Jesus and the Law

In the course of working through the Sermon on the Mount, we inevitably must come to a subject that has been greatly debated among Christians. Unfortunately, the debate is not caused because the Scripture is all that ambiguous theologically on the point under discussion. It is caused because the teaching of Scripture is difficult for our hearts. Augustine was right when he said, “The New Testament is latent in the Old Testament and the Old Testament is patent in the New Testament.”

“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).

Christ does two things in this passage which are worthy of note by way of introduction. First, He anticipates objections. He knew what His teaching would do, and what objections it would provoke. Grace always brings the charge of antinomianism. If the charge is not being made then something is seriously wrong. “Do not think . . .”

At the same time, grace always returns fire. It is the legalist who is actually the antinomian, and grace always upholds the law. “. . . unless your righteousness exceeds . . .” When grace returns fire, when Christ answers the errorists, He names them. In this case, they were the scribes and Pharisees.

What is the status of the law of God? The law of God stands. Until heaven and earth pass away, the law stands. Nothing could be more wrongheaded than the popular idea that the Christian needs only the New Testament. This idea was perhaps reinforced by the separate printings of New Testaments, apart from the Old. It most certainly was not caused by reading the New Testament. Nothing is more patently taught in the pages of the New Testament than the continuing and abiding authority of the Old. This passage is one such place, but there are many more.

Man must live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4); we are encouraged to hope through the Old Testament (Rom. 15:4); we can be made wise to salvation through the Old Testament (2 Tim. 3:15); the Old Testament is the means to equip ministers completely (2 Tim. 3:16-17); we learn about the covenants we have inherited (Rom. 15:8; Eph. 2:12); the Old Testament provides examples and admonition (1 Cor. 10:11); and, the Old Testament is the basis for a noble reception of the gospel (Acts 17:11).

Those who deny this, Jesus insists, are least in the kingdom. Notice that the denial has two parts. Those who break one of the least commandments, and those who teach others to do the same, are called least. And whose kingdom is it? Contrasted to these, Jesus teaches that those who are obedient to the law, and who go on to teach obedience to the law, are called great in the kingdom. And last, Christ concludes by insisting that law-keeping that proceeds from grace will always completely overshadow “law-keeping” through disobedience. But this kind of law-keeping is disobedience to both Old and New Testaments. Christ uses the Old Testament law as a winnowing fan, and with it, He separates men into three classes — least in the kingdom, great in the kingdom, and not in the kingdom.

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