Session #036 Just Love Law
Scripture Matthew 5:17-20
Summary What did Jesus mean when He said that He came to fulfil the Law? Many have taken Matt 5:17-20 to say that the Law is no longer applicable to Christians. And especially for Gentile believers, all that is required is love. In this teaching, Henson addresses common misunderstandings and explains how the Law of Christ and the Love of Christ are both complementary and relevant for today.
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 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. 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 5:17–20
This is a very important passage about the Law which is key to understanding the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. There are various interpretations that have led to erroneous presumptions which need to be addressed.
The Law of the Messiah (the Law of Christ)
It has already been established that salt and light are to influence through good works. Jesus warns us that we are not to presume as He tells the people, “Do not think” at the beginning of the passage. Jesus is both the Lawmaker and the Lawgiver who gave the Law on Mount Sinai. Jesus as the New Moses and the Messiah, the Christ, upholds the Law.
The Eternal Establishment of the Law and the Prophets
Hebrew Scriptures (tanakh) consist of three elements, Torah (law), Nevi’im (prophets), and Ketuvim (writings).
The Law (torah) is not merely the law given to Moses, but God’s law in its widest sense. It can be in the form of Testimonies (edoth) where commands of God that bear witness to His character and attest to His will. Judgments (mishpatim) are judicial pronouncements by act or word against specific lines of conduct within society. The Law can be represented as Statutes (khuqqim) which are ordinances, things are written by God but do not pertain directly to the law. God’s Word (dabar or debarim) are His actual spoken utterances that are to be kept as Law as well. Precepts (piqqudim) are instructions given to humanity to direct their conduct and in a broader sense can be known as Commandments (mitsroth). A Promise (imrah) is a variant of dabar which extends to all of God’s utterances. Finally, Way or Ways (darek or derakim) are prescribed lines of conduct. The LAW is divided into three types of law known as Ceremonial Law, Moral Law and Civil Law.
Essentially the Law is a revelation of God, who He is and what He stands for. Since God is unchanging and consistent, then His Word is the same. God’s Word will stand until heaven and earth pass away. The smallest Greek letter (iota) or Hebrew letter (yodh) to the smallest dash or mark, everything will be fulfilled. Nothing will be missed.
Heaven and Earth are both still here, so the Law and the Prophets stand as stated in Isaiah 40:8. In Psalm 119:89 “Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in heaven” which is echoed in 2 Timothy 3:16–17. Heaven and Earth are both made and preserved by the Word as described in 2 Peter 3:5, 7. The Law remains relevant until this pass away.
The Importance of Right Interpretation
Jesus did not come to destroy or abolish but to fulfil the Law.
In the traditional understanding, Jesus kept the Law perfectly (Note: not completely), fulfilled the Old Testament messianic types and prophecies, and provided a way of salvation that meets the righteous requirements of the law. Jesus is the Substitute, Sacrifice, Satisfaction (Note: We tend to generalize this to mean that since Jesus fulfilled the Law, we do not have to do anything. Nothing is required of us.)
In Rabbinic understanding, looking at a Jewish rabbinic idiom, to fulfil is “to correctly interpret the Law that one may rightly obey it” and to abolish is “to misinterpret it”, to miss the big picture, and thus to apply it wrongly.
Jesus was not against the Pharisee than He was of their interpretation of the Law.
Jesus expects the Law to be kept. Whoever breaks and causes others to do the same will be the least in the kingdom. Whoever keeps and teaches others to do the same will be great in the kingdom. Everything hinges on interpretation, and who better to offer what was intended than the Lawmaker and Lawgiver Himself. Greatness in the kingdom is dependent upon the right obedience to the Law of the kingdom.
The Righteousness of the Pharisees
Because of how Pharisees have been presented, we automatically presume that Jesus was condemning them but in fact, He was speaking in support of them. Not all Pharisees are the same. There were good Pharisees just as there were bad ones, as there are those who sit in Moses’ seat (Matthew 23:2-3).
The Pharisees intended to live right. They were not working for salvation but from salvation.
Our tendency is to presume “works righteousness” of the Pharisees but Jews regard themselves as saved, the elect or chosen ones. They have high regard for God’s Law and were sincerely trying to live out God’s laws to please Him. They knew the consequences of breaking God’s laws, and being taken out of the land. They erected “fences” to protect people from breaking the Law. They meant well but they got it all wrong.
The Pharisees added more and more laws, became rigid and legalistic over time. The Law became condemning, burdensome and difficult to obey. As no one could keep the law, they could not either, and they did not, they became known to be hypocrites, filled with power and greed (Matthew 23:3). There was a personal and political agenda as well. It appeared to be for God, but was in reality for themselves, money, power and position. There was an outward display, where they appeared righteous, but inwardly, their motivation was questionable. Although they kept the Law, they did not reflect the God that the Law was supposed to reflect (Romans 7:12,14).
When their interpretation is right, Jesus says that we are to exceed their righteousness. Where they got it wrong (misinterpretation), we must be aware and not commit the same error.
Exceeding Righteousness: A Condition for Entering the Kingdom
In rightly interpreting His Law, Jesus did not make it easier but even more challenging.
There were two Rabbinic schools, Hillel which had a strict approach, and Shammai, engaging a gentle and moderate approach. Their disciples would debate the interpretations. For example, Hillel: “Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.” Jesus flips it around, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12).
We are satisfied with the minimum but Jesus wants us to go for the maximum. For example, as long as I do not commit adultery, it is ok to lust; or as long as I do not kill, it is ok to be angry.
We look at the method but Jesus looks at the motivation. We need to start with the small issues, identify the root, and nip it in the bud. Sin crouches at the door of the heart. Do not give it an opportunity or foothold. Deal with it quickly. Hence, the provision of six examples “You have heard that it was said to those of old … but I say to you …”
Our dependence is on our flesh but we can only exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees by His Spirit. Jesus tells Nicodemus, a righteous Pharisee seeking answers. Spiritual birth is needed to see and enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5). When we are regenerated by the Spirit, it is a new birth, a new covenant where God’s laws are written upon a new heart as mentioned in Ezekiel 36:26-27 and Jeremiah 31:33. External keeping of the law is commendable but not enough if the heart within was not transformed. Physical circumcision of the flesh amounts to nothing if the heart was not circumcised in spirit (Romans 2:28-29).
The Levitical priesthood was glorious but not perfect (2 Corinthians 3:9 and Hebrews 7:5). Thus, there is a need for a change of priesthood which means a change of law (Hebrews 7:11-12). We moved from the flesh to the spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18) which is achieved by grace through faith. Righteousness is imputed as the Holy Spirit enables us.
The Spirit’s work is not only evangelistic but also enabling towards the eschatological entrance into the kingdom. It’s not just salvation, but also obedience. Works are the evidence of salvation. We do not do activities, but assignments as in accordance to the Father’s will (Matthew 7:21–23 and Matthew 21:28–32).
Eschatological entrance is now and not yet of the kingdom. We are people of the kingdom and we belong to God’s kingdom but when the Bible speaks of a time when we will enter and inherit the kingdom which is yet to happen.
Is the (moral) Law Applicable to Gentile Believers of Yeshua?
There is a similar concern in Acts 15:6-29 which is known as the Jerusalem Council. Some held that for Gentiles to be saved, they had to be circumcised and to keep the entire law, then they can be considered as God’s people. The Council decided that Gentiles should not need circumcision since they are already God’s people by the Spirit, by faith which is also echoed in Galatians 3:2-5. The Gentiles are to observe only four abstinence of things, items polluted by idols, sexual immorality, things strangled and from blood. Later these are categorized as idolatry, sexual immorality and murder.
The Key Principle of the Torah
There are 613 commandments in which the rabbis were always seeking the key principle of the Torah. Micah had summarized it to 3 points, act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before your God in Micah 6:8. Isaiah had summarized it to 2 points, maintain justice and do what is right (Isaiah 56:1), Amos and Habakkuk to 1 point, “Seek Me and live” (Amos 5:6). The righteous will live by their faith (Habakkuk 2:4).
In Matthew 22:34-40, Rabbi Jesus was asked which is the great commandment? To which He quoted from Deuteronomy 6:5 to love God with all your heart and Leviticus 19:18, to love your neighbour as yourself. Paul nailed it with One Word: Love. Love is the fulfilment of the law Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:14. Love is the supreme interpretation of the Torah which fully reveals God, for God is love (1 John 4:10-12).
A Present-Day Conundrum: What is Love?
To many people, Love is an emotion, feeling, sensual, erotic, sex, experiential, passion, vibes, temperament which is inconsistent, unpredictable.
Biblically, the Greek word, agape, is an act of will, a decision to act for the good and welfare of another. It is not based on mushy feelings or emotions.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:4–8).
But how does one know what is good or not good? In a society where good is called evil, and evil as good, whose voice do we listen to, and whose standard do we hold to? In a world where love has been redefined, how can we understand the love of Christ and how it is to be expressed in a relationship with one another?
The Law of Christ
In guiding the Gentile churches, Paul drew from his own training as a Pharisee and understanding of the Law and Prophets over and over again. Paul warned against Judaizers who required circumcision, not the moral law. He knew righteousness did not come from him keeping the Law but from Christ. But that did not mean that the Law need not be kept anymore.
The Law of Christ interpreted with and through the Love of Christ reveals the heart of the King and the righteousness of His kingdom. This exceeds every human and feeble attempt at righteousness. This exceeds every interpretation, however, good intentions may be. It far exceeds our understanding of being a good person.
Love and Law in complementary action in the Sermon on the Mount. Love seeks reconciliation. Love deals with root issues. Love honours. Love goes beyond what is required. Love does not draw attention to self. Love acts for another’s good. Love calls out evil and wrong. Love warns. Love disciplines. Love obeys.
We need to stop seeing the Law as bad. It’s good, just, and holy. If the Law is so bad and terrible, why would the psalmists declare their love for it? In Psalm 119:140, law is described as pure and as servants who love it. Psalm 119:47–48 illustrates how they delight and meditate on the commandments. Therefore I love Your commandments More than gold, yes, than fine gold, (Psalm 119:127).
Jesus upholds the moral law of God, He is King and this is His Law, the Law of Christ. The Law does not make us righteous, showing us that righteousness is beyond us. By faith counted as righteousness for all of us imputed with His Righteousness, in that we exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. We are made righteous so that we can do the works of righteousness and in that the righteousness of the Pharisees is exceeded when we act in Love. Our definition of Love is guided by the moral law for the law is a revelation of God, and God is Love. Love is the fulfilment of the Law.