“(17) Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. (18) 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. (19) Therefore, whoever breaks 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” (Matthew 5:17-19, NRSV).
In my previous article (Did The “Prince Of Peace” Come Bearing A Sword?) I wrote about another “Do not suppose that I have come to…” passage in the New Testament. It was a passage sometimes used to mock the Gospel of Jesus as being hopelessly self contradictory. Many passages of the Bible, both in the Old Testament prophets and in the New Testament writers, speak of the Messiah as being a bringer of peace to men. He is the “Prince of peace”, his message is the “Gospel of peace”, and the angels are said to have announced “peace on earth, good will toward men” as a result of his coming into the world. Through him believers are said to have “peace with God”. Yet Jesus said that he came not to bring peace, but a sword, turning family members against each other.
The fact is that the ministry of the Messiah was to be twofold: he would bring both salvation and judgment. As the prophet Isaiah had put it: “(1) The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; (2) to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God…” (Isaiah 61:1 and 2). That might seem to be contradictory, but nevertheless both things are comprehended in the ministry of the Messiah.
On occasion, when some people emphasized one aspect of the truth in a way that suppresses the other aspect of the truth, Jesus or his followers would reverse that tendency by expressing themselves in a way that would shock their hearers. They would sound like they were actually denying the aspect of the truth which had been popularly emphasized. And in fact, when the words are interpreted literally, it is a denial or contradiction. That is why it is so important to keep in mind the statement Jesus made when many of his followers thought he was crazy and were leaving him (when he spoke of the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood in order to have life): “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). Or as the apostle Paul said (2 Corinthians 3:6): “…who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life”. Jesus, as it were, threw cold water in the faces of his hearers in order to shock them into thinking clearly.
This type of paradoxical, seemingly contradictory manner of speaking can be a more ‘fun’ and memorable way of expressing the truth also. For instance, Proverbs 26:4 and 5 seem to be glaringly contradictory verses: “(4) Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself. (5) Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes”. By expressing himself in this paradoxical manner, the author catches our attention and makes us think. He could have said: “When you respond to a fool, be sure you don’t use the same kind of foolish speech, because that will make you a fool just like him. But also be sure you answer the fool in a way that will expose his folly, so he doesn’t think himself wise when he’s not”. But using that paradoxical mode of expression is so much more interesting.
In the same way, Jesus said (Matthew 5:39, English Standard Version): “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”. Yet his brother (physically and spiritually) James said (James 4:7): “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Is that a contradiction? Well, if you insist on interpreting according to the ‘letter which kills’, it certainly is. But when you interpret ‘according to the spirit’, recognizing the ‘fun’ kind of paradoxical speech, you see that it’s not a contradiction at all. Jesus said not to resist an evil person by responding in the same evil way; don’t hit back when he hits you. But James says to resist the evil one (the devil) by refusing to submit to his suggestions or demands.
So, how do I think this all applies to the verses in Matthew 5? Many people think that Jesus was saying here that nothing in the law or prophets – not even the smallest stroke of a pen – would ever pass away so long as this physical world exists. Therefore, all the laws about executing adulterers and Sabbath breakers are still valid; laws about clean and unclean foods, not mixing together various materials in the clothing we wear, and people with deformities not being allowed into the ‘congregation of the LORD’ should still be enforced. Physical circumcision should still be a requirement.
Some say Jesus’ teaching was completely different from that of Paul, who they think was more the enemy of the ‘true’ teachings of Jesus than a faithful apostle of the Christ. After all, it is well known that Paul taught that “we are not under law, but under grace”. With the “new covenant” being written on our hearts, the “old covenant” written on stone is done away. In Galatians 3, Paul said this about the law: “What purpose then does the law serve? It was added [to the Abrahamic covenant] because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made… ” (verse 19). And: “(23) But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. (24) Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (25) But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (NKJV). And in Ephesians 3:15, Paul said that Christ – in doing away with the division between Jew and Gentile – has “abolished in his flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances”.
The problem is, though, that it was not only Paul who seemed to be in conflict with Jesus’ statement that while heaven and earth existed, not even the smallest part of the law and prophets would be done away with. No sooner had Jesus said those words, than he himself began to set aside at least some of the Old Covenant laws! 😯 Read Matthew 5 and notice the number of times Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said… But I say unto you”.
Let’s look at just a couple of these statements. In verses 31 and 32, Jesus said this: “(31) Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ (32) But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” In the law of Moses, divorce was permitted with virtually no restrictions. If you wanted a divorce, you could have one. But Jesus says divorce is not permitted except for sexual immorality. This is expanded upon in Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:1-12. There are some differences in the way Matthew and Mark present the incident, so I’ll follow Matthew’s account. The Pharisees asked Jesus if it was legitimate to divorce one’s wife for just any reason (Mark doesn’t include the “for just any reason” part of the question). Jesus referred them to the first chapters of Genesis, concerning Adam and Eve. Husband and wife were to be joined together as ‘one flesh’. “So then they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (verse 6). The Pharisees then asked why it was that Moses had said it was okay to give a certificate of divorce and put away one’s wife. Jesus responded that Moses had permitted divorce because of their hard hearts, but it wasn’t allowed from the beginning. So Jesus told them that divorce was not permissible except for the cause of sexual immorality. Therefore Jesus set aside (or annulled) part of the Mosaic law.
In Matthew 5:38 and 39, we read this: “(38) You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ (39) But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Therefore, Jesus has again set his own judgment in contrast with what was in the law of Moses. No doubt the “eye for an eye” stipulation of Moses was itself intended as a protection, to prevent people from going to extremes to avenge a wrong. You don’t kill someone because he knocked out one of your teeth. But Jesus said even that was not good enough. When someone hits you, don’t retaliate by hitting him back. Jesus’ teaching is that when someone does something to offend or hurt you, you should respond by doing something good and kind to him.
Consider also what Jesus had to say about food: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile…Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? (Thus he declared all foods clean.)“ (Mark 7:15, 18, 19). Despite all of the dietary laws of Moses, Jesus here declared all foods to be clean. Paul was perfectly in keeping with his Lord when he said: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
The key to the verses referred to at the beginning of this article (Matthew 5:17-19) lies in the word “fulfill” or “make full”. Although Jesus was about to say many things which would set aside the letter of the Mosaic law, he wanted his hearers to understand that, paradoxically, he would actually be bringing out the ‘spirit’ of the law – its inner meaning and perfection – and thus making the law ‘full’ by the very act of doing away with some of the commandments. His own commandments were in fact superior to the letter of the Mosaic law; and it was his own commandments – which he was about to give in the remainder of chapters 5-7 in Matthew – to which he referred in verse 19: “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of THESE commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
The commandment of physical circumcision could be set aside, because the ‘spirit’ of the law is fulfilled in ‘circumcising’ our hearts – being set aside to God in our innermost being. Commandments about putting lawbreakers to death can be set aside because, when we realize the real intent of the law, we’ll realize that none of us could survive if we followed those punishments. That’s why, when an adulterous woman was brought to Jesus and he was asked whether the Mosaic law commanding her death should be fulfilled, Jesus didn’t just nullify the commandment by saying “no”; he dramatized his answer by saying that anyone there who felt he wasn’t himself guilty and deserving of the full punishment of the law should throw the first stone. The only one there who would have survived a strict adherence to the Mosaic law was Jesus himself; and his ‘law’ was love and compassion. Mahatma Gandhi was correct when he pointed out that if we live by the rule of “an eye for an eye”, it will just make the whole world blind.
Laws about clean and unclean things, including foods, go back to the same answer Jesus gave about divorce: it was not so in the beginning. Everything God created was “very good”; it was only man’s twisted decision to believe in ‘good and evil’ that introduced this dualistic philosophy. In the law God had essentially said, “You want good and evil? I’ll give you good and evil! I’ll give you so many distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that you’ll have a difficult time keeping up with them!” But when Jesus came bringing ‘grace and truth’ in contrast with the law of Moses (John 1:17), the twisted division mankind had inaugurated at the instigation of ‘the serpent’ was overcome; mankind was ‘reconciled to God’ and all those legal distinctions between ‘clean and unclean’ were done away. The law ‘made sin exceedingly sinful’, but grace and truth in Jesus Christ puts away that sin and brings reconciliation. Jesus made the law full, even by doing away with the law! That’s a paradox, no doubt, but nevertheless it’s a great truth. 😀
More and more I enjoy the delightful paradoxes and on-the-surface contradictions of the Bible. The Prince of Peace comes to bring a sword; the one who came not to destroy the law but fulfill it, immediately starts setting aside the law.
One other thing to keep in mind about this statement of Jesus concerns “heaven and earth” passing away. “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” (NRSV). The Biblical prophets, Jesus and his apostles, understood such things metaphorically. For instance, Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17 – “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” In Christ, according to Paul, the “old” heavens and earth have passed away, and there is a “new” heaven and earth. It had already been inaugurated for the believers in Christ Jesus; but it would come fully into existence with the complete destruction of the whole Mosaic order when the Roman army conquered Israel and destroyed its capital city, Jerusalem, and the Temple which was the centerpiece of the ‘old heavens and earth’. That’s why Peter said he and his readers were “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire. But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Peter 3:12 and 13). Those apostles of Jesus Christ, and believers in him and his message, knew very well that it was the ‘last hour’ of that Old Covenant age, as John said: “Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18 NKJV). Or as Peter said: “But the end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). Jesus had told them: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her. For these are the days of vengeance, that all things that are written may be fulfilled” (Luke 21:22).
Oh yes, it’s true that Jesus did not come to destroy the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them. And with the destruction of Jerusalem, all things that were written were fulfilled. Jesus did not teach that everything in the law would last as long as the physical earth existed, but that it would last until the old heavens and earth passed away, and all was fulfilled. There was a gradual process, during the time between his earthly ministry and his ‘second coming’ in 70 A.D., wherein all things were accomplished. The Roman armies destroying Jerusalem put the finishing touches on the process. The ‘old’ with its ‘old covenant’ has indeed passed away, and the ‘new’ with its ‘new covenant’ has come. Jesus, James, Peter, John, and Paul were all in agreement about this.