By Jeffrey Ware
“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.” (Matthew 5:17–20)
The “Law and the Prophets” are the whole Old Testament, every rule, regulation, penalty, prophecy, and promise; even all the weird, seemingly obscure stuff, like that one rule about not boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19). Not an “iota or dot,” that is, not even the tiniest letter or point of punctuation, is to be removed (Matthew 5:18).
Far from relaxing even one commandment, Jesus intensifies them all. Take the Fifth Commandment. You might say to yourself, “I’m no murderer. If there’s one commandment I’ve surely kept, it’s that one!” Then Jesus teaches you that the minute you got angry with your sibling, or insulted someone on social media, or thought to yourself how stupid your parents were, you became a murderer (Matthew 5:21–22).
So, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” There’s no watering down God’s requirements to something “doable.” The Gospel is not, “We’re all sinners but God loves us anyway,” as if God were not serious about His requirements. No, you must become more righteous than the most righteous people you can imagine (in Jesus’ day, those were the scribes and the Pharisees). Actually, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
At this point you, with your Lutheran sensibilities, might be getting a little bit worried. “We’re saved by grace, through faith, apart from works, aren’t we?!” Yes. Yes, and amen! But we must also understand this correctly. Grace and faith are not to be used as excuses to ignore God’s commands and continue in sin (Romans 6:1-2).
Jesus says repeatedly, “Go and sin no more!” (John 5:14; 8:11) Jesus has not come to abolish the Law or the prophets but to fulfill them. As Jesus says, “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). Paul, in Romans 8:4, indicates that God sent his Son into the flesh “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.” In Romans 3:31 he asks, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” In Romans 6:2 Paul says, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
We must be clear about this: Salvation by grace through faith does not do away with the Law; it fulfills it! In fact, God’s grace and the gift of faith are the only ways in which sinners can begin to fulfill the Law! To imagine that the Gospel abolishes the Law is the path to slavery. The Law is good. It is our delight (Psalm 1:2). The goal which God wishes to accomplish in us is to return us to Paradise, that we would become people who once more love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves.
So there stands the Law, urging you to return to Paradise, but you are powerless to do so! You stand accused, and the way out of that accusation is not to lessen the Law but to have it magnified for you, to hear all the more clearly its demands upon you now; and then, to ask that all-important question, “How can this be accomplished?”
The answer? Jesus! Jesus came, not to abolish the Law or the prophets, but to fulfill them, perfectly, right down to iotas and dots, even the really weird, obscure stuff.You might say, “So what if He kept the Law perfectly? I haven’t!” True, you haven’t, but Jesus has, FOR YOU. And this includes not only the rules and regulations, but also the penalties. He took those upon Himself on the Cross, where He placed Himself between you and the wrath of God. Jesus fulfilled the Law (Matthew 22:37-40). He loved God with His whole heart, and loved you more than even His own life. And He demonstrated that love by shedding His blood for you. The mocking, the beating, the nails, the spear, and His last pain-filled breath as He gave up His spirit—He was taking your place, suffering your punishment.
In Baptism you are joined to Him. The perfect obedience He rendered and the penalty He paid count for you. But still, this is not enough. Jesus says, “If you would enter life, you must keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). You must ultimately become that perfect saint, free from sin, and perfectly pure. You can’t do it yourself, so Christ must do it for you.
And this is the hope that motivates the Christian who loves God and who loves His Law. This is why we persevere in faith, why we continually drink from the fountain of grace, why we come to the Lord’s House to receive the food which sustains us. We have the promise that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). On that great and final day, when Christ comes again in glory, you shall be cleansed, recreated, glorified, freed from the sin which now plagues you!
Then the Law will no longer accuse you, but rather you will rejoice in it, for Christ has paid your debt and satisfied and fulfilled the Law for you. And He promises that when He comes again, your weak, sinful, mortal existence will give way to holiness and immortality.
Meanwhile you live by faith and await that great and final Day, the day when all is accomplished and you will know and have that perfect love, forever.
Rev. Jeffrey Ware is the pastor at All Saints Lutheran Church in Charlotte, NC. He also serves on the board of directors of Higher Things.