What’s a Christian to do with the Old Testament law? Part 1

“The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed” – John Stott (from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, InterVarsity Press, 1978, p. 15.)

“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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

– Matthew 5:17-20

Sometimes, when preparing to teach the GAP, I foolishly think “I’m up to this”. The good news about the Sermon on the Mount is that I don’t hold any illusions about my qualifications to teach on it. Nearly every statement Christ makes in this sermon is a conundrum to me. When I read with open eyes and heart the words of Jesus, I find myself scandalized. So much of my life fails to line up with his words, and so many of his words don’t match my preconceived notions of what being a Christian is all about.

The good news here, again, is that I know that if Jesus and I aren’t lined up, I’m the crooked one.

Take this statement: 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.”

Now, that’s quite a statement, isn’t it?

Yet, I’m so glad Jesus said it! In that one statement Christ affirms the witness of the Old Testament about himself, and he begins lifting the fog that often surrounds my reading of the first five books of the Bible. Jesus lived in a time of great piety surrounding the Old Testament law, the Torah. And he was often accused, by the Jewish religious leaders, of ignoring or setting aside the law, which they held so dear.

And in my day I find myself confused when reading the Torah (don’t you?). How many of us read, for instance, Leviticus for pleasure?

We don’t get it. And the religious leaders didn’t get Jesus. He didn’t come to abolish God’s word. How could he? He is the Word!

No, Jesus has come to fulfill the law. He is the fulfillment, the end point of what the Old Testament was getting at. In his perfect life and atoning death he fulfilled what Moses and the prophets wrote about, commanded, and hungered for. Emmanuel, God with us, here to usher in a new age, a new Kingdom, a new way to be human.

And it only makes sense that Matthew would report Jesus’ words regarding the fulfillment of the law in himself. One of the main purposes of Matthew’s gospel is to show how Christ fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. Do a search sometime on the word “fulfill” in Matthew using your favorite Bible software or Bible website. Over and over you read “All this took place to fulfill . . .” and “that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled . . .”. By my rough count, there are fifteen such statements in Matthew. Jesus is the fulfillment!

Read Leviticus, and the other OT books of the law, with Jesus in mind and the seemingly dead regulations, sacrifices and symbols begin to sparkle with life. It’s all about him. Jesus is the firm foundation upon which the Bible must be read, to understand it and to live it.

Of course, knowing that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5 are crystal clear to me. I still struggle with them. And I know I’m not alone.

I’ll write more on this in a later post.

[Note: this was cross-posted on the HNW Gap Singles site]

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