A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on July 15, 2018.
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. 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 (Matthew 5:17–20).
If I were to ask you if the Beatitudes contain the Law of God and the words of the Prophets, how would you respond?Some might say that they are antithetical, demonstrating an incompatibility between the Old and New Testaments. Often the apostle Paul’s gospel declaration that we are “not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14) is wrongly interpreted to mean the law has no relevance for the Christian, and the Old Testament is replaced with the New. One man pragmatically responded that he should just rip the Old Testament out of his Bible as a faithful Christian.Another sings “Amazing Grace” assuming that grace has nullified the Law, not realizing that the hymn writer considered “Ignorance of the nature and design of the law” to be “at the bottom of most of our religious mistakes.”
In actuality, in a quick walk through the Beatitudes we see the underlying standard of God’s Law and hear echoes of the Prophets. How can we mourn over our sin, if we don’t know what sin is? Paul confessed, “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet’” (Rom. 7:7). And blessed are the meek who, as the prophet Micah described, exercise justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). How can we hunger and thirst for righteousness unless we know what righteousness is? Paul referred to the law as the righteous requirement of God (Rom. 8:3-4). How can we be pure in heart unless we see that anger is to murder (Matt. 5:21-22) what lust is to adultery (Matt. 5:27-28).
The Law and the Prophets also undergird our earthly roles as salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). In a fallen world, the law of God reflects the perfect righteousness of God illuminating human sinfulness, and the Prophetic writings reveal the record of humanity and the hope of redemption. In a world bent on evil, the law of God serves as a restrainer of evil, and the Prophetic writings declare the holiness of God. And for Christians, citizens of the kingdom of heaven and exiles in this earthly kingdom, God’s law serves as a guide to living for Christ, and the Prophetic writings are the written Word of God. So, we can sing with the psalmist, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97), and “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (Ps. 119:15).
But as Jesus preached His Sermon on the Mount, the people of Israel were hearing something very different than what they had been taught by their scribes and the Pharisees. Their view was not of grace, love, and mercy but of legalistic compliance and nostalgia. In the theocracy of Israel, the Pharisees were not poor in spirit but proud of their outward performance. They need not mourn over sin, for they were comforted in the fact that they did not sin (at least according to their definition). Meekness did not define the religious leaders of Jesus’ day but a fierce pride in their heritage, their laws, and their strict adherence. To hunger and thirst for righteousness are inner desires, but they were only concerned with their outward appearance (Matt. 23:25). Rules and precedent outranked mercy, even if it meant not caring for father or mother (Mark 7:11). The heart need not be examined as long as the superficial shell is sparkling (Matt. 23:27). And peace was not a gift from God but someone to be crucified. So to Jesus’ original audience His words were new and even controversial.
Was He then advocating the abolition of the Law and the Prophets? Jesus could not have stated it more clearly, “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). This was a startling statement to a people whose lives revolved around the various aspects of God’s Law and who revered the Prophets of old. This remains a startling statement to a world that considers the Law and the Prophets to be irrelevant. To teach what He meant, we must start with what He fulfilled: Scripture, the Word of God.
In His teaching, what did Jesus mean by the Law and the Prophets? In summary, He meant the entirety of the Old Testament canon. Specifically, He meant the moral, ceremonial, and civil aspects of the Law, the Hebrew Torah, all of it, but He also meant the rest of the Old Testament books given by prophetic inspiration. If you have ever heard that all of the Old Testament points to Christ, this is its origin. Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.
What then is Jesus’ view of Scripture? Some consider the Bible to be an archaic collection of the writings of men, to be read for some literary or historical value but nothing beyond that. Others consider the bible to be a beneficial religious book containing errors and inconsistencies but handy for moral teaching. But, how did Jesus view Scripture? Jesus considered Scripture to be inspired, inerrant, and immutable down to the “iota” (the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet) down to the “dot” (the Hebrew serif that accents certain letters). It is remarkable to what detail Jesus regards the Scriptures. Therefore, Paul could encourage the young pastor, Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). The Bible is the very Word of God!
Jesus also taught the closing of the Old Testament canon and the commencement of the New when He explained to the disciples, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John [the Baptist]” (Matt. 11:13); and, “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you” (John 14:26). Thus commenced the conclusion of the canon we have today. We also see the enduring nature of Scripture is Jesus’ words: “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” I have a lot of books on my shelves but of the bible only does the psalmist declare, “Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens” (Ps. 119:89). Isaiah wrote, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8). Stop and consider the blessing of the enduring nature of God’s Word that we enjoy even in this age, to have the Word of God preserved that we may read and study it. Don’t treat it like any other book, because it is not. It is the Word of God!
Finally, Jesus taught of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, when He cautioned, “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.” Scripture has such authority that to dilute its sufficiency has consequences. Rather than a book to be manipulated, “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). How we treat and use the Bible speaks of what we truly believe about God, and how He has chosen to speak to us. What then is the testimony of Scripture? How did Jesus fulfill the Law and the Prophets?
Fulfilled in His Life, Death, and Resurrection
Jesus challenged to the unbelieving Pharisees, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:39, 46). Consider this for a moment, if you have read the books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). How often have we read like Pharisees, not seeing Jesus in the first five books of the Bible? So comprehensive is this truth that Paul confidently celebrated, “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20).
When we read Moses, we see the ceremonial law points to Christ. Therefore, in Christ’s coming the ceremonial aspect of God’s Law ceased, not because it was abolished, but it was fulfilled. He was the promised and final sacrificial Lamb. “He entered,” the writer of Hebrews explains, “once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. As the fulfilled Promise, He established His eternal Priesthood (Heb. 7:23-24) and changed the center of worship from the temporal temple to His eternal body (Matt. 18:20), even food was liberated from restricted to clean (Mark 7:18-19).
When we read Moses, we see the civil law points to Christ. In His coming, the civil aspect of God’s Law was no longer established in a geographic and ethnic theocracy but as a heavenly kingdom made up of peoples from every tribe, tongue, and nation governed by the Spirit of Christ. When we read Moses, we see the moral law points to Christ. In His coming, He who was born under the Law (Gal. 4:4) kept it perfectly and completely (Rom. 10:4). While He came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3) and “was tempted in every point like we are,” He was “without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Therefore, after His resurrection as He walked along the Emmaus road, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The Law and the Prophets were fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and so in us.
Fulfilled in Us
For Jesus’ original audience and for many people today, the pinnacle of righteousness is the outward compliance of religiosity: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Imagine the most religious person you know. Now consider God’s standard of righteousness. There is no comparison. Even religious zealots of Jesus’ day, with their extraordinary outward legal compliance, were like “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). For this reason, the testimony of Scripture could never be merely a moral guide of the life of Jesus. We don’t need merely a good example; we need a sinless Savior!
Thankfully, the true testimony of Scripture is Christ and His perfect fulfillment. And in His perfect fulfillment is the gospel: “For our sake [God] made [His Son] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Compared to the righteous standard of God, we don’t measure up…but Christ does. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:1–4).
This is the testimony of Scripture: fulfilled in Christ and Christ in us.