Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets

How do you answer someone who says, “The 10 Commandments have nothing to do with the life of a Christian”? What does Jesus say about the Law in Matthew 5:17–20?

How important are the Law and the Prophets? Jesus does not abolish the Law. Jesus may have made this remark because he was accused of doing away with the Law. Later in this Gospel we see him reacting strongly against the additional burdens that the scribes and Pharisees had added to the Law. But, as we will see, what Jesus opposes is not the Law of God, but the human additions to it.

Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets. The question is not how strictly or loosely Jesus kept the Law. The point he is making is that he fulfills the Law and the Prophets. He brings them to completion. They focus on him. Don’t approach the subject by asking, “Is this law permanent?” or “Does this law apply to me? Do I have to keep it?” Certainly there are ceremonial regulations from which we have been freed. It took Peter a while to learn that, but he finally got the point through the vision the Lord gave him in preparation to going to the home of Cornelius..But all of God’s laws and all of Scripture (“the Law and the Prophets” was a way of idenfying the entire Hebrew Scriptures) find their focus, their central point, their fulfillment in Christ. “Jesus himself as the great high priest, in his finished work and in his continual high-priestly activity, is the permanent and final embodiment of the truth portrayed in the Levitical ordinances. Strictly speaking the Levitical ritual did not serve as the pattern for the work of Christ, rather, the high-priestly work of Christ provided the archetype by which the prescriptions of the Levitical law were fashioned and patterned (cf. Hebrews 9:24, 25). The Levitical were the ectypes and models drawn from the heavenly exemplar. It was for this reason that they possessed meaning and efficacy.” (John Murray, Principles of Conduct, p. 151). In Deuteronomy 3 Moses, speaking to Israel just before they entered the promised land, reminds them of the privilege they had in that God spoke his Law from Sinai, establishing his covenant with them. God’s dealings with his people throughout the Old Testament, whether, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, or anyone else, all had their focus on the coming Messiah. It is not just that certain passages are fulfilled in Christ, and the rest are somehow not Messianic. All point to and are fulfilled in Christ.

The details are important! Even the small parts of the Law are permanent. In the last verse of Deuteronomy 5 Moses summons God’s people to walk in his ways, to be careful to keep all that God had commanded. What God says, what God gives us in his written Scriptures, are important. As Jesus makes his sweeping statement about all of the Law and the Prophets abiding until heaven and earth disappear, he refers to the small details of Hebrew writing. The jod is the smallest letter in that alphabet. And the title, or least stroke of a pen, is a tiny mark that distinguishes one letter from another similar one. What Jesus says has implications for the doctrine of inspiration. The Spirit breathing the Word is not just giving a general, vague, idea, but includes the very words of Scripture. Unfortunately there is a tendency to label those who are concerned with the details of what God says as “legalists.” Legalism is a problem, as we will see shortly, but legalism is something other than being concerned with the details of what God requires. The attitude that one can be concerned about serving God generally, without being too picky about the details, breathes a spirit that is different from what Jesus says.

Put God’s commands into practice. Jesus doe not just want you to know about the details of the Law, he wants you to obey them! He contrasts two attitudes. One is a willingness to break the “small” commands, the “least” of them. Those, Jesus says, are least in his kingdom. The opposite attitude is a desire to know, to keep, and to put into practice what God says. Those who do that, Jesus says, are great in his kingdom. At a time when even in Christian circles, a desire to please God is sometimes looked down upon, remember what Jesus says!

he righteous enter the kingdom of heaven. Avoid the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees were often seen by the people, and by themselves, as the examples of righteousness. But Jesus said that your righteousness has to be better than theirs! In many ways the Pharisees were scrupulous about details. But, focusing on themselves, rather than on the God who redeemed them, they began to add additional regulations to God’s law. And it was not long before keeping those human additions became more important than what God had said. In the rest of Matthew 5, Jesus gives examples. Focusing on human additions often led to looking for technical ways to avoid keeping God’s commandments. Their righteousness became a works righteousness, an effort to earn one’s way into heaven, rather than living by trusting in God. Thus Jesus can condemn what the Pharisees did, and Paul can write boldly against efforts to find salvation by keeping the works of the law.

Live as those who enter God’s kingdom. Jesus calls you to have a different kind of righteousness than the self-centered efforts of the Pharisees. He calls you to live as one who knows God as Redeemer, who trusts Christ as Savior, and who then lives to the glory of God, seeking to serve him. That is a radical change, compared to the self-centeredness of the natural man—what we once were. Jesus is preaching this Sermon on the Mount before he died and rose again. It was after his resurrection that the church understood more clearly just what his atoning work accomplished. Paul would make very clear the biblical truth that as sinners we need the righteousness of another, the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us. We can never earn our way into heaven. That idea is heresy. But don’t downplay the importance of living to the glory of God. Jesus calls you to have a kingdom of heaven kind of righteousness in your life. Your life needs to be different from and better than that of the scribes. “Our Lord’s doctrine is the bud in which the two conceptions of a righteousness imputed and a righteousness embodied in the sanctified life of the believer still lie enclosed together.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom and the Church, p. 65). Keep the balance that Paul would later explain in Ephesians 2. He condemns all efforts at salvation by the works that you do—but then goes on to tell you that you are saved by grace in order to do the good works that God has ordained for you. His language of “walking” in them echoes Moses’ command in Deuteronomy 5. In Romans 8:1–4 Paul tells you that God has done what the law could not do in that it was weak in the flesh—in order that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in you. God has saved you—to obey.

If you trust in Christ you are part of the kingdom of heaven, of which he spoke. You are part of it, not because you have been good enough to earn your way in, but because the King humbled himself and became the Suffering Servant, bearing the curse of the covenant in your place. But, in that kingdom, how you live is important. The narrow way to which Jesus calls you is the path of trust and obedience. In what ways will your righteousness be better than that of the Pharisees this week? How will kingdom of heaven righteousness express itself in what you say and do?

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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