There is much confusion and consequent debate over Jesus Sermon on the Mount. In an effort to help you understand what Jesus is ultimately communicating through his message I have given my exposition on the beginning of Jesus sermon found in Matthew 5:17-20. What does Jesus mean when he says I have come to fulfill the Law? Why does he say that if their righteousness does not exceed that of the Pharisees that they will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven? What is the point of the Sermon? It is simply more rules and regulations that New Covenant believers are now to live by. These questions and more are answered as I attempt to clarify Jesus opening remarks in his Sermon on the Mount.
v.17 Jesus begins a new section in his discourse with verse 17. We know this because there is a direct and stark change in subject matter. Jesus goes from teaching about his people being salt and light on the earth producing men seeing our good works and giving glory to God to speaking about his purpose not being to abolish the Law or the Prophets. With such a distinct change in subject matter it would be hard to place verse 17 in the same paragraph as verse 16. Notice secondly that verse 17 starts with a negative prohibition regarding what they perceive Jesus came to do. This prohibition has nothing to do with shining your light before men that they may see your good works and give glory to God. The ou[twj of verse 16 refers back to the statements of verse 15. The negative prohibition of verse 17 therefore begins a new thought. The subject matter of 13-16 is salt and light. The subject matter of 17-20 is Jesus relationship to the fulfillment of the Law and prophets.
It is interesting to note that 13-15 all begin with indicatives. The statements of verse 16 have the imperative and the subjunctive, but are dependent relationally on verse 15. In other words the adverb of verse 16 refers back to the indicative of verse 15. Verse 17 breaks from the list of indicatives and begins with the subjunctive. This is yet another indicator that a new paragraph has started with verse 17.
Jesus begins with a prohibition that his listeners not assume that he came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. This is a likely reference to the entire collection of the Jewish Holy Scriptures that his audience would have been quite familiar with. At first glance it seems unclear why Jesus’ audience would assume he was attempting to abolish the legal and ethical requirements of the Old Testament. A closer examination of the context and redemptive history as a whole helps to clarify.
Under the Old Mosaic Covenant the law was emphasized first. Israel was to keep the Law of YHWH and as a result of her keeping the Law she was to receive the covenantal blessings which included staying in the land and being recipients of all of the other blessings that came with adherence to the sanctions of the covenant. In the Sermon on the Mount however Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant reverses the order. He begins by dispensing the covenantal blessings without first giving the legal and moral requirements of the Law. If the blessings of the covenant came without the laws of the covenant then it would make sense that the people listening to Jesus would have assumed that the Law which Moses gave was abolished. If one can receive the blessings of the covenant without first keeping the Law of the covenant then of what use is the Law and what purpose does it serve? “It must therefore be abolished” was their thinking.
Jesus is also addressing the tension of what he is about to teach concerning the proper interpretation of the Law. Therefore it is important for Jesus to begin this section by stating that the Law is still very much in effect, but the emphasis is now going to be placed upon one fulfilling the Law through perfect active obedience to not only the outward requirements, but also the inward requirements that he is about to explain to them. The Law is still in effect, but it is no longer the requirement to receive the covenantal blessings of the Kingdom. Jesus introduces a major shift in redemptive history.
Jesus goes on to state that he did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. Fulfill used by Jesus here has the idea of fulfilling a law or obligation by deeds. Matthew also uses this word to speak of fulfilling what was spoken by the Old Testament and the prophets. The promises were fulfilled in Christ’s birth and now the obligations will be fulfilled by his life. In contrast to bringing to and end Jesus actually is saying that he is fulfilling through his obedience. All of the legal and moral requirements of the Law are going to be kept perfectly by Jesus. Additionally all of the ceremonial aspects of the Law which were only types and shadows of their significance will be fully realized in Jesus.
v.18 Jesus further assures his listeners that the Law is not being abolished or even replaced by stating that not even the slightest aspect of the Old Testament Law and prophecies will be done away with before the end of the age i.e. the passing away of the heaven’s and the earth. This means that all will be perfectly fulfilled and realized before the eschatological end of the age.
This raises an important point. If fulfillment here is only referring to the active and passive obedience of Christ in the perfect life that he lived and the death that he died then one can conclude that after his death and resurrection that the Law is abolished, but Jesus is clear to state that the Law is in effect until the end of the age. Therefore the fulfillment mentioned in verse 18 carries with it the ethical requirements of the Law that the New Covenant people of the Kingdom will now display. This type of ethical living is marked by inward and outward adherence to the moral requirements of the Law. Important to note is the fact that the covenantal blessings are not received by the keeping of the Law, but are a result of one who through Christ has already been blessed.
Having said this it is now appropriate to make clear that the use of fulfillment in verse 17 also carries with it this idea of the ethical righteousness of the New Covenant people of Christ. This ethical living however is pointless if Christ has not already blessed us through his perfect active obedience and his perfect wrath absorbing death.
v. 19 The coordinating conjunction is an inference back to what is being explained in verse 18. If the Law is still in effect because heaven and earth have not clearly passed away then there is an inference for those who relax the Law and those who keep the Law.
Jesus makes a contrast here between those who make light of the ethical requirements of the Law and those who uphold them and teach others to do the same. Jesus is clearly speaking of the ones who know the moral law of God and relax that law and teach others to do the same. These will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven.
The Kingdom here is that royal reign of God which has been inaugurated, but not yet fully consummated. Matthew uses kingdom as a concept to explain God’s rule over his people. The fact that there are those whose king is not Jesus is clear from the writings of Matthew. There are those who enter the kingdom and those who don’t. This makes it a reign of God now in a spiritual sense, but with an eschatological hope that is both physical and spiritual.
There is an already/not yet aspect of this Kingdom of which Jesus is speaking. It seems however that the consummation of that Kingdom as an eschatological concept is primarily in view here.
Those who evidence by the way that they live their lives that they have no regard for the Law of God reveal that they were never a part of this current spiritual manifestation of the Kingdom and will be called least at the consummation of that eschatological Kingdom. Jesus is not saying that there are degrees of greatness in the age to come, but that there are those who are not a part of the Kingdom and those who are. Those who are a part of the Kingdom will be called great in that Kingdom. Jesus is using a fair amount of hyperbole in his statements here to teach an important lesson. It is therefore important not to let the hyperbole cloud the clear assertions of Jesus. The evidence of those who are great in the Kingdom is that they have a high regard for the ethical requirements of the Law and not only live them out themselves, but also teach others to do the same.
v. 20 It is important to note that entrance into the Kingdom or as Jesus puts it being called great in the Kingdom is not achieved through law keeping on man’s part. As noted in verse 19 it is evidence of being a part of that kingdom. Jesus seems to want to make that point loud and clear by giving his audience what seems to be an impossible task in verse 20.
The coordinating conjunction which begins the verse explains the idea of verse 19. This is an important point. Jesus wants to make perfectly clear that mere ethical adherence to the moral law does not bring anyone into the Kingdom. Therefore he says that unless your ethical living exceeds that of the Pharisees you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. His audience would have been left in utter despair with the realization that none of them came close to even measuring up to the righteousness of the Pharisees, let alone exceeding it.
This is where Christ wanted them to dwell in their thinking. No one is able to exceed the ethical standards that the Pharisees had erected therefore it was necessary for someone better than Moses, better than, David, better than the Pharisees to fulfill the just demands of the Law. It is fitting that Jesus makes this clarification before delving into the proper interpretation of the Old Covenant Law in which he emphasized the internal adherence as opposed to only the external.
This brings us full circle back to what it means to fulfill the Law. Jesus did not come to abolish the requirements of the Law by dispensing the covenantal blessings with no regard to anyone actually fulfilling the Law. Rather he came to fulfill the requirements of the Law perfectly through his active obedience. In that men and women can receive the covenantal blessings because someone fulfilled the Law perfectly for them. The Law is then fulfilled ethically in the covenant community by those who are a part of the Kingdom. This is done because they have been blessed and because his Law is now written on their hearts. They fulfill not only the outward requirements of the Law, but now from the inside out they fulfill the Law as it was always intended to be fulfilled, not to be blessed, but because they have already been blessed by the work of Christ on their behalf.