The Least of These Commandments (Matthew 5.19)


Which Old Testament laws are Christians obliged to keep, which are they not obliged to keep, and why?
 
At first glance, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.17–20 seem to indicate that Christians are obliged to keep each and every commandment in the Old Testament. But, as I pointed out in yesterday’s devotional, we know that the New Testament Christians did not feel obligated to observe any number of laws.
 
Those very same Christians looked to the Old Testament laws for ethical guidance on other issues, however. In Romans 13.9­–10, Paul writes: “The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandments there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
 
Why are some laws obligatory, but not others?
 
Christian theologians usually answer that question by distinguishing three kinds of Old Testament laws. Ceremonial laws pertain to the worship of ancient Israel: the Temple, animal sacrifice, the priesthood, kosher diet, and circumcision. Civil laws pertain to the government of ancient Israel: the boundaries between the twelve tribes, criminal offenses and their punishments, taxes, and military policy. Moral laws pertain to the behavior of God’s people. The Sixth through Tenth Commandments (Exodus 20.12–17)—covering parent-child relationships, murder, marital fidelity, theft, perjury, and envy—are the most obvious examples.
 
Generally speaking, Christian theologians argue that Christians are not obligated to keep the ceremonial laws. “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2.17). In other words, according to Paul, God gave the ancient Israelites a Temple, priesthood, and sacrificial system as a prophetic example of what the coming Messiah would be and do. So, the writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as “a high priest…who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man” (Heb. 8.1, 2) and as the one who “was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people” (9.28). When the Messiah came, the Temple, priesthood, and sacrificial system would no longer be necessary.
 
The New Testament does not treat the civil laws of ancient Israel in depth. However, Christian theologians generally argue that they are not obligatory for Christians because they were intended only for the nation of ancient Israel while it lived in the Promised Land (although they may give us examples of how a just government can operate).
 
That leaves the moral laws. New Testament writers explicitly argue that Christians must keep these commandments. To keep them is to fulfill “the law of love” (see Rom. 13.1, 2 above). Jesus seems to have these commandments uppermost in his mind when he says, “Anyone who 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5.19), for these are the commandments he discusses when he describes a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (5.20–48).

Until Heaven and Earth Pass Away (Matthew 5.18)


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According to Jewish rabbis, Moses’ Law contains 611 commandments. These commandments regulate every aspect of human life: spirituality, morality, calendar, dress, and even diet. Are Christians obligated to obey each and every one of them?

In Matthew 5.18–19, Jesus seems to answer yes, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

And yet, we know from a variety of passages in the New Testament that Christians are not required to keep all the commandments. Whereas Old Testament believers were commanded to circumcise male infants (Gen. 17.11, Lev. 12.3), for example, New Testament believers are not (Gal. 5.6). Whereas certain foods were considered “unclean” by Old Testament believers (Lev. 11.1–47), all foods are considered “clean” by New Testament believers (Mark 7.19, Acts 10,9–23). And while the Israelites kept the Sabbath, or seventh day, as a day of rest (Ex. 20.8–11), Christians worship God on the Lord’s Day, i.e. Sunday (Acts 20.7, 1 Cor. 16.2, Col. 2.16–17).

How do we resolve this apparent discrepancy between the teaching of Jesus and the practice of his disciples? There is no other way than by paying close attention to what Jesus actually said. Focus your attention on Matthew 5.17: ““I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

At first glance, Jesus seems to be teaching that even the smallest Old Testament laws will always remain in force. But a second look shows that he attaches two conditions to the permanence of the Law: “until heaven and earth disappear” and “until everything is accomplished.” Both of these phrases reappear in Matthew 24.34–35, where Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

To Jesus’ way of thinking, “heaven and earth” describe the way things currently are. But “the kingdom of God/heaven” describes the way things should be. That is why the essence of his gospel is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 4.17). When the kingdom of God comes, heaven and earth begin to pass away, and God brings about a new reality. Paul calls this “the new creation” (2 Cor. 5.17). John calls it “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21.1). Moses’ Law is part of “heaven and earth,” impermanent regulations for an impermanent reality.

The Permanent Reality is Jesus Christ, whose Permanent Regulations “will never pass away.”

Not to Abolish but to Fulfill (Matthew 5:17)


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Jesus was an observant Jew. The Law of Moses shaped his life, regulating his spirituality, morality, calendar, and even diet. And yet, he practiced Judaism in such a way that some thought he intended to abolish that very same law.

For example, according to Matthew 12.1–14, certain Pharisees criticized Jesus for allowing his hungry disciples to pick small heads of grain on the Sabbath and for healing a man with a shriveled hand. They interpreted both actions as violations of the prohibition of work on the Sabbath. Jesus responded to their criticism by refuting their misreading of the law. But his response so angered them that they “plotted how they might kill Jesus.”

No wonder, then, Jesus felt it necessary to declare his intentions regarding the law. “Do not think,” he proclaimed, “that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5.17). What did Jesus’ words mean to his original hearers? And what do they mean to us?

To abolish the law meant to annul it or to set it aside. The Pharisees believed Jesus was annulling the Sabbath law by allowing his disciples to work on the Sabbath, or by working himself. Obviously, Jesus did not interpret his actions in the same way. He did not believe he was abolishing the law.

But what did he mean by saying that he fulfilled the law? Matthew uses the word “fulfill” sixteen times. Twelve of those times refer to how Jesus fulfilled various Old Testament prophecies (1.22; 2.15, 17, 23; 4.14; 8.17; 12.17; 13.35; 21.3; 26.54; 26.56; 27.9). That is the most likely meaning of the verb here. Jesus is saying that he fulfills Scripture (“the Law or the Prophets”). The entire Old Testament is, as it were, a prophecy about him.

Luke 24.27 makes this point explicit by relating a conversation between Jesus and two of his disciples: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” As St. Augustine puts it, “The New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed, the Old Testament is in the New Testament revealed.” And Jesus is the Revealer.

But what does Matthew 5.17 mean for us? If Jesus did not abolish the Law of Moses, are we Christians required to obey it? Yes and no. I will try to explain these answers in subsequent devotionals, but for now, I want to focus on a different question: Do you read the Old Testament?

I ask this because in my experience, too many Christians ignore the Law and the Prophets, which seem to be filled with what one British writer called “bore, gore, and folklore.” And yet, if Jesus fulfills the Old Testament Scriptures, to ignore them is to ignore him. A bumper sticker proclaims, “Jesus is the answer.” But without the Old Testament, we don’t even know what the question is. Let’s read it and find out!

Introduction to Matthew 5.17–20


Jews and Christians share many things in common. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of Jesus Christ (Acts 3.13). The promise God made to Abraham to bless both his descendants and the world through them (Gen. 12.2, 3) finds its fulfillment in the salvation offered freely to Jews and Gentiles alike (Rom. 1.16). And we have the Old Testament in common, although Jews do not believe there is anything “old” about it. (And neither should we.)

And yet, we have many differences too. We believe that God is a Trinity of Persons: one God eternally existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They do not. We believe that Jesus is the long-expected Messiah the Prophets spoke about. They do not. They believe that Sabbath keeping, a kosher lifestyle, and male circumcision are necessary elements of a God-fearing lifestyle. We do not. Together, we interpret and apply the very same Scriptures we hold in common in different—even mutually exclusive—ways.

How did this situation come about? Jesus! He explains both what we hold in common and what makes us different. And these points of commonality and difference are on vivid display in the longest section of the Sermon on the Mount, the section dealing with “righteousness” (Matt. 5.17–6.34). Matthew 5.17–48 deals with righteousness in our dealings with other people. Matthew 6.1­–34 deals with righteousness in our relationship with God. In both passages, Jesus differentiates his followers’ “righteousness” from that “of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law” (Matt. 5.20).

But he begins with a statement of commonality: “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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5.17­–20).

We Christians have become so accustomed to Paul’s statement that we are “not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6.14, 15) that we ignore the law. More generally, we neglect reading the Old Testament. Doing so is not Christian, though, at least not if Christianity is defined by Christ’s example. The Old Testament Law and Prophets are our Scriptures, which Jesus came to fulfill. If we ignore them, we ignore him.

So, in this week’s devotionals, I intend to look very closely at Matthew 5.17­­–20 to see what they teach us about who Christ is—and what it means to be a Christian.

Let Your Light Shine Before Men (Matthew 5.16)


The Sermon on the Mount contains two statements that appear contradictory to a casual eye. In Matthew 5.16 Jesus says, “In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” But in 6.1 he says, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
 
These statements appear contradictory because of similar concepts and vocabulary. For example, “Good deeds” and “acts of righteousness” (literally, “righteousness”) describe basically the same behaviors. In both statements, the primary issue is what is seen, and by whom. And notice the repetition of phrases in both statements: “before men” and “your Father in heaven.”
 
But the contradiction is only apparent. In Matthew 5.16, Jesus commands his disciples to practice good deeds visibly so that, seeing them, others may worship God. In 6.11, however, he commands his disciples to practice their acts of righteousness secretly lest, seeing them, others worship the actor. Truly good works direct attention to God. False acts of righteousness draw attention to us.
 
There are two dangers in drawing attention to our own acts of righteousness. First, we become addicted to human adulation. We like a constant stream of “Attaboys!” and friendly pats on the back, after all, but such praise may condition us to focus on our emotional state rather than our spiritual and moral authenticity. We become tempted to do what is right because it makes us feel good, not because it is the good thing to do. We do good “to be seen by them” rather than to be rewarded by God.
 
Second, we become idols. Others begin to say, “What a good person George P. Wood is,” rather than, “What a good God George P. Wood serves.” Our righteousness becomes a substitute for God’s. Unfortunately, our righteousness is unstable and imperfect. Our sins inevitably topple us from the pedestal others have placed us on. When that happens, what remains of their faith? Our failures block their view of God, like the moon on occasion eclipses the sun.
 
Christians are commanded to shine light, however, not cast shadows. We do that in several ways. First, we do good deeds. Many Christians have a deformed theology of salvation at this point. To use theological jargon, they are so concerned with justification that they forget sanctification. According to Ephesians 2.8–10, however, salvation is by grace through faith for works.
 
Second, we do good deeds for the right reasons. Personally, we practice good deeds because it is the right thing to do. Such behavior is the kind of action God rewards. But interpersonally, we practice good deeds because they draw others to Christ. It seems to me that the world needs less “talk” and more “walk” from us Christians. If we have not ourselves changed in response to the gospel, how can we reasonably expect others to do so?

You Are the Light of the World (Matthew 5.14–16)


One time, at elementary school science camp, I got scared in the dark.
 
To be more precise, my camp counselor scared the bejeebers out of me and my cabin mates. How? He took us on a nighttime hike into the forest. Once we were sufficiently far from the ambient light of the campgrounds, he instructed us to sit in a circle, turn off our flashlights, and be very quiet. Then he recited “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. When he finished his recitation, he blew a whistle that sounded like a thousand fingernails scraping across a blackboard. (He told us it was a hunter’s call that imitated the distress sounds of a rabbit.) Sitting quietly in the dark, we began to hear sniffing and prowling sounds among the trees around us. At that point, the counselor allowed us to turn on our flashlights, and we hightailed it back to camp.
 
The hike wouldn’t have been scary at all if we’d taken it during daylight. There is something about darkness that sharpens our hearing, quickens our pulses, and magnifies our fears. Light, however, quickly dispels those very same fears. It shows us where we are, what is around us, and how to make our way home safely.
 
In Matthew 5.14–16, Jesus says to his disciples: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
 
These three verses consist of a metaphor, two obvious illustrations, and a concluding exhortation. The metaphor is that Christians are “the light of the world.” The obvious illustrations are the city on a hill and lamp on a stand, which cannot hide their light. And the concluding exhortation is to practice good deeds, for they illuminate the pathway to our heavenly Father’s home.
 
When you think about Jesus’ words in their original context, they are quite astounding. He did not say, “you are a light of the world,” with the implication that there are many other lights. He said, “you are the light of the world.” And he did not say this to rich, powerful, well-educated people. He said it to poor, weak, uneducated farmers, fishers, and manual laborers. Jesus expected great things of his disciples, however poor and significant their outward circumstances might be. A person’s character, you see, is never limited by his circumstances. You can perform good deeds if you are poor and insignificant, and you can perform evil deeds if you are wealthy and well connected. Personal choices, not personal circumstances, determine character.
 
So, what choices are we making as Christians in America? Are we doing good deeds for God’s glory and our neighbor’s benefit? Or are we hiding our lamp under a bowl?

You Are the Salt of the Earth (Matthew 5.13)


In Matthew 5.13, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” What does it mean to be “the salt of the earth”? And how can we avoid losing our “saltiness”?
 
In the ancient world, salt had two primary functions: to preserve and flavor food. Unlike America today, the ancient world had no reliable forms of refrigeration. So, if you wanted to keep meat from spoiling quickly, you rubbed it with coarse salt. Properly salted meat could last for an extended period of time. But salt enhanced the taste of food too. Imagine eating eggs, potatoes, and vegetables without salt. The taste is bland. Salt makes the food we eat more flavorful.
 
Now, take those two primary functions and apply them metaphorically to the church. The church—the community of Christ’s disciples—preserves and flavors the world. How so?
 
The church preserves whatever good qualities the world has. Paul offers Christians this commandment in Philippians 4.8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” By embodying these virtues (honesty, nobility, righteousness, etc.), the church preserves good values in a society that all too often seems hell-bent on destroying them.
 
But it does more than preserve those values. It promotes them. Can you imagine, for example, how American society would be different if Paul’s list of virtues shaped television programming? If the news programs reported the truth, not just the partisan opinions of the Left or the Right. If talk shows invited guests who debated their differences civilly, rather than shouting noisily at each other across the table. If primetime sitcoms and dramas (and commercials) didn’t cause parents to wince when their young children were in the room. American society would be very different than what it is today if Paul’s list of virtues guided television programming. And television programming is just one example of the difference good values would make, if they were promoted.
 
Those last four words are the key: “if they were promoted.” Jesus tells his disciples that they “are” the salt of the earth. But all too often, there is little or no difference between the attitudes and behaviors of American Christians and the public at large. Over 75% of Americans identify themselves as Christians, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. Unfortunately, the cultural effect those Christians should be having is not apparent. Why? Most likely because they aren’t embodying Christian virtues as they should.
 
That’s why, it seems to me, Jesus included the warning about losing saltiness. He recognized that many people talk religiously without walking righteously. What Jesus desires is a religious commitment that leads to right action. My prayer for you and me is that our lives be truly salty. I don’t want to die with the regret that I should have been what I wasn’t.

Conclusion to the Beatitudes (Matthew 5.3–12)


We have come to the end of our study of the Beatitudes (Matt. 5.3–12). Before moving on to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, however, we should pause and ask a simple question: Who is Jesus?
 
The question of Jesus’ identity is a persistent one in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. It finds an explicit answer in Matthew 16.13–20, where Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Then Jesus makes the question personal: “But who do you say that I am?” To which Peter replies: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Oddly, Jesus “strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.” Why the silence? Probably because the people of Jesus’ day had misconceptions of what a Christ (or Messiah) should be, and Jesus did not want to be the prisoner of their erroneous ideas and expectations.
 
And yet, Jesus’ status as the Messiah was an open secret among the crowds. His manner of life, miracle-working power, and authoritative teaching all pointed him out as Israel’s long-expected king and the world’s desperately needed Savior. Matthew concludes his rendition of the sermon with this remark: “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (7.28, 29).
 
We are so accustomed to the Beatitudes’ beautiful melody line that we fail to hear the strong note of authority running harmoniously beneath it. To hear that second line, ask yourself a question: Who does Jesus think he is to announce blessings on such a disconsolate group of people? He promises God’s kingdom to the poor in spirit, comfort to the mourning, an earthly inheritance to the meek, righteousness for the hungry, mercy to the merciful, the beatific vision to the pure of heart, divine sonship to peacemakers, and an eternal reward for the persecuted.
 
And not just any persecuted. Jesus equates those persecuted “on my account” with the Old Testament prophets who spoke for God to the children of Israel. An Old Testament prophet would never have blessed people persecuted “on my account.” On God’s account, yes, but not his own. That would have been presumptuous. Either Jesus is making promises he cannot keep, or he has the authority to offer heaven to those of us on earth.
 
The Beatitudes, in other words, do not show Jesus as an exemplary moral teacher, though he is. Rather, they show him as something more, more than even a prophet. He is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
 
One more thing: Have you ever noticed that the beatitudes perfectly describe Jesus? He is poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungry for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker, and persecuted—crucified, even— for righteousness’ sake. Doesn’t that imply that he has entered God’s kingdom and experienced all the blessedness it contains?
 
We will do so as well if we follow in his stead.

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