29 July 2016Matthew 5:17-20
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (vv. 17-18)
Psalm: Psalm 122
Let's admit it, on first reading these statements of Jesus seem staggering and inexplicable. The New Testament majors on the grace of God and the need for salvation to be received through faith. Paul's letters whilst highlighting the importance of the law regarded it as at best "our disciplinarian until Christ came" (Galatians 3:24). Even allowing for the fact that Matthew's Gospel is the most 'Jewish' of the Gospels and that its accounts are almost always edited with an understanding glance towards the Old Testament, we are frankly staggered to read here of Jesus' own attitude to the Law and the stringent adherence he espouses.
So, what do we do with this? We can dismiss it as an editorial manipulation if we choose. Though we would have to ask the purpose of making this up. We can argue about the exact meaning of the words used by Jesus: and there is some value in that. However, perhaps the most profitable way to consider these verses is to remember that at the time of Jesus, the term 'law' could be understood in a number of different ways. It was used to refer to the Ten Commandments (nine of which are restated in the New Testament). It was used to refer to the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch) which was regarded by the Jewish people of Jesus' day as the perfect summation of the law. The phrase 'the Law and the Prophets' was used to describe the whole of Scripture (Old Testament of course), and lastly the law could also be used to describe the myriad regulations added over the generations by the Scribes and religious professionals. Essentially, the early expressions of the Law (the Commandments and the Pentateuch) set out significant, broad brushstroke principles by which the Lord wanted people to live, but with the passage of time detail-after-detail, and regulation-after-regulation had obscured these original principles and transformed the law in to a library of subheadings and clauses that imposed an unmanageable burden on the people. And there was no way that Jesus would have looked at this 'rule book' and said 'Let's keep it and make sure we keep it completely'. How do we know that? Because he didn't do it himself. There are many examples of Jesus breaking the law, in the sense although he would be guided by principles, but he would reject the small-minded interpretation and application of those principles imposed by the Scribes (eg healing on the Sabbath - Matthew 12:10-14).
Jesus' words, if understood through this filter, are an encouragement to take the principles of godly living seriously; to take God's pattern for living as ourpattern for living - but not to become weighed down with all the human additions and regulatory bureaucracy that have become attached to them and crush the life out of living.
- What saps the spiritual dynamism from your life?
- If you had to name four key principles to shape the outworking of your faith, what would they be?