Better than Moses, Matt 5:17ff
(Note: the audio has bits that are not in the notes.)
The Sermon on the Mount covers chapters 5 - 7 in Matthew's gospel. The context is shortly after His temptation and the very beginning of His public ministry. Large crowds had begun to follow Him. Matthew 5:1-2 When He saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain, and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. Then He began to teach them. "Disciples" in this setting refers to the large crowds that followed Jesus from time to time; these people were not His 12 that we read of later.
After telling them about the characteristics of the people in His kingdom (the beatitudes, salt and light, city on a hill), Jesus abruptly shifts gears. He begins to transition into His main point: He is not just a prophet, He is greater than the greatest prophet YHWH had ever raised up. Here’s how He is compared in Hebrews 3:5-6 Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s household, as a testimony to what would be said ⌊in the future⌋. But Christ was faithful as a Son over His household. And we are that household if we hold on to the courage and the confidence of our hope. To be that household mean we are sons. Paul tells us we are no longer servants but sons of God; and since we are sons, we are heirs (Gal 4:7). What a contrast! Moses is described as faithful servant; Jesus is termed the faithful Son over the household of God. And we are sons of God through faith in Christ. This is the hinge-point of the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus unveiling Himself to pious Jews who desired to see the Messiah.
Matthew 5:17-20 (HCSB) “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so 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, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
I. Jesus said He did not come to destroy the Law OR the Prophets. The phrase "the Law AND the Prophets" is a normal reference to the entire collection of Scripture known to the Jews, our "Old Testament." Jesus used a different phrasing, as if to separate Moses from the rest of the leaders of national Israel. This is to heighten the contrast between Moses and Christ.
Jesus was speaking to Jews, their lives were ruled by Moses' Law. Jesus is the fulfillment of every type portrayed in the Old Covenant - whether prophet, priest, judge, or king. The Law of Moses and all the prophets pointed to the promised Seed. He is the fulfillment of all of them. He was born under the law (Gal 4:4). He completed His work of redemption (John 19:30). He came to fulfill all righteousness (Matt 3:15). He blotted out the written ordinance (Col 2:14). Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for all who believe (Rom 10:4). In Christ we have been brought near to God by the blood of Christ; He tore down the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, abolishing the law of commandments (this clearly refers to the Mosaic Law) (Eph 2:12-15). This word, abolish, does not mean the law was removed from Scripture, as if it no longer exists. As covenant law between God and national Israel, that which kept them separate from other nations, it was abolished; the Mosaic Covenant and its law were brought to their planned end by the redemptive work of Christ. He did not come to destroy it, but to bring about its predetermined end. By His redemptive work, the Law was fulfilled - for the promised seed had met every requirement of that Law.
But some say the Law of Moses is still in effect, why? A friend of mine used to say that humans are hard-wired for works righteousness; we naturally love to show off how good we are, at least in our own eyes. This is a dangerous way to live and it’s deadly theology. Paul dealt with folks who were drifting into this perspective in Galatia. Galatians 3:2-3 I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? Not only cannot you not begin your Christian life by law-keeping, you cannot complete it by law-keeping!
In the ditch on the other side of the road, there are some who care not enough about the Word of God that they are willing to unhinge the Law and the Prophets from Christian life. I heard one fellow Baptist say he would be happy if the Ten Commandments were thrown in the trash. Paul tells us the Law of Moses served a purpose - not to bring about righteousness but to show the power of sin. This makes the need of imputed righteousness all the more clear. The Law of Moses was given as guardian for national Israel to keep them as the people of God who were to bring the promised Seed to fruition. Once Christ came, that law ceased to function as Israel's guardian. But as Scripture, it is useful for edification, if used properly: not to be thrown away nor imposed a legal requirement that binds us.
Not only was the Law fulfilled, the prophets were. How were the Prophets of the OT fulfilled? One example – Isaiah. When he was sent by YHWH, it was to preach to Israel. Isaiah 6:9-10 Go! Say to these people: Keep listening, but do not understand; keep looking, but do not perceive. Dull the minds of these people; deafen their ears and blind their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their minds, turn back, and be healed. Listen to Jesus Mark 4:10-12 When He was alone with the Twelve, those who were around Him asked Him about the parables. He answered them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables so that they may look and look, yet not perceive; they may listen and listen, yet not understand; otherwise, they might turn back— and be forgiven.” Jesus is the greater prophet Who brought salvation to His people, not everyone.
As every prophet, judge, priest, and king given to national Israel failed to bring about righteousness to that people, the only prophet capable of bestowing righteousness to His people came in the person of Jesus. And He is the prophet, high priest, judge of all flesh, and King of kings! Fred Zaspel has commented, "The old law was not "full" in itself; it had a forward look. It anticipated a "fulfilling" which in Christ's teaching finally came to perfect realization." This applies to the Law and to the prophets.
II. Verse 18 For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Only two verses in, and we have some of the most controversial things to look at! Note the strange construction of this sentence: Until heaven and earth pass away, nothing will pass from the law until all things are accomplished. Which phrase controls the continuation of the Mosaic Law? Does the first phrase, about heaven and earth, refer to the end of this age? The last phrase, all things being accomplished; does that refer to the redemptive work of Christ?
Charles John Ellicott's commentary is one of the few that does not get bogged down on the “smallest stroke” of the law; he reviews these descriptive phrases. He thought the first phrase was intended to reinforce the unchangeable nature of God's Word. We can be sure that every letter of Scripture will be available to God's people until the end of the age. In the age to come we will see Him as He is - the living Word - and we will be with Him forever. Ellicott saw the last phrase referring to the redemptive work of Christ. Most commentators maintain that Jesus was referring to His work of redemption AND His judgment of all flesh at the end of the age. Some claim that refers to Jesus' fulfilling the law. All three views can be supported, but not completely. The latter view, referring to everything Christ does before the end of the age, is aligned with the first phrase, emphasizing the security of the written Word until the living Word returns.
Here's what we can conclude: The Old Testament cannot be unhinged from our studies. But the New Covenant, brought about by the work of Jesus, has ended the Old Covenant, breaking the bonds of the ministry of death and changing how those laws apply to His New Covenant people. By rightly understanding our status in the New Covenant, we can determine how to apply OT teaching and which laws from the old do not apply at all - that is "rightly dividing the Word," by viewing all of Scripture through the lens of Christ Jesus and His redemptive work. We know Moses accuses those who put their hopes in him; he pointed to One Who was greater than himself (John 5:45-46), just as John the baptizer did. When Jesus comes the second time, He will judge the nations, gather His people, and make all things new. And the living Word will be among His people and the written Word will have fulfilled its purpose.
III. Matthew 5:19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches people to do so 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. Here's the question we must answer: what are “these commands” to which Jesus refers? Again, Fred Zaspel is helpful.
First, it could be taken very literally to mean that throughout this age the church should continue to observe every detail of the Mosaic law. But given the teaching that is capsulized in the book of Hebrews, few Christians would want to go this far. Second, it could be taken to mean that the moral law in general and/or the decalogue in particular should continue to be observed throughout this age. This is the standard Reformed position. But it would be difficult to understand "these least commandments" as a reference to this "weightier" aspect of the law! Further, it introduces a literary division of the law which is extraneous to the passage: it is every last "jot and tittle" that is in view _ not just the 10 words.
I would add that breaking the least of the Mosaic laws meant you had broken the whole Law (Jas 2:10) and breaking one of those “moral laws” carved on the tablets of stone would get you put to death by stoning (Deut 17:2-7). How would it make sense to say whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom if the penalty for doing so was death – for those in the kingdom? Another small thing – Jesus referred to “these commands,” not “the commandments” which is the normal way biblical writers refer to the Decalogue.
If Jesus wasn’t referring to the entire Mosaic Law or the Decalogue, what’s left? There are two more possibilities. Either Jesus is speaking of how the Law of Moses was fulfilled in Him OR He was pointing forward to the balance of His sermon. I going to assert that Jesus meant to draw attention to the balance of His sermon – all the more so because of verse 20, which was designed to be provocative: For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
IV. Who are the least and greatest in the kingdom that Jesus mentioned? Those who break the least of the commands are least and those keep all are the greatest. In Matthew 23 Jesus pronounces a series of woes on the religious leaders; verse 23 in that chapter is relevant: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy, and faith. These things should have been done without neglecting the others. Here we see the error of dissecting God’s law and doing (while teaching others to follow) some but breaking others. Jesus says in His kingdom, those who do such things are least (if anyone is in the kingdom he has been born from above by the Spirit of God). If we claim that we can divide up the Law of Moses into three categories and ignore two of them while claiming the third to be binding on the saints – are we not doing the same thing for which Jesus rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees? If we teach people to love God but don’t teach or model how to love our neighbor, are we not doing the same thing for which Jesus rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees? If we do, we are the least in the kingdom.
Contrary wise – who is the greatest? He who practices and teaches ALL that Christ has commanded. The Great Commission – make disciples, teaching them ALL I have commanded you. The first and greatest commandment – love God with ALL your heart, ALL your soul, ALL our strength, and ALL your mind. Weep and wail because you cannot do these; but rejoice if you are in Christ, for He alone is able. Who is greatest in the kingdom? None but Jesus! Not you, not mot me, not Moses. None of us should ever think we can meet that requirement, even as we strive to do so.
To enter the kingdom one must possess more righteousness than the Scribes and Pharisees. If we are not categorically better than them in law-keeping and discipling, how can we enter the kingdom? That is the question these first century Jews faced; it’s the question that faces anyone who reads the Scriptures. Every Jew considered these two groups of people to be the most religious people on the planet; that meant they were very righteous. No human could be more righteous than the Pharisees and Scribes – unless he possessed an alien righteousness. How can this be? That is the right question. This is why we must be born again, for only the imputed righteousness of Christ can enable us to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Let him who boasts, boast only in the Lord!
V. The Greater Prophet. Having given them a brief summation of the characteristics of His kingdom people (verses 1-16), He then told the crowd what kingdom life looks like – concluding with establishing Himself as more righteous than their religious leaders. In verse 21 through the end of the chapter, Jesus asserts His position as the greater prophet, making 6 “You have heard it said … But I say unto you” statements. How do we read these and what difference does it make? There are three ways this passage has been interpreted.
a.) Many reformers, people who build under the cover of the WCF or the 1689, claim Jesus is giving the "thick reading" of the TEN COMMANDMENTS, telling His audience what Moses really meant. You will search in vain for anything in the Old Testament indicating this. These reformers want this to be the case because their confessions assert the Law of Moses as the way of sanctification. But Jesus is not Moses' interpreter and Paul would say to these people, Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? Also from Gal 3: For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” He is not an interpreter of Moses - He is the greater prophet Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy 18:18.
b.) Some folks, including some Reformed folk and those who hold to the "New Perspectives of Paul," claim Jesus is addressing the erroneous way the first century Pharisees taught the Law of Moses. This theory doesn't work for the same reason the first doesn’t: because every "you have heard it said" comment by Jesus is a direct quote from the Law of Moses. There is no mention or hint of Him addressing the myriad errors of the Pharisees in this passage – He simply quotes Moses.
In at least two of the six contrasts, Jesus explicitly does not teach the "true meaning" of Moses' Law nor does He build upon it. In speaking about divorce He throws out the liberal provisions of the Mosaic Law and imposes a far more restrictive rule. John Reisinger observed that “Moses allowed for divorce for uncleanness; but he mandated death for adultery (Deut 22:22). When Christ gives his new law that allow for divorce only in the case of adultery, he overturns the law that mandates death for adultery.” In His discussion of "an eye for an eye and tooth for tooth" Jesus says His people are not to resist evildoers; as Paul would say in 1 Cor 5, within the brotherhood we are to embrace being defrauded rather than take a brother to a civil court. The Old Covenant law provided for retribution; the New Covenant command is to suffer harm rather than vengeance – for vengeance belongs to YHWH.
Neither of these two teachings can be reconciled to the Mosaic Law. Jesus was not merely interpreting Moses; He was not merely correcting the Pharisees. If correcting the Pharisees was Jesus' intention, He would have likely said something like we read in Mark 7:10-11 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)." In this passage, He contrasts the Law of Moses with the traditions of man which make the Word of God void; in the Sermon on the Mount, He contrasts the Law of Moses with His Law. What was He doing? Jesus was giving new law from this greater prophet Who is the new law-giver.
c.) The right way is to see Jesus explaining the nature of His kingdom. First century Jews were looking for a renewal of earthly Jerusalem in all its glory; Jesus was announcing the soon coming of spiritual Israel and how it differs from earthly Israel; He was announcing Himself as Moses' greater prophet. A.T. Robertson, early 20th century Baptist, said, "Jesus now assumes a tone of superiority over the Mosaic regulations." It may be hard to fathom, but Jews and Samaritans in Jesus' day were convinced that being physically related to Abraham and doing your best (in your own eyes) to keep Moses' Law was good enough. That law given to guard a mostly unbelieving people is not suited for a people ruled by the Holy Spirit living within them. Rather than looking to a written code, we look to the Savior, Who is the righteousness of God. All we have need of is provided by our union with Christ; nothing we have need of is available outside that union.
In his book on this passage of Scripture, But I Say Unto You, John Reisinger observed, "In the Sermon on the Mount, the new lawgiver contrasts his teaching, based on the gracious covenant he established, with the teaching of Moses, based on a covenant of law." He further commented, "He (Jesus) replaces Moses in exactly the same way he replaces Aaron." New prophet, priesthood, and a New Covenant which, by necessity, brought about a change in law. There is no absence of law in the New Covenant, there is a new law with a new purpose, given by a new law-giver.
Summary. The Sermon on the Mount ends with Jesus asserting His Words are what men need to submit to and obey. This is why I believe Jesus was pointing forward, to the balance of His sermon when He mentioned the “least of these commands.” No mention of the Mosaic Law for sanctification, but the words of this prophet. And the people, Jews, were astonished.
Matthew 7:24-29 “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of Mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. And its collapse was great!” When Jesus had finished this sermon, the crowds were astonished at His teaching, because He was teaching them like one who had authority, and not like their scribes. We read that nothing would pass from the Law of Moses until heaven and earth pass away; Jesus would later say, Matthew 24:35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away. The Law of Moses was for a time and place; the words of Christ are eternal.
Jesus is the new lawgiver for life in the New Covenant; He is not merely a greater teacher of what Moses was given. Many teach we are to look to Christ for salvation but look to Moses for sanctification. The first century Jews believed the law of Moses was “the great guarantee of holy living and sanctification.” Paul taught them they who were in Christ were no longer under the law but under grace (Rom 6:14). He went on in chapter 7 to explain how they were to walk: Romans 7:4-6 Therefore, my brothers, you also were put to death in relation to the law through the ⌊crucified⌋ body of the Messiah, so that you may belong to another—to Him who was raised from the dead—that we may bear fruit for God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions operated through the law in every part of us and bore fruit for death. But now we have been released from the law, since we have died to what held us, so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old letter of the law. Jews had been under the heavy yoke of Moses’ Law. By faith in Christ, they died to the law and, having been set free (if Christ has set you free you are free indeed!) they are to serve in the NEW WAY of the Spirit and not in the OLD letter of the law.
This is the instruction for us, though we never were under Moses’ Law, we were a law unto ourselves (Rom 2:14). And while we lived in the flesh, our sinful passions worked in us just as they did in those Jews Paul was addressing. And verse 6 was written for us, just as it was for those Jewish Christians Paul was addressing, even though different laws were at work: But now we have been released from the law, since we have died to what held us, so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old letter of the law. Learn from all of Scripture as you seek to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord. But do not shrink back and seek safety in law – look unto Christ daily and His Spirit will equip and guide you to do what is pleasing in His sight. The greater prophet has come, and He alone is our safe refuge.