Fulfilling the Law

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

September 27, 1998

Fulfilling the Law

Matthew 5:17-20

The issue of personal righteousness is a matter that should be of great concern to all Christians. It was certainly the concern of the Jews of Jesus’ time. They knew that in order to be in relationship to God and expect Him to treat them with favor. They had to live righteously. The religious leaders believed that they had achieved righteousness through either their careful keeping of traditions (the Pharisees) or their diligent study of the Scriptures (the Scribes). Most everyone else knew they were not living up to the righteousness demanded by the Law of Moses and were hoping Messiah would soon come and change things. That is one of the reasons that Jesus so quickly attracted the attention of both the religious leaders and the people.

Jesus was different from everyone else. He was not associated with any of the religious sect of His time. He was not a Pharisee and did not hold to their traditions, yet He talked about living in holiness. He was not a Scribe, yet He was extremely capable with the Scriptures and could quote freely from both the Law and the Prophets. Jesus was not a Zealot (they were seeking to overturn Roman rule), yet He kept saying that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Jesus came from an area of the country that was looked down upon – a common phrase was that nothing good could come Galilee of the Gentiles. They were considered backward and uneducated country bumpkins. Yet, Jesus even at 12 years old was found in the temple amazing the teachers there with his understanding and His answers to their questions (Lk 2:46,47).

The question that was on the mind of everyone was “could this be the Messiah?” The religious leaders wondered when Jesus would overthrow Rome and set up His kingdom – if indeed He was the Messiah. But they already had their doubts because He did not come from any their schools. (We still have the same thing today. The most often asked question I get from other pastor’s, and often one of the first, is where did I go to school. It is a quick way to put me in a category according to whether they like that school or not). Because Jesus did not follow their traditions or interpret the Scriptures the way they did, they also seriously questioned whether He was obedient to the Law of Moses. For how could a man be righteous, let alone the Messiah, if he did not obey the Law of Moses. The common people chaffed under the traditions set up by the Scribes and Pharisees. They were hoping that Jesus was the Messiah and that He change the law so that they could be righteous – this according to a common perception that the Messiah would overturn the Law of Moses and set up a new standard based on Jeremiah’s prediction of a new covenant.

In the section of the Sermon on the Mount (5:17-20) we will be examining today, we find that Jesus anticipates the question that is on the minds of the people and He addresses both His relationship to Scripture and the nature of true righteousness.

Follow with me as I read Matthew 5:17-20

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teachers others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus & Scripture

Notice first that Jesus starts out by saying, “Do not think I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets.” He knows what they are thinking and seeks to correct the question in their minds even before it is asked. Jesus did not come to abolish – destroy, overthrow, nullify – the Old Testament Scriptures. The phrase “the Law and the Prophets” is used in many places in the N.T. (Matt. 7:12;11:13; 22:40; Lk 16:15; Jn 1:45; Acts 13:15; 28:23), and it simply refers to the Old Testament scriptures. The Law referring to the Pentateuch – the writings of Moses, and the Prophets referring to all that was said or recorded by the Prophets – the rest of the Old Testament. Though He rejected both the rabbinic interpretations and the practice of their traditions, Jesus was in no way doing away with the Law or even regulating it to minor importance. He flatly contradicts the idea that He would set up a new Law and hence a new standard of righteousness.

Jesus says here very plainly, “I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” In a few moments we will talk about what Jesus meant by fulfilling the law, but note here first that Jesus is saying that what He teaches is in complete harmony with the Law. Look at verse 18 where He says, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.”

Jesus believed the O.T. to the smallest letter (literally an iota) and the stoke of a letter (a tittle or serif – like the little extensions that distinguish a “t” from an “i”. There are those that say they believe and follow Jesus and yet they also either rejecting or ignore the O.T. They say “Jesus was a good teacher, but that the Scriptures are just a collection of the thoughts and beliefs of men about God. You can pick and choose according to your wish what you want to believe and what you don’t.” Such a thought is not only inconsistent, but absurd considering what Jesus taught and believed Himself. It is impossible to believe that Jesus spoke the truth and is worthy to follow as a “good teacher” and yet ignore the fact that Jesus Himself believed the Scriptures to be true. If Jesus is not true on this point, on what basis can it be said that He was true on any other. If you say that Jesus was a good teacher worthy to follow, then you will also have to believe what He did about the Bible.

Jesus held to the six day creation account recorded in Genesis (Mk 13:19, Mt 19:4), the destruction of the world by a flood during the days of Noah and that Noah & his family were the only humans saved from the flood through the ark (Lk 17:27), in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire and brimstone raining down from heaven on those wicked cities (Lk 17:28,29), in Jonah the prophet surviving three days in the belly of a great fish (Mt 12:40), in a real heaven – the dwelling place of God (Jn 3:13; 14:1-3; Mt 25:34) and a real hell – a place of eternal punishment (Mt 25:41,46). Jesus quoted from every book of Moses and extensively from the Psalms as well as from Isaiah, Daniel and several of the Minor Prophets. Jesus held to the Scriptures in such detail that in Matthew 22:32 his argument against the Sadducees denial of the resurrection was based on the verb tense used in Ex. 3:16 that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob. (Present tense “is” as opposed to past tense “was”).

To say that you are a follower of Jesus – or even that you believe He was a good teacher and reject the validity of the O.T. is foolishness. If the O.T. is not true, then Jesus was not a good teacher and is not worthy to follow.

Jesus’ affirmation here in verse 18 is that “truly” not even the smallest part of the O.T. will even pass away until all is accomplished. To the people Jesus was speaking to at the time, they would have to continue to keep every aspect of the Law and the Prophets until all was accomplished. Verse 19 adding that to do less would lower your standing so that you would be the least in the kingdom of heaven. But we live in a period of time after Jesus had fulfilled and accomplished all the Law. Jesus has already cried out on the cross, it is finished, so we need to understand how the Law has been fulfilled and accomplished.


The Law was broken down into three types. Judicial – governing the actions and behavior of the nation of Israel. The Ceremonial – governing the means by which God was to be worshiped and man was to be made right before Him. And the Moral – governing the principles God wanted all men to live by in relationship to Himself and with one another. Jesus fulfilled all three categories of the Law.

To fulfill does not means to complete as in filling out its meaning or to complete as in bringing it to an end. Some have interpreted this verse to mean that Jesus brought out all the meaning of the O.T. and thus completed it. But the O.T. was already complete and all that God wanted it to be. Jesus fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets in the sense He accomplished all that it said – He lived according to all its directives, completed its prophecies and accomplished its purposes. He fulfilled the O.T. by both teaching and exemplifying it, and by being its fulfillment.


First of all, Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial laws which governed Israel’s form of worship. Jesus said the ceremonial law would continue until all was accomplished – and Jesus fulfilled it and accomplished all that it contained. All the various aspects of worship were types of what Christ would be and do. The book of Hebrews brings this out more than any other book. For example, look at Hebrews 9:11-12, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” Drop down to 10:9-12 “then He said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Thy will.’ He takes away the first in order to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time more sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God.” Verse 19-25 tells us that because of Jesus’ sacrifice on calvary and because He is the great priest we can come to the house of God and “draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed clean with pure water.”

Jesus fulfills and has become the high priest putting to an end the Aaronic priesthood. Aaron entered an earthly tabernacle, but Christ an heavenly one. Aaron’s ministry was repeated over and over, but Christ’s perfect sacrifice was once for all. Aaron went beyond the veil to enter the Holy of Holies. Christ tore the veil in two and allows us to enter with Him.

Both the Tabernacle and Temple had a door, and altar and a laver. But Jesus is the door, the altar and He Himself cleanses us from sin. There were lamps that had to be continually refilled, but Jesus is the light of the world that shines eternally. There was the show bread that had to be continually replaced, but Jesus is the bread of life. The incense had to be replenished, but Jesus’ own prayers ascend for those that are His. They had a mercy seat, but Jesus is the mercy seat.

All the offerings were also fulfilled in their totality in Christ. The burnt offering spoke of the dedication of the individual, but Jesus only did the will of His Father. The grain offering spoke of fellowship, but Jesus is one with the Father and brings us into fellowship with Him. The peace offering pales before Christ who is our peace. The sin and trespass offerings spoke of the substitution needed for the payment of sin, and Jesus is our substitute and paid for all our sin with His own blood.

Even the various feasts are completely fulfilled by Christ: Passover, unleavened bread, first fruits and the feast of Tabernacle. Jesus is our Passover, He is perfectly holy and imparts His righteousness to us, He is the first fruit of the resurrection of from the dead, and He will gather us to Himself.

The ceremonial law ended because it was completely fulfilled – all was accomplished. And with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. the laws concerning Temple worship and the sacrifice could no longer be fulfilled.


Second, Jesus fulfilled the judicial law – the special standards that separated the nation of Israel from all other nations and marked them as God’s chosen people. These were laws relating to agriculture, diet, dress, cleanliness, resolving disputes, etc. Jesus kept all these laws perfectly. He did not keep the Pharisees expansions of them that made up a lot of rabbinic tradition, but He performed perfectly everything required by God in this area.


Jesus also fulfilled the moral law by His perfect righteousness. Again He did not keep the rabbinic traditions that expanded the common understanding of the law (i.e., no work on the Sabbath with detailed descriptions of what was and was not “work”). But Jesus perfectly obeyed all of the directives God made through the Law so that Hebrews tells us that even though Jesus has been “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).


Does the fact that Jesus fulfilled and accomplished the Law and the prophets mean that we are now without law? The answer is yes and no. The ceremonial and aspects of the law are no longer applicable because they have been fulfilled. As already mentioned from Hebrews, Jesus has made the final sacrifice for sin once for all. The laws concerning animal sacrifices are made void by Jesus’ atoning death. In fact to make an animal sacrifice for sin now would to be to repudiate the sacrifice of Christ. Paul makes it clear several places in that the ceremonial laws no longer need to be kept. In Col. 2:16 for example, Paul says, Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day – things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.”

The judicial law has also been done away with. With the establishing of the church, God grafted gentiles into the group that he would call “his people” and has set them apart from other people by personal holiness rather the keeping of such things as dietary laws, dress codes, etc. The judicial law was never meant for Christians. In Acts 15 the counsel of Jerusalem rejected the demand from some of the believing Pharisees that the gentiles would have to be circumcised and directed to obey the Law of Moses and even called the law a “burden” and a “yoke which neither [their] fathers or [they were] able to bear.”

There are those that would have you believe that all of the Law has been made null and void. Sometimes the emphasis on salvation coming by God’s wonderful grace is made to the exclusion of the law, and Romans 6:14 is quoted saying, “We are not under law, but grace,” to prove the point. We must be careful or we may forget that salvation has never been through the law, but has always come to man by God grace through faith in God’s mercy. The law of Moses was written 400+ years after Abraham was declared righteous because of his faith in God.

The ceremonial and the judicial aspects of the law are nullified, but the moral aspects are as valid as ever in two ways.

First, the moral law brings about the knowledge of sin. In Romans 3 Paul explains that though all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, justification comes as a gift by His grace through the redemption which in Christ Jesus through faith in Him. In verse 28 he says, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Man cannot be saved through the Law, but the law is still valid and important. In verse 31 Paul states this about the Law – “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the law.” Paul adds in Romans 7:12 that the “Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” And in verse 14 he adds, “the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” The purpose of the moral Law is to establish every person as guilty before God. As Paul says in Rom. 7:7 – I would not have come to know sin except through the Law. God’s standards of righteousness are stated in the moral law and our failure to live according them brings conviction of personal sinfulness. As Paul says in Gal 3:24 the Law was to be our tutor to lead us to Christ that we could be justified by faith. It is the Law that makes us aware of our need for Christ’s forgiveness and salvation from sin and its consequences.

Second, the moral law is found in the New Testament “law of Christ” that Christians are bound to keep. These are the commands given by both Jesus Himself and His apostles that we are obligated to obey. We do not receive salvation by obeying them, but our obedience demonstrates our love for Christ – which is exactly what Jesus said in John 14:21, “He who has my commands and keeps them, He is the one that loves Me . . . “ Verses 22,23 adding, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but My Father’s.”

1 Cor 9:21 makes it clear we are under a New Testament Law. Paul is talking about “being all things to all men” and that even to those “who are without the law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law.” 1 John 3:4 even defines sin as, “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.”

The Lord has given us commands in the New Testament concerning our ceremonies in worship of Him – Lord’s Supper/Communion; Jn 13; 1 Cor 11; Baptism – Mt. 28:20. We also have laws concerning relationship to authority – i.e. Taxes – Matt 22:21; Rom 13:7, submission to government – Rom 13:1. And there are laws concerning our moral conduct which are summed up in Matt. 22 as loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. James 2:8 calls this summary law the “royal law.”

Let us remember that the contention between grace and the law is not over its existence or even our subjection to it. It is over the fact that salvation comes by grace, not obedience to the law. One other major difference is that under the new covenant which we have with God through Jesus Christ we also have the Holy Spirit in our hearts who guides us in God’s commands. It is no longer an outward conformity to a list of standards that have to be met, but an inward desire to please, obey and serve God from the heart.

That brings us to our final point.


True righteousness is from the heart. It has always been this way – even in the Mosaic Law. I pointed out passages before about this. Dt. 10:12,13 is a good example, “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the LORD’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?”

The Scribes and Pharisees had traded true righteousness that comes from the heart for the outward facade of self-righteousness that comes with religion. That is why Jesus says in verse 20, I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” If you want to enter into the kingdom of heaven – to be saved – then you have more than the outward righteousness of religion of which the scribes and pharisees are classic examples.

We find that Jesus consistently had compassion on sinners, but condemnation on those who were self-righteous. The classic example of this is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:9-14. “And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner! I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”

The Pharisee did not go to seek God much less worship Him. His only concern was his self proclamation of how good he thought he was. Look up Matthew 23 and see Jesus further exposure of their hearts and the seven woes He pronounces upon them.

We must be careful ourselves that we do not become like the Pharisees for the trap they were in is easy to fall into. When we set the standards of right and wrong rather than scripture – even out of the desire to “protect” ourselves or our children we have made the first step toward the legalism of the pharisees. We trade in God’s commandments for man’s short sighted wisdom. And whenever we start thinking that we are good because of the things we do, or begin to look down at other people and think we are too good to associate with them, then we had better do a thorough examination of our hearts and repent.

Justification and righteousness only come from God and only to those who come humbly asking for mercy. The tax-gatherer displays the first characteristic of true righteousness beautifully in that he was poor in spirit. He knew without doubt that he was a sinner and had to cry out to God for mercy.

After spending three months in the Beatitudes I hope that everyone here clearly understands both the nature of and the characteristics that display true righteousness. True righteousness is displayed in the character qualities found in the beatitudes – Poor in Spirit, Mournful, Meek, Hungering and thirsting after righteousness, Merciful, Pure in heart, Biblical Peacemakers; Suffering persecution and false accusation for the name of Christ. People with those characteristics are the salt of the earth and they are the light of the world. The heart that has been changed by the Holy Spirit will display itself in righteous acts and attitudes.

May each of us here have and display the righteousness that surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees.

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