The Righteousness Which the King Requires (Exposition of Matthew 5:17-20)

Should New Testament Christians offer the sacrifices of the Old Testament? Should New Testament Christians observe the sixth day as the Sabbath with all of its regulations? Should we only eat foods which are considered kosher according to Jewish dietary laws? Should we murder, steal, commit adultery, lie, and covet? Why did you answer the way you did? The way that you answered that last question describes the way you view the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.

One of the great questions which the student of the Bible must answer is one regarding the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. There are two basic ways of answering that question. One way is to say that all of the Old Testament is carried over relatively unchanged and is applicable to the New Testament believer as much as it was to the Old Testament saint. This approach emphasizes continuity between the two testaments. The other basic way of answering this question is to state that with the person and work of Jesus, the requirements of the Old Testament have been done away with. This approach emphasizes discontinuity between the two testaments. Which one is correct? I don’t think either one is completely correct. There is another option, which I think it spelled out by Jesus in this morning’s text. What is it? You’ll have to wait and see as we look into Matthew 5:17-20. Here the question of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments is answered and we’ll end up by seeing the righteousness that is required today by Jesus.

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19 “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20

What is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments?
In verses 17 and 18, Jesus is answering a possible objection to his teaching which follows in verses 21-48. There Jesus strengthens, explains, refines and removes certain aspects of the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament. In verses 17 and 18, Jesus is explaining in advance his actions. He is not destroying “the Law or the Prophets,” but fulfilling them.

The term “the Law or the Prophets” clearly refers to the two main divisions by the Hebrews of the Old Testament. Throughout the New Testament, you see the Old Testament referred to by this two-fold division as a title: “the Law and the Prophets” (see Matthew 7:12, 22:40; Luke 24:44; John 1:45; and Romans 3:21). The significance to our understanding of this is to realize that Jesus is here succinctly explaining his relationship to the Old Testament. He does so in terms of explaining his purpose in coming. First by negation: “I did not come to destroy,” then by assertion: “but to fulfill.”

The Old Testament, then, is not destroyed or abolished by Jesus, but rather is fulfilled by Jesus. But what does Jesus mean by fulfill? This is where the debate lies. Some interpret “fulfill” in contrast to “destroy.” If Jesus did not come to destroy the Old Testament, then he must have come to preserve it unchanged. Those who hold this view usually truncate “the Law or the Prophets” to just “the Law” and further still to only the Ten Commandments. But Jesus is making a distinction between destroying and fulfilling, not implying that they are polar opposites. I agree with Craig Blomberg who has written, “He is not contradicting the law, but neither is he preserving it unchanged.” Clearly some elements of the law have been changed, for example., the dietary laws (Mark 7:19 and Acts 10-11), the temple, priesthood, and the entire sacrificial system (Hebrews 7-9). In the section which immediately follows this one (verses 21-48), Jesus revises and revokes specific commands of the Old Testament. Clearly Jesus does not preserve the Old Testament completely unaltered by Him.

What then does Jesus mean by “fulfill”? The word here in Matthew 5:17 and 18 means the same as it has already earlier in Matthew. In the first four chapters Matthew has used the word to refer to how Jesus has fulfilled both the predictions and pictations (my word) of Jesus in the Old Testament. Jesus clearly fulfills the specific prophecies about him, but He is also the fulfillment of the types and shadows of the Old Testament. In addition, Jesus fulfills the commands of the Old Testament by providing His own authoritative interpretation. Some of these commands He strengthens by calling on inward, as well as outward conformity (see 5:21-22 and 27-28). Some of these commands He changes by His divine and kingly authority (see 5:33-34, 38-39, and 43-44). He has the authority to summarize and interpret the Law as in Matthew 7:12 and 22:36-40.

There are two basic ways of interpreting and applying the commands of the Old Testament. The first is to say that none of the commands of the OT apply unless directly and explicitly reaffirmed in the NT. The other is to say that all of the commands of the OT apply unless explicitly revoked in the NT. What I’m saying today is that neither of these views are exactly right. Instead, it is better to say that all of the commands remain relevant and applicable to the New Testament believer, but only as they have been interpreted and explained by Christ. By the way, this interpretation and explanation of the Old Testament is not restricted to the red letters in the gospels. Since Jesus promised to give His Spirit to His disciples in order to lead them into all truth (see John 14:26 and 16:13-14), the writings of the apostles are the authoritative teaching of Christ by His Spirit through His apostles.

By stating that He fulfills the Law and the Prophets, Jesus is here affirming what Scripture elsewhere declares, that the entirety of the Old Testament can only be understood properly in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ. When Phillip found Nathanael in John 1:45, he said, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote — Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Jesus rebuked the Pharisees in John 5:39 by saying, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” After His resurrection, in Luke 24:44, Jesus reminded the two disciples with whom He had walked with on the road to Emmaus, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” In Romans 3:21-22 Paul speaks of the product of Christ’s sacrificial death as, “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.”

How much of the Old Testament will be fulfilled?
The Old Testament will be fulfilled down to the “jot” and “tittle.” The “jot” refers to the yod (the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet). The “tittle” refers to a small appendage used to distinguish two similar letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Compare daled to resh. The point is that every minute detail of the Old Testament will be fulfilled by Jesus Christ!

Obedience is not optional under Christ
Lest any should misunderstand Jesus and think that obedience to God is optional for the New Covenant believer, Jesus clarifies this in verse 19. Obedience is not optional. There are consequences for both disobedience (negative) and obedience (positive). “These commandments” refers to the commandments of the law and the prophets, i.e., the Old Testament, but as interpreted and applied by Jesus (see verses 21-48).

Righteousness is required
In verse 20, Jesus states that righteousness is still required in the New Testament. Instead of lowering the standard, Jesus raises it. The scribes and Pharisees represent the paragons of Jewish morality. To the Jew, if anyone was righteous, these men were. They spent their days copying, reciting, memorizing Scripture. They could tell you how many words and letters were in each book of the Old Testament. They made it their duty to keep all 613 of the commandments which they had catalogued from the Old Testament. But Jesus says that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. This is morally impossible for fallen human creatures!

This statement is similar to what Jesus told His disciples after encountering the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-26. After the young man went away, Jesus commented on how hard it was for a rich man to enter the kingdom. It is easier, said Jesus, for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle. The disciples were incredulous. “Who then can be saved?”, they asked. Jesus answers confirms their hopeless suspicions: “With men it is impossible.” But thankfully He didn’t stop there. He went on to say, “But not with God, for with God all things are possible.” Thus, the only hope for sinners like you and me is a miraculous intervention by God!

Our righteousness must exceed the scribes’ and Pharisees’ because God requires a heart righteousness (see1 Samuel 6:7, Luke 16:15, and Mark 7:6). The difference is illustrated in verses 21-28 where Jesus calls for more than mere outward conformity to the law. He calls for an inward conformity as well. We do not possess this righteousness on our own. We’re like those described in Isaiah 64:6, “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” We need what Joshua the High Priest in Zechariah 3:1-5 needed: to exchange our filthy garments for clean ones. This is what Christ has done for us. “For He [God] hath made Him [Jesus] to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). As Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf stated, “Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress, in flaming worlds with these arrayed, with joy shall I lift up my head.”

The bad news is that King Jesus requires a righteousness that we don’t possess, but the good news (i.e., gospel) is that the King provides and produces the righteousness which He requires! (See Romans 3:20-26). This is true both positionally and practically. When we believe we are declare righteous in the sight of God (justification), but the God who justifies also sends His Spirit to indwell us to progressively conform us to practical righteousness in our lives (sanctification). According to Jeremiah 31:31-34, God writes His law upon the hearts of those who are part of His New Covenant community. Likewise in Ezekiel 36:26-27, God is said to give a new heart and His Spirit to those who are His people. Thus, the righteousness which the King requires is fulfilled in His people. Amen.

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