In order to understand the priority Jesus placed on the Scriptures, the student must understand the priority the Scriptures put on Jesus: he is the centerpiece of God’s entire written revelation. In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus brought out the true meaning of what God spoke through the Old Testament prophets. Jesus said, “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. 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 placed ultimate value on the primacy of Scripture, and on the intention of his ministry with regard to Scripture: Jesus Christ came to accomplish and to teach his disciples the entirety of what God put forth in the Old Testament. Following his statements of intent (Matt 5:17-18), Jesus taught on a number of Old Testament commands, and then crystallized them in a very alarming way. He gave teachings dealing with anger (5:21-26), lust (5:27-30), marriage and divorce (5:31-32), oaths (5:33-37), retaliation (5:38-42), and loving one’s enemies (5:43-48)—matters confused by the teaching of the Scribes. He gave the commandment or teaching, followed with, “But I say to you. . . .” Jesus gave a clear understanding of the intentions behind the command that God gave and thus demonstrated clearly his authority in regards to the Law. The Pharisees believed they were justified before God based on their external righteousness, believing that the way to be righteous before God is exclusively behavioral. Yet Jesus obliterated this false understanding of salvation when he addressed their internal rebellious condition.
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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:19-20)
The word ‘righteousness’ is defined as “integrity, virtue, purity of life, uprightness, correctness in thinking, feeling, and acting.” Yet, this word in a broader sense also means “the condition acceptable to God.” The Pharisees were seen as righteous, in that they taught (and supposedly demonstrated) that obtaining God’s approval could only be found through strict, external obedience to the Law. Yet, Jesus informed his listeners that they must surpass the Pharisees’ type of righteousness. The kingdom message he preached was that he came to fulfill the Scriptures that pointed to an internal righteousness (Matt 5:19-20)—a righteousness supplied by Christ and his atoning work on the cross. Edmund Clowney elaborates on this understanding of righteousness:
Christ does not just bear the punishment we deserve. He also keeps the law in our place. Christ, our sin-bearer, gives to us the perfect robe of His righteousness. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21, NIV). . . . What we receive in Christ is His righteousness; we are adopted into perfect sonship of the second Adam and the true Israel.
How would a superior level of righteousness be possible if they could not attain even the level of the Pharisees’ righteousness? If Jesus came to preach the Good News, where is this Good News found?
Dennis E. Johnson explains how this portion of the Sermon on the Mount is indeed good news in the context of the cross.
Where is the good news [in the Sermon on the Mount]? The answer must be that the Sermon on the Mount can be read as good news only in the context of the whole story that Matthew has to tell, for in this larger context we see that Jesus came to “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets (5:17) not only in his filling out the implications of God’s ancient law but also in the beloved Son’s “fulfilling all righteousness” by identifying with sinners in a baptism of repentance (3:15), in his humility as the Servant (12:17-21) and meek entrance into Jerusalem (21:4-5), and preeminently in his sacrifice for sinners (20:28; 26:28). In the context of the cross, Jesus’ sermon is good news indeed; apart from it, Jesus’ revelation of the law’s depth and intensity drives us to despair.
Johnson notes that the message of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection liberates those who have ears to hear. Mark 1:14-15 says, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” In Luke 4:42-45, Jesus told the people, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).
Greg Heisler offers some needed perspective to help us understand the redemptive work of Christ in preaching from both Old and New Testaments:
Christological preaching happens when we build the theological component of our message upon one significant question: How does this text testify to the person and work of Jesus Christ? Whether preaching from the Old Testament or in the New Testament, we should constantly seek to understand how Christ’s death, burial and resurrection fulfill the redemptive focus of the text that we are preaching.
Heisler argues that expositional preaching is Christocentric preaching. Christ came to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15) and is thus the true fulfillment of the Law and Prophets (Matt 3:15; 5:17-18). In light of this understanding, expositional preaching entails preaching not just the content of the Law and the Prophets, but on the Christ and how the Father brought him along to fulfill them as well. With this perspective, we may preach expositionally with a Christ-centered, redemptive focus from every genre of Scripture.
Joseph Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), quoted in BibleWorks. 7.0.012. [CD-ROM] (Norfolk, VA: Bibleworks, 2006).
Edmund P. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1988), 104-05.
Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 169. Johnson is a disciple of Edmund Clowney, who holds to a “Christ-centered, redemptive-historical” reading of Scripture.
Greg Heisler, Spirit-Led Preaching (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2007), 63-64.