The Sermon on the Mount—“I Came, Not to Destroy, But to Fulfill”
IN THE Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expressed his deep love and respect for the written Word of God. He said: “Do not think I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets [that is, the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole]. I came, not to destroy, but to fulfill.”—Matt. 5:17.
Both in word and in deed Jesus proved to be different from the Jewish religious teachers of his day. He spoke of a time when people would no longer worship God at the temple in Jerusalem. (John 4:21) He likened his teaching to “new wine” that “old wineskins” could not contain. (Luke 5:37) Jesus also took meals with “tax collectors and sinners” and performed miracles of healing on the weekly Sabbath day. (Mark 2:13-17; 3:1-5) This conduct did not violate any law of God; but it did run counter to Jewish traditions that were viewed as of greater importance than the Hebrew Scriptures.a Since they viewed Jesus as a transgressor of God’s law, the Pharisees and Herodians had plotted to kill him even before he gave his famous Sermon on the Mount.—Mark 3:6.
However, the Son of God assured his listeners that he had not come “to destroy” the Law. He neither disobeyed its commandments nor declared any part of it as not binding upon the Israelites. Instead, Jesus came “to fulfill” that divine legislation. As a sinless person, he kept it perfectly, even “as far as death, yes, death on a torture stake.” (Phil. 2:8; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22) His sacrificial death also fulfilled prophetic types furnished by the Law’s system of animal sacrifices.—Dan. 9:26, 27; Heb. 10:1-9.
Jesus fulfilled, not only the letter of the Law, but also the spirit behind that Law. Whereas the Law forbade sinful acts, Jesus denounced the attitudes that motivate such acts. For example, murder and adultery were violations of God’s law; but Jesus showed that continuing angry with someone and looking upon a woman with lust are the dispositions of mind that lead to such transgressions. (Matt. 5:21, 22, 27, 28; Jas. 1:13-15) Furthermore, Jesus’ voluntary sacrifice of his human life for the benefit of mankind was a superlative display of love, which the Bible calls “the law’s fulfillment.”—Rom. 13:8-10; compare John 15:13.
Next in his sermon, Jesus stated: “Truly I say to you that sooner would heaven and earth pass away than for one smallest letter or one particle of a letter to pass away from the Law by any means and not all things take place.”—Matt. 5:18.
As shown in The Kingdom Interlinear Translation, Jesus here used the word “Amen,” meaning “truly,” “so be it.” As the anointed Son of God, the promised Messiah, he could certainly assure the truthfulness of his utterances.—Compare 2 Corinthians 1:20; Revelation 3:14.
The fulfillment of God’s law would reach down to the “smallest letter or one particle of a letter.” In the Hebrew alphabet then current, the smallest letter was yod (י). Certain Hebrew letters featured a tiny stroke, apex or “tittle.” The scribes and Pharisees viewed as highly significant, not only the words and letters of God’s law, but also those strokes or ‘smallest particles.’ A rabbinical legend represents God as saying: “Solomon and a thousand like him shall pass away, but not a tittle of thee (the Torah [Pentateuch]) will I allow to be expunged.”
So remote was the possibility of any failure of fulfillment for even the tiniest detail of God’s law that “sooner would heaven and earth pass away.” This was equivalent to saying “never,” for the Scriptures indicate that the literal heavens and earth will remain for eternity.—Ps. 78:69; 119:90.
Jesus gave further emphasis to his high regard for God’s law, saying: “Whoever, therefore, breaks one of these least commandments and teaches mankind to that effect, he will be called ‘least’ in relation to the kingdom of the heavens. As for anyone who does them and teaches them, this one will be called ‘great’ in relation to the kingdom of the heavens.”—Matt. 5:19.
A person might “break” one of the commandments by willfully disobeying it. Or, he might do what was viewed as even worse, namely, teaching fellow Jews subject to the Law that some of its commands were not binding. While the Law covenant was in force, it was an expression of God’s will for his people. Transgression or teaching things contrary to commandments that some may have viewed as even “least” in importance would be apostasy against God.—Compare James 2:10, 11.
The Law was given to lead the Israelites to the Messiah, who would be the principal ruler in God’s kingdom. (Gal. 3:24; Isa. 11:1-5; Dan. 7:13, 14) Hence, as far as getting into God’s kingdom was concerned, persons who broke God’s commands would “be called ‘least.’” They would not get into the kingdom at all.—Matt. 21:43; Luke 13:28.
On the other hand, those who observed the Mosaic law to the best of their ability would “be called ‘great’ in relation to the kingdom of the heavens.” They would be the kind of persons who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and who subsequently were called to share Kingdom rule with him. (Luke 22:28-30; Rom. 8:16, 17) Interestingly, the Scriptures designate royalty as “great ones.”—Prov. 25:6; Luke 1:32.
Jesus next made a statement that may have startled his hearers: “I say to you that if your righteousness does not abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens.”—Matt. 5:20.
The “scribes” of Jesus’ day were a class of men especially learned in the Law. Though some of them may have belonged to the Sadducees, many scribes were of the “sect” of the Pharisees, whose demands in regard to ceremonial cleanness, paying of tithes and other religious duties exceeded the Mosaic requirements.—Acts 15:5.
Those religious leaders held a narrow, legalistic viewpoint about gaining righteousness. They believed that it stemmed solely from deeds that literally conformed to the letter of the law. According to Jewish tradition, each time a individual observed a commandment, he earned “merit.” Every transgression was believed to incur “debt.” An excess of merits was understood to make a person “righteous,” whereas a superabundance of debts would make him “wicked.”
Such a legalistic view, however, fell far short of God’s standard of what is right. (Rom. 10:2, 3) Little attention was given to developing qualities such as love, justice, meekness, kindness and faithfulness. Yet God views these as more important than literal observance of legal precepts. (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18; Mic. 6:8) With good reason Jesus exclaimed: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cummin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness.”—Matt. 23:23; compare Luke 11:42.
Christian righteousness would have to “abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees.” According to Jesus, all who wish to be true worshipers of God must “worship the Father with spirit and truth.” (John 4:23, 24) Their worship must be, not mere external acts of piety that conform to a legal code, but “with spirit,” motivated from hearts full of faith and love.—Matt. 22:37-40; Gal. 2:16.
a The ancient code of Jewish law known as The Mishnah states: “Greater stringency applies to [the observance of] the words of the Scribes than to [the observance] of the words of the [written] Law.”—Tractate Sanhedrin, 11:3, translated by Herbert Danby.