Tuesday, October 31, 2017

After 500 Years of Celebration...

I’m so sorry to hear that! I’ll be praying for God to turn them back.
It must be so heart-wrenching for you, being so close and all.
That’s really, really sad, actually. 

Their whole system of sacraments and church authority is unbiblical.
The Bible actually teaches against cannibalism.
Only Elders and Deacons are biblical, too.
And that whole crazy talk about Mary! Every true Christian knows she shouldn’t be worshiped!
Satan is so clever, masking himself as an angel of light. 
She can’t even hear our prayers anyway! 
Where in the Bible does it say that she can hear our prayers after death? Nowhere, that’s where. 

Then there’s the problem with priests. Not only are they not Biblical, but because none of them have ever been allowed to marry, they just invite pedophilia and homosexuality into the church. It’s like they don’t even care about God’s Law!
And the Pope! Don’t even get me started with that nonsense. 
They actually believe every word he says! If Pope Francis told them that Abortion and Communism was good for humanity, they’d treat his words like Jesus himself said them. One can only hope that the Pope will one day renounce their unbiblical belief in works, too. Maybe then Catholics will understand the gospel.
They actually believe people are not saved by faith alone. Can you believe that? 
“Works” are necessary too, they say. 
But where in the Bible does it say that?!? 
Salvation is—at least, according to God’s Word—a gift of God which you cannot earn. For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, but is a gift of God. NOT OF WORKS, lest any man should boast. That’s what Jesus taught. We are saved through faith; not on the basis of faith; not “because” of faith, but THROUGH it. 
Faith is an instrument that God gives to us as His gift. We didn’t earn it! 

That’s why the doctrines of confession and penance are misleading too. They treat priests and the penance they give as magic tricks or something. 
Who in their right mind actually thinks a priest has the authority to assign “works” for you to do, and that if you don’t obey his arbitrary rules—rules that aren’t found in the Bible, by the way—you cannot be saved? 
Priests can’t work magic. Jesus is all you need to be saved. 
Once you really have Jesus, there’s nothing you can do to lose your salvation. 
I always recommend people get a good Bible and study it every day, when they wake up in the morning, and when they walk by the way, and when they lie down to sleep at night. That’s what the Bible commands us to do. All day, every day, we ought to be people immersed in the Bible. 
I prefer the KJV or NKJV, but I also don’t mind the NIV so much.
I prefer the NKJV because it uses the most pure text for translation into English. I don’t want a Bible that softens the gospel of God’s grace. I want it to be as free from error and external human influences as possible. 

Have you asked them how often they read their Bibles? I bet that’s part of why they converted—not reading their Bibles.
I always tell people that they need to bathe in God’s word if they want to remain faithful. Otherwise, who knows what can happen? Backsliding even a little from the truths of God’s word is seriously dangerous. The slope is too slippery. 
I always tell my friends to memorize the Gospels and Acts first, followed by Romans and Galatians. That’s the best way to get a grip on the Gospel. 
Of course they should read the entire Bible. But not the Catholic Bible, because that has the Apocryphal letters in it, which are not inspired and inerrant.
Paul says that all Scripture is inspired of God, and is profitable for all the instruction we need in life. And if you compare the word of God with the Apocryphal writings, it’s obvious that the Apocrypha is not God-breathed, which is why the Great Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox didn’t include those books in their Bibles. 

You know, if your friends ever have questions about the Bible, just give them my number and I’ll set aside some time to talk with them. Or you can invite them to my church, if you want. Our pastor is one of the most Biblical preachers around. He even has a blog of his own with links to his sermons on it. 
He can help your Catholic friends. That’s why—I believe—we are commanded to honor the Sabbath and to keep it holy. If we are not fed the Word of God regularly in worship, at least once a week, then we’re not being spiritually nourished. 

Oh, we also have a prayer meeting once a week. You should prayerfully consider inviting them to join us sometime. A life of prayer is so important, even for Catholics; probably even especially for Catholics, because with all those distractions about Mary, the saints, the rosary, and all other fluff, they might even forget what real prayer is like!

You know what? I have a book I can give you, too, which you can give to them. I can just buy another copy for myself. It’s no big deal. In this book they can learn so much about the truth of God’s word. 
In our church we call it the little green book, but that’s not actually it’s name. It’s called a catechism, which is the most accurate expression of the Christian faith in writing today (apart from the Bible of course!). 
What makes it so great is that it is in question and answer format, asking and answering all the really important and “deep” questions about God and his word, and everything in it comes directly from the Bible, almost word for word. 
Every question and answer has a list of footnotes underneath it which shows exactly where in Gods inspired word the answers are found. So they can open up their Bible and read the truth for themselves. And it is by the Bible's truth that they will be set free, just as Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel. 

Oh, and one more thing….

I almost forgot...

Do you know if they have ever heard of Strong’s Concordance? 
Do you even know what that is?
It’s a really neat book which highlights the true meaning of each word in the Bible.
It’s really helpful for people who can’t read the original languages. 
That way, no matter what translation your friends use (just hopefully not a Catholic one!), they can always go to God’s original, unadulterated word for answers.  
I’ll see if I have a copy at home, and if I do I’ll drop it off at your house this week, to give to them.

Again, I’m so sorry to hear about their "conversion." 
I will be praying for them this Wednesday evening.
I’ll let my pastor know, too. He can pray for them.
And if you don’t mind, I’ll even tell other Christian brothers and sisters in my Bible study about them, so they too can intercede for them. 

Perhaps God will be merciful, and hear all of our prayers.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon on the Mount: Sections C & C' (part 5)

As noted in the beginning of this mini-series about the Sermon on the Mount, the whole sermon is laid out for us in the form of a chiasm:

A. Jesus ascends mountain surrounded by crowds (4:23-5:2)
   B. Blessings (5:3-10)
      C. Fulfill “the law and prophets”/ glorify “your Father in Heaven” (5:11-20)
         D. Two triads about Torah (5:21-48)
            E. One triad about spiritual discipline (6:1-18)
         D'. Two triads about Godly priorities (6:19-7:6)
      C'. “This is the law and prophets”/”your Father in Heaven” provides (7:7-12)
   B'. Warnings (7:13-27)
A'. Jesus descends mountain surrounded by crowds (7:28-8:1)

In the last post we completed section "C".  Now we are going to tie it into section C', which says:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 
Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! 
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

At first glance the meaning of section C' (7:7-12) might not seem to correspond to section C (5:11-20) simply because of its difference in size. After all, one section is twenty verses long, whereas I'm claiming that it's corresponding section, section C', which contains only six verses, derives it's meaning from the previous twenty verses near the beginning of the Sermon.

But let's begin by asking some obvious questions, and I hope it will become obvious immediately as to why I think both sections are mutually interpretive. When reading 7:7-12, the first obvious question we ought to be asking (as indeed, we should imagine Matthew's audience asking) is, ask for whatA second question would be this: Knock, and what would be opened to them? A third (and again, obvious) question is: Everyone who asks for what, receives what

To summarize: Everyone who seeks after what, finds what? Everyone who knocks, what will be opened?

I contend that apart from the literary structure of the Sermon itself, according to the way Matthew wrote it (or whoever wrote it--it doesn't matter who wrote it at this point in our inquiry, but what is actually written is most important), there is no clear answer to that question. Scholars conjecture in a wide variety of ways in response to these questions, yet most don't approach it from the Sermon's own literary structure. If you look at the verses immediately preceding this section (which would be section B': 6:19-7:6) I can assure you that you won't find the answer there. The whole Sermon must be taken into account. And since the whole Sermon must be taken into account, why not look to the preceding section which corresponds to it? Yet that is precisely what we are about to do. With a literary approach that pays attention to the internal structure of the speech in question, we will be able to answer the obvious and somewhat naggingly unclear questions above.

The first question, again, was: Ask for what? If we look back to section C (here, here, here, and here), the answers become apparent. They ought to have asked for hope and joy through the coming persecutions. They were to seek to have their light shine brighter than the scribes and Pharisees. And if a door stood in opposition to where Christ was leading them, here in section C' they are encouraged to simply knock and it would be opened for them.

They could also ask for wisdom when others thought their witness to the truth of Jesus Christ was foolish. In retrospect, one might think that would have been an obvious thing to ask, given that Jesus had already warned them about being trampled under foot by hostile brethren opposing Jesus and the good news that his kingdom was drawing near (which, as we have seen in previous posts, necessitated the destruction of Herod's Temple, which many first century Jewish leaders and their disciples idolized).

They could have also sought to obey and teach others about the Law and the Prophets, which included their way of fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Now they are being told that if only their brethren knocked on the door of Christ's Church, they also would be welcomed into his heavenly kingdom. Unfortunately, as we know from historical accounts, such as Josephus, Tacitus, and Eusebius (and as noted by a wide variety of Church Fathers), not all of first century Israel took Jesus' advice.

Implicit in all of these illustrations is their asking, seeking, and knocking for good things—what God has revealed to be good things. Those good things they were exhorted to ask for and pursue were—somewhat surprisingly—gifts which only the Holy Spirit could give.

Luke 11:13 clarifies this. (And Matthew seems to be taking this for granted as understood in context.) Luke records the same statement as Matthew, but with one additional phrase: 
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

In Matthew's version ("If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children”) the phrase could be rendered a tad bit more literally, in order to clarify some potential concerns of ours. What Matthew says, more woodenly, is this:
Therefore if you-all, although you-all are evil, know how good gifts are given to your children, how much more…(etc.)1

It turns out that in Matthew's version, Jesus is not accusing all the people before him of being evil. He is offering them a worst case scenario. The “if” is just as important as the “although.” 

Jesus's point is this: Even the most evil parents know how good gifts are given to their children—and it’s not through cruelty, or trickery. Even the most evil parents know how to give good gifts to their children because their children ask for them. Therefore, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him? So then, whatever they wished that others would do to them, they were also to do to them, for such is the Law and the Prophets.

Notice again that along with the "Father in heaven" providing for them, this phrase, "the Law and the Prophets," also shows up. The last time we heard (or saw) these phrases was back in Section C. 

If they wanted to be treated mercifully, they too should treat others mercifully. If they wanted swift and stern justice for every sin, they had to be willing to receive it themselves. If they wanted to receive reconciliation with their family or neighbors, they needed to pursue reconciliation. If they wanted to avoid false accusations of treating others in an evil manner, they had to turn the other cheek and not resist the one who is evil to them. That is what the Law and the Prophets taught!

In other words, if they wanted to live like their God revealed in the Law and Prophets, they needed to live like Jesus. 

We learned a little about the Law and the Prophets in previous posts, so I won't rehearse them here. But I will say this: If Christians today struggle with the God revealed in the "Old Testament" Scriptures, but they also think they don't struggle with Jesus as the God of the "New Testament," they're probably not reading either "Testament" accurately. The God of the Old Testament is Jesus, and the God of the New Testament is YHWH

In the next series of posts I plan on going through sections D & D' in detail, and I hope to show that the common understanding of Jesus' comments about "the Law" are horrendously misunderstood, partly because the literary structure is rarely brought into the discussion, but mostly because Christians today don't actually know what the Law teaches, and therefore assume that Jesus is teaching contrary to it, when in fact he most certainly does not.   

1. The Greek is: εἰ οὖν ὑμεῖς πονηροὶ ὄντες οἴδατε δόματα ἀγαθὰ διδόναι τοῖς τέκνοις ὑμῶν, πόσῳ μᾶλλον…

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sermon on the Mount: Sections C & C' (part 4)

In the last post of this series about the Sermon on the Mount we discussed the significance of a necessary change in the Law once “all has happened.” I also argued for a first century fulfillment of when all that happened. Now I want to focus our attention on Jesus’ statements about “the least of these commandments.” Matthew 5:17-20 records the following words of Jesus:
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 has happened. 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. 

People often assume that “the least of these commandments” referred to the commandments of “the Law.” Moreoever, the “Law” allegedly referred to the first “five books of Moses” (although nowhere within the Bible itself does it claim that Moses wrote all five books, or even that the final canonical form we currently have were altogether penned by his hand, thereby forming “the Law” as evangelicals understand it today, but I digress.) Although contemporary claims about “the least of these commandments” referring to the least of Gods commandments within the first five books of Moses is not entirely impossible, it is certainly not a crystal clear connection either.  

Alternatively, the perspective I will be endorsing is that “the least of these commandments” was definitely a reference to the least of God’s commandments, but instead of those commands recorded in the first five books of Moses, Jesus was actually referring to his own words and teaching—that is to say, his own divine commandments to them, which would be considered trivial by many first century Israelites because of the “just-ness” endorsed by Pharisaical and scribal traditions.

I’m certainly not alone in this interpretation. The great St. Augustine also concurred, saying:
But whoever observes them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven,’ is to be understood in this sense, namely, not according to the measure of those least commandments, but in accordance with those which I [Jesus] am about to proclaim. 

Pseudo-Chrysostom also shared the same train of thought:
Let us see what are the least of the commandments. Some people hold to one interpretation and others to another, but I think that the Lord clearly shows what they are when he pointedly says, ‘If someone relaxes one of the least of these commandments,” that is, ‘the ones that I am about to say.’

A handful of internal, contextual remarks suggest this to have been the intended meaning. First, neither the “Law” (Genesis—Deuteronomy) or the “Prophets” are merely a set of “commandments” to be obeyed. The Law contains commandments (almost all of which relate to the Tabernacle/Temple), but it mostly consists of stories about human experience & God’s interaction which ought to be trusted. Secondarily, within Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus never appeals to any commandment within Moses’ “Law” without also clarifying how He thinks that commandment ought to be interpreted ethically. Jesus says, “You have heard it said….But I say to you…”. Surely that was a tell-tale signal to his audience that his own words—independent of whatever traditions the people had learned about Moses’s Law—were to be received as authoritative commands. Otherwise Jesus would have simply quoted Moses’ Law and not commented or critiqued traditional interpretations at all! 

Another factor worth noting is that every explicit reference to obedience within Matthew’s Gospel has to do with what Jesus teaches authoritatively, and not merely what “the Law” of Moses recorded. Take, for example, the way Matthew frames the entire Sermon on the Mount, beginning in 4:23ff, in preparation for Jesus to ascend the mountain and give the law, surrounded by crowds, as the new and greater Moses figure:
And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

At the end of the Sermon, when Jesus descends the mountain surrounded by crowds (7:28-8:1), Matthew makes clear that Jesus’ words were authoritative: 
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.

The overall literary purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to portray Jesus as the new and greater Moses, the new and greater Lawgiver of Israel. But these are not the only times within Matthew’s Gospel that we find Jesus’ words and overall message as authoritative. Later on, within this same sermon, Jesus makes it very clear as to whose commands the people ought to obey in order to live:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (7:24–29)

Echoing Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus mentions the authority of his own words the people of Israel in the first century:
From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:32-34)

This really shouldn’t be a disputed fact. St. Augustine wasn’t alone in believing that Jesus was referring to his own words. And I’m not alone in believing that “the least of these commandments” were the least of Jesus’ commandments either. A whole litany of references from the Gospels should be conclusive enough:
  Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like (Luke 6:47)
  For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26)
  Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)
  Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)
  But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:47)
  So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples (John 8:31)
  I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. (John 8:37)
  Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. (John 8:43)
  Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (John 8:51)
  The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ (John 8:52)
  If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. (John 12:47)
  The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. (John 12:48)
  Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. (John 14:23)
  Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. (John 14:24)
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)
  Remember the word that I said to you: A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:20)

If we go back to Jesus’ statement about filling full the Law and the Prophets, and we walk through the entirety of Matthew’s Gospel with that promise in mind, it seems that the goal of fulfilling “the Law and the Prophets” was to crown Jesus as the only human being in the cosmos, having ascended above all principalities and powers in the cosmos, with authority over all things. Therefore obedience to the voice of the Lord Jesus was to be the sine qua non of entrance into his heavenly Kingdom, as well as the means toward fulfilling all that was lacking under the Old Covenant.
Also, in light of what has been said already in this series, and contrary to all false accusations which would be thrown against 1st century Christians by their anti-Christian Jewish communities, it needs to be emphasized for the sake of abundant clarity that Jesus did not abolish “the Law” or “the first five books of Moses,” or even old testament “biblical commands.” As we will see in upcoming posts in this series, Jesus clearly upheld the Law. He even gave clarity to the Law in ways which the scribes and Pharisees did not, because their focus seemed to always be upon the letter of the Law and not the character of God throughout the Scriptures.
Understanding the character of God throughout the Scriptures is crucial to understanding the authority of Jesus. 
I realize that this might come across as a shock to many Christians today, but a thorough investigation of the Old Testament Scriptures teaches that throughout Israel’s history God actually did not behave rigorously (i.e. Pharisaically or “legalistically”) according to the letter of His own Law. Instead, we find God far more often to be extremely patient and long-suffering, kind and merciful, gracious and forgiving, and not always rendering swift and stern justice, as His own Law demands
Now you might be wondering, how does is this relevant to Matthew 5:17-20 at all? 
It’s relevant because we often end up confused about what “commands” Jesus does and does not require us to keep under the New Covenant. Some theories say that Jesus requires us to keep every jot and tittle of Moses’ Law, including the dietary laws. Other theories say that Jesus abolished the entirety of God’s commands to the people of Israel. But the reality is that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets! He came to fill them full—to reveal that patient, long-suffering, merciful, gracious, and perfectly just and appropriately wrathful God to Israel. Jesus came to put flesh and bones on the image of God Himself as revealed throughout the Scriptures. Christians often don’t see Jesus as wrathful or angry because we are not looking at the New Testament Scriptures in light of God’s Holy Law. And we often don’t see the God of the Old Testament as being patient, long-suffering, or merciful because we are not looking at the “Prophets” in light of God’s Law. 
It is precisely because the foundational Law of God has been “filled full” in Jesus’ ministry, that Jesus and his apostles tell the Church to build the rest of God’s Temple upon them, by obedience to the Law of God, which is also the Law of Christ. 
   For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just-ness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4) 
  For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled by you in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13-15) 
   This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?
   …For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law, that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (I Corinthians 9)

By obeying the voice of the Lord Jesus and teaching others to do the same, the “righteousness” (i.e. their just-ness) of Jesus’ disciples would exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Only those who trusted and obeyed Jesus would enter the Kingdom of Heaven that was about to come. Those who trusted and obeyed the scribes and Pharisees would be cut off.

Jesus did come to bring about necessary changes of the Law—especially in light of the Temple’s soon coming destruction—but he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. All of the necessary changes were centered on life under the old creation, in which the temple in Jerusalem were central and essential. If Jesus had come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, the temple in Jerusalem could no longer remain central. The Temple of His Body had to become central. 

The least of his commands had to be kept to definitively end the old covenant, and the least of his commandments still need to be kept in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon on the Mount: Sections C & C' (part 3)

Continuing where we left off in this series about the Sermon on the Mount, we return to the controversial passage in chapter five which says:
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 has happened. 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. 

As we begin, I want us to be honest with what the text (above) says and does not say. By focusing upon what is (and is not) said, and being honest about what we find, that should help deflect any unnecessary debates or arguments. In other words, if the text (above) doesn't say something clearly, or at all, I want us all to have a healthy attitude and not debate or be dogmatic about what we think Jesus must have meant, or could only have meant. With that in mind, I want us to examine whether Jesus said that every “iota” and “dot” of the Law would pass away.

Is that what Jesus said (above)?

Upon close examination, no matter how you slice and dice the text, Jesus most certainly does not say that every iota and dot would pass away. With certainty, the only claim which can be made is that Jesus promised some iota or dot definitely would pass away at some point in time, when “heaven and earth pass away.” So then, with this in mind, we can be certain that, in the very least, Jesus (and Matthew) intended to communicate that a time was certainly coming in which some of the Law would necessarily change. When “all has happened”, as Jesus said, the Law and the prophets would be fulfilled, bringing about the passing away of “heaven and earth.” That was a certain event on the horizon, in their future.

What, then, did Jesus mean by “until heaven and earth pass away”? 

And how does this claim fit into the surrounding context of this Sermon about Christians being persecuted and falsely accused on his account, and of the Kingdom of heaven approaching near?

I will begin by answering the first question. 

At first glance it seems obvious that Jesus could have only meant the passing away of the literal, physical cosmos of “heaven and earth” as we now know it through scientific investigation. That means, presumably, the literal, physical cosmos would pass away before any iota or dot of the Law passed away as well. (Remember, Jesus did not say that every iota or dot would pass away. He only promised that some would.) If this is what the reader wants to commit to, then he or she must also commit to no aspect of the Law passing away yet—not one iota or jotbecause the literal, physical cosmos has not passed away yet (at least, not that I'm aware of). All of the law, therefore, must still be binding and authoritative as it was originally intended and composed—with no apparent qualifications offered by Jesus—until the literal, physical cosmos passes away. 

If that’s the position you want to pick and stick with, that’s your decision. I'm no longer encouraging that kind of interpretation. For years I was a "theonomist," and I still recognize the merits of such deeply biblical convictions. But I'm convinced that in order to make sense of what Jesus actually said, studying it within the context of Matthew's Gospel is most appropriate. That way the reader doesn't have to do all sorts of mental gymnastics with other New Testament Scriptures in order to rationalize their convictions. If a "theonomic" spin is the kind of interpretation you’re committed to, feel free to skip the rest of what I offer as an alternative. And yes, there is an alternative.

That alternative is this: Jesus was referring to a symbolic cosmos of “heaven and earth” passing away, which would bring about a necessary change of the Law after all of that had happened, being “filled full” by Jesus himself. 

Now, before I go any further, I want everyone to notice that no matter which interpretive option is chosen, it remains crystal clear that Jesus does not—and never promised to—abolish the whole Law. He only promised that some necessary change would occur when all fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets “had happened.” 

What, then, exactly is this symbolic cosmos? 

To answer that question, I’m going to quote from a first century contemporary of Jesus’ apostles, a sadducean priest of Jerusalem who described in his works what was common knowledge in his generation. Writing about the Law of God, Josephus comments (Antiquities of the Jews, Book III, chap.6, section 4), saying:
Now the tent within those pillars was the most holy place, God’s dwelling place; but the rest of the tent was the tabernacle, which was open for the priests. This proportion of the measures of the tabernacle proved to be an imitation of the system of the cosmos; for that third part thereof which was within the four pillars, to which the priests were not admitted, is a heaven peculiar to God.

Pretty clear, right? The Law of God gave Israel a blueprint for worship, and the layout of that blueprint (i.e. the “proportion of the measures of the tabernacle”) included three spaces, the “most holy place” in which God dwelled, “the rest of the tent” which the Law calls “the holy place”, and the outer courtyard surrounding the tabernacle, which comprises the rest of the tabernacle blueprint. That blueprint therefore consisted of three parts: the courtyard, the first tent which was open for the priests, and the second tent in which “the priests were not admitted” because it was “a heaven peculiar to God.” All of these proportions and measures of the Tabernacle given in God’s Law “proved to be an imitation of the system of the cosmos.” 

Josephus was not the only “theologian” to identify this connection between Israel’s temple and the cosmos. Another biblical commentator who made this same connection was Eusebius, the late-3rd century/early-4th century Bishop of Caesarea, whose works confirm a long-standing patristic understanding about the old “heaven and earth” passing away and being replaced with the new heaven and earth, the new Jerusalem, the new kingdom of God realized on earth. Since I have already commented on numerous works of the Church Fathers in this regard, which can be found here, I will limit the quotations from Eusebius to one series of comments. He wrote:
"All authorities concur in the declaration that "when all these things should have been done,” as our Lord said, "the end" should come; that "the mystery of God should be finished as he had declared to His servants the prophets”; it should be completed; time should now be no more; the end of all things (so foretold) should be at hand, and be fully brought to pass; in these days should be fulfilled all that had been spoken of Christ (and of His church) by the prophets; or, in other words, when the gospel should have been preached in all the empire for a testimony to all nations, and the power of the Holy People be scattered (abroad), then should the end come, then should all these things be finished. I need now only say, all these things have been done: the old and elementary system passed away with a great noise; all these predicted empires have actually fallen, and the new kingdom, the new heaven and earth, the new Jerusalem—all of which were to descend from God, to be formed by His power, have been realized on earth; all these things have been done in the sight of all the nations; God's holy arm has been made bare in their sight: His judgments have prevailed, and they remain for an everlasting testimony to the whole world. His kingdom has come, as it was foretold it should, and His will has, so far, been done; His purposes have been finished; and, from that day to the goal of his purposes in time, it will be the duty, as indeed it will be the great privilege of the Church, to gather into its bosom the Jew, the Greek, the Scythian, the Barbarian, bond and free; and to do this as the Apostles did in their days--in obedience, faith and hope.

Clearly then, if we operated with this same understanding of a symbolic cosmos in which sociological structures and concepts were understood in terms of cosmic geography and temple ideology, it’s not difficult to discern that Jesus and other first century Jews would have been thinking of the world as they knew it—the microcosmic locus of which was contained in their temple, in Jerusalem, as designed in God's Law. Indeed, later statements of Jesus within this very same Gospel—Matthew’s Gospel—seem to suggest that their "heaven and earth" would pass away with their old covenant temple administration.

In Matthew 23-24, Jesus uses the same phrases, and yet he clearly referred to first century events regarding the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. 
23:29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the land, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. 37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate." 24:1 Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple.But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” 3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. 9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole empire as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the land will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. 32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Notice carefully that in both statements of Jesus, the exact same kind of phrase is used twice, and they both declare that “heaven and earth” will pass away when “all has happened.” Yet Jesus also says twice that all will happen in that generation.

Matthew’s Gospel isn’t the only scripture which promises that some important aspects of the Law would completely pass away when the Old Covenant administration had definitively ended (which we know historically occurred with the destruction of Herod's temple in 70 A.D.). The entire letter of Hebrews is about a necessary change in the Law pertaining to the priesthood. Just look at what chapter eight has to say about that:
   Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a liturgist in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” But as it is, Christ has obtained a liturgical-ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first one had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.
   For he finds fault with them when he says:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.  For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.  For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Understand the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sin-offerings no more.
   In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. 

And Hebrews chapter nine says this:
   Now even the first [covenant] had regulations for liturgy and an earthly sanctuary. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. After the second curtain was a tent called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. 
   These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first tent, performing their ritual duties, but into the second [tent] only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first tent is still standing (which is a parable for that time into the present). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
   But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

The book of Hebrews isn’t the only New Testament scripture to teach that some necessary change in the Old Covenant Law was necessary. There are many others. And now is not the time to discuss the specific details of how the Law has changed. I just want to point out how clear the Scriptures are that the Law of God itself taught some necessary change by Christ and in Christ, and that those changes did not abolish all of the Law. 

All of the necessary changes to God’s Law have come to pass by Christ and in Christ. But it’s not necessary that we think of these “changes” as abolishing the Law or the prophets as a whole. If we are thinking in the context of first century Christianity, between 30—70A.D., with the transition from the old covenant administration to the new administration, what would get abolished in that generation was the old covenant temple, which was essential to the whole old covenant administration prescribed in the Law of God. 

As Christians who care about understanding the entire Bible in it’s historical context, we must keep in mind that it is literally and physically impossible to keep the “whole law” of the old covenant administration without the old covenant temple. That is what Jesus and his apostles referred to when describing the definitive “end” of the old creation and the beginning of a new creation. 

Jesus began his temple-replacement project with his incarnation, death, and resurrection. With his ascension he began to make the old temple obsolete, preparing the people of Israel for it's inevitable point of vanishing away, as promised. With the destruction of Jerusalem and Herod's idolatrous temple in 70A.D. his vindication was complete; heaven and earth passed away; everything promised about end of the Old Covenant administration had all happened.  

What does this mean practically for the Church today? 

First of all, it means that Jesus "filled full" all of the Law and prophets in order to  build a new temple in his Body, the Church. That also implies that a necessary destruction of the old temple was required. But notice carefully that by destroying the old temple and it's whole administration that does not at all imply that the Law or the Prophets would be destroyed. Rather, by filling full the Law and the prophets, Jesus was promising to build upon them and incorporate them into the transfigured temple of his Body, the Church. Therefore, it is not at all unreasonable to think that the Church would be wise to retrieve and utilize what is essential to the Law’s design and the Prophet’s vision, as long as their retrieval is for the purpose of building upon that sure foundation of the new Christ-centered “heaven and earth," instead of merely rebuilding the ruins of the old temple and it's administration which Jesus damned. 

People often mistakenly assume that this cannot be the case. Jesus supposedly could not have been teaching that the Church may retrieve what is wise and essential to the Law. It must be all of the Law or none of the Law (and all grace instead), it is argued. Otherwise, why did Jesus say that anyone who relaxes the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so would be considered least in the kingdom of heaven? Certainly—or so it is thought—Jesus requires Christians to keep every iota and dot of the Law (i.e. “the least of these commandments”), and he does so in order to teach us that we cannot possibly keep it. And since we can't possibly keep it, we ought to get rid of our need for it entirely in order to focus on how gracious God is in saving us apart from it.

That is what I want to discuss in the next post. Is that really what Jesus taught?

In preparation for what the following post will address, I want us to consider what Jesus meant by “the least of these commandments.” 

By saying that, was Jesus referring to "the least of these commandments" contained in the Law and the prophets? Or was he referring to something else?

And how would such a claim--as you imagine it--fit into the surrounding context about first century Christians being persecuted and falsely accused on his account, and of the Kingdom of heaven approaching near?