Reflections on the New Testament: Matthew
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven,” Matt. 5:17-20, NKJV.
Herein Jesus identifies Himself as the fulfillment of the law. He also presents something of a riddle: He declares that whoever breaks even one small portion of the law shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. In saying this, He implies that such a person may be within the kingdom of heaven despite his/her crime, but in the following verse He declares that one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, who are blameless according to the law, in order for one to enter the kingdom of heaven. He then compares the letter of the law with the true spirit thereof, and, in so doing, clearly illustrates that the Pharisees’ “righteousness” does not even begin to approach God’s standard:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire,” Matt. 5:21-22.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” Matt. 5:28-28.
“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery,” Matt. 5:31-32.The point being made is that corrupt man is incapable of truly fulfilling God’s law or remotely approaching His perfect standard. Man cannot attain true righteousness through works: this is the whole premise of Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, and the explanation behind His previous statement: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” The LORD God demands perfection; the scribes and Pharisees aspired to an external, superficial perfection through the law, but could never overcome the natural imperfection of the human spirit. Indeed, Jesus illustrates through His descriptions of the complexity and deeper meanings of the law, that even that outward perfection is virtually unattainable for mortal man. Nevertheless, such is the lofty standard the LORD God sets for us. The closing statement of Jesus in this chapter is: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt.5:48)—far be it from us to perceive this as a commandment, as if we could, by our own might, be made perfect just as God is perfect! No, indeed! Rather, our Lord herein sets the tone for His redeeming work—for in His blood and by the Holy Spirit we are made perfect, and the law is fulfilled.