Sermon on the Mount: Understanding the Law – Matt. 5:17-20

Much of the Sermon on the Mount involves Jesus reinterpreting the peoples understanding of the Old Testament Law. So it is only appropriate that before he does this he affirms that he has not come to change or abolish the Law or the Prophets. Instead he claims to be coming to fulfill them. For a greater discussion on what he means by this, see my earlier article on Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law and Prophets.

“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. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20 NIV

Until All Is Accomplished

Jesus tells us here that he is not changing the Law. And, furthermore, that no part of the Law is subject to change as long as this creation exists. Not even the most insignificant part of it will be changed. This passage can be challenging to Christians today since we do not keep much of the Law. But should we?

I believe that the 15th chapter of Acts makes clear that as Gentile believers we are not expected to live under the requirements of the Law. And Paul expresses that has believers we are not under, or subject to, the Law (Rom. 6:14), but under grace. So how, as followers of Jesus, are we to take this admonition about the Law?

I believe that Paul answers this question in Galatians 3:23-25. Here he says that we were under the custody of the Law until faith came. The Law was like a guardian who had custody over us until we came of age, or came to faith. And once that happened we were no longer under the Law.

So the Law continues to fulfill its function, and will for as long as the earth remains. But when we come to faith in Christ, it has accomplished its purpose, and it ceases to have that role as our guardian. That is not to say we can ignore it. It does help us to understand holiness and what pleases God. But our relationship with God is no longer based on obedience to that code.

Least and Greatest in the Kingdom

After stressing the importance of the Law, Jesus warns against those who would change the Law and teach others to do the same. These he calls the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 15:3-6 illustrates how this can be done. In this passage we find that the religious leaders had developed a ‘tradition’ that they allowed to override the requirements of the Law. I believe this really applies anytime one incorrectly deals with the Law, including requiring adherence to it once we have come to faith.

On the other hand, those who correctly understand and handle the Law and Prophets will be called great in the kingdom. As believers, how do we correctly handle the Law and Prophets? I do believe it involves seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of them. We do that by reading and understanding the Old Testament Law in light of Jesus and his fulfillment of it. If we read it apart from that viewpoint, we will read it incorrectly.

A Righteousness Surpassing the Pharisees

The end of this portion would have seemed strange to Jesus’ audience. The Pharisees were the most righteous branch of Judaism. They practiced and taught a strict adherence to the Law and all of its requirements. As Jesus points out in his following teachings, they tended toward practicing the letter rather than the spirit of the Law. But still, to those listening to Jesus, they must have wondered how anyone could enter the kingdom if they had to be better than the Pharisees.

The answer to this becomes clear after Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In Romans 3:21-22 Paul says that there is a righteousness that is distinct from that obtained through the Law. The Law and Prophets testify to this righteousness and it finds its fulfillment in Jesus. This righteousness is the righteousness of Christ, and is given to us through faith in Christ. It is an imputed righteousness, not an earned righteousness, one freely given to all who believe.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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