Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
October 13, 2015
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
The Law and the Prophets (Part 1)
In the course of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus devoted a significant portion of the sermon to addressing the Law and the Prophets, meaning the Hebrew Scriptures—what Christians refer to as the Old Testament.
The Hebrew Scriptures, also referred to as the Jewish Bible, and commonly known to the Jewish people as Tanakh, contain all of the same books as the Christian Old Testament, though they are divided somewhat differently and placed in a different order. The word Tanakh is an acronym (TN’K) formed by the three primary divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures:
Torah (Law): The first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.
Nevi’im (Prophets): The Nevi’im is divided into three sections: The Former Prophets, which contain Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings; the Latter Prophets, containing Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; and the Book of the Twelve, containing Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.
Ketuvim (Writings): Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 & 2 Chronicles.
When Jesus speaks of “the Law and (or) the Prophets,”1 it is generally understood that this is a shorthand way of referring to the full Tanakh, all of the Hebrew Scriptures (The Old Testament).
In this section of the Sermon (verses 17–48), Jesus gives a new outlook and understanding of Scripture, as well as shows His relationship to it. In verses 21–48 He provides six examples which illustrate the difference between the common understanding of the day and His teaching. In the next article, we’ll move on to those six examples. In this post, I’ll focus on verses 17–20, which say:
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.2
The fact that Jesus opens by saying that His listeners should not think He came to abolish (destroy in some translations) the Law or the Prophets is an indication that some people thought, or said, that this was in fact what He was doing, seeing as His approach to the Law was different from traditional thinking.3 However, He unequivocally states He has not come to abolish or destroy them, but rather to fulfill them.
Jesus goes on, using His authoritative saying of “truly I say to you”4 to state that until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one dot of the Law will be invalidated. When hearing Jesus refer to heaven and earth (all of creation) passing away before the Law, His listeners would have understood Him to be saying that God’s Word will never go unfulfilled. All of it will be accomplished. The iota was the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet; but in this context, it is usually understood to be referring to the yodh, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There are 66,420 yodhs within the complete Hebrew Scriptures. The dot (tittle in KJV) is a tiny mark or projection on some Hebrew letters which helps to distinguish letters which are similar. Saying that the smallest letter or stroke of Scripture would not pass before Scripture was accomplished was a very strong affirmation by Jesus of the role of Old Testament Scripture.
What does it mean that He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets—the full range of Scripture? The answer can be found throughout Matthew’s Gospel, where multiple times he speaks of Jesus fulfilling Old Testament scriptures.5 A few examples are:
This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.”6
This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”7
This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’’"8
“Fulfill” in the context of Matthew’s Gospel denotes the coming into being of that which Scripture pointed to—whether by direct prediction or understood typologically, as in the case of Jesus being the sacrificial lamb.9 Jesus was saying that what was written within the Law and the Prophets was being fulfilled in His ministry. Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus said: All the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John (the Baptist).10
Author R. T. France wrote:
Here the Law is linked with the Prophets as looking forward to a time of fulfillment which has now arrived. The Torah [Law] is not God’s last word to his people, but is in a sense provisional, looking forward to a time of fulfillment through the Messiah. In light of that concept, and of the general sense of “fulfill” in Matthew, we might then paraphrase Jesus’ words here as follows: “Far from wanting to set aside the law and the prophets, it is my role to bring into being that to which they have pointed forward, to carry them into a new era of fulfillment.”11
According to Jesus, the role of Old Testament Scripture wasn’t abolished, but it changed. Since what they had pointed to—the Messiah, Jesus—had come, the Scripture now was to be understood and practiced in light of Jesus’ teachings. As we’ll see in Matthew 5:21–48 (covered in the next articles), Jesus gives examples of the deeper understanding of the teachings of Torah (Law) when He says: You have heard that it was said … but I say to you12 … From that point forward, the authoritative teaching of Jesus is what governs His disciples’ understanding and practical application of the Law. It is no longer a literal observance of rules, but a deeper understanding of the moral principles that underpin those rules. As Darrell Bock says, He seeks a standard that looks at the law from an internal, not an external perspective.13 The Law isn’t abolished, but in this era of fulfillment it is Jesus, the fulfiller of the Law, who is the ultimate authority.14
As will be seen in Matthew 5:21–48, Jesus lays out a standard which moves beyond the outward application of the Law and focuses not on a set of rules but on a response from within the heart.15 He shows that literally obeying the Law is inadequate. That was the kind of obedience the scribes and Pharisees had, yet He stated:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.16
In fulfilling the Law and Prophets, Jesus was ushering in a new era for humankind which went beyond keeping the letter of the Law to discerning and applying the underlying principles of the Law. This new way of applying the Law so that it no longer acts as a rule of conduct but as a pointer to a “greater righteousness” is what Jesus brought into being, and it supersedes the old type of Law-keeping.17
Warren Wiersbe wrote:
The religious leaders had an artificial, external righteousness based on Law. But the righteousness Jesus described is a true and vital righteousness that begins internally, in the heart.18
Jesus goes on to say:
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.19
It’s helpful to remember that when referring to the kingdom of heaven He is speaking of the basileia, God’s reign in our lives, and not heaven in the afterlife.20 Having explained that He is the fulfillment of the Law, as well as showing His new way to relate to the Law (He gives examples of this new way in verses 21–48 that follow), He then explains that those who relax His teaching of the Law will be least in the kingdom, whereas whoever applies His teachings in their life and teaches them to others will be called great in the kingdom. Being great or small in the kingdom isn’t speaking of one’s standing in the afterlife, but rather of whether one is a poor or good representative of those who live their life with God as king.
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.21
In Jesus’ time, the scribes were people who professionally taught, expounded on, and interpreted the Laws of Moses. These laws weren’t just religious laws, but were also the legal laws of the land. When someone broke them, they were judged and punished. While any Jew could be asked to judge a legal case by a community, when a scribe was present he would usually be chosen, because of his knowledge of Scripture. Some scribes focused on studying the doctrine in Scripture and were qualified to speak in the synagogues. They also copied Scripture by hand, so that when scrolls used in the temple or in synagogues wore out, replacements were available. They would carefully copy it from one scroll onto a new scroll. Some scribes were teachers who had disciples (students), and were called “master” (rabbi). In Luke’s Gospel, the scribes are referred to as “lawyers”22 and “teachers of the Law,”23 and are seen as being antagonistic toward Jesus and trying to destroy His ministry.24 The scribes, along with the Pharisees, chief priests, and elders, were part of the opposition to Jesus. (For information about the Pharisees, see Jesus—His Life and Message: Rulers and Religion.)
The scribes and Pharisees were meticulous about obeying the Torah (Law). If righteousness was understood as literal obedience to the Law, then there was no one more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees. For anyone to exceed their keeping of the Law was virtually impossible. However, the righteousness Jesus was speaking about wasn’t literal Law-keeping.
R. T. France wrote:
Jesus is not talking about beating the scribes and Pharisees at their own game, but about a different level or concept of righteousness altogether … Within that new regime [the kingdom of heaven], different standards apply. Those who are to belong to God’s new realm must move beyond literal observance of rules, however good and scriptural, to a new consciousness of what it means to please God, one which penetrates beneath the surface level of rules to be obeyed to a more radical openness to knowing and doing the underlying will of “your Father in heaven.”25
Jesus didn’t abolish the Old Testament. How could He, since it pointed to Him, and He fulfilled it? As we will see in the next verses of Matthew chapter 5, He moves beyond the concept that strict obedience to the Law brings righteousness, as He introduces a deeper understanding and application of the principles which stand behind the Law. In doing so, He reveals the inner attitude of spirit, which coincides with the Beatitudes, that brings forth the righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees.
(Continued in part two)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 5:17; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; 24:44; John 1:45.
2 Matthew 5:17–20.
3 Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 70. Bock, Jesus According to Scripture, 131.
4 For more on this saying, see Jesus—His Life and Message:Authority.
5 Matthew 1:22–23; 2:14–15, 17–18, 23; 4:13–16; 8:17; 12:17–21; 13:35; 21:4–5; 27:9–10.
6 Matthew 12:17–18. Quoted from Isaiah 42:1–4.
7 Matthew 8:17. Quoted from Isaiah 53:4–5.
8 Matthew 21:4–5. Quoted from Zechariah 9:9.
9 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 182.
10 Matthew 11:13.
11 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 183.
12 Many times Jesus uses the phrase “You have heard it said.” It is helpful to know that Jesus was using a rabbinic idiom in that phrase—the word “say” (amar) was used by the rabbis to mean “interpret” in terms of giving the proper interpretation of the scriptures as to how to apply its laws. Jesus often preceded his legal rulings with “You have heard it said” (meaning, others have interpreted God's word to mean one thing) and “but I say unto you” (meaning, I interpret it differently, in the following way).—Lois A. Tverberg, "Amar - You Have Heard It Said."
13 Bock, Jesus According to Scripture, 131.
14 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 183.
15 Bock, Jesus According to Scripture, 132.
16 Matthew 5:20.
17 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 186.
18 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Vol. 1 (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1989), 21.
19 Matthew 5:19.
20 For background on the meaning of basileia, see Jesus—His Life and Message: The Kingdom of God, Part 1.
21 Matthew 5:20.
22 Luke 7:30; 10:25; 11:45–46; 14:3.
23 Luke 5:17. Also Acts 5:34.
24 Luke 5:21; 14:1–6; 19:47; 22:66.
G. H. Twelftree, Scribes, in J. B. Green & S. McKnight, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 734–35.
25 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 190.