Among those churches which accept the Bible as the very word of God, and accordingly strive to make it their only rule for faith and life, perhaps the most fundamental question with which we are faced today is: “What is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments?” To put it more simply, “How are we to read the bigger half of our Bible; and how, if at all, does it bind us today? Are we to apply it today at all?” The answer to this question affects not only our life at church but our daily lives as well. For example:
Why may a Christian freely eat pork or shellfish?
Why may Christians work on Saturday?
Why do some, who believe the Bible, baptize their infants while others do not?
Why may a Christian take only one wife when many faithful saints of old had several?
Why are the affairs of some churches, on a human level, overseen by elders, others deacons, others by vote of the whole congregation, and still others by a single bishop?
Is a Christian who serves in government bound to the law of the Old Testament? May he serve at all?
Does modern Israel possess Palestine as a fulfillment of the promises of God to Abraham?
These and a myriad of other questions, which divide churches and influence our daily lives, cannot be answered without thinking about the authority of the Old Testament for Christians today. Sometimes this may be done implicitly, without consciously considering the question of the Old Testament’s abiding use. Some Christians simply reject the Old Testament’s authority, calling it “The Law.” Nevertheless, whether knowingly or not, all who submit to the Bible as God’s word face this question.
As Protestants we believe that since “Scripture cannot be broken,” only Scripture can infallibly interpret Scripture. It is not the church, not my favorite seminary or Bible school teacher, much less a voice inside my head, but the Holy Spirit himself, speaking through Scripture, who infallibly interprets other Scriptures which he has also written. Therefore, we must allow Scripture to teach us how we are to read, interpret and obey the Old Testament.
Perhaps Jesus’ most clear and explicit teaching on the subject of the Old Testament’s use in his kingdom is found in Matthew 5:17, 18. Jesus spoke these words as a part of the Sermon on the Mount. Therefore to grasp fully their significance, one must look at them as a part of the whole sermon, Matthew’s gospel, and the flow of redemptive history. Correctly interpreting this foundational passage is surely a necessary first step toward solving the problem of the relationship between the two testaments.
If one surveys the various current interpretations of this sermon, it seems that many churches interpret the various key parts of the Sermon on the Mount differently (often radically so). Are the “poor in spirit” to be seen as the contrite of heart, or are they Christians with empty wallets? Are all poor everywhere blessed? May we take oaths and vows? Why did Paul do so? May we serve in the armed forces, or protect our families from violent attack? All theologians taking their stand upon this one sermon can be found staunchly defending opposing sides on these various questions. This passage is pivotal for understanding the world’s most famous and perhaps most controversial sermon. By properly discerning the function of this passage in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew, and its context in the flow of redemptive history, this difficult text should become more clear, providing guidance for the problem of the relation of the Old and the New Testaments.
To begin, let us summarize the obvious meaning of verses 17 to 20 as:
Jesus did not, in any sense, come into this world to abolish or abrogate the authority of the Old Testament, rather he came to reveal its true meaning and to bring that meaning to pass.
As our first point, we will look at the part of this passage which is easiest to understand, that is, at the negative statements which Jesus makes in verses 17 and 18. Whatever may be said about the rest of this passage, the following point is clear from that which Jesus denies:
1. The coming of Christ and his kingdom in no sense was to abolish even one requirement or teaching of the Old Testament—at least when the Old Testament is properly understood.
Jesus makes this denial plain in easy to understand language. Were it not for the implications of this point, surely none would say otherwise. So if it is true that the coming of Christ and his kingdom has left the Old Testament legal structure in place, then this means we must obey it fully. However, most Christians have thought that significant portions have been either radically changed or, for all practical purposes, rendered moot by the coming of the Kingdom of Christ. In fact, the phrase “Kingdom of God” does not appear in this section; only the words “I came” are recorded. But a quick overview of Matthew and the other gospels would reveal that one cannot separate King Jesus from his kingdom. The coming of Christ and the coming of his kingdom are one and the same. Thus, it would seem that we are justified in understanding Christ’s denial (“Do not think that I came to abolish, but to fulfill”) as meaning that within the Kingdom of Heaven, the Law of Moses and the Prophets remain in force, even down to the last jot and tittle.
The unity between Christ’s coming and his kingdom’s arrival is seen clearly by a couple of examples. Matthew begins, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David” (1:1). Thus, Matthew introduces Jesus to us as the heir to David’s throne. Christ came as king; he came to establish a kingdom. John, too, records Jesus confessing this truth as he stood before Pilate, facing what humanly speaking would have been the end of hope. When interrogated he replied, “My kingdom is not of this world” and again, “My kingdom is not of this realm” (Jn. 18:36). Pilate then asked, “So you are a king?” Jesus affirmed his question: “You have said correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come” (Jn. 18:37). Thus, Jesus’ coming and the coming of the kingdom may not be separated. Likewise, the Sermon on the Mount is preceded immediately by the statement that “Jesus went about preaching the gospel of the kingdom.” The Sermon on the Mount is intended by Jesus to portray for us the content of that good news which Jesus was preaching. We may rightly understand Matthew 5:17 to read “Do not think that I have come, or that I am establishing a kingdom in which disobedience to Law and the Prophets will be tolerated.”
Returning to the central point of 17 and 18, we are not permitted to consider that because Christ has come, because a new kingdom has been established, that the bigger half of our Bible has been abolished. While it is admittedly a sticky question as to just what it means that he and his kingdom are “come to fulfill,” we surely know what that phrase does not mean! The coming of Christ and his kingdom in no sense was to abolish even one requirement or teaching of the Old Testament—at least when the Old Testament is properly understood. It should be noted that the natural reading of Christ’s declaration would include even the so called “ceremonial” aspects of the Mosaic Law (“all which . . . are now abrogated,” declares the Westminster Confession of Faith.).1 Surely, we must seek to explain the obvious absence of continued offering of animals, practice of dietary laws, etc., by some means other than those directly denied by our Savior in verses 17 and 18!
To this point we have looked at what Jesus denies. We have seen the way of thinking which Jesus forbids to us, his disciples, i.e., any thought that in his kingdom the Old Testament (Law and Prophets) commands are abrogated. Verses 17, 18, 20 also record the positive side of Christ’s teaching regarding the Old Testament.
v.17 “I have come to fulfill”
v.18 “All of the Law is to be accomplished”
v. 20 “Regarding the Law’s teaching: “your righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.”
Obviously, when the people of God passed from the Old Testament era into the New, change—major change—occurred. In order to answer the question of just what that change was, let us first think about the word “fulfill” in verse 17. Remember that Christ himself forbids to us any interpretation which amounts to abrogating the Law’s authority.
English translators are virtually unanimous in rendering this word as “fulfills”. The only exceptions which I found were: “completes” or a paraphrase such as “makes their teachings come true.” In fact the word “fulfill” is near perfect, since as with the original, its root meaning is to fill a vessel. Literally or figuratively the word describes the act of providing that which is lacking, so that the object (in this case the Old Testament) attains to its ultimate purpose. For example, it is used to describe a cup being filled with liquid, or an auditorium being filled with people. Thus, Jesus’ use here implies that prior to his coming, the Law and the Prophets, i.e., the Old Testament, was in some sense incomplete or imperfect. The coming of the kingdom fulfills it.
Now to say that the Law and the Prophets were previously unfulfilled does not mean that they were flawed. A cup cannot fulfill its purpose without water, but lacking water it is not thereby flawed. Jesus has come not to destroy, abrogate or abolish the righteous requirements of the law, but to bring about the true purpose for which they were given by God. In other words, their ultimate purpose is to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. God gave his people the Law on a mountain through Moses. Jesus himself ascended another mountain to give his people a better word, but not a replacement. In this way he fulfills the Law. Even though the country in Palestine, heretofore existing under the Old Testament, was truly of God and hence was rightly referred to as “Kingdom of God,” it was nevertheless established by the Law given through Moses as a temporary and provisional nation. Both in his teaching and in his person, Christ reveals and brings to pass the true meaning of Moses’ Law by establishing, upon the throne of David, an eternal kingdom—one which is not of this world. This new kingdom, the Kingdom of God, is the true meaning of the Law and the Prophets. Verse 18 says that before even a tiny piece of the Old Testament passes away, all of it must be accomplished, or more literally “all must become.” All will become at the consummation when the full work of the Spirit of Christ is realized and the church is perfectly complete (I Cor. 15:24, 25). Christ brings this about through his death, resurrection and ascension to the throne over his church, and ministry to it by the Spirit. In doing so he does not repair the cup (the Law and the Prophets), he fills it to the brim.
Verse 18 reinforces verse 17. It too teaches that the Old Testament remains in force, “until all is accomplished.” All will be accomplished when the full eschatological kingdom is realized (Rev. 21, 22). Since the “law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners” (1 Tim. 1:9), in the new heavens and the new earth (after the consummation), the commandments will become redundant since, “for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death . . . and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it.” Until that time, our king teaches unequivocally that every jot and tittle remains in force, i.e., is to be obeyed.
To further understand Jesus’ meaning that he has come to fulfill the Law, let us examine several current interpretations of verse 20. Here Jesus begins to apply this teaching that the Law is fulfilled by his coming. He compares the obedience of his disciples (in the kingdom) to that of the Scribes and Pharisees (who fall short of the kingdom). There are various interpretations of this verse. I mention three.
Under the first, Jesus in verse 20 is chastening the laxity of the Jewish leaders in obeying the law. He then requires better, perhaps even perfect, obedience to the Old Testament. By this interpretation, Jesus is then a more strict rabbi. This interpretation fails to realize that in the remainder of chapter 5, Jesus does not merely teach a greater scrupulousness in obedience, but rather a radically transformed understanding of the meaning of the Old Testament. For example, in his kingdom, even nasty words and hatred are to be judged as violations of the statute, “Thou shalt not kill.” Neither Moses himself nor David, “the king after God’s own heart,” ever applied or should have applied the commandments in this way. Jesus is not chastening the laxity of the Jews, he is exegeting the statutes in a brand new light, the light of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The second suggested understanding of verse 20 is that Jesus is attacking the Jews’ attempts to justify themselves by their own works, and he is, instead, teaching that the righteousness suitable to the kingdom comes through faith. While this statement is very true (and elsewhere Jesus takes a Pharisee to task for self-justification), it also misses Jesus’ point in verse 20. Again, looking at the following passage, Jesus does not mention justification by faith in any way, shape or form. Indeed, verses 21 through 48 are very much concerned with our actual obedience to God’s revealed will. While Jesus brings out of the Law a depth of meaning and a standard of righteousness that undoubtedly makes clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” there is no evidence of Christ’s directing the disciples’ attention away from actual obedience to the Law toward an imputed righteousness. The fact that elsewhere in the New Testament the Pharisees exhibit a tendency toward self-justification does not in and of itself warrant our reading that problem into Matthew 5. It will not do for us to read our argument with the Roman Catholic Church back into this passage.
A third common understanding of Jesus’ declaration about surpassing righteousness is just a bit different than the first, and it is reflected in this quotation:
“Why must one practice and teach the details of God’s Law? Because then your righteousness will exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees who have no part in the Kingdom . . . If a man is to be truly law-abiding, he must keep the law as delivered by God and in the way specified by God . . . The Pharisees appealed to the law in a way calculated to help them escape the real and original demand of God.” (Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, pp. 90, 91)
In other words, the problem with which Jesus is concerned is not the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ dependence upon their own works, or their laxity in obedience, so much as their twisting the Law’s original meaning. If they had understood it the way that Moses did, then their righteousness would have been sufficient for the kingdom. This interpretation is closer to the mark.
Unlike the first interpretation which we considered, Dr. Bahnsen’s view recognizes that Jesus is demanding a change from the contemporary understanding of the Law, and not simply a quantitatively stricter application. Despite the improvement, this view, too, is inadequate.
The radical advance in righteousness that comes in Christ and is commended to us in verse 20 is also reflected in Paul’s comparison of his standing before God under Moses and Christ. In Phil. 3:5, 6, he says, “Before the Law I was blameless!!” Please note that he does not say, “before the Pharisaic misinterpretation of the Law.” He says before the Law, i.e., before Moses. Although it may be that the Pharisees did indeed misinterpret the Law, and it may be that they tried to justify themselves, these are not Jesus’ concerns in Mt. 5:20. No, there is another problem which Jesus has with the righteousness of the Jewish teachers.
We must see that it was not only Saul of Tarsus and his legalistic cohorts who fell short of the kingdom, since even the greatest of those of the Old Testament era could not enter the Kingdom of heaven. In Matthew 11, Jesus tells us that John was the greatest man on earth, prior to the kingdom (see Mt. 11:11). From this passage we can discern the weakness of the third interpretation, and be guided toward the actual meaning of Jesus’ words concerning the problem of the Scribes and Pharisees. According to Jesus’ clear, albeit difficult words, John the Baptist was not in the kingdom. Yet from other passages, we know with certainty that from the womb he was both filled with the Holy Spirit and a true and faithful prophet of God. John testified of Christ and his kingdom even to the point of martyrdom. The man was saved! He is surely with Christ in heaven now! So why does Jesus teach that he was not in the Kingdom of Heaven?
As long as John walked the earth, he was a man of the old era, the Old Testament age. Like Moses and Abraham and David, John lived as one who preceded and thus looked forward to the coming of the kingdom in Christ. Like all of the saints of old, he faithfully served God by preaching a kingdom which was to come. Even though he himself saw the Christ, baptized him, and was thus pre-eminent among the men of old, he was, nonetheless, an Old Testament prophet, ministering under the old order. In preparation for the new kingdom, he baptized Jews to restore them to Moses, to the temple and to the throne in Jerusalem. He did not in any sense baptize them into Christ and the kingdom which he would soon establish (cf. Acts 18:25; 19:3-5). Although the greatest of the prophets of old, having seen the promise in the flesh, he nevertheless possessed a revelation which was, as Hebrews describes, “in many portions and in many ways.” Or, he was, as Peter declares, among those “prophets who made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.” This is why he never really understood the full significance of Christ’s person and work. It is why he asked Jesus if he was the “Expected One,” or whether they should “look for another yet to come” (Mt. 11:3). He, like the others of old, expected more of an earthly king who would in some way re-establish David’s throne in Jerusalem. Bound to Moses, he could not see clearly beyond Palestine and its institutions to lay hold of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The writer to the Hebrews also recognized that even the greatest of the Old Testament saints lacked something which we now possess (Heb. 11:39-40). Those described as “all these” in v. 39 or “they” in v. 40 are the saints of Hebrews 11—sometimes called the ‘honor roll of the faith.’ They are commended to us at the start of chapter 11 as models of true and living faith, exhibited in their righteous lives. Yet, we are told, they too, like John, lacked something. As prophets they could see it coming in the distance, but, “apart from us they should not be made perfect;” not because of our inherent wonderfulness, not because of our superior faith. It is clear that these Hebrew-Christians, who were still in need of milk, possessed no such quality. No, the reason is not tied to the ethical superiority of the individuals of our present age but to the arrival of King Jesus; Christ and his kingdom have now come down out of heaven. Two verses later Hebrews goes on to say, “fixing our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.” He is not only the one “before Abraham,” but the one who perfected the faith of Abraham. Christ’s coming, the establishment of his kingdom, has perfected that which was lacking for Abraham, Moses, David, and even the greatest of old, John the Baptist.
So let us return to the original question. In what sense must our righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees if we are to enter the kingdom? The Jewish leaders failed to recognize the new kingdom and its king; they continued instead to pursue the old, earthly kingdom and its righteousness. Such righteousness is now, as Paul goes on to say in Phil. 3, “rubbish,” since the promised Christ and his kingdom have now come (vv.7, 8). Before the coming of King Jesus, the ultimate, true purpose of the Law and the Prophets could not be seen, nor did God intend that it be clearly seen, else men such as Moses, David, and John would surely have seen it. Only with the coming of Christ and the establishment of his kingdom did the ultimate purpose of the Law and the Prophets appear. Only in the Kingdom of Heaven are they truly satisfied. Must you obey them? YES OF COURSE YOU MUST! Christ fulfills them; he in no sense abolishes them. Our righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes, Pharisees and even John, because our prophet, priest and king surpasses theirs. He reveals God and his will to us to an extent and a depth of which the men of old could not even imagine. He intercedes, mediates and makes atonement so as to truly save; and he effectively rules us, writing the Law in our hearts, and punishes the enemies of the kingdom with a righteousness which causes even the demons to tremble. He and he alone is the reason why our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees. Similarly, he is the sole reason why “he who is least in the kingdom is greater than [John].”
Prior to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his kingdom in which the Law and the Prophets have their ultimate fulfillment, Moses and David, following the will of God revealed in the Law and the Prophets, built an earthly kingdom in the land of Canaan. Solomon, likewise, built a temple following the revealed will of God. All of their deeds and works were done in obedience to the will of God; their deeds were righteous. Their administration communicated the grace of God to Israel unto the salvation of the elect. But all was done as a shadow. The kingdom which they built and the temple which Solomon erected were but an earthly shadow of the kingdom which Christ has now begun to build. They were like a tadpole that is destined to become a frog. They contained the rough, earthly outlines and suggestions of the future mature kingdom. Like the tadpole, the old forms had a real existence and meaning, albeit temporary. However, by just looking at a tadpole, one who has never seen a frog would hardly be able to sketch a clear picture of the tadpole’s future destiny. Similarly, the old kingdom of shadows was intended to prefigure and point to the Kingdom of Heaven, the temple which is made without human hands. Through the kingdom in Palestine, men of old exercised faith in the Savior who was to come, but they could not actually participate in his kingdom before that kingdom actually arrived. Despite the divine glory of the old kingdom and its various ministries, it was weak and ineffectual by comparison to the real thing.
The problem of the Jewish leaders is that despite the arrival of Christ and his kingdom, the Pharisees continued to pursue the earthly shadow and its righteousness. Hence, their righteousness was inadequate for the Kingdom of Heaven. Continuing to demand circumcision when the “reproach of Egypt” (Josh. 5:9) has already been perfectly rolled away by a divine circumcision (Col. 2:11) is to again reject Christ and put him to shame (Heb. 6). It is to forsake the righteousness from God and pursue a righteousness of this world. Because the Jewish leaders rejected the true king and the true kingdom, their righteousness, though maintaining a form of godliness, fell short of the Kingdom of Heaven. The earthly kingdom in Canaan had value only so long as that which it was designed to foreshadow had not appeared. The ambassador is of interest to a foreign head of state only until his own head of state arrives in the foreign country. Once the president arrives, the host must turn his attention to him. To continue dealings with the ambassador once his president has arrived is to slap the visiting president in the face, and to miss the very point of the ambassador’s preparatory visit. By ignoring the true temple and the true kingdom and clinging to the old (Jn. 11:48), i.e., by continuing to read Moses and the Prophets as having a binding focus upon the earthly nation, they pursued a righteousness which was inherently short of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Yes, in the old era God himself, through the Law raised up the nation of Israel; then through the former prophets, Israel became a kingdom. Then, through the latter prophets, God began to point both to the weaknesses and imperfections of that kingdom. He pointed to a better kingdom which was to come; in other words, to the Kingdom of Heaven. The earthly kingdom and its institutions, themselves, were in fact designed to point to that future kingdom. Hebrews 10:1 says, “The Law has only a shadow of the good things to come.” The context in Hebrews indicates that the writer has one particular institution in mind, namely Israel’s religious system, with its earthly temple, imperfect priesthood, and animal sacrifices. This is because his readers were apparently in danger of abandoning the church and reverting to that kind of earthly form of worship (cf. Col. 2:16, 17, 20). Nevertheless, it is not just the rituals of Israel that were intended as a shadow of the good things to come. The whole of the nation which was established in the land of Canaan according to the Old Testament was similarly a shadow of the good things to come. The good things have now come! The shadow has passed away; the earthly kingdom with all of its institutions, religious, ethical and civil, now have meaning only as they point us to and teach us about King Jesus, his heavenly kingdom, and its temple—the Church of Jesus Christ. Only when we recognize this change and thus read both our Old Testament and our New Testament, can our righteousness truly exceed that of the Pharisees, who insisted on pursuing the old kingdom.
The validity of this understanding of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament is borne out when we look at Jesus’ exposition of the Law which follows beginning with verse 21. Seven times, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to the ancients . . . but I say unto you.” That which the ancients were told is the teaching of the Law and the Prophets, not the man-made traditions for which Jesus rebuked the Jews at other points (Mt. 15). While Jesus does not deny the truth or validity of the Old Testament’s demands; he expands upon that truth or validity of the Old Testament’s demands, he expands upon that teaching, developing it in accordance with the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. In doing so he gives us seven examples of how the Law is fulfilled in the kingdom, seven examples of just what our tadpole now looks like in maturity—or in other words, how we are to apply the Law both today and until the consummation. Let us look very briefly at one of the more knotty examples which Jesus gives.
In verse 43 Jesus replaces the Old Covenant understanding of the Law’s teaching about the enemies of the people of God with a new understanding. In the Old Testament kingdom, perfectly in accord with the revealed will of God, Joshua and the sons of Israel tried with all of their might to kill their enemies. This they were commanded to do by the Law and the Prophets, and they were reproved when they disobeyed (i.e., when Saul spared Agag). In a sense the ancients were told, “Hate your enemies.” Here hate is not fundamentally an emotion any more than biblical love is at root an emotion. “Hate your enemies” refers to the behavior which they were commanded by God to exhibit toward the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Philistines, etc. Jesus tells us that we must now love these human enemies of the kingdom.
Similarly, Paul tells us that our battle “is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Israel and her enemies were but an earthly shadow of the real battle which is raging against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Our enemies are not flesh and blood; they are spirit. Christians who take up arms in an attempt to establish or defend the Kingdom of Heaven wage a futile war, and disobey this command of Christ. Pacifists who apply this passage to the wars between earthly nations similarly miss Christ’s point. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” is Christ’s application of the Law and the Prophets to the new people of God. When we are persecuted for the sake of Christ’s name, we must not resist, but we must stand with our Lord as did Stephen in Acts 7, and we must pray with our Lord, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” In this way we conquer our earthly enemies by plundering their fortresses (2 Cor. 10:3-5; Rom. 12:20-21).
As the church of Christ, we engage in holy war, not by striking our flesh and blood attackers, but by praying for those who persecute us, and conquering them with the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. The language of battle of the Old Testament remains binding, but now applies to spiritual, not physical enemies of the people of God. In the same way all of the Law and the Prophets must likewise be obeyed. Jesus does not give us a verse by verse commentary concerning how each and every Old Testament statute is to be applied and obeyed today, but he does, in very strong words, command that his church pursue such study. This is because in his kingdom, the Law and the Prophets are not abrogated. Quite to the contrary, they are transformed from above. The primary focus of Old Testament statutes has been redirected from earth to heaven. Everything from our worship to our warfare has been ‘reborn from above.’
In verses 18 and l9 our final point appears:
Until the Old Testament is completely fulfilled, that is, until the end of the world, every part of the Old Testament remains in force.
Verse 18 begins with an oath often used by Christ: “For truly I say to you.” He frequently begins very important, often difficult teachings with this phrase. Thus we must listen with particular care to what follows, and we should expect to encounter teaching which is particularly hard to understand or obey. Verse 18 answers two questions which naturally arise from verse 17. First, how long will it remain in force? And second, how much of it remains binding?
To the question of how long it remains in force, Jesus first answers with what in Greek is a very emphatic statement—Until heaven and earth pass away, it will not pass away. The grammar here sharply contrasts the perishability of heaven and earth (cf. Heb. 1:10f.) with the imperishable nature of the Law. At the end of this verse Jesus repeats the point and at the same time explains why this is so: all that is written must be accomplished. The Old Testament, when properly focused through the old kingdom/temple, provides the blueprints and the ethics for a kingdom which will continue to be built right up to the return of Christ when he will finish the job. Until that time not even a tiny bit of the Law will pass away. No builder would ever dream of throwing away his blueprints before completing the house. Jesus is telling us that the statutes of the old earthly kingdom are integral pages in the total blueprint for the house which he has employed us to help him to build, prefiguring its government and worship. They are binding at least as long as the laborers build.
It is important to recognize that Jesus’ view of the Law at this point is not merely ethical, but constructive. The Law is in force not only to bring about ethical behavior on the part of the king’s subjects, but also to construct the Kingdom of heaven itself. Those seeking to bind modern earthly nations to the letter of the Law vehemently deny this very point when they insist that we must not confuse “the question of what ought to take place in the world (ethics) with the question of what will in fact take place in the world (eschatology)” (Bahnsen, No Other Standard, p. 52.). “All is accomplished” (Mt. 5:18) only when the city sought by Abraham is complete: “the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). The word of God will not return void. It will accomplish the purpose for which God has sent it. This is true not simply on a personal level, but in cosmic terms. The Lord established the Law with a view to the work of Christ. His purpose is not merely the ethical transformation of individuals. It is certainly not to perfect the kingdoms of this world (Jn. 18:36). To attempt to impress the legal system of Old Testament Israel upon the fallen kingdoms of this world is like trying to plant a seed in cement—it will neither go in nor ever take root. Christ’s purpose is to redeem his people from the nations, and to transform them into a temple-kingdom which will be a suitable dwelling place for God. In this sense the law is eschatologically constructive, and not merely ethical.
This then brings us to the answer to the second question. How much of the Old Testament remains in force? The words which in my version are translated “smallest pen stroke and letter,” actually refer to the smallest Greek letter, and to the tiny projection on certain Hebrew letters which distinguish one from another. Christ’s point here is surely not the physical durability of the New or Old Testament manuscripts, but to emphasize vividly the fact that the whole of the Old Testament remains binding upon us. This is true at least until the end of this age.
Because of this emphatic teaching of Christ, the writer to the Hebrews goes to great length to prove to us the validity of Christ’s High Priesthood, and he does it from the Old Testament itself. Even the rituals of the Old Testament are not abolished; they are fulfilled; they are obeyed in a superior way by a greater High Priest who serves at a tabernacle made without human hands. The earthly tabernacle was destroyed by the judgment of God. But, the commandments of the Old Testament by which it was originally erected remain fully binding. Thus the writer takes great pains to show that we have a legally legitimate High Priest who continues to satisfy every sacrificial requirement of that Law on our behalf. We have a king who sits crowned at God’s right hand ruling his kingdom through earthly agents called elders they and they alone can satisfy the political demands of the Law and the Prophets. They “bear not the sword in vain,” the sword of the Spirit that is. Hebrews 12 indicates to us that their application of that Law is far more awesome than the death by stoning which was employed by the elders of old (cf. Heb. 12:20, 25).
Finally, Christ warns us in verse 19 against teaching that any part of the law has been abolished. He who does will be least in the kingdom. We dare not simply dismiss even a bit of the Old Testament as irrelevant because Christ forbids us from doing so. Instead we must diligently ask ourselves “How does this statute or teaching apply in the light of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven?”
Similarly, we dare not do as did the Scribes and the Pharisees, i.e., we dare not continue to read our Old Testament as if it still speaks to an earthly kingdom (in Palestine or Washington). It does not! Those who fail to realize this put themselves in the same danger against which Christ warns us: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
1. Chapter 19:2-5 of the Westminster Confession attempts to categorize the various statutes as ceremonial, civil, and moral as a means of summarizing their use in the New Testament following the cross. This approach produces a reasonable description of what Christians must obey today, but the breakdown lacks New Testament theological underpinning. Consequently, while the Confession declares large portions of the Law to be abrogated in Christ’s Kingdom, King Jesus states that all remain in force.
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