Sermon on the Mount — Matthew 5:19-20

Matthew 5:19–20
“So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
(NET Bible)
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.

The incentive to be careful about the details

“Don’t sweat the small stuff!” is a once-popular idea that many still embrace. In certain contexts that idea probably works well, but I do not advise you to tell the police officer that you were only driving 10 miles per hour over the speed limit.  :)

Trivializing the laws of man is nothing compared to making light of the laws of God. In first-century Jewish society, people would seek counsel from a scribe or rabbi to determine what they were obligated to do before God and what they might safely ignore. The language used to describe the rabbi’s answers included the verbs bind and loose. If the rabbi binds the commandment upon you, then he is saying it is your spiritual duty. If he looses the commandment, he is saying that, for some reason, the requirement does not apply to you.

The NET Bible is adequate when it translates “anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands” (5:19), but ESV translates better by saying “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments.” The underlying Greek verb is λύω, and it means to loose or untie something. In practical terms, Jesus is speaking of a rabbi who teaches that someone can ignore one of God’s commands; the rabbi looses the person from obeying that command.

As to the least of these commands (5:19), one example would be Deut. 22:6–7, which forbids the removal of a mother bird from a bird nest containing eggs or chicks. Some rabbis considered that among the least commands. What does Jesus say about the least commands of the law?

Jesus continues to reinforce his position on the law by saying that anyone who relaxes the least commandment and teaches others to do so will be least in the kingdom of heaven (5:19). You can see in this result a rule of reciprocity —the idea that the punishment fits the crime — in that one least leads to another. R.T. France has it right when he says: “Jesus at first sight appears more merciful than the rabbis: one who breaks the commandment is least in the kingdom rather than excluded from it altogether (5:19); yet his following words show that those who merely honored the highest standards of their religion [while neglecting the others] fell short of entering the kingdom at all (5:20).”[1]

All that Jesus has said up to this point has been remarkable, but when he uttered the words given in 5:20, I think his audience was shocked into silence. The scribes and Pharisees represented “the greatest righteousness imaginable within Judaism.”[2] Jesus thought otherwise!

Jesus says to his disciples that their righteousness must exceed that of their religious leaders if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven. But he states the matter in extreme terms by using the strongest possible negative that New Testament Greek offers[3]; they will absolutely not enter the kingdom without manifesting the higher righteousness he demands.

R.T. France correctly observes, “Jesus is not talking about beating the scribes and Pharisees at their own game, but about a different level or concept of righteousness altogether.”[4] What is that righteousness? We will develop Jesus’ teaching over time. For now, I will say that this righteousness begins with a personal relationship, a faith commitment, to Jesus the Messiah. That is something the scribes and Pharisees did not have and could not offer. Only those who have such a relationship, and the transformed heart that goes with it, will enter the kingdom of heaven.

The most vital details

The first and foremost detail for entering the kingdom of God is that it all begins with Jesus. Those who will enter the kingdom must come through him. Only he can properly interpret the law and provide his disciples with the Holy Spirit to quicken their minds and hearts in all relevant ways. Only Jesus could die for our sins to reconcile us to God.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Those are the most vital details, but not the only ones!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 179.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 105.

[3] BDAG-3, μή, not (see meaning 4 for a combination with οὐ), q.v.

[4] R.T. France, Matthew, 189.

 

Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:17–18

Matthew 5:17–18
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.”
(NET Bible)
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.

Eliminating spiritual ignorance

Let there be no doubt that, even at this early stage of his ministry, Jesus was drawing so much attention that theological opposition was bound to start. So, in Matthew 5:17–18, Jesus likely had two purposes: 1) to teach accurately his own relationship to the law of Moses, and 2) to forestall future accusations that he was trying to overthrow the law.

Jesus did not come to head a political revolution, much to the consternation of many people. Judea had been roiled by wars and invasions until the reign of Herod the Great (starting in 37 B.C. and ending in 4 B.C.), who was appointed by the Roman Senate. Rome began ruling Judea directly through governors — called procurators — in A.D. 6. The Jews hated foreign rule.

So, Jesus did not come to overthrow Roman rule, and he did not come to invalidate the law of Moses. However, it will soon become clear that Jesus did intend to invalidate the interpretation of the law given by the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). They had watered down the law’s requirements in a way that promoted the idea that keeping the literal requirements was all that God demanded. R.T. France says, “From now on it will be the authoritative teaching of Jesus which must govern his disciples’ understanding and practical application of the law.”[1]

How does Jesus fulfill the law and the prophets? Turner says that he brings them to their divinely appointed goal, because they point to him.[2] NT scholar Stanley Toussaint adds that Jesus conformed his life to the law’s high standards and retrieved its true meaning from the distorted standards of the religious leaders.[3] The book of Hebrews adds a lot more to demonstrate the supremacy of the new covenant in Jesus’ blood to the old covenant given through Moses!

To underscore his support of the law, Jesus says that the smallest letter in the OT text (the Hebrew letter yod) will not pass away until everything in this present creation has happened (5:18a). He argues from the lesser to the greater — thus intensifying his argument — by adding that not even a stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until the end. In English that is the difference between the symbol for the number one (“1”) and the symbol for a lower case letter “L” (“l”). That difference is almost too tiny to see!

Do you feel the forcefulness of Jesus’ words? If so, then you understand that he regarded the Scriptures with the utmost respect. And he sought to eliminate faulty spiritual assumptions. One such faulty assumption is that Christians should look to the law of Moses rather than to Jesus for the instruction they need.

Jesus is the teacher for every disciple

Jesus began his teaching by dealing with what kind of people his disciples must be (Matt. 5:1–16). He continued by revealing where he stood in relation to the law God had given Israel through Moses. We have just begun with the startling interpretation Jesus gave to the law. More will follow!

If you want to be a disciple of Jesus, then consider how seriously you must take his words: “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock.” (Matt. 7:24–25).

A word to the wise: check your spiritual assumptions against Jesus’ words. Build on the rock!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 183.

[2] David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 162.

[3] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980) 99.

 

Should Christians Keep Israel’s Feasts?

Recently I got detailed questions from someone connected with the movement that believes Christians should keep the Law of Moses. Below I summarize the incoming question (with supporting verses) and then give my point-by-point response:

The core of your questions is this: “I am wondering why Christians don’t celebrate the Lord’s feasts.” You raise several points in favor of our doing so:
a. God says the feasts are a “perpetual” command (e.g. Lev. 23:14). You favor the assumption that it also applies to Christians since we have been grafted in (Rom. 11:17) and are now part of the people of God.
b. Jesus observed the feasts (e.g. John 10). You say we are to be like him.
c. You dismiss Col. 2:16-17 by referring to an Aramaic/English Bible and an interpretation from it that Paul was referring to pagans judging Christians.
d. You cite Acts 20:16 [“he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem,if possible, by the day of Pentecost” (NIV)], Acts 18:21 [“I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem” (KJV)], John 10:22-23 [“Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade” (NIV)], and John 12:20 [“Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast” (NIV)]. You use these quotes in support of two ideas: (1) “the apostles did celebrate the feasts after Jesus’ ascension” and (2) “it would be right” to celebrate the feasts as Jesus did.

I will try to deal briefly with each of the points. However, even at this point I must say that I seriously doubt that you or any other Christian can possibly be keeping these feasts in accordance with the Law of Moses because you are not making all the required sacrifices, have no earthly High Priest to perform some of the steps, and have no Temple standing at which to perform the appropriate worship. These are serious problems! James says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10, NIV 2011).

Now let’s take your points one-by-one:

Claim: God says the feasts are a “perpetual” command (e.g. Lev. 23:14). You favor the assumption that it also applies to Christians since we have been grafted in (Rom. 11:17) and are now part of the people of God.

Response: The short answer here is that we are not Jews. The fact that Paul uses the metaphor of grafting a wild branch into the olive tree does not mean that the wild branches are the same as the natural branches. If they were, what would be the point in naming two different types of branches and talking about how God is dealing with them differently?

You are correct in saying these feasts are a “perpetual” command, but the verse says “it is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings” (Lev 23:14, ESV), and the “your” is not a reference to Christians either historically or now. This involves the Jews.

Claim: Jesus observed the feasts (e.g. John 10). We are to be like him.

Response: The key here is that these events all take place before Jesus died on the cross in satisfaction of all that God required. His death changed everything profoundly, and we live after his death not before it. Jesus obeyed the Law of Moses because that was what was required of him. It does not logically follow that all that was required of Jesus is required of us as well. For example, Jesus died for the sins of the world. Must we do so as well? Jesus lived in Nazareth. Must we do so as well? Being like Jesus has serious limits.

Claim: You dismiss Col. 2:16-17 by referring to an Aramaic/English Bible and an interpretation derived from it that Paul was referring to pagans judging Christians.

Response: Actually it does not matter who was doing the judging. What matters is that we as Christians are not to be involved in those practices mentioned in Col. 2:16, and the reason is simple. Col. 2:17 says, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (NIV 2011). The feasts were part of the “shadow of the things that were to come,” but Jesus did come! So, now we put aside the shadow-things in favor of the reality found in Christ. As I said before, his death and resurrection changed everything.

As a person who studies Bible translations closely, I do not recommend you rely on an Aramaic translation of the NT. The NT was revealed to us in Koine Greek, and the Greek text is hard enough to translate into English. Putting Aramaic into the picture makes matters worse, not better.

Claim: Your next points all involve the apostles allegedly observing feasts after the ascension of Jesus. [I am leaving out the verses about Jesus in John 10 and John 12 because I have previously covered the fact that these events happened before Jesus’ death.]

Response: You cite Acts 20:16 [“he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem,if possible, by the day of Pentecost” (NIV)]. So far, so good. However, this verse does not state that Paul was doing that in order to observe the feast like the Jews. It is far more likely, in light Paul’s theology and mission, that he wanted to be in Jerusalem at Passover because there would be a maximum number of Jews to whom he might proclaim Christ. In any event, he did not observe the feast due to violence plotted against him.

In a similar case, I have been to the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, but that does not mean I went there to worship like a Mormon. We must be careful about assumptions.

Claim: You cite Acts 18:21 [“I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem” (KJV)].

Response: No modern English translation retains that clause because it is not supported by the best Greek manuscripts of the NT. Thus, it is not a valid basis for Christian doctrine.

Summary: Although it is true that the feasts have many interesting analogies in relation to Christ, we now have Christ himself and no longer need the analogies.

Hebrews 3:1–3: “Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. 2He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. 3 Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself.”

[For further information on this topic, I suggest you read the two posts that begin here.]

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

Torah Observance by Christians – Part 2

[See also Part 1]

The Law of Moses in Relation to Contemporary Christians

The discussion above [see Part 1], principally from Hebrews, raises an important question. NT scholar Harold Hoehner says: “Does this mean that there are no laws in the Mosaic law that the believer of today is obligated to obey? Only those that have been reiterated in the NT. We are under the new covenant, and the old covenant has been done away.”[1] For example, murder is prohibited in both the Law and the New Testament, but the dietary regulations of the Law were not reinstituted under the new covenant (Acts 10). We are required by God to obey the commands given in the New Testament.

Many scholars believe this question of required Christian obedience to the Law of Moses was settled forever in Acts 15 when a similar controversy disturbed the church in Antioch. Luke said, “While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved’ ” (Acts 15:1, NLT). Paul and Barnabas strongly disagreed, and the matter was referred to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2). In Jerusalem some believers who were Pharisees said, “The Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to follow the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5, NLT).

However, Peter led in a different direction by saying, “Why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear?” (Acts 15:10, NLT).

In the end, the elders in Jerusalem wrote to Antioch saying: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:28-29, NLT). The Law of Moses was not required of the Gentiles.

Although the Law of Moses separated Israel from the nations, it proved unable to achieve righteousness because that was not its purpose. The author of Hebrews says that the law received through Moses was but a shadow of the good things brought by Christ because it was completely unable though its continual sacrifices to perfect those who came to worship (Heb. 10:1).

The Greek verb for “to sanctify” [better “to set apart as holy”] is hagiaz?, and it occurs 28 times in the New Testament. For example, sanctifying (Greek hagiaz?) Christians does not take place through keeping the Law but did take place through the one-time sacrifice of Jesus (Heb. 10:10). The author of Hebrews also says, “For by a single offering he [Jesus] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified [Greek hagiaz?]” (Heb. 10:14). In fact, only judgment and punishment await those who reject the blood of the new covenant that sanctified [Greek hagiaz?] them (Heb. 10:29).

The above ideas lead to a conclusion: Sanctifying Christians does not take place through keeping the Law but instead took place through the one-time sacrifice of Jesus (Heb. 10:10).

Indeed, rather than sanctifying us, the Law kept us enslaved until Christ redeemed us and gave us full rights through our adoption as sons of God with the Spirit indwelling us (Gal. 4:1-7). Going back to keeping the Law has a disastrous effect. Paul says that taking on the obligations of the Law is rejection of freedom in Christ in favor of slavery (Gal. 4:21-5:1).

It is ominous to say, but anyone who puts themselves under the Law is obligated to keep the whole Law (Gal. 5:3; James 2:10). For reasons discussed below, the only way for a contemporary Christian to keep the Law is through a large number of reinterpretations and excuses (e.g. “we don’t need to make the required sacrifices when no Temple exists”).

Some Reasonable Expectations

If some Bible teachers were correct in thinking that all Christians are required to obey all the laws given by Moses, then it seems reasonable to expect we would find certain things in the New Testament:

  • A New Testament command to keep the Law received through Moses; there is none!
  • A New Testament statement that keeping the Law is essential for sanctification or growth in Christ; there is no such statement!
  • Statements in Acts and elsewhere in the New Testament that Christians were going to the Temple — still standing until 70 AD — to make sacrifices according to the Law received by Moses; there are no such verses!
  • A New Testament command to keep the festivals of Israel; none exists.

There is just one way for those who believe in Torah observance by Christians to overcome this lack of evidence supporting their view, and that is to say that we are obligated to imitate Christ, who kept the Law.

The idea of imitating Jesus in all things has been popular in certain parts of Christian history, but it has some serious limitations. Just to pick a few easy ones, who among us can be born of a virgin or die to atone for the sins of the world? Are you able to create the church or send the Holy Spirit? Which of us can stand up and say, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18)?

It should not surprise you that imitating Christ in all things is not put forth in the New Testament as the method for Christian sanctification. Instead, New Testament authors occasionally call on believers to imitate Paul or their spiritual leaders (1 Cor. 4:16; 2 Thess. 3:7; 3:9; Heb. 6:12; 13:7), to imitate God in terms of love (Eph. 5:1-2) or to have the save self-sacrificing attitude as Jesus (Phil. 2:1-11). The sanctification of Christians is not based on keeping the Law or imitating Christ but on the finished work of Christ on the cross (Hebrews 10:10).

What Jesus Knew

One reason that Jesus did not command the keeping of the Law given to Moses may be that he knew that Jerusalem, including its Temple, would soon be utterly destroyed (Matt. 24:1-2). The Roman general Titus carried out these terrible acts in 70 AD, when the church was in its infancy.

The idea that Christians must keep the Law runs headlong into serious problems. There is no Temple or priesthood to support required sacrifices; nor is there any provision in the Law saying that it is okay to lapse on those parts if no Temple or priesthood exists.

Consider too that no one other than Jesus ever was able to satisfy the requirements of the Law. To say that Christians must keep the law to be sanctified is setting them up to fail. The new covenant operates on a completely different principle than keeping the law — grace.

The Law of Christ

Paul says of himself that “I am not free from God’s law but [I am] under the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21, NET). He also says, “Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). James 2:8-13 is also worthy of close study in regard to the centrality of love for one’s neighbor. There is no doubt whatever that the Holy Spirit is central to living under the new covenant (Romans 6, 8).

Christians today are not required to obey the laws of Moses in Genesis to Deuteronomy (so-called “Torah observance”). For instance, we are free from dietary restrictions and are not required to celebrate the Jewish feasts. We summarize with Paul’s ringing words to the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery. (Gal. 5:1, NET).

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.


[1] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002) 376.

 

Torah Observance by Christians – Part 1

Statement of the Issue

Issue: Must Christians now obey the laws recorded in Genesis through Deuteronomy — “Torah observance” — or not? For instance, are all Christians required to keep the dietary laws, celebrate festivals and circumcision?

This question has some practical implications. Is Sunday the day God intended for Christians to worship? Should Christians keep the Passover? Is it acceptable to God for Christians to eat bacon? These and many other practical questions are implicated in the theological issue stated above.

The Law of Moses Has Been Superseded

The New Testament gives numerous reasons for believing that the Law received by Moses was superseded by the death, resurrection and present intercession of Jesus Christ as our high priest.

First, we will consider the little-known facts about Jesus’ role as our high priest. The high priest defined by Mosaic Law must be a descendant of Aaron (Exod. 29:7-9; Num. 3:10), but Jesus, of the tribe of Judah, is our high priest (Heb. 8:1; 7:14), contrary to the law received by Moses. How can that be?

Jesus did not become a high priest according to the Mosaic Law. Instead, Jesus was appointed a priest in the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 7:17; Gen. 14:18), and he holds his high priesthood permanently since he lives forever (Heb. 7:24; 8:1). Further, the author of Hebrews tells us that when the priesthood changes, such as when the high priest is appointed in a non-Mosaic way, a change in the law must come as well (Heb. 7:12). Indeed the law has changed!

The law received by Moses has been set aside because it is weak and useless and made nothing perfect (Heb. 7:18-19). Those are strong words, but the author of Hebrews does not hesitate to state them forcefully. Do other NT books say the same?

Paul tells us that all believers in Jesus Christ have died to the Law in order that they might serve in the new life of the Spirit (Rom. 7:4-6; Gal. 2:19). He later says that Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness for all who believe (Rom. 10:4). In Galatians, Paul explains that the Law served as a guardian until Christ, but now that faith has come we are no longer under a guardian (Gal. 3:23-25). All of these statements point in the same direction, and Paul applies the concept in Eph. 2:15-16 in terms of the unity in Christ of believers from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds.

The Priesthood of Jesus Far Surpasses the Law

The ministry of Jesus is superior to all others, including the Law, since the new covenant he mediates is also better than the old covenant and is enacted on better promises (Heb. 8:6). The author of Hebrews says that If the covenant through Moses had been faultless, no one would have looked for a second (Heb. 8:7). But God demonstrated the fault of the old covenant when he said that the people did not continue in it and had no regard for it; as a result God promised a new covenant (Heb. 8:8-12 quoting Jer. 31:31-34).

When God speaks of a new covenant, he makes the covenant through Moses obsolete (Heb. 8:13). When did this new covenant take effect? Jesus declared that the “new covenant” was instituted “in my blood” (Luke 22:20). The death, resurrection and appointment of Jesus as “Son-of-God-in-power” (Rom. 1:4, NET) all provided for the institution of the new covenant.

Jesus Mediates the New Covenant

As mediator of the new covenant, Jesus died to set free all those who had failed to keep the covenant received through Moses (Heb. 9:15; 9:26). Formerly, under the Law of Moses, the sins of the people had to be dealt with in a different way. The priests under the old covenant had to offer sacrifices over and over, year after year (Heb. 9:25), but the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sins permanently (Heb. 10:4). God did away with sacrifices offered according to the Law in order to establish the one sacrifice made once and for all (Heb. 10:8-9) by Jesus’ offer of himself for our sins (Heb.10:10).

[Continued in Part 2]

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.