainly had the great reputation of being the defenders, the great protectors, of the law in Israel. Yet Jesus had already in His ministry begun to criticize them and so there were questions. Is He opposed to the law, because these are the upholders of the law, the law of Moses, the tradition of Israel, and the teaching of the Old Testament. Is the Lord Jesus going to oppose the law Himself. Jesus so far has explained His kingdom without referring to its law, to its rule, to its standards of behavior. But now He is going to explain the rule, the standard of the kingdom, and it’s relationship to the Old Testament. Jesus here is going to give us His teaching on the place of the law in the Christian life.

Let me just pause and say Jesus clearly thinks this is important. Jesus knew that there would be people in the those multitudes and even amongst His own inner circle of disciples who had struggles of life. Some of them perhaps had family struggles that they were dealing with. Some of the perhaps had children struggles that they were dealing with. Parental struggles that they were dealing with. Marital struggles that they were dealing with. Some of them no doubt had financial worries. Others of them had worries with regard to their work. There were all sorts of things on the minds and hearts of these people. The Lord Jesus knew that and yet the Lord Jesus chose to talk with them about the place of the law in the Christian life. It is not because Jesus is irrelevant that He chose to speak about that subject, it is precisely because He knows how important it is for our lives to know what the proper role of the law and of the scripture is in the Christian life that He speaks on this subject.

John Newton who wrote the great hymn Amazing Grace once wrote in a letter to a friend that ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of the most of our religious mistakes. It is precisely for that reason that the Lord Jesus chooses to speak about the law to His people. Not because He want to talk about some irrelevant theological topic, but because He could not speak on a more relevant topic for Christian living. And so in this passage Jesus contrasts His views with the prevailing views of the day. We remember that the Pharisees apparently had a high view of law. They were certainly esteemed as being the great teachers and keepers of the law in Israel. But the Lord Jesus in this very passage and in the passage to follow is going to accuse them of actually undercutting the authority of the law, by their hypocrisy and by their man made traditions.

Now we ourselves have a little bit of a different problem in Jesus’ day His opponents said, "Look Jesus has done away with the law, Jesus has brought in a reign of some sort of relationship with God that has no call to obedience and which rejects the teachings of Moses." In our day, Christians are saying, "Yes that is precisely what he was doing and he was right to do so." In our day, if you are in a Christian circle and you begin to speak about duty and obedience you’re very likely to be called a legalist. We don’t have anything to do with obedience around here; it’s all about grace. So often grace is opposed to our walk in righteousness, the fight of faith, the striving after obedience and Christian experience. We resist authority in our generation. We wince at the law and obedience even and especially in the Christian life. We really believe that love is all you need, we really believe we are a New Testament church and that the Old Testament church has nothing to do with us. So many Christians today think like that. It’s love not law and grace not obedience. Jesus is here to correct those kinds of wrong thinking. So we see many great truths set for us in verses 17 through 20. We can’t possible cover all of what Jesus says here. He is so rich. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Jesus wasn’t a theologian. He can say more per letter than any theologian you know. We can’t possible do justice to everything He says but I would like to point out to you the four great truths that Jesus teaches here about the law in th Christian life.

 

I.

The first one is this: The Old Testament's commands and prophecies and promises are fulfilled in Christ’s kingdom. That’s the first great truth He teaches and he teaches it in verse 17. "Do not think that I came to abolish the law of the prophets, I did not come to abolish but to fulfill." Jesus is teaching here that the Old Testament commands and prophecies and promises are fulfilled in His kingdom. In other words, He is saying that He came to establish, not the abolish the principles of righteousness set forth in the Old Testament moral law. Jesus is telling us here His relationship to the law and to the Old Testament in general. Because as many of you being in Bible studies and studious Sunday school students know the phase "law and prophets" is a shorthand phrase to refer to the books of the Old Testament. Good Jewish folk would have know that the first 5 books on the scripture were law, the torah, the writings and the prophets that came after them were the commentary of the prophets on that law. And so the law and the prophets constituted the whole of the Old Testament. And Jesus here is saying to those opponents who regarded Him as anti-Moses, who regarded him as revolutionary who was attempting to do away with the Old Testament norms and commands. He says to them do not even think that I am here to abolish the law, don’t listen to what the Pharisees have said about Me. Don’t be mistaken in what I’m going to say in a few moments. Don’t even think that I have come to abolish the law, I’ve come to fulfill it.

Now we may pause there and say now why in the world would somebody have thought that the Lord Jesus is coming to abolish the law. Well there are several good reasons. One reason is that Jesus had been busily criticizing the scribes and the Pharisees and their main tenant was that they were the great the law keepers, that great defenders of the Old Testament. Jesus had been criticizing them and naturally there would be some of Jesus’ disciples and perhaps among us, people who read this passage who think well maybe Jesus is criticizing the law. So Jesus says this would so that people who think He is criticizing the law will understand He is not. On the other hand, Christ's upcoming words He is going to provide a series of six contrasts. Six times He is going to say "You have heard but I say." He knows there are going to be some people out there who are thinking He is saying this, the Old Testament said this but I say that. The Lord Jesus is saying to make sure you don’t here me say that because that is not what I am saying. I did not come to abolish the law and the prophets.

Thirdly, of course, there is the Pharisees’ attitude toward Jesus. The Pharisees thought that Jesus was coming to abolish the law. They thought that that was His goal and we read that in various places in the gospels that they accuse Jesus of overthrowing the seat of Moses and of attacking the norms that God had set forth in the Old Testament. Jesus is saying, if you have heard the Pharisees say that about Me or if you have read about the Pharisees saying that about Me in the Scripture, don’t think that that is what I’m doing. That is what they say that I am doing. That is not what I am doing. Jesus explains in this passage that this word must be the controlling word for our understanding of how the Old Testament Scripture fits into His kingdom. Jesus explains the place that law is to occupy in His kingdom in this passage.

Notice in verse 17 two things that He teaches us. He teaches us first that He has not come to abolish the law. Jesus is saying, I am not anti-Old Testament, I am not anti-Old Testament scripture, I am not anti-moral law, I am not anti-obedience, don’t understand me to be saying that obedience to God’s moral law doesn’t matter any more. The law, Jesus says, continues to be valid, it continues to reveal God, and His character and His will for us, it continues to reveal the true nature of man when we measure ourselves by it. It continues to show us the nature of salvation because it teaches us that we cannot be saved by law. The law continues to do all those things and it continues to do more. The law continues to be the perfect rule of righteousness for Christian living. Once one has understood the principle that you cannot save yourself by law, once you understand that salvation is by grace, salvation is through faith, then you can come to understand that only by the grace of God and the residence of the Holy Spirit in your heart can you begin to obey the law which God created you to keep in the first place. It’s only through the grace of God that we can begin to be who God intended us to be and to do the things God intended us to do. So Jesus makes it clear that when the law is rightly understood it is not opposed to gospel it goes hand in hand with the gospel. The gospel purpose is that we will be conformed to God’s image. What is God like? What is His character like? It’s revealed in the law. And so when the gospel takes hold of our lives we begin to delight in the law and we say with the psalmist, "How I love Thy law O Lord." No longer is the law our enemy. It becomes our friend, as if it were the tracks of the train on which our Christian life proceeds.

Notice the second half of that sentence in verse 15 where Jesus says not only has He not come to abolish the law, but He is come to fulfill it. His relationship to the law is one of fulfillment. Now, those of you who have studied Matthew before know that one of Matthew’s favorite themes is fulfillment. He’s already mentioned fulfillment five times before he gets to this passage, and he’s going to mention it a bunch of other times in this great gospel of his. But what does He mean that "He is going to fulfill the law"?

What does it mean that Jesus has come to fulfill the law? It means several things. If we want to understand what the law means then we must look to Christ because He has fulfilled it in His purpose, in His person, the Lord has fulfilled His law in His person. The prophets spoke of Him and He fulfilled what they predicted. The ceremonial law spoke of Him in types, in shadows. It set forth the truth of His atoning work and He fulfilled that. The Lord has fulfilled the law in His person. He’s fulfilled the law in His doctrine and in His teaching. The Pharisees had misunderstood the law. In the teaching of Christ He shows us what the law truly means and He corrects their misunderstandings.

The Lord Jesus fulfilled His law in His life. He perfectly obeys the law. He shows us the real meaning of the law in His obedience. He obeys the law perfectly as a covenant of works, His active obedience on our behalf and the fulfilling of the law becomes our very source of salvation. The Lord Jesus fulfills His law in His death. In the death of Christ we see the reality of the law’s demand for holiness. In the death of Christ we see what we deserve but which He took upon Himself. When we see Him cry from the tree, "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" we see what we ought to have been given and yet what He has taken on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God. That is His passive obedience. His cry "My God" is as it were a word saying this is the penalty for the breaking of God’s law. Here we see His passive obedience, which again is our very source of our salvation.

The Lord Jesus fulfills the law in us too by His grace, by the work of the Holy Spirit He writes again God’s law on our hearts so that we delight in the law of the Lord. All those ways the Lord Jesus fulfills the law and so He teaches us in verse 17 that the Old Testament commands and prophecies and promises all find their fulfillment in His kingdom.

II.

Notice the second great principal which He sets down in verse 18 that the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures is joyfully acknowledged in Christ's kingdom. Verse 18, "For truly I saw to you until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law until all is accomplished." In other words, Jesus is telling us there that He upholds the authority of the Old Testament scripture without qualification. Jesus is saying, in as many words, it is authoritative. You want to know what I think about the Old Testament? It is authoritative, that is what the Lord Jesus is saying. Evangelicals today are often made fun of. We are either accused of being rationalist or we’re accused of ignorant because we believe in the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of the scripture. But my friends, in the last instance we believe in the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of the scripture as an act of devotion to our Lord. We believe it because He believed it. Our Lord says in verse 18 that until heaven and earth pass away not the cross of a "t" or a dot of an "i" of the Lord’s inspired word will fail. It will all come to pass, it will all be effectual, it will all go forth and not return void, every single bit of it, even the most insignificant portion. Our Lord Jesus here lends His character and His position and His status to the affirmation of the authority of the word. We believe in the authority of the Scripture precisely because our Lord believed in the authority of Scripture.

III.

Notice a third principal which we learn in verse 19. Jesus there teaches us that the Old Testament moral law is the standard of righteousness in Christ’s kingdom. He says, "Whoever then annuls one of these commandments and teaches others to do the same, he shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." The Lord Jesus had Pharisees surrounding Him and saying, you and your followers belittle the Old Testament law. The Lord Jesus responds by saying, let me tell you this. in My kingdom none of My shepherds belittle the Scriptures. In My kingdom the shepherds preach the Scriptures, and what’s more, we not only preach the Scriptures we live the Scriptures.

I received in the mail yesterday a report of a Church of England bishop who had just preached a sermon in which he said, shoplifting is o.k. in many circumstances. He said, if you are in a large department store owned by a large corporation then it’s o.k. to shoplift because after all, they’re really cutting down margins, hurting poor people, and they’re simply money grubbing large corporations that are running over people. Now if you’re in a small store owned by a family, then shoplifting would be wrong. There was an outcry in the public, amongst the unreligious public, the Home Secretary in Britain came out with a statement against this Anglican bishop. This man was undercutting the law of God. The Lord Jesus says of those who will undercut His law and speak as authoritative spokesman that they will be counted least in His kingdom, because His kingdom is a kingdom in which the moral principals of God are upheld. My followers keep the law, the Lord Jesus says.

By the way, that is not legalism. It is not legalism to keep the law of God, to desire to keep the law of God. Make it very clear here, my friends, Jesus does not say to the Pharisees, your problem is that you care about the law too much. He never says that. You may skim the whole of the New Testament and you will never find Jesus say that you care about the law too much, you care about obedience too much. He’ll never say that to the Pharisees. To the Pharisees He will always say, your problem is you don’t care about the law at all.

What then is legalism? Legalism comes in many shapes and forms. Let me mention four forms in which we still see legalism raising it’s ugly head today. First of all, legalism is when someone teaches that salvation is by works. If somebody tells you that salvation is by law keeping, they are a legalist by Jesus’ definition. Secondly, legalism occurs when people attempt to add their own man-made human rules and traditions to the authoritative word of God. Mad-made rules added to the word of God take away from the authority of the word of God and they are one manifestation of legalism. A third form of legalism is grudging obedience. Jesus is going to go into detail in Matthew chapter 6 about grudging obedience and His prime example of grudging obedience is going to be the Pharisees. These are the one’s who supposedly love the law, and yet He said they relate to God not as if He is their loving heavenly father, but they relate to God as if they’re doing "x" so He will do "y." They’ll do this so He’ll do that. They’re relating to God as if they can trap Him into being loving and kind towards them if they’ll only do certain things. So that kind of grudging obedience is legalism. And finally, legalism occurs when people confuse the weightier and lesser matters of the law and give great attention to the lesser matters of the law while ignoring the weightier matters of the law.

IV.

In all these ways we see legalism but Jesus does not say to the Pharisees that you care too much about the law. That is not His charge. In fact, in verse 20 we see what He says about the Pharisees and this is our fourth point. In verse 20 He says, "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." Jesus is saying here that His kingdom requires a standard of righteousness higher than anyone might ever expect. In other words, the righteous requirement for Jesus’ kingdom exceeds that of the legalist to whom He is speaking. Jesus is saying, the standards for My kingdom are higher than anyone’s. This is an amazing statement, my friends. Did you know that there was a saying in Israel, circulated even in Jesus’ time that said, "If only two men go to heaven, surely one of them will be a scribe and the other a Pharisee." Now Jesus is speaking to those who know that saying and He says to them this, "I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees you will not enter into My kingdom." Now that does not sound the like the word of a man who doesn’t care about obedience. That does not sound like the word of a man who wants to oppose grace to obedience, who wants to oppose faith to obedience, who wants to oppose God’s Old Testament standards of moral law to love or doing what feels good. This is a man who is deadly serious about obedience.

Jesus’ diagnosis of the Pharisee’s problem is not that they care too much about God’s law, but that they don’t care about it at all. Now that’s a weighty charge. These men were respected by their own peers as being great law keepers. How was it that Jesus could say they didn’t care about the law? Well, if we could survey all the gospels today I think you would see at least five things about these Pharisees and their law keeping.

First of all, they were partial keepers of the law. They paid a great deal of attention to insignificant detail in the law, while managing to totally ignore the whole spirit of the law. They could work on the tithe of the dill, the mint, and the cummin, but they could ignore justice and mercy. They were partial law keepers. They were, secondly, external law keepers. They put on a good show, they tried to do on the outside what the letter of the law said, but they did obey from the heart. Thirdly, they were man pleasers. They obeyed the law because they wanted the applause of man. Fourthly, they were prideful in their law keeping. They became proud of the fact that they were law keepers and they pitied the rest of us who did not measure up to their own self imposed standards. And, fifthly, they trusted in themselves. They trusted in their own works for their justification before God, for their righteousness before God. So they stood self-condemned.

My friends, Jesus’ call to obedience is utterly different from that type of law keeping. Jesus calls us to a very different way of living. He calls us to a universal love for the law, not to be selective, but to recognize that the whole of the law must be kept. The whole of God’s moral law is for us. He calls for an internal obedience, a willing obedience, and a delight in doing the law of God. He calls us to be God pleasers not man pleasers and to desire the approval of God not of men. He calls us to be humble in our law keeping, not to be prideful, and He calls us in our obedience never to trust that obedience as what makes us right with Him, but to trust in Christ in His righteousness and have our obedience flow from that relationship which is established in union with Christ.

As I close today my friends let me just ask you a question. Where is your heart? Is your heart with the Pharisees, grudgingly obeying God or is your heart, or with the followers of Christ, delighting in His law and wanting more than anything else to be conformed to His image and to be exalted not in ourselves but in His righteousness and in His sanctifying work in us that we might become like him. May God cause us to be the followers of Christ and not the Pharisees. Let us pray.

Our Father, we thank You for Your word and we ask that You would enable us to accept it. Not simply in our heads or even in the privacy of our hearts but in our living. We give You the praise and the glory for we ask it in Jesus name, Amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.