3. Law and Grace, 5:1-7:29

ii] The persecution of the righteous, 5:11-20

c) Righteousness and the law


Continuing with the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' exposition of the beatitude "blessed are you who are persecuted because of righteousness", Jesus explains the righteousness he has in mind.


The Law has eschatological validity in establishing the righteous status / state of a believer.


i] Context: See 5:11-12.


ii] Structure: This passage, Jesus' teaching about the law, presents as follows:

Setting, v1-2;

The beatitudes, 3-10;

A model exposition of the last beatitude, v11-20:

Suffering persecution, v11-12;

Righteous living in a corrupt world, v13-16;

Righteousness and the law, v17-20.

Jesus fulfills the law, 17-19:

the law abides.

Exceeding righteousness is found in Christ, v20.


iii] Interpretation:

Dumbrell argues that in v17-20 we have "a radical demand for the interiorizing of the law." This is defined in the examples that follow, not by contradicting Pharisaic tradition, but by drawing out the substance of Mosaic law. As was the case in the Sinai covenant, the new age of covenant fulfillment links law with grace. The law was always in the national heart of Israel, and now, through the Spirit, it resides in the psyche of the new Israel in Christ. In the psyche, the law both forces us to rest on grace and to be what we are in Christ. ie., on one hand, the law serves to expose sin, prompting a search for divine mercy, and on other hand, it serves to guide / shape right living.

The two-pronged function of the law, of exposing sin and guiding the life of a child of faith, is evident in the Sinai covenant. The law exposes the impossibility of covenant compliance, enacting the curse of the law. This forces a reliance on the central tenet of the Abrahamic covenant, namely a righteousness that depends on the righteousness of God appropriated through faith. Along with this function, the law serves a secondary function, namely to guide the life of redeemed Israel. Jesus, in the Great Sermon (Jesus' covenant renewal document), restates the importance of the law. The two functions of the Law remain, for Jesus has not come to do away with it, nor lessen its importance, v17-19.

It seems likely that in v20 Jesus articulates the first function, namely to expose sin, prompting a reliance on divine grace. This is illustrated by reinterpreting various laws which primarily serve to expose sin, but also guide the Christian life, v21-48. Jesus then moves on to deal with practical guidance for the Christian life, 6:1ff.

The weight given to these two functions of the law has never been fully resolved. Luther put more weight on the first function, Calvin on the second. Weight given to the second often prompts a third, namely the idea that the law restrains sin and thus promotes holiness (a view repugnant to Luther [and Paul!!!]). Weight on the first can prompt perfectionism (sin doesn't matter - "let us sin that grace may abound", etc.). So obviously, both functions must be held in tension, although with priority given to the first.


v] Exposition: A simple exposition of this passage can be found in the linked pew-level Sermon Notes.

Text - 5:17

Righteousness and the law, v17-20: i] Jesus fulfills the law. a) In the age of covenant fulfillment the law abides and continues v17. Jesus lived a liberated life, and therefore was criticized as a libertarian. Against this criticism, Jesus reaffirms the validity of the Mosaic law and its interpretation in the prophetic books of the Bible. Jesus did not come to abolish this revelation from God, but rather to "complete" it, ie. "to bring to its destined end", Davies.

mh nomishte aor. subj. "do not think" - do not think. A subjunctive of prohibition. The aorist is probably inceptive; "do not begin to think", Banks.

oJti "that" - that. Introducing a dependent statement of perception expressing what the disciples should not think.

katalusai (kataluw) aor. inf. "to abolish" - [i came] to destroy. The infinitive introduces a final clause expressing purpose, "in order that."

h] "or" - [the law] or [the prophets]. The disjunctive "or" serves to separate the "law" and "prophets" rather than treat them the same. The sense is probably law + it's interpretation by the prophets. "Either the law, or it's prophetic interpretation", Dumbrell.

alla "but" - [i did not come to abolish] but. Strong adversative sitting within a counterpoint construction; "not .... but ...."

plhrwsai aor. inf. "to fulfill" - As for "to abolish", the infinitive is again final expressing purpose. Possibly "to bring to its destined end", Davies & Allison, or possibly better "complete" = "bringing to fulfillment a prior scriptural pronouncement or body of teaching, by giving to it full validity", Dumbrell. See Carson for a good survey of the different interpretations offered.


b) Jesus supports his statement, v18. It is easy to suppose that with the coming of Jesus the Mosaic law is made redundant. Yet, even its smallest aspect remains valid, completely fulfilling its function of driving us toward God's grace and guiding us in the Christian life. The "smallest letter" in the Hebrew alphabet, our "i", and the "serif" or "dash", serve to illustrate that even the smallest detail of God's will abides.

gar "for" - More reason than cause, introducing an explanation of v17; "Let me explain, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota ......."

amhn gar legw uJmin "I tell you the truth" - for truly i say to you. Idiomatic phrase serving to emphasize the words that follow; "for verily I say unto you", AV.

eJwV an + subj. "until" - until [heaven and earth]. This construction introduces an indefinite temporal clause referring to a future time in relation to the main verb; "until".

parelqh/ (parercomai) aor. subj. "disappear" - pass away, come to an end. Expressing the impossibility of dispensing with God's law (ie. its permanence) and thus its validity for believers, given that heaven (and earth [for a Jew]) is eternal; "so long as heaven and earth shall last", Barclay.

iwta "the smallest letter" - [one] letter. Nominative subject of the negated verb "to pass away." Referring to the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, our letter i.

keraia "the least stoke of a pen" - [or] one small stroke. Referring to the little horn, our serif.

ou mh + subj. "not ..... by any means" - [may] not not = in no way [pass away]. This construction forms an emphatic negation; "not in any way ...."

apo + gen. "from [the Law]" - from [the law]. Expressing separation; "away from."

e{wV an + subj. "until" - until [everything]. Introducing an indefinite temporal clause as above.

panta genhtai "everything is accomplished" - all may become = happen, take place = pass away. We may well have a now / not yet problem here. In the now, the inbreaking of the new age in Jesus, the age that inaugurates the promises of the covenant, the law abides/continues, but in the not yet, the day of Christ's presence / coming, appearing, the age that realizes the promises of the covenant, a law written on the heart supersedes a law on stone. Still, either way the law abides!!! Jesus has just made the point that there are no limitations to the law, so is he now setting a limit? Strecker suggests that Jesus' point is "that the law cannot and may not pass away, so that everything it demands will be realized." For the new Israel, the law retains its validity, and under God it completely fulfills its function.


c) Application, v19. A believer who relaxes, sets aside or teaches against even the least of God's commandments, is acting against God's intentions and well deserves to be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. Those who endorse and teach the law are acting as God would have them and well deserve to be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

oun "-" - therefore. Inferential, drawing a logical conclusion.

o}V ean + subj. "anyone who" - whosoever. Introducing a relative conditional clause 3rd. class where the condition has the possibility of coming true; "whoever, as the case may be, ..... then [they will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." See BDF 380.1 for indefinite relative clauses serving to make a general assertion or supposition.

lush/ (luw) aor. subj. "breaks" - loosens, relaxes. "Repeal, annul, abolish", BAGD. Possibly "disrespect", Junkins.

toutwn twn entolwn gen. "these commandments" - [one of these least] commandments. The genitive is adjectival, partitive. Which commandments? Given that Jesus forcefully makes a distinction between the lesser matters of ritual etc. and the weightier matters of the moral law (insect law and camel law!), it is difficult to conceive that Jesus is now making no distinction. Some suggest that he is referring to the ten commandments, but this does not fit with the sense of v18. Jesus is simply making the point that the complete will of God, as expressed in the commandments, stands as a single package and that picking and choosing within the package, or assessing the relative value of the divine will within the package, is simply not on. All the elements of the divine will are eternal.

ouJtwV adv. "[teaches others] accordingly" - [and teaches men] thus, in this way. This modal comparative adverb points back (anaphoric).

klhqhsetai (kalew) fut. "will be called" - then he will be called. Identified as, so "that person will be of least significance in the kingdom of heaven", Cassirer.

elacistoV adj. "least" - The superlative of microV. Nominative complement of the subject "he" of the verb "will be called" standing in a double nominative construction. The NT often seems to imply degrees of reward for disciples, based on the faithfulness of their Christian walk. Yet, degrees in heavenly reward is a dubious concept, so possibly these images refer to degrees of responsibility. This reflects the rabbinical view that there is a rank order in the kingdom of heaven. None-the-less, it seems more likely that the language used serves to reinforce the importance of giving due respect to the divine will. "The commandments are so important that setting aside one of the least of them is a sufficiently serious matter that the consequence will be to be called the least in the kingdom of heaven", Nolland.

en + dat. "in" - Local, expressing space.

twn ouranwn (oV) gen. "[the kingdom] of heaven". [the kingdom] of the heavens [but whoever practices and teaches them this one will be called great]. See 3:2.


ii] The exceeding righteousness found in Christ, v20. The "Pharisees" (a lay movement of Jews dedicated to law obedience) and the "teachers of the law" (scribes, professional students and teachers of the law), maintained an outstanding law-righteousness, but their dedication was unable to secure or progress their standing before God. Membership in the kingdom of heaven requires an exceeding righteousness, an uprightness in the sight of God that is perfect. Yet, such righteousness is beyond us. Matthew would have us hold this point in mind as we read on. In 5:21-47 Jesus explains the full requirements of the law, and thus leaves us in no doubt that we have failed to obey the law. Who then can claim the perfection of God? v48. Even when we claim some merit by at least keeping the commandments on adultery and murder, we are reminded that we have broken these as well (ie. we are all in the #10 box. The #8 box doesn't exist). The thought is as good as the deed in God's eyes. So all of us are mere sinners under the judgement of God. We are indeed people who have built our "house on the sand" and so face the "great crash." Our only hope is to enter the house of someone who has built his house on rock, someone who has heard and done the will of God. Of course, we must await the exposition of the apostle to understand how the obedience of Christ applies to the sinner. It is Paul who explains that Christ is the one righteous Israelite and that his righteousness belongs to those who are united to him by faith. By this means the repentant sinner can stand perfect before the judge of the universe and receive the reward of faithful obedience. Of course, although the Sermon on the Mount details a righteousness that only Christ can keep, and has indeed kept, it is a righteousness which we, in the power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, must aim at. We will never do it, but as disciples of Christ we will strive to aim at the ideal. So, Jesus' exposition of the law, as well as driving us to the cross for mercy, drives us forward in the Christian journey in preparation for our rule with him in eternity.

gar "for" - for [I say]. More reason than cause; explanatory and therefore not translated, "let me explain ...."; "I tell you, you will certainly not get into the kingdom of heaven unless ...", Barclay

oJti "that" - that. Introducing a dependent statement of indirect speech expressing what Jesus is wanting to say to his disciples.

ean mh + subj. "unless" - if not = lest, unless, except, as the case may be ..... then ...... Introducing a negated conditional clause, 3rd. class, where the condition has the possibility of coming true.

hJ dikaiosunh (h) "righteousness" - the righteousness [of you]. Nominative subject of the verb "to exceed." Obviously not the strict legal correctness of the Pharisees, the business of observing regulations, but "keeping the commandments (the divine will) in depth, .... a radical obedience", Morris. As noted above, such a demand inevitably requires "a given righteousness", cf. Morris, p111. Of course, many commentators do not accept that Jesus is leading his listeners to a "given righteousness." Most argue that Jesus is speaking about a different kind of righteousness, not just a keeping of rules, but internalized love. Jesus demands "a radical interiorizing, a total obedience to God, a complete self-giving to neighbor that carries the ethical thrust of the Law to its God-willed conclusion, even when this means in some cases abrogating the letter of the law", Meier, Law, 110. It may seem that this is what Jesus is demanding, yet we are less able to do an interiorized righteousness than just keeping the rules. So, Jesus must be leading his listeners to a "given righteousness", although probably not the imputed righteousness of systematic theology. A person's state of being right / judged right before God rests on the righteousness of Christ, which state is appropriated by incorporation in Christ through faith. Of course, Jesus leaves such fine nuances of theology to his exegete, the apostle Paul.

pleion adv. "surpasses" - [exceeds] greater, beyond, more. Comparative adverb.

twn grammatewn kai qafisaiwn gen. "that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law" - The genitive is may be treated as ablative, of comparison; "unless your righteousness is greater than the Scribes and the Pharisees." Olmstead suggests it is adjectival, verbal, subjective, modifying / limiting the assumed noun "righteousness"; "unless your righteousness exceeds beyond the righteousness (right behavior) of the Scribes and Pharisees."

ou mh + subj. "[you will] certainly not [enter]" - [you may] not not = never ever [enter into the kingdom of the heavens]. Subjunctive of emphatic negation. Those devoid of "righteousness" will not "enter life", they will not come under God's rule.


Matthew Introduction



[Pumpkin Cottage]