In the second section of this sermon Jesus warns that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Unlike them, we must have a genuine commitment to the Scriptures and what they teach. We must seek to understand the full demands of the Law and want to obey it.
Matthew chapters 1-4 contain introductory material to Matthew’s gospel.
- Matthew 1: Matthew gave us the genealogy of Jesus, explaining that Jesus is a son of Abraham and a son of David.
- Matthew 1-2: Matthew told us the story of Jesus’ birth and upbringing from Joseph’s perspective.
- Matthew 3: Matthew told the of the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus.
- Matthew 4: Matthew told about the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.
- Matthew 4: Before the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew gives a narrative introduction (Mt 4:12-22) and a summary statement (Mt 4:23-25).
- Matthew 5: Matthew gives an example of what Jesus was teaching in his early ministry in the Sermon on the Mount.
The entire Sermon on the Mount is about one topic: Who will be accepted by God and receive a place in His kingdom?:
- Matthew 5:1-16: Jesus tells us those with saving faith are the blessed who will receive a place in the kingdom (the Beatitudes).
- Matthew 5:17-48: Jesus says your righteousness must be different than the kind the Pharisees have to enter the kingdom of heaven (the Antitheses).
- Matthew 6:1-7:11: Jesus warns his listeners to avoid the self-deception of the Pharisees.
- Matthew 7:12-29: Jesus concludes there are 2 paths. One path leads to life and the other to destruction. You must be the type of person described in the Sermon to be on the right path.
Matthew 5:17-48 is called the Antithesis because Jesus quotes/paraphrases the Old Testament and then makes an oppositional or antithetical statement. Each unit of this section has the structure: “you heard X but I say to you Y.”
Matthew 5:17-18 introduces the second major section of this sermon.
Many scholars think Jesus is using the Pharisees as an example of devotion to the law, and claiming our righteousness must exceed theirs. They think Jesus is replacing the old legalistic understanding of the law with a more perfect law of love. He says we must be absolutely morally perfect to be acceptable to God to prepare us for the gospel, so that we will seek his forgiveness and grace.
While the interpretation above is very common, I no longer agree with it. I believe there is a better (albeit minority) understanding of this passage.
17“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:17-20
- The Pharisees had the reputation of excelling in their observance of religion and as exact keepers of the law.
- The Pharisees considered the oral law as binding as the written law. They insisted on individual as well as communal adherence to the strict standards of the Mosaic law in every detail and its explanations in the oral law.
- Every brotherhood of Pharisees had a scribe who studied the law and explained it to others.
- Jesus frequently charges the Pharisees with obeying the letter of the Law rather than the spirit of it (e.g. Matthew 12:33-37; Matthew 15:1-20; Matthew 23:1-36).
- While the Pharisees look like they are obeying the law on the outside, Jesus says in reality they are abusing the Law to do exactly what they want to do.
- Because Jesus rejected the way the Pharisees interpret the Law, we could mistakenly conclude that Jesus was rejecting the Law itself.
- Instead of rejecting the Law, Jesus came to fulfill it in its broadest sense: He came to bring about all that the Old Testament predicted. He came to teach and explain all that the Old Testament teaches. He came to spiritually transform his people and the world so that both reflect God’s truth and reign.
- Criticizing the Pharisees was very controversial because the Pharisees were held in high esteem.
- Jesus charges the Pharisees with annulling the law. They may be champions of rule-keeping, but they do not seek to understand the true purpose of the law. They annual the law by keeping its letter rather than its spirit.
- The scribes and Pharisees charged Jesus with abolishing the law because he rejected their approach to the law keeping. But, Jesus says, in fact the Pharisees are the ones annulling and abolishing the law by dodging the moral implications of the law.
I know that the scribes and Pharisees present themselves as the great champions of the Scriptures. One might think that because I reject their approach to the Scriptures, that I am rejecting the Scriptures themselves. That is not true. The opposite is true. As Messiah, I have come to bring about everything that the Scriptures predicted. I have come to teach and promote every truth proclaimed in Scripture. Not one prediction, not one commandment, not one purpose of God proclaimed by the Scriptures will be obsolete or set aside until the final age when all has been accomplished.
Let me say this very strongly. Set aside one teeny weeny commandment of God and you will be set aside as a teeny weeny person as far as the kingdom of God is concerned. The scribes and the Pharisees are terrible role models. They seem to promote the law, but in fact they don’t take Scripture seriously. They interpret the law so that they can live the way the want to live and still claim to be obedient. Unlike them, you must have a genuine commitment to the Scriptures and what they teach if you want to find life in the kingdom of God. You must seek to understand the full demands of the Law and want to obey it.
Jesus will go on to explain: For example, ‘you have heard it said X but I say to you Y.’ Jesus understands God’s ultimate purpose in giving the laws and he is applying that ultimate purpose.