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. —Matthew 5:17-20
Those are strong words. This is the real Jesus speaking, and he means what he says. The grace of God does not create sloppy people. The grace of God creates people who leave the scribes and Pharisees in the dust as they go deep with God and change.
We might think there are basically two kinds of people in the world – good people and bad people. But the Bible is more subtle than that. The Bible sees three kinds of people in this world. One, morally unserious people, who treat other people as so many toys in their joyride through life. Two, morally hypocritical people, who look down on morally unserious people but are blind to their own weaknesses and failings. Three, morally broken people, who have sinned so badly they finally see themselves realistically, they have despaired of themselves, and they are longing for a goodness that comes only from God. It is the morally broken, and they only, who are ready for the real Jesus. He said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).
We all wonder these days, with our moral standards falling – you and I might disagree on some moral issues but we know there’s something wrong with us all – people are wondering, “We’re smart people. We have iPhones. Putting men on the moon is already a thing of the past. But something’s still wrong with us. Why can’t we change? Where does real, unforced goodness come from? Where do happy marriages come from? Where does honesty in business come from? Where does sexual integrity come from? How do we rise above our selfish moods?” And beneath those questions is a deeper one: “How can we get our humanity back? Technology isn’t enough. We need humanity, we need beauty, and we need it now.”
Jesus came to give us our humanity back. He came to make us beautiful again (Ephesians 5:27). Not just outwardly beautiful, not cosmetically ethical, but humanely beautiful. That’s what the Bible is about. The Bible is not about behavior modification by our own strength. It’s about character transformation through God’s love. The Bible is good news about Jesus in his grace for us in our exhaustion and weakness and defeat and impasse and the mess we’ve never been able to clean up. No amount of rules can change us. That’s the bad news. Jesus can. That’s the good news. We’re not here in church today to seek rules. Rules only make us worse. We’re here to seek Jesus. Then everything gets better.
Matthew 5:17-20 is a major passage for understanding how morally broken people like us get our character back, how we get our humanity back, how we get a future again. Let’s take it one step at a time.
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. —Matthew 5:17
Jesus was such a revolutionary, some people thought his teaching was a new morality. When he preached, people said, “What is this? A new teaching!” (Mark 1:27). But Jesus was not a theological innovator. He affirmed the Old Testament. That’s what “the Law and the prophets” are – the Old Testament, the first two-thirds of your Bible. He came to “fulfill” the Old Testament – not just obey it or preach from it but fulfill it.
What did he mean by that? How did Jesus fulfill the Old Testament? In three ways. One, he accomplished the predictions of the Old Testament. He left nothing for someone else, coming later, to accomplish. Two, Jesus satisfied both the commands and the penalties of the Old Testament. He obeyed every command, and he suffered every penalty – all in our place, for us, because we never could for ourselves. Three, and most importantly, Jesus embodied the Old Testament. That’s what the word “fulfill” means. Jesus incarnated what the Old Testament was talking about. The Old Testament is a vast literary landscape crowded with persons and events and institutions prefiguring Jesus. So, for example, Jesus is the true ark we enter into, to get safely through the flood of divine judgment. Jesus is the true exodus, the true escape, from the house of slavery. Jesus is the true prophet, telling us the truth, the true priest, opening the only way to God, the true king, caring for us and defending us. How could Jesus abolish the Old Testament, when it was all about him? He himself embodied its very meaning. The scribes and Pharisees were earnest about the Bible, but they didn’t know how to read the Bible. They couldn’t see it was about Jesus the Messiah.
And so for us today, if you are a morally unserious person, you need to see that God takes you so seriously he entered into your shallow existence to accomplish everything serious for you in Christ. If you are a morally hypocritical person quoting the Bible to establish your superiority, you need to relearn how to read the Bible because it’s not about your superiority; it’s about Jesus’ superiority. And if you are a morally broken person, God wants you to know that reading the Bible can cheer you up, because the central hero in the story is a Savior who is everything for a morally broken person. Jesus took the Bible so seriously he lived and died to fulfill it all. So here’s our take-away from verse 17: Jesus and the Bible go together. If you want Jesus and his grace, you’ve got to accept the Bible. It’s about him. If you want the Bible and its authority, you’ve got to accept Jesus and his grace. But you can’t separate what he has joined together – grace and authority. Here’s how strong that authority is:
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. —Matthew 5:18
Don’t hurry past those opening words, “Truly, I say to you.” The Old Testament prophets said, “Thus says the Lord.” The apostles said, “It is written.” But Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you.” I preach from derived authority, when I follow the Bible. Jesus preached with personal authority, because he incarnated the Bible. If you want to follow him, you have to accept his authority. Authority is the only way he speaks, and humility is the only way we can hear him.
In practical terms today, we start hearing the voice of Jesus when we start taking the Bible straight. The authority of Jesus and the Bible merge. So, if you want the real Jesus, ask yourself this. Do you agree with the Bible as a resource, or do you obey the Bible as an authority? If you agree with the Bible, then your positive response to it is not obedience but coincidence. The Bible just happens to line up with the prejudices you’ve soaked up from your background. And therefore your relationship with Jesus is very unclear. You must make up your mind. Are you reading the Bible for excuses for what you want anyway, or are you letting the Bible challenge your lifelong beliefs? But don’t think you’re evading authority in your life. It’s only a question of which authority. But only in the Bible can you hear Jesus saying, “Truly, I say to you….”
Here is how strong the Bible’s authority is: “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” The authority of the Bible will outlast the universe. There is a kind of inevitability built into the Bible. We have our plans and dreams. But the Bible will be accomplished, right down to the details. This was one of Jesus’ basic convictions. When he read the Bible, he didn’t look only for the major concepts. He wasn’t content with that. He pressed into the words of the Bible with reverent fascination, right down to the details – the iotas and dots. To Jesus, everything in the Bible mattered. To Jesus, nothing in the Bible was irrelevant or passé. How could it be? It’s about him. It’s about us. It’s about the renovation of all things, when the universe will be made new, we will be made new, and he will accomplish it all for us, to the praise of the glory of his grace. Tell me, what parts of that biblical vision bore you? Nothing about it bored Jesus. Maybe we need to repent of irreverence toward the Bible. Maybe we’ve been flippant and arrogant, as if parts of the Bible were beneath us. They weren’t beneath Jesus.
We at Immanuel Church are a biblical community. How we handle the Bible influences one another for good or ill:
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. —Matthew 5:19
What amazes me about this verse is the word “least.” “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments [in the Old Testament] and teaches others to do the same [and inevitably, how we treat the Bible rubs off on one another] will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Not everything in the Bible is of equal weight. That’s obvious. But everything in the Bible is to be revered and obeyed. It is the business of our lives to find out what God wants us to believe and do at all levels of importance. How can we know what matters most until we know all the things that matter? The Bible is not a menu to choose from, according to our preferences. The Bible is a whole way of life, down to the details. Everything shows us more of Jesus.
Have you ever wished you could go back in time and hang out with Jesus and just listen and watch him as he went through a day? We’d watch his every move, we’d memorize his every word. We’d instinctively know that some of his actions and words carried more gravitas than others. But everything about him would fascinate us, just because it’s Jesus. That’s what we have in the Bible – access to the real Jesus at all levels of all that he is. And the Lord is saying here that the people who really love him press into all that he is by pressing into the whole of Scripture – those are the ones who deserve influence in his community. I remember watching a prominent preacher on TV several years ago laugh at the book of Leviticus. Guess what? His church declared bankruptcy last year and his ministry empire collapsed. Do not mess with the book of Leviticus. It is Jesus-in-print. We cannot tell Jesus he’s the one who doesn’t get it and also expect honor from him in his kingdom. Are we dismissive of the Bible in any respect? Jesus wasn’t. “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.”
What then does he want us to do? What is the real Jesus expecting of every one of us?
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. —Matthew 5:20
At this moment, we’re all thinking the same thing: “Oh great. There goes my chance.” After all, the scribes and the Pharisees were hard-core. They were radical about obeying God. But Jesus rejected them. He rejected not just their disobedience but their obedience. There is a kind of obedience that turns his stomach. What is it? What is the righteousness he hates? What is the righteousness he expects? We need to know both.
Here was the problem with the Pharisees. They overdid it on the little things, in order to avoid the big things, the weighty commands, the demanding parts of the Bible. Their obedience was, in fact, evasive. They wanted to show dedication, but they didn’t want to be dedicated. When they obeyed something in the Bible, they thought, “Okay, I’ve done my bit. Don’t ask any more of me.” They treated obedience not as a pathway toward God but as a line to draw against God. So their obedience was, in fact, covert disobedience and rebellion and arrogance. They looked strict, but they were always creating loopholes. Their ethic was a minimalist, “What’s the least I can get by with?”-ethic. They satisfied themselves with technical compliance but without actually changing. They kept up an outward appearance of okayness, but they were not walking in the light (1 John 1:7). Their obedience was a way of controlling God’s claim on their lives and keeping him at arm’s length and making themselves look better than they really were. That is false obedience, and Jesus isn’t buying it.
It’s like Bible Belt religion today. Flannery O’Connor, in her novel Wise Blood, told us this about the main character: “There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” There is a way of being right that’s wrong, because it’s a way to get around God. And how can people enter the kingdom of heaven when it isn’t heaven that they want?
Here at Immanuel Church, we teach something called justification by faith alone. It means God freely gives us all the okayness we need before him. Jesus obeyed in our place, to reinstate us in God’s favor. What we do now, all we can do, is receive this justification, this acceptance, this re-certification, with the empty hands of faith. But why are we holding out those empty hands of faith? Isn’t it because we want something? We hunger and thirst for something that only God can give. In other words, the psychology of faith is desire. We are okay before God not because of our obedience but because his Jesus’ obedience for us. We only receive it by faith. But faith is desire. The Pharisees didn’t desire the righteousness of God. What they desired was the admiration of people. They prostituted biblical obedience by turning it into the purchase of human approval. Their hearts were far from God. But the obedience Jesus requires is freely available to the morally broken. Our desire for him cracks our hearts open, and we start changing deep inside. Our standards rise. We grow. The real Jesus gives real goodness.
I’m probably speaking to three kinds of people this morning. If you are morally unserious, you need God to wreck your life. Then you might wake up. If you are morally hypocritical, you need to sin so shockingly that you wake up too. But if you are morally broken and you look at the Bible and desire what it commands, I hope you are comforted, because every command is a picture of Jesus who loves you. He has given you a Bible, to show you more and more of himself. You’ll see a lot about yourself there too, and you will not feel flattered. But you will feel loved. Now, get after it. Be a diligent follower of Jesus by being a diligent student of the Bible. Do not filter out the hard parts. Do not dismiss the small parts. Swallow the Word whole. Pursue Jesus by pressing into his Word. He will meet you there and give himself to you.