Monday, 20 July 2015

Between the Covenants: Jesus and the Law (Take Two)

As well as the certainty of death and taxes, an evolving theology should equally be definite part of the Christian experience. And this is the case with me. Since writing this blog post nearly two years ago, I have continued to study and discovered new things that needed to be added and came to change my mind on a few things So what follows below is an updated version of the original post.

In my last post, we explored the topic of God and Law, or Torah, and how it is a revelation of the Holiness and Righteousness of God and His intentions for humanity. In this instalment of ‘Between the Covenants’, we will be exploring what Jesus said about it and the implications it has on His disciples.

A little while ago I came across a flow-chart here made by a guy called Scott Bateman, critiquing an inconsistency of Christians when it comes to homosexuality in the bible. Although quite well thought out, a few factual errors let it down. Possibly the biggest, is the claim that Jesus never once mentioned gay marriage. And in a sense he is correct, although Jesus does reject it by defining marriage with an affirmative teaching, quoting Genesis: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?”  (Matt 19:4-5). It’s a bit like this scenario: A parent says to their child ‘play in the yard.’ Yet, the kid runs out of the yard and down the road. Then the parent finds out, catches them, and tells them off. Scott’s argument would be like the child responding: ‘But you didn’t say we couldn’t leave’.
Another error is the claim that it is forbidden to adorn yourself with gold. This is based on verses such as 1 Peter 3:3, which is actually an instruction against vanity, not wearing gold.
But, despite its flaws in interpretation, Scott makes a great point in the middle:
“No buts! You don’t get to pick and choose which parts of God’s word you’re going to follow.” 
If the author of the diagram ever spoke a word of theological wisdom, it was this. Because, if we have indeed called Jesus the Lord of our life, he is Lord over all of it. And as He instructed in the great commission, we are to obey all that He commanded.

Bateman’s flow chart raises an interesting question about what New Covenant followers of Jesus are to do with the Old Testament Law. As I raised in a previous post, there is some continuation as God declared He would write His Law on our heart, but what that looks like is complex and debated. According to Michael Wilkins, “Some contend that none [of the law] applies to Jesus unless it is explicitly reaffirmed in the New Testament, while others say that all of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly revoked in the New Testament.” For example, based on Jesus’ words in the Great Commission, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20), France concludes that “it is the ‘commandments’ of Jesus, not those of the OT, which are to be the basis of Christian discipleship” (188). But what did Jesus actually say about the Law?

In this post I want to explore two of what I consider to be Jesus’ most clear and explicit teachings on the relationship the Law has with the follower of Christ.

Jesus Fulfils the Law

The first I want to explore is in the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil 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).

Jesus’ critique of the scribes and the Pharisees observance and interpretation of the Law had no doubt caused some to believe that Jesus was opposed to the Law. However, here Jesus reaffirms His commitment to the Law, that He as a member of the Triune God-Head revealed to Moses at Sinai, by declaring He will not abolish, but rather fulfil them. Many take the word ‘fulfill’ to mean something like bringing to an end, treating the fulfilment of the Law like the fulfilment of prophesy. For example, since Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophesies, we shouldn't expect anyone else to do it. But is this an accurate interpretation?

In verse 15, Matthew has used the Greek word plerosi (from pleroo) which means to render full, i.e. to complete; to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full. For example:
“this joy of mine is now complete” (Jn 3:29)
“in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom 8:4)
“All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matt 1:22)

Based on this understanding of pleroo, Richard France paraphrases Jesus as saying “it is my role to bring into being that to which [the Law and the Prophets] have pointed forward, to carry them into a new era of fulfillment” (183). As we will explore below, this is a very true understanding, but to say that Matthew 5:17 has nothing to do with Jesus’ actions or teaching, as France does, is to isolate the statement from its textual and historical context. 

When interpreting any text, it is important to understanding it in its original historical context. The 'fulfilling of the law' was an idiomatic phrase of the Rabbis that referred to the faithful commitment to and accurate teaching of the Torah. For example: "Go away to a place of study of the Torah, and do not suppose that it will come to you. For your fellow disciples will fulfil it in your hand. And on your own understanding do not rely" (Mishnah, Pirke Avot, 4:14). So when Jesus said he came to fulfil the Law, He meant that he had come to rightly and completely teach the Torah. Notice too how Jesus contrasts 'fulfil' with 'abolish'. The word for abolish, katalyo used in this context “means to declare that it is no longer valid, to repeal or annul” (France 182). So for Jesus to fulfil the Law cannot mean to bring it to an end. But rather He said He will pleroo the Law. To abolish the law was also contrasted with fulfilling it by the Rabbis: "If the Sanhedrin gives a decision to abolish a law, by saying for instance, that the Torah does not include the laws of Sabbath or idolatry, the members of the court are free from a sin offering if they obey them; but if the Sanhedrin abolishes only one part of a law but fulfils the other part, they are liable" (Mishnah, Horayot 1:3). Based on this context, I believe it is better to define Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets in how His person, teaching, and work provides a full revelation of Old Testament doctrine. As John Stott explains: “His purpose is not to the law, still less to annul it, but to reveal the full depth of meaning that it was intended to hold” (72).

In fulfilling the Law, we cannot say that Jesus made any of it null and void. As Jesus said, not an iota nor a dot will be removed from the Law, but this is what people in history have attempted to do. A heretic from the second century, Marcion, wanted to remove the Old Testament and its references in the New Testament from the Canon of the New Covenant. His legacy is still alive, according to Stott, among those who proclaim the ‘new morality’: the only law applicable for the Christian is the law of love (72).

As we have seen thus far, to say “Jesus fulfilled the Law so I don’t have to do it” is misguided because it over-simplifies the Law. Did you realise that Jesus did not obey all of the Law?  There are laws specifically for women that Jesus never did. There are also laws for farmers and slave owners that Jesus didn’t do either. So at the final judgement we can’t say that we have obeyed all the Law because Jesus did it on our behalf. Now, we have received by faith Jesus’ righteousness that he attained because He satisfied the righteous requirements of the Law expected of Him, but we cannot claim that we have been perfectly obedient because Jesus was.

Many people know the promise of Malachi 3:6, “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” And this is a great promise of the enduring faithfulness of God. The same God who rescued His people from Egypt 3500 years ago will definitely rescue His people from Satan sin and death today. But the context of this verse is one of obedience. Let’s read verse 6 in that context:
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment… says the Lord of hosts. For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them.” 
So, what we find here is that God’s Holiness, morality, and character are unchanging. What he found good/offensive in the Garden, He found good/offensive at the Mountain, and still finds good/offensive today. As Ladd explains: “It is clear that the Law continues to be the expression of the will of God for conduct, even for those who are no longer under the Law” (510). Jesus makes this emphatic by saying that our status in the Kingdom will be based on our relationship with the law: 
“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.” 
At the heart of this teaching is the picture of the disciple of Jesus imitating the behaviour and teaching of their Lord and saviour?  “Since [Jesus] does not ‘abolish’ the Law and the Prophets but fulfils them… his disciples likewise must not ‘abolish’ or ‘break’ the commandments but must instead practice and teach them” (Wilkins). Two things that should be briefly noted here. One, Jesus didn’t say entrance. He said you would be least, or greatest in the Kingdom. So you’re still in there if you’ve trusted in the free gift of grace and forgiveness through Jesus, but what that experience is like will be somewhat different. In fact, the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is best understood as principles for those living in the Kingdom, rather than mere general ethics (France 153).  And two, we shouldn’t think of first and second class citizens in Heaven, but rather being “a more or less worthy representative of those who acknowledge him as king” (France 188). But the point I want to focus on here is that these words mean that Jesus could not have possibly meant ‘we don’t have to do the law’ because He fulfilled it. In fact he warns against making such a statement.

But aren't we only under the moral law?
There are arguments out there to deal with the arguments made by the likes of Scott Bateman, such as only those commandments that are repeated on the New Testament is binding. Or maybe they might categorise the Torah into categories of ceremonial, civil, and moral law and argue that only the moral law applies today. . There are two respective arguments against these claims. The first is that 'moral law' isn't a real scriptural category. As E.P. Sanders (1992, 194) argues: "Modern scholars often try to divide the law into ‘ritual’ and ‘ethical’ categories, but this is an anachronistic and misleading division." In fact the Bible only knows of two categories: 'Love God and love neighbour', and both are connected. According to the Old and New Testament, we love our neighbour because we love our creator (Lev 19:18, 1Jn 4:20). The second is that the blank page between Malachi and Matthew doesn't belong there. It is the one God with the one standard of righteousness. Although the covenants may be different, the difference isn't the content of the Law; it's the location of the law: the heart (Jer 31:32-33). But even if we were to take the New Testament alone as our Torah, one of the most often repeated commandments is not a moral law, but a ceremonial law: worship God alone. Moreover, three of the four guidelines from the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15 were 'ceremonial' in nature: abstain from blood, idols, and strangled meat.

But doesn’t the bible teach that ‘Jesus is the end of the Law to everyone who believes’?
Well, kind of. It says that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4). And in the context of this passage, this is righteousness for salvation. As I will explore more deeply and extensively in the next post, Paul is teaching that in order to be justified and declared righteous in status in the eyes of God, it is by faith and not by works. But what Romans 10:4 isn’t saying is that the law no longer teaches how the righteous can live righteously. For Paul instructs us to “no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds… and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:17-24). We are to live out the reality of the righteousness we have been given, and the Law can show us how to achieve this.

But didn’t Jesus re-write and re-define the Mosaic Law in the Sermon on the Mount?
This claim is made on the basis of Jesus’ repeated words in the sermon: “You have heard it said… But I say to you” (Matt 5:27-28 etc…), which is taken to mean ‘You have heard that the law says this, but this is now what you should do…’ But is this true? Well, we need to remember that whenever Jesus referred to Scripture He always referred to it as being written, as seen for example during His temptation in the wilderness: “But he answered, ‘It is written…’ (Matt 4:4). The Greek word for written here is gegrapti (written), and also used by New Testament authors such as Luke and Matthew when talking about scripture. For example, "as it is written (gegrapti) in the Law of the Lord" (Luke 2:23). But, in the case of Matthew 5 Jesus said “You have heard it errethe (speak, spoken)...” So, if for Jesus, the scripture is written (Matt 21:13, Mk 7:6, Lk 10:26, Jn 6:45), Jesus cannot be talking about the Law. What Jesus is talking about is the traditions of Pharisaical interpretation of the Law, which is reasonable considering Jesus mentioned the Pharisees in verse 20 before going on to correct the faults in their interpretation of God’s law throughout the sermon. Jesus’ complaint here against the Pharisees in their interpretation of the law was not that they made it more restrictive, but were actually making it easier and relaxing God's commandments by making it about external conformity (Stott 79).
However, an argument could be made that 'spoken' can refer to scripture since Matthew often refers to that what was 'spoken' by the prophets. Although it is only the prophets and never the Law, and Jesus never uses spoken of scripture. But even if Jesus was 'redefining' scripture, it wasn't changing the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, but rather restored the heart level obedience God always required. In fact, Jesus was not the first one to advocate for heart level obedience. God through Moses was: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart" (Lev 19:17). Thus, as John Calvin puts it: Jesus is “not a new legislator, but… the faithful expounder” (290). 

We can do the same thing today as the Pharisees did when we relax God’s commands by making them easier and saying that we are obedient to the ‘spirit’ of God’s commands. No, we shouldn’t be legalistic (see post on legalism here) by saying that only the explicit words count, but we can be just as rebellious when we ignore the specifics too. In other words, we can say to ourselves: ‘As long as how I’m living looks kind of like what he asked for, then that’s good enough.’ To borrow Paul’s analogy from Ephesians 4, when we do this we are wearing God’s commandments and the righteousness Christ purchased for us like a cheap cosplay costume, claiming we’re dressed like our hero because we’ve written their name on our outfit.

Jesus was saying to the crowd and the Pharisees; the heart and the hands must match when it comes to obedience. As Jesus warned, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). These words are not about a ‘works based’ salvation. Jesus is talking about a righteousness of kind rather than degree, and this is where New Covenant righteousness surpasses Old Covenant righteousness. The New Covenant established by the blood of Christ allows and empowers the deeper conformity to God’s commands as opposed to merely an external conformity. This is what was explored in a previous post from God’s promise in Jeremiah 31:33:
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts”
And Ezekiel 36:27 describes this too:
“And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
This is a process of participation. We encounter God’s law through His word, the Spirit testifies to its truth, we agree with the Truth, and the Spirit begins to transform our heart to conform to that truth.
“Thus God’s two promises to put to put his law within us and to put his Spirit within us coincide. We must not imagine… that when we have the Spirit we can dispense with the law, for what the Spirit does in our hearts is, precisely, to write God’s law there” (Stott, 75). And so not only did Jesus complete the Law by fully teaching it with his words and actions, He completed it so that by our faith in Him for salvation, we are empowered to keep it through Holy Spirit. Therefore, the deep righteousness is evidence of being filled with the Spirit and born again, without which no one will enter the kingdom (John 3:3).

In fulfilling the Law, Jesus made it everything it was intended to be. He is the sum and substance of what it was pointing towards, He demonstrated and taught what its perfect obedience looks like, His sacrifice paid the penalty for its disobedience and makes available the eternal blessings for its obedience, and He empowers and enables us to obey it from the heart.

Moses’ Seat

There is another, lesser known passage in Matthew 23 where Jesus also spoke about the Law.
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice’” (Matt 23:1-3).
Because of cultural and chronological distance, we tend to miss what Jesus is trying to say. Moses’ seat is a special place in the synagogue from where the scriptures were read from, and where the Pharisees and scribes would sit as they taught and expounded the Law. Although Jesus is most likely referring to the authority given them to do so as the basis of listening, He is ultimately appealing to the authority of Scripture they were being taught. In other words Jesus is saying: ‘do what they tell you because what they are telling you to do is from the Law.’ And because Jesus commanded His disciples to obey the Law, according to the Great Commission, that command is applicable to His disciples even today. 

Answering Scott

So how are we to answer Scott? First and foremost, with three main words: context, context, context. There are a number of laws we don't practice today because of our cultural context. We do not offer sacrifices because there is no Temple. All sacrifices were restricted to the location of the Temple, and so no Temple = no sacrifice. Although Jesus did make a final sacrifice for sins, not all sacrifices were about sin and forgiveness. Many were there simply to honour God and give thanks for all He has provided. Other's don't apply because we aren't in the land, such as the Sabbath years. And there are others such as laws regarding capital punishment that don't apply because not only are there no directly divinely guided priesthood and council to judge such matters, but Jesus took the death penalty we deserve for our disobedience on the cross. Also, things like shaving and the wearing of mixed fabric need to be understood in their historical context. But beyond these, I see no reason why we should not continue to observe every Law possible. They are given for blessings and a way to demonstrate love and gratitude towards our creator and saviour.  

Bereans and the Law

As products of the Reformation and a rejection of 1950's legalism, we have inherited a church tradition that irks at the thought of the Law for today, choosing to live exclusively in Grace-Land. And the grace of God is amazing and mind-blowing, don't get me wrong. But there is another side to grace. And as Berean Baptists, we need to be willing to test what our tradition and personal doctrine teaches about the role the Law has in our lives as disciples of Christ, against the words of Jesus and the rest of scripture. And as we have seen, there is an expectation that our lives do conform to the righteousness of the Law. Not for salvation, but in response to our salvation out of love for our God, our King, and our Redeemer.

While Jesus made a righteousness apart from the Law possible, He did not annul it nor remove it. Rather, He reiterates its importance in how we are to live in relationship with God and others, and empowers us to observe it in the true and deeper way.

In my next post, we will be exploring what Paul said about the Law and the Christian and how it relates to the Gospel.


Calvin, John. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Chrysostom, John. Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew.
France, Richard. The Gospel of MatthewNew International Commentary on the New Testament. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids (2007).
Ladd, George. A Theology of the New Testament. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids (1993).
Sanders, E. P. Judaism : Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE. Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1992.
Wilkins, Michael. The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew. Zondervan: Grand Rapids (2004).


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