Why Preach Christ from the Law and the Prophets

Psalm 40:6-8; Text: Matthew 5:17-20
August 22, 2010


Chapters 5-7 of the Gospel of Matthew is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount because it was preached by Christ “up on the mountain” to his disciples. In these three long chapters, Jesus expands the Old Testament Law to everyday reality of righteous living as members of the kingdom of heaven.

The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch (d. 1890)

The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch (d. 1890)

In these chapters, we read teachings such as “love your enemies,” “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” and “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Is it really possible for sinners like us to do these things? Some Christians, notably dispensationalists, see these high moral standards as an impossibility in this life, and therefore can only be lived in a perfect millennial kingdom.

This is why many Christians today have this mistaken notion that the Law of Moses has no meaning and application for them today because the Old Testament is just that: old-fashioned, obsolete, irrelevant, and therefore is of no use. This is also why many churches do not study and preach from the Old Testament, but concentrate only on the New Testament. And even when they preach from its pages, they do not preach Christ, but only moral principles, and encourage the people to follow Old Testament personalities as moral examples.

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Or is Jesus merely teaching God’s moral perfection in the Law so that we will see our own sinfulness and thereby drive us to the grace and mercy of God through faith in him? This is true, since one benefit of knowing the Law is that it brings out our sinfulness, and in our misery, it drives us to Christ (Rom 10:4; Gal 3:24). But the challenges of this sermon are not only meant to drive us to the grace of God; Jesus is actually teaching us real and practical living in this present age as members of God’s kingdom. If we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven which is present here and now, how are we to live as its righteous and loyal citizens here and now?

He introduces this high moral standard with a summary of the characteristics of kingdom people in the Beatitudes in 5:3-12, then challenges his disciples to make a difference in this world by being “salt and light” to a watching world (5:13-16).

Then in 5:17-20, he introduces his interpretation of the Law and the Prophets in contrast to the false teaching and application offered by the teachers of the Law, mainly the scribes, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. He defends himself against accusations of contradicting the law of Moses by first saying that he has not come “come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Then in the following verses, 5:17-48, Jesus expands the teachings of the Law by making them stricter! He tightens the noose, so to speak, on those who break the law not only in deeds, but also in words and thoughts. So we see that in each of the six teachings that follow, he begins by saying, “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you…” For example, concerning the law against murder, he says,

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

Murder is not just the actual premeditated killing, but also hating or cursing a neighbor!

Jesus wanted to prove to his opponents that he did not come to dissolve or destroy the Law of Moses, but to actually fulfill it in his whole life. Why did he come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets? He came down to earth as a man to fulfill God’s law perfectly for his people. These are the two things we will look at this afternoon as we think about this theme: “Why Preach Christ from the Law and the Prophets:

1. He Fulfilled Them for Us…
2. … To Enable Us to Fulfill Them

He Fulfilled Them for Us…

What does Jesus mean by the word “fulfill”? One meaning in the Gospel of Matthew is to complete or finish, such as in 8:17, when after healing many who are sick, he says, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’” He fulfilled all of the Old Testament foreshadows and prophecies. The other meaning of “fulfilling” in this text is the idea of carrying out, executing or doing. This implies that Jesus was promising to his disciples that his mission was “to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).

Jesus came and fulfilled all of the Old Testament types and shadows. The history of Israel was full of the types of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King: Moses, who was the greatest Old Testament prophet; Melchizedek, the high priest of the Most High God; and King David, Jesus’ forefather, who was promised an everlasting kingdom. Many Old Testament events also foreshadowed the work of Christ: the Exodus from Egypt; the Passover lamb; the 40 years of wilderness wanderings; the Temple and its sacrifices; the exile into Babylon; and the return and restoration of a remnant of Israel. But it was not until after his resurrection that his disciples finally came to understand what Jesus was trying to teach them for 3-1/2 years: “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).

All of these people and events were completed, finished and fulfilled by the person and work of Christ. This is why we on this side of the resurrection of Christ do not offer bloody animal sacrifices when we worship—we offer instead sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to God in our Scripture readings, songs, prayers, sermons, transformed lives, and even in our financial offerings. We do not celebrate Old Testament feasts such as the Passover because Christ was our Passover Lamb when he was offered as a substitutionary atonement for us on the cross. We do not look forward to an earthly temple in Jerusalem, but we long for our heavenly temple where we will dwell with God forever.

Since Jesus completed and consummated all of these Old Testament types and foreshadows in the Law of Moses and in the Prophets, we are not to be surprised then when we read his teaching, “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18).

What does he mean by this? In his teachings, Jesus often uses hyperbolic figures of speech to make a point. He uses the smallest letter—an iota, the smallest Greek letter, or a dot, the smallest Hebrew letter that looks like a little quotation mark—to emphasize that all of God’s word, including the smallest letter, has significance in his work. We know that even in the English language, a small letter like an “i” or a dot can make a big difference in meaning.

What Jesus means is that everything in God’s word that speaks of his person and life, whether great or small, he will surely and perfectly complete and obey. This is because God’s word is eternal and unchanging, and therefore, is never in error. Since God is perfect, eternal and unchanging, his word is perfect, eternal and unchanging, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God will stand forever” (Isa 40:11), and is “living and abiding” (1 Pet 1:23). Every decree, every prophecy and every command has been and will be accomplished by Christ.

This is why Jesus warned his disciples and the Jews that all of the Law and the Prophets must be obeyed or carried out. And the teachers of the Law must teach all of them and must never relax any of them, even the “least” of the commandments. Do you recall the time when the scribes and the Pharisees asked Jesus which one is the greatest commandment, because the Jews constantly debated which commandment in the Decalogue is the greatest?

Jesus answered that loving god is the “first and great” commandment, but he also followed it with the second commandment that is like the commandment to love God: loving the neighbor as much as we love ourselves. He was pointing out to them that all of the Ten Commandments are true and important. All of God’s commandments are to be obeyed. In reality, there is no “least” or “greatest” commandment; all must be carried out. We can easily see this equality in importance when we read that any violation of any of the Decalogue brings down the death penalty on the offender. Then he concludes by saying that all the Law and the Prophets are summarized in these two commandments.

Paul takes off from this teaching of Christ when he says that any violation of any law incurs God’s curse, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal 3:10). James also points out the importance of keeping all of the Law, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (Jas 2:10).

If a person was able to keep himself perfectly obedient, but violated one of God’s laws in deed, word or thought, he has broken the whole law and as a result, brings down condemnation from God. Is there anyone among you who has not broken God’s commandments in his mind? Has anyone not committed idolatry, disrespect for parents, murder, immorality, stealing, lying, and greed in his heart? Paul says, “No, not even one! All have sinned against God.”

So then those who want to become citizens of the kingdom of heaven by trying their best to do good works as commanded by God are all condemned and cursed by God. All the “good” people of this world—those who sacrificed their whole life to help the poor, philanthropists who give billions to charity, and monks who try to avoid sin by separating themselves from this world—are bound for hell if they committed just one sinful act, word or thought! If this is true, then we are all bound for hell, because the penalty for sin is death and hell.

Contrary to the false teaching of some, no one is saved by trying to obey God’s law, whether he or she is an Old Testament Jew or a New Testament Gentile. If no one can enter the kingdom of heaven by trying to do good works, then what can a person do to avoid eternal condemnation in hell?

The answer lies in Jesus’ declaration, “I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them.” How can this get you out of the curse of hell and into the blessings of heaven? Throughout Scriptures, the law which says, “Do this and you shall live,” (Lev 18:5) has always been in effect. It has never been abolished. But ever since the fall of Adam into sin, all of us are unable to obey all of God’s law in order that we may receive eternal life from God. Unlike Jesus, we all have Adam’s sinful nature, unable and unwilling to do the Father’s will, doing only whatever pleases our sinful nature.

In God’s providence and wisdom, his plan for saving his people involved sending his Son down to earth as a man to carry out all of his law. Like Adam, Christ would represent his people. But unlike Adam who rebelled against God’s commandment, Christ fulfilled all righteousness in his person and in his life. He knew that he had accomplished his mission when he said on the cross before he gave up his spirit, “It is finished.”

Since he had obeyed all that the Father commanded him to do, there is nothing left for us to do. This is why we are not to ask, “What would Jesus do?” but “What has Jesus done?” He had perfectly obeyed the two great commandments, “Love God” and “Love your neighbor.”

Now God “commands all people everywhere to repent” of their sin and believe in Christ in order that they may enter the kingdom of heaven (Acts 17:30). Believing in Christ is our passport to God’s kingdom because when we do, God will count us righteous, as Abraham was counted righteous before God by faith, and not by his obedience to God’s law (Rom 4:3). We are declared by God as righteous, not because we are righteous in ourselves—we can never be—but because after Jesus carried out all of God’s commandments perfectly, he became our entryway into God’s kingdom through faith in him as our Savior and Mediator (Mark 1:15).

Abraham had faith, and this faith enabled him to obey God’s commands: first, to go to on a pilgrimage to a strange land; then, to sacrifice his son Isaac, the only child of the covenant promises. By faith in Christ, we too are enabled by God to live godly and obedient lives, and so fulfill the Law and the Prophets.

“… To Enable Us to Fulfill Them”

How are you able to obey God’s righteous commands? It is not through your own power, but God enables you through the Holy Spirit that he pours out on you. He gives you a new mind that knows God and his word. He gives you a new heart that has God’s law written on it and enables you to obey it. Because you have been transformed into a new creation, you are able to live your daily life in love and obedience (Ezek 36:26-27; 2 Cor 5:17).

Are you then like Christ who was able to perfectly obey every iota and dot of God’s law? No, we are not. Jesus was able to accomplish all of God’s will because he is also God. Although he has full humanity, he also has full divinity even when he was in this world. In this way, he was able to fully bear the burdens, temptations and limitations of humanity—without sinning (Heb 4:15).

In our case, we are renewed day by day—by the Holy Spirit who indwells us—into the image of Christ (2 Cor 4:16). As we travel as pilgrims and strangers in this world, with all its temptations, sin and sufferings, we grow in the knowledge of and learn obedience to God. And at the end of our days, in death or when Jesus returns from heaven, we will see the fulfillment of Paul’s encouraging words, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). But this full completion will remain a longing and desire—a goal to live by—until the end.

This is also why many Christians are committing a couple of grave errors when they minimize the role and impact of the Law in the life of a Christian living under the covenant of grace.

The Moral Law is Obsolete

The first error is the teaching that the Old Testament law is not applicable or relevant to us today. Did not the writer of Hebrews say that the law is obsolete?

We must remember that the writer of Hebrews is not talking about the whole law. The law of Moses are of three kinds: ceremonial, civil and moral. The ceremonial laws pertain to the sacrificial worship of God by the people in the Tabernacle and the Temple. But since Christ came, all of those sacrifices have been fulfilled by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. So our temple is not earthly, but heavenly—it is the kingdom of heaven.

What about the civil laws, for example, those about clean and unclean food, or the penalty of death for all violations of God’s law? Those also were provisional and were meant for the nation of Israel. They also foreshadowed Christ, who became unclean to make us clean, who paid the death penalty for our violation of God’s law. Because they also foreshadowed the coming of Christ, these laws have also been abrogated after he accomplished his mission. They are not for us to obey, but “as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did… for our instruction” (1 Cor 10:6, 11).

What about the moral law that is summarized in the Ten Commandments? Are they still for us to obey? Yes, we are still bound to obey the Decalogue. This is the reason why we read the Law every Lord’s Day.

But isn’t this a contradiction of what was said earlier that no one can enter the kingdom of heaven by obedience to God’s law? Certainly, no one is able to attain salvation through the Law. Christ is the only One who perfectly obeyed the Law for us, so that our salvation is solely based on being given his perfect righteousness when we believe in him alone as Savior and Lord.

But herein lies the difference: the fruits of our salvation is evidenced by our obedience to God’s law. When we receive salvation, we also receive the righteousness of Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Thus, we are enabled by God to obey his moral Law.

Christ Frees us from Obedience to the Moral Law

The second error arises from the idea that since we are saved by free grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, we are not under the obligations of the Old Testament Law. Therefore, I can do whatever I want, without regard for the Decalogue. Did not Paul say we are under grace and not under the Law? (Rom 6:14)

Obviously, Jesus said that he came to fulfill the whole Law to argue against those Jews who thought that he was teaching against the law of Moses. For example, he healed the sick on the Sabbath, which they saw as a violation of the 4th commandment.

To counter this false accusation, Jesus declared that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to actually carry out its obligations. Not only that, he even pronounced judgment on those who would relax, ignore or minimize any part of the Law: they will be least in the kingdom of heaven.

Not only that, he even condemned the Pharisees for their kind of false righteousness. They obeyed all the provisions of the law of Moses, even those that they have added to God’s law, but they were all outward so that others may see their good deeds. Their obedience did not come from heartfelt sorrow over their sins, but from sinful pride in their good works. Their obedience to the law of circumcision was not pleasing to God because their hearts were not circumcised in repentance and faith. They calculate their tithes meticulously from little things, but neglect showing justice, mercy and faithfulness to others.

To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22). Although obedience to the Law is not the way to enter the kingdom of heaven, obedience is the evidence that we are citizens of the heavenly kingdom. No matter what profession of faith we make, or if we attend worship services every Lord’s day, or partake of the Lord’s supper, if our hearts and minds are not right with God because we never had true faith and repentance, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Even the Jewish scribe understood that true faith arising from the heart is evidenced by obedience, and not by going through the routine of external holiness: “To love [God] with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33).

What has happened to the lives of professing Christians is a direct result of this grace-versus-law error. Since Christians are not under the Law and the Prophets, they can do drugs, engage in premarital sex, get drunk, rebel against parents and authorities, cheat, lie and do whatever pleases them. They will ask forgiveness later. This is why divorce, unwed pregnancies, living together, and drug and alcohol use are as common among professing Christians in the church as those outside the church.

So Jesus commands you to exceed the righteousness of the Jews. This is not to say that he is calling you to be more sincere and obedient than the Pharisees. He is calling you to true faith and repentance before God, which is evidenced by your obedience to God’s commandments. James makes this relationship between faith and obedience clear, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (Jas 2:18). You can surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees only by the presence of true faith in your innermost being. This is what was lacking in them.


But, beloved in Christ, you are not Pharisees. Your righteousness is not only outward, but inward, from the heart. How are you righteous before God? It is not through your own outward righteous works. It is only through the righteousness accounted to you by faith alone in your only Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who perfectly obeyed and fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets.

Live, then, as righteous citizens of the kingdom of heaven! Since Christ has given you his own righteousness, show your righteousness in your daily living. Do not obey because it is your duty and obligation. Do not obey so others may praise you for your good deeds. Do not obey to gain earthly blessings and abundance.

Obey because you have been given clean hands and a pure heart by the Holy Spirit. Obey because of your gratitude to God for all the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places which he has already given you in this age, and will completely bestow upon you in the age to come. Amen.

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