Thoughts on Matthew 5:17-20
These verses really set the stage for what’s coming in the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is about to say some really hard things to those who think they are righteous because of how clean and good they appear outwardly. Jesus is also going to reframe their understanding of the Law and upset more than a few religious people in the process. Before He does this though, Jesus prefaces His statements by assuring His audience that He has no intention of abolishing the Law or the Prophets. He reconfirms the steadfastness and goodness of the Law, and that it stood immovable unless and until it was fulfilled perfectly. Jesus makes it very clear, likely to the delight of the religious leaders in the crowd, that the Law was of very high importance. He goes on to state that in order to be great in the kingdom of heaven, one must both do and teach the Law and the Prophets. “So far, so good,” the Scribes and Pharisees might have been thinking up to this point. But then, Jesus raises the bar above even the “righteous” religious. Jesus’ words at the end of verse 20 must have been a huge blow to the listeners. If they were honest with themselves, even the most religious among them failed to meet the standard Jesus set.
What Jesus says in the following verses of this sermon is significant for a number of reasons. First, He is stating that He is greater than the Law and the Prophets (“You have heard it said … but I say to you…” Emphasis mine) and at least equal with the original Law Giver – Yahweh. This was no small thing, and the implication was clear: “I am on par with God who gave the Law to Moses and for whom the prophets spoke.” These verses are also significant because Jesus attacks externality and incorrect assumptions about the Law and its interpretation. Thirdly, just like the Old Covenant, Jesus’ commands are impossible for us to obey perfectly. We, just as the religious people in the original audience, should all come away from this sermon feeling completely unrighteous and unable to do anything that pleases the Lord in our own power.
So, what hope do we have? This: the profound and life-saving reality that Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law, something no one else could ever do. This is astoundingly significant in that Jesus’ law-keeping righteousness is accounted to us through the Gospel. Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience that we could not live, and died a death to pay for sin we committed, thereby making possible the great exchange that allows us to stand before a holy God. Thus, the harsh blow to our pride that this passage deals shows us our need for the Gospel and for Christ’s imputed righteousness without which we will never see the kingdom of heaven.