17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
This passage destroys our collective theology. If you really pay attention to everything Jesus is saying in these few sentences, you are bound to get offended in one way or another. We can see in this oft-missed passage that Jesus didn’t nullify the Law, but has fulfilled it. Let’s begin with verse 20. The Pharisees and scribes are generally looked down upon in the scriptures because Jesus exposed their religion and showed that they lacked a relationship with God and wisdom of the purpose of the Law. Yet, Jesus does not deny their level of righteousness. Although it is misplaced, their righteousness far exceeded that of the general public. Their aim was to always work to be righteous according to the Law. Obviously they missed a few points but they were the closest to fulfilling the Law in those days. They were righteous, very righteous, just not righteous enough.
When we read the second half of that verse, however, we are taken aback. How could Jesus say that we must be more righteous than these religious elite to enter the Kingdom? We already know that Jesus exposed their hypocrisy and that when Jesus hung on the cross He told a thief that he would be with Jesus in paradise that day. This doesn’t make sense! How can the “righteous” not get into heaven and the “unrighteous” get into heaven, but do so by surpassing the righteousness of the “righteous”?
In John’s account of the gospel, he records Jesus’ words to the disciples regarding the Holy Spirit. It is by the Holy Spirit that our righteousness is able to surpass that of the Pharisees. It is only by divine intervention that this is possible. Let’s see what Jesus said in John 16:
7 “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. 8 “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10 and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. 12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. 14 “He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. 15 “All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.
Now let’s look at the cream in the middle of this passage which pokes holes in our theology and makes us wish we didn’t even read this part of the bible. Jesus tells us that He will not nullify the Law. The Law is good, perfect, and true. If Jesus is the truth, how then could He abolish the Law? The Law will remain until the coming of the new heaven and new earth, which will occur in the end days. More so, Jesus warns His followers that if we refuse to view the Law as good and if we discourage others from following it, we will be considered least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Notice that wording: least in. Fulfilling the Law is not about salvation! That is the Holy Spirit’s job. What also is the Holy Spirit’s job is to give us the ability to fulfill the Law just as Jesus did. In the fulfillment of the Law, God is glorified. Glorifying God is our created purpose; it is why you are still breathing right now.
If we think about this sermon as a progressive lesson and not just chunks of principles lumped together, we can notice that in walking through the beatitudes we learned what the steps are to our spiritual growth for the rest of our lives. As we are taking these steps, we are also confronted with these issues that Jesus is now beginning to uncover. We must first recognize that the world is watching us and even though we are not perfect, we still must let our light shine as bright as possible and spread ourselves throughout the world as salt. Now Jesus is letting us know that the Law is perfect and we must not work against it. For working with the Law is working within the Kingdom of God. The point isn’t to nullify it, but to fulfill it. Jesus has done that for us and has empowered us to work freely within the boundaries of the Law, not be restrained by our inability to satisfy it. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 5:6?
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
If fulfillment of the Law equals righteousness, then we should work to fulfill it, should we not? The difference between “then” and “now” is that now we have the power of the Holy Spirit, who has already completed the Law, which gives us the ability to run free within it. I once heard a sermon that I have remembered for years that I thought explained Jesus’ work on the cross very well until just now in reading this passage.
The metaphor is about Olympic skiing. The sermon was taught during a year when in the Winter Olympics there was a hill too dangerous for even the toughest of professionals and they had to change the course because people were getting hurt. The pastor explained that if the Law were like that hill, Jesus would be the skier who completed the course, won the gold medal, and then gave it to us saying, “I did this for you, don’t even try it or you will hurt yourself.” I thought that was pretty awesome until reading what Jesus tells us here that He didn’t ski the hill so that we don’t have to; He skied the hill so we could! He overcame all and then gave us the same power He used to do so in order to allow us to follow in His footsteps. If we are supposed to follow Him and He mastered the hill, then why wouldn’t we too follow Him in that?
As we look forward into Jesus’ sermon, we see that He is now about to begin working through some issues in the Law and explain to us not that we shouldn’t try to accomplish them, but how to fulfill them completely and perfectly! Until this sermon, the religious elite did their best to fulfill the Law and failed. It offered no hope to those who were not Pharisees and in fact oppressed them spiritually because they had been taught that they will not amount to anything and they are not worthy of God’s blessings. They were squanderers, poor, thieves, liars, and worse. Yet Jesus says, “you don’t have to live that way! I came to give you life and give it to you abundantly! Yes, your righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees and scribes, but I will give you that righteousness so you can be welcomed into my Father’s Kingdom!”
Folks, THAT is the good news of Jesus Christ!