READ : Matthew 5:17-20
What does Jesus have to say about the Bible? It might surprise you to find out.
This message is one of a series of studies of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with the general title “The Good Life.” Matthew 5-7 contains more of Jesus’ ethical teaching than any other comparable section of the Bible. So if you want to know what Jesus thought about personal morality, and right and wrong, and what people should do if they want to be good, then this is the place to look.
Not surprisingly, Jesus starts the main body of his sermon with the Bible. Well, maybe that does surprise you. You might think that since Jesus was God he made up everything from scratch or that he just sort of said things off the top of his head, but while Jesus spoke with unmistakable personal authority, he never set himself against God’s written word, the Bible. How could he? For it was his word too.
So near the beginning of his sermon Jesus talks about the Bible. He offers us a glimpse into his attitude toward it. He describes his relationship with it, and he suggest some things we need to do about it. This is what he says,
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished
PERSON OF THE BOOK
At the outset, we should be clear exactly what Jesus is talking about. The phrase “the Law and the Prophets” was the way a Jew of Jesus’ time referred to the Hebrew scriptures, which were roughly divided into those two sections. So Jesus was talking about the whole Bible as it was then constituted, that is to say, the book most of us know as the Old Testament. That’s right, the Old Testament. Jesus had the highest possible opinion of the Old Testament, something in which Christians have not always followed him. Let’s look a little more closely at just what his attitude toward this book of God was.
In the first place, Jesus loved the Bible. He had the greatest regard and esteem for it. That comes through every word he speaks about it. Indeed, his whole life was steeped in Scripture from beginning to end. Maybe you remember how when he was a little boy of twelve, his parents once lost track of him for three days in Jerusalem. When they finally found him, he was in the temple discussing the scriptures with the learned teachers of Israel and amazing them with his precocious understanding. At the end of his life too, as he hung on the cross, it was scripture that occupied his mind as he quoted again and again from the book of Psalms. So for Jesus’ whole life long the Hebrew scriptures were his chief joy and delight. He must have echoed the psalmist often: “Oh, how love I your law! I meditate on it all day long” (Ps. 119:97).
Second, Jesus lived by the Bible. For forty days after his baptism Jesus fasted alone in the desert; during this time Satan visited him with a variety of temptations. And each time Jesus resisted, fighting back by quoting from the scriptures (actually, all three times from the same book, the book of Deuteronomy). “. . . man does not live on bread alone,” Jesus recited, “but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3) And what he said, he did. That is exactly how Jesus himself lived.
Third, Jesus obeyed the Bible. “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.” And he fulfilled the Law by keeping it. No one else ever before or since has obeyed the Law perfectly the way Jesus did. In even the smallest details, Jesus was completely obedient, right down to dotting every “i” and crossing every “t.” “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” he once asked his enemies. None of them did. None of them could.
It is true that Jesus, throughout his life, demonstrated a certain rightful authority over the law. He took a kind of proprietary interest in it, as if he were himself on the most intimate terms with the divine Law-Giver. You can even hear it here. “I came to fulfill the Law,” he says, as if he were sent into the world from someplace else on a special mission that only he could accomplish. It’s also true that Jesus regularly felt free to ignore the human traditions and interpretations that had been added to the Law over the centuries. And it was this more than anything that so aggravated the religious establishment of Jesus’ day. But he never, in thought, word or action, did anything to violate one of the genuine commands of God’s Word.
Fourth, Jesus fulfilled the Bible. That is what he said he came to do – to fulfill, not just in the sense of obeying all the commands of God’s Law (which he did) but to fulfill in the sense of completing the scriptures, filling them full, being the answer to which the Old Testament posed the question. Jesus Christ is himself the true meaning of the Hebrew scriptures. He is their fulfillment. Their history is fulfilled in him. Jesus is the offspring of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head. He is Israel’s Messiah, David’s royal son, the one for whose coming all the long centuries were a preparation. The Old Testament’s ceremonies are fulfilled in him. All that blood of all those temple animals, all the sprinklings and cleansings, all the sacred garments and furniture and the incense clouds rolling up, all of it points to Christ, and specifically to the cross, where Jesus, the great High Priest, offered a once-for-all sacrifice, the reality of which all the rest is the shadow. The Old Testament’s prophecies are fulfilled in him. He is the one of whom the prophets wrote. After his resurrection, Jesus took his disciples aside and as Luke the evangelist reports, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:45,27).
PEOPLE OF THE BOOK
All of this has relevance for us if we claim to be Jesus’ followers. If Jesus was a person of the book, then we need to be people of the book. We must have the same attitude toward the Bible he did. That means we have to respect and reverence it, love and live by it. Even the strange and difficult parts of the Old Testament should be for us what they were for Jesus: the very word of God in written form. After all, it’s all still in effect. Jesus did not revoke or repeal any of it.
It’s true that parts of the Old Testament, especially the ceremonial rules and rituals, because they are fulfilled by Christ, have been accomplished, and are no longer binding. But I don’t think we are in danger of taking the Old Testament too seriously these days. For us, the danger is just the opposite. Too many professing Christians appear to be writing it off. The one thing no genuine Christian is ever allowed to do is to treat the Bible as if it were a restaurant menu, from which you can pick the items that sound good to you and leave everything else behind. Some people seem to take delight in disparaging the Bible, hunting around for alleged mistakes, errors and contradictions. It’s hard to imagine Jesus being sympathetic with that approach.
Evangelical Christians are sometimes criticized for practicing bibliolatry, the worship of a book. That’s a false accusation. We don’t worship a book; we worship Jesus. But because we do that, we also reverence the Word of God just as he did. Authentic Christianity is always biblical Christianity, a faith marked by love for the Bible, and formed and shaped and directed by biblical teaching.
But we do more than hold the Bible in very high regard, more even than “read, mark and inwardly digest” it. Jesus gives us two more particular things to do with the Bible. One is to teach it. “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said, “but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 19).
If Jesus is telling the truth here, then those who play fast and loose with Scripture, picking and choosing which parts they like and discarding or discrediting whatever seems to them awkward or inconvenient, are in big trouble. When he says they will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, I think he’s speaking euphemistically. I think what he really means is that they won’t be in the kingdom of heaven at all. One classic Christian commentator put it this way: “As we treat the Word of God, so does God treat us” (J.A. Bengel). Is it too blunt to observe that teachers and preachers who say you don’t have to obey the Bible’s moral teaching (for instance, its prohibition of sodomy) are putting themselves in danger of going to hell? On the other hand, if you really want to achieve true and lasting greatness, if you want to be great in the greatest possible way, then the thing to do is to become a faithful Bible teacher!
The other thing Jesus tells us, of course, is to do the same commands that we teach to others. Above everything else, we must obey the Bible. We must live as it says to live. We must put into practice its commands. “For,” as Jesus adds in this concluding section:
I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
That’s a statement that should give us pause. “Scribe” was an occupation. The scribes were the professional students of scripture: the Bible teachers and theologians of Jesus’ day, the closest thing in that culture to what we would think of as the clergy. “Pharisee” was a party label, a sort of combination political party and religious denomination that was famous in Jesus’ day for religious zeal and for the seriousness with which its members tried to keep the law. So the scribes and Pharisees together represent the most highly committed, the extra keen, the enthusiasts, the gung ho – the religious equivalent of the Marine Corps.
They had a great deal of righteousness. They cared a lot about morality, and they cared even more about personal piety, religious practice and observance. They were extremely careful to keep even the minute details of the law. They respected the Bible. They respected God. They especially respected the Sabbath Day. But Jesus says that’s not enough. Our righteousness has to be even greater if we expect to see heaven.
He doesn’t mean we have to do more, because nobody could outdo the scribes and Pharisees in religion. He means our righteousness must go deeper. You see, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was largely external. They were concerned about the letter of the law and keeping the rules, and Jesus is more concerned about internal righteousness, about what goes on in our hearts and in our minds. He will make this clear in the rest of his sermon, but for now just pay careful attention to what he says. Being outwardly religious and having a reputation for morality isn’t enough. We must be really and truly good. We had better get serious about obeying the Bible if we want to go to heaven.
I don’t know about you, but this thought humbles me. It makes me want to acknowledge my failures and shortcomings. It makes me want to pray for grace and mercy and forgiveness. The last thing we can afford to be is careless about obedience.