The Expository Files

Jesus - The Law and the Prophets And "The Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees"

Matthew 5:17-20

17"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.

With these words our Lord explains two things of great importance: (1) He is not against the law of God in the Old Testament; in fact, He is the consummation of that system. (2) He affirms that His teaching is different from the instruction given by the scribes and Pharisees.

I do not regard this text as a statement of contrast between what the law of Moses said with that which Christ said. Jesus takes no issue with the law of Moses, or anything revealed in the Old Testament. He came to "fulfill not to destroy." He does take issue with what they had heard from the religious teachers of the day.

When Jesus says, "You have heard," He is making reference to the traditional teachings of the scribes and Pharisees - the common religious teaching of Judaism. In verse 43 he quotes the common doctrine "hate your enemy." The Mosaic law did not command malice or hate; the scribes and Pharisees did. The point of the passage is: What you have been hearing is very different from what I teach.

The scribes and Pharisees quoted from the law of Moses, but they didn't follow it in their doctrine or practice. The substance of their doctrine and practice was their own traditions, interpretations and rituals. Jesus swept all this human doctrine aside and gave the people His standard ("I say unto you").

As Paul Earnhart observes about these words of Jesus: "It would soon become apparent in His sermon that His conflict was not with the law but with the Pharisaic perversions of it."

What does this mean to us today? It means, we ought to be certain that the basis of all our doctrine and practice is the actual Word of God, and not just someone's interpretation of it. If we fall into the habit of hearing men and automatically assuming that what they say is the Word of God - we fall into the same kind of "righteousness" the scribes and Pharisees advanced; their own (see Matt. 5:20, Rom. 10:3). To keep myself from this great peril, I need to read and study the Word of God for myself, become acquainted with Christ, learn the New Testament and refuse to let any man or group of men dictate what I believe, teach and practice.

By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 7.11; November 2000