In the next section of Jesus’ sermon he addresses the Law and the Prophets:
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.
Why would he feel the need to affirm the law and the prophets, that he wasn’t there to overturn or supersede them? Jesus was no revolutionary. He didn’t come to dramatically change the nature of the people’s relationship to God (the law and the prophet’s function was to mediate that relationship, along with the priests), but to fulfill what the law and the prophets represented. What does it mean, then, that he will fulfill them?
Although no revolutionary, think about the how radical that statement is: Jesus claims that he will fulfill all that has defined Israel’s existence, all that they embraced and stood for. For a Jew of the time, the law and the prophets were their own fulfillment; they wouldn’t have needed some Rabbi from Galilee to justify their existence. I imagine there were raised eyebrows in the crowd, even for these people who believed Jesus was something special.
But nobody would have known what he meant until after the resurrection. Jesus himself tell us in Luke 24 as he chides the disciples on the road to Emmaus:
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
What the people had missed, especially as he says a couple verses later in our Matthew passage about the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, was that the law was not an end in and of itself. As we know from Paul, the law was never intended as a means to justify ourselves before God, but a means to show us our need for a Savior. Remember what John said about the Pharisees and Sadducees, that they needed to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” The law itself could never do that. So Jesus says here that nothing will “disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
This ultimate purpose of the law is related specifically to what he says next about breaking or keeping any of the commandments and teaching others to do the same. Interestingly, both of these, the breakers and the keepers are in the “kingdom of heaven,” so how well we do before the law doesn’t seem to be the ticket to get into heaven. What is, is how he ends this passage:
20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
So it seems that our righteousness doesn’t have anything to do with the law because the Pharisees and teachers of the law were known as the ultimate keepers of the law. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t the law rightly understood. Over the hundreds of years since Malachi, what’s known as Second Temple Judaism had developed. In that time there arose these experts in the law, but instead of being experts in the law, they became experts in accretions to the law. And even worse than that, they used the law as they understood it to justify themselves before God and the people. That’s why we’ll see during Jesus ministry that they looked down on “sinners.” Were they not sinners too? Yes, self-righteous sinners.
What Jesus is saying, I think, is that the Pharisees and teachers of the law have it completely backward. Their righteousness isn’t righteousness at all because it comes from the law itself and not the one who has come to fulfill the law. As we know from Paul, we require an alien righteous, one not our own. It is what Martin Luther discovered in the Book of Romans after much grappling with the guilt of his sin, and what started the Reformation: the Lord himself provides to us the righteousness he requires of us. That alone is our ticket into “the kingdom of heaven.”