Jesus the law keeper

This is the second part of my essay on the Christian law.

In the New Testament, many of Jesus’ words indicate support for the old law. Most famously, we have a passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

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. For truly I tell you, 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. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly 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. (Matthew 5:17-20).

There are three things to note here: Jesus states explicitly that the law will continue to hold until “everything is accomplished”. It is not to be abolished. Second, he expects people to surpass the Pharisees and teachers of the law in their dedication to following the law. Third, he does not state that obedience to the law is necessary for salvation, he simply suggests that adherence to the law will be rewarded.

Importantly, there is no explicit indication that Jesus is speaking to a select group (such as the Jews) at the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible simply says that Jesus “saw the crowds” and began preaching to them. At a stretch, we might use the Old Testament to infer that Jesus is speaking to Jews only, since it is only Jews to whom the old law applies. However, most Christians claim that some parts of the sermon (e.g., teachings about loving one’s neighbor, turning the other cheek, etc.) apply to all people. Since the text makes no mention of which group of people each teaching is directed at, all of these inferences are ultimately speculative: taking the text at face value, the conservative conclusion is that, throughout the sermon, Jesus is preaching to everyone in the crowd, whether Jew or gentile.

Jesus holds up the law again in Luke:

It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. (Luke 16:17.)

The Golden Rule crops up in many religious traditions, and Christianity is no exception. Jesus weaves the law into the Golden Rule by saying:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12.)

Presumably Jesus views the old law in a positive light if he promotes the Golden Rule by claiming that it sums up the old law.

A similar attitude is expressed when Jesus is asked by the Pharisees which law is greatest. Instead of denouncing the old law and giving his own, Jesus quotes directly the two old laws he deems the greatest:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[Deuteronomy 6:5] This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[Leviticus 19:18] All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 32:27-40.)

Here, Jesus is giving his followers a heuristic to help them follow the spirit of the law. It is tempting to conclude from this that Jesus’ approach to the law is more relaxed than that of the teachers of the law. However, we have already heard that Jesus does not intend to abolish any laws. Furthermore, we even hear Jesus exhorting his followers to adhere to an even stricter standard than the law. Take, for instance, Jesus’ view on divorce:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27.)

and

Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:8-9.)

Later, Jesus explicitly commands his followers to obey the law by saying:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Matthew 23:1-3)

So, while Jesus has a very dim view of the behavior of the Pharisees, he nonetheless considers it important for people to follow the law that the Pharisees preached.

Earlier in Matthew, when Jesus heals a man, he indicates that the rituals of the law are still important:

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:3-4.)

The next part of this essay.

The previous part of this essay.

The introduction to this essay.

Advertisements

10 Responses to Jesus the law keeper

  1. RuediG says:

    Keith,

    “the conservative conclusion is that, throughout the sermon, Jesus is preaching to everyone in the crowd, whether Jew or gentile”
    I totally agree. But, Jesus also made clear that the things he was talking about would characterize those who want to and do follow him, not everyone in the crowd.
    “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
    These two are like “umbrella commandments.” So when christians today do all they can to love God, and to love the guy next door, they are keeping the whole law. It is in that sense that the whole law needs to be kept. The “law” is ultimately not a matter of eating kosher food, but of loving God and neighbor. In fact, it was never a matter of that – see Jesus’ teaching on King David eating bread that was reserved for priests, or people harvesting (or him healing) on the sabbath. Or, as he also showed, we are not to tithe cumin seeds but neglect to love God and neighbor.
    A detail: “when Jesus heals a man, he indicates that the rituals of the law are still important”
    Well, yes, but to whom, and why? For a leper who had been excluded from society, the only way back into social acceptance (according to society) was through the priests. Jesus simply gave the guy good advice on how to become an acceptable person again. That’s different from saying that he condoned the procedure; in this case, there were more immediate and weightier issues to deal with than procedural issues.

  2. kpharri says:

    Ruedi:

    “But, Jesus also made clear that the things he was talking about would characterize those who want to and do follow him, not everyone in the crowd.”

    Agreed.

    “These two are like “umbrella commandments.” So when christians today do all they can to love God, and to love the guy next door, they are keeping the whole law. It is in that sense that the whole law needs to be kept. The “law” is ultimately not a matter of eating kosher food, but of loving God and neighbor.”

    I agree. But we can take this a step further. Presumably Christians would still be perfectly justified in following the Mosaic law “to the smallest letter” if they so desired, since these laws fall under the umbrella of Jesus’ teachings. Indeed, Jesus says explicitly that he has not come to abolish the law, so adherence to the law is still a viable – even commendable – option for Christians, even if it is not compulsory in any way.

    As for the leper, I agree that Jesus may have had any number of laudable motives for telling him to follow the proper procedures. My point, however, is that Jesus would presumably not recommend a course of action to someone if it went against his own teachings. I have tried to clarify this point above.

    • RuediG says:

      Keith,

      “Presumably Christians would still be perfectly justified in following the Mosaic law “to the smallest letter” if they so desired, since these laws fall under the umbrella of Jesus’ teachings.”

      Paul in Galatians doesn’t seem to think so. But yes, in principle, they could, and messianic jews often do (or try to.) The problem comes with the question why they would do so.

      As a way to have a right relationship with God? No way – that depends ultimately always on God’s grace. We cannot keep the law to the smallest letter, even if we wanted to.

      As way to distinguish ourselves as better people? Ouch, that’s simply pride. The person who went home justified from their prayer was the repentant tax collector, not the righteous pharisee.

      As a way to minimize unnecessary and culturally conditioned antagonism? Maybe – that’s what Paul did when he had Timothy circumcised, or when he shaved his head in Jerusalem (which ultimately didn’t help him a bit – he was still arrested.)

      • kpharri says:

        Ruedi

        Paul tells Timothy (and us) exactly why adherence to the law is useful:

        “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17.)

  3. kpharri says:

    Ruedi:

    “But, Jesus also made clear that the things he was talking about would characterize those who want to and do follow him, not everyone in the crowd.”

    Having thought about this a little more, I’m not sure I still agree! Could you point me to the passage(s) in which Jesus “made clear” that he was only speaking to those who would follow him?

    • RuediG says:

      Keith,

      There may be two intersecting questions: Whom did Jesus address? and, Whom did he describe? He obviously addressed the crowd, and he told the crowd what it would take to be his followers. For example, “Blessed are those who…, If you forgive…, Those who build their house on the rock vs. on the sand…”: He is preaching to the whole crowd, but he makes a distinction between those who will be blessed (i.e., those who follow him), and those who do not.

      Of course that’s still a different question from the question who the NT was written for. For that, you’d have to look at Luke’s prologue (“most honorable Theophilus – “lover of God”.) But on second thought, I do have to revise my statement that the NT was only written for believers. John’s “But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name” (John 20:31) seems to indicate that “you” includes people who do not believe that Jesus is the Christ. I’m not sure this means that it was written for the skeptic (nothing wrong with a skeptical attitude except that it may involve an element of pride, and there’s a lot wrong with that), but certainly for the honest seeker and the uncertain believer. John goes a step farther in his first epistle when he writes “I write these things to you who believe in the name of God’s Son so that you can know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5.13). Maybe an appropriate conclusion would be that the gospels were written for people that would include non-believers, whereas the epistles (and Revelation) were addressed to believers only.

      • kpharri says:

        That makes sense. The Bible has long been considered a path through which non-believers can come to understand, and believe in, the message of Christianity, and I think this idea is born out by the text itself (with the obvious exceptions you pointed out).

  4. RuediG says:

    Keith, “Paul tell us why adherence to the law is useful: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,”

    That seems a bit of a jump. “The Scripture being useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training” isn’t exactly the same as “adherence to the law.” For example, I can learn from the law’s purity regulations that “moral purity” (as re-framed by Jesus) is important to God, without having to adhere to all the OT purity laws.

    Besides, “all Scripture” included a lot more than the law (even if understood as, say, the whole Pentateuch). It included things like Psalms, or Song of Solomon… How do you “adhere” to the Psalms? Or to Song of Solomon? (Uh, let’s skip that one. 🙂

  5. kpharri says:

    Ruedi:

    I think it’s pretty straightforward: the words “all scripture” mean “all scripture”. There’s nothing to indicate that the law should be excluded. And don’t get me wrong: I’m not necessarily claiming that Paul is asking us to adhere to the law, he’s simply saying that all scripture (which therefore includes the law) can be helpful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.

    As to what sorts of scriptures could be used for “rebuking” and “correcting”, it seems to me that the law fits the bill. But that is ultimately speculation.

    • RuediG says:

      Keith,

      No doubt the law (whether we use the term to refer to commandments/prohibitions, the Pentateuch, or the whole OT – all uses occur in the NT) is part of “all Scripture.” I’m only saying that even something like Psalm 23 can (legitimately) be used for “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness,” not just the parts of the OT that are commandments/prohibitions. And of course, whether someone is taught to do or not do something, and whether he actually adheres to the teaching are two separate issues. But I don’t think we see things fundamentally differently here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: