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The Rev. David W. Hall (PhD, Whitefield Theological Seminary) is married to Ann, and they are parents of three grown children. He has served as the Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) since 2003. After completion of his undergraduate studies, Pastor Hall studied at Swiss L’Abri and then enrolled at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, graduating in 1980. In addition to pastoring, David Hall is the author or editor of over 20 books and numerous essays.

Column: First Truths from the First Gospel by David Hall

Christ and the Law

September 2, 2014 •

Read Matthew 5:17-20

Having established Christ’s love for the Law, we’ll now proceed to consider three main points:

         1.     Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament Law was one of continuity.

         2.     Jesus viewed the Old Testament canon as authoritative and inerrant.

         3.     Jesus instructs us as to the kind of righteousness needed to enter heaven.

Jesus displays the highest respect possible for the Old Testament Law and canon in these verses. We are not in line with his will if we disregard these and replace them with human standards. Rather, we are to have God’s standard kept in high regard and let him fulfill his high standards of righteousness in us, rather than decreasing those standards.

There is no dissociation made by Jesus between the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament or the Law of God from the Old Testament or New Testament. Many do that today. Some think of the Old Testament God as one of wrath and in New Testament God is Love.

While that may be stated often, it will not bear up under scrutiny of Scripture. In the OT, God is merciful (in many places); in the NT, toward the very end, he is quite wrathful. Revelation 19, e. g., depicts Jesus as returning on a white stallion with a sword in his mouth causing much bloodshed. The NT uses the word wrath of God on numerous occasions.

It is not really accurate to say that the God of the OT is exclusively wrathful, or that the God of the NT is all love.  He is the same God throughout the Bible.

And both attributes are essential and innate to the character of God in all eras. Neither our God (according to Jesus Christ), nor the moral Law that emanates from him, is outdated, abrogated or annulled. They are still the same for us yesterday, today, and forever.

Note first from verse 17 that Jesus’ perspective on the OT Law is one of agreement.  Jesus views himself as not differing from the original intent and spirit of the Law. One might call this Christ’s own Gospel Ethic.

As we look at this verse from the outset Jesus states negatively what he is not out to do. The first word in this Greek sentence, in the place of importance, is “NOT!” Literally, “Not do you think or never let it be thought.” Don’t even suppose that I’ve come to demolish or annul the Law or the prophets. This is then repeated again, “I have not come to abolish them.” Anytime something is repeated in Scripture, it is important! Christ has not come to declare that God’s Law is no longer valid. He postures himself within the confines of the Law. He is not undermining the Law.

But the strongest adversative or contrary conjunction is used, meaning “Not this but to fulfill and complete them.” Jesus says that he has come to adhere to both in his own person (e.g., in his baptism and in the lives of my followers) the full importance of the Law and prophets or the sum of the Old Testament.

These two statements—negative and positive—are given together.

Let us think about how Christ fulfilled the Law and the prophets. To fulfill means to take up to the full capacity or to totally provide for the need. Thus when Christ says I have come to fulfill the Law, he means that he came with the purpose of living up to the full capacity or demands of the Law. He did this on the cross. He did this perfectly as the only sinless human and thus fulfilled the Law. He also fulfilled the prophets. The Old Testament prophets longingly pointed toward the coming Messiah. All their predictions and types were perfectly fulfilled in his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. He did not come “to modify even to the slightest extent the teaching of the moral Law or the prophets. He has come to carry them out, and to give them perfect obedience. It is in other words, that all the Law and all the prophets point to him and will be fulfilled in him down to the smallest detail. Everything that is in the law and the prophets culminates in Christ and he is the fulfillment of them. This is possibly the most stupendous claim that he ever made.”[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: “He has in fact nothing to add to the commandments of God, except that he keeps them down to last iota.”[2]

So Jesus teaches the Law cannot be disregarded or abrogated. Here he shows a very high respect for the Old Testament, which every believer should have as well! Never let us decrease the value and relevance of the Old Testament. What is clear is that Jesus views God’s character as unchanging. The moral law he revealed to Moses is still applicable today. So for the Gospel Christian all of the Ten Commandments are binding today. But binding may not be the best word. The Ten Commandments should also express our will. We should want it fulfilled, not destroyed. If a person is truly born again, he desires to live this way out of love and thus please God.

1 John 5:3 teaches something very important: “We know his commandments and they are not burdensome to us.” “We delight in doing thy will O, God,” wrote the Psalmist. The Law of God is meant to be protective, not to prevent us from having fun. Our reaction toward it should be positive. The Westminster Confession of Faith even speaks of a particular doctrine as providing abundant consolation for all those who “obey the gospel” (WCF 3:8), making it clear that, as Jesus exemplified, obedience is not contrary to the goodness of the news.

Many parents have done the kinds of things that we did as parents with our own children. Before trips, we gave our children a mini-lecture appropriate for each age and trip. We told one: “You might want to avoid [certain spots or behaviors]; stay with your group; hold onto your money; always know where you chaperone is.”

To another we said, “be sure to use suntan lotion, stay with the group, keep your money out of sight, and don’t lose sight of your group leader.”

Did we, as parents, lay down these laws to curtail any possible fun these youngsters might have? Of course, not. They came back in one piece and had a great time. Was “law” bad when we said, “Hold onto your money,” or would a child be better off to scatter all her dollar bills from the top of the Six Flags Rollercoaster? Good law does not curtail freedom; it supports righteousness. That is why we should love God’s law. It is always good and perfect. It is unimproveable.

If we operate within God’s law, we discover the true freedom of the gospel.

We obey the Law not in order to be saved. Rather, because we are saved and changed, we want to conform to God’s rule for our lives. Jesus teaches that his intent is not to dissociate himself from or clash with the external Law of God. Rather “It was his aim that in the lives of his true followers, the spiritual requirement of the Old Testament would receive its due that is, that in these lives, the vessel of the Law’s demands would become filled to the brim.”[3] The only thing that Jesus opposed was the Pharisees’ current and traditional interpretation and application of the Torah. Make sure you see the difference. This was distorted and Jesus opposed this. But he in no way was contrary to God’s intent for the Law. Yes he stood against human perversions of God’s Law, but never against God’s provisions per se in the Law.

Here’s the analogy I use often: If a person says that none of the American founders were Christians, and that for a President to follow the founding tradition, he must never pray in public (or private for that matter), then if we come along and correct that notion, we are not opposing the original founding vision; instead, we would merely be opposing a modern-day perversion of that and correcting the record. That’s similar to what Jesus did.

Throughout the Gospels, we will see again and again how Jesus kept the true OT moral law and how he revered it. He often corrected tradition, but he never corrected God’s original law.

[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960), 72.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: Scribner, 1963), 137.

[3] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), 226.


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