Jesus and Law 2PMT 2014-059 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In my last article I began a study of Jesus’ teaching on God’s Law. This is important because postmillennialism expects God’s righteousness to prevail in the affairs of men, not just a general peace among men. The postmillennial hope involves a specific righteousness defined by God. And Jesus teaches that God’s Law prevails.

In this article I will continue the previous study of Matt 5. In doing so we will notice that the kingdom is central to Jesus’ presentation. We have already seen much in Jesus’ few words in Matt 5:17–19. But there is more!

The word “for [gar]” (Matt 5:18) introduces an explanation of verse 17. That which follows (vv 18ff), then, will justify the preceding statement (v 17). Furthermore, here when Christ says “truly” (amen), he is emphasizing the importance of the following statement. The Lord often uses this word to draw his hearers’ attention to an important observation he is about to make (e.g., Matt 5:26; 6:2, 5, 16; 8:10; 10:15). Thus, here he forthrightly declares: “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.” He is here comparing the stability of the Law to that of the Universe (cp. Matt 24:35; Luke 16:17; cf. Eccl 1:4; Psa 104:5; 119:90). The Law cannot be disannulled until the material heavens and earth pass away.

Once again underscoring his teaching on the Law Jesus states: “not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18b). The phrase “smallest letter or stroke” refers to the smallest Hebrew letter (the iota, which looks like our letter “i” ) and the ornamental strokes on the letters (we might say: crossing the “t” and dotting the “i”). Christ is concerned to show that God’s Law in its totality is being promoted by him. In the Greek he repeats the word “one” before “the smallest letter” and also before “stroke.” This provides even stronger emphasis: “not even one of the smallest letters nor one of the smallest strokes on a letter. . . .”

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When he says this will be so “until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18) we may literally translate it: “until all things are accomplished.” This statement parallels “until heaven and earth pass away.” In other words, not the smallest letter or stroke of the law will pass away before history ends.

As if he needs more emphasis Jesus backs up and reiterates what he has just stated: “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19). The phrase “one of the least of these commandments” repeats the emphasis of the smallest aspects of the Law in order to show its binding significance. If the least things are so important, how much more the large aspects of the Law?

In fact, the one who “annuls one of the least of these commandments” contradicts his teaching in this regard and is considered “least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19). This denunciation impacts that person’s status in the very kingdom which Jesus comes to establish on earth in the first century. John the Baptist (Christ’s forerunner, Matt 11:10–11) comes on the scene preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2). When Jesus begins his ministry not long after John, he also preaches this message of the nearness of the kingdom and therefore urges repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17b). He later commissions his disciples to preach the same (Matt 10:7).

Jesus sees John as the last of the Old Testament prophets, the last of the old covenant representatives. Thus, those who follow Jesus begin entering the kingdom of heaven (the new covenant) which he is establishing (Matt 11:11–12). As Luke’s version puts it: “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since then the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it” (Luke 16:16). Many of the Lord’s parables deal with the kingdom of heaven (e.g., Matt 13; 18:23 19:12–23; 20:1–16; 22:1–14).

Following this strong statement of the Law’s validity and its importance to his kingdom, Christ decries scribal distortions of the Law through adhering to the oral interpretation of tradition rather than the faithful exposition of Scripture (Matt 5:21–48). Though a cursory reading of his following comments might suggest Jesus is speaking against God’s Law, this cannot be the case for several reasons:

(1) Christ would not contradict his own teaching. He has just vigorously asserted that he is not opposed to God’s Law, that it would continue in effect until history ends, and that anyone who claims to follow him and annuls the least of the commandments will himself be deemed the least in his kingdom (Matt 5:17–20). Surely he would not boldly and massively contradict himself beginning in the very next sentence (Matt 5:21).

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(2) Jesus would not contradict basic morality. Consider the first example in his list: “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you. . . .” (Matt 5:21–22a). Surely Jesus is not repealing the law against murder.

(3) Jesus would not contradict biblical revelation. We should note that Christ is actually contrasting that which is “written” over against that which “the ancients were told,” i.e., he is contrasting God’s Word with rabbinic tradition. Note what he states elsewhere: “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?’” (Matt 15:3b). When Jesus refers to God’s Law in its true, undistorted sense, he declares: “It is written” (e.g., Matt 4:4, 6, 7, 10; 21:13; Mark 7:6; Luke 4:17ff; Luke 10:26; 20:17; 21:22; 22:37; John 8:17; 10:34; 15:25; etc.).

To be continued



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