Matthew 5:17-20

5.17 Mē nomisēte hoti ēthlon katalusai ton nomon hē tous prophētas; ouk ēthlon katalusai alla plērōsai. 5.18 amēn gar legō humin, heōs an parelthēi ho ouranos kai hē gē, iōta hen hē mia keraia ou mē parelthēi apo tou nomou, heōs an panta genētai. 5.19 hos ean oun lusēi mian tōn entolōn toutōn tōn elachistōn kai didaxēi houtōs tous anthrōpous, elachistos klēthēsetai en tēi basileiāi tōn ouranōn; hos d’an poiēsēi kai didaxēi, houtos megas klēthēsetai en tēi basileiāi tōn ouranōn. 5.20 legō gar humin hoti ean mē perisseusēi humōn hē dikaiosunē pleion tōn grammateōn kai Pharisaiōn, ou mē eiselthēte eis tēn basileian tōn ouranōn.

5.17 Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets; I came not to destroy but to fulfill. 5.18 For truly I say to you, until the heaven and the earth pass away, one iota or one point shall by no means pass away from the law, until all things come to pass. 5.19 So whoever breaks one commandment, even the least, and teaches men thus, he shall be called least in the kingdom of the heavens; but whoever does and teaches, this one shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens. 5.20 For I say to you that unless your righteousness shall exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens. (my own translation with the help of Nestle)

In this way begins Jesus’ teaching on the law and the heart. In the scope of Matthew, Jesus has begun to heal, but we do not see the questioning of the religious leaders. Jesus goes on the offensive right from the start. Rather than praising the religious leaders for their deep piety and religious observance, he questions their hearts – calling in doubt their stated relationship with the God deserving of all worship and obedience.

But we must imagine that Jesus is aware of their arguments. They are already questioning Jesus obedience to the law. A healer who will heal on the Sabbath, and teaches so powerfully about God to those having been rejected from the religious community – something must be wrong with him. He certainly must have a poor view of the law. You can hear the mumbling, “He certainly isn’t keeping it. In fact, I bet he is teaching others to disregard the law!” Jesus, who existed before the Mosaic law, who himself knew the law better than anyone else, was quite ready to answer their imagined doubts.

These couple verses are where most Christians bog down in their understanding of the law. Romans, Ephesians and Galatians stand out speaking of us not being under the law, being free from the law. We are to let no man question us in observance of holy days, eating of certain foods, etc. It’s so easy to assume that the law is something bad. We can have in our minds this idea that though Jesus fulfilled the law, he didn’t think very much of it.

Jesus knew how wonderful the law was. It was a covenant between God and his people, and was meant for the ultimate good. It was supposed to enable the people to live a holy example before the nations. It was supposed to provide for justice within the community. It was a source of instruction so that Israel, every man, woman and child, might please God and be a blessing to each other. It continues to be that source of instruction.

I struggle myself to keep the words right. There are those who would say that Jesus taught that the law must be obeyed strictly by believers. They commonly would add that Jesus death released the requirement for certain dietary or “ceremonial” observances. All of this simply does a disservice to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus freed Christians from being “under” the law. But when we say under, let us consider what we mean.

Generally, we think of the law as a bad thing. Yes, really. Think of the words or phrases we commonly use when thinking of “law.” Even when we speak positively, we use words like “keep”, e.g. “He keeps the law.” But Jesus does not use the word keep, he uses the word “do”. Now does that word make sense in our way of speaking? We think of the law as something that has to be kept, something that we must struggle not to mess up. Jesus saw the law as something to do, something to enable us to do God’s will. And therein lies the difference.

As Christians, we are free from legalistic practice of the law. We need not tithe, sleep in on Saturday or avoid pork to be right in God’s sight. We are now free at every moment to live beyond the law. Yes, beyond.

At any moment, God may call us to sacrifice our time, energy and resources. That man on the street? Yes, God may ask you to do more than just sympathize with him. The guy at work no one likes, well, maybe God is asking you to spend some time with him. And don’t worry, no one in God’s kingdom will criticize you for giving all you earn so that you might empower the church to spread God’s word. God may even turn around and provide you the means to give more!

At any moment, God has the right to call us to rest. At any moment God may call us to action. Sabbath observance helped Israel understand that they depended on God for their livelihood, not on their own diligence (not to say that diligence is a bad thing). God himself provided them with everything they needed to survive and thrive. God still provides us with everything we need. It was not intended to limit their ability to serve one another. It was certainly not intended as a means of distinguishing those who were pure from those who were not. Every doctor who is up late Friday night suturing a patient, I salute you. Every emergency worker who is called into duty when it is inconvenient, I offer my thanks. And to every soldier who leaves family and works days at a time without sleep or even a catnap, I give my deepest thanks for your service.

At a friend’s house and find pork tenderloin on your plate? No problem, if you are a Christian. No need to make a big deal out of it. Thank God for the cook’s hands and the skill, ask God to nourish you, and dig in. I could think and write about all manner of technical reasons God may have had for asking the Jewish nation to avoid pork and many other foods. I can imagine and describe reasons why God found issue with how people might plant crops or sew together a pair of pants or a shirt. But all these possible surmisings miss the point. God had good reason, and it was beneficial for them to obey. But imagining that “keeping”’ these laws slavishly was what was important to God is a mistake. Doing what God asked was what was important. The law enabled the people to show God that they valued his “way of doing things”, that they considered his way the best way. Doing these laws showed that they understood that wisdom was God’s domain, and that just because some pagan next door was comfortable with it didn’t make it the right thing to do. For Christians, we are free, and that freedom enables us to remove every barrier to spreading the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We have no excuse not to dine with those we are unfamiliar with. We have no reason to disassociate with someone on account of their culture or upbringing. That is freedom.

So back to the passage… Jesus says that if anyone were to break a commandment and teach men to do the same, they would be called “least” in God’s kingdom. A couple things I notice. Should one say that Jesus means to keep us obeying the Mosaic law, we must recognize that breaking this law has not removed the one from a place in heaven… they are called least, but nothing says they are not welcome. Better last at the gate to enter than in the wrong line, I suppose.

And additionally, from what I have read and understand, Jesus is actually speaking about himself. He is “doing” the law. He will be called “great”, not “least”. He is not teaching his disciples to disobey the law. He is not even teaching them to consider it unimportant. Rather, he is teaching that if they stop with mere “observance” they will have wasted their time. That is Jesus’ point. Should the religious leaders imagine him to have an issue with the law, Jesus is clarifying that he keeps the law. He values it and is abiding by it. And more than abiding, as we see when the passage continues. In fact, Jesus implies that the “observance” of the religious elite is actually a sham in God’s eyes, and not enough to give them the righteousness they claim.

In the scope of law observance, verses 17 and 18 get thrown around a lot: “Don’t think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets; I came not to destroy but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until the heaven and the earth pass away, one iota or one point shall by no means pass away from the law, until all things come to pass.” From these verses we learn Jesus’ heart in the matter. He did not come to destroy the law, or the prophets. In fact, these are of great importance, for they point to Jesus, describing his character, describing the events and the nature of man that brought about the need for his death and resurrection.

One possibility is that Jesus intended to say that until the end of the created order, the law is binding on every believer. Though a very direct reading of the passage might lead one to agree, a more critical reading of this passage in light of the rest of scripture leads me to disagree. With the many other passages that describe our separation from the law, we can move on knowing that Jesus had no intention of prescribing legalism as the standard for Christian doctrine.

Another way to understand these verses is that all has “come to pass.” And by this, we mean the law has been fulfilled by Jesus and is no longer of value. Parallelism might support understanding this passage in this way, but I find it to be awkward in making Jesus out to say, “I have not come to destroy the law, but destroy the law.” And as already stated, the law is still a mechanism God uses for teaching and alerting us to his work and will. So far from being of no use, it is a powerful source of instruction.

To understand these verses we must recognize that the law is still effectual, but that legalistic observance is not enjoined on Christians, based on the many other scriptural passages that describe our freedom. Jesus death and resurrection did not abolish the law. It didn’t erase the words written by God’s own hand. Christians should still recognize in the law and prophets (a phrase actually used to identify all of what we would call the Old Testament, including the history books and wisdom writings) a source for teaching and knowing personally the God who created them. But in another sense, I have always liked the “allegiance” analogy. As a Christian, I have changed nationality. Yes, I must admit to being an American, but honestly, that is not where my true allegiance lies. I am a citizen of heaven first. And heaven’s law is not the law of Moses. It is the law of Christ. The law of Moses offered a pattern based on heaven, its character and its holiness. The law of Christ is the full reality. I might get great wisdom and instruction from heeding another nation’s laws, but I am not “under” those laws. Jesus offers a new covenant with his people, where his law is written on their hearts, not stone.

At the time when Jesus spoke, he had yet to finish the work that would validate this new covenant. His blood, which ratified the covenant, was pure and worthy because he put the law in its proper place and taught his listeners to do more than just acknowledge the words of God, but the live by them and love them. He asked for more than just a check list, but a change of heart.

And this prods us on to the rest of the chapter…


About George

I'm interested in theology, languages, translation and various sorts of fermentation.
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One Response to Matthew 5:17-20

  1. Pingback: WOTD, νομίζω « σφοδρα - exceedingly

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