Fulfilling the Law

Matthew 5:17-20

“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.”

Certainly, Jesus confronted the Pharisees with the conflict between their teachings and their lives. On many occasions he called them “hypocrites,” and “whitewashed tombs.” But let’s not think that Jesus is setting aside righteousness and minimizing obedience. In fact, when Jesus says you must surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees, he is setting up a lofty standard. These were men, who despite all of their failings, exemplified devotion to the Law. They had dedicated themselves to living lives devoted to God and his Word. So, in saying you must surpass their righteousness, he was saying quite a bit.

Tragically, though, in their dedicated pursuit of God’s Law, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law had missed God’s will. They had really missed the point of the Law, and so misrepresented God.

They represented God as a strict taskmaster who demanded that people toe the line of rigid rule keeping. God was no loving Father, but a cruel despot. And so, when they interpreted and applied the Law – it was always the letter of the Law – they had externalized it and legalized it. One could rigidly follow the letter of the law and never have his heart touched by the heart of the law.

That’s why Jesus confronted them about their traditions and loopholes. In Mt. 15, they are concerned with ceremonial hand-washing and Jesus confronts them with nullifying the command to honor your mother and father. He says, “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”

It is in Mt. 23 that he confronts them again – “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness.”

And so, is it that Jesus is opposed to the Law, or is it that he is opposed to what they have done to the Law?

You see, it’s always tragic when people distort God’s law to their own purposes. Only if you think as the Pharisees thought could you declare yourself righteous because you kept it precisely. The truth is they were not righteous – self-righteous, perhaps – but they were not righteous – any more than anyone can be righteous by keeping the Law. They were experts in being religious – they had mastered that. But righteousness requires more – much more.

In these words in the Sermon on the Mount, it seems that Jesus teaches an uncompromising affirmation of the eternal validity of the Law of Moses. And that would seem to be as clear and final a statement as one could make, if it were not for what the apostle Paul wrote about this very one who is speaking:
· Rom. 10:4 “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”
· If perhaps we misunderstand that, he writes in Rom. 3:20 “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”
· Or in Gal. 3:10-13 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”

Is Paul contradicting Jesus? Is Jesus just pacifying the upholders and defenders of the Law? Did Paul misinterpret Jesus’ intent and mistakenly declare an end to something eternal? How do we reconcile this seeming contradiction – and more than that, what does it mean for our lives here and now?

Jesus was speaking to people who felt the oppression of the “Law” (not God’s Law, but man’s enlargement and legalistic requirements built around it. By the time of Jesus there were 613 Mitzvot or commandments, there was the Talmud, the Mishnah, the Midrash, the Aggadah – all with some level of authority and enforcement.) “Abolished” was exactly the words that many hoped to hear – to be set free from this legalistic enslavement. And so, Jesus says, “Do not think I came to abolish….” Some might mistakenly conclude that his teaching and his confrontation of the religious establishment was preparing to abolish or do away with the Law. But Jesus set the record straight concerning the Law and Prophets.

For Jesus, the Law was the expression of the will of God. And the will of God is eternal and unchangeable. Jesus did not come to modify the will of God, and certainly not dismiss it; He did something much more powerful: he fulfilled it. Now, what did Jesus mean – in what sense did he fulfill it? There are several dimensions to its meaning:
1) He was the fulfillment of all that was predicted in the OT.
2) He was the ultimate definition of the righteousness of God in the OT.
3) He was the one who completely met the demands of the Law and Prophets – he lived it in perfect obedience.
4) He was not adding new teaching, but clarified by his life and teaching all that God meant in the Law.
5) He fulfilled the Law and Prophets in the sense of filling full – cold, impersonal commands were covered with flesh and blood – he was the embodiment of God’s ultimate will.
6) Jesus brought the OT to completion – in Jesus Christ the purpose and meaning of the Law was finished. In Paul’s words in Gal. 3:24-25 – 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. The Law’s purpose was to bring us to Christ, and having done that its mission is fulfilled and its purpose has concluded.

It is unfortunate, though, that many Christians, after reading what Jesus says, tear the OT out of their Bibles and throw it in the fire, thinking that its usefulness has also concluded, and classify it as inferior and beneath them.

We are a people accused of not believing in the OT. At least to a rather large degree (on a practical level) it is true. I was once confronted by a Christian lady after a series of sermons from the OT, for not preaching the Word of God. She said my preaching was unscriptural because I wasn’t preaching out of the NT. Now, her opinion might be extreme but it is representative of what many Christians believe.

Perhaps it is an over-reaction to the uncritical misuse of the Bible by those who do not distinguish between the OT and NT and arbitrarily combine them – and in combining both of them, violating both of them.

Let’s talk briefly about what I think are three common misconceptions:

1) The OT does not apply to Christians
Reality: the OT is crucial for Christians to be trained in righteousness.

Paul reminds us of the things that occurred to our spiritual ancestors – and the reason for them – listen to how crucial they are for our own spiritual safety:
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ… Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did… These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 1 Cor. 10:1-3,6,11

One cannot begin to understand the significance of Jesus’ life and redemptive acts and fulfillment of prophecy and the sacrifice on the cross without understanding the OT.

2) Jesus did away with the OT at the cross
Reality: Jesus provided the way for us to understand and love the OT.

Peter writes concerning the vital importance of the OT scriptures to us.
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. 1 Peter 1:10-12. In Jesus Christ the story is completed, and it is told for our sake – for our edification.

Paul never denigrates or minimizes the importance of the OT: But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Tim. 3:14-17.
Paul has great reverence and respect for the Law, but he does oppose its misuse as a means of righteousness. The Law had a purpose – but not the purpose the Jews had molded it into – not a legalistic system of justifying self, but of formation as God’s people, of preparation for God’s Messiah.

3) The NT is more important than the OT
Reality: the Christian finds the power, the wisdom, the will of God as clearly in Exodus as in Romans.
It is in the OT that God reminds us of his ultimate purpose: “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Jer. 31:31-33
The OT is the record of God preparing his people for the coming of the Messiah and the new covenant. The NT confirms and describes that ultimate purpose.

And so, Jesus says, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of the pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished – until heaven and earth disappear.

Does this mean we are obligated to reinstitute the OT system of sacrifices and Temple worship and various dietary and priestly laws of Leviticus?

If that means restricting ourselves (as the Jews did) to the external action of law keeping – then no! Even the OT prophets reacted to the problem of externalizing the law – Amos 5:21-24 “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Hosea 6:6 “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

You see, even the OT prophets recognized something incredibly wrong with what man had done to God’s law. But if we mean that we need to seek out the heart of God’s will – seeing his law embodied in his Son, then God’s will has never changed. Our covenant with God is new. There is no place for animal sacrifices and human priests, because, as the Hebrews writer says, Jesus has become the perfect high priest, and is himself the unblemished lamb of God – the sacrifice given once and for all. This covenant is written in the blood of his Son – Paul tells us it is written, not on tablets of stone, but on the tablet of the human heart.

What, then, is our relationship to the scriptures? We need to take them seriously. Not lightly, not minimally. We must not disregard them, but immerse ourselves in them. They are, in their entirety the word and the will of God.

The scriptures are not to be minimized and manipulated. They are not an intellectual exercise, but a guide for life – and more than just life – life under the sovereign rule of God, under the lordship of Jesus Christ. They are written, not only to be understood, but lived out.

In a commentary on Jesus’ words: James, in referring to the Old Testmant, writes, Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does. (1:22-25).

Let God’s Word guide you and mold you into the man or woman that God created you to be. His Word – his whole Word – is a record of God’s never-ending, never-failing, always pursuing love of his people – of you and me.