Exposition of Matthew 5:17-20

In this article we plan to make a beginning of our exposition of this very beautiful and instructive passage recorded here in this fifth chapter of Matthew. We plan not only to study these verses written above this article, namely the verses 17-20, but it is our intention to try to give a popularly written exposition of all the verses from verse 17 till the end of the chapter in subsequent contributions.

Since these verses 17-20 contain the foundation, the principal viewpoint of all the teachings of this section, we will call attention to this first.

The verses literally read as follows: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

These very clear and lucid words of Jesus were uttered by Him when he sat on a mountain slope in Galilee of the nations, and was teaching His disciples and the multitudes that came unto Him. These words are an integral part of what is known as “the Sermon on the Mount.” As such they are quite well known to the average Bible reader. And a not too detailed exposition of them should prove beneficial and interesting.

Let us attend to the text then.

In these words Jesus utters a word of warning to the church of His day as to the purpose of His coming into the flesh as the Savior of His people. We must never have the mistaken and dangerous notion that Jesus came into the world to make the law of none effect. When Jesus here speaks of the “law” or even of the “law and the prophets” he has reference to ail that is written in the Old Testament Scriptures concerning the law of God in our lives, be it the moral, ceremonial or civil law, and as this is to be to the salvation of the elect.

The question arises: was there then occasion in the coming of Jesus for jumping at the erroneous and harmful conclusion, that He came to disannul the law? For why does Jesus warn the people in His day against this error?

We are of the conviction that the error of assuming that Jesus came to destroy the law and the prophets is not forthcoming out of Jesus’ work itself. There was nothing in Jesus’ work as such to make this assumption; it is wholly to be explained out of the tremendous sinful inclination of human nature, that, as soon as liberty is proclaimed, this liberty is used for an occasion to the flesh to serve the flesh. Surely Jesus came to bring liberty to the captives, but this does not mean that they are no longer under the royal law of liberty. Christ does not lift out of the land where the law is of effect, into that where the law is disannulled, but he leads us from being under the curse and guilt of the law to that of our being under grace and the blessing of the law. For grace does not disannul the law but it establishes it. And the warning of Jesus presupposes this tremendous sinful inclination of the flesh which wars against the Spirit and wills to always and again take us captive. With this in mind Jesus utters the warning: think not that I am come to destroy the law!

Our Savior here touches upon the crux of the question of salvation by grace; He places His finger upon the very debated question between the believing Christians and Jewry, between Romans and the Reformation. The error of those who are without grace is always either that of making salvation dependent on works of law as the Pharisees did, or that of the Antinomians who wish to sin that grace may abound. Now Jesus does not place the truth of His work of salvation between these two errors. The truth does not lie somewhere between Legalism and Antinomism. But the truth is that salvation is of grace and grace establishes the law. This is not a position somewhere between Legalism and Antinomism, but it is wholly different. It is being a new creature! It means that we have a new commandment in our heart, which is at once the old commandment.

And our thoughts are therefore led by Jesus to the implications of this new commandment as He teaches and lays it down in our lives as the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, so that we walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit. Rom. 8:1, 2.

Such is the viewpoint and scope of the warning of Jesus to His disciples and to us in this 17th verse when He raises His warning finger saying: Think not. . . !

Forsooth the very opposite is the truth of the matter in Jesus. Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets. That is the purpose, the Divine intent of His coming. All righteousness must be fulfilled: the just demands of the law must be fulfilled in us. Matt. 3:15; Romans 8:4. It is true the law is weak through the flesh and cannot possibly bring us to fulfill the same; as law it can only bring out the sinfulness of sin. Rom. 7:7-13. But what the law could not do, since it was weak through sin, God has done in the sending of His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, to condemn sin in the flesh, and so to fulfill all righteousness. Says Jesus, standing in the likeness of sinful flesh: I am come to fulfill the law. In so speaking He employs a term in the Greek which means: to make the measure full. Jesus will put the last drop in the measure of all righteousness in all of His redeemed saints. There shall be nothing lacking; no spot or wrinkle or any such thing will there be in any of the saints. All shall be filled with the knowledge of God and of His holy law. I have come to fulfill the law. Let there be no misunderstanding. And he who hears and keeps these words shall be likened unto a wise man who builds his house upon a rock.

All this Jesus speaks with truthfulness and certainty. He says: verily I say unto thee. It is most sure and truthful that He is come to fulfill the law and the prophets. Besides it is spoken with the greatest authority: I say unto thee! Jesus speaks here as the faithful witness, the Amen, beginning of the creation of God. Rev. 3:14. Were not the people and multitudes astonished at His doctrine, since He taught them as one having authority and not as the Scribes? Matthew 7:28, 29.

He came to fulfill all righteousness in His suffering and in His death and resurrection; to fulfill all righteousness He ascended on high to give His holy Spirit unto His people and to lead them into all the truth. He shall fulfill all righteousness as God in the flesh even to the uttermost end of the earth. Then heaven and earth shall pass away with a fervent heat and the very elements shall burn. But when this comes to pass then all the law and the prophets shall be fulfilled, and righteousness shall be the very foundation of the new heaven and the new earth! Not one jot or iota shall fall from the law. The jot is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet and the iota designates the minutest distinction between two of the Hebrew alphabet characters. Not the minutest detail in the law shall be forgotten. Trifles make for perfection, and perfection is no trifle. God is pleased in the perfection of the righteousness of the Kingdom in which the law receives its own; the last drop is placed in the container of the cup handed to Jesus. And all is finished, all comes to pass. Then the curtain falls on history, the heavens are rolled together as a Scroll, and as a vesture they shall be changed; but to the Son it shall then be said: Thy throne O God is forever and ever; a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Thy Kingdom!

No one shall then think that Jesus came to destroy the law!

All shall then know beyond the shadow of a doubt that righteousness is the pillar of Christ’s Kingdom.

Such is the import and the solemnity of these words of Jesus when He raises a warning finger and speaks truth and veracity on earth.

For let no one think that this word of Jesus does not have meaning for his life. Let every preacher and teacher beware. Says Jesus: “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the Kingdom of heaven : but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the Kingdom of heaven.”

These are words worthy of reflection. They are cheering words for the righteous and are words calling to repentance those who do not take the law of God seriously into the last jot and tittle in the new walk in righteousness and thankfulness.

We notice in this part of the text, that false teaching is preceded by a lack of concern about walking according to God’s commandments. It is: do and teach, and conversely loose and teach accordingly.

Then too we ought to notice that evidently there are least of the commandments. All the precepts are not equally great and important as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. There are least of the precepts of the gospel too. This does not militate against the rule that the law is one, or that all the commandments are summed up in the Great Commandment : Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God with all thy heart and mind and soul and strength! There are the details, the working out of salvation in the fines! corners of our existence in our relationship with men.

But even here we are not to be sluggish. We are not to be careless and profane. All of life is under the tension of the law in our life of walking in sanctification. This does not make this rule of Jesus a heavy burden, a hard yoke for the meek, the poor in spirit. It gives life and zest to our existence. It gives a reward of joy in the things that are least. It means that in the keeping of the commandments we have the assuring promise and the testimony in our hearts that we are the children of God. We are called great in the Kingdom. Our cup overflows with fullness of joys and blessedness.

Such zest and joy is not the portion of the Scribes and Pharisees in their legalism; nor can the Antinomian enjoy this. This is the peace and blessing upon those that walk according to the new rule, (at once the old rule) in Christ and upon the Israel of God. And it means entering into the Kingdom now by faith and presently when the heavens are rolled away to enter into the joys and happiness of the Kingdom of our Lord and His Christ, whose Throne stands in justice forever, in the perfection of the love of God revealed in the law and the prophets fulfilled!