The Bible passage God is giving us today is Matthew 5 verses 17-20. Let’s read it together. ℗
“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. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:17-20)
We’ve been talking about the Sermon on the Mount and last Sunday, we discussed the meaning of Christians being the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
In the Bible, salt is used to purify sacrifice. It’s likely that babies were rubbed with salt for purification when they were born. We also read how the prophet Elisha purified the cursed water in Jericho by throwing salt in a stream of the city. All these cases imply the purifying aspect of salt.
But salt was also used to describe the unchanging nature of God’s covenant. Salt doesn’t change and it preserves food. So, salt purifies and preserves. But the most important role of salt is that it gives flavor to food.
So, the fact that we’re called to be the salt of the earth means that we’re called to purify the world, preserve it from decay, and let others know the true, heavenly flavor of an abundant life in Jesus Christ.
But as we live in the world as Christians, we’re to be very careful to not to lose our identity as the salt of the earth. Salt that loses its saltiness can’t be used properly. Instead it’s just thrown outside and trampled.
So we should make every effort to keep the precious identity we find in God by not allowing worldly values to be mixed into our perspectives and by continuing to remain in Jesus. When we follow the world, we’ll lose our saltiness. But if we decide to follow Christ in the midst of the world, we’ll be used in God’s purifying, preserving, and enriching ministry for the world.
We also talked about the metaphor of light. It has significant meanings in the Bible. It wasn’t just the first thing God created. It refers to God Himself and Jesus Christ His Son.
John 1 says that there was light of life for all mankind in Jesus. He came to the world to shine in our darkness and gave us true light. We see God’s light which drives out our darkness and restores us. God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of light. That’s how we become light of the world in Jesus Christ.
We ourselves were darkness, but Jesus’ light has come into our lives. Jesus drove out every darkness in our hearts and filled them with His light instead. As Paul said,
“You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8)
Now, as the light of the world, we need to learn how to live as the children of light. We should light the world by testifying to Jesus’ light through our words and actions. That’s how we glorify our heavenly Father. As Jesus said,
“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16).
The Meaning of Keeping the Law
Now, let’s move on to the next teaching Jesus taught on the Mount. After talking about the 8 Beatitudes and the teaching about salt and light, Jesus began to discuss the true meaning of keeping the law.
Jesus said, “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” (Mt 5:17).
In Jesus’ time, many teachers of the law and the Pharisees tried to test Him by asking many questions, especially about the law. That was because they thought Jesus acted against the law. For example, Jesus did many things on the Sabbath which they thought were unlawful according to their understanding of the law.
But Jesus never went against God’s law. What Jesus opposed was not the law itself, but the traditions of the teachers of the law. They had set many regulations around the law which are not written in the Bible. The problem was that they saw their traditions as having equal value to God’s law.
For example, when Jesus healed a man whose hand was shriveled on the Sabbath, Luke 6:11 says, “the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus” (Lk 6:11)
But Jesus didn’t break the law of Sabbath by healing the man on that day because there’s no law in the Old Testament that says, “You should never heal the sick on the Sabbath.”
It only says, “For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death” (Ex 31:15)
So, it shouldn’t be considered unlawful for Jesus to heal someone on the Sabbath because it didn’t really mean that He worked by doing so. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law had extended the meaning of ‘work’ and condemned many people with their traditions.
So, Jesus asked them,
“Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” (Lk 6:10)
From the Pharisees’ point of view, it was unlawful to save life on the Sabbath even though it was good to do so, which showed that they actually failed to keep the law. They likely considered themselves experts in the law because they had spent their whole lives studying and memorizing the law, but they missed the spirit of the law, which is most important.
So, Jesus rebuked them, saying,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness...” (Mt 23:23)
In this sense, Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. He has come to let us know what it really means to keep the law by showing us and reminding us of the spirit of all the laws, which is love.
One day, an expert in the law came to Jesus and asked Him a question to test Him.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Mt 22:36)
And Jesus answered,
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:37-40)
What Jesus is pointing out here is that love must be the spirit and the highest standard when it comes to obeying God’s law. Even if we keep all the laws, if we don’t have love for God and for others, it means nothing. Obeying the law only has meaning when it is accompanied by our genuine love for God and for others, which the Pharisees lacked and Jesus showed through His life.
Jesus also added, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20)
When I read this verse in the past, I was frustrated. I thought, “How can my righteousness surpass that of the Pharisees?”
It’s not a small matter because whether or not we can enter the kingdom of heaven depends on it. We must have righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law to enter the kingdom of God.
Then, how can we have such righteousness? They were much better at knowing, studying, and memorizing the law. They were very strict in keeping God’s law. They tried very hard not to violate the law. Then, how can we have righteousness that surpasses theirs?
But then I found that the righteousness Jesus talks about here is different from what I thought righteousness is. I might never be more righteous than the Pharisees and the teachers of the law outwardly. But if I recover the spirit of the law in my heart, which is love, and if I try to keep the law through God’s love being poured out in my heart through Jesus, I can actually be more righteous than them.
On the outside, the Pharisees seemed to keep God’s law perfectly but they didn’t have love. They didn’t have Jesus. Rather, they rejected Him and abandoned Him because Jesus’ way was different from their tradition. It means that the righteousness they had had nothing to do with Jesus’ righteousness.
But we’re different. When we believe in Jesus, even though we haven’t lived righteously in God’s sight, God considers us righteous because Jesus’ righteousness has entered our lives and we are clothed in the robes of His righteousness.
Those who keep the law for their own righteousness out of a sense of obligation and fear have clear limitations. They only do what the law says to do. But those who keep the law out of their love for God and for others don’t have any limitations.
There are many kinds of laws in the world, which shows that we’ve lost our trust and love for other people. But we don’t have laws in our families because we love and trust each other.
I believe that’s the spirit that Jesus wanted to remind His followers of. Love fulfills the law. In fact, if we loved one another perfectly, we wouldn’t need any laws.
So, what Jesus was really against was not the law itself, but empty formalism. What Jesus was pointing out when it comes to fulfilling the law was not our outward actions, but the internal states of our hearts, which is more important in God’s sight.
To illustrate this, Jesus gives 6 examples in the next paragraphs in Matthew 5, which are laws about murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge, and love. Jesus starts each case saying, “You have heard that it was said…”
Then He goes on to state what the audience had heard about laws regarding such subjects. They had heard, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment… You shall not commit adultery… Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce… Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made… Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth… ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy…” (Mt 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43)
Then, Jesus reinterpreted each law by emphasizing their hidden meanings.
“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court… anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart… anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery… do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne or by the earth, for it is his footstool… do not resist an evil person… love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 35-36, 39, 44)
This is how Jesus explained the real meaning of the law. He spoke about the fundamental spirit of the law.
The law says not to murder. But Jesus goes deeper than the outward action. He sees the motivation behind murder, which is hatred. The act of outward murder is only the result of internal hatred which we commit in our hearts.
Those who don’t know the real meaning of the command not to murder would be satisfied with the fact that they haven’t actually killed the person whom they hate and say that they haven’t violated the sixth commandment.
In a worldly court, that would be accepted, but such an excuse will never be accepted in God’s court because God judges not only our outward actions but also our motivations and the internal states of our hearts.
David told his son Solomon, “You, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever.” (1Ch 28:9)
He also wrote in Psalm 7:9, “You, the righteous God who probes minds and hearts.” (Ps 7:9)
God also said to Samuel,
“…The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1Sm 16:7)
These verses explain how important it is to have the right heart and motivation when it comes to keeping God’s law. Because the internal sin of hatred is the root of the outward sin of murder, God considers both the same, which means that to God, there’s no difference between hating someone in our hearts and killing the person.
That’s what Jesus really wants His followers to understand. Without knowing this, we’ll never truly obey God’s word.
And if we really understand this principle, we’ll naturally realize that there’s no one in the world who can claim to be righteous in God’s sight. We may look righteous outwardly but we know how sinful and dirty our hearts are.
Jesus once said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts - murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person…” (Mt 15:19)
And the prophet Jeremiah also said,
“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.”” (Jr 17:9-10)
So, the fact that God sees our hearts and judges them may frustrate us because we know that there’s no place we can go to flee from God’s judgment.
But, in the midst of deep despair, we find God’s grace. Because He knew that we can never become righteous on our own, He sent His one and only Son Jesus Christ. The Son of God bore all our sins and weaknesses, including our internal evil states of mind, and achieved perfect righteousness by shedding His precious blood and laying down His life on the cross on our behalf.
Now all those who believe in Him can be justified and stand righteous before God’s presence. That’s the biggest blessing we received from God. And now, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of Jesus Christ, God allows us to do things that we were unable to do ourselves. Now we can keep God’s law with all our hearts. That’s the new creation that we’ve become in Christ Jesus. In order to make this possible, Jesus Christ died on the cross.
So, I want us to think one more time about what Jesus achieved for us so that we can truly and sincerely follow His ways, obeying God’s word and loving Him and others with all our hearts according to God’s will.
Heavenly Father, thank You for reminding us of what it means to obey Your law. The more we understand what it means to keep it, the more we realize how impossible it is for us to do so.
But we thank You, Lord, because we also know what You’ve done to save us from both our outward sins and their roots, the sinful natures in our hearts.
Now we profess that because of Your grace and the noble sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, we’ve become new creations.
So Lord, please continue to work in us and teach us so that we can follow Your way with all our hearts. We can’t do it ourselves. So we rely on You, Your love, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Please always be with us and strengthen us so that we can overcome our sinful nature and follow Your will and so that we can glorify Your holy name through our words and actions.
We thank You and love You, Lord.
In Jesus’ precious name we pray. Amen.
1. What do you think is the true meaning of keeping God’s law? Why did Jesus say that we must have better righteousness than that of the Pharisees to enter the kingdom of God? How can we have that kind of righteousness?
2. What do you think makes it hard for you to keep God’s law? What are some obstacles in your life that keep you from following God’s word with all your heart?