Sermon: Jesus Came to Fulfill the Law Matthew 5:17-20

Truth Taught- Christians must seek to understand and by faith live by God’s law.


There are many debates today, as in Jesus’ day, about the Law of God.  Should the Christian seek to live according to the Law of God?  Is the Law of God binding today?  If it is, why don’t we teach and practice certain things contained in the Law of God? 

We live in a day and age in which the law of God is not loved or honored or regarded as it should be by people, even Christians. That probably doesn’t come as a great surprise though; because almost every age of human history has been an age in which the law of God was not loved, honored or regarded as it should have been. But what is, perhaps, most unusual about our time is that there are so many today who profess a faith in Jesus Christ, and yet believe that the law of God is something that – for this present age – is to be set aside.

The formal name for this belief is “antinomianism”. “Nomos” is the Greek word for “law”; and so, to be “antinomian” simply means to be “against law”, and to hold that the believer is no longer under obligation to preach or obey God’s Old Testament moral law. This very erroneous belief has made its way into the church at many points in its history. One notable occasion was through the early church heretic Marcion. His followers even went so far as to alter Jesus’ words to say, “Do not think that I came to fulfill the law, but rather to destroy it.”1 We even hear it today, when people say, “I’m sure glad that I live in the age of grace!” (which of course, is a true statement); but then go on to say, “And I’m glad that I have nothing further to do with the Old Testament law!” (which is an expression of an antinomian spirit). While it’s true that we are indeed set free from the “curse” of the law for our having failed to keep it, we are not set free from its standard of holiness. As the apostle John has written, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2-3).

I do want to put this subject to rest so we can enter our text with a clear frame of mind from the beginning.

Jesus is speaking to His followers in Matthew 5 not to the crowd in general.  So, the things He says pertains to believers not to the world. 


Matthew 5:17–20 (ESV)

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.

1.  No One Has Ever Been Justified by Keeping God’s Law

Galatians 2:15–16 (ESV)

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

The Law of God cannot justify anyone, yet many now and in the past have tried to work hard at keeping it with the hope that God would be merciful to them based on their efforts.  The Law of God cannot save us and was never intended to save us.  It is God’s standard of holiness.

However, the believer is, in fact, connected to the Law of God through Christ.  He obeyed God’s Law perfectly His entire life, this among other things qualified Jesus to be our Savior.  He lived a perfect Law-abiding life so that He could bear the penalty of all His people who failed to abide by the Law of God. 

Romans 6:23 (ESV)

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is through Christ and only through Him that the sinner is justified, declared righteous.  So, to get at this idea of the importance of the Law we must ask the question, righteousness by what or whose standard?  You see many today claim to be right or in right standing with God based on their own form or standards of righteousness.  They may say, I’m basically a good person or I’m no worse than that guy down the street who goes to church on Sundays.  The problem with their idea of righteousness is that they have the wrong standard.  How is righteousness that Jesus speaks of measured?  The standard is God’s Law not man’s assessment or a standard he has come up with. 

Romans 8:3–4 (ESV)

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.

In Christ, God views us as perfect Law keepers just like Jesus was.  In Christ, our penalty was paid because we did not keep the Law of God.  Now, we who walk by faith and not by sight must begin to actually conform to God’s Law. 

It should be a great encouragement to us that Jesus did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. It’s because He came to fulfill it for us! And it’s also why Jesus’ words should be a great exhortation to us. It’s because He fulfilled it for us in order to make us into ‘100% righteous law-keepers’ in God’s sight. And that new standing in God’s favor is why, as Jesus’ disciples, we should now obediently abide under the guidance of God’s good law and be progressively conformed to God’s holy character as the law reveals it to us.

Jesus is getting ready to begin the next part of the Sermon on the Mount where He is going to interpret the Law of God the way it was intended to be understood and applied.  This is not a new interpretation but one that had been lost over the centuries when those who pushed for the letter of the Law of God came into power. 

Strictly speaking the Law of God is found in the first five Books of the Bible…Genesis through Deuteronomy.  This was the Bible to many Jews.  Those who studied it discovered there are 613 commandments in this part of Scripture.  For those who were legalists, this was great material.  They often taught all the small technicalities and human additions to the Law of God but forgot the big picture or the spirit of the Law.  By the time the Pharisees had finished with God’s Law it was no longer the thing to be treasured and loved but an unbearable weight hung around the neck of the worshipper.  Their edition of God’s Law forfeited everything God had designed the Law to be.  God’s Law, understood correctly, is not burdensome but a joy to the believer.  This is what Jesus is setting out to show us as we continue through His wonderful and amazing Sermon on the Mount.   

2.  From Shadow to Reality     

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.

Jesus did not come to do away with God’s Law as we clearly see here.  The Law of God and Jesus are friends not enemies.  Jesus tells us that what God has set forth as His Law (Ten Commandments) and other commands of God and what the prophets said while speaking for God are still very much in place.  Literally, the entire Old Testament moral law is still binding and yet it is incomplete.  Jesus came to fill it up.

Here the word to fulfill is the Greek Word, plērōsai that means to fill up or level up.   

How did Jesus do this?

Let’s look at one example.  The OT lays out for the worshipper the system of animal sacrifice.  It’s very technical and must be followed to the tee.  There were regular animal sacrifices the people made based on what they could afford; either a ram, lamb or dove.  There were grain offerings and first fruit offerings etc.  There was the yearly Day of Atonement sacrifice made by the high priest.  Why don’t we, as Christians, practice animal sacrifices like the worshippers did in the OT?

The Book of Hebrews tells us that the OT sacrificial system was a shadow of what was to come in Jesus.  He is the fulfillment of the sacrificial system because the blood of bulls and goats cannot remove human sin Jesus was given a body to die for sin and be the finality of the sacrificial system.  Animal sacrifices cannot remove sin only the death/sacrifice of Jesus on the cross can take sin away.  Once the fulfillment is here the shadow is no longer needed.  He did away with one and established the other as Hebrews 10 tells us.  A sacrifice is still required but just not an animal sacrifice only Jesus’ death takes away sin for all who believe.  So, the Ceremonial Law has ended and Christ is now the only Sacrifice for sin we need.  The Law of God that speaks of a sacrifice for sin is not abolished but Jesus has filled it up in His one time sacrifice for sin.

Also, connect with this is the office of priest.  The office of priest is not abolished but Jesus has filled it up because now He is the Great High Priest so lesser priests are not needed.  God’s Law concerning the priest is not abolished but Jesus has filled it up. 

The Old Testament is the Gospel in bud, the New Testament is the Gospel in full flower.  The Old Testament is the Gospel in blade,; the New Testament is the Gospel in full ear.—J C Ryle

Jesus does not abolish the Law or the Prophets but He reveals the full depth of meaning it carries. 

That’s why Paul wrote this concerning Jesus and the Law…

Romans 10:1–4 (ESV)

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

In verse 18 of our text today, Jesus makes something clear.  His authority greatly exceeds that of Moses and yet it is in perfect conformity to the Law of Moses.

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.

What Is Jesus telling us here?  The iota is the smallest letter in Biblical Greek the jot or dot is a punctuation mark.  He’s telling us the even the ancient words written and punctuation marks used are part of God’s Law and they even they will never be abolished until all is fulfilled.  Jesus also affirms the fact that God’s written Law, our Bibles are binding and carry the authority of God.  Whether the sections are a direct quote of God or the writings of a prophet, what’s recorded for us in the Bible has the endorsement of God as His Word.

Jesus tells  none of God’s Law will pass away until all is fulfilled or filled up.  Jesus connects God’s Word with the Heavens and the earth.  What He tells us here is that the Law will not pass away until it is all fulfilled.  The last part of God’s Law to be fulfilled will be the New Heavens and the New Earth.  At the mighty rebirth of the universe God’s Law and the Old Heaven and Earth will pass away together.  When this happens God’s Word will be written on our hearts permanently and we will follow His decrees and commands perfectly in the New City of God. 

God will have moved us from shadow to ultimate reality; from our old fallen man to our glorified bodies; from sin to perfection; from our old dilapidated houses to the place prepared for us.

3.  From a Works Righteousness to an Imputed Righteousness

 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.

Therefore Jesus says…based on the fact that God’s Law will not pass away until it is all fulfilled and it’s not all fulfilled yet we must be diligent to practice it and teach it. 

Our Lord also connects the Law of God and the Kingdom of God here in this section.  The greatest in the Kingdom of God is the one who practices and teaches God’s Law the way Jesus practiced and taught it.  To conform to the image of Christ then, is to conform to the authority of God’s Law. 

Jesus tells us the least in the Kingdom are those who relax the least of the commandments of God.  This word, relax means to loosen the grip the Law of God has upon our consciences.  To disregard it as it is pressing on our conscience. 

There are two possibilities here when God’s Law presses on our conscience, we either water down the Law and its demands or we harden our consciences to it.  To do this places us in danger because God’s Word must not be rewritten or wrongly interpreted.

So, we see that the Kingdom and the Law are connected.  Then Jesus takes things another step by warning us that 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

One thing that stands out here is the righteousness is a requirement for entering heaven.  The Pharisees practiced a righteousness that we need to beat if we are ever to even enter the Kingdom of God.  These guys saw hundreds of commands in the OT and set rules in place to help them obey these commandments.  How can our righteousness exceed the Pharisees?  These guys fasted multiple times every week.  How can our righteousness exceed theirs?  Can you feel the weight of Jesus’ statement?  What an impact this saying must have had on those who were in the crowd along with His disciples who thought the Pharisees were the models of righteousness.

Beloved our righteousness exceeds theirs in two ways…

            A.  Our righteousness exceeds theirs because it’s an imputed by faith      righteousness

Romans 4:1–8 (ESV)

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

   “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,

and whose sins are covered;

   blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV)

21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Philippians 3:9 (ESV)

and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—

As believers, our righteousness exceeds the Pharisees because what we have been given is the very righteousness of Jesus Christ that comes to us by faith alone and not by works or seeking to obey all the technicalities of the Law.

B.  Our righteousness exceeds theirs because it’s a different kind of righteousness

Our righteousness is a deeper righteousness than the Pharisees’ righteousness.  We may not succeed in all the hundreds of commandments found in the OT all the time.  However, our righteousness is not on the level of do’s and don’ts but is deeper in that it is a righteousness of the heart.  Their righteousness is a formal external obedience, a rigid conformity to the letter of the Law; Jesus teaches that God requires a far more radical Law keeping in the inner person.  He desires law keeping from the heart, because the Lord looks at the heart not on externals. 

Jeremiah 31:33–34 (ESV)

33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Ezekiel 36:27 (ESV)

27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

Giving us the Holy Spirit at salvation is God placing His Law within our hearts. 

So as believers we are growing in obedience not out of a rigid conformity to a set of rules for fear of being punished but we begin to walk in God’s commands as a way of life because this is joy for us and not a burden.  We want to obey to please God as His children not to avoid punishment. 

So, the biblical conclusion to who will see the Kingdom of God are those whom God has placed His Spirit within and are walking in the Spirit because we have been brought from death to life.

Our righteousness exceeds the Scribes and Pharisees because it is an imputed righteousness, which comes from Christ and it, exceeds theirs because it is heart righteousness not an external rigid conformity to the letter of the Law.

The rest of the Sermon on the Mount contains examples of this greater righteousness…

Jesus will use a literary marker to explain these to us…

Matthew 5:21–22 (ESV)

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old… 22 But I say to you

Here the King corrects the world’s thinking and speaks by His own authority.

If we have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us and the Holy Spirit living within us we will begin the process of sanctification whereby our heart righteousness will begin to cause us to love the Law of God as it points us to the God we love.  Seek to walk in God’s commands through faith in Christ because you love God and desire to see Him honored with your life.

So, there is only one way our righteousness will exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.  Only through Christ will God accept us as righteous.  Come to Christ today and receive God’s perfect righteousness.

*Resources Used:

Matthew by D A Carson in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary

A Theology of Matthew by Charles Quarles

A Gospel of Matthew by France

Matthew by Craig Bloomberg

Matthew by Doriani

Matthew by Charles Price

Matthew by Leon Morris

Blue Letter Bible

%d bloggers like this: