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. 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. 5:17-20)
It’s no secret that our world is catechizing the teenagers we love and serve to great effect. As parents and youth ministers, we often feel several steps behind in helping them to internalize and live from the truth of God’s Word.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the way teenagers relate to God’s law. In an anything-goes, you-do-you culture, our teenagers often perceive the law as archaic—and increasingly, even as morally offensive. As a result, youth ministers often are surprised to find that many students have translated their gospel teaching to Christian universalism, in which God’s grace means that everyone gets a free pass.
In the midst of this cultural and spiritual confusion, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount offers youth ministers and parents alike compelling clarity to share with teenagers as we disciple them to love and obey the Lord.
Jesus, Lover of God’s Law
Jesus tells his followers in no uncertain terms that the old covenant law still stands when he says, “do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets…not an iota, not a dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17a, 18b).
God sent his Son into the world in real time and space. Jesus was part of the Pharisaical tradition of teaching the law as it’s written in the Old Testament; as such, he both challenged and embraced the teaching of his day.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry he challenged the religious leaders—and the leaders of the Pharisees in particular—for their hard-hearted law-keeping, abuses of power, and the heavy burdens they placed on God’s people (Matt. 23; Luke 11:46). Still, in the verses that follow this short passage, we will see how Jesus dignified and upheld God’s law, encouraging his disciples to go even further than the Old Testament required in pursuit of obedience to God the Father (Matt. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, ff.).
It would be tempting for the teenagers we serve to hear Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount as the same kind of heavy burden heaped on by the Pharisees. But there’s an interpretive key in this passage that allows us to breathe a sigh of relief: Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish [the commands of the law] but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17).
Jesus is the only one who has perfectly fulfilled the righteous requirements of the law. You and I cannot do it, and our students cannot do it. It’s based only on his perfect law-keeping, followed by his finished work on the cross in our place, that we can ever hope to be counted righteous with regards to the law (Rom. 8:3-4). If we fail to express this good news of the gospel to our teenagers, we will be guilty of the same moralism we see in many of the religious teachers of Jesus’ day.
Nevertheless, because we belong to the Father through the work of the Son and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we too are called to righteous living. Being found in Christ doesn’t mean that we cease having to submit our lives to the requirements of the law—quite the opposite. We are being stamped with the image of Jesus as he graciously transforms our lives to look more and more like his (Rom. 8:4).
Youth Ministers, Called As Teachers of the Law
In order to rightly understand the call of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-20 and in the passages that follow, teenagers need to begin to learn the great doctrine of sanctification, the process of being made like our Lord Jesus.
For those who have been united with Christ by grace through faith, we have already received his justification. That is, we stand approved by God not based on our own works, but on the merit of Jesus who lived, died, and rose again for us. This work in our lives is already accomplished (Rom. 6:10; Heb. 7:27). There is nothing for us to prove or to earn. Still, we are “working out our salvation” (Phil. 2:12); that is, we are continually being transformed into Christ’s likeness (2 Cor. 3:18). This is what Jesus is after in the lives of his disciples as he teaches them the enduring nature of the law: Through the law, they will see both their need of his grace and how their lives are becoming more aligned to his.
As we seek to make our youth ministries and our homes places of radical grace, welcome, and rest, it’s tempting to do what Jesus prohibits—to relax the commandments in order to make them easier to hear or to obey. The fear of man (or in this case, the fear of being cancelled by teenagers) can cause us to soften our words. Oftentimes, a good desire to see teenagers love and follow Jesus can put us on something of a PR campaign, in which we think we need to make Jesus look cool.
So let me just say it: Fellow youth minister or parent, it is not your job to make Jesus seem cool or relevant to teenagers! Your job is to love him dearly yourself, and by God’s grace to point to the great beauty of the cross, knowing it will be offensive to some.
As we look to the example of Jesus himself, we see that he was unafraid to teach hard truth. He said many things in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere throughout the Gospels that were no doubt difficult for his followers to hear. And yet all of this he seasoned with the grace of his presence, welcoming those on the margins and those stuck in their sin to come to him in faith.
As we lead teenagers, our goal must be to follow him in this radical blend of grace and truth (John 1:14). This means we will boldly teach Jesus’ perspective on obedience to the law, while seeking to minimize anything unnecessarily off-putting in our speech or tone, especially that which doesn’t come directly from God’s Word. Any offense needs to come from the gospel itself, not from us!
We don’t need to relax the commandments of the law to make them easier for teenagers to hear and obey, since Jesus has already fulfilled them all in our place. The good news we share with the young people in our care begins with the reality that they are sinners who cannot save themselves, no matter how hard they may try to keep the law. But thanks be to God that for all who are in Christ, his finished work has achieved righteousness for us.
Join us November 2-4 for Rooted 2023 in Nashville, where we’ll explore the Sermon on the Mount together. How can we find true human flourishing? The world we disciple our teenagers in today does not merely offer them an alternative way to live, but an alternative account of where true human flourishing is found. This competing vision encompasses all that we believe about ourselves, our bodies, justice, security, suffering, and meaning. In the most famous sermon in human history and the longest recorded teaching from Jesus’ ministry, our Lord gives us a wholistic vision of how we can live in a way that leads to our flourishing in every aspect of our lives. At the core, his teaching shows us that such flourishing is only found through faith in the God who created us and in Jesus Christ who is redeeming us. As we walk through the Sermon on the Mount together, our prayer is that the teachings of Jesus will invert and subvert the teachings of this world and compel our hearts to live in light of the Kingdom of God in faith.