17 “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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 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
In these verses, we find the key to understanding the balance of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus affirms His role as fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy and Mosaic law, a truth that is all too often lost on modern Christians. Taking a page from Marcion, we’ve almost exclusively absorbed Paul’s theology re: law without giving voice to what Jesus Himself has to say about it. Our reference to the Hebrew Scriptures as “Old Testament” has produced the unfortunate side effect of diminishing these texts as “non-binding” and therefore irrelevant to the Christian experience. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Jesus “fulfills” the law by revealing that which God willed from the very beginning: to create a people to share in the righteous character of YHWH. Indeed, this righteousness — the very hallmark of the Kingdom of God (5.20) — is God’s ultimate purpose for the law and, moreover, his people. But by Jesus’ day, the law that was intended to be life-giving had become burdensome, thanks in no small part to Pharisaic legalism. Moving forward in the Sermon, Jesus will offer an interpretation that greatly contrasts with the view of the Pharisees and the religious leaders of the day. But Christ’s teaching hearkens back “behind” the law, going beyond the legalistic interpretation of the Pharisees, to the embedded Truth of God latent within the law. “You have heard that it was said….but I say unto you.” Jesus contrasts the prevailing view of the law with His “new” teaching that reveals the ultimate intention of God and the purpose of the law.
I find that I much prefer this way of viewing Jesus. He stands as the fulfillment of salvation history, the revelation of the fullness of God (Colossians 1.19). I’ve heard Christian teaching that positions the Old Testament as God’s initial effort to save the world, albeit a failed attempt. So God went back to the drawing board and came up with Salvation Plan 2.0, this time sending His Son to fix what Abraham, Moses, David and everyone else could not. Not only does this kind of theology ignore the teaching of Scripture (Gen. 3.15; Gen. 12.2; Isa. 53; Micah 5.1-5 and other Messianic texts), it also paints the portrait of a “fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants” God who just can’t seem to get it right when it comes to salvation.
The previous call to be salt and light are also instructive for understanding what Jesus says in 5.17-20. N.T. Wright points this out:
Jesus is calling the Israel of his day to be Israel indeed, now that he is there. What he says here can now be applied to all Christians, but its original meaning was a challenge to Jesus’ own contemporaries. God had called Israel to be the salt of the earth; but Israel was behaving like everyone else, with its power politics, its factional squabbles, its militant revolutions. How could God keep the world from going bad — the main function of salt in the ancient world — if Israel, his chosen ‘salt’, had lost its distinctive taste? (Matthew for Everyone, p.40)
Light, salt, law, righteousness — these terms point us back to the inescapable truth that God calls for distinctive character in His people, a chosen people for a singular God. Through the remainder of His sermon, Jesus will demonstrate in great detail the righteousness God wills for His Kingdom citizens.