Jesus and the Law: The Kings’ Absolute Rule


I. Jesus Affirms the Law and the Prophets in terms of his personal commitment. – verse 17

A. “Do not think that I have come . . .” – Those that interpret the ministry of Jesus and his mercy and grace toward sinners as a relaxation of the Law’s standard of perfect righteousness misinterpret his mission. He is insistent at the beginning of his ministry to set aside false interpretations and subterfuges concerning the Law. Its truth and perfection are the ground of his coming. Spurgeon noted, “He is himself the fulfillment and substance of the types, and prophecies, and commands of the Law.”

B. Jesus does not put the message of the Law and the message of the prophets as rivals to each other, but sees them as bearing a consistent message. He does not see an unfriendly legalism in the Law and a friendly spirituality in the prophets but he sees a perfect harmony, symmetry, and unity in these major aspects of the former covenant.

C. “Not abolish but to fulfill” –

1. His incarnation came as one “born under the Law” for the purpose of redeeming those under its condemnation. If he could abolish the Law without any repercussions to the perfection of the moral character of God, then his incarnation and redemptive work would have been a superfluity.

2. The curse brought by the Law was not overcome by an abolition of its eternal verity, but by Jesus becoming a “curse for us.” Galatians 3:13; “A death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15).

3. He specifically told the unbelieving Jewish religious teachers that if they truly believed Moses, they would believe him for “he wrote of me.” (John 5:46).

4. After his resurrection he explained to the disciples on the road to Emmaus ”beginning with Moses [Law] and all the prophets, . . .in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

5. Paul looked at the gospel he preached by divine revelation as a manifestation of the eternal purpose, even to the Gentiles, of the “prophetic writings” (Romans 16:25-27).

6. A liberal theologian, William Newton Clarke wrote in 1898, “There is no need that theology consider the relation of men in general to the Mosaic Law.” Clarke viewed the Law only as a manifestation of Jewish culture; the relevance of that Law concerned only the nation Israel and has nothing to do with the salvation brought by Christ. Jesus said that he came, not to abolish, but to fulfill it and Paul interprets Jesus death in terms of the Law’s penalty.

II. Jesus Affirms the Perpetuity of the Law and Prophets – Verse 18: Jesus came to fulfill it and so none of its symbols, types, and provisions will pass away until it is accomplished in Christ.

A. Jesus the Christ by his death fulfilled all the meaning of the sacrificial system. He did what the blood and bulls and goats could never do in that his death by sacrifice put an end to sin, that is, its damning consequences, once and for all. While it was “impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,  . . . Christ offered for all times a single sacrifice for sins; [and] Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:4, 12, 18). Jesus is priest and sacrifice, and the “blood of Jesus Christ his Son is cleansing us from all sin.” That part of the Law and the Prophets is now accomplished and its use has passed away.

B. The civil Law of Israel (as well as the ceremonial Law) also is fulfilled in the calling out of a new people of God. Those Laws that governed Israel specifically as a civil society, as a nation, were fulfilled in Christ as he made for himself by his death “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9). This nation inhabits no particular piece of land and is governed by Christ Himself throughout the world by the divine truth under the effectual sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit (John 17:17, 20, 21). Since the establishment of the church those civil Laws of Israel that called for special punishment for all kinds of crimes, both civil and religious, applies to no political system or nation in particular but is fulfilled in the discipline that is practiced by the church (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

C. The Moral Law is intrinsically absolute and cannot be relativized in any situation but must have complete and eternal manifestation. Spurgeon again, “Our king fulfils the ancient Law, and his Spirit works in us to will and to do of God’s good pleasure as set forth in the immutable statutes of righteousness.”

1. The moral Law that called for the death of all its transgressors had that aspect of it accomplished by Christ’s death, “in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1:7). That requirement of the moral Law would not recede until its demands were met.

2. The second purpose of the moral Law, as a guide for sanctification will continue until Christ returns. It sets before us in its thorough meaning, as indicated in this sermon by Jesus, a standard of righteousness that will challenge us and lead us forward to ever-increasing efforts in holy mortification of sin and purposeful pursuit of holiness until we die or Christ returns. The “righteous requirements of the Law” will be fulfilled in those who “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).

III. In teaching the meaning of the Law, none of them can be “relaxed.” either in conduct or instruction. Verse 19

A. We must resist the temptation to teach in a way that justifies our own propensity to accommodate the Law to our desires or practices. The Law stands in its purity and in its upward call to true righteousness and holiness; it is not to be manipulated so that we are undisturbed in our resistance to its standard of righteousness. The desire to justify ourselves by an external conformity to behavioral rules of our own construction, while avoiding the weighty internal matters of indwelling sin, is powerful but, if indulged, will keep us from the kingdom of God. (Luke 11:37-54).

B. While the entrance to the kingdom is a door opened wide by free and sovereign grace, the key to that door is perfect righteousness as delineated in the moral Law of God. One who does not view this kingdom as a righteous kingdom, but as a licentious kingdom, or as a kingdom of relativized and negotiable morality, has little if any sense of the way of entry. We enter only by the perfect righteousness of Christ as that which answers the Law’s demand for absolute obedience from a heart of pure love to God. Our culpability to the Law finds its fulfillment in the substitutionary death of Christ. We enter under the substantial hope that that perfect holiness, essential to loving obedience as governed by the Law, will finally be ours when free from all the entanglements of this world and these mortal, corrupted frames of ours.. “We shall see Him as He is. He that has this hope in him purifies himself even as he himself [Jesus] is pure” (1 John 3:3).

C. Kingdom citizens, therefore, conduct themselves and teach others according to the purest and highest understanding of the Law that they can properly conceive. To diminish the Law, either in word or work, is to sully the righteousness of Christ by whom we are justified, and to diminish the glory of the holy place in which we will spend eternity.

IV. The righteousness of citizens of the Kingdom of God will exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. – verse 20.

A. Chapter 23 is given over to Jesus’ personal confrontation with the deceptive, self-righteous, hypocritical “scribes and Pharisees [who] sit on Moses’ seat.”

1. He exposes their sinful perversion of the esteemed but humbling privilege of being teachers of the revelation of God. (23:1-11)

Practice what they say, but do not imitate their life. (3)

In their misapprehension of the Law, they create burdensome human traditions to place on others, while showing no compassion for them in the difficulties that they themselves have created (23:4))

Their zeal is directed solely toward self-elevation (23:5).

They covet and thrive on the honor, the greetings from the public, and the titles of their position as teachers of the Law but feel no sense of healthy dread or humility in their calling (23:6-12)

2. He issues seven woes in detailing how they have substituted personal pride and external pomp for true spiritual conformity to the Law.

In opposing him and in encouraging self-righteousness they shut the kingdom of heaven. (14)

Their unspiritual zeal creates people ripe for hell. (15)

Their selfish external focus has hidden from them the character, promises, and redemptive purpose of God from which all the symbols of religion gain their power and value. (16-22)

They ignore the true substance of the Law’s purpose as it is related to transformation of character and render it a merely superficial form of religiosity (23, 24). They strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.

They focus on immediate impressions and leave the corruption of heart unchallenged. The outside of the cup sparkles while the inside grows mold.

Their beauty is like that of a graveyard, an orderly arrangement of well-sculpted tombstones, merely a decoration for the curse of death that presses us all to return to dust—beautifully whitewashed stones covering skeletons and skulls. Their teaching does not impart life but only hides the reality of death from the people.

Their adornment of the graves of the prophets merely points to the pure hypocrisy of their professed devotion, for they have no affection for or submission to the true message of the prophets. They will kill the prophets and apostles that Christ will send, thus sealing to themselves all the sinful opposition through the centuries exhibited by their murderous forefathers—they are sons of Cain, opposers of the way of righteousness by ransom and promoters of self-made religion and righteousness, and were in him when he, the hater of his brother, deceitfully murdered “innocent Abel.”

B. The sum of all their sinful manifestations is that they have refused to see Jesus as the Christ and in their opposition to him have sought to hinder others from receiving him as Messiah (23:37-39) Jesus is the one “who comes in the name of the Lord.” He is blessed, that is, he embodies all the perfections of the eternal invisible God and should be honored, worshipped, and trusted as the Saving God, the perfect man under whose feet all things are placed [Psalm 8], and the all-sufficient Christ in whom to trust is righteousness, sanctification, and redemption—the very wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:28-31). Apart from union with Christ, no one’s righteousness will exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.

V. An example of the nature and importance of righteousness (43-45).- Citizens of God’s righteous kingdom will go beyond the natural response of every person to love those who love them and show love even to their enemies. They will see and feel beyond the self-focus of embracing only self-glorifying factors in interpersonal relationships.

A. We must emulate God’s movement toward us. “Herein is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Brethren if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10)

B. Jesus has set forth the very essence of the gospel in showing this trait of kingdom people. Paul, having been given a fullness of revelation, expands not only the point, but illustrates the centrality of Christ to the issue of righteousness. “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely did for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Romans 5:5-11).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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