A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5: 17-20. A Christian’s righteousness. Christ, the Christian and the Law (continued).
So far Jesus has spoken of a Christian’s character, and of the influence he will have in the world if he exhibits this character and if his character bears fruit in ‘good works’. He now proceeds to define further this character and these good works in terms of righteousness. He explains that the righteousness he has already mentioned twice as that for which his disciples hunger (6) and on account of which they suffer (10) is a conformity to God’s moral law and yet surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (20). The ‘good works’ are works of obedience. He began his Sermon with beatitudes in the third person (‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’); he continued in the second person (‘You are the salt of the earth’); and now he changes to the authoritative first person and uses for the first time his distinctive and dogmatic formula *I say to you* (18) or *I tell you* (20). This paragraph is of great importance not only for its definition of Christian righteousness but also for the light it throws on the relation between the New Testament and the Old Testament, between the gospel and the law. It divides itself into two parts, first Christ and the law (17,18) and secondly the Christian and the law (19,20).
1. Christ and the law (17,18)
He begins by telling them not for one moment to imagine that he had come to *abolish the law and the prophets,* i.e. the whole Old Testament or any part of it. (cf. 7:12) The way in which Jesus phrases this negative statement suggests that some had indeed been thinking the very thought which he now contradicts. Although his public ministry had so recently begun, already his contemporaries were deeply disturbed by his supposed attitude to the Old Testament. Perhaps the sabbath controversy had flared up thus early, for Mark puts both the sabbath plucking of corn and the sabbath healing of a man’s withered hand before even the appointment of the twelve (Mk. 2:23-3:6). Certainly from the very beginning of his ministry, people had been struck by his authority. ‘What is this?’ they asked. ‘A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits and the obey him (Mk.1:27). It was natural, therefore that many were asking what the relation was between *his* authority and the authority of the law of Moses. It was clear to them that the scribes were submissive to it, for they were ‘teachers of the law’. They devoted themselves to its interpretation and claimed for themselves no authority apart from the authorities they quoted. But it was not so clear with Jesus. Jesus spoke with his own authority. He loved to use a formula no ancient prophet or modern scribe had ever used. He would introduce some of his most impressive utterances with ‘Truly I say to you’, speaking in his own name and with his own authority. What was this authority of his? Was he setting himself up as an authority over against the sacred law, the word of God? So it seemed to some. Hence their question, spoken or unspoken, which Jesus now answered unequivocally: *Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets*.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:17-20. A Christian’s righteousness (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.