Jesus and the Law
Part I of II
“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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes 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 does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20 ESV1)
Watching the sunrise this morning, I saw the dark gray of the sky begin to melt away. Light blue streaks folded into lighter grays and stretched across the sky waiting for their red and orange partners to follow in the dance of the clouds. Geometric in design, random in order, and growing in size, these rainbows of color crossed the spectrum of light and reflected the promise of daylight into the wakening world below. Soon, the sky itself carried a new color. The darkness was nearly gone – but not yet. The sky was beautiful, the earth was lit, but the purpose of all that beauty was not yet complete.
In the center of the picture and somewhere beneath the horizon, the skies celebrated with a voice that knew the truth. There was a purpose behind the splendor that had not been revealed but gradually became more apparent. The color surrounded it. The light was brightest there. The streaks of color seemed to be causing the commotion, but they were simply an announcement. Forerunners, they told the glad story of what was to come and provided the context in which it was beautiful. Meanwhile the burning cause of their existence remained hidden until the appointed time.
…and then came the sun! The day had broken. The dawn had come. The color melted into light that overcame, the last of night.
The sun is not the abolition of the sunrise, but the fulfillment of it. Likewise, Jesus is not a replacement for the law but the fulfillment and source of its purpose. The law was given that mankind might know the standards by which God measures our behavior. This does three things. First, it shows that every person falls short of this standard. Second, it demonstrates that Jesus was an acceptable substitutionary sacrifice because he was able to keep the law. Third, the law becomes the proof of faith. I will explore these ideas throughout this article and an upcoming one titled “The Law and The Christian.”
Just because Jesus came to earth does not nullify the truth of God’s nature or the way in which the world was designed. It actually makes the law more important. Because it is a description of God’s character as built into the world, the law cannot pass away until heaven and earth pass away.2 Perhaps at that time a new law, or standard of operation, will be applied to whatever is created or made new, but not before then. If the law passed away, the heaven and earth as we know them would also pass away. The laws of nature, and of nature’s God existed before Moses, but mostly as a vague undefined notion that ‘mankind was unable to live in the way that he should.’ “For sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law” (Romans 5:13). When the law came, it made clear the reasons why Adam and Eve felt they had to hide from God when they experienced the knowledge of good and evil.3
In contrast, it helps us to understand why Jesus, the second Adam, never felt the need to hide from God. The law defines sin in a way that is clear and easy to understand. It shows that every person is guilty of falling short of God’s glory ever since Adam.4
Jesus never acted in a way that was contrary to the nature of his Father, and therefore he never severed their relationship. Our understanding of the law allows us to recognize this in an objective way. This is why Jesus said he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Without the law, there is no objective proof of His righteousness and no way for humanity to understand why God would accept Him as a ransom for humanity.5
Thus, the law in itself is not only confirmed but made more inflexible by the words of Jesus. “You have heard that it was said to those of old…But I say to you…”(Matthew 5:21-22). It is necessary that it would be this way so that mankind could understand the significance of God’s love in light of the huge gulf of separation that they know must exist. The more inflexible the law, the more powerful grace must be. “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).
In the context of the law, Jesus serves as a substitute, receiving the penalty of separation from God in place of all the rest of humanity. He was the promised seed of the woman that would crush the power of deception that had separated mankind from the love of God since the early days of humanity.6 Jesus proved that it was possible to live in a way that was acceptable to God by keeping the law. He also proved the overwhelming love of God by giving his life so that mankind could see the extent to which God will go to restore a broken relationship. And lastly, he provided satisfaction of the demands of the law by offering his life as a substitute for those who should receive its just penalty of unending separation from God.
Yet because he never lost sight of his identity as the son of God (unlike Adam), Jesus could not remain dead. His was the spirit of sonship by which we cry Abba Father.7 And it was by this spirit that he came back from the realm of the dead. Though his body now bore the marks of a broken world, it was soon taken into heaven where those who wish might eat from the tree of life to find healing and live forever.8 In this, Jesus was the firstborn of many brothers who will share in this inheritance.8 And all those who believe on His name may receive this identity and become the sons of God.
Jesus is the proof that such faith has power. His words in the Sermon on the Mount are also proof that this power does not make the law irrelevant. In fact, it does the opposite. As we will see in the next article, Jesus gave the law its context and it continues to provide a valuable service to those who walk in His footsteps.
1 All Scripture references taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
2 Matthew 5:18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
3 Genesis 3:7-11 And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
4 Romans 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…
5 While I don’t necessarily endorse a particular view of atonement, here is an overview of ransom theory from wikipedia.
6 Genesis 3:15 “I will put enmity between you and the woman,and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head,and you shall bruise his heel.”
7 Romans 8:15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
8 Genesis 3:22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” Revelation 22:2 also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
9 Romans 8:11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Paulson.