This Sunday our worship pastor preached on a notoriously difficult text: Matthew 5.17-20.
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (NASB)
First, we have to ask what it means for Christ to “fulfill” the Law. Second, we have to ask how one should read Jesus’ statement that not one iota or keraia will pass from the Law until it is “accomplished.” Third, we must ask what it means for someone to teach that one of these commandments is expendable and how obedience to these commandments places one in the kingdom. Finally, we must wrestle with the lofty claim that entrance into the kingdom requires more “righteousness (ἡ δικαιοσύνη)” than the scribes and the Pharisees.
I happen to have Craig A. Evans’ Matthew (NCBC) nearby so I will share how he addresses the statement about being more righteous than scribes and Pharisees. (If you have another commentary with another take share it with me in the comments.) Evans notes that in the Synoptic Gospels, “…the scribes and the Pharisees represent the pinnacle of fidelity to the Law, including their oral traditions, which were intended to build a protective fence around the Law (p. 119).” Then he writes the following two paragraphs:
If the Law is ignored, if one’s righteousness is no better than that of self-serving Pharisees, then one “will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Entering the kingdom of heaven, of course, is the hope of every Torah-observant Jew. This is its first mention in Matthew (cf. Matt 7:21; 18:3; 19:23-24; 23:13). This language appears in the other Synoptic Gospels also (cf. Mark 9:47; 10:15, 24-25; Luke 18:17, 25; Acts 14:22) and in the fourth Gospel (cf. John 3:5). The last occurrence in Matthew is especially poignant: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves and when others are going in, you stop them” (Matt 23:13). Not only are the scribes and Pharisees in danger of not entering the kingdom of heaven, but their teachings and activities hinder others from entering also. No wonder Jesus insists that his disciples’ righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees.
Jesus’ command that his disciples exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, and the example that he offers them in what we call the “antithesis” (in Natt 5:21-48), reflect his Messianic authority, an authority that not only explains how the Law is the be understood and obeyed but is greater than the Law itself. In v. 18, Jesus said, “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” In Matt 24:35, Jesus tells his disciples, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” A comparison of Matt 5:18 and Matt 24:35 suggest that the Law remains valid until all is accomplished (through Jesus’ teaching, ministry, death, and resurrection), but Jesus’ words never expire. His teaching–what the Law really means and how it is truly fulfilled–remain valid for all time (p. 119).”
Evans interprets this section in the greater context of the Gospel as calling for fidelity to the Law until the Law has accomplished it’s purpose. It is temporal. The teachings of Christ–the Law redux–is permanent and those who obey Messiah’s Law will exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. In this section of the Gospel Messiah’s “Law” is presented.