17 “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. 18 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.
19 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.
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [Mt. 5:17-20, ESV]
Jesus declares that He didn’t come to destroy, or alter, or set aside the moral content of the Old Testament law. In these verses, Jesus is explaining the true meaning of the moral content of Moses’ law and the entirety of the Old Testament (the law and the prophets).
When Jesus speaks of fulfilling the law and the prophets (verse 17), He is indicating that He is the fulfillment of the law in every way (moral, ceremonial, and judicial).
Jesus fulfilled the moral law by keeping it perfectly. He fulfilled the ceremonial law by being the embodiment of everything the law’s types and symbols pointed to. And he fulfilled the judicial law by personifying God’s perfect justice (cf. 12:18, 20).
In verse 18, where Jesus speaks of the duration of the substance of God’s law, He says: “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
In this statement, Jesus is emphasizing both the inspiration and authority of all Scripture to the end of the ages. God’s Word is perfect and enduring down to the smallest jot and tittle.
In short, Jesus is teaching us that the New Covenant is not the destruction of the Old Covenant; rather, it is nothing less than the perfect fulfillment of it in the person of Jesus Christ.
For example, all the ceremonial requirements of the Mosaic law were fulfilled in Christ (like the Sabbath rest before God) and are no longer to be observed by Christians (Col. 2:16, 17). These observances are only truly kept through faith in Jesus Christ.
In fact, to create a New Testament hybrid of faith combined with ceremonial observations of Judaism is to embrace the shadow while missing the substance! Worse, it is to obscure the gospel.
As Christians, our attempts to keep certain external aspects of the ceremonial law serves only to point others away from Christ as the fulfillment of those aspects rather than to Christ as our perfect fulfillment of God’s righteousness. In fact, such behaviors make people look at us and take the focus away from Christ.
All of the ceremonial laws pointed to Christ. They have all been perfectly fulfilled through His finished work. Yet not one jot or tittle is removed from the law; that is, the underlying truths of those Scriptures remain—and in fact the mysteries behind the observances are now fully revealed in the light of the gospel.
To say that Jesus Christ is God’s law fulfilled on my behalf magnifies Him before the watching world more than my external efforts to conform to some human conception of what keeping the law looks like. This is especially true if they see my joy in the righteousness of Christ and the righteousness of my exercise of Christian liberty.
To say that Jesus Christ is God’s Sabbath kept and fulfilled on my behalf magnifies Him as the accomplishment of all my labors before God for salvation. In Christ, my ceremonial works have been perfectly kept and fulfilled by Him in the sight of God.
Showing the world that Christ is the perfect fulfillment of our Sabbath points to Christ rather than me trying to conform to an external conception of keeping the Sabbath by not eating out at a restaurant on Sunday or not buying merchandise from a retail store on that day.
Those things have absolutely nothing to do with keeping the Sabbath from a Christian perspective. We are to rest from all of our spiritual labors before God through faith in Christ.
A Christian fulfills the Sabbath principle by trusting Christ through faith in His work on our behalf… even if that Christian’s job requires him to work a weekend shift; the Sabbath is only kept through faith in Christ, not by what we do or avoid doing to keep the ceremonial aspects of the law.
The thrust of the New Testament is that no Christian is bound by the ceremonial aspects of Mosaic law; though everyone is bound by the moral aspects of Mosaic law; not for salvation, but for the display of fruits befitting salvation.
Of course, we should also take time to cease from our routine activities as a regular pattern of life for the preservation of our mind and body. We need physical rest. But this physical pattern of rest from routine activities is not the full meaning of Sabbath keeping in the ceremonial law.
Nor is Sunday the “Christian Sabbath.” The first day of the week is the Lord’s Day, not the Sabbath. On the Lord’s Day, Christians are commanded to gather with other believers to worship the Lord through the teaching of His Word. When believers refuse to gather with Christ’s people at church, they’re violating Hebrews 10:24-25.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
The purpose of gathering with Christ’s people on the Lord’s Day (Sunday) and of displaying righteousness in our liberty is to make much of Christ as the perfect fulfillment of these ceremonial aspects of the law on our behalf.
Colossians 2:16-18a says, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism…”
The word “asceticism” [ESV] refers to the practice of strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline; austere in appearance, manner, or attitude.
In verse 18, asceticism is used in the sense of false-humility or vain self abasement. Such an approach tends to focus the attention on ourselves. False-humility is pride disguised as virtue.
There are many ways for believers to honor Christ through self-denial in order to protect the weaker brother whose conscience isn’t yet spiritually mature in Christ. This is a good thing. We are also to deny ourselves in terms of laying our independence down and submitting to God.
However, there are forms of self-denial, like asceticism, which are purely external and directed toward ourselves, not for the betterment of others at all. The former self-denial is an act of humility and love; the latter self-denial is self-focused and tends to promote pride.
Asceticism as practiced by some Christians has the effect of saying to the world that God is more honored by our absence of liberty in Christ and by our disdain for righteous pleasure than He is by the wise exercise of our liberty in Christ and our enjoyment of righteous pleasure.
The reason to exercise our righteous liberty in Christ over mere external asceticism isin order to emphasize Christ’s fulfillment of the ceremonial law on our behalf.
Jesus is our law fulfilled! Jesus is our Sabbath perfectly kept before God!
This is what Jesus was teaching in Matthew 5:17-20. The righteousness of Christ is the only righteousness that exceeds the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees; and without His righteousness, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
With freedom and joy in Christ,