- Habakkuk 2:14: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
- 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 tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Here Jesus proceeds to show the superiority of His message to that of the law of Moses. God’s moral and ceremonial laws were given to help people love God with all their hearts and minds. But throughout Israel’s history, these laws had often been misquoted and misapplied. By this time, the religious leaders had turned the laws into a confusing mass of Rules.
What did the Jewish people know of the law? They knew of two great laws:
- The Law of God (Ten Commandments, moral law)
- The Law of Moses (ceremonial law and sacrificial law)
What’s the relationship between the two? If an Israelite sinned, he broke the moral law of the Ten Commandments, the Law of God. Then he had to follow the Law of Moses and make an offering to receive forgiveness. When an Israelite sinned, he broke the first law. To make atonement for sin, he had to obey the second law. Thus, the moral law defines sin and the Mosaic law defines the remedy for sin.
What did the Jewish people know of the Pharisees?
The Pharisees were a group of very zealous Jewish leaders who took their faith seriously. They believed that they way to please God and make it to heaven was to meticulously follow a long list of religious rules and regulations.
The foundation of the Pharisaical rules was the Mosaic law just mentioned. This law, given to the people of the Old Testament, includes 613 commandments. Over time, the Jewish leaders began to slowly add to these laws. Their original intent was to clarify the law but they ended up adding layers of complicated regulations.
For example, the 4th commandment – keep the Sabbath holy – was meant to keep Jews from working on the Sabbath (Saturday). The Jewish leaders created 39 separate categories of “work” and within those categories are many subcategories. Thus, there are thousands of sub-rules to follow.
The Pharisees prided themselves on following the letter of the Mosaic law but they clarified it and followed the letter of their man-made rules. They were only concerned with the external appearance of keeping the law rather than the inward spirit of the law.
Matthew 23:27-28: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
What was Jesus saying?
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.”
When Jesus talked about a new way to understand God’s law, He was trying to bring people back to its original purpose. Jesus did not speak against the law itself but against the abuses and excuses to which the people had been subjected. Jesus makes it clear, “I have not come to abolish them.” He takes the law beyond mere outward observance to the inner spiritual intention of what God intended. He came to “fulfill” the law and its fullest implications.
Jesus not only bore our sins but established a perfect righteousness which is given to us as a gift of God. Our sins were ascribed to Him and His righteousness was ascribed to us. Jesus Christ, our true passover lamb, permanently took the place of the Mosaic law when He cried out “It is finished” and bowed His head and died that Friday afternoon. When that unseen hand tore the temple curtain from the top down, the ceremonial law that pointed the people to Christ’s sacrificial death was once and for all nailed to the cross.
Hebrews 10:8-10: “First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’ – though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
The first covenant had the ordinances of this ceremonial system but they are gone in the new covenant, leaving only the Ten Commandments, which God writes on our hearts and minds (see verse 10).
Question: If Jesus did not come to destroy the law, does that mean all the Old Testament laws still apply today?
In the Old Testament, there are three categories of law: ceremonial, civil, and moral.
- Ceremonial law related to Israel’s worship. The primary purpose was to point forward to Jesus Christ. But after Jesus’ death and resurrection, those laws are no longer necessary. We are free to worship and love God without rules.
- Civil laws applied to daily living in Israel. Because of our modern society and culture are so radically different from over 2000 years ago, most of those guidelines cannot be followed. However, the principles behind them are timeless and they should guide us today.
- Moral laws such as the Ten Commandments are a direct command from God and require strict obedience. The moral law reveals the nature and will of God and still applies today. Jesus obeyed the moral law completely.
Verse 18: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law until everything is accomplished.”
This verse reaffirms the absolute authority of all the Scriptures down to the smallest components of individual words. They will endure for all time, “until everything is accomplished.”
With the coming of Jesus, many aspects of the law have been brought to completion, e.g., the need for sacrifices. Other requirements of the law, like loving God and our neighbor, endure until Jesus comes again.
In the KJV, the text says, “till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”
What is a jot and what is a tittle?
A jot is the tenth letter in the Hebrew alphabet and the smallest. It was written above the line and looks like an apostrophe.
Jot is related to our modern English word iota, meaning “a very small amount.” The Hebrew spelling is yod or yodh. Many Bibles have a picture of a yod in Psalm 119. Check out the section title coming just before verse 73.
A tittle is even smaller than a jot. A tittle is a letter extension, a pen stroke that can differentiate one Hebrew letter from another. An example can be seen in the comparison between the Hebrew letters resh and daleth (or dalet).
The resh (on the left) is made with one smooth stroke. The daleth (on the right) is made with two strokes of the pen. The letters are very similar to each other, but the distinguishing mark of the daleth is the small extension of the roof of the letter.
That extension is a tittle.
Because of the seriousness of the law, Jesus was emphasizing the importance of keeping even the smallest detail.
Verse 19: “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
In God’s overall plan, the law was not to become an extra burden on the souls of men. Rather, to point the way of salvation, the law convinced men of their need of a Savior. Jesus was challenging some of the Pharisees and scribes on their view of ranking God’s priorities and misconstruing God’s will and, even worse, of leading others astray.
Verse 20: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Because righteousness is a requirement to enter heaven, Jesus declared to the people that their righteousness should, “surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.” The significance here is that the people of that time considered the scribes and Pharisees to be the most religious in all of Israel. They were looked upon as having arrived at the highest level of religion. The scribes were the most noted teachers of the law and the Pharisees were the most celebrated professors of the law. The people did not think themselves to be as good as them. So it greatly surprised them to hear that they must be better than them or they would not go to heaven.
The scribes and Pharisees’ religion was merely an outward show of righteousness, not from the heart. They did not allow God to change their hearts or attitudes. Jesus demands a kind of righteousness that is so godly that it cannot be a product of human effort, but a gift of God. Christ would establish this righteousness in his life and death and it would be made available as God’s free gift. This righteousness would exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
God judges our hearts as well as our works, for it is in the heart that our real allegiance lies. Jesus was saying that his listeners and all Christians need a different kind of righteousness altogether (love and obedience), not just a more intense version of the Pharisees’ righteousness.
Romans 2:12-13: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”
How would having the knowledge of the glory of the Lord affect these ideas? How should we apply what Jesus said?
Galatians 6:2: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Our righteousness must:
- Come from what God does in us, not what we can do by ourselves
- Be God-centered, not self-centered
- Be based on reverence for God, not approval from people
- Go beyond keeping the law to living by the principles behind the law
JOURNEY: Y – YOU
NEXT LEVEL STEP(S): LOVE. Examine your righteousness. Where does it come from?