Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sermon on the Mount: sections C & C' (part 2)

Continuing in this series about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, we now come across one of the most controversial passages of the New Testament:
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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.   Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Countless interpretations of these passages have been offered, and I’m not going to pretend as though I have the definitive interpretation to it either. However, I do believe I have something worthwhile to offer, namely a view which endorses the Law of God and the teaching of His prophets, as well as a necessary change of Law (a “transfiguration” of the Law and the Prophets, so to speak) which must take place when “heaven and earth” are to pass away. But first, we must ask and attempt to answer an obvious question which likely would have crossed the minds of Jesus’ first century Jewish audience.

Why would anyone in Israel think that Jesus came to abolish the Law or the Prophets? Did Jesus come to teach in opposition to “the Law” and the Prophets of God?

I think St. Augustine’s comments about this passage provide a healthy dose of wisdom for all Christians to consider. He wrote:
After He had exhorted His hearers to prepare themselves to suffer all things for the sake of truth and justice, and not to hide the good gift they were about to receive, but to learn it with such good disposition that they would teach it to others, while aiming their good work toward the glory of God, and not toward praise for themselves—then He begins to instruct them and to show them what they should teach. And, just as if they were saying by way of inquiry: ‘Behold, we are willing both to suffer all things for thy name’s sake, and not to hide thy teaching. But what is this very thing which you forbid to be hidden, and for which you command that all things be suffered? Are you going to mention other things in opposition to what is written in the Law?He answers, ‘No.’ For He says: ‘Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill.’

So then, what did Jesus mean by “fulfill”?

In order to answer this question, let’s take a quick tour through Matthew’s use of this very word, “fulfill,” in order to see how it is used throughout this Gospel.
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:22-25, cited from Isa. 7:14)

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. his was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”  (Matthew 2:13-18, cited from Hos. 11:1 and Jer. 31:15)

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:12-17, cited from Isa. 9:1, 2)

And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” (Matthew 8:14-17, cited from Isa. 53:4)

Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:15-21, cited from Isa. 42:1–3)

Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” (Matthew 13:14, cited from Isa. 6:9,10)

This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 13:35, cited from Psalm 78:2)

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’ (Matthew 21:4, cited from Zech. 9:9 [it also echoes and alludes to various visions within Isaiah, e.g. Isa. 62:11])

While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”  At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled. (Matthew 26:47-56, alluding to many interwoven passages of Scripture about an end of the Old Covenant, but most especially Dan. 9:24)

Notice that according to Matthew’s own consistent use of this term to “fulfill”, it always occurs alongside citations from the Old Testament Scriptures. Taking that into account, along with it’s more straight-forward literal meaning to “fill full”, one obvious interpretation of what Jesus meant was to embody what was foreshadowed by the Law and the Prophets, thereby “filling full” what was lacking in them. In “The Law” and “The Prophets” of God we find clear illustrations of God’s holiness, loyal-love, righteous indignation, mercy, goodness, long-suffering, patience, and kindness. But did any single Israelite, or even any generation of Israel collectively, ever typify that reality

Even a cursory glance through Scripture will show that the answer is clearly ‘No’. Israel was given the Law and the Prophets, but every individual Israelite and even Israel collectively was lacking something significant which needed to be filled full. 

I realize that many Christians don’t accept this way of viewing the Law or the Prophets. But please bear with me and hear me out. 

What was Israel lacking, which the Law and the Prophets could not fill full?

We could also ask, what were the Law and the Prophets lacking?

The answer is actually much more simple than what ordinarily meets the eye. Both the people of Israel, and the Law and the Prophets they had received were lacking the power to raise the dead and grant eternal life and immortality (I Tim 6:16; II Tim 1:10; I Cor 15:53-54; Rom 2:7). Jesus came to accomplish that, once for all time, and even for those righteous saints who had already died (Heb. 11:1-12:2). But in order to do so, the filling full of what they were lacking had to be according to the terms of God’s Law as spoken through His prophets. The Law and prophets functioned as a pedagogy of death, with limited access into the Divine presence. Even the Law itself instructed Israel about an inevitable "time of reformation" which would result in direct access to the Divine presence without fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15; 9:8-10). As long as the "first tent" (the Holy Place) was still standing, the Holy Spirit was indicating that the way into Holy places, where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, was not yet opened for the living or the dead. As I have indicated elsewhere in an academic paper, the book of Revelation teaches that after the definitive end of the old covenant administration, with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 A.D., that access into Holy places is opened for all, and all the saints who have died in Christ ascend thrones, and they are each given authority over the nations to participate with Jesus in making all things new.

Only the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and vindication of the Son of God could open that way into the heavenly realities of eternal life with God (Heb 8:1-5). Not only did the temple of Jesus' Body have to be destroyed, but the Old Covenant temple and it's whole system of administration needed to be destroyed along with him in order for the New Covenant kingdom to advance throughout the world, uniting heaven and earth together in his Church and  thereby colonizing earth with the life of heaven.

So then, in a secondary sense, the Law and the Prophets were not only lacking the power to destroy the power of death, but they were also lacking their promised Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, who alone could accomplish that cosmic task.

Again, St. Augustine’s comments are helpful:
This sentence admits of a twofold meaning. …By saying that He has not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it, He says that He is going to make it complete by adding what it lacks and that He is going to observe it by doing what it contains. …He does not destroy what He has found in the Law when He supplies what it lacked; on the contrary, He strengthens it by giving it completeness. …For, when one is observing what has been added for the sake of completeness, he is all the more surely observing what has been previously established as the foundation.

Accordingly, it cannot be said that Jesus came to end all usefulness of God’s Law or what his prophets taught. Indeed, the very opposite seems to be the case. Yet, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Jesus is not only endorsing the usefulness of God’s Law and the teaching of His prophets. He is also teaching that there will come a time when “heaven and earth" will pass away, and when that occurs there must be a necessary change of Law (a “transfiguration” of the Law and the Prophets, so to speak). 

In the next post I will try to bring clarity about when that time would be, and what that implies for Christians today. Here’s a teaser though: That time is not in our future. The first “Heaven and earth” already passed away.

No comments:

Post a Comment