The Law: Love, Fulfillment, Observance

May 18, 2008 Preacher: Randy Smith Series: Matthew

Scripture: Matthew 5:17–19


The Law: Love, Fulfillment, Observance

Matthew 5:17-19
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Pastor Randy Smith

It was a special time this past Friday for the men in our church as we gathered for our "tailgate party," despite the rain that kept us inside the whole evening. It's funny, the first words out of my wife's mouth when I returned home that night were, "What do you guys do?" Even Missy, when she saw me on Saturday morning immediately asked the same question! Well, all we ate was meat (no salads of any sort were brought), but beyond that, we'll keep the ladies in suspense!

Permit me to begin by asking you a few questions from our passage.

In verse 17 Jesus said, "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets." Question (T/F): The Law and the Prophets refer to the Old Testament? Correct answer: True (Mt. 7:12; 22:40).

In verse 19, in the same context, Jesus said, "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven." Question (T/F): Does this verse teach that we must keep the commandments in the Old Testament? Correct answer: True.

So we conclude that both the Old and New Testaments in our Bibles are the inspired Word of God and therefore must be observed if we wish to be obedient to our Lord. In other words, the entire Bible is God's full revelation to us, and we are not permitted to pick and choose that which we obey. Right?

Deuteronomy 14:8, "The pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, it is unclean for you. You shall not eat any of their flesh nor touch their carcasses." Has anybody had a ham sandwich lately? Exodus 35:2, "For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy day, a sabbath of complete rest to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death." Should we stone the next guy who cuts his grass on Saturday? Leviticus 19:28, "You shall not make any…tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD." Should we start a campaign to close down the local tattoo parlors? Leviticus 23:19, "You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering and two male lambs one year old for a sacrifice of peace offerings." I've yet to see a church with a barn attached to it!

Is it just me or have other people struggled like this when reading the Old Testament? On the one hand we are told to obey Scripture, but on the other hand we are told these commandments no longer apply to us a Christians. Who's making up these rules and on what basis are they decided? Based on our passage this morning, we'd better take those questions very seriously!

I must warn you that we are dealing with a very complex passage of Scripture. Throughout the church age verses 17-19 of Matthew 5 have been disputed, debated and oftentimes, divisive. This lesson will be very technical and theological in nature. You may feel like you are in a seminary class, but rightly understanding this passage will aid you in interpreting your Bible and appreciating the work of Christ. So this material, though heady, is indispensable for the Christian.

I have already presented to you the dilemma. It is nothing new. So throughout church history, the dilemma has sought to be reconciled by the two primary theological camps. But in my humble opinion, neither of these camps has brought an answer that I have found satisfactory. Unfortunately, we are told our biblical interpretation must abide by the tenants established by one of these groups.

The first group (and we are talking about a theological framework here) are the dispensationalists. I know I am painting with a very broad brush, but the dispensationalist says God has worked His revelation within various progressive stages or economies or dispensations. Some say there are three dispensations; others claim there are as many as seven. The church age, in-between the two comings of Christ, for example, would be a dispensation.

Therefore, dispensational theology comes to our dilemma and says, "No problem, the Old Testament commands were intended for Israel. Sure, there is profit in reading the Old Testament, but the law was given to a specific people for a specific time. Since we are now the church, it no longer applies to us. We simply need to be concerned about the New Testament."

So when the average dispensationalist comes to verse 17 they say, "Right on! Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law as the Scriptures foretold. It was as if He completed one gigantic prophecy. Thanks to Christ, the Old Testament is done, the New Testament has arrived."

But the Dispensationalist runs into trouble when he comes to verses 18 and 19 which warn us about discarding the law. In verse 18 it says the smallest part of the law will remain until heaven and earth pass away. To the best of my knowledge, I do not believe that has occurred yet! And verse 19, if Jesus did do away with the Law and the Prophets, why would He give His church a strict directive to not do away with their commandments?

Maybe the second camp will be more helpful. They are called Covenant Theologians. Many of the Puritans and Reformers were Covenant Theologians. They assert that since the Fall, God has made an overall covenant of grace with His people. Though the revelation of God has progressed over time, unlike the Dispensationalists, they believe there are no separations or distinctions.

Therefore, the Covenant Theologian comes to our dilemma and says, "No problem, everything written in Scripture is to be taken on equal footing. The law of Moses is on par with the law of Christ. Just as Jesus said in verse 17, He did not come 'to abolish' the Law or the Prophets. He fulfilled the Old Testament, meaning, He confirmed and clarified and validated all that was written in Scripture. Therefore, the entire Old Testament is binding for the Christian."

While this creates a simple and straightforward reading of verses 17-19, the Covenant Theologian runs into serious problems when you probe him further on his beliefs.

For example you say to him, "So are you following the Jewish dietary laws and offerings animal sacrifices and stoning an adulteress and worshiping at the Temple in Jerusalem, right?" And he would say, "Of course not!" And you would say, "Why not, if you believe the entire Old Testament is still in effect?" And he would say, "Because we need to divide the law into three parts and only one of those three parts still needs to be obeyed today - Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial law with His sacrifice and the civil law is obsolete because we are no longer in a Theocracy. Therefore, we only need to follow the moral law which is based on the unchanging character of God."

And then you say, "But that is not following all of the law as you asserted, and where in the Bible does it say the law can be divided? And didn't Jesus say in verse 17 that we need to follow the law even down to the 'smallest letter or stroke'"?

Dispensational Theology has one great advantage. It screams: "Discontinuity." And we say, "Yes, there has to be some difference between the Old and New Testaments. Some of this definitely does not apply to us." Covenant Theology has one great advantage. It screams: "Continuity." And we say, "Yes, there has to be some similarity between the Old and New Testaments. Much of this does apply to us."

I believe we would all agree with those comments. We believe, "All Scripture" as Paul said (referring to the Old Testament), "Is inspired by God and profitable" (2 Tim. 3:16). Yet we also believe that we are now living in the New Covenant, and as the writer to the Hebrews said, "(God) has made the first (covenant) obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear" (Heb. 8:13).

So we are back to where we started. How do we solve this dilemma, and how do we interpret Jesus' words in Matthew 5:17-19?

Let's spend the remainder of our time answering those two questions:

First, let's seek to interpret Matthew 5:17-19.

One of the biggest problems on the scene in religious Israel when Jesus arrived was an external, legalistic obedience to the law. In God's terms, love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:11). In God's terms, obedience from the heart mattered most. However, the religious sect permitted their human traditions to supersede the law of God (Mk. 7:8, 9), no different than many "religious" folks today. So when Jesus came on the scene and began to preach the essence of God's expectations, there was no doubt conflict between Him and the religious leaders; namely the Pharisees and Sadducees and the Scribes. Since they claimed to represent God and His teaching went in a different direction, they accused Jesus, God in the flesh (!), of disregarding God's commandments (Mt. 15:2; Mk. 7:5).

I believe this is much of the reason Jesus said in verse 17, "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets." Though He was opposed to the heartless, legalistic, man-made observance of the law, right from the start He makes it clear that despite the objections against Him, He did not come to abolish (do away with, tear down, jettison) the Old Testament law.

On the contrary, Jesus says in verse 17, "I did not come to abolish but to fulfill."

"Fulfill" - a key word in interpreting this passage. The Old Testament law reached its fulfillment in Him. In other words, as Jesus said often in the Gospels, everything written in the Old Testament pointed to Him like one gigantic spotlight. Remember what He said to the men going to Emmaus? "These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled" (Lk. 24:44; cf. Jn. 1:45; 5:46). When Jesus arrived, God's grand plan of salvation history reached its climax. The law was not destroyed, but fulfilled. Only in Jesus does the Old Testament find its valid continuity and significance as it was fulfilled by Jesus Christ, the culmination and final word of God's revelation (Heb. 1:1-2).

Let's move to verse 18: "For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished."

Unless there be any doubt, Jesus cannot be any clearer as to how much He values the law. Basically He says that until this created order passes away not the smallest part of the law will disappear until all of it is accomplished. The examples He provides are profound and down to the minutia! The "smallest letter"-the Hebrew letter yod. The "(smallest) stroke"-the tiny hooks to distinguish Hebrew letters. All of it is valuable and all of it will see its fulfillment.

Here we also see Jesus affirming the authority of the Old Testament. I believe we have too many Christians today neglecting to read and hence benefiting from the Old Testament Scriptures; how unlike our heroes from the past. In Psalm 119 we read, "O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day" (Psm. 119:97). In Psalm 1 we learn the godly one finds "delight…in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night" (Psm 1:3). Joshua said, "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" (Jos. 1:8). You say, well those were all Old Testament figures! Allow me to quote the apostle Paul: "So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" (Rom. 7:12).

After expressing His high view of the Old Testament Scripture, Jesus draws the conclusion in verse 19. "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

A few observations and then I will try to wrap all of this up. One, Jesus in this verse is not talking about entrance to or exclusion from the kingdom of heaven. He is talking about people already in the kingdom and the position they will possess in the kingdom based upon how they keep and teach these commandments.

Two, staying within the context, when Jesus uses the word "commandments" I believe Jesus is speaking about all the commandments as they are given to us in the Old Testament.

So this we know: The Old Testament must be obeyed and taught correctly. The entire Old Testament is to be considered and valued. There are certain Old Testament commands that we must respond to differently on this side of the cross. The entire Old Testament pointed to Jesus Christ. Jesus both upheld the Old Testament and fulfilled it.

So here is how I believe all of this comes together for us in the New Covenant: We need to appreciate and follow the Old Testament, but remember that it all comes to us fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Therefore when we read the Old Testament Scriptures, we must see everything through the lens of Jesus Christ.

As the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy put it, "As the prophesied Messiah, Jesus Christ is the central theme of Scripture. The Old Testament looked ahead to Him; the New Testament looks back to His first coming and on to His second. Canonical Scripture is the divinely inspired and therefore normative witness to Christ. No hermeneutic, therefore, of which the historical Christ is not the focal point is acceptable. Holy Scripture must be treated as what it essentially is - the witness of the Father to the incarnate Son."

Our Bibles shine the spotlight on Jesus Christ. All of it either predicts, prepares for, reflects, or results from the work of Christ (C.J. Mahaney). John Stott said, "The Bible is the portrait of Jesus Christ." According to Martin Luther, "Remove Christ from the Scriptures and there is nothing left."

Jesus Christ is our ultimate lawgiver (Mt. 7:24-27). We are bondslaves of Jesus Christ (Col. 4:12). Second Corinthians 1:20, "For as many as are the promises of God, in (Christ) they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us."

Jesus did not "rubber stamp" the Old Testament or reaffirm the Old Testament. Rather He fulfilled the Old Testament whereby everything written there must be seen through Him. Therefore, all of the Old Testament is to be continually observed and taught, but only as it is obeyed and interpreted by Jesus Christ. We will see this clearly in the weeks ahead as we study the rest of Matthew 5.

Here is how one scholar put it: "The OT law is not to be abandoned. Indeed, it must continue to be taught (Matt 5:19) - but interpreted and applied in light of its fulfillment by Christ. In other words, it stands no longer as the ultimate (emphasis his) standard of conduct for God's people, but must always be viewed through the lenses of Jesus' ministry and teaching" (Douglas Moo, Continuity and Discontinuity, p. 205-206).

Keeping this principle in mind will help us tremendously to rightly interpret and apply our Bibles when we are faced with passages that say one thing in the Old Testament but then appear to say another in the New Testament. Examples are hot issues like: Dietary laws and circumcision and the Sabbath. All you have to do is read Acts and Galatians to see how much the early church wrestled with these issues especially when the Gospel was reaching non-Jewish communities. They too struggled over this very concern that we have been speaking about today (cf. Ac. 15:1, 5; Gal. 5:1-4; Col. 2:16).

I close with an example: I do not sacrifice animals because Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who sacrificially died for my sins (Jn. 1:29). When I read about all those animal sacrifices that made atonement for sin, I realize they are there to continually remind me about the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ to which they pointed! Think about it this way: It is actually my belief in Jesus Christ that forbids me from continuing the practice of animal sacrifice as it was conducted in the Temple.

The apostle Paul made it clear when he wrote in Colossians: "(Jesus Christ) is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything" (Col. 1:18). We must see Jesus Christ as the culmination of salvation history (Lk. 24:44). The Word of God made flesh (Jn. 1:14). The final Prophet, Priest and King. The supreme ruler of the universe (Eph. 1:21; Col. 2:10). The One to whom "every knee will bow…and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:10-11).

As Jesus put it Himself in John 5, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life" (Jn. 5:39-40). Have you come to Jesus Christ for eternal life? How can we ever expect God's mercy if we neglect so great a salvation?

And how can we who know Jesus Christ forsake our Bibles when our "first love" (Rev. 2:4) is spoken of throughout the entire book!

More in Matthew

May 1, 2011

The Great Conclusion

April 24, 2011

Resurrecting Hope (2)

April 17, 2011

The First Prerequisite To Resurrection