Jesus Came to Fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17-20)

1.  What Did Jesus Come to Do?

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.  18For 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.  19Therefore 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.  20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Christianity is all about Jesus Christ.  I hope I’m not saying anything new or profound there.  Deep in our bones, every Christian understands that Christianity is about Jesus.  But I think there is a lot of confusion about who Jesus is and what he has come to do.  For example, I used to teach at a Christian school where the students were required to take a Bible class every year.  While I was there, one of my students once said: “I’m so glad that Jesus has come in the New Testament to replace the mean and angry God of the Old Testament.”

But is that true?  Did he come to replace the Old Testament?  Or did he come to do something else?  What did Jesus come to do?  The biblical answer is clear: Jesus came to fulfill what God was doing in the Old Testament.

2.  Jesus Is the True Fulfillment of the Law (v. 17)

The first thing to consider from our text is that Jesus tells us to not think that he has come to do away with “the Law and the Prophets.”  This phrase is a quick way for Jesus to refer to the entire Old Testament.  “The Law” refers to the first five books of the Bible which were written by Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  “The Prophets” refers to the rest of the Old Testament.  So when Jesus says that he has not come to abolish “the Law and the Prophets,” he means that he has not come to completely do away with the Old Testament.

Jesus knows that we constantly face the temptation to replace the old with the new.  Whenever the new iPhone comes out, what does everyone forget about?  The old iPhone.  So when Jesus begins his teaching ministry, he knows that he’s the new guy on the scene.  He knows that everyone is going to think: well now that this guy’s here, we don’t have to think about the Old Testament anymore.  But this is a huge misunderstanding of what Jesus came to teach and what Jesus came to do.

Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them.  This means that Jesus didn’t come to do something fundamentally different than what God was doing in the Old Testament.  Rather, he came to accomplish and complete what God was doing there.  You see, the Old Testament is this grand story about how a faithful God saves His unfaithful people who could never save themselves.  So when Jesus says that he is here to fulfill the Old Testament, what he means in the most ultimate sense is that he has come to save his people who could never save themselves.

The Prophets in the Old Testament pointed to such a savior.  Isaiah spoke of one who “was pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5), and this was fulfilled when Jesus’ hands and feet were pierced by nails, when he was crushed by the wrath of God because of our sin, not his own.  Jeremiah wrote of one who “shall reign as a king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel shall dwell securely” (Jeremiah 23:5-6).  Here we see that the people of God are saved, dwelling securely, and living under a righteous king.  We find out in the New Testament that this righteous king is Jesus, to whom everyone will bow and confess that he is Lord (cf. Philippians 2:10-11).

Daniel wrote of one who “was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14), and we see that Jesus is the fulfillment of this since by his blood he “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,” having “made them a kingdom” (Revelation 5:9-10).  We could go on and on with references like this, but you get the point: Jesus fulfilled what the Prophets had said concerning the coming savior.

3.  Jesus Is the True Interpreter of the Law (vv. 18-19)

Then Jesus makes this statement: “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (v. 18).  What does this mean?  At least these two things:

1)  The entire Old Testament is fully authoritative as God’s Word.

The Old Testament still matters for the Christian life because it is God’s Word.  It shows us how God saves His people from slavery and sin.  And then the Law tells us how to live a life pleasing to God.  It tells us how to live after God has saved us.  As one theologian said, “We must not imagine that the coming of Christ has freed us from the authority of the law: for it is the eternal rule of a devout and holy life” (John Calvin).  This is why it shall not pass away until all of his work is accomplished.  Even when God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, He first said, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).  Basically: I am your God, and I have saved you.  Now, live like this.

2)  The entire Old Testament contains teaching which points to Christ.

As we’ve already mentioned, Christ is the true fulfillment of the Law.  That means that the Law was always meant to point us to Christ.  The point of the Law is not, “Here’s God’s list of requirements; do them, and then He will love you.”  No.  Rather, the point of the Law is to show us over and over and over again how far short we fall of God’s righteous requirements.  The Law is like a mirror: it shows you what you look like, but it cannot help you if you’re ugly (like me).  And then, once we’ve looked in the mirror to see how sinful we really are, once we’ve seen how ugly we are spiritually, we will look for a savior.  And that savior is Jesus Christ, the savior that the Old Testament points to.

This means that when we look at Jesus, we see not only our savior, but also a real example of what righteousness looks like.  As the one who came to fulfill the Law, he lived in perfect obedience to God.  Every action of his hands, every love in his heart, and every thought in his mind, in every situation, at every moment, no matter where he went, was perfect before God.  He is the flesh and blood example of what it looks like to live a life pleasing to God.

This is also how we should think about the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament.  It is true that “the ceremonies of the law – the daily, weekly, and yearly sacrifices – were abolished because their real meaning was to foreshadow the sacrifice that Christ himself would make.  Since Christ had made one sacrifice for sin, valid for all time, no further sacrifices were required [Hebrews 10:11-18]” (Sinclair Ferguson, p. 73).  So these sacrifices pointed forward to Jesus’ death once-for-all on the cross.  They don’t apply anymore precisely because Christ has fulfilled them.

Then Jesus says, “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.”  So Jesus has said that the Law will not pass away.  Now he says that those who misinterpret what the Law means, apply it incorrectly, and then teach others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.  Basically what Jesus is saying is that since he is the one who came to fulfill the Law, he knows exactly what it means and how it applies to our lives.  He came to teach what the Law really means, and if we look at his life, we see what it looks like to be perfectly obedient to the Law.

Now, this sets up what Jesus says in verses 21-48.  Jesus is about to make a series of statements that begin with: “You have heard that it was said.”  For example, he says to them, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (vv. 43-44).  He also does this with anger, lust, divorce, retaliation, and taking oaths.

Jesus does this because he knows that there are some people in the crowd who probably think that he is going to relax the requirements of the Law.  Maybe they had heard the Law read aloud in the synagogue and thought, “Wow, that is impossible to follow.”  And so when Jesus comes along and he starts his teaching ministry, maybe they think: “This new guy’s going to give us something easier to follow.”

But Jesus doesn’t do that.  Not only does he not give us something easier to follow, but he actually teaches us the right interpretation of the Law (i.e., what the Law originally meant), which was even deeper than what the scribes and Pharisees thought.  According to Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees misinterpret the Law and apply it incorrectly.  Here’s why: they are more concerned with outward appearances and making themselves look holy before other people than they are with God and His holiness.  They are more concerned with the actions of their hands than they are with the loves of their hearts.  It’s really easy to look and see what people do, but it’s impossible for us to look into their hearts to see what they love.  But Jesus is going to teach in verses 21-48 that the Law doesn’t just apply to the actions of our hands; it applies also to the loves of our hearts.

God is interested not only in what we do, but also in what we love. 

4.  Jesus Is the True Righteousness of Those Who Believe (v. 20)

The next thing Jesus says is very important but equally unpopular: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 20).  Now what does he mean by this?

One of the things that I used to tell my students was, “Jesus, for as kind, and gentle, and loving as he was, made a habit of teaching and doing things that hurt other people’s feelings.”  And this is one of those examples.  Jesus says here that we need a certain kind of righteousness to enter the kingdom of heaven.  And it has to be a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Now, we know that the scribes and Pharisees thought they were righteous according to the Law, but remember: they misinterpreted the real meaning of the Law.  It applies not only to what we do, but also to what we love.  So when Jesus says that we need a righteousness that is greater than what the scribes and Pharisees have, he means that we need a righteousness which applies both to our hands and to our hearts.  In other words, as Jesus says later in the chapter, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).

The Law of God requires perfection.  Perfect outward and perfect inward obedience.  Obedience of the hands and obedience of the heart.  God requires that everything we do, everything we love, and everything we think to be pleasing to Him.  And without this obedience, without this kind of righteousness, Jesus says, we will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Now you might be sitting there thinking, “But we don’t have that kind of righteousness.  I do and love and think things which aren’t pleasing to God.  How could I ever get into heaven?”  We will never make it into heaven because of what we can do.  We don’t have perfect righteousness in ourselves.  Because of our sin, we aren’t able to do and love and think in such a way that always pleases God.  And you’d be right to think that.

But I know of someone who has no sin.  And the Bible says that God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).  So Jesus comes and he takes our place.  God counts him as a sinner even though he has no sin so that we can be counted as righteous even when we aren’t.  When we believe in Jesus, God counts us as righteous before him because of what Jesus has done.  This is how we get the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

And not only that, but as Christians we come to love the Law more and more such that we begin to obey God’s commands with a pure heart.  As Sinclair Ferguson says, “Jesus fulfils the law by writing it in the hearts of his disciples, through the ministry of his Spirit . . . God’s law is no longer an external rule that we find burdensome.  Because God has given us a new heart committed to Him and His ways, we want to obey Him” (p. 74).   So our actual behavior changes, we become more and more righteous according to the Law precisely because God has given us new hearts.  As Ezekiel once prophesied of God’s promise in New Covenant: “I will give you a new heart . . . and cause you to walk in my statutes” (36:26, 27).  So God counts us as righteous in Jesus.  That’s the gospel.  And then once God has saved us and given us new hearts, our behavior slowly becomes more and more righteous as we delight in God’s Law and follow Him.

5.  The Call of the Gospel

The gospel is not that we make ourselves right with God through what we do.  The gospel is that Jesus has come and fulfilled the Law: in all of his actions, loves, and thoughts, he lived a perfect life of obedience before God.  The gospel is that Jesus fulfilled what the Prophets had said: he took our sin and died a death that we deserved and in our place.  He satisfied the wrath of God against our sin.  And then he was raised on the third day, a public vindication that his work was successful.

And so the call tonight is not just to go home and try a little bit harder to be a better person.  The call tonight is this: look to Jesus, the perfect person, the one who truly fulfilled the Law, the one who truly interprets the Law, and the one who makes us right with God.  Look to him.  Love him.  Repent of your sin, and trust that God truly is gracious to forgive and powerful to save.


Thanks for reading.  Have a comment or question?  Leave it below!

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