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. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Lest anyone should have the wrong idea about Jesus, He takes the opportunity at the this point to clarify His relationship with the Law of Moses, pointing out very clearly that He had no intention of abolishing it. As we read this, we might wonder why He stuck this paragraph at this point in His remarks; the answer is an interesting one. As He has gone out proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven, healing the sick and chasing out demons, Jesus created quite a stir to say the least. He has given us the character traits of the new follower of God, He has shown us a new mission for God’s people in the last section, but even though there are new elements He is introducing into Israel, He is not doing away with any part of the old Law; no, He has something quite different in mind.
He is going to fulfill both the Law and the Prophets!
Notice that in this passage, Jesus is still mentioning the Kingdom; in the Kingdom, people won’t be approaching the Law in the same way that they have been used to handling it, and it may well be that the people have never really handled it correctly, or as God intended. The reason for this is simply that the Israelites had the idea that they could become righteous by keeping the Law by their own force of will, and as we know, they were never successful for long and often fell into total rebelliousness when they failed. In this implication throughout the rest of this sermon, Matthew once again is linking the story of Jesus with the history of Israel.
Entry into the Kingdom will require a great deal more than the Law as presented by the Pharisees and teachers of the law, for they taught obedience to Law through legalistic minutia, a teaching that God did not bring to them. As the larger story unfolds, we will see time and again their legalistic approach colliding with Jesus’ kingdom approach, for they simply could not fathom His teaching, for Jesus’ approach was to rely in faith upon God for righteousness, rather than on earning it by our own efforts, and frankly, this conflict is still with us today.
Beginning with 5:21, Jesus will teach His listeners how the Law should be applied towards one’s neighbors, which as we will see, runs a great deal deeper than anything the Pharisees had in mind, for their legalism by minutia was only effective in making a person look impressive to other people, while Jesus’ approach was allowing God to work in the lives of the people, to His glory.