The Dawn Breaks: Freedom Breaking Through
We have evaluated the great verse on freedom, Galatians 5:1 and now I want to go back. I want to look a the first in-breaking of freedom in the gospel of Matthew. We find it in Matthew 5:17–20:
“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.” (Matthew 5:17–20 ESV)
This passage is insightful for us to begin getting a sense of Jesus’s thoughts on the law and of freedom. This passage from Matthew is unique, it is not found in the other synoptics or John (Luke 16:14–17 might be considered parallel but is so different that this is unlikely). However, there is a very clear allusion to this passage in Romans 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Paul’s epistle to the Romans came prior to Matthew’s writing of the gospel. Matthew was also very likely to be from Anitoch (which was Paul’s sending community). I think that we should be mindful of the influence of Paul and Matthew and Matthew on Paul. This reality will help us to determine in greater depth what is going on here in the narrative.
This passage is in the heart of the “Sermon on the Mount” and Jesus is speaking to the masses. Verse 17 is critical as it sets up the rest of the teaching, “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.” Why does Jesus say this? It is because he is setting the stage for what will follow where he says, “You have heard it said…But I tell you…” Jesus is making clear that he is in no way setting aside the Older Testament. He is taking it to the next level.
There are some disconcerting comments made in this passage. First, anyone who relaxes the law will be called least in the kingdom and to enter the kingdom of heaven you have to have greater righteousness than that of the Pharisees. This is an incredible statement! The Pharisees were amazingly righteous men. They had laws upon laws to make sure that they never broke a single law. The Pharisees fasted, prayed, and gave. They knew the Scriptures better than anyone (well except for Jesus, since he inspired them and all that! This is a hard teaching.
But, we have the rest of the story. Two key words that I want to point out: πληρῶσαι and γένηται these are the terms that we translate as “fulfill” and “accomplished”. These are key for us who have the rest of the story. πληρῶσαι is the Aorist Active Infintive. The aspect of the Aorist is a completed work. Jesus is saying that he will complete the fulfilling of the law and prophets. How can he do this? He can do this living a perfect life. He goes on to say that nothing will pass away from the Law until all is accomplished. All what? All the Law. Jesus did this. In himself he did all the law, he fulfilled it. In a singular moment he brought about the final and perfect fulfillment of the Law.
I hope the logic here is becoming clear. The righteousness that he talking about, the greater righteousness is his own. There is no hope of living the Law with perfection. One cannot do it apart from divine aid. The divine one, the God-man himself is the only one who can bring about this fulfillment. Therefore, as we trust in his faithful fulfillment we find our righteousness. Remember Romans 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
The dawn is breaking. The Law and the Prophets are fulfilled in Christ. We move from here to begin to see this reality played out on the stage of life. But, that’s for the next post.