Matthew 5:17–20 (ESV): Christ Came to Fulfill the Law
In this passage—still part of the Sermon on the Mount—Christ tells his followers that he has not come to abolish “the Law or the Prophets”—in fact, quite the opposite: he has come to “fulfill” them (verse 17 (ESV)).
He goes on to say that nobody should be “relaxing” any of the commandments—not even the “least” of them—nor teaching anyone else to relax them, and that anyone who does will be “called least in the kingdom of heaven;” conversely, anyone who “does them” and teaches them will be called great (verse 19 (ESV)).
He then says something that should be considered very scary:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (verse 20 (ESV))
There was nobody who did a better job of—or made a bigger show of—obeying the law than the Pharisees. I’m sure the people are worried and/or confused at hearing these words from Jesus.
First of all, I’ll point out that when Jesus mentions “the Law and the Prophets,” that’s just a way of talking about the entire Old Testament. It’s not that he’s referring to the books at the beginning and end of the Old Testament, and skipping the ones in the middle; he means the whole thing.
It’s interesting that I’m blogging about this particular passage today, because the other day I was talking with my pastors and some other men about The Law. Are some of the New Testament passages in conflict with each other, with Paul saying that The Law no longer applies, but Jesus saying that it does? (If that were the case, I’d take Jesus over Paul—Paul was definitely smart, but you just can’t argue with the Lord…) Is Jesus teaching us in this passage that the Old Testament laws still apply? It’s obvious that some of them don’t, because the New Testament specifically tells us so; for example, dietary laws no longer apply, because Jesus told us so (see, for example, Mark 7:1–23 (ESV), especially verses 17–19 (ESV)). We also know that the sacrificial system no longer applies, because Jesus is our sacrifice, once and for all—there is no need for further sacrifices, because his sacrifice paid for all sins. But what about other laws?
Spoiler alert: I won’t be definitively answering this question with this blog post. For 2,000 years we’ve been arguing about if and how the Old Testament laws apply to Christians, and if He tarries for another 2,000, He’ll come back to find that we’re still arguing about it. In fact, I’m curious to see if I’ll get any comments on this blog post; if so, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are nasty.
That being said, let’s dive into it.
Notice the language that Jesus is using in this passage; you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven unless you’re more righteous than the Pharisees—the most righteous people who lived, in Christ’s day—and Christ has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. Can I be more righteous than the Pharisees? The simple answer is that no, I probably can’t. (I’m sure some people can; if the Pharisees could manage to be as righteous as they were, I’m sure others could too.) And neither can I fulfill the law, and for that matter neither could the Pharisees, try as they might—but Christ has already done that for me. When my life is over and I stand before God, I will be judged as if I had Jesus’ righteousness. In other words, it will be as if I had always perfectly kept all of God’s law, and never once fallen into sin. When I am judged, I’ll get into the kingdom of heaven because I will have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees—Jesus’! All of the sins I have committed (and will commit) have been put onto Jesus at the cross, in that perfect sacrifice I just mentioned. The sins are gone; Jesus has already been judged for them, so I won’t be. He has fulfilled the Law.
This passage is teaching us that the Law is important; but it’s also teaching us that Jesus was the fulfilment of that Law. Regardless of how you might feel about Christians trying to obey the law in this life—now that we have the Holy Spirit to help us—that’s not what this particular passage is all about. This passage is about the Gospel. It’s tempting to read about Grace in the New Testament, and think to ourselves that God has set aside His Law, and that sins committed by Christians won’t be punished. But that’s not what He did. The Law was fulfilled. Any instances where someone broke the law have been (or will be) punished, and anyone who has lived perfectly according to the Law will enter the kingdom of heaven. But we know that it’s impossible to perfectly follow the Law, which is why Jesus did it for us, took our punishment (even though he didn’t deserve it, and is the only human who ever lived who didn’t deserve it), and then imparted his righteousness to us, so that we can be judged as if we had been as perfect as he was.