As it is the last one on this section of Jesus’ sermon, It makes sense to do a little bit of review, so we can see the whole section together. Jesus begins in verse 17 by speaking of fulfilling the Scriptures, referring to them as the Law and Prophets. He says He has not come against the Scriptures to destroy them, but to fulfill them, which also carries the connotation of ending, but as ending when something is complete or finished. Jesus then goes on to say, in verse 18, that nothing will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. We saw that one example of some commands that are not in effect anymore, according to Hebrews, are the sacrificial laws, since they have found the reality they pointed to in Christ. This left a dichotomy that is very difficult for anyone who promotes Torah observance, since it is clear that, if Jesus really did bring the sacrificial system to an end, then the “not one jot or tittle” of verse 18 must either mean something other than the commands of the Mosaic Law being binding, which defeats the Hebrew Roots argument from this verse, or if it does refer to those commands, the fact that some things have passed means that the “all is accomplished”, must refer to Jesus’ work, and therefore also defeats the Hebrew Roots argument from this verse. In verse 19, where Jesus is definitely talking about commandments, the context bears out that He is almost certainly speaking of His own commandments, in which He is elevating the level of righteousness required to be considered to be obedient. In many cases, where the law says one thing, Jesus says that you are actually breaking it even when you aren’t technically breaking it. However, His own commandments neglect to reaffirm certain laws that had the express purpose of making the Jewish nation unique. So He never mentions the Sabbath, feast days, dietary restrictions, etc. These are absent from His commandments.
But it is not the absence that Jesus is focused on. He is, indeed, focused on righteousness, and this must not be forgotten. And this is where He comes to the final statement before He begins His discussion of specific laws. Having spoken of breaking His commandments making one “least in the Kingdom of heaven”, Jesus then says this:
For I say to you that unless your righteousness greatly surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.
With these two statements, in verses 19 and 20, Jesus absolutely demolishes any hope his audience may have in their own righteousness. In verse 19, Jesus says you are least in the kingdom if you break even one of the least of the commandments. In verse 20, He looks at that thought from the other end and says that your righteousness must greatly surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees or you “will never enter” the kingdom. The Scribes and Pharisees, to His audience, were the most obedient of all people. If they can’t make it, no one can.
Right after this verse, Jesus goes on to discuss the law, but does so in such a way as to greatly elevate the expectations behind obedience to it. Adultery is no longer just actual sex with someone other than your wife, but is now applied to even looking lustfully in your heart. Jesus makes it very clear that to please God by your obedience requires a purity of heart and motives, a willingness to extend grace beyond your family and loved ones. One cannot come to any conclusion but that Jesus’ law is far higher, and far more difficult to obey than the Law of Moses.
Also, we have the connection of verse 20 to the preceding verses by the word “for”. Jesus is giving us a fact that lies at the heart of what He just said about obedience. To enter the kingdom of heaven requires a righteousness no one you know of has achieved, and this unattainable righteousness is what underlies the one who obeys or disobeys even the least of these commandments.
It is for these reasons that many point to this sermon as the point at which Jesus is preparing His people to truly receive the New Covenant, the Gospel of grace. If you must be far more righteous than even the most righteous people anyone knows, then you will despair of achieving your own righteousness. Jesus is then there to offer grace. We are saved from the wrath of God, not by our own righteousness, but by His. Because only Jesus’ righteousness greatly surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees.
Hebrew Roots Conundrum
Quite often, when you hear someone from the Hebrew Roots movement deal with this passage, they will stop at verse 19. Either they don’t quote verse 20 or if they do, when they are discussing the passage, we don’t really hear their take on this verse. This is not to say that no interpretations exist of verse 20 in isolation. I’m sure they do, and I’m sure many of them agree with what I have said here. Jesus, speaking of this “greatly surpassing” righteousness, is ultimately talking about His own.
The conundrum is this: how exactly does that interpretation flow from the previous three verses? If we are truly to understand that the point of the previous three verses is that we must continue to keep the whole Torah as revealed to Moses, how does Jesus’ statement about this great righteousness fit with that?
It would seem that if Jesus is saying in verses 17-19 that we must keep the Torah, then Jesus’ statement in verse 20 is that our Torah-keeping must surpass the best Torah-keepers of Jesus’ day in order to enter the Kingdom of heaven. These four statements are all tied together. They all should point to the same thing. The one who says the first three are telling us why we should now be observing the Torah, but the last one is pointing us to faith, is splitting up Jesus’ words unnaturally.
Rather, what we should see is that the whole statement is pointing to the fact that obedience in general is impossible, but Jesus, having fulfilled the Law is our hope. The point of verses 18 and 19 isn’t to tell us to get better at eating the kosher diet, but to point out that, whereas Jesus fulfilled the Law and Prophets, we can’t even obey the least of the commandments, which is really bad, because our righteousness must be far greater than anyone has ever done to enter the kingdom. These truths come together to draw us to Christ.
The fact is, the Hebrew Roots believer takes Jesus statements about obedience in general and try to employ them to the service of obeying specific laws, but then that disrupts the actual argument He is making. Jesus is saying that the righteousness required to enter the kingdom is so high, that obedience to the law is a hopeless path to get there. In truth, He isn’t even talking about the continuation or non-continuation of the law of the Mosaic covenant here. What He says is very consistent with a shift to the Law of Christ, but that isn’t His point. And if His point is not to point us to the law, but to Himself, it would make no sense to begin that argument by telling us to obey the law He is about to supersede in His sermon.
Conclusions of this Study
As we have seen, there is ample reason to reject the common “Hebrew Roots” or “Torah Observant” interpretation of Matthew 5:17-20. From this we conclude that Jesus’ main purpose in these verses is to remind us of how high and unattainable true, God satisfying obedience is. We know this not only from these words, but from the way Jesus discusses the law in the subsequent passage.
This study does not, by itself, defeat the entire position that we should keep the whole law. What it does do is prevent the Hebrew Roots proponent from appealing to these words of Jesus to make their case. Unfortunately for them, there really isn’t much of a case left to be made without this passage as a foundation. There are certainly other passages to address, but without this one, those others seem weak and stretched at best to have to support the idea that the New Covenant has exactly the same requirements as the Old, but is somehow better. Jesus words here are, in my opinion, the best they’ve got. As we’ve seen, they just don’t do the job that is asked of them.