A Proper View of Scripture (Matt 5:17-20)
A Proper View of Scripture
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. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
How should believers view Scripture?
Many believers have different views about Scripture. Some believe it is just good suggestions that we should consider for our lives. Some believe that Scripture is trustworthy when it comes to the Gospel, but that it’s ethics no longer directly apply to our rapidly changing culture. Some believe it is fully God’s Word; while others believe it’s only partially God’s Word. Some believe it is full of errors and lacks authority; while others believe it is fully accurate and thus authoritative. What did Christ believe about Scripture?
When Christ said, I did not come to abolish the law and prophets, this was a common way to refer to whole Old Testament. Luke 16:16 uses it this way; it says, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.” As Christ taught about those who are truly part of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 5:3-16, some would have questioned if he was contradicting Scripture. Jewish teachers taught that people entered heaven by following the Mosaic law. Was Christ teaching a new way to be right with God and enter heaven? Was he getting rid of the Mosaic law and what the prophets taught? Christ discerns their questions and answers them; that is why he begins with, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets”. Christ corrects their thinking about his relationship to the Old Testament. In studying his view of the OT, we can discern a proper view of Scripture in general.
In addition, as we study these verses, it must be said these are considered some of the most difficult verses in Scripture to interpret. What does Christ mean by proclaiming that he did not come to abolish the law and prophets but fulfill them? What should be the believer’s relationship to the law? In addition, is there rank in heaven? In what ways are some called greatest and least in God’s kingdom? Finally, in what way must our righteousness surpass that of the Pharisees and scribes to enter the kingdom of heaven? This passage is filled with difficult questions.
In fact, godly believers have taken different sides on some of the topics that arise from this passage. However, as we study them, we must remember that God wants us to understand Scripture. It is our guide to obeying and following him. In addition, God has given us not only his Word but his Holy Spirit to help us in the process of interpretation. He has also given us other godly believers who have wrestled with the text before us.
As we study this text, we will consider Christ’s view of Scripture so it can inform ours.
Big Question: What was Christ’s view of the Old Testament? How should this affect the believers’ view of Scripture in general?
Believers Should Recognize Christ as the Fulfillment of Scripture
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.
Interpretation Question: In what ways did Christ fulfill the law and the prophets?
First, it is helpful to define some terms. For Jews, the term “Law” commonly referred to the 613 commands given to Israel in Exodus 20-31, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. They detailed ceremonial, civil, and moral laws. However, “Law” was sometimes used of only the Pentateuch—the first five books of the OT. At times, it was even used of the whole Old Testament (cf. John 10:34, 12:34). Also, the phrase “the Law and the Prophets,” as mentioned, was another way of referring to the entire Old Testament (cf. Matt 22:40, Lk 16:16). In addition, sometimes Jews would call the whole OT, “the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (cf. Lk 24:44).
Christ said he did not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill them. This is difficult because there is, obviously, some way in which he did abolish them. Believers are no longer under food laws, ceremonies, sabbath days, etc. (cf. Mk 7:19, Col 2:16-17). What did he mean by this controversial saying? It helps to understand that the word “fulfill” has the idea of completion, filling up, or accomplishing. Someone compared Christ’s relationship to the law to the destruction of an acorn. One can destroy an acorn in one of two ways: He can destroy the acorn by smashing it with a hammer, or by planting it in the ground so that it grows into an oak tree. Christ destroyed the law by the second way. He removed the acorn of the law by totally fulfilling it. In fact, he did this in such away where believers are no longer under the Old Testament law. Romans 10:4 says, “Christ is the culmination [or end] of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” Romans 6:14 says we are no longer under law but under grace.
In what ways did Christ fulfill the law and the prophets—the entire OT? There are many ways:
1. Christ fulfilled the OT by fulfilling its messianic predictions.
Beginning in Genesis 3:15, Scripture prophesies about the coming messiah. There was going to be a seed from the woman who would crush the head of the serpent. Many have seen this as the first prophecy of the virgin birth—there has only been one seed of a woman, everyone else has come from the seed of the man. A man born of a virgin would be bitten by Satan on the heal—a veiled prediction of Christ’s death on the cross—and the man would crush Satan’s head—which ultimately was Christ’s victory through his death and resurrection. From there prophecies continue: He would come through Abraham, through Jacob, through Judah, through David, and through Solomon. He would be born in Bethlehem, etc. When you read the Gospels, they detail how Christ fulfilled these messianic predictions. There are around sixty major prophecies—twenty-nine of them fulfilled on the day of his death.
2. Christ fulfilled the OT by fulfilling its types and shadows.
Colossians 2:16-17 said:
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
The food laws, the religious festivals, and the sabbath days were all shadows fulfilled in Christ. As shadows, aspects of Christ could be discerned from them which helped prepare people for the coming messiah. The Sabbath represented how Christ would be our rest. The Day of Atonement demonstrated how a perfect lamb would be a substitute for the people. When John saw Christ, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). The atonement lamb never removed people’s sins, that is why every year it had to be offered again. But after Christ, there is no longer a need to practice the Day of Atonement. Christ completed it. He perfectly fulfilled it (Matt 5:17).
In addition, Christ fulfilled many other types in the Old Testament, as seen in numerous narratives. Christ said he was the manna that came down from heaven. In the same way, God sent manna from heaven for Israel to eat, Christ said he was manna from heaven (John 6:32-35). When the Israelites were dying from snake bites, Moses called for them to look at a raised bronze snake and live. That was a picture of Christ on the cross and how those who believed in him would be saved (John 3:14). Christ is the last Adam (1 Cor 15:45). The first Adam willfully followed his wife into sin, but the last Adam died for his wife—the people of God—so that she might be saved. Christ fulfills not only the law, but the prophecies and the stories of the Old Testament. He is seen everywhere. In John 5:39, Jesus said, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.”
3. Christ fulfilled the OT by perfectly obeying God’s law.
Galatians 4:4 says that Christ was born under the law. In Matthew 3:15, at Christ’s baptism, he declared how he must fulfill all righteousness. Christ obeyed the 613 commands in the Mosaic law perfectly. This is why he can offer us his righteousness and take our sins because he was perfect (2 Cor 5:21). When going through the Gospels, it is important to understand that it was the misinterpretations of the law by the scribes and Pharisees that he didn’t obey—not the law itself.
4. Christ fulfilled the OT by paying the righteous demands of the law.
The requirement for disobeying God’s laws was death. Christ, though perfect, died for the sins of the world. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Because of Christ’s death, we can accept his sacrifice for sins, follow him as Lord and Savior, and be saved eternally (cf. John 3:16, Romans 10:9-13).
5. Christ fulfilled the OT by giving believers power to keep the righteous requirements of the law through the Spirit.
Romans 8:4 says, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” This was prophesied in the Old Testament; God would put his laws on our hearts and give us power through his Spirit to fulfill them. Ezekiel 36:27 says, “And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
Interpretation Question: If believers are not under the law anymore, in what way do we fulfill the righteous requirements of the law through the Spirit?
Romans 13:8-10 says,
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Similarly, Galatians 5:14 and 18 say, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ … But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
Though not called to practice food laws, sabbath days, etc., the Spirit, which Christ sent us, produces righteousness in our lives. The Spirit helps us put to death the misdeeds of the body (Rom 8:13) and helps us love God and others more (Gal 5:22-23). Christ fulfills the law by his Spirit working in us.
Finally, it should be added that Christ not only fulfills the OT but also the NT. He is the emphasis of the Gospels, as they reveal his life and teaching. The book of Acts describes his works through his apostles. The Epistles share his teaching through his apostles. And finally, the book of Revelation describes his wrath, second coming, and ultimate rule on the earth. Christ is the fulfillment and focus of the entire Scripture. We should recognize him as we study God’s Word and help reveal him, as we teach Scripture to others. We must have an entirely Christocentric view of Scripture.
Application Question: Why is it important to have a Christocentric view in studying and teaching Scripture—especially the OT? What symbol or shadow of Christ stands out most to you in the OT?
Believers Should Recognize the Perseverance and Authority of Scripture
For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
Interpretation Question: What does the smallest letter and the least stroke of a pen refer to?
When Christ referred to the smallest letter and the least stroke of pen, he was referring to specific aspects of the Hebrew letter system. The smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet is the “jot” or “yod.” The least stroke of a pen refers to a “tittle”, which is a small mark that serves to distinguish one letter from another. It is similar to way the bottom stroke of a capital E distinguishes it from a capital F. Jesus said the law would not pass away until heaven and earth pass away and everything is accomplished that was taught in the OT.
Interpretation Question: What does Christ’s comments about law in Matthew 5:18 teach about Christ’s view of Scripture?
1. Christ believed in the perseverance of Scripture.
Sometimes people make arguments that Scripture has been tampered with, specific books lost, and that the copies that we have are not correct. However, Christ taught that God would preserve Scripture even down to the tiniest letter and the least stroke of a pen. Peter said that “the word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Peter 1:25).
This is made clear by the all the attempts throughout history to stomp out God’s Word. It has endured constant criticism from both the science and history communities. It has endured manipulation from cults and false prophets. It has been burned and banned by kingdoms. And yet, it still endures today. It is the most copied, printed, translated, and sold book every year. In addition, from a historical reliability standpoint (i.e. the number of copies and the time interval from the originals), it is the most accurate ancient manuscript. In fact, it has more historical evidence than any ten ancient manuscripts combined. There is no book like it. God has preserved his Word. Christ prophesied this; the evidence supports it, and believers trust it.
2. Christ believed in the authority of Scripture.
In addition, Christ’s comment demonstrates that he believed in the literal inspiration of Scripture—that the exact words of Scripture, and even the letters, were chosen by God and not just the ideas. This important since some liberal theologians would argue against this today. They would say that you can’t trust what the Bible says about science or history—it’s the ideas that matter, not the details. However, Christ did not take that view. Every word of Scripture, even down to letter and least stroke of a pen, was important.
In fact, we see this in Christ’s discussion with the Sadducees in Matthew 22:30–32. The Sadducees were the liberal believers in Christ’s day; they did not believe in miracles, the resurrection, or even an afterlife. One day, they tested Christ on his belief of the resurrection. They concocted a scenario where a woman’s husband dies and then she marries his brother. The brother dies, and she marries another brother. He dies, she marries another, and so on, until the seventh died. Then she eventually died. “Basically, they argued that the idea of resurrection posed insuperable difficulties, hence it was not reasonable, therefore it was not true.” Then the Sadducees asked Christ, “At the resurrection whose wife will she be?” Look at how Christ responded in Matthew 22:30–32:
At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living. (emphasis mine)
Here, Christ’s argument rests on the tense of the word “am”. Essentially, Christ says, “Didn’t you notice that ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ was written in the present tense?” Christ was saying that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all still alive, and therefore, would one-day be resurrected. This confronted their lack of belief in the afterlife and the resurrection. It also challenged their liberal view of Scripture. Every word of Scripture has been chosen by God even down to the tense.
We can trust Scripture. It is authoritative even down to the tense and letters of words. Therefore, we can trust what Scripture says about science, history, life, death, and everything else. Scripture teaches its own inerrancy. Psalm 19:7-8 says, “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart.” Scripture is perfect, trustworthy, and right. Christ believed in the perseverance and authority of Scripture, and so must we.
Do you believe in everything Scripture teaches? It is trustworthy in what it teaches about God, creation, marriage, parenting, male and female roles, sin, righteousness, eternity, and itself?
Application Question: Why is the perseverance and authority of Scripture so important to the Christian faith? In what ways have many forsaken belief in the perseverance and authority of Scripture?
Believers Should Recognize that Eternal Reward Is Based on Our Response to Scripture
Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Observation Question: According to Matthew 5:19, what is the basis for reward and greatness in the kingdom of heaven?
In Matthew 5:19, Christ teaches something that is often very confusing to believers. He says that those who set aside the least of these commands and teach others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. And, those who practice God’s Word and teach others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
What is Christ referring to? It should be made clear—that this is not a salvation issue. Believers are not saved by teaching and obeying Scripture. It’s also not a loss of salvation issue (if that were possible), even the “least in the kingdom” are still part of the kingdom.
One of the things that Christ constantly teaches in the Sermon on the Mount is the reality of rewards in heaven. In Matthew 6, he teaches the disciples to not be like the Pharisees and scribes who did their righteous deeds to be seen by men. They have their reward, but they will not be rewarded by the Father. Furthermore, in Matthew 6:19, he challenges the disciples to store up riches in heaven and not on earth. Reward seems to refer to both rulership and opportunities to serve in heaven. In the Parable of the Minas, the faithful servants are rewarded with cities to rule over (Lk 19:16-19). Those who are great in heaven will have more opportunities to rule with Christ and serve God and others.
Though salvation is not based on works, reward or loss of reward is. Second John 8 says, “Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully.” These works specifically have to do with our teaching and obeying of God’s Word. This is important to hear because often Christians think that only pastors are called to teach God’s Word. This is not true. In the Great Commission, God calls all believers to make disciples of all nations—teaching them everything that Christ commanded (Matt 28:19-20). All believers are called to teach God’s Word to others. We should share the Gospel with the lost. We should teach other believers how to grow in Christ. Parents should teach their children (Eph 6:4); older women should teach younger women (Titus 2:3-4); husbands are called to teach their wives (Eph 5:25-26). We are all called to study and teach God’s Word to all.
Since it is possible for us to teach others to disobey God’s Word, interpretation is very important. If we misinterpret Scripture, we can lead others astray. Second Timothy 2:15 says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” Who will God approve? Those who work hard at studying Scripture in order to correctly handle the truth. Laziness and bad interpretation will lead to lack of approval and lack of reward. There will be many in heaven with good intentions but harmful hermeneutics—the study of interpreting Scripture—which led others astray.
But it is not just our teaching that matters, our obedience matters as well. Paul said this to Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16). If we have correct doctrine, but don’t practice it, we will harm not only ourselves but those who watch and listen to us. Reward in heaven will be based on what we do with God’s Word. John MacArthur’s comment are helpful:
Greatness is not determined by gifts, success, popularity, reputation, or size of ministry-but by a believer’s view of Scripture as revealed in his life and teaching.
Jesus’ promise is not simply to great teachers such as Paul-or Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, or Spurgeon. His promise applies to every believer who teaches others to obey God’s Word by faithfully, carefully, and lovingly living by and speaking of that Word. Every believer does not have the gift of teaching the deep doctrines of Scripture, but every believer is called and is able to teach the right attitude toward it.
Are you faithfully studying and teaching God’s Word to others? Sadly, many believers simply don’t care what it says. They think as long as they know the Gospel and love God and others, that’s all that matters. Some might even declare that doctrine is dangerous because it divides. However, God has called us to study his Word and teach it to all, as we disciple them. Unfaithful Christians neglect studying God’s Word, and that reality will be displayed in their lack of reward from God in heaven. First Corinthians 3:15 talks about some Christians getting into heaven as escaping the fire—there will be no rewards for them.
Are you teaching and obeying God’s Word? Those who are faithful, God will reward. Those who aren’t, will experience loss of reward.
Application Question: What makes the doctrine of reward in heaven so controversial—some really struggle with this doctrine? Why is it important? Are you motivated by reward? Why or why not?
Believers Should Recognize that to Enter Heaven, Our Righteousness Must Conform to Scripture
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Interpretation Question: In what way must a believer’s righteousness surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law to get into heaven?
This comment would have been startling to the Jews listening. Pharisees and teachers of the law (or scribes) were considered the most righteous people in Israel. “The Jews had a saying, ‘If only two people go to heaven, one will be a scribe and the other a Pharisee.’” The Jews would have thought, “If they can’t get into heaven, how can we?”
What did Christ mean by needing a greater righteousness to enter heaven?
1. Christ meant to show that man’s righteousness can never earn salvation and that imputed righteousness is needed.
The Jews believed that studying the law and practicing its righteousness led to being accepted by God and entering heaven. However, the law was never meant to save. It was meant to show how people were sinful and in need of the Savior. Romans 3:20 says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” According to the law, the consequence of one sin is death—separation from God eternally (Rom 6:23). Even the Pharisees and scribes were not righteous enough to get into heaven—they had fallen short of God’s glory and were under God’s judgment just like everybody else. Therefore, how can people secure a greater righteousness and be saved?
Romans 3:21-22 says,
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.
Christ lived the perfect life that people could never live. Though he never sinned, he died on the cross for our sins. When he died on the cross, he took our sin and gave us perfect righteousness (2 Cor 5:21). This was the righteousness that Christ was calling the Jews to accept. It is only applied to those who believe in and follow Christ—they believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died, was buried, and resurrected for our sins.
Have you believed in Christ and therefore been made right for heaven?
2. Christ meant to show that only those who practice true righteousness, as fostered by the Spirit, are really saved.
The Pharisees and scribes loosened the demands of God’s law by teaching the need to only practice outward righteousness. They taught if one had not murdered or committed adultery, he had kept the law. These were called the traditions of the elders. But Christ corrects this laxing of the law. He said that anyone who has been angry or lusted had broken the laws of murder and adultery. The Pharisees had never been given God’s Spirit so they could not practice true righteousness which was both internal and external. Christ called them whitewashed tombs—pretty on the outside but dead bones on the inside (Matt 23:27).
In addition, the Pharisees and scribes also changed many of God’s commands. In Matthew 5:43, Christ said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Love your neighbor came from Leviticus, but hate your enemy was an addition—something that Scripture never taught. The Pharisees and scribes again loosened the demands of God’s law by saying that people did not need to love their enemy. However, Christ taught what the law truly demanded—to even love one’s enemies and to in fact bless them.
When Christ taught that those who are part of the kingdom of heaven are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers (Matt 5:3-9), he was outlining the supernatural changes in the life of true believers. In the New Covenant, God gives believers new hearts, he writes his laws on them, and gives them the Holy Spirit in order to obey these laws. This is what the Pharisees did not have, and therefore, were not truly born again. True believers have a greater righteousness because it is both internal and external.
This is important to emphasize. Though we are saved by faith alone (cf. Eph 2:8-9), true faith is never alone. It always produces righteousness (cf. James 2, Eph 2:10). It will be a greater righteousness than that of Pharisees and scribes because it comes from a right heart that obeys God’s Word.
This will be a predominant theme throughout the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Christ will continue to describe the character and righteousness of those in his kingdom. Are you part of his kingdom? We must have Christ’s imputed righteousness which comes through faith. But we also must have righteousness that conforms to God’s Word—proving our faith.
Application Question: What is the difference, theologically speaking, between works being the root of salvation and works being the fruit of it? Why is righteousness so important as a proof of true salvation (cf. James 2)? In what ways have you experienced the fruit of salvation—a changing life?
How should believers view Scripture? This is important because our view of Scripture matters. It has eternal consequences—affecting salvation or reward in heaven.
1. Believers Should Recognize Christ as the Fulfillment of Scripture
2. Believers Should Recognize the Perseverance and Authority of Scripture
3. Believers Should Recognize that Eternal Reward Is Based on Our Faithfulness to Scripture
4. Believers Should Recognize that to Enter Heaven, Our Righteousness Must Conform to Scripture
Pray for us to love God’s Word, to trust it, to meditate on it, obey it, and to teach it to others
Pray for missionaries, pastors, and teachers to faithfully proclaim to all and for governments leaders to honor and obey it
Pray for Got to protect us and our churches from false teaching and the disobedience that stems from it