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The Sermon on the Mount

Phony Righteousness Exposed<

Matthew 5:17-21
17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

Can laws survive without religion?

Or more specifically, without the God of the Bible?

John MacArthur states the following in his commentary on Matthew:

In a recent book titled The Interaction of Law and Religion (Nashville: Abingdon, 1974), Harold J. Berman, professor of law at Harvard University, has developed a significant thesis. He notes that Western culture has had a massive loss of confidence in law and in religion. One of the most important causes of this double loss of confidence is the radical separation that has been made between the two. Berman concludes that you cannot have workable rules for behavior without religion, because only religion provides an absolute base on which morality and law can be based. The author fears that western society is doomed to relativism in law because of the loss of an absolute. When men break away from the idea of an authoritative religion, and even from the concept of God, they break away from the possibility of absolute truth. Their only remaining resource is existential relativism, a slippery, unstable, and ever-changing base on which no authoritative system of law or morals can be built. Religionless law can never command authority.

In that book Professor Berman notes that “Thomas Franck of New York University [has observed that law] in contrast to religion ’has become undisguisedly a pragmatic human process. It is made by men and it lays no claim to divine origin or eternal validity.’ ” (p.. 27). Berman says that this observation

leads Professor Franck to the view that a judge, in reaching a decision, is not propounding a truth but is rather experimenting in the solution of a problem, and if his decision is reversed by a higher court or if it is subsequently overruled, that does not mean it was wrong but only that it was, or became in the course of time, unsatisfactory. Having broken away from religion, Franck states, law is now characterized by “existential relativism?” Indeed, it is now generally recognized “that no judicial decision is ever ‘final,’ that the law both follows the event (is not eternal or certain) and is made by man (is not divine or True).” (pp. 27–28)

Professor Berman goes on to ask, “If law is merely an experiment, and if judicial decisions are only hunches, why should individuals or groups of people observe those legal rules or commands that do not conform to their own interests?” (p. 28)

MacArthur, J., Matthew, Chicago: Moody Press, 1989.

Would Jesus agree?

Matthew 5:17-20 (NKJV)
17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

Many Bibles give section titles to different passages.  This one might be called “Jesus Fulfills the Law.”  The issue involves what Christ means by saying He fulfills the law.  Further, we are back to the doctrine of righteousness. 

What is righteousness?

How do we obtain it?

Were the Pharisees righteous?


For that matter, how can a man fulfill the law, a set of rules?

Matthew’s Gospel is an apologetic, a defense, of the Good News of Jesus written to the Jewish people.  The Apostle’s goal is to prove Jesus is the long awaited Messiah, the King from the House of David.  As such, Matthew makes great use of the Old Testament.  One of his goals in writing the Gospel is to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah by showing how many of the Old Testament prophecies Jesus fulfills.  Fulfillment, thus, becomes a key trait of this Gospel.  Further, more than the other Gospels, Matthew has Jesus upholding His positions by directly quoting the Old Testament.  Jesus holds to and links with correct tradition.

As hard as all of the Gospels are upon the Pharisees and other religious leaders, it is important to remember that there are specific points of agreement between Jesus and the Pharisees.

Each holds Moses in high regard.

Each wants to uphold the Law.

Each expects good works of the Jewish people.

Normally Jesus, as well as the rest of the religious community, speaks of the Law and the prophets.  This is one method of referring to the entire Old Testament.  Here, however, Jesus speaks of the Law or the prophets.  Jesus is not referring to the collective writings but to the various groups of writers, each in turn.  This is done to demonstrate that there is a sequence to the revelation of God’s righteousness, a sequence that ends with Jesus.

Law à [Wisdom Poetry] à Prophets à Jesus

Each grouping of God’s revelation talks of righteousness.  They speak of the same righteousness, not some novelty or change.  For the Jews, this is clear in the sections of the Old Testament.  Jesus makes the point here that He fits right in line with the other revelators.

Still, the practical effect is that Jesus is talking about the entire Old Testament.  He is just looking at the groups of writers rather than the writings themselves.  The distinction may be somewhat irrelevant.

If you consider all four Gospels, you will realize that the religious leaders decided very earlier in the career of Jesus that Christ spoke about a different revelation than they did.  This dispute grows over time until we arrive at the Cross.  They all felt that Jesus was attempting to break with the past by introducing new teachings.  By proclaiming that He did not come to destroy the law, Jesus was claiming to fit into the same chain of revelation that the religious leaders alleged to uphold.

If we intend to reform affairs that are in a state of disarray we should always exercise such prudence and moderation as will convince the people that we are not opposing the eternal Word of God, or introducing any novelty that is contrary to Scripture. We must take care that no suspicion of such conflict shall injure the faith of the godly, and that rash men shall not be emboldened by a pretence of novelty.

---John Calvin, as quoted by W. Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-2001, Page 288.

Calvin, Peter (Acts 2), Paul (Rom. 3:21; Gal. 3:6–22), and Jesus all make the same point.  The Old Testament reveals God’s righteousness.  God is Holy and He expects His people to be holy.  In this passage, Jesus dismisses any charges His enemies might bring against Him that He is proclaiming a new doctrine.  The “righteousness of the kingdom” is the righteousness of the Old Testament.  Jesus is about to demonstrate that His ministry is in harmony with the Old Testament.  Without Jesus the Old Testament is incomplete and unfulfilled.

The Pharisees have buried the righteousness of God under a mound of traditions, “the commandments of men” (Matt 15:9; Titus 1:14).  As such, the Pharisees were teaching that salvation was by works of the Law.  This changes the teachings of the Old Testament since salvation and righteousness comes by faith (Gen 15:6).  God’s way has always been by faith and obedience.

We might note here that the term “law” is actually used four different ways in Scripture.  Its usage is almost always determined by context.

Law == the Ten Commandments

Law == the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch

Law == the entire Old Testament

Law == the traditions of the Pharisees and scribes, the commandments of men

If we change Jesus’ statement from a negative to a positive, Christ says, “I have come to fulfill the law . . . by being Who I am, by speaking in the manner I speak, by teaching what I teach, and by living the way I live.”  In all He was and was to do Jesus fulfills all of the prophecy of the Old Testament and demonstrates for us God’s righteousness.  As such, Jesus fulfills all of the requirements of the Law as well as fulfilling all of the predictions of the prophets.

As such, Jesus Himself is the fulfillment – not jut His actions.  He fulfills all of the law – moral, judicial, and ceremonial.

In stating that He had come to fulfill the Law, we also see a positive statement here at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel wherein Jesus says He knew why He was on earth.  He foreknew His mission and its outcome.  Jesus is fully conscious of His Messianic mission.

What’s in a period? 

If you look at your computer keyboard, you cannot find a mark in the English language smaller than a period, followed by a comma or an apostrophe.  If verse 18 were in English, it would real something like “not one comma or period will disappear from the sentence.”  Jesus is saying that not a single little spec of the law will disappear before it is all fulfilled.  The law will last as long as the heavens and the earth.

The clear point of these two verses is that the Law will not disappear until its mission has been successfully completed.  We must be careful with how we present this concept.  The law does not disappear until the present heavens and earth disappear.  Thus, the law lives beyond the Cross, notwithstanding the fact that Paul tells us Christians are not subject to the law.

Remember that during lesson 1 we talked about the fact that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is presenting the concepts of the kingdom of heaven to the Jewish people.  The rules of this community are for the Jewish people.  We have not yet arrived at the rejection of Messiah by the Jewish, the Cross, and the formation of the Church.  As such, for the Jewish people, the law still has a precise purpose.  That purpose might be stated as being a teacher to lead the Jewish people to their Messiah. 

However, the law is also a statement of God’s righteousness.  As interpreted by Jesus, the law is not a path to salvation but the rules for living in the kingdom of heaven.  Accordingly, the moral life of the Christian should parallel the moral life of a citizen of the kingdom.  Our rules of life, the Law of the Spirit, become essentially the same as the moral laws of the kingdom.  We need to pay special attention to the spiritual teachings of Christ, for they are the same spiritual rules we live under.

I might add that another way to understand this is to think of the law as nothing more than the name of the Old Testament.  WE the church still need and read the Old Testament in order to understand all of the teachings of the New Testament.  We will need the entire Bible until the Second Coming and our arrival in heaven.  Only then will we no longer need the Bible, at which time both parts of the written Word will disappear.

19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Is the law weightier or heavier?

Are some parts of the law weightier than others?

The rabbis or teachers of the law were rightly concerned with proper obedience of God’s Word.  In their zeal they took it upon themselves to classify the law, presumably so the people could more easily apply it.  Further, they spent much of their time in debates over the proper ranking of the law.  The results?

613 Commandments -- Of these

248 are positive

365 are negative

The “lightest” is probably Deut. 22:6 (“You shall not carry off the mother-bird together with her young”) – in other words, this was this was the least significant of the commandments.

What was the heaviest or one of greatest significance?

Mark 12:28-34 (NKJV)
28 Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” 29 Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. 31 And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 So the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. 33 And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” But after that no one dared question Him.

What we discover in verse 19 is that even if there is a priority to the law, even the lightest commandment is important and must be obeyed.  Just because one part of the law is not as important as another, a person does not have the right to skip that less important portion.  As James puts it:

James 2:10 (NKJV)
10 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.

This provides a very “high” view of the law.  Do you have such a high view of God’s demands for obedience on your part? 

Jesus sees the entire Old Testament as important.  Jesus desires that we all view the law in this fashion.  While this may seem confusing since Paul frequently talks of a Christian not being subject to the law, it is important to understand that the Apostle is thinking about one’s path to salvation.  Just as the Rabbi’s were wrong in see “works by/of/in the law” as the pathway to God, so we should have the same view.  Salvation and the road back to God comes by faith.  However, once we are part of the kingdom, once the Jews were part of the kingdom, it is incumbent upon us to live our lives by God’s rules.  God’s moral rules are summed up on the law, a law which is good and holy.

Romans 7:12 (NKJV)
12 Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.

1 Timothy 1:8-11 (NKJV)
8 But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, 9 knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, 10 for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.

Just as the law has a sequence of priority, apparently there will be degrees of standing in heaven.  Recognizing that members of the kingdom may still break the commandments, Jesus emphasizes that a person who breaks a commandment AND teaches others to follow suit receives a demotion in the kingdom to come.  Most commentators view this as a willful violation of the commandments.  The opposite is also true.  The person who both practices and teaches the truth is great in the kingdom (cf. Matt 18:1-4; 1 John 2:28-3:3).

As such there is a strong sense in which it may be said that salvation is both by faith and by works.  Our entrance to heaven is by faith.  Our standing in heaven and our rewards in heaven are all on the basis of works (Eccl. 12:14; Matt. 25:35–45; I Cor. 15:41, 42; Rom. 2:16; II Cor. 5:10; and Rev. 20:12, 13).

Greatness is not determined by spiritual gifts, money, success, popularity, reputation, standing in the community, or size of ministry-but by your view of Scripture as revealed in your life and teaching.

20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.


Jesus returns to the “battle.”  Even in this first major sermon of His ministry, Jesus is already taking on the religious leaders.  He has demonstrated His own high view of God’s Word and His relationship to the Old Testament.  Now He specifically exhorts the crowd to follow the path of true righteousness and not the path of the scribes and Pharisees.  In fact, Christ goes so far as to say the path of the religious leaders does not lead to the kingdom!


We have already seen in the Beatitudes the characteristics required for entrance into the kingdom.  However, for the most part, those statements were very broad in nature.  Starting next week we will study a series of examples whereby Jesus compares the righteousness of the Pharisees with the true righteousness of God.  This verse acts as the conclusion of the more general statements and one’s standing in the kingdom as well as acting as the transition to the examples.


The scribes are the teachers of the laws.  They were not necessarily Pharisees (some were Sadducees) and would have been called rabbi.  The Pharisees should be viewed as one of the political / religious parties of Israel (the other being the Sadducees).  For the most part, they shared the same view points.  The Pharisees attempted to compel the people to follow the teachings of the scribes, while, at the same time, outwardly living as though they, too, followed these teachings, while inwardly, and in private, they continually broke the law themselves.


Although this is looking ahead, we will find the following comparisons between the righteousness of the Pharisees and the righteousness of God:


Another way to describe the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is that it was:

These two listings are very similar and I believe you can understand the second by considering the first.

God’s righteousness is perfect and He demands perfect righteousness.  Christ is our righteousness (1 Cor 1:30) thus we have perfect righteousness and will get into heaven.  Nevertheless, this section recognizes there is also a practical righteousness that comes in our daily living.  Our task is to be obedient to God and make this righteousness as perfect as possible.

The Leader’s Manual has the following summary chart on p. 33:


Pharisees and Scribe

Correct Understanding of OT

Incorrect Understanding of OT

Right Life

Wrong Life

Fulfilled the Law

Destroyed the Law

Likewise on p. 36 on righteousness:

True Righteousness

False Righteousness

The Bible is authority

I am the authority on the Bible

The Bible is inerrant and sufficient

The Bible is open to interpretation

The Bible humbles me.

The Bible promotes me.+

Where do you stand in all of this?




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