It’s a funny how the Lord works. I wasn’t aware of it, but last night at Theology Tuesday, we looked at John 8:31-46, and looked specifically at verse 31 and 32, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And we discussed the importance of abiding in God’s Word. This Sunday, John is speaking on the first means of our Vision series, and you know what it will be on? The Word of God. And lo and behold, tonight as we continue through our series on the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord has brought us to a passage that is all about His Word. I did not plan this to happen. Maybe God is trying to say something to our church.
One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Isa. 66:2, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” How we interact with, relate to, and use God’s Word is really, really important. May God so grant us with humility that we can revere God’s Word enough that it makes us tremble.
Now, tonight we are going to be examining some things that are going to make your brain sweat a bit, but that’s a good thing! I’ve always been helped by this quote from C.S. Lewis, “If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.” In other words, when we bump up against something in the Bible that is confusing we don’t run away! We pursue after it because we know that through it we will see an aspect of the beauty of Jesus that we have been thus far blind to, and we will do anything to see more of Jesus. So, buckle up, and let’s get a fresh glimpse of Jesus.
The Importance of God’s Word
Jesus opens up with verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” (Matt. 5:17a). Before we go any further, we need to ask ourselves, what does Jesus mean by “Law and Prophets”? Well, the “Law and Prophets” was a shorthand way to refer to what we now know as the Old Testament. This would have essentially been Jesus’ and His contemporaries’ Bible, from Genesis to Malachi.
Secondly, what does Jesus mean by “abolish”? Well, “abolish” is a pretty straightforward translation. The word literally means, “to destroy” and is typically used in reference to the destruction of a building. So, before Jesus launches into the whole of His sermon, He clarifies that nothing He is teaching or doing is dismissing, contradicting, or destroying anything that the Old Testament teaches, rather He has come to “fulfill it”. But before we chase that down, I want to press into Christ’s view of Scripture a little more before we move on.
In verse 18 we read, “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,” (Matt. 5:18). Jesus draws our attention to the minutest grammatical marks in the Hebrew, and says that they are more enduring than all of Creation. An “iota” was the smallest Hebrew letter (yōd), and a “dot” was a miniscule punctuation mark – think about the difference between a period and comma, that small tail mark would have been comparable to a “dot”. What is Jesus saying? The same thing that influenced the Apostle Paul when he wrote, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work,” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
As Christians, sometimes we get confused by what we find in the Old Testament, or we just ignore it entirely, and put our primary focus on the New Testament. While I understand that often the New Testament may be an easier read for us to begin at, we should be cautious. I still remember clear as day, sitting in an introductory Bible class at a tiny, start-up Bible college where a professor told the class that we needed to let the “Red Words”, Jesus’ words in the Gospels, have the most authority in our Bible reading, and we could disregard the rest as not-as-authoritative. I was only 18 years old at the time, and did not know much, but I knew that that didn’t work. I knew that didn’t make sense with Paul’s teaching in 2 Timothy, but I also knew that didn’t even make sense within Jesus’ own teaching. Jesus affirms the authority of the Old Testament, down to the punctuation marks, and also bestows His own authority onto His Apostles (John 14:26), so all of Scripture (Old and New Testament) is just as inspired as Jesus’ words in the gospels.
So, what does this mean for us? It means that we need to take the Bible very seriously. It is the very words of God, Himself. Do not take it lightly.
The Fulfillment of God’s Word
Okay, so if we are to see all of Scripture as inspired by God and therefore important, how then are we to understand things we find in the Old Testament like ritual sacrifice (Lev. 16), or the stoning of disobedient children (Deut. 21:18-21), and so on? This brings us to the next part of 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,” (Matt. 5:17). What does it mean that Jesus “fulfills” the Old Testament?
Well the word “fulfill” literally means “fill up”, Jesus is saying that He “fills up” all of the Old Testament. When we hear “fulfill” we tend to think of specific, predictions that were made by Prophets in the Old Testament that Jesus completes – like the prediction that He would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:22-23). But the gospel of Matthew also includes events that happen in the OT that aren’t predictive, for example in Matt. 2:15 after Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to escape Herod, we are told that it “fulfills” the story of the Exodus, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” That isn’t a prophetic prediction like Isa. 7 – it is just the prophet Hosea looking back at the Exodus and musing on it, but this still somehow is “filled up” by Jesus. What does this mean? This means that Jesus is claiming that the entire Bible centers on Him. He warns us elsewhere, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,” (John 5:39).
Imagine it like this: reading your Old Testament apart from Jesus is like watching TV in black and white. Read your Old Testament in light of Jesus, and suddenly color floods the screen and “fills up” everything that it was lacking before. That is what it means for Jesus to “fulfill” the Old Testament. This doesn’t mean that Jesus makes the Old Testament irrelevant, but the exact opposite – He makes it crystal clear.
A couple of examples of how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament:
The Passover Lamb
“Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old…the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it…The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” – Ex. 12:5-8, 13
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” – John 1:29
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty- six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. – John 2:19-21
The Justice and Mercy of God
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty. – Ex. 34:6-7
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— Gal. 3:13
Now, we are told that this does mean that there are certain aspects of the Old Testament that will and do pass away when “all is accomplished”. Not everything has yet been accomplished, we still await Christ to return a second time and usher in the New Creation – then, the entirety of Scripture will be fulfilled. But, for now we do see a number of ways that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has indeed fulfilled and accomplished certain aspects of Scripture:
- The need for rituals/sacrifices. (Heb. 9:12)
- The need for a priest to act as an intermediary between God and man. (Heb. 7:23-24)
- The need to worship in a physical temple. (John. 4:21-23; 2:19-21; 1 Cor. 6:19-20)
- The restrictions on eating certain foods. (Mark 7:18-19)
- The establishment of civil law based on a theocratic government system. (Rom. 13:1; John 18:36)
- The need for ethnic divisions between Jew and Gentile. (Eph. 2:11-22)
- The curses that come on God’s people for disobeying God’s law. (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:13)
One practical application of this truth is very helpful for our current cultural moment. I don’t know how many times I have heard someone say something to the tune of, “Christians are so hypocritical. They pick and choose what they want to believe out of the Bible – so they’ll use the Bible to say that homosexuality is wrong, but they don’t follow the rest of the teaching of the book of Leviticus. They eat bacon!” See, if we have a clear understanding of the purpose of the Old Testament’s fulfillment in Christ than we will have no problem saying that homosexuality is a sin, and yes we can enjoy bacon. God’s ceremonial and civil law were shadows that pointed towards the coming of Christ – God’s moral law is reaffirmed by Christ (hence Matt. 5:21-48).
So, what is the fulfillment of God’s Word? Jesus – all of Scripture is given to us to reveal Him more clearly, and will remain authoritative until all is accomplished and He returns, and we will no longer need to Scriptures to reveal Him, but we will see Him as He is.
The Obedience to God’s Word
Jesus concludes with these shocking words, “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,” (Matt. 5:19-20).
Because we now see Christ as the fulfillment of God’s Word does this now lead us to moral ambivalence? No, quite the opposite. Verse 19 opens up with “Therefore…” So Jesus is saying, in light of the fact that I am fulfilling all Scripture and none of it will pass away until all is accomplished, pursue obedience to God’s commandments with all your might. And then He adds the eyebrow-raising warning in verse 20. That would have been a bombshell for people to hear. The scribes and the Pharisees were famously known for their righteousness. There was a famous saying in Jesus’ time that said, “If only two people are allowed into heaven, one would be a scribe and the other a Pharisee.” However, Jesus was unimpressed.
Now, the question we must ask is this: is Jesus saying that our righteousness must exceed the Pharisees because by faith we receive His righteousness? Or is He saying that we must become more righteous in our deeds and motives than the Pharisees? Which is it?
Well the shocking answer is that it is both. New Testament scholar, D.A. Carson, says, “The verb “exceeds” suggests that the new righteousness outstrips the old both qualitatively and quantitatively. Anything less does not enter the kingdom.” The quality, the kind, and the quantity, the amount of righteousness must exceed the Pharisees and the scribes, or we will have no entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
A few weeks ago I preached on a sermon on Matt. 5:6 and explained that righteousness is first a gift to be received before it is an action to be performed. This is the same here. To put your faith in Christ is to receive His own righteousness that He earned Himself. Certainly, part of Christ’s fulfillment and accomplishment of the Law is to fully and perfectly obey the Law in our stead, and take on our punishment for our sins. This is what Paul means when He says that Christ has redeemed us from the curse of law by becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). But upon receiving Christ’s righteousness, we then eagerly desire to obey Christ and to live a righteous life. This is why the next section of the sermon focuses on a heartfelt desire to obey God’s commands.