Jesus is bringing His Kingdom to a people oppressed by the kingdom of Rome. The audience of His Kingdom is the broken, the hurting, the sick, the poor and the needy – the outcasts (Matthew 4:23-25). What we don’t find is Jesus establishing nor advancing His kingdom through worldly contrivances, but through sacrifice, love, mercy and peace. This is key for Jesus’ disciples then and is key for His disciples now. Jesus isn’t building a kingdom through the strength of the world’s power systems, but through elevating the weak to prominence by His grace. Jesus begins teaching His disciples it is upon these people that God’s favor rests – if the disciples are going to spend their time living out Jesus’ teaching, it will be with those people that they go to. This is what Jesus prepared them for in Matthew 5:1-10, but He also warns them that bringing kingdom to those around them is risky business because it means you are robbing their current kingdom (Rome) of their citizenship. Persecution is sure to follow the one bringing Christ’s Kingdom – just as it followed Christ Himself. Nevertheless, they are the salt of the earth – to season and preserve it. They are the city built upon a hill. America has often been described as the city upon a hill and it has unfortunately through its government overreach that things of the disciples of Christ are stolen, whether it is the social/welfare programs or tax structures or what have you. Yet, the disciples of Christ are to be the shining city on the hill that the Outcasts see and the lights thereof beckon to them to come in.
As salt and as light, it begins to reveal that the purpose of living within the community is to expand it, not to keep it concealed and limited. This might come as a surprising observation to the Jewish community as they see their Law as a means to keep themselves separate and distinct from the world, yet, Jesus is going to show them that if that is there understanding, then they have completely missed the point of the Law. In fact, in light of their thinking, they may even accuse Jesus of coming to abolish the Law. Seeming to anticipate this accusation, Jesus makes it clear what His purpose is:
Matthew 5:17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. 5:18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot [smallest Greek letter] or one tittle [the stroke of a pen] shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
We often view the Law as this massive, unaccomplishable life-time task that God gave to the Jews knowing full well they couldn’t keep it and He did so just to prove to them they couldn’t keep it–that’s why Jesus had to come to be the One who forever actually kept all of the Law perfectly since no other man had the ability to do so. Seems kind of odd that we position this about God’s motive for giving the Law. Do we really believe that God has set the precedent that He sets up men for failure so He can prove them that they are failures? But, this is how we often think of it and therefore, Jesus came to keep the Law in its entirety so we don’t have to be burdened with trying. However, this is not what’s in mind when Jesus says He came to fulfill the Law, for it is drawing on something much more meaningful.
Could Jesus have kept the entire Law? In Deuteronomy 24:5, a newly married husband is freed from military service for one year so he can enjoy his wife and their new marriage. Did Jesus practice this–did He keep this precept of the Law? What about Leviticus 15 where rules are given regarding cleansing rituals that are supposed to take place for a menstruating woman. Did Jesus keep this? These are just two examples, but I think it should be clear that the Law is not designed to be kept, in its entirety, by every person. There are aspects of the Law that are gender-specific. Likewise, there are aspects of the Law that deal with what the sinner does after he sins – did Jesus keep this as well? I think you see the point.
The idea behind fulfilling the law here cannot be “practicing all aspects of the Law”, but is rather the idea of living out the Law as it was intended to be lived. In other words, Jesus is going to show how to interpret the Scriptures, which is not just an intellectual exercise, but a life lived in accordance thereto. To fulfill the Law is to live it out correctly. To abolish the Law is to interpret it incorrectly, both intellectually and practically. It should also be noted that the Law, or the Torah, was the first 5 books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It isn’t just 613 commands, but the entire narrative of these books. The word Torah means “teaching” or “instruction”. The Levitical codes were part of the Law, but are not the exhaustive representation of it. When Jesus fulfills Torah, He is likewise living out the other lessons that exist within these books – He lives out what new creation is; He lives out faith like Abraham and so on. But, Jesus living isn’t limited to Torah, but likewise to the Prophets. How would Jesus walk out or live out the Prophets? If you consider the message of the prophets, you should see that in Jesus’ life. You’ll see the loving husband pleading for his unfaithful wife of Hosea. You’ll see the justice for the poor and needy that Amos calls for. You’ll see the Day of the Lord that Joel speaks of. You’ll see the suffering servant of Isaiah. You’ll see the husband of the new covenant of Jeremiah. You’ll see the salvation of the outsider of Jonah. Jesus is the walking embodiment of how to interpret your Bible correctly. But, this isn’t just to show off to His kinsmen, but is to set the standard for what fulfilling Torah looks like for a disciple of His. Keeping Torah is about loving God and loving your neighbor. It is how you treat people in relation to how you view God’s treatment of you. We will see this as the rest of chapter 5 unfolds. No, Jesus is not come to do away with the Law or the Prophets, but to show exactly what they have been designed to be teaching all along. In fact, Jesus makes a statement that is borderline silly to make His point – heaven and earth (the universe) would have to pass away before the very smallest detail of Torah would be done away with.
Matthew 5:19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 5:20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Not only will the Law never be done away with, but likewise, if you teach others to break the commandments, you will find your status in the kingdom as very minimal. Yet, this isn’t reciting legal code for the sake of recitation, but is what you do in your walk and interpretation of Torah that teachings others. Verse 20 demonstrates this difference. It is easy to think Jesus is saying that there is some linear scale of righteousness and you are standing on the line but the Pharisees are in front of you and you need to find out how to jump ahead of them. This is the wrong way to look at this. Jesus has been talking about how our lives are to be evidence of His Kingdom – evidence of our citizenship therein. What Jesus is saying is that if you consider the righteousness that Pharisees possess, your righteousness needs to be above theirs, or, on a completely different scale. The Pharisees sought their righteousness through the strictest obedience to Torah, but also the traditional teachings about Torah (what ultimately becomes known as the Mishna and the Talmud). These were 6,000 additional precepts that if they kept those, then they would be sure to never break Torah. Yet, Jesus is not speaking about simply checking off a list of precepts each day, as the Pharisees would, but is speaking about a righteousness that stems from living out Torah correctly – to love God and to love your neighbor. Therefore, except you see righteousness as the product of something completely different than the Pharisees, you’ll have no hope of entering into the Kingdom. Jesus’ view on Torah is very radical, then and now. The traditional Jewish mind sees Torah as the means by which one controls their outside, but, Jesus is showing that Torah’s purpose has always been about transforming your inside. Torah was never given to keep you from the unlovely, but was given to help you be more sensitive to the unlovely’s cause. When Jesus and the disciples confront someone with leprosy, the typical Jew would declare them to be unclean and keep their distance, but the law never prohibited the Jew from going to the outcast – it simply prescribed cleansing rituals for if (and when) you do. The leper was quarantined from the camp to keep the spread of disease down, but at no time was a Jew prohibited from going to a leper and loving them. Jesus exchanged the uncleanliness of the leper for the leper to experience peace and healing – that’s what fulfilling Torah is all about! It wasn’t about keeping your outside under control, but transforming your heart. Remember how often Paul speaks about the “bowels of mercy”? It’s about the inside. Fulfilling Torah is transformative–that’s the righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees. Man may look upon the outward appearance, but God looks upon the heart.
Jesus’ kingdom of heaven is all about love, mercy and peace and is good news to the world because it is a home for the Outcast. Jesus is about to dive into some aspects of Torah where He is going to show what living out Torah is supposed to look like. We are going to see how Torah was not just about not killing or not committing adultery (things of the outside), but were all along about things we harbor in our hearts (the inside). We’ll begin to explore these as the rest of chapter 5 unfolds.
Our story continues…