Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Matthew 5:17-20 The Christian and the Law

To the ears of His audience, the statement Matthew records in 5:20 must have sounded pretty startling. These people perceived the religious leaders of the day as being the most holy, righteous men in the world. I imagine it might be like someone telling us “You’ve got to putt like Tiger Woods” or “You’ve got to be as successful in business as Donald Trump”. The issue Jesus was discussing was, of course, much more important than golf or capitalism. He was discussing a right standing before God. Psalm 1 tells us that the unrighteous will not stand in the congregation of the righteous. There will be a judgment and those judged guilty will suffer eternal torment in hell. Therefore, it is paramount for us to understand true biblical righteousness. How can we have a right standing before God and be declared “Not guilty”? Jesus begins in verse 17 to answer that question.

First of all, Jesus states what His purpose is not. He says “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish.” Jesus, since He was omnipotent and fully God, may have realized that there were people there who thought He was teaching some radically new way of relating to God. Therefore, Jesus beings His statement by alerting His audience to not assume they knew what He was teaching and how it related to the Old Testament. In fact, He says he is not looking to tear down (abolish-kataluo 2647) the revealed word of God (the Law and the Prophets). Some people may have thought Him to be a religious rebel or assumed that He was teaching contrary to the word of God. He goes on to state what His purpose was. He says that He came “to fulfill”. The word used here is the Greek word “pleroo (4137)” which can mean not only to bring to completion or to accomplish as in the fulfillment of prophecy but it can also mean to fill as in filling a container or a hole. Therefore, in relation to the Old Testament and all the revealed truth that it taught, Jesus came to accomplish everything that was written there but also to fill these truths fully.

For instance, in the law there were ordinances which were ceremonial in nature related to worship. Items were determined to be clean or unclean. All these ceremonial laws were a shadow of what was in heaven (Hebrews 9) and pointed ultimately to the perfection of God and of Christ. These requirements related to worship and sacrifice in the temple and were a shadow of that which our Lord was the substance. There was also civil law which regulated life for the nation of Israel. These laws were the basis of government in the Old Testament. Jesus ultimately fulfilled these as well by being perfectly obedient in all things. Thus, the ceremonial and civil law truly are filled out or fulfilled in Christ. The law also contained moral law. Christ certainly fulfilled this aspect of the law as well seeing as how there was never a time where He sinned. He was perfect. Therefore, since Christ fulfilled the law by keeping it completely what is the relation of the believer to the law? How does the law relate to us who are under grace?Jesus I believe answers this question for us in the next few verses. First of all, Jesus defines the scope of the law. He says “Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished”. The law is for man while we live here on this earth and is perfect, God revealed truth. Christ accomplished everything that was in the law when He lived on this earth. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the ability to live moral lives and keep the law (2 Cor 5:21). We know the ceremonial regulations were only a shadow (Hebrews 9) and Christ Himself even lifted some requirements while He lived on this earth (Matthew 15:11). Civil law changes with the change in governing authorities and Christians are obligated to obey the authorities (Romans 13). The moral law still guides us as Christians by giving us a picture of the holiness of God and what He expects. We are told in verse 19 that we should not “break (luo-3089: to loosen or tear down-similar to kataluo above) these laws or teach others to break them but rather a Christian will be one who “keeps” them—not to earn salvation but rather as a result of having been saved and being indwelt with the spirit of Christ.

To live a godly life is impossible for any man or woman. Paul himself bemoans our fallen existence in Romans 7. The fact is that we are going to sin—daily. Because of our sin, we should recognize our inability to produce a righteousness that, as Jesus says, “surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees”. We must look beyond keeping a list of do’s and don’ts to achieve the righteousness that Christ calls for in these verses. We must recognize that it is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can live a life pleasing to God—a life that brings Him glory. It’s not by keeping the letter of the law that we become right with God but by crying out to Him in repentance “I am a sinner. I can’t save myself. Lord, save me.”


Corey Reynolds said...

Hey, great post here! I am currently reading Greg Bahnsen's, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, and he deals a long time with this chapter. If you haven't checked that out, it's really eye-opening.

The only thing that I would disagree with after reading Bahnsen's exegesis of the passage is what you say about our righteousness surpassing that of the scribes and Pharisees. Certainly we only have perfect righteousness because of the active obedience of Christ to the law producing an alien righteousness that is imputed to us; but Jesus was saying something here about the specific ways that the scribes and Pharisees supposedly held to the law. Some laws they greatly weakened (like the one about honoring your father and mother), others they unjustly strengthened to the point that they became a yoke that even they could not bear (the Sabbath regulations). Also, they focused on the external portions of the law and neglected the internal portions. This is the reason for the rest of Jesus' sermon in Matthew 5. Jesus is not adding to the law, he is just reaffirming its original strength (thus not abrogating the law, but fulfilling it). Therefore he says that the Pharisees are like whitewashed tombs: externally obedient, but internally wicked. So, believers really OUGHT to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees, but of course that obedience only comes after our justification by faith, and only by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit working in us.

Theonomy is a horribly mis-judged concept. Most critics have never even read the seminal works. Check out guys like Bahnsen and Rushdoony and see what you think...

Joe Blackmon said...

I think I see your point. I would concur that when we focus on the truth of the law rather than just externals or twisting the law to make it fit our situations that we are in fact living in a more righteous manner than the teachers of the law. I hadn't really thought about it from that perspective. Thanks, dude.