Kingdom: The Law of God in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:17-20)
My entire Christian life I’ve felt a tension between the words “law” and “grace,” and the meaning behind each of them.
The church tradition I was raised in spoke highly of the grace of God, preaching a clear “whosoever will” kind of gospel message every worship service, with a heartfelt appeal to “get saved.” It was clear that our Pastor, the late Rev. Maddux, had been transformed by the grace of Jesus, provided at the cross. Because of this, he was enthusastic and insistent that everyone be a “soul-winner.”
But as a young boy and into my teen years, I also felt a legalism of sorts coming from the same Pastor (via his preaching), a “God is not happy with you” vibe that kept me looking over my shoulder most of the time, even though I wasn’t your typical wayward teen who grew up in the church.
It was clear that our church frowned upon the typical things fundemental style churches frown upon
- drinking of alcohol (at all)
- women wearing pants
- Bible versions other than the 1611 King James version.
The snarky remark we often made about our church’s stance on that last issue was, “If it was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me!”
The passage before us today is among the handful of teachings of Jesus where the Law of God is revered and honored. In fact, in this passage, adherance to it is encouraged, as we’ll see.
But by the end, we’ll see that the tension I felt is unwarranted.
CONTEXT OF THE PASSAGE
As mentioned in the previous “Kingdom” post (link here), this teaching comes from what we refer to as “The Sermon on the Mount,” which it appears was not a sermon at all, but rather a private teaching Jesus delivered to His disciples as they sat on a mountainside overlooking a huge crowd that had come to witness and benefit from Jesus’ miracles and teaching.
The gist of the passage so far (we are only 16 verses into it at this point) is that Jesus is resetting his disciples’ expectations of what He and His Kingdom are.
There are plenty of jarring, mindset shifting, unexpected descriptions of both in the extended passage. Today’s section is one of those.
THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS ARE TO BE FULFILLED
The mentions of the Kingdom in this section happen in verses 19 and 20, but for the sake of better understanding, I’ll quote the passage beginning in verse 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 one 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.
Let’s clarify some terms…
The Law: the Old Testament law, contained in the first 5 books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).
The Prophets: The prophetic writings of the Jewish Old Testament. It would have included both the major prophets and the minor prophets we have in our bibles today.
Scribes: Jewish scholars who copied the Jewish scriptures by hand so that accurate copies could be passed down for the benefit of the nation through the years. Scribes often served as teachers of the Law as well. Ezra is one of the better-known scribes of the Old Testament era.
Pharisees: A religious order of Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day who were deeply committed to seeing that the Jewish people knew and kept the Law of God. This included the addition of many “traditions” that, in their minds, served as guardrails to keep people from even coming close to breaking the Law.
Again, Jesus is addressing potential misconceptions His 12 disciples might have about the work He’s come to do. I’m unclear why they may have believed that the Law and/or the Prophets were potentially on the chopping block, but it appears from Jesus’ statement they could have been thinking it.
Jesus makes it clear that’s not what He’s come to do. In fact, just the opposite. He’s not come to do away with either, but to fulfill them both.
What does this MEAN, to “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets?
That’s potentially the most important question we could ask about this teaching. When we understand this, we’ll be able to see the importance of what He’s saying to His 12 disciples.
The most natural assumption about the words Jesus uses seems to be in order. To “fulfill” any teaching (the Law) is to obey it, to accomplish all that it holds forth as right and good. The opposite of this would be to “break” the Law, to disobey it.
To “fulfill” a prophecy could have a bit of nuance, since prophecy itself is a wide array of things that don’t always serve the same purpose. But generally speaking, to fulfill a prophecy is to bring about in time and history what the prophetic writings predicted or spoke about.
So Jesus is NOT saying that His arrival makes the Law or the Prophets irrelevant. He’s not only come to validate the righteous commands of the Law are true, but to obey it in every respect. He’s come to be the true fulfillment of the Law, an example of perfect obedience to the Father’s commands that were given to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20).
The New Testament teaches that Jesus accomplished this perfect obedience.
For we do not have a high priest (Jesus) who is unable to sympathize with our weakenesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
So as Jesus was saying that He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets and understand its meaning, we must keep in mind that in the moment He’s saying this to His disciples, that obedience has not been fully accomplished. He’s in the process of doing it. Perfect obedience to the Law of God was on the way even as He spoke.
Jesus emphasizes the continued relevance of the Law and Prophets by telling His disciples, “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.” Notice that there are TWO time indicators in this passage, TWO DIFFERENT things to watch for that will indicate WHEN the Law of God is no longer relevant.
- “until heaven and earth pass away”
One way to take this phrase is to mean that that the Law of God will remain significant, at least, for all of human history. I make that qualification because we know from other passages that the day will come at the END of human history when heaven and earth will indeed pass away, destroyed by the hand of God (2 Peter 3:10-12). Jesus clearly knew this. He could be referring to it here.
But there’s another possibility that could be true in addition to this, and possibly even at the same time.
The phrase “until heaven and earth pass away” could be a colloquialism, understood in Jesus’ day to mean a something specific that His hearers would have understood. An example from our day would be “as sure as the sun rises in the morning.”
When we say this we don’t intend to say anything about the actual star we call the “sun” and the earth’s orbit around it which completes every 24 hours which gives the appearance of it “rising.” What we are saying when we use this phrase is that the thing we’re talking about is reliable. In other words, “You can count on it.” While it’s true that the orbit of the earth around the sun and its resultant 24-hour cycle might one day be disrupted by the hand of God, colloquialisms like this don’t speak to such things, they refer to what is normal and generally accepted by everyone.
This phrase, “until heaven and earth pass away” could have been a colloquialism in Jesus’ day. It could reasonably have meant, “it won’t happen.” From a human standpoint, apart from knowledge received through divine revelation that was still to come (2 Peter 3:10-12, Revelation 21:1), the continued existence of heavens and earth were a constant that everyone would have generally accepted.
Jesus’ point? Don’t count on the Law being irrelevant to you any time soon.
- “until all is accomplished”
This second time indicator has to do with the fulfillment of the Law and the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies… and perhaps a bit more. When Jesus says “until ALL is accomplished,” what does He mean by “all?”
He could be referring to the things He’s previously been talking about (the Law and Prophets). If we take this view, it would mean that the only circumstances in which the Law and the Prophets will no longer have the same degree of relevance to mankind are:
- once Jesus has fulfilled the Law through the perfect obedience mentioned previously (still to come at the time of this teaching), and…
- the prophecies about Him (or possibly even the future) are all fulfilled.
But this phrase could also mean even more than that… it IS the word “all” after all. 😊
The word “all” could be referring to everything God has been doing since the creation of the world, and that He continues to do into the future. If we understood it in this way, Jesus would be saying, “The Law and the Prophets remain relevant until the Father has accomplished everything He intends to accomplish in space-time history.”
The point Jesus is making… (my loose paraphrase)
“If you think that the Law and the Prophets are irrelevant now that I’ve shown up, don’t even think about it. Both will remain relevant in the Kingdom of heaven.”
UPHOLDING THE LAW’S HOLY STANDARD
At this point, Jesus directs His comments to their observance of the Law only, which could be because the fulfillment of the prophecies spoken of to this point were not within the disciple’s power. For this reason, they had no responsibility in regard to the prophecies except to believe them.
Jesus clearly intends His disciples to maintain a proper respect for the Law of God and the holiness which it conveys. He says, “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…” Notice His emphasis: even the commandments generally considered to be less important are to be valued as important. What does that say for the commandments generally seen to be “the big ones?” All of the commandments are to be valued and upheld, nothing “relaxed,” to use Jesus’ word.
This raises that tension between Law and grace again, doesn’t it? Something doesn’t feel right when we say what it sounds like Jesus is saying – “Christians need to obey all the Law of God.”
But IS that what He’s saying?
No doubt, He’s telling us (His disciples) that the standards and commands of the Law are still binding, still relevant, still vital to God and that we should not “relax” them one iota (another of Jesus’ words, used a bit differently here). In other words, the holy standards communicated through God’s Law are what every human being is held accountable to. That goes for Jews, non-Jews, heathens in the darkest jungles, city-dwellers and farmers in the United States of America… and Christians worldwide.
Bear with me all of you, “not under law but under grace” people (Romans 6:14)… I’m one of you… and we’re getting there. 😉
The point Jesus is making is that God has high standards of holiness and that everyone is required to meet them.
But we can’t, we KNOW we can’t. We can’t even make a decent attempt at it.
Jesus knows that and He wants us to FEEL our inability. He wants the truth of our helpless condition to work its way deep into our souls. Why? Because when we see our inability we are then able to look to Him for rescue.
So nobody who’s on the “Kingdom” side of things should ever be heard demeaning or lessening the standard of The Law or the significance of the Old Testament Prophets. Jesus says we are “least in the Kingdom of heaven” if we do so. We are in the Kingdom (through faith… and yes, we’re getting there), but we are not as “great” in the Kingdom of heaven as the next phrase says we could be… “but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of heaven.”
So, teaching the Law, as mentioned in that last quote, is one thing. But doing it, as mentioned there, is another, right? We just established that we CAN’T obey the Law of God, so what gives?
Jesus gives… Himself.
KINGDOM RIGHTEOUSNESS IS JESUS’ RIGHTEOUSNESS
In case you haven’t gotten the idea yet, Jesus is painting a picture of a righteous Kingdom that He came to initiate.
That means the citizens of that Kingdom (you and me) are righteous too. We are righteous through the gift of grace that Jesus has given to us (ahhhh… there it is!).
Earlier, I referred to Romans 6:4, which states…
For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under Law but under grace.
Though we, and all of humanity, are forever obligated to attain the righteous standard communicated in the Law of God, we are no longer “under” it if we have trusted Jesus to be our Savior. We are under a new Master, Jesus Christ, the righteous one. HE is our righteousness, the fulfillment of the Law on our behalf. Paul says it elsewhere, this way…
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith –
And again in Romans…
For God has done what the Law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
So back in Matthew…
When Jesus says that we will be “great” in the Kingdom of heaven if we do the Law and teach the Law, He’s holding up the impossible standard of the Law – prior to the cross – to accentuate the desperation we must recognize and admit in order to cast ourselves on the mercy of God.
Genuine Old Testament believers had long done that, believing God’s promises when they knew their own failure and sin all too well. But the Jewish way of things that had developed by Jesus’ day had turned the Law into a set of rules to obey in order to gain the favor of God, and had heaped loads of traditions on top of it to “help.”
So Jesus is pointing the disciples back to a place of desperation, making them ripe for the message of His gospel of grace that was soon to dawn on their understanding.
This is how and why He could say, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees (the most religious and ‘righteous’ people of their day), you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.”
So those who enter the Kingdom of heaven are those who are righteous. And nobody is righteous apart from trusting Jesus to make them righteous.
The Kingdom of Heaven Jesus was inaugerating would be a righteous Kingdom.
This means its citizens would have to be righteous as well.
Nobody could attain that righteousness, so Jesus did it FOR them — by absorbing God’s wrath, enduring their punishment, and imputing His righteousness to them… all through faith.
Those of us who have placed our trust in Jesus ARE Kingdom citizens. Now. We should be looking for ways to advance His Kingdom in our world.
Would you join me in this prayer?
Yahweh, You are gracious to help us understand our need, so that we can hunger for something better that only You can provide. In Jesus, we fall on Your mercy and avail ourselves of Your grace, knowing that only in Him can we be righteous enough to qualify as Kingdom citizens.
As Kingdom citizens, make us boldly confident to spread the message of what Jesus has done for us, so that others will see and accept Him as well. And enable us to be brave when it comes to pointing out the impossibility of entrance into Your Kingdom through human effort (observing any version of law), so we will tell people they are sinners (just like us), but that a Savior has come to rescue them from that sad state.
Advance YOUR KINGDOM through us as we pass on the good news of Jesus’ righteousness on our behalf.
Kingdom Insights (cumulative list)
The Kingdom of heaven/God was long anticipated by the Jewish people (and others)
Entrance into the Kingdom requires repentance
The entrance of the Kingdom brought the Messiah and judgment
The Kingdom began with the advent of Jesus and continues growing, even today
The Kingdom of heaven is characterized by humility and righteousness