The king's commandments - Matthew 5:17-20

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the Riverside Church service on 5th July 2015.

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The King’s Commandments

Matthew 5:17-20

What is your view of the Old Testament? Do you find it boring or fascinating? Do you find it disturbing or full of amazing grace? Do you find it easy to understand or complicated? Inevitably our views will differ so let me ask a better question, what should our view of the Old Testament be? Rather than focusing on what it currently is, I want to ask how should the Christian view what is written in the first half of the Bible?

Now I realise that not everyone here this morning is a Christian. However, this is still very relevant for you. Because as you look in trying to discover how life will need to change if you decide to follow Jesus Christ then one of the issues you are faced with is how should you understand the part of the Bible before Jesus was born.

This morning we’re going to find out. We’re going to do this in two parts.

• Jesus and the Old Testament (Vs 17-18)
• Jesus and the Christian (Vs 19-20)

First of all, Jesus and the Old Testament (Vs 17-18)

Look at what Jesus says in verse 17. Read verse 17.


We all know how easy it is to misunderstand what someone is trying to say. What is required when someone has misheard or misinterpreted what you have said is a clear statement of what you mean.

Miscommunication is not a modern problem. It seems that some had misunderstood what Jesus had come to do. The very fact that he says "I have come" tells us something about his divine self consciousness. That is, he knew he hasn't just been born, he knew he had come from heaven.

Why had he come? Not to get rid of the Old Testament, or the Law and the Prophets as he calls it here. Jesus was not embarrassed by the OT. He was not ashamed of its ethical standards. He did not think it described a radically different God. He had not come to setup some radically new religion that had no relation to what had gone before.

The heretic Marcion in the early 2nd century essentially took a pen knife to the Bible. He cut out the OT and then the bits of the NT that mentioned the OT. He didn’t have much left.

That’s not the attitude of Jesus to the OT. No he had not come to abolish it but (and here’s the crucial contrast) he had come to fulfil it.

What does that mean? Jesus is declaring that he is the answer to every OT prediction, promise, pattern and precept. In other words, it is all about him. Every expectation is realised, or filled out, in him.

This is more than saying there are a few particular predictions that Jesus fulfils. There are these specific predictions. For example, the promised Saviour mentioned in Isaiah chapter 53.

It’s more than this. In the OT God promises to bless the world and forgive people who deserve judgement. How will this be?

The patterns. Sacrificial system. Kings. prophets. Jesus fulfils all these patterns!

The precepts. Every rule and commandment. His teaching perfectly unpacks the true intention of the OT commandments and applies them for the life of his disciples in every age. And in his own person the Lord Jesus perfectly keeps all of the OT commandments for us. This enables him to be punished for the sins of others and also he is about to provide the righteousness we need.

Because it is all about Jesus, this means the OT stays as part of the Christian canon. And just so we are clear about how much of it should stay, look at what Jesus says in verse 18. Read verse 18.

Until this current universe is renewed, every part of the OT should remain. Jesus gets his point across by talking about the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the smallest stroke of a letter in the Hebrew alphabet. He is talking about what has been written. Everything in those original manuscripts is exactly as the Holy Spirit intended. So let’s put our pen knives away and actively read what Jesus says we should keep.

Our temptation when we read any part of the bible is to make it about us. How does this impact me? How can I follow this example? But what we must remember is that the OT was divine inspired by the Holy Spirit to point us in the direction of Jesus Christ.

Second, Jesus and the Christian (Vs 19-20)

We should certainly keep the OT but should we keep the OT commandments?

We need to ask this question with the right attitude. We are not trying to do the minimum we can but are trying to be the most godly we can possibly be but with the understanding that the coming of Jesus Christ has radically changed things. The question is, how has the arrival of Jesus affected how we, his followers, relate to the Old Testament commands?

What are our options? 2 alternatives.

• Yes. Keep everything exactly as they are.

• Some of them. How do we decide?

How do we decide what ones are applicable now? How do we avoid the suggestion that we are engaged in a random pick and mix?


An ancient tradition is to divide the OT commands into three categories: ceremonial, civic and moral. And then to say that only the moral commands continue to be binding on disciples today.

This is how Article 7 of the Anglican 39 Articles articulates this view, “Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civic precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.”

This is helpful but I have two issues with it. First, it’s not a biblical division. Second, it isn’t easy to do in practice.

Another approach is to say we do not obey the specific commandments of the Old Testament unless they are specially restated in the New Testament - either by Jesus or one of his appointed spokesmen. This has close connections with the second approach but allows the NT to reveal which are the morally binding commands and how they are to be lived out in this area of church life.

Which approach is right? Should we keep all of them or some of them? And if we only keep some of them, which ones are the right ones to keep with all our heart?

 Listen to what Jesus says in verse 19. Read verse 19.

A lot is at stake here. The very status of someone in the kingdom of heaven.
It all hinges around what Jesus means by ‘these commandments’. Is he looking back to what he has just said or is he looking forward to what he is about to say? Or in other words, he is talking about the OT commandments or is he referring to the commandments that he is about to give to this new community that is gathered around him?

I’m persuaded that he is talking about his commandments rather than the specific commands of the OT. Let me tell you why.

First, Jesus hasn’t just been talking about the OT commandments. He has been talking about the OT. This includes commands but much more.

Second, the bigger context of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is speaking with divine authority to his gathered disciples. He keeps on saying, “I tell you this”. There is a focus on what Jesus is actually saying now rather than what has been said previously.

Third, the bigger context of the Gospel. Matthew 28, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

In summary, we are not bound by any specific OT commandments unless it has been restated in the New Testament.

Let me give you a practical example of what this looks like in practice. Should we obey the Sabbath? And if so, in what way? The Sabbath command is certainly part of the 10 Commandments but is it restated in the NT? It’s not.
So therefore we are not bound to keep it. What does this mean? There is a healthy principle of rest. If you cannot stop then you have some big issues to deal with. You probably have too high a view of yourself and too low a view of God. Resting is a fantastic way to show that we trust in God. Not to mention getting refreshed for life. But there is no specific Sabbath commandment in the NT.

Let me suggest why. The church is now global rather than localised in one country where the leadership are commanded to order society around the word of God. So in this new era it is unlikely that every Christian will find it possible to enjoy a Sabbath day. Can you imagine a first century slave demanding a day off work? Enjoy it if you can but it’s not the end of the world if you can’t.

But here’s what I need to stress as I give you these examples. Do not adopt this approach with an attitude of minimalist application - that is how can I use this approach to obey as little as I can. No adopt this approach with an attitude of maximum application - that is how can I obey and teach everything that Jesus has commanded.

Let me promise you something: if we do this we will be radically changed, both as individuals and as a community. And this is what Jesus is getting at in verse 20. Read verse 20.

The Pharisees have a bad press today. Whenever they are mentioned we almost expect green smoke to emerge and boos to be heard. They were very religious and outwardly very righteous.
But here’s the shock. Jesus says that unless our righteousness surpasses theirs then we will not enjoy life in the future kingdom of God when Jesus Christ returns.

How do we become more righteous than the Pharisees? Certainly by faith in Jesus we receive his inputed righteous. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus means here. He is speaking about our transformed lives as his disciples.

The question remains, how can we become more righteous than the Pharisees? It’s really quite simple. By obeying the commands of Jesus.

Jesus commands will produce in us a deep heart righteousness than will be vastly superior to an outward religious moralism that doesn’t change the heart.

We’ll look at specific examples over the next few weeks as we work our way through the Sermon on the Mount. But the big truth that we are to bear in mind as we listen to Jesus’ teaching is that if we put it into practice, by the power of the Spirit, we will we changed at the deepest level possible. And this is really good news for us, our church and for the world.

Let’s pray.


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