Our passage for study serves as part of the introduction to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. It follows the declaration of the new Israel's standing before God, 1-12, and her nature and purpose, v13-16. Jesus now examines God's perfect law.
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.
v18. It is easy to suppose that with the coming of Jesus the Mosaic law is made redundant. It is, of course, necessary to discern the law, to sift matters of culture from that of the divine will. The interpretation of the law by the Old Testament prophets, and particularly that of Jesus, help us in this task. Having discerned the divine will, we need to understand that even its smallest aspect retains its validity, 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 is important.
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.
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. Such righteousness is not gained by doing.
Our passage for study reminds us that God's law, consisting of the commandments of the Old Testament with their interpretation in the Prophets and the ethical demands of the New Testament, retains its validity in the Christian life. As Georg Strecker puts it "the law cannot and may not pass away."
God's law serves two functions in the Christian life. The less important function, the one that Jesus is not alluding to here, is that of guiding the Christian life. The more important function is the exposing of sin to force the child of God to rely on a righteousness, a perfect uprightness in the sight of God, that is not done and cannot be done, but is received as a gift.
Jesus brings the law to its destined end; he completes it. Jesus completes the law by clearly presenting it in all its purity. Yet, even more important than that, Jesus actually does it, the only man to have ever done it, to have ever completed it. Faced with the radiance of God's law in the Sermon on the Mount we are driven to the foot of the cross. As Paul puts it, "the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith", Gal.3:24. The law serves to expose our state of loss before God, and therefore, our need of a saviour. Jesus completes this function of the law by demanding a "righteousness which surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees" and then, on our behalf, fulfills the law's demands in his own life.
So there we have it, a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees freely ours in Christ. For our part, let us strive to be what we are.
1. In what sense does Jesus "fulfill" the law?
2. The law must stand until "everything is accomplished." What is it that is accomplished and how does the law serve this end?
3. "Practices and teaches" the law. How do we do that?
4. What is an "exceeding righteousness" and how do we get it?