Matthew5v17to20: LAW AND GRACE


At first sight this may seem an unappealing passage to any Christian depending upon God's grace for salvation. Paul's epistles tend to stress the absolute necessity of grace for salvation before emphasising the virtues that should follow from being a new creature in Christ Jesus. In comparison to Paul Jesus might seem quite legalistic. I hope to show that there is, in fact, no real difference between Jesus and Paul in the matter of salvation.

I believe that a failure to appreciate the ironies of Jesus gives rise to several misunderstandings of his teaching. We do not always do Jesus any favours by taking all his teaching literally.

(1) Jesus completed the revelation of God's will begun in the Old Testament. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them."

Jesus fulfilled what the Old Testament taught about:

(a) How sin could be atoned for. On the Day of Atonement the High Priest killed a goat and sprinkled its blood on the atonement cover of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies to atone for the nation's sins. See Lev16v15to17.

Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice on the cross at Calvary. He offered himself to atone for mankind's every sin. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from ALL sin.

The efficacy of both the Old Testament sacrifices and the death of Jesus on the cross relies on God's grace in accepting a token payment made to atone for sin. Jesus brought the sacrificial system to completion.

(b) How to maintain a good relationship with God. Moses made it absolutely clear how the Israelites were to maintain a good and blessed relationship with God. See Dt26v16to19 and Dt28v1and2. All would go well for the Jews if only they obeyed God.

In the same way Jesus taught that obedience was the best evidence of our love for him and our favour with God. See Jn15v9to17 and 1Jn2v3to6.

(c) How to enjoy a good relationship with our fellow men. A good number of the Old Testament laws existed to maintain a satisfactory relationship between men and women. Jesus referred to some of these laws later in the chapter as, for example, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.'" See Ex21v24, Lev24v20 and Dt19v21. This law prohibits the escalation of violence. There is always a tendency when someone hurts us to inflict greater hurt by way of retaliation. I can remember as a boy trying to get out of the P.E. changing room without success because Ralph was hanging on to the door. When at last he released the door I punched him on the chest. He retaliated by hitting me - hard - six or seven times.

Jesus brings to completion the law preventing the escalation of violence by teaching his followers to eschew retaliation all together. He said: "If someone strikes you on the right cheek turn to him the other also." If only this teaching was followed there would be much less human misery.

(2) Jesus makes changes to the revealed will of God. "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." AV.

I have quoted from the AV because I love the expression not 'one jot or tittle.' It is a bit reminiscent of our English expression: dot the i's and cross the t's which means: take care over the detail. A jot and tittle were tiny little marks in the Hebrew script.

Now it does not make sense to take Jesus' assertion literally that he would not change so much as a jot or a tittle of the Law. It seems much more likely that he was quoting a popular saying of the day ironically. Luke includes a saying very similar to this one of Matthew's in a chapter of ironies. Two parables and three sayings are put together in Luke16 which only have one thing in common - they are all ironical.

So when Jesus says not the smallest - not the tiniest - not the teeniest change can ever be made to the Law he means the opposite of what he says. When Jesus made the final sacrifice for sin all the rules and regulations regarding animal offerings became redundant. This is what the writer to the Hebrews asserts in Heb8v27 and Heb10v11to18. He states categorically: There is no longer any sacrifice for sin.

Jesus, himself, made it clear that God no longer considered ceremonial cleanliness to be important. Adherence to rules about diet and ritual washings might once have been significant in identifying the Jews as a special people but the time had come to practice personal holiness. See Mt15v10to20. A man might be scrupulous about washing his hands before a meal and straining his wine to remove gnats but be wholly unscrupulous in his business dealings. He strains at a gnat but swallows a camel!!

Jesus taught in order to improve human relationships. One only has to read a passage like Lk6v27to36 to see the incredibly high standard of conduct Jesus expects of his disciples. Jesus said: "If anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back." Lk6v30. I can remember once including some testimonies that appeared in a Christian publication as part of an exposition for this website. I wrote and told the editor of the Christian magazine how much I appreciated the testimonies and that I had used them on my website. His response was swift and emphatic: remove them at once - I was in breach of copyright. I replied by saying I had given him a wonderful opportunity to implement Jesus' teaching of Luke6v30 - but to no avail. The law of copyright trumped anything Jesus might have said!

(3) How to shine as citizen's of God's kingdom. Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. v19.

A model citizen of the kingdom of heaven lives by the teaching of Jesus. The Beatitudes are a brief statement of the conduct Jesus expects of his subjects. Are these frequently taught in our churches? I think it much more likely that congregations know the 10 commandments than the eight Beatitudes. What a difference it would make if we:

  • Exercised self control and did not live at the mercy of our passions.

  • Were really committed to, and enthusiastic about, doing good. There would be no drones left in our churches.

  • Were kind - kind not just to those we like but kind to those we dislike and with whom we disagree. This would make church unity a living reality.

  • Helped others to succeed by giving practical advice and assistance to those finding life difficult. Anxiety levels amongst Christians would plummet.

  • Were safe to persecute - not hyper-sensitive, touchy, resentful and brittle tempered but good humoured, longsuffering, broad shouldered and forgiving.

There is no doubt that men and women who display these qualities are, indeed, great in the kingdom of heaven.

(4) Those debarred entry into the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus said, "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." v20.

The so-called righteousness of the Pharisees consisted of keeping innumerable rules and regulations that had grown up around the Law. Theirs was a legalistic religion. For example, they had hundreds of definitions of work to ensure that they did no work on the Sabbath. Jesus made the brilliant observation that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. God gave man the Sabbath as a blessing whereas the Pharisees made it a burden!

Some modern Christians have fallen into the trap of making salvation conditional on keeping rules. Philip Yancey begins his chapter on, 'Grace Avoidance,' in his book, 'What's So Amazing About Grace', I have had many close-up encounters with legalism. I came out of a Southern fundamentalist culture that frowned on coed swimming, wearing shorts, jewellery or make up, dancing, bowling, and reading the Sunday newspaper. Alcohol was a sin of a different order, with the sulphurous stench of hellfire about it.

In fact it IS NOT difficult to be more righteous than the Pharisees. We only have to read Christ's marvellous invective in Matthew23 to appreciate what wretches they were!

However, we need to look more carefully at what Jesus said in Mt5v20. The Pharisees lacked the ENTRY qualifications for the kingdom. If we return again to the Beatitudes we see there the requirements for entry into God's kingdom. We need to:

  • Mourn our sin - to despair of our wayward, wicked hearts.

  • Be poor in spirit - to be under no illusion that we can ever qualify for the kingdom on our own merits.

  • Be pure in heart. We shouldn't adopt a religious pose to please others or acquire a reputation for piety. We need to be honest before God and man. When I was a teenager quite a large group of young people attended our chapel Bible class. We used to take it in turns to chair the meeting and lead in prayer. It is amazing what pious language some who had no living faith in Jesus used. They could have passed as the holiest of the holy - but for the whiff of Pharisee about them.

Many who attend church in their youth fail to become Christians because they do not enter the narrow gate that leads to life. Jesus never espoused legalism. His emphasis, like Paul's, was always on God's grace. The sinner needs to confess his sin - needs to be honestly sorry for sin and above all, needs to sue for mercy and rely totally on God's grace for acceptance and forgiveness.

Jesus emphasised the necessity of grace in his Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. Both men went up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee recommended himself to God. He was a fine fellow and infinitely superior to the tax collector. As for the latter, I can do no better than quote the words of Jesus: "The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God have mercy on me, a sinner.' I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts hmself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Lk18v9to14.

On another occasion, after his disciples asked him who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." Mt18v1to4.

A little child does not rely on himself but on grace - the willingness of his parents to provide for his every need. The child trusts his parents. The only way to become a Christian is to trust in Jesus - to cast ourselves upon him and to rely on God's grace to accept us on behalf of his son.