posted on Jun, 11 2021 @ 05:01 PM
“Think not that I come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them (Matthew ch5 v17).
“This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it… On these commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matthew ch22
Jesus is telling us that the law will continue indefinitely, up to that moment when “heaven and earth pass away”. So we need to ask ourselves-
The common assumption is that the word “law” always means the law of Moses, what Paul calls “the written code”. But Jesus himself, in some of
the gospel stories, criticises details of the written code, so that assumption is at odds with the rest of his life.
Why did he feel the need to make that first declaration? It rather comes out of the blue, as part of the Sermon on the Mount.
An important clue is in the opening words, “Think not”. This must have been a response to people who DID think that he had come to abolish the law
and the prophets. He needs to defend himself against that charge.
Their suspicions would have been aroused by the various episodes in which he challenged the authority of the legal code. For example, the stoning of
adulterers comes under a clear and unambiguous command, but Jesus notoriously did not like it. This is important, because it answers the common
argument that Jesus only criticised the way the law had been elaborated by tradition, not the law itself. The principle that “giving to God” takes
precedence over other acts of giving is deeply embedded in the laws, thanks to the priests who helped to write them. Yet Jesus criticised it as
“your tradition”. The practice of giving certificates of divorce is tolerated in Deuteronomy (“permitted” is too strong), yet Jesus said it
was against God’s declared will. When he defended minimal sabbath “work” by citing the example of David’s use of the shewbread, the effect was
to downgrade the authority of ritual taboos in general.
So the strict Pharisees would question whether Jesus was really “sound” on the point of being faithful to the legal code, and they would be
sharing those doubts with the people at large, undermining his influence. It would be difficult for Jesus to explain the difference between his
intentions and their hostile interpretation of his intentions. He would be obliged to deny the charge outright, for the same reason that any modern
British Conservative government is obliged to promise that “the NHS is safe in our hands”.
General de Gaulle once found a way to reassure a suspicious crowd. He was on a public balcony in Algiers, in 1959, in the early stages of the
political crisis which brought him to power in France.. Most of the crowd were French colonists, and he was aware that they wanted Algeria to remain
French territory. That was why there was a crisis. He wanted their support, but he had his own doubts about the current system. What was he to do?
History records that he began his address by proclaiming “I understand you!” (“Je vous ai compris”). The colonists were elated. They heard his
words as “I understand and agree with what you want”, which was the promise and encouragement they were looking for. But they had allowed
themselves to be misled by an ambiguity. He meant “understand”, it seems, in a sense which did not include “and agree”, because he did in the
end give Algeria back to the Algerians.
There is also room for ambiguity in the promise quoted at the top of the page. The very word “law” is ambiguous in the New Testament. When Paul
says “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Romans ch7 v12), he is not necessarily talking about the detailed written
code which has been “our custodian until Christ came” (Galatians ch3 v24), the slave-master holding us in captivity. Elsewhere he distinguishes
between “the law of works” (i.e the legal code of Moses) and “the law of faith” (Romans ch3 v27).
Jesus has promised the preservation of “the law and the prophets”. But in Matthew ch22, as also quoted above, he declares that the law and the
prophets are summed up and fulfilled in the two greatest commandments “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbour as
Let us take this definition of “the law and the prophets” and read it back into the Sermon on the Mount.
We then get the promise “I have not come to abolish the commands ‘Love the Lord your God and your neighbour as yourself’. Heaven and earth will
pass away before that commandment passes away.”
It is important not to relax the commandments which really do apply those principles. But we ought not to assume that the same protection is being
offered to every detail in the written code given in the name of Moses, which has incorporated so much “human tradition”.
The strict conservatives among the crowd on that day will have been reassured (begrudgingly, perhaps) by what they would have heard as a promise that
the authority of the legal code was not being challenged. However, I believe they were allowing themselves to be misled by the ambiguities of the
promise. The self-commitment of Jesus was always to God’s law, which is not quite the same thing as the law of Moses.
Christians ought not to be making the same mistake. Let us not be tempted back into legalism.