When you are dealing with the Internal Revenue Service, you want to make sure that you “dot your “i’s” and cross your “t’s.” When I use that phrase in relation to the IRS, you all know what I mean. To “dot your ‘i’s’ and cross your ‘t’s’” is to do everything correctly and completely. It is to fulfill all of the requirements exactly as it is supposed to done.
We know that we have to do this when dealing with the IRS, because you don’t want to end up on the wrong side of this government agency. The IRS has legal resources that you don’t have. If they decide to audit you, they can make your life very unpleasant. In a fight with the IRS, the deck is clearly stacked against you. And so we try to avoid this altogether by completely doing what we are supposed to do – even if the tax code sometimes makes it difficult to understand what we are supposed to do. We make every effort to be complete as we “dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s.”
In our text for tonight, Jesus talks about the completeness of the Torah – of the Law. He says that he has not come to abolish the law, but instead to fulfill it. He states in our text, ‘For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Yet we discover that the fulfillment of the law in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ changes things. It provides us with righteousness before God, even as Jesus shows us what the law really means.
In our text tonight we continue with our look at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. There can be no doubt that Jesus’ teaching struck people as being different. We learn at the end of the sermon, “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” He handled things in ways that were just different and so the question about Jesus’ relationship to God’s revelation in the Old Testament must have crossed the minds of his hearers.
Jesus acknowledges this question when he says, “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.” Our Lord says that he has not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets – to do away with them. Instead he has come to fulfill them. He then explains further what this means when he says, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
Now on the surface of things, this sounds puzzling. After all, there are many things in the Torah that we no longer do as Christians. We don’t keep the Sabbath by worshipping on Saturday, and instead we worship on Sunday. We don’t keep the food laws as we eat pork and think nothing of it. We don’t perform the sacrifices commanded by the Torah – after all, you haven’t seen me kill any animals in church recently.
This is an important question, not simply because it addresses practical issues about what we are supposed to do, but even more so because it helps us to understand the significance of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus says that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. This is not the same thing as merely keeping the law – though of course in his perfect life Jesus did this too. Instead the phrase “law and the prophets” refers to God’s entire revelation in the Old Testament. Jesus declares that he brings God’s saving purpose carried out through Israel to its conclusion – to its final goal. In his death and resurrection he accomplishes the salvation that God promised in the Old Testament.
Now this is big. In fact, it is so big that it is an end-time thing. It is something that marks the beginning of something new and the end of something old. Yet in fulfilling what was old, it also continues a life before God and with the neighbor that is the same thing God has always commanded.
In our text, Jesus says, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Jesus says the Torah remains as the authoritative teaching of God until “all is accomplished” – or as it can also be translated, “until everything has happened.”
During Lent we are preparing to celebrate the happening by which all was accomplished. Jesus Christ will arrive at Good Friday. There he will take your sins upon himself and receive God’s judgment in your place. He will be forsaken by God and die for you. And then on Easter he will rise from the dead. He will begin something new. He will be the One through whom the future begins – the resurrection of the Last Day will begin with Jesus Christ at Easter.
And since this has happened everything has changed – and yet nothing has really changed. It is true, the Torah in all of it specific has come to an end. No longer do we concern ourselves with its individual details. Yet what the Torah and the Old Testament were all about has not changed.
In our text Jesus says, “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.” Jesus says that he fulfills the Law and the Prophets as a whole. This statement at the beginning of the sermon is matched by what our Lord says in chapter seven at the end of the sermon: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Jesus summarizes the whole teaching the Law and the Prophets with the words, “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”
Later, during Holy Week, a Pharisee will ask Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus will respond, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Jesus says that loving God with all that we are and loving our neighbor as ourselves summarizes the whole teaching of the Old Testament.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings the specifics of the Torah to an end. But in fulfilling the Law and the Prophets, Jesus also teaches us what the Torah was always really about. In fact, in his teaching he shows how people were trying to sidestep God’s Law; how they were trying to make it easier to keep and in so doing were missing what it was really about. Jesus says in our text, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus warns against those who do not understand God’s commands as embracing thought, word, and deed directed towards God and our neighbor. In rest of this chapter, our Lord will take up different ways that the Pharisees were failing to do this in their interpretation of the law. Jesus provides the true understanding of the Law, and in doing so he describes what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God. He tells us what it means to live as those who have received the saving reign of God in our baptism.
Jesus will unpack what it means to love God with all our heart and with all our soul, heart and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. He will describe what the Spirit of God who gave us rebirth in baptism leads us to do. It is on the one hand, a thrilling prospect. We hear these words and we recognize that, yes, this is what we want to do. We know that there are times when by God’s grace we do these things and we rejoice in this. It never ceases to be our goal to do these things because as a new creation through water and the Spirit this is what God has made us to be.
And yet, we know that are times – many times – when we fail. And so Jesus’ words at the end our text may prompt fear when he says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” We know the Pharisees’ reputation – they were very focused upon keeping the Torah. In fact they created a whole body of oral law that they added on top of the Torah to help make sure they were keeping the Torah. How can we ever match that?
The good news of the Gospel is that because you are a baptized Christian your righteousness does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. It doesn’t because of anything you have done. Instead, you stand righteous and have salvation because of what Jesus Christ did for you. The scribes and Pharisees were not believers in Jesus Christ. They stood on their own before God.
You on the other hand have received a share in Jesus Christ’s saving death and resurrection through baptism. You believe in him and as the crucified and risen One. Because of this you are righteous. You are forgiven. You are a saint. Because of Jesus Christ your righteousness exceeds that of scribes and Pharisees, and so you will enter the kingdom of heaven.