Message: Righteousness That Redeems | Scripture: Matthew 5:17-20 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
- Take some time to reflect on and summarize the sermon in your own words. What were your main takeaways? What, in further reflection, have you thought about regarding the sermon or the passage? Be gracious, supportive and receptive to one another and to your group facilitators in this because they/you may not have all the answers!
- Discuss one way God’s used this past sermon (or one of the previous few sermons) to grow you and/or challenge you.
- Perhaps in how you tend to live your life in a legalistic fashion (whether its to prove to yourself your own salvation or to prove it to others, etc.)?
- Perhaps in how you struggle with finding joy in or having a heart to obeying the commands of God from a posture of grace?
- Perhaps in how you find that it is difficult to find pleasure in and apply the whole Bible to your life?
- Perhaps in how you feel it is difficult to live in light of the reward you’ve been promised in heaven over the rewards you receive here on earth?
- In your own words, what is the thesis/main argument of Matthew? Why is this Matthew’s thesis?
- When Jesus talks about the Law and the Prophets, what part of the Bible is he referring to (refer to Luke 16:16)? Why is this significant for what Jesus is saying in these verses (see next question)?
- Jesus says he does not come to abolish the law, so does that mean we are still bound under that law? Why/why not? In what way does the law still remain in function today? As Christians, do we still need the law as anything more than a reminder/a prototype? Why/why not?
- If there are things that we do today that follow practices or commands established in the Old Testament, does that mean that we’re following Old Testament law, or is there another explanation for what we’re doing?
- Bonus Question: In what way does Jesus fulfill the law/what is the means by which he fulfills it (think from Adam)? Is this new thing that Jesus introduces as the fulfillment of the old a call to a more difficult/a higher standard? Why/why not? If it is, why do we not lose heart when Jesus calls upon us to participate in the task with him? What is it about the new thing that sets it apart from all those that came before?
- Rule keeping is good, but why is it not enough? Can it bring salvation? Why? What does it mean to have a greater righteousness, and in what ways do we lose sight of that in our own lives? Do we always pursue a greater righteousness, or do we often revert back to the kind of righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes?
- How can we keep you accountable to pursuing a greater righteousness? In what ways do you feel your righteousness belongs to the world more than to the kingdom of heaven right now?
- Discuss one way that we can pray for you as a group.
- Provide/encourage us with an update of something that God is doing to apply his gospel in your life/how the beauty and preciousness of Jesus is being freshly applied to your current situation.
Follow along with me as I read Matthew 5:17-20 to you. TWoL: 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. For 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. Therefore, 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
I want to be as direct with you this morning, as I possibly can be, when I say that these verses here, and in particular, verse 17—these verses are probably the most important verses in all of Matthew apart from his record of the crucifixion and resurrection. That’s because with these words, Matthew is not only recording what the theme of his entire book is about, but he’s also giving us the purpose of Christ’s coming to earth through the words of Jesus himself. With these words, we possess the interpretive key both to this gospel account and, really, to the rest of the Bible.
I imagine that most, if not all, of you have heard the phrase that the whole Bible is about Jesus—that no matter where you flip to in Scripture, Jesus is the one to whom all of it points—whom it’s all about. Yet, what we likely take for granted is the premise of a statement like this without doing the study ourselves. What does it mean that the whole Bible is about Jesus, and how does the Bible’s revelation about Jesus affect our lives today?
To answer this second question—how the Bible’s revelation about Jesus affects our lives today, the answer is that we are called to fulfill the whole law. But to understand why and how we can fulfill the whole law, we need to take some time to answer that first question—we have to do the study, and Matthew helps us in that study here in our text. So, let’s spend our next few moments in it as we turn to our first point: we are to fulfill the whole law, first, by letting its perfecter ground you.
1) Let Its Perfecter Ground You
Now, I need to paint some context for you in order for me to rightly communicate what our passage is saying. The intention of Matthew, as I’ve said before in previous sermons, is to unfold two specific things for us: (1) that God’s people are not who they think they are, and Jesus’ teaching and ministry is meant to set apart those who truly belong to the eternal kingdom of heaven from those who do not—this we’ve seen already in how he distinctly calls out Pharisees and Sadducees—leaders and teachers of Israel who are hypocrites and leading their followers to hell.
The second thing that Matthew is trying to show us is that the dawn of the end of the age has come in the revelation of Jesus Christ as Saviour of God’s people from sin, and this passage in Matthew 5:17-20 is doing both of those things. It is setting apart the true disciples of Jesus from the hypocrites, while explaining to us that such a thing is made possible because Christ is the dawn of the end of the age.
Yet, what do I mean when I say Christ is the dawn of the end of the age? I mean this—using Christ’s words, “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.”
Two quick observations before I give my explanation for the passage. First, when Christ speaks of the Law and Prophets, he’s not only referring to the first five books of the Bible and some of the other books of the Old Testament, particularly those that are titled after prophets. No, we have to know or remember that a common way that Jews referred to the Old Testament was to call it the Law and the Prophets, or the Law, Prophets, and Writings, or sometimes even just the Law. For them, to reference a portion of the Old Testament—like the Law and the Prophets—was usually to assume the entirety of the Jewish Bible.
Second, the two most important words in our passage today are abolish and fulfill—here, Jesus is talking about the purpose of his coming. He states it negatively first—he comes not to abolish the law. By abolish, Christ would define it as to destroy or to end. So, he comes with absolutely no intention to end the law. The law of God—the Old Testament—isn’t going anywhere. It’s here to stay, and I’ll get into why in a moment.
The other important, purpose word is “to fulfill.” Now, this is surprising because the opposite of abolish is keep. But Jesus doesn’t use the word “keep.” He uses the word “fulfill.” And this is crucial to note because “to keep” means to maintain the status quo—to guard or protect. But to fulfill means, literally, to complete, to give shape, to fill up or fill in. And what is it that he’s come to fill up or fill in? He’s come to fill in the shadow that the law reflects, or to give shape to its indefinite picture.
My eldest son likes this show right now called Paw Patrol—like every 2-year-old boy around the world. And the other day, we told him that we got him a Paw Patrol present. Now, those words, alone, excited him, and he was anticipating what that present might be in his mind. Perhaps he thought it was a figurine or a small car or something that he would have fun with. But then Candace and I brought out the bag full of eight different cars, eight figurines, and a bus station where they can all be housed, and his eyes went from quizzical and anticipating to absolute wonder, satisfaction, and joy—because not only could he now see, tangibly, what he had hoped for, but it was better than he expected.
This is what Christ means when he uses the word fulfill. All of the Old Testament—not only the future-telling portions of it, but the entirety of the Law and the Prophets is pointing us to him, and he comes to fulfill it—not merely to keep it—but as one who rectifies and re-establishes our once broken relationship with it. And he must be this fulfillment because, as verse 18 states, the law is not going away—not the smallest letter or the most unnoticeable stroke. It will always stand as a stumbling block for those who distance themselves from God. It will always serve as the basis for every person’s coming judgment because of how it reflects the character of God—his standards, his morals, his basis for acceptance into his holy presence.
And it judges us because, as Scripture tells us, every one of us falls short of that law. All of us have sinned, and not merely against a temporary authority, but against an eternal one. One that has not only given us the law, but who, in its gift, requires perfection in its observance because to introduce imperfection into it would be to stain it, which means that all that this law serves to do for us, sinners, is to condemn us in that sin, so that if we were to die without proper reconciliation or without the forgiveness of our debt, all that awaits us is an eternity of suffering as we try, without success, to pay it off.
Yet, Jesus tells us the law and its judgment will remain until all of history is said-and-done even in his coming and even in his saving. Why? Because in its condemnation of us as those who cannot satisfy its requirements and who cannot save ourselves, the law points us to Jesus who does satisfy its requirements, and to whom we know we can run to be saved. This, then, is how Christ fulfills the Law and the Prophets. He does it by establishing himself as a New Testament, or a new covenant, or a new Adam through which the Old Testament law, the Old Testament covenants, the old Adam are reconstituted—no longer to condemn, but to point us to a Saviour. He, himself, is the bringer of a new, found relationship for us with God—who we were once distant from—as the author, perfecter, and mediator of the law we could not obey.
So, this isn’t the abolition of the law; this is its transformation. Jesus fills in and makes sense of what we were blind to in the old, namely, that we couldn’t keep the law for ourselves, and that we needed someone to do it for us. He doesn’t merely keep things as they were—he doesn’t let the shadow remain and leave us in the darkness. He brings all things to light by being the one who does it for us. He is the ultimate human. He is the God incarnate who is without sin—who cannot sin—and who brings sinners back to himself. This is what the Law and the Prophets were always hinting at—that Jesus Christ is the full expression and true meaning of God’s historical plan of salvation for his people. He is the means by which true believers, repentant sinners, shall be eternally secured in the kingdom of heaven.
Before Jesus came, our relationship with God was dependent upon our satisfaction of the terms of the Law, but now, it isn’t. In his coming, he mends our relationship to the God of the Law. What Jesus brings in his perfect life, in his death upon a cross, and in the gift of his Holy Spirit is his own righteousness that births in us a new heart—an appreciative heart—an awe-filled heart that is able to do, in obedience, not only what pleases God externally, but to do it from a place that desires to please God internally—a heart that loves to please God because no one has loved us like God has loved us through his own Son.
And such unspeakable, radical love grounds our new hearts affectionately, effectively, and permanently in the one who perfects and fulfills the law. Gone is the struggle and tension where God maintains a relationship with us only if we obey the terms of the law. Jesus Christ has obeyed it, and through him, we now have a continuous, unbreakable bond with our heavenly Father. We can keep pursuing him—keep honouring him—keep enjoying him, even if we’ve broken the Law ourselves, because we know him not through our works but through the intercession of our Saviour.
Jesus hasn’t come to keep the status quo, but to raise the stakes—to make sure that the shadow and the distortion left by the Law and the Prophets is brought into focus—not only to be made perfectly clear, but to radiate God’s perfect beauty in his Son’s sacrificial love for us. A beauty and love worth longing and living for. And as those who possess it, as those who have received a new heart, and who have been captivated by the love and glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, we, now, are to long and live for him. He has come to fulfill the law by accomplishing what none before him could; not to abolish it. Therefore, let us fulfill it in how we live our own lives set apart and in grand appreciation for him.
2) Let Its Direction Sustain You
Now that we know who the law points to, what Christ has done for us in fulfilling it, and how that spurs us on towards following in his footsteps, the question that lies before us is to what extent we are to follow him—to what extent are we to fulfill the law? And the answer that our Lord gives, according to verse 19, is that we are to fulfill it wholly—in its entirety.
We don’t get to nitpick what we like about Jesus’ ministry and what we don’t. We don’t get to say this sounds more or less in line with what we think God wants. Our guide for knowing and comprehending what God wants and doesn’t want is set forward for us in the Bible—the whole Bible. It is our lowest baseline and our highest standard, and to take any part of the Bible and dismiss it or make it less significant than other parts of it is to commit treason not against a book but against the very one who holds our lives in his hands. As Jesus fulfills the whole law, so too are we to fulfill the whole law.
And what’s more is that we’re to fulfill the whole law because those who don’t shall be called least in the kingdom, while those who do shall be called great. What does this mean? Notice Jesus’ words. He’s not talking about, in this verse, those who will not be in the kingdom—all those who seek to fulfill the law will be brought in, but it seems that he’s making a distinction—that there will be those who are lesser than others in terms of ranking in eternity. Some will be more highly exalted. Is this biblical? Not only the idea of having distinctions or gradations of privilege in heaven, but also this idea that the work we do—the obedience that we conform our lives to—will yield reward? Is it right to think of living our lives in pursuit of what we get?
And I want to be cautious here, while answering you very truthfully, that it is right to think of this. It is good to consider and desire the rewards and the treasures that you’re laying up for yourself in heaven. It is scriptural to consider the wealth you’ll have in the presence of God for your faithfulness. The gospels actually teach of this throughout. Just to give one example in Matthew 20:20-28, Jesus talks about how there will be those who sit directly to his right hand and how those seats will be of greatest honour, and how it is good for us to desire it.
Yet, what we have to be absolutely clear about is that these rewards are the result of faith and not evidence or the basis of it. That’s why verse 17 is so pivotal to our understanding of everything. Christ is the fulfiller—the accomplisher—the perfecter—and all that we do is derivative to his fulfillment. We are not the originators of our faith, but we are supposed to be active participants in it. You might have received faith passively, but knowing Jesus never results in our passivity, and, despite the fact that we should, then, be obedient out of necessity—out of sheer gratitude—it’s after already receiving our highest prize—the crown jewel of heaven—the promise of Christ—that God tells us more is coming! That your works done in faith will increase your greatness in heaven!
But make sure you see this, those who are great are not those who merely lead themselves into obedience, but who teach—who guide others in their fulfillment of the law, as well. We are to move outwardly as we’re brought to greater amazement inwardly. This, then, is the result of your faith—that you conform yourself to Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And what does he do in his condescension, he [humbles] himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death upon a cross. And what is the result of such obedient and sacrificial faith?! Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
That’s the goal. That’s the perfect picture. It is in our conformity to Jesus, who is not only our great Saviour but also our perfect example, that we fulfill the whole law and shall, thereby, be made great in heaven, just like he is great in heaven.
Yet, one question from this point still remains, and that is how—how are we to fulfill the whole law? Are we to make sacrifices? Are we to establish a theocracy? Are the ten commandments still the commandments over our lives? And my answer is that while many of the principles and ethical guidelines of the Old Testament are still applicable to us today, we are no longer bound to those words or those laws but to the words and laws of Christ. We are no longer bound to the old covenant, but to the new.
In other words, those practices which were the requirements of the Law and the Prophets are no longer requirements over us because Christ has defined anew for us what the Law and Prophets were all about. They testify to us about him. So, those things that are required for the atonement of our sin, the establishment of a priesthood, the requirement for a physical temple, the need to eat certain foods, the practice of circumcision, or the enactment of a civil law on the basis of an ethnic theocracy—those things are no longer necessary of us because through our belief in Christ and his cross, he has satisfied them once-and-for all.
And if we have practices that continue from the Old Testament, such as not murdering or lying, it’s because Christ calls us to continue those things for our good—for our joy—for our continued happiness, and not for our salvation or our right standing before God. No, in Christ, we are found legally righteous—we are forgiven of our debt, we no longer sit under the judgment of the Law, and because of Christ, what righteous works we now do are the overflow of our freedom from the pressure of judgment, they are a product of our joy in our salvation, and they look forward to our hope for greater things to come.
We strive to be great in the kingdom of heaven because Jesus is great in the kingdom of heaven—because all of the Law points us to him, and to fulfill the whole law now—those things that he has revealed to us in our new hearts as pleasing to God—this is simply another way that our own lives might point others to him and that might allow us to draw more closely to him ourselves. We fulfill the whole law now because of how it directs us to Jesus and the reward that awaits those who are like him. Let the guiding direction of the law sustain you as you seek to conform your life to him.
3) Let Its Enemies Be a Warning to You
While verse 19 is for those who are a part of the kingdom of heaven, Christ gives us one more verse in verse 20 as a warning for those who might think they are, but who remain outside of it. And to them, he says that those who are a part of the kingdom are those whose righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees—anything short of that is unacceptable. Yet, what this means is nothing new from what we’ve already unpacked from our previous verses in that the difference between the righteousness of heaven’s citizens and the righteousness of the world is the source—the heart—from which that righteousness proceeds.
See, Pharisees and Sadducees lived and taught as if they had, themselves, fulfilled the Law and the Prophets—as if they, themselves, could satisfy their own salvation, and that is what motivated them in doing good works. There was, without doubt, external good work being done, but in their hearts, all there was was pride and the desire for the praise of man and the rewards of earth.
But for those whose names have been written in the Book of Life, their good works do not proceed from pride but from poverty, from mourning, from meekness, from being satisfied. They are the salt of the earth and light of the world as they display mercy, as they pursue purity, and as they sow peace. They are the eternal, set apart, covenant children of God. Why? Because their righteousness isn’t rooted in their own sense of worth, but in the worth given to them by their Father, who is in heaven, and the salvation he’s provided them through the sacrifice of his own Son. Theirs is the knowledge that salvation isn’t earned, and thus good works are what proceed from a pure and undefiled heart. Their desire is not for the rewards of this life or the acclaim of man, but for the rewards that do not perish and the acclaim of him who reigns in eternal glory.
Fulfill, then, the whole law by allowing its enemies—those who believe they are its masters, when they’re its slaves—those who have no part in the kingdom of heaven—fulfill the whole law by allowing them to serve as a warning to you. See Jesus as the fulfillment of all Scripture—as the one who has called you out of darkness and brought you into marvelous, everlasting light—and live your life in sacrificial, humble, and grateful response to him.