Jesus, the Law and You (part I)

  • How should we apply the content of the Old Testament to our lives today?
  • More specifically, how should we relate to the Old Testament Law?
  • Should we use it as a guide for our behavior?
  • Are we required to obey the Law in the same way as Old Testament believers were required?

The New Testament reminds us that, “we are not under the law but under grace” (Roman 6:14). Should we (on this basis) conclude that the law no longer has authority over believers? If we reach this conclusion,  how does it harmonize with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount?

What did Jesus mean when he said, “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” (Matthew 5:17-20)?

The question of how believers today relate to Old Testament Law has filled coutless books, articles in theological journals and sermons with a variety of answers. A primary reason for different responses is the challenge of harmonizing New Testament teaching on the subject. To give you an appreciation for the variety of statements, consider the following:

Various statements about the Law

The law is identified as “holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12,22; 1Tim 1:8); As “spiritual (Roman 7:14). The Law is referred to as “a letter that kills” (2Cor. 3:5-7); an old way of life and a written code (Rom 2:28-29;7:6). “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (Romans 3:31). “The Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:24-25). “You are not under the Law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). “Christ is the end of the Law” (Romans 10:4). “When there is a change in the priesthood, there must also be a change in the Law” (Hebrews 7:12). “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the law through the body of Christ” (Romans 7:4). “Those who are led by the spirit are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18). “For the Law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:2).

“For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).

The fulfillment of the law:

“For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). “He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. If there is any other commandment it is summed up in this saying; “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:8-9). After Jesus identified the two great commandments: Love for God and neighbor love, he said, “On these two commandments depend the whole law and prophets.” (Matthew 22:40; cf. Mark 12:29; Luke 10:27).

Statements on the role of the Law:

In 1Timothy 1:8, The Apostle Paul, as a matter of common understanding in the Christian community and in contrast to would-be teachers of the law, wrote, “But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous man,  but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane.” (I Timothy 1:3-8).

How should we understand the promise that the “one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, this man shall be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25). These words are a reflection of an Old Testament promise, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success” (Joshua 1:8).

Psalm one speaks of the “blessed man” whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night.” “In whatever he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:2-3). And then there is the beautiful psalm we have put to song reminding us that “the law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul (Psalm 19:7-11).

Jesus’ words:

In Matthew 5:17-19, our Lord teaches that he has fulfilled the Law and he endorses the enduring validity and applicability of the least stroke of a pen within the law. He then warns those who break ” the least of these commandments” and “teach others to do so.” They will be demoted in the kingdom of heaven.

In “The law, the Gospel, and the modern Christian” Douglas Moo, noted that,

“such diverse statements about the Mosaic law have both fascinated and frustrated theologians since the inception of the church. And at no time has this been more the case than in the last two decades, which have witnessed a remarkable resurgence of interest in the theology of the Mosaic law. A deluge of books and articles has examined virtually every bit of evidence from almost every conceivable perspective” (pp. 319-320).

When confronted with biblical truths that appear to be in tension, a basic principle to follow is to interpret the unclear passages in light of the clear ones. Start with the texts which allow you to say, “This much I know.” Move from clear to unclear

A clear truth about the Law:

No one can be declared just in the sight of God through the law. “A man is not justified by the works of the law” (Galatians 2:16). “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law” (Galatians 5:4; cf. Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). Salvation has always has been by grace through faith and not of works lest any man should boast.

A more complex question

The more complex question is what relationship God’s law has to the one who has already experienced salvation. Is the follower of Jesus Christ required to keep to Old Testament law? And, what does our Lord himself teach about this?

The three most important passages in the New Testament on this subject:

  1. Matthew 5:17-48
  2. Romans 6:15-8
  3. Galatians 2:16-4:7

The most important text:

The text in Matthew’s gospel is foundational to the others. Jesus began (in Matthew 5:17) with what has been called the main body of the sermon on the mount. The section extends from 5:17 through 7:12 and is placed in what is called a literary envelope or an inclusion. It begins and ends with reference to the law and the prophets.

This literary envelope “suggests that Jesus, in the body of the sermon on the Mount, was explaining the relationship between His teaching and the Old Testament Scriptures which were sometimes called “the law and the prophets,” sometimes simply “the law” (as in 5:18), and sometimes “the law, the prophets and the psalms” (see Luke 24:44)  (D.A. Carson, pp 38-39, “God with us“).

In the opening words of Matthew 5:17, Jesus said: “Do not think that I came to abolish the law or the prophets.” His aim was to “Clarify certain aspects of his mission and kingdom” and “Divert potential misunderstandings” (D. A. Carson, E.B.C.).

To appreciate the need for this, we must understand that many questions about Jesus’ identity were raised by his contemporaries. He didn’t seem to fit the traditional molds of Judaism yet He appeared to be more than willing to confront the leaders of the Jewish religion. On one occasion, He asked His disciples: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?}  They answered, “some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” A lot of speculation centered on Jesus’ identity. On another occasion the Pharisees said to Jesus: “who do you make yourself out to be?”

Commenting on the speculation about Jesus, Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones wrote,

“he had not been to the customary schools, so they looked at him and said, ‘who is this fellow, this man who teaches and makes these dogmatic pronouncements? What is this?’ He did not come into His position as a teacher along the usual lines or through the customary channels, and that at once created a problem. The leaders and the people were rather perplexed about it. But not only that he deliberately criticized the Pharisees and the scribes, and their teaching. Now they were the acknowledged leaders and religious teachers, and everyone was prepared to do what they said. They were quite outstanding in the nation. But, suddenly, here was a Man who did no belong to their schools, who no only taught, but also denounced their authoritative teaching. Then, over and above that, He did not spend all His time in expounding the law. He preached an extraordinary doctrine of grace and of the love of God which introduced such things as the parable of the Prodigal Son. But, even worse, he mixed with publicans and sinners, sitting down and eating with them. Not only did he not seem to observe all the rules and regulations; He actually seemed to be deliberately breaking them. In His words, He criticized their official teaching, and in practice He did the same.”

“So questions began to arise at once because of His theory and because of His practice. ‘Does this new Teacher not believe the Holy Writings? The Pharisees and the scribes claim to be the exponents and the expounders of the Holy Scripture; does this Jesus of Nazareth, therefore, not believe it? Has He come to do away with it? Is His teaching that there is some new way to God, some new way of pleasing God? Is he turning His back resolutely upon the whole of the past?’ Now those were the questions which our Lord well knew were bound to arise because of His personal character and because of what He taught” (Sermon on the Mount).

Jesus offered a needed word of clarification (in Matthew 5:17-19) concerning his relationship to and respect for the enduring validity of the Law. But Jesus has much more to clarify. It was not so much Jesus and his views that needed clarified; it was the popular misinterpretations and misapplications of the O.T. by the religious leaders of the day. Jesus deals with this problem in six antithetical statements about the law and popular opinion of it.

Each statement turns on some variation of “you have heard it said but I say unto you.” In them, Jesus addresses anger, lust, marital faithfulness, honesty in speech and revenge. In each one, the application will be as scathing in our culture as it was in first century. But the authority with which Jesus’ approaches the Old Testament Scriptures was doubtlessly more shocking to his Jewish listeners than it is for us today.

As we approach our Lord’s words, this passage is the deciding text for understanding of how followers of Jesus should relate to the Old Testament Law.

More to come

Steve Cornell

This entry was posted in Bible, Bible from God, Bibliology, Christian life, Doctrine, How to study, Interpretation of bible, Law, Old Testament Law, Scripture, Sermon on the Mount, Spiritual growth, Spiritual transformation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Jesus, the Law and You (part I)

  1. Pingback: Answering Questions about Matthew 5:17-20 « A Time to Think

  2. Pingback: Answering Questions from Matthew 5:17-20 | WisdomForLife

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