Thoughts from the Sermon on the Mount …
Do we need to follow rules in order for God to accept us?
If not, do the rules matter at all?
Didn’t Jesus fight back against the rules and traditions of His day?
If the rules are important, which ones are most important? What happens to those who disobey?
It is popular today for people to think of Jesus as a rebel, going against the religious establishment. He is often pictured as fighting against the religious leaders and standing His ground against the ruling Romans.
Even in Jesus’ day, people expected that He was against the Law. He did not show respect for the religious leaders, nor their large set of traditions. Surely he must be trying to turn people from the Law, wasn’t he?
It is important to remember that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount to His disciples (see here). Jesus started by showing that being a true disciple is the way to true blessings and happiness (see here). He then began to teach about the Law, and what it means to keep the rules in God’s sight.
“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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
What is the Law?
We often think of the Law as an ancient list of “do’s” and “don’ts”. It brings to mind a picture of ancient priests, wearing fancy robes, and burning sacrifices for those who have trespassed. We often imagine God watching us with a yardstick, ready to smack us when we fall out of line.
Then there is the opposite perspective. There are many who consider the Law as a part of the Old Testament, and that it no longer applies to us. According to this perspective, why should we care about the Law?
But if the Law is in the center of this controversy, what is it? What is the Law?
God gave the law to the new nation of Israel after He rescued them from Egypt and led them through the desert (Exodus 1-20). He verbally dictated the Ten Commands from Mount Sinai, teaching how His people should behave toward God and toward each other.
The remaining part of Exodus (Exodus 20-40), Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy contain detailed instructions for how the new nation should operate. These instructions, known collectively as “The Law”, can be divided into three parts:
- The Moral Law was based on the Ten Commandments, and further clarified what was honorable to God and what was disgusting in His sight.
- The Judicial Law governed how society functioned in nation of Israel, including systems of government, courts, and the penalties for offenses.
- The Ceremonial Law governed how God’s people would come to Him in worship, including the plan for the Tabernacle, the sacrifices, and the criteria for being able to worship (i.e. clean vs. unclean).
The Judicial Law came to and end when Israel fully rejected Jesus as their Messiah, and God stopped dealing with them as a nation (Matthew 21:43).5 Shortly afterward, the nation of Israel was politically destroyed when the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
The Ceremonial Law came to and end when Jesus died on the cross, thereby ending the the system of animal sacrifices (Hebrews 9). 7 The temple was also destroyed with the conquering of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
The Moral Law is still active today, and is confirmed by the New Testament epistles (James 5:12, Ephesians 6:1-3, 1 John 3:15, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Ephesians 4:28, Ephesians 5:3-5, Colossians 3:5-11). Jesus also confirmed the moral law in Matthew 19:17-19 and Luke 12:15.
Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets
Unlike to the popular image of Him as a rebel, Jesus made it completely clear that He is not against the Law. The Law is important!
On the contrary, He came to “fulfill” the Law, or to make it complete.14 Note that Jesus used the term, “Law and the Prophets”, meaning the entire Old Testament.1 He came to complete all of the promises made in the Old Testament.
Not even the smallest part of the Law would be changed until it was all accomplished.2 The Law is so important that the lowest person in His kingdom is the one who ignores the Law, while the greatest in the kingdom is the one who follows and teaches the Law!
How did Jesus fulfill the law? All of the promises made in the Old Testament point to Jesus Christ (see also here). Jesus said Himself that He is the theme of the entire Old Testament (Hebrews 10:7, John 5:39, Luke 24:27, Luke 24:44). 5 12
He did not come to undo or set aside the law, but he came to fulfill the law. Instead of doing away with the Old Testament standards, he raised them higher!
“Everything that is in the law and prophets culminates in Christ, and He is the fulfillment of them.” – D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones 10
“He takes the law of God from the barnacles of their tradition, which had corrupted it and dragged it down to a human level, and sweeps it clean and lifts it up to an altitude it hadn’t been at in centuries.” – John MacArthur 6
The Law is a relationship with God
Jesus started His sermon by showing the importance of the Law. Far from an external system of “do’s” and “don’ts”, the Law is the way to govern your relationship with a Holy God. God is not interested in your external show if your attitude is not right.
Jesus illustrated this example with the parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. Both men went to pray, but while the Pharisee boasted about his many righteous actions, the tax collector simply bowed his head and asked God for mercy. God heard the prayer of the repentant tax collector, and not that of the law-keeping Pharisee.
And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Later in Jesus’ ministry, He was approached by a lawyer, who asked Him about the greatest commandment. His famous reply was that it is most important to fully love God.15 The second is to love your neighbor. All of the Old Testament Law is built on these two points: love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:35-40, Romans 13:8-10).
You need to first love God, and then love one another. This is Jesus’ most important point about the Law. It is not the outside that counts, but what is on the inside. A right relationship with God will produce the right attitude, which will result in good works. All of the following examples in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48) illustrate that the inner attitude is much more important than outward actions.
In summary, Bible teachers have shown that the entire Ten Commandments are an expression of love. The first four are about love for God, and the final six are about love for each other:
- Commandment 1: Love is loyal — You shall not have any gods before me
- Commandment 2: Love is faithful — You shall not make any carved image
- Commandment 3: Love is reverent — You shall not take the name of God in vain
- Commandment 4: Love is set apart — Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy
- Commandment 5: Love is respectful — Honor your father and your mother
- Commandment 6: Love is humane — You shall not kill
- Commandment 7: Love is pure — You shall not commit adultery
- Commandment 8: Love is unselfish — You shall not steal
- Commandment 9: Love is truthful — You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
- Commandment 10: Love is contented — You shall not covet
(Source: John MacArthur, Who Is an Adulterer? Part 1, Matthew 5:27, 5/6/1979) 9
You must be better than the most devout.
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The scribes and the Pharisees were revered by the people for their ability to keep the law. Not only did they keep the written law, but they also kept a large list of additional laws which had been established by their traditions.
But Jesus showed them to be only hollow hypocrites. They only kept the laws that they were able to keep, and found ways around the ones that they did not want. He severely rebuked them in Matthew 23:
- They preached the Law but did not practice it (23:3)
- They shut people out of the kingdom of heaven by their rules and false righteousness (23:13-14)
- The split the object of their oaths, giving themselves ways to lie (23:16-22)
- They were meticulous on their tithing, yet they neglected the more important parts of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness (23:23)
- Their religion was purely external (23:27-28)
- They honored the prophets of old, yet they killed and persecuted prophets who were sent to them (23:29-35)
Some people try to use the Sermon on the Mount as a way to get to heaven. If these laws are all about being good, then wouldn’t God accept you if you are good enough?
But here, Jesus showed how far your good works would take you. If you try to make it heaven by being good, you will end up just as much of a failure as the scribes and the Pharisees. You need to have the right relationship with God.
Outward religion will never save us. The inner relationship with God reflects itself in the right attitudes, which then reflects itself in good behavior.
James 2:14-26 teaches that faith without works is dead. A real relationship with God (a real faith) is shown by obeying God and doing good works.
“The outward righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees had no internal basis and would not available for entrance into the kingdom of heaven.” – Toussaint 3
“The only way we can experience the righteousness of the Beatitudes is through the power of Christ.” – Wiersbe 4
Doesn’t the New Testament teach that we are saved from the law?
Do the New Testament epistles teach that we are saved from the law?
In Acts 15, the Jerusalem council concluded that believers were not required to follow the Jewish rites, such as circumcision.
Hebrews 9-10 teaches that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice was greater than that of the Old Testament priests because His sacrifice was once and for all.
The entire Epistle to the Galatians teaches that enforcement of the law is contrary to the gospel. Paul even uses Peter as an example of failure because he was avoiding believers who were not keeping the Jewish laws (Galatians 2:11-16).
The Epistle to the Romans teaches that we are free from the law.
- Romans 1-3 shows that we have all failed to keep God’s Law.
- Romans 4-5 shows that we are justified by faith.
- Romans 6 shows that we are dead to sin.
- Romans 7 shows that we are dead to the law.
- Romans 8 shows that we are alive in Christ Jesus.
Jesus was accused of not following the law because He did not follow the Jewish traditions (e.g. Mark 2:23-28). However, He did not break the Laws from scripture.
“While He did not submit to the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees, He always did what God commanded in the law.” – Wiersbe 4
There is no conflict with Jesus’ teaching and the above references. As shown above, the scriptures clearly teach that entrance to God’s kingdom is not by the law but by faith (Romans 3:20, Galatians 2:16).
Even when we believe, our righteousness or good works never earn favor with God, nor do they bring us closer to Him (Philippians 3:4-8).
We do not keep the Law to earn favor with God nor to gain entrance into His kingdom. We keep the law because we already trusted in Him and are already part of His kingdom! Our good works silence those who would slander us (1 Peter 3:15-16), they allow unbelievers to glorify God (1 Peter 2:12), and they show that we have true faith (James 2:14-26).
What are the consequences of failure?
What happens when we fail to keep the Law? Are consequences so trivial that we should not care, or are we doomed to burn in hell if we fail to make the standard?
Jesus expands on His standard of the Law in the remaining sections in Matthew 5, giving six examples of anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and enemies (Matthew 5:21-48). These sections show severe consequences for the wrong attitudes: civil judgement, broken relationships with each other, broken relationships with God, causing others to break the Law, and putting yourself in danger of hell.
The best understanding is that there are very real and physical consequences for your failure, both in your wrong attitudes and in your wrong actions. Even more so, there is a danger that your attitudes and actions may keep you from following Jesus Christ, and so sentencing yourself to hell. 13
Therefore, the consequences of failing to keep the law, both the attitudes and the actions, are:
- You are least in the kingdom of heaven
- Your lawlessness may keep you from following Christ
- You will reap physical consequences from your actions
- Your relationship with God is broken (Matthew 5:23-24, 1 John 4:20)
- We identify with the evil in the world, including those going to hell, when we break the law (Matthew 5:22, 29-30)
Previous Post: The Key To Happiness
References / Notes
 The Jewish Bible included a section for the law and a section for the prophets. However, by the time of the first century, the term “Law and Prophets” had become an idiom for the entire Jewish Scripture at that point, or the entire Old Testament.
 Jesus said literally, “not one jot nor one tittle” (KJV), or “not an iota, not a dot” (ESV) will pass from the Law. Regardless of the English translation, Jesus was saying that not the smallest letter nor the smallest stroke of a pen will change from the law until it is accomplished.
 Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 5:17-48, pages 99-106
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 5:17-48, Pages 19-21
 John MacArthur,Christ and the Law, Part 1, Matthew 5:17, 2/18/1979
 John MacArthur, Christ and the Law, Part 2, Matthew 5:18, 2/25/1979
 John MacArthur, Christ and the Law, Part 3, Matthew 5:19,3/4/1979
 John MacArthur, Christ and the Law, Part 4, Matthew 5:20, 3/18/1979
 John MacArthur, Who Is an Adulterer? Part 1, Matthew 5:27, 5/6/1979
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959-60, Chapter 17, Christ and the Old Testament, Matthew 5:17-18, pages 157-164
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959-60, Chapter 18, Christ Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets, Matthew 5:17-19, pages 165-173
 Bible Scholars have given detailed lists of the way that Jesus fulfilled the Law:
- In His birth, because He was made under the law (Galatians 4:4)
- In His life, because He lived a sinless life (Matthew 3:17; 17:5)
- In His teaching, because He broke away from the religious observance and brought people back to God’s word.
- In His death and resurrection, because He bore the punishment of the law (Galatians 3:13).
- He fulfilled the Judicial Law by acting as the final judge in Israel’s rejection of Him (Matthew 21:43).
- He fulfilled the Ceremonial Law by becoming the object of all Old Testament types of worship and becoming the permanent sacrifice (Hebrews 9-10).
- He fulfilled the Moral law by being the perfect man. He never disobeyed God and never once broke any of God’s commands.
- He enables us to fulfill the righteousness of the law when we walk by the Spirit (Romans 8:2-4)
- Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 5:17-48, Pages 19-21 4
- John MacArthur,Christ and the Law, Part 1, Matthew 5:17, 2/18/1979 5
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959-60, Chapter 18, Christ Fulfilling the Law and the Prophets, Matthew 5:17-19, pages 165-173 11
 Mark 9:43-48 is a close parallel to the warnings of hell in Matthew 5:29-30. But in Mark’s account, it is clear that Jesus is warning against sin that would prohibit you from entering the kingdom of God. Therefore, the best understanding of Matthew 5:29-30 is not that you will go to hell for committing adultery, but rather that your sinful desires will keep you from following Jesus Christ.
 The verb “to fulfill” means to establish completely, not to replace. This is the same as in Matthew 2:15, where it shows that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy about Him. 3
 The Jews had graded the Commandments in order to determine what they they needed to keep, and which commandments they could ignore. In Matthew 22:36, the lawyer came to Jesus, asking Him to weigh in on this debate among the rabbis, regarding which commandment was the greatest.3