Day 17: “The Fulfillment of the Law” 08.23.18
Matthew 5:17-20 (NIV) “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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 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.”
Jesus was considered a law-breaker. There are people beyond obsessed with laws. Which ones to keep? Which ones to take lightly? What is the purpose of the law? In the novel Billy Budd, by Herman Melville, there is a discussion about justice and the law. One man points out that the “one was meant to serve the other.” He meant that the law is put in place to serve justice but the law itself can sometimes impede justice. Every citizen in every culture at some point wrestles with the law and how it should be applied. That was true in ancient Israel.
There were some people who thought that obedience to the laws of Israel might earn one a place in Heaven. This was a type of works theology that we still see today. Extreme Protestant fundamentalism with its emphasis on rule-keeping clearly points towards law as a means of salvation. The problem is that no one can keep the law perfectly. They could not then, and we cannot now. So, what to do with the law? Try to honor it at every opportunity. For the Christian, the moral law is our concern. Not the many peripheral laws about diet and ceremony that were part of ancient Israel. A good starting point will always be the Ten Commandments themselves. I fear that many Christians cannot even recite them! (That’s a challenge for us!)
An average Jew in the year 30AD had been trained to respect the laws of what we call the Old Testament. Keeping the law meant honoring the words of Moses and the gaggle of laws in Israel that evolved from the basic laws in the Ten Commandments and the five other books of Moses. So…what did Jesus mean by his teaching:
“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.”
What was Jesus talking about? Here are my thoughts. But please keep in mind that millions of words have been written about these verses. There are many fine commentaries offering interpretations of Mathew 5:17-20. My comments are those of a Pastor attempting to bring a practical application to bear on the text for us as disciples.
First, let’s look at the comment on the Prophets. Jesus fulfilled the many prophecies found in the Old Testament. Consider Isaiah 53 for instance. In that text, his life and Crucifixion were foretold in stunning detail. In addition, the Gospels frequently point back to fulfilled prophecies in other places. A simple search with a cross-referenced Bible will yield many Old Testament examples. His fulfillment of the words of the prophets is not hard to understand. But what about the law?
To grasp that, we need to focus on the closing verse of this passage. Again:
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.”
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were the experts! Surely, they kept the law and attained genuine righteousness, right? No. Apparently not. How many times have we heard about rule-keeping in the church attended by cruelty? Simply watch the fine movie called “The Shunning” to see how a believing community can brutalize its own by hyper-zealous rule-keeping. An Amish community isolates a young woman who wants to meet her mother, who is not part of their faith family. The leaders think they are being faithful to 1 Corinthians 5, but they are frightened rule-keepers. Good movie.
How then can we make any sense out of what Jesus meant by: “…unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” ???? Ok…back up with me. The Apostle Paul said that the purpose of the law was:
Galatians: 3:23-25 (NIV) “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So, the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.”
It literally reads that the law was an “instructor” or, as the KJV says a “schoolmaster.” This is interesting. The Greek construction includes the word “pedagogue” which means someone who teaches. Ahh…the law is valuable to show us when we are driving 80 MPH but the speed limit is 70 MPH and we are law-breakers. We may decide to drive henceforth with more caution but, sooner or later, we will speed in the future. Now…what if we’d lose our driving privileges FOREVER if we were to break the law again? The point is that we cannot keep the moral law and that failure should drive us to Christ who kept it perfectly. On our behalf if we place our faith in him.
What about this idea of righteousness that will surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law? Here is the key: in the Beatitudes, we have been given a description of the disciple who follows Christ and those are the “laws” or traits or behaviors that we need to embrace. We will be a righteous law-keeper not to earn our salvation but because we have it by following Christ. Thus, instead of fretting about hundreds of laws we need only ask “Is this me? Am I poor in spirit and am I mourning for a broken world. Am I meek and hungry for righteousness? Do I have a pure heart filled with mercy? Am I a peacemaker willing to be persecuted?”
In short, rather than give new laws or try to explain them to his followers, Jesus did otherwise. He reduced the laws to the traits found in Matthew 5: 1-12. But…he wanted his own to test their hearts more than their outward actions. Am I following the “Law of Christ” as found in verses 3 through 12? The mountainside may be about to get a little uncomfortable.
Blessings! Pastor Alberta