The Law and the Prophets: Matthew 5:17-48 (Sermon)



What does it look like to follow Jesus? What does Jesus want? Honestly, I can get caught up in the prevailing winds of the day and not know it. What I mean is that I can go with the flow and live my life on autopilot. I can feel good when I do good, get my devotions done, and go to church. Or, I can feel bad when I sin, and people are upset. The barometer of my heart is based on performance and circumstance from time to time. All too often, I can go from pride in my accomplishments to condemnation in a minute. I want to follow Jesus; I think I do for the most part, but I face these two problems: pride and condemnation. What do we do with those feelings and thoughts? Today, in our Bibles, Jesus will unfold a way of living that helps us avoid those dangers and bring us back to the beatitudes. Jesus has a standard that he can meet, but we can’t, and that fact drives us to him. Jesus has a bar he can meet, but we can’t, which moves us to him.


We are going to read a long passage of Scripture. I will not have you stand. We are back in the book of Matthew, chapter 5, verses 17 through 48. I am going to have a bunch of readers. If you have a Bible, let me encourage you to follow along. If you are reading, you can come up here now. When Jesus taught this, he worked through chapters five through seven. Let’s hear this selection as if we are sitting at Jesus’s feet, and he is teaching us. 



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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 


21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 


27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. 


31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 


33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. 


38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 


43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 


48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:17–48)


Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for your Word. It is light and life for us. Teach us your ways. Lead us on the path everlasting. Guides us now. We pray in Jesus’s name, amen.


So, where have we been? Matthew began by introducing us to Jesus. Who is he? He is the son of Abraham, the son of David. He is the Messiah, the Christ. He is the fulfillment of prophecies. He will save his people from their sins (1:21). He will be called Immanuel, God with us (1:23). He is the Son of God, beloved and filled with the Holy Spirit. In chapter 4, Matthew begins to tell us what Jesus did. He is in Galilee, the land of the Gentiles, preaching the coming kingdom of heaven and calling for repentance. He healed the sick and cast out demons. Many followed him. He chose a few to be his disciples. Then, in chapter 5, Matthew goes from telling us who Jesus is and what he did to what he taught. Jesus went up to a mountainside, sat down, and his disciples gathered at his feet. There he communicated about the heart and lives of those who follow him into his heavenly kingdom. They are the poor in spirit, the meek, the sorrowful, the hungering and thirsting for righteousness, purity, and peace. These are the unlikely candidates for kingdom ownership, royalty, and heavenly stock. Oh, and they will be persecuted. And Jesus said his followers were salt and light. They flavor, preserve, enhance, and bless the world so that the world might bless God. Then we get to our passage for this morning. 


Yesterday, we finished a workshop with some of the church’s elders and a few other friends training in the Scriptures so that they can better handle the Word in teaching. We used principles from Word Partners, the organization Pastor Jeff works with part-time. One of the principles we taught was structure. If we understand the structure of Jesus’s message, it helps us understand his point. Here is the structure as I see it, 

  1. In verses 17 through 20, Jesus introduced his role with the law and how it relates to his followers and the religious leaders. 

  2. Then, he expanded on six different laws in verses 21 through 47.

    1. This includes murder, adultery, divorce, promises, retaliation, and love.

    2. In each, he quoted the Old Testament. 

    3. Then he commented on each law.

      1. His comments go from outward the face value obedience to the letter of the law to the heart principle. 

  3. Jesus concluded the six laws with a final standard: perfection (48). 

    1. The weight of this conclusion forces the hearer back to the beatitudes. 

    2. What Jesus can do, we can’t, and that fact drives us to him. 


Jesus completes the Law. He fulfills the Law. These laws are not simply things one can check off the list for us to be proud of. The melodic line of these verses flows from Jesus’s earlier words:  

Repent because only Jesus fulfills the Law 

Let me say that again,

Repent because only Jesus fulfills the Law 


Let’s go verse by verse to see this call for ourselves. Check out verse 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” (Matthew 5:17).  

When Jesus said Law, that is a code word for the first five books of the Bible. When he used the word “prophets,” I think it stands for the rest of the Old Testament. Why did he say this? He is a type of Moses, a prophet, going up on a mountainside to teach about blessing, the kingdom of heaven, and what the following looks like. Perhaps some might think he will do away with the law, so he clarified. He didn’t come to earth to chuck the Old Testament. They talk about the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as different. That is not right. Some in our day would deny the value and validity of the Old Testament. Jesus would not, and we should not. He completes it. What does that mean? Jesus was the perfect law keeper. He was pure and spotless and blameless. He never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). Not only did he obey the Law, but in a sense, he kept it on our behalf. God views his righteousness as ours. Theologians call this imputation. Another way of looking at it is that he was and is our substitute. He took our place. He took our sins, and we received his righteousness by faith. Jesus has authority, credibility, and integrity regarding God’s Law. 


Jesus was not done with his message. He had just begun. Look at verse 18. He told us more. 

“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” (Matthew 5:18). 

The iota and dot are the smallest markings in the Hebrew alphabet. They indicate how authoritative Jesus views the Old Testament. The Bible is a book unlike any other. Jesus was saying the law would stand until the end. There will no longer need to be a law when the new heaven and new earth come because God will write his law on hearts. And there will be no more sin. Yet, until that time, he is sanctifying or purifying his people. And the world will be rebelling against his laws. Until that time, the Law continues. It is accomplishing God’s purpose. It demands satisfaction and defines what is right and wrong, good and evil. 


Jesus continued and moved from walking about him, the law, to the people and the kingdom.  

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. (Matthew 5:19) 


What is the kingdom? It is not an earthly place. It is not a political entity. It is not the land of Israel. It is not like that. It is spiritual and heavenly. Jesus will tell us more about it in the coming chapters. 


Jesus told us in verse 19 who in the kingdom of heaven is least. It is those who play fast and loose with the Law. Interestingly, he didn’t say they would be out of the kingdom. I think the hearer might relate to being lax. He or she might even take comfort in that. They may think, “Sin is not that big of a deal. God is loving. God is good. He is kind and forgiving.” 


Jesus followed that talk of least with the talk of greatest. Who is that? Jesus fits that bill. Who else? The Pharisees and teachers of the Law, the scribes. Don’t you think? They are the experts of the Law. However, the next verse will counter that line of thinking. 


This is the shocker. Look at verse 20. 

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). 

Woah! Do you remember what John the Baptist called the Pharisees and scribes? A brood of vipers. Why? Why would Jesus and John be so harsh? Why would they compare them to snakes? What character quality do snakes have? The serpent in the Garden of Eden in Genesis was the deceiver. In the same way, we see that the Pharisees and scribes, for the most part, were not seeking God but for selfish gain. They were not there to help God’s people follow God’s ways. In chapters 12 and 23, this will become very apparent. Jesus called them out, saying,  

“You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

And later, he laid into the scribes and Pharisees with the pronouncements of woe’s. 

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Matthew 23:29–33)

The Pharisees were not being poor in spirit, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, or pure in heart. They were all about appearance, profit, and self. They were proud. They neglected the interior. Their religious pedigree was superb. However, their hearts were cold. Think how they would have heard the Sermon on the Mount. They may not have been there, but this message was likely not the only time Jesus taught it. They spent their entire life working toward perfection and outward adherence to rules and traditions. And Jesus implied they wouldn’t go to heaven based on their actions. No wonder they wanted to kill him. You can see why Jesus and his followers would face persecution for teaching like this.   


How would the disciples hear verse 20? Perhaps they would say, “There is certainly no hope for me.” They may feel condemned. They may despair and lose hope. Or, maybe they would think, “What does Jesus mean by law? What rules could they follow to get into heaven?” If I were them, I might go to the obvious ones, murder, adultery, and lying. Jesus does just that. Often when talking about the goodness of self, I have heard people say, “I haven’t killed anybody.” After this statement about the right way before God, Jesus tackled six laws in the Old Testament. The first was about murder. And he goes to the heart. Perhaps, you don’t struggle in the heart with anger. Maybe you are not that angry with a person. If you don’t have a problem with anger, you might have a problem with lust. Those two laws knock out most of us as lawbreakers or compromisers and unquestionably not righteous. Jesus raised the bar with the subsequent laws on marriage, oaths, revenge, and love. We will discuss these in the coming weeks. They damn our conscience. Yet, what if you went through Jesus’s list and thought, “I am pretty good. I have kept my promises. I am not lusty or angry. Instead, I am a nice guy, even to the fools on the street.” That is why I think Jesus said what he said in verse 48. This is the mic drop. 


Look there. 

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  



This summer, when I was doing my marathon with my brother. I had trained well. I had done one other marathon before. My brother had not. I was confident at mile five that I would kick into high gear at mile twenty-two and leave him in the dust. I felt the same at mile ten. I began to let my brother know that we were free to run at our own pace at that time. I felt terrific at mile fifteen. I still had juice in my legs. Then, I got to mile nineteen. My knees hurt with shearing pain on the sides of the kneecap. The pounding of all those miles got to me. We were going up what we thought was the last hill. He showed me the course on his watch. It was a long hill. We thought we were almost done. The markings on the route weren’t excellent; my mind wasn’t working. We had no spectators, no music, no masses of people. We were on a trail on an island in Lake Superior seven miles from the finish line. We were moving slowly. We thought we saw the top. We said when we get to the top, we will stop. The hill curved. We got closer and closer. And we realized at the turn that the hill kept going. We misjudged where the top was. My knees hurt so bad. I went from confident to wondering if my knees would break.  

I think these verses are like that race in a way. We believe we are doing well. We feel pretty good, but then we see it is more challenging than we imagined. So we can’t go on. 


I finished the race, by the way, we had to walk a bit, but we made it. Now, what if I got to the end, and they said to finish, I had to go another four miles for the 50k race? I would not have been able to make it. This passage ends kind of like Jesus saying something like that. Be perfect. Why does he say that? When we have nothing left and can’t go further. To get to the heavenly kingdom, you need to be perfect. How in the world is that supposed to happen? This is where I picture the straw that breaks the camel’s back. That is why I think this Scripture portion calls the follower back to the beatitudes. I believe this is a call to  

Repent, because only Jesus can fulfill the law

He can do what we can’t, which drives us to him. What do I mean by repentance? Move towards being poor in spirit; then yours is the kingdom of heaven. It is okay to mourn because you will be comforted. It is good to hunger and thirst for righteousness because you will be filled. God meets the humble and dependant and needy, not the arrogant. He goes to the hospital: the sick. I was here to give blood earlier this week. This building looked like a hospital with people on beds, IVs, and medical equipment. The room looks different now. But we are still a hospital. But we aren’t giving blood but remembering Jesus’s blood shed for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus came to heal not only physical wounds but the spiritual as well. God is a great physician. Our job is to repent because only Jesus can fulfill the law.


The apostle Paul taught this. Let’s read it outloud in unison.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1–4)

Therefore brothers and sisters, 

Repent, because only Jesus can fulfill the law

By grace, we are saved from the wrath of God for our law-breaking. Jesus has become our perfection. He is our hope. He fulfilled the Law on our behalf. Through him, we have forgiveness, peace, and heaven’s kingdom. We are no longer slaves to sins but sons and daughters of righteousness because of Jesus’s blood. 


Have you ever heard this before? Do you live under the weight of guilt and shame? Repent and be saved. Jesus died to forgive us for all who trust in him. We cannot enter heaven without his mercy and grace. 


What if you think you are doing well and don’t need this? Here is a challenge, try to be perfect this week. Tell me how it goes. I think you will fail; I have, and everyone I know. But, then, when that experiment is over, join us and trust in Jesus. He was perfect and gave himself on the cross for this reason. It is precisely what we celebrate in communion. 


Let’s pray. 

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