Every Christian reading this would agree that the teachings of Jesus can be difficult to understand. His wisdom, being the God of Creation, is far beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9).
In this blog series, we will unpack some of the most difficult teachings from Jesus, from Matthew chapters 5-7; the illustrious Sermon on the Mount.
Each blog will touch on a different teaching from Jesus within His most famous sermon in an effort to help us apply His teachings to our lives as Christians working in the sport industry.
In our third blog of the Sermon on the Mount series, we will seek to better understand and apply Jesus’ claim to be the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17) and His radical call to righteousness (Matthew 5:20).
What is the Law?
For starters, it is important to understand what Jesus is talking about when discussing the Law. Rest assured that He is not talking about the United States Constitution, but rather, He is talking about the Old Testament Scriptures.
In Jesus’ day, the Jewish people would refer to the Old Testament as the Law and the Prophets. The Law includes the books within the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Prophets include the remainder of the Old Testament writings from Joshua to Malachi.
Jesus as the Fulfillment of the Law
As Jesus continues to work through His illustrious Sermon on the Mount, He makes a very clear point that He had not come to abolish or oppose the Old Testament teachings and Scriptures, but rather He came to fulfill them and expose the many oppressive and incorrect interpretations of the Law and the Prophets that were circulating Jewish leadership in His day and age.
In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, “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.” The clearest point that Jesus makes in this statement is that He did not come to add or subtract from the Old Testament but rather to become the complete fulfillment of all that the Old Testament had taught and prophesied.
Despite his many challenges to the Pharisees and teachers of His day, Jesus never broke the Law of God and perfectly lived out what no other man will ever be able to live out: perfect obedience to God’s law.
Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets in four important facets. Jesus fulfilled the doctrinal teachings of the Old Testament Scriptures by bringing a full revelation to those teachings. Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies throughout the Old Testament, proving He is God’s Messiah.
Jesus fulfilled the moral and legal demands of the Old Testament in that He lived in complete obedience to them and reinterpreted them in their actual meaning and truth. Lastly, Jesus fulfilled the penalty for sin described in the Old Testament for us by His death on the cross, bearing the punishment for sin that we, as sinners, deserve.
Paul further solidifies Jesus’ statement in Romans 10:4, “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” Jesus is the culmination, fulfillment, and completion of the Law and the Prophets, a feat that sinful man will never be able to achieve on his own.
The Authority of God’s Word
In Matthew 5:18, Jesus follows up his previous statement by stating, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of the pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
Jesus’ words in this verse underscore how highly God regards His Word. In the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, this verse is translated as “one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” The ‘dot’ refers to the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and the ‘tittle’ is a small mark in a Hebrew letter, such as the cross on a ‘t’ or the tail on a ‘y’.
In stating this, Jesus shows that not just the ideas of God’s Word will be accomplished, but every single Word will be accomplished. This, once again, highlights how highly God holds His Word, and we, as His followers, should be sure to do the same.
Along with the fact that Jesus confirms the powerful authority of God’s Word in this statement, He also provides believers with some encouragement.
First, it is a reminder that while we as sinners can never fulfill the Law and the Prophets under our own power, Jesus did so through His perfect obedience to the Law and His death on the cross, which is the substitutionary atonement for our due punishment for sin.
Paul states this reality so eloquently in Romans 8:3-4, “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully me in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Furthermore, Christ encourages us that God’s plan for the world will never be set aside until all things are fulfilled at the end of the age.
The Least of These Commands
In Matthew 5:19, Jesus continues His teaching regarding the Law and Prophets by stating, “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus once again highlights the authority and importance of the Law and the Prophets. He is in no way dismissing any of the commands and teachings within the Old Testament but rather makes it a point to state that not a single one should be set aside.
This point is further validated by the half-brother of Jesus in James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” The Law carries so much authority that even breaking one point of it results in that person being guilty of breaking all of it.
In the latter part of this verse, Jesus promises that the one who practices and teaches the fullness of the Law and the Prophets will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. This statement can be understood in two ways. The first is that Christian preachers should be sure to teach all of the commands of God without dismissing a single one. Any person who dismisses a command of God is unworthy of the kingdom of God.
Secondly, it can be understood that Jesus wants us to see that it is utterly impossible to obey every command of the Law and that our righteousness cannot be achieved through legalistic observance of the law. This realization pushes us to seek justification through Christ (Galatians 2:21), and Christ sends us back to the law to understand God's heart for how we live so that we may be sanctified (Romans 3:31).
Setting the Bar High
In Matthew 5:20, Jesus raises the bar for all of His listeners by saying, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
In Jesus’ day, there was no group of people more diligent in keeping the Law than the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. In fact, the Pharisees were so meticulous in keeping the commands of the Law that they would even tithe from the spices in their herb gardens (Matthew 23:23).
From the perspective of those listening to this sermon, it was impossible to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Nobody was more careful in their obedience to the Law than them. Jesus purposefully set the bar impossibly high to underscore once again the people’s need for His righteousness and not their own.
This reality is described in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him sin who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We are not made righteous by keeping the Law, even if we are as meticulous as the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Rather, we are made righteous through the righteousness imparted to us through the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Jesus reminded His listeners that the Law and the Prophets have, and will forever have, ultimate authority. As followers of Jesus, we cannot ignore the commands and teachings of the Law because it is the Law that exposes the depth of our sinfulness (Romans 7:7). In revealing our sinfulness, the Law drives us to the feet of Jesus and makes us realize that only He can make us right in the sight of God.
This is what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:27 when He calls them whitewashed tombs. They have an outward appearance of righteousness but are nothing but dead bones on the inside. True righteousness is found in Christ, and through trusting in Him, we are justified (Romans 5:1).
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