New You, Old Testament (Matthew 5:17-20)
Topic: One Truth: Your Word is Truth Passage: Matthew 5:17–5:20
New You, Old Testament
(One Truth: Your Word is Truth)
September 30th, 2018
I. The Torah Today
Over the centuries and even today, New Testament believers have often swung to extremes when it comes to the Old Testament Scriptures. For example, in the first several centuries of the Church there were some who argued that everything in the OT should be applied to Christians in the same way it had first been applied to the Hebrews (things like circumcision and law-keeping and even festivals). But there were others who taught exactly the opposite. For example, the second century teacher Marcion rejected the God of the Old Testament, and thus the Old Testament itself.
Today, some Christians follow similar paths. There are so-called “Torah observant” Christians who believe they follow the Law of Moses in the same way the early Church did. And on the other side there are believers who, though they do not explicitly reject the OT, practically ignore it in their personal devotions and obedience. Maybe their churches do the same.
So for those of us who are new creatures in Christ, by God's grace, how should the new you think about the Old Testament? Are these extreme positions in error? And if so, how do we navigate somewhere in the middle?
This morning, Jesus is going to help us with those questions. Let's hear from Him by turning together to Matthew 5:17-20.
II. The Passage: "But to Fulfill Them" (5:17-20)
As we continue our study in what I'm calling Jesus' 'mountain message', I think it's important to repeat something I mentioned in the last lesson. Starting with verse 17, we are moving past the introduction of this sermon and entering the main part of the message. In a few minutes, I will make a case for why I believe that's true. But for now, I think it's important to keep this in mind as we read these verses. Let me read through Matthew 5:17-20 as a whole, and then we'll talk about what's here, going verse by verse. Having announced kingdom consolations in verses 3-12, and clarifying the kingdom calling in verses 13-16, Jesus declares in verse 17...
“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.  For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
As I just mentioned, let's break this down verse by verse. In regard to the Old Testament, I want you to notice in verse 17 how Jesus spoke of the...
1. The Old Testament Fulfilled (v. 17)
When Jesus speaks here of “the Law and the Prophets”, he is speaking about those books we call the Old Testament. In Luke 24, that collection is called “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms”. And in other places, the whole collection is simply called “the Law”. But the title “the Law and the Prophets” is more common.
So what is Jesus saying about the Old Testament? He wants to make it absolutely clear that his ministry, that his announcement of the kingdom, does not mean the diminishing of, the dismantling of, or the destruction of the OT Scriptures. Jesus knew that he would regularly face criticism from those who believed they were authorities on and keepers of the OT. And he knew that many of the things he would say and do would sound strange to his listeners, even to his own disciples. Why? Because they had been taught to believe certain things about the OT, things that weren't necessarily true; things that may been half-truths or simply the traditions of men, and not the commandments of God.
But as we see here in v. 17, Jesus does not simply say that he's come to preserve the OT. No. He makes the amazing statement, what some might call the “audacious” statement, that his coming means the fulfillment of the OT. But what exactly does he mean by “fulfill”? Well, that takes us into verse 18. Look at what Jesus tells us there about...
2. All the Old Testament Fulfilled (v. 18)
Let me read verse 18 again: For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
When some people think about Jesus fulfilling the OT, they think about how he fulfilled the messianic prophecies of Isaiah and Micah and the other prophets. Or maybe their mind goes to the sacrificial system we learned about in Leviticus and how Jesus, as the Lamb of God, has fulfilled those 'shadows'.
But notice the scope, the extent that Jesus has in mind here, according to verse 18: “until heaven and earth pass away”, that is, until the end of time, “not an iota, not a dot” (we would say, “not the cross of a 't”, not the dot of an 'I'”) will pass away from the OT “until all is accomplished”.
There are not certain parts of the OT Scriptures that Jesus has fulfilled and will fulfill, and then other parts he's abolished. No. When he speaks in verse 18 about “all [being] accomplished”, he's still talking about how he's come to “fulfill” the OT. And that fulfillment means the preservation of every single book, chapter, verse, word, letter, and even stroke of the pen in the Old Testament. Why? Because all of it will be fulfilled. Pretty amazing, right?!
But if it's not just the messianic prophecies and sacrificial shadows of the OT, how then does Jesus fulfill all of it? Well, I think that points us to verse 19, and what we learn there about...
3. Living the Old Testament Fulfilled (v. 19)
Again, let me reread verse 19 as well: Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
So it's clear from his words that Jesus is specifically talking here about the “commandments” contained in the OT. And His convictions are crystal clear, aren't they? In spite of what his critics might go on to say, Jesus did not come to relax God's commands. And if we're unsure about what “relax” means, all we need to do is look at how He describes the flip-side. The man or woman who is not 'relaxing' (literally 'loosening') God's commands is someone who is doing them and teaching them.
So does that mean followers of Jesus should follow every commandment in the OT? Well, yes and no. Remember, we are not simply talking about obeying the OT. We are talking about, Jesus is talking about, obeying the OT as fulfilled in Jesus. And if we want to understand what that means, all we need to do is look at the rest of Matthew chapter 5.
Do you see how the rest of the chapter is broken down? Each division is dealing with an OT command or concept. And each of those subsections begins with the phrase, “you have heard it was said”. We see that phrase in verses 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, and 43. As you'll see in Nov-ember, when we begin to work through those verses, Jesus “fulfill[ing]” the “Law and the Prophets” must mean that Jesus is filling out the fulness of God's intentions for his people in light of the new covenant. He is not adding to the OT. He is unpacking it in light of the fullness and fulfillment about which its own pages speak.
So for example, as we see in verse 21, Jesus has not come to abolish the law regarding murder. But He has come to fulfill that law. And one of the things that means is dealing with the issue of unrighteous anger, the very thing that fuels murder, as well as so many other hurtful actions and words. So we could say that one of the ways Jesus fulfills this command is by bringing out for us the fullness of this command.
Another place we see this is 7:12. We read there, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Recognize that saying? It's traditionally called the “golden rule”. But notice how it's one more example of Jesus fulfilling the OT. How? By summing up its commands, that we might better understand the guiding principles behind what God has revealed.
What's also important about 7:12 is that it marks the end of the main section of Jesus' message. We know that because, what follows 7:12 is a conclusion built around a series of contrasts. And when we look at 7:12, then back to 5:17-20, we realize that it is this idea of Jesus' fulfilling “the Law and the Prophets” that defines his entire 'mountain message'. With that in mind, if we continue down to 5:20, Jesus also talks to us about...
4. The Kingdom and the Old Testament Fulfilled (v. 20)
Look again at what Jesus says in 5:20...“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Did you notice how verses 19 and 20 bring us back to the idea of the kingdom? You may remember that this whole 'mountain message' is built on the foundation of the kingdom come. The kingdom of heaven was the very thing Jesus was proclaiming in his ministry. And now, the kingdom consolations of 3-12, and the kingdom calling of 13-16, bring us to 19 and 20.
How are all these verses connected? Well, clearly the exceeding “righteousness” Jesus is talking about in verse 20 is the living out we just talked about...living out the OT fulfilled in Jesus. Remember, the “scribes and the Pharisees” Jesus mentions in verse 20 were the religious pillars of their day. They were considered the holiest and most faithful members of the Jewish nation. So having a righteousness that exceeded the righteousness of those spiritual superstars was a pretty daunting idea.
But as we will go on to discover, what Jesus has in mind here is not a superior quantity of righteousness (that is, even more righteous acts). No. Jesus is pointing here to a superior quality of righteousness. And it's that qualitatively superior righteousness that will enable us to enter the kingdom of heaven. Now when Jesus talks about entering the kingdom of heaven, sometimes he's talking about that day in the future when we will enter into the presence of the King. But at other times, he's talking about entering into a present reality. Later in this book, he again speaks of entering the kingdom and of the “scribes and Pharisees”. Matthew 23:13...
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”
Their brand of righteousness was all about 'my performance'. But this mentality only kept people away from the kingdom. Why? Jesus sums answers that in 18:3...“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That's not about exalting your performance. That's about embracing your neediness. And that's key to the exceeding righteousness Jesus is talking about.
To be clear, as we've already heard in verse 17, the exceeding righteousness of verse 20 is a righteousness that comes from Jesus' work of fulfilling the OT.
III. All His Word for All of You
So let's try to pull some ideas together here. To do that, let me share with you what I hope is a helpful application statement, one based on everything we've learned this morning. In terms of living out Jesus' teaching here, I think we can say...
The fact that Jesus alone fulfills the entire Old Testament means we should not only meditate on those books with Christ-colored lenses, but also cling to Jesus as the fullness of the promises, the sacrifices, the precepts, and the righteousness those sacred writings describe.
Let's unpack both parts of that statement. First of all, what Jesus tells us here about his relationship to the Old Testament should radically influence your relationship to the Old Testament. As we asked at the beginning of our time together, for those of us who are new creatures in Christ, how should the new you think about the Old Testament? We should think about those books as God's gracious revelation, pregnant with the fullness of Jesus Christ.
Almost three-quarters of your Bible is the Old Testament. When Paul wrote to Timothy in II Timothy 3:15 about how from childhood [Timothy had] been acquainted with the sacred writings, he was talking about the OT; books that Paul went on to explain are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. When you read the OT, when you study Genesis, when you dig into Daniel, when you meditate on the Psalms, when you consider the prophets, do you think about how those passages are pregnant with the fullness of Jesus?
That's the very thing we did when we studied the book of Leviticus; we let the New Testament show us the fullness of Jesus in those Old Testament passages, in those precepts, in God's presence, in the priestly pictures; pictures of sacrifice, atonement, and holiness. God is encouraging you this morning to do that very thing, whenever you read the OT; to always ask before and after, how might this passage be pregnant with the fullness of Jesus? Maybe the reality of that revelation will encourage us to go more regularly to those “sacred writings”.
But we can't forget the second part of that application statement. What we've read this morning about the OT should compel us to cling to Jesus as the fullness of the promises, the sacrifices, the precepts, and the righteousness those sacred writings describe. The OT writings not only describe God's work of redeeming a people and setting them apart as His own; they also describe the faithlessness, foolishness, and failures of His people. But there's more: in addition to His standards and our struggles, those writings point forward to a Savior, and to a new covenant; to forgiveness, to transformation, to a lasting redemption.
And all of those elements, all of those predictions, all of those genealogies, all of those praises, all of that wisdom, all of those ordinances, all of the promises of God, along with every word, letter, and stroke of the pen by which they are communicated, all of it finds its fullness in Jesus. As Paul wrote in II Corinthians 1:20...For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.
And that brings us back to the qualitatively superior righteousness Jesus talked about in v. 20. Again Paul, confirms this in Romans 3:21, 22...But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. That righteousness belongs to Jesus, and it can be ours when we trust him. That's how unholy people like us can stand before a holy God.
But as we've talked about, that righteousness is not only a position, it is also power...power to live a new life. It is not only a declaration from God that we are “acquitted” before the high court of heaven, but it is also direction from God...direction in living that new life. You see, everything the Law regulated and the prophets reinforced, everything the wisdom books revealed about living, everything the Psalms revealed about trusting, every portrait of courage or portrait of rebellion contained in the historical books, all of it was meant to paint a picture for us, a picture of being and doing for the glory of God, a picture of the truly good life.
And wonderfully, the essence of that good life, is presented for us in an unrivaled way in this 'mountain message'; and by none other than Him who is its fulfillment. If that doesn't make you hungry to study this sermon, I don't know what will. And if all that, the position in His righteousness, the power through His righteousness, His declaration of righteousness, His direction in righteousness, if that doesn't compel us to cling to Christ, I'm not sure what will. Let's pray and ask God to help us to do that very thing this morning, and as we continue through this 'mountain message'.