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.)
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.