Matthew 5:17–20 - Christ’s Attitude to the Law
The words spoken by Jesus thus far in the Sermon on the Mount might give some of us listeners the impression that he was teaching something radically new. The scribes and Pharisees taught the law. Jesus had made no mention of the law. Many in our day believe that the law was for the Old Testament people of God, but that we today are free from its bonds. How does Jesus look upon the law?
He makes it unmistakably clear that he has not come to destroy the law or the prophets (the Old Testament) but to fulfill them. The law still stands for him. The prophecies must be fulfilled but so must the law too. The law must attain its purpose. Jesus has not come to set the law aside, but to fulfill it, to complete it, to fill it to the full. He will teach them the true meaning of the law. Jesus will give the law a far richer and earlier meaning than the Pharisees did. He will also place himself under the law.
How could God’s law be set aside? The law is a revelation of God’s righteousness. That righteousness is eternal. The law is a revelation of God’s will. That will is unchangeable. That law is the moral law. This holds for the moral creature as long as he exists. Hence Jesus informs the people of his day that heaven and earth will pass away before the law is set aside. When Paul teaches us that we are no longer under law but under grace he does not mean that the law of God is no longer in effect. That law will stand as long as the world.
Jesus goes even further. He tells us that not one jot or tittle of that law shall pass away. The jot of which our Lord speaks is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. A tittle is a very small mark to distinguish one Hebrew letter from another. By this phrase Jesus teaches us therefore that the smallest part of that law is not going to pass away. Even the jots and tittles have significance because God gave them. Jesus is going to observe that law strictly. He will not deal loosely with the law of God.
It was common practice for the teachers of his day to make distinctions in the law in regard to importance. Later someone came to Jesus and asked him which of all the commandments was most important. This is a dangerous approach, to say the least. Is man going to determine which of the utterances of God is more important than another? This practice would lead to utmost confusion . What one person would consider most important, another might deem to be of little consequence. When Jesus here speaks of one of these least or little commandments he is accommodating himself to the manner of speech understood by the people of his day.
There are those who believe that it is sufficient to observe the main teachings of the law. That is enough, they say. We are to keep the spirit but not necessarily the letter of the law. Jesus condemns this view. If a disciple breaks one of these so-called least of the commandments and teaches others to do so, he will enter into the Kingdom of heaven, but he will not have a place of honor. It is of the greatest importance to observe even the small things of the law. Our God is interested in details. He is not interested merely in general principles; even the details of life are important in his eyes. Notice, for example, how detailed the rules and regulations were for sacrifices during Old Testament times. If God has spoken the word, that word is important. Jesus himself observed the law the same way he here counsels his followers.
Jesus mentions not only the law but the prophets. Everything that had been spoken concerning him was fulfilled by him and in him. Time and again the Evangelists call to our attention that the things which happened to the Savior were the fulfillment of prophecy.
Jesus is going to give his interpretation of various commandments in the rest of this chapter. He does so, not to set aside the commandments, but to shed fuller light on them. This was highly necessary in his day. The teachers of the Jews had given a distorted picture of the law. They taught strict observance of the law in certain respects. The sabbath, for example had to be kept so strictly that this day became a burden to the pious in Israel. Other commandments were interpreted in such a way that the law lost virtually all meaning. The scribes and Pharisees gave the impression that they obeyed every command of God, but mercy and love were not found with them.
This situation causes Jesus to utter the words of verse 20. The righteousness of his people must be more than that of their teachers, or they will not even enter into the Kingdom of heaven. The so-called righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees he condemned again and again. Outwardly they led a law abiding life. Inwardly they were corrupt. They believed that their outward obedience assured them of heaven. Jesus teaches that true righteousness is altogether different.
The “righteousness” which is demanded for entrance into the Kingdom of heaven is taught by God’s law. That law must then be properly understood. The eternal welfare of the individual is at stake. Jesus will therefore teach them what the Jaw demands. Then they will know what righteousness is. Then they will see themselves as they are. Then the law will indeed be the teacher of sin.
These verses form an introduction to Jesus’ interpretation of various commandments in the law of God. He is first of all showing them his own attitude toward that law. He is speaking whose meat and drink it was to do the will of him who sent him. He is speaking who, even more than David, can say, “Thy law is my meditation all the day”. He makes it clear at the very outset that he has the highest possible regard for the law of God. Whatever men may do, the law of God shall stand. Let no one tamper with it! Every little part is valuable. Thus he teaches his people of the New Testament day. Free from the law? Yes, free from its curse because he bore the curse. Is the law still necessary? Of course; how else would we know his will or our own sin?
Questions For Discussion
- Why are some people so anxious to have us believe that we are no longer under the law?
- Are there important and less important things in the Bible?
- Can the law be preached too strictly?
- Are there the “least” and the “great” in heaven? Explain.
- How could the Pharisees ever come to the conclusion that they could keep the law?
- Did Jesus not set aside the ceremonial and ritual laws of the Old Testament?