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The Sermon On The Mount

Chapter Seven

Christ and the Law-Continued

"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven."

Matthew 5:17-20

We are not unmindful of the fact that the passage now before us is one which will possess little attraction for the great majority of professing Christians in our degenerate age, and possibly some of our own readers would be better pleased if we superficially summarized its teaching rather than endeavoured to give a detailed exposition of its weighty contents. Those verses which contain God's promises are far more acceptable in this day of self-pleasing and self-gratification than those which insist upon our obedience to the Divine precepts. But this ought not to be, for the one is as truly a part of God's Word as the other, and just as much needed by us. If any vindication of our present procedure be required, it is sufficient to point out that the words we are to examine are those of Christ Himself, and He ever sought the glory of God and the good of souls, caring not for either the praise or the criticism of His hearers.

Healthy Christianity can only be maintained where the balance is properly preserved between a faithful exposition of the holy Law of God and a pressing of its claims upon the conscience, and by tenderly preaching the Gospel and applying its balm to stricken hearts. Where the former predominates to the virtual exclusion of the latter, self-righteous pharisaism is fostered; and where the proclamation of the Gospel ousts the requirements of the Law, Antinomian licentiousness is engendered. Daring the past hundred years Christendom has probably heard fifty Gospel sermons or addresses to one on the Law, and the consequence has indeed been disastrous and deplorable: a light and backboneless religion, with loose and careless walking. Therefore when a servant of God is expounding, consecutively, any portion of the Scriptures, and in the course thereof arrives at a passage upon the Law, it is now (more than ever before) his bounden duty to tarry there and press its claims upon his hearers or readers.

Such a verse as the one which is to be particularly before us ought indeed to search all our hearts, especially those of us who have been called by the Lord to His service. Taken at its surface meaning Matthew 5:19, emphasizes the deep importance of obedience to the Divine commandment, and most solemnly warns against disobedience. Yet it is at this very point that modern Christendom errs most grievously, and the pulpit is chiefly to be blamed for this sad state of affairs. Not only do many who pose as ministers of Christ themselves break the commandments, but they publicly teach their hearers to do the same; and this not with regard to the "least" of the Divine precepts, but in connection with the most fundamental of God's laws. Should these lines catch the eyes of any such men, we trust that it may please the Lord to use the same in convicting them of the enormity of their sin.

Our Lord was on the point of correcting various corruptions of the Law which obtained among the Jews of His day, and He prefaced what He had to say by cautioning them not to misconstrue His design, as though He were opposing either Moses or the prophets, neither of whose writings were at any variance with the kingdom He had come to establish. So far from setting Himself against Moses, He, with the most solemn asseveration, declared the Law to be of perpetual obligation (v. 18), and such was His regard for it that if anyone posing as a minister in His kingdom should break the least of the Law's precepts and teach others to make light of it, he should be as little in the eyes of the Lord as the precept was in his eyes (v. 19); while those practicing and inculcating the Law should have His highest approval.

Our passage begins at 5:17, in which our Lord made known in no uncertain terms His attitude toward the Divine Law. False conceptions had been formed as to the real design of His mission, and those who were unfriendly toward Him sought to make the people believe that the Lord Jesus was a revolutionary, whose object was to overthrow the very foundations of Judaism. Therefore in His first formal public address Christ promptly gave the lie to these wicked aspersions and declared His complete accord with the Divine revelation at Sinai. Not only was there no antagonism between Himself and Moses, but He had come to earth with the express purpose of accomplishing all that had been demanded in the name of God. So far was it from being His design to repudiate the holy Law, He had become incarnate in order to work out that very righteousness it required, to make good what the Levitical institutions had foreshadowed, and to bring to pass the Messianic predictions of Israel's seers.

"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil" (Matthew 5:17). Well did Beza say upon this verse, "Christ came not to bring any new way of righteousness and salvation into the world, but to fulfil that in deed which was shadowed by the figures of the Law: by delivering men through grace from the curse of the Law; and moreover to teach the true use of obedience which the Law appointed, and to grave in our hearts the force of obedience." On the dominant word "fulfil,' Matthew Henry pertinently pointed out, "The Gospel is 'The time of reformation' (Heb. 9:10)-not the repeal of the Law, but the amendment of it [i.e. from its pharisaical corruptions, A.W.P.] and, consequently, its re-establishment."

"For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled" (v. 18). In these words our Lord affirmed the perpetuity of the Law, insisting that it should never be abrogated. The grass withereth and the flower fadeth, but the Word of God endureth for ever: the Old Testament as much as the New, the Law as truly as the Gospel. The "verily I say unto you" was the solemn asseveration of the Amen, the faithful and true Witness. Everything in the Law must be fulfilled: not only its prefigurations and prophecies, but its precepts and penalty: fulfilled, first, personally and vicariously, by and upon the Surety; fulfilled, second and evangelically, in and by His people; and fulfilled, third, in the doom of the wicked, who shall experience its awful curse for ever and ever. Instead of Christ's being opposed to the Law of God, He came here to magnify it and render it honorable (Isa. 42:21); and rather than His teachings being subversive thereof, they confirmed and enforced it.

"Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (v. 19). This afforded proof of what Christ had declared in verses 17 and 18, for the language He here employed manifestly implies the perpetual and inflexible obligation of the Law throughout the entire course of the kingdom of heaven-this Christian era. Not only so, but the words of Christ in this verse make unmistakably clear the inestimable value which He placed upon the Divine commandments, and which esteem He would strictly require and exact from all who taught in His name: His disapproval falling on the one who slighted the least of the Law's requirements, and His approval resting on each who by his example and teaching honored the same.

"Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments," namely the "jot and tittle" of the previous verse-the smallest part of the Law. Weigh carefully the word we have placed in italics: it denotes two things. First, Christ is here illustrating or exemplifying what He had so expressly affirmed in the previous verses and insists that instead of encouraging His followers to disregard the Divine Law He upheld its claims in the most certain manner, for the King Himself would frown upon any of His officers who dared to disesteem its smallest requirements. Second, Christ drew an obvious conclusion from what He had laid down in the foregoing. If the Master Himself came not to destroy the Law but rather to fulfil it, then it manifestly followed that His servants too must keep the commandments and teach others to do the same. It is in this way the ministers of Christ are to be identified: by their following the example which He has left them.

Let us take notice of how what immediately follows the "therefore" clinches the interpretation we gave of the "destroy" and the disputed but simple "fulfil" of verse 17. To "destroy" the Prophets would he to deny their validity, to repudiate their inspiration, to annul their authority, so that they would then possess no binding power on the people of God. In like manner, to "destroy" the Law is not simply to break it by transgression, but also to abolish it: it is such a destruction as would rob it of all virtue and power so that it would be no law at all. This is why the Lord added, "break one of these commandments and teach men so." The order is significantly the same in both verses: "destroy . . . fulfil" (v. 17), "break.. . do and teach them" (v. 19).

Let us further observe how the contents of this verse establish the definition we gave of "the law" in the preceding verses-a matter on which there has been some difference of opinion among the commentators. We pointed out that, while it is clear from the later parts of the Sermon that Christ alluded principal1y to the moral law, yet in view of the circumstances under which this Discourse was delivered and in view of Christ's allusion to the "jot and tittle" of the Law, the ceremonial and judicial aspects of it must not be excluded. Throughout this passage "the law" is to be understood in its widest latitude, as embracing the Mosaic Law. This is clear from our Lord's reference to "one of these least commandments," for surely we cannot think of the Ten Commandments in such a connection; for they one and all belong to the fundamental statutes of the kingdom

Should anyone demur at what has just been said and insist that "the law" is to be understood as here referring to the Ten Commandments only, we shall not quarrel with him. It may indeed he pointed out, inasmuch as the Divine Decalogue is a unit, and therefore all of its commands possess equal authority, that no part of it can be of slight obligation; yet some parts of it respect matters of, relatively, more importance than do others. Transgressions of the first table are far more heinous than those against the second: to take the Lord's name in vain is much more sinful than stealing from a fellow creature. So too there are degrees of criminality in offences against the precepts of the second table: to murder is a graver crime than to bear false witness against my neighbor. Thus, while none of the Ten Words is trivial, some respect more momentous objects than the others. Nevertheless, let not the solemn fact be forgotten that "whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" (Jam. 2:10).

Ere passing on it should be pointed out that the verse now before us also definitely confirms our explanation of the "ye" in verses 13-16-a point which is disputed by many of our moderns. When treating of that passage we called attention to our Lord's change of the pronoun in His second division of the Sermon. In verses 3 to 10 the Saviour throughout used "theirs" and "they," but in verses 11 to 16 He employed "ye" and "you." We insisted that this second section has exclusive reference to Christ's official servants-the New Testament successors of the "prophets" (verse 12), for they are, ministerially, the salt of the earth and the light of the world. That Christ continued to have in mind the same class, and was addressing Himself not to the rank and file of His people, but to His official servants, is clear from His "Whosoever shall do and teach them."

"Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven." The "kingdom of heaven" here, as in the great majority of places, has reference to the sphere of profession. It is wider than the Church which is 'Christ's body, for none but the elect of God are members of that. The "kingdom of heaven" takes in all who claim to own the sceptre of Christ, and therefore it includes the false as well as the real, as is clear from our Lord's parables: the tares growing in the same field as the wheat, the had fish being enclosed in the net with the good; though at the end there shall be a severance of one from the other. This at once removes any difficulty which may be felt over a minister who teaches others to break God's commands having any place at all therein. This kingdom was announced by Christ's forerunner (3:2), and since that time has been preached (11:12).

Two different explanations have been given by the commentators as to the meaning of "he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven." First, that one is called "the least" because he is not deemed worth y to have any part at all or any real inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God: this is negated by the Lord's own words. Second, and strange to say the one adopted by the best writers: this person shall he held in such low esteem by his fellow citizens as to be called by them the least in the kingdom. But we see nothing in our verse which indicates that the reference is to the judgment of men. Personally, we believe something far more solemn than that is in view: the evil minister shall be judged "the least" by the King Himself. Does not our verse look back to, "The ancient and the honourable, he is the head; and the prophet that teacheth lies, he is the tail" (Isa. 9:15)? It was Christ's condemnation of the unfaithful servant.

Not only does our present verse solemnly condemn Dispensationalists (who repudiate one of the greatest of all God's commands: the Sabbatic-statute), but it announces the disapproval of Christ upon another class of errorists. Not a few Calvinists have pitted the Gospel against the Law, and instead of showing the one as the handmaid of the other, have represented them as being irreconcilable enemies. These men have disgraced Divine grace, for they fail to show that grace works through righteousness, and have taken from the Christian his rule of life. Their conception of what Christian liberty consists of is altogether wrong, denying that the believer is under Divine bonds to walk in obedience to the Decalogue. Failing to see that Romans 6:14, has reference to our justification and not our sanctification, they repudiate the moral law, teaching that in no sense are we under its authority. But though such men be held in high esteem by many of the churches, they are the very "least" in the sight of 'Christ, and must yet answer to Him for engaging in the very practice which He here denounces.

Antinomianism (the repudiation of the moral law as the Christian's rule of life) is as reprehensible and dangerous as papal indulgences. If on the one hand we need to guard against legality (seeking to keep the Law in order to merit something good at the hands of God), on the other hand there is just as real a danger of dwelling so exclusively on the grace of the Gospel that we lose sight of the holy living required. "Let us then beware equally of Antinomian licentiousness and of pharisaical self-righteousness; these are Scyalla and Charybdis, the fatal rock and whirlpool: most men in shunning the one fall into the other, and we need the Lord the Spirit to pilot us between them. But the clear and full exposition of the holy Law of God, and the scriptural application of it to the heart and conscience, forms one most important preservative from these fatal extremes" (T. Scott).

"But whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." Note well the order here: "do and teach." As Paul exhorted his son in the faith, "Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine" (1 Tim. 4:16): Christ requires integrity of life and soundness of doctrine from His servants. The Lord is both mocked and grievously insulted by ministers who practice one thing and preach another: far better to quit preaching entirely if our lives be opposed to our sermons. Furthermore, there will be no power in the preaching of the man whose own walk clashes with his talk: his words will carry no conviction to the hearts of his hearers-as one quaintly but solemnly said to his minister, "I cannot hear what you say, from seeing what you do." Finally, a minister cannot with any clearness of conscience and joy of heart teach others their duty, unless he first be a practicer of what he preaches.

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