“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.” – Matthew 5:17-20 ESV
Jesus knows that what He is saying is going to be misunderstood and misconstrued by His hearers. He is well aware that the content of His message is going to sound controversial, even heretical to some. So, He takes just a few minutes to assure them that He is not promoting something contrary to their Scriptures, which is what He means by “the Law or the prophets.” His message was radical, but not in that sense. In fact, Jesus is about to show them that His words are well within the teaching of the Law, and His own life was a fulfillment of all the prophets had written. For Jesus, everything He had to say was based on a proper interpretation of Scripture and not in conflict with it.
Much of the opposition Jesus would face in His ministry would be due to a misunderstanding of the Scriptures on the part of the Jewish people. And their ignorance regarding their sacred writings was due to the teaching of their own religious leadership. Later on in His ministry, Jesus would confront the Jewish religious leaders – the scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the law – telling them, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life” (John 5:39-40 NLT). These men were renowned for their knowledge of God’s Word but were ignorant of its true meaning and content. Years later, Jesus would expose the Pharisees for their rampant abuse of God’s law.
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” – Mark 7:6-8 NLT
For generations, these men had taken the Laws of God and interpreted them for their own benefit. They had twisted God’s words and added to them their own traditions and man-made laws designed to lessen God’s requirements. And as much as they may have known about the coming Messiah, they completely missed who Jesus was because He did not fit their interpretations and expectations. Years later, when Jesus had been resurrected and returned back to His Father’s side in heaven, Stephen would preach a powerful message to the Jews that would end up with his death by stoning.
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” – Acts 7:51-53 NLT
So, Jesus assures His listeners that He is not contradicting the Word of God, He is actually fulfilling it. The Jews saw the Law as an end unto itself. In other words, it was their ability to keep the Law that brought them approval by God. They understood that their capacity to live up to God’s law was what brought them God’s blessings. So, they developed workarounds and loopholes to make compliance easier. Jesus would accuse them of this very thing.
“You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” – Mark 7:9-13 NLT
The law was intended to point the people to their need for a Savior. The law was holy, righteous, and impossible to keep. All it could do was expose sin, not remove it. No man, no matter how knowledgeable he was of the law, could keep it perfectly. That is, until Jesus came. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee and an expert regarding the law, would make this point clear in his letter to the Galatians.
Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. – Galatians 3:19 NLT
Jesus claims that He did not come to abolish or do away with the law but to fulfill it. He didn’t come to refute what the prophets had said generations ago, but to bring about all that they had written. The Old Testament Scriptures, the Law and the prophets, pointed toward Jesus. They predicted His coming. They revealed the kind of life that God required, one that no ordinary man was capable of living. They showed the level of righteousness required for man to receive God’s approval. And Jesus, the Son of God, came to live that life and demonstrate that kind of righteousness in human flesh.
Taking a direct stab at the religious leaders in His audience, Jesus says, “So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:19 NLT). In other words, if you attempt to diminish, dilute or alter God’s requirements in any way, you have no part in His Kingdom. Obedience was the key – perfect obedience.
“But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” – Matthew 5:19 NLT
Then Jesus drops the bombshell that had to have left the heads of those in His audience spinning in confusion and disappointment.
“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” – Matthew 5:20 NLT
What? Was He kidding? Had He lost His mind? How in the world could anyone be more righteous than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees? These men were considered the spiritual elite of their day. They were the crème de la crème, the top dogs, the religious rock stars of Israel. But Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring.
Jesus is speaking of a different kind of righteousness altogether. He is juxtaposing the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees with the internal righteousness that He came to bring.
He is contrasting man-made righteousness with Spirit-produced righteousness, something that would be made possible after His death, resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s coming. He is eliminating any prospect of self-righteousness altogether and revealing that His righteousness alone, which is superior to that of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, is what can make men right with God. Jesus is referring to an alien righteousness, a righteousness that comes from outside of oneself.
There are two kinds of Christian righteousness… The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies though faith… – Martin Luther, Two Kinds of Righteousness
The righteousness of man won’t gain God’s approval because it is insufficient. Once again, Paul reminds us:
For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die. – Galatians 2:21 NLT
And he elaborates on this very same point in his letter to the Romans:
The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT
The very next section of Jesus’ sermon is going to develop this idea of a superior righteousness. He is going to reveal that God’s requirements were more intense and demanding than His audience had ever dreamed. The kind of righteousness God required was unattainable by sinful men and women. Therefore, the list of blessings Jesus opened His sermon with was totally elusive and out of reach for the average Jew.
Or were they? This entire sermon is designed to set up what appears to be an irreconcilable problem, and then provide His audience with an unexpected solution. In fact, He will wrap up His sermon with these words:
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” – Matthew 7:13-14 ESV
And later on in His ministry, Jesus will reveal exactly what He meant by the narrow gate.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 NLT
Attaining the blessings of God through human effort was impossible. Earning the approval of God through rule-keeping and self-discipline was not going to cut it. Even the religious leaders of Israel, with all their trappings of spiritual superiority, were wholly deficient in holiness – by God’s exacting standard. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, would later write: “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV).
But the good news was that God had sent His Son to be the Savior for all those who would recognize their sinfulness and relinquish any hope in their own self-righteousness.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.