January 26, 2020
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,[a] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks[b] 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.
Location, Location, Location
While I confess I know almost nothing about real estate, from what I understand, one of the key tenants of the business is, “Location, Location, Location.” And loosely speaking, the same principle is true when it comes to reading and understanding the bible. The location or setting in which a bible story takes place often has a great deal of significance, because through a given location or setting, an author can use that literary detail to evoke certain emotions out of the reader based on a previous experience or particular history of that location. We ourselves experience this all the time, like when we go back to our hometown, we begin to reminisce and get nostalgic about childhood memories long ago. Or it might be even be as small as remembering a petty fight we had with a friend at a favorite restaurant every time we step through their doors. Location matters and that’s especially true as we’ll see in our passage today.
We’re now four weeks into a sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount, and so far, things have been pretty great, or at least I thought so. Jesus begins with a beautiful set of beatitudes, a series of blessings, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers and on and on. Then he goes on to say that we as his followers are “the salt of the earth and light of the world.” It’s beautiful, beautiful stuff. Poetic, really.
Yet, as we come to today’s section on the law, it feels like a sharp turn out of nowhere, yet truth is, it’s not as sharp as we might initially think. And that’s all because of the setting.
At the very beginning of the sermon, Matthew tells us that Jesus went up on a mountain and began to speak to his disciples. Now, we don’t know exactly which mountain they’re on, but yet a mountain alone is more than enough. Because for those standing on the mountain that day and for the earliest readers of Matthew’s gospel, most of whom were deeply familiar with the Old Testament, they would be thinking … “Wait a minute. God is speaking to his people on a mountain. We’ve seen this story before.”
And they’d be exactly right. They haveseen this story before. Because the last time God spoke corporately to his people from a mountain was way back in Exodus when Moses went up on Mount Sinai, where God gave them the 10 Commandments and many other laws with it, laws that would characterize the kinds of lives they were to live and the kinds of people they were supposed to be.
And yet here’s Jesus, he’s a new king ushering in a new kingdom, claiming to be God himself, teaching with a kind of authority seen never before. And the people are beginning to ask and wonder, “Yeah, so what about the law? It’s what we and our ancestors have been following and living by for centuries now. Is it still in effect? Do we have to obey it? Does it really even matter anymore?”
Those were the questions they were asking, and in many ways, still questions that you and I ask to some extent today –
“What role does the law play in the Christian life, and particularly, on this side of Jesus, some 2,000 years later? And more specifically, which ones should we still try to live by and which ones aren’t necessary anymore, or to use Jesus’s word, which ones have been fulfilled?
And while I confess we won’t be able untangle all of those knots in 22min or so, I think we’ll be able to make some good progress nonetheless. So let’s get going.
Jesus begins this passage by saying -
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
And this “not abolish, but fulfill” phrase in many ways dictates the shape and argument of these next few verses. So here are the three points we’ll quickly move through before discussing the finer points and practicalities of the law itself …
When it comes to the law, Jesus has come to …
Not to Abolish
Nor to Enforce
But to Fulfill
And a quick heads up, at first this is going to sound like bad news, but yet it’s going to build towards very good news, I promise. And it’s also going to be pretty dense and heady throughout, yet also relatively short by my standards. So consider it the Clif Bar of sermons, dense yes, yet small and compact too.
Not to Abolish
Jesus says right away, “I have not come to abolish the law.” And then in the next verse, he doubles down on that idea by saying,
18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
What exactly all this means is a bit up for debate but at the very least we know this. The law is not being done away with and thrown in the trash. Nor is it being hung in a museum as relic of the past. No, Jesus is saying, the law is still good and it’s still in effect.
The law still matters, and therefore, by extension, Jesus says, so does our obedience to it. Notice what he says next,
19 Therefore, whoever breaks 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.
Notice how he’s connecting these ideas of law and kingdom. He’s saying that even in this new kingdom that’s being established, obedience to the law still matters. Even more, he’s showing us the values of this kingdom as it relates to the law by saying that greatness in the kingdom of God will be measured by conformity to it.
And this affirmation of the law just one again demonstrates how counter culture the values of kingdom is in light of our culture and society today where you hear things like, “Speak your truth” or “Be true to yourself.” Where the prevailing ethic of the day has been reduced to, “Do whatever you want so long as it doesn’t bring harm to anyone else.”
You can see how Jesus is pushing against that notion. He’s saying, “No, the law still stands. It’s for your good. Obedience still matters. There really is a difference between right and wrong.”
Friends, this we know for sure. He has not come to abolish the law.
Nor to Enforce
But yet, he hasn’t come to enforce the law either. Now, here you might be thinking, “I don’t remember the word “enforce” in this passage.” And you’d be exactly right.
You see, this passage has been bugging me all week. Jesus says, “I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” Yet with the way the sentence is set up, the word I’m expecting to come after abolish is not fulfill, but rather something closer to whatever in the world is the opposite of abolish. Something like establish, or keep, or maintain, or maybe the word I landed on … enforce. Something that communicates, “You must obey the law or else.” Or, “if you want to be good enough, if you want to measure up, you must obey the law.” But yet that’s not the word Jesus uses or the sentiment he’s getting at.
Now, you might be thinking, isn’t this exactly what Jesus is doing in verse 20? When he says,
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
And yes, at first glance, this verse should make you do a double take. When we started this series, I told you that a few of the verses in this sermon would be a bit unnerving and verse 20 seems especially so.
Because at first glance, it seems like Jesus is saying, you see the scribes and Pharisees, those super religious people, who have this relentless passion and devotion to obeying the law, who study it with a fine tooth comb and then try and live it out to the smallest detail, you see them? Be better than them. Or to use a Simpson’s reference, he’s saying, you see Ned Flanders? You need to out-flanders Ned Flanders. You need to be better than them. Only then will you enter the kingdom of heaven. And so in once sense, it seems like he’s enforcing and reestablish the law now more than ever.
Yet as you look at the entirely of scripture, I think Jesus is doing something very deliberate and intentional here. I think in one sense, he wants us to experience a very brief moment of hopelessness and despair, where we throw our hands up and think, “Wow, when it comes to obedience to the law, I’ll never be good enough.” “I’ll never be able to get on that level.”
Yet more importantly, I think he’s trying to help us see that we need a different source of righteousness altogether. One that doesn’t come from obedience to the law, but something else altogether.
Because truth is, you and I will continue to fail to keep the law. We’ll never obey it perfectly. And if it’s the source of our righteousness, we’re doomed for failure. And if our obedience to the law is ultimately how our relationship with God is measured, we’ll always come up short. And this is not only true of us, but of everyone who’s ever lived.
So friends, are you ready for some good news? Well, here it is. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, nor to enforce it, but rather to do something altogether different, something far, far greater.
He came to fulfill it.
But to Fulfill
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
When he says both the law and the prophets, here he’s not only talking about the law itself, but rather using a common shorthand of describing the entire Old Testament, and so, in short, he’s saying the laws, the stories, the prophesies and the promises, they’re all pointing to me. They all find their fulfillment in me.
And specifically, when it comes to fulfilling the law, Jesus fulfills it by being the first and only person to have gone his entire life living in perfect obedience to it. He measured up to it in every way. Satisfying it in every moment, only then to give his life for all those who haven’t.
And by fulfilling the law, Jesus stands in our place, taking his place as our representative so that we can have a new and better righteousness, a righteousness that Paul says is not of our own, not according to the law, but rather a righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. A different kind of righteousness altogether.
Friends, Jesus came not to abolish the law, nor to enforce it with an iron fist, but rather to fulfill it. And seen in it’s entirety, this is all such good news.
You see, if Jesus were to abolish the law, then there’s the potential to slide into a sort of relativism. A sort “nothing really matters” ethic, everybody can just do and live as they please. But yet, that way of thinking, taken to its extreme, can wreak havoc on societies at large and in addition, stifles the growth and reconciliation that are needed to have meaningful relationships of any kind.
But of course there’s a problem on the opposite side as well, with enforcing the law is that it can manifest itself into a sort of legalism which can make us cold and harsh and judgmental. And even more, you and I can’t stand under that weight or achieve that level of perfection. Shoot, I can’t even make it breakfast most mornings without having said or done or thought something unholy.
This is why Jesus fulfilling the law is such good news. He neither abolishes it, knowing that all the parts of it that still apply today are for our good. Nor does he enforce it or enslave us to it, since he knows we will always fall short. No, instead, he fulfills it, so that we will continue to obey it, yet not be measured by it, or try and find our identity or self worth through it.
You see, as for the law, one of it’s primary features is that it simply reveals what is already there, it simply reveals our unfaithful and rebellious hearts. And so, in a way, it’s like a going to a doctor and getting an x-ray. The x-ray is good and helpful because it reveals what is broken or wrong within us. But in terms of healing us? It has no power to do that. For that we need a doctor, someone who can heal us. Which, in so many ways, is exactly what Jesus came to do. He gives us a new heart, filling us with the Holy Spirit, so that obedience to the law wouldn’t be a duty or obligation or hoop to jump through, which seemed to be how the Pharisees understood it, but rather a delight and joy. He gives us a new heart so that God wants for us and we want for ourselves would be the same thing.
Jesus came not to abolish the law, nor to enforce it or enslave us to it, but rather to fulfill it.
Following the Law Today
Now, with all this said, you might be asking, okay that’s great and all, but which laws still apply today? Which ones does Jesus still want us to follow and which ones has he in effect already fulfilled?
Well, here briefly are a couple different ways to think of it:
One way to categorize the Old Testament Laws, and this might be an overly simplistic way of thinking about it, is to distinguish between the laws that instruct us on how to live as opposed to those that instruct us on how to worship.
So as for laws that instruct us on how to live, such as the commandment, “Do not bear false witness,” we should obey those, after all, they’re for our good, guiding us in how we live.
Yet as for laws that instruct us on how to worship, such as animal sacrifices as part of the sacrificial system, well, you guessed it, that one you can go without.
And that’s because Jesus is the Lamb of God, the ultimate sacrifice that all the other sacrifices were pointing to. All the laws that have to deal with priests, or sacrifices, or any of them having to do with being clean or pure before entering the temple, all those have been fulfilled. And that’s because Jesus is our new and better temple, priest and sacrifice.
So, that’s one way of looking at it.
Another helpful framework and one that might be a little simpler is to filter everything through the greatest commandment.
Someone once asked Jesus, “What’s the greatest commandment?” And Jesus essentially said, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
So as for the law about not wearing clothing with two different fabrics, does that help me better love God or my neighbor?” Not really, and If it does, who wants to be friends with the fashion police anyway.
Yet as for the commandment, “Do not steal.” Is obedience to that a reflection of my love of God or my neighbor? Well absolutely. Stealing from someone else makes for a pretty lousy neighbor.
Now those are pretty black and white. Here’s one that’s a bit more grey. What about when it comes to alcohol? Does that help me love God and my neighbor? Well, here it depends. In fact, Paul addresses this very topic in 1 Corinthians. Assuming it’s all in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with alcohol at all. But suppose you’re with someone who has struggled with alcohol in the past. Here Paul says that the most loving thing to do is to not partake at all.
So there you go, a simple filter or rubric when it comes to which laws still apply today and which ones have been fulfilled.
Friends, Jesus came not to abolish the law, nor to enforce it, but rather to fulfill it.
And I’ll finish with this:
A couple weeks ago Callie was at a community meeting here in town and was sharing about a potential class that might be offered to the wider community. And one of the council members asked if it was a “Christian” program and she explained that it’s not overtly Christian, yet based on Christian principles. And the council member responded by saying, “Oh good, I hate it when Christians think they have market cornered on being a good person”.
What a statement, right? “I hate it when Christians think they have the market cornered on being a good person.” What a loaded statement. When Callie first told me about this I just thought “Wow.”
Now I have no idea what this guy’s backstory is. Maybe he’s had frustrating experiences with self-righteous Christians in the past. Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, whether legitimately so or not, it saddens me that that’s his perspective. After all, you would think that we as Christians would be some of the most humble and gracious people out there, since we follow and worship a perfect God who loves us despite our many imperfections.
So in a sense, I want to say to this guy, “I’m sorry that’s been your experience. Sometimes we Christians think we know it all and truth is, we don’t.”
Yet I also wonder if I would have the courage to say this as well. “Yet, here’s the thing. We as Christians worship a God who truly was and is good, good in every way, at every moment. Who shows us what it’s like to truly flourish, who was fully human. He’s our example, he’s who we follow. Lord knows, I’m not always a good person, yet I worship one who was and always is.”
Jesus is our example. Showing us what it looks like to be fully human, what it looks like to obey the law.
But even more, Jesus is our righteousness. On our good days, and especially on our bad ones.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, a righteousness from the outside, not of our own, one we cannot earn yet cannot lose, for they will be filled.”