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.
A few thoughts for meditation:
As Jesus taught his disciples, he was often challenged with the accusation that he was teaching something new which the Old Testament did not teach, especially when he emphasized grace to sinners. But here, Jesus explained that what he taught was nothing new. He did not come to abolish anything from the Old Testament but to fulfill it both in his own obedience and in the obedience required of his disciples. The emphasis on fulfillment here likely refers to the rigorous moral demands of the law, as we will see in the rest of the chapter. Jesus explained how the moral demands applied to the desires of the heart, not just the outward actions. This too was taught in the Old Testament (i.e. thou shalt not covet…) even though it was often forgotten. But Jesus also fulfilled the Old Testament Scripture in other ways. He fulfilled the promises, types, and shadows of the Old Covenant as well. The Exodus redemption, the prophets, kings, priests, sacrifices, even the dietary laws, all pointed to some aspect of his work of redemption. And once he arrived, their provisional instructive status was fulfilled and completed.
Jesus then pronounced a judgment on any teachers of the law who relaxed the demands of the law and taught others to do the same. God’s moral law is non-negotiable. It is the way we were designed to live as men made in the image of God. Any deviation from it only leads to our spiritual harm and destruction. These are the Father’s loving commands given to his children for their flourishing and protection. Only the most faithful teachers would be considered great by God. Those who compromised would be considered least. This directly challenged the pride of a teacher who seeks popular approval. It’s very easy for a preacher to relax the law and gain a large following of people in the short term. But such a preacher will not receive any applause from God for leading his children astray into dangerous conditions.
Finally, Jesus finished with a jaw-dropping statement. At least it would have been to the people of his day. If you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the most zealous in Israel at the time for holy living. They were considered the spiritual rock-stars and titans of their day. Outwardly, they would have looked like that. They would have appeared like many prominent successful preachers today in our eyes. They took the Bible seriously. They defended the faith the most against the influence of the pagan world. They kept the religious traditions and history alive. And in fact added even more rules to make sure they didn’t break God’s rules, falling into legalism. But Jesus said even that level of righteousness was not enough to enter heaven. In order to enter heaven, you must have a perfect righteousness.
The effect of this pronouncement was twofold. First, it crushed human pride and boasting. This was an impossible standard for any mere man to meet on his own. For those who took this statement seriously, it drove them to their knees to plead with God for mercy. Second, it forced such people to realize that such a standard was only obtainable by grace alone. God had to act on their behalf. The Old Testament promised that grace as well. That is what Jesus came to do for lost sinners. Through his work of redemption we can exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees as a gift of grace. Through faith in Christ, the perfect righteousness of Christ is counted as our own, so that we can be declared righteous in God’s sight and accepted into his kingdom as a free gift. But even more, through faith in Christ we are gradually transformed into righteous people inside and out. That is how God saves us by grace. He saves us from both the guilt and the power of sin. These are the twin blessings of immediate justification and progressive sanctification. Not only does he cleanse our record but he cleanses our hearts so that when we finally stand before God after death, we shall be completely transformed into a righteous man, like Christ himself. The solution to legalism is not relaxing the law. Neither is the solution to moral laxity more legalism. Instead, we need more of Jesus. Genuine love and gratitude to Christ removes the need for man-made rules or traditions to keep us faithful. When we are forgiven and changed by Christ, and know Christ more, that love fuels the desire for genuine repentance and obedience from the heart to our God and Savior.