Rethinking My Relationship to the Law: Reflections on Matthew 5:17-20

By: Garrett Best

Every Christian, at some point or another, has to wrestle with this question, “What is my relationship as a follower of Christ to the Mosaic Law?” I continue to struggle with this question. I tell people, “Any time Zondervan has a counterpoint series book on a particular topic, it is not an easy topic to discuss.” This is made all the more difficult because the New Testament voices are not univocal (sometimes even in the same letter). For instance, Paul says in Romans 7:12, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Just three chapters later he says, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). Which is it Paul?! So, it seems this issue is even more difficult than we sometimes might assume.

At one time, I believed that I had no relation to the Mosaic Law as a follower of Christ. I could be found saying things like, “The Law has been nailed to the cross.” To borrow language from Hebrews, it is “obsolete” and has been done away with. After stating these views to a friend one time, my friend looked at me and asked, “So, you don’t believe in the Old Testament?” Well, yes and no. It was difficult to describe. Ultimately, I believed the Law had no real ethical force on my life. However, I did believe the stories recorded in the Old Testament were useful and helpful to my life as a Christian (although I rarely read the Old Testament). I certainly didn’t believe the Old Testament should have any bearing on what we do in worship (i.e. 2 Chron. 29:25; Ps. 150). I believed that the only binding portions of the Law were those which were restated in the New Testament by an inspired writer. Right or wrong, that was my understanding.

Scripture constantly challenges me to rethink my views. It’s hard for me to believe that a Jew living in the first century (whether Jesus or Paul) had the same view of the Law that I once held. The Scriptures specifically testify to the fact that God’s Law will endure forever (Psalm 119:160). How could something as wonderful as God’s holy Law be discarded so quickly?! In fact, Paul told Timothy, “Now we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Timothy 1:8) and “All Scriptures is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). By “all Scripture”, Paul is most certainly referring to the Hebrew Bible.

So, we come to Matthew 5:17-20. Jesus, as the New Moses, has ascended the mountain to deliver His authoritative teaching on the Law (Matt. 5:1). Matthew 5:17-20 serves as the preamble for what Jesus intends to do for the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. What follows in verses 21-48 will be the playing out of what Jesus says here. Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets…” (17a). The phrase “Law or Prophets” is a way of referring to the entire Hebrew Bible (cf. 7:12; 22:40). The first thing Jesus wants to communicate in this section is that He is not casting aside or throwing out the Hebrew Bible. So, what is He doing with the Law and Prophets? “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (17b). A great illustration of this is the Mount of Transfiguration in chapter 17. Moses (Law) and Elijah (Prophets) appear and the disciples think they should build tabernacles to them. Of course they should. There before them were the greatest symbols of the Law and Prophets. However, God speaks from heaven, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” The Law and the Prophets shouldn’t be cast aside, but God gives His divine approval to Jesus over Moses and over Elijah. Jesus has preeminence over the Law and Prophets. Although He is in continuity with the Law, His teaching transcends the Law and Prophets. Jesus came to bring out the true intended goal of the Law that God had always intended.

“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” (18). The two modifying phrases (“until heaven and earth pass away” and “until all is accomplished”) are being used as synonymous phrases to refer to the end of the world or consummation of the age (cf. 13:32; 13:30, 39, 40, 49; 19:28; 24:3, 14; 28:20). Jesus affirms that not even the tiniest stroke would pass away from the Law until the end of the world. It is interesting to note that although the Law will not pass away until the end of the world, it eventually will pass away. Later, Jesus would say that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (24:35). Although Jesus’ words stand in continuity with the words of the Law, when heaven and earth pass away, His words will continue while the words of the Law cease. Jesus’ words transcend the Law.

“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” (19-20). It is at this point that someone might object, “But, Garrett, the Law is divided into the moral, civil, and sacrificial sections and only the moral parts of the Law are relevant for us today.” First, breaking down the Law into moral, civil, or sacrificial sections is a modern day division, not an ancient one. Second, I have a hard time accepting that in light of Jesus’ words that “not an iota, not a dot” would pass from the Law “until heaven and earth pass away”. He also commands His disciples not to “relax the least of these commandments.” Jesus seems to be saying that not a single part of the Law would pass away. Doesn’t Jesus know He will die on the cross and His sacrifice will be the one time sacrificial offering that will atone for all sin?! Yes. So, how can He seem to be saying that not even the sacrificial portions of the Law will pass away?

My own view of this (which is always subject to change), I would label “Christonomic”. Honestly, I just made that up and have no idea if anyone else uses that term. By Christonomic, I mean a Christ-centered view of the Law. The early Christians and Christians of Matthew’s community were mostly Jewish. Jesus had changed the way they read the Law. In light of Jesus, now all Jewish Christians have to read the Law through Jesus glasses. So let’s take the sacrificial portions of the Law for example. God’s Law that sin has to be atoned for by the blood of an unblemished sacrifice hasn’t disappeared or been done away with. Instead, we read those sacrificial portions of the Law with our Jesus glasses on. It is still in force, but Jesus has fulfilled and transcended it. Jesus’ blood is now the one time perfect atonement for sin. Rather than casting the Law aside, Jesus actually confirms its value. The Law had not been wrong on sacrifices. It had done its job of leading up to Jesus and now Jesus has come to be the perfect fulfillment.

I struggle with how to apply Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:17-20 to my own life as a Christian. Certainly, any in depth treatment on this subject would require looking at the teaching in the entire New Testament, but the purpose of this post has been to focus specifically on Matthew 5:17-20. My own view is that Jesus teaches the Law is still in force for His disciples, but the Law should be read through the lens of Jesus, His teachings, His life, His death, and His resurrection and enthronement.

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5 comments

  1. I have always taken “fulfill” and “accomplished” from Matthew 5:17-20 to coincide with “end” in Romans 10:4 and “until” in Galatians 3:24. I see no contradiction in Paul’s description of the law as “holy, righteous and good.” It is the nature of a holy thing to be set aside for a purpose. From Jesus’ point of view, that purpose, when it came to the law, was him.

  2. The radical new perspective on Paul adds some important insight. Those scholars within the movement say that if you come across a negative passage about the Torah, the passage is most likely toward a Gentile audience. For example Paul’s dealing with the Torah in Galatians 3: For the Gentile, the law had been a curse, to be part of Israel meant to proselytize, but Gentiles still had no covenant as did Israel. A law with no covenant, pointing out sin was no solution for the Gentile. Jesus’ righteousness gained covenant membership for the Gentile. The Law itself obviously isn’t destroyed…”How could I know sin, but by the Law?” Good article.

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