Jesus and the Law of Moses
Peter D. Goodgame
The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!
"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." (Matt. 5:17-18)
"Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." (2 Cor. 5:17)
The message that Jesus was sent to proclaim was the good news of the Kingdom of God. I really think that in the midst of all of our complicated and competing theologies built up over the last two thousand years we have lost sight of this basic truth. We focus almost entirely on who Jesus was and what He did, while we tend to forget the message that He came to proclaim. Jesus Himself said (Luke 4:42-43), "I must preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of Godů for I was sent for this purpose."
Jesus of Nazareth knew that He was the Messiah destined to save Israel and to redeem the entire world, including the Gentile nations. Jesus also knew that this redemption that marked the "breaking in" of the Kingdom of God upon a fallen world would also come with a new standard of righteousness. If we pay attention to what happens at the very beginning of the Gospel accounts we can see how the announcement of this "good news of the Kingdom of God" established the foundation for everything else that Jesus said and did.
Unfortunately this foundational aspect of Jesus' mission is virtually ignored within a large segment of Protestantism: specifically within various "Once Saved Always Saved" (OSAS) Reformed churches that trace their theology to Luther or Calvin, within the various churches that peg their doctrinal narrative to versions of dispensationalism, and within the "hyper-grace" Charismatic/Pentecostal movement as typified by the false teachings of Joseph Prince. All of these groups make the same mistake of somehow finding a way to dismiss the teachings of Jesus. Some say that Jesus was teaching Israel and not the Church and some say that Jesus taught Law as opposed to Grace. All of them end up elevating various (mis-) interpretations of Paul's theology over the clear teachings of Jesus.
The truth is that Jesus taught about the "Kingdom of God" from the very beginning of His public ministry right up until the very moment that He ascended into Heaven from the Mount of Olives. It was a unified message from beginning to end and it was this very same message that Jesus commissioned His twelve Apostles to preach to all the world. The "kingdom message" of Jesus was unified and it was also complete. It did not need the additional revelation or insight of a thirteenth apostle to make it a complete message. That is why Jude (v.3) could write of "...the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints."
In parallel with this truth about the message of Jesus comes the realization that the dawning of the "Kingdom of God" brought with it the establishment of a new and eternal Covenant which stands in distinction to Israel's Mosaic Covenant that was both conditional and temporary.
Just what is "The Gospel"?
The Gospel can be best summarized in seven words: The kingdom of heaven is at hand!
For the record, the phrase "the kingdom of heaven" has the exact same meaning as "the kingdom of God." The Gospel of Matthew prefers to use the former phrase, while Mark's Gospel uses the latter, but they mean the very same thing.
This is "The Gospel" in its most generalized and foundational form. This is the "Good News." Yes, personal individual salvation is a part of this Gospel, but your personal salvation is merely a derivative sub-plot of this greater Gospel. We have to realize this! The Gospel is not primarily about you, it's about Him, and about God re-claiming and redeeming a renegade portion of His creation, including the very earth itself. So who was the first person in the New Testament to announce this good news?
In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying,
Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matt. 3:1-2)
John announced that it was time to prepare for the coming of God's kingdom and He also predicted the One who would personally lead Israel and usher in that kingdom: "...he who is coming after me is mightier than I... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." John then baptized Jesus and a voice from heaven spoke identifying Jesus as God's son. Who better to lead Israel into the kingdom of God than the very "Son of God" Himself?
When it occurred the baptism of Jesus was an event largely unnoticed by those outside the Jordan valley. Yet the reality is that this was a great and decisive cosmic event! It was in fact the "shot across the bow" that stirred Satan, the "god of this world," into action. The kingdom of God was at hand and here to introduce it and bring it into being was God's very own Son! Yes, the devil recognized that his throne was being challenged! After His baptism Jesus then went into the wilderness to fast and pray for forty days. Then the devil arrived to tempt Jesus using the same three-fold approach that was used against Eve: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Yet Jesus passed the test, and afterwards He entered into Galilee full of the power of the Spirit.
According to Mark's account (1:15) Jesus began His public ministry by proclaiming, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." Matthew's account (4:17) has Jesus saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." The Gospel of Luke records that Sabbath morning when Jesus appeared in the synagogue in Nazareth to read from Isaiah 61, which Jesus concluded by saying (4:21), "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Let's examine this Scripture passage and see why it was the perfect introduction to the ministry of Jesus. Luke writes that Jesus read only the first few lines,
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor... (Isaiah 61:1-2a)
It is generally explained that Jesus stopped his reading here because the next sentence speaks of God's vengeance, which was not a part of Jesus' earthly ministry and is reserved for His second coming. This may be true, but if we continue to read the rest of the passage we will see several more themes that apply specifically to what Jesus had been sent to accomplish:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor... to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:1, 2b-3)
Yes, here we see that Jesus was sent to deliver good news to the poor, and to bring comfort to those who mourn! And just how are the poor encouraged and the mourners comforted? It is through the freedom that is announced through Isaiah's anointed messenger! The Messiah is sent to deliver the permanent Jubilee of freedom and debt forgiveness, the shadow of which we find in the Mosaic Covenant in Leviticus 25. That is what the Kingdom of God is all about. That is why it is truly good news. It is "The Gospel" in its purest form.
The Sermon on the Mount: The Manifesto of the Kingdom of God
In Matthew 4 we read that Jesus traveled throughout Galilee proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and then He proved it by "healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people." In Acts 10:38 Peter refers back to this time saying that, "...God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him." The healing miracles of Jesus were a demonstration of the reality of the Kingdom of God being manifested on the earth. Sickness and disease are a part of the devil's kingdom, and when God's kingdom breaks in healing and deliverance breaks in as well, proving that God's kingdom is more powerful than any potential enemy. This was true in Jesus' day and it is still true today. Because of these miracles it is recorded that Jesus became a local celebrity, with people coming to see him from throughout Galilee and Judea, from beyond the Jordan, and even from neighboring Syria. Yes, it is very likely that Gentiles were drawn to Jesus right from the beginning of His ministry!
During this time there is no record of Jesus proclaiming or teaching anything other than this simple message of, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand!" Yet as the miracles piled up we can be sure that this only increased the curiosity of the multitudes that followed Him! What does He mean, "the kingdom of heaven is at hand"? What does it mean for our lives? How can we expect things to change? These questions, and many more, must have been posed by those that followed Jesus as He traveled throughout Galilee.
The Sermon on the Mount is the very first teaching that Jesus gave that answers the many questions that were generated by Jesus' announcement of the Kingdom. It is also the most comprehensive and specific. In the first few hundred years of Christianity this sermon, found in Matthew 5-7, was viewed as a catechism for new believers. It was then and should be viewed now as the basic "operating system manual" for people who claim to follow Jesus Christ as citizens of the Kingdom of God. In this teaching Jesus begins by pointing out the groups of people who will be the most blessed as the Kingdom of God arrives and continues to expand:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:3-10)
As we can see, the very beginning of this eight-fold declaration of "blessings" falls right in line with what it says in Isaiah 61 about good news being preached to the poor, and comfort coming to those who mourn.
No mention here of good works as filthy rags, which is another classic doctrinal mis-application of Scripture that comes to us from Martin Luther and was part of his theological foundation of sand.
After the beatitudes when Jesus describes those who will be the most blessed by the arrival of the kingdom of heaven He then turns to His audience (Matt. 5:13-16) and encourages them to accept responsibility for the message that He is declaring to them. He refers to them as salt and light saying, "You are the light of the world! Don't hide your light! It is your good works that will glorify your Father in heaven!"
In Matthew 4:12-16 we are introduced to the ministry of Jesus through a reference to Isaiah 9, which predicts a "Great Light" that would first appear in Galilee and culminate with the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom. This Great Light was Jesus, and in the Gospel of John we find many times where Jesus calls Himself the Light. Yet in His first sermon Jesus tells His audience, "You are the light of the world!" This must have sounded incredible to His listeners, yet this falls in line also with what Isaiah 61 predicted regarding those who would be comforted by the Anointed Messenger. Isaiah predicted that the "mourners" would be transformed into "oaks of righteousness" by the message of the Anointed One, that they would rebuild what had become desolate, and that God Himself...
...will direct their work in truth, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. And their seed shall be known among the Gentiles, and their offspring among the people: all that see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed which the LORD hath blessed. (Isaiah 61:8-9)
Yes, here we arrive at the revelation that the Anointed Messenger of Isaiah 61 would establish an "everlasting covenant" with Israel as part of His mission! His people would become known to the Gentiles and be recognized as those who are blessed by God! Again, with these words found in Isaiah we have a connection to the "blessings" announced by Jesus and we see that those hearing Jesus' message would become the "Light of the World" by being recognized as "blessed" by God and by doing good works that glorify His Name.
Anointed to Fulfill the Law
After declaring who would be the most blessed by the kingdom of heaven, and then calling His listeners to embrace their new role as the "Light of the World," Jesus then began to address some important issues that would arise as a result of His radical new message of the arrival of God's Kingdom:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. (Matt. 5:17-18)
Here Jesus was making it clear that He had not come to advocate lawlessness. His message was not to be received as against the Law and the Prophets, but should instead be recognized as fulfilling the Law. Jesus makes this clear at the beginning of His ministry, yet the Gospels go on to record that this was precisely the issue that caused so much friction between Jesus and the "Teachers of the Law." On one hand Jesus says that every jot and tittle of the Law will remain until heaven and earth pass away, yet on the other hand we see Jesus breaking the Sabbath, violating purity regulations by deliberately touching lepers and corpses, and opposing (and in fact halting) the perfectly lawful application of a punishment upon a guilty adulteress (John 8). Jesus goes on to say,
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:19-20)
This is a very hard-core statement that seems to uphold the view of Torah-observant Christians that Jesus was a reformer sent to call Israel back to the strict observance of the Mosaic Law. Yet Jesus Himself showed no such literal devotion to the letter of the Mosaic Law! Later in the Gospels we read that Jesus defended and protected His disciples who were breaking the Sabbath in Matthew 12:3-8, He directed the healed paralytic to break the Sabbath in John 5:8, and Jesus Himself then admitted to breaking the Sabbath in John 5:17-18. So just what is going on here in light of Jesus' statement that whoever teaches men to break the least commandment shall be least in the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount Old Covenant law Jesus instructs paralytic to break the Sabbath
Matthew 5:17-19 -
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.
Exodus 20:10 -
But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work.
Jeremiah 17:21-22 -
Thus saith the LORD; Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem; Neither carry forth a burden out of your houses on the sabbath day, neither do ye any work, but hallow ye the sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers.
John 5:5-18 -
And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years... Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath. The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed... And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day. But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work. Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.
My view is that throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offers an overall teaching of the kingdom of heaven that is implicitly subversive of the Law of Moses. He acknowledges the authority of the Law of Moses for the present age, yet looks forward to the reality of the eternal age of the Kingdom of God, which is even presently breaking in and taking over!
Through all of this we must remember the mystical nature of God's Kingdom. For Jesus the Kingdom is a present reality, yet at the same time it is something to be expected and anticipated that will not arrive in its fullness until the very end. That is why Jesus can say that "the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21) and, "If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God know that the Kingdom of God has arrived" (Matt. 12:28), while at the same time He can speak parables and make predictions that show the Kingdom arriving at the end of the age. This is the paradoxical "already, but not yet" nature of the Kingdom of God. This must be understood before we can even begin to understand Jesus' relationship with the Law of Moses.
Temporary and Deficient
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus pays lip service to the Law of Moses even as He suggests three ways in which the Old Covenant law is both temporary and deficient:
1. The law will remain only until heaven and earth pass away. Jesus makes this statement at the beginning of His ministry, but then at the end (recorded in Matthew 24:35, Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33) Jesus contrasts the temporary nature of the Mosaic Law with the eternal nature of His own words saying, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall never pass away." Remember also that this statement about the law's relation to heaven and earth must not be separated from this next one:
2. The law will remain until it is fulfilled, and Jesus came to fulfill the law. Consider for a moment all of the jots and tittles written down throughout the Torah that concern the Levitical priesthood, the upkeep of the sanctuary, and the comprehensive and detailed system of animal sacrifices. Heaven and earth are both still here, yet even the most ardent "Torah-observant" Christian accepts that all of these jots and tittles are of no effect in the everyday life of the believer who is "in Christ." Sacrifices have ceased, the Temple has been destroyed, and the Levitical priesthood has been replaced by the priesthood of all believers with Jesus as our High Priest. We all realize that for all intents and purposes these areas of the Torah have been abolished by the death and resurrection of the Messiah (despite the fact that it seems that Jesus said that He had not come to abolish the Torah). With this reality in mind it becomes clear to me that Jesus' statement speaks specifically of His purpose rather than being a strict literal statement upholding "every jot and tittle" Torah observance until the end of the age. In other words, Jesus did not come for the specific purpose of abolishing the law, rather He came to fulfill it. But in fulfilling it He did indeed effectively abolish it, but only in the sense of simply replacing it with something better. If we can recognize the stark reality of all of the abolished "jots and tittles" for things such as animal sacrifice, which all believers agree upon, then the door is open to consider the openly debated aspects of Torah observance such as Sabbath-keeping and dietary restrictions as well.
3. The Law of Moses is deficient when compared to the requirements concerning righteousness for the kingdom of heaven. Jesus implies that this is the case when He says to His audience that their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees if they want to enter into the kingdom of heaven. The scribes and Pharisees were the teachers of the law who prided themselves on a strict and literal observance of the Torah down to the smallest letter, yet Jesus declared that you must be more righteous than these legal experts to enter into the kingdom of heaven. We see that after Jesus gives His preliminary statements of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:1-20, ending with his remarks pointing to a higher standard of righteousness, He then begins to examine a sequence of Old Covenant laws contrasting their requirements with the new requirements that would govern the "already, but not yet" kingdom of heaven. We will pick up on these differences between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant in Part Three.
On a final note I must remind my Torah-observant friends (who are perhaps indignant and offended at this point) that Jesus did not fulfill and therefore abolish the temporary Old Covenant law and leave His people behind with nothing. Absolutely not! I think that was precisely the point that Jesus was trying to make when He said that His purpose was not to abolish but to fulfill. Jesus said, "The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached," (Luke 16:16). Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant but then at the same time He gave us the Kingdom of God! And this eternal kingdom is founded on a new and better eternal Covenant, which is referred to within the great prophecy of the Anointed Messenger (Isaiah 61:8), which was the prophetic starting point for Jesus' mission. The Sermon on the Mount is simply the first teaching from Jesus on the specific nature of this eternal New Covenant, and it offered an important preliminary glimpse of what it means to follow Jesus and to enter into His heavenly Father's eternal Kingdom.
Notes and Sources
Did Jesus Violate the Purity Laws in OT?, Philip Pang
THE KINGDOM OF GOD: PRESENT REALITY OR FUTURE HOPE?, Christopher W. Cowan
Is the Law of Moses Eternal?, HaDavar Messianic Ministries
The Gospel According to Jesus, Marc Carrier (deals with the subject of "filthy rags" on page 14)
Martin Luther's Foundation of Sand, Peter Goodgame
Jesus and the Law of Moses
Part One: Does Paul teach that followers of Christ remain under the authority of the Law of Moses?
Part Two: The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!
Part Three: The Sanctity of Marriage
Part Four: Yeshua the Lawgiver
Part Five: The Eternal Order of Melchizedek
December 28, 2013