Did Jesus Abolish The Old Testament?
Scripture: Matthew 5:17-20
Have you ever heard someone say something along the lines of, "I don't follow the Old Testament because I am a New Testament Christian"? I have heard this on multiple occasions from multiple people at multiple times. Sometimes what they are trying to get across is that we are not bound by the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. Other times, however, they have slipped into the error of thinking that the Old Testament as a whole was abolished by Christ. This is clearly not the case, and the passage before us today proves this.
The passage before us today introduces the teachings that immediately follow, which are largely about proper understanding of the Law. In proclaiming that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, Jesus is making it clear that nothing that he does or says in any way contradicts the Law or the Prophets. Rather, Jesus was making it clear that he was giving the proper interpretation of Scripture and bringing them to their fulfillment in himself. In other words, the proper interpretation of Scripture is found in Christ. In addition, all of the promises and hopes that were encapsulated in the Old Testament find their fulfillment in the Person and work of Christ. Rather than demolishing the Old Testament, Jesus Christ is its telos, its completion.
When Jesus speaks of the Law and the Prophets, he is speaking of what Christians today call the Old Testament. To refer to the "Law and the Prophets" was understood to refer to the writings of the Old Testament as a whole, not simply to specific books. Jesus was making it clear that he was and is the completion of everything written by Moses, David, the Prophets, and all other Old Testament authors. There is not one iota of the Old Testament that does not find its completion in Christ. Jesus makes it clear that this is the reason why he came. Thus, it is important to note that the Old Testament points forward to Christ in a way that is similar to how the New Testament points back to him. In this way, Christ stands at the center of all of it, fulfilling the Old and founding the New.
This passage also shows the high significance of God's word. It will never fail. Human beings may misinterpret it, but God's word and God's promises will never fail. God made this principle clear whenever he spoke through the prophet Isaiah, proclaiming that no word of God will ever fail (Isaiah 55:10-11). Just as the rain and the snow serve God's purpose, so does Scripture. Nothing that God says will ever fail, and if Scripture is God's word, then it follows that no promise in Scripture will fail. What God has said in his word will stand forever.
What does Jesus require from us, then? Righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees. It is important to note that Jesus is addressing two issues in saying this. To understand the first thing, it is important to understand a little bit about the Pharisees. The Pharisees were religious leaders who were known for their adherence to the Law. At least, they were known for their outward obedience to the Law. They were also known for making life more difficult by carrying on man-made traditions. These traditions were meant to safeguard against any potential violation of the Law. That is, they had a good intention. However, in implementing them in their own lives, the Pharisees tended to obey in a way that showed off their own righteousness. While the Pharisees had an outward appearance of righteousness, what Jesus is demanding of his disciples is a righteousness that is found inwardly, not simply in outward show.
The second issue arises from the first. Where can such a righteousness be found. In order to understand this, we also have to understand that the Pharisees practically made it their entire focus of living to keep every command down to the most minor detail. To say that our righteousness must surpass even the Pharisees is to ask what is impossible in our own power. In saying this, then, Jesus points to a righteousness that must be imparted--a righteousness that can only be bestowed by God himself. Thus, the Pharisees taught a righteousness that was based on the Law, but were not truly keeping the Law because they were dealing with externals, not internals.
I want to draw attention to one more detail of this passage. Jesus says that we are to both teach and obey what he tells us to do. It is an error to think that we can do either one or the other. Some choose to teach Christ, but do not obey him when it is inconvenient. Others do what Christ says to do, except when it comes to teaching what he says. A disciple must do both. We must obey because we are Christ's disciples, and a disciple is obedient to his Master. We also must teach, because Christ expects us to be disciples that make disciples. We were not meant to be stagnant. So go, understand the Scriptures and study them. After this, make disciples.