The next part of the Sermon on the Mount sees Jesus talking about the old Law. And contrary to what many unbelievers (and even believers) think, Jesus understands the importance of recognizing the entire Bible as the ultimate authoritative book. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (verse 17). Jesus may have said this because the Pharisees believed that he was blaspheming against God by going against every misconception they had about what the Messiah should look like. Jesus uses this verse to remind people that the reason he is the Messiah is because he fulfills every prophecy in the Old Testament. I used to be skeptical of this, and while I’m no expert, there are verses in the minor and major prophets which point so strongly to Christ that I no longer have doubt that Jesus was correct in saying he fulfilled prophecy. The Old Testament may make some wary, but I would strongly encourage everyone to read through it, because there is a wonderful love theme contained throughout the whole, and it’s amazing to read of men who were led to prophesize about Jesus thousands of years before he was born!
The next verse shows that the Word of God will not perish until there is no longer an earth. It shows us the eternality of God’s moral standard for mankind. “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (verse 18). There is a new and an old covenant between man and God, but I don’t believe it was ever God’s design for us to just throw out all the teachings of the Old Testament. I believe as Christians, we recognize that it is by grace alone we have our salvation, that what Jesus did made blood sacrifices no longer necessary. There are some old traditions which we as Christians don’t hold to, not because we believe the Bible isn’t important as a whole, but because we recognize that Jesus changed some customs through his death and resurrection. Again, I would really encourage everyone to read the Old Testament. People talk about the old and new covenants as if they were two unrelated issues, but really, they are bound together by God the Father’s love for us in the Old Testament, which was shown to us by His refusal to give up on Israel, and that love was continued in the New Testament with the blood of Jesus on the cross opening up a door to salvation to everyone who would call on His name. For those who are weary of trying to tackle the history of the Old Testament, I’d encourage you to read dually from the Old and New Testament. The connections show just how incredible God’s love is.
Verse 19 serves as a warning for us to hold the entire Bible as God’s word, not just the parts we like or the parts that seem easy. “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (verse 19). Wow! I frequently hear believers and unbelievers scoff at the teachings of the Old Testament because of some of the seemingly bizarre commands it has in it. Truthfully, I don’t always understand some of the older laws. But just because something is old doesn’t make it bad. As I said before, it is important to understand the difference between Jesus fulfilling a prophecy and making new rules and commands for a new covenant and simply ignoring the Old Testament. I think that’s why we have the Bible; God wanted us to see just why we needed a Savior so badly, and He wanted to show us that He had to give us a Law so that we couldn’t just do whatever we want. I don’t want to go too off topic hear, but I heard a Macklemore rap which supports gay marriage and condemns the Bible for being a book written 3500 years ago (he then quotes the Bible at the end of the song, which seems to invalidate his argument since he’s already said he doesn’t find it authoritative, but that’s a separate pointJ). Basically, Macklemore is making an argument that something that is old can’t be viewed as authoritative. But try to imagine a world where morality was something we just came up with every day. There wouldn’t be any law, it would be totally relative. Jesus urges us not to relax commands just because they seem outdated or too harsh of current trends. Honestly, the command against homosexuality bothers me at times, and I’m sure it bothers and confuses others as well. But I’m not going to throw out my entire belief system because of something I personally don’t understand. I believe that that is where faith comes into play. I love Jesus, and I trust him more than anyone else. If he tells me to take the whole Word as authoritative, even the parts I don’t understand, I’ll do it because I firmly believe he is God. Jesus wasn’t much for grey areas. And his command here is clear: my whole Word is your law. Not just the parts that are easy to accept. The whole message of the Gospel trumps how I feel about specific issues, and in times of doubt, I trust that Jesus knew what he was talking about, and that He is far greater than my doubts. It is rather dangerous (but today quite common) to get so fixated on single issues rather than focus on the entirety of the message of Jesus. I believe this is why Jesus ended this verse by encouraging others to teach God’s commands. Jesus probably knew that people were going to question the things he was saying. Even the early church got into quarrels early on about genealogies and other issues which were divisive. I don’t think this was ever Jesus’s intention. I don’t think he wanted us to bicker or get into fights about gay rights or marijuana or what type of government is best or welfare or anything like that. I think Jesus wanted us to spread his commands because it would always lead us back to his love, and it would lead us to love everyone. I’m sure that sounds corny, but looking at Jesus and reading about him makes me think he must get frustrated when people spend a lifetime deliberating on whether they should be Christians or not because they feel like they have to know exactly how they feel on every command he gave. To me, Jesus trumps my feelings. He’s so much bigger and better and more satisfying than how I feel about things. I used to worry so much about where I came down on issues until I read about the heart of Jesus in the Gospels. Now I don’t have those worries. Because I feel so much love for Jesus that I just accept the commands I don’t understand, because no issue is bigger or better than Jesus himself.
The last verse in this section confirms that salvation is more than external motivations performed out of greed. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (verse 20). Jesus didn’t want empty gestures or highly lifted hands in order that people would bring glory to themselves. Jesus wanted people to be righteous, and for that to happen, people had to look outside themselves to Jesus, and be transformed by observing his life, recognizing his goodness and grace, and deciding inwardly to trust in Jesus wholeheartedly. My pastor always tells us to place ourselves in the scene in the Bible. I place myself as someone hearing this who wasn’t a Pharisee or scribe. Can you imagine how much grace must have been felt in that moment? I feel that grace today. Jesus just threw the commonly held idea that righteousness was only for certain people right out the window! Jesus’s idea of righteousness looked so much simpler than what the Pharisees were doing. Jesus wants our hearts first and foremost. We try so hard to make our righteousness manifest, but Jesus IS our righteousness! It doesn’t come from us naturally, we have to continually go back to the foot of the cross and look up and realize that true righteousness comes from Jesus and Jesus alone. When we realize this, the weight of the expectation from others and ourselves to try to “look” righteous is removed. We try so hard to bear our own burden of righteousness that we frequently try to do it without Jesus! Yet we just can’t do that. Remember that Jesus is the only reason we have grace. Recognition of that fact will truly lead to a heart change, and it is only then that we can be effective servants. We are never masters of righteousness; we are merely the benefactors of it. Our good deeds are only accomplished through looking to Christ and striving to live more like him and less like our natural sinful selves.