17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly I tell you, 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. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 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.
Matthew 5:17-21A few years ago I spent some time on a mission in Belarus, which Condaleezza Rice, whilst US Secretary of State, described as “truly still the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.” This was a truly life changing trip for me for many reasons, but particularly as a result of getting to know a young student named Macsim. Whilst speaking to Max, as we knew him, about the Gospel, it quickly became apparent that he knew as much as any of us about Jesus and about the teachings of the Bible. For him, though, the Bible was pure ‘head knowledge’ – he knew a great deal about it, but that knowledge had not changed his life. We spent a great deal of time telling Max that Christianity was not just about knowing stuff, but about allowing that knowledge to transform our hearts and minds and to shape our whole lives. I think, by the end of our time in Belarus, Max was beginning to understand this, and whilst he did not make a personal commitment of faith whilst we were with him, I am sure that we had given him a great deal to think about.
The passage that we’re looking at today speaks to me a great deal about the difference between ‘head knowledge’ and true, transformational faith in Christ. This is framed through teaching on the Law and the Prophets. Jesus was quick to challenge the role of the ‘law’ and the ‘prophets’, that is, the Old Testament. Clearly some people had suggested that Jesus believed that he had come to sweep away all the old scriptures, and was going to build a new set of guidance for living in a Godly way. Jesus stepped in to tell his audience that this was most certainly not the case. He couldn’t be any clearer in his statement at the beginning of this passage, “‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets’.” Indeed, in the coming verses, Jesus can be seen to be teaching a strict adherence to the rules set out in the New Testament, making it clear that obedience needs to be wholehearted and not simply a legalistic attempt to keep to the letter of the law. Jesus expected his followers to have a living faith and not just follow a behavioural checklist.
Jesus does not just say that he has not come to abolish the Law; he says that he has come to fulfil it. The Law set out what was necessary for humanity to establish and maintain a relationship with God. A key element of this was the establishment of a sacrificial system by which God’s people could make offerings to gain forgiveness from their sins. This was an imperfect system, which is evident from the fact that sacrifices had to be made over and over again. When Christ went to the cross, however, he paid the price for all of humanity’s sins, in a once-for-all offering that covered the wrongdoing of all people, across all time. The Law still applies, but in Christ’s sacrifice of himself, the punishment has been served. We are still required to strive for holiness, but when we inevitably fail, our sin is already forgiven since Christ was the fulfilment of the law.
Jesus is also the fulfilment of the Prophets. The Old Testament contains hundreds of prophecies – word from God sent to teach people about who he was, how people should live, and what they needed to do to build a relationship with him. Many hundreds of these prophecies also, of course, foretold the coming of a messiah who would save God’s people. The Jewish people had waited for hundreds of years for the arrival of this messiah. In Jesus, all of the prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled. Here was the messiah who would save God’s people from death. And here was the person who embodied both perfect adherence to the Law and perfection in relationship with God, since he was not only wholly human but also wholly God.
In confirming that he has come to fulfil, and not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, Jesus also makes it clear that we, as his followers, are expected to both practice and teach the commands set out within them. Jesus tells his followers, “‘unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven’.” This must have seemed hugely shocking for those listening at the time. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were known for their knowledge of Biblical law and for their efforts to follow it. The issue was, though, that for them adherence to the law was something that they made a great show of, but which they did largely to show how great they were to others. Their righteousness was public and demonstrated by their actions, but it was not deep righteousness at the level of their hearts. Following Christ is not just simply following a check list of rules, but allowing the spirit of the laws to transform our hearts and our minds as well as our actions. We need to go beyond mere ‘head knowledge’ – knowing what the rules are, and aim for transformed hearts and minds.
These five verses are quite complex and within them lurks a great deal about the nature and purpose of Jesus. Much has been written on this short chunk of scripture, but for me, today, the take home message is how we respond to the commands found in the Law and the Prophets. Do we practise and teach these commands? Have they taken deep hold of us and impacted our hearts and minds as well as shaping our actions? Do we constantly strive to live in a righteous fashion? As we begin this new week and this new month, do take time to reflect on these questions and pray that the Holy Spirit might work within us to ensure that our righteousness ‘surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law’.