Matthew 5:17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Romans 10:4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
A funny thing happens when you take certain verses of Holy Scripture and place them next to one another. Did you hear it in these two? It kind of sounded like they were contradicting each other didn’t it. The first says that Jesus doesn’t abolish the Law, but the second says that He is the end of the Law. They can’t both be true can they? So which one should we believe? Which one is it?
This very same confusion was at the heart of one of the first, debates in the Christian Church. There those who felt, on the basis of the verses from Matthew (among others) that for a person to be a good Christian they first had to subscribe to the Old Testament Laws regarding such things as cleanliness, eating, circumcision and the like. Others in the earliest church, particularly the non-Jewish Christians felt that faith in Christ would override the need to follow the Old Testament Laws. The debate still hasn’t really been solved for many even to this day.
Certain individuals, and some denominations still declare that to be a Christian is to live a life that fulfills the Law of God. Our obligation to behave in God-pleasing ways doesn’t end just because we are believers. But then again, on the other hand you have other individuals and denominations arguing that Jesus is the end of the Law. Having faith frees the believer from needing to live under the Law. We live instead under grace.
So which side should we believe? Which one is it? Well, dear friends, if you aren’t confused enough already, let me say that both sides are correct. And furthermore, the two Scripture passages in question don’t really contradict one another either!
Just as Jesus said in the Gospel, the Law has not been abolished. We Christians are indeed, supposed to keep the Law of God in all its demands. This is the way that we become the salt and light in this world that Jesus mentioned earlier in the text. Following the Laws of God given in the Ten Commandments really sets us apart from the rest of the world. It gives our lives their distinctive flavour. It provides a shining example to those around us. Refusing to go with the flow when we know its not right; playing by a higher set of rules even when no one else is watching – even when we appear to suffer for it; Helping out our neighbours both near and far; giving of our time, our money, our possessions, patience or prayers. Let’s face it, obeying God’s commands makes us different from the majority. So different it is easy to be dismissed, ridiculed, pitied, hated or worse. But as Jesus plainly teaches in the Gospel “but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
God’s will for us, laid out in the Commandments, remains the same now as then. Jesus’ coming to earth did not change that. If anything, Jesus made it even harder to fulfill the Law than before His coming. You will see over the coming weeks as we hear His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount just how He removes any question of how hard it is. And maybe that is why rather than keeping the Law, most of us are tempted to relax or loosen the Law instead. This very tenancy is what Jesus is arguing against in our Gospel reading and throughout the whole Sermon on the Mount. Time and again we will hear the refrain “You have heard it said that … but I tell you that …” And in each case Jesus will take one of those Old Testament Laws and rather than abolish it, make its full weight and meaning plain. He did this to show Not that the Law didn’t apply anymore, but that most people dimply don’t go far enough in living by God’s will.
With Jesus’ words every non-binding loop-hole of the Law is closed tight once and for all. “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” What the Law demands is iron-clad, and absolute. Not only was Jesus not abolishing the Law, He was intensifying it! He makes it painfully clear just what it takes to keep that Law of God. And it is something that not one of us has in himself.
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” Jesus said. The pharisees are often portrayed as wicked and morally bankrupt men who went out of their way to break the Law of God. But you should know by now that things are never quite so black and white. In fact, the pharisees were extremely devout men who tried with all their hearts to live up to the Law of God. They were so zealous in their pursuit of this task that it guided every single aspect of their lives. Such devotion is very hard to find today. Their only problem was (and it was a big one!) that they were so busy focusing on keeping the letter of the Law that they completely missed the Spirit of the Law. They were so busy with the how’s that they simply forgot the why’s. They ended up being zealous for all the wrong reasons.
So what Jesus is saying here is that to fulfill the Law the way God demands we must be more zealous than even the pharisees, and do it all with pure hearts and motives too. Our lives must be a single-minded devotion to God in our every action, word, and thought! And this you and I both know, is frankly something beyond any of us. Jesus does not abolish the Law, but rather perfected the Law, reclaimed the Law, intensified the Law to a point where we can never hope to live up to its rightful demands.
Where, then, is the good news in all of this? Now we are finally ready “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” We can never justify ourselves under God’s Law. What He demands is simply more than what is humanly possible. But instead of just ignoring that problem or pretending like it didn’t exist (which would have left each of us destitute) God met the problem face on. And He took care of it once and for all. That’s what Jesus came here to do. That’s why He said “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”
First He made it very clear that we couldn’t do it by ourselves. Then He up and fulfilled the whole of the Law for us! Every iota, every dot … Jesus kept it perfectly. His entire earthly life had not one single stain, not one little gray area in any thought word or deed. Nothing that He ever did, nothing that He ever said, not even one single thought that ran through His head was ever contrary to the Law and Will of God! Only God Himself could do such a thing. And that’s precisely what He did in Jesus.
But He didn’t do any of it for His own glory. He didn’t do it just to give us an example to shoot for. He didn’t do it to encourage us to try harder and eventually get there by ourselves. He did it to put an end to the Law once and for all. Living perfectly in our place was just the first step. After He had done all this Jesus took our place again. This time in death. Because He had first lived for us under the Law He could then also die for us under that Law. And in doing so He took way the power of the Law to accuse us and convict us of our sin ever again. That’s what Paul is talking about in Romans. The will of God for our lives will never be abolished, but the guilt and punishment for not living up to it has been abolished for good. It was stripped from our shoulders and nailed to the cross along with our Lord.
So in the end, what does this all mean for us? We dare never use that forgiveness in Jesus as an excuse to not be bothered to try and live up to the Commandments. However, when we do try and fail anyway we can turn in faith to our Saviour, receive that forgiveness and get up to try again. God’s good and perfect will for us, laid down in the Ten Commandments, will always remain our guide for living and witnessing the faith. Not one tiny little piece of it will every become invalid. But the guilt, the shame and the punishment that comes from not living up to those Laws, for being witnesses of our weakness instead of for our Lord … that is gone forever. Washed away in the blood of that one perfect man who died for all and now is a witness to God on our behalf.