Jesus and the Law
Topic: Default Passage: Matthew 5:17–5:20
Good morning! I hope all of you are doing well. As you know, we are walking our way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and today we get to one of the most important concepts for Christians to understand if we want to read, interpret and apply the Bible in our lives. What role does the Old Testament play in the Christian life?
Jesus, in this sermon, has been making some very bold claims about the nature of his authority. He’s not only drawing authority from Scripture, but He seems to be implying that He has authority even beyond that. He makes statements like, “Blessed is anyone persecuted for my sake.” He rebukes the Pharisees, the religious elite, for the way they are applying the law. So, very understandably, they are thinking, “Is Jesus opposed to the law? Is He doing away with the law that our people have lived by for thousands of years?”
And this question is something we have had to wrestle with for 2000 years. How does Jesus affect the way we apply the Old Testament? In the second century there was a man named Marcion that felt so strongly against the Old Testament that he went and erased any mention of it from the New Testament including our passage this morning. In His mind, Jesus came to start something completely different and new.
Last year, one of the most famous pastors in the United States, Andy Stanley, wrote a book where he talks about how modern Christianity relies too much on the Old Testament. In his words, the problem with the modern church is “our incessant habit of reaching back into the old covenant concepts, teachings, sayings and narratives.” Stanley then issues this call to church leaders: “Would you consider unhitching your teaching of what it means to follow Jesus from all things old covenant?” This is necessary, Stanley continues, because “when it comes to stumbling blocks to faith, the
Old Testament is right up there at the top of the list.” When people struggle to believe, “the Old Testament is usually the culprit.”
So, how do we answer statements like that? Was Jesus simply a Jewish teacher or was He a radical revolutionary coming up with something totally new? Or, was He something in between? This is precisely what Jesus is answer in this passage. So, this morning I would like to answer this question in three ways. By looking first at the Pharisees’ relationship to the Old Testament, second, Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament and, third, our relationship to the Old Testament.
- The Pharisees’ relationship to the Old Testament
Put very bluntly, the Pharisees and other religious leaders of Jesus’ time did not understand the Old Testament and, specifically, the Mosaic Law. As we continue through the Sermon on the Mount, you are going to hear Jesus, over and over, say “You have heard this about the law, but I tell you this…” And upon first hearing these words, it really can sound like Jesus is changing the law.
But Jesus isn’t saying, “The law says this, but I say this…” He’s not saying, “this was the old way, now I have come to show you the new way.” He’s saying that the religious leaders of the day have changed the law. They have modified it making it easier to follow and Jesus wants to restore the full weight of the law.
The Pharisees would take the laws and rework them to make them accomplishable. They wanted to answer questions like When have you really committed adultery? What actually constitutes stealing and coveting? And most controversially in that day, when have you successfully kept the Sabbath? They would make new laws that counted the number of steps someone walked, how far from home they traveled and exactly what kinds of works were permitted. The Pharisees wanted to feel like they were fully keeping the law, so they had to modify them.
Now, Jesus is coming in and saying that they have missed it completely! Jesus says to lust is to commit adultery, to covet is to steal and to be angry is to commit murder. Jesus is raising the bar! There was a saying in Jesus’ day that said, “If only two men go to heaven, surely one of them will be a scribe and the other a Pharisee. So, how incendiary would this statement have been? For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. - Matthew 5:20
Can you imagine how the pharisees must have felt? They kept all these laws better than anyone else and Jesus is saying that it still isn’t enough! The Pharisees were concerned with the external, but Jesus is concerned with the internal. This is why 18 chapters lasted, Jesus says, 27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. - Matthew 23:27-28
At the end of the day, the Pharisees had a false understanding of God’s law because they had a false understanding of God. They saw God as nothing more than someone who’s rules needed to be kept and they modified those rules to work for them. Is that not the prevailing view of God in American today? I’ll decide the rules and if I do more good than bad (according to my rules) and He’ll let you in.
The law isn’t supposed to make us feel better about our actions, it’s supposed to make us feel worse about our hearts. Jim Boice compares the law to Pavlov’s dog. In the late 1800’s Ivan Pavlov saw that if you put food in front of a dog, it triggers the salivary glands to produce saliva. He wondered if he could change the cause of the reaction to something besides food. So, every day when the food was put in front of the dog a bell was wrung. After doing this for some months, they rang the bell, but put out no food. And guess what? The dog produced saliva. He had proven that external circumstances could change internal responses. In the same way that the bell signaled saliva, the law is to signal knowledge of sin.
This is why Paul says Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." - Romans 7:7
The Pharisees didn’t think too much of the law, the thought too little of the of the law. The Pharisees saw the law as a way to clean up the external instead of a way to truly see the internal. That was the Pharisees’ relationship with the Old Testament. Now, let’s look at Jesus’.
- Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament
So, the Pharisees are screaming, “Who are you to come in and abolish our holy law??” And Jesus says to them, “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.18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. - Matthew 5:17-18 Jesus, over and over in this sermon, is raising the moral standard. The Pharisees were trying to minimize the law by making it manageable and Jesus is raising the bar as high as it can go. The Pharisees are the ones changing the law and Jesus is saying not an iota or dot will change.
So, the iota is the smallest Greek letter. We know for certain that Jesus spoke Aramaic and Hebrew so Matthew is contextualizing what Jesus said to a Greek reading audience. But every scholar agrees that Jesus’ original intent was the say that the smallest parts of the law in Hebrew letters won’t even be changed. The King James says ‘not a jot or tittle’ of the law will be changed. So, what is a jot and tittle?
If you’ve studied Hebrew, you know that the smallest letter is a yod. It’s like a little comma. There are somewhere around 66,000 yods in the Old Testament. Not one of them is changing according to Jesus. The dot likely refers to what is called a serif. I know some of you are font nerds. I’ll never understand you. But, you know the difference between the serif font and the sans serif font. The serif font has a little foot like dot at the bottom of the letter and the sans serif font has not foot like dot. In English the serif doesn’t mean anything, but in Hebrew a serif can change the whole letter. Jesus is saying that not even a serif will be changed.
“Ok, Jim, but we don’t make sacrifices on the altar anymore. We each shellfish like good Floridians. We don’t have to purify ourselves before church. I hear what Jesus is saying, but it sure seems like He abolished a lot.” He didn’t abolish, He fulfilled. There is a huge difference between the two.
So, in what way did Jesus fulfill the law? If you hear nothing else this morning, I want you to hear this. The law brings with it legal demands over our souls. The law shows us that we have failed and there is an eternal judgment for the debt that we owe. Jesus, though, fulfilled the law by fulfilling its judgement against us. Jesus fully obeyed the law...every jot and tittle. Then He took on the curse sentenced to us who have failed the law.
And when Jesus did that, the whole sacrificial system was fulfilled. Again, not abolished, but fulfilled. Pauls says that These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. - Colossians 2:17 Imagine if this huge window went dark. We would all know that there is a substance out there causing the shadow. The law is the shadow and Jesus is the substance.
The sacrificial system pointed forward to the sacrifice of Jesus. This is why the author of Hebrews writes, For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take always sins. - Hebrews 10:4 Old Testament believers were saved by belief in a sacrifice that God would one day provide. Now, we are saved by a sacrifice that God has provided. So, the whole sacrificial system, or ceremonial law, is fulfilled in Jesus. The same for the civil law, the Jewish national laws of the Old Testament. They are no longer binding because Jesus expands God’s covenant to believers of every tribe, tongue and nation.
Jesus didn’t add or subtract a single thing from the law. The only thing He added was that He kept them. John Calvin said, “It was only the use of [those laws] that was abolished, for their meaning was more fully confirmed.” So, can you see why Jesus is telling the Pharisees that He isn’t abolishing the law, but fulfilling it?
But, I want you to see one other thing too. Jesus isn’t only fulfilling the law, but also the prophets. All that was said about the coming of the Messiah was fulfilled in Jesus. And what we see here is that the whole purpose of the Old Testament is Jesus! All of it is pointing to Jesus!
After Jesus was crucified, He came back to two of his disciples and Luke record Jesus saying this: And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. - Luke 24:27 Jesus couldn’t be clearer that the Old Testament is all about Him! All the prophecies were signposts to Him!
Have you ever wondered why God waited so long to send Jesus? Why not send Jesus instead of Moses? Why not send Jesus instead of Abraham? Why not send Jesus instead of David? Because we needed categories to understand who Jesus is. Let me give you one example. A high priest. The role of a high in the Old Testament is to intercede between God and His people. But our high priests were always hindered in their ability to intercede because they were sinful. They sin got in the way of their ability to truly care for and sympathize with the people. They would get jealous and insecure and angry and prideful. And they certainly couldn’t stand confidently in front of God on our behalf. Once a year when the high priest was supposed to go into the Holy of Holies, to the very presence of God, He would tie a rope around his leg so that if he died from being in the presence of God, someone could retrieve his body. Some intercessor!
But after watching the shortcomings of sinful high priests century after century, we can understand and appreciate Jesus, our Perfect High Priest. The Old Testament helps us to understand what it means that we are the temple of God, that Jesus, our Passover lamb, is our perfect sacrifice. Jesus, a more faithful King than David who will usher in a greater kingdom greater than that of Solomon. We wouldn’t have these kinds of categories without the Old Testament.
What is Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament? That’s like asking what is the road sign’s relationship to the road or the treasure map’s relationship to the treasure. It exists to point to Him. He fulfilled every prophecy and every aspect of the law. So, how then does that affect our relationship to the Old Testament?
III. Our relationship to the Old Testament
Well, the answer depends on if you are a believer in Jesus Christ. If you are not, then your relationship with the law is that of a debtor with an unsettled debt yet to be paid. You look at the Old Testament and you, likely, see good stories that have moral lessons for children maybe, but really, nothing more. You think, “I’m better than most people I know and I believe God is gracious and that things will work out after this life.”
If that’s you, I want to share a story from the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon. One day he was in a conversation with a man down by the dock in London. Spurgeon said to the man, “Do you, my friend, have a good hope that if you die God will accept you?” The dockworker said, “I do! I think I’m as good as most folks I know.” “Well,” Spurgeon said, “my friend, my friend, I’m scared. I’m concerned for you. Is that the best you have to rely on?” The dockworker said, “Well, I’m also very charitable to the needy.”
Spurgeon said, “Well, but you have sinned in your life, haven’t you?” “Yes,” said the dockworker. “Many times.” “Well, what have you to rely on that gives you hopes of being forgiven?” “Well,” the dockworker said, “I am very sorry for my sins. I’ve stopped many of them.” Spurgeon said, “Now, my friend, suppose you get into debt with a grocer who you have dealt with, and you cannot pay. Can you say to your grocer, ‘Now look ma’am. I’m sorry I can’t pay for all these goods I owe you for, but I’ll tell you what. I’m sorry for that debt. I promise I’ll never get into debt anymore.’ Would she accept that?”
“Well,” the dockworker said, “of course she won’t accept that.” Spurgeon said, “Well, if she would not accept that and she would not make your debt good on the basis of that kind statement, do you supposed you can treat the Great God in that way when you would never treat your grocer that way?” “Well,” the dockworker said, “what can I do?” Spurgeon said, “Then I told him as plainly as I could how the Lord Jesus had taken the place of sinners and how those who trusted in him and rested on his blood and righteousness would find pardon and peace. That’s the gospel. Jesus Christ has fulfilled the law.”
If you are here here today and you are not a believer, my hope is that you will see that you owe a debt to the law that only Jesus can fulfill.
If you are a believer, then your relationship to the Old Testament is quite different. You’re reading the Old Testament through very different eyes. You don’t see simply good moral stories, you see Jesus. And because you do, I want to give you three implications for your life.
First, you’ll have a high view of the Old Testament. If the Old Testament paves the way for Jesus and communicates more about who He is, then we are going to hold it in high regard. We are going to read it and teach it in church. Lord willing, after we finish the Sermon on the Mount, we will walk through the book of Joshua.
I remember asking an older lady, a faithful Roman Catholic and a dear friend, “What would you say the difference is between what you believe and what I believe?” She said, “Well, I believe I believe both the Old and New Testaments. I see you Protestants walking around only giving out the New Testaments. We believe in both parts of the Bible.” Her observations were well taken.
Do you have a book that you love so much that you’ve read it more than one time? Maybe a number of times? Why do you read the whole thing and not just go back and read the last few chapters over and over? Because you know that it is one story and as you go back from the beginning you see details that maybe you missed or had forgotten that make the end all the better.
The same is true in the Bible. Do you realize that it’s just one story from start to finish? Let me give you just one example of where we see this.The third chapter of Genesis, right after Adam and Eve fell. God comes into the garden and curses the serpent saying, "Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; (and here it is) he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel." - Genesis 3:14-15
Do you see Jesus in the third chapter of the Bible? One day, serpent, you will bruise the heel of her offspring (sending Jesus to the cross), but He will crush your your head (by defeating death). If we understand that the whole Bible is about Jesus, we should have a very high view of the whole Bible! We won’t just stay in the 25% of the Bible post Jesus’ birth, ignoring the 75% that anticipates, predicts and leads up to Jesus’ arrival.
Second, if we have a proper understanding of the Old Testament, we should have a high view of the moral law. I have already talked about the ceremonial law and the civil law begging fulfilled. The moral law, though, encompasses all the right ethical actions in the kingdom of God. Most would point to the 10 commandments. The moral law which is fulfilled in that our debt is paid, but the moral law still exists. Not in a condemning way, but a life giving way. The moral law is the law of the kingdom we now live in. And the more we abide by the moral law, the greater we are in the kingdom of heaven.
John Stott says that “Greatness in the Kingdom is measured by conformity to it.” This is why Jesus says in verse 19: Therefore whoever relaxes 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. - Matthew 5:19
So, what is Jesus saying? You hear this saying that all sins are equal. Well, yes, in that all separate us from a Holy and Righteous God, but no in that they carry the same consequences. There are some sins that are more serious to God. And Jesus is saying that even the smallest, most insignificant parts of the moral law should be important to Christians.
Christians should have a higher view of the moral law because we have been freed from its debt and given access to the kingdom of heaven. We should be the most trustworthy, the most honest, the most reliable. We should care about kingdom moral issues.
Here is one example. This week New York took a huge step toward going around US law and allowing abortions all the way up until the moment of the birth. Christians should care about this more than anyone! The Mosaic Law has a high regard for life and a high regard for the vulnerable and so should we. But we shouldn’t stop caring at birth. We should care that there are children that have less of a chance of succeeding in this society because of where they are born and the color of their skin. And some you might be on board when I talk about abortion, but the moment I mention race, you feel like I’m getting political. It’s not political, it’s Kingdom ethics. Where Christians are, the moral laws of Jesus’ kingdom are reflected.
So, we should have a high regard for the Old Testament, we should have a high regard for the moral law and, lastly, we should have a high regard for what is yet to be accomplished. Did you notice that Jesus says that not an iota or dot will pass from the law until all is accomplished. We don’t live in light of a kingdom that might come to pass, we live in regard to a kingdom that will come to pass. And because we do, we are ok being looked down on, we are ok being misunderstood and we are ok being persecuted.
The kingdom we serve is coming. A kingdom with no need of any kind of external law because it will be fully inside us. There will be no need to write down the moral law or to be reminded of the moral law because there will be no sin. We will live with our God in perfect peace, perfect justice and perfect love forever.
I don’t want to throw Andy Stanley under the bus because I actually do think he has made significant contributions to the kingdom of God. But what he doesn’t realize is that he is falling into the same trap the Pharisees did. He doesn’t understand the role of the Old Testament so he’s minimizing it. And when you minimize the Old Testament, you minimize God. The pharisees minimized the Old Testament by making it accomplishable and Stanley is minimizing it by throwing it out completely.
What is your relationship with the Old Testament? All of us, if we are not careful, will do the same thing. We will fall into one of those traps. We will minimize it in some way. My prayer for all of us this morning is that we will make much of God by making much of His Word.