Matthew 5:17-20


Matt. 5:17-20

Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to destroy them but to fulfil them. This is the truth I tell you–until the heaven and the earth shall pass away, the smallest letter or the smallest part of any letter shall not pass away from the Law, until all things in it shall be performed. So then, whoever will break one of the least of these commandments, and will teach others to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of the Heavens; but whoever will do them and will teach others to do them, he will be called great in the Kingdom of the Heavens. For I tell you, that you will certainly not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the Scribes and Pharisees.

At a first reading it might well be held that this is the most astonishing statement that Jesus made in the whole Sermon on the Mount. In this statement Jesus lays down the eternal character of the Law; and yet Paul can say, “Christ is the end of the Law” (Rom.10:4).

Again and again Jesus broke what the Jews called the Law. He did not observe the handwashings that the Law laid down; he healed sick people on the Sabbath, although the Law forbade such healings; he was in fact condemned and crucified as a law-breaker; and yet here he seems to speak of the Law with a veneration and a reverence that no Rabbi or Pharisee could exceed. The smallest letter–the letter which the King James Version calls the jot–was the Hebrew letter yod. In form, it was like an apostrophe–‘–; not even a letter not much bigger than a dot was to pass away. The smallest part of the letter–what the King James Version calls the tittle–is what we call the serif, the little projecting part at the foot of a letter, the little line at each side of the foot of, for example, the letter “I”. Jesus seems to lay it down that the law is so sacred that not the smallest detail of it will ever pass away.

Some people have been so puzzled by this saying that they have come to the conclusion that Jesus could not have said it. They have suggested that, since Matthew is the most Jewish of the gospels, and since Matthew wrote it specially to convince Jews, this is a saying which Matthew put into Jesus’ mouth, and that this is not a saying of Jesus at all. But that is a weak argument, for this is a saying which is indeed so unlikely that no one would have invented it; it is so unlikely a saying that Jesus must have said it; and when we come to see what it really means, we will see that it is inevitable that Jesus should have said it.

The Jews used the expression The Law in four different ways. (i) They used it to mean the Ten Commandments. (ii) They used it to mean the first five books of the Bible. That part of the Bible which is known as the Pentateuch–which literally means The Five Rolls–was to the Jew The Law par excellence and was to them by far the most important part of the Bible. (iii) They used the phrase The Law and the prophets to mean the whole of Scripture; they used it as a comprehensive description of what we would call the whole Old Testament. (iv) They used it to mean the Oral or the Scribal Law.

In the time of Jesus it was the last meaning which was commonest; and it was in fact this Scribal Law which both Jesus and Paul so utterly condemned. What, then, was this Scribal Law?

In the Old Testament itself we find very few rules and regulations; what we do find are great, broad principles which a man must himself take and interpret under God’s guidance, and apply to the individual situations in life. In the Ten Commandments we find no rules and regulations at all; they are each one of them great principles out of which a man must find his own rules for life. To the later Jews these great principles did not seem enough. They held that the Law was divine, and that in it God had said his last word, and that therefore everything must be in it. If a thing was not in the Law explicitly it must be there implicitly. They therefore argued that out of the Law it must be possible to deduce a rule and a regulation for every possible situation in life. So there arose a race of men called the Scribes who made it the business of their lives to reduce the great principles of the Law to literally thousands upon thousands of rules and regulations.

We may best see this in action. The Law lays it down that the Sabbath Day is to be kept holy, and that on it no work is to be done. That is a great principle. But the Jewish legalists had a passion for definition. So they asked: What is work?

All kinds of things were classified as work. For instance, to carry a burden on the Sabbath Day is to work. But next a burden has to be defined. So the Scribal Law lays it down that a burden is “food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, paper enough to write a customs house notice upon, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, reed enough to make a pen”–and so on endlessly. So they spent endless hours arguing whether a man could or could not lift a lamp from one place to another on the Sabbath, whether a tailor committed a sin if he went out with a needle in his robe, whether a woman might wear a broach or false hair, even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth or an artificial limb, if a man might lift his child on the Sabbath Day. These things to them were the essence of religion. Their religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations.

To write was to work on the Sabbath. But writing has to be defined. So the definition runs: “He who writes two letters of the alphabet with his right or with his left hand, whether of one kind or of two kinds, if they are written with different inks or in different languages, is guilty. Even if he should write two letters from forgetfulness, he is guilty, whether he has written them with ink or with paint, red chalk, vitriol, or anything which makes a permanent mark. Also he that writes on two walls that form an angle, or on two tablets of his account book so that they can be read together is guilty … But, if anyone writes with dark fluid, with fruit juice, or in the dust of the road, or in sand, or in anything which does not make a permanent mark, he is not guilty…. If he writes one letter on the ground, and one on the wall of the house, or on two pages of a book, so that they cannot be read together, he is not guilty.” That is a typical passage from the Scribal Law; and that is what the orthodox Jew regarded as true religion and the true service of God.

To heal was to work on the Sabbath. Obviously this has to be defined. Healing was allowed when there was danger to life, and especially in troubles of the ear, nose and throat; but even then, steps could be taken only to keep the patient from becoming worse; no steps might be taken to make him get any better. So a plain bandage might to put on a wound, but no ointment; plain wadding might be put into a sore ear, but not medicated wadding.

The Scribes were the men who worked out these rules and regulations. The Pharisees, whose name means The Separated Ones, were the men who had separated themselves from all the ordinary activities of life to keep all these rules and regulations.

We can see the length to which this went from the following facts. For many generations this Scribal Law was never written down; it was the oral law, and it was handed down in the memory of generations of Scribes. In the middle of the third century A.D. a summary of it was made and codified. That summary is known as the Mishnah; it contains sixty-three tractates on various subjects of the Law, and in English makes a book of almost eight hundred pages. Later Jewish scholarship busied itself with making commentaries to explain the Mishnah. These commentaries are known as the Talmuds. Of the Jerusalem Talmud there are twelve printed volumes; and of the Babylonian Talmud there are sixty printed volumes.

To the strict orthodox Jew, in the time of Jesus, religion, serving God, was a matter of keeping thousands of legalistic rules and regulations; they regarded these petty rules and regulations as literally matters of life and death and eternal destiny. Clearly Jesus did not mean that not one of these rules and regulations was to pass away; repeatedly he broke them himself; and repeatedly he condemned them; that is certainly not what Jesus meant by the Law, for that is the kind of law that both Jesus and Paul condemned.


Matt. 5:17-20 (continued)

What then did Jesus mean by the Law? He said that he had not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfil the Law. That is to say, he came really to bring out the real meaning of the Law. What was the real meaning of the Law? Even behind the Scribal and Oral Law there was one great principle which the scribes and the Pharisees had imperfectly grasped. The one great principle was that in all things a man must seek God’s will, and that, when he knows it, he must dedicate his whole life to the obeying of it. The Scribes and Pharisees were right in seeking God’s will, and profoundly right in dedicating their lives to obeying it; they were wrong in finding that will in their man-made hordes of rules and regulations.

What then is the real principle behind the whole Law, that principle which Jesus came to fulfil, the true meaning of which he came to show’?

When we look at the Ten Commandments, which are the essence and the foundation of all law, we can see that their whole meaning can be summed up in one word–respect, or even better, reverence. Reverence for God and for the name of God, reverence for God’s day, respect for parents, respect for life, respect for property, respect for personality, respect for the truth and for another person’s good name, respect for oneself so that wrong desires may never master us–these are the fundamental principles behind the Ten Commandments, principles of reverence for God, and respect for our fellow men and for ourselves. Without them there can be no such thing as law. On them all law is based.

That reverence and that respect Jesus came to fulfil. He came to show men in actual life what reverence for God and respect for men are like. Justice, said the Greeks, consists in giving to God and to men that which is their due. Jesus came to show men in actual life what it means to give to God the reverence and to men the respect which are their due.

That reverence and that respect did not consist in obeying a multitude of petty rules and regulations. They consisted not in sacrifice, but in mercy; not in legalism but in love; not in prohibitions which demanded that men should not do things, but in the instruction to mould their lives on the positive commandment to love.

The reverence and the respect which are the basis of the Ten Commandments can never pass away; they are the permanent stuff of man’s relationship to God and to his fellow-men.


Matt. 5:17-20 (continued)

When Jesus spoke as he did about the Law and the Gospel, he was implicitly laying down certain broad principles.

(i) He was saying that there is a definite continuation between the past and the present. We must never look on life as a kind of battle between the past and the present. The present grows out of the past.

After Dunkirk, in the Second World War, there was a tendency on all hands to look for someone to blame for the disaster which had befallen the British forces, and there were many who wished to enter into bitter recriminations with those who had guided things in the past. At that time Mr. Winston Churchill, as he then was, said a very wise thing: “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

There had to be the Law before the Gospel could come. Men had to learn the difference between right and wrong; men had to learn their own human inability to cope with the demands of the law, and to respond to the commands of God; men had to learn a sense of sin and unworthiness and inadequacy. Men blame the past for many things–and often rightly–but it is equally, and even more, necessary to acknowledge our debt to the past. As Jesus saw it, it is man’s duty neither to forget nor to attempt to destroy the past, but to build upon the foundation of the past. We have entered into other men’s labours, and we must so labour that other men will enter into ours.

(ii) In this passage Jesus definitely warns men not to think that Christianity is easy. Men might say, “Christ is the end of the law; now I can do what I like.” Men might think that all the duties, all the responsibilities, all the demands are gone. But it is Jesus’ warning that the righteousness of the Christian must exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. What did he mean by that?

The motive under which the Scribes and Pharisees lived was the motive of law; their one aim and desire was to satisfy the demands of the Law. Now, at least theoretically, it is perfectly possible to satisfy the demands of the law; in one sense there can come a time when a man can say, “I have done all that the law demands; my duty is discharged; the law has no more claim on me.” But the motive under which the Christian lives is the motive of love; the Christian’s one desire is to show his wondering gratitude for the love wherewith God had loved him in Jesus Christ. Now, it is not even theoretically possible to satisfy the claims of love. If we love someone with all our hearts, we are bound to feel that if we gave them a lifetime’s service and adoration, if we offered them the sun and the moon and the stars, we would still not have offered enough. For love the whole realm of nature is an offering far too small.

The Jew aimed to satisfy the law of God; and to the demands of law there is always a limit. The Christian aims to show his gratitude for the love of God; and to the claims of love there is no limit in time or in eternity. Jesus set before men, not the law of God, but the love of God. Long ago Augustine said that the Christian life could be summed up in the one phrase: “Love God, and do what you like.” But when we realize how God has loved us, the one desire of life is to answer to that love, and that is the greatest task in all the world, for it presents a man with a task the like of which the man who thinks in terms of law never dreams of, and with an obligation more binding than the obligation to any law.


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