Matthew 5:17-20 (5)
Jesus has introduced us to the citizens of the kingdom, the ‘blessed’ ones, and told us that they would have a positive influence on the world around them using the analogy of “salt and light.” Before leaving the subject we should think how practically and positively we can influence our world. It is easy to think that we can make no significant difference because we are so few but it is only a little salt that flavours, not a bucket full, and one small light makes a major impact in the darkness. Seeing the Bible`s prediction that the world will get worse coming true and doing nothing is to misunderstand our role as citizens of the kingdom who are to be salt and light. Do you remember the story of Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody? ‘Something needed doing. Everybody thought Somebody should do it. Anybody could have done it but Nobody did’. It is said that evil prospers when the good do nothing. How will a voice for biblical standards be heard if we do not speak out for truth, righteousness and justice whenever the need arises? Perhaps to support and pray for those who have the ear of politicians, such as the Evangelical Alliance, etc. However, let us not become professional complainers otherwise no one will listen and let us make sure that the issues are those which offend God, not just us.
Before going on to the main body of His sermon, which begins in verse 21, Jesus pauses to answer a question that His teaching provoked. Was he advocating ignoring the Law?
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. 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.” (Matt 5:17-18)
This passage has caused much controversy, over the centuries, which can be divided roughly into two opposing views. First: some say that the Law is done away with and has no relevance for Christians. They will quote “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) and say ‘We are under grace not law.’ The heretic, Marcion, in the second century, took this to its extreme even re-writing the New Testament to eliminate any reference to the Old. His followers changed the scripture to read ‘I have come not to fulfil the Law or the Prophets; I have come to abolish them’. Second: there are those who say that you must keep the whole Law, even to the extent of becoming a Jew, although not many are quite so insistent on the circumcision aspect. The early Church faced this question regarding Gentiles believers, Do they have to become Jews and keep the whole Law?
We must begin by establishing just what is meant by ‘the Law and the Prophets’. This usually refers to the whole of the Old Testament including the writings. The Law stated what was required to live as covenant people before a holy God. It covered the three important areas, moral, civil and ceremonial law. The ceremonial law: was the worship, the sacrifices, the temple order, the priesthood and the festivals. These all had a prophetic element to them pointing to Christ. The civil law instructed them how to live together as a nation again portraying life as kingdom citizens. The moral law showed them how to live in a right relationship with God and with each other. The Prophets pointed out just how far from that perfect standard the people had strayed and also foretold the coming of the one who would fulfil perfectly the whole of the Law.
Jesus is saying categorically that, although they might want an easy ‘get out’ clause, he has come to do that which they find absolutely impossible, to fulfil all that the law required and to accomplish all that it pointed to.
But is He saying that His followers do not have to keep the Law? The next verses enlighten us.
“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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:19-20)
The Scribes and Pharisees were the most fervent keepers of the Law and fearing to break it added further restrictions to prevent the actual Law being broken. Sabbath keeping necessitated many extra restrictions. “They spent endless hours arguing whether or not a man could or could not lift a lamp from one place to another on the Sabbath, whether a tailor committed a sin if he went out with a needle in his robe, whether a woman might wear a broach or false hair, even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth or an artificial limb, if a man might lift his child on the Sabbath day.” (W Barclay) We would imagine Jesus talking to people who knew how fastidious the Scribes and Pharisees were in keeping the Law and saying “Yes! I know what they are like and you don`t want to be like them.” Instead, He says you need to be better than them. They knew from bitter experience that even when they had done their best they had never matched the Pharisees or the Laws requirements. I`m sure at this point many would have thought “Who then can be saved?”
But they would have missed the point. Jesus is not talking about the way of salvation because He is “The Way, The Truth and The Life” and “no one comes to the Father except by Him.” Those who think, that by trying to live out the Sermon on the Mount they can be saved, are still missing the point as their efforts usually degenerate into ‘Well! I wouldn`t do anybody any harm.’ “Whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” (Jam 2:10) Paul says “for by the Law no one can be justified.” (Gal 2:16)
What does Jesus mean? Remember, this Sermon is about the citizens of the kingdom and their lifestyle and in it Jesus will show just how they and their righteousness will far exceed that of the Pharisees. The Pharisees righteousness was all external, done for show, but done nevertheless. As Jesus described them later. “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. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt 23:27-28) They looked good to men but not to God who sees the heart.
Jesus, our great High Priest, has perfectly fulfilled, not abolished, the Law, when asked to sum up the commandments said, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” And: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mark 12:29-31) Keeping these two laws will in effect fulfil the whole Law and whereas for the Jew the Law was a burden for the kingdom citizen it is a joy. Why? Because their righteousness comes from inside, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” (Jer 31:33) It is no longer, ‘I have to do this’ grudgingly, but rather ‘Thank you for loving me and filling me with love for You and my neighbour.’ This is how it is possible for our righteousness to exceed that of the Pharisees because “God,” for Whom “all things are possible,” has done it.