Sunday, June 30, 2013

Fulfilling the Law

From the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's gospel comes this passage that, I believe, is often misunderstood and applied.
17 “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. 18 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. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. - Matthew 5:17-20 NIV

This passage begins with Jesus refuting what was apparently a misconception that either was in existence, or that he expected to develop.  And that was that he was advocating a new religion that abandoned the foundations of the Law and the Prophets, our Old Testament.  And that is a misconception that would be easy to arrive at when, in the chapters to come, one listens to Jesus repeated say "You have heard that it was said ... But I tell you ...".

But Jesus affirms that he has not come to abolish the Old Testament teachings, but rather to fulfill them.  The Old Testament is not obsolete.  But what does he mean by it being fulfilled?  What role does the Old Testament play today in the life of a follower of Jesus?

The word fulfilled is not one I use regularly, but it does have a couple of meanings to me.  The first carries the idea of completeness; my wife fulfills me, or makes me more complete than I would be without her.  The second way I use the word carries the idea of a promise, or obligation, carried out, or fulfilled.  When I buy something on-line, which happens more and more all the time, I expect that within a few days my purchase will show up in the mail.  There is an explicit promise made to me that my purchase will show up in 2,3,5 or 10 days, depending on how much I am willing to pay for postage.  The seller fulfills their obligation by shipping my purchase to me within the specified time frame.  And many companies even have what they call a fulfillment department, where the purchased items are packaged and shipped to the buyer.

I think both of these meanings have application in what Jesus is saying here.  We often say that the Old Testament looks forward to Jesus, or it points to him.  Like I am incomplete without my wife, so the Old Testament is incomplete without Jesus.  He fulfills the Old Testament and helps us to understand it more completely than we could without him.  Jesus is also the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies, as Matthew in particular frequently points out.

But I believe the most applicable fulfillment Jesus makes to the Old Testament has to do with the sin offering found in Leviticus chapters 4 & 5.  This offering, or sacrifice, is made in response to sin and was used to make atonement for the party who had sinned against God in some fashion.  In this offering, an animal takes the place of the offending party, and gives up its life, its blood being shed in place of the sinner, and making God favorably inclined toward the offending party.

The author of Hebrews, in chapter 10, explicitly makes the connection between Jesus sacrifice on the cross and the Old Testament sin offering.  Jesus actually does what the sin offerings only illustrated.  While the sin offerings could never actually deal with our sin, Jesus offering of himself did.  Jesus was that perfect lamb specified in Leviticus that was able to bring about atonement on our behalf.  Jesus fulfilled in his death, the requirements of the Law.

In Paul's letter to the Galatians, he spends quite a bit of effort discussing the Law and its purpose.  In chapter 3 he expresses that the Law does not replace the covenant established with Abraham (v.17), it was added because of sin until Christ came (v.19), the Law was put in charge to lead us to Christ (v.24), now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the Law (v.25).  So how does this relate to Christ fulfilling the Law?  If the purpose of the Law was simply to lead us to Christ, then when we have come to him, it has accomplished its purpose, it has been fulfilled.

So now, as a believer, I am no longer under the authority of the Law.  Does that mean I can do what I want?  Not really.  It means that my righteousness is not a matter of adherence to a moral code, which is what the Law is, but rather is based on what Christ has done.  I still need to live a life of love toward God, and towards those around me, which is the heart of the Old Testament Law.  But those should be done because of my relationship with God, not in order to obtain, or secure, it.

Jesus issues a warning against setting aside even a single command of the Law and commends those who practice them all; as well as warning and commending those who teach others to set aside or practice the Law.  I struggle with this passage because:
  • I do not offer any of the specified sacrifices or celebrate any of the festival days.
  • I eat a lot of unclean foods.
  • I wear garments of mixed materials
  • As tempting as it sometimes is, I do not advocate killing a child who strikes or curses their parent
  • I do not believe a rape victim should have to marry their rapist
  • I don't do a very good job of resting on the Sabbath, a violation of which is punishable by death
  • I do not advocate putting adulterers, or others who have sexual activity outside of a husband/wife relationship, to death.
  • I have never called a priest to my home to check out mold growing on the walls.
Nor am I aware of anyone, including those who claim the Old Testament Law should be practiced by believers, who are themselves willing to follow all of these commands.  So what do I do with Jesus direction here.  Am I destined to be least in the kingdom?

I am not Jewish, nor am I under the authority of the Law.  I believe it is sufficient for me as a believer to love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength and all my mind.  And to love my neighbor as myself.  If I will do those two things, and teach others to do the same, I will have met God's expectation.  I don't need a list of rules, whether they be the Old Testament Law, the morals of 17th century Puritans, or 21st century fundamentalists.  All those can do is show me my inability to live a holy life in my own strength.  Christ has set me free from the tyranny of the law, and by an act of grace, declared me to be righteous.  He has set me free from the law of sin and death, and made me free to love. 

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