Archives For Law

I’m not sure how many have followed the interaction between Adam F(inlay) and I from the first blog, but I thought it would be good to follow up with some of his questions here. So this blog is a bit of an aside; hence the goofy 5.5 title. First, let me just say that Adam is a good friend of mine and one of the sharpest guys I know. He wrestles with the text like no other and is well versed in first century Judaism. As always, he’s raised some very good questions regarding my reading of Matthew 5 and the pacifistic position as a whole. In short, Adam says that Jesus was a Torah abiding Jew who never contradicted (the law of) Moses in his teaching, as Matthew 5:17-19 makes clear. Therefore, since the law of Moses has allowances for violence, Jesus must have as well. He wouldn’t and didn’t teach against Moses.

(Adam, if this is off in any way, please let me know!)

So here’s my response. I’ll try to be concise at the risk of setting out underdeveloped arguments.

First, I don’t think we should see such total continuity between Jesus and Moses, or between Jesus’ teaching and Moses’ teaching, or between the Old Covenant and New Covenant. The New Covenant doesn’t just renew the old, but takes God’s relationship with his people to a new level. Such discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New can already be found in Jeremiah 31:31-34, where the New is “not like” the Old (not that it’s completely different, but that there will be some discontinuity). Ezekiel 16:61-63 hints at this as well, and Galatians 3, 2 Corinthians 3, and many other statements in Paul (Rom 6; 10:4; and others) suggest that there is discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New. In short, the biblical drama unfolds as a dynamic, not a static, story; the law of Moses does not reveal God’s ideal for all people of all times under all covenants. The Mosaic law was culturally, geographically, and ethnically bound. It was God’s law for the people of Israel, in the land of Israel, while living in a particular period of time. The very nature of the shift—or progression—from a uni-ethnic, geographically bound covenant people into a multi-national, non-geographically bound covenant people, demands that the law in all its literalness cannot be sustained.

Second, there are many other things that “progress” as the biblical story unfolds. In the OT (Old Testament), God dwells behind walls in a tabernacle/temple; in the NT (New Testament), He dwells in his church without walls. In the OT, animal sacrifices expiated sin; in the NT, Jesus takes away our sins once and for all. In the OT, all ethical behavior was tethered to the land of Israel; in the NT, ethics are detached from the land promise. In the OT, holiness and purity is conceived in spatial and material terms (the alter can be defiled, along with the lamp stand, and they need to be cleansed; etc.); in the NT, the concept of holiness and purity is not the same.

Third, and related to the previous point, many ethical commands of the OT law are explicitly reversed or “brought to their intended goal” (as I like to put it) in the NT. In the OT, divorce is clearly allowed (Deut 24:1ff), while in the NT it’s not (in most cases) and Jesus “takes” Deut 24 “to its intended goal” in Matt 5:31 to prove his point. Retaliation is allowed in the court system of the OT, but for the people of God in the NT it’s strictly forbidden (e.g., Matt 5:38). (Adam had some great thoughts on this in the first blog; I hope my wording here reflects his astute correction.) Circumcision and all the dietary laws were mandated in the OT—even for Gentiles who became covenant members—but not so in the NT. (There’s a debate about whether or not Jewish believers in Jesus are still commanded to keep such laws, but it’s clearly reversed in the case of Gentiles.)

Now, fourth, what about Matthew 5:17-20? Here’s the text:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Look up any major commentary on Matthew and you’ll find a 5-10 page discussion on this passage, which usually summarizes anywhere from 5-10 different views on what Jesus means here. All that to say, the obvious meaning of what Jesus says here is not all that obvious. Several questions are immediately apparent: What does Jesus mean by “fulfill?” What does he mean by “all is accomplished?” What is the “least of these commandments”—specifically, which ones are the “least” and which “commandments” is he thinking of? (Several interpreters suggest that “these commandments” point forward to Jesus’ own “law” in 5:21-48.) And what in the world does Jesus mean by having a righteousness that surpasses “the scribes and Pharisees,” which constitutes your entrance card into the kingdom? Needless to say, we really have to roll up our sleeves, cancel our appointments, and set aside a good deal of time to work through these issues before we can confidently quote Matthew 5 in favor of any view of Jesus and the law.

So what does the passage mean? Here’s a very truncated summary of my view. First, “fulfill” is not the same as “obedience,” since “the word plhrouvn, ‘to fulfill,’ is never used in Matthew to describe obedience to the law” (Hagner, Matthew, 105). I agree with Don Hagner who says that the word “fulfill” does not refer to

“establishing the law as is, nor of supplementing it, but in the sense of bringing it to its intended meaning in connection with the messianic fulfillment (together with plhrouvn, note ‘he law and the prophets’) brought by Jesus…In Matthew’s view, the teaching of Jesus by definition amounts to the true meaning of the Torah and is hence paradoxically an affirmation of Jesus’ loyalty to the OT” (Hagner, Matthew, 107).

So Jesus didn’t seek to destroy the law, but to bring the law to its intended goal. All that to say, I don’t think the passage presents the law as a static constitution for God’s people of all time, being reiterated and reaffirmed by Jesus; rather, Jesus “penetrate(s)…the divinely intended meaning of the law.”

So what does Jesus mean by “the least of these commandments” (v. 19)? I actually don’t think it refers to Jesus’ own words in vv. 21 and following, although this would support my view. The context necessitates that Jesus is talking about the law of Moses, which makes perfect sense, because Jesus said he’s not trying to “abolish” the law but to “fulfill it.” Again, I think Hagner’s interpretation is as good as any:

“What is being emphasized in this way are not the minutiae of the law that tended to captivate the Pharisees but simply a full faithfulness to the meaning of the law as it is expounded by Jesus. Thus, the phrase “the least of these commandments” refers to the final and full meaning of the law, but taken up and interpreted by Jesus, as for example in the material that begins in v 21” (Hagner, Matthew, 108).

All in all, I don’t think that Jesus was simply reinstituting the law of Moses in all its literalness for the New Testament people of God. (Had any bacon lately?) He clearly “fulfilled” several commandments in the law, including divorce (v. 31) and retaliation (v. 38), and his treatment of unclean women, lepers, and prostitutes, seems to go against a strict interpretation of Moses—or at least, it takes Moses to a new level. Again, I don’t think this means that Jesus was abolishing the law, but bringing it to its intended goal—the love of God and love of neighbor among the worldwide community of God’s New Covenant people. After all, Sinai is not the final goal; Eden is.

So unless Jesus explicitly reiterated the OT’s allowance, and command of, violence—like stoning kids who curse their parents or those who violate the Sabbath (Exod 21:17; 35:2)—I don’t think we can assume that Jesus endorsed violence simply because Moses did. We would need to find Jesus explicitly endorsing some measure of violence among God’s people. But he doesn’t.