In v. 17 the Lord Jesus pauses in the middle of his Sermon to correct a possible misunderstanding. V. 17 begins, “Do not think…” There was something about what Jesus has said thus far that lead some to misinterpret him.
The misunderstanding revolved around Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament, especially to the Law of Moses. Remember that Jesus was preaching to Jews who were under the Law of Moses. In Jewish thinking the Messiah would come and establish the Law of Moses as the law of the world and global messianic kingdom. Yet the Sermon on the Mount seemed to ignore the Law of Moses; it even seemed to contradict the Law of Moses at points.
For example, the Law pronounced curses on those who were unrighteous. But in v. 6 Jesus said sinners who cry out for righteousness are given the kingdom of heaven. The Law of Moses was very detailed; it gave laws concerning what foods to eat, how to build a roof on your house, and many other specific laws. But Jesus speaks very generally of mercy and purity and being peacemakers; he says nothing about needing to obey the detailed laws of Moses.
Do you see the questions that would be on the minds of the Israelites? Jesus, have you come to abolish the Law? Is the religion you are preaching a brand new one? The prophets all called Israel to obey the Mosaic Law. Are you contradicting the prophets? Are there no commandments in your kingdom? These are the questions our Lord addresses before continuing his Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus says, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law and the Prophets, I did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” Jesus did not come to do away with the Law, nor he is contradicting the Law; he came to fulfill the Law.
This verse refutes the teaching known as dispensationalism. Dispensationalism teaches that the Mosaic Law was only for the Jews, and Jesus came to bring something brand new to the Gentiles. But Jesus did not come to throw away the Old Testament Law and start something brand new. “I did not come to abolish the Law or the prophets.”
At the same time this verse refute a teaching known as theonomy. Theonomy teaches just the opposite of dispensationalism. Theonomy says that Jesus came to establish the Old Testament Law. Theonomy teaches that we are still under the civil law given to Israel, and that the word “fulfill” here should be translated “established.”
While dispensationalism doesn’t do justice to the first half of v. 17, that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, theonomy doesn’t do justice to the second half of v. 17, that Jesus came to fulfill the Law. The word “fulfill” is a key word throughout Matthew. In Matthew, when Jesus fulfills something he brings it to completion. When we say that Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT temple, it means that the OT temple is not necessary for us anymore. That which the temple pointed to has arrived.
So how does Jesus fulfill the OT Law? Jesus fulfills the Law in two ways. First, Jesus fulfilled the demands of the Law in his own life and death. The Law demanded perfect obedience. The Law said if you are guilty of breaking one commandment you are guilty of breaking all the commandments. Jesus was born under the Law, and he obeyed the Law in your place. At the cross Jesus took upon himself the curse the Law pronounced against you. Because you have been justified by Christ, when God sees you he sees one who has met every one of his holy demands. In Christ God reckons you righteous. So first of all, Jesus fulfilled the Law for you in his own life and death.
But that is not the only way Jesus fulfils the Law. Not only did Jesus come to fulfill the Law for you; he came to fulfill the Law in you. While Jesus fulfilled the Law for you once for all, Jesus continues to fulfill the Law in you as he sanctifies you. This is the point of v. 18; “Truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass away from the Law until all his accomplished.” What did the Law attempt to accomplish? The Law called for a people to serve the Lord from their heart.
Jesus came to create a people who love and serve God from their hearts. Jesus would first do this by living and dying for his people. Then he would send his Spirit into his people to give them new hearts; hearts that desire to serve the Lord. Over time God sanctifies his people so that they grow in love and obedience. That is why Paul could say with such confidence; “he who began a good work in you will complete it.”
Jesus declares that the smallest stroke of the Law will be accomplished in his people before heaven and earth pass away. Iotas and dots were the smallest letters and marks in the Hebrew alphabet. In other words Jesus guarantees that his people will follow his commandments. Heaven and earth will not pass away before Jesus accomplishes this goal.
So we are to obey the OT Law, but remember, the OT Law was transformed with the coming of Christ. For example, the Law commanded the Israelites to worship God at an earthly temple; is that commandment still for us today? Well, yes, as long as you understand how Christ fulfilled that Law. We are commanded to worship at the temple God has appointed. But Christ has come, so we no longer worship at an earthly temple. Since Christ has come we are commanded to worship God in his heavenly temple. We still obey the Law to worship God at his temple, but we recognize that in Christ we worship directly to heaven. Do we still need an altar in our worship? Yes, in the sense that Jesus is our High Priest at the heavenly altar. So we obey the Law as long as we recognize the Mosaic Law has been transformed by the coming of Christ.
The commands of the OT Law were provisional for the nation Israel. Israel prefigured the church. Jesus came to bring the kingdom Israel pictured. Because Jesus died and rose to heaven we do not have commandments anymore that deal with how to live in the land of Canaan. In Christ we have commandments that deal with how to live in the presence of God in heaven.
The key to understanding this change in the Law is found in the word “heaven” throughout the Sermon on the Mount.” Have you ever noticed how often the word “heaven” is used in the Sermon on the Mount? Seventeen times! The Sermon on the Mount over and over reminds us that in Christ we now live in the presence of heaven. You have been raised with Christ; you live in the presence of your Father in heaven. Because Jesus rose again heaven is now your home.
The ethics of the new covenant are the ethics of heaven. When you sin, you sin against the Lord who has brought us into his heavenly presence. Lest anyone dare think the commandants of Christ are any less weighty than the commandments for OT Israel, Jesus affirms in vv. 19&20 the importance of his commandments; the commandments that are the fulfillment of the OT Laws.
Jesus is addressing the error of anti-nomianism, which is the idea that in the new covenant we have no commandments to follow. You can see from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount why Jesus must address this error. The Lord declared that the only condition of entering the kingdom of heaven is that you admit your sin and trust in Christ. Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Well, someone might respond, if Jesus met the demands of the Law for us, and heaven is now a free gift, and we are not under the Old Testament Law anymore, then we can do whatever we want, right? The Lord’s answer: yes, heaven is free to sinners, and yes, you are not under the Mosaic Law anymore, but no, you cannot ignore my commandments. “Whoever loosens one of the least of these commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, and whoever does and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” The commandments Jesus is referring to are the commandments of the new covenant; the commandments his Apostles will further explain in their epistles. They are the commandments for those who have entered the kingdom of heaven.
So in v. 19 Jesus affirms on the one hand salvation by grace apart from works. If a Christian ignores one commandment he is still in the kingdom of heaven. He is not thrown out because he disobeyed one command. Under the Law if you were guilty of breaking one command you were guilty breaking all and under God’s curse. But that is not the case under the gospel.
But on the other hand, obedience is so important to Jesus that if you ignore one of the least weighty commandments as a Christian, you are considered least in his kingdom. God is the one who considers you least in his kingdom.
So for example, let’s say you tell another Christian that he doesn’t need to be baptized or take the Lord’s Supper. You have loosened a commandment in the kingdom of heaven. You may still be a Christian, you may still be going to heaven, but God is displeased with you as you take one of his commandments lightly. True, baptism doesn’t save you, yet it is a command of Jesus that you cannot take lightly.
And for those who think that free grace means you can live however you want and still make it to heaven, v. 20 is a sober warning. “I tell you the truth, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now remember, Jesus never contradicts himself, and we always interpret Scripture by other Scripture, for all Scripture is inspired by God. Jesus already affirmed that heaven is given freely to those who are not righteous, but who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The Lord is not contradicting himself here.
But when Jesus saves a sinner, he does not leave him in the same condition as he was before. The Lord gives that justified sinner his Spirit, and then God’s Spirit begins conforming that person to be like Christ. The phrase “kingdom of heaven” here refers to that aspect of the kingdom that is still future. If a person has no righteousness, if a person has no desire to serve the Lord, that person is simply not a Christian, no matter what he professes. No one will enter heaven that is not righteous, because all those Jesus saves he sanctifies. That is a promise from God.
The reference to the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is often mistaken to mean that Jesus is calling for a more sincere obedience than the outward obedience of the Pharisees. But that is not his point. The scribes and the Pharisees belong to the old order; they belong to the Old Testament picture. But the obedience in the Old Testament was incomplete; it was part of the types and shadows of the earthly kingdom of Israel. After Jesus rose again he poured out his Spirit abundantly into his people to produce spiritual fruit. The OT saints never experienced this abundant pouring out.
You may not feel this way or fully grasp this, but if you are a Christian, your righteousness surpasses the righteousness of all the Old Testament saints. No, not because you are better than they were, but because you live on this side of the resurrection; you live in the time of fulfillment. Your Sprit-produced righteousness does surpass that of the OT scribes and Pharisees.
So let me sum up this passage this morning. Jesus came to this earth to fulfill the Old Testament Law. He came to fulfill the Law in two ways. First, he came to obey the Law perfectly in our place so that we could be counted as righteous, and he came to die on the cross to take the curse of the Law in our place. In his perfect life and sacrificial death Jesus fulfilled the Law once for all.
But not only did he fulfill the Law for you, he is fulfilling the Law in you. By his Spirit teaching you, and convicting you, and maturing you, God continues to fulfill the Law in you. Your obedience flows from a new heart. The commandments you obey from the heart have been transformed from the OT commandments and are centered on Jesus Christ and your membership in heaven as Christians.
Thus there is no such thing as Jesus fulfilling the Law for you but not in you. God did not redeem you just to give you back into sin’s grasp. He did not come to earth and take your punishment so you could live selfishly, but make it to heaven when you die. No, God came to claim a people for himself. Jesus came and died to gain worshippers. The goal of salvation is that you would be conformed into the image of Christ.
And so our Lord Jesus, in one brief paragraph, affirms salvation by grace apart from works, and also the great importance of obeying his commandments. As members of heaven we take Jesus’ commandments very seriously. We obey his commandments because we have already been given heaven by virtue of being united to Christ.
Beloved, do not misunderstand the gospel. Yes, you are not under the Law; salvation is free. Jesus paid the full price for your salvation. The Law cannot condemn you anymore. But Jesus fulfilled the Law for you so that you may be his exclusively. He is jealous for your devotion. He gave you his Spirit because you cannot obey him in your own strength.
So seek to live in obedience to your Savior. Do not obey to gain his blessings, obey because you have already been eternally blessed in Christ. You have been given heaven. You live before God in heaven. And when you fall, remember that Jesus your sacrifice is already in heaven. He obeyed perfectly for you. Confess your sin, trust in his perfect sacrifice, and endeavor to obey his commandments, for this brings your Father in heaven much glory.