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  • Writer's picturePastor Brett

Born to Fulfill the Law

Matthew 5:17-20

            I read recently “your standard man, at this point in the Christmas season, has purchased zero gifts.”  He has no doubt been made wary by the recoil from his purchase for his wife for last year’s Christmas.  “He could tell by her reaction to it that she had not been dreaming of getting an auto emergency kit, even though it was the deluxe model with booster cables and an air compressor. Clearly this gift violated an important rule, but the man had no idea what this rule was, and his wife was too upset to tell him.”

            Though these observations of men and women generally hold true all year ‘round, this season of the year does bring its extra challenges, doesn’t it?  When we’re old enough to be told there is no Santa Claus, we’re left to come up with our own motivations to get along with one another.

            And that is fitting, when you think about it, for Christmas celebrates the Incarnation, where God became man so we could learn how to better get along with God and with one another.  That’s why we’re studying these passages where Jesus explained the various reasons He, being God, was born into the human family.

Jesus was born to accomplish the purpose of Old Covenant.

CONTEXT = Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.”  The context clarifies what prompted Jesus’ concern about being misunderstood.  When His Jewish listeners heard Him say the words GOOD DEEDS in v . 16, they would’ve mistakenly understood Him to mean keeping the Law of Moses. They would’ve assumed He was telling them, as every other Jewish teacher had ever told them, that obedience to the Law is the way of salvation.  This is not, we understand from our perspective, the way to salvation after Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  So, starting in v. 17, Jesus made clear His position on the Old Testament and how it related to His coming to Earth.

1. How Jesus accomplished the purpose of the Law and Prophets. (17)

            He did not come to ABOLISH them.  Jesus would, in the coming verses, point out that an outward obedience is NOT the way to salvation, contrary to what they likely assumed about His reference to GOOD DEEDS in v. 16.  When He said something the opposite about GOOD DEEDS than they were then prone to believe, they might overreact and assume He intended to tear down the Law and the Prophets.

            Jesus came neither to affirm the Law as the way to God, nor remove it entirely; His position was better than those extremities.  He came to ACCOMPLISH or fulfill the PURPOSE of the Law and the Prophets (along with Wisdom, the historic types of Old Testament books).

            Instead, He came to ACCOMPLISH THEIR PURPOSE.  Jesus did not specify, in v. 17, what  PURPOSE the Law and prophets had.  So, we have to discern that from the context.  I suggest the PURPOSE is defined in the rest of the chapter five, giving six examples of how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament.

            These examples are presented in the form of contrasts; “YOU HAVE HEARD” reminds them of what the Law demanded, is contrasted with “BUT I SAY” where Jesus set forth an expanded ethical demand that covered inward attitudes, not just outward actions.  The subjects covered in the six examples include anger (21-26), adultery (27-30), divorce (31-32), vows (33-37), revenge (38-42), and love for enemies (43-48).

2. How we accomplish the purpose of the Law and Prophets. (18-20)

            Accomplishing their purpose is a process that will continue until the end of this age.  V. 18 tells us when the PURPOSE of the Law and Prophets will be accomplished: at the end of this age, the only people left will be those who know and love the Lord.  In a perfected version of this world, there will no longer be any need for law; all will behave righteously because they want to and because they can.  The SMALLEST DETAIL refers to the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, yod, or in the Greek alphabet, iota (literally, “the smallest stroke of the pen”).

            Don’t ignore any of the commandments but obey all of them. (19)  Persons considered LEAST IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN will be guilty of two things:

- Ignoring the LEAST COMMANDMENT, supposing that any part of God’s word that may be trivial and expendable.

- Teaching others to do the same.

            Persons considered GREAT IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN will be those who do two things:

- Obey GOD’S LAWS.

- Teach others to do the same.

            Significantly, this verse discusses one’s place IN the Kingdom of Heaven.  In other words, salvation is not at stake here.  Instead, one’s reward in Heaven is at issue.  Heavenly rewards are a consistent biblical motive for good behavior.

            Verse twenty is concerned about one’s salvation as it defines a standard for those who will be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven.  This specific standard is this: outward obedience in insufficient, those who are saved obey God’s commands with all their heart.

            In this sermon, Jesus is established as the most authoritative interpreter of the Law.  He has the last word on how we are saved.  After all, He will be our Judge.  Here is His summary: to be considered righteous, you must do a better job of keeping the Law than the religious professionals did!

            Only by having the BETTER RIGHTEOUSNESS Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount will you be part of the new age, the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.  Then will you be part of God’s ultimate purpose, replacing this sin-ruined creation with a New Heaven and New Earth.  We obtain this BETTER RIGHTEOUSNESS by faith in Jesus Christ, the very One who accomplishes this purpose!        

            This statement must’ve hit His listeners hard.  Even though the common person didn’t like the TEACHERS OF RELIGIOUS LAW or the strict PHARISEES, they respected their ability to keep the Law.  To be required to have a BETTER RIGHTEOUSNESS than those guys might’ve sounded impossible.  The good news is, the understanding of the religious professionals was incomplete, deficient, biased, and wholly inadequate.  Their practice was worse - hypocritical.  Jesus came to replace their teaching with His.

            Jesus’ idea of BETTER RIGHTEOUSNESS was in terms of quality, not quantity. A quantity of righteousness would be working harder, being more legalistic, competing with others at being godlier.  A quality of righteousness would be paying as much attention to one’s attitudes and motives as one paid to their behaviors.  A BETTER RIGHTEOUSNESS is one where our insides match our outsides.

Jesus was born to accomplish the purpose of Old Covenant.

            In his commentary on Matthew, David L. Turner summarized this passage with these words, “The basic point of 5:17-20 is that if Jesus has come not to destroy but to fulfill the law (5:17), then the entire law is eternally valid (5:18), and the disciples must obey him as its ultimate interpreter and teach his interpretations of it (5:19) in order to have a moral uprightness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees and that is fitting for the Kingdom (5:20).” (Turner, p. 86)

            Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, had to struggle with how much of the Law the non-Jewish converts had to follow.  Differences of opinion came to a head in Acts 15, where the leaders of the Mother Church in Jerusalem found an inspired compromise.  And that is the pattern we are left to follow.  It is equally wrong to say all the Law still applies and to say none of it applies.  The parts that still apply to followers of Jesus are the parts He specifically approved in His teaching and which make sense in light of the two commandments He gave, to love God and love others as self.  Paul picked up on the priority of love, affirming it in Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 3:12-14.

            This is important for us because we are partners with Jesus in accomplishing the purpose of the Law and Prophets.  We will continue to work toward this end until Jesus comes again.

            How do we do it?  We choose to live by the law of love as the first principle.  Loving God means we will think and feel and act in ways that follow the example of love He set for us.  This will result in holiness and righteousness.  Loving others means treating them with the grace and respect we would hope to receive from them.

            In that vein, let’s end with a little advice on good relationships:

Most Important Words for Getting Along With People

The SIX most important words: “I admit I made a mistake.”The FIVE most important words: “You did a good job.”The FOUR most important words: “What do you think?”The THREE most important words: “After you, please.”The TWO most important words: “Thank you.”The ONE most important word: “We"



            Christmas gift illustration retrieved from on 15 December 2023.

            David L. Turner, Cornerstone Bible Commentary, Vol. 11, The Gospel of Matthew,  2005, pp. 84-87.

            Relational illustration retrieved from on 15 December 2023.

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