Jesus and the Law: An Ancient Text in a Postmodern Context In looking at Jesus and the law we must acknowledge that Jesus is the fulfillment of the old covenant. Every theme in the Old Testament points forward towards Jesus. The law is the character of God written in a language which human beings can understand. The law was given to show us the holiness of God and to demonstrate man’s imperfection.
The entire reason for the law was so that we would understand that through our own efforts and abilities, we can never reach God’s level of holiness, and as such, we would eternally remain damned. But God, gave us the law so that through our continuous failure we would see the light of the truth, which is Jesus Christ. When we willingly acknowledge this ultimate truth, we will recognize that the only way we can ever, possibly, enter the Kingdom of Heaven is by the mercy and grace of our God. It is because of God’s mercy and grace that he decided to send his Son to die in our stead, so that through his death and resurrection we might find eternal life. It is only through Jesus Christ as the slain Lamb of God, risen and interceding for mankind, that we can ever touch the heart of God.
God’s plan began in Eden with the fall of man and every act of God was directed towards this end; that Jesus would come to earth to die as our perfect and permanent sin sacrifice. Jesus came in fulfillment of the prophetic foreshadowing presented in the Old Testament. So if we are to choose one scripture to study regarding Jesus and the law we can safely and aptly choose Matthew, chapter 5 and versus 17-48; the Sermon on the Mount. In this passage we shall examine four aspects, relating to Jesus and the law, which are; Jesus proclaims the law; Jesus’ interpretation of the law; Jesus’ fulfillment of the law; and Jesus and the law today. Jesus Proclaims the Law
To understand the scripture found in Matthew we must recognize that in this time and in this place Jesus was speaking to the people during the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was teaching the law of the old covenant because he had not died yet, and so the new covenant was not yet in practice. “The statues [of the law] are grounded in God’s work in creation and they serve God’s relational purposes of life, stability, and the well-being of individuals and communities” (Fretheim, 163). The primary message that Jesus was communicating can be understood in one verse, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (New Revised Standard Version, Matt 5:49). He was teaching the law of the Torah; the law of God.
The law demanded perfection, and Jesus was certainly encouraging people to pursue perfection. Jesus pursued this same perfection and was not without temptation. He was flesh and blood. Jesus was a human being with all of our frailties, needs, and desires. He was as much a human as any human being on earth. He suffered persecution and trouble as is evident in his words “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely” (Matt 5:11). Jesus knew how it felt to be persecuted. He was not without compassion for mankind. Yet, He knew that perfection could only be found in practicing obedience to the law, which is why He went willingly to the cross.
Brueggemann writes “The Torah is not God, for in our obedience and disobedience this is a God; so near. But God is not God without Torah, and if we would know God, it comes by way of obedience” (115). Jesus came in fulfillment of the law, and He was obedient to the law of His Father. He became our example of righteous, selfless, obedient love for God. Jesus was the fulfillment of the law, lived in obedience to the law and taught obedience to the law. He knew that in order for us to touch the heart of God, or even diligently stretch out our imperfect fingertips toward God, we must be obedient to the Law. Jesus’ Interpretation of the Law
Jesus spent a great deal of His time interpreting the law for us. During the Sermon on the Mount Jesus proclaimed that people should put on God’s holiness. He taught the people of the very character of God. Jesus taught the law as the covenant between God and man and as the way to God. Jesus does not interpret the law as the Pharisees did which sought to enslave the people within a heavy yoke, which they were always unable to bear. The people thought to live under the law were simply struck down by the taskmaster’s lash. But here in Matthew, Jesus taught of love, and of forgiveness, which transcends the law.
The Pharisees proclaimed traditions which laid outside the law and which were a lower standard of righteousness than that set forth by God’s pure Law. During the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gave examples of how tradition had been used to set aside the real intent of the Law. For example he said; You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous (Matt 5:43-45).
If the people are obedient to laws which were not given by God then disobedience results, which leads to separation from God. Jesus interpreted the law so that the people would be made righteous through obedience to the law. Even Jesus said “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). Moreover, He interpreted the law in a new light which offers mankind a view into the holy heart of God. Isaiah predicted that Jesus would teach the law“for the sake of his righteousness, to magnify his teaching and make it glorious” (Isa. 42:21). And this Jesus did for the sake of the Lord’s righteousness. Jesus’ Fulfillment of the Law
Jesus came in fulfillment of the law. Jesus said Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (Matt 5:17-18). He is the light at the end of the old covenant which shines brightly toward the future for those that would see. There were two avenues available to mankind under the law. The first avenue was total obedience and the second was death. If the way of obedience was not chosen then the only way to go was towards death. But theses avenues were dimly lit and the people strained to see which one was the right path to take.
Our sinful nature prevents us from living in total obedience to the law as given from Moses, therefore there was only one outcome or one avenue for mankind which is death. But Jesus came in fulfillment of the law. Jesus walked on both avenues of the Law. He took the first avenue by living a life in absolute obedience to the Law. He was God manifested in the flesh. God became as a man and lived perfectly, because there was no sin within Him. On the first avenue, Jesus fulfilled the law, by living in obedience to its demands. Jesus also took the second avenue available to a man of flesh by dying for our sins.
The law demanded death for anyone who did not live in obedience to it, and He died on behalf of everyone whose obedience waned. Therefore Jesus was the fulfillment of the law and through Him we can find life and not death if we chose to walk with him along the avenues of life. “Fretheim writes The Primal sin may thus best be defined as mistrust of God and God’s word, which then manifests itself in disobedience and other behaviors” (78). If we trust in God’s words then we will choose to be obedient to His words and his laws of holiness.
If we chose disobedience then we choose death. But it is Jesus’ fulfillment of the law that gives us this gift of choice. It is God’s sacrifice of His only Son, who was made to suffer as flesh, blood and bone on this earth at the hands of the very beings He was sent to die for. It was Jesus’ fulfillment of the law that allows us to entertain the possibility of seeing God. Jesus’ and the Law Today
Men argue today about the question of following the old covenant or following the new covenant. But the two covenants are meant to be intermingled in the hearts of men. The old covenant attends the new and the new covenant fulfills the old. Jesus’s obedience to the laws of the covenant imparts authority and thus is due our obedience. There are some that say Jesus ended the law, which is partly true since He is he fulfillment of the law and the term “fulfillment’ imparts a conclusion, or an ending to something.
However, that is not to say that the law is no more. Indeed God’s law is unchanged. It was the traditions of man that sought to imprison mankind in their sinful flesh, which then brought eternal dependence on other men (e.g. Pharisees or Priests) to bring them back into the grace of God. Jesus offered us a new way into the grace of God and that way is found at Calvary. Jesus’ obedience to the law became a paradigm for the modern church.
Suzanne Johnson writes that becoming a Christian includes “instruction in the sacred writings, the reshaping of ethical vision, and formation of ethical responsibilities” (19-20). Where does the Christian find a standard for this ethical vision or responsibilities? We are supposed to read the sacred writings which provide us with a standard and the example of a holy God, made flesh in the form of Jesus Christ.
For many centuries the church followed the strict practices of man’s doctrine which they interpreted from the scriptures as the desire of God. Not so oddly, most of these adherences were geared towards practices that men detected in women. For example, for many years women were not allowed to speak in the church service. This practice was gleaned from Paul’s writings when he was addressing some problems in the church of Corinth. There were some traditions or practices that were set up for men also, like abstaining from the use of tobacco, foul language (which was determined by the society of that era), and the wearing of revealing clothing (e.g. short sleeve shirts). None of these traditions were practiced by Jesus or authorized according to His word.
Even John said “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:17). The church changes over time. It moves and sways with the society in which it exists, especially in regard to their boundaries, beliefs, and practices. What was once taboo, or forbidden, is now acceptable. The Church of God has twenty-nine practical and doctrinal commitments, but seven of these beliefs have to do with everyday living aspects given from interpretation of modern man (sgacog.org).
The practical commitments have changed a great deal since the church was formed over 127 years ago. Men are trying way too hard to make it down that avenue of obedience. Jesus came to make it easier and yet, in our infinite wisdom and striving for excellence on our own merit, we have made it way more complicated that it actually is.
Conclusion Jesus did not give any authority to the laws of man, but came to fulfill the laws of God alone. Jesus offers us examples of the law in his life and in His death. If we are to follow in His footsteps down the pathway of earthly life to eternal life, then we have to put down those beliefs and practices which serve only to separate men from each other and from God. It is in the practice of love and forgiveness that we shall find the heart of God. From the very beginning God had a plan to bring mankind back into an intimate relationship with him.
He has given us the law so that we might find His Spirit dwelling in us through the blessing of obedience. Through God’s Spirit we find peace and light. Because God loves us so much He provided that the avenue we must follow is easy and joyful. To be obedient to God is to be blessed and joyful throughout one’s life. This law, which applies to all humankind for all time, is founded upon God’s holiness. God does not change and his holiness does not change, therefore the law does not change. It is the same loving guidance for every generation that was, that is, and that is to come. Fretheim declares, “The reason for the giving of the law is stated clearly: it is a gracious divine gift ‘so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land’ (5:33)” (156). Why do we fight against the law of God? Is it because we have romanticized death through media messages which falsely present a passionate view of death, or is it because we cannot see that peace, life, and God–Himself- is found within the obedient existence. Jesus’ life would be a lie if it were not for the law.
The law prophesized of his coming and of his sacrificial role. He came to live and die in the promises of God. There was no other reason for Jesus to come to this earth and die a terrible death, other than to fulfill the law. God said it, and since His word does not change, nor return void, it had to be so. If we look at no other scripture than Matthew 5:17-48 we can clearly define the role of the law and Jesus’ participation in the law. For in this scripture we see Jesus proclaim the law, Jesus interpret the law for all of mankind, Jesus fulfilled the law; and Jesus make the law applicable today, and forever and always.
Works Cited Bruegemann, Walter. The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982. Print. Fretheim, Terence E. The Pentateuch. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996. Print. Johnson, Susanne. Christian Spiritual Formation in the Church and Classroom. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989. Print. New Revised Standard Version. Ed. Michael Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print. South Georgia Church of God. “South Georgia Church of God.” 2010. Who We Are. Web. 17 October 2013.