“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.
“For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)
When Jesus refers to “the Law and the Prophets” He means what we call today “the Old Testament”. Jesus did not make the Old Testament obsolete. He is not contradicting Moses in these verses. He is confronting the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, telling His disciples that the Pharisees had gotten it wrong. Jesus warns His followers from going down the same path and shows us the revolution He wanted us to live out. He was also essentially saying to His disciples: “You need to understand how to correctly apply the Word of God to your life and to others who need help.”
In the next twenty-eight verses that we will look at in future articles, He will explain the differences between His approach to the Word of God and the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. The center of all of these differences is that Jesus came to fulfill the Law of God and that every letter of the Hebrew words in the Law is fulfilled through His teaching.
This difference is what the Apostle Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 3:6 - the spirit of the Law gives life but the letter of the Law kills. The spirit of the law gives life because the spirit of the law is love. The spirit of the law reminds us that all the Law of God - or the Word of God - was born in the heart of God’s love for us. Jesus always had that in focus.
Jesus fulfilled the purpose of the Law, or Word of God, by always interpreting and applying the spirit of the Law. Another way of saying that is that He looked at the Law of God through the lens of the love of God before He applied the Law of God to the lives of the people of God. The scribes and Pharisees either did not know they should do that or, they forgot that the Law of God was made for the well being of the people of God. They devastated God’s people by the way they ruthlessly applied the letter of the Law or Word of God to the lives of the people of God.
The Pharisees had spent years developing careful and strenuous religious traditions, most of the practices not found anywhere in the Old Testament. Following this culture, comparing themselves to one another, was how they proved their “righteousness”. These religious leaders emphasized the external forms of religion and ignored the critical internal issues of the heart (Mark 7:8, 15).
Jesus confronts that, declaring that the personal righteousness, or right living of His disciples, should be greater than the scribes and Pharisees. He warns that any disciple of His who breaks the least of the commandments of God while teaching others to do them will be least in the kingdom of heaven. Compared to this hypocrisy, He tells His disciples to do and teach only the commandments of the Law.
In the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, we will hear Jesus say something like this: “It has been said,” or “They have been teaching you for a long time, but now hear what the Word of God really teaches.” Six times He will make reference to the teaching of their religious leaders and then Jesus will give His teaching.
There are times when He disagrees with the way the religious leaders interpret and apply the Law of God. He will then fulfill the Law of God by teaching the spirit of the Law. Sometimes Jesus is directly opposing a traditional teaching of their Talmud, which was not taught in the Word of God. Matthew and Mark both describe Jesus in a hostile confrontation with these leaders because they placed their tradition in authority over the Word of God (Matthew 15:3-6; Mark 7:9-13).
Can you see any similarities between the way you approach and apply God’s Word and the way the Pharisees did? If so, what are they? What can you do to be more like Jesus?
Take a moment to pray, Thank God that He teaches us righteousness because of His great love for us. Ask Him to develop internal righteousness within your heart as you learn and obey His Word.
This post is adapted from a lesson of the Mini Bible College, an online study of the whole Bible. We highly recommend their audio resources and written materials, available in many languages, to anyone who wants a stronger understanding of the Bible.