As we come back to the Sermon on the Mount this morning, we’re beginning the main body of the sermon. Jesus opens by telling us about the way of the disciple—sketching out a picture of the life of one who dedicates his life to following Jesus. In the Beatitudes, he describes the character of a true disciple, as a person who is living the life of the kingdom of heaven in the midst of the kingdoms of this world, and finding blessing in very different ways and places than the world seeks it. Then in verses 11-16, Jesus portrays the activity of a true disciple, one who has answered his call to move into the world to give of ourselves for the sake of our neighbors.
So far, so good, but of course it’s not enough to draw the big picture—you have to start filling in the details, which is what Jesus will do over the next couple chapters. The difficulty is that when you do that, the natural tendency is to collapse back into legalism; it’s natural for your hearers to understand it that way, and quite frankly, it’s natural to preach it in that way. The language of law is the language we have to describe what we should and should not do, and with the language of law comes the mindset of legalism—of salvation through obedience to law. So what do you do?
Jesus takes the question head on. In this section, he sets out his thesis for the main body of the sermon—but what I’ve called an explanatory thesis. It’s not a thesis which he’s going to try to prove; instead, it’s there to explain the approach he’s going to take as he turns to apply the Old Testament law to the question of what it means to live as a disciple of Christ. And note this, he doesn’t say—as so many Protestants say—that the law has served its purpose and now it’s done and everything is grace. He doesn’t set the Old Testament law against the New Testament gospel. Instead, he makes very clear that they’re all of a piece; far from setting aside the law, he actually intensifies it.
The key is Jesus’ statement that he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets—which is to say, the whole of the Old Testament. He hasn’t come to abolish them, but he hasn’t come merely to teach them, either; he’s not just a different kind of Pharisee. The Law was not the end of God’s plan for his people, or for the world; simply obeying it would never be enough, because law can’t change our hearts. The Law pointed forward, preparing the way for God’s final answer to the problem of our sin. That’s why Jesus says, “All the prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” We understand that the prophets looked forward to a time when God would write his law on the hearts of his people and put his Spirit within them; we need to understand that the same is true of the Law. By itself, it’s incomplete, unfinished; it finds the fulfillment of its purpose in Jesus.
Thus his statement in verse 18: “Not a yodh, not a stroke, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” The yodh is the smallest of the Hebrew letters—it is, roughly, akin to the English i and y; the same is true of the Greek letter iota, from which we take our word “iota.” The stroke is a small mark you find on some Hebrew letters to distinguish them from other letters to which they are otherwise identical. In other words, not the smallest thing will disappear from the Law, and not the smallest change will be made, until the world ends and everything God intended to do through his Law has been done.
Is Jesus saying, then, that we have to keep all the Law—that all of it is as binding on us as it was on Moses and Joshua and David? No. If he’d wanted to say that, he could have; instead, he says that the Law (and the whole Old Testament) has a purpose—one which goes beyond ritual obedience—and that he’s going to fulfill that purpose. This he did by living a life of perfect obedience to the will of God, culminating in his judicial murder at the instigation of the religious leaders of his own people, and then rising again from the dead to deny sin and death their victory. After that, the Old Testament continues to be the word of God, and we are to continue to learn from it and obey it fully—but what it means to obey it has changed.
Now, let me make this clear: this doesn’t mean that we obey a different list of commands in the same way. That’s the way the legalistic mind hears this—usually with the idea that the list of commands is a lot shorter and doesn’t include the ones I don’t like. Whoever teaches that even the smallest of God’s commandments may now be ignored because we follow Jesus may still end up in the kingdom of heaven, but they will not be honored there. Sure, some of the details of regulation and application no longer apply to us; we have indoor plumbing, so we don’t need to take a trowel and go outside the camp when nature calls. But even those parts still stand as the word of God, because they still show us something of his character. Living by grace doesn’t mean we keep God’s Law less: it means we keep it differently.
The key to understanding that is in verse 20. The scribes were the religious scholars, which of course also meant legal scholars; we might also think of them as the regulators, since they were the ones who determined what qualified as keeping God’s Law and what didn’t. The Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism dedicated to restoring the moral and religious health and strength of their nation; they were the social conservatives—we might call them the Moral Majority of their day. They held themselves to an extremely high standard when it came to keeping the Law, believing they needed to model the holiest way of life possible for the people around them. These are two distinct groups, but closely linked, and a lot of the same people in both; and they were respected by the people for their holiness and their knowledge of God’s word.
What could it possibly mean to have a righteousness which far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees? If you understood righteousness as they did, in terms of literal obedience to rules and regulations, such a thing would be utterly impossible—this must have absolutely floored Jesus’ hearers. The only way Jesus’ words make any sense at all is if he’s challenging their whole understanding of righteousness.
If you only go as far as literal observance of rules—however good those rules may be—then you fall short of the kingdom of heaven; indeed, at that point, you haven’t even started on the way. As the New Testament scholar R. T. France puts it, “Those who are to belong to God’s new realm must move beyond [this] to a new consciousness of what it means to please God, one which penetrates beneath the surface level of rules to be obeyed to a more radical openness to knowing and doing the underlying will of ‘your Father in Heaven.’”
You see, the thing about mere obedience to laws and rules is that, however lax or harsh your rules may be, they all have a limit—and they usually have loopholes and grey areas and contradictions, whether apparent or real. There always comes a point when you can say, “I’ve done enough to keep the law—I don’t have to do any more”; and if you’re sharp, you can often find ways to do a lot less and get off on a technicality. You can be hanging off the fence from your knees, but as long as most of you is still on this side, you’re just as good with the law as the guy standing in the middle of the field.
This sort of “what’s the minimum I have to do”/“how much can I get away with” approach to the word of God comes out of the idea of law as a bunch of things you have to do and not do in order to avoid punishment and earn reward. Jesus leads us to a deeper understanding of God’s law, and his word more generally, as a way to know him and to know how to please him. This is where we get the delight in the law that we see in Psalm 119, a delight which makes no sense if the law is just a rulebook and a checklist; but it isn’t—it’s an opening into the character and goodness of God.