Loosening the Law

Take a minute to grab your Bible and read Matthew 5:17-20.

As you can see, these verses have to do with the law. And you remember what John Newton said about the law don’t you? He wrote, “Ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most of our religious mistakes.” Wise words from a wise pastor and we ought to keep them in mind when we look at a passage like this one.

These verses break down into two basic sections; Jesus’ relationship to the law and the law’s relationship to those in the kingdom. Now, we can summarize Jesus’ relationship to the law in two statements. First, Jesus did not come to abolish the law. To put it in shorthand, Jesus did not come to abolish the very thing which spoke of Him! However, and second, Jesus did come to fulfill the law. We might say that Jesus came to embody what was said of Him in the law and the prophets. Or, as He said earlier in Matthew’s gospel, He came to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15).

But what about the law’s relationship to those who are of the kingdom? Now, let’s pause here for a question begging to be asked. Who are of the kingdom? Jesus doesn’t say. He does not here define the members of the kingdom but instead presupposes a certain level of understanding on the part of His audience. So, of whom is He speaking? To put it simply, He has the visible church of the Old Testament in mind or as the Westminster Confession calls it, the church under-age. Now, here is the point, the scribes and Pharisees belong to the church under age.

This is important for understanding the passage especially when we look at the first person mentioned in verse 19. Jesus describes a person who annuls the law. It is here we find something interesting. We find a comparison. Earlier Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the law (v. 17). The Greek word translated abolish is from the word “to loose” and in this case the idea is to loosen with destruction as the aim. Therefore, Jesus did not come to loosen the law so as to destroy it. But here, in verse 19, the man who annuls the law is the man who – you guessed it – loosens the law. The contrast is clear. Jesus did not come to loosen the law but the man in verse 19 does.

What is more, we are told who this person is in verse 20. The scribe and Pharisee are those who seek to loosen the law. And just in case we were wondering what loosening the law looks like Jesus gives six examples in verses 21-48. In these verses Jesus’ view of and attitude toward the law are set appositionally to that of the religious leaders.

Now, we’ve all heard this text preached. Often it comes out something like this, “The Scribes and Pharisees were concerned with the minute details of the law and unless we do the same – unless our righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees – you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven!” But this is not quite the point. The point is if we like the Scribes and Pharisees are loosening the law in order to meet its standard, then we are as spiritually poor as they are. We lack the eyes to see and mourn over our spiritual poverty (Matthew 5:3-4) and the faith to lay hold of an alien righteousness extended only in Christ (Matthew 3:15; 5:6).

Dear friend, read through verses 21-48 and ask yourself two questions. First, do I fall short of the law’s requirement? If you answered yes, then how will you meet that standard in order to stand before God? The only answer to be had is Jesus, the righteous One. Dear friend, may he also be the Lord your righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6).

Jeffrey A. Stivason has been serving the Lord as a minister of the gospel since 1995.  He was church planter and now pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.
Jeffrey Stivason