Believe the Scripture of Christ and Worship the Christ of Scripture (Matthew 5:17-20)
Jesus has taught his disciples and the crowds who it is that belongs in the kingdom of Heaven (vv. 3-12) and what their role in this world looks like (vv. 13-16). But what role does the law play in the lives of those Jesus has been calling “blessed”? Jesus now turns to address how the Old Testament fits in with what he has been saying.
Christians delight to obey God’s commands.
In his discussion so far about the kind of people who make up the kingdom of God, Jesus has yet to make any mention of the law, and this omission may have been making some people uncomfortable. And not only has Jesus not mentioned the law, he has celebrated qualities that the Pharisees - who to many were the pinnacle of righteousness – did not. Whereas the Pharisees prided themselves on keeping the law, Jesus blesses the “poor in spirit” who freely acknowledge that they did not and could not keep the law. Is Jesus saying that obeying the Old Testament laws aren’t a requirement to enter heaven’s kingdom?
In short, to some in the audience it probably sounded like Jesus was lowering the bar for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. But in verses 17-18, Jesus emphatically states that this is not the case. Rather than dismissing the law, he has come to fulfill it. What does this mean? In what ways does Jesus “fulfill” the Old Testament?
First, he fulfills the many prophecies made about the Messiah in the Old Testament. Secondly, unlike every other human who has ever lived, Jesus fulfilled the law by obeying it perfectly, never breaking even the smallest command. In Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus said that at the heart of the many laws given in the Old Testament was love for God and love for one another, and he never failed to demonstrate this love. Finally, Jesus fulfills the law by embodying it. All of the Old Testament sacrifices for example were pointing to him, the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of God’s people.
So to those in the audience that might accuse him of not taking the law seriously, Jesus’ response in verses 17-18 is effectively: “Actually, I’m taking it more seriously than anyone.” And in verse 20, he raises the bar for entrance into heaven’s kingdom to a level that shocked his audience and must have seemed unreachable: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Who could possibly be more righteous than the law-abiding Pharisees?
But the problem with the Pharisees was that their righteousness was purely external. They loved looking righteous without being righteous, and thus their motive for obedience wasn’t love of God or neighbor but love of self. With such disordered motives, they obeyed some laws while ignoring or relaxing others (v. 19).
The righteousness of Jesus’ followers will exceed the Pharisees’ righteousness in two ways. First, Jesus’ own righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, and when someone trusts in Jesus for their salvation, they are given his righteousness. Secondly, Christians’ attitude to the law will far surpass that of the Pharisees. They will obey God’s laws out of love for the God who gives them. In light of all that God has done to make them his own, believers will seek to live for him out of gratitude. That which is a burden to a Pharisee will be a joy for the child of God.
- Who in your life do consider to be a model of righteousness? Why?
- What are some examples today of how we might obey God’s laws from impure motives? Are there any commandments that you tend to relax?
- How does the truth that Jesus has fulfilled the law’s demands on your behalf affect the way you approach God? When do you forget this truth? What does it look like to remember it each day?
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.’”