Worship was led by The Revd. Dr. David Stec who preached on Jesus’s statement ‘Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.’
Rejoice and Sing 320 The heavens declare thy glory, Lord
Rejoice and Sing 613 Lord, speak to me
Rejoice and Sing 441 Be known to us in breaking bread
Rejoice and Sing 623 Eternal ruler of the ceaseless round
Matt. 5:17 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.”
Some Christians find it difficult to relate to certain parts of the OT, particularly some of its legal portions. This has probably been the case ever since the earliest days of Christianity, even though the OT forms a large part of the canon of the Christian scriptures. Part of our Gospel reading for today is a passage in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-20) which some find particularly difficult, since in it Jesus makes a strong and explicit affirmation of the validity of the OT law. Jesus opens this passage with the words, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.”
Why should anyone think that he has come to do this?
This might well seem to be a reasonable supposition to make, since right from its beginning Christianity never embraced the OT law in the same way that Judaism did. The Law of Moses, that is to say the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch or the Torah, came into being over a long period of time, and probably reached something like its final form at about the time of the Babylonian exile. After the return of the exiles, we have the account of Ezra teaching the Law to the assembly in Jerusalem. (Neh 8:1-8) From that time forward observance of the Law was a fundamental means by which the Jewish people expressed their identity. But this was never a completely straightforward matter because of the very nature of this Law.
Once the Torah was completed, it achieved a fixed form and became not just a body of legislation but the Law of God, and therefore immutable. No human being had the authority to change it, whether by adding to it or taking from it. But with the passage of time, some of its laws seemed less and less relevant to the needs of society as that society changed. For example, laws framed for the needs of a simple society based primarily on agriculture, increasingly failed to meet the needs of society as it became more urbanised with a more complex economy. The rabbis solved this problem by developing a series of oral laws which interpreted the laws of the written Torah and applied them to the particular situations of the people of their own times. And the rabbis avoided any possible accusation that they were adding to the Law of Moses by claiming that these oral laws were revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai together with the written Law.
These laws were passed on orally from generation to generation and not put into written form until many years later than the time of Jesus. The Christian church, however, right from its very beginning took a very different approach to the Law of Moses. The earliest Christians believed that with the coming of Christ a new dispensation had begun, and that the followers of Christ were no longer bound to follow the law in all its detail. This is an issue that St Paul discusses in Romans 3, and in essence he concludes that, “We hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” (3:28) Among the first generation of Christians there was a great controversy about whether the practice of circumcision was binding upon Christians from a Gentile background, and it was decided that it was not. This is not to say that the church entirely rejected the OT Law.
On the contrary, Christians greatly valued may of the ethical commands of the Law, such as the Ten Commandments and the requirement to love one’s neighbour. But they regarded the detailed regulations such as those concerned with sacrificial ritual as not binding upon the followers of Christ. Thus it comes as something of a surprise (and a cause of some difficulty for many) to find that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus made such a strong defence of the continuing validity of the Law. He says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” And he adds, “For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” This is really quite incredible, and English translations have quite a problem with the two words used here. The RSV which I just quoted has “iota” and “dot”, the NRSV has “one letter” and “one stroke of a letter”, but probably most of us are more familiar with the AV which has “jot” and “tittle”.
The first word is not too difficult; it is the Greek letter iota, which is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet, and is used here to represent the Hebrew letter yodh, which is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The other word is the Greek keraia, meaning “a horn-like projection”, and used of the small stroke or extremity at the end of some letters; and in the Latin version this was translated titulus, meaning a small stroke above a word to indicate an abbreviation, hence the AV “tittle”. Thus Jesus is saying that not even the smallest letter, not even the tiniest stroke can be omitted from the law. And he goes on, “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” He even goes as far as to tell his followers that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
We see from this passage that Jesus had a very positive attitude to the Law, even if he did not necessarily have a very high opinion of those who taught and interpreted it. You may find his words difficult. I think that verse 17 is the real key to understanding this whole passage. Jesus says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” It is important to notice that he puts the prophets together with the law, and apparently treats them as of equal importance. The Law and the Prophets made up the two most authoritative sections of the OT. Jesus certainly greatly valued the prophets, and particularly in Matthew’s Gospel he frequently quoted from them, and believed that they looked forward to him.
Here in the Sermon on the Mount he tells us that he has come to fulfil not only the prophets but also the law. This word “fulfil” is an important one. The Greek word used here (like its Hebrew and Aramaic equivalents) had a wide range of meaning: to fill, make full, fill to the full; to complete, fulfil; to execute, accomplish, carry out to the full. Jesus is saying that he has come to make full, complete, carry out to the full both the law and the prophets. The whole of the law and the prophets anticipated him, and he is the fulfilment of all that they represented. His teaching does not contradict the law of Moses, but expresses its essential and deepest meaning.
We see this in the passage of the Sermon on the Mount which immediately follows. There is a whole series of sayings in which Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said …”, and he quotes one of the commandments of the OT, and then he says, “But I say to you …” And he goes on to give his own interpretation of how the commandment is to be fulfilled, that is to say, practised to the full with all that is implied by it. For example, he cites the commandment which prohibits murder. He says, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”
Thus at its deepest level, the commandment not to kill also prohibits anger and verbal abuse, since these are also a kind of violence against the person, and can so easily get out of control and end up with someone being killed. So where does all this leave you, if you find some parts of the OT, particularly some of its laws, difficult to relate to? It is very possible that those particular parts of the OT which have always caused you problems will continue to do so. It is also possible that some of Jesus’ strong sayings in Matt 5:17-20 about the continuing validity of the law seem to add to you difficulties rather than help. You should try not to concentrate on the individual difficult bits, but rather to think of the whole of scripture as a unity, which has its fulfilment in the person and teaching of Jesus.
The important thing to remember is that Jesus came as the fulfilment of the whole of the law and the prophets. The whole of scripture is summed up in his person, and his teaching gives expression to its deepest meaning. To live the kind of life which Jesus both taught and showed by his own example, is to fulfil the whole of what the law and the prophets require of you.