Matthew 5:17-20 “The Fulfillment of the Law”
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 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. 19 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. 20 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.
Today’s passage from Matthew chapter five is a bit of a challenging one. There is much debate as to exactly what Jesus is trying to say here. I think that to better understand Jesus, we need to look at a number of things that Jesus did throughout his lifetime and some of his other teachings to gain additional insight. But perhaps one of the most important things to understanding a passage is to look at the context in which something was said.
When I think of Judaism, I often think of it as a united religion. Judaism isn’t nearly as fractured as Protestant Christianity is with our 1,000’s of denominations which come about every time we disagree on even the smallest thing. But Judaism is not as united as we might think. And that was the case in Jesus’ day as well.
In the early part of the 1st century, right around the time when Jesus was born, there were two main different schools of thought emerging within Judaism. Each of these schools was led by a learned and educated rabi. One was named Shammai and the other rabi was named Hillel. If you were a disciple of Shammai, you were said to have been of the House of Shammai. If you were a disciple of Hillel, you were said to have been of the House of Hillel. These two schools of discipleship still exist today.
When a Jewish boy was growing up, he would submit himself to studying the Torah under a learned rabi. If you read through the book of Acts, you find that the Apostle Paul studied under Gamaliel. Gamaliel was the grandson of Shammai, and Gamaliel took over his grandfather’s teaching position when Shammai passed away.
In verse 17 Jesus says to those that are gathered around him, “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.” The thing we need to first ask ourselves is why did Jesus feel that it was necessary to say “Do not think…”? Evidently people were wondering if he was planning to throw out the Law and the Prophets.
What I believe the people were questioning was, Are you a disciple of Shammai or are you a disciple of Hillel? Shammai was considered to be the more conservative interpreter of the Hebrew Bible and Hillel was considered to be the more liberal interpreter. One of the famous arguments between these men had to do with telling white lies. The question was asked if it was wrong to tell a bride on her wedding day that she was beautiful if she was indeed not attractive at all. Shammai, being the more conservative interpreter, said that it would be wrong to tell the ugly bride that she looked beautiful. Hillel said that every bride is beautiful on her wedding day and that therefore it would not be wrong to tell an ugly bride that she looked beautiful on her wedding day.
So Jesus has just begun his ministry and he is gaining quite a following. Then he launches into the Beatitudes and shakes things up from the very beginning, turning all knowledge and understanding upside down. He then says that those who are gathered there for his Sermon on the Mount are the salt and the light of the world. So I believe that someone probably asked Jesus in the middle of his sermon, “Are you abolishing the Law and the Prophets? Are you one of those liberal followers of Hillel or are you a conservative follower of Shammai like us?”
The word that we translate as “abolish” is the Greek word kataluo. Kataluo is used three other times in the book of Matthew, each time it is used in reference to tearing down or destroying the temple. Matthew 26:61 is an example where in accusing Jesus it is said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” Kataluo literally means to tear down or destroy.
So Jesus is plainly stating that his goal is not to come in and tear down the Law and destroy the Prophets. He pretty much rejects the two choices that have been provided; liberal or conservative. He isn’t there to throw out the law and the prophets and he isn’t there to strictly enforce the laws and the prophets without first looking at their purpose. His goal is to fulfill the law and the prophets, or literally to fill them up.
My one-year-old son has an interesting wooden toy. When it is stripped of all of its removable parts all that is left are three separate cars that can be linked together. Each of the three separate cars has two dowel rods that run vertically from the flat surface of the car. So really I could say that they are three small surfboard-shaped pieces of wood with four wheels and two vertical dowel rods each with an additional, smaller dowel that is used to hook the cars together.
This as a toy provides a little entertainment. It can be rolled around on the floor and hooked and unhooked again. However, though this series of cars does provide some entertainment, which is the purpose of a toy (who needs educational toysJ), it better serves its purpose when those dowels are built upon.
With this toy we received a number of colored blocks. Red, green, blue, and yellow blocks of various shapes and sizes. Now these blocks also provide a bit of entertainment. They can be stacked, they can be rolled around. If you use your imagination, you can build something that resembles something else out of the blocks. But when you build something out of these blocks, they can very easily be knocked over, especially because some of these blocks are round. They simply roll out from underneath one another.
However, when you put the blocks together in a certain order on the dowels that are attached to the three individual cars, they clearly make something else altogether. They form a train.
I believe that this toy train is a good illustration of how Jesus viewed the Law and the Prophets. Jesus believed that the Law and the Prophets were essential to what he was doing and what he was teaching. Jesus knew that if he were to try to establish some knew teaching with new rules and with no regard whatsoever to the Law and the Prophets, they would tumble over like the blocks without the structure of the train cars and dowels underneath. Jesus did not come to tear down and destroy the Law and the Prophets. He did not come to take away the cars with the dowels that are used to support and stabilize the blocks. No, Jesus came to fill the dowels up. He came to fulfill them by revealing the purpose of those dowels, the purpose of the Law and the Prophets.
As we work our way through the Sermon on the Mount, we will be hearing small pieces of Jesus’ message broken up each week so that we can take the time to reflect on his words and really try to get at the point that Jesus is trying to make. However, I feel that it is also important to remember that Jesus did not just stand up one day and speak Matthew 5:17-20 and then stand up the next week and deliver Matthew 5:21-26 and then the next week…until he finished these three chapters. This was one seamless message. So we also need to remember what came before and what came after today’s scripture. And immediately after our passage for today Jesus begins to discuss what we often refer to as the Six Antithesis. Jesus will say, “You have heard that it was said…but I say unto you.” In each of these antitheses, Jesus isn’t saying that the old teachings, which would have come from the Torah or the Prophets are wrong or incorrect. He is saying, Let’s take this timeless teaching, and let’s build upon it. Let’s do it a little bit better.
You have heard it said that you should not murder. Jesus doesn’t come in and say that it is now okay to murder. What he says is that the teaching on not murdering is the framework of God’s perfect will. And God’s will is that we not even be angry at one another. Without that framework, Jesus’ teachings might topple over like the blocks that came with my son’s train. When you place the new teachings on their proper framework, they become solid, effective, and able to better fulfill their intended use, which is God’s good and perfect will.
When it seems like Jesus is tearing down the Law, what he really is doing is tearing down what the Pharisees and other religious leaders of his day had made the Law into. These were often the followers of Shammai who not only literally interpreted the laws, they made up a few as well. But Jesus comes along and says, You are missing the point of some of these commandments.
The dietary laws are an example of the OT commandments where some people just totally seemed to have missed the point. Some scholars have hypothesized that the dietary laws were intended to protect the Jews from illnesses and diseases that would have been present in their days, such as trichinosis in pork. Others have said that these dietary laws were intended to keep the Jews from falling into practices that were common in other religions, which could have included worship of swine, shellfish, and so on. Some of the commandments were intended so that the Jews would not forget to care for the poor and the widows around them. That is why they were not to glean the corners of their fields, so that the less fortunate around them could have something to eat. They were to not mix two kinds of cloth together so that they wouldn’t cheat each other, thinking that a piece of cloth was made of pure cotton rather than a poly-cotton blend. The Year of Jubilee was established so that those who were in great debt could have a fresh start. The Sabbath year, where no crops were to have been planted, provided a year for the land to replenish itself and be more productive the following years.
The commandments found in the Old Testament had a purpose. And Jesus upheld the purpose of these commandments. These same basic principles apply today and they always will. We need to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, and strength. And we need to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is timeless, and Jesus didn’t come to abolish, tear down, or destroy these commandments. He came to fill them up, to fulfill them, to give these structures some form. And I think that when we look at Jesus’ life and teachings that we see he is time and time again affirming the purpose of the commandments. What he doesn’t affirm is the way that the religious leaders have interpreted the commandments and lost sight of their purpose.
If you live in the Shenandoah Valley, you know that we had a beautiful week. Wednesday afternoon and into Thursday morning we had quite the snow, with Staunton’s official 24 hour snowfall being recorded as 8.2 inches. And if you have eyes to see, you know that when we get that big, fluffy covering of snow that it…is…gorgeous in the Valley. Snow covered mountains, white pine trees, and even the asphalt on the roads is covered with a lovely snow.
Of course when it snows, it means that we need to dig ourselves out. I don’t mind doing a little shoveling every now and then. It was a light snow, so it shoveled pretty easy. And I received a big help in clearing my driveway. But by the time I got around to shoveling the sidewalk on Thursday morning, things weren’t quite the same as they had been just a few hours earlier.
The first vehicles out on the road are the big four-wheel-drives. Some of these trucks move up and down our road pretty quickly. We live on a pretty well-traveled road and it is not necessarily a real clean road. So as the snow begins to melt and some of the grime that is left on the road begins to mix into the snow, it turns into a slushy mess. The oils and soot from the hundreds of cars that drive up and down Spring Hill Rd. on a daily basis forms something that only vaguely resembles the beautiful snow that was there just a few hours earlier.
So I am standing out by the road, shoveling off the sidewalk, and that is when the big, jacked-up, four-wheel-drive vehicle comes barreling down our slush-covered road. Now the speed limit on our road is 25 mph. But on a day when most cars are staying off the roads, the driver of this particular Jeep seemed to think that the speed limit was intended for someone else.
Had this individual driven down the road a few hours earlier, he would have driven through the light fluffy snow. However, now he was driving through the grey, slushy remnants of what was once something beautiful. And those 18” rims with mud tires do a really good job of displacing that slushy mess, which is another way of saying that I and anyone else standing within five feet of the road were now splattered with this slush.
My friends, the Law and the Prophets, the Old Testament scriptures, these things are beautiful; beautiful like the fresh snow that falls to the earth. In its intended state, it is lovely. But then the dirt and the grime, the oil and the soot, and the four-wheel-drive vehicles of this world come in and they contaminate the beauty and make it something a lot less beautiful.
Time and time again throughout the New Testament, we find Jesus being confronted by the religious leaders for not keeping the law or some abstract interpretation of the law. One of the things that Jesus does very readily is to violate what was considered to be the Sabbath laws. The seventh day was given as a day of rest and if you did more than what the religious leaders thought was appropriate, they could have you arrested or worse.
Jesus was known to heal people on the Sabbath, and the leaders took offense to that. And Jesus is just kind of like, Where does it say in the Bible that we can’t do good on the Sabbath? During one instance, Jesus and his disciples are wandering along a path beside a field of grain. They got hungry, so they plucked a few heads of wheat, which was lawful, and they ate the grains. The Pharisees interpret this as working on the Sabbath, and the accusations start to fly. And Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not the other way around.” Jesus never denies the proper place of the law and the prophets. What he takes issue with is the religious leaders’ interpretation of the law and the prophets.
Aren’t we glad that religious people don’t extrapolate the law today? Aren’t we glad that people don’t take the beautiful, life-giving laws and teachings of the Bible and turn it into something much more ugly than what God intended it to be? I am, of course, being a little sarcastic.
I recently heard a pastor tell a story about his trip to the Holy Lands and his time in Jewish Israel. He was talking about all of the restrictions about clothes and how they couldn’t wear shorts in certain places and they had to cover their heads in other places, all because of the religious laws that were in place. But the thing that I remember best is that he spoke about the elevators in Israel.
He entered into a building on a Saturday, which would be the Jewish Sabbath day. And this elevator was the slowest elevator that he had ever been on. It was slow because it was stopping on every floor of this tall building. So he asked someone why this elevator was stopping on every floor and he was told that this was a Sabbath elevator. It stops on every floor so that the people getting on, riding, and getting off the elevator wouldn’t have to push any buttons. Why wouldn’t they want to push the buttons? Because that would be working on the Sabbath. So rather than sinning and pushing the button, the Sabbath elevator was programmed to stop and open its doors on every floor to let people get on and off the elevator.
I don’t mean to make fun of anyone or any religion, but sometimes people just make it too easyJ. But in reality, it can be quite sad when people add to the law, make up rules and commandments, and just totally misrepresent the spirit of what God is trying to communicate. We heap up rule upon rule until people can’t stand under the weight and then fail to even offer a helping hand. I invite us all to consider how we have become Pharisees in our interpretation of the law, the prophets, and the gospel. Have we taken the beautiful teachings of Jesus and presented them to others as he intended? Or have we tarnished them, soiled them, and made them something that only vaguely resembles what God had intended?
Jesus did not come to abolish, tear down, or destroy the teachings of the Old Testament. No, he came to illustrate the true meaning of those laws, he came to fulfill them. The laws provide the structure for Jesus’ teachings and life examples. Together they show us the way God intended for His people to live the abundant life.