v.17 The addition of the phrase “or the Prophets” indicates that what Jesus is saying applies to the entire revelation of the Old Testament, not simply to the commandments of the Mosaic law. “The law and the prophets” was a characteristic way for Jews to speak of the Scripture. It is, of course, entirely likely that legalistically minded Pharisees and scribes had already accused Jesus of precisely that: seeking to abolish the law because he did not subscribe to their interpretation of the law or to their idea of obedience to it. As he continues, it will become clear that Jesus is thinking especially of the commandments of the law.
v.18 Literally Jesus says, “Truly I say to you…” “Truly” is the word “Amen.” It is a way of speaking that seems to be unique to Jesus. No other teacher of the time used that form of words so far as we know and no one else put “Amen” at the beginning of a statement instead of at its end. It occurs 31x in Matthew and 25x in John. It serves in much the same way as the prophets’ “Thus says the Lord” to indicate that what is being said is authoritative. The NIV’s “smallest letter” is the Greek word iota which was the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet and is here used for the Hebrew letter yod which is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Bengel, the great 18th century scholar, counted up the yods in the Hebrew Bible and found that there were 66,420 of them! Not one of those will fall, Jesus is saying. The NIV’s “the least stroke of a pen” translates the Greek word “horn” that probably refers to the little hook or projection on some Hebrew letters that distinguish them from other similar letters. The point is that not even the least detail will fall from the ancient Scriptures. “Heaven and earth” are a way of speaking about the created world. This world will come to an end, but Holy Scripture is more permanent than the world.
v.19 The Lord admits that some commandments are weightier than others, but even the least of them is to be obeyed. There are commandments concerning the care of men and concerning the care of birds in the Mosaic law and, as Jesus will say, you are much more important than birds. As one commentator sums up the verse: “disrespect for the Old Testament makes a poor Christian.” [France, 116] The good disciple will both teach the commandments of the Lord as the will of God and obey those commandments himself.
v.20 Here we learn that the obedience Christ requires of his disciples is enforced by no legalistic principle of merit or just desert. The true disciple who disobeys will be least but he will be least in the kingdom of God. The scribes or teachers of the law and the Pharisees who were famous for their meticulous observance of even the least of the law’s requirements will not obtain the kingdom of heaven. The following verses, 21-48, will explain the difference. What Christ is after is an obedience that comes out of the heart, is not a superficial, much less a legalistic and proud piety, but a genuine desire to honor the Lord for love’s sake, to meet the true, the deep, the real requirement of the law, in attitude as well as in conduct, and not merely conform one’s conduct to some outward regulation. The obedience of the Christian disciple must go deeper than the obedience of the Pharisee which was simply the correct observance of regulations governing outward behavior. Christ is looking for humble love. As the Puritans used to say, the Lord is looking for experience from life, not to life. The Pharisees were experts at the letter of the law but Jesus wanted the radical obedience of a loving heart. The Pharisees could tell you how many words or letters occurred in a given biblical book, but, as Jesus will point out, they often missed the entire point of that book.
There are certain texts that in the history of the interpretation of the Bible have become lightning rods for controversy. Probably the most controversial text in the Bible is the Lord’s statement at the Last Supper, “This is my body.” We are aware of what a world of controversy and contention has swirled around that single line of Holy Scripture. It is perhaps not too much to say that the Christian world split apart because of different interpretations of that single statement. Another similarly controversial statement is the one we find in Matthew 13 and the Lord’s parable of the weeds, when the Lord says that “The field is the world.” Archbishop Richard Trench, the Anglican scholar of the 19th century, calls that statement “the second most controversial text in the Bible.” It was a dispute about this text, or, perhaps better, a great dispute developed that was defined by the interpretation of this text, that split apart the church in the 4th and 5th centuries and still today divides churches from one another. Is the church the gathering of the truly saved, or is it and must it remain a mixture of saved and unsaved with only God able infallibly to distinguish between the two? Well, your interpretation of Matt. 13:38 will largely determine how you answer that question.
The text before us this morning, and especially vv. 17-18, are controversial in the same historic way. Perhaps no question of biblical interpretation has greater implications than the question of how to read and to regard the revelation we find in the first 39 book of the Bible, what we call the Old Testament. Are those books still the living Word of God for us to believe and obey or have they been superseded by the revelation of the final 27 books, what we call the New Testament? And if we are still to believe and obey the OT, how are we to do that? How are we to obey commandments about making sacrifices in a temple that no longer exists? How are we to obey commandments about a year of jubilee when we no longer have slaves to release or portions of the Promised Land to return to their rightful owners? These are pressing questions with immense practical implications. And Jesus says here, in effect, that there are different ways to answer these questions and different theories about what the law requires. Those differences are the debate and the controversy.
The scribes and Pharisees were nothing if they were not earnest and careful students of the Bible. They poured over the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. They discovered that there were actually 613 different commandments given, 248 in a positive form – do this – and 365 in a negative form – don’t do this. This minute concentration on the commandments offered wonderful possibilities to those with a legalistic frame of mind. They could dissect without end the precise obligation of each commandment, spinning out ever more detailed accounts of the obedience involved. They could create a great host of collateral regulations by the keeping of which one would keep the particular law in question. One has only to read the Mishnah, a compilation of these seemingly unending regulations, all thought to have been faithfully spun out of the various biblical commandments, to realize how easy it had been for this generation of the church to lose sight of what Jesus would later call “the weightier matters of the law,” the fundamental obligations of love, faithfulness, and justice. At the same time, it is very easy to understand how people deeply enmeshed in that kind of thinking about righteousness, as a matter of obedience to a host of regulations governing every part of behavior would think that Jesus, rejecting those regulations and even speaking against them, did not take the law seriously.
What is more, Jesus came preaching that salvation to people not because of their obedience or their works but because of his obedience in their place. Salvation was found not in their righteous works but rather in their relationship to him. Salvation was by his grace and not by their works. But that inevitably raised the question of the place of all of those commandments in the Bible. If keeping them wasn’t how a person was saved, was it necessary to keep them any longer? And that question was made more pressing still when Jesus said such critical things about the Pharisees and their obedience to the law. Were Christ’s followers still obliged to obey the commandments of Moses?
One’s understanding of the law and one’s understanding of obedience to the law – the reason for it, the way of it – revealed one’s understanding of salvation in those days and it does still today. Therefore, it was necessary for Jesus to state clearly his own understanding of the law and its authority in the life of his people. [Morris, 106-107] There is a great deal in the Gospels about the law of God and this section of the Sermon on the Mount is very important in coming to a right understanding of all of the rest of that material. Here, and the verses that follow, to the end of chapter five, is the Lord giving, as it were, his theology of the law and of obedience.
And what we have first is an unqualified commitment to the abiding authority of God’s law. Let there be no doubt about that, Jesus says. The ethical teaching that follows in the Sermon on the Mount, the exposition of the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven, has such a radical character to it, represented such a sharp contrast to the accepted conventions of Jewish piety, that it was necessary at the outset for Jesus to indicate his unswerving loyalty to the law and the Prophets. His understanding of the law was so out of step with what was accepted in the Judaism of that day that it was inevitable that people would accuse him of being against the law, or antinomian. His concern with heart issues and his lack of patience with the minutiae of regulation to which the Pharisees were captive only deepened the perception on the part of many that Jesus didn’t take the law seriously. So first Jesus had to say in unmistakable terms that he was an advocate and defender of God’s law and that his disciples had to keep it. Only when he had said that could he go on to expose the false principle at work in Jewish obedience without being taken to mean that he was encouraging laxness in obedience to God’s law, which is precisely what the scribes and Pharisees accused him of. Jesus is going to argue that it is the Pharisees who have misunderstood the law and in their misunderstanding have, in fact, disobeyed God’s law. That would come as a stunningly unexpected charge, when it was the Pharisees who were noted by everyone for their scrupulous obedience to the law. So we have here in vv. 17-20 an introduction to the next section. In the next section the Lord will explain where the Pharisees went wrong with the law of God and how, for all their supposed loyalty to the law, they actually are guilty of having betrayed it fundamentally.
Then, having said that he is loyal to God’s law, Jesus explains what his view of the law is and how he understands it. That question reduces to this question: what did he mean when he said that he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. It is about that word “fulfill” that the debate has raged for centuries.
Some have argued that Jesus meant only to say that he came to keep the commandments, to obey them every one. There has been in our Reformed world over the last 30 years a renewal of that interpretation. But that scarcely does justice to the meaning of the word, certainly to its use in the Gospels. The word fulfill does not mean simply “obey” or “keep” and it is not so used in the Gospels. What is more, as everyone knows, Christ demonstrated a certain sovereignty over the Law of Moses, being willing on certain occasions to cancel Mosaic commandments, such as those concerning clean and unclean foods. “Fulfill” means something more than simply to “take over without alteration and obey each commandment.”
Others suggest that Jesus means that he came to fulfill the promise of salvation that is made in the OT. The Lord’s remark thus becomes a reference to Christ’s work of salvation which fulfills the expectation and the prophecy of the OT. There is truth in that, of course. Jesus fulfilled the prophecies made about the coming of the Messiah and there is a great deal in the law of God – for example, all the laws of sacrificial worship – that pointed forward to his coming and to the salvation he would accomplish. The main problem with that interpretation is that the words that follow have to do with obedience to the law, the right interpretation of the law, and with correcting a false understanding of the law. Jesus does seem very clearly to be talking about the obedience of his disciples and what is required of them. He is in vv. 19-20 and he is in the entire section from 21-48. In other words, in the context, Jesus does not seem to be talking about his death and resurrection but about the obedient lives of his disciples. That is what he is talking about when he says he has come to fulfill the law.
Others have suggested that by “fulfill” the Lord really means “to supersede” or “do away with.” Christ will, by his death and resurrection, make obedience to the law no longer necessary. It may be necessary at the moment, Jesus is saying, but when I have done my work, Christians will no longer look to the Law for direction for their behavior, that direction will come immediately from the Holy Spirit. That is the view that in the history of Christian theology is known as antinomianism – “against the law-ism” – the view that Christian conduct is no longer regulated by the law of God and obedience is no longer to commandments such as are written in the Bible, but only to a principle of love in the heart. “No creed but Christ, no law but love,” say these people. But clearly that turns Jesus’ teaching on its head. “Fulfill” does not mean “abolish” or “nullify” as v. 17 plainly says. And as vv. 19-20 and all that follow them say, obedience to the law will remain a vital characteristic of the life of Christ’s disciples. The law will remain until the end of this age, that is, until everything has been accomplished and the consummation has come, as Jesus says in v. 18. Later in the NT, when we read that “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” We hear the echoes of Jesus here in Matthew 5.
That has led many commentators to argue that by “fulfill” the law and the prophets, Jesus means here to say that he has come to bring the full and true meaning of the law to his church and to the world, as part of his rule as the Savior and the King, and to free it from the shallow understanding to which it was subject in his day and is so often subject. The Messiah has come to give the law its definitive interpretation, an interpretation that couldn’t be so fully given until the Messiah and the kingdom of God had come. Because the law and the prophets pointed to him, he is now able to reveal their true meaning more than had ever been revealed before. And bringing out the law’s true meaning is what he then sets out to do in the verses that follow. Remember, according to the rest of the NT, it was God the Son, it was the Lord Christ before his incarnation that gave the Law to Israel at Sinai. Now he is come to explain it in still greater detail, to confirm its authority but to make sure we understand what its commands really mean. So what Jesus is saying, in sum, is that the law of God will be preserved but not as interpreted and understood by the Pharisees, but as explained and interpreted and applied by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the law-giver himself.
This understanding explains the teaching that we will get later in the Gospels and the rest of the NT. The law continues in its authority over our lives absolutely. But there are adjustments by which it is applied to new situations brought to pass by Christ’s coming. The Lord abolishes the laws of clean and unclean foods, for example, in preparation for the Gentile mission. A Mosaic law requiring capital punishment for incest is cited in favor of excommunication by Paul in 1 Cor. 5. The church no longer executes her capital criminals, she excommunicates them, for the church is no longer the state as she once was. The fifth commandment of the ten commandments, requiring children to honor their parents, is cited as authoritative in Ephesians 6:2 but the promised reward for this obedience is changed from living in the Promised Land to living a long life on the earth. And so on. The obligations of the law remain, their fundamental requirements continue, but they are applied in new ways suitable to the Messianic age. As the Lord says in v. 18, at the end of this age, when the consummation comes at the Second Coming, there are at least parts of the law of God that will no longer apply. But, for now, the law is in full force. Therefore, it is critical that believers understand what the law actually demands and how it is to be obeyed. And that becomes the subject of the next section of the sermon.
Now what does all of that argument mean for you and me today. You may be, and understandably, less interested in the polemics of the interpretation of this passage. You want to know what it means for you; how it applies to your daily living. Well let me tell you. Hear the Lord Jesus, your Savior and your King, say what he says here. It means such things as this.
- You should love the law of God because Christ does. You should love God’s commandments and, far from chafing under them or resenting what they require of you, you ought to embrace the obedience they require with a full heart. You ought to say as the author of Psalm 119 said, “Oh how love I your law; it is my meditation all the day.” You are who struggling to maintain sexual purity in your thoughts and your conduct, you should hear Christ tell you that he cares deeply that his followers obey God’s law and remain pure in heart, speech, and behavior. And so with so many other struggles that you have. Search your own heart. Do you not admit, as I must admit, that there are things in the law of God that we agree with absolutely and there are parts of it we find difficult to approve of, difficult to embrace as good and right, difficult because we love the sin that is forbidden or we find so hard the obedience that is required?
Every time such a thought enters your head, every time you find that spirit of rebellion rising in your heart, remember your Savior saying that not the smallest letter will fall from the law in his kingdom and tell yourself that if the law is good enough for the Son of God, who gave his life for you, then it is good enough for you. C.S. Lewis reminds us, “The order of the divine mind, embodied in the divine law, is beautiful. What should a man do but try to reproduce it, so far as possible, in his daily life?” [Reflections on the Psalms, 59] The law is the reflection of God’s character. If we love him, we will love it. To keep the law is to be holy and we are to be holy because he is holy. To love God is to try to be like him! To try to be like him is to obey his law. As one wise writer put it, there is a pleasure in obedience, a pleasure all Christians should know.
- And if you should love God’s law and embrace it, then you need to know it. There is little point in saying that you are committed to living your life in obedience to God’s law if you hardly know what that means. Do you know what it means? Those 613 commandments that the Pharisees found; every one of them is pure gold if only rightly understood and obeyed in the spirit of love and humility. I wonder if some of you have, as I have, been thinking about what the law of God tells me about my contribution to the building project here at Faith. There is the law of the tithe and laws concerning offerings and vows that apply to our lives today as surely as they ever did, though, obviously, as Jesus reveals to us, in a different context and with different specific applications. But to honor the Lord with one’s substance, one’s means, one’s money is a part of our obedience to which the law of God speaks in some detail, perhaps because as someone has said the pocket nerve is the most sensitive nerve in the body.
- And if you should love God’s law and care to learn it and master it, then you should, by all means, make obedience to it the principle of your daily living come wind, come weather.
It is striking to me the difference that I often observe when people come to me with a problem in their lives. Their marriage is very unhappy or they have financial difficulties or they find themselves in some mess of their own making. Some will come and what they are clearly looking for is a way out. They want a solution. Some folk are clear that they want an honorable solution, that they want to solve the problem in the right way; others are less caring about that. They only want to be happy again and want me to approve the plans they have to find their happiness again. And, then, there is another kind of person who comes to me. He or she wants to be happy as surely as the next person. He wants his problem to be solved; she wants her pain to go away. But they don’t come to me first for that. They come because they want to know what God’s law says. They want to know what they must do and what they must not do. They want me to clarify that for them. I can’t tell you how many times – it is to the credit of this congregation that there have been so many times – someone has asked me what is required of them and I have shown them what is said in the law of God. I have sometimes had to tell them what difficult things, what punishingly difficult things God’s Law requires them to do – stay in a troubled marriage, meet their financial obligations no matter the pain that will require, humble themselves before an enemy they offended even though his sin was much the greater and he won’t admit it, and on and on – and they have heard me out, and they have squared their shoulders, taken a deep breath and left me to obey. All they needed to be sure of was that they had understood God’s law correctly. That they would disobey God’s law was never in their mind. Christ would have their obedience.
- And if you should love God’s law, and know it, and obey it, then you should also believe that your blessing is to be found there. The Law of God requires difficult things but never without the promise of reward, never without the promise of blessing. Jesus says so here. He will particularly take note of the person who is conspicuous for his or her obedience to his Law.
Young people, what Jesus is after, what we are after in your lives, what we who have walked with the Lord through many years want to tell you, is that you will never go wrong keeping God’s commandments for the love of Christ. You will never regret a single act of such obedience, however difficult it was, however much suffering it caused you. What we wish we could instill in you, both for God’s glory and for your own happiness and fruitfulness of life, is a commitment to obedience so robust, so stout, so hardy that we know you will obey the Lord your God and follow Christ your Savior even when temptations to disobey are very great, even when you are entirely alone and think that no one will know what you do. It is not, to be sure, how you become a Christian, it is, however, absolutely, how to be a Christian.
The person who obeys God’s law in that way, from the heart, because he or she is determined to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, I tell you in the Lord’s own name, I tell you for a certainty, not only will your reward be very great in heaven, it will be very great on this earth. If you will learn and pray and promise the Lord until you absolutely love to obey, I promise you in his own name, that he will prove to you how much he honors the person who honors him!