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The Greatest Sermon Ever Told | Is This Humanly Possible?
October 1, 2023
17”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. 18For 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. 19Therefore 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. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
To discover and experience Jesus Christ in our midst
To cultivate mutually encouraging relationships
To participate in God’s mission to the world
God of all hope, bring hope to our weary world and to our troubled hearts; ignite hope within our worship this day. Strengthen our faith as children of hope, that we may partner with you and share the good news of your steadfast faithfulness with the world. In Jesus name. Amen.
Responsive Prayer—Psalm 18
This God—his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true;
He is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.
For who is God, but the LORD?
And who is a rock, except our God?
The LORD lives, and blessed be my rock,
And exalted be the God of my salvation.
Summary and Connection
This week’s study is based on Matthew 5:17-20. This is a vital section as it contains the thesis statement that captures the essence of Jesus’ sermon. Matthew 5:17-20 serves a dual purpose: Contextually speaking, it serves as an introduction to verses 21-48 in particular, and Matthew 5:17-7:12 in general. In these verses we see Jesus declaring the purpose of his mission—fulfillment of the law and prophets, the organic relationship between the Old Testament and his teaching, the importance of the law of God, his role as the true interpreter of the law, and the ethos of the kingdom of God—greater and deeper righteousness. In other words, Jesus, as one who has come to fulfill the law, supplies the true interpretation of the law, and calls for a greater righteousness from God’s people in relation to the law. This short passage emphasizes the deep and profound truth regarding the nature and characteristics of Christian righteousness, and a Christian’s relation to the law. This passage is the key that unlocks the rest of the sermon. Needless to say, misinterpreting this passage would result in misunderstanding Jesus’ words in the rest of the sermon, and ultimately misunderstanding the person and work of Jesus. For Christians, misinterpreting this passage would mean losing the joy of salvation, oscillating between legalism and licentiousness. For non-Christians, or seekers, misinterpreting this passage would mean to conclude Christianity as just another moralistic religion that demands its followers to work out their salvation by law keeping. The maximum demands of the law, and moral teaching is indeed terrifying, evoking a sense of despair. Furthermore, Jesus expects Christians to follow what he says in his sermon. However, here’s the good news: What Jesus commands his followers, he fulfills for his followers. Jesus’ fulfillment of the law on our behalf enables us to obey the law, without the fear of judgment or condemnation.
1. Looking at the Bible
What does the text say? Who are the main characters in this story? What according to you is the theme of this passage?
- Look at verse 17: What question may have been on some people’s minds with respect to Jesus’ attitude towards the Old Testament—the law and the prophets? What does Jesus mean by ‘the law and the prophets’? What does Jesus claim is his relationship to the law?
- Look at verse 19: What makes one least in the kingdom of God? What does greatness in the kingdom of God require?
- What does Jesus mean by “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”? What kind of righteousness did the scribes and Pharisees exhibit? What kind of righteousness does the kingdom of heaven require?
2. Looking at Jesus
At Central we believe that all of Scripture points to Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the theological center of the Bible. Every passage not only points to Jesus, but the grand narrative of the Bible also finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.
- In what ways does Jesus fulfill the law and the prophets? How does Jesus’ work impact our relationship to the law?
3. Looking at Our Hearts
The following are personal application questions based on the stages of growth in Christian faith.
- How does Jesus’ view of the Old Testament Scriptures help you in understanding the cohesive and organic nature of Scripture? In light of this passage, what should our attitude toward the Scriptures be?
- This passage highlights the importance of our conformity to the law of God. Do you identify a tendency to pick and choose your obedience to the law of God? Why should we guard our heart from picking and choosing our obedience to the law of God?
4. Looking at Our World
- In this passage, Jesus highlights the ethos and ethics of the kingdom of God. How does the words of Jesus equip you with hope and confidence to flourish as ‘salt and light’ Christians in this city?
God’s word is a lamp to our feet. Christ’s teachings are a light to our path. May God’s word take root in our lives. May Christ’s love nourish and sustain us. Amen.
View Study Guide Notes
Question 1a. Jesus anticipates the questions in some people’s mind regarding his authority and his seemingly contradictory statements about the Mosaic law. Jesus was fully aware of the fact that the Pharisees and scribes were deeply disturbed by his supposed attitude toward the Old Testament Scriptures. Jesus’ public ministry, particularly his teaching, posed an imminent threat to the power and influence of the Pharisees. Furthermore, some people among the crowd saw Jesus’ new teaching as a threat to the authority of the old teaching—the law of Moses. On the one hand, the people were amazed by his teaching, and on the other hand, and naturally so, many were asking questions about the relation between Jesus’ authority, and the authority of the law of Moses.
Before we look into Jesus’ relationship with the law, it is important for us to understand what exactly Jesus means by ‘the law and the prophets’? Simply put, ‘the law and the prophets’ is a term used to refer to all of God’s written revelation. We know God’s character and his will for us, in and through the Scriptures. ‘Law’ refers to the Pentateuch—first five books of Moses, and ‘Prophets’ is a reference to the rest of the Jewish Scriptures, including the psalms. By ‘the law and the prophets’ Jesus indicates that he is talking about the law interpreted—not only as it was given in its essence, but as it was prophetically interpreted. In other words, Jesus wanted the crowd to grasp the covenantal and relational aspect of the Old Testament. The Old Testament doctrinal teaching, prophesies, and the moral law of God anticipated Jesus, and found its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.
In verse 17, Jesus clearly and authoritatively declares the nature and purpose of his teaching and mission. First, Jesus declares his mission in negative statements: He had not come to abolish the law and the prophets. He had not come to condemn the law. His mission was not to set the law aside or abrogate the law. Neither had he come just to endorse the law in a dead and literalistic way. In the same verse Jesus declares the purpose of his mission positively—he had come to fulfill the law and the prophets. By stating his purpose, Jesus reveals the covenantal aspect of the law, and the supreme value of the law (5:18), thereby upholding the dignity of the law of God (5:19).
Question 1b. In verse 17 Jesus states the purpose of his mission—to fulfill the law. In verse 18 Jesus emphatically declares the supreme value and the permanence of the law. According to Jesus, the authority of the law of God will remain until the consummation of the new heaven and the new earth.
In this short passage, Jesus highlights the cause and consequence of his mission—fulfillment of the law. As mentioned above, the ‘cause’ is the permanence of the law until its fulfillment. Jesus upholds the honor of the Law of God. The ‘consequence’ of Jesus’ mission has to do with his followers—the citizens of the kingdom of God. Christians are called to uphold the honor and dignity of the law of God by their joy filled obedience. It is true that not all the commandments are equally weighty. However, the importance of the law of God is not determined by the scope or ‘weightiness’ of the law, but by the authority of the law giver. According to Jesus, the ones who widen the scope of the law by adding to the law, or the ones who narrow the scope of the law by manipulating the law are called the least in the kingdom of God. The Pharisees were relaxing the law, in that they were making the law convenient for themselves and were also teaching it to others (5:21-48). In contrast, the ones who truly understand the law—as interpreted by Jesus, obey it joyfully, and teach it faithfully. The vital distinction between the ‘least’ and the ‘greatest’ in the kingdom is not about one’s competency or moral integrity, but one’s faithfulness to God, and conformity to God’s law. In other words, only the regenerated Christians who believe they are saved by grace through faith and conform their lives in obedience to the law, are called the greatest in the kingdom. This is the greater righteousness that sets Christians apart from religious—legalists and moralists, and the irreligious—antinomians.
Question 1c. It is vital for us to understand what exactly Jesus means by his shockingly radical statement in verse 20. Jesus is introducing two distinctions with respect to the entry into the kingdom of God. The key word in Jesus’ statement is ‘righteousness.’ As you know Jesus is addressing a large crowd that comprises his disciples, Pharisees, scribes, and the general Jewish population. In Jesus’ day the scribes and the Pharisees were considered far superior in righteousness in comparison to the mere masses. The general Jewish population looked up to them as spiritual authorities. In other words, to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes was considered nearly impossible.
How does Jesus define the nature of the righteousness required to enter the kingdom? According to Jesus, the kingdom of God is a kingdom of righteousness. While the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes was on all accounts very high, yet it was inferior, because it was only external. Their external righteousness, no matter how great, was not sufficient to enter the kingdom of God. As with the Beatitudes, the nature of righteousness has to do with internal disposition, and not merely external purity. In other words, Jesus is more concerned about the heart righteousness. The kind of deep righteousness that is only possessed by a Christian. This kind of deep righteousness is an undeniable evidence of the new birth, and no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born again (John 3:3). John Stott sums it up beautifully: “Christian righteousness far surpasses pharisaic righteousness in kind rather than degree. It is not so much, shall we say, that Christians succeed in keeping some 240 commandments when the best Pharisees only have scored 230. No. Christian righteousness is greater than Pharisaic righteousness because it is deeper, being a righteousness of the heart.” The righteousness which is pleasing to God is inward righteousness of mind and motive as evidenced in a gospel transformed life.
Question 2: In order to grasp the far reaching implications of Jesus work, we need to understand three major facets of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament—the law and the prophets:
- Doctrinal teaching (Torah): The Old Testament contains doctrinal teaching. Torah, which is translated as the ‘law’ essentially means ‘revealed instruction.’ God, in his divine providence, has revealed himself, and his will and redemptive purpose for humanity on the pages of the Old Testament. Yet it was only a partial revelation. The Old Testament as the ‘shadow’ anticipated Jesus—the ‘substance’ and the fulfillment of the divine revelation. Jesus ‘fulfilled’ the law and the prophets by bringing it to completion in his person, teaching, and his work. J.C Ryle sums it up like this: “The Old Testament is the Gospel in the bud; the New Testament is the Gospel in full flower. The Old Testament is the gospel in the blade; the New Testament is the Gospel in full ear.”
- Predictive prophesy: The Old Testament contains prophecies, much of it looks forward to the Messianic fulfillment. Jesus, as the substance, is the fulfillment of the predictive prophecies in the sense that what was predicted came to be fulfilled in and through him. For instance, in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, the Old Testament ceremonial system—priesthood and sacrifice—found its fulfillment. Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice was all-sufficient in ending all sacrifices and ceasing the whole ceremonial system of the Old Testament.
- Moral law of God (ethical precepts): Jesus fulfilled the demands of the moral law of God by perfectly understanding and obeying the law. Jesus fulfilled the moral law by supplying the right interpretation of the law, revealing the full depth of meaning of the law. Finally, Jesus fulfilled the moral law of God by declaring the radical demands of the righteousness of God.
How does Jesus’ work impact our relationship to the law? By fulfilling the law, Jesus upholds the supremacy of the law of God. Jesus shows us that his relationship with the Old Testament was not one of destruction and discontinuity, but constructive and organic continuity. It is important to know that there are some pastors, Bible teachers, and scholars who teach about unhitching the Old Testament from the New Testament. They argue that the God of the Old Testament demanded perfect obedience to the law, seeking constant sacrifice to show mercy, whereas the God of the New Testament is gracious, loving and forgiving. In this passage, Jesus shows the covenantal and relational aspect of the law of God. The law of God reveals the will and redemptive purpose of God. Jesus perfectly obeyed the law, and rightly interpreted the law. On the cross, Jesus perfectly satisfied the righteous and just demands of the law, thereby securing our redemption. God, in and through Jesus, provided for us the Savior who is also the sacrifice to end all sacrifice. Now, we are no longer under the slavery of sin, and bondage of the law. The law is our guide, pointing us to Jesus, and conforming us to the image and likeness of Jesus.
Question 3: These are personal application questions. Here are some pointers for discussion for the second question: Anticipate questions like, “Aren’t some commandments weightier than others?” or “How should one determine the scope and seriousness of a particular law or commandment?” It is true that not all commandments are equally ‘weighty.’ Yet even the seemingly ‘least’ commandment or law has to be diligently obeyed precisely because it is the law of God. In other words, the importance of the law of God is not determined by the scope or ‘weightiness’ of the law, but by the authority of the law giver. To pick and choose our obedience to the law of God is to undermine the wisdom of God, and to challenge the authority of God. The posture of our heart towards God’s law is to please God through joyful obedience. We obey God’s law because we love God, and we love God because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
Question 4: This is a personal application question.