On Jesus and the Law. Oh, and prophets, too!

On Jesus and the Law. Oh, and prophets, too!

This question was recently posed to me (and some other friends) on an email discussion-group:

« What is your take on Matthew 5:17-18 regarding the Law and Prophets? Do you believe we are still under the Law, and do you believe that we have Prophets today, and if so for what purpose in light of receiving the Holy Spirit individually? »

I waited with anticipation for an answer to these questions from the group, but nobody dared venture forth… I suspect it’s because the answers to those questions would require so much explanation that too many are daunted!

I too am daunted, but I’ve never let that stop me from being a foolish blow-hard (witness this weblog!). So, here goes a long answer.

First, see the a larger context of the verses cited:

“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” (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus makes some clear assertions here:

  • In contrast to the claims of the Pharisees: he neither breaks the law, nor does he come to abolish it. Instead: he fulfills it.
  • Everything the Law and the Prophets say will be accomplished.
  • Anyone who is opposed to the law will be “called least” in the Kingdom. Those who promote it will be great.
  • If you are not more righteous than the Pharisees, you’ll be in Hell.

This teaching astonishes both Jesus’ contemporaries and us. But for different reasons.

The reason Jesus’ audience would have been startled is because he broke so many of the “commandments” that the Pharisees were certain he was opposed to the law and was a law-breaker. Jesus’ audience would have likely either been deeply concerned about his attitude toward the law or would have been relieved that he came to do away with the Law. Neither view was accurate. Jesus says that he isn’t breaking the law (such as when he was accused of working on the Sabbath by healing) but that he fulfills it. He completes the Law

Since the Old Testament clearly separates the Sabbath as a day of rest, then if Jesus didn’t break the Law as he understood it, by working miracles on that day, then what exactly did he mean by the Law?

And this is what’s startling to us. We think of the Law as all the ritual rules and practices prescribed and proscribed in the ceremonial law, dietary laws, and the case law that surrounded the moral Law, such as the unique pattern of tithing for the Jew, the way they must gather harvest, who owes what fines and when, sacrifices and so on. (There are 613 individual laws in the OT from the Ten Commandments, to the Noahic Law, to the comprehensive Mosaic Law including all the special-example “case” laws.)

Rather, Jesus’ view of the law is the “Torah,” which some say should not be translated “law” but rather “revelation” or “instruction from God.”

In this sense, Jesus is calling the Jews to heed the spirit of the Law rather than the mere letter of the Law. By Jesus’ day the Jews had erected so many fences around the law that the rules governing the exceptions and circumstances for daily life far exceeded anything the law was intended to teach. (So, for instance, to avoid lusting after a woman there were Jews who walked with their heads down and their eyes covered so as not to even glance at a woman. I understand they were called the “bruised and the bleeding,” because they often stumbled into pointy objects when not looking where they were going!)

This system of laws that grew up around the revelation of the Pentateuch and the Prophets has been called the “Scribal Law.” It began with oral law, handed down from generation to generation via scribes and rabbis, as an attempt to explain the revelation and also to apply the law to every situation in life. By the third century AD these oral laws were collected and summarized into a massive book of 63 tractates on the law called the “Mishnah.”

Then Jewish rabbis and scholars began to make commentaries in order explain the Mishnah. These commentaries are known as the Talmuds—and there are many, many volumes of Talmudic commentary and exposition. (Twelve volumes for the Jerusalem Talmud, sixty for the Babylonian Talmud.) The roots of this mind-numbing landscape of legalism, case law, exceptions, and circumstances was already present in Jesus day. This was not the Law God gave, but it was the law most were concerned about.

What Jesus knew is that the Scribes and Pharisees of his day were not serving the law-giver, but were serving the letter of the law–indeed, they were serving the legal traditions that were not the law itself, but were Pharisaical attempts to “hedge” the law and protect ordinary people from coming anywhere near breaking it. The law says “Make the Law of the Lord as a frontlet before your eyes…” so the Jews go and write passages on strips of paper, roll them up, put them in a box, and strap the boxes on their foreheads!

These extrapolations of the Law are not what Jesus came to fulfill. He came to fulfill the spirit of the Law instead, so that the Law of God can be written on our hearts rather than in boxes on our foreheads.

The Law is not dead. It is fulfilled. But it is still God’s revelation to us.

So, what about sacrifices? No need: Christ fulfilled the need for sacrifices by “completing” what the sacrifices were intended to do. Accepting his sacrifice completes that law for us.

What about ceremonial laws in the Temple? No need: our bodies have become the temple of the Holy Ghost. Christ made that possible on the cross, thereby fulfilling the law. Accepting his sacrifice makes it possible for us to fulfill those laws by honoring our bodies as his temple.

What about tithing? No need–not in the way the Jews were required to give–which, according to various estimates, could equal as much as 25% of annual income. Rather, the spirit of the tithe remains: generosity and giving are intended to support the formal priesthood (pastors, missionaries, etc.), the needy, and the widows. Obeying the NT commands to love and be generous (with finances as well as time) and be hospitable and financially support our ministers fulfills and completes the command to tithe (indeed, would exceed tithe if we truly followed the spirit of these commands.)

As for exceeding the righteousness of the Pharisees, the only way to do that is to have the righteousness of Christ “imputed” to us—put on our account on his behalf. Christ fulfilled the Law’s demands for righteousness and peace with God by making that peace on the Cross and covering us with his blood and righteousness.

As for Prophets today, I would say there there are not prophets today—not in the same sense as the Old Testament prophets—for the same reason that we no longer accept revisions to the Old or New Testaments with additions to the canon. The OT prophets were “oracles” who spoke the words of God to particular situations and revealed the mind of God to his people. Our Scriptures–which recorded and convey those words—do that now and we are prohibited from adding to it. (See the last verses of the New Testament, Revelation 22:18–19. While these don’t explicitly refer to the not-yet-formed NT canon, most apply the sense of this prohibition to the entire “closed” canon.) But, truly, this touches on a whole, lengthy, discourse of the nature of the canon and how we know it is “closed” or not. And that’s worthy of a book length treatise and I’m not the man for that.

I’ll just say that in the New Testament a prophet seems to be (according to Paul’s writings) an individual who has received the gift of prophecy. This is not strictly the same as an Old Testament prophet or even a NT prophet like Agabus in Acts or John in the Revelation. In the New Testament, prophecy is not portrayed as “fore-telling” but rather “forth telling.” The distinction being that the New Testament gift of prophecy is not about dates, times, and future events, but rather about speaking intelligibly words that are timely and edifying to the Body of Christ. Paul contrasts it to the gift of tongues which only edifies the Body when there is an interpretation. He further contrasts it with tongues in that tongues are speech directed to God while prophecy is speech directed to the Body. (See 1 Corinthians 12-14.)

Incidentally, this issue about prophets and prophecy crop up frequently in the cessationism vs. continuationism debate. The cessationists seem to think that we Pentecostals and Charismatics believe we can tell the future via prophetic statements, and if even one of our statements prove falls, the whole P/c house of cards falls down.

To our everlasting shame and detriment, there have been some in our ranks who were so bold and theologically uninformed to believe that they were operating under this kind of prophetic mantle.

Sometimes I want to pray, God, save us from ourselves.


[tags]BlogRodent, Pentecostal, Evangelical, theology, cessationism, continuationism, prophecy, prophet, Bible, theology, the-law, Old-Testament, heaven, hell, religion, christianity, evangelical, doctrine[/tags]

2 thoughts on “On Jesus and the Law. Oh, and prophets, too!

  1. Barrie

    If we focus on keeping the law, we miss the point.. we miss what Jesus was trying to show us..

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