These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil 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.’
Growing up I used to love watching the film Chariots of Fire which tells the story of Eric Liddell’s principled stand to uphold the Sabbath by not running on a Sunday during the 1926 Paris Olympics. Earlier on in the film there is a cameo in which Liddell, the Scottish Prespyterian, leaves church one Sunday and there are some boys outside kicking a football about. In his gentle way he reprimands them for breaking the Sabbath. This moment sets up the huge dilemma he would face later on when everything he’d worked for would hang in the balance because one of the heats for the 100m race was to be held on a Sunday.
Whatever we make of Liddell’s strong principles (and I have mixed feelings), it points to the bigger issue of how Christians have handled the Old Testament Law. It seems to me that we often stray in two equally hazardous directions.
At one end there are so many Christians, and so many churches, where the spirituality is basically Pharisaism reborn. We have all met someone who was put off church as a kid because they just encountered laws and rules, and most likely an atmosphere that didn’t communicate the grace of the gospel in any way.
At the other end there are far too many churches that so want to preach the love of God and the grace of the gospel that they’ve forgotten that God’s intention was always to make us holy. You can sit in some churches and never experience any conviction for sin. That is so far wide of the mark that it’s not even Christian.
How are we supposed to understand the relationship of Christians to the Law? That can only be answered when we understand Jesus’ relationship to the Law, and this passage gives us the most clear insight.
What is happening here? Why does Jesus bring up the Law in the first place? I think we can assume that there is a mixed audience. On his right, so to speak, are those who see Jesus as trouble. They think he’s trying to tone down or even tear down the OT Law, and they hate him for it. On his left are those who are glad that Jesus appears to be offering a new way, and perhaps they secretly were hoping that he would abolish the Law. Either way, both groups think Jesus is basically against the Law and he has to answer that charge.
But why might people think this in the first place? Here are some reasons: (i) He spoke on his own authority. This was not the normal way to teach. Most teachers took a careful stance and quoted from this rabbi and that rabbi to arrive at a tentative conclusion. But Jesus breaks onto the scene talking like he is God himself. (ii) He ignored the traditions. The religious elite didn’t only seek to obey the Law, but to obey a huge number of oral traditions that had grown up around the Law. But Jesus didn’t pay much, if any, attention to these things. (iii) He reinterprets the OT laws, something we’ll encounter through this Sermon on the Mount. (iv) He kept bad company. Even in our relatively liberal society, I think most Christians today would blush at the kind of company Jesus kept if we saw it now; the equivalent of porn stars, gang leaders, and rough blue-collar workers.
Seeing this, the conservatives on his right were enraged, and the liberals on his left were delighted, and Jesus answers them by effectively saying: You’re all wrong.
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil 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.’
The iota or dot refers to the smallest marks on the Hebrew scrolls; the little flick of the pen as the scribe makes his letters look ornate. And Jesus is saying, I care about the Law right down to its seemingly unimportant details.
‘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.’
Jesus is not a friend to those who condone or encourage ungodly living. He isn’t lowering the bar on holiness. He isn’t trying to make sin acceptable. He hates sin with a deep passionate loathing, and love holiness with white hot love.
‘For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’
This is the killer blow to all of his hearers and to us. You see, however people reacted to Jesus (whether conservative or liberal) their basic instinct was the same: they were all self-justifiers. Some of them were trying to justify themselves by keeping the Law, and despised Jesus for apparently opposing the Law. Some were trying to justify themselves by saying that the Law had always been too difficult, and surely the bar ought to be lowered, and maybe Jesus is here to do that.
But Jesus confronts them all in the same way. He says, in effect, you’re all wrong. You’re all sinners. Even the best among you, the scribes and Pharisees, are not good enough.
And this would leave us in utter despair if it were not for that incredible line: ‘I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.’ What does he mean by ‘fulfil’?
1. Jesus fulfils the Law and Prophets by obeying them
Jesus is the perfect man, and so he can be (for us) the perfect sacrifice. Jesus fulfils the Law by satisfying its demands for holiness. In a sense, he embodies the Law.
2. Jesus is the conclusion or purpose of the Law and Prophets
If you were to only read the Old Testament in isolation then you would know that the story isn’t finished. It is pregnant with expectation. The Prophets speak with astonishing clarity about the expectation of a Messiah, but there are more subtle ways that the OT shows itself to be an incomplete story. When Jesus arrives he shows himself to be the new Temple, the great High Priest, and the once-for-all Sacrifice. All of this is set up by the Law, but it isn’t until the arrival of Jesus that we get fulfilment. The story finds its resolution in Jesus, and in that way he fulfils it.
3. Jesus satisfies the Law’s just demands for punishment
The Law stands as the accuser over the nation and over individuals. It speaks of the curses that should fall on those who sin. It’s a depressing thing to feel the full weight of the Law upon your weak frame, and yet the Law must have justice. Why? Because it is a reflection of the heart of God, our perfect, holy God. When we hear of criminals who have fled from the law, or had protection from prosecution, we feel that things have not been set right, that something is out of balance. The Law and Prophets are left that way up until the coming of Jesus.
But Jesus brings a kind of closure to the Law’s just demands by allowing the full weight of the curse to fall on him. ‘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” ’ (Galatians 3.13). There is something so beautiful, so relieving, and so complete in the knowledge that Jesus has satisfied the cry for justice by absorbing the full weight of the curse on his own body on the cross.
4. Jesus is the full revelation of God
The purpose of the Law and Prophets is not just to give us instructions for life. The more important and profound purpose is to reveal who God is; something we could not know if God has not spoken.
Where the OT builds layer upon layer, revealing more of who God is, this picture of God is not full or complete until Jesus arrives. He fulfils the Law and Prophets by filling out the jigsaw, as it were, and showing us the face of God. ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’, he says (John 14.9). ‘He is the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1.15). ‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature’ (Hebrews 1.3). Nobody in the Old Testament knew God as fully as we can now, because they didn’t know Jesus. God’s character was put on full display in Jesus. In that sense, then, he fulfilled the Law and Prophets.
What does all this mean for us? It means that Jesus did not come to weaken or pull down the Law at all; on the contrary, his demands seem to be even higher and more difficult. And Jesus wants all of us to realise that and to acknowledge that his passion for holiness has not lessened. We are forced to admit that we can’t possibly be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees; at least not by our own efforts.
And yet, if Jesus has fulfilled the Law, he did it for a purpose. That was to make us, his people, righteous. He makes us righteous as a gift (justification), but then he starts working on our hearts, causing us to want to obey God, and making us more godly than the scribes and Pharisees ever were. Jesus is not against the Law, he fulfils it and them makes us fulfillers of it also.