ChristianGovernans eletter – June 2, 2012
Did Jesus kill the law?
Who said the following: “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets.”?
Jesus said that in Matthew 7:12. It’s part of the Sermon on the Mount. In chapter 5, verses 17-18, earlier in the same Sermon, Jesus said: “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 tell you, 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.”
Many in the modern church have been taught that Jesus brought with Him a new ethic, a new law, a new teaching. The Sermon on the Mount is one of the primary places they turn to in the Bible to make this argument. I used to hold to this thinking. Many of you have been taught the same. Much of the emotional appeal of this view is the idea that the New Covenant ethic of Jesus’ is more loving and less harsh.
This doctrinal difference was reflected in a couple of comments received in response to our last eletter. We were arguing that the Christian ethic of private property rights was a far more peaceful and civilized approach to handling concerns over species extinction than criminalizing hunting, and allowing officials to shoot poachers. At the same time, we did note that the Bible makes provision for property owners to defend their property even, if necessary, with lethal force (Exodus 22:2). A couple of people took issue with treating Exodus and Old Covenant law as normative for today.
But Jesus does. He told his audience in Matthew 7:12 that they should do unto others as they would have done to them because that’s what the Old Testament – the law and the prophets – teaches.
In Matthew 23:23, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for ignoring the more important matters of the law of justice, mercy and faithfulness in their enforcement of tithing. Justice, mercy and faithfulness are very popular ethics among today’s Christians and rightly so. But Jesus didn’t ban tithing. He said, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” Jesus was teaching both…and, not either…or. Both ethics were part of the Old Covenant. We know tithing (i.e., 10% and First Fruits, not whatever one feels in his heart he should give or giving from what is left) is in the Old Testament. So is Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” There is a whole lot of justice, mercy and faithfulness in the Old Covenant, and Jesus was reiterating its ongoing importance, not nullifying it.
Jesus also appealed to the literal record of creation in Genesis for one of His fundamental arguments for marriage. In Matthew 19:4-5 we read: “‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”‘?”.
In Mark 7, Jesus condemned the Pharisees for imposing an unbiblical tradition in place of God’s law. In doing so he was reinforcing the enduring relevance and obligation of God’s law, not introducing a new law. Verses 9-13 record this incident for us: “And he continued, ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, “Honor your father and mother,” and, “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that’.”
Here Jesus reinforced the ongoing obligation of the Fifth Commandment: Honour your father and your mother. He also here reinforces the abiding obligation of capital punishment and does so for an offense that is horrifying to modern sensibilities. But that’s the plain teaching of this passage. Jesus is reinforcing (Old Testament) Scripture, the Law, God’s law, over against man-made tradition that had been imposed on the people at the expense of God’s law.
An accurate reading of the Bible does not reveal a New Testament era that is more loving, gentle, gracious and merciful – less harsh, cruel, vindictive – than the Old Testament. There’s a tremendous amount of grace and love prior to the birth of Jesus: the same Gospel, taught in anticipation of the future work of Christ. And there’s a good deal of harshness, rebuke and condemnation in the New Testament in the teaching and practice of Jesus and Paul. We should be emphasizing continuity, not discontinuity between the Old Covenant and New Covenant eras. There is continuity and discontinuity but you get a very different flavour of Christianity depending on which dynamic or principle you see as dominant.
As in Mark 7, the passages in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is rebuking one idea, and arguing for something else, he is not condemning the Old Covenant law, and introducing a new law, he is condemning man-made traditions that had come to replace God’s law. Neither was he extending or expanding on the Old Covenant law. The Old Testament law was taught as referring to the heart and the thought life as well as to physical actions (cf. 5:27-30 on adultery). Old Covenant law did not teach that one only had to love one’s neighbours, and that you could hate your enemies with Jesus then expanding the law of love to include enemies (cf. 5:43-44).
To understand Jesus’ teachings here in Matthew 5 as nullifying or changing Old Testament law IMMEDIATELY after his introductory statement in which He says that He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them, is an extremely unusual (to say the least) way to handle such a text.