What is the REAL meaning of Matthew 5:17-20? (Deep Dive - Bible Study & Commentary)
At the time the Book of Matthew was written, the Jewish people were living under Roman rule, which brought about several challenges and tensions.
There was a longing for a political and spiritual deliverer, someone who would free them from oppression and re-establish the glory of Israel.
Many expected the Messiah to be a warrior king who would lead a rebellion against Roman rule.
However, Jesus' ministry took a different path.
He came not as a military leader but as a humble teacher, a healer, and a proclaimer of the Kingdom of God.
This stark contrast between popular expectations and Jesus' actual mission created confusion and controversy among the Jewish people.
In this historical and cultural backdrop, this passage emerges as an important passage in the Gospel of Matthew.
Jesus, aware of the prevailing tensions and misunderstandings, sought to clarify His relationship with the old testament Law and the Prophets.
His words in these verses carry great significance, providing not only insight into His mission but also guidance for His disciples and, by extension, all believers today.
Who wrote Matthew 5:17-20 and when was it written?
The gospel according to St Matthew was written by one of Jesus' disciples, Matthew, a tax collector, also known as Levi.
The chapter was written between 70 and 90 AD, the first century after Christ's ministry.
What is the context of Matthew 5?
The immediate context of Matthew 5 focuses on Jesus’ teachings on humility, righteousness, and love.
This chapter is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, a pivotal moment in Jesus' ministry where He addressed misconceptions and presented a different way of understanding the Kingdom of God.
It's important to note that this sermon was not delivered to the crowds alone but was specifically directed at His disciples, those who had chosen to follow Him.
The Sermon on the Mount started with the Beatitudes, a series of blessings pronounced by Jesus.
These blessings may seem contradictory to the world's values, as they highlight qualities such as poverty in spirit, meekness, and a hunger for righteousness.
Jesus' purpose for giving the Beatitude sermon was to challenge the conventional wisdom of His time.
He revealed that God's Kingdom wasn't about political power or worldly success but about the condition of the heart and human’s relationship with God.
Following the Beatitudes, Jesus used the metaphors of salt and light to illustrate the role of His followers in the world.
He told His disciples that they were the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world."
Salt, in ancient times, was not only a seasoning but also a preservative.
It had the power to prevent decay. Similarly, Jesus instructed His followers to be a preserving influence on the world through their character and actions.
They were to be a moral compass, guiding others toward righteousness.
Likewise, light dispels darkness. Jesus urged His disciples to let their light shine before others so that their good deeds might glorify God.
This emphasizes the importance of living a life that reflects God's truth, love, and grace.
In the next section of the passage, Jesus addressed the relationship between His teachings and Jewish law.
He made it clear that He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.
He delved into specific aspects of righteous living, starting with the issue of anger.
He taught that anger harboured in the heart was akin to murder and is subject to judgement.
Continuing with His teachings on righteousness, Jesus addressed the matter of adultery and lust.
He emphasized that not only the act of adultery but also the lustful look is sinful. (Matthew 5 verses 27 to 30)
In the subsequent verses, Jesus addressed the topics of divorce and oaths.
He emphasized faithfulness in marriage, stating that divorce should only occur in cases of marital unfaithfulness.
This teaching elevated the sanctity of marriage and emphasized the importance of commitment.
In concluding the chapter, Jesus then discussed the principles of non-retaliation and love for enemies.
He instructed His followers to turn the other cheek when slapped and to love their enemies, praying for those who persecuted them.
This teaching challenges the conventional response of seeking revenge or hatred toward one's enemies.
It reflects God's character of boundless love and mercy.
What is the message of Matthew 5:17-20?
The message of Matthew 5 verses 17 to 20 admonishes believers to embrace righteousness of the heart, which surpasses merely following rules.
The first message of the passage focuses on the theme of fulfilling the law and the prophets.
Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5 verse 17)
This statement can be better understood by reflecting on the story of the Israelites in the wilderness.
In the book of Exodus, we read about the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness.
God gave them the Ten Commandments as a guide for righteous living (Exodus 20).
These commandments were a part of the Mosaic Law, and they represented god’s standard for His people.
However, the Israelites struggled to keep the old testament law, often falling into disobedience and idolatry.
This highlighted the need for a Saviour who could fulfill the perfect law in the person of Jesus, who happens to be the greatest of the teachers of the law in the entire bible.
Jesus, as the perfect Lamb of God, came to accomplish this.
He lived a sinless life, fulfilling the law in its entirety, and because of His sacrifice on the cross, He made it possible for believers to be justified through faith.
However, as believers, we should not use Christ's fulfillment of the law as an excuse for complacency or disregard for God's moral laws.
Instead, let His fulfillment inspire us to live by God's righteousness.
The following verses also talks about the teaching of Christ.
Speaking further in the passage, Jesus emphasized the importance of teaching and practicing God's commandments in the books of the holy bible.
He states in Matthew 5 verse 18,
“For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled”
This is another major theme of the passage.
The significance of every detail of the law, down to the smallest mark, highlights the divine perfection of God's commandments.
A lawyer asked Jesus in Luke 10 verse 25
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
In response, Jesus talked about the importance of loving God and one's neighbour.
The lawyer then asks, "And who is my neighbor?"
Jesus then told the story of a Samaritan who showed compassion to a wounded man, highlighting the importance of loving and helping others, which is a fundamental principle of God's commandments.
Hence, as believers, we should learn to show love to everyone around us without discrimination.
Another important message of the passage is obedience to God’s commandments. In the passage, Jesus makes a striking statement:
“Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5 verse 19)
This statement emphasized the importance of obedience to God's commandments and our role as teachers of truth to the world.
To better understand the concept of greatness in the kingdom of heaven, let us turn to the life of John the Baptist.
John's humility and dedication to God's mission made him great in the eyes of God, despite his humble circumstances.
His life exemplified the importance of both doing and teaching God's commandments, and his humility serves as a model for every believer seeking greatness in the kingdom of heaven.
Hence, as believers, humility and service should be the hallmarks of our Christian journey.
In seeking greatness, let us always remember that it comes through serving God and others, not through self-centered ambition.
Similarly, righteousness is a major message in the passage.
Jesus made a statement that challenges our understanding of righteousness. He said,
“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5 verse 20)
To understand this better, let us examine the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18 verses 9 to 14.
The Pharisee, a religious leader known for his strict observance of the law, prayed with pride, thanking God that he was not like other sinners, including the tax collector.
In contrast, the tax collector humbly acknowledged his sinfulness and pleaded for God's mercy.
Jesus concluded the parable by saying that the tax collector went home justified rather than the Pharisee.
This parable illustrates the concept of righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees.
True righteousness is not merely an external observance of various doctrines but a humble acknowledgement of one's need for God's grace and mercy.
Let us always guard against self-righteousness and pride.
We should always seek righteousness that goes beyond external appearances and focuses on a heart transformed by God's grace.
Therefore, as Christians, we are called to embrace these principles and live them out in our daily lives.
We are to be fulfillers of God's law, showing love and compassion to our neighbours and humbly seeking God's righteousness.
By doing so, we become true disciples of Christ, reflecting His character and fulfilling His admonition in Matthew 5 verse 16.
God’s Laws and Love for us
God's law is the divine guidance that reflects His love for us, a framework for righteous living, and a path to spiritual fulfillment.
In the book of Psalms, we find a reflection on the value of God's laws. In Psalm 19 verses 7 to 8, it is written thus,
“The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.”
This passage emphasized the perfection and righteousness of God's laws.
As Christians, we must recognize that God's laws are not arbitrary rules imposed upon us.
Rather, they are a reflection of His divine wisdom and love.
God's laws are designed to guide us toward righteousness, joy, and a deeper connection with Him.
By keeping His laws, we acknowledge God's authority and align our lives with His divine plan.
The holy bible also provides us with numerous examples of the consequences that result from disobedience to God's laws.
One such example is the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3.
When they disobeyed God's command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they experienced spiritual separation from God and the introduction of sin into the world.
In Romans 6 verse 23, we read, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Disobeying God's laws leads to spiritual death and separation from Him. It is only through Christ that we can receive the gift of eternal life and reconciliation with God.
God's laws provide us with a moral and ethical compass, guiding us in our interactions with others and our daily decisions.
In Micah 6 verse 8, we find a concise summary of God's expectations for His people:
“He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
By keeping God's laws, we demonstrate our commitment to justice, mercy, and humility.
These principles are essential for building a society characterized by love, compassion, and righteousness.
In Romans 2 verses 14 to 15, Apostle Paul taught the concept of the moral law, which is written on the hearts of all people, believers and non-believers alike:
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them.”
This passage emphasised that even those who do not possess the written law are still subject to a moral law written within their hearts.
This innate sense of right and wrong is the universal nature of God's moral principles.
In the new testament, Jesus emphasized the importance of love as a foundational law.
In Mark 12 verses 29 to 31, He responds to a scribe's question about the greatest commandment, saying,
“The first of all the commandments is: 'Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment.”
Here, Jesus categorized the entirety of the law into two essential commands: love God and love your neighbour.
The law of love encapsulates all other commandments, emphasizing the importance of genuine care and compassion for both God and fellow human beings.
The laws relating to God, such as worshipping God alone, honouring the Sabbath day, and refraining from making graven images, all belong to our expression of love for God.
This is because when we genuinely love God, we naturally worship Him and respect His designated day of worship.
On the other hand, the remaining laws, which include honouring our parents, refraining from lying, avoiding murder, coveting, and more, fall under the category of loving our neighbour.
This is because when we love our neighbours as ourselves, we are inclined to refrain from lying, coveting, or causing harm to them.
Ultimately, the laws in the holy bible serve as a guide to living a righteous and God-honouring life, reminding us of our need for Christ's grace and our responsibility to love and serve others.
In doing so, we fulfill the essence of God's law as summed up by Jesus: to love God with all our hearts and our neighbours as ourselves.
Therefore, as Christians, we are called to live in accordance with God's moral law, love one another deeply, and trust in His mercy and forgiveness when we stumble.
What is the Grace of Christ?
The grace of Christ offers forgiveness, redemption, and eternal salvation to all who believe in Him.
While God's laws reveal His righteous standards and guide us in holy living, they also expose our inability to attain perfection on our own.
This is where the grace of Christ comes into play. In Ephesians 2 verses 8 to 9, Apostle Paul writes,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
Grace is the unmerited favour of God, freely offered to all who believe in Christ.
It is through His grace that we receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of salvation.
This grace is not something we can earn through our good deeds but is a testament to God's boundless love and mercy.
In Romans 8 verses 1 to 2, Paul further explains the relationship between grace and the law saying,
“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.”
There are no more animal sacrifices or different kind of rituals as we see in the whole of the old testament.
Christ's sacrifice on the cross has set us free from the condemnation of the law.
While the law exposes our sinfulness, Christ's grace provides the means for our redemption and sanctification.
It is through faith in Christ that we are empowered to live according to the Spirit, fulfilling the righteous requirements of the law.
The grace of Christ does not grant us license to sin but empowers us to live lives that please God. Galatians 5 verse 13 urges us to use our freedom wisely:
“For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
Therefore, our response to God's grace should be a life characterized by love, service, and obedience.
It is in living out the teachings of Christ that we truly experience the power of His grace.
How do I apply Matthew 5:17-20 to my Life?
Applying the teachings of Matthew 5 verses 17 to 20 to your life requires studying the word of God and striving to live a righteous life
To truly live out the message of this passage, you must start by immersing yourself in the Word of God.
Just as Jesus valued the "Law and the Prophets," you should also place a high regard on the entire Bible, which is the inspired Word of God.
Dedicate time each day to read, study, and meditate on Scripture. Let's reflect on the story of Ezra.
In Ezra 7 verse 10, we read, “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.”
Ezra's commitment to understanding God's Word serves as an exemplary model for us.
Instead of dismissing the old testament scriptures as irrelevant, you should study it as the foundation of your faith.
Take time to read and reflect on the entire old testament stories like the life of Abraham, who exemplified faith in God's promises.
You can learn from his trust in God's faithfulness and apply it to your own life.
Also, to live out the passage, focus on developing an inner righteousness that flows from a transformed heart.
Pursue a relationship with God characterized by humility, love, and a desire to obey His commands.
One key lesson from the passage is the danger of hypocrisy.
Jesus strongly condemned the hypocritical religious leaders of His time, who outwardly appeared righteous but were filled with hypocrisy and wickedness.
To avoid hypocrisy in your own life, heed the warning Jesus gives in Matthew 23 verse 3:
“Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do." Be a genuine follower of Christ, living in accordance with His teachings. Let your actions align with your beliefs, and strive for authenticity in your faith.”
Likewise, it is important to not only live out God's Word but also share it with others.
Consider the example of Philip in Acts 8 verses 30 to 31, when he explained the Scriptures to the Ethiopian eunuch.
By teaching God's Word to others, you can have an impact on their lives and help them grow in their faith.
Therefore, applying the message of the passage in your everyday life involves studying and embracing the entirety of God's Word, recognizing Christ as the fulfilment of the law, pursuing a righteousness that surpasses external appearances, avoiding hypocrisy, and sharing God's Word with others.
As you apply these principles, remember that you are not alone in this journey.
God's grace and the power of the Holy Spirit are available to guide and empower you.
With a heart committed to obeying and teaching His commands, you can truly live out the message and bring glory to God in your daily life.
What is Matthew 5:17-20 prayer?
Heavenly Father, I come before You with hearts filled with gratitude for the lessons in the passage.
Thank You for Your Son, Jesus, who came to fulfill the laws. Lord, I ask that you help me embrace the depth of this truth and live my life in continuity with Your Word.
I ask for the strength to pursue a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees.
Like King David, may I seek after Your heart with a genuine desire for a deep and intimate relationship with You.
Lord, help me reflect on the commandments not as mere rules but as guides to a life that honors You. This I pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.
In our Christian life as believers, the question of how to keep the laws of God is not a mere intellectual exercise but a practical pursuit of righteousness and holiness.
We have explored the importance of keeping God's laws, recognizing the grace of Christ as the foundation of our obedience, and understanding practical steps to live in accordance with God's commands.
In our pursuit of righteousness, we must recognize our dependence on the Holy Spirit.
Prayerfully seeking the Holy Spirit's guidance enables us to overcome the temptations and challenges that may hinder our obedience to God's laws.
We are not meant to journey alone. The importance of Christian fellowship and accountability cannot be overstated.
Being part of a community of believers helps us stay on the path of righteousness, offering support, encouragement, and correction when needed.
The good news is, as we continue to seek God’s guidance through the study of His Word, prayer, dependence on the Holy Spirit, accountability, and practical application of His laws, we draw closer to Him and experience the power of His grace.
This is not just the right thing to do but the first thing and the only way to live a perfect life and a triumphant Christian life.
Perfect obedience to the correct doctrine of Christ, living in god’s ways and showing delight to the word of the lord must be our goal as a true child of God.
Consequently, keeping God's laws becomes a joyful response to His love and an expression of our desire to walk in His ways, bringing glory to His name and blessings to our lives and those around us.