✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets,” Jesus says. Now why would the people think that in the first place? Where would they get the idea that Jesus might be teaching something against the Law or the Prophets? Well, consider how different Jesus was from the legalistic religious leaders of His day. He ate with tax collectors and sinners. He healed on the Sabbath. He touched the unclean and diseased. He preached repentance and forgiveness, the lovingkindness and mercy of God. He was a bit of a radical. And so some may have drawn the false conclusion that He was casting aside the Old Testament and giving them something altogether different.
In order to dispel any such notion, Jesus says, “I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” He wasn’t undoing and trashing the Law and the Prophets; rather, He was bringing them to their perfect expression and realization in Himself. Everything written in the Old Testament comes to its pinnacle and culmination in Jesus.
That’s why He goes on to say, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Anyone who says that the ten commandments no longer apply to today’s contemporary world, that traditional definitions of marriage and morality can be discarded, that times have changed and church teaching has to change with them–those who say such things, even under the guise of love and tolerance and inclusiveness, are acting against Christ. He didn’t come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.
And this applies not only to others out there, but also to us in here. We know well the temptation to brush aside God’s Law, to think to ourselves, “Even though this is wrong, even though it breaks a commandment, I can go ahead and do it anyway because God will forgive me.” We in effect destroy God’s Law when we misuse His grace in that way, as an excuse to live however we please.
St. Paul addresses this in the Epistle. “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” God’s forgiveness is not a license to sin, it’s freedom from sin. It’s the taking away of sin. Why would we want to embrace again the very things which once condemned us to hell? Since the old Adam still hangs around our neck, tempting us to think lightly of sin, the Law is still in force in this fallen world. Not one jot or tittle will pass away from it till all is fulfilled at Christ’s return. The commandments still apply to every single one of us, calling us to repent.
However, just because that is so, we shouldn’t fall into the opposite error and think that we can gain eternal life by our keeping of the Law, or by simply changing our ways. For listen to what Jesus also says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” It’s not just that you have to do your best and try your hardest, and God will accept that. It’s that you’ve got to do even better than those who dedicated their whole lives to keeping God’s Law down to the finest detail, otherwise you can forget about eternal life. Not even the Pharisees, not even today’s strictest monks make it on their own steam. It is written in James 2, “Whoever keeps the whole Law and yet fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” And who among us has failed only in one point to begin with?
God isn’t simply after good outward behavior, He seeks inward righteousness. And so Jesus speaks of the 5th Commandment in the Gospel reading; it’s not simply that you shouldn’t murder–like the Orlando night club shooter, or the Instanbul airport terrorists–but if you speak angry words or harbor ill thoughts or desire payback, you’re being like shooters and terrorists in your hearts; it’s all rebellion and a breaking of God’s Law. And it’s not only what we shouldn’t do but what we should do, too–seeking reconciliation with those who have wronged us, or those whom we have wronged, as far as that is possible, as far as it depends on us.
All of this was beyond the self-serving religion of the Pharisees, whom Jesus called “whitewashed tombs,” outwardly clean and pure, but inwardly full of uncleanness and dead men’s bones. This is what all human righteousness is: A good looking and attractive exterior that covers nothing but rotting, stinking death on the inside. Can you do any better than the scribes and the Pharisees? Then you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. That’s the judgment of the Law.
The central purpose of the Law, then, is not to save us but to drive us to Christ, our only hope and our only Help. For only in Jesus do we receive an inward righteousness before God, the righteousness of faith, where we despair of our own goodness and instead rely on Christ alone. We prayed it in the Introit, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped.” Only in Jesus is there deliverance from the judgment of the Law. For only Jesus has kept the Law without fault or failing. Again He said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill (them).” And all of this Jesus did for you and in your place. Through faith in Him, His righteousness is counted as yours.
It is written in Hebrews, “He was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin.” Not only did Jesus not do the things that the commandments forbid, He also did do everything the commandments demand. Not only did He not murder or steal or have impure thoughts, but He also perfectly loved His Father in heaven and His neighbor on earth, showing compassion, healing, doing good and teaching the truth to all. Our Lord lived a holy life as our representative and our substitute, so that our unholy lives would be redeemed.
And Jesus also fulfilled the Law by completing all of the old ceremonial requirements regarding the Sabbath and the sacrifices and so forth. Through His holy death and His rest in the tomb, Jesus Himself became your eternal Sabbath rest; and so He says, “Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” “I will release from the crushing weight of the Law; I give you the peace of being reconciled with God.” And by His once-for-all, final sacrifice as the Lamb of God, Jesus cleansed you from your sin and purified you. All the Old Testament Jewish rules and regulations found their goal in Jesus, who put that all to an end in His crucified body, that the Law might no longer condemn you. You’ve been put right with God again. That’s what Jesus was saying on the cross, “It is finished.” It is accomplished, completed, perfected, fulfilled. All has been done, as Romans 10 declares, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Our Lord is now risen from the dead to give you new life and a sure hope.
That new life, that sure hope is entirely yours in holy baptism. For St. Paul says in the Epistle that by water and the Word you were buried with Christ and raised with Him to a new life. His death counts as your death. The hellish judgment he experienced counts for you too. It’s all done and behind you. Living in Christ, taking refuge under His wings, you are holy to Him; you are protected and kept safe from the power of sin and Satan and from death itself.
That’s how the words of Jesus which seemed to be impossible are now, in fact, true in Him: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” By faith in Christ, your righteousness does exceed that of the Pharisees, for it has been given to you freely by God’s grace. You have the perfect righteousness of Jesus as your own. The Father has declared you to be righteous in His sight. He didn’t just demand that you straighten out your life, He gave you a whole new life, the life of Jesus that is full and complete and perfect and everlasting. Through Christ you will enter the kingdom of heaven. In fact you have already entered it by faith. For you are in Christ, the King of heaven.
Our Lord has brought you through the Red Sea of baptism, out of the house of bondage. Your old selves were crucified with Christ, that you should no longer be slaves to sin. Therefore, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. For just as you have been united with Him in His death, you will surely also be united with Him in the resurrection of the body when He comes again. To Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all worship, honor, glory, and praise, now and forever. Amen.