Warm-up: Matthew 5:17-20
*This post is part of a series on How to be a Light to the World.
I’ve heard people say things like, “I love Jesus, but I don’t really care for the Bible” or “The New Testament is great, but the Old Testament isn’t important anymore.”
But here’s the problem: Jesus loved the Old Testament. If you’re going to love him, then you cannot ignore the Law or the Prophets. Here’s what he had to say in Matthew 5:17…
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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
There is a lot to unpack in those verses, so we better get started.
What is Jesus referring to when he mentions the law?
Jesus said he was not going to abolish the law or the prophets, and that nothing would pass from the Law. So what was he talking about? The 10 Commandments? All those rules about cleanliness? Stories about King David? Psalms? Proverbs? The Prophet books?
The Bible that Jesus used was called the Septuagint. It was a Greek translation of the Old Testament, put together in the third century B.C. by Jewish experts. Both Jesus and the apostles studied and read the Septuagint. Most importantly, the books and text he read were the same as the books we have in the Old Testament. Cool!
Does the Law still matter after the New Testament?
Jesus was pretty clear – he did not come to abolish the law, so it’s still important. He’s also pretty clear that we shouldn’t try to relax the law or pretend the rules don’t exist. He finishes by saying, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
If you’re like me, then you’re probably feeling the pressure. How am I supposed to follow the law perfectly? How can I get through life without relaxing the rules?
The reality is, I can’t even come close to following the law perfectly.
But the good news is, Jesus did it for me.
So does the law still matter? Absolutely – it highlights our need for a savior and points us towards Jesus. And without the law, there would have been nothing for Jesus to fulfill.
Embracing the Blessing of the Law
In the Old Testament, God gave his people three different types of laws. Most people tend to agree on their function and purpose today:
- The Civil/Judicial Law: This branch of the law was for a specific group of people, and focussed on how Israel was supposed to act as a nation, government, and judiciary system. Since the laws weren’t given for us and that governmental body doesn’t really exist anymore, we aren’t required to follow them. Some of the principles from these laws, however, are inspirational and have played a part in forming the laws of modern nations.
- The Ceremonial Law: This focussed on giving the Jewish people a cultural identity and reminded them that, because of their sin, they were not clean. This included rules around sacrifices, disease, and washing. Following the ceremonial law helped the people to become clean again. Because Jesus fulfilled the law, his cleanliness is now applied to us, which means we no longer need to follow the steps of the ceremonial law to be clean. Instead, we lean on and rejoice in his cleanliness.
- The Moral Law: This branch of the law focussed on how to live in a way that demonstrated love to both God and others. Again, Jesus perfectly followed the moral law and his righteousness has been applied to believers. If you’re in Christ, you won’t lose your salvation for failing to follow the moral law. However, the moral law was given to us for our benefit, which means following it is a good thing.
It should come as no surprise that following the moral law will benefit us immensely, both as individuals and as a community. It comes from God, who knows all things and loves us. Furthermore, life is typically better for everyone when you love others, don’t commit adultery, avoid murdering people, and so on.
But we often tend to pick and choose which moral laws we want to follow. For instance, most people don’t feel like it’s that important to follow the Sabbath. I recently listened to a sermon series by Randy Pope in which he mentioned Scientific Research that demonstrated 12 benefits of taking a day of rest. After describing the benefits, Randy said something like, “if someone was selling these benefits in the form of a pill, we’d all be paying hundreds of dollars for it. But because it’s part of the law, we don’t want to do it.”
Clearly, the law is for our benefit. Don’t believe me still? Check out Psalms 119, the longest chapter in the entire Bible. It’s basically a love letter to the law and all the benefits it provides for us.
Isn’t it legalistic to love the law?
A common criticism about loving the law is that it’s too “legalistic.” But this is a misunderstanding – legalism occurs when we attempt to earn our salvation by following the law. This is what the Pharisees were doing, and as we saw in Matthew 5:20, even their righteousness was not enough. Because you cannot follow the law perfectly, the only way to convince yourself of your righteousness is to relax the law or focus on the faults of others. As Jesus points out, this is wrong.
Instead of doing good works to earn salvation, recognizing our salvation in Christ enables us to do good works with a pure heart. Good works to earn salvation is like a man giving his wife flowers so he can go fishing, as opposed to a man who gives his wife flowers just because he loves her. We are called to love the law because we love God, and because we recognize that God gave it to us as a gift.
Let your Light Shine
Now, this is a series on how to be a light. What’s all this business about the law got to do with it? Matthew 5:16 says this “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
If you want to do good works that provide hope and shines a light, then it starts by rejoicing in the knowledge that Jesus fulfilled the law on our behalf, remembering the law was given for your good, and by loving the word of God.
As you rest in your salvation, as you read the word and meditate on it, you will produce good works. Psalms 1:1-3 explains it this way…
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
What does a tree do in order to produce fruit? If it is planted by streams of water, it doesn’t need to try, it will just happen naturally.
What do you need to do in order to produce good works? If you plant yourself in God’s word and love the law, you don’t need to try, it will just happen naturally.