"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20 NASB)
Typically you will see this passage lumped together with the preceding passages about salt and light, and that is unfortunate. The salt and light teachings should either be considered as stand alone, or as I would contend, should actually be seen as the conclusion drawn logically from the beatitudes. The structure of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is important to its understanding, and we must not simply trust chapter and verse divisions or subheadings in our bibles as proper divisions of thoughts or concepts. They are there to help, but often fall short.
Matthew 5:17-20 serves as the introduction to the teachings that will follow in Matthew 5:21-47, and the ultimate conclusion of those teachings will be seen in Matthew 5:48. "Therefore you
are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48 NASB) Now put it together, and you see Jesus stating that He is the fulfillment of the Law, and that the Law itself stands, every single pen stroke, in fact if your righteousness does not exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees (who were regarded as those who attempted faithfully to obey the Law) then you will not enter heaven... therefore you are to be perfect!
Now what stands between verses 20 and 48 are a number of explanations of why, and how your righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisees. So here is the structure of this sub-section of the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 5:17-20 – Introduction
· Jesus comes to fulfill the law not destroy, and we as believers are to live out that fulfillment, in fact, if our righteousness does not exceed that of simple law abiding (ie Pharisees) we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Matthew 5:21-47 - Body
· Jesus uses a number of commonly understood commandments, then explains the very fulfillment of those commands, showing how true righteousness and fulfillment of the Law actually exceeds the letter of the law.
Matthew 5:48 – Conclusion
· In light of the fulfillment of the Law, be perfect by living out not the letter but fulfillment of that law.
Now the reason I went through the whole exercise is because verses 17-20 are actually explained by the following verses, and in the coming posts concerning verses 21-47 the meaning of 17-20 will be exposed. I hope that makes sense.
One thing I would like to point out concerning Matthew 17-20 before I conclude is that you must be very careful not to end at the simple fact that Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. Too often we look at this in spiritual realm without recognizing the praxis. The spiritual and the practical must never be divorced. Jesus came to fulfill the law... using His body the church. There is a solemn warning ‘unless YOUR righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.’ Jesus crushes this notion that his life and
death produced a mere spiritual transaction that gives you a mere righteous standing. Jesus’ life death and resurrection did indeed produce a spiritual transaction that gives you a righteous standing... but that righteousness is not only a spiritual standing, but will always produce actual righteous spiritual living which is tangible and visible. Justification produces regeneration which is evidenced by Sanctification... which is a work of the Holy Spirit producing works of righteousness in the believer that actually exceeds the righteous acts of the scribes and Pharisees.
We are not allowed to live to a standard lower than the law because of grace. However we are empowered by grace to live to a standard that exceeds the law not by our own works, but by the power of God manifesting itself by producing His works in and through us... tangibly.
I hope this post made sense, if it didn’t comment as to why it didn’t. These are important matters and worth discussion.