“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.”
In the verses immediately preceding 17, Jesus describes citizens of the kingdom as the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He wraps up his description with a command: “… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (verse 16).
Two things about this. First, works are commanded in the Christian’s life. Second, we are to perform works in such a way that we don’t credit for them, but God gets credit for them.
Let’s talk about the Law. We can see in the story of Scripture ways in which God has and will reveal Himself. In creating the universe, He revealed Himself in kind of an artistic way. We can see something of Him, Romans says his eternal power and divine nature, in the things he has made. The Law is also a way in which God has revealed himself. It’s not just a civil or moral code. The Law reveals what God values and what he is like. For example, God gave a law that said land owners were not to harvest the edges of their fields so that the hungry could come and take and eat. This law reveals God’s heart for the needy. The 10 Commandments give us a very clear picture of God. The first command is you shall have no other gods. God is jealous for our devotion to him. He values himself as God above else. God is our provider. Therefore, rather than stealing from others, we must trust in him to provide. God values life. Therefore, you shall not murder. God intends for us to be satisfied with him. So, don’t covet whatever your neighbor has. You get the idea. The point is that the Law is meant for us to see something of God. This is why the Law will endure as long as the earth endures.
While the law shows us what is good and right, and what God is like, it does not have the ability to make us love what is good and right. It cannot make us love and desire the God it reveals. In fact, the law condemns us because when we violate it, it reveals our love and desire for things other than what is good and right and godly. God demands that all people live in accord with with what is good and right, with who he is. Obedience, or works, are commanded. The Law is not abolished.
Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law. Do you remember when Jesus went to be baptized by John the Baptist? John said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). What did Jesus say? “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). Jesus lived the expression of God in obedience fully, completely, and perfectly. His entire life was one of obedience to God in all things. I know this is elementary to many in the church, but it cannot be overstated. Jesus’ life was one of obedience to the Law of God.
This is of immense, ultimate importance to us for at least two reasons. First, Jesus’ sinless life qualified him to be our atoning sacrifice. His perfect righteousness made the exchange of our sinfulness for his righteousness possible. He lived for our salvation before he died for our salvation.
Second, Jesus’ obedience has implications for our life as Christians. Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” So, salvation means that the natural, sinful me has died with Christ. I don’t want sin to be the defining, operating principle in my life anymore. I repent of that kind of life and leave it at the cross of Christ. Now, Christ indwells me by his Spirit. The defining, operating principle in my life is now Jesus’ life. What kind of life did Jesus live? A life of obedience. So what kind of life should be increasingly (though the rate of increase may be painfully slow) flowing out of me as a Christian? Obedience! It is Christ in us that causes us to obey, or to perform works, in such a way that God gets the credit for them.
Grace does not make the Law irrelevant to the Christian. Grace causes the Christian’s heart to love and obey God’s commands. Or as Titus 2:11-12 puts it, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” Grace is not just pardon from sin. It is power to incrementally overcome sin.