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"Pharisee-Exceeding Righteousness."

MESSAGE for Sunday, May 31, 2009, Matthew 5:17-20

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This morning, I want to us to take a look at a very important text in Matthew’s gospel.  The truths in these verses call us to do what all believers frequently need to do in their spiritual life and that is—go back to the very essence of Christianity found in the Bible.  For those who are not yet believers, this is a great text to help you cut through the fog and see some essential truths of Christianity. The text is Matthew 5:17-20.  This teaching of Jesus is positioned near the beginning of his first extended teaching in Matthew, and one of his most famous discourses, the Sermon on the Mount.  In Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry with the same broad message as John the Baptist.  Chapter 4:17 says, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Jesus called people to repentance—to turn away from the things and values of the fallen kingdom of this world.  That call to repent was a central part of his larger message.  That message is mentioned a few verses later in 4:23 where it says about Jesus’ early ministry, “And he went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among he people. 

          Jesus not only called people to repent, but to believe something--the gospel or the “good news” of the kingdom.  Jesus didn’t come to earth simply to impart truth, heal sick people and die an inspirational death.  He came to establish a kingdom that would express the glorious realities of heaven… on earth.  He inaugurated this kingdom through his death and resurrection and is the unchallenged King over this kingdom.  His kingdom is populated by his subjects—those who have repented of the ways of the kingdom of this world and have trusted in him and his saving work.  By God’s grace, they have become, not only subjects of his kingdom of heaven on earth, but have also been adopted as sons of God who will one day rule and reign with Jesus—THE Son of God.  This kingdom, when fully realized will be similar, but far more glorious than the kingdom God originally began in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve and which fell into spiritual darkness when they rebelled against God.  In Matthew, we see Jesus through this kingdom-building lens.

          As Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, he explains in very broad terms the ethic or value system of the kingdom in “the beatitudes.”  Those who live under the kingship of God will by God’s grace renounce the values of the kingdom of this world, repent of its ways and manifest certain attributes—poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are meek and pure in heart, etc---those people will be uniquely blessed within this kingdom. In the next section, just preceding our text, Jesus explains what is distinctive about those who live within his kingdom.  Those belonging to God’s kingdom—those who have repented and are increasingly living out the gospel of the kingdom--will by their very nature will be like salt, preserving and seasoning this rotting and tasteless world and they will be light, bringing God’s light of truth through their lives and words to this world’s kingdom cloaked in spiritual darkness. 

          When Jesus came to earth to bring this kingdom, he came as a Jew to fulfill the promises made to Abraham and others.  That means that in the Providence of God he came to a people who understood that God’s will is contained in a sacred book--what the Jews of his day called “the Law and the Prophets” and what we call the Old Testament.  That means that it was vital for him to establish at the outset of his relationship to this book.  What was the relationship between his ministry of calling people to repent and believe this gospel of the kingdom and the teaching of the law and the prophets?  The Old Testament was filled with 613 laws and dozens of other ethical teachings that the Jews understood were the inspired expression of God’s will for them.  Jesus wants the Jews and us to know at the beginning of his ministry how his message of the gospel of the kingdom relates to the Old Testament.

          Let’s see how he does that beginning with verse 17 which is where we will spend our time this morning.  There Jesus says, 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. 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Here, Jesus affirms that his ministry—however radical and revolutionary it might have appeared, is in fact completely rooted in something very old—the inspired teaching of the Law and the Prophets—the Old Testament. 

In these four verses Jesus teaches four truths about the relationship between his gospel of the kingdom and the law and the prophets.  First, he answers the question, “what is the nature of this relationship?” in verse 17.  That’s where we will go this morning.  Second, in verse 18 he answers the question, “how long will the Law and the Prophets be necessary to fully serve their purpose?”  Third, in verse 19 he answers the question, “what does this mean to me?” as he gives an eternal implication that flows from this relationship between his gospel and the Law and Prophets and fourth in verse 20, he answers the question of “how does life in the kingdom compare with the “righteousness” the Jews had seen and heard in the Pharisees?” 

Let’s look at the nature of the relationship between the message of Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom and the message of the Old Testament.  Why is that important?  Several reasons, but here’s one—perhaps no other truth liberates us to understand the message and the role of the three quarters of the Bible found in the Old Testament.  The studies done in North America reveal an amazing amount of Biblical illiteracy among evangelicals.  Most professed believers simply do not know their Bibles very well and that has risen to its most embarrassing level with their ignorance of the Old Testament.  For many believers, the Old Testament is an almost complete mystery.  They read all those Levitical laws about animal sacrifices and those bloody battle scenes and they don’t know what they are supposed to do with them.  Many enjoy the rich Old Testament narratives—the stories of the patriarchs and the lives of Moses and David and Ruth and Esther are very interesting, but frankly—they really don’t know much about what they are supposed to get from them except the same kind of broad moral lessons you could get from a lot of other sacred books.  They read the wisdom literature and again, they are just not sure what they are supposed to take from them beyond some common sense and some comfort from the Psalms.  The prophetic books take a lot of work to get the context and the culture down so that you can understand what the prophets are really complaining about and most people don’t see how that level of study could be worth the effort.  One reason people don’t read the Old Testament is because they don’t know what lens through which to read it. They don’t know what they are supposed to be getting out of it beyond some vague notion of spiritual enrichment.  Specifically, they don’t really know how much of the Old Testament relates to Jesus?

As Jesus here reveals the nature of the relationship between the Old Testament and his message, we receive an invaluable key to unlocking the treasures of the Old Testament.  But even more importantly, we get a bracing, unobscurred look into the very heart of God.  So, here is the one question we want to address today:  What is the nature of the relationship between Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom and the Old Testament? The answer is: The nature of the relationship is fulfillment, not abolition.  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.”  First, Jesus makes it clear that he does not come with a spiritual wrecking ball to tear down the teaching of the Old Testament.  He reveals an exquisitely high level of continuity between himself--how he lives and what he teaches--and the Old Testament.  This is important for us in our day because the world claims to love or at least revere Jesus, but they will reliably sneer at anyone who takes seriously that bloody, “mythological” and to their mind, repulsive Old Testament.

You don’t have to listen to too many secularists dress down Biblical Christianity before they (or liberal mainline Protestant theologians) start mocking anyone who would literally believe in the God of the Old Testament.  You know, that God who does things like declaring holy wars on pagan nations and ordering his Jewish army to summarily wipe it out, including the women and children.  It’s interesting that Jesus here does not distance himself from any part of the Old Testament—not the laws, not the miracles, not the holy wars, not the fire and brimstone prophets—none of them.  In fact, he does just the opposite. He profoundly embraces it.  He doesn’t edit the Old Testament or explain it away.  He clearly declares his absolute solidarity with it.  In verse 18 he says, “…not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law…”  Jesus says “yea and amen” to even the smallest stroke of the Old Testament writers’ pen.  Jesus complete identifies himself with the Law and the Prophets.

That complete solidarity with the Old Testament begs a question because we know from Jesus’ ministry that he does in fact change the law at some points.  In Mark chapter seven, he basically throws out the Jewish food laws that declare certain things unclean.  In Mark 7:18 he says, “whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him.”  Mark says in effect—“here’s what that means,” “Thus he declared all foods clean.” That’s not what Leviticus teaches.  What’s more, think for a moment on what happened to the Law when Jesus taught that one of the distinctive features of his kingdom was that God was going to broaden his redemptive focus to include the Gentiles.  His primary redemptive focus would no longer be on the Jews.  He says that in the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21:41.  Jesus concludes the story by saying to Jews, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [Israel] and given to people producing its fruits.”  That statement is a lightning bolt that ultimately renders many Old Testament laws defunct.

John Piper explains the radical nature of this verse and traces some of the ripple effects from this change of focus within redemption.  He writes about Old Testament Israel and says, “The people of God would no longer be defined by ethnicity or by participation in the theocratic system of kings and priests and judges and all the ceremonial and civic laws that held the system together.  The people would be defined by faith in Jesus and the fruit of love.  The implications of this change were huge.  No longer is it God’s will that his people take vengeance in his name on the wicked, as in the case of the conquest of Canaan.  (Deut. 9:3-6) No longer do God’s people (the followers of Jesus) govern themselves by putting to death blasphemers (Lev. 24:14) or adulterers (Lev. 20:10) or fornicators (Deut. 22:21) or Sabbath-breakers (Exod. 31:14) or sorceresses (Exo.22:18) or false witnesses (Deut. 19:16, 19) or those who disobey parents (Exod. 21:15, 17).  Such commands of the law were woven together with the theocratic, civic government of an ethnic group of people that no longer applies to a people of God with no ethnic or political identity but rather is scattered through all the ethnic and political groups of the world.”[1] 

Let’s unpack that just a bit.  With this one statement by Jesus, national Israel is removed from being THE sphere of God’s redemptive plan and this kingdom of God will now, through Jesus, extend beyond the boundaries of this single, theocratic state (that recognized God as their King).  It will now through the gospel of the kingdom spread to other pagan countries and that means that all those ceremonial and civic laws that were intended to govern only national Israel will no longer be in force. They aren’t even in force in modern day Israel. Do you hear how that one statement in Matthew 21 just wipes away the ceremonial and civic laws of the Old Testament that were intended only for national Israel?  One more change--when Jesus on the cross said, “It is finished” and the curtain in the temple was rent from top to bottom, that effectively rendered obsolete the entire Jewish sacrificial law system.  Any animal sacrifice performed at the temple from that point on was a waste of time in terms of its redemptive power.  Jesus had supplanted all that when he offered himself as THE Lamb of God. 

A generation later, God destroyed the temple completely and scattered the Jews from being one national people.  Why?  Their purpose in redemptive history as a national people had ended.  And yet, in spite of all those changes to the Law that flowed from Jesus’ life and ministry, we are left with his statement, “I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets…”   Some of you might respond to all this by saying, “It sounds like he did a pretty good job of it to me.”  And so we come back to the question, “how can Jesus—whose life and ministry ultimately changed so many of the laws say, “I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets?…” And the answer of course is in the second part of that statement where Jesus tells us that he came to “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets.  What does Jesus mean when he says he came to fulfill the Law and how does that explain all these changes that came about as a result of his life and ministry?

As in other cases where a question about Jesus’ teaching comes up, Paul explains this for us.  In Romans 10:4 he says, “4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  That is essentially a restatement of what Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, but he uses a different and very helpful word.  That word translated “end” tells us that Christ is the goal or the purpose of the law.[2]  That tells us how Christ fulfilled the law.  We mustn’t think of it this way—God’s instituting his plan of redemption in the Old Testament, starting out with national Israel where he institutes laws and prophetic teachings and predictions.  Two thousand years into that plan, Jesus comes along and does his best to figure out how to apply those laws and prophetic teaching to his gospel of the kingdom—this multi-national, multi-ethnic global kingdom.  That’s the way it played out chronologically—the Law and the Prophets came first and then Jesus appeared later, but we mustn’t see the Law and Prophets as being something Jesus needed to adapt to fit his plan. 

That completely misses the most important truth here and that is that within God’s mind, Jesus was always--from eternity past--THE absolute center of his redemptive plan.  Jesus was always God’s goal—God’s purpose for the law—all his truth and all his grace were to be fulfilled in him. When God established the nation of Israel, when he wrote the Law and prophets—his main purpose—his main goal was to set the stage for his Son.  We must see the utter centrality of Christ!  If Jesus was not going to come, there would have been absolutely no reason for the nation of Israel, the Law or the Prophets.  The Law was a temporary expression of the righteousness of God--and the Prophets were a temporary expression of God’s grace and truth and their main purpose was to point to or foreshadow Jesus.  That’s their primary purpose—that’s why God gave them to his people--so that they would point to Jesus, the ultimate expression both of righteousness and of grace and truth. 

Think of it this way.  The Law is like an architectural model of a building.  You’ve seen those—someone is going to build a skyscraper or an office building and the architect makes a cardboard, three-dimensional rendering of the building so that people will be able to graphically see what the building will look like.  Today, they have computer generated, virtual architectural models that are so accurate, you can sit at a computer terminal and discover what it will feel like to open the front door of this new building and walk down a flight of stairs.  But the model is not the actual building—it only points to it.  The building in this sense “fulfills” the model and once the building is completed, you no longer need the model to point to the building (and we’ll talk next time about when that is).  Jesus is the actual structure for which the Law only provided a model.  Now perhaps you see one more reason why it is so incredibly foolish to try to please God by what you do in obedience to the Law.  That is the spiritual equivalent of trying to live inside a 3-D architectural model.  Obeying the Law wasn’t designed to be a way to please God anymore than a miniature cardboard model was designed to be where you live.

So, what do we do with those parts of the Old Testament—those bloody battle scenes and the ceremonial laws and the sacrificial system—what should our response be to them as we read them in our daily devotions?  Find Jesus in them.  The Law is stunning because it expresses—it teaches us what pleases God.  It teaches a righteousness that Jesus completely fulfilled in what he taught and the way he lived.  The Old Testament battle scenes where God uses his army to completely destroy the wicked pagans foreshadows his judgment of my pagan sins against God on Calvary.  It also points to the holy judgment of Jesus--who will one day come with God’s army and judge those who are oppose God.  One reason Jesus completely embraces those hard-to-stomach scenes is because he knows that they point to his final judgment—and his judgment will make those look scenes look like a day at the beach.  The sacrificial system points to God’s holiness in that his anger against sin must be quenched, which it ultimately and finally was in the cross of Christ as God issued his wrath upon the ultimate Lamb of God in payment for my sin.  The sacrificial system also points to God’s grace because (as in the Old Testament) he doesn’t leave us without a solution to our sin problem—he provided the Lamb of all lambs to pay our penalty.  If we know all that and we don’t delight in God’s Law as an expression of his righteousness, that means we are not delighting very much in Jesus who completely embodies the righteousness that the Law only points to.  If we delight in Jesus, then we will delight in the things that point to him…like the Law.

You can take every redemptive theme in the Old Testament and trace it out to see how it is fulfilled in Jesus—Israel, kingdom, temple, Jerusalem--all fulfilled in Jesus.  Blessing and curses, wisdom, servant, shepherd, mediator, covenant, circumcision—all fulfilled in Jesus.  David, Moses, priesthood, salvation, deliverance, mediator, creation and fall—all fulfilled in Jesus.  Humanity, election, wealth and riches, election and redemption—ALL point to Jesus and find their final and fullest expression in Him.  The Bible is a book that is all about Jesus.  The Bible is a unified book and the unity is Jesus.

Another text that helps us understand the nature of the relationship between Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom and the Law and Prophets is Romans 13:8-10.  There, Paul—in a very important ethical teaching says, 8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”  That means that every ethical teaching in the Old Testament points to what fulfills it and that is--Biblically defined love.  Jesus, through his flawless life and his self-sacrificing, sin-atoning death comprehensively modeled love for us. And if you really want to know what the law looks like when it is lived out—it’s always, always, always some expression of love. And when Jesus went to the cross for us—he not only modeled this love perfectly, he also enabled us to live above the power of sin and actually express this self-denying, other-centered love in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The application to all this is pretty simple.  At the risk of oversimplification, the answer to every eternally important question …is rooted firmly in Jesus Christ.  When you read the Old Testament, look for Jesus—he’s there on every page.  If the way you live your life isn’t consciously, intentionally and daily rooted in what Jesus did for you—you’re off base.  If your understanding of yourself and your spiritual identity and what God thinks about you is not dictated by what Jesus did for you—you’re not healthy.  If what motivates you to love God’s people and reach out to a world full of sinners is not Jesus—his name and his fame, then you have the wrong motive.  If the greatest thing that has ever happened to you is not that Jesus Christ hung on a cross and died for you, then you are probably lost in your sins.  If your study of the Bible does not cause you to love Christ more, then your reading and study is not honoring to God.  If spiritual growth for you is not growing in your love of what Jesus loves, and in your hatred for what Jesus hates, then you are not growing spiritually.  And if the greatest attraction of heaven for you is not the fact that you will get to be with Jesus forever, then you are probably not headed for heaven.  Lord willing, we’ll look at this text more next time, but for now--may God give us the grace to see that our greatest treasure is Him who fulfilled the Law and the Prophets.

[1] Piper, What Jesus Demands from the World,”  2006, p.164.

[2] Goldsworthy, Graeme, “Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture”, 2000, p. 159.


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