Sunday

09 February 2014

“Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” (v. 17)


Background

These verses form part of the Sermon on the Mount; the first of Jesus sections of teaching found in Matthew's Gospel. Matthew's Gospel provides us with five teaching blocks to remind us of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, but we find here that Jesus is keen to assert that he is not trying to do away with the law and the prophets, but to fulfil it. In referring to the law and the prophets he is talking about the whole of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.

It must be remembered that the first hearers of Jesus were Jews and so when he is describing them as "the salt of the earth" (v. 13) and "the light of the world" (v. 14), he is describing the Jewish nation. When we consider this in the context of his subsequent statements about the law and the prophets it seems fair to assume that he is referring to their identity as a nation defined by these writings. Their saltiness is maintained by adherence to the law and the prophets, and their status as the light of the world occurs because of the faithfulness to these Scriptures. To not do so would be to lose their unique flavour. After all, who has ever heard of salt that is not salty? It is no longer salt. This would mean a loss of identity alongside of their unique role for the world. 

This passage is in many ways an introduction to what follows. In the subsequent verses we often hear the phrase "you have heard that it was said ... but I say to you ...." (eg vv. 21-22) and in each case Jesus makes the command even more stringent and as much about attitude as it is action. This is what he means in verse 20 when he calls for a righteousness that exceeds the Pharisees, and in verse 18 when he describes a stroke of a letter not being abolished from the law. It is not the detail of the written words, so much as the detail of our hearts.


To Ponder

  • What does being "the salt of the earth" or "the light of the world" mean to you?
  • What would Jesus say to the Jewish nation today?
  • To what extent is it possible to attain the righteousness that Jesus describes?


Bible notes author: The Revd Jonathan Mead

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