This article is about the relationship between the old and new covenant, and the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Jesus Christ. Looking at Matthew 5:17-20, the author also discusses the place of the law in the New Testament.

Source: Una Sancta, 2012. 4 pages.

Not Under Law, But Under Grace

There is a movement, that begun in the USA in the 1960s which is essentially a Judaizing Christianity. It began among Jews who had been converted to Christianity, but who wanted to retain their ties to their cultural roots, among other reasons, to facilitate evangelisation among Jews. Its basic claim is that the Torah or the Law (Genesis to Deuteronomy) remains the basic Scripture for Christi­anity.

This movement has spread far and wide and produced a hybrid form of Christianity which reinstates the keeping of the Mosaic law. This is usually done with the qualifier that it is kept as a rule of thankfulness. They do not keep it as a way to be saved, but as saved people in thankfulness. In this way they think they can remain true to their evan­gelical roots and to their new found understanding.

They can't. It falls foul of Scripture that tells us that the Mosaic Covenant has been superseded by the new covenant in Christ's blood, the covenant of grace.

It also falls foul of our confession, which says: We believe that the ceremonies and symbols of the law have ceased with the coming of Christ, and that all shadows have been fulfilled, so that the use of them ought to be abolished among Christians. Yet their truth and substance remain for us in Jesus Christ, in whom they have been fulfilled. In the meantime we still use the testimonies taken from the law and the prophets, both to confirm us in the doctrine of the gospel and to order our life in all honesty, according to God's will and to His glory.

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However, as they claim that they have the support of the Lord Jesus Christ we should examine the Scriptures in the light of their claim to make sure that we are correct and have not erred. To do so let us first re-examine the linchpin of their arguments, their interpretation of Matthew 5:17-20. Very literally the Lord says:

Do not think that I came to annul the law or the prophets. I did not come to annul but to fulfil. Truly I say to you, until whenever the heaven and the earth might pass away not one iota or one tittle will pass away from the law until all has happened. Whoever, therefore, might loose one of the least of these commandments and teach men thus, he will be called least in the kingdom of the heavens, but whoever does and teaches, this one will be called great in the kingdom of the heavens.

Firstly, the Lord is speaking of the law or the prophets. He did not say law and the prophets. He is speaking of both separately as distinct entities. He did not come to annul either one or the other.

Neither does He say they will continue in force as is. They will both continue, but as fulfilled. Notice also that He does not say specifically that He came to fulfil them, but simply to fulfil, without object. Fulfil is given its broadest possible sense. He will fulfil both seen as separate entities and each will be fulfilled in a manner commensurate with its character.

The various ways in which the Lord could fulfil the law is by keeping the commandments, or by showing the full reach of the commandments and maintaining them as the prophets also did, or by fulfilling the prophecies made by the law and the prophets. We will look further at that below.

Secondly, He says that not the minutest detail of the Law would be removed until heaven and earth pass away. Law here is probably shorthand for the law and the prophets or even all of the OT Scriptures. We may assume that the Lord is upholding all of the OT Scriptures here and that is but to be expected as it is all His word. However, by using the Law as pars pro toto the Law is kept chiefly in focus.

Thirdly, we are told that until heaven and earth pass away not one iota or tittle will pass away from the law. Two times we are told that something will or will not pass away. The heaven and the earth will pass away. That is obviously a temporal reference. The minutest detail of the law will not pass away until those do. However, what does it mean for the minutest detail of the law to pass away. Does it mean no longer have force, or to be taken from the law? And will the law pass away when this heaven and this earth do, and if so what will happen to the eternal truths it embodies? Perhaps the Lord answers this with His saying that heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away Mt 24:35, but that is not obvious.

In Matt 5:18 and in 24:34, 35; 26:39, 42, the verb to pass away is combined with the verb to happen. This passing away will not occur until all has happened. Three of these references contain both these verbs, and happened is implied in one more. What is clear is that the combination of these two verbs are speaking of the progress of redemp­tive history to its conclusion.

Since 'all has happened' is parallel to and explanatory of fulfilled in 5:17 it seems that fulfil must have a redemp­tive historical thrust. In Matthew fulfil is used seventeen times, two of which refer to filling a net or the measure of sin. Of the remaining fifteen times twelve refer to the fulfilment of a specific prophecy by the Lord, two refer to the fulfilment of Scripture in general as pointing to His death and our text speaks of fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. Fulfilled, then must have reference at least to what has been foretold in the OT Scriptures, the ceremo­nies, sacrifices, the feasts, the laws and prophecies that pointed forward to Christ, the sending of the gospel to all nations, the return of Christ, the end of this age and the establishment of the next. The shadows would pass for the reality (literally – body) had come Col 2:17; Heb 10:1. Certain aspects of the law and prophets would be fulfilled by the Lord Jesus Christ and would, therefore, no longer be in force, and they would pass away.

However, this word is descriptive of the Lord's entire mission as its lack of object in 5:17 implies. In light of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount that follows, we are forced to broaden our interpretation and read it as also pointing to the fact that the Lord would uncover the full demand of the law and demand that that be taught.

In this Sermon we see how the Lord is not satisfied with the superficial teaching of the Pharisees and Scribes. He wants His people to understand and obey the law in all its depth. Not only deeds are judged, but also motives. Matt 5:48 shows that we must be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. Our Heavenly Father is the standard against which our actions and motives are judged. The love of God and our neighbour is the only acceptable motive for our actions. That is fulfilment of the law cf. 7:12; 22:40. In this way too not one iota or tittle falls from the law. Love fulfils every last aspect of the Law. We may add that the Lord fulfilled the Law in this way as well.

The Lord continues in 5:19 speaking of the least of these commandments. The law seen as a collection of command­ments is here in focus. It could be argued from this that the Lord meant that all the individual commandments of the law continue in force until the end of this world, even the smallest, for every commandment was meant to teach love of God and our neighbour in some way.

This, however, does not seem to be what the Lord does, for He goes on, e.g., to reinterpret the divorce law. He in fact tightened it up 5:31, 32. He criticised it on the basis of God's creation ordinances cf. 19:6, 8. This law was not perfect. He changed something. He took away words "some uncleanness" and substituted "fornication". Did something fall from the law? Literally, yes, but in intent, no. Instead the demand of the law was intensified. We get the impression, that the Lord would rather have removed the commandment about divorce from the law totally, but because of the weakness of the sinful nature, and perhaps because marriage was to reflect His relationship with the church, adultery has been left as a permissible ground for divorce, but in fact, adultery should not be and so divorce should not be.

He also overthrew the law of an eye for an eye (lex talionis) cf. Ex 21:24; Deut 19:21; Matt 5:38-42; 18:21-35. That law was first introduced in Gen 9:5, 6 as a principle of vengeance for murder. Does that conform to God's will fully? We are in doubt about that, for we see how God acted in the Cain episode. God showed then that He wanted to preserve the life of even the murderer, Cain. He safeguarded Cain's life by putting a mark on him and promising sevenfold vengeance if someone murdered him. God wanted to stop the chain of vengeance. From where then did this law arise? Perhaps from the fact that it was perverted by Lamech who avenged himself seventy times seven Gen 4:24. The lex talionis does not fully express God's will to preserve life or how to maintain peace. It is not the principle on which Christians should operate. We do not need to insist on justice or vengeance cf. 1 Cor 6:7, since God is the Great Judge. He will judge and He will avenge. 1

Once we understand the principle behind the Lord's overthrow of those laws we see that there are many laws given because of the hardness of man's heart in which God's creation order had been perversely changed by man, laws governing multiple wives and concubines and their sons and laws governing slavery to name but a few. The existence of these laws has been used to argue that God approves of such things. However, multiple wives and concubines are not part of God's creation ordinances and neither is slavery in keeping with man being in the image of God. The Lord upholds the Law to its minutest detail by overthrowing laws which do not adequately express the creation principles. He upholds God's original intention and modifies the laws in light of that. Torah is set against Torah and Torah is purified and its full demand revealed.

However, we cannot simply get rid of these laws as deficient, for they have a positive aspect. What these laws wished to teach is not removed. In the divorce law there is still a consideration for the divorced wife and the ordering of society. In the laws regulating polygamy there is consideration for the wife in the weakest position and for her children. In the slavery laws there is consideration for the slaves. In the lex talionis there is a consideration for the wrongdoer and for justice. These laws are damage control laws. We may learn from them that the Christian was to love their enemies as their Heavenly Father did. The command to love one's neighbour shines through these laws, despite them being given due to the hardness of the human heart. Whoever does not love God or their neighbour as they ought breaks God's commandments. Each and every commandment of God was meant to teach this love. You can see this principle at work in the Lord Jesus Christ when He upholds the weightier principles of the law over the letter Mat 9:13; 12:7; 23:23. In this way the Lord upholds every minutest part of the moral law as valid until the end of time.

What the Lord did in the Sermon on the Mount was essen­tially to say, I am the Law Giver. I will teach you the full meaning of My moral Law in its ultimate reach and I will fulfil it in every sense of the word. He was obviously not enshrining every law until the end of time. The reaction of the people after this sermon was telling. They understood that He taught them as One who had authority and not as the scribes 7:29. He was not bound to the letter of the law, but was its Giver, its Interpreter, its Upholder, its Perfecter. What belonged to the childhood phase was to go. He was reformulating the Law for the time when His people would be a spiritual nation spread throughout the world. He was reformulating it in light of the coming era of salvation and the outpouring of the Spirit on His people. What was not possible beforehand under the Law was now demanded under the era of grace and the Spirit.

The Lord demonstrated His authority over the Sabbath212:8, over clean and unclean food Mk 7:19, over the place of worship Joh 4:23, over the penalties of the law Joh 8:11. He even spoke of a rejection of the Jews and the inclusion of the Gentiles as the people of God Mat 8:11, 12. The Lord Jesus Christ had full authority over the Law to override, abrogate or change the individual commandments where they belonged to a passing era of the Mosaic Covenant. Further, He would bear the penalties of the law and so also those commandments which pointed to His death on our behalf would pass away. What He would not change is the demand for love of God and love of the neighbour, which the Law of the Old Covenant teaches in all of its commandments in one way or another. His teaching is the standard by which the Law must now be measured. While the Law is limited to this age Mat 5:18 His words are eternal Mat 24:35. The law is for law breakers 1 Tim 1:8-10, which we will not be after this age, yet love will always remain 1 Cor 13:8, 10, 13.

The Lord further demonstrated this authority when He touched and cleansed the leper or was touched by an unclean woman or touched the dead. Under the law He would have been unclean, and should have undergone a cleansing ritual, but He was above that law 8:3; 9:20, 21, 25. He would bear on the cross the spiritual uncleanness of mankind to which this ritual unclean­ness pointed.

If Messianic Christianity wants to base itself on the literal interpretation of this text it would seem that they are bound to keep the whole law and be circumcised, but that is outright condemned in Scripture Gal 5:1-4. They will add, 'as reinterpreted by Christ and the Apostles', but in the meantime they do not admit the changes that Jesus has made and maintain their interpretation.

Endnotes🔗

  1. ^ I am not claiming that society should not operate on this principle.
  2. ^ The Lord's Day came in place of the Sabbath cf. Rev 1:10. The name is used by the Apostle John (kuriake) and is derived from the word Lord (kurios). It would not seem to be his invention, as it is used without introduction. It signifies that the Lord has laid claim to the first day of the week. 

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