Going Beyond The Letter of the Law

going beyond the letter of the law

(Matthew 5:17-20)

 

Matthew 5:17-20 —– “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.

All of us have heard someone use the phrase: “the letter of the Law.” When we hear that, we know exactly what the person is saying. If a boss asks an employee of his: “Did so and so do what we asked him to do?” and the employee responds: “Yes, by the letter of the law,” it simply means that the person followed the instructions that were given to him thoroughly and completely. He did all of what was asked of him on each point—no more, no less.
 

In our text this morning in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus is teaching His disciples about the coming era called “the kingdom of heaven” in which He will rule over the entire earth. And what we will see in our text this morning (as well as in the weeks ahead) is that in that future day, our Lord will not only be concerned about the letter of the law, He will even go beyond that, because His kingdom will be one in which He wants everyone—both unsaved and saved people—to live His laws out to their fullest extent.

And that is what I would like to speak to you about for a few minutes this morning. There are a lot of people across history who were misunderstood during their earthly lives. For example…

  • The Italian scientist, Galileo, who revolutionized our understanding of the world and promoted the idea that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around, was considered controversial as well as a heretic.
  • The German composer Beethoven’s visionary music was not appreciated by all in his day. Now he is considered a musical genius.
  • Abraham Lincoln was labeled as a radical who would destroy the southern way of life (in spite of the fact that his proposals regarding slavery in 1861 were modest). Eventually, he was assassinated.

Jesus was also deeply misunderstood throughout His earthly ministry and eventually lost His life at the hands of His opponents. By the time Jesus preached His “Sermon on the Mount,” He had already preached openly and often that eternal life was a free gift and was not based on the good deeds that we do. There were undoubtedly many very religious Jews who heard this and began to say things like, “Say, have you heard this crazy, young Rabbi from Nazareth that is going around teaching that eternal life is a gift and not through obedience to the law of God! He wants to destroy the Law and the Prophets! To just do away with them! To throw them out the window!”

But in v. 17, Jesus tells His disciples not to think like this at all:

“Do not think [like some] that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy [to do away with the Law] but to fulfill.”

Then He immediately and emphatically tells His disciples [in v. 18] that the law of God will still exist even until after His 1000-year kingdom on earth:

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.

When will heaven and earth pass away? After the 1000-year rule of Christ on earth and the Great White Throne judgment. So Jesus is telling His people that He is in no way out to do away with the Law or the Prophets. In fact, He says, even its seemingly least important parts will endure.

The “Law and the Prophets,” another name for the entire Old Testament, is all God’s Word even if some commandments are much more important than others. None of it is to be pushed aside as if it was worthless or worthy of destruction. And that is why Jesus says in v. 19, in reference to that future day when He rules over the entire earth:

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.

In Christ’s kingdom, He will “lay down the law.” Things will be done according to His commandments. And people in that future kingdom who cast aside laws that Jesus asks them to obey because they are small ones (and tell others that it is OK) will be relegated to the bottom of the societal ladder in the kingdom: they will be “called least in the kingdom of heaven.” On the other hand, any who obey these small commands and teach others to obey them will be honored—“called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

Now, I know we are talking about God’s future kingdom and I also know that none of us who are saved will disobey in that day because we will all have glorified, sinless bodies. But let me ask you this, if we were honest, don’t all of us at one time or another get this idea in our heads that as long as we don’t commit murder and adultery, we can skip some of the less important commands in Scripture? My mentor Zane Hodges was speaking at the annual GES Bible conference here in DFW and he gave the following illustration. He said:

You don’t have to break every statute in the state of Texas to go to jail. Do you have any idea how many prisoners in Texas jails might say to you, “I just made one mistake”? So what? “Just one mistake” can be

good for life in prison. If God’s Law is to have full integrity and be taken with full seriousness, we cannot say of even the smallest command, “Oh well, that command doesn’t matter very much!”

In the kingdom of God, ignoring a small commandment of Christ will bring a smaller punishment, but, for example, according to the book of Zechariah, in the kingdom of God, if some nation on earth refuses to come to the annual Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, Zech. 14:16-19 says: “on them there shall be no rain”—drought—a much more significant price to pay.

So the lesson here is that we have to be very careful not to fall into the trap of writing off or disobeying smaller commandments.

In our country, this kind of rejection of God’s Word began a long time ago. Now a large percentage of our country (including believers) have cast off God’s commands against abortion, homosexuality, and premarital sex. And if you don’t agree with them about these things, you will be instantly labeled as a deplorable, clinging to God, guns, and the Bible. You will be ridiculed and scorned as politically incorrect and be called a Neanderthal. (This past week, Robert Jeffress, the pastor of FBC Dallas was bashed repeatedly and mercilessly in an article in the Dallas Morning News, and some of it came from other pastors. The article painted FBC of Dallas as a tiny enclave of weird people following a weird pastor compared to the millions of people in Dallas who don’t believe that “junk” in the Bible.)

Jesus did not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. Of course, to fulfill the predictions made about Him in the Old Testament. But here, I believe Jesus is talking about how He will fulfill it in the kingdom and on into eternity—by seeing that it is kept in its essence, and not just its letter.

God’s goal is holy people living in a holy world.

In the coming weeks, we will see Jesus say things like (and I’m paraphrasing here, “You have heard that it was said ‘Do not murder.’ But I say unto you do not be angry with someone…”

Jesus will see to it in His kingdom that his laws (big and small) are obeyed in the way he intended them to be, and not in the way humans have generally kept them—by the “letter of the law.” “I’ve never murdered anyone!” Oh yeah? “I’ve never committed adultery!” Think so? (you get where I am coming from—we will look at these more in depth in the weeks ahead).

  1. One more verse. Verse 20. Jesus knew that people were there next to His disciples on the mountain that were not saved. A lot of them probably thought things like, “Well, I know the religious leaders will be in God’s coming kingdom…they are so holy and righteous and careful to keep all of God’s commands.” So Jesus pours cold water all over them by telling them this:

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.

His hearers must have immediately said to themselves: “How in the world could I ever be more righteous than them? They are the most religious people in Israel? I would need to be PERFECT!” This is exactly what Jesus wanted them to think! He wanted, in the words of Greg Koukl, “to put a stone in their shoe.” He wanted the law to do just what it was made to do:

Galatians 3:21–24—–21 Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. 22 But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

Only perfect people will be with God forever, and the only way to be perfect in God’s sight is through faith in Christ.

Application

To believers: Do you tend to pick and choose when it comes to God’s Word?

To non-believers: Do you realize that the only level of morality that will get you into God’s presence is PERFECTION?


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Pastor’s Words of Wisdom

In this context the subject matter is the Lord’s command to “love one
another” (cf. John 13:34). John has in mind the love of Christians toward
other Christians (see 1 John 4:20–5:1). The term brother must therefore
be understood in the Christian sense. The apostle acknowledges the
sad reality that some believers have feelings of hostility and animosity
toward other believers. Such a Christian’s moral condition is deplorable.
The claim by such a person to be walking in the light (i.e., in fellowship
with God) is disproved by his hatred of his fellow Christian. He is
actually walking in darkness (in sin and thus, out of fellowship with
God).

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