THE FULFILLING OF THE LAW
by Steve Zeisler
If a traveler from first century AD Israel were to cross time to our own
century he would see some things that were familiar and some unfamiliar.
He would recognize the call to obey the rules, and expectations that we
are handed by the culture we live in. We will either meet success in keeping
them or live with some disgrace or frustration because we can't. That process
would be familiar to a traveler from any time in human history.
For Jews in the first century, the rules were based on the rabbinical teaching
of the Old Testament. The rabbis took the truth of Scripture and reduced
it to a collection of rigid laws, formulas, and expectations that the Jews
were to keep. They either did well or not and lived with the consequences.
In our day and age the rule-makers gain authority from other places, but
otherwise the process is very much the same.
What would be unfamiliar to a first-century time traveler is the content
of the rules we live by in our culture; they are very different from those
based on an interpretation of the Old Testament. And the frequency with
which we overturn moral standards would be unfamiliar. In ancient times
people tended to take a longer view. Values carried through from generation
to generation. In our day it is unusual for a call to moral performance
to last more than a few years. Decades get named for the contemporary mores
of our society: The seventies were the Me decade; the eighties, the Avarice
and Greed decade; and the nineties, the Victimization decade. We might anticipate
what the next swing of the moral compass will be and expect that to be replaced
quickly as well.
Charles Colson recently made these comments:
When people stop believing in a transcendent truth, debates
about ideas degenerate into power struggles. After all, if there is no truth,
then we cannot persuade each other by rational arguments. All that is left
is power. Whatever group has the most power imposes its opinions on everyone
else. (Christianity Today, June 1994)
The Sermon on the Mount issues a challenge to every other way of ordering
human life. Jesus speaks in this passage about two great realities that
transcend every culture, idea, and twist and turn of history. First of all,
in a remarkable disclosure of what he believed about himself Jesus describes
himself as being at the center of creation, and the center of all human
history. And secondly, Jesus is going to talk about the Law of God---the
standards God commends for the human race because the Law draws on his own
character. These do not change despite the confidence of commentators everywhere
around us who tell us what is new and cutting-edge in how we are to live.
If we align ourselves with what God has said from the beginning about what
makes humanity work and how we should function, we will find joy and blessing.
The other alternative is to find our lives broken on the hard rock of those
realities, because they will not change.
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. I tell you the truth,
until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least
stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything
is accomplished. Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called
great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness
surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly
not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus opened the Sermon on the Mount by talking about how his hearers might
discover life to be fulfilling: Where does blessing lie? Blessed are the
poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn...blessed are the pure in heart...blessed
are the persecuted. He began by engaging his hearers in learning that the
way they had been taught to think about themselves was all wrong.
Jesus abolishes rigid rules
But now he is going to talk about himself. There are three aspects I want
to highlight, two of which are clear implications of the phrase, "Do
not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets...."
First, Jesus is answering the thoughts or statements of the people in front
of him. He assumes that they might reasonably expect that he has come to
abolish the Law and the Prophets---and that is an astonishing thing. What
would there be about Jesus that would lead people to think that he would
or could abolish the Law and the Prophets? For those raised in Judaism,
the notion that anyone would ever abolish the Law and the Prophets is staggering,
and the notion that someone could do so is even more staggering.
Now, listen carefully to what Jesus says. He doesn't say, "Perhaps
you are assuming that I intend to break the Law." Everyone knew people
who broke the rigid standards. We in our culture know people who live in
direct defiance of the way they are expected to live here. They shake their
fist at rules, strike out on their own, and are proud of their rebellion.
Those who flaunt this world's mores are commonplace. That isn't what Jesus
is talking about here. He is saying, "I imagine you think I have come
to abolish the Law and the Prophets." Anyone in a position to
do that is a remarkable person indeed.
Jesus goes on to make it clear that he knows it is not the description of
God's character embedded in the Ten Commandments, rightly understood, that
they should consider him a candidate to abolish. He is going to fulfill
that Law. But what he has done is shake up the Jews of his day by his personality,
the way he lives, the things he has said, the gravity of his message, the
content of his joy, the certainty of his step, and the intimacy he has with
God. He has shaken everyone around him to the point that they are beginning
to think, "This one is equal with Moses the Lawgiver, equal to the
prophets who have gone before us! This one, by his life and words and impact,
is an extraordinary, authoritative person who has a marvelous freedom about
him. He is different. He doesn't do what everyone else does, and he is not
doing less, but more. There is more of God about him."
Awe and freedom
The Law was given in a frightening and dark place, with clouds covering
Mount Sinai. People and animals were forbidden to touch the mountain or
they would die. Moses went up on the mountain and spent many days and nights.
The thunder crashed and the lightning struck, and for a time people lived
in deep awe---before they decided to live in idolatry. Moses came down from
the mountain with the Ten Commandments and rejected their idolatry, and
that was frightening as well. And there is something about Jesus, as we
read of how people encountered him in the New Testament, that is very grave
and awe-inspiring. In the same way that the Law first invoked those feelings,
when they encountered Christ it was with those same feelings again.
The prophets declared the love of God for his people, his intimate connection
with them, and his refusal to let them go. He was the Husband scorned time
and time again who would not abandon them. The prophets spoke of judgment
but also of hope, a Messiah yet to come, an answer; a Savior who would mend
their hearts, gather up the broken, and make the nation as it ought to be.
When these followers heard Jesus speak of the love of God and saw him experience
the love and commitment and calling of God, they began to wonder, "Is
this the One who fulfills, who answers, who could in fact replace what the
prophets have said?"
The very fact that Jesus is able to say, "Do not think that I have
come to abolish the Law and the Prophets...." means that people have
encountered in him an authority, a freedom, a confidence, a godliness, and
a challenge that they have encountered nowhere else. And they are beginning
to dream about God in a new way: "Could we be given a whole new opportunity
to know God in this man?"
What Jesus has broken open is a world in which people slavishly obey external
rigidities. The first-century Jews were given a religion based on the Old
Testament that actually was contradictory to what the Old Testament taught.
The rabbinical system of rules they were given was a Pharisaic distillation
of the Law. Jesus would later say (Matthew 23:23), "Woe to you, teachers
of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices---mint,
dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the
law---justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter,
without neglecting the former." They had taken the great themes of
God's Law and reduced them to the counting of dill leaves that people would
grow in a garden. If you were to sell thirty leaves of dill, you were to
faithfully count out three of them so that you could set aside a tenth of
the spice, and by this God would be pleased!
We live in a world in which different groups of people make the rules, but
the rules are every bit as rigid. We attempt to conform to external expectations,
and our lives are in turmoil or not depending on how well we do. The way
of life that goes by the name Political Correctness is Pharisaism in spades.
Today in universities, companies, and elsewhere speech and behavior will
be rigidly combed for nuances as insignificant as the counting of dill leaves
and peppercorns to see if a tenth has been set aside. A long speech will
be examined by its hearers for even one misused masculine pronoun, any underlying
heterosexual assumptions, or Euro-centeredness, all of which should be avoided
at all costs.
Phillip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, gave a seminar here a
couple of months ago. In it he talked about the rigidity of the scientific
world regarding Darwinism. Men and women who are honest scientists have
legitimate reasons based on science to question whether perhaps Darwinism
can answer all the questions it claims to answer. But they are forbidden
to say what they think, or they will lose their jobs. There is a requirement
that they adhere to the party line and do things exactly as they ought to
or face dire consequences. So in a world that claims academic freedom, there
is none---there is Pharisaism.
The same is true of street gangs. Members must wear their gang's colors,
assemble at their gang's locations, fight when they are told to, and react
as they are supposed to. It is a stance of extreme defensiveness, and there
are no circumstances in which they will not live as they are commanded to
live, or pay the consequences.
It is true of corporate culture. If you do not act as you are supposed to
in a particular corporate culture, you will pay the price. It is true even
in artistic communities. There are rigid standards of what is permissible
and what isn't.
Conservative evangelicals have sometimes adopted "simplistic principles
of family life" (forgetting justice, mercy, and faithfulness) and created
a pharisaical climate enforcing adherence to them.
Every time Jesus enters a formalized, rigid, rule-keeping culture, people
come away saying, "Is he going to abolish it all? Does an encounter
with him mean that it is possible to live differently? Maybe everything
could change. Maybe there is reason for hope. Maybe it is possible to be
free. Maybe love could break loose." And in fact it is always true---where
he is present it is possible to be free. His life ought to have the impact
on us of raising hopes; creating possibilities; opening doors; making us
wonder if all the old ways of doing things are what they're cracked up to
be; and creating a willingness to take risks and try things, go places,
The Law is subject to Jesus authority
The second way that Jesus' statement displays his understanding of himself
is this: It implies that he has the power to abolish the Law and the Prophets.
Now, Jesus understood the truth of the Law, because it expresses God's
character to those he created to be as ancient as creation itself. He understood
all the things that God said---the Law, including the Ten Commandments,
and the Prophets---to be an eternal expression from the Creator God himself
that measured his own heart. And so if Jesus were not God, he ought to have
recoiled at the suggestion and said, "That is blasphemy! The Lord God
created these things and they are representative of him! If I were to imply
in any way that I had the power to abolish them, I would be claiming to
be God!" But he doesn't recoil at the suggestion. It is a completely
legitimate question for him. He is really saying, "In fact I am not
going to abolish the Law or the Prophets, and I'll tell you why in a minute.
But it's a good question."
It is a good question because he is the Creator. Jesus understood himself
to have power to later creation were he to choose to. He had come to this
understanding of himself as a boy as he grew, read the Scriptures, and went
through the journey of discovering himself to be God incarnate. He was comfortable
with questions that implied that he had the authority of God. It is a remarkable
thing to call Jesus our Lord. He is our intimate friend, our High Priest,
the one who hears our prayers, and the one who has entered our world and
knows what it is like to be us. And yet he is the Creator, the Lord of heaven
and earth! That is implied here. He does not to any degree consider the
assumed authority that is behind the question he answers inappropriate.
Jesus fulfills the Law
The third thing we learn from verse 17 about Jesus' understanding of himself
is his claim that he will fulfill the Law and the Prophets. There is a great
deal of discussion among commentators as to what it means for Jesus to fulfill
the Law and the Prophets. I want to suggest two senses in which this very
profound notion is true.
First, imagine that as the sun is coming up, its light is falling on an
object and a shadow is being cast. The Old Testament is the land of the
shadow. It is being cast backward in time so that the Old Testament believers
see an outline in the ceremonial law of sacrifice. They begin to execute
animals---doves, lambs, and others---knowing that their sins are a grievous,
deadly thing that requires a death to take place. But the day comes when
the reality gathers up the shadow. The day comes when Jesus dies on the
cross for us so that no more sacrifices of doves and lambs need take place.
He fulfills the Law by being the reality that casts the shadow. So for believers,
all of the ceremonial law that has to do with temple service and so on is
gathered up in the cross, and as we honor the cross of Christ we honor all
those laws and see them fulfilled.
Another way we could talk about Jesus' fulfilling the Law is to imagine
a garden in the winter time, in a cold part of the world. Gardens get very
bleak then; trees are barren, vines are gray, and no life is being produced.
We have some expectation of what a garden ought to be, only there is nothing
growing. The Law, written on stone and spoken aloud, is true; we can understand
its precepts, but it is not living. And then Christ empowers us so the Law
can be life-giving and not merely a cold form. The trees bud and bear fruit,
the vines grow thick with grapes, other plants come up and we see the garden
filled with life. That is, Jesus takes truth of the Law of God and makes
it life-giving in our experience: We know the character of God, dream his
dreams, and hope for righteousness that comes from him. Suddenly, we experience
it! And that means that failure, inadequacy, brokenness, things about our
past that we hate, patterns we are in that frustrate us, ways of living
that seem to be too much to overcome---none of those are sufficient to stand
in the way of Jesus' life-giving fulfillment of the Law.
One of the reasons the enemy has worked so hard to take away the words of
Jesus is that his testimony of himself is so profound. In the "Jesus
Seminar" that you may have read of in recent days, unbelieving scholars
attempted to reduce the sayings of Jesus to a mere handful. They concluded
that he was a poor religious zealot. They allowed that he said a few things,
but they throw away statements like Matthew 5:17. And the reason is that
if word gets out that Jesus knew himself to have the power and authority
to change all the structures and rules and rigidities, and that those who
encounter him are going to find the Law fulfilled in their experience; then
everything is going to change. The lives of individuals are going to be
changed, and the world itself is going to be changed. The enemy has a great
stake in making sure that no one believes these words of Christ.
The Law is immutable
The other great transcendent truth that Jesus teaches us in this passage
is the nature of the Law. He makes three points, the first of which is found
in verse 18: "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear,
not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means
disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." The Law goes
back to the beginning, to creation itself. It will continue accomplishing
its work until the very end. The moral statements of the Ten Commandments
are as immutable as the physical laws such as the speed of light, which
came into being at God's creative word in the beginning and will last until
the end. The statements "You shall not tell lies," "You shall
not commit adultery," "You shall not covet," "Honor
your father and mother," "You shall have no other gods before
me," and "Treat my name with respect" cannot be changed until
at last everything is accomplished. Not a letter or stroke will pass away.
The other day I read in the newspaper about a man putting on a seminar in
"Could it be that the pagan gods are trying to get through
to us?" asks James Hillman, one of the nation's most influential and
irreverent psychologists. "After all, they were here before Christianity."
Hillman, the former director of Zurich-Young Institute, plans to revive
the sex and love gospel of Hera, Venus, and Aphrodite Saturday at a day-long
symposium in Berkeley.
That way of thinking is wrong on a number of counts, but one of the ways
it is wrong is to imagine that there were gods, spiritualities, or ways
of understanding the world that predated the truth of the Scriptures, that
are older and therefore wiser. There is nothing older. When God called the
universe into being, he called into being the moral order that it should
have. It is based on his heart, and it will never change. Therefore, while
our understanding of the Law will change---Jesus is going to explain various
misunderstandings of the Law and the Prophets---what will not change is
that we are made in God's image and are to be like him.
The difficult truth
The second point that we can distill from Jesus' teaching on the Law is
in verse 19: "Anyone who breaks 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called
great in the kingdom of heaven." There are times in our Christian life
when we will be tempted to be nice to people and change the words of God
out of some kind of misguided sense of mercy or kindness, to wish things
were different, to bend the Law, compromise, pat people on the back, and
not say what needs to be said. I have at times counseled people who had
had a very violent and miserable home life; they have been beaten and abused
by their parents. And the easy thing to do in that circumstance is to set
aside the fifth commandment, "Honor your father and mother...."
I have wanted to say, "Since your parents were horrible we'll let you
leave your past behind, and we'll talk about the current community and love
of God. No one ought to force you to go back and look hard at those terrible
people and what they've done, and find some way to honor them."
But it is very foolish to take the immutable words of God and set them aside
out of a desire to be nice. It is much wiser to recognize that even the
most terrible parents that ever existed need to be faced and acknowledged
by the one who was raised by them. If you hate the roots you came from,
you will only hate yourself. And in order to honor your parents you will
have to remove all the denial, go back and look hard at what happened, to
understand why they were the way they were, and find some way to forgive
them by the grace of God.
You may remember the movie Stand and Deliver. A teacher at Garfield
High School in Los Angeles said that disadvantaged teens could learn calculus.
Calculus isn't going to change; there is no way for it to be easy. But he
said, "Even if I insist that they work hard like other people and the
rules remain the same, I can spur them on to believe enough in themselves
that they can learn the hard truth. I would do that rather than say, 'For
their sake it needn't be learned. We'll run the universe differently so
that calculus isn't required, and they can get by with some bogus version
of it.' That isn't good enough. They can learn it." And they did. They
were as successful as anyone else, disadvantaged or not.
O.J. Simpson is in a horrible well of despair, and depending on what he
has actually done, it may be deserved. Somewhere along the line someone
should have said to him, "O.J., the fact that you're rich and famous
and handsome, that people in certain settings regard you as remarkable,
doesn't change the rules as to how you live at home. No husband has the
right to beat his wife. That is the way God made the universe, and we aren't
going to pretend it can be made different for you." If someone had
cared enough to say that, murder and trauma might have been avoided.
What Jesus is saying here is that it is a good thing to know that the universe
has moral laws embedded in it which are not going to go away, by which we
will align ourselves or will pay the price. Jesus is going to fulfill the
Law in us. He is going to make those things good, to give us a way to experience
the beauty of the moral law; so that instead of crashing against it, we
are strengthened by it. We hunger and thirst for this righteousness rather
than resent it.
The Law is written on our hearts
The last point is in verse 20: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness
surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly
not enter the kingdom of heaven." We are Christians because there is
a greater righteousness than that of the Pharisees. What Jesus is speaking
of is righteousness that starts in the heart. It doesn't matter in the long
run what measurements are made of the externals unless those externals represent
what is in the heart. The exceeding righteousness that Jesus is talking
about here is one that is from top to bottom, exterior to interior. And
he is insists that the Law is not only an external code but is living and
valued---our hearts must have the Law written on them.
We live in a world in which morality is sort of a fashion show in which
the new fashions come out often; we are allowed to throw out the old wardrobe
and put on what is currently expected. I remember someone's noting some
time ago that people used to smoke with pride in public and fornicate in
private. Now it's exactly the opposite. People are ashamed to be seen with
a cigarette in their mouth, but they parade their sexual adventures at the
drop of a hat. We live in a world that is mutable yet always handing us
rigid rules to keep, a world that will never be free. Real freedom comes
from Christ. He is going to uphold the character of God. It is his own character;
he is the Creator who embedded the moral law in the universe. Jesus will
fulfill the Law in a way that is life-giving to us. That is the source of
Catalog No. 4406
June 26, 1994
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