Keeping the law

If you knew someone was lying about you, what would you do about it? If you knew that a lie was causing people who knew you problems, and was causing you to lost your reputation, what would you do about it?  And what if the lie was being spread by both your enemies and your friends?  We would be upset, irritated, or downright angry. There was a lie many were telling about Jesus during His ministry.  Sadly, many of His followers still tell that same lie about Him, not on purpose but because they don’t assimilate everything He said.

That lie is that Jesus spoke against God’s law. His enemies in that day said that He was changing the law, that He was creating a division between Moses and the prophets with Himself.  They said Jesus was inventing new laws and abolishing the old ones and teaching men to do the same.  He was about to give further exposition of the law given to Moses, and He wanted it to be clear that He wasn’t changing or getting rid of anything. Instead of coming to destroy everything, He came to fulfill it.  To quote from the notes in the Geneva Bible, “Christ did not come to bring any new way of righteousness and salvation into the world, but indeed to fulfill that which was shadowed by the figures of the Law, by delivering men through grace from the curse of the Law: and moreover to teach the true use of obedience which the Law appointed, and to engrave in our hearts the power for obedience.”

Indeed Jesus did not come bringing another way of salvation other than what they had in the old covenant.  He was, is, and always will be the only way of salvation. His coming brought the fulfillment of salvation.

Why did Jesus make this statement?  He highlights the law of God.  You may ask, “Which laws?”  Jesus didn’t make that distinction. God’s law is God’s law and it is eternal (Jer. 31:33).  What law is Jeremiah referring to? The law revealed in the Torah.  The law is God’s revelation of Himself, of His very nature to men.  This is who He is.  To destroy God’s law is to destroy His nature. If Jesus were to destroy God’s law, He would not be God and the Trinity would not exist.

The word “fulfill” in verse 17 is usually thought of as Jesus obeying it completely on our behalf.  But it can also mean verify or establish.  One commentator said it like this, “Jesus is not adding new laws, but simply expounding a proper understanding of the old laws.”[i] And this is not just the moral aspects of the law.  The ceremonial law is just as must a part of God’s nature as the moral and civil laws. The sacrifices, feasts, and even clothing requirements are revelations of God’s nature.  The ceremonial elements are shadows and pictures of what was to come, but they reveal heavenly things (see Hebrews 9).  So Jesus’ fulfilling the law does not primarily refer to the fact that He obeyed it, but that He verified, confirmed, and gave divine exposition of them.

In verse 18, Jesus further confirms God’s law by saying that until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle (the smallest letter and the smallest mark in the Hebrew alphabet) shall pass from the law until all be fulfilled.  Jesus is saying that God’s law will stop when the earth stops; God’s law will no longer abide as long as the earth exists.  Luke mentions this phrase in a similar fashion in Luke 16:17, and it helps us understand what Jesus means.  The phrase “till all be fulfilled” is better translated, “until all is accomplished.”  That is, in fact, the translation of the ESV, and similar to other conservative translations.  In other words, God’s word, His testimonies will still be in existence until history is complete.  Is this any different than what He said in Isaiah 40:8? 51:6?  Psalm 119:89-91?  No.  Jesus’ point is that God’s law stands.

The necessity of obedience to God’s law – vv. 19-20

What role does God’s law have in your life? Is it your companion, the one who stands with you?  Psalm 1:2. Do you love it? Psalm 119:97,113,163

In verse 19, Jesus said that one’s standing in the kingdom of God is based on two things: your obedience to God’s law and your instruction to others in God’s law. First He said that if you break one of these least commandments and then teach men to do likewise, you will be least in the kingdom of heaven.  That may sound harsh, but later we will get to the difficulty of obeying God’s law. The pictures behind Jesus’ words here is the Pharisees.  They were not keeping the law of God.  In fact, they were using added traditions of men to override the law of God (Matt. 23:23).  Jesus said that is wrong.

There are two elements here:  your walk and your talk. Do you obey God’s commands?  Of course the pietist in you wants to say, “No, I don’t obey like I should.”  Okay. Do you strive for obedience? Does your life match up with what God says it should? How do you know?  Do you love God (Deut. 6:5)? Do you honor your neighbor? Do you give your tithe to God (Mal. 3:8)?  Or do you excuse yourself because of extenuating circumstances? It’s easy to explain things away and, in fact, forgo obedience to your Savior. Jesus has just listed attributes of one who is blessed and in the kingdom of God.  But these virtues culminate in obedience to God’s law.  If you say you have faith but don’t have works, your faith is dead (James 2:20). If this brings conviction to you, good.  Confess your sin and repent of your dead works.

If you feel burdened because you forgot to put a plastic bottle in the recycle bin and put it in the trash bin instead, then you have another problem: you don’t know the law of God. You are required to obey God’s law; but you are not required to obey what is not God’s law. The Pharisees tithes of their spice rack with things like mint and cumin and burdened others to do so.  Where did God’s law say that?  Nowhere.  But the sheeple who didn’t know what God had said would be led astray. You’re only required to obey God’s law.

I know that still sounds like a lot.  How can your righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees? Through the Holy Spirit.  Romans 8:2-6.  Within all men there is a law working. It is either the law of the Holy Spirit of life or it is the law of sin and death. Guess what?  It’s the same law; the difference how the law is working.  We could not obey the law as carnal men; its requirements were too great (v. 3a). Jesus came in sinful flesh and broke the power of sin to control men (v. 3b). Now that we are united to Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are able to fulfill the law in ways that men before could not (v. 4).

To the sinner, at best he utilizes the law in an attempt to manipulate God.  “I’ll do these things and He will give me that.”  But the foundational attitude is pride, which is a sin against God. That man is prevented, by the law, from coming to God because he has no power to come to Him.  But to the righteous, the law is a gift of grace.  It teaches us how to love God and how to love our neighbor (Rom. 13:8). It’s not that we use the law as a ladder to get to God; we’ve already been brought to Him through Christ by the Holy Spirit.  The law (the breath of the Spirit) protects us from harm (Ps. 119:92); it guides us in righteousness (Prov. 6:23).  You are not bound to be perfect in order to be in the kingdom; Jesus has fulfilled that obligation already.  You are required to walk faithfully, repent daily, and submit as you grow.

The problem is when we forgo the law and teach men to do so.  That is why we must be careful with our words.  This is one reason James warns that men should not strive to be teachers, knowing they will receive a stricter judgment.  If you inadvertently sin by neglecting one of the commands, in time the Holy Spirit will convict you of your sin.  The problem lies when we neglect an aspect of the law and tell others to do the same.  This is where things get difficult.  It’s hard to teach or proclaim God’s law to others.  But the understanding is that the disciples of Jesus will teach what they practice.  That’s again why it’s important to know the law of God and be open to further applications of God’s law that you might not have thought about before.


[i] Greg Bahnsen, quoting Ernest Kevan’s, The Moral Law (God’s Law), p. 70, in Theonomy in Christian Ethics, p. 59.

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