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July 21, 2016

The Relevance of the Old Testament for the New Testament Believer, Pt 2

by imreformedbaptist

Jesus and the Old Testament…..continued

In the last post we considered that Jesus did not come to set aside the moral commands of the OT, rather He came to fulfill them.

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, 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 (Matthew 5:17-19 NAS).

How Does Jesus Fulfill the Moral Law?

How does Jesus fulfill the moral precepts of the Old Testament? Here again there are a couple of things upon which most evangelicals agree. We agree that Jesus Christ fulfilled the OT by rendering a perfect obedience to its moral precepts on behalf of His people. This is certainly the case (Ps 40:8; Gal 4:4; Rom 5:19). Also, we agree upon the fact that He fulfilled it by paying the penalty of its broken Law by His death on the cross (Gal 3:13). It is not uncommon to find professing Christians and even ministers who have drawn the following conclusion from those two truths: Since He has fulfilled the Law on behalf of His people, then believers sustain no relationship to moral law of the OT at all. This has fed easy-believism, fueled the Carnal Christian doctrine, and has aided the construction of aberrant sanctification paradigms. However, that can be quickly dismissed because it is not imputed righteousness that is Jesus’ concern in this sermon. Nowhere in this sermon does He expound imputed righteousness received by faith alone. The entire sermon is an exposition of the practical righteousness of everyday kingdom experience. It is the actual doing of righteousness, not the reception of it that is in view. Therefore, Jesus Christ has come to fulfill the ethical commands of the OT in a way that results in the actual doing and promotion of them within the kingdom of heaven (v.19).

The Least of These Commandments

Since this is the case, then how many moral commandments of the OT apply to the NT church? According to Jesus, all of them. No exceptions. In v.19 speaks of the ‘least of these commandments’. That appears to be somewhat of an enigmatic statement. Is this a reference to a legitimate ranking of commandments in terms of importance? Certainly there is a ranking in the priority of God’s commands revealed in the OT when it comes to distinguishing between the moral precepts and ceremonial law. We find that in a passage like Mark 12. The same passage along with Matthew 22: 34-40 indicates that even with the moral precepts there is a kind of legitimate ranking. Man’s love for God is the first great commandment and the second, man’s love for his neighbor, make up the foundation of all the ethical revelation of the OT (Mat 22:40). However, there is another possibility. It could be a reference to an illegitimate ranking system promoted by those in that day who were the supposed experts of the law.

Over the years, the Rabbis had supposedly determined that, just as there were 613 separate letters in the Hebrew text of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, in the book of Numbers, there were also 613 separate laws in the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. Such letterism, as it is sometimes called, was extremely popular and was considered to be a valuable exegetical tool for interpreting Scripture. The Rabbis had divided those 613 laws into affirmative and negative groups, holding that there were 248 affirmative laws, one for every part of the human body, as they supposed, and 365 negative laws, one for each day of the year. The laws were also divided into heavy and light, the heavy ones being absolutely binding and the light ones less binding. There had never been unanimity among, however, as to which laws were heavy and light, and the rabbis spent countless hours proudly debating of their particular divisions and the ranking of laws within the divisions.[1]

I believe that it may be this unwarranted ranking system to which Jesus is making reference because he continues on in v.20 to speak of the ‘righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees’ that was marked by such a perverted and atomistic approach to the ethics of the OT. Such an approach often gave them ‘legal loopholes’ to avoid clear duties (Mat 15:3-6). It was their perverted scheme of ‘OT ethics’ that He addressed and it seems more natural to interpret v.19 in light of it. If this is the proper interpretation, then Jesus was playing off of their system to drive home a point. He said in effect, “Take the ‘lightest’ most insignificant command from ‘the law and the prophets’-greatness in God’s kingdom is based on keeping it and doing it. To have a practice of annulling it and promoting that practice among others will result in the opposite assessment.”[2] But whether it is a reference to a legitimate ranking of the commandments or not, the conclusion is the same: Since the entirety of the OT, right down to the smallest letter or stroke, remains in force until the second coming then all of its ethical demands remain authoritative in the kingdom of heaven (for the NT church) until He returns in glory. Notice how v.19 parallels v.18. In v.18, the authority of the OT extends down to ‘the smallest letter or stroke’. In v.19 Jesus says all of the moral commandments of the OT remain authoritative of the church down to the ‘least (smallest) commandment’.

At this point an objection can be raised. The objection is that this interpretation proves too much. The essence of that objection is that if this interpretation is correct then to be consistent one has to conclude that all the commandments of the OT are still in force for the NT church including the ceremonial laws and the entirety of the civil/judicial law given to Old Covenant Israel. However, that is not as big a hurdle as it might first appear to be. That objection disappears if we realize that the context of the entire sermon determines the sphere of reference for ‘the least of these commandments’. The Lord’s only focus was to addresses moral precepts of the OT. He did not address or expound any of the ceremonial commands of the Old Covenant. He did bring into focus two issues that were apart of the civil law, but it is clear that he does so because they were being perverted to undermine moral precepts.[3] “How many of the moral commandments of the OT apply to the NT church? According to Jesus, all of them. No exceptions.

Jesus vs. Moses?

Some take the position that Jesus fulfills the precepts of the moral law by essentially replacing it with His law- a more spiritual and higher ethical standard than was given by Moses.[4] At first this may seem plausible because one of the usages of fulfill in the NT is to ‘fill up’ or to ‘fill out’ (2 Th 2:16). In other words, something has been brought to a certain point but then later it is filled out and brought to completion. So, the idea is that in the framework of progressive revelation, the moral law revealed in the OT went only so far. Jesus fulfills it by filling out and completing it with His teaching as the authoritative Lawgiver (But I say to you).

These objections are baseless. Take note of two things: Since the assumed object of the verb plero is “the Law or the Prophets” then that determines its usage in this case. Whenever it is used in the NT with reference to the OT it always means one of two things: “to perform fully, discharge” [5]. That is, when used with reference to the Old Testament, fulfill means to perform the duties required by it. It also used with reference to the OT to mean, “to receive fulfillment”[6] -something that was predicted/promised in the OT scriptures coming to realization. It never means ‘fill out’ to ‘fill up’ or ‘bring to completion ’when used with reference to the OT. Nor does the word ever mean to replace.

Second, a close examination of what Jesus did from this point forward in the sermon reveals that His teaching was in perfect harmony with the ethical teaching of the OT. There is no revelation of a higher and more spiritual ethic. One example can make the case. In Matthew 5:43-44 Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love yort neighbor and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you”. If the Lord is truly contrasting His teaching with Moses and replacing it in any way, then that means that loving your enemy, doing good to him, and praying for him was never taught in the OT. Of course, that is not the case. The OT explicitly and emphatically required the same[7]. The pure teaching of the OT concerning love for one’s enemies had been perverted. Furthermore, elsewhere in the gospel records, when Jesus referred to the OT he never used the formula, ‘You have heard that it was said’[8] or similar phrases. That phrase is a reference to the widely accepted rabbinic interpretation of the law. Therefore, when Jesus said, throughout this section of scripture, ”But I say unto you”, He is giving His inspired, authoritative interpretation of the moral commands of the OT, setting them free from the pharisaical perversion.

The Mediator of the New Covenant

It is important to realize that central to the promises of ‘the Law and the Prophets’ is the promise of the New Covenant. Central to the promise of the New Covenant is the place of the moral law has in the lives of God’s people. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, “ declares the LORD, “I will put my law within them and on their heart I will write it” (Jer 31:33). From the very beginning, when God revealed His law by Moses, His design was for the moral law to be an inward reality. That is, His design was for obedience to it to flow out of regenerate hearts that love Him supremely (Deut 5:12). God promised not long after revealing His law at Mount Sinai that a day was coming when that purpose of His law would be fulfilled, brought to realization (Deut 30:6).

The promise of the New Covenant is not a new law but rather an internalization of the moral law upon the hearts of New Covenant Israel, the Church. Jesus speaks these words as the Mediator of the New Covenant (He 8:6). That must be kept in mind when interpreting this passage. One of the major ways He fulfills the ethical commands of the ‘Law and the Prophets’ is by bringing the New Covenant promise to fulfillment in the lives of His people. Therefore, however else we may understand fulfill, at least partially[9], it includes two things: First, Jesus fulfilled the moral precepts of the ‘Law and the Prophets’ by teaching with inspired authority their true meaning[10] and application, restoring them to their original purity. Take note of the fact that this was the effect the sermon had on those who first heard it (Mat 7:28-29). Second, having taught its true meaning and application He died to affect it. By virtue of His death, all of God’s people are regenerated and given the gift of the Spirit enabling them to increasingly conform their lives to the righteous requirements of the Law (Rom 8:3-4)[11]. In a recent work, Philip S. Ross wrote concerning this passage,

According to the Shema (Deut 6:6), God always intended that the law be internalized in the hearts of his people. Indeed, if they were to obey that command to love the LORD with all their heart and with all their soul, they needed his direct operation upon their hearts (Deut 30:6). Jesus promotes this agenda with his definition of the first and great commandment (Matt 22:37), in his frequent pinpointing of the heart as the source of Israel’s moral failure and covenant breaking (Matt 13:14-15; 15:18-19), and in his exposition of the law as a matter of whole-hearted obedience (Matt 5:21-48).[12]

So what is the relevance of the Old Testament for the New Testament Christian according to Jesus? According to Jesus, the Old Testament is authoritative for the New Testament believer particularly with regards to the Moral Law. This passage unequivocally teaches that all of those who have embraced the Mediator of the New Covenant are those whose lives are governed by the Moral Law revealed in the Old Testament.

[1] John MacArthur, Matthew 16-23, in The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), 337-338.

[2] Some believe that to be ‘called least in the kingdom of heaven’ speaks of a gradation within the kingdom of heaven among genuine believers. I am not convinced this is the proper interpretation. It is more natural to understand in light of v.20 that begins with ‘For I say to you’. To annul an ethical command of God and teach others to the same is the exact effect that the pseudo righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees did. Therefore, in this context, to be ‘called least in the kingdom of heaven’ more than likely means not to enter the kingdom of heaven. This interpretation comports with Jesus’ warning about the false prophets who proclaim a wide gate and broad way gospel (Mt 7:13-23). Jesus says that they practice ‘lawlessness’.

[3] Moses’ certificate of divorce (Mt 5:31-30, and the civil law of retribution (Mt 38-48)

[4] Richard Barcellos, In Defense of the Decalogue: A Critique of New Covenant Theology (Enumclaw WA: Winepress Publishing, 2001), pg. 71-72.

[5] Wesley Perschbacher, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon (Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 1995), pg. 332 (Mt 1:22; 2:15,17,23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54,56; 27:9,35; Mk 14:49; 15:28 Lk 4:21; 21:22; 24:44; Jn 12:38; 13:18,25; 17:12; 18:9; 19:24,36 Ac 1:16; 3:18; 13:27 Ro 8:4; 13:8; Gal 5:14; Col 1:25).

[7] Lv 19:17-18; Pr 25:21-22 (see also Ro 12:19-21).

[8] See Mt 4:1-11-‘It is written’ is among the various ways He referred to the OT scripture.

[9] I realize that there may be more that our Lord has in mind here when he speaks of fulfilling the law and the prophets’. For example, though imputed righteousness is not in view, Jesus fulfillment of the law includes His own obedience to it when considered in light of progressive revelation. Jesus, God’s Son, did what OC Israel, God’s Son failed to do. He brought forth obedience from the heart (Ps 40:8).

[10] Notice that His exposition of OT ethics is heavy upon the disposition of the heart. This is the focus of the New Covenant promise-the law written upon the heart.

[11] I recognize that the word fulfill with respect the OT conveys the concept of what another has called ‘movement’, something coming to pass-‘movement’ from the OC to the NC. This can convey a sense of change. Jesus does bring about ‘movement’, ‘change’ with respect to the moral law in distinction from the OC, but not by changing any if its basic content, or abrogating any of the commandments as some contend. The change consists of essentially three things: First, he has changed the place where the law is written (2 Col 3:1-3). Second, as Mediator of the NC, His death, ratified a better covenant in which every member of Israel has the law written on the heart (Heb 8:6-13). Third, he has brought about a change to the moral law with respect to its application. The NC community does not apply the moral law according the ‘book of the law’. His death rendered the first covenant obsolete (Heb 8-10), which had as its two covenant documents the book of the law and the tables of stone. The NT believer is no longer under the ‘book of law’ as a rule of life other than the ‘general equity thereof’ (LBC), and what was on tables of stone have been transferred to the heart.

[12] Philip Ross, From the Finger of God (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications), 203.

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