The Christian and the Law: Matthew 5:17-20

How does the Christian relate to the law of God?  This was a question that first grabbed my attention when as a new Christian I began to study Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.  In that letter, Paul made what to me were some rather strange statements that I could not understand.  For on the one hand, he seems to say that the Christian is redeemed from the law (Gal. 4:5) and that the Mosaic covenant no longer applies to the NT believer (Gal. 3:19-29).  On the other hand, however, he backs up his own teaching by the authority of this very law!  See, for example, Paul’s statement in Gal. 5:14.  How could this be?  The apostle seems to give with one hand what he takes away with the other.  It was to me a genuine paradox, and I didn’t know how to solve it.  And yet this paradox is not just unique to Galatians.  It extends across the New Testament.
Galatians is not the only place where Paul celebrates the believer’s freedom from law.  He tells us in Romans 6:14 that we are no longer under law but under grace.  In the next chapter, he expands on what he means by freedom from the law (Rom. 7:4-6):
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

We know that the law under consideration here is the Law of Moses, because in the next verse the apostle speaks of the law in terms of the tenth commandment.  Moreover, it is the Law of Moses that is under consideration in Galatians 5:1 – “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (cf. 4:21-31).
The writer of Hebrews also emphasizes that the believer is no longer under the law.  He is insistent that the whole covenant that embraced the Mosaic Law has been surpassed by its fulfillment.  He therefore speaks of “a change of the law,” of “a disannulling of the commandment,” and of the first covenant (the Mosaic) giving way to the new covenant (Heb. 7:12, 18; 8:7-13).
But when we come to our text, and hear Jesus speak to us about the Law, he seems to flatly contradict what the apostles have told us.  Instead of speaking of freedom from the Law, he forthrightly tells us that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.  Not the smallest letter or serif will pass from the law.  For this reason, those who do not teach and keep the law will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.  The one whose righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees – a righteousness that was measured by the law of God – will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  This does not sound like freedom from the law.  It sounds like a reaffirmation of the law for the lives of his disciples.
What makes this even more troubling is that Jesus seems in the following verses to undo what he says here.  In verse 21-48, he seems to radically alter – that is to say, to nullify and abolish – the law in light of his own teaching!  In other words, we have this contradiction even in Jesus.  In verses 17-20, he seems to tell us that we are under the law; in the rest of the chapter, he seems to imply that the law no longer applies, that it has been supplanted by his own ethical demands.  Which is it?!

But these verses are not only interesting because of the interpretational difficulties involved, but they are also important because of the issues raised by them that affect the Christian on a very practical level.  In particular, these verse raise the following questions:

·         How does the Christian relate to the Law of God?
·         Why should I read the Old Testament? What usefulness does it have for the Christian?
·         Do the Old Testament laws still apply?  If only some but not all apply, how do I know which?  And why?
·         What does it mean to be free from the law, and how does this not contradict what Jesus says here?

However, before we consider these questions, let’s look at the passage in more detail.  Righteousness has already made several entrances into our Lord’s sermon.  His followers are characterized as those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (v. 6) and as those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake (v. 10).  They are those who do good works (v. 16).  They are those whose righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (v. 20).  The question then becomes, how do you define this righteousness?  What makes some act righteous and another unrighteous?  This is a very important question especially today, because we are living in a time when right and wrong are being radically redefined.  However, for the Christian, our Lord settles the question once and for all.  God’s law is the eternal standard – it will outlast this present universe – till heaven and earth pass.
These four verses naturally divide into two main ideas: (1) how Christ relates to the law (v. 17-18) and (2) how the disciple relates to the law (v. 19-20).[1] 
First, how does Christ relate to the law? 
His basic argument is that he did not come to destroy or abolish the law, and he gives two reasons why.  The reason he needed to make this argument probably stems from the fact that our Lord had almost certainly already had run-ins with the Pharisees over the issue of Sabbath observance (Mk. 2:23-3:6) which occurred very early in his ministry.  So I think he is doing two things in these words.  First, he is correcting any incorrect views that some might have on account of these actions.  Secondly, he is anticipating any incorrect views that some might arrive at on account of his teaching in verses 21, ff.  Here was a man who set aside the Pharisaical Sabbath observance laws and who would brush aside the Biblical scholars of his day with his own authoritative commandments.  Some might conclude that Jesus had really come to set aside the Law and replace it with his own.  To this, Jesus says, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”
The phrase “law, or the prophets” is a reference to all of the Old Testament Scripture.  It is this that Jesus came to fulfill.  The key word here is “fulfill.”  When you look at Matthew’s use of this word in this gospel, it always has a prophetic aspect to it.  Prophesies are fulfilled by persons and events.  What Jesus is saying, and what Matthew has already been at pains to point out, is that he is the one that all the Old Testament is pointing to.  The events, such as the Exodus, pointed to Christ, and the entire religious fabric of the Mosaic rites of sacrifice and purification pointed forward to his atonement.  Jesus’s death is predicted in Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, and other details of his birth, life, and death appear at other places in the Law and the Prophets. 
If Jesus is the one who fulfills the OT as the one to whom it points, then there is no way he is against the law.  You don’t destroy what you come to fulfill.  Thus, Jesus relates to the law as the one who fulfills it.
Our Lord then underlines the authority of the OT in the words of verse 18: “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”  This is an amazing and sweeping statement.  It shows just how our Lord thought of the OT Scriptures and their authority.  How authoritative are they?  They are eternally authoritative, for they will last “till heaven and earth pass.”  Further, they are authoritative down to their very words, for even a jot or a tittle will not pass from the law.  The “jot” is a reference to the Hebrew letter “yod” which is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet.  The “tittle” is a reference to the serifs on the ends of some of the letters that would distinguish one from another.  As D. A. Carson puts it, “Jesus here upholds the authority of the OT Scriptures right down to the ‘least stroke of a pen.’  His is the highest possible view of the OT.”[2]

Thus, Jesus gives two reasons he is not opposed to the law – why he has not come to destroy it.  He both fulfills its prophesies and asserts its authority to his disciples.
How then do his disciples relate to the law?
Verses 19-20 follow by inevitable logic from the previous two verses.  If Jesus stands with the law, his disciples cannot stand against it.  Indeed, “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

If we accept the authority of Jesus, and Jesus accepted the authority of the law, then it stands to reason that we must also accept the law’s authority over our lives.  To do or teach otherwise, is to be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.  This probably means exclusion from the kingdom, given what Jesus says in verse 20.  You cannot be a disciple of Jesus and stand against what he came to fulfill and what he honored as authoritative.

In fact, in verse 20, our Lord does something which must have really surprised his audience.  No doubt there were scribes and Pharisees among the crowd.  Jesus looks at them, points to them, these righteous men, and says that not only does he honor the law, but no one can enter the kingdom whose righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.

What a shock that must have been!  How could anyone outdo these guys who spent their whole lives studying and applying God’s law to their lives!  They had spent so much time with the law that they calculated “that the law contains 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions.”[3]  This verse really sets up the following verses, and as we shall see, what our Lord has in mind is the heart.  These religious men were good with observing the external ordinances, but they “neglected the weightier matters of the law” (23:23).  They honored God with their mouths, but their hearts were far from him (15:8).  Our Lord is claiming that true obedience not only has a right standard (the law) but proceeds from a right source (the heart).
Which brings us back to our initial problem.  The “commandments” of verse 19 to which Jesus requires obedience are clearly a reference to God’s law in the OT Scriptures.  But if the rest of the NT tells us that we are free from the law, what does this mean?  Forget about the controversy between Paul and James – what about the fact that Paul seems to be at odds with Jesus! 

The solution to the problem, I think, lies in verse 17 and the fact that Jesus is the one who fulfills the OT.  What that means is that all of the OT must be read in light of his fulfillment of it.  This is true also of its commands.

On the basis of this fundamental truth we will see that there is a sense in which the believer is under the law, and there is a sense in which the believer is no longer under the law.  Both Paul and Jesus are telling the truth.  Jesus is telling the truth when he says that his disciples are obligated to obey the law, and Paul is telling the truth when he says that believers are free from the law.

Let’s consider how this works out.  To this end, I think an old distinction which has fallen out of favor is still very helpful here.  I’m referring to the tripartite distinction of the law in terms of its moral, ceremonial, and judicial (or civil) aspects.  It’s true that under the Old Covenant, this distinction would not have made sense, since all of God’s commands, including the ones with reference to sacrifices and feasts, were moral.  This is because for a person under the Old Covenant to fail to do them would just have been disobedience to God.  However, what theologians have generally understood as God’s moral law is that law which, though it found a particular expression in the Mosaic legislation (esp. in the Ten Commandments), nevertheless is timeless and independent of any particular covenant.

On the other hand, the ceremonial law refers to that part of the Mosaic Law that prescribed the religious life of the nation of Israel.  Under this category go all the laws concerning sacrificing and feasts and the service of the tabernacle and so on.  The judicial law refers to those laws which organized Israel as a nation.  Lloyd-Jones gives this definition of it; it was “the legislative law given for the nation of Israel in its peculiar circumstances at that time, which indicated how men and women were to order their behavior in relationship to other and the various things they were and were not to do.”[4] 

But how come the “moral” law is timeless and the ceremonial and judicial laws are not?

It comes down to Christ and his fulfillment of the law.  The reason you and I don’t have to sacrifice goats is because the ultimate function of all the goats and cows and sheep and birds that were sacrificed was to point to Christ.  Once Christ had come, there was no longer any need to sacrifice animals.  The ritual law finds its completion in Christ.  The sacrificial, food, and purity laws all pointed to a reality that finds its consummation and realization in him.  Since they pointed to Christ and his work, when in the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, their purpose was served.  This is the argument of the much of the book of Hebrews, especially chapter 10.  Paul also makes this argument with respect to the Mosaic food laws and the religious calendar in Colossians 2:16-17, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.”  His point is that these laws were only shadows that pass away with the coming of the reality that they foreshadowed.

In like manner, the civil laws that constituted Israel as a theocratic nation are no longer in force.  When Jesus came to establish his kingdom, his disciples expected him to take the nation of Israel and exalt it among the nations.  But that is not what Jesus came to do.  He did not come to establish a political structure, but a church (16:18) and a kingdom that is “not of this world” (Jn. 18:36).  The kingdom of God that Jesus came to establish was foreshadowed by the nation of Israel; this is shown in the fact that many of the OT promises to Israel belong to spiritual Israel – those who belong to the kingdom of heaven.  Thus, the civil laws also find their fulfillment in Christ, and pass away with the establishing of the church.  For this reason, when Paul confronts the case of incest in the church of Corinth (1 Co. 5), he does not urge the church to execute the man but only to put him out of the fellowship.  Under the OT civil law, the man would have been put to death, but in the present era the penalty is different.  Incest is still sin, however, and this confirms the fact that the moral norms of the law abide even when the sanctions associated with them under the Mosaic covenant are no longer binding upon the new covenant people of God.

Therefore, when Jesus says in verse 19, “Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments,” we must read this in light of verse 17.  It is right to speak of the Christian keeping God’s commandments and obeying the law of God.  But in light of Jesus’ fulfillment of the law, these commandments which are still binding on the conscience of believers must be the moral norms of the law given in the Pentateuch and expounded by the prophets but which are distinct from the ceremonial and judicial aspects of the Mosaic legislation.

There is therefore no doubt that God’s law still functions in the life of the believer.  After all, the whole purpose of the New Covenant was to write God’s laws on his people’s hearts so that they would obey him (Jer. 31:33).  Paul tells us that Christ came “that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Rom. 8:4).  Several times Paul quotes the OT command to love one’s neighbor and urges it on his readers (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14).  In fact, the reason he urges this is because to love one’s neighbor is to fulfill the law!

We can see then how the OT is still important for the life of the church.  We must never forget that the Bible of the early church was just the OT.  We must never forget that when Paul said, “For whatsoever things were written afore time were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope,” he was referring to the OT Scriptures.  The same is true of 2 Tim. 3:16-17.  The OT is relevant to the NT believer, to catechize, command, correct, and comfort him/her.  In fact, you really cannot have a good understanding of some of the NT teaching without a thorough background in the OT.

But the larger picture in terms of this supposed contradiction between Jesus and Paul is this.  The believer is still obligated to keep the moral norms of the law.  But the believer is no longer under the Mosaic Law as a covenant.  This is seen in the fact that believers are no longer obligated to keep the ceremonial and civil aspects of the law.  Because Christ has come, the Old Covenant has passed away, and we are no longer under the law in that sense.  We no longer have to keep the rite of circumcision or sacrifice animals or observe the annual and monthly and weekly holy days prescribed under the Law.  The moral law abides, the least commandment must be kept, but the ceremonial and civil aspects have passed away.  As Paul puts it, the law as a covenant was temporary because fulfilled by Christ (Gal. 3:25), but the moral norms of the law endure (Gal. 5:14).

I want to end by noting that there are also a couple of other ways the NT authors speak of the believer as being free from the law, but neither of which contradict Jesus’ words here.  In Rom. 6:14 and in chapter 7 of that same epistle, when Paul speaks of being free from the law, he means freedom from the futility of keeping the law in the strength of depraved flesh.  It takes the Spirit of God to obey the law (Rom. 8:7-8).  As long as people are in the flesh, they are not able to keep God’s law.

There was no promise of the Spirit inherent in the Old Covenant that would give the people the ability to keep the law.  The law was written in tables of stone, not in hearts.  It gave men the impossible task of obeying God’s commands with their own feeble resources.  However, the New Covenant gives what it demands.  To be under the law is to be under the power of the flesh (Gal. 5:16, 18), whereas to be in the New Covenant is to be given the power to do what God commands by the Spirit of God.  So we are free from the law in the sense that we are no longer slaves to sin.  But that does not mean that we are without law.  As Tom Schreiner put it, “Freedom from law for Paul does not mean freedom from ‘ought.’  It means freedom from the power of sin which uses the law to produce death.”[5]

Finally, we are free from the law in the sense that we are free from the curse of the law.  In Galatians 5:2-4, for example, Paul highlights this point (cf. Gal. 3:10).  Evidently, some in the churches of Galatia has turned the Law of Moses into a legalistic meter to measure one’s merit.  But Paul emphatically denies that the law was even intended to be used to that end.  If you want to gain salvation by the law, you have to do it on its own terms, and that is impossible.  It gives a curse, not blessing.  Christ has delivered us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, and for all who embrace Christ, they are no longer under the curse of the law.

[1]Cf. John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p.69.
[2] Carson, p. 145.
[3] Stott, p. 74.
[4] P. 161
[5] Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment, p. 245.


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