First Century Israel was one of the most religious places on the face of the planet at that or any time in history, comparatively speaking. The people there were passionate about God and His Law, passionate about their way of life, and especially passionate about where those two passions intersected. Obedience. This was a direct result of a major event years prior.
A few generations before, the ancestors of these obedient First Century Israelites were equally disobedient and were consistently and continually warned of their repetitious, unrepentant disobedience to the Law by God through Prophets. These stalwart men were agents sent by God to call those ancestors back to the Law and back to obedience to God. However, those ancestors mocked, ignored, silenced, and killed those Prophets refusing to obey, so God exiled them into a foreign land while simultaneously taking away the land He gave them. All because of disobedience. Interestingly, the Old Testament leaves off with most of these Israelites still exiled in a foreign land. Only a few return to find their home demolished and begin the rebuilding process.
And so, as a result, this generation living in First Century Israel was overwhelmingly passionate about obedience. This is the context in which Jesus is living. This is the audience to whom Jesus is speaking when he gives his first sermon. Matthew the Evangelist was one of these people and it was to these people that he was writing to when he recorded Jesus’ first sermon, not unintentionally, at the beginning of his book. In Matthew’s account, this sermon (on a mount) is the first teaching we hear of Jesus. Matthew’s introduction to Jesus’ message, his ministry, and his purpose all springs from this speech.
Jesus begins by stating what he believes God’s kingdom looks like (what we sometimes call “The Beatitutudes”). But then notably, and strangely, he shifts and makes it a point to say:
“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.”(Matthew 5:17 ESV)
Christ’s preaching was so entirely different from that of the popular teachers of the day (Pharisees and Sadducees) that people must have thought he was a revolutionary trying to subvert God’s authority and insert his own (like the Zealots). Even from the minimal preaching he had done, it was obvious that he did not echo the prevailing theology of the day (like the Essenes). So Jesus reassures his listeners that he hasn’t come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. To communicate that, Jesus uses two rabbinic idioms that are still used by rabbis today. Abolish the Law & fulfill the Law.
In Hebrew, the word Law is Torah. The word batel can mean abolish, but it can also mean nullify or undermine. Similarly, the word lekayem can mean fulfill, but it can also mean complete or accomplish. I know a Christian man who went to a Jewish Seminary in Jerusalem. There, he said, the rabbis didn’t give him grades on his papers. Just “batel” or “lekayem” written across the top of his papers. They do this because when rabbis commission their disciples to “fulfill the Torah,” they mean “properly interpret the Torah correctly so that it can be lived out correctly.” When they warn against “abolishing the Torah,” they are warning against misinterpretation that inhibits people from living out God’s commands correctly.
When Jesus said that he had come to fulfill the Torah and not to abolish it, he means, “I am here to properly interpret the Law of God and show you what it means to live it out, not to misinterpret it so that you’ll never be able to please God.” What is he directly implying to this highly religious, obedient society? “You haven’t been properly taught or shown what fulfilling the Law looks like. The Pharisees haven’t shown you. The Sadducess haven’t shown you. The Zealots haven’t shown you. The Essenes haven’t shown you. That’s why I’m here.” And this is exactly what he does in the rest of his sermon. He “lekayem-s” the Law of Moses. He talks about anger, oaths, lust, marriage, divorce, retaliation… all things in the Law of Moses.
Why does Jesus make this statement? Why does Matthew bother recording it? Jesus is trying to teach us something about the Scriptures and their relationship to God. Look at the next verse.
“For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18 ESV)
Jesus is communicating a very high view of The Old Testament. That’s the Bible Jesus read, and he is acknowledging it’s immutability, permanence, and stability, right down to the iota or dot.
Hebrew is an interesting language when written down, because so many of the letters look the same. The only thing separating some of them is a small little jot or tittle of the pen. Jesus is upholding the reliability of the text. He is echoing the Prophets of old, for Isaiah says, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever,” (Is. 40:8).
Jesus wants everyone to know his mission and purpose was to lekayem Scripture because to Him, it is more secure than the heavens and the earth. And remember, Jesus here is talking about the Law. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said our “bread” should be every word that comes from the mouth of God. And he’s talking about the Law. Later in the New Testament, Paul writes to Timothy telling him the Scriptures are useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. And he’s talking about the Law. Paul also says that Scripture is breathed out by God. And he’s talking about the Law.
Nothing could be more wrongheaded than the popular idea that the Christian needs only the New Testament. This idea was perhaps reinforced by the separate printings of New Testaments, apart from the Old. It most certainly was not caused by reading the New Testament. Nothing is more patently taught in the pages of the New Testament than the continuing and abiding authority of the Old. This frames our understanding of Jesus’ next command (I prefer invitation).
“Therefore whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19 ESV)
These commandments that Jesus is referring to are the ones in the Law of Moses. And he is telling his listeners, both ancient and modern, that if they relax or disobey one of the least commandments and teaches others to do so as well, they have no place in the Kingdom he is building. They have no place in his movement. Jesus is telling his disciples that they need to be “lekayem-ers” of the Law like he is. He said, “I have come to lekayem the Law…to show people what it looks like to live it out in flesh and blood. You want to be my follower? You do it too.” That’s heavy and resonates with us, as it should, but this would not have been the most shocking thing to his listeners. This highly religious audience would have welcomed this invitation to keep the Law together in community. The next phrase is the kicker.
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20 ESV)
This would have been the most profound, shocking, riot-inducing statement that Jesus’ audience heard. This would have shocked and awed them to no end.
The scribes were the most renowned teachers of the Law. They were the priests’ priests. They were the chief interpreters of the Law. They were Levites that could trace their lineage back to Aaron. If you wanted to understand the Law, you listened to the teaching of the scribes.
The Pharisees had the reputation of being the most exemplary models of the Law. The Pharisees were a sect of Judiasm that formed a moral code of ceremonial acts more rigid than the Law of Moses based on passed down traditions. They were held in the highest regard among the Jews of the day. If you wanted to know what it looked like to live out the Law, you watched the Pharisees.
Jesus has just finished telling his listeners he had come to “lekayem the Law.” They had likely heard this before. They were just told the importance of the Law and that they needed to participate in “lekayem-ing” it as well. They had likely heard this before. Sense the tension. The only people they had seen do this were the scribes and Pharisees and they knew they couldn’t do it like them. And then Jesus says, “You have to do it with more righteousness than the Pharisees.” This would have shocked and awed the crowds.
But look at what Jesus is doing. He’s not setting a higher standard of righteousness than the Pharisees. He’s pointing to a different understanding of righteousness than the Pharisees were offering. Jesus has multiple run-ins with the Pharisees throughout his ministry and his complaints are always the same. “You keep all of the outward ordinances of the Law, but you neglect the ones that matter. The heart issues.”
Remember back to a few generations before when the ancestors of the Pharisees and all of Israel was rebelling against God by bringing idols into the Temple, oppressing the poor, bringing offerings to God that were lame or blind. Remember how God sent prophets to call them back to obedience. Remember how they refused time and time again, so God exiled them and caused them to be captured by a foreign nation.
Those disobedient Israelites told this story to their children and their children’s children and not long after, a generation was raised up that said, “We are never gonna let this happen again. If we get a second chance, we are not gonna blow it.” And generations later, the Israelites were returned to their home and began rebuilding. That next generation, the Pharisees, began doing things differently…sort of. They certainly put much more emphasis on the Temple laws their forefathers neglected, but they still missed the point. The pre-exile Jews didn’t care about the outside or the inside. The post-exile response was to care only about the outside leaving the inside to neglect.
The righteousness of most of the Pharisees (read more here) was in outward observances of the Law. They were strict about abstaining from theft, murder, and idolatry, but cared nothing about hatred, pride, and hard-heartedness. Their righteousness was partial. They placed overwhelming emphasis on the Temple laws, but cared nothing for justice or mercy. Their righteousness was self-interested. They didn’t desire to please God. They desired the praise of men. So, they prayed loudly on the street corners. They gave their tithes ostensibly. They fasted publicly. And to Jesus, this was abolishing the Law. This is why he has to make it so clear. He is separating himself from those people. “They are abolishing the Law,” he says. “I have come to fulfill it. And if you want to be in my Kingdom and fulfill it with me, it’s not going to look anything like that.”
Jesus hasn’t given us a free pass to override the Law of the Old Testament. On the contrary, he has made it clear that we are to adhere to the Law and do so in a way that is not solely outwardly religious like the Pharisees.
But… what does that look like? What does it look like for us, for Christians to “fulfill” the Law? What does it look like for us, for Christians to “abolish” the Law?
I’ll hope to tackle those issues and more in the next post.