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. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Many people think that the coming of Jesus somehow made the Old Testament obsolete, or irrelevant. This is most definitely not the case, as Jesus makes clear here: "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" (vss. 17). By the "Law" and the "Prophets", Jesus is speaking of the entire Old Testament (at that time, the Old Testament was commonly designated as "the Law and the Prophets"). And so, rather than declaring the Old Testament obsolete and irrelevant, Jesus here confirms the importance of the Old Testament. Moreover, He gives us the reason for its importance: Jesus states that He has come to "fulfill" the writings in the books of the "Law" and the "Prophets".
There are basically four types of writings in the Old Testament: 1. Poetry; 2. Prophecy; 3. Writings relating historical events; 4. The writings of the Law. Jesus "fulfills" each of these four types of writings: 1. The poetic writings point to Jesus' life in a number of ways. Many of them are prophetic writings concerning the life and mission of Jesus (such as Psalm 22). Some point to the life and mission of Jesus through poetic imagery (such as the Song of Solomon). Much of the poetry consists of prayers for forgiveness, deliverance and salvation, each of which points to the ultimate forgiveness, deliverance, and salvation that we receive through Jesus.
2. All of the writings of prophecy of the Old Testament point in some way to Jesus' life and mission. The thrust of prophecy in the Old Testament concerns the deliverance of Israel by the Messiah and/or the end times that the Messiah will usher in.
3. Even many of the historical events in the Old Testament point to Jesus' life through typology. For example, we see the life and mission of Jesus typified in the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham (see Gen. 22), the life of Joseph (as the suffering servant who was exalted to sit at the right hand of the king), the history of Israel (Matthew himself pointed this out, see our comments in the October 1997 issue concerning Matt. 2:15 and Matt. 2:18), etc. Some claim that Christ can be found on each page of the Old Testament, and I am inclined to agree with them.
4. The writings of the Law are fulfilled by Jesus in at least three ways: (1) by keeping the Law perfectly; (2) by fulfilling the Law's prophetical aspects; (3) by teaching the full meaning of the Law. First, Jesus fulfilled the Law by keeping it perfectly. He alone is righteous; He alone lived a sinless life. He is our example of how to live in perfect obedience to the Father. Second, Jesus fulfilled the Law by fulfilling its prophetical aspects. The ceremonial aspects of the Law--the rituals and sacrifices, as well as the Sabbath law--were all prophetic of Jesus. The sacrificial offerings for atonement were prophetic of Christ's offering of Himself. These imperfect means of sacrifice were fulfilled by Christ's perfect sacrifice, thus rendering the imperfect means of sacrifice no longer necessary. Likewise, the Sabbath law, which was given to man as a time to enter into God's rest, was fulfilled by the rest we experience when we enter into Christ Jesus. As the writer of Hebrews taught: "Now we who have believed enter that rest... for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from His" (Heb. 4:3,10). Third, Jesus fulfilled the law by teaching its full meaning, as we shall see in Matt. 5:21-48.
Of course, the followers of Jesus could not fully understand Jesus' fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets until His death and resurrection. Nevertheless, Jesus gave this teaching early in His ministry in order to instill into His disciples the continued importance of the Old Testament. The essence of the Gospel of Christ is that salvation is by grace through faith in Him, apart from observing the Law. One might ask, "Then does not salvation by grace through faith nullify the importance of the Old Testament?" Jesus here is resoundingly saying, "No!": "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." Though we have salvation by the grace of God through faith in His Son, the Law still represents the standard of perfection for which we are to strive. As Jesus says later in this sermon: "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48).
Jesus goes on to explicitly state the continued importance of the law: "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (vss. 18-19). And so, though we enter the kingdom of heaven by grace and not by observing the law, yet if we "break one of the least of these commandments and teach others to do the same", we will "be called least in the kingdom of heaven." Of course, in our sin nature, we "break" many of the commandments of God. In the original language, however, the word used here "break" means to "abolish", or to "do away with". Thus, Jesus is speaking not of those who simply transgress a law, but of those who consider a law to be abolished, and teach others that a law is abolished.
Now wait, you may ask, do we not consider the laws concerning ritual sacrifice abolished? And do we not consider the laws concerning which foods to eat abolished? Calvin explains: "It is asked whether ceremonies are not to be included among the precepts of God, and yet their observance is not demanded now. The answer is that we must consider the purpose and design of the Lawgiver. As God gave rules for ceremonies on the basis that their outward use should last for a period, but their significance be everlasting, one does not do away with ceremonies, when their reality is kept, and their shadow omitted." Thus, the laws concerning ritual sacrifice have not been abolished. Their reality is kept through Christ's act, that of sacrificing Himself, and so since the reality has been fulfilled, the shadow is omitted. Thus also, the laws concerning which foods to eat have not been abolished. Their reality is kept through obedience to Christ's teaching concerning them, even if the shadow of that law is now omitted. Jesus taught: "Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man `unclean'. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man `unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him `unclean'" (Matt. 15:17-20). Therefore, our obedience to the laws concerning clean and unclean foods is fulfilled by our obedience in keeping a pure mouth, heart and mind. Later, Jesus declared all foods clean: "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean" (Acts 10:15). So then, although not the least of the commandments is to be ignored, yet, the nature of practicing the law has been affected by virtue of the way that Jesus has fulfilled the law. "The law pointed forward to Jesus and His teaching; so it is properly obeyed by conforming to His word. As it points to Him, so He, in fulfilling it, establishes what continuity it has, the true direction to which it points and the way it is to be obeyed." As fulfiller of the law, Jesus is the supreme authority on its interpretation.
Next, Jesus made a statement that must certainly have shocked His hearers: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (vs. 20). The Pharisees were seen by the Jews of the time as the primary keepers of the law. They were meticulous at keeping what they saw as the letter of the law. The Pharisaical way of life was even envied by the Jews in that it was seen as a sure way to heaven. So, if they could "certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven", then who could? Jesus would answer this question: "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26). The Pharasaical life is not the way to heaven. Another way is needed: through Jesus Christ.
You see, though the Pharisees had interpreted the law in such a way that they believed they were keeping its external obligations, they were ignoring its inward demands of holiness. Jesus summed up their attitude when He chastised them: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former" (Matt. 23:23). So, the Pharisees were meticulous in the external aspects of the law such as tithing. They even meticulously tithed their "spices", their "mint, dill and cummin", in an effort to be perfectly "holy". But they ignored internal, spiritual aspects of the law--aspects that only God could verify--such as "justice, mercy and faithfulness."
Jesus had a continuing dispute with the Pharisees concerning their view of the law versus the true meaning of the law. From the point of view of the Pharisees, Jesus took the law lightly because to them, He at times purposely violated the letter of the law. However, Jesus only violated the letter of the law when there was an overriding aspect of "justice, mercy or faithfulness" involved. For instance, when the Pharisees were "looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked Him, `Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?'" (Matt. 12:10). They said this while Jesus was in the presence of a man with a shriveled hand. Jesus replied, "[I]t is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" (Matt. 12:12), then He healed the man. Earlier that day, the Pharisees "caught" Jesus' disciples at a more clear-cut (to them) violation of the Sabbath. Jesus' disciples "were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to [Jesus], `Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath'" (Matt. 12:1-2). In reply, Jesus cited an episode when David and his men, while fleeing from Saul, ate consecrated bread from the tabernacle (see I Sam. 21:3ff). David told the priests that Saul sent them on an important, secret mission (see I Sam. 21:2), in order to convince the priests to allow his men to eat the consecrated bread. Jesus justifies His disciples' actions and also David's actions in the cited episode by saying: "If you had known what these words mean, `I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent" (Matt. 12:7). So, though the disciples seemed to violate the law, they were innocent, because their violation of one law was overidden by the keeping of another law. "Mercy" overrides "sacrifice".
It all boils down to this: when Jesus was asked, "Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?", He answered: "`Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matt. 22:37-40). You see, it is inevitable at times that two commandments will conflict--that the keeping of one commandment will at times violate another. Jesus here has given us a precedence whereby we may determine which commandment to keep. He says the most important commandment is: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind", and then, the second most important commandment is: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Then He tells us: "All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." And so, when the disciples were hungry on the Sabbath, Jesus allowed them to pick grains and eat them because the law of love takes precedence over the law of the Sabbath.
We see this rule of precedence in the Bible various times, especially in regard to telling lies to protect someone's life. For example, when Rahab was hiding the spies from Israel, she purposely lied to protect them, telling the king of Jericho that the spies had left before the city gate was closed (see Joshua 2:2-7). Now, the Pharisees would condemn Rahab, for has not God commanded: "Do not lie" (Lev. 19:11)? The Pharisees would say that Rahab was not showing faith in God by purposely lying to the king of Jericho. But wait, what does the Scripture say? Is Rahab condemned for her lack of faith? By no means. On the contrary, Rahab is commended by the writer of Hebrews for her faith: "By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient" (Heb. 11:31). She is honored by being given a place in the great chapter on faith (Hebrews 11), alongside Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses. Rahab was showing love for the spies of Israel by lying to the king of Jericho, for surely he would have killed the spies had he caught them.
A similar occurrence takes place in Egypt after the Pharaoh had ordered the Hebrew midwives to throw newborn Israelite boys into the river. The Hebrew midwives did not comply with the Pharaoh's command. When he summoned them and asked them why they had not complied, they purposely lied to him, saying: "The midwives answered Pharaoh, `Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive'" (Ex. 1:19). Rather than being condemned by God for their lying, the next verse says: "So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous" (Ex. 1:20). The Hebrew midwives kept the spirit of the law by showing love to their neighbors.
So also, we have an answer to the following oft-posed moral "dilemma": Suppose you are living in Nazi Germany in 1940. And suppose you are hiding Jews in your attic. Suppose now that Nazis knock at your door and ask: "Are you hiding Jews in your attic?" Now, the Pharasaical would say that you should answer truthfully, thus sending the Jews to an almost certain death. But is answering truthfully in this case carrying out the commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself"? Most certainly not. Indeed, the right, the just, the moral thing to do in this case is to lie to the Nazis and protect the Jews who are hidden.
I am not saying all this because I approve of lying. Indeed, to lie is almost always the wrong thing to do. These moral dilemmas--when two commandments of God conflict with each other--very rarely occur. In nearly all cases, the keeping of the commands of God is clear and unambiguous. But we must, in all things we do, keep the two greatest commandments in mind: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself."