verse XIII – The Law and Prophets
Law and prophets.
The transitional statements of Messiah Yeshua/Jesus regarding salt and light, following the beatitudes, leads to what we might consider parenthetical statements regarding the Law and the prophets. How do salt and light connect to the Law and prophets? Answer: one defines, while the other reflects.
In Matthew 5:17, Yeshua begins by saying, “Think not that I have come to destroy the Law and the prophets, I have not come to destroy but to fulfill.” This has been a troubling verse in the church for generations, well, for millennia really. At first glance it doesn’t seem to make much sense. After all, in the preceding verses Messiah has discussed brokenness, mourning, meekness, being merciful, pure in heart, etc… So why make a statement concerning the Law and the prophets here?
Those listening may have heard something that our contemporary ears are deaf to. With all that Yeshua has described in the beatitudes, culminating in the doing of good works, one could easily come to the conclusion that He is setting aside the Law and the prophets; as all that He has voiced since the opening of Matthew chapter 5 does not oblige one to honor the Law or the prophets.
Still, Yeshua knowing the hearts and minds of men states rather clearly – don’t think that, as I have no intention of setting the Law aside, rather I’m going to rightly interpret and demonstrate it for you. This, however, is not the conclusion reached in most sectors of church theology – no! the Law and prophets have been set aside.
Not so fast!
What Yeshua is saying does not lead us to receive that theological perspective with confidence. Followers of Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile, are not to be antinomian – they are not to oppose God’s Law – rather, as we considered in the beatitudes, they are to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness, not the righteousness of the Pharisees (At this point I will say, the Pharisees were not all bad, and their theology was not necessarily rooted in “self-righteousness,” but some did twist law and tradition to their advantage. More on this at a later date.)
The most striking aspect of Matthew 5:17-20 is that rather than purging the Torah from the minds of His followers, Yeshua is expecting fulfillment – that is, right application. This statement I make with some exceptions. No law of God is ever set aside or abrogated, as if we can overrule Him, whether or not they are literally applied today, however, this is a separate matter entirely. While a command of the Lord found in the Torah remains normative – it is His ethical standard, and therefore unchanging – it may find new direct application because of events in redemptive history – specifically the redemptive work of Messiah: e.g. sacrificial worship continues to be the normative will of God, but that worship is now by the offering of Messiah.
These points regarding normative and literally normative are often overlooked in the messianic community; also, the apodictic nature of a command, as compared to a casuistic, situational example of application, is often misunderstood.
Moses, the Law, Yeshua and destination.
In Luke chapter 24:27, after the resurrection of Yeshua, we read, “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself;” in other words, all that He fulfilled through His life, death and resurrection (cf. Jn. 5:46-47).
The apostle Paul explains in Romans 10:4, “For Messiah is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” The τέλος, telos, the teleological purpose, end, and goal of the Law; as the Torah leads us to recognize our need for reconciliation through the prophet who was to come (Deut. 15; cf. Matt. 17:1-8).
To hear this, one would think that Paul had a very negative view of the Torah – the Torah that he called “holy, right and good.” Yet, Paul knew that the Torah, as given through Moses, was to be a teacher of the righteous standard of the Lord – an avenue of discipleship – not the goal or destination, itself. The Torah taught man proper moral, ethical, social, governmental and interpersonal behavior – but it also revealed to us the improbability of the un-regenerated man living by it – the result of a lack in man, not the Torah itself. In this we find our need for a Savior.
Unfortunately many Christians foster a negative opinion of the Law, holding a belief that in Messiah there is unrestricted freedom (Gal. 5:13), and that in order to truly be free, we must be free of law, more precisely, instruction in this case.
The United States is considered the most free society in the world – but it has more laws on the books than any other nation in the world. Does this mean that we are less free? Theological confusion enters our picture by way of the Greek word translated as law, νόμος, which speaks in terms of civil law – not instruction – or Torah.
The Hebraic understanding of Torah is: loving instruction that helps us reach the mark. Sin on the other hand, is to be off the mark; both are references to the discipline of archery.
Messiah Yeshua gave the fullness of meaning of the instruction of God (Torah), sitting upon a mount, much like Sinai (Matt. 5:1-2). His Sermon sets the stage for many corrective lessons on living and applying the Torah to life that we will read in the Gospel record – correcting traditions and customs that had become burdensome (Matt. 23:4), in doing so, leading people back to the heart of the Lord’s revelation. He expects His followers to live by the normative behavior it prescribes as possible and applicable (Jn. 14:15), not in rigid, legalistic observance, but in Spirit and in truth. He underscores this by expressing the importance of teaching the Torah and the Prophets, and bringing their ethical and moral meaning into our lives, and the lives of those being discipled (Matt. 5:18-19; 28:18-20).
Many people get thrown off by numbers:
- Law in the United States: literally millions upon millions, a number actually unknown.
- Old Testament Laws: traditionally 613, of which only about 80 could be observed in the absence of the Holy Temple.
- New Testament Laws: 1050, all of which remain incumbent upon born-again believers: gender, age and positionally specific, of course.
Nevertheless, Yeshua warns us about becoming self-righteously fixated – even in a New Covenant context – by telling us that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. In many cases, absent in the observance of the Pharisee was faith-righteousness.
Faith reckoned as righteousness.
To those listening to Yeshua, the idea that they could equal or even surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees and their contemporaries was inconceivable. Theirs was a level of observance and piety, outwardly anyway, looked beyond reproach. With their meticulous observance of the Law and the traditions of the fathers, and their level of learning, how could the average Jew be expected to surpass their righteousness? Faith.
The Pharisees kept the Torah, by way of rabbinic tradition, meticulously; but Yeshua explains that they left the most important matters of faith undone (Matt. 23:23). Righteousness is not measured by outward appearance but by faith in the Lord and the life that produces – salt and light (cf. Gen. 15:6).
The standard is set in Genesis 15:6, Abraham believed the Lord and it was accounted to him for righteousness. This caused the author of Hebrews to explains, “Without faith it is impossible to please Him (the Lord), for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6).
Therefore we must have faith; and when we believe the Lord, through Messiah Yeshua, our righteousness will exceed that of the Pharisees because we will complete the command given: to, “love your neighbor as yourself…love the strangers as yourself…love your enemy.”
Messiah Yeshua has not done away with the Law, He rightly interpreted it, He did not destroy it – so that through faith in Him we will be able to live those words written upon our hearts, empowered by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.
A theological formula:
It took 1050 commandments in the New Covenant to explain the 613 commandments found in the Torah, which can be walked out in the one command of love, as Paul wrote, “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fullness of the Torah” (Ro. 13:10). Fullness, not elimination. And remember, a theological reduction, such as Matthew 7:12, does not eliminate what it has been reduced from.
And by faith in Messiah, not works, we enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Shalom. Be well.