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Life Upside Down

Kingdom Righteousness

Matthew 5:17-20

February 25, 2018


In Matthew 5, Jesus is teaching His disciples and a crowd of followers about the Kingdom of God.  What it is like where God is kinging, or reigning, in the lives of His followers.  The focus of the Sermon on the Mount is on what it looks like in the life of a believer when they live under the reign of God and follow His will for their lives.  Jesus says it will look very different from the way the rest of world lives.  In fact, it will look like life turned upside down in many cases.

This may have been very strange and foreign to some of those who listened to Jesus, but to others it may have been wonderful news.  Wonderful news because they may have struggled as to why their lives seemed to become out of step with the world and that they felt more and more like they were strangers in a foreign land when it comes to living in this world.  Thus, this may have been an ah-hah moment for some.  Ah-hah, this is why things are so different for me.

You see, as people begin to let God become their all in all, the passion of their lives, and the reason for their living, the things of this world diminish, and God’s glory, God’s kingdom, become the most important thing in life.  Instead of admiring wealth, getting everything you want in life, making sure your own needs are met ahead of everyone else’s, and living for the pleasure and passion of the flesh, . . . life becomes about God and His glory.

The people of God’s kingdom find themselves mourning over sin, longing for righteousness.  They are painfully aware that their lives need to be emptied of self and filled with God.  Their appetite for knowing and understanding God and His righteousness becomes insatiable.  Their motivations and their desires align with the very heart of God.  Thinking that everyone should experience this, they become testimonies concerning the life of God and like salt and light, they try to make a difference in this world, . . . only to find persecution and suffering for telling others about this glorious news.

But Jesus tells his listeners that these characteristics are evidence of His kingdom in their lives.  They are blessed, or find genuine joy, because these are the things that their life longs for.  They are blessed in their ability to recognize these qualities of Kingdom living.  This may have been amazing news for some who saw this as a life turned upside down and didn’t understand why these things were so different for them.

This earth no longer feels like home to the believer anymore . . . well, because it is not their home.  Their presence in this world is to benefit the world with their difference, not their similarity.  I imagine Jesus’ disciples and this listening crowd on the hillside were filled with an element of astonishment.

Then we come to our passage this morning in verses 17-20 of Matthew 5.  There were probably some who thought this new teaching about kingdom living meant that Jesus was doing away with the Law, the Law of the Old Testament, and replacing it with His teachings.  Was Jesus saying that obedience to the Law was no longer important?  Their thoughts were probably scattered in many directions as they heard Him teach.  But Jesus makes it clear in our passage today, that there is a connection between Him and the Law of the Old Testament.  Let’s read what Jesus has to say beginning in verse 17.

Matthew 5:17-20

17 "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall 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."

Jesus Fulfills the Law (v. 17)

Evidently, there were people listening to Jesus that were thinking that His teachings were supposed to replace the Law.  Jesus knew what they were thinking.  He knows what we think.  He knows if we are thinking one thing but doing another.  He knows when your desires do not match your doing.  Since Jesus knew what they were thinking concerning the abolishment of the Law, He warns them to not think He came to get rid of the Law.

Actually, the word “abolish” is a word in Greek that means to “destroy, demolish or dissolve.”  Jesus did not come to destroy or dissolve anything about the Law.  I guess the first thing we need to do is define what is meant by the Law and the Prophets in verse 17.  What is the Law?  “The Law” refers to the first five books of the Old Testament.  This includes the Ten Commandments and all the other instruction that God gave to Moses for the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai.  “The Prophets” refers to the whole of the teaching that they received throughout the Old Testament Scriptures, not just the books we refer today as the prophets.  To the Jewish people, all of the Old Testament was the prophets.  Thus, we are talking about the whole teaching of the Old Testament.

It is easy for us to think that Jesus came to abolish this code of conduct found in the first five books of the Bible, because of the things He said to religious leaders and about their legalistic hypocrisy to the Laws of God.  When we don’t understand the purpose and design of God’s Law, we want its demands to be removed.  But that is not what Jesus did.

Think about this for a moment.  What is the Law of God about?  The Law is a picture of the person and character of God.  The Law presents the demands of holiness and righteousness.  For instance, when the priest went to enter the Holy of Holies once a year, there were certain procedures and sacrifices prescribed that he must do before putting himself in the presence of God.  If he didn’t purify himself in this way, he would die.

The Law, with its demands, makes what appears to be an impossible barrier between us and God, because who can do all that the Law demands?  But the Law was not the barrier, sin is the barrier between us and God.  The religious leaders of Jesus’ day attempted to make clear the Law’s demands by making hundreds of regulations to help people adhere to the Law.  Things like, not pulling your ox out of a well on the Sabbath.  Why did they develop such a regulation as this, because one of the commands of God is to keep the Sabbath holy?  So that is how they were making sure nothing was done to make it not holy.  But Jesus rebukes them as hypocrites later in His ministry.

Matthew 23:23-26

23 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.  These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!  25 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

The righteousness and holiness of God is put on display in the Law, but there is no person that can fulfill the demands of the Law perfectly and to think that we can somehow be right with God in what we do is hypocritical.  Jesus clearly tells the Scribes and Pharisees that it is not a matter of works that are to be done to fulfill the Law, but a matter of the heart.  Jesus also indicates that his teaching has everything to do with true righteousness as revealed in the whole of the Old Testament.  True righteousness and holiness can only be fulfilled in Jesus.

Not only is Jesus the only One capable of keeping the letter of the Law, but all of the Law and even the spirit of the Law.  But it goes even much farther than just perfectly doing the Law.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets in all the ways that the OT point to him, not only in its specific predictions of a Messiah but also in its sacrificial system.

Think about this for a moment.  The sacrifices of animals point to the perfect sacrifice of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.  Jesus is the fulfillment of sacrifice.

Hebrews 10:11-12

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.

The Tabernacle and every part of its construction and furniture point to Jesus Christ, the one who would become our High Priest interceding for us.  The prophecies of the suffering Messiah all point to the One who would suffer and die for us.

Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Law and the Prophetic teachings and He is the only One who could do that.  Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and Prophets, but to fulfill every part of them.  In fact, the very idea that Jesus could fulfill what the Pharisees could not, makes it look like the Pharisees have forgotten what righteousness even looks like.  I think Jesus is calling all of us to rethink what true righteousness is about.

Jesus is not presenting a new plan that replaces the old one.  It is the same God, the same plan, and it is still His same will for us.  The key for understanding this is that Jesus came to fulfill all righteousness.  This means that Jesus alone shows us what true righteousness looks like and therefore what the whole Old Testament was about.  The legal requirements contained in the Law and the Prophets needs to be put into the much larger picture of a relationship with God.  That is what the Law and the Prophets is all about, our relationship with God.  

To be righteous, then, is to be in trusting, loving, full relationship with God for which we were created, to know Him as our Father and to live as His beloved and blessed children just as Jesus did!  Being in a right relationship with God and knowing who God is and who we are in relationship with God is the foundation, then, for any obedience to any particular directives contained in God's written Word.

Jesus fulfills the Law by living by the Law, but Jesus not only lives by the Law of God, He fulfills the righteousness of the Law, and even further, Jesus is the prophetic fulfillment of the Law as a supreme sacrifice.  What Jesus demonstrates is that the Law is about a relationship with God and He makes that possible through His sacrifice for us.

Jesus Affirms the Law (vv. 18-19)

As we continue in verses 18-19 we find Jesus making sure that everyone knows that nothing is changed about God’s Law.  If the Law were changed, then He could not be the fulfillment of it.  Let’s read verses 18-19 again.

18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

What is Jesus saying here?  The Law is not temporary.  Everything that is set forth will remain.  Jesus is affirming the utter inerrancy and absolute authority of the Old Testament as the Word of God—down to the smallest stroke or letter.  An “iota” refers to the smallest Hebrew letter, the yohd, which is a meager stroke of the pen, like an accent mark or an apostrophe.  The “dot” is a tiny extension on a Hebrew letter.  So, not even a breath mark of the Old Testament is changed.  Until heaven and earth pass away, every recorded mark of the Law will remain.  Again, Jesus is reaffirming that what He is teaching changes nothing about the Law and never will.  Never should the Christian see the New Testament, or Jesus’ teachings, as a replacement of the Old Testament.

Jesus continues in verse 19, by saying that the one who relaxes the least of God’s commands and teaches others to do so will be called least, in the kingdom of heaven.  Yes, we believe there are different places of authority for the believer in the Kingdom.  But the point is that Jesus makes it clear that the Old Testament is the Word of God and does not change.

Those who think that they can believe on Jesus Christ as their Savior and yet reject the Old Testament must question their attitude toward Jesus.  If we say we do not believe in the account of God’s creation in Genesis 1, or that God destroyed the earth in a cataclysmic flood, or that Abraham was chosen by God to be the Father of a special nation of people, or that Moses did not lead about 2 ½ million Israelites from bondage in Egypt into the wilderness to meet God at Mount Sinai, or that David killed a giant of a man named Goliath with a stone and a sling, or anything else about the Old Testament . . . . . . . . . If we say we do not believe these things really happened, then what are we saying about Jesus, the One we call our Savior?

Jesus affirms everything about the Old Testament and the moment you begin questioning the authority of the Old Testament, you are of necessity questioning the authority of Jesus Christ.

But keep in mind that everything about the Law, specifically the directives found in the first five books of the Bible, is not about having duties to perform.  The Law of God has always been about relationship.  We obey because we love Him.  I believe Jesus makes it clear that the Law is about relationship, not duty.

So the natural question we ask is what about the Law today?  Does this mean we still should do sacrifice, that we should attempt to obey the Law in all its ceremonial, dietary, and relational aspects?  I will attempt to answer that in a moment, but first let’s take a look at verse 20 again. 

Jesus Applies His Righteousness (v. 20)

20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

Jesus just told us in verses 18 and 19 that nothing has changed about the Law and the Prophets.  Then He says that you must be more righteous than even the scribes and Pharisees to enter the kingdom of Heaven.  What is going on here?  Obey the Law, but you cannot be righteousness enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?  The scribes and Pharisees love the Law and they appeared to follow the Law better than anyone.  Who could ever hope to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees?

There is only One who could, Jesus.  Jesus fulfilled the Law according to verse 17.  Jesus is the righteous One, the One who not only fulfilled perfect obedience to the Law, but He perfectly expressed a righteous relationship with God.  Jesus fulfills the ceremonial requirements of the Law as the perfect sacrifice.  So, we might say, that’s great for Him, but where does that leave us?

I believe that is what Jesus is trying to show us.  The only way we can have a righteousness the exceeds the scribes and Pharisees is to have His righteous fulfillment of the Law applied to us.  We need the righteousness of Jesus in us.  We need to be able to share in His relationship with the Father.  In other words, we can strive for righteousness all we want, all day long, and everyday of our lives and never be righteous enough to go to Heaven.  We cannot make ourselves righteous enough no matter how good you are.  It is only when the righteousness of Jesus Christ is applied to our lives that we have this relationship with God.  The Law actually leads us to Christ, the righteous fulfillment of the Law.  We must come to Christ in faith believing.  Listen to Galatians 3:23-26

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

Through faith in Jesus Christ, we are justified, we stand righteous, and as such our righteousness exceeds the scribes and Pharisees.  Why?  Because, Jesus fulfills every part of the Law and Prophets, He is our righteousness.

1 Corinthians 1:30-31

And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Jesus came to be our righteousness.  So, does that mean I no longer live according to the Law?  Well not exactly.  Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice, there is no other sacrifice needed, so we do not need to sacrifice animals to be in a right relationship with God, Jesus is our sacrifice.  Certain aspects of the Law no longer apply because they are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Jeremiah the prophet tells us that the Law becomes written on our heart, it becomes a part of who we are as a believer.

Jeremiah 31:31–33

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.   For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

The whole message of the Old Testament "law and prophets" (Torah) was to prepare us to see Jesus, the Son of God, as the fulfillment of all of God's ways for us.  It is only through His reconciling life culminating in His atoning work on the cross that we can have any hope of being truly righteous.  It is only by His Spirit that we can share in His right relationship to God as the children of God and so we follow in His ways each and every day.  And that's a righteousness that surely exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees and which will never pass away.


Think about this for a moment as we close.  Because of Jesus, we no longer come to an altar and bring unending sacrifices.  Jesus Christ has fulfilled the requires of sacrifice as the perfect Lamb of God.  We no longer go to a High Priest to confess our sins, we come to Jesus our High Priest and not only that, we are of the priesthood in our relationship with God.

Because of Jesus, we no long have to keep the Sabbath day holy because everyday is to be holy unto the Lord.  The law has not come to an end, Christ is not the end of the Law of God, Jesus fulfills and completes the Law.  He accomplishes righteousness.

The law was a way of relationship with God, Jesus has become our righteousness –

Romans 10: 1-10

1 Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.

2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.

3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness.

4 For Christ is the end of the law (completion or fulfillment) for righteousness to everyone who believes.

9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

Have you put your faith and trust in Jesus as your Lord and Savior?  Is He your righteousness, fulfilling all of the demands of the Law in you?  By faith have you trusted in Him and now live in a relationship with Him?