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Matthew 5:17-20 by Robert Dean
When Jesus was here on this earth, why did many people accuse Him of trying to destroy the Mosaic Law? Listen to this lesson to learn that Jesus told His disciples that every part of the Scriptures, down to the smallest letter and line, was inspired by God and that He came to fulfill the Law and explain what it really meant. Understand that we are righteous by faith in Christ rather than by obeying the hundreds and hundreds of rules and regulations that the rabbis added over the years. Come to the conclusion that what we think and do must be subject to the will of God if we are to rule and reign with Christ in the coming Kingdom of heaven.
Series:Matthew (2013)
Duration:47 mins 36 secs

How Detailed is God's Inspiration of the Bible?
Matthew 5:17-20
Matthew Lesson #027
March 23, 2014

This is a somewhat challenging passage and it is importance for our understanding for what is coming in the remainder of this chapter. It is a challenge because in the history of Christianity a couple of questions have always been a problem in Christian teaching and in the Christian life and in related problems. The first is, what in the world do we do about sin after we are saved? That might not seem a major problem for some of us, but it is a major problem and has been a major problem in the history of Christianity and it is a problem for many people.

In the early church they thought that water baptism actually cleansed us from sin. The problem was, what do you do after you get baptized? How did you get cleansed after baptism? There were many people who did not get baptized until they were close to death because they didn't want too many sins on their account after salvation. The emperor Constantine was one like that. He was almost on his death bed before he was baptized. Later on Roman Catholic theology introduced the system of penance in order to deal with sin problems after salvation.  

A related problem is, what do you do with all these passages of Scripture that talk about living a righteous life? What in the world is that all about? Is this living a righteous life in order to get saved? Or how in the world can we live a righteous life when we still struggle with sin? As a result of those two problems people had an enormous difficulty understanding some of the things Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount—especially when we get to the last verse of the four that we are looking at now.

Matthew 5:17-20 NASB "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others {to do} the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches {them,} he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses {that} of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."

These four verses are not a conclusion to the previous sixteen verses. The beatitudes gave us a focus on the attitude expected of the disciple who is preparing himself to serve in the announced and anticipated kingdom of heaven. We have to keep that in mind. What happens in verse 17 is that Jesus is moving out of the introduction into the body of the sermon that covers vv. 21-48. So this is an introduction in vv. 17-20 to prepare for what He is about to say.

As we look at this we need to make some initial observations, a sort of fly-over, so orient ourselves to the structure of these four verses. I have inserted some of the key Greek structural phrases in the text so that we can understand that these four verses have to be taken as a whole. They are related to one another; it is a development of one single thought as an introduction to the rest of the chapter. The initial statement that Jesus is making is telling them that in spite of what He is about to say it should not be understood that He is challenging the Law, that He is not going to abolish the Law, He is not going to change the Law; He has come to fulfill the Law.

Then He explains something more about that. That is indicated grammatically with the word that occurs near the beginning of the second verse, translated in English "for". That indicates an explanation or an expansion of what was just said. So verse 18 is grammatically connected as part of verse 17. In verse 19 He says, "Whoever then [or, therefore]" which indicates a conclusion, something derived in addition to what was stated already. So obviously verse 19 flows directly out of the thought of vv. 17 and 18.

So far; so good. Most people don't have a problem with that. But where difficulty comes in is in verse 20: "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses {that} of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." In some versions that will be seen to be the beginning of a new paragraph and in some explanations of this there is a break made conceptually between verse 20 and verse 19: that verse 20 is introducing a new thought. Verse 20 also beginning in the Greek with the particle GAR which indicates an explanation or an expansion of what was just said in the statement before. That means that verse 20 is continuing the thought of vv. 19, 18 and 17. So this must be understood as an integral whole.

One of the reasons for saying this is because when we read verse 20 the question naturally arises: what kind of righteousness are we talking about here? 

This verse has nothing to do with the kind of righteousness needed to be saved; the kind of righteousness related to individual salvation. That is how many of us have understood this: that the scribes and the Pharisees were teaching a works righteousness needed to get into heaven. What Jesus would be teaching here under that idea is that you need a different kind of righteousness to have individual salvation—not a works righteousness, but an imputed righteousness. Scripture teaches two kinds of righteousness: that which is given to us, credited to us at the instant of salvation, and that which is the result of our Christian life walking by means of the Spirit. Scripture teaches that at the instant of our faith alone in Christ alone God the Father credits to us the righteousness of Christ. He gives that to us—it is called imputed righteousness—and that is now ours and we are saved, not on the basis of our morality or ethics or righteousness or anything that we have done (Titus 3:5).

The classic illustration of imputed righteousness is used by Paul in Romans chapter four. There he goes back to Genesis chapter fifteen where he talks about the fact that Abraham had already believed, trusted in God, and that was accounted to him as righteousness. That means that this concept of imputed righteousness goes all the way back to the beginning of the need for salvation in the garden. Even though this is not a fully-developed doctrine in the Old Testament Genesis 15:6 clearly states that Abraham was saved on the same basis a we. He was saved by receiving imputed righteousness from God.

So is this passage talking about imputed righteousness, or is it talking about another category of righteousness? The point that I am going to be making here is that contextually—and context is really king; when you take the con out of context you are left with a con job—Jesus is talking to His disciples, those who are already personally, individually saved. They are individually justified; they already have their eternal destiny in heaven secured by believing is Jesus as the promised Messiah. So He is not talking to unbelievers about how to be individually justified, He is talking to believers about how already-justified people are supposed to live. That is important to understand. If Jesus is telling people who are already believers how to live then we can't interpret anything in Matthew 5-7 as related to how a person secures their eternal destiny in heaven. Even though it may look like that the context tells us it is not talking about that. He is talking about the kind of righteousness, the kind of character qualities that are expected of a disciple, and that those who develop these character qualities after salvation will have a specific role and unique responsibilities in the kingdom.

The message governing Jesus' ministry at this time is 'Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand [near]'. Jesus continued with the same message that John the Baptist preached. After this we will see that when He sends out His disciples to the house of Israel and the house of Judah He will say, "Don't go to the Gentiles, go to the house of Judah and Israel and announce that the kingdom of heaven is at hand". So Jesus is announcing that because He is the King. The presence of the kingdom is near and so we have to be prepared to live in the kingdom. He is not talking to church age believers at this point but the principles apply because we are waiting for the kingdom as they were. We have to prepare ourselves for the kingdom within the dynamics of church age spirituality just as they had to prepare themselves for the presence of the kingdom in terms of the spiritual life at the time of the age of Israel.

So Jesus is talking to believers about the demands of discipleship; He is not talking to unbelievers about how to get into heaven. What is confusing is when we look at that last line in the last verse. He is talking about entering the kingdom of heaven. Many of us automatically think that entering the kingdom of heaven means securing salvation. In fact, in John 3:5 Jesus said to Nicodemus that you have to be born of water and born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom. And everybody says that is talking about regeneration, and it is. The term 'entering the kingdom' though is one of those terms that has a certain ambiguity to it and depending on context it is either talking about what we would called phase one salvation/justification, or it can be talking about phase two salvation.

An example. Acts 14:22 NASB "strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and {saying,} 'Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.'" The 'disciples' tells us right away that the people he was talking to are already justified; they are disciples. He is challenging them to continue in the faith. This is talking about spiritual life truth, not justification truth. How do we do this? "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God." He is talking about entering the kingdom of God. If they are already saved they are going to go to heaven, so he can't be talking about how to be justified because justification is by faith alone. But here he is saying that entering the kingdom is conditioned upon how we handle the adversities of life. Well if this is talking about getting justified then what he is saying is that in order to go to heaven you have handle the adversities of life the correct way. That is a works salvation. He can't be talking about that. That would contradict many passages, like Titus 3:5 and Ephesians 2:8, 9.

So he has to be using the phrase "entering the kingdom of God" differently. (Kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven are synonymous terms) When we look at the last verse here, "you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven", contextually we know that Jesus is talking to already-saved disciples about how they should live as growing, maturing disciples. In Matthew 5:20 it is talking about how to get into the kingdom of heaven and it is jarring because that is not what the context anywhere in Matthew 5-7 is discussing. By looking at the usage of the term we discover that there are a number of passages where the phrase "enter the kingdom of heaven" and similar phrases are used to refer to spiritual life truth rather than justification truth.

As we look at this it raises questions in our mind. As we read through the first part of vv. 17 and 18 Jesus begins by stating that He didn't come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. What He is going to do in this next section from vv. 21-48 is to challenge the Pharisaical interpretation of the Mosaic Law. This was an interpretation that was very popular. Their interpretation called the oral law had been dominant in Jewish and rabbinical thinking for about 150-200 years, so that it was imbedded in the thinking of the people. So what Jesus wants to convince His hearers of is that He is not coming to violate or teach against the actual teaching of the Mosaic Law, but that He is going to establish it and fulfill it. What He is about to do is teach the real meaning of the Law as God intended. He is going to give the divine viewpoint interpretation of the Mosaic Law.

This should raise several questions in our thinking. Did they have an expectation that the Messiah would abolish the Law? They did not, but they were confused about it because of the way that Jesus taught about the Law in contrast to the way the Pharisees taught about the Law. Another thing we need to address is, what did Jesus mean when He says "destroying the Law or the prophets." What does that phrase describe? And what does it mean when He says that He will fulfill the Law or the prophets?

To understand this we must realize that after the Jews returned to the promised land in 538 BC they returned in stages. They had to rebuild their country. They went through a period of rebuilding from 538 to approximately 440 BC, almost 100 years, and most of all they had to rebuild the spiritual life of the Jewish people. These rebuilding activities are described in the historical books of the Scripture in Nehemiah and Ezra, and the spiritual challenges are described in the books of Haggai and Malachi. The Old Testament period of revelation ended at approximately 440 BC, and from then until the New Testament period—approximately 30 AD—there is no revelation. God is silent. There are books that were written about the history of the Jews during that time but the Jews never considered these books to be part of God's Word and they are referred to as apocryphal. During that period we read that there was a development of rabbinical theology and people were concerned about their spiritual life, the rabbis were concerned; and they recognized that God had punished them by taking them out of the land because they had disobeyed the Law.

The Mosaic Law consists of not ten commandments but 613 commandments. And what they decided was that they needed to construct a series of commandments like a fence around the original 613 and that that would protect the commandments from being disobeyed. As long as these additional commandments were kept then there was not the threat of breaking one of the 613 commandments. This it what is usually referred to in the New Testament by "the traditions of the fathers". That became the core of rabbinical theology and was the foundation of what was taught by the Pharisees. This is what Jesus was teaching against because they had developed a works basis for righteousness in contrast to what was originally taught in the Mosaic Law. So Jesus is challenging this.  

In the coming section, starting in v. 21 and going through v. 48, we will discover that six times Jesus makes a statement along the lines of, "You have heard it said, but I say to you". He is correcting the bad theology of the Pharisees and their false interpretation of the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law wasn't teaching a works righteousness to get into heaven. They were viewed as a nation that was already set apart to God and it was teaching how a saved people were to live. They understood the concept of imputed righteousness, as stated earlier, from Genesis 15:6 and then the book of Deuteronomy was talking about imputed righteousness.

We talk about salvation in three senses, or three phases. Phase one is when we believe that Jesus died on the cross for us and we are justified. The word "saved" as we use it in common evangelical language is not always used as a synonym for justification in the Scripture. We always use it as if that is what it means and so it is easy to misinterpret Scripture if we read into every use of "saved" the meaning of justification. Many times in the book of Romans "saved" never is a synonym for justification, and in other books. In Matthew itself the word "saved" is never used for justification. The core meaning of the word "saved" is to be delivered from something. So in phase one we are talking about being saved from the penalty of sin. At that instant our eternal destiny in heaven is secure but the spiritual life, which begins at that point, doesn't end with that. We have a responsibility now as newborn babes to grow to spiritual maturity and that is the process of our spiritual life: we are to grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. And as we walk by the Spirit, studying God's Word, what is produced in our life when we are walking by the Spirit is what is called divine good to distinguish it from the works that we do just in the power of our sin nature. This we refer to as experiential righteousness. We are saved from the power of sin.

This is what Jesus is talking about to His disciples. Under this period of the Mosaic Law He is saying, if you are going to be prepared for the kingdom you have to be obedient to the Mosaic Law; you have to develop experiential righteousness in your life which is not the kind of experiential righteousness that the Pharisees are talking about.

Some passages that show this from the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 6:25 NASB "It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the LORD our God, just as He commanded us." The context had been talking about obedience to the Law and loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. This verse is saying that obedience to the Law will be righteousness to us. If the Israelites obeyed the Law then it produced experiential righteousness in their lives.

Deuteronomy 24:13 "When the sun goes down you shall surely return the pledge to him, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you; and it will be righteousness for you before the LORD your God." This is situation where there was somebody who has made a loan to someone rather impoverished and rather than putting them in a deficit position the lender would return the garment that was given as a pledge so that they can be warm during the night. They treat somebody in kindness and that is experiential righteousness.

Another set of verses that are important comes at the end of David's life. David is talking about how the Lord has prospered him in his life.

2 Samuel 22:21 NASB "The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness; According to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me." This is not talking about justification righteousness or imputed righteousness; it is talking about the righteousness of a life of obedience. He further explains in verse 22 that this was the result of his keeping the ways of the Lord. David may have conspired to commit murder and engaged in grand deception but he never apostasized in the sense of going into idolatry. He was always loyal to the Lord and God rewarded him by saying that David was a man after His own heart. This is a great testimony to the grace of God.

2 Samuel 22:23 NASB "For all His ordinances {were} before me, And {as for} His statutes, I did not depart from them. [24] I was also blameless toward Him, And I kept myself from my iniquity. [25] Therefore the LORD has recompensed me according to my righteousness, According to my cleanness before His eyes."

The point being made is that the Old Testament recognizes the distinction between imputed righteousness, which secures our eternal destiny, and experiential righteousness, which is to characterize the life of the believer who is walking according to the standards of God's Word.

This was expected of the king. 2 Chronicles 9:8 NASB "Blessed be the LORD your God who delighted in you, setting you on His throne as king for the LORD your God; because your God loved Israel establishing them forever, therefore He made you king over them, to do justice and righteousness." This is experiential righteousness.

Psalm 23:3 NASB "He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name's sake." We are expected to live a righteous life according to the standards of God's Word.

So Jesus is coming to emphasize that the Pharisees have distorted the experiential righteousness as taught in the Law and that their righteousness is merely a superficial righteousness that has no eternal value whatsoever. In the coming verses He is going to contrast the teaching of the Pharisees with God's original intent.

Matthew 5:17 NASB  "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill." He says this to His disciples. Why would He say it? Because they have charge made to Him that He is just trying to overthrow Moses. This is the charge that would come from the Scribes and the Pharisees: that Jesus is out of line because He is contradicting Moses. What Jesus is going to point is that He is not abolishing Moses, not trying to tear down Moses, now trying to abolish the Torah; in fact what He is giving is the accurate interpretation of the Torah in contrast to the false teaching of the Pharisees. So when He says, Do not think—the word NOMIZO, an aorist active subjunctive which is used with a negative "not" here to indicate a prohibition. It means to think or to suppose or to presume something—He is saying, don't be caught in this trap of thinking I have come to destroy/abolish the Law. The word destroy" is KATALOUO, which means to destroy, to demolish, to annul or invalidate something. This word is used of a building or an institution that has the idea of dismantling or destroying something. When it is used with reference to an authoritative text it means to declare it to be no longer valid, to repeal it, or to annul it.

What is He talking about here when He uses this phrase "the Law and the prophets"? The phrase is used in several passages in the New Testament: Matthew 7:12; 22:40; Acts 24:14; 28:23; Romans 3:21. It refers to what we would call the Old Testament.   

Jesus said He came to "fulfill". This is the word PLEROO which is often used in Matthew to refer to a fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy, and it has the idea of fulfilling those promises of God that are made in the Old Testament. Jesus is going to fulfill the Law in two ways. He is going to fulfill it in terms of His life. He will accomplish the purpose and the goal of the Law. He is the only one who has perfectly obeyed the Law, and this demonstrated that He is sinless and perfectly righteous, and therefore qualified to go to the cross. It was part of His demonstration of His qualification as the Messiah. As such, being qualified also means that He would fulfill all of the Old Testament prophecies and promises.

Another question we should ask is; to what degree of detail will He fulfill these promises. And that is what is covered in the next verse.

Matthew 5:18 NASB "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished."

What He is saying here is that the Law will be fulfilled down to the smallest minutia in each passage. It is not just the ideas that are important; it is the very words themselves that are inspired by God. We refer to this as verbal and plenary inspiration; that God has revealed the very words of Scripture; not the ideas; not the concepts. Ideas and concepts are built upon words. If you change the word you change the idea or the concept. The word "jot" as it is translated in the English is the Hebrew letter yodh, which is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet. And if you just change one letter you can change the meaning of a word. The same thing happens with a "tittle" [NKJV], an English word that refers to the smallest stroke of a letter and it translates the Greek word KERAIA, referring to just the small stroke in part of a letter. So what Jesus is saying is that inspiration extends down to the smallest letter or smallest stroke.

This is why I make such an emphasis on understanding the original Greek and understanding the words used. And sometimes one word is used, sometimes another word is used, and it is not just for stylistic difference, it is because it communicates something slightly different.

Jesus is referring here to the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture: that Scripture is verbally inspired, every word is revealed by God, and that God reveals Himself through propositional sentences based on these individual words, and that that extends down to the very minutia of the text; not just the words themselves but even the form of the word—whether it is a past tense, a present tense, a plural, a singular, all of it is inspired. Therefore it has authority because it comes from God.

The implication and application for us is that if the Word of God comes from God then it includes a responsibility on our part to obey it. That is what Jesus will emphasize when we look at verse 19. In contrast to the Pharisees there are those who teach that you can minimize some commandments. These are called "the least of these commandments".

Matthew 5:19 NASB "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others {to do} the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches {them,} he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."