This is the first part of a hopefully ongoing conversation that arose from a recent Q and A regarding the Reconstructionist Theology. You can read that article here – Reconstructionists
Despite its length, I decided to include this discussion in our Q and A section because it hits at the heart of the New Covenant versus Old Covenant controversy. To wit: To what degree is the Law of Moses binding on the conscience and performance of a Gentile Christian?
This is a vital issue that can easily be confused when constructing a consistent theology and hermeneutic. So, I willingly engaged in the dialogue and have posted it here in the hope that our wider readership will benefit from it. We will post follow-ups as, and if, they develop.
The discussion began with the following brief email.
Q – Dear Jim,
I have spent enough time with “reconstructionist” thought and writing to know that everything I read about it seems to cast a negative light upon it.
I find it interesting that Christians at large are unwilling to understand that final authority for any matter rests in God’s word. We say that, but our practice is not consistent with that statement.
This week meditate on Mathew 5:17-19. If God’s word is sufficient then how does any discussion of law escape this “limiting” passage?
To which I replied: Thank you for your input. May I ask for a bit of clarification?
You’ve leveled a couple of charges here, at least by implication. For instance, I agree with your generalization that most Christians are unwilling to understand the authority of Scripture. However, that does not automatically mean that, let’s say, your understanding of a particular passage is necessarily superior to someone else’s unless you can prove exegetically, historically and contextually that your meaning is provably what the original author intended to convey. To do that requires more than just throwing verses at your opponent. I could equally instruct you to meditate on Romans 6:14 or Col. 2:14. But, in the end, neither of us will have dented the other’s assumptions because we have had no meaningful dialogue. When you tell me that “Christians at large” fail to regard the Bible’s authority and then throw a couple of out-of-context verses my way, it hardly makes an argument. And it conveys the tacit assumption that you are necessarily right and I am necessarily wrong.
So, here’s my question. Is it your intention to engage is some meaningful discussion concerning these things, or is this is your final word on the subject? If you would like to discuss these matters, I’m certainly looking forward to it. Please start by explaining what you believe Jesus was telling us in Matthew 5:17-19 and how His words apply to Reconstructionist Theology. We can go from there.
On the other hand, if was your intention to merely fire off a terse email to a faceless preacher on the Internet, then you’ve accomplished your purpose and we can let it rest there. I will leave it in your hands.
Again, thank you for your input.
Yours for His sake,
[ The original version of this reply included Greek fonts that do not translate into HTML very consistently. So, while the content is intact, the Greek words have been omitted. ]
Thank you for your response. It is always my intention to engage in meaningful discussion and if it appeared my intention was to fire off a terse email then let me apologize for my improper tone for the hour was late and my general dismay was peaking.
You mentioned assumptions. At the outset let me state briefly what I presuppose. I believe the Bible to be God’s inerrant and inspired revelation of His world view. I believe He used fallible men to infallibly communicate His systematic rule for all of life. I believe that scripture is the supreme authority in interpreting scripture. For me any view of the Kingdom of God must necessarily come from every word of the King including the jot and the tittle. Scripture is limited by scripture only. In other words, let God’s word speak for itself. The Bible does not present but one opinion or world view. Therefore, my opinion and your opinion are totally subject to God’s opinion/world view on every subject thus allowing Christ to have supremacy in all things.
You asked, “Please start by explaining what you believe Jesus was telling us in Matthew 5:17-19”. O.K.
As we look at Matthew 5:17-19, we do so by keeping in mind that the Old Covenant expectation is that God will write his law on His people’s hearts (Jer. 31:33), not change the law. The newness of the New Covenant is not a new law, but a new power to fulfill the law (Rom. 8:4).
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
Do not think
“Do not think” is a prohibition in which the aorist tense gives the sense of “do not (begin to) think.” If the verb were in the present tense it would carry the idea, “stop thinking.” But Jesus did not want his hearers to even begin to entertain the idea that the Messiah came to abolish the law. Evidently He knew that those who opposed Him would attempt to distort His teaching on the law. He made a preemptive strike to put a stop to this before it could even start. A modern day paraphrase might read, “Don’t even go there.”
“To destroy” indicates that Jesus did not come to invalidate, repeal, or annul the will of His Father as expressed in the law. The word draws upon the vivid imagery of dismantling, destroying or pulling down a building. This is how the word is used in a literal and physical way in Matt. 24:2; 26:61; 27:40; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6: Acts 6:14; 2 Cor. 5:1; Gal 2:18. The legal (and thus figurative rather than physical) sense in which Jesus uses the word here is similar to the legal context of 2 Maccabees 2:22 which reads “…and restored the laws that were about to be abolished.” In relation to the law – in the legal context of the Sermon – we may understand “to destroy” in the sense of to abrogate or to abolish.
“The law” not only indicates the moral law but is inclusive of the ceremonial law as well. Nothing in the text indicates that only the moral law is in view here. Jesus did not come to abolish or abrogate any part of the law, including the ceremonial aspects. The heavenly pattern (Heb. 8:4-5; 9:23) of the ceremonial law with its rituals and ordinances foreshadows Christ’s redemptive work (Heb. 10:1). The validity of the ritual commands for the New Testament era is embodied in Christ. Jesus did not repeal but confirmed the ritualistic ordinances of the law by observing them in his life and ministry in a way that the Old Testament use of them only foreshadowed. While the moral law has permanent application for all time, the use of the ceremonial rituals is removed in the New Covenant because in Christ the ceremonial laws are observed once for all (Heb. 10:10). The (ceremonial) manner in which the moral law is observed has changed, while the law itself remains eternally valid.
“Prophets” used by itself may refer either to a division of the Old Testament Scriptures (Matt. 11:13; Luke 16:16; Acts 13:15; 24:14; Rom. 3:21) or to all of Scripture (Luke 24:25; John 6:45; Heb. 1:1). But since it is used here in conjunction with ton nomon (“the law”), it probably indicates all the rest of the books of the Old Testament other than the Pentateuch. This is also the case in Matt. 7:12 and 22:40. Jesus does not invalidate any of the Old Covenant Scriptures, especially as they relate to the ethical commands of God.
A common modern day misconception about the Old Testament prophets is that they focused primarily on predicting the future. In fact, while there are predictive prophecies, the primary mission of the Old Testament prophets was to call men and nations to obey the ethical commands of God. This helps to clarify that in Matthew 5:17 Jesus is not assuring his hearers that he won’t invalidate any Old Testament prophecy about Himself. Since no one expected the Messiah to abolish the Old Testament prophecies about Himself there is no reason for Jesus to declare that he won’t do that. Rather Jesus’ emphasis is upon the ethical demands of the Old Testament Scriptures, which is also the emphasis of the phrase “the law and the prophets” in Matthew 7:12 and 22:40.
“To fulfill” is the most important word in understanding Matthew 5:17-20. The previous phrases define what Jesus’ relationship to the law is not. This word tells us positively what his relationship to the law is. Here we learn what the purpose of Christ’s coming is in relation to the law. And what we understand that to be depends upon whether we take “to fulfill” to mean that Jesus ends, replaces, supplements, obeys, enforces or confirms the Old Testament law.
To put an end to the Law
In the immediate context of Matthew 5:17 it would be contradictory for Jesus to fulfill the law in the sense of putting an end to it. We have already seen Jesus declare that He has not come to abolish the law. Therefore, to understand “fulfill” as putting an end to the law would have Jesus saying, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law, but to put an end to it” – a rather blatant contradiction.
To replace the Law
Did Jesus replace the letter of the law with the spirit of the law? Did He replace responsibility for keeping the law with an emphasis on having a right attitude? Does He replace the Mosaic Law with a new law? That this is not the case is evident by noting that if the Mosaic Law is replaced, then it had only a temporarily legitimacy. But Jesus goes on in verse 18 to affirm the Law’s eternal validity. The old is not sacrificed to make way for the new; instead we understand that the seeds of the new are contained in the old, emphasizing the continuity between the new and the old.
To replace the old with the new would introduce a radical discontinuity. It would make some parts of God’s word more authoritative for today than other parts, requiring some authority other than God’s word to tell us which parts are relevant for today and which are not. This is Phariseeism. The Pharisees picked and choose which parts of God’s word where relevant for them and which weren’t and Jesus called them sons of their father the devil for doing it. They sat in judgment on God’s word, choosing to obey some parts while neglecting other parts for the sake of their tradition, prompting Jesus to declare, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, with leaving the others undone” (Matt. 23:23). Jesus called them to obey all of the law rather than selectively replace or neglect aspects of the law for the sake of their tradition.
A final problem with understanding “fulfill” as “to replace” is that nowhere in the New Testament or early Christian literature does plhrow ever have that meaning.
To supplement the Law
Does Jesus fulfill the law in the sense of supplementing or adding to it? Is the revelation of God’s law in the Old Testament incomplete so that Jesus must complete it? We may answer these questions in the negative on the grounds that Jesus certainly does not consider the Law of Moses imperfect since the Psalmist said that the law was “perfect” (Ps. 19:7; 119:128). It might be thought (wrongly), for example, that the Old Testament emphasized external obedience while the more perfect standard of the New Testament majors on internal obedience. This misconception is easily addressed by noting such passages as Psalm 51: “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom….Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within” (Ps. 51:6, 10). In another place David declared, “I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart.” (Ps. 40:8). If the Old Testament did not uphold the high demand of internal righteousness it would be unjust for Jesus to condemn the external righteousness of the Pharisees in Matthew 5:20. Jesus was not supplementing the Old Testament law, but bringing a better understanding of it. He did indeed emphasize the demand for inward obedience, but Matthew 5:17 is a reminder of, not a supplement to, what was already in the Old Testament.
To obey the Law
This understanding of “to fulfill” sees Jesus saying that he did not come to abolish the law but to personally obey it in His own life. While Jesus did come to do the will of His Father and keep the commandments (as John 17:4 teaches) this is not the point in Matthew 5:17. Here the context deals with Jesus’ teaching, not Jesus’ life. There are other words which Jesus or Matthew could have chosen if the idea of Jesus’ keeping of the law was the point here. In fact, one of these words is actually used in Matthew 5:19 where it means “to do the commandments” (also see Matt. 7:12; 12:50; John 4:34; Rom. 2:14; Heb. 10:7). Or the word could have been used as in Romans 2:25, for example, (where) it means “to practice the law.”
The object of “to fulfill” in the text is not any phrase describing the work that the Father gave Jesus to do; rather, the object is “the law and the prophets.” The emphasis is on Jesus’ teaching, not his life. Furthermore, the idea of keeping the law is usually expressed in the passive voice whereas “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 is in the active voice. This reinforces our conclusion that it is not Jesus’ own obedience to the law, but his interpretation of the law in the New Testament era which is the focus here.
To enforce the Law
Did Jesus come to enforce the law in the sense of giving his disciples a greater power of obedience? While Jesus certainly did come to do that, this is not the point of Matthew 5:17. Scripture elsewhere teaches (Jer. 31:33 and Rom. 8:4) that there is a greater power available in the New Covenant era to obey the law. And in the immediate context of Matthew 5:17 Jesus expresses how He wants people to see the good works of his disciples (Matt. 5:16) and to do and teach the commandments (Matt. 5:19). But notice that Matthew 5:19 begins with “therefore.” This links the doing of the commandments back to the previous teaching in verse 17 on fulfilling the law and in verse 18 which gives an explanation for fulfilling it. Verse 19 is therefore not concerned just with keeping the commandments in general but with keeping the least of the commandments in particular. So in verse 19 when Jesus does address the keeping of the law His emphasis is not on obedience in general but on the law in particular. There is something about the law itself that is the focus here, namely, that the Messiah’s view of the law is that it remains valid in all its detail in the New Covenant era. Matthew 5:21-48 further shows that Jesus is primarily concerned in the Sermon with removing distortions about the meaning of the law. The emphasis in verse 17 is not upon the disciples’ need to obey the law, but upon the law itself and upon Christ’s relationship to the law. But even if we grant that Jesus’ primary focus here is on getting the law obeyed better by his followers it still assumes the abiding validity of the law in all its detail, which is our next point.
To confirm the Law
This view sees Jesus as confirming, restoring, or reestablishing the original intent and purpose of the law which had been compromised by the traditions of men, i.e., independent human authority (dressed up as tradition) which adds to or subtracts from the word of God. Jesus, as the Word made flesh (John 1:17), embodied the whole revelation of God. Therefore his own teaching declares the full implications of the law of God as revealed in the Old Testament in contrast to the distortions of the law generated by the scribes and Pharisees. While the traditions of men soften the law and compromise it, Jesus’ teaching restores it back to the high and exacting standard that it actually is. Jesus does not invalidate, but validates the law because “the word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Peter 1:25).
Perhaps the best indicator that “to fulfill” carries the meaning “to confirm” or “to restore” is to note that it is used in antithesis to “to abolish”. That a strong antithesis is intended between “to fulfill” and “to abolish” is clear because the very strong adversative “but” is used. (Look at how “alla” is used to draw a strong contrast in Matthew 10:34.) Therefore whatever word stands in contrast to “abolish” must mean “not to abolish.” As we search for an appropriate word to best express this we need to keep in mind that in Matthew 5:17 Jesus is dealing with the issue of whether or not the law has abiding validity now that the Messianic era has begun. Therefore, the exact opposite of “to abolish” (in the sense of to cancel, invalidate, or repeal the law) is to establish, ratify, validate, and confirm.
Jesus did not come to establish the law, but to reestablish it in the face of distortions by the scribes and Pharisees (as the rest of Matthew 5 illustrates). Jesus came to confirm what had already been established. Past and present biblical scholars have understood “to fulfill” in the sense of “confirm.” The following quotes are cited to demonstrate that the understanding of “to fulfill” in the sense of “to confirm” is not a new and novel approach. Windisch says, “The Messiah declares that the law in all its parts is to retain its validity….Quite in accordance with Jewish expectations, he confirms the authority of the Torah.”  David Brown’s translation reads “but to establish them.”  Charles Spurgeon’s perspective of Matthew 5:17 is that “The law of God he established and confirmed…Our king has not come to abrogate the law, but to confirm and reassert it.”  Regarding the Sermon on the Mount, Ridderbos comments that “there is no antithesis, either, between the principles of the Law of Moses and the Sermon on the Mount. The latter does not abolish the former, but confirms it.”  John Murray’s view of the word translated “to fulfill” in Matthew 5:17 is that “Jesus refers to the function of validating and confirming the law and the prophets….” 
“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 (Matthew 5:18).
Matthew 5:18 gives the reason behind the teaching in verse 17 as evidenced by the connection made between verses 17 and 18 by the first word of verse 18, “for.” The word “assuredly” serves as a kind of exclamation mark at the beginning of the sentence, underscoring the importance of the point Jesus is making.
One jot or one tittle
A jot is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. A tittle may refer to a small pen stroke that distinguishes certain Hebrew letters from others. To paraphrase, Jesus is saying that not the smallest letter or even the smallest parts of a letter of the law can be invalidated by His Messianic appearance nor anything else. Jesus emphasizes that it is not just the law in general, but the law in is smallest details that remains valid until heaven and earth disappear. The details of the law are crucial for properly understanding the law in general.
Till heaven and earth pass away
Jesus does not invalidate the law because it remains valid until “heaven and earth pass away.” Jesus’ audience was probably familiar with language that links cosmic imagery and the law. A very impressive parallel to Matthew 5:18 exists in a statement by Philo, an ancient Jewish writer, in his On the Life of Moses; there he says that the Mosaic laws are “firm, unshakable, immovable…remain secure from the day when they were first enacted to now, and we may hope that they will remain for all future ages as though immortal, so long as the sun and moon and the whole heaven and universe exist…not even the smallest parts of the ordinances has been disturbed.” 
The phrase, “till heaven and earth pass away” is probably a way that the Jews of Jesus’ day spoke of the unchangeableness of God’s word. It is a colorful way of saying “never.” The sister spheres of “heaven and earth” make up the totality of the cosmic order and are the most stable created things that can be imagined. The parallel passage in Luke 16:17 makes the point that it would be easier for the cosmic order to pass away than it would be for the least detail of God’s word to pass away. Therefore, there is no reason to conclude that Jesus teaches anything here about the status of the law after the consummation of history. He uses an idiomatic phrase that strongly communicates that the law will never pass away during the present age. The word of God is more stable than the present universe. As long as it exists, the detailed ethical will of God is in force.
Other Scriptures employ imagery similar to Matthew 5:18. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:8). “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land of which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them like the days of the heavens above the earth” (Deut. 11:20-21).
By no means
The phrase, “by no means,” like the word “assuredly,” serves as a verbal exclamation mark. It is a strong double negative in the Greek. Jesus uses one of the strongest expressions possible to emphasize the importance of his teaching on the law.
Till all is fulfilled
Jesus, as the Word made flesh, affirms that the integrity of God’s revelation in Scripture depends upon affirming “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4). It is not merely the word of God in general but “every scripture” in particular that is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). In affirming that “all” of the law shall be fulfilled Jesus’ ethical teaching is not about vague principles but concerns the jot and tittle of the will of God as revealed in Scripture. Murray’s comments are to the point:
“Too often the person imbued with meticulous concern for the ordinances of God and conscientious regard for the minutiae of God’s commandments is judged as a legalist, while the person who is not bothered by details is judged to be the practical person who exemplifies the liberty of the gospel. Here Jesus is reminding us of the same great truth which he declares elsewhere: ‘He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much, and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much’ (Luke 16:10). The criterion of our standing in the kingdom of God and of reward in the age to come is nothing else than meticulous observance of the commandments of God in the minutial details of their prescription and the earnest inculcation of such observance on the part of others.” 
Biblical ethics concerns the exact details of the will of God, not just general principles that sum up the specifics. The specifics give God’s own interpretation of the general principles. Practically, if Scripture is not the final authority for interpreting Scripture, then any so-called Christian ethic is reduced in its relevancy and power to transform the surrounding culture. It will in time be conformed to the pattern of this world instead of transforming the world. By using this perspective to take a fresh look at church history we could learn much from the successes and failures of the church to disciple nations in the last two thousand years.
Jesus’ emphasis on fulfilling the detail of God’s law is what the Scripture leads us to expect of the Messiah. His teaching in Matthew 5:18 is in accord with the Old Testament Scriptures. The Lord told Moses that the Messiah would have God’s very words in his mouth: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (Deut. 18:18). The instruction of Scripture about the law, which we would expect the Messiah to surely fulfill, is that “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord Your God which I command you” (Deut. 4:2).
The call to obey all of God’s word and eternal quality of His word are touched on in additional passages: “Observe and obey all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God” (Deut. 12:28). “All His precepts are sure. They stand fast forever and ever, and are done in truth and uprightness” (Psalm 111:7-8). “The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever” (Psalm 119:160).
While we have only looked at Matthew 5:17-18, we can already see that Jesus’ attitude toward the law is in accord with the Psalmist who said, “The entirety of Your word is truth, And every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever” (Psalm 119:160).
You may have heard it said that if Jesus is not Lord of all then He is not Lord at all. In similar fashion, if the entirety of God’s word is not relevant for today (and forever), then none of God’s word is relevant for today. When even one jot or tittle of God’s word is regarded as irrelevant for today, then an authority other than Scripture itself is introduced into the situation. If God’s word is not relevant over all then it is not relevant at all. By what authority does a scribe, a Pharisee or any modern day Christian or Christian movement declare that even one jot or tittle of the word of God is not applicable today?
Any and all impotence that might exist in the church to transform a culture can be traced back to the insertion of some other authority (over and above God’s own word) that declares even one jot or tittle of God’s word as not applicable for today. Anything less that presenting to the nations “the entirety of Your word” presents a warped and sterile gospel. It presents the word of God as something less than a comprehensive world view that demands nothing less than the transformation of every area of thought and life.
To successfully demolish Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Materialistic strongholds we must present a superior alternative to these non-biblical world views. And there is only one superior alternative: “the entirety of Your word.” Here is the importance of Matthew 5:17-18 to mission theory and practice. Only the entirety of God’s word presents God’s world view. Anything less presents some human version of God’s world view which in the end is nothing else but man’s own world view, no matter how close it counterfeits the original. It is God’s world view in its entirety, with every jot and tittle intact, that we are commissioned to take to the nations (Matt. 28:20). To “add to the word which I command you” or to “take from it” is to play God and to tamper with the word of God like the scribes and Pharisees who Jesus came so strongly against.
A loose end from Matthew 5:18
A question came up about whether or not the word “fulfill” at the end of verse 18 is the same word (in the Greek) as the word translated “fulfill” at the end of verse 17. Since we spent so much time looking at the meaning of the word “fulfill” in verse 17, this is a good question.
And the answer is “no,” the words are not the same. The translation of genhtai in verse 18 as “fulfill” is misleading since a completely different word (plhrow) in verse 17 is already translated “fulfill.” A better translation of “till all is fulfilled” (NKJV) would be “till everything comes to pass.” The misleading translation, “till all is fulfilled,” makes it appear that “all” (panta) refers to the commandments of the law. But this can’t be the case since “law” (nomos) is masculine while “all” (panta) is neuter. Furthermore, to understand this phrase as referring to the law (and the prophets) would have Jesus speaking a trivial tautology, i.e., “the law and the prophets will not pass away until they pass away.”
We may understand “till everything comes to pass” as a parallel clause to “till heaven and earth pass away.” Both phrases begin with the word “till.” Both phrases explain each other. Parallel restatement is another common literary devise for bringing emphasis. We’ve already seen Jesus bringing strong emphasis in these verses through the use of the word “assuredly” (amhn), his reference to the jot and the tittle, and the use of a double negative. Thus, Jesus is saying that until heaven and earth pass away, (i.e.) until everything comes to pass, not one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law. He again emphasizes in another way at the end of verse 18 that the entirety of the law as a systematic whole shall abide in all of its detail without the reduction of any part in the New Testament era. Every jot and tittle of the law is applicable to this present age in between the first and second comings of Christ.
Now let us move on.
“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 (Matthew 5:19-20).
The word “therefore” at the beginning of verse 19 shows that something is about to be said that will help us to better understand the implications of what was just taught in verses 17-18.
In the kingdom
Jesus is speaking about those who are already “in the kingdom,” not to those who still need to come into the kingdom. For those already in the kingdom Jesus says that one’s standing is tied to one’s attention to the details of God’s revealed will in the law. The law is not the power of salvation but the pattern of sanctification. Careful observance of the smallest details of the law are expected of those already in the kingdom while “the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” (v. 20) has nothing to do with the kingdom whatsoever. As we shall see in the remainder of Matthew 5, the Pharisees were not concerned with the detail of the law, but with human traditions and external obedience. Jesus attacks their lawless legalism. They picked and choose which of the details of God’s law they would obey and which ones they would ignore (Matt. 23:23). In doing so they set themselves up as authorities over God’s word. Their autonomy, their lawlessness (i.e., sin) was cloaked in the appearance of righteousness. In other words, they where hypocrites. They totally missed what righteousness in the kingdom is all about. The law is all about grace, not works.
Matthew 5:19 affirms our interpretation of Matthew 5:17-18, namely, that Jesus upholds or confirms the entire Old Testament law as valid for the New Testament era. If this is not what he was teaching in verses 17-18, then how could he teach in verse 19 that, for those already in the kingdom, obedience to the very jot and tittle of the law leads to exaltation while to neglect the details of the law leads to demotion?
Jesus is not opposed to the Mosaic Law but to the legalistic religion that the Pharisees had created by misusing it. Jesus denounces the Pharisees in verse 20, not the law. He opposes the oral tradition of the Pharisees, not the written law of God (i.e., the “jot and tittle”). He corrects the misspoken word of man, not the written word of God. The law was not imperfect; rather, the Pharisees were sinners in desperate need of repentance. The only cure for the legalism of men is the law of God, obeyed in how God intends and in the way he intends. And to know the “way” of God requires nothing less than our attention to the least of the commandments, i.e., the jot and tittle. The scribes and Pharisees perverted the law of God into a legalistic system of works-righteousness by neglecting the jot and the tittle of God’s law. Their approach to the law excluded people from the kingdom. (The Muslim world largely regards Christianity as an inferior religion for this reason.) Therefore, Jesus said that in order to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees (or the Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Materialists!) it is necessary to teach and to practice all the details of God’s law as revealed in the Scripture. Jesus repudiates the externalistic interpretations of the Pharisees and their perverted system of justification by obeying the law.
“I could equally instruct you to meditate on Romans 6:14”
Paul says, “You are not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). This verse is often misinterpreted to mean that the Law is opposed to grace. It is true that grace and works are opposed to each other as ways of justification. But for fallen man the law has never been an instrument of justification, only condemnation. Salvation is by grace alone, and this is what this verse teaches. We are no longer under the condemnation of law because of our sin, but we are under the grace of God because of Christ’s righteousness. To be under law is to be under legalism as the way of salvation, which is impossible for sinful man and always leads to condemnation. Those under law are slaves to sin. But we are under grace in the sense that in Christ we are no longer “slaves to sin” (Rom. 6:6), but now “slaves to righteousness” (Rom. 6:18) and “slaves to God” (Rom. 6:22).
“and how His words apply to Reconstructionist Theology”.
God’s word is applicable with equal weight to any theology.
Grace to you, Jim
1. Hans Windisch, The Meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, 2nd ed., trans. S. MacLean Gilour (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1951), 125 (emphasis added).
2. David Brown, The Four Gospels: A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1864 ), 30 (emphasis added).
3. Charles H. Spurgeon, The Gospel of the Kingdom: A Popular Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1983), 25 (emphasis added).
4. Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, trans H. de Jongste, ed. Raymond O. Zorn (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1962 ), 42 (emphasis added).
5. John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 150 (emphasis added).
6. The Biblical Antiquites of Philo, trans. M. R. James, The Library of Biblical Studies, ed. Marry M. Orlinsky (New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1917 , II. 14-15.
7. Murray, Principles of Conduct, 154.
To which I replied: Thank you for continuing the conversation. In my position, publicly proclaiming the gospel of free and sovereign grace, I certainly get my share of detractors and “corrective” emails. I don’t think most of them expect a reply, but I don’t like to just let people’s assumptions go unquestioned. So, I invite them to defend what they’ve said, but very few ever do. As I’m certain you know, it’s easier to bark and run than to have to stand your ground. So, you’re a rare breed. You stood your ground. Good for you.
Now, to dig into the meat of your reply, I assume that the bulk of it is pasted from an article that you or someone else wrote prior to our recent exchange. I gather that from the footnotes (a rarity in most emails), the change in format between your interjections and the body of the article, and the phrase “A question came up about whether or not …” which certainly indicates that this was part of a previous conversation. I’m not saying that this is good or bad, it’s just rather impersonal. I don’t know if you personally hold these positions or have simply co-opted them for sake of our discussion. So, I will reply to the primary assertions of the article and assume that in so doing I am replying to you.
But first, we need to take a quick excursion into fundamental hermeneutical principles. Please pardon me if I sound pedantic. It is certainly not my intent. I just like to be plain.
Hermeneutical principle number one is simply this: it is an error to assume that everything ever spoken by Jesus is automatically and necessarily applicable to the New Covenant Church. We must remember that Jesus spent the entirety of His ministry among Israelites – and specifically Jews – who were indeed under the legal Mosaic Covenant. Being the very people who were the recipients of the Sinai Covenant, it is not surprising to find Jesus condemning their failure to perform it.
But, historically speaking – and this is vital in order to establish a consistent hermeneutic – the Gentile nations of the world were not at Mt. Sinai. They were not participants in the Covenant of Law. Only God’s chosen people, the House of Israel and the House of Judah, were required to follow the dictates of God’s commands.
Likewise, in both accounts of the New Covenant (in Jeremiah 31 & Hebrews 8), the very same recipients are designated “the house of Israel” and “the house of Judah.” Whatever else we say about either the New or Old Covenants, we cannot deny that both the Old Testament (pre-Calvary) and the New Testament (post Calvary) are very clear about the intended participants. Yes, Gentiles were brought into the Covenant, but they are not the original recipients.
So, that being said, when did the New Covenant go into effect? The answer is: when Jesus died and raised again. The book of Hebrews tell us –
“And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth.” (Heb 9:15-17)
50 days later, at Pentecost, the promised Holy Spirit descended and took up residence in individual people, a historic first. And, the New Covenant Church was effectively born. Gentiles were introduced into the New Covenant Church soon after that.
The fledgling Church suffered divisions and no small amount of contention between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers. Whereas Peter, John and James became the elders of the Jerusalem church, God chose Saul of Tarsus and ordained him to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
“But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; (For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen (Gentiles), and they unto the circumcision.” (Gal. 2:7-9)
So, in order to develop a theology appropriate for the 21st Century Christian Church, our primary doctrinal foundations must come from the Pauline epistles. And of course, Paul had a great deal to say about the relationship between the Gentiles and the Law they were never party to.
But, more to the point, it is a grave error to lift things Jesus said to Pharisees and impose them on the Gentile church, which was not the original audience of His correction or rebuke – and indeed did not even exist at the time.
For instance, many preachers attempt to impose legalistic tithing on the Church by quoting Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in Matthew 23.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matt 23:23)
From that bit of condemnation, the tithing advocates will conclude, “When it comes to tithing, Jesus said you out to do it!” Of course, the problem is that Jesus was not speaking to the Church when He said those words. He was speaking to Pharisees, who He condemned with most vicious language throughout that chapter. To lift His words from that context and impose them on the Church in order to enforce a legalistic response is not only exegetically chaotic, it’s just plain wrong.
Likewise, much of the article you sent me errs in the exact same manner. It makes no distinction whatsoever between Jesus’ intended audience and the Church at large. We cannot mix-and-match His words in such a cavalier fashion without resulting in confusion.
Hermeneutical point two is: This article falls into (and is heavily reliant on) a very widespread, oft-repeated trap. The overarching assumption here is that in Matthew 5 Jesus was correcting the traditions and faulty understanding of the Law that had developed among the Jewish leaders. Here are a few quotes from your article that make that point (the underlining is mine, for emphasis) –
It might be thought (wrongly), for example, that the Old Testament emphasized external obedience while the more perfect standard of the New Testament majors on internal obedience. … Jesus was not supplementing the Old Testament law, but bringing a better understanding of it. He did indeed emphasize the demand for inward obedience, but Matthew 5:17 is a reminder of, not a supplement to, what was already in the Old Testament.
This view [that Jesus came “to confirm the law”] sees Jesus as confirming, restoring, or reestablishing the original intent and purpose of the law which had been compromised by the traditions of men, i.e., independent human authority (dressed up as tradition) which adds to or subtracts from the word of God. Jesus, as the Word made flesh (John 1:17), embodied the whole revelation of God. Therefore his own teaching declares the full implications of the law of God as revealed in the Old Testament in contrast to the distortions of the law generated by the scribes and Pharisees. While the traditions of men soften the law and compromise it, Jesus’ teaching restores it back to the high and exacting standard that it actually is. Jesus does not invalidate, but validates the law because “the word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Peter 1:25).
Perhaps the best indicator that “to fulfill” carries the meaning “to confirm” or “to restore” is to note that it is used in antithesis to “to abolish.” That a strong antithesis is intended between “to fulfill” and “to abolish” is clear because the very strong adversative “but” is used … As we search for an appropriate word to best express this we need to keep in mind that in Matthew 5:17 Jesus is dealing with the issue of whether or not the law has abiding validity now that the Messianic era has begun. Therefore, the exact opposite of “to abolish” (in the sense of to cancel, invalidate, or repeal the law) is to establish, ratify, validate, and confirm.
Jesus did not come to establish the law, but to reestablish it in the face of distortions by the scribes and Pharisees (as the rest of Matthew 5 illustrates). Jesus came to confirm what had already been established … Jesus is not opposed to the Mosaic Law but to the legalistic religion that the Pharisees had created by misusing it. Jesus denounces the Pharisees in verse 20, not the law. He opposes the oral tradition of the Pharisees, not the written law of God (i.e., the “jot and tittle”). He corrects the misspoken word of man, not the written word of God.
Now, for clarity’s sake, I’m going to summarize these statements. The assumption that lies at the heart of this article is that Jesus was not creating a “new law,” nor was He in any way abrogating or doing away with the Law of Moses. Rather, the primary purpose of His discourse in Matthew 5 was to correct the errors and traditions that the Pharisees had imported into their interpretation of the Law. Jesus was cutting through their strictly material, physical law-keeping and exposing the deeper, spiritual meaning that had always been part and parcel of the Law Covenant. In other words, Jesus was merely pointing out what was already there in the Old Testament, which things the Pharisees should have known and understood.
I think that’s a fair summation of the position, which as I mentioned is championed far and wide by folk who are zealous to defend the ongoing function and necessity of the Law among the New Covenant Christian Church.
But, there’s a problem with that view. And, it’s a fatal flaw. Jesus’ words simply cannot bear out that interpretation. The article claims that “the rest of Matthew 5 illustrates” that Jesus was reestablishing the lasting validity of the law and confirming “what had already been established.” So, let’s put that challenge to the test and see if the balance of Matthew 5 actually establishes those propositions.
First, a question: If one person asserts that the sun is hot, and a second person asserts that is cold, did the second person in any way affirm, reestablish or even continue to uphold what the first person said? No, of course not. The second person spoke the exact opposite of the first. Therefore, there is tension between them. There is discontinuity. Only one of the two can be correct, because they are mutually exclusive.
So, if it can be shown that in Matthew 5, Jesus states the exact opposite of what had always been said, then we simply cannot conclude that He was in any way confirming “what had already been established.” It’s axiomatic.
And, that’s exactly what we find in the text. So, let’s look at it.
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Mat. 5:21-22)
At this point, Jesus creates a method of comparison that He will follow through each of His examples. The comparison is between:
“You have heard that it was said…”
“But I say unto you…”
Your article helps me make this point, where it reads: “That a strong antithesis is intended between “to fulfill” and “to abolish” is clear because the very strong adversative “but” is used. (Look at how “alla” is used to draw a strong contrast in Matthew 10:34.)”
That is precisely right. Jesus contrasted “to fulfill” and “to abolish” in the very same manner in which he contrasted:
“You have heard it was said…”
“But, I say unto you…”
Now, in this first instance, Jesus compared “Thou shalt not kill” with “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” The assumption is that Jesus was broadening the Jews’ understanding of God’s original intent when commanding them not to kill. In other words, there was more to that commandment than simply “not killing.” Anger or hatred without a cause is tantamount to murder.
Now, the original command merely instructed Israel not to kill. They (and we, I might add) could hav stared at that command, repeated it, taught it, and acted on it our whole lives and we would never have concluded that the words “thou shalt not kill” actually meant “don’t be angry at your brother without a cause.” There is nothing in the original command to lead to that conclusion. What Jesus gave the Pharisees what not simply an interpretation that they should have understood. It was new information. It was a new development.
Now, granted, the typical supporter of the “continuity” theology will disagree. He will likely argue that murder stems from hatred, so Jesus was getting at the “root cause,” so to speak. While the specific language of hatred was not in the original command, it could certainly have been deduced. Okay, fair enough. If Jesus had left it at that, you would have a reasonable argument. But, there’s much more to this. The next contrast Jesus posed was this –
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Mat. 5:27-28)
Once again, in order to keep the original commandment, all that was required was sexual purity; just don’t engage in adulterous acts. That was all that the seventh commandment said to do. But, Jesus contrasted what they had always heard with His saying. “But I say unto you.” And, He told them something they would never have assumed from the original command. Looking on a woman in a lustful manner was equal with actually committing the act.
Again, you can stare at the command “Thou shalt not commit adultery” all you life and you would never conclude that those words actually mean “Looking at a woman lustfully is just as bad.” There is nothing in the language of the command, or in the whole of the Pentateuch, to lead you to that conclusion. Yet, Jesus stated it matter-of-factly.
So, one of two things is true. Either the second half of these equations should have been logically deduced and concluded from the original commands, or Jesus was actually adding new information that was beyond the scope of the original commands. The answer is about to become glaringly obvious.
For sake of time, I will pass over Jesus’ next two contrasts, concerning divorce and swearing oaths because my argument would be substantially the same. In each case, Jesus “raises the bar” by adding information that simply could not be deduced from the original language. But, then things get shockingly different. Jesus follows up with his fifth contrast:
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mat. 5:38-39)
I’m sorry, but there is simply no way to conclude that this comment is just an example of Jesus confirming “what had already been established.” Jesus did not clarify or expand on the original notion whatsoever. In fact, He stated just the opposite. His contrast was between what Moses said – “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – and what He Himself now declared – “turn the other cheek.”
The sun is hot. The sun is cold.
And, what a confused, capricious God we have if He is willing to state things like “an eye for an eye,” all the while expecting His followers to understand that what He meant by those words is “whosoever shall smite thee on they right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
No, there is simply no way, if words mean anything at all, to conclude otherwise. Jesus was not establishing the Law of Moses. He was declaring a new, better, higher, qualitatively different standard.
Again, we could stare at the words “an eye for an eye” for the rest of our lives, and no honest, thoughtful reader would ever have concluded that those words mean what Jesus said. It’s beyond human comprehension to draw that conclusion.
At the risk of being redundant, but for clarity and emphasis, I repeat: Jesus did not reestablish Moses’ Law. He stood in direct opposition to it when He said, “But I say unto you…”
Jesus went on in Matthew 5 to say that the Jews (who were very dependent on their cloak) should be willing to give both it and their coat to a man who sues them. If a man compelled them to walk one mile, they should walk two. Go the extra mile. They were to give to everyone who asked.
But, not a one of those points could have been deduced from the words “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It’s brand new, decidedly different information.
To drive the point home and nail it down firmly, Jesus concluded:
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” (Mat. 5:43-44)
Same deal. There is absolutely no way that the ancient principles of loyalty to brethren (Israelites) and hatred of their enemies (Philistines, Hivites, Jebusites, Samaritans, etc.) could have been interpreted by the Pharisees to actually mean “love your enemies.” The two concepts are directly antithetical. Jesus did not expect them to come to that conclusion. He was not holding them responsible for not knowing it. He was not reestablishing the Law; He was contrasting it with His own new declarations.
You can hear “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” until the cows come home. But, you will never conclude that what was meant by those words was “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” It was brand new information.
Now, that being the case, this comment from your article is particularly frustrating:
“But Jesus goes on in verse 18 to affirm the Law’s eternal validity. The old is not sacrificed to make way for the new; instead we understand that the seeds of the new are contained in the old, emphasizing the continuity between the new and the old.”
If Jesus demonstrated anything in Matthew 5 concerning the Law, it was the absolute discontinuity between what they had always heard and what He was now saying. His declarations stood in absolute opposition to what the Law said, and there is simply no way to make Jesus’ statement confirm, reestablish or merely interpret the Law. He stood in direct contradiction to what they had always heard and understood.
Because He was the new Lawgiver, bringing news of His higher, better standard to go along with His higher, better covenant.
Alright, I’ll rest there for now. That’s a hefty first chunk to bite off. I think you can see the implications of this. If it is true that Jesus did not actually confirm or establish the words of Moses, then the bulk of the article you sent comes apart. And, verses 17-19 must be understood in light of this information.
But, there’s much more to say. We haven’t begun to define the New and Old Covenant distinctions, or the Pauline theology growing out of it. Nor have we addressed the mixing and matching of Old and New Covenant concepts that is so rampant in these types of articles.
We can discuss these things if you’d like. We could walk, one by one, through such passages as:
“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” (Col 2:13-14)
“Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband.
Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.” (Gal 4:21-31)
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death [i.e. The Law of Moses]. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:1-4)
I think the lines are clearly drawn, at this point. We can proceed however you see fit.
Yours for His sake,
The final response read: Dear Jim,
Thank you for continuing the discussion. I wanted to send a quick reply of thanks and I will be looking forward to responding in a more personal way. I apologize again, but just know that my interest is to exchange the best ideas in the best form possible.
Again, the time you have taken is greatly appreciated. It’s unfortunate that the motives of many are so much less than a true concern for the Kingdom of God.
May God bless you today, Jim. Talk with you soon.
We will bring you updates as they develop.