The Perpetuity of the Law

by | Nov 18, 2021 | Hermeneutics, Law, New Testament

The entirety of my first post in this series was dedicated to identifying the significance, the theme, and the development of the Matthew 5:17-20. In particular we identified its specific theme as follows: The theme concerns Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament Scriptures. Those Scriptures are described in the way typical of the New Testament as the law and the prophets. Jesus’ relation to them is described both negatively and positively. It is not to abolish but to fulfill them. Jesus comes to bring the Scriptures to their intended goal or predestined destination. This relationship of Jesus to the Old Testament is the underlying theme of the entirety of verses 17-20.

 In this post I want to consider how this theme is developed in verses 17-19 of this key passage. 

  1. The Necessary Admonition about This Relationship

 Assuming everything we have seen so far regarding the theme of verse 17, there is an admonition or warning given in light of His relationship to the Old Testament. This warning is brought out by both the prohibition and the positive command of verse 17 as to what we should think of Jesus relationship to the Old Testament: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”

I have already answered most of the questions which arise over the meaning of this verse. There is, however, one question that remains to consider. Why did Jesus feel that such a warning as He gives here was necessary? What potential misunderstanding of His mission does He have in mind about which He feels the necessity of giving such a stern warning? Let us try to think our way back into the situation. This will help us perceive Jesus’ concern. There are a number of pertinent observations: 

  • We must not miss the fact that already in the Sermon on the Mount there has been a clear statement of the centrality of Christ and His ministry. Matthew 5:11focuses attention on the name of Christ and persecution for His name: “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.”
  • Just preceding the Sermon on the Mount, we are told that great crowds were following Him. Matthew 4:25 reads: “Large crowds followed Him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.”
  • This great movement of healing and ministry in Galilee is signalized as a fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. Matthew 4:14-16 speaks of this using the very word for fulfill used in our text: “This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “THE LAND OF ZEBULUN AND THE LAND OF NAPHTALI, BY THE WAY OF THE SEA, BEYOND THE JORDAN, GALILEE OF THE GENTILES– “THE PEOPLE WHO WERE SITTING IN DARKNESS SAW A GREAT LIGHT, AND THOSE WHO WERE SITTING IN THE LAND AND SHADOW OF DEATH, UPON THEM A LIGHT DAWNED.””
  • All of this had been preceded by the baptism of Jesus in which He had been proclaimed by a voice from heaven as God’s beloved Son (Matt. 3:17).
  • And all of this was characterized by Jesus Himself as the coming of the kingdom. Matthew 4:17 reads: “From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”” The coming of the kingdom of heaven brings to its conclusion the time of the law and prophets. Matthew 11:13 supports this: “For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” Luke 16:16 also does so: “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. 

This, then, is why Jesus feels the need to issue this warning. A new time—the time of the kingdom—has come. What will this mean for the law and the prophets? Does it mean that their time is over and that their authority has been overthrown? To this Jesus gives an emphatic answer. It does not! He does not overthrow their authority. Rather, the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures remains and must remain inviolate forever. It is not their abolition, but their fulfillment which Jesus brings.

 Practical Observations: 

  • The mission of Jesus must be seen as fulfilling the Old Testament, its prophecies, and its hope. Dispensationalism with its doctrine of two peoples of God misses this. It sees the true fulfillment of the Old Testament as taking place in the resurrection of Judaism in the millennium. At best for Dispensationalism, when the Old Testament is applied to the church and to the work of Christ which founded the church, this is viewed by them as an accommodation of the Old Testament and not its true fulfillment. This view of Dispensationalism is in its implications nothing less than disastrous. It is also in direct contradiction to what Jesus here teaches. He, His redemptive work, and His church are the climax to which the Old Testament moved.
  • Though the Old Testament is preeminently the revelation of God’s law, it is not exclusively the revelation of God’s law. It is rather as a whole a prediction of the work of Christ. Of course, it is not to be denied that the Old Testament was in its peculiar character a revelation of the law of God. Yet, if Christ in the sense identified already is the fulfillment of the law, then the Old Testament must be seen as having its major purpose in pointing forward to the coming fulfillment in Christ.
  • The meaning of Christ fulfilling the law is not merely His keeping of its commandments but includes also His fulfilling of the predictions about Himself. This means that the foundation upon which Bahnsen builds his case for Theonomy is cracked and faulty. In Theonomy in Christian Ethics Bahnsen argues that fulfilling has the primary—if not the exclusive—meaning of confirming and establishing the law code set forth in the Old Testament. This view of “fulfill” is simply inadequate. Furthermore, in our passage the Old Testament Scriptures are not viewed merely as a static code of laws. They are rather viewed as a word of prophecy in motion toward a great fulfillment and consummation. Jesus sees Himself as the consummation toward which the Old Testament moves. We will see more of this in verse 18—to which we now come. 
  1. The Doctrinal Confirmation of This Relationship

Verse 18 reads: “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.” This verse provides what I have called a doctrinal confirmation of the warning of verse 17. That is, Jesus here tells us an important reason why it cannot be thought that His arrival means the abolition of the law or the prophets. What is that reason or rationale? It is the detailed and perpetual authority of the prophetic Scriptures as the law of God. Several observations will make this clear.

  • I have already asserted that the word, law, is a reference to the Old Testament Scriptures as a whole. The one word, law, encompasses the entirety of the Old Testament.
  • This word, law, characterizes the authority of the Old Testament as the law of God. It has divine and binding authority because it is the law of God.
  • The nature of that authority is not merely that of a static moral code or unchanging set of rules for human behavior. It is rather an authority which finds its outworking in the gradual fulfillment or accomplishment of its divine predictions regarding the future and predetermined goals. It remains binding in its authority until everyone of its statements is confirmed by a future that unfolds under the firm hand of God. The authority of the Old Testament is an authority that is in motion. It looks for its accomplishment. Even the passing away of the present heavens and earth and the coming of the new heavens and earth will not deter its fulfillment. Nor will they mar its detailed truthfulness.
  • The verbal and plenary inspiration of the Old Testament is here emphasized in a striking and unparalleled way. Jesus refers to two features of the Hebrew alphabet in this peculiar emphasis. He speaks of the yodh. This is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. He speaks of the keraiah. This word refers to the little hook or projection which may be part of a Hebrew letter. It is the little hook or projection which distinguishes the Hebrew D from the Hebrew R. The D has the keraiah, while the R does not. Thus, down to its smallest details the Hebrew Old Testament is affirmed as characterized by verbal, plenary inspiration or what we call in our day inerrancy. It is inerrant down to the smallest details of the text.

Practical Observations:

  • Here we see confirmed that Jesus is thinking of the Old Testament as in motion to fulfillment and not merely as a static set of moral laws to be obeyed. It is in the categories of fulfillment and redemptive-historical accomplishment that Jesus presents to us the authority of Scripture
  • Here we see that Christianity has from the beginning been characterized by the highest possible view of the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture. This view of Scripture traces back to Christ Himself. No matter how post-Enlightenment philosophers and theologians decry the inerrancy and full infallibility of Scriptures as Aristotelian, artificial, and even unspiritual, the firm foundation of the full inerrancy of Scriptures is found in the teaching of Jesus here and in similar passages which teach that Scripture is inerrant down to its smallest features. We must not allow the artillery barrage of unbelieving attack upon Scripture in our day to lower one jot or one tittle our confidence in the Scripture. It is not Scholastic theologians or high Reformed dogmaticians that taught the church to regard the Scriptures as infallible and inerrant down to their smallest assertions. It is Jesus Himself. It is the New Testament itself.

III.    The Practical Application of This Relationship

In verse 19, Jesus provides to us one of the major practical applications of what He is teaching: “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.”

When we come to verse 19, we must face a question—and it is a great question with regard to the meaning and application of our passage. You have heard me say so far that “the law or the prophets” in verse 17 and even “the law” in verse 18 speaks of the Old Testament as the prophetic Scriptures. The implication has been that the Lord is not thinking merely of the moral law or the Ten Commandments. In other words, the emphasis is on the fulfillment of scriptural prophecy and the completion of movement toward the future embodied in the Old Testament. Do we, however, meet in verse 19 a contradiction of that interpretation? You can see why I raise that question. Jesus in verse 19 speaks of commandments which must be done. The word translated keeps in the NASB is literally the word for doing. Jesus literally says, Whoever does and teaches them. So, what do you do with that, Pastor Sam? My general response is that we do not meet here a contradiction but an expansion of the idea of fulfillment. Jesus singles out one major practical application of the fact that He came to fulfill Scripture.

  • First, it is certainly not my view that this passage does not include the observance of the moral law or the Ten Commandments. It certainly does; and this verse makes clear that it does. I have simply been saying that this is not all the fulfilling of the law implies. One of the things—we may and must say—toward which the Old Testament was moving was the perfect fulfillment by the Messiah of the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments
  • Second, even here in verse 19 the concern is not merely obedience or disobedience. It is annulling and teaching others to annul the Scriptures or keeping and teaching others to observe the Scriptures.
  • Third, when this verse speaks of commandments, it may be that it is not just referring to the explicit commands, but all of its authoritative teaching whether this comes in terms of imperative commands or authentic historical narratives. Since all of it comes with divine authority, it is all “commandments.” All of Scripture is “the law of the Lord.” Cf. Psalm 19:7f.
  • Fourth, the use of the word commandments does remind us, indeed it teach us, that the peculiar content of the Old Testament is the moral law of God. In proof of this, let me show you the other occurrences of this word in Matthew. There are five such occurrences in three other contexts.

Matthew 15:3 And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”

Here the commandment in question is the Fifth Commandment, Honor your father and mother (Matthew 15:4).

Matthew 19:17 And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 Then he said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER; YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY; YOU SHALL NOT STEAL; YOU SHALL NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS; 19 HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER; and YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”

Once more the content of the commandments is clear in this context. It is the Ten Commandments that are in the forefront of Jesus’ mind. The Sixth through the Ninth Commandments are mentioned in order, then the Fifth, and finally the general commandment which summarizes the second table of the law, Love your neighbor as yourself.

Matthew 22:36-40: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38 “This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 “The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40 “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

The last three uses of commandment in Matthew occur here. The two great commandments which summarize the content of the Ten Commandment are specified as the commandments upon which the law and prophets depend.

The focus of these other occurrences is on the imperatives of the Old Testament. Prominent among these imperatives which must be kept and observed are the Ten Commandments. This means that the focus of Jesus’ concern turns in verse 19 from the fulfilling of Scripture in general way to its fulfilling by the keeping of its commandments specifically.

  • Fifth, this view of verse 19 is confirmed also when we examine what Jesus means by the least of these commandments. What does Jesus mean by the least of these commandments? Two other passages in Matthew shed light on what Jesus means. We just looked at one of them. Jesus tells the great commandments of the law in Matthew 22:36-40. Love God is the great commandment; and love your neighbor is the second.

But now consider the other parallel passage. It is found in Matthew 23:23:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.

Here in these two passages, we have a window into what Christ means by the least of these commandments. The greatest commandments are love God and your neighbor. These are the foundational commands upon which the rest of the Old Testament is built. But it is not just the greatest and foundational commands which the Christian is to do, keep, and teach. It is prominently the Ten Commandments. Yes, and even the least of the Old Testament commands which embody moral principles are not to be annulled but to be respected. These apparently include the requirement to tithe carefully all of our income. The tithing of the garden herbs is not to be neglected even though its rank is far less than justice, mercy, and faithfulness. I do believe that tithing is a natural or moral principle. Here I see another argument for that!

Practical Observations:

  • In verse 19 it becomes clear that one way in which Jesus comes to fulfill the Old Testament is by Himself keeping and teaching His people to keep and teach its commands. This is the indisputable and unavoidable implication of verse 19.
  • This implication is wonderfully and clearly confirmed by a strikingly parallel passage. Notice Romans 8:3-4: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” Romans 8:4 is probably the closest parallel to Matthew 5:17-19 in the New Testament. No less than three of the same words used in our text recur here. There is the word, law, used in Matthew 5:17 and 18 and implied by the word, commandments, in verse 19. There is the word, righteous requirement, which is from the same root translated, righteousness, in verse 20. There is the word, fulfill, which is the exact word used in Matthew 5:17 where Jesus speaks of coming to fulfill the law. These parallels are clear and indisputable. But they are also massive and meaningful in their implications.
  • They show that one way in which Jesus fulfills the law is by causing His people to have “hearts” in which the law is written and “walks” which exemplify its precepts. This is what Paul means when He speaks of the righteous requirement of the law being fulfilled in us. He is speaking of how Jesus causes us to keep the law and so fulfill the righteousness required by the Old Testament.
  • When the perpetuity of the law becomes the focus of Jesus in verse 19, it is the two great commandments, the Ten Commandments, and even the lesser moral requirements of the law (like the tithing principle) which are primarily in view. Jesus does not speak of the permanence of the judicial law of Israel as the Theonomists do. Nor does Jesus speak of the establishment of a brand new, new covenant code of ethics as the New Covenant theology does. He focuses on the Old Testament’s revelation of moral law and specifically the Ten Commandments. And in so doing there is the suggestion of the threefold division of the law taught both in our Confession and the Westminster Confession.
  • The indisputable emphasis on the keeping of the law as included in the fulfillment of the law which Jesus brings provides a theological climate in which something like the threefold division of the law taught in the Reformed tradition is required. Let me remind you of what the 1689 following the Westminster Confession teaches on this subject at 19:3-4:
  1. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties, all which ceremonial laws being appointed only to the time of reformation, are, by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only lawgiver, who was furnished with power from the Father for that end abrogated and taken away.
  2. To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use.

Here is how I am reasoning. Jesus is presented here as fulfilling the Old Testament Scriptures. As we have seen, this fulfillment includes not only the fulfillment of its prophecies, but the entirety of the Old Testament Scriptures. Now we see that it requires also the keeping of its moral law as it stands and where it stands. Thus, the fulfillment which Christ brings to the Old Testament is multi-faceted. We need not and must not think that Jesus means that Christians must continue literally to observe the ceremonial laws. They clearly prefigured Christ. Nor must we include in the laws which we must keep the judicial laws which governed the theocratic kingdom which has now passed away under the judgment of God. Rather the laws—even the least of them—which the Christian must do and teach are the moral laws as revealed in the Old Testament commandments. Thus, the threefold division of the law is a straightforward necessity required by a common-sense exposition of Matthew 5:17-19.

  • When New Covenant Theology and Theonomy ridicule this distinction, they are rejecting a foundational aspect of Reformed theology. Don Carson is some respects a great gift to the church. But here Don Carson fails to see key issues. Cf. his Sermon on the Mount, 37. Specifically and tragically, he denies the threefold division. He is not a safe guide in this matter. Let me offer a few words about what Carson does.
  • In its place he offers really ridiculous, alternative exegesis. He actually says “the least of these commandments” refers not to the commands of the Old Testament, but to the commands of the kingdom of heaven! This way of evading the problem completely ignores the demands of the preceding context on the meaning of verse 19. He also has to ignore the parallel passages which speak to the identity of the commandments in Matthew 19:17-19; 22:36-40 and 23:23.
  • He also remarks that it is really not clear what is moral in the Old Testament. Well, this is simply wrong as well. First, once the ceremonial law and judicial are identified as passing away, then what remains is moral. Second, the distinction in the Old Testament between the Ten Commandments and the rest of the laws as less central makes what is moral clear. Finally, the New Testament in many places assists with this distinction by its teaching.
  • Carson traces the threefold division to Thomas Aquinas. No doubt, this is to prejudice evangelicals against it. Jonathan Bayes in a helpful article traces the origins of the threefold division of the law back to the early church:
  • All of these remarks are confirmed by the fact that the New Testament does not offer us a new law code like that which Carson assumes. The New Testament rather insists on the abiding validity of the Old Testament moral law as it is revealed there. Jeff Smith is right when he says: “The principle is this: All of the ethical teaching of the O.T. should be assumed to be valid for the N.T. Christian, unless we are told otherwise by the N.T.” Jeff goes on to provide some of the evidence for this:

“The O.T. does not derive its authority for us only from its being repeated, and only insofar as it’s repeated in the New. No, it is authoritative for us in and of itself. It can be shown in a number of places that this was, indeed, the position of the apostles. Let me just give one example. Consider Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” What Scripture is Paul referring to here? Though this text has profound implications for all Scripture, Old and New Testaments, yet at the time Paul wrote this, except for certain portions of the gospels perhaps (see 1 Tim. 5:18) and some letters from Paul, the only scriptures available to Timothy were the Old Testament scriptures. Paul is telling us here that the Old Testament scriptures retain their authority. And notice that includes the ethical instruction of the Old Testament. It is profitable for doctrine,” but not only doctrine or teaching, but for, “reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” So as one has commented, “It is the whole of Holy Scripture that Paul is referring to, not merely selected parts that are repeated by Christ and His apostles. This passage teaches us that the whole O.T. is inspired of God and is still profitable for men in the Christian ministry under the New Covenant.”  And again, we specifically have reference here to the ethical, or moral, teaching of the O.T. It is profitable for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.””

How can Paul simply quote the Fifth Commandment as authoritative for Christians in Ephesians 6? How can he lay the foundation for male headship in 1 Corinthians 14 by simply saying “as law also says.” How can he say that the law is holy and the commandment holy, just, and good in Romans 7? He can do all this because he believed that the Old Testament statement of the moral law was authoritative as stated and found in the Old Testament. And he could only assume this because he believed in what amounts to the threefold division of the law. 

  • It is demeaning and diminishing to a Christian teacher to be found guilty of annulling one of the least of the Ten Commandments. I am not certain what it means to be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Does it mean we are still in the kingdom of heaven, but in it in a low place? Or does it mean that we are not in the kingdom at all? I am not certain. But whatever it means, we certainly want to be very sure that we do not annul one of the least of the commandments of the moral law in the Old Testament. It is no small part of our duty as ministers of the New Covenant to uphold and preach all the duties and even the least of the duties found in the Ten Commandments. To uphold the moral law as revealed in the Old Testament is what Paul calls “sound teaching” (1 Tim. 1:10).

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