Monday, March 1, 2010

Did Jesus Christ Abolish the Law?

Did Jesus Christ Abolish the Law?
Many believe that Jesus Christ came to do away with the law. But what did He say?

by David Treybig

Jesus Christ's sayings about God's law are important for Christians to thoroughly understand. In John 14:15 Jesus says, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." This exhortation seems straightforward enough, but confusion abounds over this verse. What does Jesus mean when He says, "If you love Me, keep My commandments"?

The confusion with this scripture comes not because Jesus said to observe something. The confusion has to do with which commandments He is talking about here. What are the commandments Jesus is referring to?

Some think Jesus abolished one set of commandments, the law we read about in the Old Testament, and instituted new commandments for His disciples and followers. According to this popular theory, when Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) says He came to "fulfill," or complete, the law and prophets, He thereby does away with them. His statements in Matthew 5 beginning with the words "You have heard that it was said . . ." and "But I say to you" are cited as confirmation of this interpretation.

The Sermon on the Mount is considered to be the manifesto-or the seminal public declaration-of the way of life Jesus espoused. His comments in this message on the law and the standard of conduct He expected from His followers laid the foundation for understanding His instruction to keep God's commandments.

The prophecies of Jesus' ministry, the account of His life and the examples of the apostles and other Christians who lived when Jesus spoke these words help clarify our view of Jesus' teaching. Excluding these perspectives can lead to proof- texting-that is, reading one's own biased interpretation into the Scriptures-instead of letting the Bible interpret itself.

Beginning in the Old Testament are many scriptures describing events that would occur when the promised Messiah came to earth. Isaiah 42 is a prophecy describing Christ's teaching on the law. Beginning in verse 1, we read, "Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles."

Verse 4 continues: "He will not fail nor be discouraged, till He has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands shall wait for His law." The book of Isaiah prophesied the coming of justice and Christ's law. Verses 6 and 7 tell us Jesus' ministry would be "a light to the Gentiles" and open "blind eyes." Opening these afflicted eyes involved more than physical healing. Jesus invoked spiritual healing-the giving of understanding and discernment.

Now comes the key question: Would this spiritual healing be accomplished by instituting new laws or by magnifying the ones already in existence? Verse 21 says, "The LORD is well pleased for His righteousness' sake; He will magnify the law and make it honorable." Jesus was prophesied to magnify the law, to hold it in greater esteem and respect. He was coming to "make it honorable," not to ridicule or destroy it. Why did He need to magnify the law? Jesus had to do this simply because Israel had adopted a wrong view of God's law and was not obeying it.

Ezekiel 18:25 epitomizes a common view of God's law. In a striking rebuke directed toward Israel, God said, "Yet you say, 'The way of the LORD is not fair.' Hear now, O house of Israel, is it not My way which is fair, and your ways which are not fair?" Verse 29 repeats, ". . . The house of Israel says, 'The way of the LORD is not fair.'"

The priests, whom God gave the responsibility of teaching His laws to the people, had failed in their solemn duty. Malachi 2:7, 8 documents this: "'For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek the law from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts. But you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,' says the LORD of hosts."

Ezekiel writes about this conspiracy by Israel's wicked leaders: "Her priests have violated My law and profaned My holy things; they have not distinguished between the holy and unholy, nor have they made known the difference between the unclean and the clean; and they have hidden their eyes from My Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them" (Ezekiel 22:26).

Daniel said Israel did not understand God's truth (Daniel 9:13). Because God's law was not being taught, it was not being respected or understood by the people.

God gave some of the Old Testament prophets visions of Christ's ministry successfully accomplishing the magnification process. Jeremiah wrote of a new covenant God would make with His people. Notice Jeremiah 31:33: "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people." This miracle would be accomplished by the imparting of God's Holy Spirit at the time of repentance and baptism.

Hebrews 8:6 and 9:15 show that better promises, including eternal life, come from obedience to this new covenant. We find no scriptures that say the New Covenant is based on new law. Rather, the New Covenant is based on the same laws that were given in the Old Testament.

Another vital component of the New Covenant is the availability of God's Spirit, which enables humans to understand the spiritual intent of God's law and obey it. Earlier God had prophesied to His people that He would "circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live" (Deuteronomy 30:6).

Romans 8 describes God's Spirit within us leading us to obey Him, whereas a mind without God's Spirit is "enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be" (verse 7).

Israel had such a negative view toward God's law because the nation lacked faith. Faith requires a radically different way of thinking made possible by the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). God explains this in Ezekiel 36:26, 27: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them."

This was a prophecy of ancient Israel's eventual resurrection and opportunity to obey God's law, of God's people eventually learning to appreciate and respect His law through the Holy Spirit. Jesus reveals this truth in John 16:8; He says the Holy Spirit would "convict the world of sin."

Historically, God's law has been ridiculed and forgotten. The prophets of old predicted Christ's coming to restore the law to its proper state of dignity and respect. Now let's go to the New Testament and see how Christ fulfilled these prophecies.

Jesus' approach in the Sermon on the Mount dealt with contrasts. The phrase "Do not be like them" from Matthew 6:8 is representative of Jesus' teaching technique. He laid the foundation for separation of His followers from pagan society and the nominal religion of the land in Matthew 4:17. We find repentance introduced as a fundamental shift in the direction of the theology of the day. Verse 17 says: "From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'"

"Repent" is translated from the Greek metanoia, meaning a complete change of mind. In other words, Jesus' disciples would see things from a different point of view contrasted with the perspective of the masses.

In Matthew 5:7, 8, Jesus says the merciful will receive mercy and the pure in heart will see God. These "beatitudes," as these verses have come to be called, show that Jesus expects His followers to do something, and they reveal the repentant attitude Jesus insists on. In verses 13-16, Jesus uses analogies of salt and light to explain this new way of thinking, this repentant attitude and changed mind and their effects on Christians and their neighbors. Jesus expected this new way of thinking to be reflected in the actions of His followers.

A mere letter-of-the-law approach with its focus on minimal standards was not acceptable to Jesus Christ. He wanted His followers to be activists so others could see the results of a repentant attitude. They were to be a culture that would run counter to the society around them.

By introducing the new concept of a repentant mind and attitude, Jesus inspired His listeners to wonder if He were abolishing everything God had revealed in Scripture up to that time. The people as a rule still believed in the law. They respected God's commandments, even though they didn't properly understand them.

Now the crowd wondered how far Jesus would go in introducing and implementing His new ideas. Was He doing away with their tradition and the law as they understood it? Was He introducing new laws?

Jesus, as the Son of God, could perceive people's thoughts. In Matthew 5:17 He begins answering their unspoken questions: "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets." In effect He was telling them: "If you think I came to destroy the law or prophets, you are not thinking clearly." He makes it plain that anyone who thought He was abolishing the law or prophets was mistaken. He assures them of His respect for God's law: "I did not come to destroy but to fulfill."

The meaning of "destroy" is fairly simple to understand. But Jesus' use of "fulfill" has confused some readers of the Bible. As Jesus continued to speak, He clarified what He meant by "fulfill." But at this point we can simply note that, whatever Jesus meant by the word, it did not involve destroying the law. Jesus emphatically said not to think such a thing.

The word for "fulfill" comes from the Greek word plerosai, which means "to fill." Some believe this filling of the law means Jesus somehow filled up the law and prophets, thereby somehow abolishing the law; the law has supposedly been superseded by Christ. In effect, this theory has Jesus saying, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to abolish or supersede." Such an interpretation, called antinomian (antilaw) theology, however, is in direct contradiction to Scripture.

When we understand that Christ was prophesied to "magnify the law and make it honorable" (Isaiah 42:21), we realize that such an interpretation is unscriptural, distorted and misleading. The remainder of Jesus' words in Matthew 5 clearly show that the "filling" of the law had to do with filling up, or confirming, of the meaning of the law rather than bringing the law to a completion.

In Matthew 5:18 Jesus validates this perspective when He adds, "For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled." As long as heaven and earth exist, Jesus said, we can be sure God's law will exist.

In verses 17 and 18 Jesus speaks theoretically about the law. But in the next two verses, 19 and 20, He speaks of the practical application-the significance of the law for anyone listening to Him and, conversely, its meaning for each of us. In verses 19 and 20 Jesus says: "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."

The word breaks comes from the Greek word lusai, which means "to dissolve, to loose or untie the obligation of." Jesus came out categorically against anyone who would try to water down the commandments. Because Jesus first speaks of "the Law" in verses 17, 18, His audience clearly understands He is referring to the law of God, including the Ten Commandments, when He refers to "these" commandments. Jesus does nothing to dispel this impression by His audience because it is precisely the perspective He wants them to understand. In the following verses, He confirms his listeners' understanding of the continuing validity of the Ten Commandments by citing several of them and magnifying or expounding their full intent.

Verse 19 reveals a key principle of Christ's teaching. Greatness in the Kingdom of God will be measured by "doing" the commandments of God and teaching others to do likewise. It is not our place now to judge how well others keep God's commandments, but Jesus will judge. Eternal life is a gift (Romans 6:23), but our reward in the Kingdom of God will be determined by our works. When John quoted Jesus' revelation, "And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work" (Revelation 22:12), he was showing that Jesus repeated the same principle He had taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus presented another startling revelation to the crowd gathered around Him during that sermon when He told the people that their righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). This statement shocked the crowd because the scribes and Pharisees were considered to be the epitome of righteousness and piety.

Those leaders appeared to be law-abiding, but in fact they were law-breaking. Because they enforced hundreds of laws and prohibitions that were ostensibly part of God's law, some call them legalists. In reality they were illegalists, because they were not really respecting God's law.

As we will see in Matthew 5:21-48, many of their laws and prohibitions produced the effect of negating God's laws, exactly the opposite of Christ's preaching. Because of the Jewish leaders' hypocrisy in their pretense of righteousness while they ignored the spiritual intent of the law, Jesus spoke out strongly against them (Matthew 23).

In Matthew 5:21-48 we find the heart of the magnification of the law-the filling up of the meaning of the commandments-that Jesus and the Father intended from the beginning.In this section we see a series of six antitheses in which Jesus used the following format: "You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . ."

Some have mistakenly believed that Jesus took this occasion to introduce a new set of commandments different from those of His Father. Some think Jesus rebelled against His Father's laws. Another variation on this theme is that Jesus lived by His Father's laws to somehow abolish them before instituting His own laws. Notice Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:21: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven." Jesus said entrée into the Kingdom is based on obeying the Father's will. In John 10:30 Jesus said, "I and My Father are one."

In John 17:21 Jesus explains that He and His Father are in perfect unity. In John 5:30 Jesus says: "I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me." Jesus perfectly yielded to the will of the Father, even to the point of death (Luke 22:42). He and His Father did not have different agendas. They did not have separate laws.

Then what did Jesus mean when He expounded using the format, "You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . ."? To begin, let's notice something about these phrases themselves. "It was said" refers to the common interpretation or nominal religion of the Jewish society Jesus was addressing. This phrase does not refer to God's law, but Jewish tradition.

Jesus used the Greek word errethe for "it is said," as opposed to gegraptai, which is translated "it is written," to make this distinction. In Matthew 4:4, 7, 10, in His confrontation with Satan, Jesus answers the devil's questions with gegraptai, "It is written," in referring to the Scriptures as the basis for His answers. Perhaps Matthew 5:43 best shows this faulty tradition: "You heave heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'" Those last three words were never part of God's law. They were only part of the faulty tradition Christ condemned.

When Jesus completes the statement, saying, "But I say you . . .," He is correcting the Jews' erroneous understanding of the law. Their tradition actually condoned the breaking of God's law. Jesus often spoke against these deficient traditions. For example, note Matthew 15:1-9, where the scribes and Pharisees chided Jesus for not upholding one of their additions to God's law. They had transferred the concept of ceremonial washings to everyday life and took Jesus and His disciples to task for not following their tradition.

In verses 3-6 Jesus says: "Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.' But you say, 'Whoever says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God"-'then he need not honor his father or mother.' Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition."

In this passage, Jesus showed the unlawfulness of the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees. They played one honorable deed-giving money to the temple-against the commandment to honor one's parents to justify their refusal to help their parents financially. Jesus said this kind of action nullified the law.

The scribes and Pharisees gave the appearance of obeying the law while making it of none effect. They were misinterpreting the law (Romans 10:2). Jesus condemns their hypocrisy as He closes His Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 7:21 He says, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven." In verse 23 He adds, "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'"

This example from Matthew 15 offers insight into why Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites. They made a show of being pious, righteous people when their actions circumvented God's laws. They gave only the appearance of being lawful. The very laws they made a show of upholding and obeying they were actually watering down and even nullifying.

Modern-day Pharisees are the same way. They claim to be obedient while denying Christ's clear directive to keep the commandments.

In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus explains that the nominal religion of the day was actually lawlessness. Of the six illustrations He uses, four (verses 21, 27, 33, 43) are centered on commandments, and two (verses 31, 38) can be described as giving permission. In each of these, the scribes and Pharisees minimized the commandment and stretched the permission.

In expounding the commandment not to murder (verses 21-26), Jesus says no one should be angry with his brother in his heart. According to the Jewish tradition, hate was acceptable as long as one did not commit murder.

Concerning the commandment outlawing adultery (verses 27-30), Jesus says controlling one's thoughts is important. According to the Pharisees' tradition, lusting and viewing pornographic materials would have been lawful. In verses 31 and 32 Jesus shores up the regulation giving people permission to divorce. The religion of the day pushed for a watered-down, loose, anything-goes approach to the marriage covenant.

Jesus discusses the subject of swearing and oaths in verses 33-37. The context shows the common belief was that it was acceptable to swear if one intended to carry out an oath. Jesus closes the loophole by saying not to swear at all.

Regarding restitution (verses 38-42), Jesus speaks against revenge and retribution. The common practice was to stretch the limits regarding the laws of restitution to condone vengeance. Concerning the command to love one's neighbor (verses 43-48), Jesus repudiates the commonly held belief that hating one's enemies was lawful and acceptable.

These six illustrations show why Jesus said His followers' righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Their righteousness was a sham. Exceeding their form of piousness would not be difficult for those who had the repentant attitude Jesus speaks of in Matthew 4:17.

For the benefit of the disciples then and now, Jesus not only spoke about how to live, He showed us how to live. His life was a perfect example of allowing God's laws to be written in our hearts. Notice 1 John 2:6: "He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked."

Just as Jesus deferred to the will of the Father, we must do the same. Just as Jesus honored His mother (John 19:26, 27) and kept the Sabbath (Luke 4:16) and Holy Days (John 7:2, 10, 37), so should we. Some may ask if doing these things can earn us salvation. The answer is absolutely not. Obedience cannot earn us salvation. Because everyone sins (Romans 3:23) and deserves death, eternal life can come only as a gift from God (Romans 6:23). Salvation is a gift made possible by God's grace.

Disobedience, on the other hand, can cost us our eternal life. The prophetic book of Malachi records warnings given to Israel and to us of the consequences of breaking God's law. Malachi 4:1 warns: "'For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly, will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,' says the LORD of hosts, 'that will leave them neither root nor branch.'" This is a description of the lake of fire prophesied for the wicked.

How does God say we may avoid this punishment? "Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments" (verse 4). Jesus Christ inspired John to pen this same sure punishment-the lake of fire-for those who deliberately and incorrigibly break God's law (Revelation 1:1; 21:8). The simple truth is we are saved by grace for a life of obedience.

The apostles and the early New Testament Church of God obeyed Jesus' instruction to keep the commandments. They imitated the life of commandment-keeping that Jesus lived. In 1 Peter 2:21, Peter says we should follow in Christ's steps, after His example. Paul tells the church in Corinth to imitate him as he followed Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). He tells the Philippians to think like Jesus (Philippians 2:5).

In other words, we need to have the mind of Christ. Jesus did exactly what the prophets foretold. He came to expound the full meaning of God's law. He did not introduce new laws and void the old in a rebellion against His Father. He upheld the law of God publicly and in practice.

He wants us to do the same. This is why He says, in John 14:15, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." GN


"The law is done away" - don't you believe it!

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