Matthew chapter 5 again, the Sermon on the Mount. Please do make yourself comfortable, it's very very warm, and I want you to get through this meeting awake! So let's turn to Matthew chapter 5, and these are very difficult words that we're going to read together today - they are the words of the Lord Jesus Christ.
He says: "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven".
I've entitled my message today: 'Exceeding The Scribes And Pharisees'. What we have just read are some of the most difficult verses in the whole of the word of God. But as we read them and study them today, we must note that they are an introduction to what will follow within the Sermon on the Mount in the weeks that lie ahead.
The backdrop to these words was the perception of the Scribes and the Pharisees of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not who He was, or what He stood for, but what they perceived Him to stand for and the threat that they perceived Him to be. As far as they were concerned the Lord Jesus Christ was a destroyer of the law. He was a threat to what they called, and was they understood to be, the law of Moses and the law of God. As you read through the Gospels you find that to be so, because the Lord Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath, it appears that He abolished the food laws that we find within the law of Moses. As far as they were concerned He was a destructionist, a revolutionist - He was one who was bringing a new teaching into Judaism, and He was trying to break the old ties with the past. They saw Him as setting Himself above the Mosaic law to change it, to rectify it.
Therefore in John chapter 5 and verse 18 we find these words: 'Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God'. For this reason, in a human sense, that is why the Jews wanted Him crucified. He was crucified as a lawbreaker. They perceived Him to be against, to destroy, the law of Moses.
With such a backdrop and context it's amazing even the more when we read the words of the Lord Jesus Christ with regards to the law, for He speaks of the law with such veneration - in a way that no Pharisee or Scribe had ever done. You can understand why the people who were listening to Him could be puzzled by His statements in this text, and also why people even today and throughout all of church history fail to understand what the Lord Jesus was really saying when He spoke of the law saying He had come not to destroy, but to fulfil.
One of the most famous heretics of the early church, the second century heretic Marcion, was one who found these words of the Lord Jesus very difficult. Indeed Marcion rewrote the New Testament, and he eliminated all the references to the Old Testament. In other words, whenever the Old Testament was quoted, or there was an allusion to a truth in the Old Testament, he extracted it from his particular New Testament. In fact some of his followers went even further, and they dared to reverse the verse's meaning that we've read - verse 17, they changed it to say: 'I have come not to fulfil the law and the prophets, but to abolish them'. They turned it on its head because it was so difficult for them to understand how the Lord Jesus Christ had not come to destroy the law, but how He had come to fulfil it.
Indeed, in our modern church day today we have the same types of people. We could christen them 'Libertarians' - anything goes. They teach the doctrine of antinomianism - 'nomia' means 'law', 'anti' means 'against' - they're against any laws. They believe that because they are saved by grace and grace alone, that therefore living by grace there is no law needed for the Christian. They believe, theoretically, that the only law that the child of God has is a law of love. Love is the only absolute truth, and therefore as long as something is done in love it is lawful.
Now the question that this text arises for me in my mind, and ought to for you, is the great question: did the Lord Jesus Christ come to destroy the law? Are we, as believers, New Testament Christians, under the law? If so, should we keep the law of God? And if that is not the case, does that mean that we can do what we please? Well, out of all the Scriptures within the word of God, this scripture ought to settle those questions for us, because the theme of them is Christ's relationship to the law, and what the Christian's relationship to the law ought to be. What was Christ's attitude to the law of God, and what should ours be?
With that in mind I want us first to look at verses 17 and 18, to Christ and the law - the Lord Jesus Christ and His view of the law. The first question I want to ask is: what is the law and the prophets that our Lord speaks of? That's very important to understand. In verse 17 He says: 'I am come not to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come to fulfil'. Now what was the law that the Lord Jesus was speaking of? Well there are four uses of the law within the New Testament in relation to the Old Testament. The first is the ten commandments that you find in Exodus chapter 20 - the Decalogue, the ten words of God, that is like a summary - if you like, the moral law of all that is taught within the first five books of the Bible. That's the first definition of the law of God, the ten commandments. A second definition is the Torah, the teaching, the Pentateuch, the first five books in the Bible - from Genesis through to Deuteronomy - that is, if you like, the elongated law. The third definition of the law is what we find here in verse 17, the law and the prophets. Whenever you find that phrase, 'the law and the prophets', throughout the word of God it is speaking of the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures in the eyes of the Jew. It's a term that summarises our Old Testament. Then the fourth definition that we find in the New Testament of the law of God, is the oral and scribal law. The oral and scribal conditions that were laid down by the Scribes and the Pharisees - that is the most common meaning of the law that we find within the New Testament Scriptures. So, whenever the law is most commonly spoken of in the New Testament, it is speaking of the oral traditions of the Scribes and the Pharisees.
Now if you go into the Old Testament Scriptures you will found, generally speaking, that there are few rules, but rather there are broad principles out of which a man and a woman in Judaism was to derive the laws and the rules for their life. There aren't that many rules and regulations in the Pentateuch, but there are principles laid down - often illustrated by specific examples - whereby the children of Israel were able to discern what is sinful and what is not sinful, what is good and what is bad. To the later Jews, and specifically some of the Jews in Jesus' day, these broad principles were not enough. They believed that every single matter in life had to be covered within the law of God - because it was God's last word to His children, there must be within it, if not explicitly there must be implicitly, guidance and direction and law for everything in life.
Therefore that's why you find, within the New Testament, the Scribes and the Pharisees arguing that it must be possible to find out a rule for every single man in every situation of life that is possible. From that perception of the law of God there arose this race, this group of men, called 'Scribes'. It was the Scribes job to reduce the great principles of the law of the Old Testament to, literally, specifically, thousands upon thousands of rules and regulations. If I can give you an example of the Sabbath day, you will know that the principle of the Sabbath day in the Old Testament was: no work was to be done upon it. But for the legalists, for the Scribes and Pharisees who had a passion for definition, that was not enough.
So they asked the question: 'Well, what is work?'. The word of God says that work was to carry a burden, perhaps - that's how they interpreted it. But to say it's to carry a burden wasn't enough, they had to go on and say: 'Well, what is that burden? What's the definition of the burden?'. So, the scribal law that was written down - and I have it before me here, I'm going to read it to you - this is what they say was the law, the rule, the regulation for the Sabbath day: 'A burden is: food, equal to the weight of a dried fig; enough wine for mixing in a goblet; milk, enough for one swallow; honey, enough to put into a wound; oil, enough to anoint a part of the body; water, enough to moisten the eye salve; paper, enough to write a customs house notice upon; ink, enough to write two letters of the alphabet; and a piece of reed, enough to make a pen with to write those two letters'.
So the Scribes and the Pharisees spent hours upon hours arguing what was right and what was wrong according to the law. They argued over how far a man could carry a lamp from one place to another. They argued if a tailor sinned by keeping his needle stuck in his lapel walking out on the Sabbath. They argued whether it was a sin for a woman to wear a broach on the Sabbath day, or whether it was a sin for her to even wear a wig. To go out on the Sabbath with your false teeth in was a sin - how many transgressors do we have here this morning?! To wear your wooden leg was a sin, and even if a man lifted his own child it was seen by a Scribe and a Pharisee to be a transgression of the Sabbath day.
Now listen: that was the essence of religion to a Pharisee and to a Scribe. May I make a contemporary application of that right away, before we go on any further, that to some Christians in Ulster and even in this church, that is the essence of your faith! What you do and do not do, but more specifically what other people you are looking at do do and don't do! That is not God's religion! In fact, that is the very thing that the Lord Jesus castigated with the most strong words that you will ever read in the New Testament.
The Scribes were the men who worked out these rules. The Pharisees were a group of men - 'Pharisee' means 'separated ones' - and they were separated from the ordinary activities of life to keep all of these rules and regulations. Now, as I said, it was an oral tradition, but in the third century it was written down and it's known as the 'Mishna'. It comprises about 800 pages, in English, of rules and regulations that the people of God ought to keep. Then a few years later they made commentaries of them called the Talmuds, and they went into it even further about how they ought to keep the law.
Now let me say that, although that is the law that Christ castigated within the Scriptures, that is not the law that He speaks of in this verse. If you look at verse 17 you will see that He specifically says: 'The law and the prophets', and that was our third definition of the law, meaning a summary of the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures. So, that is what the law is that the Lord speaks of in this verse.
Then we must ask the second and most obvious question: how did Christ fulfil that law and the prophets? In verse 17 the word 'to fulfil' literally means 'to make full'. It means more than to simply fulfil, it has the sense of completing something that was incomplete, bringing to perfection something that was imperfect. It in no way means 'destroy' or 'make obsolete', but it means 'something added to' - to perfect the law. I believe that our shoes should be off our feet at this moment - why? Because we find here an exclusive statement where only one man, and the only man who could say such a thing, says: 'I am come to fulfil the law'. From Adam there was never a man who could say that, but only our Lord Jesus Christ could say: 'I have come to fill up the law, to fill full'. You can understand the horror, the gasp, of the Jewish people - that this man was actually saying that He could fulfil the law - it was blasphemy to them! He is placing Himself as the exact fulfilment of all of the word of God! The law and the prophets, the Old Testament, He is claiming to be the fulfilment, the consummation of everything that we find in the Old Testament Scriptures.
Now in the light of that we must beware that we don't neglect the Old Testament. We ought not to neglect the Old Testament - and some would say we are under grace and not under law, therefore the Old Testament has nothing for us. That is not what the truth 'we are under grace, but not under law' means. In fact, as Oswald Chambers said: 'It is surprising how easily we can juggle ourselves out of Jesus Christ's principles by one or two pious sayings repeated sufficiently often'. We must deal with these verses, because Christ said He had come to fulfil the law.
The law and the prophets, the Old Testament Scriptures, they all point towards Him - why wouldn't He come to fulfil them? He's hardly going to destroy things that were telling of a future day when the Christ would come. The general sense of what the Lord says in verse 17, if you look at it, is this: 'I came to elevate the standard of the law. Whoever therefore shall ignore, theoretically or practically, the raising of the standard shall not enter the kingdom'. He had come to fill the law full. Now that presupposes that the law was lacking - and we know that the law was lacking, because men couldn't obey it, men couldn't follow it. But the Lord didn't come, literally the Greek means 'to take it down stone by stone' - but the Lord came that He might fulfil it in all of its aspects, to fill up the half-filled lamp of the law with the oil of heaven.
Now, how could He do that? Two ways: first of all He did it as the doer of the law, and secondly He did it as the teacher of the law. He fulfilled the law because He did it - the only man ever in time who was able to obey these precepts. But more than that, at the cross of Calvary He suffered its penalty. In all aspects - take, for instance, the moral law, the ten commandments; He kept all of the ten commandments. Take the ceremonial law: He embodied all of the laws types and symbols that pointed toward Him in all the sacrificial system - the Lord fulfilled all those prophecies in Himself. The judicial law, He fulfilled it because He personified God's perfect justice, righteousness and holiness, and He came and told John the Baptist that all righteousness must be accomplished and fulfilled.
But that is not the sense here: He's not talking about how He'll fulfil the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the judicial law - but I believe what He is speaking of here is a practical righteousness, the practical aspect of the law. We must beware of those who tell us to push aside the Old Testament as an antiquated and useless book, replaced by the New Testament. As J.C. Ryle said: 'The Old Testament is the germ of Christianity, the Old Testament is the bud of the New Testament gospel flower'. If that is the case: how then, practically, do we in Christ fulfil the law of God?
Well, if you think for a moment of an acorn, there are two ways to obliterate an acorn. I can take an acorn and set it on a rock, take a sledgehammer and smash it. Or I can take that acorn and I can plant it in the ground, and out of that acorn there will sprout an oak tree - but the original acorn will be destroyed. That is how the Lord Jesus fulfils the law, He does not come to obliterate it in the sense of smashing it to insignificance, but He comes actually to set it up on a pinnacle where it had never ever been before - in fulfilment in a human being!
Just in case you don't believe that, or His listeners didn't believe it, in verse 18 He says: 'Verily I say unto you' - and that's the same word as 'Amen' - He's saying: 'I mean what I have just said', and to point it out He says, 'Not one jot or tittle will be removed from the law. Not one jot or tittle will be removed from the law, until heaven and earth pass away'. Now a 'jot' in the Hebrew language was a bit like an apostrophe in the English language - it's hardly even a letter at all, it's so small. A 'tittle' is a little tail, if you can look at the letter 'i' in verse 17 - our English letter 'i' - you see the little bits that hang over the foot and the head of the letter 'i' - that little bit hanging over the edge is just like a tittle in the Hebrew language, it's just a little tail, a serif. Two of the most smallest aspects of the Hebrew language, He is saying that not even a dot, if you like, or a cross of a 't' will be taken away from the law until heaven and earth pass away.
What He is saying is: nothing in this law will remain unfulfilled - nothing! The heaven and the earth will be the last things to pass away, and the law will not pass away until they pass away! Until all of the types of God's word are replaced with the anti-types, the real thing that they pointed towards, until the symbols are replaced with the reality, the law of God will not pass away! If I can give you an example, the millennial reign of the Lord Jesus Christ that is spoken of in the prophets and throughout the Old Testament Scriptures, that must happen - mustn't it! That is a fulfilment of the law of God, and the heavens and the earth will not pass away until Jesus shall reign where'er the sun doth its successive journeys run.
So the law, the Old Testament, will not pass away - not one jot or tittle - until Christ reigns upon the earth. The heavenly bodies are made His heralds, showing fearful signs of the coming of the great day of the Lord. The law fulfilled in the fact that heaven and earth, think of it, this earth that we're on and the heavens are being preserved to let the Old Testament Scriptures be fulfilled! I hope you can see that in that sense Christ upheld the law. He insisted that it must be fulfilled, 'I didn't come to wipe it out, it must be fulfilled'. But note, He didn't say that it would never pass away: it will pass away when all that it has prophesied is fulfilled.
Now that is Christ's view and relationship of the law. But the second thing I want to draw your attention to in verses 19 and 20 are: the Christian and the law - the Christian's attitude to the law. There are great ramifications concerning what our Lord Jesus said for us. What is our relation to the law of God to be? Now we must consider what the purpose of the law was, first of all, in the Old Testament. We must beware of the error of thinking that Jews got into heaven by keeping the law - that was never the case. It was not for salvation, but it was to show the sinfulness of mankind to themselves - it was like a mirror. With that condemnation of the law, that they were guilty before God, there was a penalty - and the penalty was: the wages of sin is death. If you broke one commandment you are guilty of all, James says. God, because He is a righteous and a holy God, demanded a penalty for our transgression of the law! We read within the New Testament the glorious message of the new covenant, that Christ died for the ungodly. There is that great penalty, where Christ in His death satisfied the demands of God's law, satisfied the demands of a righteous and a holy God - in His life, by living it; and in His death by dying the penalty of the curse of the law for us.
Now please note this: if that is the case, the law cannot be overthrown - because in the very gospel you have the law enshrined in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, for He was under the penalty of the law, and because He went under the law we are under grace! He has made us dead to the penalty of the law through His work. The penalty has been paid, it's no longer over our head - that's what Paul means when he says that we are no longer under condemnation. The law of God was a tutor, until Christ came, to show us our sin - but now Christ has come, He has set the law on a place that it has never been before, it has been fulfilled by blood-bought humanity in Christ!
It's wonderful, isn't it? Now that begs the question, very obvious - and time is going on, but...should the Christian keep the law? I mean, if Christ enshrined the law and we are fulfilling the law because we are in Christ, ought we to keep His commandments? Now if you go through the New Testament Scriptures you'll find that 9 out of the 10 commandments - the 10 words, the Decalogue that you find Exodus 20 - nine of those are repeated in the New Testament - nine. That would be an endorsement to me that they are to be kept. Now they aren't given with the penalty of death on them, in other words they aren't given as law - but they are given as principles whereby we live, training in righteousness. All scripture is profitable - isn't that right? - for instructing in righteousness, and the only commandment that was never repeated is the Sabbath day, because Christians do not keep the Sabbath day, they keep the Lord's Day.
But as we will go through these verses of Scripture in the days that lie ahead, you will find that the ten commandments - the law of God in the Old Testament - is repeated right throughout the Sermon on the Mount, but it's a greater law. It's a fulfilment of the law. It is Christ coming and filling up what was lacking within the law. If you look, for instance, at the one that we will deal with the next week - verse 21: 'Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill' - but the Lord goes further than that and says: 'Thou shalt not hate'. So Christ is upholding the law and the prophets, He's not destroying it but He is amplifying, developing them, into deeper implications for the Christian.
The first thing I want to leave with you, with regards to your responsibility to the law, is this: righteousness is the object of our reward. As a believer, righteousness is the object of our reward. Verse 19, you've to keep the least of these commandments. He's just been talking about one jot or one tittle, now He talks about the least of these commandments - and if you don't keep them, and you teach other men not to keep them, you will be guilty! Now the interesting thing about that statement of the Lord that 'if you don't keep them, or if you teach other men not to keep the least things in these commandments', it shows to me that often our doctrine is lowered to meet our conduct - isn't it? We lower our doctrine to accommodate people that aren't doing it anyway - 'go with the flow'. Now listen: the mistake of legalism and Pharisaism, we often think it was being too tight - and sometimes it was - but the greater mistake was opening up the laws of God to allow them to sin!
So, if I can give you the example of divorce, you could divorce your wife for burning the dinner. That's the truth! You could give her a bill of divorcement for burning the dinner. You can imagine, there were two different schools of Rabbi - one didn't teach that, the other did, and everybody followed the one that did! Not surprising. What that tells you and I is this: we have a natural tendency to relax God's commandments.
What are we to keep? What are the least of His commandments? My friend, listen: is it not both the Old Testament law and the New Testament law? Now, what do I mean? Yes, the Lord Jesus Christ has fulfilled it all in His death and resurrection, but if He has taken the Old Testament law and put it on a pinnacle, and amplified it and elevated it to a place that it has never been before - that is what we find in the Sermon on the Mount. If that is what we find, that is the law of Christ that we ought to keep! In a sense we are still keeping that law, but in a fulfilled state.
My friends, this is staggering to me, because we will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven if we teach others to break these small commandments - but more than that, He is saying that there is this aspect of a day of recompense, there's a day of reward, the kingdom of heaven speaking of it. When we will receive according to our - listen - works! Some people have tried to say what the difference is between the righteousness of the Pharisees in verse 20 and the righteousness that we are to practise: 'Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven'. They say: 'Well, it means that we are clothed with the righteousness imputed by Christ at the cross, we are given the righteousness' - that is not what it means! Don't pervert the word of God! Why does it not mean that? Because how could that be a righteousness that exceeds? That would be a righteousness other than - this is a righteousness that is of a kind, but better!
Our righteousness is to be exceptional - oh yes, it's exceptional, as the New Testament teaches us that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. But do you know what it is talking about here? Not about right-being, right-being is important - that's what the Pharisees and the Scribes didn't have, they were not new creatures in Christ Jesus - but let me ask you a question: if we are right-being, we are born-again, we are regenerated by the Spirit of God, ought that not to spawn in our lives right-doing? And if we have a right-doing that spawns from right-being, and the Pharisees and the Scribes didn't have right-being, does that not conclude that our righteousness ought to be exceeding more than theirs?
It's so humbling, isn't it? For the church today is full of people who say: 'I want to be a Christian, I want to be a recipient of the ministry of this church, I want to escape hell fire - but don't ask me to do anything'. That is not the Christianity of the word of God. The Pharisees followed the law, and the law was their goal - as long as they fulfilled the law, they were happy. But the Christian doesn't follow the law as a goal, but he follows the law of Christ as a means, because it's the law of love. If you're following a law like the Pharisees, and it's your goal, as long as you get A-B-C and 1 to 10 you're happy - but if you're a Christian, and you're following the law of love, you can give the sun the moon and the stars to Jesus Christ and it's not enough! That is a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees. Augustine said: 'The Christian life can be summed up in one phrase: love God and do as you like'. Love God, and if you love God you will keep the law of God in Christ.
We don't exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees in the quantity of the good things that we do - we could never do that - but it's the quality. Can I ask you, as we close: do you have something real, rather than something formal? Do you have something internal, rather than an external religiosity? Do you have something spiritual, rather than material? And do you have something practical, rather than ritual? The prophecy of the millennial reign of Christ to God's people, Israel, was this: 'My Spirit will put My law in your hearts'. It's not a contradiction to have the Spirit and to have the law together, but the believer fulfils the law of Christ by the Spirit of God. You claim to have the Spirit of God, can I ask you as we begin these studies in the weeks that lie ahead: are we living the law of God in the law of Christ? God willing we will find out if we are.
Lord Jesus Christ, Thou who hast said to us: 'Ye are the salt of the earth, ye are the light of the world', and given us a name that is Thy name, we know that we will need Thy life in order to keep Thy laws. We pray that in the weeks that lie ahead, as we have presented to us the highway of holiness in the elevated law of Christ, that we may have grace to obey - that men may see our good works and glorify our Father which is in heaven. Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the third tape in his 'Sermon On The Mount' series, titled "Exceeding The Scribes And Pharisees" - Transcribed by Preach The Word.
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