Psalm 40:6-8; Text: Matthew 5:17-20
March 25, 2018 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Dear Congregation of Christ: We’ve been studying the Gospel of Matthew, and we’re now in the opening verses of Chapters 5-7, commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. In these three long chapters, Jesus explains the Old Testament Law to everyday reality of righteous living as members of the kingdom of heaven.
Many Christians today have this mistaken notion that the Law of Moses has no meaning and application for them today because the Old Testament is just that: old-fashioned, obsolete, irrelevant, and therefore is of no use. They believe that Jesus has modified or even nullified the Law. This is also why many churches do not study and preach from the Old Testament and focus only on the New Testament.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is actually teaching us real and practical living in this present age as members of the kingdom. If we are citizens of the present kingdom of heaven, how are we to live as its righteous and loyal citizens here and now? In the last two weeks, we have studied how he introduces kingdom living with a summary of the characteristics of kingdom people in the Beatitudes in 5:3-12. After this, he challenges his disciples to make a difference in this world by being “salt and light” to a watching world (5:13-16).
Then in our text today, 5:17-20, he introduces his interpretation of the Law and the Prophets in contrast to the false teaching and application offered by the teachers of the Law, namely the scribes, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. He defends himself against accusations of contradicting the law of Moses by first saying that he has not come “come to abolish the Law or the Prophets . . . but to fulfill them.”
Following this introduction of the Law, in 5:17-48, Jesus explains in detail the teachings of the Law. Jesus does not make new laws for the kingdom of heaven, nor does he make it stricter. Rather, he tells his disciples that the law remains the same, and are still in effect in the new covenant, but the Pharisees have misinterpreted and misapplied them. For them, outward, ceremonial obedience to the Law is the only requirement of the Law. But Jesus teaches that the Old Testament Law has always required inward, heartfelt obedience, not just outward actions. For example, murder is not just actual murder, but hating a brother or sister. This was always true, not just in the New Testament, but also in the Old Testament.
So we see that in each of the six teachings about the Law that follow, he begins by saying, “You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . .” Why did he come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets? He came down to earth as a man to fulfill God’s law perfectly for his people. These are the two things we will look at this Sunday before Good Friday as we think about this theme: “Christ’s Life and Death Fulfilled All Righteousness”: first, He Fulfilled The Law For Us . . . ; and second, . . . To Enable Us to Fulfill the Law.
He Fulfilled the Law for Us . . .
Jesus came and fulfilled, completed and finished all of the Old Testament types and shadows. The history of Israel was full of the types of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King. But it was not until after his resurrection that his disciples finally came to understand what Jesus was trying to teach them for three years. So after his resurrection, Jesus told two disciples, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
All of the Old Testament people and events were completed, finished and fulfilled by the person and work of Christ. This is why we on this side of the death of Christ do not offer bloody animal sacrifices when we worship. Instead, we offer living sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to God in our Scripture readings, songs, prayers, sermons, transformed lives, and even in our financial offerings (Rom 12:1). We do not celebrate Old Testament feasts such as the Passover because Christ was our Passover Lamb when he was offered as a substitutionary atonement for us on the cross (1 Cor 5:7). We do not look forward to an earthly temple in Jerusalem, but we long for our heavenly temple (Rev 21:22) where we will dwell with God forever (Rev 21:3). This is why Hebrews 10:5-7 puts the words of Psalm 40:7-8 in the mouth of Jesus, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
Since Jesus fulfilled all Old Testament types and foreshadows in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets, we are not to be surprised then when we read his teaching, “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18). What does he mean by this? In his teachings, Jesus often uses hyperbolic figures of speech to make a point. He uses the smallest letter—an iota, the smallest Greek letter, or a dot, the smallest Hebrew letter that looks like a little quotation mark—to emphasize that all of God’s word, including the smallest letter, has significance in his work.
What Jesus means is that he will surely and perfectly complete and obey everything in God’s Word that speaks of his person and life, whether great or small. This is because God’s word is eternal, perfect and unchanging, it “will stand forever” (Isa 40:11). Every decree, every prophecy, and every command has been and will be accomplished by Christ.
This is why Jesus warned his disciples and the Jews that the whole Law must be obeyed or carried out. And the teachers of the Law must teach all of them and must never relax any of them, even the “least” of the commandments. Paul takes off from this teaching of Christ when he says that any violation of any law incurs God’s curse, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal 3:10). James also points out the importance of keeping all of the Law, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (Jas 2:10).
As a result, a single broken commandment brings down condemnation from God. Is there anyone among you who has not broken at least one commandment in your thoughts? Has anyone not committed idolatry, disrespect for parents, murder, immorality, stealing, lying, and greed in his heart? Paul says, “No, not even one! All have sinned against God.” If this is true, then we are all bound for hell because the penalty for sin is death and hell.
If no one can enter the kingdom of heaven by trying to do good works, then what can a person do to avoid eternal condemnation in hell? In God’s providence, wisdom and mercy, his plan for saving his people involved sending his Son down to earth as a man to carry out all of his law. Since he had obeyed all that the Father commanded him to do, there is nothing left for us to do. This is why we are not to ask, “What would Jesus do?” but “What has Jesus done?” He had perfectly obeyed the two great commandments, “Love God” and “Love your neighbor.” From his birth to his death on the cross – a whole life of suffering – he was sinless in thought, word and deed.
Believing in Christ is our passport to God’s kingdom because when we do, God will count us righteous, as Abraham was counted righteous before God by faith, not by his obedience to God’s law (Rom 4:3). In the same way, we are declared by God as righteous, not because we are righteous in ourselves—we can never be—but because Jesus carried out all of God’s commandments perfectly. He then became our entryway into God’s kingdom through faith in him (Mark 1:15).
And by this faith in Christ, we too are enabled by God to live godly and obedient lives, and so fulfill the Law and the Prophets. Without God’s enablement, no one can live righteous lives. How then does God enable believers to obey his Law?
. . . To Enable Us to Fulfill the Law
God enables you through the Holy Spirit that he pours out on you. He gives you a new mind that knows God and his Son, and believes his Word. He gives you a new heart that has God’s law written on it and enables you to obey it (Ezk 36:26-27). Because you have been transformed into a new creation, you are able to live your daily life in love and obedience (2 Cor 5:17). We are then renewed day by day—by the Holy Spirit who indwells us—into the image of Christ (2 Cor 4:16).
However, many Christians fall into a couple of grave errors when they minimize the role and impact of the Law in the life of a Christian living under the covenant of grace.
The Moral Law is Obsolete
The first error is the teaching that the Old Testament law is not applicable or relevant to us today. Did not the writer of Hebrews say that the law is obsolete? (Heb 8:13)
But we must remember that the writer of Hebrews is not talking about the whole law. The laws of Moses are of three kinds: ceremonial, civil and moral. The ceremonial laws pertain to the sacrificial worship of God by the people in the Tabernacle and the Temple. The civil laws are for the civic life of Israel. Both of these have been fulfilled and made obsolete by Christ (1 Cor 10:6, 11).
But God’s people today are still bound by the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments (Rom 13:9). This is the reason why we read the Law every Lord’s Day. This is not a contradiction of Paul’s teaching no one can enter the kingdom of heaven by obedience to God’s law (Gal 3:11). Our salvation is solely based on Christ’s perfect righteousness given to us when we believe in him as our only Savior who was crucified on the cross for all our sins. The moral law has three uses. First, it convicts a sinner of his sin, and points him to Christ. Second, it restrains evil in a civil society. Third, it is a guide for Christian life.
Christ Frees us from Obedience to the Moral Law
The second error about the Law arises from the idea that since we are saved by grace, we are not bound by the Law. Didn’t Paul say we are under grace and not under the Law? (Rom 6:14)
Jesus was falsely accused by the Pharisees that he violated the Law of Moses on various occasions. To counter this false accusation, Jesus declared that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to actually carry out its obligations. Not only that, he even pronounced judgment on those who would relax, ignore or minimize any part of the Law: they will be least in the kingdom of heaven.
Not only that, he even condemned the Pharisees for their kind of false righteousness. They obeyed all the provisions of the law of Moses, but their obedience was only outward so that others may see their good deeds. Their obedience did not come from heartfelt sorrow over their sins, but from sinful pride in their good works. Their obedience to the law of circumcision was not pleasing to God because their hearts were not circumcised in repentance and faith.
Although obedience to the Law is not the way to enter the kingdom of heaven, obedience is one evidence that we are citizens of the heavenly kingdom. If we profess faith in Christ, or if we attend worship services every Lord’s day, or partake of the Lord’s supper, if our hearts and minds are not right with God because we never had true faith and repentance, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. This error has led many who profess faith in Christ to disobedient living.
So Jesus commands you to exceed the righteousness of the Jews. This is not to say that he is calling you to be more outwardly obedient than the Pharisees. He is calling you to true faith and repentance before God, which is evidenced by your obedience to God’s commandments. James makes this relationship between faith and obedience clear, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (Jas 2:18). You can surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees only by the presence of true faith in your innermost being. That is what was lacking in them.
But beloved in Christ, you are not Pharisees. Your righteousness is not only outward, but inward, from the heart. How are you righteous before God? It is not through your own outward righteous works. It is only through the righteousness accounted to you by faith alone in your only Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is the only one who perfectly obeyed and fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets all the way to his death on the cross.
Today, we commemorate Palm Sunday, the day that Jesus went to Jerusalem for the last time before he willingly offered himself to be crucified for us. May his life, death and resurrection always remind us to live as righteous citizens of the kingdom of heaven! Since Christ has given you his own righteousness, show your righteousness in your daily living. Do not obey because it is merely your duty and obligation. Do not obey so others may praise you for your good deeds. Do not obey to gain earthly blessings and abundance.
Obey because you have been given clean hands and a pure heart by the Holy Spirit. Obey because of your gratitude to God for all the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places which he has already given you in this age, and will completely give to you in the age to come. Amen.